Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Mining The Maltese Falcon

I found myself with a detective novel. I started An Exaggerated Murder in 2002. It's been altered, shuffled, changed, set aside for five years, rethought and rewritten. People have asked me about its origins and I've never had a good answer because I don't really remember how it started. (I suspect Trike and Lola's names came first, but where the names came from is a complete mystery.) I know I was reading pulp fiction and Poe. The detective character generally permeates our artistic and entertainment cultures. I might have started reading Conan Doyle by then. And, of course, Ulysses was in my head and Ulysses can make detectives of us all. I found myself with a marble slab of language and ideas whose contours suggested a detective story. It doesn't take much research to learn you've got to read The Maltese Falcon if you're an American attempting a detective story. (Especially if you want to put your detective in a trench-coat.)

Reading is not a homogeneous action. It is a genus of actions and interactions, relationships and efforts, dialogs and dialectics. You read differently when exploring a book's potential, as I did the first time I read The Maltese Falcon, than you when are interrogating it as a guide for your own creative endeavors, as I did the next five times I read The Maltese Falcon. In the later reading, every event is itself and its rationale, every image itself and its composition, every sentence, every line of dialog, every word, itself and the choice to include it.

Once I was familiar with the story, I was able to examine its composition directly, reading less for the art of the book and more for how the effect of art was generated. I paid attention to the words Hammett used to describe the characters and the setting. I looked at how information was given to the reader; whether it came from dialog, a statement by a character, or included in the narration. I listened to my own emotions and reactions and tried to isolate the exact sentences, and the emotional, information, and significant composition of those sentences, to determine, as much as possible, how Hammett made me feel and think what I felt and thought. I maintained a split consciousness with Josh the Reader relentlessly surveyed by Josh the Writer.

I underlined phrases. There is more color in a book you read for guidance. I transcribed the annotations in a notebook. Faces have more features. I subjected some annotations to study, others to alchemical permutations. Bodies have more dimensions. I reapplied those permutations in my book to join and sustain a conversation. Cities are more certain. I exploited connections. I expanded my lexicon. I closed my eyes and saw yellow-gray eyes even though I'm certain I've never actually seen yellow-gray eyes. I learned a thing or two about what to tell readers about what is going on. I mined the source for all its worth and ended up with a battered book and a notebook of additional potential.

But I didn't want to be Borges' Pierre Menard. Not every lesson was applicable. Not every reference productive. Not every storytelling technique was right for the story I was telling. There was far more in that notebook left out than incorporated. Some examples. Sam Spade is so consistently surrounded by demonic imagery, being described as looking like a “blond Satan,” you wonder if Hammett wants us to see him as a hero. The Maltese Falcon is deeply misogynist, yet includes Effie Perine, one of fiction's most inscrutable female characters. The hubris of knowing the truth. The playful character names. The choice between justice and love. The casually mysterious disappearance of Gutman's daughter. The difference between postmodernism and cynicism. The moment Sam Spade knew who killed Archer and the long wait before he told us. And then there's the falcon itself, the engine and fuel for all this conflict and death. I won't spoil it for those unfamiliar, so I'll just say that in 1929, Dashiell Hammett created one of the most coherent and evocative images of postmodernism in that lacquered statuette.

But if there was one particular moment in that first interrogative reading that showed me how much more The Maltese Falcon had than I needed for my project, it was the moment I re-examined the Flitcraft Parable. Spade tells a story about a man who had a near death experience and then completely vanished. The disappearance baffled the authorities and eventually the formal investigation was called off. A few years later, Flitcraft was found, in Spokane instead of Tacoma, but otherwise living the exact same life he'd lead before nearly being killed by a falling girder. It was not the complexity of the statement on identity that struck me, at least not in the course of this particular reading, but the fact of the digression in and of itself. Detective stories, including those inspired by The Maltese Falcon usually don't include idle conversation. And yet, here is a scene in which the characters are just killing time. Instead of an expository sentence or two getting them through the night and back to the action, we get a three-page parable about the nature of identity and its relationship to death-denial. Jesus Christ, a cornerstone text in the hardboiled detective fiction genre includes a three-page parable about the nature of identity and its relationship to death-denial.

As An Exaggerated Murder neared completion, I found myself with every specific needs from The Maltese Falcon and so read it in yet another way, this way closer to an archaeologist sifting sand for artifacts. In some ways, it could hardly be called reading at all and yet the archaeologist was easily vanished by the moments of art that resonate beyond detectives, con artists, and statuettes. When I read Spade saying, “If they hang you, I'll always remember you,” for the first time or the fifth time, my breath fell out of my body and it felt like underlining it would somehow be an affront.

At the beginning of a literary project, I see no benefit in tempering your ambition. There is no reward for humility in the first draft. Joyce should be in your sights. Your goal should be to write the greatest whatever it is that has ever been written. But, at some point, you have to grapple with what you've actually accomplished, to confront the work's actual potential, and then strive to make it the best whatever it is that you can write. When I confronted the actual potential of An Exaggerated Murder, I knew I needed a source of diction, technique, guidance, and inspiration and when I mined The Maltese Falcon as a source, I discovered another impossible target.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Book Pile as of September 30th, 2015

I am very much a polyamorous reader. I'm always reading multiple books, sometimes up to a dozen. There are a few reasons why I prefer to read from a pile, instead of focus on one book in particular. As a bookseller, I try to be as aware of and knowledgeable of as many books as possible, even books I don't end up reading, or finishing, or even liking, and juggling a bunch of books extends my libromancing awareness. I also review books both for this blog and for other venues, so along with reading books I'm actually reviewing, I like to test drive books I might pitch for reviews. Reviewing a book takes time and effort and you have to spend that time and effort whether you like the book or not. Sometimes I like to have a sense of whether or not I'll like a book before pitching reviews of it. Finally, as a reader, I have different moods, different energy levels, different whims at different times and in different situations, so I try to make sure I have a book handy for every mood, energy level, whim and situation. So, I read in piles.

Here is the second installment in my infrequent series detailing current book piles. (If you're curious about the first installment.) From top to bottom.

The Familiar: Vol 2 by Mark Z. Danielewski
I reviewed Volume 1 here, and I want this project to continue so I'm reading Volume 2. So far it continues apace from Volume 1, though the connections between the various story arcs are slowly being revealed. Given the scope of the project, I wouldn't be surprised if the opening “movement” of the story is three or four books long and, personally, I plan to stick with The Familiar at least that long. I think Danielewski is a brilliant and important author and I want to live in a world where 20+ volume serial novels are written and read and sticking with Danielewski's The Familiar is one way to make that world.

The Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett by Nathan Ward
I think The Maltese Falcon belongs in the canon right next to The Great Gatsby and given how important TMF was for my novel, a book about Hammett's life as detective and how that influenced his writing is obviously going to be interesting. It also falls into the category of “maybe someone will pay me to review it for them so let's see if it's a book I actually want to work with.” So far so good. Apparently, Pinkerton detectives were constantly required to write reports back to their superiors about their research and activities for the day, and, their superiors often actually edited those reports before passing them on to the clients. In many ways, the Pinkertons acted like a newspaper and, even though there are no records of Hammett's reports, it's not hard to imagine how that report writing would contribute to the greatest novel in the detective genre.

Target in the Night by Ricardo Piglia
Weird detective novel from South America with a Dupinian detective and a slippery sense of identity and community. Sign me the fuck up! So far I'm reminded of Where There's Love, There's Hate, the moments of sustained “sanity” in some of Cesar Aira work, and the more detective-y mytery-y sections of If On a Winter's Night a Traveler. Another weird, awesome book from Deep Vellum. Home by Leila S. Chudori will be in the next pile.

The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert Caro
Maybe I'm a weird guy, but sometimes I find nothing more relaxing to read before calling it a day than a gigantic fucking work of history. Honestly, I don't get it either. So I found myself in need of one of these monstrosities and in discussing this with some of the other booksellers, it was also revealed that I hadn't read any Robert Caro. Sarah from the bookstore kindly lent me The Power Broker and the second volume in his LBJ epic and I decided to go with Moses. Reactions thus far: This is exactly what I look for from giant, dense history books; Caro can write the hell out of a sentence; Moses embodies pretty much everything wrong with white “progressive” reformers. Seriously, what a bastard.

Chelsea Girls and I Must Be Living Twice by Eileen Myles
Eileen Myles is about to blow up. (Or has blown up, depending on when I get around to posting this.) She's a writer I've always been aware existed, but never read anything by her. Then a couple of weeks ago, her publisher Ecco sent me finished copies of their reissue of Chelsea Girls and a new and collected work of poetry, I Must Be Living Twice. I could probably write a whole wonky post on how brilliant a publicity move that was, but basically, the fact of the mailing made me say to myself, “Huh, Eileen Myles must be about to blow up.” So far, I Must Be Living Twice reminds me a lot of Bukowski in that Myles seems to have extended the best parts of Bukowski's reportage voice. In terms of Chelsea Girls, when I'm an eccentric millionaire and have all the time in the world to write all the critical essays that kick around in my head, it's in the middle between Insel and Green Girl on a spectrum demonstrating the disintegration of agency from modernism to post-modernism.

