Friday, March 31, 2006

The Brooklyn Follies, Paul Auster

In my recent semi-stupor, I did manage to finish one book: Paul Auster's latest novel, The Brooklyn Follies. Continuing in the vein of much of his recent work, Auster populates this novel with many mini-stories, from minor characters' back-stories to self-contained, colorful anecdotes told by one character to another, many hinting at larger stories or seemingly crying out to be told in full. But Auster doesn't satisfy the desire he builds up in the reader for stories to be "finished". Actually, he comes closer in The Brooklyn Follies to resolving, so to speak, the central story, but any number of other stories are left unresolved.

This tendency was even more pronounced in his previous novel, Oracle Night. Auster frustrates the readerly desire for some measure of resolution. I felt this frustration (a common enough response to the novel), but well remembered the compulsion to read. Some time ago I read one of those reviews that managed to encapsulate my own unarticulated thoughts on Auster. This was Steve Mitchelmore's review of Oracle Night. For me, the key passage in the review is this:
I don't want to summarise the plot here as it is characteristically involved and would also detract from the essential element of Auster's novels. The essential thing is something impossible to convey outside of the narrative itself: the evocation of possibility. At each step in the story - when Orr enters the stationery store to discover the blue notebook, when he returns to his writing den, when he begins to write the story in the blue notebook as if compelled by an occult power, and when, in the story within the story, the character makes a life-changing decision - there is a thrilling, uncanny sense of freedom. I mean, for the reader. A freedom in infinite possibility; innumerable futures present themselves. I have not experienced this so acutely with any other writer.
"The evocation of possibility": this is exactly what is so compelling about Auster. With any novel, there is the theoretical truth that "anything is possible", but Auster's fiction seems to embody this idea. At any turn, anything seems possible in the narrative--including the dashing of readerly expectations, even those built up by the ongoing narrative itself. In his recent fiction, the last three novels, say (these two and The Book of Illusion), Auster has also been exploring the possibilities of storytelling as a human endeavor. Each of these books is filled, as mentioned, with many smaller stories. The compulsion to read is not that compulsion one feels in plot-heavy novels, though it is a narrative compulsion. The freedom to be open to anything that may come and to allow for, as a reader, the non-resolution, the non-satisfaction of any given narrative thread.

Later in his review, Mitchelmore writes "When you pick up a novel you become a reader, not a consumer." I think when I was beginning to read, to read literature, I didn't really approach novels as a reader. I surely meant to, I thought I was, but I was young and impatient. I would consume the novels I acquired, checking each one off of some imaginary list in my head. Ok, I would say to myself, I've read that. My dissatisfaction, not necessarily with any given novel or novels, but with my own reading experiences, my own attentiveness, has spurred me to try to be a better reader, to read. (It remains an open question how well I've accomplished this. And I am reminded here of William H. Gass in his wonderful introduction to The Recognitions: "'At last I understand Kafka' is a foolish and conceited remark.") Auster's style lends itself to the reader consuming his books; they are indeed "supremely readable", in Mitchelmore's words. In The Brooklyn Follies, Auster's language is piled high with cliché--his narrator is someone in whom the excessive use of cliché seems natural and appropriate. It's almost a bit much. Yet I read on. Once again, as in Oracle Night, the narrator, having gone to Brooklyn "looking for a quiet place to die", effectively returns to life, re-embraces life, in part through the telling of stories. I think the novel emphasizes this through the many other stories it tells, the narrator involving himself in the ongoing stories of the other characters. I don't want to give away the ending, but I found it surprisingly moving.


Thursday, March 30, 2006

They Don't See

I've been out of commission for a little bit, but here are a couple of links related to class.

First, jane's brilliant evisceration of this New York Times article about the French labor battles.
• The current issue does not concern some abstracted feeling that one is secure in one's job, a vague sensation that makes the cherries taste sweeter. Everyone (including the Times) admits that it is exactly and specifically the protection from unfair termination that allows workers to have any say in their own labor conditions — both now and in the future. The CPE (the law against which the current strikes are set) is part of an explicit removal of this protection, and thus a crippling blow to the possibility of any postive changes for laborers.

• The current unrest is part of a larger historical moment, which includes last autumn's riots in France no more more [sic] than the current debate about immigration and "guest-workers" in the United States — a moment in which the terms of the relationships between the enfranchised and the disenfranchised are being restructured. Each seemingly individual and local skirmish takes its place within an increasingly global confrontation; the rendering of any given struggle as irrelevant or insubstantial serves particular ends.


We are not suggesting these events are the beginnings of a revolution; likely, they will turn out to have been a systemic adjustment of labor relations as late capitalism seeks out a sleeker body to march across continents. But we remember well that no overturning comes from a single moment of athletic heroism. If the histories of the 1760s in the American colonies, the 1780s in France, the 1940s in India, or the 1980s in the Soviet bloc teach us anything, it is that — even as onlookers inevitably remark on their pointlessness — there must be quite a bit of calisthenics in the public square before any great weights are lifted, or thrown down.

And, a nice interview at Dollars & Sense with Lani Guinier on "meritocracy", which includes this little history lesson:
In Arkansas in 1957 whites rioted as Central High School in Little Rock was desegregated by nine carefully-chosen middle-class black students. The rage and hate on people's faces was broadcast on national television and President Eisenhower had to send in the National Guard to ensure that blacks could get an education. What most people don't know is that at same time as the leaders of city of Little Rock planned the desegregation of Central High, they built and opened a new high school located in area where the sons and daughters of the doctors and lawyers lived.

Blacks were coming in at the same time that upper class whites were exiting and this was part of what provoked the intense backlash; there was the sense among the working class whites who remained that their chances for upward mobility were lost because they could no longer fraternize with the middle and upper class. Previously, there were only two high schools in Little Rock, one white and one black. So Central High was segregated by race and integrated by class. Now Central was integrated by race and segregated by class.

Beth Roy did interviews with white graduates of Central High thirty years later [for her book Bitters in the Honey] and determined that many of them still blame blacks for the failure of themselves and their children to gain a secure toehold in a middle class lifestyle. They think that the American Dream owed them individual opportunity through its promise that if you work hard and play by the rules you will succeed. The problem with the American Dream is that it offers no explanation for failure other than that you deserve your lot in life and that if you fail there must be something wrong with you. Many people are perfectly willing to believe that success is individual but don't want to think about failure as individual and no one wants to believe that they deserve to fail. So they find a scapegoat and blacks were an easy scapegoat in this case. Even thirty years later, the white graduates of Central High claimed that blacks stole the American Dream.

While the integration of Central was hyper-visible, the building of Hall High was kept under wraps--most people still don't know about it. Wealthier whites were able to get away with building Hall High because blacks were used as a scapegoat.
Link via Bitch PhD, via BlackFeminism.


Thursday, March 23, 2006

Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler

I've just finished reading my first Octavia Butler novel, Parable of the Sower. It won't be my last.

I'd been interested in Butler for a little while, decided she was someone I wanted to read when I leafed through a copy of Kindred at a bookstore. Unfortunately, I didn't get to her before her recent untimely death. The other day I saw Parable of the Sower among my fiancée's pile of cheap-and-in-poor-shape mass-market paperbacks (incidentally, I don't care what anybody says, mass-market paperbacks suck). She was afraid I would find it heavy-handed. Happily, I did not. On the contrary, I found it riveting and unexpectedly moving.

The story takes place in an all too plausible near-future, the years 2024 to 2027, when American society has pretty much collapsed into chaos, with walled-in neighborhoods, besieged communities, roving bands of homeless people, slavery, widespread violence, fire. Our narrator is Lauren, a teen-age girl who is a "sharer", who feels the pain of others, and who is developing a new religion of sorts, Earthseed ("God is Change"). The Earthseed stuff, frankly, didn't interest me much, except insofar as it served as a unifying factor, but it wasn't off-putting, either. Anyway, in the form of a journal, in a spare, effective prose, Lauren tells us about her family's life, and life on the run when her neighborhood is destroyed. We don't learn much about how things got this way, but the world she describes is vivid and frightening.

