June 9, 2013 § Leave a Comment
I shrugged. ‘Out. Walking and things.’
‘Building dams again?’ he sneered.
‘No,’ I said, shaking my head confidently and biting the apple. ‘Not today.’
‘I hope you weren’t out killing any of God’s creatures.’
I shrugged at him again. Of course I was out killing things. How the hell am I supposed to get heads and bodies for the Poles and the Bunker if I don’t kill things? There just aren’t enough natural deaths. You can’t explain that sort of thing to people, though.
–from The Wasp Factory (1984)
Iain Banks succumbs to gall bladder cancer at 59. More beloved across the pond than here, I think, but any writer who understands that children are cruel and unmerciful savages deserves a legacy.
June 2, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Flash Fiction Chronicles has put together its list of reader-nominated favorite short stories, submitted throughout the month of May. One hundred sixty-one stories made the list this year, ranging from some old standbys (Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”; Lorrie Moore’s “People Like That Are the Only People Here”), modern short-story masters (George Saunders; Claire Vaye Watkins) to up-and-coming writers in lesser-known journals.
June 2, 2013 § Leave a Comment
NOÖ Journal #14. A labor of love located here in the Happy Valley edited by literary dynamo Mike Young (Look! Look! Feathers), who gave me a copy at AWP. The magazine is back after an apparent hiatus, with no issue put out in 2012. New features include an expanded review section by the folks at Vouched Books and “20 Good Books: A Reading Journal of 2012,” in which the editor shares where he read each title along with his impressions. (“Read this after losing a lot to the artificial intelligence in a tennis video game my friend Mark bought me for my birthday.”)
The selections (fiction and poetry) are fun and a little showoffy, featuring confident writers not afraid to coin their own adjectives to strike the right note. My favorite story is “Neon God From the Top Turnbuckle,” by Gene Kwak, about a young man who falls in love with an antiabortion activist:
Bessie and company are pro-agony, seems to me, as the sounds they let loose are somewhere between flagellation of the ear and the Holy Spirit barely curtailed by their bodies. Eyes roll back in heads, people sink to knees, white knuckles grasp grass and rip tufts free as if they held an earth-aimed grudge. The songs and sermons they shout have all the typical Biblical buzzwords, and I fish lip along, no sound out but for a quick lip quiver or two to mock movement. They know the words by heart, but I never got the liner notes. One of them twitches and tweaks, a frothed mouth away from being considered for a binding white coat.
Then We Came to the End, Joshua Ferris. One of the first subjects we addressed in the Barrelhouse Online Fiction Workshop I just completed was point of view, and the advantages and limits of each (first person, third limited, third omniscient, and second person, the standard of which was set and perhaps ruined by Bright Lights, Big City). The instructor drew our attention to Ferris’s novel, part of the wave of office fiction that came out a few years ago (along with Ed Park’s Personal Days, if I recall correctly). Then We Came to the End is written in the unique perspective of first-person plural. I knew we had a copy lying around somewhere, so I took a look.
The novel revisits all the old office tropes (as seen in Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs, plus the beginning of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club) as a Chicago ad firm goes through a wave of downsizing—the politics and paranoia, idleness (from lack of work) and people directing their energies toward undercutting one another. If there is one difference, it might be that Ferris’s characters seem to like their work, for the most part, enough so that the elements of the company and its workers are not operating solely at odds, and the expected absurdity of one’s feeling meaningless is limited.
Toward this end, the third-person plural makes perfect sense. (Apparently it’s also used in Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, which I haven’t read.) Anyone familiar with office culture knows the prevalence of the ‘we’ pronoun in company missives, to convey the harmony of direction in the stream. In a Q & A at the back of the book, Ferris calls this “the corporate we” (instead of the “royal we”), but this still suggests a decisionmaker’s vantage point, which is not what the book presents; to me it feels more like a proletarian we.
The effect is that there is essentially no protagonist, no one for the circle to close in on. Each character is essentially secondary, and there is no order of priority of whom to root for. They want what you can expect they want: something more meaningful than what their occupations provide, but without sacrificing the stability (both economic and social) that they have come to rely on through work. Among the individual crises visited are a couple of embittered and unstable employees relieved of their duties, one in denial and refusing to leave, one ultimately presenting a danger in a way that is diffused harmlessly. There is also a cancer scare, an extramarital interoffice affair resulting in a pregnancy, an aspiring novelist, a mother grieving her kidnapped and murdered daughter, and office furniture switcherooed without permission (and every piece with a serial number). The shreds are all kind of balled together like a wad of paper at the end.
