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.