Saturday, December 13, 2014

End of the year book wrap-up

I wanted to write about the books I'd read since the last big list post I made of all sorts of books, now that it's the end of the year. I don't think I'm going to keep on doing these. But this, combined with the two other posts, constitutes a solid two years of reading. During this last chunk of time I started writing book reviews over at Bookslut, talking about new books, but, generally speaking, the older books I read were better, less in keeping with any kind of promotional hype cycle, so it would be weird to not write about them, the works that were so much more inspiring. Included are links to pieces I've written. I also am not going to use chronological order as a guiding principle the way I did with those other two posts, to instead group together books I thought books I thought of similarly.

On the list of books I made I wrote that I abandoned Rikki DuCornet's Butcher Tales, which I don't usually do, cite abandoned books on a list. (Although I also tried to read The Long Ships and Tatyana Tolstaya's The Slynx and couldn't get into either.) Anyway, discovering that I hated the DuCornet book and did not want to ever try to read other work of hers felt like such a huge relief. It felt really good to read a couple short stories and have them make so little impression that I could then just be dismissive of her entire oeuvre.

It was reading Sergio De La Pava's Personae that made me think I fucked up by posting that last round-up when I did, so this book, which was incredible, was not included. De La Pava pretty much destroys all other contemporary literature, and the fact that he self-published makes all publishers look like they value all the wrong things. This book is definitely weird and flawed. It concerns a detective with superhuman genius detecting abilities, basically, who in the apartment of a dead body finds a bunch of writing, stories reproduced here. Not all of that is good, there's a Beckett-style absurdist play that constitutes the longest chapter in the book and is pretty tedious. There's a few sentences where the character offers alternate translations of certain portions of Marquez's One Hundred Years Of Solitude that I was really glad I was reading, happy that was a part of the book. There's also good stuff about Glenn Gould and Bach. A Naked Singularity has a lot of talk about the boxer Wilfred Benitez, and here his appreciation of genius leads to riffs on classical music. I was pretty engaged by the detective's parts and then the ending memoir section blew me away, just like a very intense and direct confrontation with notions of suffering, in a specifically political context, rendered in a fabulist-but-black-metal mode.

Autobiography Of A Corpse by Sigimund Krzhizhanovsky is not that different from his other collection I wrote about in my most recent book round-up post. I liked reading both.

Patricia Lockwood, Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals and Balloon Pop Outlaw Black. The newer book but out by Penguin is funnier and generally better than the earlier, more abstract book. Her approach to language and image is consistently fun and interesting. In notes I wrote for a review I ended up not writing, I was saying that the way she circles a subject isn't like she's "targeting" something and zooming in on it, but rather that she'll have several lines of thought that sort of press against each other, in the manner of a Spirograph, like she's turning over several thoughts at once. Her approach to line and rhythm is more advanced and fun to read in the new one, I think, less befuddling. It's also just closer to the body, and blood. You've probably read Rape Joke. The final poem is incredible in a wholly other way. I really adore the rhythms of her work.

Jean-Patrick Manchette, The Mad And The Bad and Dorothy B. Hughes, The Expendable Man. I got a review copy of the Manchette to write about for Bookslut but I did not have anything to say about it, a fairly straightforward crime novel "thrill ride." In terms of book reviewing, there's the words on the page to engage with and there's the feelings and thoughts that arise invisibly. Crime novels seem not at all interested in the machinery that makes those feelings arise in favor of just telling the story clearly. I've seen plenty of crime movies and maybe they're interesting for the documentary elements that appear just through the act of filming, and any stylistic decisions made toward the depiction of violence. When I try to read crime novels it's almost invariably disappointing. Manchette wrote some of the graphic novels Jacques Tardi drew. Dorothy Hughes wrote the book version of In A Lonely Place, adapted by Nicholas Ray into a movie I love. The Expendable Man is pretty politically relevant right now, I suppose -- It's narrated by a black man who is terrified of the idea of having to deal with the police but is accused of a crime and then needs to find the real killer. Written in the 1960s, it is not revealed immediately the narrator's race, and one is meant to wonder "Why is this dude so suspicious of everyone's motives and worried about being seen doing completely inconsequential things?" This level of political engagement is more interesting than Manchette's "the villians are rich" thing but neither ever really translated to anywhere that devastating.

Muriel Spark, Memento Mori, bought because of a pretty appealing New Directions design and a sense of "this isn't the sort of thing I normally read, good premise though." Old people keep on getting prank calls telling them they're going to die. Only one of them engages enough with the idea to say "Oh yeah, I know, I never forget about that, I'm not too worried" while the rest pester the police and essentially consider the phone calls terrorism. I think essentially it is never really resolved who is making the calls in a realistic sense? But mostly it's like a comedy of manners in a community of old people. After I sold this to a used book store I could not remember the name Muriel Spark.

Anne Carson, Red Doc. While doing the early drafts of the post, Courtney Love posted a photo of herself with Anne Carson, naming her as poet laureate of the universe. People love Anne Carson, including the person I lent my copy of this book too, so I can not consult with it now, and haven't seen it in months. It's got some good parts. This book was pretty much sold to me on the strength of the line "You could take the entirety of the common sense of humans and put it in the palm of your hand and still have room for your dick." The way text is laid out on a page is fairly appealing also.

Kate Zambreno, Green Girl. This book is pretty cool, got a good amount of praise a few years ago, and now reissued. It's about a young American woman working in an English department store, prone to depression and in love with images of glamour, and the author engages with the idea of her character through a narrator that often mocks her and peppers the book with epigraphs that sort of contextualize her struggle to exist, to come into herself, be a full person, as her consciousness is sort of nascent throughout. Zambreno has also done a good deal of non-fiction writing sort of illuminating her project, which I haven't read. There's an interest in internality which I don't think I personally share but the way that she sort of pushes against that here with the external voice I found interesting.

Brian Evenson, The Wavering Knife. Like other Evenson short story collections I have read, this is sort of experimental horror fiction, although I think more of these struck me as essentially comedies that the ones in Fugue State. Dark comedies nonetheless. I'm not quite sure what it would feel like for a book to horrify me, actually, I am pretty good at compartmentalizing things.

The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein. I need to read more non-fiction in general. I think I talked about this book a lot, like at parties and stuff. Trying to recall arguments and general points to explain things to people. It definitely stoked the outrage I felt later on in the year when I learned about Hillary Clinton as secretary of state of the U.S. having the military intervene in Honduras and install a more right-wing government, like jesus fucking christ, I can't believe we as a country did this to South America during the eighties when we were afraid of communism, how are we still not letting those countries govern themselves? We really find it unacceptable that they want to nationalize their economies and trade mostly with each other, to grow their economies that way, and not just have U.S. companies wreak havoc. This book seems essential.

U & I by Nicholson Baker. This book's really cool, Nicholson Baker's great. I don't really care about Updike but it's cool for Baker to make assertions like "all the best novelists are women and homosexual men," and use Melville as an example of a homosexual even though that might not actually be true. Then there are parts where he talks about all the Updike books he hasn't read. There's this sort of self-deprecating arrogance that I found pretty charming. The part where he explains that he was interested in classical composition but then sort of thought that novelist might be more of a way to reach a broad audience because he had a mom who read Updike speaks to what a vastly different world he grew up in than the one where we live now. His favorite novelist is Iris Murdoch, who I haven't read, but should put on my list of authors to read.

Rachel B. Glaser, Pee On Water and Moods. Pee On Water is a short story collection that fucking rules so hard. Super-simple language that's just completely devastating. I couldn't believe the balance of total dead-eyed nihilism and incredible imagination and sense of play at work. I made other people read it, and I read one of the stories at a noise show and I think it kicked everyone's ass. (I had been asked to do a reading, and then I just wanted to read work written by women, and then specifically the idea of a woman writing a short story from a male perspective being read by me seemed interesting to me. This was the week there were all those sex scandals in the world of "alt lit," which was several months after I read the book.) I remember also doing an internet search to see if anyone had ever written about it for Bookslut and found Catherine Lacey mentioning it as being a really great short story collection in an interview she was conducting with Robert Lopez. I wrote a little thing to be posted on the blog but it never made it up. I think I talked about her work with metaphors like "a cartoon character playing the xylophone on your ribcage." I really just tried to champion this however I could. I called a friend I thought would like her work who was already familiar from having tangentially known her in college. I then read a poem over the phone and the title, "Incest Is Lazy," made her laugh out loud. Moods is her poetry collection, which is sort of "slighter," more casual, and funny. It's interesting to see her voice sort of boiled down to this casual state when in short stories it seems like she can do whatever epic thing comes to mind. I read the entirety of it while at a doctor's office waiting to get blood work drawn to see how the effects of taking Vitamin D supplements worked out. Rachel's novel "Paulina and Fran" is the book I am most anticipating in 2015.

Nobody Is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacey I wrote about on Bookslut.

Kara Candito, Taste Of Cherry. Was recommended to follow this lady on Twitter, didn't, but was made aware of her and bought this book. Sort of interesting to encounter a poet who I don't think people actually like the way they like a lot of people that are more active on the internet or are actually good at Twitter, but who has gotten "fellowships" at things with names like "Breadloaf" that I genuinely had never heard of until this year. I read it like "yeah, I guess this is good? Or I get why people would appreciate it" and the sort of contrived way it approaches other literature. Most pieces in it I think utilize the same formal language of these two-line stanzas. A decent approach to rhythm, a sort of basic and unweird approach to the sexuality of bodies. It seems useful to occasionally stumble onto something like this that makes little impression. I think her Twitter is the sort of networking, shout-outs to other writers work published alongside hers that is sort of ubiquitous with book-people Twitter that I don't like to follow, although notable in her case also because it was pretty much always people I had never heard of. I also think there was an article she wrote about how its important female poets to be pretty so they can be marketable which came up in a roundtable discussion with like Vanessa Place and people who were all sort of dismissive and "I don't know what you're talking about."

