Thursday, September 29, 2011

Review of Lightning Rods

Lightning Bolts is a strange book. If I hadn't read a bunch of Cesar Aira and Tao Lin this year it would easily be the strangest book I've read, but, well, that's how I roll. It can also be an uncomfortable book for a couple of different reasons. The premise is simple; down on his luck salesman Joe, taps into his own sexual fantasy to create a service based on providing top-performing heterosexual men with perfectly anonymous sex as an outlet for drives that are usually expressed by actions now considered sexual harassment. After all the usual struggles of a start up business, Joe's endeavor ends up being extremely successful. He even uses it as a springboard for a tangential business providing height adjustable toilets. And from the beginning to the absolute end, Joe believes he has made the world a better place.

It's easy to see why some people would be uncomfortable by the very premise of the book. Even my partner was skeeved out and she's read The Story of the Eye, Last Exit to Brooklyn, and (AND!) Justine. (Look those up.) Even with all precautions that Joe takes to create a situation where sex is no different than any other bodily function, a lot of readers are going to be uncomfortable at the very idea.

The discomfort is compounded by the narrative style. The entire book; conversations, trains of thought, descriptions of events, is written in what I like to think of as “corporate calculated casual;” the fake friendly buddy buddy diction of negotiations, conference presentations, and working lunches. The diction is not informal because the participants have a relationship; it is informal because a consultant at some point realized that an informal tone is more successful in making sales. Talking like a buddy with someone drops their negotiation barriers, because they feel like they're talking with a buddy. Throughout the book, Joe convinces people of his protect by agreeing with every one of their objections and concerns until he has swung them all the way around to agreeing with him. Though DeWitt (author of The Last Samurai) never confronts the idea directly, the style of the book is a satiric and vicious condemnation of the nature of our business.

But Joe is not without his points. And one that he makes presents a major metaphysical challenge. I'll paraphrase it. Imagine a man who was born with a high level of testosterone. Imagine further that he was raised in a patriarchal household where no respect is shown to women whatsoever. His father is a blatant and loud chauvinist. Depending on where he lives, he might not encounter a different world view in high school, and depending on where he goes to college (and perhaps even what he majors in) he might not encounter a different world view until he gets to the workplace, where his attitude constitutes a substantial liability to his employer. If we are expected to accommodate disabilities, and a man ends up an asshole through genetics and upbringing, why should accommodations not be made for him?

What we have here is a very touchy example of a basic question of free will. The question it asks is: what about us are we responsible for? If the chauvinist is never taught a different way of viewing the world, at what point do we hold him responsible for his chauvinism? If there are some actions that an individual must always be responsible for, what are they and how do we decide what they are? And DeWitt, to her credit, doesn't give us any help in answering the question.

DeWitt has written a book that's hard to enjoy. Through the content and the style she has posed challenges and questions that are uncomfortable to confront. After awhile, that networking style, becomes just as impersonal and alienating as the Lightning Rod system itself. But that doesn't mean this isn't a good book. I think there is something to impactful books that aren't enjoyable to read. To put it simply, sometimes life isn't enjoyable and so sometimes the books we read shouldn't be enjoyable either. I certainly wouldn't make those books the majority of anyone's reading, but I would suggest at least trying Lightning Rods. It's a cruel satire of a cruel system of being and the challenges it poses are real opportunities to learn something about ourselves.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Reviews of Reamde and The Windup Girl

I recently finished two excellent works of entertainment writing, both with the potential to contribute more than just a few hours of fun to the reader's consciousness. Here are reviews for Neal Stephenson's Reamde and Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl.

I won't try to summarize Reamde. It's one of those works that the second you start telling someone else what has happened, it sounds preposterous, ridiculous, and absurd. But it all makes sense while you're reading it. Like all Stephenson's work, the writing is of such a high quality, the characters are so interesting, and the events are so thrilling, that he convinces you it's just a lot more fun if you go along with the coincidences than if you spend the whole book questioning their likelihood.