Prisoner of Trebekistan: A Decade in Jeopardy!, by Bob Harris. A memoir by one of the game show’s more memorable contestants. Already an established humorist and speechwriter, Harris won $58,000 plus two Camaros as a five-time undefeated champion in 1997. Even though he didn’t win the Tournament of Champions that year, his affability paid off in the ratings, and so he was invited back for two subsequent reunion tournaments, during which he won more money.
Much like past books by champions Chuck Forrest and Michael Dupée, Harris’s book offers glimmers of advice for would-be players—in particular, “Jedi mastery” of the signaling button (it is NOT a buzzer), cramming devices, mnemonics and other tricks of memory and association. But it is also a tender love letter to the family, friends, and the ex-girlfriends who put up with Harris’s snowballing game-show obsession with varied levels of patience. At times, the sentiment that comes through is tempered by guilt, like when Harris writes of the family he has left behind in his wintry home city of Cleveland, particularly for the sister who never went to college and whose autoimmune disorder has no apparent treatment.
Along the way, Harris develops close friendships with many other recognizable Jeopardy! champs, including Frank Spangenberg and Dan Melia. Between appearances, he takes trips to the sites of six of the seven Ancient Wonders of the World. The book is an enjoyable read; Harris detours away from any risk of a champion’s gloating by turning everything back to the shared wonder of knowledge and learning.
Full disclosure: I am currently “swimming in the pool,” as they say, waiting for the chance to appear on the show myself after auditioning in early May. Prisoner of Trebekistan came recommended from a number of fellow Jeopardy! enthusiasts.
Young Man With a Horn, Dorothy Baker. Another NYRB Classic, originally published in 1938 and billed as the first jazz novel. it is based on the “artistry—though not the life—of Bix Biederbecke,” though much of the plot lines up with Biederbecke’s life anyway—a young white aspiring pianist meets a black drummer through his job at a bowling alley, and eventually other musicians, until his untimely death at the height of his career as a cornettist playing at the top New York clubs.
The novel’s opening line makes you think tensions of race and class will be prominent: “In the first place maybe he shouldn’t have got himself mixed up with negroes.“ These words come from the first-person narrator, a male, who, like that cowboy in The Big Lebowski, identifies himself so infrequently throughout the novel that you forget that this story is being told by a person with a narrow point of view. Baker somehow avoids letting Rick follow down the predictable, sinister paths of drugs, drink, and distraction. It’s all about the horn. The book is 172 pages long and we don’t meet a love interest for Rick, or any significant female character for that matter, until page 126, and she’s a perfectly clean grad student from Yale. The dreamy drummer friend from the bowling alley falls out of the picture once he takes up with his own band.
But I liked the book. Its smooth sentence rhythms were well suited for its subject. And with the hole-in-the-wall narrator Baker allows herself moments of explication for jazz novices:
This playing style is worth some going into. Jeff’s band didn’t play from music, though they could all read music. They had two styles of playing, known to the present trade as Memphis style or New Orleans style. The difference between the two is something like the difference between the two styles of chow mein: in one you get the noodles and the sauce served separately, and in the other sauce and noodles are mixed before they are served.
And ratchets up the glee at the right moments:
“Let’s go get us some peanuts, then,” Smoke said. “We ain’t had any of them yet, have we?”
But there wasn’t any peanut place and Smoke went on talking and talking, saying boy, did you wow them! Did you wowm there at Galba’s.
Rick couldn’t seem to remember anything about it, but that was one part of the night that Smoke knew everything about. They’d got into Louie Galba’s place, a little sixth-floor salon with a platform no bigger than six feet square with a studio piano on it and a set of traps and Louie Galba sitting on a kitchen chair balanced right on the edge of the platform playing a trumpet while some woman sang a slow song. When the song was finished, Louie came over and set them all up a drink, and then everybody set everybody else up two or three more and Jeff told Louie that Rick was in New York to play trumpet. “Go on, then,” Louie said, “play mine for a while.”
“I guess I might have been sort of tight,” Rick said.
“Funny you didn’t seem tight,” Smoke said. “To bad you can’t remember, because you sure did wowm.”
“I like this town,” Rick said. “Too bad we can’t find you a peanut wagon though. Place this size.”
Speaking of NYRB Classics, I also read Renata Adler’s just-re-released Speedboat (the subject of a lot of buzz lately), but I’ll hold off on writing about that until next month when I can do so alongside its partner in crime Pitch Dark.