Bark by Lorrie Moore. Probably not the best Lorrie Moore collection, but I enjoyed reading it enough. Seems weird and dumb that you would design a trade dress for all of the extant works of an author in a rerelease campaign and then put out her new book with a design that doesn't jibe with the others though.

all the Donald Antrim books. The Verificationist, The Hundred Brothers, Elect Mr. Robinson For A Better World, The Afterlife. Haven't read the new short story collection yet, waiting for a paperback edition next year I think. I read The Verificationist one night sitting on the couch and the way that my tiredness manifested  was pretty much the exact same out-of-body experience the book describes. Really funny, beautifully written, all the novels are. Another author I tried to convince people to read in my daily interactions. I feel like all of these books have memorable passages, lots of them, that will stick with me for awhile. They're just really vivid, very psychologically present, and the voice of the narrator's is consistently alive and doing its own thing that goes along completely with the things being described. His memoir, The Afterlife, didn't do that much for me, but it's obviously less intense and psychotic than his fiction is. I'm looking forward to his short story collection. These also seem really instructive in terms of how to write a comedic novel.

The Vet's Daughter and Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead, by Barbara Comyns. Two books about hard times, essentially, written by a British woman in the fifties, and having some gently fantastical elements. The book with the longer title is about a town devastated by a flood and then ergot poisoning. Neither of these really did anything for me, although that I heard of them is sort of a victory for all involved along the way to the point where I want to put them on a list now. I had high hopes. I think I wanted them to be weirder and more feverish than they are.

The Little Friend by Donna Tartt. Not something I would normally read, but her other books got a ton of acclaim, then an acquaintance was making an argument that this book was really underrated and just not liked by people because it was different from The Secret History, so I bought it at a thrift store. It took me what felt like forever to read: This thing, sort of in the mode of like To Kill A Mockingbird or Carson McCullers, about a little girl in a southern small town, but so incredibly long and with not particularly interesting characters. Pretty bad-ass photo of the author looking goth, though. Was told by my friend Rachel Monroe that I probably would not like The Secret History either, but that it was definitely the better book than the one I read.

A Heart So White and Dark Back Of Time by Javier Marias. I really liked A Heart So White, and was thinking "maybe I will end up reading everything this dude has written" so it was kind of a relief to not be as into Dark Back Of Time, which is a book where a few pages passed and I no longer knew how what I was reading connected to what had gone before, and it never really returned to the subject that I thought it was about. The original premise of the author writing about how people thought his novel All Souls was based on his real life gives way to this story of gunshots and dying improbably. Also, I vaguely get the impression that all of his books are the same? They're all about translators, and they're all fairly digressive. I like him better than Sebald, though.

The Ticket That Exploded by William S. Burroughs. I think I said this before, that it seems like I can maybe just read like one Burroughs novel a year, maybe? I don't really feel like I need to read the whole body of work but I tend to enjoy it, and don't feel like I'm going to outgrow it or anything. The cool things in this book I wrote about when I wrote about The Descent Of Alette.

Magnetic Field(s) by Ron Loewinsohn. I thought this was really incredible. I knew Ron's name as a blurb on the back of my copy of Days Between Stations, and Erickson wrote the intro to the Dalkey Archive edition currently in print. I remember reading that book and feeling a kinship with it, felt the same thing reading this. Pretty creepy, and really just sort of governed by these sort of unspoken atmospheres that can't be explained, but where it seems like ghosts live. It begins with a house being broken into. There's also a kid genius who writes poems called "Love Songs To Death" who gets killed and has made a lot of incredibly sophisticated "sound art" which I basically understood to mean noise music, meant in this way that's cold and distant and that a parent can't access. This book accesses a nice mysterious place of intersecting strangenesses in a generally cold world. That is 100% something I've tried to do with my own writing.

Young God by Katherine Faw Morris. It seemed cool that this lady admired Joy Williams and named her record after a Swans song and was married to an editor at The Source, implying she fucks with rap music. Not very good though. All of those background details would seem to imply like a sense of humor or a brutality different than what's at work here, which is like, rural america, drug use, incest. Just sort of flat and small compared to what I want out of literature: Like I wanted vistas to be accessed rather than just a story. See what I wrote about crime novels, earlier, and remember that this sort of "southern gothic" thing is pretty closely related to the crime novels, just about different crimes, generally.

Bluets by Maggie Nelson. This book's cool. Acclaimed a few years back. A poet talking about the color blue. Seems, like the Carson book, to be a good one to have around. It's like poetic reference material. I heard about it last year in the context of being a book like Speedboat, that people wanted to write books like these, that were fragmentary and direct in their address.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville. You've heard of this. The middle gets pretty tedious, there is a chapter about the whale's penis that I didn't know what talking about a penis at the time, but there is still some shit that really grabs you. Certain lines which show up in this Moby Dick Twitter account that gets retweeted into my timeline and I'm like, "yeah, I remember that." A few friendships in this book are really moving. I kind of don't know how you can barely introduce some characters, talk about whales for a long while, then have something happen to the characters that feels really huge but this book does it.

The Descent Of Alette and Culture Of One by Alice Notley. Wrote about The Descent Of Alette a few months back, followed it up in my excitement with Culture Of One, which wasn't as mind-blowing, but also sort of a novel in verse, and filled with good stuff. It's about life in Arizona, being an artist, a rock band, some talk of satanism. I really like that Notley's guiding principle is "disobedience," that she's a pretty adamantly bad-ass old woman.

I wrote about Baboon and The Wallcreeper for Bookslut and didn't really care about either one, but at least felt like I could write about them. I had requested a few things as review copies that I then just couldn't find any entry point into, and felt like "well, at least these books are attempting to be something substantial." People like The Wallcreeper though and I really wanted to have a conversation with someone where they found fault with my review but it just didn't happen. I'm pretty sure I'm right and that book sucks though.

Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson. I am going to giving a copy of this book to my mom for Christmas. Really beautiful, widely acclaimed, a Pulitzer Prize winner. The narrator is a third-generation preacher, and the book's engagement with faith felt very real to me. I read it while my mom was going through some pretty hard shit and my thoughts were constantly with her, thinking about the faith she has. People pray that things will work out for the best and I am right there with them but I also have a voice in my mind that is always imagining worst-case scenarios in bad scenarios and trying to work out how they might be endured that I think other people cannot confront, hence prayer as a way to think intensely about bad situations without just succumbing to depressive thinking. This feels like the sort of rare book that actually works as a demonstration of principles of grace and calm that I just wish was more omnipresent. Very intensely thoughtful and useful and calming. I read Housekeeping also, and enjoyed it. That's about two sisters, growing up in a series of houses, with different figures, and slowly becoming more and more strange.

I wrote about Preparation For The Next Life by Atticus Lish at Bookslut. A good book that I felt like I maybe undersold, due to my own skepticism about that type of realism, but a very sincere love story that genuinely moved me.

Through Rachel Glaser's blog, I found out about Paula Fox's Desperate Characters, which didn't do that much for me but is pretty good. People are married, one is scratched by a raccoon. Glad I got a hardcover from the library rather than an in-print paperback with a Jonathan Franzen introduction.

Kobo Abe, Secret Rendezvous. This didn't do much for me. I borrowed this and read it pretty quickly, I remember having concrete criticisms at the time. I guess there's a sort of don't-give-a-shit quality to it to the progression of incidents, lacking a throughline or emotional center? Things are arbitrary. I guess this is a Kafka-esque quality that lends a seriousness to what might otherwise seem playful. There's grotesquerie. This was the first Abe I'd read, but I'd seen the film adaptation of Woman In The Dunes and found it pretty boring and the adaptation of his other work by the same director I was trying to watch on a damaged DVD. I am okay with not being into things it seems like I'm supposed to like, but also open to trying again at some unspecified point in the future.

I wrote about Ottessa Moshfegh's McGlue and Colin Winnette's McGlue at Bookslut.

I wrote about 300,000,000 by Blake Butler and Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace here. It's sort of an ambiguous write-up of the Butler book, I guess I should maybe clarify that I've recommended it to a few of my friends, those who are either noise musicians or horror cartoonists, but no women.

Eimear McBride's A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing. This book is good, written in a slightly violent cadence that makes you want to read it out loud. It feels damaged, carries an ache around, as its narrator does self-destructive things. The book feels made by the way it is written, like that is the point of it. There is this incantatory quality to it, which isn't at odds with the self-loathing in it, but that gives it a purpose. Feels post-punk, like the literary equivalent of an Ut record or something.

Porochista Khakpour's The Last Illusion. A woman I started following on Twitter whose book came out this year and got some praise. What put me over the edge was her mentioning on Twitter how much she admired Donald Barthelme and Donald Antrim. Admiration doesn't necessarily equal a shared skill set, though -- in fact, it maybe implies the opposite. This book frequently felt repetitive in its approach to pacing, a fairly true-to-life cadence of patterns of behavior, among a fairly small cast, a semi-magical-realist countdown to a known historical event, 9/11. It seems like the takeaway is meant to be a feeling for the characters, for them to feel vivid and real in their strangeness that doesn't make the leap into poetry. This woman is also a teacher, with students. I really wish that my criticisms of this stuff didn't seem like jealousy or point-missing, where it's like, yes, it's well-done doing this thing that's fairly traditional of giving you characters and a plot. It's a novel that succeeds on terms that maybe a lot of work succeeds on. History is engaged in, as well as literary tradition. It feels like a book for people who read a lot of books and are particularly interested in the genre of literary fiction. One of the blurbs says that each sentence is more beautifully written than the last but I'm not sure any sentence in here actually struck me with beauty, which is fine, I appreciate invisibility of style as a virtue, although a few did strike me as kind of contrived. Khakpour apparently loves Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, which I haven't read and never really appealed to me.

My intention is that before the end of the year I'll finish reading Marilynne Robinson's Lila and Michel Faber's The Book Of Strange New Things. I hadn't heard of Faber before this year, I saw Under The Skin and had no idea it was based on a book, and then learned that he is pretty well-regarded. I want to get over having these "I don't care" reactions to things, whether it's through either a sincere appreciation of more and different virtues or just somehow avoiding stuff that's not for me intuitively. I don't know which of those goals is more likely than the other, or if either of them are at all.