Seeing Power: Art and Activism in the Twenty-First Century by Nato Thompson
As an artist, who is politically active, I do believe I have a responsibility to be political with my work. However, in a world where corporate media can appropriate any fashion or image in weeks and where directly didactic literature is read with suspicion, I have no idea how to be effectively political in my work. I'm not sure Nato Thompson knows either, but he's been directly engaged with this question at a level far beyond anything I've done. And when I noticed it was a Melville House title, I figured I'd be able to wrangle myself a copy.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Valeria Luiselli's Delightful Post-Modernism

Post-modernism is in a weird place. It's been declared dead for a decade or more, and yet there is still plenty of interesting work being done in the ground it broke. Actually, that part's not weird. I'd argue there are still plenty of Romantics writing today, plenty of Victorians, even more Modernists, and more Medievalists than I feel comfortable considering. As handy as it is for structuring syllabi, survey courses, and textbooks, literary and artistic movements aren't strictly delineated. But even given that standard-issue, chaos-of-existence inherent weirdness, Post-Modernism is still in a weird space. (Postmodernism? You guys have a hyphenation preference?) We all kind of accept that something new needs to replace it, and yet I don't think there's evidence that any particular philosophy or aesthetic has congealed into an identifiable replacement. Add in the fact that the very nature of post-modernism tore down the structures that are usually used to build, identify, and study literary movements, and you get to a very weird place.

But even though post-modernism is a weird place, or perhaps because it's in such a weird place, a lot of good writing is still coming out of it. Cesar Aira, Mark Z. Danielewski, Kate Zambrano, Blake Butler, and Karen Tei Yamashita (have I written that post about why I Hotel should be considered one of the great giant-post-modern novels along with Infinite Jest, Underworld, Gravity's Rainbow, The Recognitions, Deflategate, and Kim Davis walking out of jail to “Eye of the Tiger?” I'll add it to the list) all spring to mind. And, of course, a few of post-modernism's avatars like Thomas Pynchon and Lydia Davis are still kicking it. Furthermore, not every reader has caught up to post-modernism yet (Shit, not every reader has caught up to modernism yet) and not all the problems in our culture that post-modernism (see above) addresses have been solved, so it's only natural, if weirdly so, for writers and readers to continue the post-modern project even as we concurrently tear it to bits in order to replace it.

In her first two novels, Valeria Luiselli is continuing that post-modern project. Her debut, Faces in the Crowd, featured the author as character, a shifting perspective, problems of authenticity, fraud, and consideration of the nature of art, identity and narrative. Her new book, The Story of My Teeth, is, in many ways, even more archetypally post-modern as it is a collaborative work that complicates the idea of authorship (Luiselli collaborated on it with the workers in a juice factory), structured around a made-up system of categorization, that examines consumerism, appropriation, the cult of celebrity, and the meaning of objects, while referencing art, literature, and history. One of the sections is even a chronology of events assembled by the book's translator. At one point, the main character auctions off himself, to help support a church he doesn't particularly believe in, to his own estranged son. You could almost hear Pynchon kicking himself for not coming up with something like that.

But even if she is continuing the post-modern project, Luiselli's work is different. Her work is not paranoid, corrosively ironic, or toxicly nihilistic. Though post-modernism's decades-long sneer at convention was, in my opinion, productive, vital, and often satisfying and entertaining, it has run it's course. Luiselli doesn't sneer. She grins. In Luisellis' work all the anger, the frustration, and the powerlessness that defined earlier post-modernism, are replaced by delight.

Though present in Faces in the Crowd, especially in the voice of the narrator's child, The Story of My Teeth might be the most delightful book I've read in ages. The delight starts with Highway and the opening sentences; “I'm the best auctioneer in the world, but no one knows it because I'm a discreet sort of man. My name is Gustavo Sanchez Sanchez, though people call me Highway, I believe, with affection.” From there Highway tells us the story of his rise and fall, his marriage and divorce, his estrangement and reconciliation with his son (which naturally involved Highway being locked in a really creepy clown-based multimedia art piece that actually exists), his acquisition of the teeth of celebrities and his auctioning of the teeth of celebrities, and, of course, the philosophy of auctioneering he received from the “grandmaster auctioneer and country singer, Leroy Van Dyke.” Through all his ups and downs, all his triumphs and failures, Highway maintains that same “I am a discreet sort of man,” voice. Despite or because of the weirdness or even silliness of the story, the book is a joy to read and that joy remains no matter how critically you might delve into the book's headier ideas.

The best concerts are those where the musicians seem to be having as much fun as the audience. To me, there is something infectious and exhilarating in watching someone in love with what they are doing. Somehow, Luiselli makes it seem as though the person most delighted by Highway, his antics, his philosophy, his auctions, his bravado, the contorted references to other literature, with the images in the back of the book including a Google Maps image of Disneylandia, the use of art, the intrepid potential biographer, and the play of cultural attribution, narrative, and language, is Luiselli herself. All writers love to write. It wouldn't be worth it if we didn't. Very few writers, however, find a way to demonstrate that love at all and even fewer do it so overtly, so joyously, and so, well, delightfully, as Valeria Luiselli does in The Story of My Teeth.

Post-modernism has spent a lot of time and energy tearing down. I like to think of it as an un-fettering process, in which the ideologies most easily leveraged by systems of power to control the creation and interpretation of art were torn away, leaving the artist totally free to approach the content and method of her art. Since we have deconstructed, now we get to reconstruct. I don't know what we're going to build in the open space created by post-modernism but I think we should all be grateful, that Valeria Luiselli, at least, is going to build a playground.

Monday, August 31, 2015

The Care and Feeding of a Total Jerk Who Doesn't Appreciate a Damn Thing You Do for Her

That will be all
Last year, my partner and I did the whole get married business and then the whole go on a trip of a lifetime business (which you can read all about here if you are so inclined). That trip meant leaving our cat, Circe, a, let's say, less than affectionate three-legged black cat with, let's say, not the most generous personality, with our roommate. The good news is that Circe is not a dog, which means there really weren't a lot of time consuming or rigorously scheduled chores. Basically, you can fit caring for a cat into any schedule. (Which is one of the reasons why I, more of a dog person at heart, have a cat, not a dog.) More specifically, and this is good or bad depending on your perspective on cats, Circe doesn't like you, so once you've taken care of the necessities she'll generally leave you alone. Except maybe in the winter when one of the necessities is your warmth. Your sweet, sweet calorically-efficient-for-her warmth.

Naturally, being responsible adults, we left our roommate, who was graciously watching over Circe, a detailed list of instructions, typed, emailed, and printed and hung on the refrigerator. But, since it was me writing the instructions, I couldn't just give her a clear and concise list of responsibilities. What fun would that be? Since I hear the internet likes cats and 'rissa really likes this and I basically do what she tells me, I've decided to share those instructions with you. Please enjoy...

The Care and Feeding of a Total Jerk Who Doesn't Appreciate a Damn Thing You Do For Her

Circe gets a scoop of dry food in the morning (scoop is on the container of food) in the “mouse bowl,” which is not to say the bowl is made of a mouse, just that it has a representation of a mouse on it. She also gets a scoop of dry food in the evening, because she whines if she can see the mouse in the mouse bowl.

Your intransigence in relation to the "basement full of poison" has been noted.
In the evening she gets a teaspoon of wet food (Cans of wet food are behind the signed Alton Brown poster on the liquor cabinet) mixed with a scoop of the powder on top of the microwave, and a little bit of warm water, in the metal bowl, which needs to be washed out ahead of time. And, because you're made of time I guess, you need to smoosh up the little biscuits of slightly solidified abomination into a paste, otherwise she won't eat it.

She can have up to 20 of the green treats in the peanut butter jar a day. We put some in her blue ball so maybe her royal highness gets a tiny scrap of what could be exercise at some point in her day.

Hallway privileges have been revoked until further notice, no matter how much she cries.

Her water dish should be washed out once a week or so. We use the short, blue brush with the gray and blue handle on the sink to wash out all cat related items.

Her litter box needs to be scooped every day, not necessarily because she is a jerk (though, she, of course, is) but to control the smell. Scoop the clumps directly into the toilet. Give them 5-10 minutes to break down and flush them away, like any hopes of having a meaningful relationship with this being.

You are so fucking disappointing.
If you want to try to “play” with her the most effective toy is the bird on the string which lives in the crayon bank. (Which is not a bank for crayons, of course, that would be stupid, but a piggy bank in the shape of a giant crayon.) Most of the time she'll just watch you swing it around like there is nothing in the world you'd rather be doing than boring her with your tired and almost certainly wasted attempt at meaningful interaction, but, you should still try every now and again.

