Wednesday, May 30, 2007
I exchanged the David Foster Wallace tome Infinite Jest last week for a half dozen John Updike and John Cheever used paperbacks, vainly staking my claim for writers of longish sentences who are actually revealing something hidden in human behavior rather than running away from it with the distractions rudderless prose potentially affords you. I prefer my shaggy dog stories confined to movies these days, which one can witness in The Big Lebowski , written and directed by Rob and Ethan Coen. Wallace has his uses, and at times hits pay dirt (Oblivion, his recent collection of stories, gives one hope that he has abandoned the Exhausting Novel and is ready, just maybe, to use shorter sentences), but his books over all tend to rob the room of the air I need to read better books. Each book he's written since Genius has been variations on a jet stream of language, a set of gasping, agitated sentences that are all jabber and no communication. Incredibly, his writing seems to mimic the way many characterize the way many in his generation actually talk, rapidly, long word ribbons filled with undiscerning details, asides and anecdotes, all uttered at a pace and high-strung pitch that attempts to make you think that something incredible is about to happen. Or, more on point, that a point is about to be made,all of this, virtually all (no exaggeration) presented with an unmerciful and even arrogant lack of emphasis.Experience is spoken of as if everything regarding storyline depended solely on the present tense, all memories, history, details, relegated to the same junk pile of references that are never gone through or made to construct a nuanced effect or make a scene that achieves emotional complexity. There is, however, clutter, an amassed set of things brought together indiscriminately, pack rat like. Clutter, however, isn't the same as complexity, and the sorry state of Egger's writing is that there is no inner life in his characters--Genius, being a memoir, is that rare exception in his body of work--that gives you a sense of inner life and struggle on the character's part. Theodore Dreiser was a less adroit stylist, perhaps,but An American Tragedy and Sister Carrie particularly made up for the lack of grace with massive amounts of humanity that made us think about nagging notions of Destiny, Free Will and Duty . Dreiser's topics remain with us, and what he offered us remains part of that discussion. Eggers The suggestion that he read Tom Wolfe, pre-Bonfire of the Vanities,is well taken, since Wolfe in his journalism showed away to adjust and mold his style around the subject matter. A more recent model for Eggers to go to school on is Esquire writer Mike Sager's collection of magazine pieces Scary Monsters and Super Freaks, where the writer brings a wonderfully subtle literary personality to his portraits of spectacular American failures at the margins of the mainstream. Eggers writes well enough in short bits, patches, a paragraph hither and yon, but he does so without shining any light, nor casting any shades of darkness for that matter; what the world doesn't need is a political satire that cannot convince you that it's an exaggeration of the real thing.
Jonathan Franzen, another mad bomber of the language whose weighty and over worded The Corrections won praise and best seller status for a turgid family comedy that everything going for it except the niceties of heart and editing, is presently at the top of the next stack of titles that will find their way to the used book dealer, to be either sold, traded in donated outright. Franzen, remember, isn't a bad writer, but he is an under edited one, since their are sentences and even whole paragraphs in The Corrections that just give up in the middle, or wrecked like speeding cars meeting head on as he tries to manage one metaphor after another with which he attempts, over and over, to contain the perversions and anomalies of American family life in as short a space as possible. Not graceful stuff, this, and an astute editor would have blue penciled the offending pages out of the final book, reducing its bulk by at least a fourth. How to Be Alone, a fine collection of essays he published two years ago about the reading life, fares better at sentence management and poise, but one wonders of what kind of writer Franzen turns out to be if what he composes remain congested fiction or essays essentially praising himself and those few like him for being introverted, geeky and bookish. It's an act that gets old, a voice that wears out. I intend to trade him in for some Tom Robbins, a novelist who can have fun with his convolutions, although he is not without risk. The cutie-pie , Zap Comix surrealism and the far flung similies (here's a writer still in competition with Raymond Chandler!) will often times crowd out development; as a friend once remarked about The Grateful Dead, sometimes his writing amounts to "what the fuck"? In one instance it can be something spirtual along the lines of uttering "let go and let God", meaning that one needs to pick their battles wisely, but on the other hand, the other hand being huge palm upraised as if asking for a five spot, is that it simply amounts to defeat
by way of being too spaced out. Robbins likes to drive the car only so far, and is likely to take his hands off the wheel and listen to the radio with his eyes closed just as his vehicle is merging with freeway traffic. Not good.
Fellow maximalist David Eggers little better in the sorting and prioritizing. Out the books go . A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius , a memoir of his assuming the parenting role for his younger brother Toph after the back-to-back deaths of their parents, is a bit of masterpiece of the hurried voice; a stammering and rushing narrative of someone having to shed the remains of teenage slackertude and learn adult behavior in a hurry, Eggers' style was appropriate to the subject. Given circumstances that made his reality seem to collapse upon itself, Eggers could do nothing else except move forward, as if running up the hall from a burning house, instinctually moving toward the daylight coming from a door at the end. AHWOSG , breathless, impatient, agitated and at times staggering, as it were, in it's balancing act of grace and wit and awkward locutions and shotgunned transitions, remains a real document of a writer having to leave his cozy assumptions of living the bohemian life and take on the weight as family head.
The desperation was real, and was interesting for the way the author didn't assume the disguise of narrative know-it-all. Beguiling as that was, one would have thought he would have changed his style, suitable to idea and subject, but he has not. It's about the hurry, the haste, the speed of writing coming as quickly as the speed of perception. It is the speed of the Internet generation, and the result is broad banded mediocrity. Every book he's done up until now has been a set of gasping, agitated sentences that are all jabber and no communication. Incredibly, his writing seems to mimic the way many characterize of his generation actually talk, rapidly, long streams of sentences, filled with undiscerning details, asides and anecdotes, all uttered at a pace and high-strung pitch that attempts to make you think that something incredible is about to happen.