Friday, December 12, 2014

On year-end lists

Imagine that at the moment of death your perception of time slows down to such a degree that, while the rest of the world moves on, your own world becomes built on the time-like substance of that moment as it appears to you, no longer transient, but of infinite duration. The world in turn takes on a new consistency. This, sort of, is what the end-of-year list amounts to these days -- not a statement on what was 2014, to take with you into years to come -- but a sideways look at a conversation of what we should have noticed and been talking about all along.

This happens because it's easier to just run a list of things, that contextualizes everything by the circumstances of how it came into being, then to try to write about each individual piece of artwork in terms of how exactly it was made and what it does, who it is for.

I am I think particularly mad at the lists of books, that say "these are the thirty-five best books of the year," or "here are twenty-five short story collections that came out this year" or "here are some notable independent presses and the most notable books each of them put out this year," because it seems so everyone-gets-a-gold-star, a promotional apparatus that seems to genuinely miss the point of what it is to be a reader, as someone who is engaged with a body of work spanning many years. The argument can be made, with music at least, that everyone is constantly consuming. Depending on your job, you could always be streaming something on Bandcamp, or your iPod, or wherever. I am pretty sure this is why the lists of "top albums of the year" have gotten increasingly longer as file-sharing has become ubiquitous. If you're not going to buy any music in a year, why not try to hear all that's remotely interesting? Whereas in the past a theoretical person could be wondering "I only have so much money to spend, what is the most rewarding way that money could be spent?" This was the way I read these lists when I was younger, basically, when I was in high school, I think. The funny thing about that time period now is that my perception of time was different, a year seemed longer, and there was also much more of the past to catch up with and familiarize myself with.

I am not sure there is any record this year that I would call a titanic masterpiece, working at a scale that cries out to be acknowledged, so much as there were multiple things that created moods, or were interesting documents of where the people who made them were at. Which is fine. Not every indie rock band is trying to be Brian Wilson, not every rapper is trying to do their version of Illmatic. A pluralistic view of what music is will probably be more true to the intentions of most makers.

Although I think many writers are trying to stake some claim to the title of "masterpiece," and that is what I think these long-list approaches are trying to honor, although it can't help just saying that most of what is out there is simply noise. (Before the end of the year I will make a post here listing all of the books I've read since the last time I made such a list, and offer my opinions on each of them, by the way.) The way that most publications compile these lists -- asking their select group of contributors to each make a list that is then tabulated into a master list -- seems the best way to come to a definitive selection but also doesn't really work for a world of books so large that few people read the same things. The world of literature is so diffuse that the only value to assert is that books matter, despite the fact that most people don't really read them.

The year-end list is also a way to state its intention, hoping that more eyes will be on this one list than can be bothered to keep up with a daily publication schedule. I can think of no better way for Pitchfork to announce that it intends to be the definitive music publication of this era than to name Kanye West the creator of the album of the year. Similarly, Tiny Mixtapes declaring the same of James Ferraro is a way of affirming their marginality, that that is what they value. The latter decision is the more interesting one; although yeah, Kanye rules.

I haven't written a best-of list to publish at my comics Tumblr because I've done a pretty good job of keeping up with posting about the work I find interesting as it comes out, and the way that Tumblr works means that I can't really control what people see and what people don't, or what context they have for it. I would maybe have to hand-draw a list that could be a single image that would circulate on its own terms to have more of an impact. I could write "HOW TO BE HAPPY" on a woman's ass, or "BEAUTIFUL DARKNESS" on my arms in blood. Maybe "MEGAHEX" in a bit of ejaculate. This is actually a really good idea.

I haven't written about music at all this year really, except a few write-ups in Acres this year about things that I think were already old, because it had been a year since I'd last had that opportunity. A list would be fairly conservative, but a document of my active engagement with music as a whole this year would be nice to have. I would like to have written about Future's Monster mixtape, the Cam'ron First Of The Month EPs, Vince Staples. The third Lazy Magnet box set, VVAQRT, Farewell My Concubine. Piece War, Trash Kit, Scrabbled, Moth Eggs, Cold Beat, Moth Cock, Kemialliset Ystavat. Wye Oak, Excepter, Mozart's Sister, Blanche Blanche Blanche, United Waters. Blanche Blanche Blanche were my favorite band, but they broke up this year, but two records still came out. Myriam Gendron, Angel Olsen, Courtney Barnett, Elisa Ambrogio. Discovering Mary Timony's The Golden Dove LP after listening to that Ex Hex record. Ex Hex, by the way, were the best live band I've seen this year. That Mary Timony talks up my friends Ed Schrader's Music Beat in interviews makes me very happy. I made a playlist with examples of this stuff specifically because writing about it seemed stupid.

As a mix it's probably not as good as the mix I made in August that was mostly gospel music taken from those compilations Mike McGonigal curated that Tompkins Square put out. I wanted to have that on a tape to listen to at Fields Festival, a festival set up by a friend, featuring many other friends, as a contrast to what it is that moment was. Humanbeast played and were great. The Family Tang are a great band, three siblings who can't really be a band too actively due to their geographic scattering. Metalux played a killer set and then Jenny Graf moved to Denmark not long after. The other festival I went to was Savage Weekend in North Carolina, a noise thing in a bar, which was sort of depressing, although the trip itself was beautiful, outside the bar. Lounging poolside at a hotel, without a bathing suit. Still, note the list's general lack of actual noise music and my general disenchantment from that culture.

Writing about movies using the time-scale of the year feels non-productive these days owing to the function of the festival circuit, and how some things seem to never really get a theatrical release, and how year's end brings a blast of Oscar-bait and other movies supposed to be good that filters into secondary markets, like the one where I live, well into February. Here's a top five as of right this minute: The Grand Budapest Hotel, Boyhood, The Raid 2, Under The Skin, The Strange Little Cat. I am really excited to watch Inherent Vice. I'm also excited to see Sion Sono's Why Don't You Play In Hell, the Safdie Brothers' Heaven Knows What, and all sorts of other things I don't know how long I'll have to wait before I get the chance to see them.

My turntable is acting screwy these days, a new fresh belt has seemingly created too much tension, so things are playing slightly too slow, so lower-pitched and distorted. That has contributed to my opening metaphor, I think. I was listening to Bill Callahan's Apocalypse, my favorite record of the year it came out, and it started to sound like shit, I couldn't deal with it. That image, of course, also has faint traces of psychedelic residue on it. I am pretty much free from any lingering trauma stemming from last year's hallucinogen use, but I remember being so excited at the end of last year, to move further into the future, to get past any thing that had happened and just put it behind me completely. This year has been terrible, not for me personally, but in terms of things in the news. The march into the future generally feels like a horrible plunge into the abyss, where torture is legal and white police can kill any person of color they want to, and upcoming elections seek to pit one presumptive nominee political dynasty against another. But the end of the year offers a chance of renewal, if we attempt to view it as such, try to kiss someone at midnight and have that bode well for what's coming. I think that's why I want a definitive statement on the year that was, not just this weird recapitulation of all that happened without noticing. I don't want to spend my December catching up on being a completist, I want something I can look back on years from now and say, oh yes, the year that happened. I remember being drunk on New Year's Eve, of 2011 turning into 2012, and having "Drover" off that Bill Callahan record running through my head. "One thing about this wild wild country, it takes a strong strong, breaks a strong mind. And anything less, anything less, makes me feel like I'm wasting my time." These days I do not relate to the second sentence of that sentiment at all.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

a few thoughts on Infinite Jest

Here's a depressing tidbit of information: The "hacktivist," Aaron Swartz, before he committed suicide due to the hounding of the U.S. government, wrote a blog post called "What Happens At The End Of Infinite Jest?" This is sad more for the facts surrounding Swartz's end than anything else, honestly. Considering Wallace's suicide, and the large role suicide plays in the book, that it found an engaged reader who met the same end; but who maybe didn't struggle with crippling clinical depression, (and so maybe could have endured for longer) but instead, a sense of the law that values intellectual property moreso than actual human lives, makes the tragedy of Swartz's end felt all the more. Or even just: Dude was a person with interests, a container of multitudes the way we all are, and shouldn't be reduced to the bare facts of his life that can be chosen as "the most important" for the sake of some narrative.

The funny thing about the information that such a blog post exists, by the way, is that reading Swartz's evaluation after finishing the book, I thought, Wow, I didn't get any of that. That's not to say the book is bad, or it doesn't work. The things that actually occupy the scope of the book, that are delineated at length within its pages, and aren't just things you're meant to extrapolate or fill in the blanks with, are pretty rewarding. Honestly, the things that fall outside of the printed page, in the parts of the book that are meant to be in the reader's head, seem to stem directly from the parts of the book I felt didn't work as well as the others. Which is to say, the "wacky," "science-fiction" elements, which can also be characterized as "the stuff most directly inspired by Thomas Pynchon."

The difference between Pynchon and Wallace, to be reductive, is that Pynchon loves weed. This is one of the few biographical details I know about the dude, actually, and his books are, for all their darkness, constantly riffing, being wacky. A tweet I like, written by one @Dinkmagic: "people say Pynchon should win a nobel prize but 1/3 of everything he's ever written is about the weirdest pizza toppings he can think of" is funny in basic principle, and looking at Inherent Vice again, I realize that actually is a subject of discussion in the book, and not just something that WOULD be in a Pynchon book, on account of how high that dude gets on the regular. Infinite Jest is pretty adamantly anti-drug, anti-substance-abuse, pro-AA. The climax of the book finds the reader rooting for an addict, suffering through horrible pain, to not go on the painkillers that would cause him to relapse. Still the book makes clear that Wallace has consumed his share of substances and that the thing he finds to most mark the experience of ingesting marijuana is a constant paralyzing and recursive self-consciousness. That self-consciousness, and the way cycles of thought perpetuate themselves, is sort of the major motif, or power of Wallace's work, its ability to capture the nuances of thought that thoroughly.

