Thursday, May 31, 2007

Most Profoundly Marked

At The Pinocchio Theory, Steven Shaviro reviews what sounds like a fascinating new novel by Samuel Delaney, called Dark Reflections. In the course of his review, Shaviro writes this, which I rather like:
. . . the most deeply singular, private, and unsharable depth of ones own being is the place where one is most profoundly marked by one’s past encounters with others (both contingent, personal encounters, and more generally social ones that have to do with the priority of parents, of language, of mores and prejudices, etc.).

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Resentment, Popism

Owen at Sit Down Man, You're a Bloody Tragedy posted recently about wanting to "reclaim resentment" as an inspiration to action rather than as simply a "miserablist" reaction to the current situation. k-punk expands on this idea with an interesting post of his own; he writes:
Resentment is a much better Marxist affect than jealousy or envy. The difference between resenting the ruling class and envying them is that jealousy implies a wish to become the ruling class, whereas resentment suggests an anger at their possession of resources and privilege. A resentment that led only to grumbling inaction is certainly the very definition of a useless passion. But it is by no means obvious that resentment should end up in such impotence. Certainly my experiences with teaching unions suggest that it is far easier to motivate workers by appealing to feelings of resentment than in it is to appeal directly to any innate sense of their own worth. Resentment of privilege and unfairness is in many cases the first step towards confronting introjected and taken-for-granted feelings of inferiority. 'Yes... why should they get more than us?'
They both link this to popular culture, and k-punk says the following, about his problem with "popism":
There is a very definite class dimension in my distaste for Popism. Popism seems to be the working out of set of ruling class complexes: a sneaking past matron to enjoy forbidden pleasures. 'We ought to like classical music, but really we like Pop!' [...] For those of us who weren't brought up into high culture, Popism's calls to be always cheerful about mass culture are very much like being told (by our class superiors, natch) to be content with our lot. In working out its own resentments, what Popism takes away is nothing less than the right to resentment of the subordinate group. By contrast, the significance of something like Dennis Potter or postpunk was that they gave access to aspects of high culture in a space that de-legitimated high culture's exclusivity and privilege. The utopian space they opened up was one in which ambition did not have to end up in assimilation, where mass culture could have all the sophistication and intelligence of high culture: a space which pointed to the end of the current class structure, not its inversion.
I tend not to look on music as a location for political activity in the way that k-punk does, but his problem with "popism" as he explains it here fits in with some of my own suspicions of it. I accept the superficial "popist" (or, as some would have it, "poptimist") attitude, that as listeners we should be open to the idea that we should be open to pleasure from all kinds of music, and I agree that it's useful to interrogate our own tastes, to question the reasons we give for why we don't like certain music. But I have a problem with the notion that just because something has been manufactured with the intention of appealing to a lot of people, and that a lot of people have been persuaded that they like it, that that means that it warrants my attention. It might be interesting to investigate the reasons why some particular crap is popular, but that does not mean that we should have to look upon it and call it "good". (This is not intended as a disavowal of my own enjoyment of, for example, Kelly Clarkson.)

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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Nineties Jazz

For the last week, over at the always excellent Destination: Out!, Chilly Jay Chill and Prof. Drew LeDrew have been presenting the best jazz albums of the 1990s, as voted on by other jazz writers and musicians and bloggers (here is the fourth post in the series, which includes links to the first three). Which is a good excuse to give a list of my own favorites from the period here (in more or less alphabetical order):
    1. Paul Bley/Evan Parker/Barre Phillips - Time Will Tell (ECM, 1994)
    2. Paul Bley/Evan Parker/Barre Phillips - Sankt Gerold Variations (ECM, 1996)
    3. Peter Brotzmann/Die Like A Dog Quartet - Little Birds Have Fast Hearts No. 1 (FMP, 1997)
    4. Peter Brotzmann/Die Like A Dog Quartet - Little Birds Have Fast Hearts No. 2 (FMP, 1997)
    5. Peter Brotzmann, et al. - The Chicago Octet/Tentet (Okkadisk, 1998)
    6. Dave Douglas/Tiny Bell Trio - Constellations (hatOLOGY, 1995)
    7. Charles Gayle/William Parker/Rashied Ali - Touchin' On Trane (FMP, 1991)
    8. Mats Gustafsson - Windows: The Music of Steve Lacy (Blue Chopsticks, 1999)
    9. Frank Lowe Trio - Bodies & Soul (CIMP, 1995)
    10. Joe McPhee Quartet - Legend Street One (CIMP, 1996)
    11. Joe McPhee - As Serious As Your Life (hatOLOGY, 1996)
    12. William Parker/In Order To Survive - The Peach Orchard (AUM Fidelity, 1998)
    13. Mark Whitecage Quartet - Caged No More (CIMP, 1996)
    14. David S. Ware Quartet - Wisdom of Uncertainty (AUM Fidelity, 1996)
    15. David S. Ware Quartet - Flight of I (DIW, 1991)
I was excited by this music during years 1999 to 2003, when I had the funds to explore (I definitely bought more records than I could process), but my scope was relatively limited all the same--mostly focused on New York (with William Parker at the center; Parker is a key figure on six of these recordings) and Chicago (revolving around Ken Vandermark) and Peter Brotzmann-related projects. I wanted to hear what everything sounded like, and, as far as I knew, there were no jazz mp3 blogs to help. Still, I did ok. This is all excellent music.

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Monday, May 28, 2007

Lenin on the Dutch Revolt

No sooner do I indicate my increasing interest in revolutionary movements and ideas than Lenin posts a long, interesting entry about the Dutch Revolt. His final paragraph touches on something that I became specifically interested in through reading Ellen Meiksins Wood's excellent book, The Origin of Capitalism (and which helped fuel this larger interest of mine), that is, the nature of the Dutch (and Florentine) economy:
Is this an instance of a 'bourgeois revolution' of the kind that has plagued marxist typology? Well, it involved a noble-bourgeois alliance with the support of labouring classes - but then, so did the English revolution, and so - initially - did the French revolution. Were the Dutch bourgeoisie capitalist at the time? As I say, it had a highly urbanised society, it had a monetised economy, it made extraoardinary technological advances especially in agriculture, it was a highly developed commercial society, it had extensive wage labour, and it was more reliant than usual on overseas trade. The closest comparison that obtains is the Venetian city-state, particularly Florence. Yet, like Florence, Holland did not take the leap to industrial capitalism as England did, slowly being eclipsed toward the end of the 17th Century, especially after the English state acquired a state with a thoroughly integrated ruling class in charge of its domestic and international mission. Perhaps this is because, like the Florentine economy, the essential character of surplus-extraction in the Dutch economy was pre-capitalist commerce and 'political' extraction. [...] The revolt, with its various layers, dimensions and stages, certainly freed an extraordinarily advanced commercial economy from a horrendous economic, political and spiritual burden. It was certainly, in its way, the first 'modern' national war of liberation - yet this merely raises the extent to which 'modernity' is a problematic ideal-type, for in so many ways, the Dutch Republic retained pre-modern forms.

