Ideally, I would've written about music throughout the year. Year-end lists attempt to make a canon or time capsule, but I realized that every time I buy a piece of music as physical media I am doing so based on the assumption that it is something I will want to return to in the future, and so I desire the physical form as a reminder of its existence. There should be more to music listening, to sharing what you value, than a simple showing of receipts, a browsing of shelves. Music, made of the passage of time, should have words to note it, as it happens. I wrote a few write-ups early on in the year for a magazine that never came out, but really most conversations about music were had in person, and marked by an inability to remember what I'd been listening to. I apologize in advance for the extent to which these write-ups/explanations are mostly just attempts to give context, rather than explain how the records make me feel.
The two most notable things were the reissues of Syrinx and Dow Jones And The Industrials. Dow Jones And The Industrials were a midwestern synth-punk band, in the late seventies in Indiana, comparable to Pere Ubu or Devo both in their instrumentation and in the sense of East Coast geography that reduces the Midwest to an indistinct blur. They are also similarly actually good, which isn't always a given when dealing with dug-up examples of trends viewed nostalgically. Their songs are occasionally "dumb" in that sort of perfect garage band way, where things are simplistic and straightforward, unpretentious in a way that can be associated with the midwest but that most wouldn't ascribe to the other bands I mentioned who have sort of "art school" reputations. Syrinx are even better, basically: A trio of synthesizer, saxophone, and percussion from Canada in the early seventies, doing psychedelic melodic miniatures that feel very rich, who opened Canadian dates for the electric-era Miles Davis band. The compilation Tumblers From The Vault includes two LPs and a recording of a performance done with an orchestra. The main composer, John Mills-Cockell, who plays the synth, had an earlier group, an art collective called Intersystems, whose work was also reissued this year as a box set, but that stuff is essentially too far out for me, which I mean as high praise. Sine wave wobble and spoken word creating very intense psychedelic atmospheres that are too intense for background listening, essentially demanding the sort of "don't freak out" attention those with drug experience might find disconcertingly familiar. Those are the reissues that, in their rearrangement of material, are basically new. The first three solo albums of Colin Newman from Wire were reissued this year, and while I haven't spent a ton of time with any of them, what I've heard has been pretty enjoyable, the logical follow-up to Chairs Missing I didn't know existed, since 154 is such left-turn.
I also spent a lot of time listening to a two-CD reissue of the first four albums Arthur Blythe did for Columbia in the late seventies and early eighties. Blythe is an alto saxophonist, who plays on Julius Hemphill's Coon Bidness, and this stuff is sort of similarly funky/ritualistic. There's various approaches, but my favorite stuff is with an electric band, which switched up its membership, but at various points has James Blood Ulmer on guitar, Abdul Wadud on cello, people on tuba, flute, etc. If you look up the song "Bush Baby" on Illusions on Youtube that's a highlight. It's a particular kind of "eighties jazz" which can feels post-Can but also has the sort of neon brightness of a Michael Mann movie or something. Most jazz from the eighties doesn't feel like this, and it was a famously conservative decade in terms of what was popular. The cover art for "Lenox Avenue Breakdown," depicting a drawing of a house on a corner shaped like a saxophone also feels exemplary of a particular era in that there's a type of corniness but it also feels really refreshing to take in now.
The most exciting new band for me would be Guerilla Toss, who I know are not actually a new band, but whose older material never grabbed me. It's possible the shift into greater focus is attributable to a new bass player, but either way. I have described their new LP Eraser Stargazer as "like Dog Faced Hermans but with a synth instead of a trumpet" and while that is fucking great and exactly what I want to hear, imagine my delight to discover that the 4-song Flood Dosed 12-inch adds saxophone and percussion to bring it into more of a Remain In Light/afrobeat proposition, and that the EP of remixes by Giant Claw, which removes all the live band instrumentation in favor of detailed synth/midi moving landscapes, is just as beautifully arranged while sounding completely different.A single CD collects both of the latter two releases.
In a similar area, but lower-profile, were a couple of releases put forth by OSR Tapes by Salt People and Listening Woman. They are similarly female-fronted no-wave-ish bands, but with expanded ensembles, jazzier, but in a way that simultaneously seems like they might be reading from sheet music, or being conducted, the vocals marginally more operatic in their delivery, bringing them more into an art-song zone. I discovered OSR Tapes a through years ago, through its proprietor Zach Phillips, of the band Blanche Blanche Blanche, who had releases on Night People and Feeding Tube Records. This year, I discovered Jake Tobin through his having releases on both OSR and Haord Records. Haord is a fascinating label, run by the same people who put together the Spider's Pee-Paw comic anthology, which works with a sort of molten CGI mutation of the Tim And Eric visual aesthetic. The musical analog to that visual is this sort of Residents-y, maniacal synth-pop of sped-up vocals, and abrasive rhythms. There's a sense of landscape to this music you might know from the Verhoeven Total Recall. The label's flagship band, Macula Dog, put out a record on Wharf Cat Records this year I would recommend, Why Do You Look Like Your Dog. The Jake Tobin tape on OSR is marginally gentler: More of a human-kitten hybrid with a snout in a can of ravioli than a cybernetic doofus working in a factory, but obviously both of these images coexist within the same future.
