Sunday, December 28, 2008

Multiple Bles8ings - Jon & Kate Gosselin and Beth Carson

This is a guest blog post by my little sister.

Since Jack is on hiatus until he finishes his next book, I've decided to update his blog for him. One of the presents I received over the holidays was Multiple Bles8ings, by Jon and Kate Gosselin. Some of you may have seen their show while flipping channels on TV. I think that the show is entertaining. Basically, it is about a very different sort of family. They have two sets of multiple children-twins and sextuplets. There are two eight-year-olds and six four-year-olds. I began watching this show over the summer. The various tales of grocery shopping and taking day trips to amusement parks oddly fascinated me, and every Monday I recorded the new episodes on DVR. One day, I was at the local CostCo grocery shopping, and I was looking over the book section, as I usually do. I had watched the episode about Jon and Kate publicizing their new book, Multiple Bles8ings. I had wanted to read the book, and as soon as I saw it on the shelf at Costco, I put it in the cart. However, my mom didn't allow me to buy it, but then I got it on Christmas morning. The book has been on the bestseller list for quite awhile, and I heard it was well written from a few sources. I wasn't prepared for what I was about to read. From the first chapter I was entranced. I thought that their book would pretty much retell every thing that I already knew from their TV series, Jon and Kate Plus 8. I was definitely wrong. The book went into much more detail then I ever thought possible. My favorite part was the story of Kate almost adopting a little boy. Before Kate became pregnant with the sextuplets via infertility treatments, she longed for just one more child. Kate, by profession, was a nurse before she quit her job. She was monitoring a teenage girl's health before she was to have her first baby. The girl's mother did not want to adopt the baby once he was born because the father was a different race then they were. The mother begged Kate to adopt her grandson once he was born. After pondering their answer to this question for over twenty four hours, Jon and Kate declined, for fear that they would accidentally isolate the boy once he was older because he would be "different". Here is an excerpt from the text-the reasons that they want/do not want to adopt.

"Throughout the night we weighed the pros and cons. Pros-the baby would have two big sisters to spoil him, I would not have to suffer through possibly another difficult pregnancy, and we would be giving this little boy a comfortable, godly upbringing where he would always feel wanted and valued. Cons-we hadn't even thought through this situation for even a full twenty-four hours. What if, even after adopting this baby, I still felt a longing to birth my own child? Would Mady and Cara [their twins] adjust to this abrupt life-changing decision?
And then there was family. I learned later in the day that our families were less than thrilled with the possibility of us choosing this unexpected detour in our future. While not outwardly discouraging it, my mother acted as spokesperson as she encouraged us not to take one step forward with this adoption until we received a clear, concise, peace-in-our heart response from God. Jon's mother, speaking with unabashed honesty, was a bit more resistant. She adored our girls, cherishing their angelic faces and hair like shiny black corn silk. They were her blood, and by all outward appearance, that was more than obvious. Jon and I were concerned that any baby who was not our own would be forever separate, set aside, different. I was not sure if we, in this case would be acting in the child's best interest." (24)

I disagree with their beliefs in this situation. This is the choice that many families have to make that choose to adopt every year. I think that adopting a child who is different just makes them more special and different, but that makes them more interesting. This book would be an ideal purchase for anyone who is interested in the show. Adults and kids alike would enjoy the book, although some parts about the pregnancy are intensely detailed, which would confuse or bore younger kids. If you haven't seen the show before, definitely watch it before buying the book. Ultimately, I recommend this book to anyone! It is an interesting read and different than any other book!

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Hiatus / Best of 2008 List

This post is to signify that Flying Houses will be going on hiatus for an indefinite length. Don't worry, the reasons for it are not serious. The fact is I have started The Magic Mountain today and it is 851 pages and I do not know how long it will take to read. So do not think me lazy and realize that I am hard at work, whether it turns profits or not.

In recompense, I would like to offer a Best of 2008 List offered up in the Pitchfork style, as if I were a celebrity they wanted to query. Complete with a biographical profile.

Welcome to the first and only edition (for now) of Flying Houses Year-End Guest List. Each year we poll one blog author about his favorite things that happened that year in music, other various applied arts, and general living. This year, 2008, it's Christopher J. "Jack" Knorps, who is responding to us from a supine position on his bed in his parent's house, with his laptop sitting on a little tray which prevents extreme heat from irritating the groin area. This year Mr. Knorps wrote his second novel and accepted a temporary assignment as a proofreader!

Favorite New Songs of the Past Year:

Pretty much whatever songs are on the top 10 albums list I intend to include somewhere in this "interview." If I had to make a top 10 singles list, I would put "Nothing Ever Happened" by Deerhunter at the top of the list. I would also put "Ativan" by Atlas Sound up there. I enjoy "Flashing Lights" by Kanye West. That is a song that is on my iPod shuffle that I listen to though I rarely listen to Graduation. I thought "The Pretender" by the Foo Fighters was a pretty cool song, especially when I saw the video totally randomly on a motel TV the first and only time. I think that is from 2007 though. I haven't consumed enough in 2008, that's my problem. The song "The Lucky Ones" by Mudhoney was a great classic track to come out as if it were in a time capsule from 1992.

Favorite Older Songs at the Moment:

The Germs, because of the previous post here. I am very intrigued by all things Darby Crash. This past year though, I don't know. I seemed to have listened to a lot of Smiths this year, but that is probably true for the last three or four years now. I also listen to New Order a lot and a few of those reissues--like Technique--I really wanted to get but ended up passing on because I didn't want to drop $20 on a CD. The same goes for the new Cure album, whose critical reception didn't excite me enough to make me want to seek it out. That is true for the new Of Montreal album as well. I have listened to Liars a lot this year. All of their albums are better than they seem at first, and I really want to get Drum's Not Dead. I also went through a huge Black Flag phase where I had to get all of their albums while I was living in L.A. One friend in particular hooked me up with In My Head, Loose Nut, Live '84, and Family Man. I always enjoy listening to Sonic Youth and it seems like they haven't put out an album in a while, but two years isn't really that long of a time at all, especially since Thurston put out a solo album and Kim put out a Free Kitten album this year. I have gotten around to realizing why the Slits Cut album is so awesome. I also really got into !!! this year and can't wait to see what they do next, though I really wonder if they can top their previous highs. I think "Me and Giuliani Down By the Schoolyard (Based on a True Story)" may be the best single of the 00's decade, but others may disagree.

Favorite New Band:

I would say Be Your Own Pet but they aren't exactly new and they aren't exactly still extant. I thought These New Puritans were pretty cool. I haven't listened to Fleet Foxes and I might say them if I had.

Favorite Song Ever:

That's a really hard question to answer. There's very few songs I don't get sick of after hearing so many times. Maybe some old long classic song, like David Bowie's "Station to Station" or Velvet Underground's "Sister Ray."

Best Recent Concert:

I didn't go to many shows in 2008, and though the Deerhunter set I saw at the Metro in November was highly notable, nothing compares to seeing My Bloody Valentine live in person. That was at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago at the end of September. "You Made Me Realise" was everything I hoped it would be. Their setlist may not have been my ideal MBV setlist but it was hardly unsatisfying. And the mystique, the way the show was carried out, totally didn't make me feel like I was being put on, or that MBV were selling out doing a reunion tour, even if it cost me $50 to see it.

Last Great Film I saw:

Also, not many movies in 2008. Many On-Demand and on cable and even a few rented on DVD, but in the theaters, it would have to be Synecdoche, NY. A very bizarre movie that I'm not sure I would watch again. Okay I might watch it again under the influence of particular chemicals. Obviously it is a great script from Charlie Kaufman, though there has been some question about his directorial skill, as this is his debut in that field. This film is not a classic masterpiece, but it is great for being things that all other movies never try to be. It is completely original and there is nothing else like it. Philip Seymour Hoffman totally carries the film, though I would be lying if I didn't admit I got a little bored towards the end.

Last Great Book I read:

Well, Lexicon Devil really moved me more than anything recently. Of all the books reviewed on this blog, I will have to say that in 2008, obviously the two big Thomas Mann books astounded me entirely--Doctor Faustus and Buddenbrooks. Dead Boys by Richard Lange was the best recommendation from a friend, the best thing I borrowed, the best "discovery" I made. It had been a long time since a book of short stories had captivated me. Desolation Angels reminded me of how great Keroauc could be. I was surprised to find that it might be my favorite book by him, so far at least.

Favorite Piece of Musical Equipment:

My $75 guitar and $25 amp. My guitar has been restrung by a bunch of random music store employees because I don't know how to do that, and has probably cost about $50-$75 in the process. But I have had these for over four years now and they supposedly still work, even though they are sitting in my garage and I haven't played them in about five months. It was great to have my little bungalow-type studio in Silverlake where my neighbors were almost entirely cool with me practicing whenever I wanted. But I'm really bad about trying to bring my guitar playing up to an ability where I can say, "I actually know how to play." I may never know actually how to play, but making noise for the sake of it is an unique pleasure that many others may not understand. I still wish I could be in a band somehow though. It's just as hard as trying to make it as a novelist, though. But I think your individuality is able to stand out more in music.

Favorite Record Shop:

Tie. Amoeba Records in L.A. and Reckless Records in Chicago. Amoeba is like the Disneyland of record stores. You go there and you just know you're going to have fun. Reckless is not as fun but you still feel very cool whenever you go into any of their 3 locations in the city. I like the Wicker Park one best for feeling cool. I am not sure which branch inspired the film High Fidelity, but probably that one.