It is not a pot comedy, in other words, which Inherent Vice basically is. The sort of stoner Pynchon is explains his lax and digressive approach to plotting and his sense of humor. The books Pynchon has publicly expressed his enthusiasm for are generally pretty loose and dreamy, occasionally out-and-out comedies. I haven't read very many of them. I did a Google a few months back and found a website listing all the books he's blurbed and was surprised by how few of them I'd heard of, and how many of them seemed slight. Maybe they are mostly books he found funny. The other thing I know about Pynchon is that he likes The Simpsons. He blurbed Donald Antrim's The Verificationist, that book is pretty funny, and great. He blurbed Steve Erickson's Days Between Stations, and that book has a fun dream-logic to it. The things that I took away from Infinite Jest that I thought worked or were impressive are not necessarily things I think Pynchon would get particularly psyched on in a book, just on a basic level of what constitutes a personality. Which is to say that Wallace seems like a dutiful student, or someone who wants parental approval for intelligence, in a way where Pynchon -- who has approached family in his books, from Vineland on, from the perspective of an affectionate and protective father who loves the people he's surrounded himself with -- just might not care about.

Infinite Jest has all sorts of smart and insightful things to say about being a dutiful student, by the way, and wanting parental approval, and fathers and sons. That stuff's great. The things about the character of Marlo brought be close to tears. I'm sure there are jokes in the book I laughed at. But most of the more outright comedic elements, the Canadian wheelchair assassins in drag -- are pretty tedious. The whole plot about Canada, subsidized time -- The whole idea of "The Year Of The Depend Adult Undergarment" is probably what made me not want to read the book for the longest time.

I am pretty sure I have read an interview with Wallace where he openly wishes that Pynchon had weighed in on Infinite Jest, by the way. It might be a Michael Silverblatt interview. This also feels sad to me, but maybe inevitable, and certainly not that sad in the grand scheme of Wallace's overall tragedy, of anti-depressants that stopped working, and being overtaken by clinical depression- That depression being described in the same terms of unstoppable inevitable which is both how he approached all of thought, whereas Pynchon's yarn-spinning has kept him alive and healthy for what is, at this point, an impressive length of time.

The other thing about Infinite Jest is I don't think anyone ever talks about it in terms of what the book is about, which is drug addiction and treatment. The notion of AA as a set of meetings where people are just talking then gives way to Wallace's belief in the ability of language to communicate as a way that can alleviate suffering. This stuff is great. (Although, viewing the convergence between these elements, and the father-son stuff, in a way that happens outside the book's parameters, as outlined by Swartz, makes the father-son stuff way sadder, in a tragic and somewhat mean way, that I'm not sure I think I enjoy. In that it's about the ghost of a father who committed suicide deliberately ruining his son's life so he can play tennis with him in the afterlife. But whatever, that's only implied in the text, not explicit, so even if it is intended, can be somewhat overlooked.) Reading it, I often thought, "Huh, I wish I could give this book to my dad, the guy who apparently enjoyed court-mandated AA meetings he went to but then stopped going when he didn't have to and said to me that he goes to bars at least partly because there's nowhere else for him to go, since people his age have families... Too bad it is so incredibly long he would probably never read it." I think people maybe read it now because of some sort of admiration for the idea of a suicidal artist, which is sad and off-putting. For years people read it because it was "smart," GENIUS even -- the fact that it is so long is evidence of its incredible genius! -- the cult of the male author that is particularly attracted to long books because they seem like a challenge, the pursuit of literature as a dick-measuring contest. (Which, for the record, Marguerite Young's Miss Macintosh, My Darling is an incredibly long book written by a woman, and I don't think anyone ever reads that book or talks about it.) The Dave Eggers introduction to the edition I have, written before the suicide, is really fucking shitty in this regard.

You should never read a long book just because it's long. Doing that will mean you don't read very many books, and that the books you do read will all sort of have the same system of what they value. Also, while I don't think you should read a book specifically because the author killed themselves and you just find that fascinating, if you do belong to such a death-cult, David Foster Wallace's short-story collection Oblivion has some shit in it that might blow you away, and I think that book is generally fairly overlooked anyway. If you want to read a good long book for a specific reason -- say, for example, that you are a goal-oriented person, who needs something to occupy their time and energy for a good long while, perhaps as a way of occupying your attention so you don't return to old ways of thinking and relapse to old behaviors -- Infinite Jest is pretty damn good long book.

Monday, November 03, 2014

A review of Blake Butler's 300,000,000

Please forgive me if this review takes on the cadence of its subject's sentences. One of Three Hundred Million's mechanisms is the mirror, an image it returns to over and over, to speak of the way that configuration of glass and light makes a multitude, and try to make a horror of the fact that in the act of reading, words are reflected out into the reader's heads, that the reader then might be another mirror reflecting the word into the world at large. The narrative concerns itself with a killer, a Charles Manson/David Koresh hybrid named Gretch Gravey, who, through existing inside a literary space not beholden to realism, is able to kill via his words overriding their audience's will and replacing their consciousnesses with himself, and his intention to do violence, kill. He gets inside other characters because the path of one reflection into another turns into a tunnel, to name another image the book obsessively touches upon.

Author Blake Butler has written extensively online about what interests him in literature and what he wants the written word to do. Disinterested in humanism, he dismisses mimetic realism, and what he wants instead is books that describe things that cannot exist inside our reality, and get at a space of serene silence, defined in the context of his latest novel as what might be beyond death. Inside his fictional spaces he tries to activate through images the feelings narratives bring him to: Writing for Vice he's likened the novels of Harry Mathews to falling through a series of false floors, and in 300,000,000 his investigating detective protagonist does exactly that.

Calling such attention to his techniques lets in light through the sense of play palpable, and this book contains far more ecstatic prose than what has preceded it in Butler's bibliography. Before what was felt behind each sentence as its shadow was only a bit of darkness. Here one can sense the possibility of other thoughts, wriggling inside the reader as the words come wrecking in to make a ruin to excavate. This is the method by which, in another author's intention, literature might soften the heart and make a more empathetic human, through the superimposition of one world projected onto the interior life of another. Reading Butler what we hear is the rattling of the film through the projector. Such sound holds a place in the nostalgic heart of the moviegoer, and Butler is a reader's writer in that particular way: I came to read his novels almost as an act of gratitude for the better ones his enthusiasm turned me onto. But it is worth noting his invocation of the sound of such machinery is intended as a means to invoke an industrial disquiet, like a Coil record, or the sound design in Eraserhead.

Butler has openly admired David Foster Wallace, and the publication of Infinite Jest is offhandedly referenced inside this novel in a similar manner to how he made oblique mention of his suicide in 2011's There Is No Year. The titular entertainment in Infinite Jest was one that could not be looked away from, overriding the individual in a manner akin to Gravey's words here, and Wallace's act of mirroring was his novel's scope signaled to readers that a space had been created they could die inside of. In Wallace, this idea of something completely overpowering is a metaphor for addiction's perpetuation of itself; with Butler it seems based more on a want for the book to function like a drug, that his words might hit the reader's brain in a place lower than its language centers, and be felt not merely observed.

But let me speak to you now in a manner as realistic and pragmatic as possible: That is not what literature does, and that is not how words work. This is not to say that Butler needn't have bothered, only that the reader need not worry. The book cannot become a drug; the paragraph cannot even hold heat inside your face the way chewing a clove of raw garlic can. I believe in literature's redemptive power, in a way I think Butler may doubt, but as someone who has only ever ingested garlic raw for its antibiotic qualities I felt in those moments that I understood its fire for what it was, the same way I see the written word as capable of shining light. Language maintains it remove, and even as Butler attends to the music of a sentence's movement he cannot hit the low notes that lead to a liquification of the bowels. 300,000,000 can disquiet if you let it, if you read it slowly and take its sense of its inevitability seriously, if you do not compartmentalize it to see it as lines of type written by one man in a room. Beyond that it can be beautiful: One can see the typeset MIDI and hear the symphonic roar it is a shadow of, the opacity of many sentences resulting from sound being prized over all else.

Halfway through the book everyone in America is dead, and still the book goes on, following a figure through an abstract space, an empty afterlife a reader might recognize from other Blake Butler books, in its make of houses and their hallways. In consciously trying to transfer the reader to a space, the author thinks of spaces. While he wants them to be impossible, he would also be the first to admit that every book positions you inside a space, even as he is the only one who tries to do it by speaking so obsessively of suburban architecture.

In the book's gesture towards doing violence to the reader by what it makes them think about, its mode is primarily philosophical, albeit in the manner of Manson's maniac rambling. Scenes that strive for graphic descriptive detail are limited to about one. It seems unlikely this book will find the readership that would make it the trigger of a massacre, through means of some schizophrenic living in a state with lax gun control laws. The readers will be readers, and failing to wreak total damage the book will do what all books do, excavating more of a space inside you wherein words can resonate and echo. To the same extent the book is a drug that perpetuates a want for more literature, every book is also a meal stretching out the stomach. What Butler wants is the mania of eating filmstrips, that might expose themselves inside the stomach and once fully digested show through shit-smears the image of the reader's unmaking. This then would be not a food but a feeling, which means that many reading will find themselves left empty. This does not mean the author fails in what he set out to do. A few weeks after reading 300,000,000 I decided I might as well read Infinite Jest, after having pretty much decided years ago that I never needed to. What I was reflecting then was another entity's appetites.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Descent Of Alette

Spent the day at work reading Alice Notley's The Descent Of Alette, and having my head turned around. In its strangeness, and the density of which its ideas and insights come, I was reminded of Joy Williams' The Changeling, an all-time favorite. Notley is a poet, and every page works as its own unit, pretty much, conveying some sort of idea, individual to itself. The work itself is an epic, as the narrator starts off inside a subway from which no one ever leaves, then descends into deeper darknesses of caves. Then there is a campsite with a lake of infinite depth to stare into. All this realm is ruled over by a tyrant who it becomes clear the narrator must kill. I do not want to reveal too much, and diminish its power by simplification and summary. Suffice to say that the tyrant's true body is itself the substance of the subway, and that one must descend to the heart of being to bring change to the surface.