There is a bag of catnip near the treats. You can sprinkle some on any surface you feel comfortable having her go on a saliva heavy wallowing spree, but I'd recommend the cat tree in the living room.

You can also give her fish flakes from the plastic container near the other food. The fish flakes smell like sin and bad decision making, but she likes them.

Given that Circe was alive and in good health when we returned, and our roommate was alive, in good health, and not demonstrating any emotional damages from Circe's refusal to acknowledge her as a living being of inherent value, I'd have to say the instructions were successful.

Monday, August 24, 2015

What I Learned from The Conquering Tide by Ian Toll

The easiest way to tell who was going to win the war in the Pacific was to look at a map. Japan a tiny island with few natural resources. The United States of America, one of the largest countries in the world with what, at the time, seemed like an endless supply of industrial resources. There were only two possible ways Japan had a chance: the first was to maintain, throughout the entire war, their hold on resource-rich conquered territory and the logistics to transport those resources great distances through contested waters, and the second was to deal the United States some kind of early defeat that would convince them to avoid war all together. And so the fundamental idea of Pearl Harbor was that the attack would so psychologically devastating the Americans that they would sign a treaty right away. When the US didn't, the war was essentially over.

That said, there were points in the war, especially early on, where Japan might have been able to create a stronger position for themselves at the negotiating table. A different outcome at Midway for example, or a series of strategic or tactical successes that slowed island-hopping. Or even establishing a strong enough final defense line to discourage an assault on Japan itself. (Of course, that strategy would be rendered obsolete.) Since the U.S was far from perfect in its execution of the war and Japan did enjoy early, and sometimes overwhelming success, why were they unable to create this stronger position? According to The Conquering Tide, the second volume in Ian Toll's definitive history of the war in the Pacific, a key factor was racism.

Those who favored a war with the United States believed that Americans were too soft to handle war. We were too decadent, too rich, and too lazy. We wouldn't put in the effort and we couldn't handle the hardship of war. We were fat. We were weak. We could not withstand the Japanese fighting spirit. The most definitive demonstration of just how ingrained this belief was and how destructive it was to the Japanese war effort was their response to U.S. submarine warfare.

They didn't have one. Despite relying on supplies from overseas territories, the Japanese never developed any kind of anti-submarine tactics or technologies besides depth charges. For a while, U.S. submarine technology, especially the torpedoes, were ineffective, but once those mechanical problems were solved, submarines crippled Japanese shipping, greatly limiting Japan's ability to wage war. Oil tanker after oil tanker was sunk and yet Japan did nothing. Why? They simply didn't believe Americans had the fortitude to endure the privations of submarine warfare.

Nor did the Japanese believe Americans were brave enough to withstand an aggressive frontal assault, no matter how entrenched their defenses were. They assumed, Americans would run from charging Japanese warriors. So in battle after battle, the Japanese wasted thousands of lives on frontal assaults on entrenched defensive positions. They could never seem to learn that Americans with machine guns in trenches and bunkers don't flee. No soldiers with machine guns in trenches and bunkers flee.

What made Pacific Crucible, the first volume in Toll's trilogy, so brilliant was Toll's ability to move back and forth from the most powerful to the least powerful actors. He could tell the story of an enlisted soldier, with as much respect and dignity as he told the story of Roosevelt and Churchill. He was able to give the board rooms and intelligence offices the same weight as the battlefield and the aircraft carrier. He was able to show how the old ways of thinking about war changed or didn't in response to the new technologies of war.

But the story in the Pacific changed after Midway. If the war wasn't over at Pearl Harbor it was certainly over after Midway and it was just a matter of the United States rolling through the rest of the Pacific, like a, well, I guess you'd say like a “conquering tide.” Sometimes this can give the book a plodding, almost punching-the-clock tone and pace. Pick an island, bomb the every-loving fuck out of it, send in the Marines, ease and navigate inter-branch conflict and rivalry, rinse and repeat. But Toll is an historian, not a novelist, and so it feels plodding because it was plodding. But there was always something in that rinse and repeat, always risk and conflict, always death and suffering, and so, as we're punching the clock, Toll never lets us forget we are punching the clock in war.

In some ways, works of history shouldn't have a lot of suspense. I mean, we know how the war in the Pacific ends. But knowing the war ends doesn't mean agreeing on everything about the war. I have long believed the use of nuclear weapons on Japan was unnecessary, that it was far less about achieving victory over Japan as it was waving our dick at Russia. But I'm a lefty-commie-pinko-hippy whatever. But, given how lopsided the victories for the U.S. were after Midway and especially after Guadalacanal, and given how depleted Japanese military resources were, and how clear Toll is in this volume about the state of Japan's ability to wage war, I can't imagine Toll coming to anything other than the same conclusion. It's one thing to read this idea in Howard Zinn, who intentionally set out to offer a different perspective on American history but to see it in a definitive history, especially as so many politicians rabidly cling to the idea of American exceptionalism. would be significant. I was going to read the third volume regardless, because Toll is a fantastic historian, but this odd sense of political suspense makes me downright impatient.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Last Book I Bought: Grave of Light Edition

It might sound odd to say, but I buy books much less frequently than I would prefer. A combination of limited money, even more limited space in my apartment, and great relationships with a bunch of fantastic publishers who just give me books, means that, even with my generous staff discount from Porter Square Books, I rarely buy books for myself. Which tells me there is often something distinctive or important about a book that compels me to actually spend money and shelf space to own it. Something distinctive and important enough that I think it's worth an informal series on my blog, one that provides another avenue or structure for talking about books that I think you should read, and one that riffs on The Rumpus's great also somewhat informal Last Book I Loved Series.

So the inaugural Last Book I Bought post is Grave of Light by Alice Notley.

I love poetry. I read it, I write it, I review it, I've even blogged about my love of poetry, but there are some major gaps in my awareness and understanding. Perhaps the most glaring one is in American poetry from about the end of the Beats until about Kevin Young, later James Tate, later Merwin, Mary Reufle, and more contemporary poets like Patricia Lockwood and Brian Turner. Basically it is a gap from what is usually taught in schools up until I began reviewing poetry about ten years ago. A lot of poetry happened in that time and a lot of changes happened in the landscape of American poetry in that time.

Alice Notley is in that gap. She was one of the names I would see in collections of poetry criticism or in interviews with poets, but for some reason, the timing of her new collections or my enthusiasm for other poets, or the standard-issue chaos of existence, I never got around to trying her until I saw Grave of Light in the bookstore. I flipped through and saw big blocks of text, long poems, unique arrangements of lines on the page, a blissful absence of pointless empty white paper (don't get me started on poets who assume white space inherently communicates and create these giant fucking books that don't fit on the shelves of any human bookstore), and, at least through the course of a casual flip-through, a refreshing diversity of style, form, and technique. Notlety is, obviously, a poet struggling to express the complicated currents of human experience and is not afraid to be complicated herself to do it. So I got the book out of the library first. (Remember all that about money and space.)

I like the debate about the relative impact of Whitman and Dickinson on American poetry. To me, even if I'm hashing out the distinctions by myself, distinguishing between the two and assigning value to those distinctions, reveals much about my poetics, my political values, and my general aesthetics of literature, as does following their influence through other poets I read and respect. For all her influence, I still contend that American poets have not caught up with Dickinson's innovations in poetic grammar. (If I were focusing on our ideas of grammar, I might take a moment to argue that Dickinson's use of the dash might be the greatest consistent use of punctuation in English, but this post is about Notley.) In fact, I'd go so far as to say very few poets, perhaps especially those short-line white-space enthusiasts that so get under my skin, have even attempted her way of arranging clauses, enjambing lines, and arresting and diverting grammatical momentum.

It's important to note that grammar isn't just about punctuation, but about how the parts of sentences are arranged in relation to the idea of “making sense.” At it's heart, grammar is an agreement that facilitates efficient verbal communication. Grammar is a system of logic, a way of arranging ideas so they make sense to the people who did not originate them. Though poetry has a very different relationship to the nature of sense and logic and communication than prose, it still has grammar, it still has agreements that allow for communication. Beyond her dashes, Dickinson had a way of arranging her ideas to stress the seams of poetic grammar, almost without us noticing it. Each phrase that seems to act as a qualifier or a descriptor also complicates and obscures. There are moments where her work feels so overt and open as to lurch towards a kind of obscenity, but that overtness collapses upon closer reading.

What I found when I started reading Grave of Light was a poet grappling with Dickinson's grammar. And that made the sale.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Josh's Just-for-the-Hell-of-It Shred-Your-Mind Syllabus

There was a moment while reading Geek Love, after something totally insane and totally brilliant happened, when I thought to myself something along the lines of “Wouldn't it be fucking nuts to read this with The Lord of the Barnyard? It might shred your fucking mind.” From the title of this post, you can see I ran with the idea.

