25 Points: The House with a Clock in Its Walls

by A D Jameson

The House with a Clock in Its Walls
by John Bellairs
Dell Publishing, 1973
179 pages / buy at Powell’s

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1.  I first read this novel when I was a kid, checking it out from the library. Actually, I first read John Bellairs’s novel The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn (1978), which I picked it up because of its Gorey cover and illustrations. And it’s through these novels, I think, that I first learned about Edward Gorey.
  2. I got my current copy of THwaCiIW from my friend Rebekah, last November, at her Friendsgiving party. And it’s only appropriate that Rebekah should have given me a horror novel, because my nickname for her is “Ghost Mouth.” (Thanks, Ghost Mouth!)
  3. THwaCiIW is a Gothic horror novel for kids, and it’s genuinely spooky. For one thing, it’s about a house with a goddamned clock in its walls! And not just any clock, but a doomsday clock that, when it goes off, will bring about the end of the world. The book’s protagonist, Lewis Barnavelt, along with his Uncle Jonathan, can hear the clock ticking all throughout their house, but they cannot find it. (The evil wizard who made and hid the clock cast a spell that causes the clock’s ticking to sound the same from inside every wall). And so neither the heroes nor the reader know when the clock will go off and cause the world to end. Which is like . . . Christ!
  4. The whole novel is tremendously suspenseful. Rereading it now, I still wanted to zip through to find out what would happen.
  5. I remember that, as a kid, the book scared the crap out of me. I found it frightening even now, reading it as an adult. I mean—it’s about a house with a goddamned doomsday clock hidden in its walls!

The Clock

 

  1. Receiving and rereading the book prompted me to check out the John Bellairs website,Bellairsia, which is fun and informative, including providing other other things reading guides for young and old readers alike. (Here’s the page for THwaCiIW.)
  2. THwaCiIW has, over the years, borne a succession of different covers, many of which are nice. But only one of them was done by the one and only Edward Gorey (the cover pictured above).
  3. Regardless of which cover adorns it, the novel was illustrated by Gorey. This was Gorey’s first collaboration with John Bellairs, and he went on to illustrate several other of the man’s books: The Curse of the Blue Figurine (1983); The Mummy, the Will, and the Crypt (1983); The Dark Secret of Weatherend (1984); The Spell of the Sorcerer’s Skull (1984); The Revenge of the Wizard’s Ghost (1985); The Eyes of the Killer Robot (1986); The Lamp from the Warlock’s Tomb(1988); The Trolley to Yesterday (1989); The Chessmen of Doom (1989); The Secret of the Underground Room (1990); and The Mansion in the Mist (1992).
  4. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention this website, which lists various books with covers and illustrations by Gorey. Note however that the site is not complete, as it fails to include Donald Barthelme’s Come Back, Dr. Caligari, and Alexander Theroux’s The Lollipop Trollops and Other Poems (which is to my knowledge the only Dalkey Archive Press book to feature work by Gorey).
  5. This post could easily turn into a “25 Points: Edward Gorey,” and I’ve been meaning for some time to write about that artist, and how his work has largely been misunderstood, and perhaps even ruined. But that dismal study will have to wait for another moody, rainy day.

The House with a Clock in Its Walls

  1. Returning our attention to John Bellairs: he was the author of over a dozen books for children, most of them of the Gothic persuasion. He studied English and Catholicism at Notre Dame and the University of Chicago, then turned to writing fantasy after reading The Lord of the Rings.
  2. I was thinking that I should write the man a fan letter, but he died in 1991. (I suppose I could still write him a letter; perhaps his ghost would care to read it?)
  3. Bellairs wrote two sequels to THwaCiIWThe Figure in the Shadows (1975) and The Letter, The Witch, and The Ring (1976). Since Bellairs’s death, another author, Brad Strickland, has continued the series, and some of his books feature illustrations by Gorey. I haven’t read any of these installments, although I intend to check them out. (Eventually.)
  4. Bellairs’s writing, overall, can only be described as idiosyncratic. For one thing, he setTHwaCiIW in 1948, a maneuver I find curious. I’m not sure what doing that really accomplished. While reading I kept forgetting that detail, assuming that the action was set in the 1970s.
  5. I also must voice some quibbles with some of Mr. Bellairs’s aesthetic decisions. For instance, he’s occasionally lazy about POV, needlessly shifting from Lewis (the protagonist) to his Uncle Jonathan. At other times, the POV drifts into a needless second person address (although a lot of children’s books tend to do that, and I have always wondered why). Furthermore, a few aspects of the book haven’t aged particularly well—such as the subplot involving Lewis’s friend Tarby, which feels kinda creaky. . . . The book is, as a whole, rather leisurely paced, perhaps even a little rambly . . . but as a consequence, it’s also not wholly plot-driven, which I think pleasant.
  6. Here’s a real “Problem,” though. The book opens with Lewis’s parents dying in a car crash, which is what causes him to go live with his Uncle Jonathan. Lewis initially seems upset about this: he frets over whether he will get along with his uncle, and he chokes up when he remembers his mom and dad:

“Yes, but my dad won’t . . .” He stopped. Jonathan saw tears in his eyes. [There’s one of those needless POV shifts.] Lewis choked down a sob and went on, “My . . . dad wouldn’t have let me play for money.” [They’re playing poker; Uncle Jonathan lets Lewis do all sorts of fun grown-up things.]

  1. [cont’d] But, once the first chapter ends, Lewis forgets his parents entirely—which is odd, given that he’s depicted (as you can see from this passage) as a fairly sensitive kid. And one of Bellairs’s strengths as a writer lies in crafting complex psychological portraits of his characters. But opportunities to have Lewis remember his parents later pass without comment. For instance, there’s a tense car chase scene, midway through the book, but that never once prompts Lewis to think about his parents, who of course died in a car crash. The impression is that Bellairs, having killed off Lewis’s parents, completely forgot them. (It’s not unlike when Christie Malry’s mother dies.)
  2. Another missed opportunity: Lewis at one point resurrects a dead person, which is great (and by “great” I mean “fucking awesome”), but he never once even thinks about resurrecting his dead parents, which—well, isn’t that damned peculiar? Instead, he accidentally resurrects one of his uncle’s greatest foes—which feels somewhat contrived/clunky.
  3. God, I’m being way too harsh. These inconsistencies, peculiar though they may be, also lend the novel an odd, forgetful quality. (It’s not unlike Lewis’s Uncle Jonathan.) From what I’ve read online, Bellairs originally wrote the novel as an adult mystery, and was persuaded by his editor to revise it into a young adult title—and if that’s true, then I imagine that accounts for these lapses, and the casual construction of Lewis’s callousness.
  4. OK, one more complaint: the novel’s two bad guys ultimately turn out to be ciphers, being evil magicians who are just evil for the sake of being evil. Although to be fair, they’re also terrifyingly evil. But in all honesty, I found it slightly disappointing that the novel’s sympathy and complexity didn’t extend to them.
  5. But these are all minor criticisms. Bellairs’s writing, taken as a whole, is so damned eccentricthat what might be serious flaws in another book largely make this book feel that muchstranger.
  6. It helps that the whole book is delightfully weird. Bellairs had a genuine interest in the occult, and depicts some genuinely magical things, like a marvelous scene where Uncle Jonathan eclipses the moon. And The novel also refers freely to John DeeJohn Stoddard, and the hand of glory, all of which might lead a kid (or an adult) to want to do some research. (What’s more, the source of the hand of glory is deliciously gruesome.)
  7. As stated, the book is pretty scary. One of the spookier elements is its burning eyes motif: Lewis often feels the evil wizards staring at him (which is reinforced by several of the illustrations—see below). This aspect of the novel plays out very nicely, and might help teach younger readers how to recognize motifs.

the eyes

  1. The writing is always amiable and good-natured. Bellairs clearly enjoys the subject matter and his characters, and his passion for the material shines through. He also never writes down to his audience.
  2. The novel’s tone reminds me of a more sober—or perhaps less self-conscious & more ambivalent—Daniel Manus Pinkwater, in particular his books like Lizard Music and Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars (both of which I greatly admire).
  3. THwaCiIW was never made into a movie, although 1979 saw an episode of the series “CBS Library,” “Once Upon a Midnight Dreary,” in which Vincent Price narrates an abridged version of it. I’ve read a review here or there that suggest the program was awful. There are, unsurprisingly, plans afoot now to make it into movie, but “details are only available on IMDB Pro.” I can only hope the end result is even half as good as The House with a Clock in Its Walls.
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25 Points: Panorama City

by Nathan Knapp

pc_cover_smallPanorama City
by Antoine Wilson
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012
292 pages / $24.00 buy from Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1. Panorama City is narrated by Oppen Porter, begins with the death and burial and unburial of his father, deals much with working in fast food restaurants, a suspect Christian coffee shop, and a beautiful psychic; the book primarily chronicles a forty day period when Oppen lived with his aunt in Panorama City. There is something Biblical about it.