Best Purchase of this Past Year:

Nothing. I really cannot think of a single purchase that was useful or worthwhile or made me particularly happy. Probably some clothes or something. My most recent haircut. This laptop tray. My new pair of headphones. My new replacement cell phone which was supposedly free but which they charged me $10 for anyways.

Best Thing I did this Year:

Went to Las Vegas for the first time. That may not be the best but the first night I spent there was very eye-opening in ways I was not expecting. I went to the beach in Malibu one day in July after living in L.A. for about nine months. That was a worthwile and good thing to do. You cannot complain about beaches in Malibu. I also went to a Cubs spring-training game in Scottsdale, AZ, and though I have problems with a particular bar there, seeing a Cubs game at a home venue outside of Wrigley Field reminds me just how great the Cubs fans are, and how no matter where they play, they will always be the most beloved team in sports. Their choke in 2008 was not the best thing, but it was exciting to see them get to the point where they choked. I'm also glad I saw Dodgers, Angels, and Lakers games while in L.A.

Favorite Music Venue:

Spaceland in L.A. because I could walk there from my apartment and because they had this weird fishbowl type room where you could smoke inside (even though it's usually not so bad to have to go outside in that climate). The Echo and Echoplex were also pretty much comparably cool though.

Favorite TV Show at the Moment:

Intervention on A & E because I like the reality aspect of it and I like seeing people talk about why they need to do drugs. It is helpful from a rehabilitative standpoint, but I have to admit there is a bit of a perverse vicarious thrill in watching them fulfill their need, and that probably doesn't necessarily want to make the viewer stop doing drugs. It's always interesting when there's a new episode, they're rarely disappointing. But aside from that....Family Feud or Who Wants to be a Millionaire? or Jeopardy! Or weird cable shows about people running from the cops--I saw this show called "Why I Ran" once and that was pretty sweet.

Favorite Video Game at the Moment:

Zelda: The Twilight Princess on Wii, which I am still in the midst of and have been playing for the last several months very rarely. It's an amazing game, but it gets harder and more frustrating as you go on, and that maybe contributes to me not wanting to play as much. I really like the Wii News Network--I like doing the slideshow.

Favorite Radio Station:

Indie 103 in L.A. I also like Chicago Public Radio on 91.5. XRT in Chicago (93.1?) is pretty cool too. I bought the new TV on the Radio album when I heard them play a song from it on that station.

My Ringtone:

Is the annoying basic Verizon one on my new phone. I should change it to something cooler. There are a few soothing ones. I wanted to get a real song for my ringtone but I was too cheap to buy the LG Chocolate. I think "Blindness" by the Fall would be a cool ringtone.

Top 10 Records of 2008:

10) These New Puritans - Beat Pyramid
9) Fucked Up - The Chemistry of Common Life
8) REM - Accelerate
7) Atlas Sound - Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See but Cannot Feel
6) Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks - Real Emotional Trash
5) Portishead - Third
4) Be Your Own Pet - Get Awkward
3) TV on the Radio - Dear Science
2) No Age - Nouns
1) Deerhunter - Microcastle/Weird Era Cont.

Honorable Mention goes to Scarlett Johansson. While her album was not necessarily revelatory, it is probably one of the best albums to be put out by an actress, and was therefore "surprisingly good." Zooey Deschanel does not count as her album with M. Ward is probably much better.

The Breeders also deserve a nod for "Mountain Battles."
Wolf Parade deserve a few props for "At Mount Zoomer."
Silver Jews "Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea" is surprisingly strong, though admittedly not as appealing as "Tanglewood Numbers" or "American Water."
Islands' "Arm's Way" is front-loaded like crazy, but ambitious and worthwhile.
The Hold Steady's "Stay Positive" continues their trend of albums steadily decreasing in quality, though still being very excellent on the whole.
Vampire Weekend is bigger than Arcade Fire. I think.
Times New Viking "Rip it Off" is not the #39 album of the year (as it is according to Pitchfork) but they are a better live band than a treble-y recorded one. See them live, wait until they release their "Do the Collapse" to spend money on an album by them.
I really want to hear Fleet Foxes and Titus Andronicus. And I also want to get the new Of Montreal album.

And as for 2009, the new Animal Collective will probably be the first purchase.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Lexicon Devil: The Fast Times and Short Life of Darby Crash and the Germs - Brendan Mullen with Don Bolles and Adam Parfrey

I got Lexicon Devil for Christmas and just finished reading it an hour ago (6:00 PM, December 26, if I don't finish this and post it until tomorrow, the truth must be told). That means I was only in possession of it for about 30 hours before finishing it. That time includes a holiday gathering with cousins, nine or so hours of sleep, a couple hours at a mall, and a couple hours watching The Dark Knight on DVD, another Christmas gift. Basically all the other time was spent reading this book, and few other times in my life have I been so utterly thrilled by what I was reading that all other outside time became secondary. That is when literature is taken to new heights and the reason for my wanting to get involved in it reveals itself. This is the best book about music since Our Band Could Be Your Life, though it has been out for six years now, which is only another year or so more than that other thoroughly enjoyable volume. But make no mistake: Lexicon Devil is the height of the oral history genre, surpassing Please Kill Me and even the ridiculously exhaustive Nirvana text by Everett True. Darby Crash and Kurt Cobain have a few things in common, but as elusive and mysterious as Cobain may seem, Crash is ultimately even more legendary for the simple fact that he was not as famous. But they both killed themselves, they both loved heroin, they both loved Queen, and they both played with Pat Smear.

Anecdote #1: I almost bought Lexicon Devil from Circus of Books in Silverlake right after I first moved there. It was my first day touring the "Sunset strip" of the neighborhood on foot and this was the only interesting book I could find in that store. I decided against it and I was a fucking idiot for doing so! If I had read this book while living in L.A., it might have changed my life. I at least would have taken a few tourist side-trips.

Anecdote #2: When this book was referenced at the beginning of Palahniuk's Rant, I instantly wanted to read it again. There are a couple similarities between the protagonist of Rant and Crash. #1--both are begged to leave by their high schools, and are awarded diplomas the same way, and #2--both like to stick their arms down holes. In one interview Crash is asked "what was your first sexual experience?" and he answers, "When I stuck my arm down a garbage disposal."

That said Palahniuk does not borrow any more characteristics from this real-life icon. I really want to see What We Do is Secret now--which is I think a fictional re-creation of the story of his life--and I've always wanted to see The Decline of Western Civilization and have not been lucky enough to do so yet. This book is absolutely wonderful and if you are at all intrigued by the Germs, or punk bands in general, you will love this book.

The easiest place to start is with the Germs music itself. I only have "MIA" on my iPod, and truthfully it was not the easiest batch of songs to get into. At times they just sound awful and unlistenable, such as on the very poorly recorded "Sex Boy." However, there were more compelling moments. The song "Lexicon Devil" itself is probably their most famous single. "Circle One" and "No God" are great songs. "Forming" is iconic for being their first song and most self-fulfilling. Looking at the track listing of their album G.I., I would recommend that people get it. "What We Do is Secret" and "Communist Eyes" and "Richie Dagger's Crime" are all very good too. But that is about it. There are really not very many songs in their catalog.

It is difficult to situate them into their proper place in their influence of the American punk rock movement. They came after the New York punk bands like the Ramones and Television and Richard Hell, but only by a couple years. They did not like those bands as much as other people. They started in 1977 and finished in 1980. They came up around the same time as X, and throughout this book X are held up as their older, more mature mentors. They cared much more about sounding clean and crisp. They were much more professional.

The Germs came before Black Flag and the book does a good job of explaining the difference between the South Bay scene and the Hollywood scene which the Germs were a part of. There are many interesting and memorable characters in this book, but none more than Crash himself. Some of the anecdotes offered are really twisted and some are the most hilarious things I've ever read. But Crash is undeniable as a superstar performer.

He was born in 1958 and died in 1980 on the same day as John Lennon. He was raised as a Scientologist and attended an experimental high school where he started doing acid when he was 14 or so. He was friends with Pat Smear from about that age and started up the band more as a gang than as a musical entity. They made up their own t-shirts for the band before they ever rehearsed. Belinda Carlisle was their first drummer, though she never even really sat behind a drum kit for them, and I was wondering why her name sounded so familiar and later I realized it was because she was the only person in the scene to get truly mega-famous as the lead singer of the Go Go's. Joan Jett also figures somewhat heavily in the story as the producer of G.I. and as a maker of "piss-sicles." But they do finally start playing music and at the beginning their shows are more about the spectacle of Crash's onstage unpredictability, but later they do actually earn rave reviews for their first LP. One review says that it is the best album to come out of L.A. since the Doors did "L.A. Woman." Personally, I feel Los Angeles by X is a stronger statement than G.I. by the Germs, but the Germs are clearly trying to take their art to a higher and more surreal and less explicable level.

This book is mostly about playing shows and getting kicked out of places and vandalizing things and living a punk lifestyle. Darby Crash never had any money and would always ask people to give things to him, and they would. He also steadily got into heavier and heavier drugs. The stories about his last couple weeks of life are incredibly moving. The biggest bombshell that gets dropped in this book is about Crash's homosexuality that he felt he needed to hide due to the attitude of the L.A. punk scene at the time. Some of the discussions about this topic make up the most compelling portions of the book. I certainly had never heard anything about that before, but then again I didn't know much about Darby Crash beyond, "He killed himself when he was really young."