Designing a syllabus (well, one you actually plan on teaching) might be one of the most difficult critical and interpretive acts. Not only do you need a professional understanding of the works under consideration, you also have to array them in a way that creates a particular kind of conversation among them. You have to meticulously extrapolate the amount of time students will need to read and understand the works. And then, you have to balance your specific goals against a wider conversation with literature in general at the world at large, creating something specific enough to get your point across, but inclusive enough to reflect the diversity of human life and expression. And, depending on where you're teaching, you've probably also got to cram in some works mandated.

A syllabus is a cascade of impossible decisions resulting in something that is going to be inherently unsatisfying to the person creating it, whilst and at the same time, presenting to the world for rigorous scrutiny a profound statement on your ideas, your priorities, your pedagogy, and, ultimately, the core of your very being.

Unless, you're just fucking around with a thought experiment. Then it's a ton'o'fun. So from that initial moment, I tried to remember other books that created that particular feeling of productive violence on my intellect, that sensation of incisions made in my brain by other people's words, that feeling that new eyes have been cut into my forehead that, for a moment at least, let me look into unimagined dimensions of twisted physics and warped logic. And then there is the sense of being ragged afterward, but in a satisfying way. Once I had a list, incomplete, of course, prose-centric, but not exclusive, I tried to imagine how to build from one work to the next and how that building would play out over the course of a semester or a year. Here's what I came up with.

Ban En Banlieu: Ban is about a lot of things; gender, race, violence, all that good stuff, but it is also about the act of creating, how we create and what we create with. Even the acknowledgments is part of the text. It is all fluid boundaries and permeable borders. At the bookstore, I recommend this specifically as a book for writers and artists because of how it incorporates its own process and I think this syllabus is best read from the perspective that you are an artist of your own consciousness.

The Beauty Salon: Short. Weird. Semi-post-apoacalyptic. What struck me about this bizarre, but compelling book, in particular was that its images didn't seem to work the way images usually work in literature. They resisted metaphor. They resisted interpretation. They didn't play the game of literature the way I was used to playing.

Philosophy of Composition: Poe's work tends to hide its truly subversive insanity beneath a layer of obvious insanity. Whatever madness he depicts, almost certainly hides a more nuanced, more complex, more troubling madness connected to narration, storytelling, perception, and psychology. But this, “essay,” ostensibly on his writing process for the "The Raven," might be the most insane. The least-insane interpretation is that it is a beautifully nuanced, whilst and at the same time, viciously scathing satire on currents in literary criticism at the time. The most-insane is that he actually means what he says and actually composed "The Raven" in the loony-tunes manner he described. Or, he's just fucking with us.

Lord of the Barnyard: As much as American culture likes to celebrate the “self-made man,” there is nothing society hates more than a person who doesn't need it. Starting with the epic and beautiful first sentence, Lord of the Barnyard maintains a frenetic pace through a story of agriculture, racism, small-town politics, garbage collection, and genius. The protagonist, John Kaltenbrunner is a different kind of American hero, but I think he is another vital incarnation of Huck Finn.

Duplex: How would you tell the story of the malignant death-denial pulsing at the center of American suburbia? With robots, wizards, and perhaps four apocalypses. Duh.

Beloved: Your body is not a body so much as it is a focal point for the forces of history that both sculpt your humanity/insanity while at the same time haunting your soul and oppressing your present. There's a reason why Toni Morrison is a Nobel Laureate and a reason why all those “Is Jonathan Franzen our great living American novelist?” discussions are racist, sexist bullshit. Morrison is a genius and Beloved tore me to bits.

We Miss You: A Study of Get-Well Letters from a Class of Fourth-Graders: For me, as a reader, problematic juxtapositions and radical changes in narrative trajectory create powerful reading experiences, and so, one goes from Beloved, to Davis's parody/homage/other of academic sociological writing. Can analysis be a story? Do emotions “find a way,” even when the prose style is intended to eschew emotions? What does diction reveal about ourselves? What is it like to get a bunch of barely sincere letters from your classmates while you're clearly having a very shitty Christmas? Much like "A Philosophy of Composition," Davis's short story practically dares you to tear it to pieces, while baffling your attempts to tear it to pieces.

Ghosts: Really any Cesar Aira novel could've gone here. In some ways, How I Became a Nun is even more mind-shreddy, given that it involves manslaughter by arsenic-poisoned ice cream, and The Literary Conference involves giant mutant silkworms, and Conversations is top-to-bottom seated madness, but there is a prose beauty in Ghosts that I think distinguishes it from the rest of Aira's brilliant oeuvre. There is something sneaky about Ghosts that I think makes it fit with this list more seamlessly than his other works. (Though, you should read his other works, too.)

Our Lady of the Flowers: There's nothing sneaky about the beauty in Our Lady of the Flowers. Genet's explicit goals are to reveal (or imbue) the craven, wretched, betraying, criminal with angelic beauty. Genet was a small time crook himself, something of a drama queen in many ways and an absolute trainwreck in all the others; he also was a successful poet, novelist, and playwright in distinct, delineated chunks of his life. I don't think Our Lady will convince anybody that it's beautiful to be criminal, but the book is beautiful and beautiful in a way that makes you wonder how much you can trust your eyes and how much you can trust in words.

Thrown: I've written about Thrown before, focusing on how it considered sports, but there is a ton of other crazy shit going on in this book; about narrative, the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, how we use literature to grapple with philosophy, how philosophy can be employed to live and view one's life, but even if you leave all the heady topics aside, there is still the balls-to-the-wall prose. Howley writes with an intellectual bravado I've only ever seen in Foucault.

Geek Love: The book that started this whole thought experiment. There are lots of reasons why Geek Love would go in a syllabus like this, but I think the most important thing I've encountered about it, to date, is that every time I feel like I start to get a handle on what the book is about it completely throws me. This probably says a lot about me as a reader, but, often the books I most enjoy and the books I feel I get the most out of, I also feel like I have absolutely no fucking clue what is going on.

A Good Man is Hard to Find: I know this one doesn't seem like belongs with the others, but trust, me, after all of these other books, I think you'd seen O'Connor's masterpiece in a new light. I mean, there isn't a decent character in the whole story and there was a point, at least for me, when you kinda empathize with The Misfit. How fragile are our morals and ethics when they are susceptible to annoying kids and a whiny mother-in-law?

Satantango: “Wait, magic spiders. What the fuck?” Satantango is absolutely relentless. Grim. Dark. Soggy. Moldering. Miserable. And yet, Krasznahorkai might be the most beautiful prose-stylist in the world alive. And I think he's clearly perfectly comfortable totally fucking with us. I put Satantango here at the end, because I suspect that, after all the other shit one's brain has been through in the previous books, an odd, perhaps even angelic beauty might arise from this book. There's a chance you might be somewhat inoculated to what would otherwise be shocking or disturbing about Satantango allowing you to focus on the prose itself. Or you'll never recover from the scene with the cat. Probably both.

It has it's problems, as all syllabi do and even over the few weeks I've been working on this I've encountered works that might belong, but it was fun to put together, and fun to imagine how I'd feel when I got to the end of that course. What would you add and where?

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

To Write is an Act of Life: On One Paragraph in The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

There isn't much I'm prepared to write about in Maggie Nelson's brilliant new book, The Argonauts, because I simply have not spent the requisite time and close reading to truly unpack her treatise on gender, love, birth, death, parenting, and a whole host of other loaded, nuanced, and ambiguous concepts, all handled with Nelson's particular knack for productively not answering questions. To put this another way, Nelson is a writer to re-read. That said, as in Bluets, Nelson is somehow also able to construct crystalline moments that connect directly to my life and reading experience. Depending on who you are and how you read, those moments can be few and far between, but, for me at least, they are always present enough to impart momentum or even motivation for that longer, more rigorous process of internalization described above.

One paragraph in The Argonauts connected to or articulated something I had been thinking about for a long time, not a theory really, but just one of those concepts that rattles around in your head like a burr, until it finally gets stuck on some passing animal. Here's the relevant animal:
Most of my writing usually feels to me like a bad idea, which makes it hard for me to know which ideas feel bad because they have merit, and which ones feel bad because they don't. Often I watch myself gravitating toward the bad idea, as if the final girl in a horror movie, albeit one sitting in a Tuff Shed at a desk sticky with milk. But somewhere along the line, from my heroes, whose souls were forged in fires infinitely hotter than mine, I gained an outsized faith in articulation itself as offering its own form of protection. (p123)

I don't think the world needs more writers. I'm not about to stop anybody from identifying as a “writer” however they want to define that identification, but “not protesting the existence of” and “demanding more of,” are very different stances. However, I do think the world is in desperate need of people who write. To put this another way; those who identify as “writers” aren't the only ones who can benefit from articulating their experience through writing. It is not about having good ideas or bad ideas, good experiences or bad experiences, good stories or bad stories, it is about the process of “articulation itself” acting as a force of revelation for what is being articulated. Here's why:

Writing Forces Your Brain Into a Dialog: The language part of your brain and the emotional part of your brain, regardless of how the neurology shakes out, are different. If they are not quite distinct, they at least have distinct voices. When you write about an experience or emotion, you transfer that experience from the feeling part of the brain to the language part of the brain and create a dialog between the two. One interrogates the other as you strive to accurately translate something that isn't inherently an act of language into an act of language. And dialog, even if it is just between distinct voices, can only improve your understanding of, well, pretty much everything, including your own thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Something is always revealed when a second (or third or fourth) voice engages an idea.