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

iPod rundown - 05/24/07

1. Poni Hoax - "Budapest": What the hell? Where did this come from? I must have downloaded it from somewhere, eh? It's all keyboards and drums, basically disco; repetitive, as might be expected, with occasional guitar, what sounds like a violin solo in the middle, synth stabs. I rather like it. Wikipedia tells me they're from France. The singer's voice reminds me of Martina Topley-Bird, who used to sing with Tricky (among other things). I'm thinking of her vocal on their version of Public Enemy's "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos".

2. Fushitsusha - "Don’t be afraid. Even if your nerves snap, you can tie them to a fragment of the universe": Somehow, I've managed to acquire three Fushitsusha cds, and they sit in my collection gathering dust. I'd've thought Keiji Haino's brand of space rock/guitar squall would have been just my thing, but so far I haven't been able to find my way in. I keep thinking I should spend a little time with them, to see what's what, but I never seem to be able to find it (time). This particular track is fairly typical, I think, and is actually from the fifth various artist Wire Tapper cd, which I received upon subscribing to The Wire.

3. Six Organs of Admittance - "Close to the sky": Ben Chasny is among a group of great acoustic guitar players who have emerged in recent years (including Jack Rose of Pelt). In his Six Organs of Admittance he makes often beautiful music, combining his John Fahey-like guitar virtuosity with what sounds to me like influences from Indian music, such as raga, and electric guitar noise. The first Six Organs cd I bought was Dark Noontide, and I immediately took to its folk-drone sound; it fit in perfectly with much of what I was listening to at the time. I never thought of that record as especially "low-fi", though it was released on a very tiny label. But his last two excellent albums (and probably his two best), School of the Flower and The Sun Awakens, came out on Drag City, which is not exactly Columbia, and they sound fantastic by comparison. This song? Oh, right. This song is from Compathia, which immediately followed Dark Noontide, in 2003. I think it's his weakest album. Chasny's vocals are much more front-and-center, and the songs are less interesting. This one is pleasant enough; repetitive acoustic strumming, vocals; closes with a minute or so of acoustic noodling, before giving way, I think, to an electric guitar, or some kind of feedback, to finish.

4. The Walkmen - "We've Been Had": The Walkmen are ok. I never seem to want to listen to a whole album anymore. The vocalist reminds me, on record, of some exaggeration of Bono, which can be irritating, whereas when I caught them live (at the 9:30 Club in DC) he reminded me more of the Afghan Whigs' Greg Dulli. "We've Been Had" was the big song from their first album, Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me is Gone. On that album they used an upright piano, which for the most part was replaced by synths or organ or something (I can't remember) on the second, harder rocking album. On this song, the piano meanders along in the background, and the effect of it is sort of haunting, like it's a toy piano. Incidentally, the Walkmen were formed out of two earlier bands, Jonathan Fire*Eater and the Recoys. My only experience with Jonathan Fire*Eater was as a largely forgettable (in that I have no memory of it, other than that it happened) opening act for the Breeders, when they also played the 9:30 Club in like 1997. This was years before the Breeders finally released their follow-up to Last Splash, when it seemed like every year it was rumored that they had a record coming out, and Kim Deal was passing the Amps off as the Breeders, because no one went to see the Amps (who I liked just fine). (Deal, looking out at the packed 9:30 Club: "Which twelve of you were at the Amps show at the Black Cat?")

5. Delia Gonzalez & Gavin Russom - "El Monte": From the 2nd DFA compilation. Fairly short, dance music. Doesn't leave much of an impression.

6. The Mountain Goats - "Distant Stations". All Hail West Texas is probably my favorite Mountain Goats album. If I'm not mistaken, it was the last one recorded on a boombox, before John Darnielle signed with 4AD. I think the 4AD records are uniformly excellent, so I'm not one of those old-school fans who felt betrayed or something when he started to record in a studio and made albums that sound better--although I used to think that his stuff did just sound better as recorded through the boombox. It suited John Darnielle's nasal whine, and the acoustic guitar was more immediate. Maybe it's just that those earlier albums were perfectly suited to be how they were, or maybe it's just because I'm used to them that way (ok, that's probably why), but I think All Hail West Texas sounds great. As ever, it's the songs. Literate, precise, delivered with uncommon conviction: "I sang old songs from nowhere/Los Angeles, Albuquerque/Said a small prayer for the poor and the naked and the hungry, and I prayed real hard for you/I waited . . . for you, but I never told you where I was/It was you who taught me how to write this kind of equation [. . .]/You taught me how to listen to these distant stations..." All Hail West Texas is as good a place as any to start, if you've never listened to the Mountain Goats before (and, hey, he quotes The Notorious B.I.G. on "Fall Of The Star High School Running Back", which is pretty cool).

7. Primal Scream - "Blood Money". Xtrnntr. I really liked this album when I first heard it (which was a while after it had come out), but hardly listen to it at all anymore. I'd previously always felt quite safe ignoring Primal Scream, particularly when they were in their exceedingly boring Black Crowes-style, blooze rawk phase, and I'm more or less happy to be ignoring them again. They are a band that flits from style to style in a way that I tend, no doubt unfairly, to find suspicious. Here they are covering the same sort of ground, only more aggressively, that Radiohead covered in their two best albums, Kid A and Amnesiac. Kevin Shields was involved, so of course it was a big deal. This, I think, is one of the more successful songs, perhaps because it's almost entirely devoid of vocals. I could attempt to actually describe it, but I can't be bothered.

8. Vashti Bunyan - "Glow Worms". Another very nice song from the decades out-of-print and recently reissued Just Another Diamond Day. Lovely folk music, acoustic guitar, of course, and Bunyan's soft vocals. The songs on this album often sound like lullabies to me, as I may have mentioned, but "Glow Worms" doesn't really.

9. The Vandermark 5 - "Stranger Blues". See my description of them from last time. This track is mid-tempo, less "free" than they often are. It comes from Acoustic Machine, my favorite Vandermark 5 album, or at least the one I know the best.

10. Built to Spill - "Untrustable Part 2 (About Someone Else)". I love this song. From probably Built to Spill's finest album, Perfect From Now On. Nearly nine minutes of guitar-rock glory. A classic rock anthem, but without the cock-rock lyrical nonsense. Some samples: "You can't trust anyone, 'cause you're untrustable/How can you trust someone you know can't trust you?" -"And God is whoever you perform for" - "I know you wouldn't be the way you feel if you could choose". But, oh the guitars! If only I could describe the gorgeous guitars! I've seen Built to Spill live twice, and the first time was one of the most transcendently awesome musical experiences of my life. This song in particular was spectacular and lifted me into ecstasy.