Monday, May 28, 2007
"Steelhead", a poem by Dave Lucas, is a not-bad addition to the mass of fishing literature
that we've read over the decades, a splendidly compact version of Old Man and the Sea or the fishing stories of Jim Harrison (to name but a few). A lone man in the morning fishing the cold lake waters engaged in an activity that's both meditative and primal, and then snap! the line goes taut and there is a magnificent animal at the end of the strand, reeling against the deep gash of the hook, battling to survive with instincts that are beyond the fisherman's ability to adequately turn into a phrase. But phrase it he does, and what we have after the struggle, the splashing, and the final landing of the fish is the inevitable regret not he part of the fisherman, who speculates rather mystically about the cycles of life and death and what it was in him that brought him, against all cultivation and sophistication, to participate in
hunter/gatherer behaviors one would have thought had been refined out of him.
If we could see the eyes
or the blunt spade
of its head, we might claim
to see courage in them,
It is this turn where poet Lucas drives off the cliff with a rather labored Laurentian valorization of the Steelhead's spirit and spirit. Lacking tea leaves or a human palm to inspect, he sounds as if he's peering deep into the soon to gutted gills for The Lesson that The Poet is supposed to have. It comes off as some as someone looking for their misplaced cell phone as it rings and keeps on ringing
somewhere nearby. Lucas does not leave it there, though, and continues to sift through the thrashing animal for footnotes and emendations to his discovery of the fish's courage
But what propels its
ten slick pounds
through the water is beyond
what we know of ourselves,
the education of the angler,
who lets out the line, then
pulls back, the give and take
of two odd lovers, until
when he jerks back,
when the water gives up
its silver cache.
And then the hollow drum
on boat. Now we can see
the black eyes, the snub-
nose and gunmetal scale,
the prehistoric fins
that keep on
treading phantom water.
The gills gape. It flips
itself over once, and stares
back with what must be called
defiance.It would have been fine if Lucas had pondered the sadness, if sadness is the word, in terms less lofty, but he ruins, utterly ruins his effect by the ham-handed and equivocating insertion of "...and stares back with what must be called defiance."
Well, no. We shall call it a dead fish and admit that fish eyes are expressionless, in fact, they exhibit no nuance of emotion, and that the term "fish eye" is synonymous with a stare that is seemingly without life, emotion, or empathy.
I can see why this would strike readers as a powerful poem, but it reads to me more an exercise on a subject that's hardly unrepresented in literature. Lucas is a good writer and I rather liked the leanness of his descriptions, but what I couldn't escape was the expectation that there would come, toward the end, something Lucas learned from
hooking this particular fish. It's obvious, and it seems false in execution. One would imagine people this given to revealed truths from common events would be too sensitive to fish in the first place.
This might have worked better had Lucas given us a proper parallel set of events. Imagine this poem's narrative commencing without the attempted anthropomorphizing, just told straight faced, and then we have the fisherman involved in his own struggle that he would struggle with, seemingly in vain, such as trying to get out of snowed in parking lot, or being at the end of a very long line for gas.
Just a suggestion, but the point is that the comparison between the fish he hooked and human qualities would be more plausible, less strained.
The steelhead is imbued with human characteristics such as "spirit", "courage" and "defiance", which indicates that the narrator his comparing his lot against that of the creature hooked on the line.
It's not far fetched to assume that the narrator assumes the fish to be in a state of shock, to be at the end of a line, on a hook, unable to breath, and that the empathy extends further to the irony of his own situation; a sophisticated person indulging in
primal activities where raw survival is the only matter at hand. In any regard, I think the implicit message is more of a package one deals with when they decide to write this kind of poem, which is to say that it's less Lucas doing the talking/musing than it is a fulfillment of genre expectation.
Which makes it frustrating because this poem almost works. A bit of indirection instead of a direct address of his idea might have given us a surprise instead of disappointed groan. Lucas's narrator is looking for a human quality when
the regret of winning the battle hits him. What it comes down to was that what he might have seen--Lucas is smart to hedge on his qualifications-- , whether courage, spirit, defiance, are intended as a Lesson. Lucas wants the lesson to be a military one; given the choice of qualities he tentatively assigned the Steelhead. All this is certainly implied, and it's worth bringing out.
I tried thinking of the poem as a lean metaphor for
invasion and defense of territories and to think of it as a critique, somewhat, of the current failure of American foreign policy, but that it became a labor-intensive riff as I worked on it. Sure, the elements are there in order to make the case, but I still think Lucas is wandering through Rousseau's neck of the woods and imagines himself in battle with an ennobled animal. Lucas is a good writer, but I'm not enamored of the mythology he wants to handle with a straight face here, unless, of course, he were willing to step several miles further than the conventional struggle/victory/winner's remorse scenario these pastoral situations must have and instead do something truly remarkable. There's a Paul Auster novel I can't remember the title to in which the point of view is the dog's who, credibly, is burdened with the task of finding a new master when it realizes his current one is dying. A remarkable read for a straight-forward novel.