Writing Organizes Your Thoughts: There has to be a first word. Whether you're trying to write grammatical prose, poetry, or are just spewing language into a receptacle, there has to be a first word. And that first word must be followed by a second and a third. Even if you go no further, even if your moment of writing is just a string of words that string is order from chaos. Prose, even first draft, mistake-laden grammatically crippled prose, imposes a systemic method of thinking about whatever happened to you and whatever you feel about it. Even the most fluid, free-form, experimental poetry is order for chaos, system for random, substance from void. Regardless of the type of writing you use, writing forces you to make one decision over and over again: what to write next and the process of coming to that decision inherently creates systemic consideration of your topic. And the result is an organized thought.

Writing Creates an External Object: Once you've written something, you now have that writing outside of you to interact with. You have externalized whatever you were writing about into something stable. It can just stay with you, like a diary or a journal. You can let someone else read it and get their perspective. (Remember that whole dialog thing) Even if you don't plan to share it with the public you can still edit it. You can add to it. You can cross out indiscretions. You can burn it, frame it, enshrine it, decorate it, slowly and methodically tear it into confetti while your rage dissipates into a more manageable smoldering mass of anger. And, of course, you can read it. You can literally (literally) look down on your thoughts from a new perspective. (And probably discover you're being a selfish idiot, but, maybe that's just me.)

Writing Slows You Down: Thoughts and emotions can cascade with such speed that you can actually lose track of what it is you are thinking and feeling. Writing slows you down. Even if you're scrawling at a frantic pace, desperate to get it all down before the language evaporates, you've still slowed the electric pace of your brain to the manual pace of your scribbling or typing. You are probably sitting down. You are probably relatively still or in the process of becoming still. And if you take a moment and just sit after you've gotten whatever you need out of you out of you. And then if you read what you've written. And then if you take a moment to think about what you've read. I'm not saying this would be a miracle cure for most of the world's problems, but I am saying a lot of stupid phone calls, Facebook posts, and tweets would be avoided, to everyone's benefit.

I have had experiences, ideas, and emotions that I have simply not understood until I've written them down, usually in a poem. Sometimes those moments of writing as an act of self-understanding form the base of a piece I try to get published (after a rigorous editing process through which a conversation with the self is transformed into a conversation with the world, because if I didn't do that the poem, usually, would be meaningless drivel to everyone else) but most of the time, those moments have done their job. They have given language to something that did not have language. I imagine my relationship with language is somewhat atypical, but I still think the value of articulation is intrinsic.

The astute reader will note, none of what I just cataloged is actually in the quoted paragraph and, in the context of the book, Nelson's project in this paragraph is much different from my project in this blog post, but Nelson is getting at the inherent value of articulation, the idea that articulating/writing something gives you a new, and otherwise unavailable, type of power over whatever it is that you are articulating. My thoughts and Nelson's on this topic, meet only at this one point and then continue in their independent trajectories, but, that, to me, is one of the reason's why we read. Sometimes the briefest, glancing convergence and impact of thoughts and words is enough to solidify what was once vague in the reader's mind. And so through Nelson, I can write, “The act of writing protects you from your own bad ideas,” and though it is very different from Nelson's point, it is indebted to Nelson's own articulation.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Wrong About Fahrenheit 451

As I've pointed about before, books that exist long enough in the cultural memory create entities outside of themselves that members of the culture can interact with. Even those who have never read the actual books can get most popular culture references to those books and even form, hold, or convincingly pretend to hold, opinions about those books. Like Fahrenheit 451.

As happens, I got through my formal education without having read Fahrenheit 451, and, as so often happens with those books ensconced in high school syllabi, I never got back around to it until recently. I offered to present in one of my friend's high school English classes and they were reading Fahrenheit, so, though I wasn't going to be discussing the book directly (I talked more generally about the nature of reading) I wanted as much of it in my head as possible. As a bonus, it became (partially through my own advocacy) the book my book club restarted with. And, as with The Odyssey, All the Kings Men, and pulp fiction, my preconceptions of Fahrenheit 451 were totally wrong. Here's how.

Fahrenheit 451 is Super Angsty: I've read my share of Sci Fi over the years (both the good and the bad, the art and the entertainment) and nearly all of it has something of an emotional distance. It's not that the writers don't write emotional events or scenes or have emotional moments or characters, but, pretty much all of them reserve their emotions for those particular moments, rather than let them permeate the prose itself. But Guy Montag, the protagonist and primary perspective of Fahrenheit 451, is one moody motherfucker. In part, I think this contributes to Bradbury's grander point about the nature of emotional maturity in a world without books, but moment by moment, it is jarring. Every experience Montag has, from those that one would expect to be traumatic to the smaller moments that follow from his semi-awakening, is at the emotional volume of a teenager consoling themselves over a break up by blasting The Cure and transcribing Morrissey lyrics into the lined pages of a trapper keeper.

And this makes sense. He did learn to feel emotions from the teenage manic-pixie dream girl Clarisse, and has he hasn't had emotions in many years—initially he doesn't even remember how he met his wife Mildred—so he should have an adolescent's expertise with emotions. But it's not just Montag, or rather the angstiness is not limited to Montag's thoughts; it permeates the entire book. The result of this emotional on-11-ness is often very beautiful, like reading Romantic poetry and only feels out of place if you read it with the expectations of other science fiction.

For a Classic Work of Science Fiction There Isn't Much Science Fiction: Kerosene. Sure, there's the Hound and the interactive TV room and the ear buds that allow direct communication and the fire proof houses, and, sure, Mildred receives an entire blood supply transfusion, but the most important, most definitive, most characteristic piece of technology in the world of Fahrenheit 451 is a good old fashioned kerosene fueled flamethrower. The other technology is barely even part of the scenery of Montag's emotional turmoil, and when it does present itself, it almost always just a slightly futuristic version of what existed in Bradbury's 1950s.

Sci Fi doesn't have to be in love with its own futuristic technologies (though it often is), but even in those works where futuristic technology is presented through a skeptical (or even paranoid) gaze, it is a major part of the decisions and actions of the characters. But Bradbury doesn't seem interested at all in the new technology he imagines (even as some of it turned out to be remarkably prescient). Which, like the moodiness, makes sense. Bradbury isn't writing about humanity's relationship with new technology, but humanity's abandonment of an old—but successful—technology.

Not About Government Censorship: Farhenheit 451 is one of those books that always get trotted out during Banned Books Week. (I've expressed opinions about this before.) It seems natural, right? I mean, it is about burning books after all. But unlike Banned Book week itself, Fahrenheit 451 has very little to do with government censorship. In many ways, Fahrenheit has nothing to do with a fascistic government, though there certainly appears to be a fascistic government, and everything to do with what happens in a democracy when its citizens hide from the intellectual and emotional difficulty of self-governance. The world of Fahrenheit 451 is a world without books not because some government in the past sometime decided to get rid of them, but because the people of the culture itself rejected the difficulty books presented in favor of the easy of uncritical life.

The lesson from Fahrenheit 451, then, is less about protecting people from a government, and more about protecting people from themselves. It is less about the oppression of a government and much more about the seduction of the easy.

It's Not Really a Celebration of Books: One of the traits of Fahrenheit that I had heard so much about in all the years before I read it was the people who were books, those who acted against the rest of society to preserve the difficulty contained in books. But they are not a major part of the story. At most, they are part of the epilogue, practically a footnote, whose only contribution to the plot (and the society) is catching Montag and those like Montag after they fall out of society.

Before we meet them, there are only two other truly bookish characters; Faber and Beaty. Faber's greatest trait is not his intelligence or his courage or his strategic thinking, but, ultimately, it's his honesty in admitting his own cowardice. Not really a ringing endorsement of the bookish lifestyle. And Beaty, of course, is as close as the book gets to a personal villain and most of his statements (whether from his own memory or fed to him by an umentioned earbud) are quotes from books that argue against the efficacy of books. He might be the most well-read character in the entire book and the course of his reading convinced him (at least in terms of his outward actions) that the world without books is the better one. It's as though Bradbury is looking past books, to something more primal, to a void in human consciousness that pre-dated books, but that books, ultimately filled.