The whole thing is told in sets of words set off from each other, measure for measure, in quotation marks. On an initial flipthrough, so many of the phrases seem to be reused that I was thinking of the quotes as meant to mark Burroughs-style cut-ups, the bare elements of phrase. The book hit me very hard, and I felt like it was doing things I was intending to do in this book I'm writing now, which I wanted to climax in some sort of impossible architecture, a series of rooms where the rules are ever changing. The name the narrator is given, Alette at one point, and at another called Miss Owlfeathers, creating the name Alette Owlfeathers, is almost exactly the sort of name I assign my own characters. More importantly, the book does want I want my own writing to do: Symbolically kill tyrants, in this witchy magical way, where the body that makes up the world is restructured phrase for phrase, until the dominant shape of the world is made to bleed out all it runs on.

Reading it I was thinking about a comment offered in some dumb online article where the current drummer for Swans talks about how Steve Reich's Music For 18 Musicians seems to rearrange him, neurologically, with each listen. On the bus ride home I watched this kid solve a Rubik's Cube over and over again, at a speed so fast I could barely register it: Each side would be flat with color for a second and then his gaze would look away for him to shuffle it again anew. These are similar methods, really, of minimalism within sets of formalist constraints. Notley's book, being narrative, and not actually a work of cut-ups, keeps on finding new words, new sensations, to shuffle, rather than melodic phrases, and feels very powerful, in its power to change the reader, but sadly it can not reach beyond her to shift the world at large so easily.

As I write this it is September 11, 2014. Last night the president announced that we will be going to war again, back to bombings. The same place again. Where once there was a war and a failure to rebuild created a new problem, this time, seemingly, there is no intention of rebuilding. The war is endless, against the same places, with the same supposed allies, and the fact that our violence only seeks to radicalize a populace... I imagine a Rubik's Cube in the oval office that George Bush could not solve that Barack Obama inherited and is also unable to solve. Or maybe like at one point in his second term George Bush got frustrated with not being able to solve the puzzle and so stripped off the stickers and rearranged them to feel satisfied. But then he shuffled the grid again, to see if he couldn't solve it for real, and that is what Obama's inherited. There does not seem to be the sense of perspective, of spatial reasoning, to enable either president to solve the puzzle. And the desire to attempt to force it into succumbing to the will, rather than place it aside and focus instead on say, a peg-pyramid, feels deeply childish to me, someone who cannot solve the Cube but can do okay with the pyramid.

For other unrelated reasons, the sky over Baltimore today is filled with Blue Angel planes, flying low, the sound of their engines on this day scaring the piss out the populace. To associate the sounds of planes overhead, meant to be a demonstration of military might, with a threat, is something that the people of the middle east are I'm sure long accustomed to.

I want a reshuffling. At the end of The Ticket That Exploded, Burroughs advocates a cutting up of the tapes of all whose words regurgitate the same message, splicing them into a reel that shows the voice for what it is, "you will hear one ugly voice and see one ugly spirit is made of ugly old prerecordings the more you run the tapes through and cut them up the less power they will have cut the prerecordings into air into thin air" the book ends. At the beginning of this closing chapter Burroughs asserts "what we see is determined to a large extent by what we hear." Notley's image, as Alette looks into the lake and sees all that there is, is to see the air and abyss also as sets of eyes, and what exists inside the body as a light among mirrors. In metaphor I view the relationship of eyes to light as the constituent parts of all things as akin to the protons and electrons that make up an atom.

Running up against the boundaries of what one book can do is that only the reader is changed and not the world at large. An individual on the bus can solve the problems set out for him, created by him, in a way that nation-states cannot.

In other news, most people's iTunes downloaded a new U2 album, as if in callback to the U2 iPod of yesteryear, even as the old iPod was announced as being discontinued. Somehow I avoided this fate by never having updated by iTunes or buying anything from their store. I believe the U2 iPod was launched to coincide as a promotional tool for an album called "How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb."

With our eyes open we go into the darkness that is our home and hopefully we uproot and kill the thing the system that oppresses us.

Saturday, September 06, 2014


When I was in middle school and my favorite band was They Might Be Giants, there was plenty of music my older brother tried to sell me on that I would dismiss by saying it wasn't funny. I wanted things to be funny. It's not like I was actively into Weird Al or something like that- I liked Beck and Ween and Frank Zappa and all sorts of things that it makes sense for a particular type of nerd to be into. Nowadays, They Might Be Giants are pretty much never listened to, but the songs still exist in my head, still are some sort of platonic ideal of song-form that exists in my mind, and I think that a lot of what I registered as "humor," which I knew other people were dismissive of in music, is really just techniques of writing, extended metaphors and unconventional imagery and things that are not direct emotional appeals.

On the other hand, you will often see in reviews for some novel or another praise for the author's sense of humor, or references to the jokes present within the text. I remember thinking, back in middle school, when my older brother was lending me Douglas Adams books, that the idea that a book could be laugh-out-loud funny seemed pretty much impossible, owing to timing. I was proven wrong, those books cracked me up, and even more recently there are things I've read, more literary in intention, that have provoked actual laughter, like the novels of Donald Antrim. But, by and large, these mentions of the humor of books is completely full of shit. The praise is a response to registering the presence of some authorial voice, which most often tries to just use certain references, the smug signifiers of intellect, to establish some sort of chumminess with an imagined-to-be-quite-learned reader. Reading most novels my facial expression does not even smirk.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Richard Linklater's Boyhood

There is a scene in Boyhood I was warned about ahead of time as being a misstep. This scene wasn't described to me, just mentioned as being "a red flag for right-thinking politically-minded people." This scene is the one where a Latino tells a white lady that she changed his life. He used to be a plumber, but went to night classes at community college after she told him he was smart, and now he's a restaurant manager. I didn't think this scene was a misstep, for the record. Even though the initial scene of the mom (Patricia Arquette, established as a college professor) telling the plumber he is smart made me laugh out loud, it did so because that is the sort of thing my mom (a teacher of ESL students) would do, and maybe I imagine that most strangers treat the words of my mom the way I do, as largely incidental to what's happening inside my own thoughts. The later scene, where it is revealed these words spoken so casually actually did have an impact, seems important because there is also a scene where Patricia Arquette reveals that she's been viewing her life as this series of milestones, and now that her children are leaving the house for college she feels like the only thing that's next for her is death. That the incidental small moment had a callback is a way of saying that life for an individual isn't just about their impact on their family who they spend the most time with, but that every incidental moment can be huge, even as it passes.

This speaks to and contrasts with how the film includes certain motifs for a little while and then just drops them as the character loses interest. Early on the main character is doing graffiti. Later on there's a mural on his wall and he says he went to an "urban art" camp. The characters are constantly playing video games until they get into girls and photography instead. All the while the characters are building themselves regardless, the film is doing its thing simultaneously.

What's interesting about Boyhood is that this approach to time means that there are no real mistakes in it, no scenes that are "wrong." Looking at most movies we see scenes that don't go anywhere in terms of the rest of the narrative and think of how they could be cut. They stick out and don't fit in with the whole. Here, things that might scan as egregious or in bad taste work because, in the same way Waking Life is about dreams and how they correspond (or don't) to cinema, Boyhood is about direct experience and how it corresponds (or doesn't) to memory. Big mistakes are a memorable part of life. If I think that starting the movie off with the use of Coldplay's "Yellow" is stupid because it sets a precedent for a cloying tone, that then means I remember a scene of a young kid looking up at the clouds, which I probably wouldn't otherwise. I remember most scenes in this movie.

(Although I can't really remember the names of the characters, besides that the kid's name is Mason, and maybe I remember that because of the scene in the movie Clifford where Charles Grodin says that the name of his nephew he's "very fond of" is "I want to say Mason? Clifford, It's Clifford!")

Watching it I was thinking about a couple of phrases- One was Julie Klausner, on her How Was Your Week podcast, telling women that if they see it on their period they will cry. Maybe she specifically was saying this to childless women who can sense their biological clock ticking, I don't remember. Corresponding to this thought was Gary Panter, in the "Men's Group" portion of the last Ben Jones book, writing in his essay about manhood, that once you are old enough and have had kids seeing the John Frankenheimer movie Seconds will make you cry.

I didn't cry while watching Boyhood although I think I got close a couple of times. It still felt personal in a weird way of corresponding to my life- reminding both of my youth that culminated in going to college, which is where the movie ends. I remember being a freshman in college and being really psyched when I'd enter the dorm rooms of potential friends and seeing copies of DVDs of Waking Life. Here the kid is offered mushrooms by his new roommate's girlfriend and goes for a walk in the desert. I started college in the fall of 2003. 2003 is a year represented in this film, in the background. Ethan Hawke tells his kids that if they could vote, they should vote for "Anybody but Bush." So watching this movie unfold I am thinking about two different timelines in my personal timeline: Probably a parent watching this will be thinking about themselves as a child and themselves as a parent.

Later on in college I would take a film class where on the first day we were asked, each of us, to say the name of a director we thought was interesting as we introduced ourselves. I said Richard Linklater, but with my last name being in the middle of the alphabet I think I only got that chance after a lot of other directors had been said and I don't know if he would've been my favorite choice, but at another later date, after I'd forgotten this happened, a classmate said to me that he thought was Linklater was really interesting also.

There's this thing in Linklater movies where I am unsure if I am to think of the things the characters are saying as deep and profound or are just meant as examples of the sort of the things people say. I remember positive reviews, like Roger Ebert's, of Before Sunrise talking about how nice it was to spend time with these thoughtful people, but those characters aren't like the ones in My Dinner With Andre, they are youth. The feeling of people talking to each other and establishing a bond with each other through words is more important than that the ideas those words convey connecting to the audience. Although there are scenes in Slacker and Waking Life that actually do the latter, which I think is what sets the precedent for me to look for that stuff in his other movies that are more about people. When I talk about Boyhood right now I am basically babbling, probably, trying to explain how this movie and its approach to its characters and time is really moving just by telling you where they've been at any given moment.