11. Sonic Youth - "Disconnection Notice". The first time I did one of these, a song from Murray Street, on which "Disconnection Notice" appears, came up. I said, "Murray Street is a great record, but it wasn't a comeback. They never went away." Which, while true, was kind of an annoying record-store clerk sort of thing for me to say. I was annoyed that their previous major release, NYC Ghosts & Flowers, had been so rudely treated. Well, it did get some good press, but mainly I'm thinking of Pitchfork's infamous (and stupid and ignorant) 0.0 dismissal (which was introduced with the tagline: "pretty much the worst thing ever"). But it wasn't just the review, it was the manner in which all of Pitchfork's writers, whenever that album came up, insisted on attacking it in passing or dismissing it out of hand, seemingly as part of some irritating groupthink, and that they still do, if the occasion arises. I recall one reference to the record as "an abortion" (!). But then Murray Street came out, jettisoned was the Beat poetry and overt avant-gardisms and angular guitar noise, more or less, in favor of more basic songforms, and it was all love and smiles and "return to form" and "blah blah Daydream Nation blah blah" and so on. And then with last year's even more direct Rather Ripped, it was more of the same kind of praise (and I loved the album, don't misunderstand), some still ripping on the earlier record, but also on the more experimental aspect of Sonic Youth in general, including the relatively tame but more meandering (and wonderful!) Sonic Nurse which came in between the two. . . . Ok. I'm rambling. My point is, to dump on NYC Ghosts & Flowers in the way it was dumped on, and then to jump all over the more poppy stuff, is to not get Sonic Youth. For one thing, I think that NYC Ghosts & Flowers is quite good, and it certainly repays multiple listens (which I doubt it got from many). But let's assume it is that bad. In my mind, to gratuitously dismiss a major artist's minor work, or even bad work, to claim that, now, here, finally they are doing what they should have been doing, is presumptuous and contributes further to the tendency to treat art as mere product intended to entertain, to divert. It seems to not occur to such fans that maybe NYC Ghosts & Flowers was necessary for Sonic Youth (again, this assumes the album's not good! But it is!), maybe the later, arguably better work would not have happened without it. Alright. Rant over. (Incidentally, I was trying to make a similar point, somewhere, in the post in which I argued that David Foster Wallace is not washed up.) The best piece on Sonic Youth I've read in recent memory was Michaelangelo Matos' review of Sonic Nurse, in which he demonstrates that he totally gets the ongoing Sonic Youthiness of Sonic Youth.

12. Joni Mitchell - "Little Green". This is from Blue. As is so often the case, I'd had this cd for a while without giving it proper time, until I met Aimée. She loves the album, and I'm glad, because I'm rather fond of it now, too. So far none of her others have appealed to me in the same way, but I'm still interested in finding the right ones.

13. Ghostface Killah feat. Megan Rochell - "Momma": This is excellent, heartfelt, personal rap. Very nice piano underscoring the loping bass and drums. Ghostface raps to begin: "It's not your momma's fault/it's your father's fault/it's your father's fault your mother is a alcoholic/Confusing the brain from the booze and the pain/And plus he cheated on her, beated on her, smacked her down in the rain/She lost her first child in '74 . . . " From last year's excellent Fishscale.

14. Latin Playboys - "Mira!": The first, self-titled Latin Playboys album is great--one of the best albums of the 90s, say I. It was a side project of Los Lobos' David Hidalgo and Louie Pérez, and producers Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake, with whom the band had been working. The album has a very pleasant, casual feel. This short track sounds like noises overheard on a busy street.

15. The Raincoats - "Fairytale in the Supermarket". I first heard of the Raincoats via Kurt Cobain's rambling liner notes to Nirvana's Incesticide compilation, managed to score a promo of the reissue of their first album, The Raincoats. I've only recently listened to it much (this appears to be a common theme). I like their ramshackle, ragged, barely competent sound. But it's getting late, and I've gone on long enough, so I'm not going to say any more right now. . .

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Less-than-Total Devotion to the Cause

Ellis Sharp points to an interesting blog that I expect to be reading regularly from now on. The Democrat's Diary is written by David Wearing. He describes his blog as follows:
Whilst Western governments often state their desire to see liberal democracy spread throughout the world, in case after case the facts reveal a less-than-total devotion to the cause. The Democrat’s Diary explores the gap between the sales pitch and the product.
From recent posts on "Coup in Gaza?":
What we're witnessing now is not just civil war but also the attempted overthrow of a democratically elected Palestinian government, not four years since Blair and Bush announced their grand vision to spread democracy in the Middle East. The
strangulation of Gaza, which I've written about previously, prepared the ground for this. The current violence may well turn out to be the culmination of that strategy.
And "Venezuala: myth and reality":
Few occurences in politics are unambiguously good or bad, but recent events in Venezuela may be viewed with cautious optimisim. If Venezuela can demonstrate that it is possible to defy the dominance of international political-economic power, and chart its own independent path whilst retaining, even deepening its democracy and effectively attending to the needs of its most deprived citizens then it will stand as a source of enormous encouragement to countries across the developing world. Perhaps it is this prospect, the threat of a good example and a functioning challenge to Western power, that so offends Washington and its ideological allies.

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Genocide Tourism

Does anyone marshal facts in an argument better than Lenin of Lenin's Tomb? In this short post from this morning, he describes the plot of the new Rambo movie (in which our hero finds himself kicking ass in Myanmar) in one paragraph, and then offers this:
Incidentally, it is odd that they should pick Myanmar for their genocide tourism, because reports last year suggested that the mortality rate for males aged 15-25 is close to that achieved in Cambodia under Pol Pot. This is not because the repressive government - which provides British capital with a flood of low-price commodities - engages in arbitrary or group-based murder (although it does those things too - about 2% of the population experiences a family member being shot at, beaten or stabbed by government forces). It is because it is a capitalist dictatorship, based on forced labour (up to a third of the population experiences this), with nothing that could be called a social security system. Malnourishment, starvation and treatable or preventable malaria cause the bulk of deaths as a consequence. That is to say, this grim tale is simply part of the reality of global capitalism, partaking of some of its worst ills. Obviously, the UK government repays the regime's services to capital with a steady supply of armaments. So, if Rocky does want to fuck with the Burmese,
he has to go through the British first.
But then in the comment section, someone naturally takes issue with his post, and he takes the poor guy to school, clearly and coherently explaining the history of the British Empire as it relates to Burma (Myanmar), India, and China, and the logic of capital accumulation, etc. Read the whole thing (at least through the first 18 comments, which is how many there are as I write). This is why Lenin's Tomb is probably the best political blog out there.

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For Democracy, Against Capitalism - Continued

Earlier this year, I began an irregular series of posts intended to explore ideas of democracy (collected here). My point of departure is that a society is democratic to the extent that people have non-trivial say in the important decisions affecting their own lives. It seems clear to me, then, that capitalism is inherently anti-democratic. An obvious implication of this is that the United States is not remotely democratic.

In recent years, I've become increasingly interested in exploring the history of capitalism and the history of revolutionary movements and ideas. In studying the history of capitalism I am trying to find out several things. What systems did capitalism replace? How did it replace them? Crucially, what kind of resistance did it face? How was this resistance defeated? This is not simply an academic exercise for me, nor is it a nostalgic one--though I will admit that a certain nostalgic wistfulness can come over me as I read about customs and traditions that were crushed by the cold logic of capitalism, and when I read about the loss of clarity and loss of vital energies with the defeat of this or that revolutionary movement.