2. The book is a monologue. Each section is divided up into paragraphs. There is a space between each paragraph. Oppen, on what he expects to be his deathbed, is trying to record his collected experience for the benefit of the son he is about to have. He is talking into a cassette recorder; you can tell he is talking very fast, through nearly the whole book it seems like he is going to run out of air.

3. The sentences in this book sprawl, stretch, snap, expand, loop, twirl, and collapse back in on themselves like exploding stars.

4. There is a scene in which a character falls through a ceiling. It is probably worth reading the whole book just for that scene.

5. Usually when people say that a book demanded to be read, or reached out and grabbed them by the throat, or got them in a chokehold, or some related metaphor for attention-grabbing, I shrug my shoulders. Not every good book demands to be read. In fact, a book has never demanded for me to read it—and this is what is cool about books. They’re not loud; they have no quirky camera cuts. All books, at least those in traditional form, are handheld, but unless you have gotten your book very wet the text stays exactly in the same spot on the page no matter what angle from which you look at the book. This is good.

6. Panorama City split me open. It is full of beauty; it is full of truth. I think John Keats would’ve liked it.

7. This book demands to be read, #5 be damned.

8. I’ve heard that one of the main pleasures of reading good fiction is that of recognition but I haven’t heard many people express that it can be one of the chief pains of reading fiction, too. I felt like the book was examining me.

9. This book is full of characters that spout what seems like cheap wisdom that instead actually turns out to be pretty fucking wise. Oppen Porter should speak for himself:

10. “The revelation of an eternal soul should occasion drinking of beer and looking at the sky, Paul’s words, because word eternal means, above all, that we have time.” I wish more religious people would realize this. I wish could realize this.

11. “When I was a boy I would sometimes pretend that a catastrophe had wiped all other people from the earth. I pictured not having to go to school, and instead going into town and picking out any bicycle from the shop and riding it up and down the aisles of the grocery store and eating whatever I wanted to eat. The pretending stopped, usually, when your grandfather’s voice reminded me I was not alone, your grandfather’s voice calling me to breakfast. But somewhere along the line he stopped calling me to breakfast, he started staying in bed through breakfast, and so I could keep the pretending going past the door of my room, past the porch, even keep pretending as I rode my bicycle to school, until I saw the first car cruise past in the distance or someone in their driveway fetching the newspaper. For a while it was thrilling to imagine having the world to myself. If there’s nobody, there’s nobody to tell you what to do. But the thrill wore off, Juan-George, the thrill turned into something else, which was that I needed to feel the presence of other human beings, even if it meant I couldn’t do whatever I wanted anymore.”

12. This book is an avalanche. Be careful.

13. “At first [the Christmas lights] bothered him as too festive for sober thought, his words, but then he realized that all the colors added up to white, and that the separation of colors was conducive to splitting the brilliant white glow of revelation into individually colored bands of thought.” The logic here is so screwy, so beautifully odd, that I wanted to immediately purchase Christmas lights and hang them up all around my house.

14. I had an apartment in Seattle once that had Christmas lights hung up all around. It cheered me up quite a bit.

15. “Paul explained that nonthinkers, those who weren’t going to move history forward in any way, those who preferred to let others do their thinking for them, loved the term slippery slope, he explained that slippery slope was a favorite term among those who wanted to erase distinctions between discrete things in order to better control those around them.”

16. I, who grew up in a rather conservative-Christian household, heard this sort of thing all the time, and have an ingrained paranoia of sliding down the slippery slope myself, I almost feel like there’s a fucking vacuum at the bottom of wherever the slope ends, and it’s sucking me downward into the center, the truly depraved center of my self.

17. I have wondered how to avoid this. How to avoid feeling like this. Every bad behavior is a sign of my true nature. Or, at least, feels like it.

18. “It is an insult […] to compare a person’s behavior to a slope, it is degrading to one’s sense of agency.”

19. Goddamn, I wished I’d known how to say that when I was eight. Also, I feel like I am filling this review chock-full with my own baggage. I am sorry for that. It would be accurate to assert that this book made me think about my own baggage. In fact, it is possible that I spent some time contemplating my life after finishing this book, and that the time spent contemplating included some eye-watering, as in, I may or may not have cried.

20. I want Oppen Porter to be my friend.

21. I hope I never see him (this last is the most likely), so that he doesn’t fuck up my life by making me think too much about my it. But goddamn I wish he would.

22. As I read this book, I realized that the internal drama it caused me was very similar to that of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot; I wonder if Prince Myshkin is a long-lost relative of Oppen’s, or the other way around. Both characters are innocents, both characters are gentle, both characters want the world, want the whole wide world, in a way, to love them. More importantly, they both love the world first, before it loves them back.

23. I don’t know that I would compare Antoine Wilson to Dostoevsky, but not many works of contemporary fiction have punctured my lungs quite like this one, left me breathing heavily and sucking air and rethinking large sections of my memory, clawing through the soil within myself.

24. “For my part I can only say that my feelings for Maria and my feelings for your mother reside in two different parts of my heart, and that except for putting my life down on tape, except for telling you my experiences, I haven’t done much visiting of the part with my feelings for Maria in it, I haven’t seen any reason to, she is gone, long gone, I wouldn’t even know where to find her, and besides, I am happy in the part that belongs to your mother.” A partitioned heart, to me, implies a weak heart, a heart that would collapse under stress, but this image shocks me in its sadness and its fullness, in its trueness. Perhaps we lock away those beautiful shattered parts of our lives in our hearts, but everything that passes does not truly pass away. And though the heart must be a semi-permeable organ, or, yes, it will fail, there are many chambers within it.

25. Oppen Porter’s heart is a strong one, folks. Antoine Wilson has imbued this book with life, has imbued it with many pumping blood cells, and it is alive, it is breathing, it is like a cold gasping bullet of air hitting the lungs as you emerge from the fever-sea that is your life.

Dear People of the Future…

by Scott Pinkmountain

Pink Thunder (book & CD)
by Michael Zapruder
Black Ocean, 2012
64 pages / $24.95  Buy from Black Ocean or SPD

 

 

 

 

 

Renowned Bay Area songwriter, Michael Zapruder, has just released a highly ambitious project titled Pink Thunderwhich involved him setting 22 poems (written by excellent contemporary poets including David Berman, Valzhyna Mort, Matthew Rohrer, Bob Hicok, and Noelle Kocot) to music. Beyond the straight-forward release of the musical material on pink vinyl (The Kora Records), Black Ocean has put out a hardcover book containing a CD and beautifully hand-lettered copies of the poems rendered by Arrington De Dionyso. Zapruder also created a series of what he calls “portmanteaus,” small sculptural objects that function as digital music boxes that play songs from Pink Thunder. The project, which was 6 years in the making, originated with Zapruder joining the Wave Books poetry bus tour for a week, meeting and working directly with the cream of the crop of young, innovative poets. [Also see this article in the San Francisco Bay Guardian]

Full Disclosure: While I had nothing whatsoever to do with the making of this project, I have known and worked with Michael since 2004, and I wrote the introduction to the Pink Thunder book. However, I found the scope of this project to beg greater creative and cultural concerns than could be fully addressed in the introduction to the book.