My favorite Young Thug record of the year was Slime Season 3. I've said in the past that Young Thug's voice is an instrument, and I realize that specifically it is like an extremely well-played set of tape manipulations, speeding up and slowing down in its yelps. It is not that far from the stuff on Haord, really, but the beats are made on a computer, and the voice is elastic on top of it.
In the realm of rap records where lyrics were important, and songs were about discreet topics that can be summarized, I enjoyed Aesop Rock's The Impossible Kid. Self-produced, personal, but language obscure enough to not be confessional. I know the critical conversation is pretty far away from praising work like this these days, but that is largely because of the amount of investment it asks from a listener, and how much the artist himself is putting into making a true achievement.
I would say my favorite jazz record of the year was made by the Mary Halvorson Octet, their album Away With You. Mary is a guitar player, with a clean tone, and she leads this group through compositions with a lot of space, the horns present but not foregrounded. Halvorson played on one of my favorite jazz records of last year as well, the Tomeka Reid Quartet, but I didn't hear that until this year. I don't know how much relevance jazz has to the larger world in 2016, but there's something about this stuff, where the players are clearly listening to one another, and giving them space, that feels instructive. The thing that makes this one an Octet as opposed to the previous Septet is the presence of Susan Alcorn on pedal steel guitar. The presence of guitar and pedal steel makes it feel rooted in folk music. It feels like a late afternoon record, light coming through the curtains.
The use of pedal steel connects it in my mind to Itasca's Open To Chance, a quiet folk record. Itasca was previously a solo project, deeply lonesome. Now there's more embellishments, flute, violin, drums, but the feel of it hasn't changed considerably. The pastoral idylls are just more detailed, including birds instead of only trees. I also enjoyed this year's Angel Olsen record, My Woman, which will probably be on a great number of high-profile year-end lists. The desolate folk vibes of her earlier records are gone, replaced by bright colors, electric guitars, rock and roll. As the music paints a happier feeling image, the lyrics tend towards these love songs, sung from a place of utter desperation, and a willingness to be less than a romantic partner. The vision of romantic love on the earlier records seemed much more hopeful and healthy to me, but this is a good record of pop songs, still.
On the opposite end of the spectrum would be the Moth Cock/Form A Log split. Moth Cock puts free-jazz blurts inside a garbled intuitive mess of electronics and comes up with something fist-pounding, drugged-out party music that is abstract, psychotic. Form A Log are more repetitive, looping, but off-beat enough to never be rigid, off-beat both in terms of the loose "swing" they possess but also the weird sense of structure and tension they employ. It's satisfying. Their noise feels related to that of Black Dice, who put out some good stuff this year: A 12-inch single, a side-project called Spiked Punch, and Eric Copeland's solo record Black Bubblegum, which is a a dumb summertime pop record that I loved but will probably not listen to again until next summer. It follows up on the experiments with vocals he has been exploring on seven-inches for years but while those songs had titles like "Vampire Blues" that made me think of something older, becoming musty, this feels brighter, bouncier, although still degraded: Like a little kid sticky with spilled fruit punch, singing pop-punk melodies without knowing any of the actual words.
Katie Gately makes incredibly detailed, rich sounding electronic music: If I liken the hyperactivity of Haord Records stuff to landscapes, this is atmospheres and ecosystems, viruses becoming a part of DNA. It is glossy, Gately's day job is apparently doing sound design for Hollywood films, but any review comparing it to pop music is way off. It's symphonic, alien stuff: To me it is easier to imagine her producing noise bands, mixing their work for maximum impact and nuance, then creating backing tracks for pop singers.
Considerably closer to pop music is this year's Olga Bell record, Tempo. The voice remains upfront, in focus, the negative space allows the drum programming to hit, the other textures are melodic, gorgeous. I was unfamiliar with Olga Bell's older, classical material and can't really imagine how listeners familiar with that stuff would've processed this, but it's a thrilling, human, record. I listened to it, and the new Chairlift record, Moth, a lot. The song structures are different, but both had hooks that stuck in my head, and both felt good to listen to, creating a sense of relief in the space they created, and how they allowed the body to fill it.
Meanwhile, I listened to the ANOHNI record, Hopelessness, maybe twice, and it's the record I would say was the "record of the year," a masterpiece, etc. It's a huge-sounding thing, an emotional record about things actually worth getting upset about, and makes the listener aware of how complicit they are in the world we are unmaking. I still have never listened to Antony And The Johnstons, and so was unaware of what a voice she has. I was more familiar with Oneohtrix Point Never, who does some of the production, but I haven't spent that much time with those records either. The huge human voice in these dispiriting digital spaces, that drips with a gloss that is nonetheless a type of viscera, is deeply affecting, and the emotional core of the record is dispiriting and necessary, even as the only catharsis to be had comes from accepting one's part in an almost nihilistic fashion. Listening to this record feels like being on social media, and it is not surprising that presented with that option, we choose to log off for our health, but still, what an achievement. I imagine songs about being disappointed in Obama will make this record feel dated in a year's time, when even the most adamant and earnest leftist will be awash in nostalgia for the merest illusion of decency.