I remember where I was when I saw Waking Life, actually. I saw my dad on weekends and one Friday night we went to Blockbuster and I picked Waking Life to watch and he picked Mulholland Dr., asking me as I did so if I liked David Lynch. I hadn't seen any of his movies, that ended up being the first, but I was pretty much already aware of the idea of Lynch as something I would probably like.  (Later on when I was watching reruns of Twin Peaks running in a marathon on cable I'd tell my mom I was doing so and she said "I thought you had taste," sarcastically, in a way dismissive of the show, which speaks to a contrast between one parent's genuinely unknowing asking of questions I was embarrassed by and the other, more present, parent's projection of assumptions of their own self.) Anyway, my dad went out to a bar and I watched Waking Life by myself because he didn't care about it and then when it was done and he still wasn't home I ended up watching Mulholland Dr. by myself as well. Two great movies, a pretty big night for me, a Friday night spent alone as a high schooler.

The parents in Boyhood are both really good parents, and the film's story begins with them already divorced. The stepdad figures Mason later has to deal with are destructive presences, but their initial appeal to Arquette's character is clear. What's interesting to me is how the biological parents are both "hip" parents on some level, and how maybe that's what drew them to each other initially, and resulted in children that it is hinted at were unplanned, but once that didn't work out, each sort of sought out partners that were more conservative in one way or another. This seems basically true to my experience of what people are like as they age, especially if they have children they want to take care of. Ethan Hawke, the weekend father, who in actual lived time would be a considerably smaller part of his child's life, is still a major part of the movie, and by extension the narrative of who Mason turns out to be. Part of the film is his arc of continually striving to become a better father, doing the work to be emotionally present and connected whenever he is physically around. The film has a very real (and I would say profound) sense of what it means to be present in a moment, and how being present in moments whenever they present themselves leads to being present in relationships. But even with these characters being fully-fledged and well-developed the story it tells is truly one of the internal journey that happens basically incidentally in ways no one can truly witness.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Don't Get It Twisted

There are ten years of posts I've accrued writing on this blog, and I don't recommend reading very many of them. I envy the photogenic who can document their youth with images, and look back ten, twenty, thirty years on and think "Damn, I looked sexy as hell." A record of words means that the past is mostly embarrassing. I don't know if I ever truly believed that 2012 would mean the end of the world but I remember in 2005 thinking things were getting worse and worse and feeling like seven years could wreak a lot of damage, especially assuming a point where damage done would begin to be exponential, and could not be recovered from. It still seems slightly insane that people are having children, but it is a belief in the future that got us this far.

To a certain extent our beliefs in the future are problematic and damaging. I had this essay I wanted to write that would be all about science fiction. I wanted to talk about how writing stories where humans go to war with aliens with advanced technology makes an incredibly wrong-headed assumption in thinking that a violent species could work together long enough to get itself off a planet and find our own. Whenever I think of people who view the notion of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe as relating in some way to technology I feel like a point has been missed. But here's the thing: I don't know what books are about that. I know they're the popular science-fiction narrative, but I feel like they're more popular with science people than fans of literature, and so they've bypassed my awareness completely. But it's being bought into by science people, the same science people I assume are the ones being hired by the military to design rocket ships, that I think creates the issue. I feel similarly about narratives that postulate all of our existence as a computer simulation, created at a point in infinity that is far in our past but most easily understood as being in our future. The assumption is that there is a future in the way we are now, and that we are not inherently self-destructive.

"Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow" was the anthem that got Bill Clinton elected. In 1992 it was meant to appeal to baby boomers. Who could know that hipsters twenty years later would pretty much unanimously be on the Fleetwood Mac train but find that to be the song on Rumors most necessary to skip? Likewise a few years earlier, when Tipper Gore was profoundly disturbed by the Prince song "Darling Nikki," who could she know that the children she wanted to protect would grow up to vote and view her and her husband as schoolmarms and racists and reject Al Gore's presidential bid by voting for the more liberal Ralph Nader instead? Al Gore can brand himself an environmentalist, an issue that appeals to the young much more immediately than it does to the old, who seemingly can't see the destruction being wrought for the fact that it will only get much worse after they're dead, but now the youth have grown cynical too and can't imagine a future not destroyed and so do not try to stop the onslaught.

The perspective time affords in retrospect is pretty much unfathomable. Seven years seemed a huge amount of time looking forward to the future for me in 2005. It still does, looking into the future. But that's nine years in my past now, and does not seem like that unbridgeable of a distance. I have friends who had kids around that time who I wish I could see and talk to now.

The conclusion I wanted to get across to you now is the idea that viewing the future as being fucked is unproductive. I sincerely wish that politicians in office right now knew how widespread that belief was, and didn't then view that cynicism as a reason to not bother trying to court the youth, because they don't vote anyway. The ramifications of a population that does not believe in the future are massive. Every congressman whose sense of the future does not go further than the next election, and then shores that up with gerrymandering, is both a symptom of the problem and a cause of it at a larger and more systemic scale.

It's this notion of how ideas affect the spirit of the people, and the conscious decision to change your mind accordingly, that is sort of what the spirit of literature is all about. (And when I say literature in this instance I am including film, and really all narratives. But still making a distinction between this and games which seem too much like distractions to be too much concerned with what it means to live a life.)

I am going to go forward into the future with a belief only in the nature of time as a thing that keeps going, and a sense of human behavior at a fractal level, that while doing things decently might not really make the world any better, any destructive behavior makes it invariably worse somewhere outside your vision. For pretty much the entire life of this blog I've viewed writing as being sort of the only moral thing to do, the only world to engage in where I felt like doing it wasn't making things worse. I felt that learning to drive a car would kowtow to the oil industry's dominance, and that trying to get a MFA would support a system of academia built on debt. I've spent all these years believing I should probably stop eating so much meat, and learn to farm and garden. I still believe that but have not really changed my behavior. This isn't going to be a post where I announce at the end that this blog will no longer exist as I move into the woods. 

Time is going to keep moving forward and I am still going to be myself for the next foreseeable chunk of it. When I no longer exist in this human body, the world will keep spinning, and if there are humans in any large capacity, there will be, to a certain extent or another, people like me, but they will exist in a context I cannot imagine, and so how much their behavior will resemble my own is not up to me to judge. It seems likely there will still be bastards too, and to a certain extent my own spirit is defined in opposition to the existence of said bastards. I hope the current bastards keep their future bastard children in mind, but they won't. Is everything going to be fine? No, nothing has ever been fine.

In conclusion everything is inconclusive. Keep on rocking in the free world.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Follow me on Goodreads!

This post is a sequel of sorts to one I wrote a few months ago, where I listed all of the books I'd read and offered some brief commentary. This is essentially what I would write on Goodreads if I had a profile on that site, which I do not because I find the idea of giving book's star-ratings way weirder and more off-putting that I do with rating movies on Netflix, which I do incessantly. During the early entries on this list, consider the post I wrote about drug use and know that I felt fairly weird and distracted during that era, but was progressively on the way towards feeling increasingly fine and normal. Many of these books helped. It is weird to think about the fact that some people think the redemptive power of fiction is stupid, or corny, or not the purpose of art: Art seems like it should be able to fuck people up. But there are many things more effective at fucking people up than art, and the act of creating something, even something that embraces darkness, can feel spiritual in its own way. That said, I still continue to dislike or feel indifferent to most things, even the things that I seek out because I expect to like them.

A Fan’s Notes, Frederick Exley. It’s cool, sort of, to read a book that a lot of people like but feels completely internalized to me, its voice so diffuse that I feel like I’ve seen it elsewhere. A man who drinks too much and feels superior to most people, although he hates himself and hangs out at his parent’s house watching television. I have friends who love this book, much like I have friends who love John Fante and Charles Bukowski, who I haven’t read, and I feel like I or any of them could write this sort of book if they engaged their worst impulses. I think that is the appeal of this sort of writing, that never feels startlingly insightful so much as it just feels honest, and honesty is sometimes enough, for some people. It can feel like it’s in short supply, or it can feel like it’s always being invoked in defense of misogyny. To each their own.

Nightwood, Djuna Barnes. Abstract enough for me to have forgotten most of it, besides the fact that I liked some parts. Weird and cryptic and mystical.

Dissident Gardens, Jonathan Lethem. Decent historical fiction, with bits about Quakerism, and alzheimer’s. Felt thought through, lived-in, complete. History of Jewish twentieth-century New York liberalism. The characters are smart but that does not prevent them from hurting each other.

Demonology, Rick Moody. Collection of short stories, none of which spoke to me, all feeling fairly middle-class and unremarkable. Bought at a cheap price and I’m not going to be able to trade it for store credit anywhere.

Motherless Brooklyn, Jonathan Lethem. I was really into this one. Riffs on the psychology of Tourette’s that seemed made up but still insightful and real. I was particularly fond of the narrator talking about relating to the 12-inch dance remixes of Prince singles. Also a really well-realized sense of location and place. Characters felt vividly realized. There’s this thing in books, where, in a movie, you can see a character and know everything about them at a glance. The drips of information where you can feel like you only fully understand a character at the end of a book works well in the mystery genre. In this book, it’s like, oh yeah, these characters that are being described, they would all hate each other, and that feels like an epiphany, placed at the end, whereas in a film body language would reveal that right from the first establishing shot.

Beloved, Toni Morrison. Totally confused by the storytelling here, to the point where halfway through I realized I had character’s genders wrong. Most people I talked to about this book while reading it admitted they found it confusing when they read it. Song Of Solomon rules though.

Europeana, Patrik Ourednik. A brief history of the twentieth-century, told in terms devoid of humanism, no proper names, only names of groups and ideologies. Compelling enough, although because of where I was at I found the autistic voice occasionally deeply terrifying.

How I Became A Nun, Cesar Aira. A short book, but still long enough for me to go “this book rules” to “well, that was disappointing.” Aira’s improvisatory style here gives way to philosophical private-world residing until the “plot” kicks in to tie up things based on what happened earlier in the book. Still sort of fun, probably the best Aira I’ve read.