Although it may sound like this book is kind of dumb, Crash is actually the author of some very poetic lyrics, and many of the intellectual undercurrents of the music are discussed in very clear terms. One of the segments I found particularly trenchant was this offering:

Rik L. Rik: Darby found Spengler's Decline of the West interesting because of his theory that there is no ad infinitum chronological progression with cultures. In the West people think of culture in terms of each century building on the last and becoming more and more advanced, but Spengler disagreed. He saw each culture living a cycle and then dying. Then the next culture comes along and has exactly the same kind of cycle and dies. Each culture has three phases...where it starts out primitive followed by a glorious epoch...then it goes into decline and finally dies after a period of crazed decadence and general degeneracy of the masses. (127)

From there, the story goes to Darby's love of fascism, which may or may not be influenced by Bowie's pronounced love of that same concept. To be sure, it is weird, but it is bold to state and interesting to think about. Darby Crash is super obsessed with David Bowie. One of the funniest parts is when he is talking to his friend Will Amato about how he cracked the code of the album title Diamond Dogs. He says, "What are a girl's best friend?" And then he says, "What is man's best friend?" Little parts like that are what make this book great.

I don't even know what else I want to talk about in this book! I guess just that I read it super fast, faster than anything else I can ever remember reading that was this long (294 pages), and it's a great book for anyone that wants to be in a band and it's a great book for anyone that wants to spread true anarchy. Crash is an icon and this book perfectly captures every reason why. An absolute pleasure and an absolute treasure.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Invisible Monsters - Chuck Palahniuk

Well it has taken a little over three months, but now I have read Chuck Palahniuk's entire fictional oeuvre, except for reading Fight Club for the second time. The project was worthwhile, though at times it did feel more tedious than fun. This is not the case for the final book to be reviewed here, Invisible Monsters, however, as it may be near the top of the list I plan to include at the bottom of this review, a commonplace ranking most die-hard Palahniuk fans enjoy concocting.

I do not know if I consider myself a "die-hard," but I will say that I bet few of them have published reviews of each of his novels. I will certainly take a look at Pygmy when it is released. Invisible Monsters is another one of the books that has movie rumors swirling, along with Haunted, Survivor, and Rant, following up Fight Club and Choke. Those two may have been his best two books though Rant is certainly remarkable, in my opinion at least, and Invisible Monsters is arguably the most iconic, perhaps even surpassing Fight Club in its nihilistic glory.

To be sure, Invisible Monsters and Fight Club are the most similar of Palahniuk's novels. Both feature a previously successful protagonist who decides to shake up their lives a bit. This protagonist is actually shot in the same area of the face. Both feature a guru, or alter-ego, that drives the majority of the plot forward. Both are not so much about plot as they are about character. Both contain passages like this one found in Invisible Monsters:

"It's because we're so trapped in our culture, in the being of being human on this planet with the brains we have, and same two arms and two legs everybody has. We're so trapped that any way we could imagine to escape would be just another part of the trap. Anything we want, we're trained to want." (259)

Invisible Monsters is about modeling. It is also about mutilation. It is also about confusion of sexuality and gender. But it is also about adventure. In Fight Club, the adventure may be beating the crap out of one another and in Rant the adventure may be smashing into other cars, but in Invisible Monsters, the adventure is touring elegant homes for sale and stealing drugs out of master bathrooms. That is the majority of the plot.

There is the main character, mostly nameless, finally revealed to be named Shannon ten pages before the close of the novel, often called Daisy St. Patience as a pseudonym. She is a model who experiences a jaw-shattering accident that leaves her voice mute and her face disfigured. She communicates by writing notes, or sometimes comically attempting to speak. She has a best friend named Evie Cottrell, also a model, but a slightly bigger-boned one (I believe she is a size 9 to Shannon's 6). She has a dead gay brother named Shane, who apparently contracted gonorrhea at age 16 and died of AIDS not too long after. She has a boyfriend named Manus who is a police detective and who abandons her after her face is destroyed.

While at the hospital recovering from her accident, which is the opening of the novel and probably the best one Palahniuk has done, she meets Brandy Alexander, who is nearing the end of a year long "Real Life Conditioning" for a sex change operation. Later, she meets Brandy at a hotel and they escape and begin their year or so of being on the road and stealing and selling drugs, along with a male character alternatively named Signor Alfa Romeo, Chase Manhattan, Seth Thomas, or various other clever company names. The story jumps back and forth in time constantly, and nothing much happens except for recounting various incidents in this model's life. That may sound dull but this novel certainly is not.

This strange story allows Palahniuk plenty of soapbox-preaching about the nature of modeling and advertising and consumerism and sexuality. More importantly, the story also allows him to utilize what may be his finest prose to date:

"A sexual reassignment surgery is a miracle for some people, but if you don't want one, it's the ultimate form of self-mutilation." (259)

"You know how you look at ugly hunchback girls, and they are so lucky. Nobody drags them out at night so they can't finish their doctorate thesis papers. They don't get yelled at by fashion photographers if they get infected ingrown bikini hairs. You look at burn victims and think how much time they save not looking in mirrors to check their skin for sun damage.
I wanted the everyday reassurance of being mutilated. The way a crippled deformed birth-defected disfigured girl can drive her car with the windows open and not care how the wind makes her hair look, that's the kind of freedom I was after.
I was tired of staying a lower life form just because of my looks. Trading on them. Cheating. Never getting anything real accomplished, but getting the attention and recognition anyway. Trapped in a beauty ghetto is how I felt. Stereotyped. Robbed of my motivation." (286)

In short, many readers of Palahniuk state this book as being their favorite, and it is not hard to see why. On paper, in synopsis, it does not sound like the most exciting, but once a reader passes page thirty or so, the pull of the prose will carry them to the finish quickly. It is probably the most skillfully written work in his oeuvre, even if some plot twists seem overly obvious. On the whole, a very satisfying work, perhaps not a masterpiece, but a very intriguing book that deserves a Fight Club-size audience.

Top 9 Books by Palahniuk:
9) Snuff (2008)
8) Haunted (2005)
7) Diary (2003)
6) Lullaby (2002)
5) Survivor (1998)
4) Rant (2007)
3) Fight Club (1996)
2) Invisible Monsters (1999)
1) Choke (2001)

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Faust - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Reviewing a work of prose by Goethe is somewhat redundant. Writing a review of Faust is like writing a review of Romeo and Juliet, or The Odyssey. Those classic texts may be more heavily read than Faust, but they attain roughly similar cultural import. Christopher Marlowe originated the Faust legend in The Tragical Historie of Doctor Faustus in 1604, though it appears that he was inspired by the German chapbook Historia von D. Johann Fausten, published two decades earlier. I have not read Marlowe's version but from the title of the original it appears that Goethe was predestined to put his stamp on the legend, and that his treatment would remain the most enduring.

Oeuvre rule: I have read two other books by Goethe--The Sorrows of Young Werther and Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship. The first is the other classic Goethe text, and one that anyone lucky enough to taste the pangs of unrequited love should seek for catharsis, and the other is one of the premiere examples of the German Bildungsroman--the novel exploring a principal character's psychological maturation. In a way, Faust is a combination of the two. Part One features a romantic episode vaguely akin to Werther, with the exception that the playing field is somewhat unfairly tilted in the protagonist's favor this time, and Part Two portrays a spiritual maturation of sorts. But I do not want to give away the ending. Because the ending was not spoiled for me. If I were to have studied Faust in college, the ending probably would have been ruined. If I were to have read anything about Faust online, it probably would have been ruined too, so I will avoid all spoilers.

The play is a "closet drama" which apparently means that it is meant to be read in a book as opposed to seen in a theater. Still, Faust has been performed a handul of times, and what an experience it would be! One recent staging listed on Wikipedia occurred in 2000 with the famous German actor Bruno Ganz in the title role and an estimated running time of 21 hours! In the text version I read, Faust comes in at 293 pages, so it is not overwhelmingly long, but it would be hard to imagine reading it in one sitting.

Faust opens up with a rather postmodern scene, featuring the Director, the Poet, and the Clown, all discussing their allegorical roles as they relate to the composition of an artwork. Their witty banter opens up the play on a very light note, and indeed much of the rest of the play is quite comic. I am not sure how to categorize this play but it seems to me more comic than tragic. This scene is quite apart from the rest of the play, and quite short. There is next a short scene taking place in Heaven which is quite funny, and then the next scene introduces the character of Faust, and his first encounter with "spirits." We meet a colleague of his whom he vaguely scorns, Wagner, and they walk amongst the townsfolk during an Easter celebration, and are followed home by a poodle. Faust seems to know that this poodle is no ordinary dog, and once taken home into his study, the poodle transforms into the play's other principal character, Mephistopheles, certainly one of the most classic characters of all time. One would be hard pressed to pick the better depiction of the "evil force" between Goethe's bargainer and Milton's rebel angel, but in my opinion, for being much easier to identify with on a human level, Mephistopheles is the choice.