Instead of a summary, I'll give you some keywords to give you a sense of the story; Welsh Islamic Jihadist, MMORPG with shockingly realistic topography and tectonics, Chinese hackers, Eritrean refugee orphan adopted into a mid-west American family, lunatic Russian mobsters, MI6, and the American/Canadian border in the Pacific Northwest. Oh, and radical American isolationists with lots of guns. Oh, and a Boston born NSA agent stationed in Manilla. Did I mention everything that happens, happens because of a relatively benign virus called “REAMDE” that only affects serious players of T'Rain, the aforementioned MMORPG.

The perfect way to read this is probably to just take a week off from work and blast right through it. You always want to know what happens next, not because Stephenson plays cliff-hanger games, but because the characters are so interesting and whatever has just happened in the book was so thrilling and entertaining, you know you're going to enjoy whatever time you spend reading it.

Reamde is not without its more subtle themes. Otherness plays a huge part in the story, as the protagonist, Zula (the Eritrean orphan), is often saved by being a black woman in a situation where she is the only black woman, and the primary antagonist is a black Welsh Jihadist (Yep. Welsh). There's also the basic moral tension between crime and law, present in any good thrillers, as well as Stephenson's usual insightful speculations about technology, society, and economy.

In a perfect world, all bestsellers are of this quality, written with an attention to detail, respect for the reader's intelligence, and actual skill with sentences. I'm sure you've noticed its not a perfect world. Though it is filled with James Pattersons and Dan Browns, we can at least take some comfort in the fact that we have at least one Neal Stephenson.

Catastrophic climate change brought on by burning fossil fuels. A food system destroyed by genetic manipulation and unscrupulous mega-agr-business. Rapidly mutating plagues and viruses. The world of The Windup Girl, as in the best sci-fi, is on of the possible futures to our actual present. The story takes place in Thailand. By shutting themselves off from the rest of the world, destroying invasive species, and burning villages with hints of plague, Thailand was able to restore, to some degree, its indigenous agriculture and create a sustainable economy, based in carbon neutral energy and strict control over their seed stock.

The story picks up when all of that is at risk. Foreign businesses and ambitious members of the Thai government are working to erode those protections, and open the Thai markets to foreign investors and foreign genetically engineered foods. One of the major characters is Anderson Lake, a foreign businessman looking to do just that. Lake works for a major agribusiness based in Des Moines. Under the cover of a kink spring factory that is developing a major breakthrough in energy storage, his major goal is to gain access to the Thai seed bank. To do so, he's willing to put the factory workers at risk of plague and facilitate a military coup.

His opposite is Jaidee, a charismatic former Muay Thai boxer, who is the inspirational leader of the Environmental Ministry, the arm of government that created and enforces Thailand's isolation. Jaidee is brash, idealistic, and uncompromising and as a result comes into conflict with those forces, seeking to undo the influence of the Environmental Ministry. Because he is an uncompromising idealist, it isn't hard to figure out what happens to him.

For much of the book, Emiko, The Windup Girl herself, plays a small role. Windups are genetically engineered humans, generally made in Japan, and because they are genetically altered, they are illegal in Thailand; “mulched” if discovered. When we meet her, and for much of the book, she is working as a dancer and a prostitute.

Bacigalupi does a brilliant job building his world. Just like spending a lot of time living in a foreign country, you pick up the terms. Bacigalupi doesn't go out of his way to explain the terms or the rituals, they just come up naturally and you absorb their meaning, their meaning from the context. It's the best technique for building a complete world without writing a guidebook into your novel.

