Sunday, September 28, 2008

My Bloody Valentine, 9/27/08, Aragon Ballroom, Chicago, IL

Nobody else that I asked was willing to shell out the $50 it took to see My Bloody Valentine's Chicago date, but those that didn't, and those that don't take the opportunity to see them in whatever other few random American cities with which they happen to be gracing their presence over the coming days (readers in Santa Monica, CA, I am talking to you) should be ashamed and regretful that they allow people such as myself to go to concerts alone and have to experience something as climactic and awe-inspiring without the added pleasure of having shared in that experience with a friend. Of course, I heard the comments of the people surrounding me--your typical concert banter--derision for the opening band (Hopewell, who I found to be above-average and sounding a little bit like Spiritualized)--people-watching comments about other people's t-shirts--random bits of stories about other people not in attendance that I would never know--people goofing on the title of epic closing number, calling it "Do You Realize?" while their other friends laughed at and corrected them.

Of course, the point I find amazing is that nobody, NOBODY, gave me any trouble about the way I was spending the beginning of the show, which must have seemed exceedingly odd. I was writing on graph paper, a letter to a friend, while standing up in the line outside, while walking towards the entrance gate, while sitting on the floor of the Aragon Ballroom for the hour and fifteen or twenty minutes before Hopewell went on, and while standing on the floor when the lack of overhead light and discomfort of writing with my back bent and my head hanging down became too great a strain. I dare not make any conversation with anyone. I dare not admit to anyone that yes, I was in fact, there alone. I dare not get onto the subject of what I do, which is nothing. Which must have seemed very strange to my immediate neighbors for the show. But they didn't say anything about it. They accepted it. This was a My Bloody Valentine concert--it was probably okay to be alone and depressed at it. Some might say those circumstances might even be the ideal conditions for maximum pleasure at it.

After Hopewell finished, you could sense the anticipation in the air. That sounds like a lame cliche sentence, but it's true. People were ecstatic to know that within minutes, the band they had listened to on record (many of those in the audience could not have possibly seen them sixteen years ago--it is worth noting that the two people in front of me in the outdoor line had seen them in their heyday, and thoughtfully brought their twelve-year-old children with them for this show--obviously excellent parents) over and over again, ad nauseum, for the last seven years (at least in my case, and probably the case for anybody introduced to MBV, so flawlessly narrowed is their discography, so easy it is to own it all, and listen to it all, over and over) were actually going to be in front of them, in person, playing those same songs. When they took the stage and launched into "I Only Said" as their opening song, everybody was collectively blown away by the actuality of what was happening in front of us.

One other thing worth noting: the staff at the Aragon Ballroom are, in fact, rude, as reports on indicate. They did hand out earplugs at the door for everyone, but they made clear they were "compliments of the band" (this staff would never do a thing for you, except try to make you feel pathetic and scared). Case in point: they had to check my bag. And when the guy (who even looked like he might be nicer than the rest) opened it, he had to ask, "I'm not going to find anything in here, am I?" to which I replied, quietly, "No," to which he replied, "That didn't sound very confident." I hate it when people judge me based on their interpretation of my confidence level--it's one of the few aspects to being alive that makes me look forward to being dead. That is probably getting melodramatic though.
So me, and everyone else in the audience, at least everyone in my general vicinity, wore earplugs for the entire show. Might it have been more awesome to hear it without earplugs? Yes. Might have we all suffered hearing damage? Yes. This was clearly the loudest show I had ever been to in my life. Dinosaur Jr. (November 15(?), 2005 at Metro, and Mudhoney, September 1, 2006 at Double Door, take positions #2 and #3). "I Only Said" was loud. And the second song, "When You Sleep," seemed so loud, I fearfully thought, that the speakers had broken.

A distinct crackling could be heard during this second song, and I was afraid that it would happen for the rest of the concert, and that no one in the band could notice it, and that no one in the concert soundstage would be able to fix it. Thankfully, it was only present during this one song, the only song I would say was less enjoyable than listening to the same song on record, at a loud volume.