May 23, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Baz Luhrmann’s treatment of The Great Gatsby requires a bit more letting go than we tend to grant most screen adaptations. This is not just due to Luhrmann’s reputation as a hyper-electrifier, prone to deploying all the effects tools he’s given to play with. Gatsby is a richly polished novel, delicately written in so many places that it is easy to damage, and already worked over so ritually that we feel more urgent to protect our angles to it.
Luhrmann can’t be accused of deviating too much from the text, because so much of the film is the text. We literally hear Tobey Maguire, as Nick Carraway, recite lines from the novel to us, and key words are scrolled over the picture in cursive to punctuate the important parts. The one big conceit we’re asked to forgive is that Nick, not F. Scott Fitzgerald, is writing these words—on the advice of the psychiatrist to whom his testimony comprises the narration we hear. Nick Carraway, our bewildered observer, has apparently been driven to drink, and being the wingman and sole defender of his wealthy monomaniac neighbor has made him that way.
Luhrmann has tried to make a movie that is as elegant and opulent as the story it tries to tell, but rarely lets the camera hold still enough for us to bask in that opulence. There are pearls swinging around dancing necks; delicate fingers pinching martini glasses. From our helicopter vantage point the party floor at Gatsby’s mansion looks a little like a mosh pit. Part of this is the 3-D angle (why that was deemed necessary is anyone’s guess); when Gatsby’s shirts are tossed around they are meant to land on top of us); the rest smacks of a threatened boredom with the inner narrative. But while the effects are showoffy, it is hard to call them contrived when the movie is about a man doing all he can to show off.
And there are the symbols. We are already hypersensitive to them, so having them weighed on us is embarrassing. Gatsby reaches his arm out for the green light across the bay, nearly plucking it like an unripe apple off a tree. We practically choke on the ash rising up from the heaps whenever we pass them coming to or from West Egg. T. J. Eckleburg’s blue eyes pierce through his lenses and the rotted wood so intently we expect them to blink. It is as though Luhrmann is trying very hard to prove to us that he read the assignment and checked off all the avenues of comprehension on which he might be tested before presenting his diorama to the class.
We are asked to overlook a few of the slicker details. The character of Klipspringer, in the novel a boarder occasionally roused out of slumber to entertain guests on the piano, here is for some reason chained to a built-in, two-story pipe organ that seems to be giving him an electric shock. At The Atlantic, Esther Zuckerman notes that the scene in which Gatsby and Nick cross the Queensboro Bridge didn’t include the funeral procession that passed them:
The friends looked out at us with the tragic eyes and short upper lips of south-eastern Europe and I was glad that the sight of Gatsby’s splendid car was included in their somber holiday.
While the Jay-Z soundtrack pumps along, African-American servants stare like gargoyles out of the woodwork, or play serenading trumpets on window ledges over the steaming streets.
Then there are the actors, against whom I came in with a bias. Tobey Maguire will always look and sound like a fourteen-year-old to me; Leonardo DiCaprio, his face compressed and rubberized over the years since he was that homeless kid in Growing Pains, just doesn’t pull off millionaire polish well; and this Carey Mulligan, with her big, frightened eyes, eliminates any chance of complexity in the character of Daisy. At times, this Great Gatsby feels like a very expensive school play.
And yet, there are so many worse things one could do to a story. No morals were upstaged, no fates rerouted. (I could never understand why Gatsby let Tom take his car for the ride to the city—or for that matter, why Tom let Gatsby take Daisy.) Seeing the film made me want to pull out my beat-up Scriber paperback—with Matthew Bruccoli’s annotations, purchased for a summer reading assignment in high school—and read the novel again, take a fresh inventory of its lyrics and images. We have been presented the excuse as a gift.
May 4, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Slow reading month, because I’ve had the workshop (mentioned below, more about which later) and other things going on.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark. A used bookstore pickup from back whenever. There haven’t been nearly enough women authors on my reading list (and picking a dead one doesn’t do much to improve my score, I realize). But Spark seems to be coming up in conversations a lot recently, particularly in my writer circles, regarding her reputation for clean, icy prose.
Spark was born Muriel Camberg and retained the name of her first husband, with whom she had a brief and miserable marriage, because it had “some ingredient of life and fun.” There is a good deal of mischief in Miss Jean Brodie. The title character is a teacher at an all-girls private school who has tossed aside the assigned curriculum (even training the students to have textbooks open in front of them, should the headmistress walk in) in favor of a coordinated effort to groom the “crème de la crème” of her class on more important matters of sex, politics, art, manners, and independence.