I am hardly alone in desiring serious, substantive change in the American political and economic landscape. Nor am I alone in desiring either an end to capitalism, or at least significant modifications to capitalism (which I see as valuable, but insufficient). There are, of course, many obstacles to be overcome before such changes could occur. One such obstacle--perhaps the key obstacle, aside from the tenaciousness with which capitalists will and do protect their ill-gotten gains--is that it is difficult for people to imagine things different than they are now, difficult, indeed, to even imagine that things could be different. To a huge extent, we believe Margaret Thatcher's insistence that "There Is No Alternative"--no alternative to neoliberalism, no alternative to capitalism. We tend to look on capitalism as the "natural" order of things. We are conditioned to view it as associated with freedom, part and parcel of liberal democracy (which, well, it is, with emphasis on the work "liberal", but more on that later). With the Protestant work ethic, we have internalized the idea that if we do not succeed, if we do not survive, under the current system, it is our own damn fault.

In the United States, movements against the system are strange and unfathomable, and eruptions of violence against it are all but incomprehensible--people don't understand. In a piece that originally appeared in 1970 in The New York Review of Books, and which now serves as an introduction to the NYRB edition of Alexander Berkman's Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist, John William Ward put it like this:
The American creed of an open, egalitarian society means that there can be no violent protest against the conditions of American society because there can be no real cause for it. The act of violence cannot be understood. It must be the act of a deranged and mad individual. It escapes historical understanding.

[...]

A society which believes that it is the result of the actions of free and equal and self-reliant individuals has, logically, no reason to suppose that the state and the institutions of society are important. To the degree one believes that America is a uniquely free society, that each person is unencumbered by forces beyond the determination of his own personality, to the degree such an ideal has power over one's mind and imagination, there is no way to understand violence except as irrational and aberrant. Our difficulty in understanding violence in American is, in part at least, a consequence of our insistence that ours is a society of equality and opportunity and individual freedom. To ask questions about the reality of violence would force us to ask questions about the reality of our ideals.

Furthermore, our ideology, to the degree it is believed in and acted upon, leads to intense frustration which easily spills over into violent behavior when the social situation, the daily, lived experience of actual people blocks and prevents them from acting out what they are told is ideally possible.
I come here to neither praise nor condemn political violence. The point is that what Ward wrote holds in a broad sense for dissent in general. Later he says: "The insistence that all men are free and equal leads to the curious consequence of a mass conformity and a mood of intolerance for dissent in any form." This insistence leads also to the curious notion that the lives we lead are the consequence of our choices only, of necessarily rational, conscious exchanges between people of equally held rights and power.

So, to wrap up this post. I want to know more about what came before capitalism, and about how it unfolded, not because I desire to erase history and return to some unrecoverable, edenic paradise that exists only in my imagination, but because I'm interested in those aspects of what came before that were worth preserving and which could be incorporated into a way forward, a way out. And the nature of the various resistance movements against capitalism, how they fought, what traditions they drew on, how they lost--these I consider instructive (and inspiring), both as part of a need to learn from mistakes of the past, but also to learn from the limited successes and short-lived victories. Enter revolutionary movements and ideas. I hope to be able to continue writing about this, though I have proven to be poor at predicting what will happen on this blog, ambition aside. Obviously this particular plan requires a lot of reading in history and economics and political economy and so forth, which I've been doing, if slowly, slowly (recommendations are welcome). Some of the key works and thinkers I've barely skimmed the surface of (Marx, for instance) . . .

Much more to come.

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Saturday, May 19, 2007

Eschewal of the Banal

In February, as I was leafing through Something Said, Gilbert Sorrentino's collection of essays and criticism, for his negative assessment of John Updike (which I quoted from here), I came across his short essay called "Paul Bowles: The Clash of Cultures". Of course, in my last post I mentioned having read Bowles' fine novel, The Sheltering Sky (I think this was pure coincidence and that I happened to be in the midst of reading it when I saw the essay). I referred to beautiful writing and a diverse array of Arab characters, but didn't say much more. Sorrentino, ostensibly writing about Bowles' short stories, had this to say:
The language of Bowles' fiction is reticent and formal, but often brutal in its flat candor. [...] Over his work there lies a barely visible "haze" of anxiety or terror. His characters, once embarked upon the adventures that he invents for them, carry them through to the end; there is no point in a Bowles story at which one can say, with any certainty, there is where the story takes its turn. His stories do not take "turns," but follow strait and undeviating paths, the beginnings of which are anterior to their first words. We "come in" on them, as it were.

It is as if Bowles has made a compact with his readers, one that assumes that he and they know that people are weak, vacillating, self-serving, envious, and often base, as well as being, more often than not, irrational because of fixed and unexamined beliefs in country, class, religion, culture, and so on. Granting the existence of this compact, the stories may be seen as inevitable, their characters not so much caught in a web of problems as playing out, so to speak, their hands.

[...] For those not familiar with Bowles, it should be said that he is most at home in his work in a North African setting, usually Moroccan, and that most of his stories have to do with Arabs or with Arabs and their dealings with Americans or Europeans. I would say that much of Bowles' power and clarity, his freshness and eschewal of the banal has come about because he uses this material without resorting to condescension, awed delight, or sociological analysis: the specific world of Morocco is there.

Nowhere in Bowles do we find any hint of the exotic. His Arabs don't think of themselves as such, but as people who live the lives that have been given them. The brilliance of Bowles' work is rooted in the fact that his prose takes his non-Western world for granted, and this matter-of-fact attitude is tacitly held in subtle opposition to what might be called the reader's expectations. We bring our great bag of idées fixes to Bowles' Morocco, and he calmly proceeds to empty it in front of us. Furthermore, Bowles' Western characters are often seen to be carrying that same bag in the stories in which they appear: their reward for this cultural error is usually disaster.

[...] [Bowles'] technical ability has grown, as I have suggested, from Bowles' refusal to follow the fictional path of least resistance. He does what the good artist everywhere does: solves the problems he has created for himself with the same tools used to create the problems. He is responsible to his work and not to the dim flickerings of "taste."
On a related note, in an excellent post at The Mumpsimus, Matthew Cheney discusses the problems of representation of Africa in Western fiction, specifically discussing a short story called "Faraji", by Will Ludwigsen. In passing, Matthew mentions that he prefers Bowles' "tales of whites in Third World countries -- his white characters suffer and often die and don't really learn anything except how ignorant and misguided they are."

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Fiction round-up

This is a round-up, with brief comment, of novels I've read in recent months but not discussed here yet. (The recent "clearing my throat" and Kindred posts began as part of this one, but I went on longer than I intended with both.)

The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles. My father bought this years ago, I think because it's on that Modern Library best English-language novels of the 20th Century list. He wasn't thrilled, didn't see what the point was, so he gave it to me. It sat on my shelves for years; on a whim, this January I decided to read it. I thought it was quite good, but I don't have much to say about it at this point. There's some beautiful writing in it, none of which I noted or wrote down. I remember a diverse array of Arab characters, the desert, a white man succumbing to madness in a closet, his wife held against her will, attempted escape.

The Sportswriter and Independence Day by Richard Ford. I had never considered Richard Ford as a writer I needed to bother with. A friend had expressed distaste, because he said he didn't care about the characters, lumping him in with Don DeLillo. Since this is not something I would ever say, it's not clear why I let that influence me, other than the fact that there's a lot to read, and I hadn't come across any compelling counter reason urging me to read Ford. Until, that is, Steve Mitchelmore's excellent piece at Ready Steady Book about the new The Lay of the Land, which, with these two, completes the Frank Bascombe trilogy. I'm grateful to Steve for that piece: I loved these novels, and I look forward to the The Lay of the Land coming out in paperback when I will read it, too. In his essay, Steve set out to answer what is for him the key question of the books, a question which occurred to me at various points while reading the books, but which I forgot had occurred to me until I re-read the essay: "why is Frank Bascombe writing this?" Steve's conclusion is typically interesting. Anyway, I enjoyed these books immensely. I'm not sure whether I'll have more to say about them, hence the notice here.