The result is that Fahrenheit 451 is one of those perfect novels for adolescents; it speaks with their emotional volume, with a directness of prose and concept that doesn't insult the intelligence of the reader, and with enough gaps in the events for a wide range of interpretations that can foster conversations at many different levels; for example, interpretations that wonder what Montag will do after the city has been destroyed and interpretations that explore the contradiction presented by the number of books Montag seems to be hiding. It is one of the perfect books for shepherding a young reader towards adulthood.

There is something interesting in this wrongness. It's like how the line “Play it again, Sam” doesn't actually happen in Casablanca. When something gains a certain amount of momentum in a culture, it reaches a critical cultural mass and begins drawing other stuff into it, not because that other stuff is necessarily related or relevant, but just because the entity is so large it can't avoid gathering stuff to it. I guess this is just an unavoidable aspect of culture, but I wonder if there is some danger there. How much of our cornerstones of literature are actually composed of shit that got stuck to them over the years of their consideration, rather than being composed of their actual content. Or worse, (maybe just different) what if, like the people who became books (who didn't even formally memorize those books, by the way), what we understand about these canonical books is often based in misinterpreting compelling images by encountering them out of context? At this point, can we really say that we study Shakespeare or Homer? If we can't what does that say about reading and literature? But, that, as I would assume Bradbury would argue, is part of the power of books. They wait for you. The correction is always there. There is always an opportunity to learn, to understand, to reassess, to grow. You can be wrong about a book for most of your life, but, unlike most of the other problems in life, being wrong about a book is an easy problem to solve. You just read it.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Cartography of Literary Movements

I was writing a review of the history of Dada when an idea came to me. Dada as an art and literature movement has always fascinated me, but defining it, almost by definition, is impossible. You could attribute key traits, key figures, and major works, but Dada itself asked for multiple often contradictory definitions. Sometimes within the same manifesto an artist or writer would offer a handful of definitions none of which agreed with each other. The author of the book organized it geographically, focusing on the specific cities where Dada was most active, rather than telling the story chronologically or organizing it around Dada's prominent practitioners. Though the author never said it, his structure gave me an idea, an image that helped me pull together my various strands of thought on Dada. Dada is a place.

The bad thing about blog posts is that they are often un-third-party-edited pieces written in the heat of the moment without a lot of research and reflection and the good thing about blog posts is their "first draft" nature allows you to essentially workshop an idea before sinking all of that time and effort into pursuing it. They represent a public starting point for an idea that may or may not go anywhere. They can be that moment at a party, where you say, "Hey, I want to run this idea by you guys," and you just see what happens. Or, along a similar lines, that moment at a party where you say, "I have to get this out of my head so I don't end up dead in the bathtub from an aneurism." They can begin a conversation or they can be met with a few moments of awkward silence before somebody shifts the conversation back to something people actually want to talk about, like Deflategate or the Republican presidential field or how cultural context and privilege can allow for the mainstreaming of outright goddamn fucking insanity. Long time readers of my blog (if there are any) could probably categorize nearly all of my posts as either "conversation testers" or "aneurism preventers." This post is the former. 

Just like most young American couples, my partner and I spend a lot of time casually chatting about the transition from and distinctions between post-modernism and whatever it is that's happening now. Though I feel like we have some decent ideas or at least plausible theories, this is still a tricky consideration in part, because post-modernism is still happening. There are still plenty of authors *cough* *cough* writing in the narrative and stylistic space opened by post-modernism. But there are also plenty of (probably many more) writers working in the narrative, thematic, and stylistic space created by modernism, and, depending a bit on how you define terms, there are plenty of Romantics still kicking around. The true breakthroughs in human expression that we tend to describe in terms of literary movements create far more potential than can be fully explored by the generation that made the breakthroughs themselves, and so they linger, persist, or even dominate literary discourse (as I would argue modernism has) long after new ground has been broken. So the chronological brackets we often use to differentiate literary movements, are at best incomplete terms of convenience and at worst factual inaccuracies or misunderstandings.

But defining literary movements by who we consider to be a member of said movement has pretty much the same problems as the chronological definitions. We think of Joyce as an avatar for modernism, and rightly so, but he also wrote Finnegans Wake, which I don't think is a modernist work at all. (It might not even be post-modernist, or post-post-modernist, but that's a discussion for another post.) Nabokov's Pale Fire might be one of the pinnacles of post-modernism, but none of his other work really fits squarely into any of the available movements and his absolute faith in the authority of the author, even when, in Pale Fire, he ceded so much control to the reader, really prevents him from being a true post-modernist no matter how much his work twisted, bent, and deconstructed language. And then there's David Foster Wallace, far more conscious of where he fit in terms of literary movements than the others, whose great post-modern epic, Infinite Jest, was also very much striving for, looking forward to, working its fucking brains out, to get to something beyond post-modernism. Where would you put him? Sure, many authors intentionally fit themselves in or work to create specific literary movements, but many others flutter between bordering movements, don't work with any intentions at all around movements, or are only subsequently associated with movements by critics.

But what if, instead of thinking about art movements chronologically or membershipically, we think about them cartographically? What if it's not just Dada? What if all movements are best thought of as places? Think of them as cities carved out of the wilderness by daring explorers, that, once established, can be inhabited or visited, can become a core part of an artist's identity or be just another stop in a long itinerary of adventure. Or can be skipped entirely. And works can travel just as easily from city to city as artists can. So you have Ulysses, which was a pinnacle of modernist literature and began to scrape a shovel over the ground that would eventually become Post-Modernism City.

With all due respect to Deflategate, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy: A Gentleman, is arguably the greatest post-modern novel ever written, if, for no other reason, than it is able to embody all the narrative, stylistic, linguistic, and formal experimentation and freedom that made post-modernism important, without all of the paranoia, irony, and cynicism that so limits post-modernism's enduring value. In some ways, you could argue that David Foster Wallace, in Infinite Jest, and, potentially in The Pale King, was writing towards a self-aware joy in the mundane that Sterne so beautifully captured. (Must have been nice, writing before the Cold War.) So Tristram Shandy has always raised something of a problem for our understanding of post-modernism and, of the course and development of Western literature, but only if we set rigid borders of chronology and membership on literary movements. If “post-modernism” is just a place, Sterne just happened to get there first and it was a long time before anyone else was able to rediscover it. Think of him as a Leif Erikson of Western literature.

Finally, the image of a city allows for the kind of sub-division and categorization that I think can be useful in understanding and getting something out of a work. Cities, despite often presenting unified identities, are not homogeneous. Telling someone you live in New York City, does give them important information, but only up to a point as vastly, vastly different experiences can be contained in “New York City.” Even telling someone you live in “Brooklyn” or “Manhattan” or any of the other boroughs only goes so far. Some literary movements, post-modernism for example, are similarly fractured, containing vastly different, but still somewhat unified, forms of expression. And just as with cities, some literary movements present more unified and specific identities. And, of course, places can “declare independence” from each other. And you bet literary movements can be colonized, as Surrealism did to Dada.

Of course, this is just a metaphor, but the way we talk about things and the terms we use to describe them affects how we think about them. I, personally believe (at least with all of the rigor of a blog post) that the language and image of place leads to more productive and satisfying thoughts and conversations about art and literature, in part, because it lets us use the structure of “literary movements” more fluidly as a tool for understanding and describing a specific work without all the baggage of imposed historicity. The image of the city is a lot freer than some of the other terms. The membership is more open. If you can get there (i.e. create a work that fits in with its neighbors) than you belong in the city, no matter who you are or when and where you create. (Hell, Tolkein wrote the greatest medieval epic.) Nor are you confined to that city once you've arrived. You can write a Romantic novel, a modernist short story collection, and a post-modern epic poem if you want to. And, for me at least, I think this more accurately describes the creative process. Sure, some artists intentionally create to fit in, explore, or exploit a particular movement, but I suspect, even with those intentional works, the process of creation lead them there first and it was only after they discovered their own story, idea, message, interest, that they focused their work in a particular vein. Finally, I think the city image more accurately describes the inter-textuality of works of literature, allowing for community and conflict, references and relationships, identity and politics. The city is a complicated place to be a human in, and yet, most of us succeed at least on some level in doing so. I think that human success in space is a powerful analog for the literary successes in art that end up being identified as movements.

But, what, I have to ask myself, does this matter? What does it matter how we talk about literary movements? I've said this before in other contexts and I'll say it again here; there is a difference between literacy and reading, and the structure of our education system (despite the best and often successful efforts of individual teachers) is not good at teaching reading. In short, the most important aspects of literature, the benefits of literature that contribute to emotional understanding, media awareness, and political faresightedness, don't fit into pop quizzes. (Or multiple-choice quizzes, or, often, even short essays.) And, of course, our learning about and through literature doesn't have to stop at graduation. Anything anyone who loves literature can add to the conversation, that helps more readers actively engage with the aspects of literature that contribute to more empathetic, nuanced, and multi-step thinking and decision making will benefit our world. Will my image, explored with all the rigor of a blog post, help? Doubtful, but if you don't try...