I also wanted to just list these additional records, while distinguishing that they were runners-up, not quite my personal top tier. I wanted to leave it as a comment but Blogger wouldn't let me, because it was too long.
But immediately before writing such an addition I realized that Lil Ugly Mane's Oblivion Access was released right at the end of 2015, after I made my "best of the year" list, and that record is incredible. A bluesy lament, with noise, it's happy songs have this kind of melancholy grace that I loved and listened to a lot, although the whole record is very well-sequenced for balancing the noisy elements with the songs. I wrote about it for a magazine that never came out. In the same magazine, I also wrote about The Body's No One Deserves Happiness, which I think is great, but putting one metal album on my list when I basically heard no other metal seemed extremely unhelpful for being unconvincing.
The Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith record Ears occupies a similar place to the Syrinx reissues, and my description of the Katie Gately record could apply to it as well. But it is a little more new-agey, and so could be considered boring, although I liked it, and her previous album, Euclid, plenty. Her collaboration with Suzanne Ciani that RVNG put out I don't think of as being as good.
The record Haley Fohr from Circuit Des Yeux made under the name Jackie Lynn is good but too short. It occupies a space sort of like Suicide or Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska, but calmer than each.
The thing I wrote about Guerilla Toss, where I endorsed everything they did, could be applied to Deerhoof as well- Their LP The Magic was better than their last several records, their collaboration with a classical composer was interesting, the record John Dietrich made with Jeremy Barnes called The Coral Casino was totally listenable and fun. They remain the best live band this side of the Sun Ra Arkestra, and all of the interviews I read with the members this year were inspiring. I sort of take Deerhoof for granted, and in the context of a year-end list where the goal is to highlight music people might not have heard, I wrote about Guerilla Toss because they are a newer band.
Greg Saunier from Deerhoof is maybe my favorite working drummer, but Jim White would have to be somewhere in the top five. His duo, Xylouris White, where he accompanies a guy who plays the lauoto, a stringed instrument also called the cretan lute, who is performing what my understanding has as traditional greek folk songs, put out a record this year, Black Peak, which I would recommend to anyone who enjoys Rangda, or the various post-John-Fahey/post-Jack-Rose acoustic guitar records so beloved by people I follow on Twitter who also really like the Grateful Dead. It's not my favorite mode, but it's good. It's also vaguely comparable to the Mary Halvorson Octet record.
I thought Johann Johannson's score to Arrival was really good when I was watching the movie, enough to stick around waiting for the credits to tell me who did it. I haven't listened to it as a separate piece of music. It's sort of in a similar space to Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith's Ears too, actually.
The new A Tribe Called Quest album is really good, at least based on the one time I listened to it. Tribe isn't my favorite rap group, not even of that school or style. I much prefer the "classic" De La Soul albums to the classic Tribe records. But the new De La Soul record is a stinker, without a ton of rapping on it, and vaguely sounding like a Gorillaz record, and a total disappointment that set a low bar Tribe easily cleared.
The new Vince Staples EP is really good but also too short. The tracks produced by James Blake are good and cool, I had never listened to James Blake but heard his new record this year and thought it was cool, I should maybe spend more time with his work. Again, he's getting attention from other people and I felt he didn't need my help in this write-up. I should clarify that the things I say I only listened to once I heard when someone else put them on at the record store I work at, which is a different kind of "I only listened to it once" than iTunes stats.
Patterns Of Light, the new His Name Is Alive record I also really enjoyed. I find it compulsively listenable, something I'm drawn to. I really like the last few records he's made with his new vocalist, in the last ten years or so. They're all on his Bandcamp now. It's an indie rock in a very particular way, pre-release hype describing it as like Free Design songwriting and vocals with Thin Lizzy guitar heroics is pretty accurate. I didn't include it on my list essentially because I don't trust how comforting I find it, and I think I prefer to highlight things that feel a little more alienating, things that hold me with a bit more tension.
Wednesday, January 13, 2016
The idea of writing about all the books I read this year is an exhausting proposition. This is not necessarily because I just read SO MUCH, but because of much of what I read I found exhausting. Some things took a long time to read, others were started and left unfinished, but whether I will pick them up again or leave them to collect dust is still unclear. Still, I read enough things I either liked or thought considerably about that I could write a substantial list, even if I avoid mentioning the things I don't feel like talking about. If you click this link you can see what I reviewed for Bookslut, all at once. Of those books, the Renata Adler and Silvina Ocampo collections are the best, and are basically essential.
That said, for the sake of my energy I will not order things chronologically. I will just start talking.