The usual elements of the legend are introduced here--Faust's desire to reach the heights of human experience and attain ultimate knowledge, and his willingness to commit his soul to Hell for the privilege. His wish is soon granted, and some of the early scenes with Mephistopheles are very humorous, when he claims that he can't do absolutely everything for Faust. After their first meeting, he asks Faust to open the door for him, because he has to exit the same way he has entered. On his second visit, Faust has to tell him to "come in" three times before he actually can. But soon their bargain is made and Mephistopheles first attempts to show Faust how to "be one with the people" which involves going out to a bar. Then there are a couple weird scenes with apes and witches, and finally the entrance of Gretchen, the object of Faust's desire. The way that Mephistopheles arranges for them to meet up is another instance of the hilarity in the play. But the fate of Gretchen and Faust's affair is one of the saddest moments of the play as well, and brings Part One to a thunderous end.

Part Two definitely branches out a lot. There are five acts in it, as compared to one act in Part One, and it is nearly twice as long. Each act is pretty much an episode in Faust's continuing quest for supreme knowledge, and they often become quite bizarre. For a while you may think you have been transported into an Ancient Greek epic during Part Two.

Act I is quite lively, with an emperor whose fool has just died, or become incapacitated by drink. Faust takes over as magician in the fool's place and greatly ingratiates himself to the emperor. Act I is the most political part of the play, with many opinions on the proper governing of a state. There is even a passage which may speak to one of the current crises in America circa 2008:

Wherever you go in this world there's always a shortage of something. It might be this, it might be that. Here it's money we're short of. Now you can't just pick up money from the floor. But there's nothing sunk so deep we can't get hold of it, if we use our wits. There's gold, coined or uncoined, under old walls or in the belly of the hills. And if you ask me who is to unearth it: An intelligent man using the brains that nature gave him.

Eventually the two provide the emperor and his kingdom with enormous treasure that is actually fake paper money, but is never really acknowledged as such. There is a great festival and gathering of fantastic spirits that Faust orchestrates, which also has a short but hilarious and weird tangent that touches on and perhaps predicts a literary craze in 2008:

The herald introduces various poets, poets of nature, court poets, love poets, sweet or passionate. In the pressure of competition none lets the other speak. But one of them gets a word in

Satirical Poet
Do you know what would really delight me as a poet? To write and recite what no one wants to hear.

The night and graveyard poets beg to be excused, because they are having a most interesting conversation with a newly arrived vampire, which might lead to a new form of poetry. The herald has no choice but to agree and he fills the gap by calling on Greek mythology which, while in modern costume, remains true to character and retains its appeal.

Act II features the Peneios, which is a weird mythological place somewhat similar to Hades, or the Inferno, populated by Griffins and Sphinxes. Faust is temporarily put into a coma state due to a visit to the Mothers, which are the "true forms" that will explain how he can meet Helen of Troy, which is his latest idea. Act II is very bizarre, and also features a scene with Wagner, who has been changed somewhat by Faust's disappearance. There is also the curious character of Homonculus, which is like a lightning-bug trapped in a jar, who explains that it is a human who is waiting to be born.

Act III is the "Helen Segment" which writes a new chapter in Greek literature many years after its proliferation. It is a self-contained episode, as is Act IV, which features the return of the emperor from Act I, and is the section of the play devoted to the investigation of war. Finally, Act V brings the work to a powerful and surprising close. Act V is probably the most compelling single part in the entire play, particularly Faust's and Mephistopheles's closing passages. The very end of the play is especially bizarre, and exeunts on a gracious and mysterious note:

Chorus Mysticus
Transitory things are symbolical only. Here the inadequate finds its fulfilment. The not expressible is here made manifest. The eternal in woman is the gleam we follow.

A review of Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus kickstarted this blog, and it would perfect in a way if Goethe's Faust could end it, but aside from that dark thought, it bears mentioning that I found Mann's more entertaining on the whole, but wholly different. Adrian Leverkuhn and Faust are not similar characters. Leverkuhn barely speaks, and Faust is quite voluble at times. The section with "Mephistopheles" is handled with supreme care and brilliance by Mann, and that is really the only part that is comparable between the two. Both should be read by anyone who professes to love literature, and I should probably read Marlowe's version next. Mann's is longer, and more traditional as a novel than Goethe's is as a play. For its otherworldliness and its indefinability however, Faust will certainly remain one of the most impressive documents mankind has had to offer until the end of time.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Interview - Tao Lin

After reviewing Eeeee Eee Eeee for this blog, I asked the author if I could interview him and he graciously fulfilled my request. I sent him 20 Questions on various and sometimes hopelessly personal topics. The responses are fantastic. For once, we will have a clear view of "how to get published when you are young" and "how a writer works and lives" without any confused conjectures about the path towards success. Many an ambitious and unpublished writer will offer their advice about becoming recognized as a literary voice, but at the end of the day, to quote the same professor quoted in the previous post, "experience knows it is not so."

JK: How long have you been writing for? Can you remember the first project you ever undertook?

TL: I have been writing with thoughts like “I am working hard” for 4 or 5 years. The first 20+ day writing project I had was a novel, I think. I finished it when I was 20 or 21 and edited it a few times. It was around 100,000 words.

JK: Do you have a regular working routine? Do you write every day?

TL: Since 4 or 5 years ago I've probably worked on writing 70-90% of days. Maybe during 50-70% of those days I’ve “scheduled my life around writing.” My routine has changed during those 4-5 years maybe 3-6 times. For the last 4-8 months, my routine, working on the middle and end drafts of my next two books, has been to work 3-6 hours then eat something then work 3-6 more hours then eat something and go to my room and sit and eat for a while checking email and other things and go to sleep.

JK: Which was your first work picked up for publication? Did you go through an agent? Did you have to deal with a lot of rejection before you got accepted? What was that process like?

TL: My first story published was maybe on or (no longer exists, I think). My first book published was YOU ARE A LITTLE BIT HAPPIER THAN I AM. I sent it to Action Books’ poetry-book contest for publication and it won. My first non-poetry book published was my story-collection, BED. I had a literary agent who was unable to sell it (was rejected by something like 20 publishers). After that 1-3 month period of rejection by Knopf, FSG, Riverhead, etc., I “separated” from the literary agent; the next day Melville House, my current publisher, called me and said they wanted to publish BED. (They had solicited BED independent of the literary agent about 4 months earlier, after reading about it on my blog).

JK: Why did you include so many scenes with animals in Eeeee Eee Eeee? Are they meant to be symbolic or allegorical in some way?

TL: I included the animals because I felt it was funny and also during that time in my life, in regards to the novel, I had many thoughts like “what difference does it make,” thoughts which contributed to me including animals. It is not symbolic or allegorical to me. It is, to me, more like me saying something like, “What if [something I think is funny happened]?” which is more “a joke” than allegorical, I feel. Another way of interpreting the animals, in my view, would be to view it the same as seeing animals in nature. If I see a dolphin in nature I feel amused, to some degree, and there is no additional meaning or effect, I do not interpret a dolphin in nature as allegorical, it does not reference something else to me. I believe and do not refute or encourage or discourage (or think negatively of or condescendingly towards) that some people see dolphins in nature, or in books, and interpret it as symbolic for the failure of their marriage or something else.

JK: Is the girl in the t-shirt that says "Mineral" a reference to the band Mineral?

TL: Yes.

JK: If you had to list your top 5 favorite authors, who would they be?

TL: Joy Williams, Lorrie Moore, Ann Beattie. I am having problems picking the other two. There are 5 or 10 more that I like.

JK: Do you feel famous at all? I'm guessing people don't recognize you on the street yet, but do you have a different perception of yourself as a person who maintains an audience and is recognized by the literary industry?

TL: I don't know if I feel famous. I feel famous and excited when Gawker links. But it gets less exciting each time. I feel the only way, maybe, to constantly feel famous and excited is to increase one's fame exponentially.

My perception of myself includes thoughts like “I am primarily a person who is ignored by Bookforum, certain literary blogs, and Critical Mass: The Blog of the National Book Critics Circle Board of Directors.”

JK: Is it hard to get an agent interested in your work? Would you be able to provide any advice in regards to querying them? Is it easier for you to publish more now that you've already got several books under your belt?

TL: I queried agents after I had completed BED (story-collection) and published I think 7 or 8 of the 9 stories in literary magazines, won an NYU creative writing award, and won One Story's annual short story contest. I put those things on my cover letter. I emailed queries and most agents responded. Some agents did not feel confident they could sell a story-collection, but wanted to see a novel when I wrote one. Two agents wanted to represent the story-collection and I talked to both for about a week and chose one.

My publisher has committed, I think (it is not “official”), to publishing anything I write that is like a “real” book, currently, so, yes, it is easier for me now.

JK: Do you like Bret Easton Ellis? Is there a reference to Less Than Zero in Eeeee Eee Eeee (something about young adults abusing drugs and leading a privileged lifestyle)? Do you aspire to that level of success? Or is artistic cred more important to you than commercial success?

TL: Yes, I like Bret Easton Ellis. I feel that he is funny and has the ability to write sentences containing a concrete to abstract ratio that I like, in a tone that makes me feel calm. I feel that his work, to some degree, is a conscious parody of what he is writing about, but also serious, and not a parody. I feel that Lorrie Moore does that also, but with sadness and maybe desperation, whereas Bret Easton Ellis does it with other things, depending on the book. “Conscious parody” is a tone I enjoy, I think. I don't think Eeeee Eee Eeee specifically references Less Than Zero because I had not yet read Less Than Zero when I wrote Eeeee Eee Eeee.