***

Dear People of the Future,

With your lightning powered aggregators, your nanomembranophones, your hydrolytic isomer skin-suit apparatus, it will require an imaginative leap wider than the great San Andreas Canyon that separates The People’s Republic of California from the once great nation of the “United” States to conceive of the cultural landscape in which Michael Zapruder’s Pink Thunderwhich I recommend you ingest via light pulse array, was created.

This is a little difficult to explain, but for a brief aberrant cycle in the history of human civilization, a violent minority of militaristic nations operated according to a spurious system based almost exclusively on the degradation of spirit via mass production and mechanized standardization, and on the pacification of the majority populace by reducing their access to education, nutritious food and health care, and increasing their access to pleasure-center stimulants. Weird, right? It’s likely you’ve never even heard of this cycle as its ideas were surely so overwhelmingly disproven and unanimously rejected as to be expunged from the annals of history.

Needless to say, this system had some strange repercussions on what we called “The Arts,” and what I assume you people simply call “The Skills.” There was a bizarre and reductive practice of measuring the merit of an “artist’s” (or “skilled maker” in your lingo) worth in economic terms, which fostered an environment where skilled makers were pressured into narrowly defined roles of limited practical function (painter, dancer, writer), because we found it much easier to commodify, market and monetize people and things which can be simply identified, labeled and thus branded. I apologize for the use of jargon that is likely incomprehensible to you, the entire epistemology of Late-Era-Cynical-Genocidal-Capitalism being (one hopes) gibberish to your ears. Maybe your Native Onboard Ingress Glyph-erator App will help you blow through this section?

Michael Zapruder was one such skilled maker whose vast creative identity was squished down into the horrible moniker of “songwriter.” Even typing the word makes my skin crawl and it’s better than many others because it incorporates both music and words, though its generally accepted domain is smaller than either of those individual realms. You likely know of Zapruder’s work as it allies with the inevitable values of your evolved civilization – one in which human creativity is appreciated and respected, one where skilled makers are encouraged to cast their visions far and wide across a spectrum of ideas, mediums, tasks, materials, one where invested scholarship, dedication, practice, ongoing questioning, deep listening, humility, quietude, skeptical faith, servility and mortal appreciation are esteemed above all other qualities; a civilization that has decoupled creativity from commerce in order to unfetter the range and capability of the human mind driven by the belief that the infinite and the unification can only be accessed/achieved through unbounded creativity.

Dear People of the Future, you have it good! What you need to understand is that essentially none of this was in place during Michael Zapruder’s era. So his skilled labor, though it has all the elements you are familiar with – fundamental cross platform integration, individual core identity with simultaneous off-the-charts collaborative authenticity indices, cosmic philosophical interrogatives, poly-genre divagation, virtuosic technical execution in the material/vibrational sphere – was virtually unprecedented in its period. The Pink Thunder project in particular was a first of its kind, though I assume this will be nearly impossible for you to accept given the universality of its influence.

The period in which the Pink Thunder project was created was a short blip in Western culture when people widely believed that the making of music and the writing of songs was something that required absolutely no training, no experience, next to no investment of time, effort, energy, really nothing more than forty-five minutes and an electric guitar (eventually something called a “laptop”). This is not to be confused with the so-called “untrained” practice of folk arts, which is where generally the most skilled, most invested, most virtuosic and heartfelt, handmade, laboriously crafted work was created. What started as a populist notion of personal connection with human creativity, quickly degenerated (due to the intoxicating cultural ether of aforementioned Genocidal Capitalism) to a sort of widespread entitlement or belief that said creativity needed to be not only documented but packaged, sold, and widely disseminated (to the social and financial benefit of the non-trained musician creating it).

This era or tradition (the “Punk” age, which, at the time of this writing is roughly forty years old) initially had tremendous value of course (as a reaction to technocratic tendencies and as a revolutionary reclamation of the means of cultural production, etc…), but it had the negative effect of distracting people from the tradition to which Zapruder belonged; one that was roughly between forty thousand to one hundred thousand years old. That tradition being the devotional mystic tradition, which, I assume is the only tradition of great significance and familiarity to you Good People of the Future.

Zapruder’s adherence to the devotional mystic tradition allowed him to see beyond the artificially circumscribed limitations and boundaries of genre and medium (musician, writer, visual artist, inventor, raconteur, showman, scholar, etc.). It also allowed him to side-step his time cycle’s obsessive system of containing music in controlled standardized formats for easy and lucrative commerce, which is why he hand-crafted individual objects like the portmanteau sound-sculptures that accompany and deliver Pink Thunder. Other creative sonic conveyance platforms such as music boxes, travelling sideshows, strolling balladeers, wind chimes, children’s song, ambient environmental saturation spheres, psychic serenades and car horn orchestras were either mechanized, commoditized and mass produced or dismissed as “untenable” forms and pipe dreams. (Pipe dreams also being one of the great Lost Mediums of musical conveyance). They were too difficult to capture and reproduce identically, and thus eluded market control, so they had to be co-opted, emulated in the grossest, most broad-stroke form, drained of meaning, reduced to signifiers, mass produced in a foreign country by child labor, cast in non-degradable materials, adorned with bright, eye-catching colors or panty-clad women, sold in bulk and, very shortly thereafter, landfilled.

But as Zapruder’s example demonstrates, there were always renegades and bandits, fierce outlaws operating under a separate moral flag, a completely unrelated vision of what the world could be. Like a country within a country which drew its boundaries based on the deeply held belief that mortally invested human creativity mattered, inherently, whether it was witnessed solely by the devoted spirit generating it, or by an entire galaxy. It didn’t need to be legitimated by being in service to a “god,” (the whole god thing, which I’m sure didn’t survive the rigors of history in its current form, is a really long story, not one I can totally get into now, but suffice it to say, there were some weird ideas floating around for a while), or to a commercial Industry with a god-sized sense of its own self-worth, or even a subsidiary of that industry that believed itself to be modest and earnest in contrast but was sadly operating (perhaps unknowingly) as a shadow arm extension of the Industry.

These bandits were probably not unlike their descendants with whom you would be far more familiar – the Hackers who disrupt the government and corporate control of your interpersonal global commerce-communication systems, the Smashers who flow from the hills late at night and destroy the for-profit broadcast studios and mediated message disseminators, the Scramblers who intercept the soundwaves of politicians and pundits as they speechify propaganda, hysteria, fear, lies and deception, the Sirens who make unadulterated devotional human creativity freely and widely available to the public while supporting the labor of other skilled generators through their coordinated network of donors, gifters, charitable aids, and volunteers.

But sadly, in our time, these bandits were viewed as chumps.

Have sympathy for the non-bandits of our time. They had no way to predict the calamity, violence and utter fucking stilted boringness of an art-free society. I know it’s too little too late, but let me personally apologize for the thousand-year art drought. We got a bit mixed up in our priorities. We kind of lost touch with history and hadn’t noticed that no society ever survived without a thriving non-commercial creative culture. And that there was a direct correlation between unfettered pragmatic observation of, and creative elaboration on the daily lived experience (what we used to call “art”) and the health of a person, society, planet. On behalf of the people of my time, allow me to recommend Pink Thunder both as joyful celebration of the shared values between your civilization and our underground resistance, and as evidence that we were not all completely insane, that the seeds for your peaceful and creative society had been planted long ago.

Sincerely,

Rebel Bandit #M611974

***

Scott Pinkmountain (aka Rosenberg) is a musician and writer living in Pioneertown, CA. Recent work of his has appeared in The Rumpus, Pank, The Conversant, BombSite, and other publications. He has released more than 20 albums and has recorded and performed with Anthony Braxton, Sam Coomes, Nate Wooley, Eugene Chadbourne and many others. He is currently working on a book of interviews with Indie Rock songwriters. (more info at www.scottpinkmountain.com)

25 Points: Monogamy Songs

by Nicolle Elizabeth

monogamy-songs-webMonogamy Songs
by Gregory Sherl
Future Tense Books, 2013
136 pages / $12.00 buy from Future Tense Books

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1. I am listening to the webstream of the remix Four Tet did of a Grimes vocal on a UK radio show last Tuesday while writing this. You can listen to it here: http://stereogum.com/1233702/grimes-skin-four-tet-remix/mp3s/

2. Gregory Sherl once got me a gig adjuncting fulltime and I had such bad anxiety that I turned it down because I could not get up, plus I wanted to move and was too broke to even travel to the job in the first place.