At its core, The Windup Girl is about societal forgetting, about how as past problems fade from prominence, many forget both their sources and their solutions. In The Windup Girl, Anderson and the Trade Ministry, forget that isolation from the radically globalized economy saved Thailand from the rampant manipulation of the world's networks of life by foreign companies. Certain actions caused the problems and since the problems have been contained, those certain, very profitable for some, actions are being taken again. Sound familiar? Today in the U.S. we've forgotten what lead us to the Great Depression and what got us out of it. The Windup Girl should be thought of with the other great warning novels including The Sheep Look Up and A Canticle for Leibowitz.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Novak's Look

On October 1, 1932 in the fifth inning in Game 3 of the World Series, Babe Ruth pointed out towards center field at Wrigley and hit the next pitch at least 440 feet. It is an absolutely iconic moment in sports. One could argue it is the most iconic moment in American sport. The outsized personality of Babe Ruth, the unabashed arrogance, the walking the walk of some of the biggest talk ever committed to film. People around the world, in wiffle ball games, video games, office contests, and other random situations, will now point vaguely in front of them to “call their shot.” Now imagine that instead of Charlie Root, throwing that pitch, it was Cy Young.

On Saturday September 10, 2011, Novak Djokavic had just gone down two match points to Roger Federer. It was the fifth set of the semi-finals of the US Open. Federer has won more majors than any other man in tennis history. He had gone up 2 sets to none and had won 182 of his previous 183 matches in which he had won the first two sets. Federer went up 40-15 on an ace, and is, arguably the greatest tennis player the world has ever seen. The crowd was cheering for Federer because many still remembered Djokovic's antics at the US Open a few years ago, because Federer is a great tennis player, and because they might witnessing the resurgence of one of the word's great athletes. Then this happened:

After a series of “I got this” smirks and, “Alright, if that's going to be the way he's going to play it” nods and perhaps a quick “Fuck this guy, he does commercials for private jets,” Djokavic settles into the standard ready to return position and hits what has to be one of the single greatest returns in the history of the game of tennis. Going through Djokovic's mind had to be how he earned the No. 1 ranking in tennis, how he had beaten Federer before, how Federer had his time and now it was Novak's time. The audience is stunned into a rumbling silence, because they were ready to cheer the return of Federer to the top of the tennis world, and then it wasn't just that Djokavic hit it back, he flicked his wrist and returned a pretty good serve at a physics stretching angle, and it is only when Djokavic casually raises his arms in a gesture correctly described as “Hey, I can hit some pretty big shots too,” that the audience realizes their minds had just be blown. That's how blown their minds were. Djokavic's towel guy wasn't even around. And the return absolutely shatters Federer. And then what was a foregone conclusion becomes a foregone conclusion only inverted.

If you're still unsure about just how amazing that return was, listen to Federer press conference. Its like watching a particularly sensitive child come to grips with his dad running over the bike, that he just bought with his own chore money. In a very roundabout, almost Luongonian way, Federer says it was a lucky shot and mumbles away until its time for him to, I don't know, decide which private jet to take home.

It had already been an excellent match but that look made it iconic. Sport does the moment perhaps better than anything else in human society. Because of how it is compartmentalized and because of how it is recorded,we are able to find and preserve these moments. In some ways, the whole moment is a lot closer to Bobby Orr soaring through the air than Babe Ruth calling his shot, but however you ultimately categorize it, Novak smirked his way into the annals of sport.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Muppets Take Ulysses

I haven't been able to get this idea out of my head since Riss came up with it last week. With every stray brain moment I have I seem to be expanding the concept, refining i, developing it, exploring it. And it's pretty close to the only thing we've been talking about in that time as well. Riss doesn't talk sports, we're reading different books, and it's a whole lot more satisfying than talking about the state of the world. The thing is, once you make that first initial breakthrough, once you see that first character equivalent, the whole idea seems so perfect that it makes you wonder if there were some underlying intentions. The idea: A Muppets version of Ulysses by James Joyce.

Stay with me. You like The Muppets right? So I'll start the post where Riss started the idea. I'm going to describe a fictional female character for you. She's a confident, voluptuous would be the term, vibrant woman, secure in her body and her sexuality, with an almost aggressive sense of life, who happens to make her living as a singer. This, of course, is Miss Piggy. But it is also Molly Bloom. I'm going to say this again just so I can watch myself type it, Miss Piggy and Molly Bloom are essentially the same character. Really the only difference between the two is that Miss Piggy's volume is set to “vaudeville” while Molly Bloom's is set to “novel.”