Reality and Dreams by Muriel Spark. This is the first Spark novel for me. I gather they get better than this. I wasn't blown away by it. I wasn't bored, either, but the novel seemed to be a sketch of a book. There is a large cast of characters, complexly involved together, which she manages to keep straight without much apparent difficulty. Tom Richards is an aging movie director who has been injured in a crane accident on a shoot. Relatives and friends interact with him, with varying degrees of irritation for him (and he laments the loss of dead friends he once had, such as W.H. Auden, who would have known the right way to do certain social activities), there is some rumination about the nature of reality and dreams (as the title indicates there might be), but it doesn't seem to add up to much. Nevertheless, the nature of the praise I've seen of Spark means that I still look forward to reading other novels of hers. I know some of the famous titles (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Ballad of Peckam Rye), but I wonder what some of you think might be the best ones to read next?

The Enigma of Arrival by V. S. Naipaul. Gorgeous. Simply wonderful. Of Naipaul's other work, I'd previously read only The House of Mr. Biswas, which I liked, but this book is nothing at all like it. The middle-aged narrator (Naipaul?), from his vantage point living for years in an English cottage, explores the nature of experience, the nature of writing--including how as a young man he set out to acquire those experiences that are worthy of his writing talent, all the while missing the actual experiences he was having, his actual topics as a writer. He is able to observe other people with great empathy. There are some beautiful portraits here. I think, of all the novels I've read this year, this is the one I'd most want to urge people to read. I think I will have more to say about this book, but for now apparently all I can do is gush.

Dirty Snow by Georges Simenon. Aimée loves mystery and crime novels, and I gave this to her as a birthday present, in the attractive NYRB edition. I thought it looked interesting, too, and thought I'd read it at some point, but it was a packing snafu that forced me to read it on the flight back from California (I had inadvertently checked the book I was reading). It took me a while to get into, but the second half of the book is quite good. The novel takes place in an unnamed country under occupation (Simenon was Belgian, writing in French, and lived in France during World War II). Frank Friedmaier is nineteen and essentially amoral (as the book opens he decides to kill a man for no particular reason). He lives a life of comparative luxury amid general poverty because his mother runs a whorehouse frequented by occupation officers. By the middle of the book, after a series of reckless and often cruel actions, he ends up in custody, where he resolves to "hold out"--he's not going to give them what they want, though he doesn't know what that is. This is when the book becomes most interesting. Frank spends his time thinking (what else has he to do?), ruminating about words, what they mean, what his actions have meant, wondering what is wanted of him, wondering who knows where he is, what has happened to people he knows, discovering joy in unlikely places (a woman who he sees appearing at a window across the yard every morning at the same time--who is she? is she happy? does her husband appreciate her?), and he finally discovers something about himself--he is "a piece of shit" and deserves to die. This is one of Simenon's so-called "psychological novels" and it's a good one (it is compared, on the back of the book, to Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me, as "a study of the criminal mind"). The narrative is in the third person, and Simenon's prose is simple, yet hypnotic, especially in this latter section.

Frost by Thomas Bernhard. Of course, I have already posted about this novel. As I discussed in those posts, Frost is recognizably Bernhard, both in theme and method, if the latter seemed not as refined as in the later Bernhard. But ultimately, I did not like this one as much as the other Bernhard novels I've read; I had a hard time finishing it. The final third of the book was tough for me to wade through, and the aesthetic effect was muted.

Tainted Love by Stewart Home. I received this for my birthday--turned out it was on my wish list, and I'd forgotten all about putting it there. I went online to remind myself why: it was this interview with Home, also at Ready Steady Book. Tainted Love purports to be the assembled diaries of Jilly O'Sullivan, a veteran of the 60s underground, who died of a drug overdose in 1979. It ends up being a detailed account of the seedier aspects of the counterculture. I'm not usually drawn to such accounts anymore (I'm weary of stories of the 60s; I may have overloaded on things like Hammer of the Gods, the unauthorized Led Zeppelin biography), but Tainted Love kept me interested. Sullivan's stories are by turns appalling, funny, tedious. And as much as stories of debauchery bore me (and they do), I was not sorry to have read the book. It's mostly entertaining, and I do feel like it presented a fuller picture of what the 60s counterculture was like than what the standard accounts provide. The diaries are introduced and afterworded (?) by Lloyd O'Sullivan, Lilly's son who she was forced (literally) to give up for adoption, in one of the seedier parts of the book. There are three other non-diary segments in the book: two weird "transcripts" of sessions between Lilly and R. D. Laing, the famous psychoanalyst, but in which she acts the part of Patty Hearst to satisfy bizarre fantasies of his; and a chapter, my favorite in the book, that begins with the description of an image from a short film (a man lying on a bed, if I recall correctly), followed by the transcripts of the various voice-overs, which seem to recount events surrounding Lilly's death, as well as discuss history and certain critical ideas of film, such as "the essential falsity of 'realism'".

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Monday, May 14, 2007

Kindred, Octavia Butler

It was the hauntology debate that motivated me to move this book higher on my to-read pile. In it, Dana, a black woman, a writer, living in Los Angeles in 1976 with her white husband, Kevin (also a writer), is mysteriously and repeatedly sucked back into the past, into the antebellum South. The trigger pulling her into the past each time appears to be some kind of threat to the life of Rufus, white son of a Maryland slave-holder. After her first visit to the past, Dana learns that Rufus is an ancestor of hers. She realizes that in order for her family to survive, she must continue to protect him. Over the series of visits, she develops a strange connection to him; he knows who she is and where she comes from, as unbelievable as that is. She thinks she can talk to him, try to change his attitudes. But each time she returns to his time, months or years have gone by (versus only minutes or days for her), and she watches in spurts as Rufus grows into a man of his time--ever more cruel, very much the slave-owner in a slave society. With each return, the act of "saving" Rufus becomes ever more indefensible--except that if he dies, she ceases to exist. Let me re-quote k-punk on this:
The deep, unbearable ache in Kindred arises from the horrible realisation that, for contemporary black America, to wish for the erasure of slavery is to call for the erasure of itself. What to do if the precondition for your being is the abduction, murder and rape of your ancestors?
Yes, that does come through. What also comes through is an almost journalistic (as well as memoir-istic) sense of the horror of slavery. Dana knows a lot about the history of slavery--names, dates, even details of slave narratives (occasionally the presentation of this information can feel like a fact dump)--but she is repeatedly confronted with the brutal truth that, before experiencing it for herself, she really understood nothing at all about it.