3. Monogamy Songs is a book by Gregory Sherl.

4. He has a lot of what reads like very good sex to me in it.

5. I have never hung out with Gregory Sherl in person that I know of.

6. I wonder if I would cry if I did hang out with Gregory Sherl.

7. I don’t even know if I like Gregory Sherl.

8. Gregory Sherl discusses a lot of varying types of medication in this book.

9. He seems to write about taking Vicodin and I can’t tell if the narrator is medicated or not.

10. Pretty sure he is, which is none of my business except that I am reading this book.

11. Gregory Sherl refers to the main female character in Monogomy Songs as Z. This seems profound to me because Z is the last letter of the alphabet.

12. The thing about Gregory Sherl’s flash work is that he’s going, he’s going, and you can’t tell if he’s realized he’s gotten at something important and that seems real to me because he’s not on purpose.

13. It seems like there is nothing on purpose with him. There is something nice in that.

14. I feel like even though I don’t even know him I’m watching a writer find himself while growing up.

15. Seems like Monogamy Songs feels like a step closer to Gregory Sherl editing himself in a good way.

16. It’s very dark but there are some serious moments in this thing, observe:

(17): “You were born and I was standing above you and I was telling you that you would always be loved and that God was kind and that you would always be loved with the kindness God felt when he took clay.”

(18): “She leaves me voicemails that sound like rainclouds.”

(19): “I follow Z to the last place I cried.”

20. I can’t tell if this is a journal.

21. I know that he references music he likes a lot. A lot of it is good music.

22. Mary J. Blige says that we all need to get out of our own way to be something.

23. I didn’t feel like talking to anyone for two days while reading this book because it made me upset.

24. “Sometimes but always I am wishing I could yell my throat into a broken tambourine.”

25. “She forgets how to come back.”

 

follow nic on twitter @thismighttank

25 Points: Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl

by Idris Kenain

The Diary of a Young Girl
by Anne Frank
Bantam Books, 1993
304 pages / $5.99 buy from Powell’s

1. I want to write about Anne Frank. I am mid-way through reading The Diary of a Young Girl and I know what is coming. The discovery of the eight inhabitants of the annex, their arrests, their being shipped to concentration camps. Their deaths. I know this is coming, but I do not want it to happen.

2. I have slowed my reading. Normally I read fast. A book every 3-5 days. But I have dragged Anne’s diary out for over a week now to forestall the ending.

3. When I first begin reading, I am conscious of wanting to have some kind of emotional reaction to The Diary of a Young Girl. I want Anne’s writing to affect me, but am worried that the desire to feel something with regards to Anne Frank is somehow wrong.

4. Not only that, but I worry that wanting to feel something, and being conscious of that want, will actually preclude me from feeling anything.

5. In her diary, Anne makes reference to other things she has written: fairy tales and the opening of a novel. I want to read them. I google ‘anne frank fiction’. The results are confounding. On the first page of results are a number of links claiming that Anne Frank’s diary is itself fiction. I do not click on these links and I shake my head and scroll down further.

6. There is a link entitled ‘Do you know where I can read an Anne Frank fanfiction?’ and I get excited. It seems to me a wonderful idea to write fan fiction. I click on the link and read:

The reason it’s no longer at fanfiction.net is due to a petition stating writing about her is disrespectful and a violation of the rules as she is not a fictional character.

Um, pretty much all else I could come up with involved cross-overs, mainly one about Dragon Ball Z in which Hitler becomes a super saiyan. Good luck in your search, but as the diary isn’t fiction, trying to add fiction to it may take more away than add to her story, sad though the end may be.

7. When Anne writes about her feelings for Peter van Pels, it breaks my heart. It makes me feel sick and it makes me grit my teeth that the two of them will be dead once I have finished reading.

8. Other things that make me feel sick and make me grit my teeth: that Anne was unable to do everything she wished to do. That she wanted to be a reporter and a writer and she wanted to be married and she wanted someone to love and share her true self with and that she was unable to do this.

9. I think that maybe I could write a different ending for her. I could write the life that she never got to live.

10. Is wanting to write a different ending for Anne cruel and in bad taste? Would it ‘take more away than add’ to her story?

11. The internet commenter makes me doubt myself. Have I misunderstood something fundamental about Anne’s story and its existence and its purpose? I am unsure.

12. I listen to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel again and again.

13. But then they buried her alive//One evening, 1945//With just her sister at her side//And only weeks before the guns//All came and rained on everyone

14. I try to talk to my younger brother about Anne Frank. I tell her that the diary starts in this tremendously normal way. Anne writes about her birthday and the presents she received. About her schoolfriends. And then a few days later her father tells her that they are going to go into hiding. I try to say some more things about Anne, but I cannot. I trail off and my brother nods and continues to play FIFA 13.

15. I think about Anne Frank all day at work, and on my hour long break I wikipedia her and her family and the van Pels and on and on and on.

16. I go to fanfiction.net, which I have looked at just once before when I was looking for Infinite Jest fan fiction. I search for Anne Frank, but most posts are unable to be viewed. One that is still available is called ‘The Secret Pokedex’. The synopsis is:

Anne lives on the dangerous side, owning Pokemon in WWII Amsterdam; but when she receives a surprise gift she embarks on a journey that will change the course of history. Crossover between Pokemon and The Diary of Anne Frank.

17. This is not the kind of fan fiction I would write.

18. I would not include Pokemon, or characters from Dragon Ball Z or Harry Potter.

19. I would write a scene where Anne descends from the annex, through her father’s factory, and comes out into the streets of Amsterdam.

20. I would write about her feeling the rain against her skin.

21. I would write about her taking deep breaths.

22. I would about her dancing through the streets with Peter van Pels, their cheeks pressed together and their feet against the pavement.

23. And after that? Anne would marry and be in love and publish her diaries and become a journalist and she would write long, personal essays on various subjects. She would win a Pulitzer maybe. She would travel the world and give lectures to students.

24. I would attend one of her lectures.

25. And although she would be old (if the lecture was this week she would be 83 years old and would have to be helped to and from the lectern at the front of the room), she would speak, as she does in her diary, with great confidence about what it is like to live a life.

25 Points: Bright Lights, Big City / Model Behavior / Story of My Life

by Grant Maierhofer

blbcBright Lights, Big CityModel BehaviorStory of My Life
by Jay McInerney
Vintage, 1984; Vintage, 1998; Grove, 1988
buy from Powell’s

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1. This winter I read/reread McInerney’s Bright Lights Big City and Model Behavior, and because of (sorry, Jay) certain undeniable narrative overlaps I decided to review them and Story of My Lifetogether to shake loose some of the cocaine-infused cobwebs and move forward.

2. A. The first is written about a young man working at a highbrow New York magazine (McInerney himself worked for awhile at The New Yorker after being educated by such legends as Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff at Syracuse) and is one of the first novels brought up when discussions of ‘2nd person narrative’ take place.

B. The second is a bit of a mess. Connor Mcknight is a journalist working at a NY magazine calledCiao Bella! that interviews starlets and although it features moments of hilarity or depth the book itself is marred by a stylistic indecision; perspective shifts (from 1st, to 2nd and 3rd person) abound and although it seems an interesting quirk it seems more likely that this ‘novel’ was crudely assembled by a halfway-decent craftsman of the drug story. I’m hard on it because I’ve believed in McInerney’s work while he’s been left in Bret Easton Ellis’s wake and his first book absolutely saves my life and reinvigorates my feelings for the personal narrative several times a year.

C. This book is a fucking work of art. Written in the perspective of a ditzy NYC twenty-something female named Allison Poole (a character based on Rielle Hunter, John Edward’s notorious lover and a recurring character in Bret Easton Ellis’s novels as well), it’s a distinct achievement regarding voice. Several of Carver’s stories are told in a female voice, and are difficult to believe even in a much shorter landscape, yet McInerney pulls off the lilts and preoccupations of a confused city girl with something like a magical control over language.