If you're familiar with both, you're probably seeing how it all falls together, like in that last scene in The Usual Suspects, but, well, most people aren't so I'll go on to describe another fictional character, this one male. He is kind, decent, industrious in his own way, committed to doing his best and making the world a better place even if he's not entirely sure how to do it, and can be a bit of a know-it-all mixed with an occasionally annoying dash of milquetoast. Said character could be none other than Kermit the Frog. And Leopold Bloom!

Also, the central conflict in the relationship between Miss Piggy and Kermit is that Miss Piggy is always looking for a formal consummation of the relationship, getting married, and, for reasons that are never made clear, despite his obvious love for Miss Piggy, Kermit is never ready to go all the way. The central conflict in the relationship between Leopold and Molly is that they haven't had sex, consummated their relationship if you catch my drift, in nine years, and not for lack of Molly's effort. In both cases, there is an Odysseus wandering far from his Penelope.

What's especially interesting to me about this (not just because it allows me to combine two of my favorite things ever) is that this idea renders an unfilmable novel, filmable. The problem with Ulysses as a movie is that it is a novel of the interior. Bloom's character is developed and demonstrated through presentations of his thoughts, dreams, and fantasies. We are shown what kind of person he is by sharing his thoughts. But long experimental presentations of thought don't translate well in film. 

However, by having Kermit play Bloom, Bloom's character is established through Kermit's character. Kermit brings 40 years of character history to whatever work he is called upon to perform. You don't need to show his thoughts to show his character because his past does it automatically. Same thing with Miss Piggy, Fozzie, Gonzo, Sam the Eagle, Link Hogthrob and all the other Muppets. The unfilmable intellect doesn't need to be filmed when the character is assumed by the figure portraying it. 

Furthermore, the more visually bizarre aspects of Ulysses like the Circe episode where characters change gender, the setting changes, flights of fantasy are indulged, and inanimate objects talk, are already part of the Muppet universe. The director doesn't have to do anything special to create a scene where a belt buckle talks, because in the Muppet universe nearly everything talks. This inherent accepted strangeness also makes it easier to deal with the wild style of an episode like Oxen in the Sun. The language in Oxen in the Sun progresses through all of the stages in English literature, which is awfully hard to film without looking silly; unless you show Kermit the Frog and the other characters in costumes from the various time periods, or have other Muppets costumed from different time periods milling in the background. 

For some reason, Muppets in particular engender an imagination permission that allows us to completely accept the absolutely ridiculous. Furthermore, (yes, there's another furthermore) the Muppet archetypes also allow the filmmaker to communicate some of the complexity of Ulysses. For example, in one episode Bloom goes to a restaurant to get some lunch but is disgusted seeing all the men stuffing their faces with all manner of food. In a book you can describe the men and the food. You have time to build the impression of disgust. But movies don't offer that time and so you can never get to the essence of this moment. Unless, of course, you can show Kermit look into a restaurant filled with pigs eating out of troughs swilling steins of beer. You see! You see! And Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem playing in the bar in the Sirens episode. And think of the cameos!

If you do see, and I accept that many will not, you're already filling in the blanks. Stephen is played by Fozzie (more on that later in another forum), the Citizen is Sam the Eagle, Simon is Rolf, Mary Lou is Gerty, Gonzo is Bella/Bello (the role of a lifetime) and Wayne is Haines (and, it's an actual black panther of course).
So two things, since I like to try and find some kind of conclusion for the end of these posts. Yes, thinking about this is a ton of fun for me, but I legitimately believe The Muppets take Ulysses would be an excellent movie. And you'll be seeing more of this. I mean, if you want to you'll be seeing more of this, because Riss and I are going to pass some of our idle hours on a blog devoted to this. Drop me a comment if this is something you'd be interested in participating in. (Any storyboard artists out there? Brian Henson is that you.) So, introducing the, at least to Riss and me, the infinitely amusing new internet project The Muppets Take Ulysses.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Interview with Daniel Lawless of Plume