JK: Are you able to support yourself fully as a writer, or do you have to do odd-jobs as a way of making ends meet? Have you been considered for any teaching positions?

TL: I am not yet able to support myself only from writing. I think maybe by 2011 I will be able to support myself only from non-assigned writing. Since college I have worked at two libraries, as a personal assistant, at a restaurant, selling batteries on eBay, and some other things I think. I have not been considered for teaching positions.

JK: Can you tell us anything about Richard Yates? How experimental is it compared to Eeeee Eee Eeee?

TL: Richard Yates is linear and ideally has the same pacing, perspective, language, and tone throughout; it contains many scenes, is “dialogue heavy,” and is focused on one relationship. I don't feel it is experimental. But I just thought about it and I feel it's experimental in that I “controlled myself almost completely” from doing anything to it. Eeeee Eee Eeee goes backwards in time with each chapter until the last chapter (which starts chronologically before the first chapter) and ends at the chronologically latest point, and also switches perspectives, has inconsistent language and sentences and maybe tone, and has “fantastical” and “absurd” elements (which are all things I “did” “to it,” I feel). I think most people will not view Richard Yates as “experimental” but that I will sometimes view it as experimental.

JK: Did you ever meet E.L. Doctorow? Or Harold Bloom? Were there any writing teachers or classes in college that pushed you more than others to seek publication?

TL: I didn't meet those people. Writing teachers didn't really talk about publication to me, I think. The focus was on writing things and editing them, at that point, both in my view and their view, I feel. I liked Brian Morton, Thomas McGonigle, and Sophie Powell.

JK: I remember a short sarcastic passage about terrorists in Eeeee Eee Eeee. What was your experience like on 9/11 and what influence, if any, has it had on your life and your work?

TL: I woke around 11 a.m. in a dorm by Washington Square Park and heard things on my roommate's radio. Then I went outside and walked toward lower Manhattan to look at it a little. I feel that 9/11 has had no effect on my life and probably most of my work, relative to other things that have happened in the world, in that 9/11 did not add to, take away from, or change the “existential concerns” (rather than sociological, political, or topical concerns) that I feel I focus on in most and, ideally, all, of my writing.

JK: Did you ever work at Bobst Library? If so, were you there when the suicides occurred? I could see that being a traumatic experience on the level of 9/11 in a much more personal sense.

TL: Yes, I worked there. I was not there when people killed themselves but I was there like later in the day each day. My co-workers were there, in the basement, they said it was really loud (people killed themselves by jumping off the 10th, I think, floor in the inside atrium, onto the main lobby).

JK: Did you ever know a girl named Sarah in Jersey City? She dropped out after freshman year and last I heard she was living there. I have to say I feel very similar to the way Andrew feels about Sara in Eeeee Eee Eeee and I just wanted to make sure this was not the same person, or to find out if it was because she pretty much dropped off the face of the planet and I miss her greatly.

TL: I did not know Sarah in Jersey City. I think the only people I knew in Jersey City were the two other people living in the house I lived in, on different floors, and I saw them maybe once a week in passing.

JK: What are a few of your favorite bands at the moment?

TL: I have been listening to “Line and a Dot” (, “Hop Along, Queen Ansleis” (, and “The Mystery Books” ( recently.

JK: Do you think you'll be a lifelong New Yorker or could you see yourself living someplace else? What other places appeal to you?

TL: I would move anywhere maybe. I don't feel attached to New York City except that it would take effort to move somewhere else (and maybe also that there is more access here to organic vegan food). Places that are sunny and don't get really cold appeal to me. Florida, California, and Japan appeal to me.

JK: Do you ever get worried about running out of ideas for good books? Do you outline a lot before you start a novel or just generally start typing?

TL: I do not feel worried about not having ideas for books. With my next two books I outlined each multiple times at different stages of their completion. Completing a draft (including having all the scenes that I feel will be in the final draft, in the general order that I feel will be in the final draft, including a beginning and an end, and in an edited form), of each book probably constituted 5-25% of the time spent on each book. The other 75-95% is spent repeatedly reading it beginning to end while changing little things and deleting little things and moving sentences around inside paragraphs and things like that.

JK: I mostly found out about you from Is there a concerted marketing effort through your publisher Melville House for all of this coverage or has bookslut sought you out on their own?

TL: My publisher's blog, Mobylives, was one of the first book blogs, along with Bookslut, so they know each other from that. Bookslut acknowledges, reviews, or does something with most, or some, Melville House books, I think.

JK: What is your opinion on the publishing industry at large? Do you find it to be full of sycophants and posers or do you think the majority of people in the "biz" have good taste and good intentions?

TL: I do not think in terms of good taste or good intentions or sycophants. If someone likes a certain kind of book then their “taste,” to me, is "I like a certain kind of book," it is not good or bad to me. If someone is lying that they like someone’s book to get that person to like them I feel that is funny, to some degree, and is “just another way of ‘doing things.’” It “works” for some people, some people do it openly, some people do it sarcastically, some people like sycophants, it is sustainable for some people, it cannot be sustained for some people, some people have problems “faking interest,” etc., and I feel that each method of doing something is “okay.”

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Lullaby - Chuck Palahniuk

Lullaby was published in 2002. It is the follow-up to Choke. Is it better than Choke? That's hard to say, but for me personally, Choke is better. It is certainly more arresting and consistent than either Diary or Haunted. Elements of it are quite similar to Rant. It deals in the fantastic. Many days I wish I knew the culling song that consigns the title of the book. A person can say the poem taken from Poems and Rhymes from Around the World and kill whoever is in their immediate vicinity. They can even say the culling song silently to themselves in their mind and focus their energy on a person and have them drop dead from far away. Some days I wish I could have someone say the culling song to me. A mysterious death is produced, without a known cause. It seems relatively painless.

Carl Streator, the protagonist of the novel, makes the connection between a series of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome occurrences and each family's possession of Poems and Rhymes from Around the World, opened up to page 27, the culling song. It is meant to help babies fall asleep. A lullaby. Palahniuk never reveals the actual words of the song. He only mentions that it is about animals going to sleep.

The main characters are Streator, Helen Hoover Boyle, a real-estate agent, Mona, her secretary, Oyster, her boyfriend, and John Nash, a paramedic. The novel gets started up relatively quickly, and by page 50 turns into something of a mass-market thriller, which still carries enough wit to keep it edgy. By that I mean it is a page-turner.

Helen sells haunted houses on a revolving schedule as soon as the new owners of each discover the fact. Carl is a journalist. Mona and Oyster are Wiccans, militant vegans, and not necessarily what they appear to be. Nash takes advantage of the recent spat of unsolved deaths. The book does have a moral center and once Carl and Helen discover that they are addicted to the power that the culling song gives them, they embark upon a cross-country road trip with Mona and Oyster in the backseat. This is where the novel really starts to hit its stride. This is where it becomes even more of a page-turner.

There is one problem with the novel. At one point, Streator mentions that Poems and Rhymes from Around the World was published eleven years ago. Soon after it is mentioned that both Hoover and Streator were in possession of the book twenty years before. Since this plot hole is never explained, I take it to be something of an editorial oversight--more and more of which I have been catching since I have started to work as a proofreader ("rememer" and "look" instead of "lock" are two particular typos I found in my copy of The New York Trilogy). I am willing to forgive Palahniuk though. It makes me feel better about myself. As one of my college professors used to like to say, "Even Homer nods."

In the way of larger social commentary that Palahniuk usually delivers in his works, there is much talk about how Big Brother has been infused into the manifold media we consume on a daily basis. There were not many easily quotable sections that I came across until near the very end, where some of the statements crystallized into a somewhat cogent philosophical position:

"I can't tell what I really want and what I've been tricked into wanting.
What I'm talking about is free will. Do we have it, or does God dictate and script everything we do and say and want? Do we have free will, or does the mass media and our culture control us, our desires and actions, from the moment we're born? Do I have it, or is my mind under the control of Helen's spell?" (228)

Lullaby is about power and the abuse of it. It is about supernatural practices and rituals and it provides enough trivia to make people who want to believe in that sort of thing investigate further. The Wiccan aspect is vaguely mocked, but taken seriously enough to potentially influence readers that might have hopes of learning real spells. The Book of Shadows is invoked and I kept thinking of the Blair Witch Project even though I never saw the sequel, and it seems like this could have been a fun but potentially maddening topic to research. In short, this is one of Palahniuk's better novels. And like I said before, I prefer Choke slightly more, because it's closer, even if by just a little bit, to everyday life.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Eeeee Eee Eeee - Tao Lin

I want to write a review of Eeeee Eee Eeee, the debut novel by Tao Lin published in 2007, but it is impossible. Here, I will try anyways. It is about Andrew, who works at Domino's in Florida, who has returned home after running out of money after going to school in New York. His parents have moved to Germany and he lives with their two aging dogs in a big house. He hangs out with his friend Steve from high school and they drive around and talk about how depressed they are and sometimes scream "shit" out of the window. Steve has a younger sister named Ellen, who is in high school, and for a few random chapters about 2/3 of the way through Eeeee Eee Eeee, it becomes her story. She is probably more depressed than Andrew or Steve.