3. I once had a brief exchange with a person about my feelings toward The Strokes, to paraphrase: “They’re sort of a one-trick pony,” I said. “Yes, their one trick is being The Strokes, and they do it fucking well,” he replied; and although a part of me feels like taking a bite out of his cheek for a second even mentioning this again because I’m an idiot with issues, I feel it’s transferable to the aforementioned ‘overlaps’ throughout McInerney’s career and these books. He’s a New York writer, or at the very least an East Coast writer, and these are the sort of novels you pick up when you want to have fun, laugh a bit, and feel a slight inclination toward literary seriousness. They are good, they are fucking good, but something about them seems too damned similar to call one much better than the other without biographical considerations.

4. His first novel is obviously worthwhile and impressive because it’s his first book and was published in his twenties. It shows a sincere command not only over storytelling and plotting but also style and certain choices one can make in that realm of the ‘new literature’ then burgeoning in the states. I like the 2nd person here, which might be enough for most readers to decide it’s a decent book. 2nd person is difficult, you’re bound to come to the same tough decisions of identification with the characters and it’s because of the setting (NYC high society, drugs, literature, models, etc., yet also squalor) that McInerney’s ‘you,’ is so transferable. These are observatory environments, situations where you don’t necessarily need thick paragraphs a la John Irving or Stephen King to conjure up a scene in the typical sense; and when the protagonist finds himself (yourself) trapped in the calamity of the city as it was in the 80s the frenetic energy of ‘your’ story being told needn’t be hammered down your throat, which may lend itself to the shortness of both the chapters, and the novel itself.

5. As I said, Model Behavior is the least impressive. Like his Brat Pack fellow Ellis’s ‘The Informers,’ it strikes me as something probably assembled from youthful ramblings and attempts at literary savvy. The best parts of this book are those moments when 3rd and 2nd person fuck off for stretches and 1st person—a perspective that, I think, makes sense for your typical frantic ‘city/drug’ novel—is at the helm. Fans of this sort of minimalistic, energetic literature will absolutely enjoy what’s happening here, but don’t expect to be floored, and don’t use this as your gauge of McInerney’s potential because, frankly, as far as I can tell it’s his worst book.

6. Story of My Life is fucking funny, and the kind of fucking funny book that people who read and enjoy serious, even somber, literature can probably enjoy. It’s funny because the female voice is nearly flawless and imagining McInerney with his thick eyebrows and strict yuppie demeanor geeking out on this early on is simply refreshing. I’d call the voice something on the order of ‘valley girl’ and I think that’s accurate, however when I gave the book to my father to swap notes at one point he interpreted it more like Tony Soprano.

7. I took a shower later that night and laughed for a really long time about my dad’s mistake. Dads make mistakes a lot, I think, unless they’re not the sort of fathers you really perceive as fathers and then are they even dads?

8. No.

9. I’m going to now refer to Bright Lights Big City and Story of My Life as ‘the bread’ and Model Behavior as ‘whatever’ for convenience because for the most part I’m done insulting that book.

10. I like to get lost in the bread, they are the sorts of books that allow for that sort of thing. The first piece—his first book, Bright Lights—wraps you up like the first reading of Catcher in the Rye and lets all the angsty shit in your life fall by the wayside.

11. I say ‘fall by the wayside’ a lot when writing about books, I think. Maybe I should eat my own shit. Lol. Cops.

12. THE SECOND PIECE—Story of My Life (/I smell terrible right now)—of bread is like driving around NYC with Blair from Ellis’s Less than Zero and your only concern is whether or not the thirty-four bottles of Diet Coke in the trunk of her ’85 red BMW will be enough to last you through a night of cottonmouth and weird sex. Maybe less so with the weird sex, and bad shit happens, family troubles, financial troubles, girl troubles, but for the most part McInerney’s stylistic prowess cushions theses blows and gives a smooth ride through several nights in the city where everything’s kind of, a little bit, fucked up.

13. I CAN’T READ.

14. I feel like everything’s kind of staring at me right now but I also really love the Vintage editions of these books. I love all Vintage paperbacks with the author’s name in a certain color along the side. I wish a Tumblr existed where every single one of these ever published was stacked atop one another for this, like, endless scroll.

15. I think Zachary German had some Jay McInerney on his shelf when someone evaluated the shit he’s read/is reading on here awhile ago. I also know that he and Tao Lin spoke about it once in an interview. German mentioned wanting a career more like Ellis’s than McInerney’s and I think that makes sense. Something about Ellis being more a literary novelist and McInerney being more of just a writer, something along those lines, which I think makes enough sense to preclude googling it and inserting quotes where they’re really not necessary.

16. McInerney writes about wine now and lists obnoxious names of bottles he’s drinking and meals he’s eating on his twitter. I feel like that’s stupid, isn’t that stupid? I feel like any real ‘angst’ in Jay McInerney went away a long time ago. He’s had several fucked-up relationships with women, which is pretty interesting, but for the most part I wouldn’t care if he never published anything ever again. Is that awful?

17. His 9/11 novel The Good Life kind of sucked. I guess it was bound to be steeped in sentimentality and stuff and I appreciate that—even DeLillo’s Falling Man had its very un-DeLillo moments—but the Calloway’s (characters from his earlier and far more impressive novel Brightness Falls) seemed to lose something amid all the rubble of New York with respect to their ability to impel a story forward as opposed to merely fester while McInerney documents history.

18. I seriously smell fucking horrible and I want to put my head in a vise.

19. This character who’s obviously based on the Sex and the City writer or the Gossip Girl lady says, in The Good Life, that Paul Auster needs to take a lesson from John Grisham in matters of plotting, which is probably the last little flare-up of angst in Jay’s work.

20. I’m calling him Jay because he probably likes baseball and that’s the sort of thing ‘males’ do when they see each other/like baseball.

21. I don’t like baseball and I’m never going to and I’ve failed at every sport I’ve ever attempted aside from eating or smelling like a fucking burning tire.

22. I SUGGEST YOU CURL UP WITH SOME OF MCINERNEY’S BEST WORK SOMETIME SOON BECAUSE HE’S THAT KIND OF AUTHOR. YOU CURL UP WITH HIM.

23. Best books, in my opinion (from my favorite to least favorite): Bright Lights Big City, Brightness Falls, The Last of the Savages, the early stories in How it Ended, and Story of My Life.

24. McInerney wrote a review of Infinite Jest that seemed like an opportunity to talk about how he once played tennis with David Foster Wallace rather than a piece of serious literary criticism. Then again, this is anything but a piece of serious literary criticism I’m writing right now so maybe I’ll just go cut my fingers off.

25. *Cuts fingers off.* *Calls your dad.*

Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room

Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room
by Geoff Dyer
Pantheon, February 2012
240 pages / $24  Buy from Amazon

Film is a visual medium. Images convey the story and words are subsidiary to these moving images, but in a lot of contemporary  films, it is dialogue that pushes the story forward. Scripted speech has more sentiment than pictures and cinematography becomes secondary, frightened to take our attention from the A list actors or an important plot point. Nevertheless, there is an abundance of material from filmmakers whose visual work translates their consciousness: Ingmar Bergman, Robert Bresson, Stan Brackage, Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch, and without question Andrei Tarkvosky. To write about Tarkovsky or other influential visionaries is a formidable task. Jonathan Rosenbaum has gone on record to state that Chris Marker’s A Day in the Life of Andre Arsenevich (a patchwork of Tarkovsky’s work with archive material of him filming his final feature The Sacrifice and on his deathbed) “is the single best piece of Tarkovsky criticism I know of.”

Geoff Dyer’s Zona (also the Russian title of Tarkovsky’s 1979 film depicting a trio of men—the Stalker/guide, the Writer and the Professor—who travel to the mystical Zona [Zone—a place enclosed by the militia], to discover The Room—a space where every wish comes true) is a book both undistinguished and dissatisfying, including an overwhelming twenty-page section—possibly “The Room” of the book—but encompassed by a blatant solipsistic tone more akin to a juvenile blogger’s smug, critically diminutive intonation.