The girls graduate to Senior School but keep in close touch with their teacher. As Brodie acquires two suitors—one-armed married art teacher Mr. Lloyd and bachelor music instructor Mr. Lowther—the obsession of the girls with Miss Brodie’s sex life turns the focus around to her. Her former lover, Hugh, had been killed in the Great War, a week before the Armistice. Through a narrative method that intersperses future scenes with the present, we learn that one of her pupils will betray her somehow.
The story is of an era (published in 1962, set in 1930s Edinburgh), finding part of its energy in the mock-theatrical pronouncements of its characters:
“I should like you girls to come to supper tomorrow night,” Miss Brodie said. “Make sure you are free.”
“The Dramatic Society…” murmured Jenny.
“Send an excuse,” said Miss Brodie. “I have to consult you about a new plot which is afoot to force me to resign. Needless to say, I shall not resign.” She spoke calmly as she always did in spite of her forceful words.
Miss Brodie never discussed her affairs with the other members of the staff, but only with those former pupils who she had trained up in her confidence. There had been previous plots to remove her from Blaine, which had been foiled.
“It has been suggested again that I apply for a post at one of the progressive schools, where my methods would be more suited to the system than they are at Blaine. But I shall not apply to a post at a crank school. I shall remain at this education factory. There needs must be a leaven in the lump. Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life.”
Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard, Richard Brody. A dense critical biography of the pioneering, enigmatic French New Wave director. Brody is a New Yorker film critic whose specialty is mid-century auteur cinema, so you are more likely to find his writings online or in the retrospective capsules at the front of the magazine than the Critics section, where Lane and Denby reign. Everything Is Cinema took Brody ten years to write; the painstaking research put into the book (Godard himself granted Brody one interview, over the course of two days, from his castle home in Switzerland) is supplemented by thoughtful critiques of the work on the screen.
Each chapter is devoted to one or more films, telling us of the inspiration for each, the financing, the recruiting of cast and crew (increasingly tricky as more and more bridges are burned), the difficulties in shooting. Godard often didn’t write scripts until the last minute—this is why whole scenes of Bande a Part consist of Sami Frey and Claude Brasseur reading the newspaper—and seemed bent on making his actors as uncomfortable in front of the camera as possible for the sake of not appearing rehearsed. Brody doesn’t play favorites with the material, nor the films, and as a result the second half of the book is an uphill climb. This isn’t so much Brody’s fault as it is Godard’s. By the time the director completes Weekend, in 1967, the majority of his best (and best-known) work is behind us and we still have some 300 pages to go. Fortunately, a thick chapter on Malraux, Henri Langlois, the ’68 student revolution and the closing of the Cinemateque Francaise helps to orient things somewhat on a social and political level.
Godard is a misogynist, and, in a challenge for someone whose art requires him to direct our attention to other people on a screen, a narcissist. All three of his wives (Anna Karina, Anne Wiazemsky, Anne-Marie Miéville) have been centrally featured in his work, and the times he has turned the camera on himself, either directly or indirectly, it is not with any of the coyness or amusement of Woody Allen or Alfred Hitchcock. Brody is polite about all of this while making it easy for us to draw our own conclusions.
I can watch À bout de souffle and Bande à part and Masculin féminin over and over again and find new things to be enthralled about. But nothing in this book made me want to see any more of the films than the ones I have already seen, perhaps with the exception of Detective. As a work of biographical and critical journalism, I suppose this should not matter, but I suspect it would be a disappointment to Brody.
See also: “Behind the Scenes of an Iconic Godard Scene,” from Brody’s The Front Row blog, 5 April 2013.
Barrelhouse #11. A thickly loaded issue, with ten short stories, four essays, an eclectic collection of poetry, and a comic by Jordan Jeffries that illustrates another story, “Me & Gin” by Lindsay Hunter, that appears on the magazine’s web site. I read this issue with particular interest as I am currently enrolled in the Barrelhouse Online Fiction Workshop, and as discussion there has touched upon what kinds of stories are likely to get picked up for publication over others, it has been tempting to try to identify the giveaway areas, which parts clearly sold the editors on these choices.