There were a lot of nice tributes to Butler when she died; I am linking to Steven Shaviro's over at The Pinocchio Theory, where he says, in part:
Butler’s novels are downbeat, pessimistic, and utterly gripping. They all deal, in various ways, with issues of otherness, pain, and dependency; as well as, obviously, with race and gender, and racism and misogyny. They are never didactic, however, because they are as deeply concerned with affect as they are with cognition: the two simply can’t be separated in Butler’s world. These novels offer little hope of release, transcendence, or liberation. They sometimes flirt with religio-ethical responses in various ways, but they always also emphasize the fictiveness of such responses.
I link to this because it's interesting, and also because of one of the comments, by one Carl Freedman:
The one point where I somewhat disagree with Steve is the emphasis he puts on Butler’s pessimism. The downbeat elements that Steve locates in Butler’s fiction are certainly there, but are not, perhaps, the whole story. Though I have some quibbles with Tom Moylan’s terminology, I think he is essentially right to see Butler as an author of *critical* dystopias, that is, of works that maintain a rigorously bleak vision without altogether surrendering utopian hope.
I agree with this when it comes to this novel--the landscape is brutal, society unforgiving, violent, bleak. But, Lauren and her band of survivors finally commit themselves to building something, starting somewhere. The book doesn't end on a shiny, happy note, to be sure, but it is hopeful.

I look forward to investigating the rest of Butler's fiction.


Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Playing at Debate

I've only now read Francis Fukuyama's recent Times essay (adapted from his new book), which first appeared February 19, in which he admits that things aren't going so well in Iraq. It's quite comical. Or would be, if this didn't represent what passes for debate and discussion in this country.

Once again on point is Joshua Clover at his routinely excellent blog, jane dark's sugarhigh!:
Alas, Fukuyama's blinders aren't off so much as optimized. He is still searching for a successful strategy for American hegemony; he's just come to realize that a somewhat higher competence level may be required. A world in which this brings comfort to anyone of conscience is tragic to say the least.
Indeed. I am reminded of John Kerry's content-free run for the presidency, and the widespread inability to notice what his actual positions amounted to. Later, Clover addresses Fukuyama's survey in Slate of books about Europe & Radical Islam, in which, in passing, Fukuyama ascribes the riots in France last year to "radical Islamism (aka 'the war on terrorism')", refusing to see (being constitutionally unable to see) the class conflict:
What the rioters had in common was, in ascending order of commonality, a) varying tones of darker-colored-than-Sarkozy skin, b) a history of being actively and passively brutalized by governmental agents, most notably cops with batons, tasers, and guns, and c) disenfranchisement.

To not see this is to see nothing
. One wonders if Mr. Fukuyama is able to present the current unrest by poor and disenfranchised French youth as similarly linked to "radical Islamism," or if, in what may be an even greater achievement in magical thinking, he finds this wave to be unrelated and only coincidentally similar. Unable to see, much less speak, the obvious, these are his choices — and ours. Which is to say that, as an intelligent and informed person with the apparent capacity to open and change his mind, Fukuyama is the America we would like to believe in. But with his hysterical inability to mention social relations, social class, and the transnational, transreligious confrontation between the wealthy and the disenfranchised, Fukuyama is the America we know, in which any story can be told as long as it doesn't mention those niceties. In that regard, Fukuyama clings to to the murderous blindness of the New American Century as dogmatically any of his colleagues, while playing at debate — a farce indeed.
I've never paid much attention to Fukuyama (anyone who could publish something with the premise of The End of History with a straight face hardly seemed serious to me), but he's obviously influential in certain circles and, besides, quite typical of American public discourse. His is the sort of mainstream bilge one must filter through and combat when trying to discuss these matters with real people. Back to the Times piece; these are the second and third paragraphs:
The so-called Bush Doctrine that set the framework for the administration's first term is now in shambles. The doctrine (elaborated, among other places, in the 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States) argued that, in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, America would have to launch periodic preventive wars to defend itself against rogue states and terrorists with weapons of mass destruction; that it would do this alone, if necessary; and that it would work to democratize the greater Middle East as a long-term solution to the terrorist problem. But successful pre-emption depends on the ability to predict the future accurately and on good intelligence, which was not forthcoming, while America's perceived unilateralism has isolated it as never before. It is not surprising that in its second term, the administration has been distancing itself from these policies and is in the process of rewriting the National Security Strategy document.

But it is the idealistic effort to use American power to promote democracy and human rights abroad that may suffer the greatest setback. Perceived failure in Iraq has restored the authority of foreign policy "realists" in the tradition of Henry Kissinger. Already there is a host of books and articles decrying America's naïve Wilsonianism and attacking the notion of trying to democratize the world. The administration's second-term efforts to push for greater Middle Eastern democracy, introduced with the soaring rhetoric of Bush's second Inaugural Address, have borne very problematic fruits. The Islamist Muslim Brotherhood made a strong showing in Egypt's parliamentary elections in November and December. While the holding of elections in Iraq this past December was an achievement in itself, the vote led to the ascendance of a Shiite bloc with close ties to Iran (following on the election of the conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president of Iran in June). But the clincher was the decisive Hamas victory in the Palestinian election last month, which brought to power a movement overtly dedicated to the destruction of Israel. In his second inaugural, Bush said that "America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one," but the charge will be made with increasing frequency that the Bush administration made a big mistake when it stirred the pot, and that the United States would have done better to stick by its traditional authoritarian friends in the Middle East. Indeed, the effort to promote democracy around the world has been attacked as an illegitimate activity both by people on the left like Jeffrey Sachs and by traditional conservatives like Pat Buchanan.
The sheer quantity of nonsense packed into these paragraphs, and throughout the essay, is astounding, or would be, again, if they weren't standard issue. The throwaway rehearsal of the thoroughly discredited notion that "good intelligence" "was not forthcoming" in the run-up to the war in Iraq. The repeated references to "idealistic efforts . . .to promote democracy and human rights abroad"--presumably Fukuyama actually believes this, or else his head would explode from the cognitive dissonance. Of course, he's hardly alone. The remainder of the essay discusses in general, in a parallel universe sort of way, the legacies of neo-conservatism and the Cold War. Neo-con fantasies about their alleged "concern with democracy, human rights" and the use of American power for "moral purposes". Fukuyama reflects the sad truth that Americans across the political spectrum, such as it is, accept the basic idea that America's role in the world is essentially positive, or, more to the point, well-intentioned, that it would be a "benevolent hegemon", if hegemon it need be. I recall several conversations prior to the war, with people, intelligent people, who strongly opposed it, but who nonetheless thought that the topic of whether the United States ought to act as "the world's policeman" was valid, that the terms under which that discussion invariably takes place are coherent.

Elsewhere in the piece, Fukuyama cites a Pew poll, which reports that "the percentage of Americans saying that the United States 'should mind its own business' has never been higher since the end of the Vietnam War." This "should mind its own business" is symptomatic of a basic ignorance informing general American attitudes, from right to "left". Americans see the "problems in the Middle East" as somebody else's, so completely ignorant of history are we, so completely ignorant of the basic purposes of American foreign policy, of American might as an instrument of American capital. For as long as we maintain this kind of comprehensive failure to see, we will never understand what's going on, never understand why there continues to be unrest in certain mysteriously perpetual "problem spots". Similarly, as I was perhaps overly fond of pointing out at the time, anti-war folks who displayed those "War Is NOT the Answer" signs didn't understand what the fucking question was.


Thursday, March 16, 2006

Reading Rilke

Certainly not to be confused with the William H. Gass book of the same name.

No, I'm referring to my reading selection for the wedding, from Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet:
It is ...good to love: because love is difficult. For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation.... Loving does not at first mean merging, surrendering, and uniting with another person... it is a high inducement for the individual to ripen, to become something in himself, to become world, to become world in himself for the sake of another person; it is a great, demanding claim on him, something that chooses him and calls him to vast distances.
Alas, I must admit that I selected this passage out of one those wedding readings books. I have read neither the Rilke nor the Gass. Gass is, however, one of my favorite writers and certainly my favorite critic (admittedly the latter honor is largely by default, since I've not read much real criticism and have read three of Gass' books of essays).