Laboriously speckled all over the scene recaps of Zona are Dyer’s footnotes. Most are to do with Tarkovsky, the creation of the film, and also the economical effect in the Russian federation of the period and how it brought forth to further creativity. However some of them are soi disant; e.g. a lengthy ramble on the similarity of Dyer’s spouse to Natascha McElhone in Steven Soderberg’s remake of Solaris, Dyer’s own history with narcotics, in addition to his regrets of not having procured low-cost London housing in the past and not participating in that delicious three-way with two other women he so desperately pined after but never achieved. The latter wishes are pertinent to a film containing a room where all one’s wishes can come true but I would argue “trying to fathom out what [Dyer’s] deepest desire might be” (172) is better left unsaid—perhaps that is why the Writer and the Professor’s desires are not revealed in the film and why they can’t enter the room when they finally come to the threshold. These particular digressions seem more revealing about how the ego yearns to be gratified but Dyer’s feels quite sated. That he uses type to spell out every writer’s dream, “I should say what it is that I most want from…this book…easy: success,” is surprisingly uncouth. The groveling seems uncalled for, least of all because of his privileged position in arts and letters.

What is further disjunctive when paired with Tarkovsky’s great vision of striving to find meaning in the world (Writer states we are here to create beautiful things) is Dyer’s often using language in a lazy, staid manner. The sentences are palsied, as here when he again goes on about his self-worth:

I have little instinct for personal reverence and, though I’ve not exactly been inundated with offers, I know I would hate to be revered myself. One of the things that I thought I would love as a writer, one of the perks of the job, would be having people come up to me to say how much they loved my books. And I do like it…Actually, I need to slightly qualify what I just said about my own capacity for reverence…let’s say I greatly admired your work and…had a chance to meet you. I would be overjoyed…but…if I felt that you wanted to extend the reverence beyond what was considered politely necessary…then I would start thinking you were a dick.” (159-60)

This chatter or self-talk may be ameliorative as a facebook status update, but the modern-day neurosis of self-love is anathema to the subject of the book—the film. If one writes a love letter to a great artist shouldn’t all contained in that letter be beautiful? Tarkovsky delivered a film with images and sound that will last forever and except for a lucid section on The Zone, Dyer’s dappled prose loses power when trying to limn what percolates in his consciousness.

That previously mentioned section of the book does prove very enjoyable and informative. From pages 73-95, Dyer’s digressions hit a sweet spot as he says: “One of the big unanswerable: what is the Zone like when there is no one here to witness it, to bring it to life, to consciousness?” and “One of Tarkovsky’s strengths as an artist is the amount of space he leaves for doubt,” and that “the chief characteristic of the universe” for Tarkovsky “is an almost infinite capacity to generate doubt and uncertainty (and, extrapolating from there, wonder.” (90-1) These broad strokes of concrete criticism breath substance into his enterprise, but Dyer quickly falls back into more personal trivia that drives the reader to ride roughshod.

Aside from this section, Zona is more a self-help book for Dyer to work  out his demons, rather than a tribute to Tarkovsky or his film. There can be a beauty made of giving one’s self a biopsy in the face of art. Rilke did it in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, but he chose a failed poet as his canvas and wrote sentences of grand stature. Early in his career, Jean-Luc Godard prided himself on taking subpar books and stories and making movies out of them. With Zona, Tarkovsky made a mountain that isn’t going to be degenerating anytime soon. Beside it, Dyer’sZona comes off as a cheap plastic trinket.

It’s No Good

by Julian Berengaut

It’s No Good: poems / essays / actions
by Kirill Medvedev
Edited and introduced by Keith Gessen
Translated from the Russian by Keith Gessen with Mark Krotov, Cory Merill, and Bela Shayevich
ugly duckling presse/n+1, 2012 (Eastern European Poets Series #30)
280 pages / $16  Buy from UDP or SPD

 

 

 

 

 

Kirill Medvedev was born in Moscow in 1975.  In addition to writing, he has translated, written critical essays on contemporary Russian literature and politics and their “bloody crossroads”, run his own bare bone publishing house, and organized opposition against Putin.

His first book of poems, Vse Plokho (Everything’s Bad or It’s No Good) appeared in 2000; his second book Vtorzhenie (Incursion) combined poetry and essays on subjects ranging from 9/11 to the vocabulary of pornography.  Soon, thereafter, fed up with Moscow’s intellectuals acquiescence with Putin’s stabilization (or, as he might say, pacification), he went into “internal exile”—renouncing all contacts with literary life, whether publishing, readings, or roundtables or even claiming copyright for his writings.  While continuing to post his poems and essays on his website and Facebook page, he has channeled his considerable energy into publishing (mainly canonical leftist criticisms of capitalism, well known in the West but not in Russia), political activity as part of the small socialist movement Forwards (Vpered) and taking to the streets to challenge Putin’s regime together with a few supporters holding handmade signs.

In It’s No Good, Keith Gessen brings together a representative sample of Medvedev’s diverse ouvre. Selections of poems from his two collections and later works as well as of his essays are preceded by Gessen’s extensive introduction to Medvedev, the poet and, equally importantly, Medvedev the critic of literature, the literary establishment, and Russia’s stunted politics.  We learn how Gessen discovered Medvedev’s poetry and political writing and how it downed on him that Medvedev had very important things to say to him and to his New York friends who were trying to confront the inequities of capitalism in their own backyard.  The collection, an obvious labor of love, works effectively at many levels and will surely widen the circle of Medvedev’s admirers in this country.  Would it be wishful thinking that it will also, as if by ricochet, do it for Medvedev in Russia?

The form of Medvedev’s poetry is free verse, which is a bit unusual in the Russian poetic tradition (his early influence was Charles Bukowski, whom he translated).  His tone is contemplative, confessional.  His poems are written in contemporary colloquial language spoken by educated Russians with an occasional trespass into mat.  His overarching subject is the collapse of human norms all around him.  He shocks by understatement, by talking some general theme we could all relate to and then, with a slight twist, he makes us see how around us the awful, the appalling became the usual, the expected.  He is also definitely a poet of Moscow, of her specific neighborhoods, streets, Metro stations, clubs and taverns.

From a poem from his first collection:

“…I know a place
on smolensky boulevard where
five arches run one after the other
creating a very long passage…”

there, he meets a girl, a former classmate who pretends not to recognize him, causing Medvedev, in turn, to rage about  girls like her like her sleeping around and marrying money, while he:

“I buy
a small cheese-filled
pie
I walk past the borovitzkaya metro stop
where I sold books five years ago;
I walk further,
past the place
in front of the lenin
library
where I sold ice cream
five years ago
I walk further,
thinking about how
my poems
are the poems of an unemployed person…”

and yet, Medvedev thinks himself lucky:

“…I cannot understand
why I should feel 
so lucky
the luckiest
of everyone
who…”

he follows with a long list ending with:

matured too early
then burned out
of everyone who found work in the morgue
of everyone who did time in jail
then died of an overdose
of everyone who worked at
the politician…campaign headquarters
and then joined his permanent team”

And here is a more recent Medvedev walking the same Moscow streets with a political message:

if you’re having some problems, or feeling sad, I recommend you take a weekend evening
and go with a group of antifascists to Myasnitskaya Street, next to the Moo-Moo Café,
and while hearing people honking in the distance start heading for the center,
reach the beautiful empty square at Lubyanka,
pass by the FSB thinking about 
how one day we will pass by this rotten citadel
in such a way that nothing 
will be left of it…”

while the authorities don’t care, knowing that nobody cares, other than a handful of demonstrators:

“round the corner and find,
to your surprise, that the guards at Lubyanka aren’t reacting at all,
and, even it seems, showing you respect…”

In the meantime, the literary establishment’s advice to poet is to:  “concentrate on finding novel ways of becoming stale”.

It’s powerful stuff, Medvedev’s poetry.