Anna Kavan, Ice. I read this right at the end of the year, and it led directly to feeling that I should spend 2016 reading more 20th century female modernists, namely Virginia Woolf and Ann Quin. (Also, Sylvia Plath, although I'm not sure if she counts.) Kavan's biography is pretty fascinating if you have any attraction to tragic figures: Born in 1901, she received an injury in the 1920's that led to her being prescribed heroin, leading to an addiction that lasted until she died in 1969. After her second divorce she had a nervous breakdown, spent time in an asylum, and legally changed her name to Anna Kavan, which was previously the character in a book she'd published under the name Helen Ferguson. Ice has a male narrator, whose conflict with the book's antagonist is over a woman - a woman viewed explicitly as a victim, and the protagonist basically views himself as being the one entitled to victimize her. Few depictions of men feel as harsh, or as basically accurate. Meanwhile, in the background is ice, destroying the world and reducing nations to ruins, which leads to the book being talked about in science fiction circles, although it's clearly analogous to the destructive forces of interpersonal relationships in the novel. The narration does weird things where, despite largely being in first-person, it's also able to take off from that limit and describe things the narrator doesn't bear witness to, sort of pointing at the character's worldview as so omnipresent that it's able to allow for narrative omnipresence by proxy.
Mark De Silva, Square Wave. I got a review copy of this book and then didn't want to review it because I basically disliked it. I was intrigued by the way the author talked about literature in an interview that ran on the publisher's website. Just tonight I read an essay he wrote where I again agreed with basically everything he said. My main problem with the book is what he describes as critic's problem with William Vollmann, who it's clear he likes: That the way in which he's overdescriptive can come off as fetishistic when talking about things that are morally abhorrent. There are parts where De Silva is not detailing violence, where he's talking about music in a way that seems like he's largely showing off what he knows in a way that becomes tedious. Meanwhile, his essay sort of bypasses entirely notions of poetry - both as something that provides visionary life-altering power and perspective and also as something that can enliven prose, that musicality can be compelling for its own sake. That sort of understanding of the sentence is absent in Vollmann and in Square Wave.
Cynan Jones, Things I Found On The Beach. I was sent a review copy of this one too, although this was unsolicited, and that was initially exciting until a few pages in, where I realized I didn't really like the book that much. A press kit was sent, one of the initial blurbs was like "If Jones is like Cormac McCarthy, this book is his No Country For Old Men," but then if you read the article that's excerpted from, which was also included, it's in the context of talking about his other books, and it's a diss. Fairly straight-forward crime fiction, with a consciously "minimal" style. It is funny how when reading crime novels the thing you think about is what you would do in the character's position. Reading this book I distracted myself by wondering what I would do if I came across a large amount of cocaine. Even at the time I knew this question was not really worth pondering.
Amy Hempel, The Collected Stories. The stuff from her first two books is really incredible, before all the stories start containing dogs and seem largely about dogs. That stuff's good too, though. I read these pretty quickly and can imagine those later stories being a delight were I to have read them as they were written. I wanted to recommend these to people going through hard times. They don't offer assurance, they are just very sad. I would also recommend them just to people who want to write better.
Gary Lutz, Divorcer and Stories In The Worst Way. I loved these. I read them early in the year. There is a type of joke Lutz uses a lot that I was basically already using in the thing I'm writing now, where words are defined incorrectly, but on the basis of what appears to be at the root of them, that made me want to read more. The sentences here are so contrived and tortured that all of the narrators seem insane. I picture them all as fat and sweaty and with crumbs all around their mouth, stains on their clothing. The narratives then are like classic 1980s short story style, scenes of domestic alienation, but they feel more fraught, the characters more doomed. They are pretty funny.
Elizabeth Mikesch, Niceties. Calamari Press has this deal intermittently where you can buy several books at a time, only selecting a few specifically, the rest chosen for you by the publisher. This was one of the ones I got randomly. I still haven't read all of the stuff Calamari sent, but everything I've read so far has been pretty readable. The David Ohle books (Boons And The Camp, The Blast) were fine. Stanley Crawford's Travel Notes was one of the books I specifically requested, and while it eventually becomes basically too far out for me to even parse, before that it is like a string of paradoxes, impossibilities. It's pretty insane even before I lost a bead on what it was entirely. Considering that the sixties were an era where lots of people read weird stuff, this seems like a rare example of what only total freaks would read. Mikesch's book is a short story collection that is not too far off from Lutz's stuff but rather than taking place in sad apartments and offices it's air is perfumed like opulent boudoirs strewn with jewelry. That is sexist, but I mean it is more opaque. It wears wigs, makeup, sunglasses, and the texture it surrounds itself becomes so much a part of its look that it is synonymous with the body and its beauty. Bits of its music glop in my head still, but not any narrative. Incantatory. I don't know who would like it but I hope that people would, in general. I relate to it. I also read Miranda Mellis' The Revisionist and Beth Steidle's The Static Herd, they were fine, but very short. There was also a reprint of Scott Bradfield's book The History Of Luminous Motion, which was also fine, but not good enough to induce me to read his other books. I would read more books by Mikesch if they existed, which they will, in the future, maybe.
Steven Millhauser, Voices In The Night. I love what Steven Millhauser does in his short stories. Before this book came out I was drafting an essay in my head about how what Millhauser does, in all of his stories, basically redeems America. The quintessential Millhauser short story is about some form of Americana - the department store, or miniatures, or animation - and is about an artist or practitioner pushing that thing to the limits of its fantasy, until the story goes completely past realism. You see the yearning and the dream in Millhauser's stories, and through fiction, they achieve this form of tangibility, that makes the fact of American's continual wanting for MORE not seem like a curse or a disease but as something intrinsically spiritual. Here there is a take on the story of Gautama found in Hesse's Siddhartha but here way more rich in imagery of the delights of artificiality, and the title story is specifically about a longing for a spiritual calling felt even by those determinedly secular. It's a great book. The way that Millhauser's body of work seems to essentially mimic or parallel the characters in his stories seems to perpetually promise that what comes next is going to destroy all boundaries, but I'm not sure if the books really get better so much as that as his bibliography grows the scale seems increasingly monumental.