Related: an excellent post over at CultureSpace on Gass' new collection of essays, A Temple of Texts:
...the distinctions that most interest me in this wide-ranging, opulent book are the ones Gass draws in the opening essay about the importance of literary classics. Having picked up A Temple of Texts not long after I brought home The Idiot, I began to think not only about the reasons we read Dostoevsky, but how we think about classics in the first place. I have long become bored with the tired, old arguments about the literary canon, about which books and authors are deemed essential. "Classics," Gass writes, "are by popular accord quite old and therefore out of date; while by the resentful they are representatives only of the errors of their age, their lines sewn always on the bias, their authors willing tools of power and privilege....

Gass...beautifully and cogently elucidates why classics matter.

I'm looking forward to reading this book. I'm also interested in Reading Rilke; I had been wary of it, mainly because I've never read Rilke's poetry, and, for that matter, am not a good reader of poetry. But, the book's subtitle, Reflections on the Problems of Translation, clinches it for me. I'm fascinated by translation questions, particularly as worked through by a writer the caliber of Gass.

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Miles Davis, Dark Prince of Rock

Bud Parr on Miles Davis' induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame:
It took me a while to warm up to Davis's electric music, but “Bitches Brew” is worth letting your ears forget what they thought jazz was supposed to sound like .... But it would seem that “Bitches Brew” is the sort of thing that gives the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame the license to call Davis a “rock star"
I'd also read Ben Ratliff's ok New York Times piece on Davis, in which he asserts:
You could call his albums "Bitches Brew" and "Live-Evil" rock by extension — especially in this context, because [James] Brown, the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Sly and the Family Stone have already been inducted into the hall. And the album "A Tribute to Jack Johnson" from 1970 even more so.
And says:
But if he wanted more of his music to sound like rock, he meant its sound: the volume, the riff, the electric guitar and bass, the back beat.
It's not clear what this means. If it "sounds like" rock, then presumably it is rock.

I find this, from the Hall of Fame's site itself (and quoted by Bud) bizarre:
His induction as a performer into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a subtler and less obvious matter. Davis never played rock or rhythm & blues, though he experimented with funk grooves on 1972’s On the Corner and in some of his later bands.

I'm listening to Tribute to Jack Johnson right now. Guys, it fucking rocks. This insistence that his early 70s music was not rock seems more than little weird to me. It's easy to criticize jazz purists for not getting it, that Miles' electric music is just as valid as his wonderful acoustic music. In the same sense, we need to expand our definition of rock. I mean, are we now saying that funk is not rock? Funk is most assuredly rock. And if nothing else these early 70s records are a seriously hard, dark funk, a point, indeed, that everyone seems to agree on. Also, no, he was not inducted as an "influence", as the Hall blurb points out, nevertheless this period has been a major influence on all kinds of out rock and other sub-genres since. (Incidentally, about 18-20 minutes into the first track on Jack Johnson, "Right Off", begins a stretch that reminds me a lot of Faust. Specifically "No Harm" from So Far. I submit that "Krautrock" is also still rock. Not that Faust is going to be inducted to the esteemed Hall any time soon.)

The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is pretty silly, for a variety of reasons. But, I think there's no question that these Miles Davis records are rock.

See also Julian Cope, from 2001, on the electric period (specifically the excellent Get Up With It, Dark Magus, Agartha, and Pangaea records).


Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Matthew Shipp

By the way, the next song to play, after last night's rundown, was the title track from Matthew Shipp's Pastoral Composure, which is as good a reason as any to link to Carl Wilson's nice recent profile of Shipp.

Pastoral Composure was the first Shipp cd I bought, but not only that, it was my entry point into the vast underbelly of modern jazz. Released in 2000 on Thirsty Ear, it was Shipp's first album as curator of the Blue Series, which sought to look to a jazz future, by re-connecting with its past as well as by interacting with more modern musics, such as electronic music and hip hop. This first record was a fairly conservative one, or at any rate, was easily accessible as jazz to someone new to the music in its modern forms.

I'd listened to plenty of jazz--my favorites were the old stand-bys Miles Davis and John Coltrane, Mingus, Monk, and I was fairly familiar with the hard bop of Horace Silver, Art Blakey, and the young Wayne Shorter--but I was not interested in the jazz of Wynton Marsalis and many of the other mainstream "stars" (many of whom are plenty talented, of course, but the music generally does not appeal to me). I'm not terribly adept at describing the sound and structure of music, but Pastoral Composure's opening track, "Gesture", with its big, blocky chords, Gerald Cleaver's semi-martial drumbeat, and William Parkr's bowed bass throb had me hooked, even before Roy Campbell's plaintive trumpet comes in. This record opened up whole new areas of music for me. I consulted my trusty Penguin Guide to Jazz (which, aside from being an excellent guide, is a great read--I've spent many an hour poring over its pages, not just coveting this or that recording, but also just wanting to hear what everything sounded like; I have the fifth edition) to see what other recordings in this vein might be worth checking out. I was led to the David S. Ware Quartet and William Parker cds and later Joe McPhee and Ken Vandermark. I soon became obsessed with following leads, finding cds on hard to find European labels like Hat Hut and FMP, small American labels like AUM Fidelity and Okkadisk, loved Atavistic's Unheard Music Series (this is how I found out about the great Joe McPhee, I now recall), became interested in the history of the music, beyond what I already knew (late Coltrane, Ornette Coleman), delved deeper into 1960s free bop, the more interesting offshoot of hard bop, finding great recordings by Eric Dolphy, Andrew Hill, the ESP stuff, Albert Ayler, Paul Bley. Anthony Braxton. I got into some of the English and European free players--Brötzmann, Evan Parker, Han Bennink. My general (perhaps unfortunate) completist tendency met its match with this music. It is not possible to keep up. Records go in and out of print, much of it is unavailable in the US to begin with, I'd snap cds up if I saw them, knowing I might not see them again. My jazz collection and appreciation exploded. I subscribed to Cadence. I was finally able to catch some of this stuff live--Other Dimensions in Music playing with Joe McPhee in New Jersey, the Vandermark 5 in Chicago at the Empty Bottle, McPhee and Jeb Bishop the next day at the Candlestick Maker, the Chicago Underground Duo, the Ellery Eskelin Trio.

As might have been expected, exhaustion set in. After about four years of it, I lost interest in closely following the music. I didn't lose interest in the music itself, but I'd hit a wall (partly financial, to be sure), and I couldn't do it any more. The only musicians I currently keep semi-abreast of are William Parker, Joe McPhee, and Anthony Braxton. Braxton has such a huge discography that I could keep myself occupied with him for years if I so chose.

With the Blue Series, for a while I was really into it. I wanted to keep up, to hear all the different permutations. I loved the Spring Hill Jack cds, especially the first one. I think it was with DJ Spooky's Optometry that I started to stray. That album was not bad, but it lacked something, something hard to pin down. I had no interest in the Anti-Pop Consortium stuff. Then I just lost track. As for Shipp himself, I strongly disliked Nu Bop, felt it was too much of an exercise, that it never took off. But, Equilibrium was much better, I thought it sounded like a new thing, with a nice use of vibes along with Shipp's, in this case, funky piano.

Ultimately, the problem was me, a lack of time, of money, too many other musical interests taking attention away; I've let my subscription to Cadence lapse. But there's also a lot to take in--and this music, with, at its best and most interesting, its innate eclecticism helped shape my ears further, opening up vistas of new sounds for me, I think. I rather liked Equilibrium, but I haven't bought anything by Shipp since. Wilson's piece makes me want to find 2004's Harmony and Abyss.


Monday, March 13, 2006

iPod rundown - 03/12/06

Do I post these just so I can show off how cool I think I am, how eclectic my taste in music is? Perhaps I just want to knock the Barry Bonds post off the top spot. It's not like anyone's looking at this yet anyway.

I do have some other posts in the works, but until I get around to doing them...