On one of her trips back, Kevin manages to go with her by grabbing on to her as she senses that it's happening. In their time there, they discuss the world around them. Kevin is surprised that certain aspects seem less brutal than he had imagined (he notices no oversight of the slaves at work, for example). Dana objects--despite himself, he is effectively minimizing the situation. She says:
"You might be able to go through this whole experience as an observer," I said. "I can understand that because most of the time, I'm still an observer. It's protection. It's nineteen seventy-six shielding eighteen nineteen for me. But now and then, like with the kids' game [they've just witnessed children playing a 'slave auction' game], I can't maintain the distance. I'm drawn all the way into eighteen nineteen, and I don't know what to do. I ought to be doing something. I know that."
Butler's (Dana's) prose is transparent, and her accounting of the events is straightforward and unadorned. The first line of the book ("I lost an arm on my last trip home.") dumps us uncomprehendingly into Dana's attempt to tell her story. This is very much a book in which the sequence of events pulls the reader along. What happens next? What happens? I said something about this to Aimée while I was still reading the book. She said, "I don't see what's wrong with that." Well, nothing's wrong with it, I guess. I wasn't complaining, really, just observing. We like to be told stories, we like to know what happens next. Dana's story is compelling, and she tells it well. The details are specific, horrible. And we feel we learn something about slavery beyond the basic facts, something about the experience of slavery itself.

Along with the horrible fact that Dana must seek to preserve the life of the increasingly awful Rufus, there is Dana's similarly terrible realization that when she is in the past she can't act as she would in her own time. As with her inability to maintain her distance, as in the passage quoted above, other aspects of her personality are fraught with peril. Her clothing (pants) is suspicious. Her very literacy puts her in danger. She is in the past for longer and longer periods before being somehow returned to 1976, which seems to happen only when she actually believes her own life is immediately threatened. Unfortunately for her, the dehumanization and brutality of slavery do not necessarily pose such immediate threats--but that doesn't mean she can't die from injuries sustained in a beating, whether she believed she was in specific danger or not. Since she doesn't know for sure, then, when her life is in actual danger, she finds herself forced to act as a slave in order to survive, to not draw undue attention to herself. She cannot be herself. Some of the most interesting parts of the novel come when Dana is struggling with this realization. She struggles to hold onto herself, to not lose herself in the enforced servility of the slave, even as she comes to understand and respect the varying techniques the slaves employ to live from day to day.

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Sunday, May 13, 2007

On Being Finished Clearing My Throat (I Hope)

I'm been clearing my throat about science fiction and genre and whatnot for some time now. All of this has been preparatory to a post about The Book of the New Sun and The Urth of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe. That post is still forthcoming (which is not to say that I've been working on it all this time), but this post is here in part to say that I think I'm more or less through with all the genre-related posts--at least in the way that I've been approaching them. In the future, if I read an apparently "genre" book, if I write about it, I'll try to focus on what the book does or does not do rather than boring everybody with my confusing questions about what might or might not constitute genre. Unless of course I decide otherwise.

I felt the need to do the throat-clearing because I wanted any science fiction readers to know where I was coming from when I finally did write about Wolfe and his books, and because I intended to write something about what sorts of things I have been looking for at different times when I've read science fiction. I read with interest a post Dan Green wrote in January in which he said that he had been persuaded that science fiction "is inherently a kind of experimental fiction"; he thus decided to sample some science fiction
under the assumption it is a genre that seeks to provide an alternative to "realism" and other conventionally "literary" practices, not just by evoking speculative worlds and looking to the future rather than the past or present but also by creating alternative forms and experimenting with the established elements of fiction (plot, setting, point of view, etc.).
I was sort of surprised by this, because I have not come to science fiction persuaded of any such thing. No doubt unfairly, I tended to think of most science fiction as not really experimental at all. So I wasn't coming to it for this reason. And I certainly wasn't coming to it for its predictive powers. In a post on the occasion of the death of Baudrillard, k-punk wrote: "It is a commonplace that science fiction reveals more about the time it was written than it tells us about the future." I agree with this. And I'd agree that learning about "the time it was written" via science fiction could be interesting, especially as part of a kind of cultural studies, but it's also not the kind of thing I'm interested in for a reading experience, except as a byproduct.

In the end, I merely meant to be saying that what I wanted now from science fiction was, if possible, a "literary" experience--but, of course, I was anxious about appearing condescending toward the genre, or presumptuous about what such a literary effect might be. At least I meant to be clear that I did not mean that I want science fiction that finally ending up being little more than what passes for so-called "literary fiction" (damn, it really is tiresome, isn't it?). Hence, the several rounds of preliminaries.

So, then, to finish up with the throat-clearing exercises. In a comment to an earlier post of mine, I yet again wrote that I had a post Wolfe's books in the works (hey, maybe I'm trying to perfect the genre of the deferred blog post!). Replying to my comment, Scraps welcomed me to the "frenzy of interpretation". I take it that this means that Wolfe's series has been subjected to such a frenzy (I've read very little about it). In the event, I don't actually intend to do much "interpretation"--in this sense, the word implies to me an investigation into "what it all means", explanation of symbols, allegory, etc. I have no trouble accepting that these books are packed full of this stuff (certain Christian symbols seem hard for even me to miss), and may to some extent enhance my enjoyment of future re-readings. But I merely plan to explain why I think it's great and why I think it does provide a literary experience of the kind I felt I wanted from science fiction.

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Thursday, May 10, 2007

iPod rundown - 05/10/07

1. Animal Collective - "Tell it to the Mountain": From the reissued live Hollindagain. Animal Collective are great live, but this track barely captures their chaotic glory. An electronic tone throughout much of it, alongside a sustained more or less wordless vocal is overtaken by some ecstatic, messy, sort of tribal drumming. That's about it.

2. Billy Holiday - "You Turned the Tables on Me": I listen to very little jazz vocal. I tend to prefer Holiday to a singer like Ella Fitzgerald, though many of her songs seem to end on the same note, as she dramatically delivers the final words, which I do find a little off-putting. This lovely song is on Solitude. At our wedding, our first dance was to Holiday's version of "Love is Here to Stay".

3. Arthur Russell - "Let's Go Swimming (Walter Gibbons mix): Like a lot of people, I suspect, I only heard of Russell in the last few years; curious (and unduly obsessed with filling in the gaps of post-punk), I bought the Soul Jazz comp The World of Arthur Russell, which focuses on his disco-related music. I do like his take on disco, but that has not translated into great reverence. Russell's thin and distant vocal was initially off-putting for me, but not too much so. The percussion is great.

4. Feist - "Lonely Lonely": People are raving about Feist's new album, The Reminder (though I have seen rumblings that it represents the adult-contemporification of indie rock). I haven't heard it. This is off her last album, Let it Die, which I bought because we love her cover of the Bee Gees song, "Inside and Out", that appears on it. The album itself is pleasant enough, though I haven't listened to it closely. "Lonely Lonely" is a good one, sounds like a fresh take on a singer-singwriter sound.

5. Wire - "Marooned": Chairs Missing is great of course.

6. Bardo Pond - "Ganges": I often forget about Bardo Pond, but I always enjoy when one of their songs comes on. This 11-minute instrumental begins with alternating channels of psychedelic electric guitar, which fades after less than a minute. The track settles into a slow, mellow fuzz groove; about seven minutes in, drums and guitar get progressively busier above it, before settling down toward the end of the track. Great music to work to. Dilate is the album.