Tell Me, Mary Robison. Thirty short stories, all sort of blurring together and being more traditional than the formally daring Why Did I Ever. Running theme in this list: Things being traditional in a vague literary sense and my being disappointed in them, a risk particularly likely to be run by short story collections.

The Isle Of Youth, Laura Van Den Berg. I saw Laura read in Baltimore last year, and  wasn’t really able to pay attention, blamed it on the fact that live readings are not an ideal way to take in prose. This book was revised/finished on the block I live on. Short stories, all sort of in the same wheelhouse, driven by women, tangential to the crime or noir genre, recast slightly to allow for more focus on character and ambiguity than plot. The last story in here, where people impersonate each other on false pretenses, is the best- getting more abstract in a more complicated plot that then allows for something closer to true mystery. The story I was bored by in a live reading is not that much better on the page.

5 Novels Of Daniel Pinkwater. Compendium I paid two dollars for, on the endorsement of Matthew Thurber. Young adult novels from a more innocent era, goofy and exploratory and gentle. Interesting to see the stuff of youthful fascination be mined for all the simple pleasures they afford. The last book collected is an abbreviated form, as Thurber’s article talks about a whole plot that never comes into being.

Bleeding Edge, Thomas Pynchon. I am very happy that Thomas Pynchon is still alive, and his faculties are still with him. I talked to a friend who is more of a traditional science-fiction reader who was totally thrown by Pynchon’s approach to sentences, their jumps in register from slang to technical talk.I liked this book a lot. It felt like being set closer to the present made it feel more sinister, whereas in a book like Against The Day, seeing the anarchist argument being presented in the past, feels more hopeful. Pynchon’s always fun.

Sexing The Cherry, Jeanette Winterson. I remember girls in college being really into Winterson and me not knowing what her deal was but intrigued by the obvious erotic undercurrents in the titles. Later I’d see clips of her on television talk shows, online, on a panel about the comic Kick-Ass and talking about how dumb and sexist it was. This book is her as a fantasist, and skimming it in-store particular sentences struck me as the exact sort of thing I like to read. Also I really like the illustration/design style of the current editions. Anyway. Reading it, it scanned as more vague, philosophical in tone but without much in the way of insight, besides like “Time might not be real,” “nothing might be real,” and the fantastical elements sort of go-nowhere and unsatisfying.

Miami, Joan Didion. This book rules. Journalism about something I didn’t really know about, Miami in the 1980s Cuban population- so sort of like Brian De Palma’s Scarface, only rather than be about like the excesses of capitalism it’s about a population who is really into capitalism and conservatism because of feeling fucked over by Fidel Casto and Kennedy. The figures in this book have a different sense of politics than is traditionally found in American life, which I found refreshing, even as it’s about assassinations and counter-intelligence, which is its own type of darkness, but more interesting than the brainlessness of partisan cheerleading. Apparently the Miami Cuban population is Democrat-leaning now.

The Skin, Curzio Malaparte. Yeah, another winner. One I recommended to all sorts of people. Italy is occupied by the Allies in World War II, and Naples is debasing itself to survive. Malaparte walks around, takes in the landscape, and when Americans offer judgments, counters with charming amorality. I don’t know how much of this book’s more vivid and grotesque scenes actually happened, but learning that this is what a moment in time felt like is enough. A few months after reading this I saw Walter Murch give a talk at Johns Hopkins where he talked about translating Malaparte into free verse poetry and compared the composing of poems to the editing of film, the length of lines likened to how long to hold a shot before cutting.

The Hour Of The Star, Clarice Lispector. I keep giving Lispector chances, even though I should have learned I don’t like her. I was loaned this (and her short story collection, Family Ties) by a friend and it is fairly short. Philosophical or metaphysical proclamations and repetitions. Fine enough.

Don’t Look Now, Daphne Du Maurier. I read this while going to and staying at my mom’s house over Christmas. Horror short stories that have been turned into movies by Nicolas Roeg and Alfred Hitchcock (The Birds). A fun light read, although reading short stories that you’re familiar with as movies sort of ruins the factor of shock and suspense. Other stories, where a woman gets eye surgery and sees people with animal heads, and one where a woman kills soldiers out of a hatred for war, are just as good. I feel like an idiot having as much of an allegiance to the NYRB Classics brand as I do, but the books that seem like they’ll be appealing generally are, divorced from any kind of hype cycle.

Traveling Sprinkler, Nicholson Baker. I love this book, I love Nicholson Baker. Incredibly plain-spoken and straightforward, the voice in this book is able to juggle multiple things to be about- An appreciation for simple pleasures, a hatred of war and drone strikes, love of poetry and music, affection for a long-term partner, regret at mistakes made. The love of music includes both tutorials for current electronic music software and ruminations on playing classical music. One sentence, “Aphids and grubs stir cuntily in the bass clarinet,” wowed me enough to tweet, dubbing it “Best Music Writing 2013.” Highly recommended.

A Changed Man, Francine Prose. Another book picked up for two bucks, that I remembered reading praise for on Bookslut around the time of its release, although way too traditional for my tastes. This took me a very long time to read, despite its plot and easy prose. It is a novel about a skinhead trying to reform himself who ends up living with a family and working for a holocaust survivor. A friend of mine once talked about the historical origins of the traditional novel as being a kind of field-guide to all the different types of people one can meet in the modern world, and reading this sort of thing, where characters are these different sociological types, I sense a completely different appeal being attempted than what I am interested in as a reader.

Taipei, Tao Lin. Insufferable characters whose nihilism sort of convinces you that things are going to be okay by virtue of their not really mattering, through attention to detail of moment to moment inconsequential action and associated feeling. As someone who felt a little crazy from a hallucinogen experience making me feel like life wasn’t real, reading Tao’s approach to drug use, where they are not presented as profound but just as a momentary sensation, is comforting. Still not a particularly interesting book or an author or scene I feel like supporting. It seems fucked up to me that these people can tweet about wanting heroin and not have their friends say “hey, don’t do heroin.” Tao gets mad at his mom for his mom not wanting him to do drugs, and makes an argument that drugs are not a problem unless one views them as such. What a shitty and privileged way to look at as basic an impulse as one person’s concern for another. Depression and ennui are basically championed as default states, drug use as a temporary balm, with no real thought given to ways to improve one’s being, and this whole thing is sort of symptomatic of the modern world, presented in the book as without judgment. Whatever to the book in the singular, a hearty “fuck you” to this scene in the abstract, and the abundance of books with this point of view occupying readers’ brainspace. The conversation/interview between Tao and Sarah Nicole Prickett that Sheila Heti set up is pretty great though, Sarah seems like a total badass whose point of view Tao seems completely unable to understand.

Tenth Of December, George Saunders. George Saunders remains better at a certain type of short story writing than pretty much anyone else. I can remember multiple stories in this collection: Their plot, their language, imagery, and effects. Extensively praised at the time of its release. The most memorable bit to me is a sequence where a chemical allows for more articulate language floods the narrator’s nervous system. I’ve said this before: Saunder’s solution to solving the problem David Foster Wallace felt- where being incredibly articulate and self-aware stifled his ability to be direct and relatable- was to dumb down his language and make jokes, but he’s still able to shift things about some when he needs to. Few people can preach empathy as effectively.

Mumbo Jumbo, Ishmael Reed. Cool book, dedicated in part to George Herriman, both a classic to a certain extent and totally neglected by most quarters. Most people I talked about this book in terms of its sheer premise thought it sounded great. The spirit of the twentieth century and modernism and jazz is presented as a voodoo curse, presented by black people, and the knights templar emerge to repress it with counter-politics positing a falsely intellectual avant-garde. True enough! Seems obvious why Ishmael Reed is not widely read, but this book is a lot of fun, written with velocity. Most satires about race from this era that I can think of are films made by white people that feel incredibly dated - (Hi Mom, Putney Swope, The Landlord) but this book rips all of that to shreds with its historical sweep.

Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert, translated by Lydia Davis. The newsstand/bookstore at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Train Station is surprisingly great, and on the way back to Baltimore I bought this book, which took me a really long time to read, owing to not being my kind of thing at all.

Memories Of The Future, Sigimund Krzhizhanovsky. Intellectual fantasias from a man whose work was never published in his lifetime, owing to the Communist regime of Russia at the time. There remains a philosophical approach to logic, contorting the language in a way that makes it less accessible than the fables of, say, a Calvino, but it’s also much more politicized, about discontent with the modern world that leads to these fantasies. Really smart and strenuous work which probably is not as enjoyable as the work of many of the artists you would want to compare it to, but each story has a memorable idea or insight inside of it.

Ablutions, Patrick Dewitt. Picked this up because I liked The Sisters Brothers a lot. This is a book about a dude working in a bar, hating himself, acting out, with some spooky bits. Good and bleak, gets harsh enough to counteract the quasi-autobiographical general conceit. The “normal guy” tone also sort of shows a knack for storytelling that explains how a western can grow out of it, that storytelling is just a form, or muscle.

Tampa, Alissa Nutting. Cool to write a book that functions as a “guilty pleasure” with the intermingling of those feelings as being a part of its point or literary effect. Told from the perspective of a sociopathic female pedophile, it manages to be pretty hot, occupying this woman’s mind. In an interview, Nutting has said her goal in writing about sex is a feminist operation, opposed to patriarchal violence. Through the scrim of language’s separation from images, readers of any orientation can feel these thoughts and fantasies palpably: Not manifesting as empathy or sympathy, but as heat within the body. Playing this transgressive trick enables it to read easy as trash while still being able to evoke a sense of culpability in the reader. Alissa’s short story in the My Mother She Ate Me, My Father He Ate Me collection, which contains a line that gives the anthology its title, is good as well, and shows her skillset runs deeper than a facility for horniness and monstrosity.

Crystal Eaters, Shane Jones. Read this twice to write a more formal review that went up on Fiction Advocate.

Master Of Reality, John Darnielle. Basically a reread, picked up one afternoon. I think I’d probably read all of this book in bookstore skims years ago. I’m excited to read John’s novel, Wolf In White Van, when it comes out.