I was at the gym in the evening and listened to the following (still working the indefinite shuffle):

1279. Ghost - "Feed"
1280. June of 44 - "Mindel"
1281. Latin Playboys - "Pink Steps"
1282. Missy Elliott - "Dog In Heat"
1283. Dälek - "Voices of the Ether"
1284. Wilco - "War on War"
1285. Kwanjai Kalasin Yuk - "Auk Pee Deh Bun Mai Terng"
1286. Six Organs of Admittance - "School of the Flower"
1287. The Red Krayola - "Green of My Pants"
1288. Low - "Closer"
1289. Basement Jaxx - "Being With U"
1290. Herbie Hancock - "Rain Dance"
1291. Beyoncé - "Naughty Girl"
1292. Pet Shop Boys - "It's Alright"
1293. Amerie - "1 Thing"

1279: Hypnotic Underworld is an excellent album. I'd ended my commute home halfway through this song. Didn't bother beginning it again--it's just as well, the second half of it is much better for working the stairmaster than is the quiet first half.

1280: I got into Slint and their followers several years late and spent a lot of time picking through the back catalogs of several related bands. Much of it sort of runs together, but I have a soft spot for it, in general, as a music of possibility. June of 44 rocks, and this is one of the better early tracks, from Engine Takes to the Water.

1281: I love the Latin Playboys record, but this short, quiet song is not good workout music. Skipped.

1282: Missy Elliott is great, of course. I inherited …So Addictive from a friend who bought it upon release but who somehow didn't like it. Very well suited for working out, perhaps not surprisingly.

1283: I may post in the future about my former, mistaken assumption that, as is true for many other genres of music, hip hop is more interesting/inventive in the underground than in the mainstream. In the event, Dälek is one of the few underground hip hop artists that I get any enjoyment out of. This noisy track off of From Filthy Tongue Of Gods And Griots is, in fact, perfect workout music.

1284: Yeah, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is great. Not much else to add.

1285: Molam: Thai Country Groove from Isan, one of the Sublime Frequencies releases, of which I have a few. These songs are always a pleasant shock when they come on.

1286: I think School of the Flower is the most satisfying Six Organs of Admittance record so far. This 13 minute, drone-y title track is gorgeous.

1287: I got into The Red Krayola in part because of David Grubbs' involvement in their more recent stuff and because of David Thomas' enthusiasm--plus, Mayo Thompson was in Pere Ubu for a while. Also, I have a perverse need to look into leftfield or lesser known music from the past. This song is one of my favorites from God Bless The Red Krayola and All Who Sail With It, the second album.

1288: Things We Lost In The Fire is my favorite Low album. One of the many great sounding records recorded by Steve Albini. I wonder if this lovely song is too slow to have as a slow song at the wedding. At this point I was stretching, so there was no need to skip it.

1289: I actually bought Remedy soon after it came out, even though I wasn't listening to much electronic or any dance music at the time (1999), and, as it turned out, was soon going to be spending a lot of time listening to post-rock and free jazz. But, Spin (!) was so enthusiastic about it, I had to hear it. I thought it was ok, but, in retrospect, it wasn't the right time for me. I then completely avoided pop music for years, but I started to read more and more about Basement Jaxx. Thankfully, I'd kept Remedy. Many listens later, it's not only better than "ok", it's great. As are Rooty and Kish Kash.

1290: For a while there, it seemed like every month there was an article or interview in The Wire namechecking Sextant. One of my few non-Miles "fusion" records. It's pretty cool--sort of akin to, I think, To Rococo Rot, and those sorts of more recent German electronic bands.

1291: By the end of 2004, after years of ignoring chart pop, and having started reading several music bloggers who wrote admiringly (and convincingly) about pop, I decided to take the plunge and download several singles from that year. I'm glad I did. "Naughty Girl", for one, is fantastic; I never seem to get enough of it.

1292: Bought Discography years ago but, other than "West End Girls" and that U2 cover, never really listened to it. Loaded it onto the iPod to correct this oversight. This song has a swell beat, plenty good for a workout, but lyrically it's kind of dumb--the old "things may suck, but music makes it alright" thing...

1293: "1 Thing" was part of 2005's end-of-year pop download. I like it ok, but it doesn't have that extra little bit that elevates a pop song for me.

It would appear that, if nothing else, these types of posts are demonstrating that writing about music, about the music itself, beyond just my personal history surrounding the music, is not my strong suit.

Oh well.

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Friday, March 10, 2006

Barry Bonds

Dave Zirin supplies a little perspective on the coverage of the latest round of the Bonds/steroids flap.
I like that he asked congress why they were talking about steroids when people still don't have heat or clean water in New Orleans. Is it self-serving? Sure, but no more self-serving than the writers who sell papers by assessing the size of his body parts like he's some sort of beast. As for whether or not he took steroids, I still believe in something that may seem quaint in Bush's America called the presumption of innocence. But if it is actually proven that he took steroids, then I think its not Bonds that should be on trial - in the court of public opinion or elsewhere - but Major League Baseball.
He also points to the obvious but unspoken racist component of the discussion (for one thing, people calling for him "to be hung", astonishingly). In that sense, along with the fact that he has never played well with the press (and, ok, seems to be kind of personally unpleasant and tone deaf), Bonds is the perfect patsy.

Also, over at Salon, if you don't mind sitting through the ads, King Kaufman characteristically has written one of the more reasonable articles on the matter I've seen.
To me the most important revelation isn't the laundry list of actual drugs Bonds ingested or his schedule of taking them or the emotional and occasionally physical violence his former girlfriend, Kimberly Bell, says he committed on her.

It's the fact that Conte, Bonds' personal trainer Greg Anderson and the rest of the BALCO crowd were so indiscreet and yet so safe from both sports and real-world law enforcement.

These guys were practically erecting billboards on the Bayshore Freeway saying, "We provide steroids to professional athletes!" For years. And it took a disgruntled track coach turning in a used syringe for the authorities to even know the drugs they were pushing existed, never mind that BALCO was pushing them.

Anderson bragged to someone wearing a wire that the massive cocktail of illegal substances he was giving Bonds was undetectable, that an athlete could juice up on the day of a test and not worry about a thing.

That's the story here. Not that the most prominent jerk and steroid abuser in baseball really was a jerk and a steroid abuser. But that law enforcement is so comically behind the drug pushers.

The cops are barely even in the game. How could they be? There's no money in law enforcement. The real money's in the cheating. If there's another BALCO somewhere right now -- and why wouldn't there be? -- the drug cops are almost certainly in the dark about it.

It's a joke to worry about whether Bonds' records have damaged the integrity of the game. Bonds is a hard rain, but for all we know the game's integrity is being washed away by a tsunami of cheating.

So, yeah, I'm having a hard time getting worked up over this story. Maybe it's because my interest in baseball, and professional sports in general, has been on the wane for years. Bonds was one of the few players keeping my interest on the game at all in recent seasons. I find it a little rich for people to be concerned about the integrity of the game at this late date.

I went to the Washington Post site to see if Thomas Boswell had written about it. He has. I half-expected it to be a piece bashing Bonds. To his credit it's not:
The man at the center of the storm now is Barry Bonds. But the true shame belongs to his entire game, especially those who have controlled the direction of the sport in the last dozen years.
He provides some context, bringing up the canceled World Series of 1994 and how the game was "saved" by homeruns.
[A]s public scrutiny and cyber vituperation rain down on Bonds, we should remember that he is just the symptom, not the cause. When sports fundamentally warp themselves out of greed, we never know until later where the long-term damage will manifest itself. When baseball's owners "took a strike" -- ousting conciliatory commissioner Fay Vincent and installing Bud Selig, then a hardliner, to do the deed -- no one dreamed that the greatest damage to the sport would come years later and in an unexpected form.

The true price of the strike was not in canceled games or wasted revenue or a glaring gap in the list of World Series champions. Instead, the greatest toll was taken from the game's credibility, its integrity, its place in the national consciousness as an institution worthy of high and long-held regard.