Saturday, May 26, 2007
Sugar Blue (Beeble Records)
I've been playing blues harmonica for almost forty years, and the long and short of the that statement is that I'm not easily impressed with blues harpists who come along late in the day. Sugar Blue, though, is someone I take my hat off to; best known to the general rock and roll audience as the harmonica player on the Rolling Stones' Some Girls album (that's his sweet, Paul Butterfield-like solo on the signature "Miss You" track), I've seen him a couple of times when he and his band happened through Southern California on tour, and after both concerts I didn't touch my harps for a week, after which I picked them up again and commenced to practice more than I had in years. The man is restores the legitimacy of technique and speed to the blues harmonica, traits that had been sullied by John Popper, a muddy, imprecise musician whose harmonica improvisations resemble so much audio mud.Sour-note central. Sugar is fast and crystal clear and very clean in his attack; he's been criticized, in fact, for being "too clean". As it goes, there isn't a blues harp player alive who has better execution than Sugar Blue. The added plus with Sugar's playing, rare among those players who play fast and long that his solos make melodic sense. Jason Ricci and Howard Levy are others who combine superlative technique with innovation. The man can build a solo. It's not that I'm into speed and technique for their own sake, but I do admire Sugar Blue's ability to have these aspects serve real musical ideas. The new album Code Blue, is a whirlwind of the blues harp applied to a broad array of approaches, including traditional blues motifs, Rolling Stones' style guitar rock, Mahavishnu/Dixie Dregs fusion. His solos are sleek, cutting, rapid in the musical ideas coming from the band leader. Bear in mind that a little of Blue's singing goes a long way--he is like that guy in the chorus who steps out for a solo, singing at the top of his range, slipping off key too often. That, combined with some lyrics that tend to be preachy and the lead-footedly philosophical, can make the vocalizing a bit agonizing. It does give one an embarrassing flashback, as the more Sugar stretches his vocal chords in what he assumes is maestro's knack for rhythm and blues melisma reminds me of those times , in the seventies in bands that were rally drinking associations when I was in front of the microphone, screaming and grunting and bellowing in the mistaken and drunken illusion that I sounded like a hybrid of Jack Bruce, Otis Redding and Gene Pitney. Sure enough, when tapes were played back from the frat parties and keggers we played in around the dock pilings of San Diego's beach areas, I was shamefaced and humbled. At best I sounded as if I had a sock crammed down my gullet, my mouth sealed with duct tape, trying to scream because a crazed Lobo fan threatened me with a reconditioned Trojan while I struggled against an ugly metal chair I was tied to. It was not pretty, not hardly. The best of it all was that no one was killed during my performances, and that I had fun. Or so I was told but witnesses who were not as deep in the back as I had been.Still, for Sugar Blue's part, the harmonica work is about the best one can come across, and the band is simply crack jack, nimble, sharp as a drawer full of razors.
Thursday, May 24, 2007
Feminism has made the demand that there be more strong women in this life and the next so that young females coming up will have living and legendary examples of those who've come before who've not allowed their gender to relegate to the back seat, the bench, the receptionist's desk while men profited from their labor and garnered the cash and the credit for all good things. Fine, well and good, and bully, one would say, and one is grateful for politics, the arts, the sciences being all that much keener, graceful, and interesting for the inclusion of brilliant women in prominent roles. Praise them all.
All? Strong women don't by default make for a feminist role model, certainly not in the case of ersatz novelist and circuitous thinker Ayn Rand; feminists are strangely silent about her. Who can blame them, Rand, guruette of the nascent libertarian movment in the Forties, has made a virtue of being a disquieting in a democracy , and for what she wrote about and promoted in fiction, plays and essays about the glories of genius worship, the evils of charity, the nefarious intent of The State in all matters, makes her an uncomfortable idea among those who think that government ought to be used to do the people's business. Less her godless conservatism makes her an unlikely choice for feminist admiration than it is her unabashed adoration of the male figure, within whom resides genius, power, drive, charisma. Rand in her real life affairs made the men in her circles wilt like dry lettuce, but in her fantasy life, it was the male who made things happen, who got things done, who blasted, belittled, bested, battered or raped anything that got in the way of his Will and his genius. Not a friend of the common gal, but certainly Larry Flynt's idea of dream date.
It seemed that Rand had an unseemly adoration for the idea of Ultimate masculinity, and that she was fairly well peeved by the fact that she was born a woman and had to distinguish herself from her gender fellows and their culture of girly things. She refused to believe that a woman, in life or in faction, can be strong, brilliant and assertive of her own accord: for that, she needed the dim wit Laurentian brutishness of her male heroes to turn her out, so that some sense of vital élan would invigorate her perceptions of the universe she could see only as a deluded, submissive play thing. She was a quintessential anti-feminist whose life and manner defined a feminist tact in a masculine world.
Rand wasn’t an intentional fascist, given her experience with the brutal stupidity of Soviet socialism, but it obvious that she was so take with the idea of the charismatic individual, the lone genius, as being the key to civilization’s advancement and preservation that winds up maintaining what it was she opposed.
Her heroes, we remember, are to be admired and followed and , by implication, obeyed without pause or debate. For an atheist, there is something religious in all this, in which the hero-genius will show us the means to achieve heaven-on-earth.
I suspect that a fascist agenda was at the secret heart of her dreadfully clogged thinking: she spoke of liberty and freedom, but her remarks returned time and again to the idea of "genius" and how about how society would be better off if the rabble just got out of the way of the work of the genius and allow them untrammeled, unregulated and unaccountable expression of their projects. The next step of the thinking was to allow the ill-defined geniuses to run things, to make policy, to smooth out the nettlesome complexities and demands of mass culture. Her agenda, I think, was to place everyone else in some place where they would stay out of the way of her and her genius buddies while they carved up the landscape erecting monuments to themselves.
Rand was not a fan of democracy.
Why on earth does anyone think that the following argument is somehow legitimate: "I used to like Rand, but I've grown out of her"?