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Deflategate Post: Postmodernism, Politics, and Swearing

As anyone who has been unfortunate enough to spend time with me over the last few months knows, my partner especially, I am unnaturally entertained by Deflategate. I can't quite put my finger on it, but everything (well, nearly everything) about it just amuses me to no end. The incompetent power structures, the total lack of institutional oversight, the paranoia, the investigation with its numerous but somehow insufficient annotations, the dueling sets of scientific proof, the “balls” press conference (my god the BALLS PRESS CONFERENCE!), the official double-speak (“more probable than not” “generally aware”), the dueling conspiracy theories, and now, the punishment far in excess of any other team that has been caught doing anything similar and far in excess of all the players suspected or proven to have committed violence against women (Ray Rice only got two games when it was “more probably than not” he punched his fiance. Oh, and hi, Ben Roethlisberger and your three game suspension!), all for maybe doing something that has been empirically proven to have had absolutely no consequences. (One wonders how many fewer passes Jerry Rice would have caught without that stickum.) With all due respect to Gravity's Rainbow, Underworld, and I, Hotel, Deflategate is America's greatest post-modern novel.

There's a lot that I could talk about, and yes, much of it would involve the swearing I've got planned, but instead, I'm going to swear about politics. (Also, the NFL said in their fucking statement that the Belichick and the Patriots were not to blame, so why the fuck the fine and the draft picks?) Here we go. If you are a conservative laissez-faire Republican, who believes that the government should get out of the way of the economy, that taxes “punish” success, who got all up in arms over the “You didn't build that,” moment AND that Tom Brady and the Patriots deserve to be punished for Deflategate because they have besmirched the integrity of professional football, you have the self-awareness of a concussed newt.

Bill Belichik, Tom Brady, and the New England Patriots have done nothing that is not done by every corporation that uses every single nook and granny, every flexible clause, every bend and twist in the law to avoid paying taxes, paying their workers fair wages, keeping them safe, and incurring the apparently catastrophic overhead of not totally fucking the planet for everybody else. Just as the Patriots are better at reading the rules than everybody else, so is GE. Just as the Patriots, in their efforts to win at all cost, get very close to or step over the legally delineated line of conduct, so does nearly every bank, every hedge fund, and every major corporation. If you celebrate those corporations as “job creators” and you are celebrating the NFL's punishment of Brady and the Patriots as some form of justice, you are a fucking hypocrite. You have no idea what you believe or why you believe it and you are almost certainly a primary reason why we cannot have nice things, like paid parental leave, renewable energy, a living wage, fully funded education system, universal health care...

The Win-At-All-Costs Patriots, are, within their own system, ethically no different whatsoever from the Profit-At-All-Costs corporations that you somehow think are the fucking cornerstone of civilization. Sure, the Patriots beat your team over and over and over and over (Jets & Colts fans, feel free to just keep going), and you feel bad about that, but there are plenty of “losers” in the game of capitalism as well, and, from what I can tell, you don't give a fuck about the villages who lost their water supplies, the working poor who can't afford to make ends meet while having full-time employment, the people who get sick from pollution, future generations who will struggle with the effects of climate change, children in third world countries who end up working essentially slave labor, etc. If you had any idea what you actually thought and felt about these things, you'd realize that Rex Ryan is just the betamax of football.

Of course, you might argue that I'm talking about two totally different things; that it doesn't make sense to compare Goldman Sachs with the New England Patriots, but that is kind of my fucking point. The Patriots play football. Goldman Sachs and their buddies nearly destroyed the economy of the entire world. If you can get mad at Tom Brady for something that, despite their best efforts, no one was able to actually prove he did, but think Gary Cohn or Jamie Dimon are just doin' what they got to do and the pocket change fines they've paid are meaningful, then either you haven't really put a lot of thought into your belief structure, which, you know, I can see how that would happen to reasonable, well-meaning, intelligent people, or you are a fucking sociopath.

Yes. Economics, sports, and politics are very different human systems, and yes I am having a bit of a fun here, while venting a wide range of empty-the-liquor-cabinet frustrations, and yes, there are ways in which my comparison falls apart, but the point remains that humans are capable, and sometimes with beautiful results, of concurrently holding mutually exclusive belief systems. We are also capable, sometimes with catastrophic results, of passionately acting on our beliefs without ever examining or even really understanding what those beliefs are or mean. For me, with whatever is going on in my brain, Deflategate was an unnervingly entertaining way for me to grapple with this very troubling idea, (especially when I think that there is a real possibility the long term fallout from all of this could shatter the NFL as an organization. Seriously, just imagine if Brady's appeal reveals calculated intent to tarnish the Patriots.) but, that has always been a factor of the most successful post-modern novels. Yes, at their core a relentless heart of hopelessness beats, but you enjoy the story so much, you don't mind the absence of a satisfying answer to the posed questions.

Actually, wait, there is one other difference between the Patriots and the corporations you worship. The Patriots did not stand in the way when a member of their organization deserved to go to jail.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Review of The Familiar, Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May

Mark Z. Danielewski is arguably the most ambitious American writer alive. Every project stretches the seams of storytelling, demanding new methods of visualizing his narrative, perfect execution of his sophisticated formal structures, and innovative book design to incorporate his visual, um, vision. If Volume One is any indication (clocking in north of 800 pages in galley form), there is a chance his newest project, a serial novel called The Familiar, will be, by far, his most ambitious project yet.

I think a reader's relationship to ambition says a lot about who they are and what their core readerly values are. This isn't the place (or rather, I don't have the brain space at the moment) to really hash out all the implications of all the different ways one can approach ambitious works of literature, but I always give the ambitious the benefit of the doubt, a few extra points early on for trying something that hasn't been done, for biting off more than can usually be chewed, for being willing to fail at something (and sometimes fail horribly) so that even if I don't end up believing a project is a success (Naked Singularity and Witz for a couple of a examples) I still respect the artists who dared and look forward to their next projects. And Danielewski is pretty much all dare.

The Familiar utilizes the visual pyrotechnics that have come to define Danielewski's style, a narrativity based on turning reading into a complete artistic experience. Words and letters as components for pictures. Shaped-text like concrete poetry. A variety of fonts and colors (I assume as the galley is black and white.) Collages. Images. Computer code. What makes Danielewski's style so relevant and important is the fact that this is how we interact with media now. Gone are the days of columns of text. Nearly everything we read now is associated with an image. The different social media are distinguished, in no small part, by the visual organization of their information. Even our person to person conversations are now often filled with abbreviations, acronyms, and images.

To put this another way, Mark Z. Danielewski is the first true writer of our current information age and The Familiar, even more so than House of Leaves, writes directly about and with the hybrid image and text and text/image language that is beginning to define our particular information age. Danielewski sets the stage for exploring this theme in two specific ways: a virtual reality game is being developed and there is a mysterious bit of techno-magic that wasn't fully developed in this volume. All indications are that The Familiar will have a long story arc, and that there's a chance the images introduced in Volume One won't be paid off until much later, but there is a good chance the success or failure of the novel, will hinge on how Danielewski handles and ultimately concludes these threads in the future volumes.

If The Familiar has a “hook,” something that, for me at least, motivated me to keep reading and to be exited to see what he does and where he goes with the story, it is the character Xanther. She might not technically be the protagonist of the book, but, for me, she is the hero of The Familiar. Xanther is a collection of conditions; she has epilepsy, learning disabilities, something most likely on the autism spectrum, and is physically unattractive. She has trouble making and keeping friends. There's probably something close to obsessive-compulsive disorder in there too. Her parents move around a lot. Her biological father was a soldier killed in the Middle East. She is in therapy. In short, she is America. But she has irrepressible curiosity. She is driven to figure out how to live in the world despite the myriad of problems she faces. She is compassionate. She is empathetic. She is honest. She is everything you want from a daughter, from a friend, and from a hero. Xanther was just one current in The Familiar, but her current was by far the most powerful, and, I have to suspect, ultimately, Xanther will be the keystone to the Escher-Arch The Familiar promises to be.

Ultimately, how you feel about The Familiar Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May comes down to that troubling phrase in the title; “Volume 1.” It is clear this is an introduction, an 800+ page setting the stage for events to follow. I've read Proust, I'm reading Knausgaard, and Danielewski is one of my favorite writers, so I'm willing to give The Familiar the benefit of several volumes. Knowing how sophisticated Danielewski is with his structure (and all parts of narrative structure) and how he is able to push narrative to express and explore what it often does not, I have faith that he is going to pull off whatever project The Familiar is. But, as with all faith, that comes from a previous relationship. I can have that faith in The Familiar and can enjoy Volume 1 as part of that project and as a work in its own right, because of my existing relationship with Danielewski. But there are a lot of readers who don't that relationship with Danielewski. Can I (or Danielewski) expect them to enjoy/be satisfied with/understand/be patient in regards to a book without a conclusion that doesn't bring the threads of characters it presents together, has untranslated text and a little over halfway through presents storytelling as a computer program?