Blank Incomprehension

k-punk on the Stepford-effect of neo-liberalism:
An ideological position can never be really successful until it is naturalized, and it cannot be naturalized while it is still thought of as a value rather than a fact. In the case of the lecturers I was talking to, it seems that Capitalist Realism has been so successful in installing Business Ontology that there is no longer any question of evaluating it at all. Business assumptions are now transcendental presuppositions, defining the horizons of the thinkable. It is simply obvious that everything in society, including education, should be run as a business. It is simply obvious that no other criteria can come into play. Hence the reason that my flailing attempts to raise issues of 'justice' were not so much rebuffed as greeted with blank incomprehension.
Mark is talking about a union battle at his school and the incursion into academia of the "Reality of Business", but the same notion applies generally, as I was in part trying to get at below, in my muddled manner. The intellectual colonization of the business mindset is near-total. People look at you as if you're daft for suggesting perhaps capitalism doesn't work.

It's looking more and more like I'm going to have to read David Harvey's A Brief History of Neoliberalism, from which Mark supplies a quote at the top of the post:
Neoliberalism ... has pervasive effects on ways of thought to the point where it has become incorporated into the common-sense way many of us interpret, live in, and understand the world.
This is the third or fourth reference I've seen to it in the past two weeks.


Notes from the Underground

I finished Notes from the Underground. I didn't like it much. I'll have a little bit more to say about it later on in relation to Nabokov, as well as a note about the evolution of my tastes in fiction. One point: is it funny or sad that even Dostoevski's admirers (in this case, translator David Magarshack, in the introduction to the Modern Library paperback edition I have) refer to his "exasperatingly careless style"?

I look forward to getting back to Despair.


Someone else on DFW

Moments after posting my meandering DFW-related item below, I happen upon this excellent post about DFW's fiction, from Ocracoke Post, a blog that is new to me (link via MetaxuCafé). Two tastes:
I want there to be fiction about focus groups and marketing jargon. I want the aspect of human nature brought out by hyper-capitalism in America to be detailed. I want there to be literature about late night cable infomercials, telemarketers, pitchmen, talk-show hosts, pornographic satellite television, tennis stars, cruise ships, strip malls, and the like. In short, shouldn't we write about the world we live in, one that didn't exist in classical Athens or Christian Rome or Renaissance London? Why not? I'd like to see it all noted by someone and put down. DFW, I would say, is the best chronicler of that aspect of the world. I have no idea how his stuff will age but God, it's great to be alive to read it now.
I noticed that two of my favorite DFW short stories, "The Depressed Person" in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and "Good Old Neon" in Oblivion, are structurally similar. Both involve the involutions of a consciousness at war with itself, in which the mazelike wandering of thought bends back upon itself, deepening the distress without offering any hint of resolution. More specifically, both stories relate a facet of self-consciousness - what is now called "major depression" in one case, a feeling of hollowness and fraudulence in the other - that itself defeats resolution and feeds a bad feedback loop in which thinking does not help the character think. Another way to put this is that self-knowledge is sometimes worse than useless to a DFW character. This could be related back to his narrative technique, which not only mirrors the endless involution of thought, but also avoids the "epiphany moments" that rule the aesthetics of the contemporary MFA workshop short story.


DFW, 3 Women, and the question of how to live...

What follows has been heavily revised from its original form (when I was writing to myself only) for this post. I want to emphasize upfront that I do not look for messages in art, nor do I think that art must serve some other, "higher" purpose in order to be worthwhile. I do not believe that art must teach or, in fact, do any given thing. Nevertheless, I believe that art cannot help but impact how we see and experience the world, that, indeed, this is one of its many virtues. But I don't think this is its primary function. In this post I am discussing two artistic works and, besides also admiring their art to the extent that I can, trying to discuss how they have made me think about the world--some of which, I think inevitably, leads me to touch on "political" areas (however vaguely).

Back in August 2004 I read the first story in David Foster Wallace's then-new story collection, Oblivion--"Mr. Squishy". The story is long-ish (67 pages) and dense, written substantially in marketing-speak. Navigating the sometimes arcane, sometimes arduous sentences is, for me, part of the fun. Terry Schmidt is facilitating an advertising focus group and most of the story seems to be, in one form or another, from his perspective, his interior view of or take on things. There is some explication of his personal life, as well as an at first seemingly unconnected bit about a man scaling the outside of the building the focus group is located in. I enjoyed the story, and I think it serves as a good an example as any of what Wallace is doing, in general, in his fiction.

At The Reading Experience, Dan Green and the Rake presented "dueling" reviews of the book. It was an interesting idea, first of all, to read, back-to-back, two different takes on the same stories, all the more so since they were by two of my favorite bloggers. Rake began by saying he is wary of DFW's short fiction, that he thought Brief Interviews With Hideous Men an "almost unmitigated disaster". I was more than a little surprised by this assessment; I happened to enjoy that collection very much. In fact, I thought much of it to be among the best things by DFW I'd read to that point. I recall being impressed with how thoroughly he occupied the "language-world" of the characters in his stories. What's more, I felt the result of him doing this so effectively, was that the stories often carried, if subtly, great emotional impact--a charge, it would seem, not often leveled at him. Indeed, in his review, and elsewhere, Rake essentially holds that DFW falls short in this very area, in achieving a human response in his fiction, in failing to ask "what do we do?" or "how do we live?"

Dan Green's review was more interesting to me, if only, admittedly, because it seemed to gibe with my own already existing take on DFW. But that take had been thitherto unarticulated, so, I think, instead it was the pleasure of recognition that interested me. Yes, I thought, that sounds right. Early on he says this:
In my view, Wallace's real subject is language, but not just language as the medium in which writers create stories, not just style, and not exactly the "failures of language," ...although ultimately language can only fail to communicate fully or to cohere into an entirely satisfactory aesthetic rendering of the world. What Wallace's stories try to do is to inhabit the consciousness of the characters they feature, but this can only be done by inhabiting the language-world of these characters, a world itself evoked by the very language they habitually use in confronting it and only through which can they perceive it to be comprehensible at all. His stories are composed of the stream of words by which his characters construct a manageable account of the reality they negotiate--although in most cases these characters do not literally speak in their own voice, tell their own stories.
I think this paragraph describes very well what it indeed appears Wallace is doing in his fiction, and it is this that I've responded to in his work, when I've responded to it. I've already stolen, above, Green's phrase "language-world". Certainly when reading Brief Interviews I was aware of this, even if I did not articulate it as such, how DFW was so thoroughly inhabiting the language-world of, for example, professional therapy, or the double-speak or interior rationalizations of relationships. Even in Infinite Jest, where, I have to admit, the "story" itself kind of lost me along the way, I was very much taken by the way in which he represented the language of the different characters and their respective milieus.

At this point, I still have not completed the collection, with the final story still left to read. When I get around to reading it, I plan to re-visit the rest of the collection. So far, my overall assessment is positive--there is enough good stuff in this collection to recommend it. Now, however, I want to go back to revisit the questions of "how do we live?" or "what are we to do?" that Rake says Wallace often fails to address, thus preventing his fiction from being, he feels, more emotionally resonant. I happen to disagree with the assessment, but I don't intend to spend much time in this post discussing why I do. Instead, these questions stick with me sort of metaphysically. Strongly related to these questions in my mind is a movie I watched around the same time--Robert Altman's 3 Women. The movie really focuses on two women (the third sort of hovers throughout, weirdly), Millie (played by Shelley Duvall) and Pinky (Sissy Spacek). It begins at an old-age spa, where Millie works as a therapist, and Pinky is just beginning. Millie is constantly talking, seemingly oblivious to the fact that no one is the least bit interested in anything she has to say. She talks about recipes, her evenings, her supposed dates with different men (who in reality are not interested in her), her apartment, stuff. No one cares; any response she gets is entirely perfunctory. Pinky is new to the state (California, the desert), apparently completely naive about how things are. She latches onto Millie, obviously aping how Millie does things, trying on her clothes, reading her diary, trying to be more like her--actually at one point calling her "the most perfect person in the world". She is seemingly oblivious, too, to the fact that Millie is not popular, arguably not someone to be emulated, certainly not if one wants to be accepted.