Probably because the similarities between what passes as a literary art and a moral philosophy in Rand's dicey world view resembles a particular phase of growing up, the ages between 13-17, when a person is inordinately preoccupied with their own being, the issue of whether their desires or impulses are gratified at once or denied. Despite the grim world that made for this view, the substance of her argument romanticizes the worst attributes of children as being a sustainable, preferable state of existence: The Noble Brat.
Part of the intense self-awareness of the mindset is that no one, if any one, is up to the level of idea and perception as oneself, and the world would be a better fit for all on it if one only had ones' way, without interference or obligation to consider a greater consequence. Rand values self reliance and self determination, virtues held important in our political philosophy, but Rand, I think, had no use for democratic processes.
Her ideas are based on an abstracted impulse that the gratification of an ill-defined "genius" desire to unleash their will on the world handily assumes priority over the question of any kind of accountability. Howard Roark, I would think, would not have been bothered with building codes, given her perfect world. This is a dreamy thinking that cannot be trusted to even simple tasks.
It's a gross immaturity that Rand has made into a compelling argument whose intensity is meant to burn through strong counter views, though you can also say that her intensity, the absolute unwillingness to consider another view sans vilification comes to little more than sustained, albeit convoluted tantrum.
I enjoyed Rand's books, especially The Fountainhead, when I was in high school when it fitted my most intense years of self-involvement and juvenile foolishness, but luckily I had a personality that actually wanted to be around people because I valued a sense of community and ideas not my own: a stronger sense of a greater good in a generalized democratic framework seemed a more natural development , emotionally and intellectually, than the coarse outline Rand and her cement-cast prose offered on her best and sunniest day.
I grew out of Rand's egocentric rantings. I became an adult. I also read better novelists.
What do you think Rand would have made of Tim McVeigh?
Rand would call him a "patriot": from everything I've been able to discern from his statements, McVeigh, like Roark, thought the justness of cause so great that lives and property were of no consequence as long as the blow against the State and its' collectivizing institutions was forcefully delivered. Radians might argue that Roark took appear ant measures to ensure that no one was at the site before he destroyed his defiled housing project, but the psychology is the same, still.
Though professing freedom for all, Rand was effectively a social-Darwinist where a form of natural selection would winnow out less hardy member of the race --at least to the extent that they are socially neutralized from positions of power and influence--and leave the world to be administered and molded by her particular cadre of industrial geniuses and toadying technocrats. An exclusive club.
Marx was nominally against elitism and privilege, but he thought that the traits would vanish, made historically useless -- incapable of reproducing themselves as culturally cultivated habits -- only after a proper sequence in the dialectical mode of history had completed its violent transition. Seeing that man was capable of perceiving the precise set of economic and historical conditions that have made capitalism a seemingly entrenched and intractable force that virtually controlled the way the world is perceived, he thought it necessary to have an enlightened, committed few to dedicate their lives and their wills to the mobilizing of the masses: this was the work of a specific kind of person, and the thinking, perversely similar to those of Rands' final vision of her preferred social realm, was that it will take the few to lead the many to an ultimate End of History.
Marx’s' ideas of historical process, resulting ideally in a workers' paradise where humans are returned to their natural state, free of any constraints or concentrated power that exploits them, mirrors more than one set of religious mythology, unavoidable, perhaps, yet ironic given his insistence that his interpretation of history was the result of discovering "scientific laws." Only his "heaven" was earthly, and like End Days, the arrival of the revolution is always deferred, conditioned by some hazy "law" or condition that had yet to express itself in a manner conducive to a furthering of final justice. In the meantime, which is forever in Communist States, the select cadres who slowly marshal transition to a final withering away of the state remain in place. Intractable, elite. Until they're thrown out by oppressed populations who realize that they've no real use for the Stalins, or the Rands of history.
This is thinking that mistakes passionately expressed notions of how one wants the world to be with how the world actually is: its the tragic flow in this line of thought that assumes that big, loud, deadly gestures are only a symbolism that can wake every one else up to their erring ways and compel the population to a state of alert and vigilant correctness.
Charlie Manson thought much the same way when he and his tribe committed the Tate/LiBianca murders in the 60s, delusional thinking that this would start a revolution and race way after which Charlie and crew would emerge as the leaders of the new order.
Roark, with his thinking carried just a few paces further, would have been a McVeigh, leading more violent acts against anti-individualist institutions.
Rand seems to think that Roark wouldn't have a problem getting away with the outrages: in her fantasy, Roark admits crime, gives a glib summary of his world view, and is acquitted.
There is not a single line in any of her books that I know of that glorifies mass murder in any way, shape, or form.
Not mass murder, per se, but the fact that Howard Roark blows up a public housing project he designed in Fountainhead because his proprietary rights were trifled with by collectivist charity-mongers is a sure sign that she advocated violence of what she would rationalize as a "principled" sort it such acts can reveal the evil of government and all charitable schemes to an awakening world. The poor, whom this housing development would have benefited, are of no concern here.
Rand's interest in the novel are Roark's petty ego mania and how it's a perfectly rationale act for to utilize high powered explosives so he can feel good about itself. Following suit, I think she would have answered as I indicated had she been asked her opinion of McVeigh , his act, and his reasoning, albeit it's plausible that she might have chided him for being messier than he needed to. But I think she would have regarded him a great man, her kind of guy.