Shirley Jackson, Haunting Of Hill House. This is good and fun and a really easy read. Some people adore her and now I know why. It's still not exactly my thing but I get it. I read this at the same time as the Millhauser and basically alternated between the two of them, the Mark De Silva book remaining in my backpack as I was in New Jersey for my grandfather's funeral.
Patrick Dewitt, Undermajordomo Minor. I actually read this a few days ago, at the beginning of 2016. The acknowledgments page includes the work of lots of people whose work I like, including Millhauser and Italo Calvino, but also the cartoonists Sammy Harkham and CF. I think that if you were looking for a fun, well-written, genre-indebted in terms of atmosphere but still primarily focused on character book, which I think a lot of people are looking for, you can't really do any better than Patrick Dewitt.
Chelsey Minnis, Zirconia and Bad Bad. Two great books of determinedly bratty poetry. I relate to the obnoxiousness on display here so much. Zirconia is probably the more consistent book. Bad Bad starts off with a great series of introductions, that basically talk shit on the whole idea of writing poetry, and ends really strongly, but the bulk of the middle started to feel tedious in ways that seem both to do with the slight changes in formatting from her Zirconia baseline and littering the poems with words that I basically didn't know. Here is a prose-poem. The willingness to be abrasive, self-deprecating, talk shit, feels beyond refreshing in a world where people are desperate to be liked.
Mark Leidner, Beauty Was The Case That They Gave Me and The Angel In The Dream Of Our Hangover. I read the book of aphorisms while watching the Super Bowl. Great stuff. Rough paraphrase of one would be "art for art's sake is a tacit endorsement of war for war's." Shit man. The poems are pretty funny. I think a lot about this quote I've seen attributed to Leidner, that his work goes right to being stupid because that's what beauty reduces him to, and he is just skipping a step.
Rachel Glaser, Paulina And Fran. This book is not as mind-altering as her short story collection, Pee On Water. In fact, it's not mind-altering at all. It is eminently recognizable if you know women who went to art school and are approximately my age. Reading it I wanted to recommend it to people specifically because I am not sure I really value mimesis all that much but I know that there are certain people who would love to see their life experience reflected in prose. It's interesting to think about how this book is all about the art school experience but maybe her short stories are more like conceptual art.
Leon Neyfakh, The Next Next Level. This is a book about the rapper Juiceboxxx, a dude I know and share mutual friends with. There's an N+1 article that this book is essentially a longer version of, but that article is I think basically fine, while this book is terrible, and way too much about the author, and the author's weird sense of alienation from anything, and his inability to understand anything without a lot of projection. Specifically, Juiceboxxx knows a lot about noise music, and finds it inspiring, but the author finds it totally off-putting and then assumes it is designed to be alienating. As someone who listens to noise and goes to noise shows it seems pretty understandable as music if you are familiar with free jazz, or Sonic Youth, or The Velvet Underground, or any number of things I think music writers should be familiar with. I know it is not for everyone, but something can not be for you without the assumption that its only goal is to alienate. Even more of a problem is the sense that the author doesn't really understand or know anything about rap either, which makes the book's relationship to its subject, a rapper, all the more awkward. Neyfakh apparently wrote a really fawning article about hanging out with Drake, which makes a lot of sense, if you think about Drake as being basically wack and his fans as people who relate to him because of their own innate wackness.
I also read that collection of Jessica Hopper's rock criticism (and I wrote a review for Bookslut that sort of talks about Hopper's writings on its own terms) but later in the year I think I started to feel like Hopper's approach to music writing is really prevalent now in a way that I basically view as detrimental. I think it was reading her review of the Grimes album Art Angels, and how it basically parrots pre-release hype and the artist's own narrative for this tone of triumphalism that made me feel like "ugh, this is the worst." Also I think in general culture writing this year has been so much about representation, and who is making work, and giving things a gold star for being "feminist" or "intersectional." This is separate from the totally great function of feminist criticism, where looking at art through a feminist lens allows you to see larger systemic problems in a way that doesn't necessarily condemn the work itself. The strangest thing to me about championing things for their politics is how often those politics are largely a projection, based more on what the critic wants to see in the work. I realize that my objecting to this sort of comes off like what I'm mad at is work made by women, and the championing of the same, in a way that makes it seem like what I want to see is more talk about women being subjugated, (in a manner akin to what the Anna Kavan book is about) but like if people are going to talk about Beyonce or Taylor Swift as feminist icons and be super-psyched on every little win these rich people achieve, while across the board women's reproductive rights are rolled back, I don't want to read articles about how Broad City is a bellwether for progress.
While I'm offering retrospective disclaimers let me say that I read a Silvina Ocampo novella, The Topless Tower, after writing my feature on her for Bookslut and that book, which is not collected in Thus Were Their Faces, is not very good.