Both her and Andrew communicate with animals that live in an underground world accessible by a trap door. A bear, a dolphin (the source of the title), a moose, and a hamster become their friends, enter and exit randomly. There are also cameos by Elijah Wood and Salman Rushdie and Sean Penn's corpse, which upset me personally. There is also a lot of talk about Jhumpa Lahiri and her Pulitzer.

The last chapter of Eeeee Eee Eeee is arguably the best part. It is very long and there is a mention of a free concert featuring Yo La Tengo in Battery Park that I think I went to. Everything reaches a synthesis at that point, despite how random and arbitrary the majority of the action of the preceding 150 pages may be. At the beginning Andrew is constantly thinking about Sara and for the second half there is barely a mention of her. Something is happening in this novel that I don't understand.

Here is an appropriate passage to highlight:

"'Maybe we should wait until after Thanksgiving for the dog. Thanksgiving is so soon! Aren't you excited?'
'I hate all holdays.' Thanksgiving--the gorging and genocide of it; how could it be a holiday? were they serious?--made Ellen feel at once nauseous, sarcastic, seditious, and starving. Her mouth watered. But she also wanted to vomit on the white man's face then smash something--a house, an entire mansion--with her forehead and have it be suicide at the same time." (150)

The closing image of the book is quite moving. This book is practically impossible to describe. There is not much of a plot. There does not need to be a plot. To read Eeeee Eee Eeee is to be reminded that there are no rules to literature.

A lot of things happen in the book and nothing really happens. I want to go on a killing spree. I won't because I believe in non-violence. Speaking as a depressed person, Eeeee Eee Eeee may offer some solace. Everything is meaningless. If I had a class I would bring a tent in and go inside. But I don't so I am sleeping in a tent tonight in my basement because I have been displaced from my room due to Thanksgiving family visitors. These kind of facts feel okay to include in a review of this book for some reason. Have you ever heard a theory that proclaims that whatever book you are reading at the moment mirrors your present life in some way? That is the way I felt reading Eeeee Eee Eeee.

Here I must lapse into an autobiographical charade: I would like to approach Eeeee Eee Eeee as if I were in the same creative writing class at Tao Lin at NYU. I could not get through this review without mentioning that we are the same age and graduated the same year from the same school. Further stalking provides the information that he graduated from CAS in Journalism and I graduated from Gallatin in Writing and Politics. That said we never had a creative writing class together, and had we, I would have included him on the short list of best student writers I had read while in attendance at that institution, alongside, oh, Paul Rome, Adam White (technically from Dartmouth), Xenia Viray, and Jordana Rothman--and it bears mentioning that they all came from the same single class out of the eight or so I took. Finally, were Tao to be there, yes, he would be amongst the best I had read, but were he to show random chapters from this first novel, I would respond to them randomly. If he showed the last chapter, I would proclaim it a work of genius. If he showed one of the random short middle chapters, I would consider it quirky and nearly pointless. This is the easiest way for me to judge this book. I would feel weird slamming it and calling it a piece of crap and I would feel weird proclaiming it a would-be finalist for the National Book Award. It's somewhere in the middle, but definitely tipping the scale towards the more positive end. After reading the better parts of Eeeee Eee Eeee, I am relatively sure that Lin's forthcoming works, Shoplifting at American Apparel and Richard Yates will show progress and maturity and may put him on the track to be one of the greatest American novelists one day, since he has such a great headstart on everyone.

I am happy that Tao Lin was able to publish this book at age 23 or 24. It restores my faith in the publishing industry. He deserves to find an audience at least the size of David Baldacci, or Chuck Klosterman. If his prose style becomes more "mainstream" and if the marketing efforts of today's publishing companies quit being so damn pathetic, it may be within the realm of possibility. Though this book is extremely idiosyncratic, there is a generosity of spirit about it that few other writers would include so haphazardly, summed up in this passage:

"In the computer room Andrew stares at the table of contents of his story collection. His story-collection. Rejected by over thirty editors. Rejection is good. Putting others ahead of self, giving things away. Success, money, power, fame, happiness, friends; any kind of pleasure--giving it all away, in the pyramid scheme of life, with the knowledge that everything will be returned, and being satisfied with that knowledge; not with the actual return of things, but the idea of the return of things. There is death. Martial arts, deer, death. Singapore, octopus, death. In each story the main character is depressed and lonely. Every story is twenty-pages and about pointlessness. He opens one of the stories. If he writes good and funny enough, Sara will materialize in the swimming pool. He stares at the story. Delete it. He needs coffee. He already had coffee. Move the story casually to the recycling bin. Empty the recycling bin with cunning and speed. Start a band. You win, you lose. It's the same old news. Write a story about Steve. Killing rampage in a casino, with lead pipes." (75-76)

If I had to ask Tao Lin one question about the book, it would be about the meaning of the animals. Are they hallucinations? I think they are real. They probably don't mean anything. They don't make the story less believable because the parts without the animals are pretty realistic. I would also ask him if the girl wearing the t-shirt that said "Mineral" on it was a reference to the band, as Jawbreaker, the Flaming Lips and the Shins are all clearly referenced, because I make a reference to that same short-lived but much-loved emo band in my second novel. That would make me happy. Because this is finally the opinion I come to about Eeeee Eee Eeee--that if there is one "emo" novel--this is it. As a freshman at NYU I was into more of those kinds of bands than I would like to admit to from this juncture seven years later. But that attitude which appealed to me--of being depressed, maybe being a "cutter," of wearing weird clothes and buttons and going to shows like cultural events--is certainly prevalent in some of the characters in this work. The culture of 2001, and everything that came with it, has certainly affected all of us 25-year-olds in divergent but oddly similar ways. This book is emo, even if what people call emo today totally sucks and is lame. Tao Lin should open up for a Rainer Maria or Texas is the Reason reunion tour and read. That would be cool.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The New York Trilogy: City of Glass; Ghosts; The Locked Room - Paul Auster

Every time I saw Pedro the Lion play live, David Bazan would always stop the proceedings maybe halfway or 2/3 through the show in order to start a question and answer session. "Are there any questions at this point?" he would say. Audience members would shout out topics on whatever they wanted to hear Bazan discuss. Once someone asked, "What's your favorite novel?" And he answered, "The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster." I had never heard of the book, or Auster before, and I felt that if it was the best book Bazan could recall at the moment, then it must have been worth reading.

That question was probably answered in 2002 and so six years later, I have finally gotten around to reading Auster for myself. I'm sorry I didn't seek him out earlier. In that time, however, I did watch Smoke and Blue in the Face, on recommendation from my brother-in-law, not realizing at all that Auster had written the screenplays for those pleasurable cinematic anomalies. After reading The New York Trilogy I definitely want to go back and revisit those films. I also want to read Hand to Mouth and Leviathan and maybe a couple other books by him, but by this point we all know it is much more easy and efficient to watch a movie than read a book. Needless to say, I now consider myself a fan of Auster.

So what is The New York Trilogy about, finally, after all this meandering? As is probably obvious, it is made up of three volumes, each of which stand on their own, but also inarguably belong together in the same book. Each novella works to varying effect. But for me personally, I enjoyed "City of Glass" and "The Locked Room" significantly more than "Ghosts." It is hard for me to say if I liked "City of Glass" or "The Locked Room" better, but I am leaning towards the latter, as it has the most satisfying "page-turner plot" of the three. For some reason, I couldn't get into "Ghosts" as much, though that is not to say that it is a failure as a piece of writing. Far from it--it just appears to be the most "experimental" and "postmodern" of the three, notably naming all of the major characters after colors. Also, it is not broken up into chapters like the first and last pieces, and I found it a bit more exasperating to finish because of that. The pacing does not complement the story in this case, and though there are definitely stretches of a few pages at a time as strong or stronger than the other two, it is overwhelming in its slowness, and produces the same effect in the reader as it does in the protagonist--impatience, restlessness, and ennui.

But let us not get ahead of ourselves. First things first: "City of Glass," which features a protagonist by the name of Daniel Quinn, 35, an author of detective novels under the pen name of William Wilson, who has lost his wife and son and has led a cloistered existence in New York City until he is mysteriously contacted by a person mistaking him for the detective Paul Auster. The person ends up being Peter Stillman, who has been all but disabled by the bizarre parenting by his father, also named Peter Stillman, a retired professor at Columbia who wrote about the Tower of Babel and the coming apocalypse in the New World, to occur 340 years after the landing of the Mayflower--or 1960. Quinn is hired by Stillman and his wife Virginia to follow the elder Stillman, who has recently been let out of jail, is returning to New York, and may be plotting the murder of his son.