Wednesday, May 23, 2007
Monday, May 21, 2007
Their first album, Moby Grape, is on generally considered one of the best albums done by a Sixties American band, and with good reason, but I've a soft spot for their sophomore effort, the much maligned Wow. It certainly deserved some of the critical slamming it received when it was released in 1968, as the band and producer had a batch of solid songs they wanted to gussy up, festoon and otherwise psychedisize in the trend of over-produced pop wrought by Pet Sounds and Sgt.Pepper. Large parts are made literally unlistenable--at the time of release, the band killed the "newstolgia" fad of the period that not only had one song written and performed in the 20's style, but which also required the poor stoner to get up and change the album speed from 33 and 1/3 to 78 rpm. The results were not amusing. Some songs come out unscathed, though, as with "Motorcycle Irene", "Murder in My Heart for the "Judge","Can't Be So Bad" . At heart a good bad fucked by drugs, ego, and mental illness, but what they had, briefly, was terrific talent. Jerry Miller was one of the best blues guitarist of the period, bittersweet and fluid in ways Mike Bloomfield never quite realized, Bob Mosely was a natural blues belter, and Skip Spence was an American Syd Barrett, fried before his time. Needless to say, I'm burning a disc of the best tracks and jettisoning the artsy remainders which are unsustainable and hopelessly junked up with effects.
Whatever Turns You On-- West Bruce and Laing
This is another cassette that's going to hit my trashcan soon. This is an grandiose, cluttered, sloppy,utterly phony release from good musicians who can't scratch up a good song between the three of them.Leslie West has his ringingly sweet guitar tone, Jack Bruce's bass work and keyboarding are busy as bees jacked on pollen, and Corky Laing, bless him, is one hell of a good rock drummer. An exception is the song "Token", which manages to be both arty and rocking all at once--power chords against a mystery time signature, nicely tensioned harmonies and verses from West and Bruce, a rousing riff out at the end. Power trios needn't be brain dead, as this track shows, but "Token" is also an aberration, for the genre and this band. It comes back to songwriting, as it always does; chops, vision, attitude, looks get you only so much credibility if the tunes are , say, underachieved.
The Photographer--Phillip Glass
From the svelte skronk of Zorn's Ornette tribute to the minimal meditations of Glass's impressions of a man trying to find out if a horse's feet all leave the ground at one time. Good stuff, on a re-listen. I had a girl friend in college who was given to sudden and intense love affairs with many a hip trend and avant garde mannerism, much of which has aged badly and is either in cold storage or ready for the next garage sale; The Photographer, though, has it's repetitive pleasures; it's not especially gripping at an emotional level, but the sheer rigor of Glass's pared formalism is compelling in the way that an idea , a concept, finds its situation and flourishes under the circumstances. This is the kind of stuff John Tesh would compose if he had a brain.
The Idiot--Iggy Pop
Confirmed. I didn't like this set of Bowie-produced mood music when it came out in the Seventies, and I like it less even now. Iggy isn't especially interesting when he's given to reflection, confession, or other poetic indulgences. Avenue A is a more recent example of the side of him that sends you running. Iggy talking about his feelings may be an occasional compulsion he gives into, but it's not something he's turned into art. Our boy is a reactor, an angry cuss, a fast wit, an in-the-moment realist, and he rocks.
Port of Call-- Cecil Taylor
Repackaged sessions from 1960-1961 released in the States on an economy lable called Past Perfect, this is a bit more comprehensible and, say, conservative than what Taylor and his bands are known for. An abstract heat still burns away , though, and there's great moments here; the ten minute piano deconstruction of "This Nearly Was Mine" keeps you guessing and anticipating where Taylor and his trio would take the Rodgers and Hammerstein chestnut, and "Things Aint What They Used to Be"is rethought a dozen different ways by Archie Shep and Steve Lacy.
Bear v Shark
a novel by Chris Bachelder
First time novelist Chris Bachelder scores big with his debut novel, and has produced the kind of post-modern satire that the over-praised and under-edited Jonathan Franzen strains for in his "Corrections" leviathan.
In the future, the televisions have no off switch, nor do they have remote controls, because technology has gotten to the point that television no longer influences the culture, but IS the culture. Reality and simulation melt together seamlessly, without a trace of resistance from the archetypal family whose path we follow as they prepare themselves for a Las Vegas vacation to witness the much hyped Media Event of Bear v. Shark. Bachelder keeps a straight face through out most of this short but punchy novel, and displays an ear for the way television cant infiltrates our daily speech, and invades our dream life. Scattered through out the book are a heap of fast and savage rips on Mass Mediated news, sports call-in shows, flouncy entertainment under which nothing substantial resides. In this world, experts in the guise of pundits, jocks, philosophers, and academics all feed a an uncountably intrusive technology that renders every distraction and disturbance into an entertainment value, to be used until a new contrived sequence of illusion can be set in place. Bachelder, demonstrating a brevity and incisive wit that trashes the claims made for the word-gorged "genius" of D.F. Wallace, writes surely, sharply, with his eye never off his target. Though he does, at times, resort to the sort of post-modernism stylistics and cliches, such as having the author step out from the story to deliver some self-aware discourse on the limits of narrative's capacity to represent the external world fully, completely -- he has a novel or two to go before the lit.critese is pounded out of him -- our author finally reveals a humane side underneath the smart language, and issues forth a funny yet serious warning about our habit of relinquishing our thinking and our capacity to live imaginatively over to the hands of data-drunk programmers.
Jim the Boy
by Tony Earley
Earle’s' rendering of a Perfect Past has it's attractions and charms, and is in many ways endearing, as long as the reader remembers that there was never a time in either their life or the life of anyone they know when such earnest happiness and satisfyingly extended good- will ruled the day. Suspension of disbelief is the best advice before perusing these pages. Early evokes the simple tale of a boy being raised by his mother and four uncles in such a poetically sustained way--sure language, spare cadences, a sharp ear for knowing when stop a description-- that you forgive the over ripe sentimentality that is at the heart of this book.