I've always believed that experimental works of literature, present an opportunity for self-discovery. Are you willing to roll the reading dice on a book with “Volume 1” in the title? How do you handle untranslated text? What kind of “conclusion” do you need in order to feel satisfied with a reading experience and how do you react when a book lacks that kind of “conclusion?” In that sense alone, The Familiar Volume 1, is a cascade of opportunities for self-discovery, but is it a good book? I enjoyed reading it and I have faith in Danielewski. With Volume 1, that's as close to a conclusion as I can get.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Three Awesome Small Presses with Bonus Industry Preamble

The book industry is in a really weird place right now. Amazon is still the most powerful force in the industry despite treating its workers like garbage, indulging in technological flights of fancy, and being pathologically unable to turn a profit; at the same time there is a resurgence of independent bookstores driven by a whole host of cultural and economic factors (not least of which is the Buy Local movement said independent bookstore have been a driving force in). The bookish internet is often (probably always) as misogynist, racist, bigoted, ignorant, and hateful as the rest of the internet (as publishing itself is just as white male dominated as pretty much everything is); the internet is also an exciting and vibrant community, where actions like #WeNeedDiverseBooks and the VIDA count are beginning to drill out the aforementioned cultural cavities, with the emotional and intellectual support provided by social media and financial support provided by crowdfunding. (I suppose I could have just said “The Internet is a tool,” but that wouldn't have fit the structure of this preamble.) Many people are still tolling the death bell for printed books arguing, either joyously or morosely, that soon all reading will be on screens, whilst (and at the same time) growth in ebooks sales has plateaued and younger generations say they prefer reading printed books bought in bookstores. Finally, (this is the transition) the publishing industry continues to consolidate, most notably with the “Big Six” becoming the “Big Five,” or more accurately, “The Big Four with the Super Gigantic One,” whilst (and at the same time. You all get that reference, right? Peter Sellers is a genius.) small, independent presses seem to be flourishing.

I mean, the state of independent publishing is so strong, I don't really need to write about Coffee House, Melville House, Graywolf, Two Dollar Radio and New Directions. Or even Archipelago, what with all their Knausgaard and such. To borrow a March Madness image, we now, essentially have mid-major publishing. We have Gonzagas and Butlers of publishing. These smaller presses are not just garnering critical praise, they're pulling down major awards and selling a ton of books. Essays, man. On the New York Times bestsellers list. And with each loss in publishing, it seems like three more presses start up. So, here are three new-to-me small presses in the confusing and paradoxical hydra of awesome and awful that is contemporary American publishing that I am particularly excited about.

And Other Stories 
Founded in the UK in 2009, And Other Stories is beginning to make connections across the pond. Publisher Stefan Tobler paid a visit to Porter Square Books last year, with a raft of galleys. They publish edgy literary fiction (they were British publisher for Helen DeWitt's Lightning Rods), works in translation from around the world (they were the British publisher for Juan Pablo Villalobos) with a couple of well known authors, like Deborah Levy, as an anchor.

But, honestly, even if they only published one book in 2015, I would still be excited about them, as long as that one book is Signs Preceding the End of the World. Stefan brought a galley with him when he visited last year and I have been dying to sell the book since then. In fact, if I may quote myself here from the staff pick I wrote:
If you start highlighting what stuns you about Yuri Herrara’s debut novel in English, Signs Preceding the End of the World, every page will be mottled with fluorescent lines. Herrera writes in prose that feels like you are standing on both sides of the uncanny valley while something beautiful happens below and above you, creating a delectable unease, cut through with the simple joy of precise and surprising images. Herrara will draw the obvious comparisons to Roberto Bolano, but Signs Preceding the End of World should also find a should also find a home next to Jesse Ball and Italo Calvino. 

Other books to read from And Other Stories: An Amorous Discourse in the Suburbs of Hell, Sworn Virgin, Nowhere People.

Deep Vellum 
You ever notice how there are some awful facts that just seem to hang around without changing. (Times Literary Supplement, I'm looking at your Vida Count.) They go around the internet for a few days and then they disappear and then a year or so later someone else notices the fact again and we get another brief wave of outrage or disgust or embarrassment. Well, one of those facts to me is that Americans don't read much in translation. Part of that is the economics of publishing; there are relatively few books in translation in America because they have an even smaller profit margin, because there is another person involved, than books in English; part of it is cultural; and part of it, I believe, is geographical in that most Americans, unlike most Europeans or Africans or Asians, or really, anyone else, don't live anywhere near another country. Enter the small, independent, often non-profit presses to fill the gap.

Specifically, Deep Vellum Publishing. I met publisher Will Evans at BEA last year, we exchanged cards, and since then I've gotten a number of books from them. As they say in their mission statement:
Deep Vellum Publishing is a not-for-profit literary publisher that seeks to enhance the open exchange of ideas among cultures and to connect the world’s greatest untranslated contemporary writers of literature and creative nonfiction with English-language readers for the first time through original translations, while facilitating educational opportunities for students of translation in the Dallas community, and promoting a more vibrant literary community in north Texas and beyond.

More importantly their list is fascinating and their books are absolutely beautifully designed. I've started reading and loving The Art of Flight (just look at that cover!), a sort of memoir by a major Mexican author no one in the States cares about yet. History, literature, beautiful imagery, lucid prose. So far, if you need a Knausgaard fix between volumes of My Struggle, though Pilot's is a very different project, I think it'll be a good match for your taste.

Other titles to try: Sphinx (which looks amazing, but I lent to someone else more likely to get to it before I will) and The Indian 

Nightboat Books 
Hi, Dustin!

Starting a small poetry publisher with a book by Fanny Howe is a pretty solid move, and since then, they've plugged along publishing a range of challenging and convention-defying books. As their mission statement explains: “Nightboat Books, a nonprofit organization, seeks to develop audiences for writers whose work resists convention and transcends boundaries, by publishing books rich with poignancy, intelligence and risk.” Since we're talking “intelligence and risk,” here are the two books that have me excited about this press.

Ban En Banlieu: If I ever get tasked to teach some kind of writing course, this brilliant, challenging book, would be on the syllabus. Even the acknowledgments section is a work of art. This dense and beautiful book touches a wide range of topics including, gender, race, violence, and art taking the first few moments of a riot and meditating and expanding on them until the moment touches so much more. The act of creation, of poetry, of storytelling is the centerpiece of Kapil’s brilliant book, so I highly recommend this for writers and other artists. Let's say "brilliant" again. Brilliant.

The Force of What's Possible: Hey, I know what will be a smash bestseller, a book of short essays about the idea of the avant-garde! But the thing is, American literature has been wallowing in a strange “So, post-modernism was kinda cool or really awful, but what do we do now?” phase for a very long time without some kind of anything really coalescing. We've continued stretching some of the freedoms of post-modernism (though, I'm not sure where else poetry can go from uncreative writing) and there is plenty of post-modernism, modernism, and, hell, Victorianism, in our society that writers can still respond to those forces, but I want to know what's next. More importantly, I want the processes that leads to what's next, whether called “the avant-garde” or not, to participate in the wider literary conversation and that can't happen without books like this. Which is another way of saying I am super excited for the event at Porter Square Books in April.

Other titles to try: Mature Themes, Music for Porn, and Obscene Madame D (Hilda Hilst!) (Huh, did not mean to theme this selection that way.)

Epilogue: It's Still People
The astute reader will notice a thread running through my selections here, a reader who might wonder why I haven't included Black Balloon or Octopus or New York Tyrant (which just pulled down a PEN/Faulkner) or any of the many other killer small independent publishers. There was a personal connection. Somehow when we talk about the books industry (probably every other industry as well, but this is where I live) despite being people ourselves, we somehow forget that it is made of people. People with opinions, with flaws, with relationships, with all of the things that makes life worth living and books worth reading. There are so many reasons why it is bad for Amazon to be so dominant, but perhaps the worst might be that, from drones, to charging employees for waiting in line to be searched, to push button ordering, to their SOP of kicking affiliates to the curb to prevent remitting sales tax, Amazon does everything in its fucking power to remove people from every single aspect of its economy. Yes, that lowers the price for you in the moment, but it also means someone doesn't have a job. In a perfect world the automation of industry would mean a paradise of leisure, but in our world it means Jeff Bezos makes a gagillion dollars running an unprofitable company, while making his TEMP workers sign non-competition contracts. And if there is a single reason why bookstores and small presses still survive and even thrive in our contemporary world, it's that both emphasize people, both cultivate and develop relationships, both treat their customers as more than just credit cards. Because, despite all the categorically awful things about us, people still like other people.