Blindness, Jose Saramago. Flipping through this in stores, every sentence seemed brutal. An epidemic of blindness strikes, people get quarantined in a hospital, the outbreak continues to spread, conditions worsen as society collapses. Reading it and finding out that there is a narrative, not just a procession of degradations, one is comforted by the characters love for each other, their decency in resistance towards systematic oppressors. The plot is set into motion arbitrarily, and then the happy ending, where the blindness goes away, is just as arbitrary. Most would consider this book a classic; I would like to read more Saramago, but do not at the moment feel any pressing need to do so, in absence of another book being championed as loudly as this one is.

The Golden Age, Michal Ajvaz. Put out by Dalkey Archive, and described by a friend of mine as her new favorite book. She then proceeded to seem shocked and indignant that I hadn’t read it, in that moment, the first I’d heard of it. A book of porous progressions: An island exists where music has enough silence in it to blend in with atmospheric sounds, there are names for stains that objects can be likened to, and a book is collectively written, filled with digressions. Everything in the book is a demonstration of this principle, an argument against the concrete: A woman hears her neighbor composing a story through the wall filled with sexual degradation only to later learn the story was not about that at all, but that was how she interpreted the sounds: The perversions that so shocked her came from inside herself. It took me a really long time to read this, due to its lack of incident, and the way in which the type was set.

Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov. Reread, bought a replacement copy for one that got lent out and was never returned. I first read this book in high school and remembered finding it confusing, rereading it I realized that I had totally understood it, and remembered a lot of it, besides the fact that some of the confusion in the early going is completely deliberate, owing to its structure. I’d remembered the poem being incredibly moving but had forgotten the details of it.

99 Stories Of God, Joy Williams. I was incredibly excited to learn this book existed and then convinced I would probably never read it for lack of an e-book reader but it turns out there’s an app for that lets you read Kindle books on your computer. I still prefer paper, but I read this late one night, eyes becoming strained, soul becoming moved, feeling close to weeping. Each story places its title after its body, like a little hashtag. The weight of this book, felt more on the eyes than in the hands, and as such closer to the brain or soul than the body. Like it’s playing a trick on your tear ducts. Its prose incredibly direct in its address of the strangeness of being alive in this world. Jesus in an office building, asking “what has become of my living water?” to be responded to with “Oh, we thought that was just a metaphor.” That Williams’ conscience is consumed by issues of metaphysics, as well as environment, as well as just brutal tragedy- She is taking in so much at once that grace just emerges by virtue of these juxtapositions.

Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy. I tried to read this a few years ago and kept falling asleep at the density of its language. I think this was after I’d read The Road and The Sunset Limited and didn’t like either of them. Since then I read Suttree and Child Of God, liked both, and saw The Counselor, and liked it. I intended to write a blog post about The Counselor, actually: How it seems really weird as a movie because it’s all about this sort of cruelty and violence that is unearned, how people just die in it for no reason, good doesn’t triumph over evil because it’s making a point about evil’s existence. Basically, it is more like a book than a movie, and I think that’s fine, that’s the argument McCarthy wants to make. But at the same time I find his books- frequently incredibly violent, sprawling in their casts, mostly devoid of characterization, fairly frustrating and unsatisfying: They can be tedious whereas a film like The Counselor just feels constantly surprising.

Family Ties, Clarice Lispector. Do I remember anything from this book at all? I’m not sure I do. At this point I had realized that I didn’t really like her work but I might as well read this book before I returned it. I still haven’t returned it, but I have read it.

The Quick And The Dead, Joy Williams. Reread predicated on ordering a personal copy after reading this book from the library a few years ago, and writing a long essay about Joy Williams for Pleasure Editions, the gist of which is: I love Joy Williams.

The Literary Conference, Cesar Aira. Borrowed this from a friend who had it, read it very quickly. Not very good. I really dislike books about books and the world of writers. It just seems small. This book starts off with talk about a mad scientist plan to clone Carlos Fuentes, and ends with mass destruction by giant blue silkworms. And then the destruction stops. Aira views himself as a writer for readers who already read a lot, who have consumed a great deal of literature before they got to him. This is probably an accurate and self-aware thing to do, but it lowers the stakes of expressing oneself to virtually nil. Do you like to read? You can read this incredibly quickly! So basically it’s the sort of logic that leads to short stories being written on Chipotle cups, without any hope for mass appeal or communication.

The Defense, Vladimir Nabokov. This book’s fine. I kind of wish I’d read Stefan Zweig’s Chess Story instead but that will happen one day or another. Nabokov’s always pleasurable, this was one of his I hadn’t read.

Clandestine In Chile, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Marquez died recently, and this work of journalism, reissued by NYRB Classics, was on my radar. This one is him working with the memoirs of a filmmaker, in exile under Pinochet, sneaking back into his country to make a documentary about conditions under dictatorial rule. Totally an interesting premise, but I think I might hate Marquez’s voice. It’s been a long time since I read One Hundred Years Of Solitude, but it was not so long ago that I read The Adventures Of Maqroll, by his good friend Alvaro Mutis (also recently deceased), and I hated that book as well, for the same reason I took issue with this book: The voice of the “charming rogue,” that assumes it’s ingratiating. I would rather read a book from the perspective of an unrepentant dirtbag shithead. The storytelling effect in things like this makes me feel like nothing is happening, there are no stakes, because the protagonist is always going to behave decently, everything is a “fun adventure,” and no impression is made on me whatsoever.

Partyknife, by Dan Magers. My friend Tim Paggi has been an MFA student for the past few years, and has been paying attention to the world of contemporary poetry. We met up and exchanged books. He lent me this, which I wouldn’t have read on my own. It’s got a blurb from Thurston Moore, world-renowned terrible lyricist. The voice in the poems goes from jokey alt-bro to poet-guy but always feels smug, like I could imagine the voice’s elevation of volume and subsequent pauses for laughter. I read this really quickly so I could be done with it and return it.

Tyrant Banderas, Ramon Del Valle-Inclan. This book’s cool, although not as cool as I wanted it to be. Supposedly a masterpiece and very difficult read in it’s native tongue, for the way it switches from dialect to dialect, from class to class. In English there are several examples of the sorts of sentences I am always down to read. What’s in both versions is a structure based on numerology, a large cast, and some parts that are really visceral and moving-forward, and others where things are more confusing. Some funny parts, although not laugh-out-loud funny. It was shockingly vulgar and black at the time but the jokes scan as more “gently satirical” now. I would still recommend this book, generally. It’s about a dictatorship in South America, and plots to overthrow the tyrant, aided on both sides by magic. Generally speaking, the longer an individual character is followed, the more into it I was, but for structural reasons, which I was into for their own sake, it couldn’t maintain that sort of linearity throughout the book. Another winner from NYRB Classics.

Granma Nineteen And The Soviet’s Secret, by Ondjaki. What the hell is that book, you’re asking yourself? I got a review copy as part of my attempts to write book reviews, thinking it would be pretty good, as a work in translation needs to bypass so many hurdles to exist in English. The author is African, from Angola, and writes in Portuguese. Another of his books won the Jose Saramago prize, which I didn’t know was a thing, but there you go, it is. In the end I didn’t write a real review of it, unless you count this blog post, because mostly all I wanted to say was that it was a Young Adult novel, with children as main characters, simple prose, a generally light tone, a happy ending. It’s about some kids in Angola who hatch plans to steal dynamite from Soviets so homes are not destroyed. They end up blowing up some salt and making fireworks. Granma Nineteen is so named because she has a toe cut off. It’s all very simple and straightforward. I know there’s a big controversy when people say adults shouldn’t read YA, but honestly this isn’t the sort of thing I was into when I was younger either. In middle school I remember reading Poe and Wells. Robert Cormier’s I Am The Cheese was pretty good though.

Scarecrone, by Melissa Broder. If you’re going to read poetry by a depressed person on the internet in 2014, I don’t think you can do much better than Melissa Broder. (Unless it turns out Patricia Lockwood suffers from depression and just isn’t making her work about that.) That’s a condescending way of putting it. I didn’t talk much about that John Darnielle Master Of Reality book, but in it there’s a part where the narrator talks about the idea of Ozzy Osbourne as saying “Pretend I am evil.” Even though he’s not, in many of the songs on Master Of Reality he’s advocating for Christianity, even. Broder is doing a similar thing, almost: Positing herself as witch, writing a poem called “Self-portrait as Satan,” when what she is doing is feeling gross about her body, as a woman in our society taught to fear calories, trying to turn that grossness into a power, trying to inherit some matriarchal energy whereby the feeding of menstrual blood to a man can make him love you, just trying to be happy, just wanting to be filled by God and content and talking about it in terms of sex as a way of owning degradation and power.

The Age Of Wire And String, by Ben Marcus. Completely inadvertent theme of this blog post is me being disappointed by books put out by Dalkey Archive, I guess for being too weird for me. (There are books they’ve put out I like or admire: Stanley Crawford, Stanley Elkin, Flann O’Brien, Marguerite Young) Another book lent to me by Tim. I remember people reading this in college and me looking at the first page and thinking, bullshit. Now I have more time for things I am initially dismissive of, I guess, but as I write this it seems like distrusting instincts is a waste of instincts- That’s why they’re there, hardwired in. I should trust myself. Who else do I have? Plenty of people, actually, I am well-loved. But still the point stands!

The Fifth Head Of Cerberus, by Gene Wolfe. Another book Tim lent me. People love Gene Wolfe, specifically his Book Of The New Sun. Science-fiction that plays games with expectations and the world you think you’re inhabiting. This was presented as an easier entry-point, a collection of three novellas that function as a triptych. Prior to this I’d read a massive collection of Wolfe’s short stories, that bummed me out with its authorial notes of introduction that seemed way too self-satisfied. The first story was good, interest waned a little after that point, I think I generally like to be carried more by language or an authorial voice than the way these stories like to reveal their details about the world. Science-fiction requires a level of focus, a decoding of world line by line, where other forms set in more recognizable worlds allow for a certain drift of attention, with the understanding that you’ll click when insights occur. The level of gamesmanship in a work like this is fun but I am not always so attentive.