The success, I think, is in the author's ability to describe Jim's point of view in a straight forward manner, free of seeming authorial intrusion: Jim and the others, particularly the Uncles, emerge as credible characters, each with their particular character ticks and quirks. This set of relationships, balanced and relatively sober, almost makes up for the sheer mysticism that Earley wants to cast on rural South Carolina during the 30s. There is something subtly fake about this beguilingly transparent coming-of-age story, a Disney tale for the postmodern period, a reverse Alice Walker, a past that is re-assembled into a more perfect union. Needless to say, I'm ambivalent about the tale and the telling, but it is a tribute to Earley's art that his debut novel resonates as well as it does.
Poem by Ed Dorn
The late Ed Dorn wrote a masterpiece with "Gunslinger", an anti-epic poem that prefigures many post-modern gestures from its 60s era starting point. Funny, cartoonish, erudite to the extreme, it also locates a tuned lyricism in the Western vernaculars that Dorn uses: the metaphysical aspect of our legends, the sheer questing for answers as Euro-Americans come treading closer to a West coast that will stop them and force them to settle and create lives from dust and ingenuity, comes alive in way that never escapes the zaniness of Dorn's' narrating inquiry into the nature of the search.
Poems by Melanie Neilson
Melanie Neilson has a genius for tearing apart the suggested givens of an image, and then reassembling the details in ways that confound meaning. She gives a long look behind the set designs of our social construction, and inserts a heated zaniness into our negotiations with the normal. Her sense is visual, her language--exploded, elongated, twisted, resolutely reshaped---sensual and snaking with percolating pleasures.
Tough Guys Don’t Dance
a novel by Norman Mailer
Mailer had said that he wanted to write something fast, nasty and fun after the time and energy he lavished on two of brilliant and more ambitious projects, Ancient Evenings and Executioner's Song. Tough Guys Don't Dance is that book, in the tradition of Chandler, Hammett, Ross Macdonald. Tim Madden wakes up after a long life of wasting away as a binging alcoholic and finds his bed drenched in blood; later he finds his wife's severed head in a secret pot stash. He, however remembers none of it, and this provides Mailer ample room to ruminate about the metaphysics of hangovers and black outs and the perversions one finds themselves willing to commit when wealth and power are at stake. The cast of characters are unruly, pinched in the nerve and casting a faint whiff of what one imagines the store room where Dorian Gray's portrait was held in sick secrecy. Madden, hardly an innocent himself, stumbles and routs about trying to piece together the events of his last binge, terrified in the possibility that he might well be his wife's killer. Mailer's prose is breathtaking and poetic, and creates a tension with the gamy undertakings of the plot. This is not one of Mailer's masterworks, not be a long shot, but it has verve and drive and a splendidly sick wit, and it reminds us that Mailer can construct an odd tale and twist it in any direction he pleases.
Meet Me in the Parking Lot
stories by Alexandra Leggat
Flannery O'Connor, Russell Banks and Jersey Kozinzky meet for coffee , hash browns and small talk about psychic exile and the best sort of knife edge to hack through a bothersome bit of bone. Odd, disturbing, violent material here--violence either explicit or always at the edge of the crystallized situations here--all of which are made more jarring with Alexandra Leggat's taste for terse sentences and abrupt endings.
It works, for the most part,and the arc through the stories, life inside cars, on dark streets, side roads, parking lots behind anonymous bars, presents us with any number of dazed, abused and high strung women and rattled, crazed, raging men enacting any number of strange movements and quirks. At best, these stories are an adrenaline jolt, speaking truly to the sort of flash that gives one the urge to leap in front of traffic, to challenge immensity of grave and
Satan: His Psychotherapy and Cure by the Unfortunate Dr. Kassler, J.S.P.S.
A novel by Jeremy Leven
No one has ever done a subtler or a more devastating send up of the psychiatric/psychology industry, nor have many been able to insinuate sly philosophical digressions into a frothing satiric text with such grace and pacing. This satan, faceless, locking himself inside a computer in a public gallery, has the charm to coax a snake out of new skin. The complications are wonderfully wild and orchestrated, and Kassler's travails as a single dad trying to rekindle a relationship with his children are heart breaking as they are potently hilarious. I am in the league that lent his copy out, and I've been trying to replace it for years. This book needs to come back into print. Author Leven has given us one of the best structured, best written American comic novels, and its a disservice to the reading public to keep it out of print.
Sunday, May 20, 2007
Some nuggets regarding the subject of postmodernism and writing, surely a blast from the distant nineties when anyone could sound like a language philosopher around the time clock . It's my vanity to think that this is writing of some heft other than the volume of words; honestly, what I like was learning the art of conversation drift, that is, starting at one point with one idea, maybe two, and then letting the words drive through whatever neighborhood they felt like. It's my vanity here, but then again, it's my blog. Sometimes I just like to "hear myself write", as Duncan Shepard has remarked of Quintin Tarentino's dialogue.
"Isn’t ‘deconstruction’ an attempt to apply scientific principles to the analysis of language and what it implies? There is a lot of science-envy among the critics in the arts and humanities, and they’ve seemed to have latched on to the extrapolated language of anthropology and linguistics in order to keep their jobs. There is an effort, in the mission of literature departments, to continue to prove that there is stuff of quantifiable worth to be extracted from the study of novels and poems, and that they are in some way adding to the body of knowledge. Post-modernism, as a style, as an artistic impulse, as a habit of mind and gesture inevitable in an image-saturated time has cut-up, bricolage, pastiche, parody, and other sorts of archival hooliganism at its heart, and that the artist (writer) should use the images at hand, whatever their source, and give them free play and transgress boundaries, the notion remains that the impulse is, in fact, pre-modern, about ritual and mystery. The universe shrunk down to symbolic particulars that have a power to establish order in things that ultimately are not quantifiable by science or argument. Writing and literature are all veils, I would think: if anyone could get ‘IT’ with a piece of work, we would have to assume the writer and his audience are satisfied, sated, and are disinclined to hear the story again. But there is always another wrinkle to relate, another nuance to discover, another veil to be taken away.