Plume is a new online poetry magazine that is two issues old and already publishing some of the biggest and best contemporary poets; Rae Armantrout, Thomas Lux, Charles Bernstein, G.C. Waldrep and more. (Including, soon, me!) Plume is dedicated to publishing the very best of contemporary poetry, and I've to to say, so far so good. They are are highly selective, offering twelve poems per monthly issue; poems with a sense of the uncanny, foremost, and of the fineness of language, the huge absences to which it points and partakes of, and the urgency and permanence of its state of departure — the coattails forever –just now—disappearing around the corner. Or as one of the rotating quotes, this one from Jean-Michel Maulpox, “Poetry is completely divided between the desire for the country that does not exist and the need for common ground: between elsewhere and cliché; its two contradictory genies.'

Daniel Lawless is a poet and editor of Plume. He teaches at Saint Petersburg College. Below is an interview with Daniel conducted via email.

Why start an online poetry magazine?

For practical – monetary – reasons, of course, it’s easier than print; even print on demand requires one to sell – not my strong suit. Why, more general: a mixture of base and not so base motives: to duck school committee work; to allow my mother before she dies and some long-disappointed friends to believe I accomplished something (as if there was something to accomplish…another discussion); to pass the time; to put to some use a lifetime of reading and writing; as in writing a poem, simply to make a beautiful object.

As an editor, what do you look for in a poem? Do you imagine potential readers? Do you look for quality beyond your own personal taste? Or are you honestly subjective, publishing the poems that connect with you?

As our mission statement notes, I look for a sense of the uncanny, of the fineness of language, to be written by someone keener than I in some ways or many ways. Not so much a message: I do not wish to be instructed, unless beauty itself is instructive, and it is. The image that makes one want never to write again or to close the book or turn the page and pick up the pen, figuratively or literally. Potential readers, yes: mostly dead or soon to be so: Trakl, Cendars, Parra, Transtromer, Cassia, Ponge and Michaux, Follain, Canneti, Cioran, Bly, Li Po, etc. I would hope I look for quality beyond my own tastes, but I doubt I do. I publish what I like – why else – aside from the reasons given above, would I bother? And it is a bit of bother.

Is there anything a poem or poet can do or not do, that will guarantee rejection?

I’m not a huge fan of nature poetry: I see no greatness in knowing the names of things –plants, fish--though many do and can argue almost convincingly that such is an intrinsic, even a primary good. The poetry I loved first was Surrealism: Benedikt's great anthology. The translations were so flat – I liked how they contrasted with the extravagance of the imagery. When I learned to read French I was vastly disappointed by the musical quality of the work. So – I prefer a detached, observational style – Simic, Ponge, again – ipso facto, sentimental, didactic, pastoral, spiritual – likely not to be well-received. And formal approaches manhandled.

How do you think about “America Poetry?” Do you think about a coherent entity and compare it with entities from other eras? Do you think about individual poets who happen to be writing now? Is there a way to think about “American Poetry,” or should we only think about individual poems and poets?

If anything, I stayed away from American poetry when I was young; I think Sontag drew an entire
generation of poets and writers toward Western Europe. Part of this was inevitable rebellion against my mentor/teacher (and later my fellow grad students): a lover and crony of the Beats, pal of Thomas Merton. (Also the lure of the exotic, the obscure – which these were at the time, at least in my world of Louisville, Kentucky.) I thought of some books as coherent entities: Robbe-Grillet’s For a New Novel, the Artaud Anthology, the Contemporary European Poetry anthology with the white cover, Henry Miller’s The Books in My Life where I discovered Cendrars, Benedikt’s Prose Poem anthology, Leaping Poetry, Barthes’ Mythologies, magical realism, Borges, Tzara, Guillevic, Voznesensky, Mishima, Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Guy Davenport essays : these were nations to me. Compare? Only in the most superficial way in which one compares the music of one’s youth to that which comes later --and finds inferior despite one’s public rehearsal of its minutia and over-loud praise. Am I wrong to think non-US poets take more chances, generally? And fail more often and succeed more spectacularly?