They played "You Never Should," which may be my most favorite MBV song of all third, which made me insanely happy. Here though, I should point out my lone criticism of the show, the only point on which I believe it disappointed slightly. The songs were not as flawlessly performed as on record. The vocals were buried even deeper than they are on record. You can barely make out what Kevin Shields or Blinda Butcher is singing on record, but live, you could almost never tell. Even when you knew the lyrics (or had an idea of them) it seemed like you might be mixing up the verses.
After the first three, it is hard for me to remember the other songs they played, but I will attempt to list something approaching their setlist right here:

"I Only Said"
"When You Sleep"
"You Never Should"
"To Here Knows When"
"Nothing Much to Lose" (a slightly longer machine-gun drum part beat live)
"Cigarette in Your Bed"
"Only Shallow" (a slightly different melody on that oh-so-familiar lead guitar part live)
"Feed Me With Your Kiss"
"You Made Me Realise"
Please note two things: this setlist is by no means 100% correct. I think they may have played "Come in Alone," and maybe a couple of others. Those I remember them playing for sure. I wish they had played "Loomer," "Sometimes," "What You Want," "Sueisfine," "Soft as Snow (But Warm Inside)," "Cupid Come," or "When You Wake (You're Still in a Dream)." Also, these pictures I am including do not do justice to the incredible lighting on display during the performance--it was the most disorienting light show I have also ever seen at a concert. Added to that, there was a malfunction in my camera in which the three pictures on my memory card had to be deleted in order to get any included at all--it's a shame because those pictures were better, but these will have to do, and besides, plenty of other people have taken pictures of this current incarnation. It's not like I'm the only one documenting this reunion--it's just nobody really gets into the details of it, nobody really explains what it is like to be a die-hard fan and actually get to see them.
It does look like a paltry set list there alone on its own. But nobody could be disappointed by the wealth of material played off of the You Made Me Realise EP, and no one could complain, period, after "You Made Me Realise," the song. It was, indisputably, the single greatest concert experience of my life. Blinda Butcher said, "Thank you for coming out tonight," and Kevin Shields said, "Yeah, thanks." That was all the stage banter for the entire evening. And right after that, they played the opening riffs to "You Made Me Realise," and you could tell they had a great time starting out that song. I always wondered how people could talk about the 17 minute version of the song when the version I have on my iPod is only like two or two and a half minutes. Well, they play the two and a half minute song, and then the squall begins. The best way I can describe the noise is like the sound of a giant aircraft taking off inside the auditorium. The rumble from this sound reached a degree of sheer volume that I had never before experienced. It was an unprecedented loudness to my ears. There were bits of guitar screeching and noodling amidst this massive drone, but it was the aircraft sound that was most memorable. That, and a bunch of people raising their hands in the air to feel the sound coming out of the speakers. Well, people talk about Sonic Youth being a "noise band." I have to say, having seen Sonic Youth many times, they do not try to punish their audience with noise the way My Bloody Valentine do. And it is a willing, awesome punishment we all experienced together. Sonic Youth is to noise as an art exhibit as My Bloody Valentine is to noise as a mystical experience, otherwise only attainable through hallucinogenic drugs, or fasting or going without sleep for days. That is not taking anything away from Sonic Youth. It's just that, when they played "Karen Revisited" or "Mote"--it's just kind of a little drone and it gets a little boring. "You Made Me Realise" is a drone that never got boring because you couldn't believe it was actually getting that loud. But most amazing was all was when it ended, and when they went back into regular guitar-chorus part of the song again. And it was briefly totally quiet, and then heavy again for another minute or two. Then the show was over. And I have never been in an audience as dazed as that one after that song. Most people in the front were content not to move. When we finally did get going, it was probably the slowest exit I have ever experienced from a music venue (Aragon Ballroom is pretty huge, to be fair) and there was no shortage of praise expressed in random comments heard from random strangers. There was no cynicism--I heard one kid say, "They didn't play 'Sometimes,'" in a sarcastic-sounding voice. No one expressed disappointment. No one was left unmoved. My point is, if you have a chance to see this band, go, pay the $50. And if you missed it around this time, my message to the band is, put out a new record and tour the U.S. again. I will definitely be there if they do.

Friday, September 26, 2008

MBV (50 posts!)

Nothing important to mention, except that I will be going to see My Bloody Valentine tomorrow night in Chicago!