There is a lot of rambunctious narration here, fiction as well as non, and on more than one occasion I had to flip back to confirm if a piece was essay or fiction because the authority of the writing blurred the line. A nonfiction piece by Casey Wiley, “You Are All Welcome Here (Unless, Of Course, You Take Photos),” documents the far-out tattooed and obsessedly remaining-in-character individuals who frequent the Stoogeum, the world’s only museum devoted entirely to the Three Stooges, located in a nondescript office park in Ambler, Pennsylvania. I also enjoyed Edward Porter’s second-person-narrated “The White Guy’s Guide to Marrying a Black Woman” and Ethan Chatagnier’s “Oyster Shell,” with the first line: “I drive the retards to the library is what I do.”
The voice in Chatagnier’s line here, with that wraparound “is what I do” at the end, reminds me of that of Jack Keefe, the letter-writing busher pitcher in Ring Lardner’s You Know Me, Al, for some reason. Its weight is not an accident. Barrelhouse bolds the first line of each of its stories, as though to emphasize the importance of plunging the reader into a situation immediately. Other examples:
The first rule is, never mention she’s black to your white friends, or your family. (“The White Guy’s Guide to Marrying a Black Woman”)
As a kid I had a perpetual cowlick and a meager collection of autographs I kept in an envelope in the back of my underwear drawer. (“Smear the Queer,” Dave Madden)
The man says he doesn’t even know the stripper’s name. (“Let’s See What Happens,” Amy Butcher)
You’ll never hear me claim to be exceptionally smart, and I’m nowhere near good-looking, and my moral compass, so I’ve been told, points roughly in the same direction as that of Idi Amin’s. (“Young Arsonists in Love,” Andrew Brimstool; not sure if the redundant possessive is deliberate here, but it sounds true.)
The first guy has “Why Scointly!” tattooed to the back of his neck. (“You Are All Welcome Here (Unless, Of Course, You Take Photos)”).
I picked up Issue 8 along with the collection Bring the Noise at AWP, but at some point I will need to come back to this one.
April 26, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Maria Popova at Brain Pickings notes that Susan Sontag liked making lists, and that lists are “very much a currency of culture, today’s favorite attention-exploitation device in an information economy of countless listicles and innumerable numerical headlines.” The latest volume of Sontag’s collected journals, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980, is dotted with a good number of them (some of which Popova shares), and in an entry from 1967, Sontag digs into her fascination with them:
I perceive value, I confer value, I create value, I even create — or guarantee — existence. Hence, my compulsion to make “lists.” The things (Beethoven’s music, movies, business firms) won’t exist unless I signify my interest in them by at least noting down their names.
Nothing exists unless I maintain it (by my interest, or my potential interest). This is an ultimate, mostly subliminal anxiety. Hence, I must remain always, both in principle + actively, interested in everything. Taking all of knowledge as my province.
Lists are about segregation, compartmentalization: sorting out what belongs to a category from what does not. Books you wish to read, favorite films, possible names for your children. Cities you have visited. They become useless when left open-ended. We are by nature segregators, even in our relationships: we choose particular people to pursue getting to know better, and in doing so leave others behind.
Also: it is notable that among Sontag’s list of dislikes are “being photographed” and “taking photographs.” This from a writer who called photography “the inventory of mortality,” a predatory activity reductive in its storytelling, and who wrote, “In America, the photographer is not simply the person who records the past but the one who invents it.”1
1“Melancholy Objects,” in On Photography (1973), 1990, p. 67
April 23, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Very sad to hear of the news today that MudLuscious Press has ceased operations, and doubly sad because I was only just beginning to get to know their work.
From the Facebook page:
We are officially closing. This decision wasn’t made lightly, but suffice it to say, the time has come to shut it down. We’ve had the enormous pleasure of publishing the words we loved, and we couldn’t be more grateful for our audience, our authors, and all the friends we made along the way.
You can follow the links on the MLP page (
) if you’d like to buy any of the remaining copies at SPD, Amazon, or Powell’s. Some last Nephew titles are also available directly from us here:
Thank you all for being a part of what we did, the words we adored, and the books we spent so much of everything on. We are extremely proud to have had a small place in your literary heart.
J. A. Tyler, founding editor
I will particularly miss MudLuscious’s Nephew imprint, which published standalone stories and novellas in nifty stylish pocket editions.
Here’s hoping many new and profitable enterprises await these folks.
Edited to Add, 04/26/2013: One project that was left in the lurch by the closing, Gabe Durham’s Fun Camp, has already been picked up by Publishing Genius Press.