I read Ian Svenonius' Censorship Now! which was good. Good lord how much more do I admire Svenonius' contrarianism that frames basically everything as a byproduct of capitalism than the weird triumphalism of successful artists that constitutes music writing for major outlets. It seems basically besides the point to say "this is better than that" about things that are so different but it really is worth noting how rare Svenonius' approach is, how genuinely radical and reality-reshaping, than the affirmation of the myth of "music saved my life by presenting me with a vision of a future self to aspire to." But maybe when I say this I am just saying I relate to Svenonius and I'm full of shit.
William Gaddis, JR. This was the really long book I read this year and was maybe unsure if I'd finish. Once I did finish it, I kept on thinking about it, just in this way of wanting to compare things to the book's premise and tone. The notion of money as an abstraction for its own sake that perpetuates itself ignorant of all else, some kind of churning engine that will place advertisements anywhere and devalues everything because things without value can be bought up at low cost. The book is kind of repetitive and after a certain point you get it but it keeps on going in a way that then deepens the sense of the ubiquity of the book's subject.
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale. Another one where the takeaway from the book is the idea at the central premise of it, how it resonates in real life. Before reading it I think I would've dismissed that concept as hyperbolic to the point of lacking realism but 2015 ended up being a really weird and reactionary year. I also started but didn't finish Atwood's The Robber Bride, which is one of her more realistic novels and was basically boring.
Dennis Cooper, Frisk and The Marbled Swarm. Frisk is really powerful and immediate, the way it's posed as faux-autobiography implicates the writer and by extension the reader. The premise is that the narrator, Dennis, saw some faked snuff photographs when he was way too young and since has been obsessed with combining sex with violent death. This obsession runs throughout Cooper's oeuvre, in often gross, transgressive ways. They are never really the point but seem to open the audience up to a willingness to be violated by other aspects of the book's strangeness. One fascinating thing in Frisk is the complete absence of women, so the deviation from society the book presents is not homosexuality as an alternative to heterosexuality but violence as an alternative to tenderness. Cooper's most recent "novel" is composed of animated gifs, which I looked at, maybe even "read," but don't really recall and am not including on this list. The Marbled Swarm deliberately avoids immediacy, in its prose, for a more confusing, ghostly and mazelike effect. Still I read it in basically a night, and lent it to friends who had to put it down for a while due to how gross it was.
William S. Burroughs, The Wild Boys and Cities Of The Red Night. The Wild Boys is really great. In some ways the takeaway is the conclusion, which is really straightforward, and the way in which Burroughs language is clipped allows the images to proceed with unimpeded motion, but flipping through it I ended up rereading one of the chapters that is basically gay erotica, and the way that one sort of returns to cut-ups to tell it sort of moves through the atoms of the room as they become charged with scent is sort of like if you were watching pornography and making animated gifs of your favorite moments at the same time. Cities Of The Red Night juggles a few narrative strands in alternating chapters in a way that I don't think works nearly as well as The Wild Boys' prismatic approach.
Vladimir Nabokov, Speak Memory and Look At The Harlequins. Speak, Memory is Nabokov's memoir, and is pretty dull, dominated by the thread of his interest in butterflies. Look At The Harlequins is more interesting, at least in part because of the fact that the main character is clearly based on Nabokov, in that he's a writer whose works each have an analog with books written by the actual Nabokov, but he has no problem making this character erotically fixated on young girls, the way I'm certain some people viewed Nabokov after Lolita's success. This is pretty funny.
Jenny Offill, Dept. Of Speculation and Last Things. I read Dept. Of Speculation super-quickly, I think just sitting in a chair at the local Barnes And Noble, then checked out Last Things from the library for the sake of being a completist about an author with a very small body of work. The best part of Dept. Of Speculation is a small thing about getting a job as a fact-checker for a magazine that runs science facts. The best thing about Last Things was Sarah Nicole Prickett on Twitter making fun of the blurb on the new paperback edition's cover.
Natalie Lyalin, Blood Makes Me Faint But I Go For It. There's a great poem by Natalie, Wolverine, that you can read in this interview Rachel Glaser conducted with her. It is not contained in this book, which has a pretty good title. I was not particularly into this collection.
Edward Dorn, Gunslinger. After I finished my book, a western with some poetry in it, I read this and Michael Ondaatje's The Collected Works Of Billy The Kid. Chelsey Minnis talks about how Edward Dorn is her favorite poet in the prefaces to Bad Bad, but maybe she is thinking of the later work, Abhorrences. I've read one poem from that, it was great, and have e-mailed it to some people. The Ondaatje has a line about "blood a necklace" which is the name of a Goslings song.
Richard Brautigan, The Hawkline Monster. This was also described to me as a weird western. I liked it more than In Watermelon Sugar. It feels colder and weirder, like everyone in it is alienated from each other and themselves, death is palpable as this transmutational substance. Like it takes place in the parts of the west that feel like the moon. I think I found out at some point that Brautigan was friends, or collaborated on a journal with, Ron Loewinsohn, this book has a similar texture (smooth like glass) to Magnetic Field(s).