A few words about Gessen’s translations—they are excellent.  It might seem that speech-based free verse would be a translator’s dream.  It isn’t.  Speech cadences differ so much from one language to another and yet, for such poetry, they make all the difference between a poem that grabs you and a poem that stands there.  Gessen succeeds brilliantly.  Even where he strays, he adds and not subtracts.  Describing a sordid domestic drama, Medvedev writes of “something out of Dostoevsky, with no garnish”; Gessen translates “something out of Dostoevsky with no chaser”, and it works–drinking does go with such drama much better than food.

The originals of Medvedev’s poems can be found at kirillmedvedev.narod.ru; his LifeJournal account is zoltan-partosh.livejournal.com; and you can see him reading his poetry at a recent protest rally in Moscow here.

***

Julian Berengaut was born in Warsaw, Poland where he started his university education.  He continued it in Jerusalem and the US.  He has published book reviews, poetry and, most recently, a novel “The Estate of Wormwood and Honey”, The Russian Estate Books, 20012.

A Portrait of My Failures as a Critic

by Grant Maierhofer

“Every book in the world is out there waiting to be read by me” – Roberto Bolano, The Savage Detectives

 

2012 took forever. Moments came and went when things seemed exciting or new or whatever, but all in all it was a long year filled with strange decisions and I came out of it with a pile of books that I’d either ordered late at night because I’d been struck with some desire to “know completely the works of Slavoj Zizek” or that I’d agreed impulsively to review a tome describing the life of such-and-such Avant Gardist because I liked the idea of discussing literature at length in a “public” arena like HTMLGIANT.

Because of this strong desire to be as well-read as possible, balanced against the harsh reality of not having enough fucking time on my hands, there’s now a plethora of things I haven’t finished, haven’t fully reviewed, or haven’t begun to understand that sit on my shelf that—although I can easily discern their respective merits—I can’t see having the time for in the foreseeable future. As a result I’m going to review them, or review their covers, or review their quotes, or whatever; as a collective mea culpa while perhaps discussing the rigors of ambition/the insurmountable plague that is my laziness.

On the surface, this is a lazy approach to make up for my being a disorganized moron; however when I look at these books and think of where I was when I threw my hat into the ring to review them I understand that there’s a bit more to it than that. As a reader—especially a young reader—I think it’s tempting to hope for some sort of Johnny Neumonic device that allows all of Tolstoy or Perec or whomever to immediately flood my consciousness. If this weren’t such a temptation, no living human would ever walk out of a bookstore with more than five books; and yet I typically see those favorite bloggers or writers of mine on the internet citing their interest in more like ten, or fifteen books that they’ve just picked up or received in the mail. As a result I have to believe that on occasion the proverbial/collective eyes are trounced by the collective stomach, and as readers we constantly have to face the guilt of not yet delving into certain editions that loom over us like aggressive schoolteachers.

I admit my problem at the outset. I have no trouble saying “mea culpa” and moving on to think about another review of “Big L’s lyrics” to cheer myself the fuck up. Living is bullshit. I think we’ve all discovered this for the most part and it shouldn’t come as a surprise when I say that in said “living is bullshit” frames of mind the last thing I want to do is read a book for review. I want to watch TV, or read Jim Thompson, or fuck off into the confines of my stupid head for a couple of weeks and completely shirk my duties; and yet for all that self-assuredness in my decision(s) to put off a review another week or so, we have the guilt.

I feel guilt, and hence I’m doing this. Giving these books the best I can in the time allotted while saying to them: “Yes, I’ve failed you. Sorry. I’ll buy you dinner someday,” and hoping that sums up my point sufficiently.

Anyway, I’ve rambled on long enough. Here are four pieces of literature I vowed to review in 2012 and failed to complete with some form or another of evaluation based on whatever I’ve managed to gather:

552The House Enters the Street 
A novel by Gretchen E. Henderson
Starcherone Books, 2012

I’m beginning with the book I feel worst about not reviewing. I think I decided to ask for Henderson’s book because of the title, however looking a bit further at the book’s page online atStarcherone Books I realize it is also the kind of novel I tend to enjoy: perspectival shifts amass, varying techniques including scriptwriting, 2nd person narrative (a thing I’ve always felt attracted to) and portions of the book wherein whole paragraphs are in a lighter, gray font with important words them emboldened in black. It seemed a perfect fit and looking at it now on my counter, I feel an extreme twinge of regret that I can’t say much in the way of content in this book. It features a wide range of characters, this much I know. It isoven together by various loves and appreciation for the arts, to the extent that the whole thing is called “a love letter to the visual arts and music” on the novel’s cover. Yes, I definitely feel the worst about not having reviewed Henderson’s book, and after a Google search of the author I feel even worse. Her entire M.O. seems to be driven by the idea of releasing the novel from certain confines that history has imposed upon it. And all the while I’ve been fucking off walking around listening to John Maus, I could’ve been deconstructing my own bullshit writing and appreciating the works of a great new author. Fuck.

 

cm_aaCompos[T] Mentis 
Poetry by Aaron Apps
BlazeBOX Books, 2012

It’s a fairly amateurish connection to draw, but reading this I’m reminded of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. Although this is a collection of poems—hence it could be assumed they are not intentionally connected—and not a “novel,” each reflects such strange, disconcerting, earthbound biological detail that thinking of them as a sort of treatise on the earth (compost mentis…is how I’ve viewed it, not ‘of sound mind,’ necessarily, but ‘of compost/earth/mud/whatever mind’ which might just be me striving to impose humor on a strange and certainly heady piece of work) feels natural. I was probably drawn to this connection—again—because of the title. It’s funny and it cheered me up, and although the arcane array of images and poems in here are obviously not directly geared towards laughter I feel no loss from my initial perspective (“compost mentis, ha ha ha,” )and now. Also, Aaron Apps lives in Minneapolis and I used to live there and I felt pretty excited that something this artful and odd was being put out of that societal sink. In the beginning of the book—I’ll say in closing—he quotes from Jay-Z, Merleau-Ponty, Spinoza, Jay-Z (again), Leibniz, Wallace Stevens, Nas, Pascal, Nicki Minaj, and Gilles Deleuze. I enjoy Apps’ work, and (again) I feel like a dick for not doing a more formal review.

 

photo(1)The Eohippus Chapbooks 
Published by Eohippus Labs

I was really fucking excited when I received these chapbooks, recognizing familiar names like Amanda Ackermann (Theory of Language – Tract Series: #1), Janice Lee (The Other Worlds –Tract Series: #6), and a fantastic “greeting card” featuring hints at things to come, and those already published by the press. These are minimalistic, almost proletarian books printed in drab grays and browns and whites that have become sort of addicting as a result. Within each, the primary focus is language, and how far things can be pushed within the framework of a neatly packaged product that feels like the inside of these various authors’ minds. My favorite, perhaps, is Opal C. McCarthy’s succinct treatise on Ariana Reines and the question of whether a “blowjob [is] regal?” I’m reminded of the Parrot series published by Insert Blanc Press, in that these are not poems, but not quite prose either. As I said, each one of these fantastically-slim chapbooks exists in a world all its own, and their respective authors are the only ones with anything like a key to what’s going on. Looking at these books I’ve insulted through neglect these past few months, it’s these I feel the strongest sense of nostalgia for. I’ll likely carry them around in my backpack this semester and mark them up beyond recognition until I feel I’ve shared something significant with each author, as this after all seems to be the point of such grassroots publishing and literature that seems, mostly, to be “for writers” or at least those curious about new approaches to the field of words.

 

vsdeathnoises-e1339028821523Vs. Death Noises 
Stories by Marcus Pactor 
Subito Press, 2012

Absolutely the title, again. However, not feeling sure of myself—actually feeling rather stupid at choosing another book to review based solely on its title—my interest was affirmed in reading the press release. First and foremost, this is a collection of stories, and though the first and last stories mark a sort of narrative running through them, they all stand sufficiently on their own. Regarding a sort of theme,“grief” is probably the most accurate word to describe it; however style seems the more important factor at play. These are highly innovative approaches to the short story; written as odd interviews, archival records, and deeply internal narratives that fuck with your feelings. My favorite in the collection is probably “Concerning the Big Toe,” a series of questions and answers describing a mother’s infected big toe and her son’s indirect efforts to love her and feel love/intimacy in his life. This collection also features my favorite cover of 2012, balancing as it does graph paper with an in-depth drawing of a human ear with all the hair and the bulbous lobe to introduce the irksome stories that lay within.