This echoes Barthes’ idea of writing/writing as being an erotic function; that the end that one gets to at the end of the tale is not the point of the quest but the quest itself. The unveiling of language; the constant reassimilation that names for things are made to undergo as the nature of the material world defies literary form; it is the imagination that needs to work within the waking sphere, not the world that needs to fit within its contours. We find with reading that writers we care about themselves could care less about what kind they are supposed to be according to literary archivists; thus they will have stylistic extremes that venture into another camp away from what common knowledge dictates is their ‘native’ style or manner. Is Gravity’s Rainbow any less a work of ‘Magical Realism’ than what we’ve seen in Garcia Marquez or Borges? Is Nabokov’s work Pale Fire less postmodern than say Mulligan Stew?
It becomes a definitively moot point; irresolvable and subject to an unending detour that circles around the precise meaning of finally inconsequential terms. Imagination is a trait that will use any manner or style suitable for a writer’s project at hand and it ought not be surprising or upsetting that many writers assigned roles by career-making PhD candidates simply do what they need to do in order to get their work done. This gives us fascinating paradoxes: Norman Mailer by temperament a romantic existentialist who might have been in the late 19th century is one who took postmodern strategies to render his work. The range of his assumed styles and experimentation creates specific problems with literary historians who might be eager to be done with his books and his name. Somewhere so far as criticism has gone in the last half-century, a link was made with other discourses which made much of literary study something of a gawky laughing stock: not historians not scientists not psychologists not philosophers. The gamiest of theory wonks could prate on and onward on fields not their own keeping tenuous connections between their specialty fictional accounts of experience and real-time bathos and tragedy obscured with an ever-deepening reservoir of jargonized murk.
In the same sitting--a long sitting--I also caught up with Changing Lanes, thought it was a decent enough Hollywood "message" film, though it had the dopiest premise imaginable. It's not that I object to happy endings -- in this case, each of the characters played by Sam Jackson and Ben Affleck realize the exact nature of their wrongs and wind up doing the right thing by the world and themselves -- it's that I want the fictional solutions to seem fictionally plausible. The concentration of the events into one day snaps credulity, and while you're wondering whether this is an alternative universe where there are 76 hours to a day, the film drags way too much in key areas. Jackson and Affleck are both quite good here, but in the crush of the events that are eating our protagonists up, there is too much reflection, too much self examination, too much fortuitous circumstance for the characters to redeem themselves. Irony is fine, but Affleck's pragmatic do-gooding at the end is too much of stretch, theatrical without being dramatic. Like the film as a whole.
Saturday, May 19, 2007
Thursday, May 17, 2007
Tuesday, May 15, 2007
Sunday, May 13, 2007
I've no use for care-and-share poetry myself, and have made myself obnoxious in these parts for voicing the opinion more than once. I don't think, however, it's useful or even correct to assume that most people people you meet "... live in a sort of daze, content to live empty and meaningless lives."
There was a time when I thought living intensely and passionately was goal number one and that all else would just have to go by the sidelines while I fulfilled the requirements of my holy assignation, but finally, surviving the deaths of intimates, getting fired from jobs, sobering up, and cleaning up wholesale wreckage humbled me somewhat. Living at the edge of experience was over rated, I came to believe, and more often than not inspired a kind of redundantly exclamatory writing about awakening the senses, or an equally repetitive series of morose dwellings on addictions, tragic pasts, unending sadness. Glaring exhibitionism and constant melancholy didn't seem a desirable way to conduct my affairs, and certainly, in retrospect, made the poetry I was writing at the time, during the seventies and through the mid eighties, incoherent, choppy, self-pitying. The normal life, whatever that was, became more attractive, if only that I needed a relief from the burden of self and wanted to get involved in those matters that just baffled the shit out of me. Over time I found that there was an endless variety of life's condition in between the limited extremes I first held as constant and non-negotiable. What I found was that there were people among the dullards, the pretentious, pompous and just plain phony who had very interesting lives, who were doing good and creative things in their world, who had a nuanced view on what life had them. They were having infinitely more interesting experiences than I was as a gloomy Gus. The onus was on me, the poet, to "wake up" and become a witness to what was actually out there, beyond my opinions and set pieces.