The majority of "City of Glass" consists of Quinn following the elder Stillman, as he walks around New York picking up random bits of trash from the sidewalk, examing them and writing about them in a red notebook. This eventually drives Quinn insane, culminating in an incredible passage describing a very long-walk around the island of Manhattan:

"He walked down Broadway to 72nd Street, turned east to Central Park West, and followed it to 59th Street and the statue of Columbus. There he turned east once again, moving along Central Park South until Madison Avenue, and then cut right, walking downtown to Grand Central Station. After circling haphazardly for a few blocks, he continued south for a mile, came to the juncture of Broadway and Fifth Avenue at 23rd Street, paused to look at the Flatiron Building, and then shifted course, taking a westward turn until he reached Seventh Avenue, at which point he veered left and progressed further downtown. At Sheridan Square he turned east again, ambling down Waverly Place, crossing Sixth Avenue, and continuing on to Washington Square. He walked through the arch and made his way south among the crowds, stopping momentarily to watch a juggler perform on a slack rope stretched between a light pole and a tree trunk. Then he left the little park at its downtown east corner, went through the university housing project with its patches of green grass, and turned right at Houston Street. At West Broadway he turned again, this time to the left, and proceeded onward to Canal. Angling slightly to his right, he passed through a vest pocket park and swung around to Varick Street, walked by number 6, where he had once lived, and then regained his southern course, picking up West Broadway again where it merged with Varick. West Broadway took him to the base of the World Trade Center and on into the lobby of one of the towers, where he made his thirteenth call of the day to Virginia Stillman. Quinn decided to eat something, entered one of the fast-food places on the ground floor, and leisurely consumed a sandwich as he did some work in the red notebook. Afterwards, he walked east again, wandering through the narrow streets of the financial district, and then headed further south, towards Bowling Green, where he saw the water and the seagulls above it, careening in the midday light. For a moment he considered taking a ride on the Staten Island Ferry, but then thought better of it and began tracking his way to the north. At Fulton Street he slid to his right and followed the northeastward path of East Broadway, which led through the miasma of the Lower East Side and then up into Chinatown. From there he found the Bowery, which carried him along to Fourteenth Street. He then hooked left, cut through Union Square, and continued uptown along Park Avenue South. At 23rd Street he jockeyed north. A few blocks later he jutted right again, went one block to the east, and then walked up Third Avenue for a while. At 32nd Street he turned right, came upon Second Avenue, turned left, moved uptown another three blocks, and then turned right one last time, whereupon he met up with First Avenue. He then walked the remaining seven blocks to the United Nations and decided to take a short rest. He sat down on a stone bench in the plaza and breathed deeply, idling in the air and the light with closed eyes. Then he opened the red notebook, took the deaf mute's pen from his pocket, and began a new page." (127-128)

From here, Quinn camps out in an alley nearby the elder Stillman's hotel, waiting for his next move, and the novella quickly shifts into something entirely different. What happens is hilarious and absurd and sad and is probably the best possible way to end this story. Though I could see its potential to frustrate some readers, I couldn't think of a better way to conclude everything that comes before it.

"Ghosts" involves a detective named Blue, who is hired by a man named White to rent an apartment across the street from a man named Black and watch his every move through his window. This is a rather difficult story to summarize, but it would be easiest to say that a whole lot of nothing happens, until Blue decides to start taking more drastic measures, finally approaching Black in disguise, which then result in the most entertaining and satisfying scenes in the story. Before the real driving action begins though, Black reads a copy of Walden, and Blue picks up his own copy to see if there are any clues that might give insight into Black's motives:

"Even experienced and sophisticated readers have been known to have trouble with Walden, and no less a figure than Emerson once wrote in his journal that reading Thoreau made him feel nervous and wretched. To Blue's credit, he does not give up. The next day he begins again, and this second go-through is somewhat less rocky than the first. In the third chapter he comes across a sentence that finally says something to him--Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written--and suddenly he understands that the trick is to go slowly, more slowly than he has ever gone with words before. This helps to some extent, and certain passages begin to grow clear: the business about clothes in the beginning, the battle between the red ants and the black ants, the argument against work. But Blue still finds it painful, and though he grudgingly admits that Thoreau is perhaps not as stupid as he thought, he begins to resent Black for putting him through this torture. What he does not know is that were he to find the patience to read the book in the spirit in which it asks to be read, his entire life would begin to change, and little by little he would come to a full understanding of his situation--that is to say, of Black, of White, of the case, of everything that concerns him. But lost chances are as much a part of life as chances taken, and story cannot dwell on what might have been." (194)

The final piece, "The Locked Room" revolves around a character named Fanshawe, the childhood friend of the narrator, who remains nameless but appears to be Auster due to a passage near the end in which he references writing "City of Glass" and "Ghosts." Fanshawe has disappeared, and the narrator is called by his estranged wife Sophie to edit the manuscripts he left behind in order to see if they could be published. A few months later, they are, and Fanshawe becomes known as a genius, and the narrator marries Sophie, and they live a very comfortable lifestyle subsisting on Fanshawe's royalty checks. Eventually the narrator mistakingly suggests the idea of writing a biography of Fanshawe, which sets in motion the majority of the plot of the novella. While the story seems to have been heading towards a happy ending, the narrator interjects his r'aison d'etre, which is informative in relation to the common adage that fiction is about trouble, that fiction is about a problem that demands resolution:

"In some sense, this is where the story should end. The young genius is dead, but his work will live on, his name will be remembered for years to come. His childhood friend has rescued the beautiful young widow, and the two of them will live happily ever after. That would seem to wrap it up, with nothing left but a final curtain call. But it turns out that this is only the beginning. What I have written so far is no more than a prelude, a quick synopsis of everything that comes before the story I have to tell. If there were no more than this, there would be nothing at all--for nothing would have compelled me to begin. Only darkness has the power to make a man open his heart to the world, and darkness is what surrounds me whenever I think of what happened." (278)

There is a satisfying final encounter to "The Locked Room" and a satisfying closure to The New York Trilogy on the whole. While I would not go so far as to call it my favorite novel, it is a very excellent one, and served me well as an introduction to Auster, and I would recommend it as such. If you are in search of a new author, for new eyes through which to see the world, you could do far worse than Auster. The New York Trilogy cements his status as one of the preeminent American writers of the 20th and 21st century.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Diary - Chuck Palahniuk

There are not many cataclysmic events in the world of book reviews, but when they do occur, they are shocking. In 2003, Chuck Palahniuk brought out Diary and received mostly complimentary reviews (including two from the New York Times), but one in particular stuck in the minds of journalist critics everywhere: Laura Miller's skewering of the novel on (which can be found here for those interested). Let it be said that Miller herself seems to be a bit off her rocker in how badly she wants to denounce the author and his seemingly totally undeserved success, particularly when she remarks that Waytansea Island, the setting of the majority of Diary, is an "island off the New England coast." Apparently Ms. Miller does not know where Long Beach is, as it is invoked at least a couple times in reference to being on the "mainland" where the ferry departs for the island. To be fair, however, Waytansea could double as a twisted version of Martha's Vineyard or Nantucket, but it seems much more like it is representative of Catalina, a place I have never been but at least I know it's an island off the coast of Long Beach. Anybody that doesn't know such major geographical trivia as it relates to literature (did she ever read All the King's Men, in which perhaps the most beautiful section of the novel goes down in a hotel in Long Beach, which is in, dum dum dum dum dum dum dum dum, California?) should not be ripping an author to shreds. Thankfully, Palahniuk personally responded to her, writing a short letter to Salon asking her to attempt writing a book, and stating, "Until you can create something that captivates people, I'd invite you to just shut up. It's easy to attack and destroy an act of creation. It's a lot more difficult to perform one."

As much as I want to point out the injustice of unfairly negative reviews, I will have to admit here that I found Diary to be the slowest Palahniuk read yet. It is debatable whether Haunted or Diary now occupies the lowest rung on my list of favorite books by Chuck. It took me almost as long to read Diary as it did Haunted, though that is a result of personal circumstances (participation in NaNoWriMo changes one's attitude towards being a real writer) though I have to say the peaks of Haunted are higher than those of Diary, and the valleys of Haunted are also lower than those of Diary. Still, they are amongst the weakest in his oeuvre that I have read thus far (Invisible Monsters and Lullaby are the only fiction works left for me to review) but that is not to say they deserve to be skewered so unfairly. Diary is a fairly interesting idea that requires the space of a novel to reach its completion, but it is one of the more exasperating works I have read by him yet.

The story concerns Misty Marie Kleinman Wilmot. The name Wilmot comes from her husband Peter Wilmot. They met in art school. As the novel opens, Peter's in a coma, and Misty's cluing the reader into the scenario. He tried to commit suicide. He's being kept alive as a vegetable. It's quite a shame that Peter doesn't wake up from this coma during the novel and that he only appears in living, breathing form in the flashbacks that Misty recounts, but sometimes fantastic devices seem a bit out of place. Peter is clearly not going to come back. But he is one of the most interesting characters in Diary and the scenes in flashback with him and Misty starting to date and beginning their life together are amongst the best in the book.

Misty starts receiving phone calls from previous people that Peter has worked for, remodeling their houses. He has scrawled mysterious messages of graffiti inside rooms that he has closed off from the homeowners. They discover them and invite Misty over to set things right. One of these homeowners is Angel Delaporte, who becomes one of Misty's few confidants and friends throughout the duration of the novel.