Thomas Bernhard, Correction. Written in this maniacal voice of total fury, which due to Bernhard's Germanic ancestry I read in my head as an Arnold Schwarzenegger voice. It feels possessed by violent obsession, like the goal is to break through a wall by smashing your head against it repeatedly. Like the literary equivalent of power electronics: This is an endorsement and a disclaimer that I don't know when I will next read one of his books.
Stanley Elkin, The Magic Kingdom. I really liked Elkin's Criers And Kibitzers short story collection. I associate this whole type of dark humor with my grandfather who died this year, an urban Jew who worked in a pharmacy in the sixties who I know read Joseph Heller. I keep on imagining this world of smart, well-read people, who raise children and read a certain kind of novel and they basically don't exist anymore, and it's possible the image in my head doesn't even really correspond to anything other than a myth. This book is good, well-rendered. It's about taking dying children to Disney World. It is dark but thankfully manages to avoid any dumb knee-jerk cynicism that the premise seems to threaten exists inside of it as a seed of its undoing. The ending is beautiful in a very particular way, powered by rage against death that is also an acceptance of it.
William Gay, Twilight. This book sort of splits the difference between two types of Southern novel - One, the kind about kids exemplified by The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, The Little Friend, and To Kill A Mockingbird. Two, Cormac McCarthy, and his whole approach to language. It's good, but basically a thriller, about a kid trying not to get killed.
Jane Bowles, Two Serious Ladies. Super-weird structure in this one. Seems to invite rereadings just to get to better understand the characters and their relationships to each other. This is one of my best friends' favorite books. I also read it to "prepare myself" for Paulina And Fran, which I was anticipating highly. It is pretty funny.
Sara Josephine Baker, Fighting For Life. An NYRB Classic, bought on sale. A memoir written by a public health advocate in early twentieth century New York. Every chapter has some sort of particularly interesting detail or anecdote. The stuff about arresting Typhoid Mary, a baker who didn't speak English very well and didn't seem to understand that she was sick and spreading disease, is pretty surprising to someone who mostly knows the name from the Daredevil villain named after her. The stuff about her belief about how women's suffrage would lead to an end to child labor is really good. Funny and smart in a way that feels "modern" enough in its consciousness that it serves as an effective window into this era that is so difficult to imagine that the consciousnesses of the people becomes unfathomable without such documents.
Alice Notley, In The Pines. Really good, basically incredible, particularly the title piece. Old lady witch shit with intent to break the world.
Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary. Kind of weird to read a book with this structure. Mothers News used these jokes as the basis of their "word jumble," and I always liked these bits when I could decode them, but without that effort, that pause before the punchline, I don't know if I liked it as much. That said, this book did teach me that "pandemonium" literally means "place of all the demons," which rules.
Jim Thompson, The Killer Inside Me. I don't really know why I read crime novels, I basically never find them satisfying, but people like them and they are quick to read. I found my copy of this on the side of the street, along with Chester Himes' Cotton Comes To Harlem, which I couldn't finish, although the movie is fine.
Don DeLillo, Ratner's Star. I'd heard this was Delillo's most sci-fi and Pynchonesque novel. It is basically about people becoming so obsessed with their areas of interest, their systems of decoding the world, that they unravel and no longer have any idea what they're doing. A comedy of philosophy, basically.
Herman Melville, The Confidence Man. Another comedy of philosophy. This one's about a con man on a boat, wearing a series of disguises, trying to get people to give him money. It is not always clear who the con man is. People frequently talk about Christian charity and the necessity of having confidence in your fellow man, but not all of them are necessarily the dude trying to get the money. This took me a really long time to finish.
Gertrude Stein, Everybody's Autobiography. This also took me a really long time to read, despite being basically the easiest thing to read in the world. It's Stein, newly successful, talking about all her famous friends, like Pablo Picasso. Pablo Picasso writes poetry and Stein, totally confident that she is the best writer in the world, has to explain to him it's like some Sunday painter showing him their stuff and it's basically an insult. Picasso only reads stuff his friends have written, why would he think he is good aside from this celebrity?
Amelia Gray, Gutshot. Short story collection in the Donald Barthelme vein where each story is like a comedy sketch, even when they are basically horror stories. These are okay.
Donald Antrim, The Emerald Light In The Air. A writer who can be compared to Barthelme for the weird inventiveness of his novels does a collection of short stories that ran in The New Yorker. Last year I read all of Antrim's novels, and they're all great, but much like the Amelia Gray collection I basically don't remember any of these. I actually do remember the Amelia Gray story that ran in The New Yorker, I remember being excited for her and then not thinking the story was very good.
Something I remember right now is I thought to include at the beginning of this post a disclaimer that maybe all of my negative opinions about things can be chalked up to professional jealousy, or an amateur's jealousy of professionals, whatever is the more appropriate and exact way to word it. I am sure whatever intern read the novels and short stories I sent out to be rejected this year don't remember my words either. I wouldn't want me saying anything dismissive of the writers in question to be something that sticks in their memory in any sense except for adding to their idea of time as being essentially a river of forgetfulness.
Paul Beatty, The Sellout. I thought this book was really good, a Dave Chappelle style satire about race that feels totally fearless.