It's presumptuous to assume that you have an accurate read on the inner life of each and every person you meet during the day, and it's best to back off this kind of thinking. It gets in the way of your ability to be a witness to experience.The poets I like have to be good writers, first and foremost, no matter what their work looks like on the page. There are many writers whose works are stunning to look at as a kind of typographical art, but reading them winds up being an insufferable experience, unpleasant not so much because the poems are difficult but because the writing is just plain awful, being either willfully obscure to disguise a lack of real feeling toward their experience, or, most typically , for exhibiting an inane, unoriginal and cliché choked sensibility that would never have gotten out of a junior college poetry workshop.In either case, the visual look of a poem is a distraction from the mediocrity of the piece being read. Good writing always matters, and there are many, many wonderful poets whose works have an originality achieved through a mastery of language that fortunately leads us away from the nagging dread that a tactless and unschooled savant garde has completely overtaken the conversation.Good poets must be concerned with language,I think, since that is the stock and trade of the art. Language made fresh, reinvigorated, reinvented-- I have no arguments with anyone who earnestly attempts to make language convey experience, ideas, emotion, or even the lack of emotion, in ways and with techniques that keeps poetry and poetic language relevant to the contemporary world, the one that's currently lived in, but there is a tendency for a good many young poets , fresh from writing programs, to repeat the least interesting ideas and execution of their professors and to make their work obsess about language itself, as a subject.The concern, boiled down crudely, is that language is exhausted in its ability to express something fresh from a Imperialist/patriarchal/racist/individualist perspective, and the only thing that earnest writers can do is to foreground language as their subject matter and investigate the ways in which proscribed rhetoric has seduced us and made our work only reinforce the machinery that enslaves us. This kind of stuff appeals to the idealist who hasn't had enough living, not enough bad luck, not enough frustration or joy to really have anything to write about, in large part (an grotesque generalization, I know), and it's easy for someone to eschew the work of absorbing good poetry -- Shakespeare, Stevens, Whitman, Milton, Blake, O'Hara-- or learning something of the craft and instead poise their work in non sequiters , fragments, clichés, sparsely buttressed inanities, framed , usually, in typographical eccentricities that are supposed to make us aware of the horrific truth of language's ability to enslave us to perceptions that serve capitalist and like minded pigs.More often, this sort of meta-poetry, this experimental notion that makes a grinding self-reflexivity the point of the work, reveals laziness and sloth and basic ignorance of the notion of inspiration-- the moment when one's perceptions and one's techniques merge and result in some lines, some honest work that cuts through the static thinking and makes us see the world in way we hadn't before.I speak, of course, of only a certain kind of avant garde; one I endured in college and have since survived when I found my own voice and began to write what I think is an honest poetry. With any luck, some of these writers will stop insisting on trying to be smarter and more sensitive than their readership and begin to write something that comes to resemble a real poetry that's fresh and alluring for its lack of airs. Others might do us a favor and get real jobs. Others, I think, will continue to be professional poets as long as there is grant money to be had, and will continue in their own destruction of forest land.
Saturday, May 12, 2007
The Sopranos is now down to four remaining episodes yet unseen, and the speculation about the cognoscenti , given the pending demise of Tony Soprano's reign as Boss, is who might come after him, continue the business, so to speak. It's a slippery slope,
but one wonders if this New Jersey enterprise will stay a Soprano-helmed concern. What about Anthony Jr.?We've already had a taste of AJ acting like a made man a couple of seasons back when he was organizer enormous parties for under aged drinkers; in one scene he and an associate told some guys who got into a party without paying to pay up, and when told to buzz off, kicked the collective of the deadbeats. AJ seems like a young man who only really gets motivated when he's excited about something, whether that means being in love or punishing those who owe him money. Given how unsatisfactory straight life has been for him, he'll find it easy enough to continue the sins of his father as his father continued the sins of his pater familias. It's a big apple tree with very short branches. If AJ became the next boss, after various time spent in the earner's trenches, he would likely find that would inherit more than a business from his Dad; a generation of conniving and resentment comes with the job description.
What Tony has had to contend with since he became boss, more about protecting his position as Boss against various challenges and less about extending the mob's clutches into other scams. But then his is not a business as anyone understands capitalist instinct, that profit and the bottom line matter more than strong senses of entitlement. In the real business life, ventures run on a third of the collective, mendacious vanity of mob culture would go out of business(sans the violence). for all the talk among the bosses and the captains and various members of the crew about being better "earners", grotesquely distorted feelings of entitlement , envy, resentment and a general lack of seeing beyond the demands of their primal wants undermines all efforts to conduct this enterprise like it had a rational purpose. It's fitting, perhaps, since what they make money on are the libidinous appetites of a those willing to pay for access to illegal vices and wares--gambling, prostitution, drugs, boosted dry goods-- and that the disinterested stance needed by a merchant who refrains from sampling their product is not Tony's nor his crew's quality to posess. Dispite a hundred forms of denial,rationalization and excuse making about themselves and what they're doing in The Life, they fall victims to their own wares, gambling, drugs, whoring and the lot, and exist in a perpetual state of impulsive action. What I find riveting here is that the truth of The Life and the unvarnished facts of Tony Soprano's realm is being bluntly exposed. His years of trying to live on both sides of the fence are taking their toll, and it's the truth that he will find unacceptable on any terms other than in madness and death, like Lear.
Friday, May 11, 2007
Carey Bell, a Chicago blues harp master who's snappy phrases and soulful tone were among the influences that kept me playing the harmonica, has passed on. A mere seventy years of age, one is grateful that he's well represented by quality studio work. More than anyone else I listened to when I was woodshedding, Bell's rhythm and blues flavored style taught me the importance of "punching it" on the microphone; each note had to land like a fist and be light as a dollar caught in a Michigan Avenue wind. Seek out this man's harmonica work. He was amazing.
Tuesday, May 8, 2007
Sometimes you read things that rub you the wrong way, the way wet clay clumps in the hair.I think both the cows and the old woman with the goiter should take turns slapping Erica Levy McAlpine's for defaming them by inclusion in a dumfoundingly tacky poem. McAlpine perhaps wanted to see fast she could over extend the equpoised parts of a what should be a brief comparsion, or perhaps she wanted to parody a bad writer's habit of trying to write himself out of a bad idea by getting prolix and posied, but the result all the same instills nausea, as peering too close and long at something is prone to do. This is not a compliment. The title is fitting; this is not a poem, it's a growth.