7. Smog - "Cold Blooded Old Times": One of the best songs on Knock Knock. An insistent rock guitar and nice piano, which ends in a great squall of guitar and piano noise. Some lyrics: "the type of memories that turn your bones to glass" and "in this way they gave you clarity, a cold-blooded clarity". I still haven't been able to pick up the new Bill Callahan record.

8. The Jayhawks - "I'd Run Away": For a while, I thought I was interested in keeping up with various stripes of alt-country bands (this didn't last very long; most of them are pretty boring--cf. The Old 97s). One of my favorite such records is Tomorrow the Green Grass, which includes this song. A lot of what I loved about the record was Mark Olson's vocals, and he left the band after this album. So I lost interest, though I know people who swear by the follow-up, Sound of Lies.

9. Outkast - "Liberation": Damn this is a beautiful song. Why do I feel like I've never heard it before? I've had Aquemini for years (since it came out in 1998, I'm sure). At more than 8 minutes, this is one of the longer rap songs I'm aware of. Just drums, piano, bass. I should probably listen to this cd more often.

10. The Vandermark 5 - "Cruz Campo (For Gerhard Richter)": Airports for Light was produced by Bob Weston of Shellac and, of late, Mission of Burma, and it sounds great. This is solid, workmanlike modern jazz, in the traditions of free bop and free jazz. I saw the group play in Chicago at the Empty Bottle (also in the audience: Peter Brotzmann! Joe McPhee!).

11. The Notorious B.I.G. - "Respect": There's a reason Ready to Die is considered a classic. I still don't have much intelligent to say about rap.
12. Miles Davis Quintet - "You're My Everything": The first great quintet, with Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers, Philly Jo Jones. This stuff is pretty much the dictionary definition of jazz for me, so it's hard to imagine that there were those who reacted negatively to it at the time. This comes from Relaxin' with Miles.

13. Pixies - "Planet of Sound": I've been sort of bored by the Pixies lately. Or, bored by the idea of them, bored by their position as indie rock gods. But a song like "Planet of Sound" comes on, and well. I've tended to favor the raw, bare-bones, Albini-recorded Surfer Rosa and not given enough attention to the last Pixies album, Trompe le Monde, which gives us this song. It's hard to say why; I'm always surprised by how great it is. There's a lot going on in these songs.

14. Mia Doi Todd - "88 Ways": I'd never heard of Mia Doi Todd before John Darnielle raved about her most recent cd, Manzanita, when it was released a couple of years ago. I bought that album and the earlier, major-label album The Golden State, which includes "88 Ways". I love Todd's voice. Manzanita is beautiful, and its spare production is much more to my liking than is Mitchell Froom's overly busy production on The Golden State. Still, the latter is a good album nonetheless.

15. Belly - "Super-Connected": This is a pretty basic, engaging rock song from the second Belly cd, King. Tanya Donelly's Belly had some good songs, but they were nothing like as good as her previous band, the great Throwing Muses.

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Other people on some book stuff

Ellis Sharp reviews another Philip K. Dick novel, Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said.

Noting Tom McCarthy's top ten European Modernists list, Steve Mitchelmore agrees with five and adds five more of his own. In reply to a comment asking whether this kind of categorising isn't irrelevant, Steve says:
Yes.

But I was bored and it's a bit of fun and someone like me 20 years ago would have used it to explore the library rather than picking up the latest "The Adjective of Noun" novel by Sophie Wannabe-Newsnight-Review-panellist.
Excellent.

Mr. Waggish comes up with an Antifesto I can get behind (and for the most part already follow).

And, Steamboats are Ruining Everything, a blog that is new to me (and whose title makes me inordinately happy), in a great post compares and contrasts three translations of Turgenev's Fathers and Sons. I read and enjoyed Fathers and Sons earlier this year, in yet a fourth translation (by Rosemary Edmonds). Aside from being a fine read in its own right, this post seals the deal for me on Constance Garnett's translation of War and Peace, which I have a nice hardcover Modern Library edition of. I'd heard enough grumbling about her translations to wonder if it was so bad I should try a different one. Bud Parr's recent post about the upcoming Pevear/Volokhonsky translation just added another possible option. But I think I'll stick with the Garnett.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Human Novels

A friend emailed me recently to say she thought she understood why I did not like Richard Powers' most recent novel, The Echo Maker, as much as I'd liked his others. She said, "it is by far his most human novel ever – I find the emotions in it to be so raw – it is almost painful to read and I hate to have it be over". I answered, somewhat amused, "you're saying I don't like 'human' novels??" She meant that it's more of a tearjerker, "like a chick flick".

I was amused by the initial comment, in part because I wasn't overly surprised, given that our tastes don't easily mesh (for example, she had a hard time finishing Tom McCarthy's fantastic Remainder because she found the narrator so unpleasant), but also because I am very aware that Powers has often been accused of being a cold writer, that his writing is not "human" (or concerned primarily with characters with whom the reader might identify). It's a strange criticism, and hard to respond to. Hard for me to respond to, anyway, not just because it's something I disagree with about Powers, but because it's not the kind of criticism I would likely ever make about anything. It's not a category of criticism I use or find helpful. As Dan Green might say "if it's not human, then what is it?"

In a post from February that I noticed only a few weeks ago, Scott Esposito wrote about his reading of another Powers novel, Galatea 2.2. Scott, relatively new to Powers, was not liking it as much as he had liked both The Echo Maker and The Gold Bug Variations. In Galatea 2.2, a fictional Richard Powers is Humanist-in-Residence at the Center for the Study of Advanced Studies in Illinois. He becomes involved with Philip Lentz, a cognitive neurologist working on using a neural network to model the human brain (I've read the book twice, but for convenience I am basically paraphrasing the back of the book here). Lentz enlists Powers to teach the various iterations of the network the canonical Great Books. Scott praises this part of the novel, but there is a subplot that he had a problem with. Here's what he says about it:
This [subplot] one tells of Richard Powers the recent grad--his relationship with a woman he met while teaching an undergrad class and the writing of his first novel. The problem here is that it always feels like I am reading this narrative at a distance. The characters of young Richard and his love (only known as "C.") feel like 2-D representations of your typical couple at loose ends after college. This part is described, not told, which is a shame, because I have seen what Powers can do, and he can do much more than this. For example:
We were alone. For the first time in our lives, neither of us was going anywhere. We navigated from winter night to winter night, in a state where winter starts in October and rages on into May. In an apartment halfway along its forced march from genteel to desperate, we made a home too familiar for words.
Now, there's nothing wrong with this kind of fly-over narration if used sparingly to jet us past certain spots, but when virtually the entire story is narrated in these bland, distant terms, we have a problem. I don't want to be told that "we made a home too familiar for words," I want to see it being made. Moreover, there's no suspense in this plot. We know Powers will write his novel and become a famous author, that his relationship will end badly. The only thing in it for us is a vivid portrayal of it happening, but we're not getting that. And, lastly, halfway through the novel, I'm still not seeing the links between this narrative and the other one.
In a comment, Scott says that he finished the novel and ended up not liking it, finding the writing "loose" and "clunky" (I certainly disagree with this), the subplots never coming together for him.