 

Several things I’m looking forward to in 2013 as far as reviews and HTMLGIANT and literature commingled with the internet are as follows:

The release of Lars Iyer’s final piece in his trilogy, Exodus from Melville House Books, and the possibility of discussing it with him.

A series of reviews I’m working on to reflect Michael Kimball’s twitter avatar and his ‘postcard’ profile series wherein I’ll be reviewing each of his books on slabs of cardboard.

A review/profile of Yukio Mishima and his recent biography Persona that I’m intending to reflect the previous thing I wrote about Don DeLillo, i.e. “Needing Yukio Mishima.”

And that about does it, which might make me more of a failure. I’m not sure. I’ve probably dug my own grave, and yet I feel halfway decent admitting this and attempting to keep ‘love’ alive for all the goddamn books piling up around me. Life is undoubtedly going to get worse as I move on, which I’ve come to accept, as long as good books keep coming out and strange small pursuits like chapbooks can be profiled and appreciated in public arenas like this one.

***

Grant Maierhofer writes a weekly column for Delphian Inc. entitled A Cabana of the Mind, he blogs at miredingriefmiredingrief.com and lives in the middle of nowhere in Wisconsin.

Gaddis and J R: Life With, By and Before

by David Fishkind

49441

J R
William Gaddis
Alfred A. Knopf, 1975
726 pages / $15.16 buy from Dalkey Archive or Amazon
 

 

 

 

 

 

By July I’d completed my yearlong ramble through DeLillo’s oeuvre. It was not one of the hottest summers I remember. I had a room in Crown Heights with a window that faced out to an alley, across which lived a Barbadian family, whom I was awoken by most mornings before biking the six miles, across Brooklyn, over the Manhattan Bridge, through Chinatown, to the parking lot behind the business school next to the library, where I rode the elevator to the tenth floor and worked for eight hours Monday to Friday. I had little idea or direction of what to do next.

I read Wittgenstein’s Mistress in about two sittings, during which I came to vaguely understand the significance of the name William Gaddis. All I knew when I dropped down to the eighth floor one afternoon to pick up the massive copy of The Recognitions was that it included a character who wore a clock as a necklace. The image appeared throughout Markson’s insane novel and recalled Flavor Flav, the refurbished and culturally derided figure of the preceding decade, which seemed enough for me.

It took me three attempts to get through the first ten pages. I’d decided with a friend that we would tackle it simultaneously, but he gave up a quarter way through the first chapter. He explained that he didn’t have any interest in dedicating his respite to a man baptized by Jonathan Franzen as “Mr. Difficult.” As a matter of contention or cultural superiority, or, more likely, personal superiority, I committed to reading the novel to completion and full understanding.

I did so, along the way reveling in what I referred to as the most conscious and hilarious diatribe on art ever penned. I was indoctrinated; by what I read, I found myself deeply shaken and moved.

A month passed. I signed a lease on an apartment with my girlfriend in a neighborhood that used to be a part of Flatbush but is now called Prospect-Lefferts Gardens and enrolled in my penultimate semester of college. I reread Hamlet and Heart of Darkness and The Waste Land. I read for the first time A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses and “Ulysses” and “Prufrock” and Castle Rackrent. I had few conversations about Gaddis. I went out constantly for a few weeks and stopped. There was the hurricane and I walked across the Manhattan Bridge through a city without electricity to Madison Square Garden. I read Ben Gocker’s absurdly funny Content publication The Pisces on a bus from Philadelphia on three hours of sleep. I felt tired of writing. The insanity of the world seemed more sane. I was bored, watched hours of television. I still do. I’m still bored. And I thought, I think about The Recognitions regularly as this masterpiece of social and artistic criticism, the most effort ever poured into something’s message, which stands to say: It’s not worth it.

 

The six-week break between semesters eventually came. The last real sweeping vacation I’d ever have. I got a cold and drank and fell asleep early. I went to a Russian and Turkish bathhouse in the East Village and sat in 250-degree saunas throwing cold water over my head. J R had been sitting on the bookshelf since August, since I’d ordered it on Amazon for a dollar. I knew as little about it as I knew of Gaddis’ first novel, other than that it was about money, based on my copy’s cover and first sentences, and was possibly “as big of a fuck you” as anything can be, according to this website’s editor.

It took me two weeks to get through the first 226 pages: a mess of dialogue, plots unraveling between the conversations of questionably significant characters with questionably significant motives, roles within the society of the inexorable and painfully linear literary space.

The first moment of schematic or setting or plot or interactive what-have-you change disturbed and excited me. A transition from the Basts’ home to outside Massapequa’s bank via the prose movement of lawyer Mr Coen’s car. It was, as I compared it in a tweet, like a basketball pass or interception, a fluid movement of possession and authority within the agency of the text, the brief and schizophrenic power of what could hardly be referred to as free indirect discourse.

The speed and impenitent nature of this approach is what distinguishes Gaddis’ second novel, not only as a staggering achievement, but as a totally unique reading experience, from anything that precedes it. The twenty years separating the publication of 956-page The Recognitions, a novel that took a mere seven years to complete, and was generally and shockingly, to, it seems, both its writer and its modern audience, panned, was wrought with the Gaddis’ own maturation from a comparatively buoyant young artist to an embittered and embedded member of society. He got married, had kids and inserted himself in the hellish world of a regular career in public relations. The anxieties of this life, the realities of financial struggle, love and priority—the non-ascension and ultimate failure of the endowed artistic spirit within the confines of the American system—are all over the pages and characters of J R.

To see Jack Gibbs grappling to make sense of his desires and responsibilities, all the while in the light of his creative opponent, an irreconcilable mess of writing sharing its title with Gaddis’ own posthumous novel, Agapē Agape, is to experience the dissatisfying nature of existence. To ascertain the harm and deaths of seemingly major characters, the transformation of quality, ability and influence of figures like a burly drivers ed instructor, exclusively through ensuing secondhand account, is to suffer Gaddis’ aversion toward the sensational and riveting. The thrill exists, then, in the distance the novel forces upon the reader from the absurdity it establishes. It is all an endless stream of shit, piling and piling, with no answer but a little nod that a few more lifetimes just passed. This almost abusive layout is what got me through the following 500 pages in five days.

It’s impossible for me to tell how much time passes in the actual literal plot of J R, maybe a few weeks, maybe a year. There is no break to the action and inaction. The breadth of several days is given no more weight than a conversation lasting minutes via a candy store payphone. There are no spaces between paragraphs, scenes, no chapters, because that is the awful truth about the reader, the living person. We put so much emphasis on the time separating events, and Gaddis works to strip that away. To reveal the true shitness of a phone conversation, of the communicative power of speech and the narcissistic misconception that the sole individual has anything to say on his own.

Gaddis’ second novel is the finest of its kind—the answer to those who claim that everyone has at least one within them—because it is a novel that nobody but Gaddis could have written or fully grasp. It is the destruction of the space in between: the public and private life, the interaction between people, wealth, plans for the future and the crap that piles up and never happens. I’ll leave you to dive into the eponymous driving force of the novel—the character’s cockamamie take on how one thing builds on or leads to another, but it follows the form I’ve tried to address.

J R employs that forceful desire to criticize in order to construct its brilliant hatred and sensitivity toward humanity, art and capital.

– – –

Buy from Dalkey Archive (to read Rick Moody’s maybe interesting introduction? (I look forward to doing so at a bookstore?)) or on Amazon (because it’s cheap and Gaddis is dead anyway)

Further Reading
The Gaddis Annotations
“Stop Player. Joke No. 4″ by William Gaddis
“Mr. Difficult” by Jonathan Franzen
“Books People Wrote Because They Were Pissed About Writing” by Blake Butler
“I like William Gaddis alot” by Jimmy Chen

After the Novel
“Trickle-Up Economics: J R Goes to Washington” by William Gaddis