Plot-wise, things take a turn midway through, when Pinky is confronted by something Millie is doing that she doesn't like, and she tries to kill herself. When she emerges from her subsequent coma, she has adopted the persona of Millie's ideal image of herself. Indeed, Pinky actually becomes popular with the guys who had been ignoring Millie. Etc. This part of the movie is interesting but ultimately not the part leading me discuss it. It is the first part of the film that interests me here. It is palpably clear that Millie and Pinky are essentially lonely people. They don't get it. There are some scenes that are just plain sad, from a cluelessness perspective, scenes of such social embarrassment, one would think, that it startles one to observe the characters not self-destructing. I'm trying to get at the idea of their loneliness, their isolation. I listened to some of the commentary track by Altman himself after the movie was over. I didn't watch the whole thing again, because it was late, though it was one of the more interesting commentary tracks I've listened to. In any event, Altman talks about Millie and Pinky being "lost souls", people who do not know how to live in the world. Millie is completely by herself, no one has told her how to survive in the world, and she has interpreted the outside world's messages in such a way as to fashion her own version of what things are like. She takes advertising at face value, she decorates her apartment according to catalogs and Better Homes & Gardens-type magazines, she clips recipes (she surely has none of her own, nothing she has learned as part of any heritage). She wears what she wears because that is her take on what fashion has to offer someone like her. But she has no friends, no family. Pinky is similarly adrift. No one has shown her how to live, either, so she gloms onto Millie. When Pinky has her accident, Millie manages to find Pinky's parents, who come in from Texas. Pinky, having adopted the "ideal Millie" persona, does not recognize them as her parents, but more importantly, here, her parents are quite old indeed, and clearly do not have any inkling of how to deal with Pinky. It is perhaps apparent that they have been thoroughly unable to provide Pinky with any useful examples on how to be, how to live, how to make her way in the world.

Ok, so what? What is the upshot? What am I getting at? Well, again, I tend to bristle at attempts by people to find messages in art. So, I'm not trying to find any messages here. Nevertheless, I think the question "how do we live?" is central, not to the film itself, but to life, certainly, and art can and does allow us to illuminate such areas of discussion. While watching the film and while thinking about it afterward, I imagined how easy it would be to ridicule them, the characters, as "stupid" or "losers" or something similar.

But. But what? I am increasingly thinking, if admittedly only in the abstract (how does this really reflect itself in how I conduct myself during my day?), that "ordinary" people need to be given a break. People are only trying to live in the best way they know how. And it is difficult. And I think people are fundamentally lost. It's easy to look at someone, such as the characters in the movie, who appears hopeless and criticize their way of life, their "choices", as irrational, as "stupid". Worse, to attack them, to mock them for their awkwardness, their attempts to fit in. (This is by no means to excuse people from actual responsibility. But, for example, much of the rhetorical hand-wringing about the last election reeked of the worst sort of liberal self-righteousness, much of which consisted of rants directed at those idiots who voted for Bush, without attempting to actually understand why they might do such a thing, or anything. Thomas Frank at least makes an attempt.) I think people are grasping at things, at ways to live, at some way to survive, to make a mark, to not be finally alone. Altman makes an interesting aside, in his commentary, about individuality. He posits that, in fact, contrary to the popular estimation of everyone being so different from each other (like a snowflake, etc) that, instead, people are so alike, in the end, to not being that far off from being the same person. So as a result, to differentiate ourselves somehow, we exaggerate what differences we do have. At the same time, he makes a seemingly contradictory comment about how no one finally knows what it is like inside your own head, we are unique, no one sees things in quite the way we do, etc. I guess these are, together, just different ways of expressing the human paradox (?). We are genetically virtually identical (indeed, there are twins in the movie, and Altman discusses them in this vein--that, though everything genetic about them is identical, they nevertheless are uniquely themselves), but our minds are undiscovered countries, so to speak, the attempts of psychology (evolutionary and otherwise) to provide explanations notwithstanding.

Anyway, again, I think people are lost, many vastly more so than others. I was discussing this with my brother, and I was worried that the conversation might veer off into religion (I am leftist, atheist; he is conservative, Christian--although, as such, he does not fit a number of the stereotypes). Because I essentially believe that the modern world, as currently situated, results in this widespread existential lostness (yes, I am going to use that as a word), he might have been justified in arguing that, well, we have gotten away from God, from religion, and that is why people are lost. That would not have been my point, obviously, though, in a sense, he'd not have been wrong: religion did (does) provide structure and guidance for people. That is not to be denied. And yet, I am not interested in a return to the past in that way. So, what, then? It is admittedly not entirely clear to me, but I am increasingly certain that the world of capitalism that we find ourselves in now is, in fact, antithetical to human nature--in stark contrast to what is held to be common sense by many people--though I am loath to attempt to actually define, definitively, anything so mysterious as "human nature". In fact, though, since we are inside the beast, it is highly difficult to imagine the beast as not being there. In any event, without going into massive detail here (fodder, perhaps, for several later posts), people are lost because the structure of life (essentially modern economic life) makes no sense, and they know it on some level, but they also cannot imagine any other structure, and, indeed, are conditioned ("educated") to believe that certain others are untenable, even "evil", so that, finally, the lostness is compounded because they see no way out. They are trapped in their own lostness.

I've gone somewhat far afield, but now I am going to return to Wallace and quote a relevant, I think, portion from "Mr. Squishy": least half the room's men listening with what's called half an ear while pursuing their own private lines of thought, and Schmidt had a quick vision of them all in the conference room as like icebergs and/or floes, only the sharp caps showing, unknown and –knowable to one another, and he imagined that it was probably only in marriage (and a good marriage, not the decorous dance of loneliness he'd watched his mother and father do for seventeen years but rather true conjugal intimacy) that partners allowed each other to see below the berg's cap's public mask and consented to be truly known, maybe even to the extent of not only letting the partner see the repulsive nest of moles under their left arm or the way after any sort of cold or viral infection the toenails on both feet turned a weird deep yellow for several weeks but even perhaps every once in a while sobbing in each other's arms late at night and pouring out the most ghastly private fears and thoughts of failure and impotence and terrible and thoroughgoing smallness within a grinding professional machine you can't believe you once had the temerity to think you could help change or make a difference or ever be more than a tiny faceless cog in, the shame of being so hungry to make some sort of real impact... Or maybe that even the mere possibility of expressing any of this childish heartbreak to someone else seemed impossible except in the context of true marriage, meaning not just a ceremony and financial merger but a true communion of souls, and Schmidt now lately felt he was coming to understand why the Church all through his childhood catechism and pre-Con referred to it as the Holy Sacrament of Marriage, for it seemed every bit as miraculous and transrational and remote from the possibilities of actual lived life as the crucifixion and resurrection and transubstantiation did, which is to say it appeared not as a goal to expect ever to really reach or achieve but as a kind of navigational star, as in the sky, something high and untouchable and miraculously beautiful in the sort of distant way that reminded you always of how ordinary and unbeautiful and incapable of miracles you your own self were, which was another reason why Schmidt had stopped looking at the sky or going out at night or even usually ever opening the lightproof curtains of his condominium's picture window when he got home at night and instead sat with his satellite TV's channel-changer in his left hand switching rapidly from channel to channel to channel out of fear that something better was going to come on suddenly on another of the cable provider's 220 regular and premium channels and that he was about to miss it, spending three nightly hours this way before it was time to stare with drumming heart at the telephone that wholly unbeknownst to her had Darlene Lilley's home number on Speed Dial so that it would take only one moment of the courage to risk looking prurient or creepy to use just one finger to push just one gray button to invite her for one cocktail or even just a soft drink over which he could take off his public mask and open his heart to her before quailing and deferring the call one more night and waddling into the bathroom and/or then the cream-and-tan bedroom to lay out the next day's crisp shirt and tie and say his nightly dekate and then masturbate himself to sleep again once more.

