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.