Misty also has a daughter, Tabbi, and a mother-in-law, Grace, who spend the majority of time with her. Things are obviously weird on Waytansea Island and it becomes gradually and gradually more clear what is happening. Diary is a bit sci-fi the way Rant is. In fact, these two novels seem cut from the same cloth, in a way. But Diary is more of a meditation on what constitutes artistic talent, or what makes a certain piece of art a masterpiece, and Rant is sort of indefinable and completely original. Comparisons to Rosemary's Baby have been brought up in connection to Diary and it is not hard to see why. While some of its elements may seem vaguely hackneyed and while the cataclysmic event that the whole story builds to may induce feelings of anti-climax, the novel does hit its mark in a few places, such as when Peter is giving Misty his philosophy on artistic inspiration:

"You told Misty all this.
You said how Michelangelo was a manic-depressive who portrayed himself as a flayed martyr in his painting. Henri Matisse gave up being a lawyer because of appendicitis. Robert Schumann only began composing after his right hand became paralyzed and ended his career as a concert pianist.
You were digging in your pocket while you said this. You were fishing something out.
You talked about Nietzsche and his tertiary syphilis. Mozart and his uremia. Paul Klee and the sceloroderma that shrank his joints and muscles to death. Frida Kahlo and the spini bifida that covered her legs with bleeding sores. Lord Byron and his clubfoot. The Bronte sisters and their tuberculosis. Mark Rothko and his suicide. Flannery O'Connor and her lupus. Inspiration needs disease, injury, madness.
'According to Thomas Mann,' Peter said, 'Great artists are great invalids.'" (65)

And later on, an extensive section where a doctor is speaking to Misty delves even deeper into this notion of pain and suffering leading to impossible human achievements. So there are a few intriguing philosophical inquiries which make this book somewhat worthwhile, and there are a few laugh out loud moments too, and one of my personal favorites occurs in Misty's repeated self-directives to take a drink:

"Anytime some well-meaning person forces you to demonstrate you have no talent and rubs your nose in the fact you're a failure at the only dream you ever had, take another drink. That's the Misty Wilmot Drinking Game." (111)

So my final verdict is that this book does not deserve the vicious skewering it received, but it may bore some people expecting the usual fare from Palahniuk, perhaps because it features a female protagonist, which is a bit different than most of his fiction. And the subject matter is not as noticeably "guy oriented"-for lack of a better term. The hilarious portrayal of sex in Choke and to some degree Haunted and Snuff, the violence of Fight Club and Rant, the megalomania and adventure of Survivor--none of these convenient appellations apply to Diary. It would have to be something like the "philosophical artistry" of Diary, but that only takes up a portion of the book which then turns into something that might make a vaguely interesting horror film, but one which would probably not be as compelling as Rosemary's Baby. That said, with the right people attached, this could make for an excellent piece of adaptation material as well.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Deerhunter - Microcastle / Weird Era Continued

Sometimes it's harder to write a review of a great album than it is for a poor one. I want to lump so much praise onto Deerhunter that it's just going to sound like I don't listen to any other bands, and it would not be fair if I did not admit that, at the moment, that is just the case. The last albums I bought since Microcastle were Portishead's Third, REM's Accelerate, and Be Your Own Pet's Get Awkward. I've been stuck in my own personal financial meltdown and can only spend money on the things I regard as essential. Thus, no new Sigur Ros album. No new Weezer album. No new Fucked Up album. No new Of Montreal album. No new Portastatic album. No new Trail of the Dead EP. No new Cure album. No new TV on the Radio album. I could go on, but Deerhunter holds a special place in my heart, and I know Bradford Cox is one of the most consistently great artists to establish himself since Mac Mccaughan, and thus merits the spending of my money.

Deerhunter's self-titled debut is somewhat poorly regarded, and that's a shame because while it might not make a top 10 end-of-year list, it would surely deserve to be in the top 50. "N. Animals" and "Adorno" are great songs, and "Death Drag" is pretty good too, and none of the other six or seven are hard to get into. I consider it a very good album, above a 7.0 on the Pitchfork scale. Still, Cox has referred to the album as "pre-cum"--meaning he didn't really know how to shoot the wad until Cryptograms. You will find that album near the top of Flying Houses best albums of 2007 list, as it was on many other music journalism rags. It ran neck-and-neck with Radiohead's latest opus in my estimation, and the addition of the perhaps even better Flourescent Grey EP adds up to one of the finest musical gestures in recent memory (comparable to 2007's similarly-great double entry by Of Montreal with Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? and the Icons, Abstract Thee EP) Cryptograms is great, full of skewed pop immediacy and MBV-esque noise bliss outs. Still, some might skip around on it, past the two "Ink" tracks, or "Providence" or "Tape Hiss Orchid," just to get to the title-track, "Lake Somerset," "Octet," "Strange Lights," or the best song they had done yet at the time, "Hazel St." Every song on Flourescent Grey was amazing, especially the closing throw-down "Wash Off."

As if that were not enough, not quite a year later, Cox released his first solo album under the Atlas Sound moniker, Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See but Cannot Feel. This is reviewed on Flying Houses and I don't want to get into how great it is again. If you just need to hear one song off of it, find "Ativan," and you will understand why I love it so much. I don't know if I've heard enough new music to make a top 10 of 2008 list, but the Atlas Sound album would certainly make the cut, no question. And so would Microcastle, and it would probably occupy a higher slot. It ups the ante from Cryptograms + Flourescent Grey by adding a longer "bonus" disc--Weird Era Continued, which is not quite as strong as Microcastle, but which contains several moments that few other bands could match.

Microcastle opens up with "Cover Me (Slowly)," which is not different from the opening found sound piece "A Ghost Story" off the Atlas Sound album, in that it is a little song which segues perfectly into the second track, "Agoraphobia," one of the standout tracks here. It creates tension by featuring Lockett Pundt on vocals, though one might almost confuse one singer for the other. This is a simple wonderful little song, that also acts as a perfect segue to the amazing third track, "Never Stops," where Cox announces his presence by singing, "I had dreams/that frightened me awake," before the song begins its gallop which will not end until you switch to the second CD.

The fourth track "Little Kids" is a breather of a moment, which then breaks into stride when it hits Cox lamenting, "To get older still/To get older still..." The fifth track, the title-track, is not the stomper of the title-track from Cryptograms but is more like one of the free noise pieces off that previous album, of which there are markedly less here. The sixth track "Calvary Scars," is a short little thing with an extended version featured as the last track on the second disc. Short or long, it's a great little punchy song. I always think it's the part of the song "Microcastle" when it gets really awesome, but it's really its own song (Ed. Upon further review, it is the part of "Microcastle" when it gets really awesome, and "Calvary Scars" is pretty much just a barely noticeable little quiet song--but it's still well-appointed). "Green Jacket" and "Activa" are the next two songs, and these represent the "quiet movement" of the album and are pretty little things that won't cause you to lose your shit but which might make nice little items on that mixtape you're waiting to make for your latest crush.

After these two quiet ones comes the best song on the album "Nothing Ever Happened," which is also, awesomely, the first single, and awesomely, the longest song too. There is not a dull moment on this song and it could be played on any alternative rock radio station in the country, if Deerhunter wanted it to be. The guitar playing is absolutely incredible on this song. It has a very immediate opening and it doesn't let up until it's over.

The next three tracks, the last three tracks on the album, are also similarly wonderful. "Saved by Old Times" is close to the level of "Agoraphobia" and is great. "Neither of Us, Uncertainly," might be one of the best penultimate album tracks ever, and "Twilight at Carbon Lake" might be one of the best closing album tracks ever. You want to cry when Cox sings, "Walk to a parking lot/sit down and cry," and when it explodes for its ending finale, you will rarely feel a greater moment of catharsis. "Twilight at Carbon Lake" and "Nothing Ever Happened" are the two best songs on the album, but there is zero filler here, and others may prefer some other tracks.

I don't want to get too deep into Weird Era Continued just because it should be regarded as a bonus disc. This is not a double album, but it is very close in spirit to Radiohead's double album-esque Kid A + Amnesiac, except instead of Radiohead reinventing themselves to be introspective and dehumanized and quiet, Deerhunter reinvent themselves to be louder and more awesome and more nuanced, incredibly, than they already were. First track on Weird Era, "Backspace Century" is quality. I personally find "Operation" to be a little bit annoying but not everyone may feel this way. "Ghost Outfit" and "Dot Gain" are more like free noise tracks. "Vox Celeste" reminds me a little bit of "Hazel St," and is the track most likely to sound like shoegaze. "Vox Humana" has one of the greatest openings of any song Deerhunter has ever done, and is totally wonderful. "Cicadas" is more free noise. "VHS Dream" and "Focus Group" and "Weird Era" and "Moon Witch Cartridge" all work to differing effect. The final track "Calvary Scars II/Aux. Out" is fucking incredible and would make a higher price for this album with two discs totally justified, though I bought my copy from Reckless Records in Chicago for the stunning price of $11.99. Deerhunter are all of the best things about indie rock, including making their music affordable like Fugazi.

I remarked to a friend that this was the most emotional wonderful double album I had heard since Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and it may be nowhere near as overblown as that career-defining statement, but it has a great, long, enjoyable running time, and it has moments that just totally make me want to cry in the same way (then, not now, in the case of Smashing Pumpkins). I'm going to see Deerhunter at Metro on November 15 and I am so pumped! I will take pictures and post a review of that concert as well. I had somewhat a small opportunity to talk to Cox before an Atlas Sound show at the Echo in Los Angeles last March, but he was already busy talking to someone who sounded like a journalist and I didn't want to bother him for no reason. I hope to get to talk to him in Chicago and ask him if it's okay if I include a song from Cryptograms in my second novel. I want to get a Deerhunter t-shirt and talk to Cox and try to hang out with him at a bar afterwards and party with rock stars. That would totally rule. Because they could be one of the biggest bands out right now. They're certainly one of the very best.