It's difficult to argue with someone's dislike of a novel. It's more difficult when the dislike is couched in terms that seem so far removed from your own experience of the novel. In this case, I fear that Scott--who has shown an openness to various kinds of non-conventional fiction--is bringing expectations of a certain kind of book to his reading of this one. And I fear that Powers has encouraged this by his recent move toward more conventional psychological fiction (perhaps, too, Galatea 2.2's superficial resemblance to such books lends one to believe these kinds of expectations will be met). Worse, in his phrase "he can do much more than this" Scott appears to be privileging the aesthetics of this kind fiction, over even those more experimental novels he admittedly admires.

Essentially, with Galatea 2.2, Scott is telling Powers to "show not tell". Just as I think it's strange to criticize a novel for not being "human", I think this is a strange criticism of this novel. When Powers the character arrives in Illinois he is damaged, unsure whether he will be able to write again, whether he wants to write again. At some point he has obviously regained the urge to write (he is writing this book), and in doing so he writes about how he and C. came together, tentative at first:
By mutual agreement, we kept mum and avoided incident. I teased her about her previous incarnations. "Do you have any documentary evidence?"

At her next conference, she produced a photo out of her backpack. "Documentary evidence of prior lives." Flirting, under deniability's cloak.
He writes about his impetus to start writing, and about how his writing career had begun to flourish just as the depressive C. was becoming unreachable. His relationship with C. left him unsure of where he stood with himself. His writing in these sections is not "flyover", but I agree that there is a distance in it. Scott says that he has "seen what Powers can do"--that is, tell a psychologically convincing story, as he tried to do with The Echo Maker--write a tearjerker, as my friend would put it. Scott wants to "see" the relationship that Powers is instead describing. I assume this means more "natural" dialogue and psychological investigation into the mind of the Powers character. But to the Powers character, the narrator, these sections are not merely a narrative, they are the pieces of his former life, the damage to which has left him adrift, both as a man and as a writer. The distance is entirely appropriate, not least because he is never able to get to C. He is completely shut out; she recedes further and further from him. Her distance from him necessitates her distance from us. And his distance from her, effects his distance from other people.

The connection with the rest of the book becomes apparent by the end when in the course of his Great Books survey with Lentz's neural network, he finds himself attached to this network, needing the unlikely relationship that emerges with its artificial intelligence. Powers emerges, through this interaction, as well as through his contact with the other faculty and students at the Center (including Lentz and the grad student, A.; Scott inexplicably finds this latter interaction "creepy"), able to begin writing again, able to write something of the story of his life with C. and the distance that came between them.

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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Jamestown and the NYTBR

There's been quite a bit of noise in the lit blogs about Matthew Sharpe's new novel, Jamestown. I don't know if I'll get around to reading it, but I did read Susannah Meadows' lame review of it in The New York Times Book Review. It gets off to an irritating, cutesy start:
Americans have been very, very bad. Gluttonous, warmongering, nonenvironmentally conscious bad. In Matthew Sharpe’s strange and strained “Jamestown,” set in the post-apocalyptic future, everything is ruined, even the country, even the people. Brooklyn and Manhattan are fighting each other; the Indians have, inexplicably, retaken the South. The East River is goopy (or goopier). The Chrysler Building is rubble. Hares stalk the dead landscape biting off the heads of rodents. If Sharpe’s book had come out in the ’90s, Kevin Costner would be looking to direct.
From the opening sentence it seems that Meadows is tired of hearing about America's less than perfect role in the world, annoyed to have to write her review, annoyed that Sharpe has written his book at all. Later in the review she writes:
In this bad new world, the Manhattan Company is the government, dispatching a busload of men to get what its [sic] needs — oil, food, trees — from the Indians. The Manhattanites build a settlement, calling it Jamestown, after their boss. The Indians have corn. The settlers have guns. A lot of people die.

Sharpe doesn’t exactly take a gutsy approach to the old ideas. (Why is every imagined future post-apocalyptic, anyway?) War for oil = bad; corporations = eeeevil. And the white man? What a bunch of savages.
This is a common enough theme, it's true, and maybe Meadows is right that Sharpe doesn't bring anything new to the material (though I know of several bloggers who disagree). But her review is bad, and she doesn't convince. And her parenthetical question is priceless: "Why is every imagined future post-apocalyptic?" Yeah, hard to credit, that.

Scott Esposito, who has read Jamestown, has a fuller critique of Meadows' review (he quotes from another, silly part of the review, in which Meadows talks about how boring it is listening to or reading about other people's dreams).

Incidentally, I read this review in the print edition of the Review, which just reminded me, yet again, why I think the NYTBR is generally worthless. The cover is black, with a red-trimmed circle (it looks like a dartboard) in the middle, at the center of which is a skull-and-crossbones, above and below which are the words "Bad For You". Images of vice (alcohol, cigarettes, pills) are spoked out towards the edge of the circle. At the bottom of the page is a mock Surgeon General's warning that reads: "Benjamin Kunkel on Nirvana - Joe Queenan on bad books - Diane Johnson on New Age spirituality - Tom Carson on Warren Zevon". Other reviews are of books about drug addiction, smoking, teenagers, gambling, etc. That's right: it's another theme issue. Stuff that is bad, or bad for you.

There's nothing inherently wrong with a theme issue of a publication (although I find this particular theme pandering and uninspired). But the theme issue is apparently one of the few organizing principles available to Sam Tanenhaus. A few weeks ago, there was the "Fiction in Translation" edition. I didn't see this issue, but it got a lot of notice in the blogs--see The Literary Saloon's comment here, as well as Levi Asher's coverage at LitKicks here. In Asher's post he says: "I don't generally love 'theme issues', but the NYTBR can do an issue like this anytime they want." Fair enough, right? We'd all like to see substantial coverage of serious fiction, and especially of fiction in translation, which is too often ignored in this country. An issue devoted entirely to fiction in translation helps, so I have no complaint with that individual edition of the Review. My problem is that it's clear that such an issue is a token. I doubt that the NYTBR is ever going to consistently put out issues that cover serious fiction, translated or otherwise, in a serious way (or even serious non-fiction in a serious way). The Literary Saloon complains about the NYTBR quite a bit (here's a representative post, from just two weeks prior to the "Fiction in Translation" edition), and with good reason--except that I wonder why they and others bother.

In many respects, of course, I'm far from the best person to weigh in on the relative merits of the NYTBR (which is why I usually avoid doing so). I've never liked its coverage of books. This is why I went online in the first place: book review sections didn't come close to filling my need, and, oddly, they still don't. (The Literary Saloon often notes, rightly, that the coverage at the NYTBR is heavily weighted toward non-fiction. It would take a separate post that I'm not likely to write to get into my considerable political problems with the non-fiction coverage itself.) Because I don't like its coverage, I tend not to seek it out. I don't, for example, know how often it actually is organized around a theme, and I really don't care. I do know that I check in every so often (like when I pick up the Times for Aimée), and rarely am I impressed. Obviously, it occasionally includes a good review of a book worth reviewing, but these are exceptions. My assessment of the NYTBR's value, then, arises from personal, but not regular, observation of issues over a period of several years (not just the admittedly worse Tanenhaus era), combined with reading the continuous complaints from other bloggers who seem to care a lot about it. Conclusion: it's terrible. Solution: stop caring.