Ishmael Reed, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down. I read this as a "western" around the same time I read the other stuff, the immediate predecessor to Mumbo Jumbo which I loved. I think I described Ishmael Reed's style as "half Kurt Vonnegut and half William S. Burroughs," really straight-forward sentences but deliberately disjointed and sort of anti-narrative. There's a lack of rules because the point he is trying to make is that there are no rules and all of the rules that exist were created to perpetuate a racist power structure.
Ben Okri, The Famished Road. Based on the same Yoruba folklore that powers Amos Tutuola's writing but more put together, so as to be way less deranged on a level of language but still basically running counter to any traditional ideas of narrative. It reads more like a fantasy novel than it does just coming off as some alien radio transmission. Some people wanted to call it "magic realism" but the capitulations to realism are practically nil. Derek who runs Calamari Press loves this book, and so does Porochista Khakpour. I think I expected it to walk different lines than it did in its navigation of its territory. It seems fucked up to put these three books by black authors together but I think I read this book around the same time Baltimore was going crazy. When people were talking about a Baltimore uprising I was thinking about the idea of a black-owned bookstore in that Penn-North area, which apparently already exists but I was imagining as like a positive outcome. Still it sort of seems like when people talk about reading "more diverse" literature they sort of diminish what literature is and imagine mostly personal essays or something. (Or that's how I interpret the conversation, and who seems to be the main beneficiary of such dialogues in terms of the bump in their profile.)
Javier Marias, Tomorrow In The Battle Think On Me. I read this right after Christmas. Javier Marias is good, for a second I thought I would read all of his books but they're all pretty similar, but I can still imagine reading one of his books every one or two years and they would probably always be pretty rewarding, especially if you spaced them out, or only read one after reading a couple of books that you couldn't get into or were somewhat unsatisfying. This one is kind of repetitive or obsessive in its underlining of its ideas.
Roberto Bolaño, The Secret Of Evil. This is basically odds and ends that were on the writer's hard drive at the time of his death. I am not obsessed with Bolaño the way others are but I got a free copy of this when someone was moving house and brought it with me to New Jersey to read and it was diverting enough.
Georges Bataille, The Story Of An Eye. I guess certain people read this when they are like twenty or something? Transgressive French pornography is maybe a common thing for college freshman who were more pretentious than people I knew at the time. I read this in a day, grabbed from the same pile as The Secret Of Evil.
OK I feel like I am officially bored with writing this list and trying to do write-ups. I also read Kelly Link's Get In Trouble and Valeria Luiselli's The Story Of My Teeth. The Kelly Link was fun but I think my expectations were too high or I was put off by the way it seemed like YA. Luiselli's book was smart enough but lacked drive. I read a bunch of NYRB Classics grabbed from a sale: Anne Carson's Euripides translations Grief Lessons has good essays by Carson but the plays themselves I basically couldn't follow, Maude Hutchins' Victorine I don't really remember, Théophile Gautier's My Fantoms is interesting (sort of) for a blurb from Lovecraft about how "it has a French sense of the strange" which ends up basically meaning that people have sex with ghosts that live in the paintings at a rich person's house, which makes perfect sense, The Letter Killers Club by the Russian guy with the long name who does the short story collections is not as good as the short story collections, despite attempts to embed short stories into the novel format. I read Julio Cortazar's Cronopios And Famas and it made basically no impression, I tried to read Hopscotch and, in the early chapters at least, it made a negative impression: The same sort of think I disliked about the beginning of The Savage Detectives, actually, where it seems like youth is being romanced and the woman is sort of this ornamental object and basically nothing is really being said except for this attempt. Apparently both of these works end up being a satire of that line of thinking eventually but I didn't really have the energy to stick around and find out. I read Jesse Ball's Samedi The Deafness and didn't feel like I had to read anything else by him, but honestly I think that was what I wanted, to just felt like I'd had a sampling of what he had to offer. I read Joyelle McSweeney's Dead Youth, which I didn't like as much as Percussion Grenade, and I basically feel like I should stop trying to find another book by her as good. I read Ken Sparling's Dad Said He Saw You At The Mall which is a nineties Lish-edited thing that is essentially domestic, but also sort of like the nineties equivalent of a Twitter feed's jottings of a young weird dad. It had a part I almost felt like highlighting or circling but I never do that and I think by that point I knew I was just going to give it to a used bookstore anyway. I read Robert Stone's Dog Soldiers and felt about it the same way as I do about crime novels, it is not as good as James Dickey's Deliverance, which feels like a fair comparison point. I read George Clinton's ghost-written autobiography and a book about Impulse Records and I don't really know why you'd read books about music. I read a few more books that I don't even really feel like mentioning.
In conclusion, a year is too long a length of time to remember all the books you read within it. I think the last time I attempted posts like this they covered nine months or so. Right now I am reading another book that I am not sure if I am reading closely enough to remember in a few month's time. These posts would not exist if I were not making a list in Google Drive to aid in my memory and my sense of accomplishment. But at the end of the year every book that is basically forgotten does not feel like an accomplishment any more than the meals I ate, which I am glad I do not keep a record of.