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Thursday, March 09, 2006

Jonathan Lethem

Jenny Davidson posts a nice appreciation of Motherless Brooklyn, a book I liked quite a bit. In fact, I liked it much better than I did Fortress of Solitude, which she raved about. Though there is plenty of very fine writing in it (the scene where Dylan and Mingus are, as she puts it, "tactfully" surprised by Mingus' father particularly stands out as excellent), much of the later book felt wrong to me, the popular music and comic book references seemed forced, like he was trying too hard to evoke the time. However, going back and reading Jenny's post about it makes me think I may need to reconsider that position, perhaps re-read the book. She quotes this passage:
Positioning, positioning, Arthur Lomb was forever positioning himself, making his views known, aligning on some index no one would ever consult. Here was Dylan's burden, his cross: the accumulated knowledge of Arthur Lomb's smug policies on every possible question. The cross was Dylan's to bear, he knew, because his own brain boiled with pedantry, with too-eager trivia ready to burst loose at any moment. So in enduring Arthur Lomb Dylan had been punished in advance for the possibility of being a bore.
It's been a while, but I do remember this paragraph, now that I see it again. It occurs to me that the forced quality I'm perceiving in the pop culture references may have been the point, the encyclopediac manner in which we gather and harness cultural effluvia. I may have been too hard on Lethem because I recognize that tendency in myself and try to downplay it, because I'm anxious about my own "eager trivia".

I had some other issues with Fortress of Solitude, especially with the last section, but maybe I can lay this particular complaint to rest in my mind.

Detour from Despair

I got halfway through Despair, but had been reading it in a kind of haze, so I decided to start it over. In the meantime, came across this interesting essay, which in part discusses the idea that Despair is a parody of Dostoevsky. So, I thought I'd first read Notes From the Underground, which I've had sitting around.

With the opening pages, superficial similarities are obvious, from the "confession" addressed to some unnamed accuser ("gentlemen" in Notes, "reader" in Despair), to the narrator's exaggeratedly high opinion of himself and repeated backtrackings and claims that he is lying.

I may have some more to say about the essay and what it says about Nabokov's attitude toward Dostoevsky once I return to and finish re-reading Despair.

Another thing, at the beginning of chapter two, in the first section, is this passage:
I should like to tell you, now, gentlemen, whether you want to listen to me or not, why I've never been able to become even an insect. I declare to you solemnly that I've wished to become an insect many times.
I've often heard it said that Dostoevsky was a key influence on Kafka. Having not read much Dostoevsky nor any of the secondary literature about Kafka, I don't know how much this is true. But, I wonder, is it possible this passage inspired Kafka to write "The Metamorphosis"?

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Wednesday, March 08, 2006


Happened upon The Complete-Review's review of The Sea today. It's an enthusiastic review, so I don't want to complain too much, but towards the end there's this:
Banville's use of language -- the reader is immediately confronted with: "that vast bowl of water bulging like a blister, lead-blue and malignantly agleam", and Banville continues in this vein -- is almost distracting (at least on a first reading), style threatening to overwhelm story. [emphasis added]

Elsewhere, Brendan Wolfe, in response to an article about "good bad books" made into movies asks,
It seems strange to fault a book that “achieves a surprisingly exhilarating effect” for “flaws of style and construction.” Assuming that no novel is perfect, aren’t a book’s style and construction in fact responsible for its exhilarating effect?

I would have thought so, yes.

iPod rundown - 03/08/06

I was too tired to read on the way home from work this evening. This usually frustrates me, since the train rides are the few extended reading sessions I get these days. It's been happening a lot this week; I haven't been getting enough sleep.

But, luckily, I had my iPod to hand. I use it primarily at work, but also at the gym and during such times as these. I have 4568 songs on the thing at the moment, and recently I've been listening to it on shuffle, trying not to re-set it, to listen to as many of the songs as possible. I'm 1162 songs in. Only 12 weeks to go!

1149. Neu! - "Sonderangebot"
1150. The Flatlanders - "Stars in my Life"
1151. Beck - "Devil's Haircut"
1152. Bonnie 'Prince' Billy - "Madeleine-Mary"
1153. Out Hud - "Dear Mr. Bush, There Are Over 100 Words for Shit and Only 1 for Music. Fuck You, Out Hud"
1154. Captain Beafheart - "Sue Egypt"
1155. Tower Recordings - "I Didn't Know That Hajji Smoked/ID Can Hear The Magic Spring"
1156. James Brown - "I Don't Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Just Open the Door I'll Get It Myself)"
1157. Sonic Youth - "Sympathy for the Strawberry"
1158. Nas - "Represent"
1159. Nina Simone - "Old Jim Crow"
1160. The Kinks - "Uncle Son"
1161. The Rolling Stones - "Prodigal Son"
1162. The American Analog Set - "Two Way Diamond II"

Some notes:
1149: Neu! had been one of those shadowy groups I kept reading about, whose stuff was long out of print, but key inspirations for bands like Stereolab, who I was listening to a lot at one time. I ran out and got the cd reissues as soon as they were available. This track is from the first one, Neu1, which never really grew on me. I prefer the second and third records.

1150: The Flatlanders were another mystery band for me to track down. In the mid-90s I was listening to a lot of non-mainstream country such as Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams, and I'd loved the Jimmie Dale Gilmore record Spinning Around the Sun. When I heard about the existence of the Flatlanders cd More a Legend Than a Band, I had to have it. It remains one of my favorite cds. For a while thereafter I was keen on digging up hard-to-find country and folk-tinged stuff, like Butch Hancock and Joe Ely and Guy Clark.

1151: I still more or less like Odelay; haven't listened to anything since Midnite Vultures, which I found mostly tedious at the time.

1152: Not much to say about Will Oldham. I liked him in Matewan.

1153: I liked STREET DAD but was wary of Let Us Never Speak Of It Again when I heard it was going to be more dance-oriented. Turns out it's fucking awesome, and I should just shut up and dance. Who knew?

1154: I like Captain Beefheart, love Safe as Milk, among others, but I've not been able to get into the last couple of records he did, like Doc at the Radar Station. I don't like this song much.

1155: I liked listening to the Tower Recordings cds, like that kind of noisy/folky shit, but their songs don't work well on the iPod, particularly on shuffle--lots of short "songs" bleeding into each other--in general I've been deleting them, though this one is a little longer and is cool enough.

1156: No one needs me to tell them about James Brown. I got the Star Time box for Christmas the year it came out (1991?), and listened to it a lot for a year or two, occasionally dragging a disc out after that. But it languished for years. Until I got the iPod, when I decided to load it up with a lot of stuff I hadn't heard in a while. I'm glad I did. It's always nice when James Brown comes on.

1157: I fucking love Sonic Youth. Murray Street is a great record, but it wasn't a comeback. They never went away.

1158: Would you believe I've had Illmatic since it came out and never listened to it until a couple of months ago? This is because I am an idiot. After college, I didn't listen to much hip hop until last year, but still. I'd always heard it was supposed to be great and that Nas had never matched it. It's true: Great album.

1159: I'm new to Nina Simone; my fiancée loves her. This nice track is from the 1960s Philips Recordings box.

1160: Bought Muswell Hillbillies based on a rave from Yo La Tengo's Ira Kaplan. I don't love it, but this song is pretty good.

1161: Perhaps my favorite song from Beggars Banquet.

1162: Interesting. I always forget about American Analog Set. If my tastes had ossified at a certain point, I could have settled in with them, and other VU-lite bands, and listened to plenty of safe, comfortable, perfectly decent music until the end of time. From Our Living Room To Yours is the only cd of theirs I have, and that's probably enough.

A longer post than I thought it would be. Dunno how often I'll do this, but it was fun this time.

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Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Robert Altman

It was great to see Altman accepting his lifetime achievement Oscar the other night. Though I still have yet to see many of his key movies, I've enjoyed all the ones I have seen (though I admit to having been underwhelmed by Nashville; I know, I know, I should see it again...).

girish, posting as part of the Robert Altman Blog-A-Thon, makes me really want to see one of his early films, That Cold Day in the Park. Intriguingly, he suggests it as part of a 'loose “female subjectivity” trilogy, later to include Images and 3 Women'. I've seen and loved 3 Women, and I look forward to the others.

I may revise and post something I wrote a year or two ago that in part involved my reaction to 3 Women (chiefly a personal response to the content, not much of a look at the form).


The psychological pain of typos

Steve Mitchelmore on proofreading:

I've often wondered why it should be so painful to see typos and errors in books. Really, it's easy to see what the intention was whether the error is spelling, grammatical or factual. One needn't be held up. Yet sometimes, it's [sic!] seems a tear in fabric of the universe has opened up.