What are the most exciting things happening in poetry today? The most frustrating?

The usual complaint, which can be made of all the arts, I suppose – so many bands, so many films, so many this or that: a surfeit. Not too long ago, it seemed, one could know all of the poets worth knowing, might have assembled them in a Holiday Inn Express conference room. No longer, of course. Whether that is exciting or frustrating, I’m not sure.

Who is the one poet you wish everyone was reading?

Not a poet, but “the last philosopher in Europe” as he has been called: Emil Cioran – an aphorist of the first order, a master of knee-slapping bleakness, to use a phrase from my first Editor’s note, one who had read everything worth reading, like Steiner, also one with a horrific, troubling past to say the
least (Grass comes to mind), but a gorgeous stylist; one can, in reading him, if one is a particular type of person, only nod one’s head in assent until one becomes faintly ridiculous, like one of those mechanical water-sipping bird toys.

What is the responsibility of the poet to the world? Do poetry editors have different responsibilities? If so what are those?

The poet is responsible to nothing (except to his craft? on second thought, no, not even that) and no one: society or humanity least of all. Editors have no responsibility either – it seems silly to use those words in the same sentences – though many, many do, I know, serious, talented writers and editors. I merely say that, for me, no. One tries one’s best, one tries to be fair, to be discerning, but in the end whether one does or not is not a matter of responsibility, but temperament.

In terms of a poet's responsibility. Does poetry make the world a better place? Is this even a useful question to ask and if not, in terms of understanding poetry, what is a useful question to ask?

I am tempted to say that which distracts us from the inevitability of our demise, and does no harm to others in the general sense, is never a bad thing. I am great believer in distraction: that most things are little more than that. As I say, I think I am rarely edified by poetry, but often am fascinated by it, as one tends to be in the face of beauty in all its manifestations. Which is not nothing.

Is there a particular poem or poet that first showed you the potential of poetry? What was that moment like for you?

Breton’s “Free Union” – the listing was hypnotic, the images have stayed with me for forty years. I first read it in, oh, 1976 or ’77, I think. Around the time I took a trip to San Francisco, where punk was crowning in certain neighborhoods: exhilarating. I came back to Louisville and found it, punk, was popping up at the art schools and such, too. The spirit of DIY was in the air, and I recall printing up poems and stapling them to telephone poles – virgin forest then – unsigned, only a little stamp my girlfriend at the time made up. I’d walk around days later, checking my route as it were. Many were still there, weathering, which was nice, many were gone. Best was when I’d go to a party and find one of them stuck to a wall or refrigerator door.

How do you read a poem? What do you listen for and think about while reading? How do you discover
or create meaning through reading a poem?

Good questions. Could you answer them for me? If nothing else – and there is very little else – I have read a fair amount in my life, so reading becomes allusion, an echo chamber: this calls to this, to that, the other thing, and in time a dozen other things. That is what happens when I read, I think – sometimes to the detriment of reading the poem actually in front of me. To the degree that I have a way of reading, or listening for, or thinking about, poems, it has to do with the whispers of past work, other poets, distant images, that maintain some ineffable connection to the words I am reading: “.. that rose which only words distant from roses can describe…” (Aragon).

What are you reading now?

Poetry: Plume’s submissions list is growing frightening. Also Dana Gioia’s early work, Interrogations at Noon, and Montale’s Motets. Luljeta Lleshanaku . I like the unjustly maligned Padgett Powell’s Interrogative Mood – again, lists. Ennemis publics – a dialogue between Michel Houellebecq and Bernard-Henri Levy. Pessoa’s Always Astonished. Larkin. Cavafy. Avital Ronell’s Stupidity.