Typos drive me to distraction. I recently read James Purdy's On Glory's Course, and the sheer number of mistakes was distressing. (My edition is a Penquin from 1985.) The slips ranged from one of the main character's name being misspelled at one point, to occasional words missing; it was perhaps the most error-filled book I've encountered, certainly on a per page basis (I remember Vollmann's 900+ page The Royal Family being replete with mistakes. Most of these I tended to ascribe, fairly or not, to a lack of editing in Vollmann's work--an assumption based on a combination of his famous refusal to budge on his books and their often incredible length. I even bothered to check certain pages of the paperback version to see if anything had been caught since the original release. Nothing I checked had changed. Also Penguin).

Each error I stumble across irritates me for just a moment, making me the tiniest bit angry, causing my mind to wander away from the text at hand as I almost try to will the thing away.

I was able to get over it for the Purdy. It's a wonderful book, as are all three of his that I've read thus far. If something intelligent occurs to me to say about it and/or him, it'll be in another post. I'm not holding my breath.

Slight irrelevant update: actually, it now occurs to me that the most typo-laden book I've ever read has to be Stan Goff's otherwise excellent Full Spectrum Disorder, published by Soft Skull Press.

being sort of a snob

Waiting for the train this morning, I noticed another passenger reading In Cold Blood. I pointed this out to a friend. She groaned. Naturally, we assumed that the timing had something to do with Capote; after which the conversation went something like this:

Her: I mean, it was ok, but...
Me: yeah...
Her: well, ok, it's actually really good.
Me: yeah, I read it about 6 or 8 years ago, and I really liked it, but since then for no good reason, when others have talked it up, I've had a tendency to downplay it.
Her: it's more the resurgence of interest, I guess...
Me: I think it's more that, for many people, it's one of the only quasi-literary books they read...
Her: Yes! I felt the same way about Kavalier & Clay--I loved that book, but not only was everyone reading it, but it was all they would read...

Would you believe me if I told you that it reads much snottier than it actually was?

In any event, here's an excellent recent appreciation of the book by Ellis Sharp.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Revisiting Nabokov

I randomly pulled Despair off the shelf last night and began re-reading it. I first read it more than a decade ago (it was my second Nabokov, just after Invitation to a Beheading and before Lolita), and I seem to have virtually no memory of the book (I have some vague recall of a man sitting on a bench).

Two brief observations: First, now that I'm more familiar with Nabokov's critical biases, the bits on the different ways to narrate a story are quite amusing. Chapter three opens with "How shall we begin this chapter? I offer several variations to choose from" (reminding me of the opening of Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds), after which the narrator presents the variations along with some literary criticism of the forms....

Second, I also re-read Nabokov's forward and am reminded of how droll his introductions and forwards were. I remember, too, that he always seemed to be at pains to, for example, attack Freud in passing and the novels of ideas, and attempts to find ideas or messages in his novels, among other common themes. When I was much younger and just starting out reading serious fiction, I gobbled up Nabokov's pronouncements as gospel, fairly uncritically. Over time, I'd like to think my critical faculties have improved, and there has been some divergence (for example, I once thought his view of translation was self-evidently correct, but now I find it strident and unhelpfully inflexible--I anticipate a future post about this, involving some intriguing stuff from Harry Mathews' essays on translation...) Nonetheless, I enjoy reading his Lectures on Literature, finding it helpfully illuminating.


Sunday, March 05, 2006

Explaining "existence machine"...

I stole the phrase "the existence machine" from Thomas Bernhard's novel The Loser.

Last fall I'd decided I wanted to start a blog but choosing a name became a problem. Titles are not exactly my strong area (I expect my future post titles--unlike this one, naturally--to be fairly dull), but I wanted to find something that was interesting. In October I read the Bernhard book, in which I found this passage:

No one ever cast a more damaging light on his relatives than Wertheimer, described them into the dirt. Hated his father, mother, sister, reproached them all with his unhappiness. That he had to continue existing, constantly reminding them that they had thrown him up into that awful existence machine so that he would be spewed out below, a mangled pulp. His mother threw her child into this existence machine, all his life his father kept this existence machine running, which accurately hacked his son to pieces. Parents know very well that they perpetuate their own unhappiness in their children, they go about it cruelly by having children and throwing into the existence machine, he said, I thought.

This idea of the “existence machine” appealed to me. I’m not an unhappy person (especially now), and I certainly do not hate my parents, but I like the idea, think it captures some essential, if banal, truth about life. Life is inexorable. The existence machine churns and churns. Seems even more true with the weight of history, personal, but also national—how we can’t escape the everydayness of our lives. We’re thrown out there, even if we aren’t really unhappy, if we’re well supported, as I’ve been, life has a way of happening whether you're ready for it to or not. Utter banality, but true nonetheless…

There's no chance of my being able to write intelligently on all that crosses my path, there are so many conversations to be entered into, so many topics on which to have an opinion, to discuss, always new books to read, new music to listen to, new films to see, new political outrages to be appalled by, merely keeping up at the most superficial level is well-nigh impossible. It is for this reason, the ongoingness of life, that I have named my blog The Existence Machine. I will never keep up.

I liked the novel, incidentally. There’s something compulsive about Bernhard’s prose. His huge, repetitive, book-length paragraphs, the philosophical digressions, the rants. Everything seems to “happen”, if it happens at all, in the past, in the narrator’s weird remembrance of same. Also, there’s an annoying quality to his style—to the point of being amusing. Note the passage above—the “…he said, I thought.” The rhythm of the “I thoughts”, especially when he is recalling what Wertheimer or someone else said, and so “he said, I thought”—at times annoying, but also effective, and funny.

The only other Bernhard I've read is Concrete, which I learned about through reading Joseph Tabbi's afterward to William Gaddis' final, posthumous novel, Agapé Agape (which novel I still have not yet read, though I bought it as soon as it came out). I liked them both, but The Loser more. Steve Mitchelmore's many posts about Bernhard have interested me further. I look forward to his other works (I have Old Masters on hand).

Another early contender for the blog name came from early on in Henry Green's novel Concluding:

He did not dare ask whether he was to understand she had at last decided what she wanted of him. His experience with her had taught Birt that she took refuge in a vast quagmire of vagueness when at all pressed.

That’s it: “vast quagmire of vagueness”. I know this tendency. In the past I often tried to avoid revealing my actual thoughts or feelings when I felt unsure about their reception. To do so I would couch my statements in vague generalities, hinting at what I felt, trying to elicit a committed statement from the other, to which I would then feel more free to assent. Not surprisingly, this tactic rarely worked at all, and in certain key moments was spectacularly unsuccessful.

Anyway, I abandoned it as a name mainly because it's a bit ungainly.

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Why start a blog now?

I've had an eagerness to join online discussions, beyond the occasional comment, for some time. And yet I have continually delayed the actual decison to start a blog. In part, I haven't had a lot of time in the last year-plus. I'm getting married in six weeks, and of course there is a lot involved in planning that happy event. But, then again, my fiancée has been asking me when I was going to finally start one, so it hardly seems fair to blame it on that. The fact is, though eager to join in, I am also perpetually reluctant (afraid) to commit my thoughts to paper, so to speak. Intermittent attempts to keep some form of regular journal have typically been easy to forget about.

When I met my fiancée, I had just begun re-reading The Recognitions as part of the Gaddis Drinking Club (my only two posts can be found here and here). I was excited to be involved in a group discussion of such a book, and it started off well. But most of the group, myself included, didn't stick with it. I got about halfway through the book and the (very much welcome) new relationship did not afford me the time I needed to read the book and also consult the ancillary materials with the kind of depth of attention I wanted to give it.

Anyway, I've long needed an outlet for my thoughts on certain matters, and also to get in the practice of writing. In recent weeks, I've had complex responses to many things (books I've read, the stupid cartoon controversy, popism vs. rockism, etc) without taking any time to write about them.

I've stayed on the sidelines long enough.


The first post

Ok, so I need a first post in order to see what this sucker looks like.

I'm doing this while listening to the Mutant Disco compilation I just bought as part of my recent renewed interest in the post-punk music of the late 70s and early 80s...

And, go.