Also, Flying Houses has reached 50 posts?! Yes, I know my productivity has sloughed off since April, and my lax and open-minded to the arts temp job at Jefferies & Co. is over (which I will no doubt regret for years to come, such a foolish error I made, I could have made it work in L.A. if I stayed there, I know I could have, I know I could have) where my manager would see my typing on my blog and say, "Are you on break?" and I would say, "No, not yet," and she would say, "Please PDF," and give me an invoice and I would smile and do it quickly and happily that she wasn't taking me aside to say, "Save your personal business for after business hours." At ML Stern, I was blocked from updating Flying Houses, despite the hours upon hours of free time I had there--I had to rush through my work to find the time at Jefferies, I will always regard it as a happy, productive, perhaps slightly foolish but proud, period in my life.

Flying Houses will continue on, despite the fact that NOBODY EVER COMMENTS which probably means that NOBODY EVER READS IT! I would at least appreciate a comment saying, "Well, I read it, I just never feel the need to comment on it, because everything you write is so inarguably perfect!" Yeah right!

I will take pictures of the concert and write the 2nd concert review on Flying Houses (after my rather poor one of the Fiery Furnaces show at Spaceland back in May--again, not the best time in my life, but still a time of blissful ignorance, debauchery--the ceiling was coming down on me but I wasn't all that concerned about it yet) Sunday or Monday. Have a great weekend everyone! If you're going to be at the Chicago show let me know and we can meet up! Yeah right! Like that will happen!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Survivor - Chuck Palahniuk

Last Thursday, when my parents left for the weekend and I was left in charge of the dogs and the rabbit, and after taking the rabbit to the Wilmette Pet Store to get his teeth cut, I got my library card from the Winnetka Public Library. The woman assisting me kept asking if I was familiar with the library and I told her I hadn't been there since the late 90's--more accurately, the mid 90's--and I used to have my library card kept in their filing drawer so I didn't have to remember to bring it with me when I would go there on my bike, or with my mom. Now I keep it in my car. She said they had added a lot of online resources since the late 90's.

I went there because I wanted to check out a book by David Foster Wallace. I said I would try to get Infinite Jest out of the garage in Northbrook during the open house on Sunday, but even before then I thought it would be difficult (And it was. After failing on the first attempt, I'm putting it off until this coming Saturday now.). All David Foster Wallace books were checked out or reserved. Six days after his suicide, he was unavailable at this particular library at least. Anyone who has read Killing Yourself to Live (one of the first entries on Flying Houses, if you care to do a bit of exploration through our lucrative past here) knows that suicide irreducibly improves your status as a major artist. It makes all of your work so much more interesting. It provides another lens through which to interpret your oeuvre. It turns you into a cult figure, the cult of personality that continues to transform tragedy into inimitable blockbuster success for those the departed have left behind. The MacArthur Genius Grant award winners were just announced. Winners received $500,000 over five years. I am so dying to win one of those one day. DFW did, and who knows how rich he died. It seems, however, that the economic crisis in which our country is embroiled is not responsible for his demise, though it may be the case in recent times for scores of other individuals not nearly as successful on a commercial level than he was.

I walked around the library and saw Chuck Palahniuk's books. The film adaptation of Choke is being released very soon. I thought it might be fun to try to read that before I saw the movie. Because I will see the movie. Everyone knows (or should know) that Fight Club was based on Palahniuk's debut novel. I read that book after seeing the movie, and it greatly improved my appreciation of that film. At first I found it a bit strange, but it is a film that has the rare ability to affect the global consciousness, like Pulp Fiction, for example. This is thanks in no small part to David Fincher's direction, but anyone who has read the book knows the old adage that the book is better than the movie holds true in this case, though it is still hard to imagine anybody but Edward Norton and Brad Pitt and Helena Bonham Carter as the main characters while reading.

Survivor is Palahniuk's second novel, the follow-up to Fight Club. And it would be very difficult to slam this novel. It is just as good as Fight Club, and without the semi-questionable use of hallucinatory delusions as a primary plot element. It is more grounded in reality, though obviously it is a satire, and many of the elements are exagerrated. However, having been published in 1999, it is quite prescient for that moment in American culture. Its setting aboard a hijacked 747 and its plot elements concerning prophetic visions of disasters might compel professors of literature to include it on the reading list of pseudo-9/11 fiction, but it never goes quite so far as to suggest that calamity. The best warning the main character can give for a disaster about to occur, in a 30 second commercial, is that a pack of killer bees would be arriving in Dallas soon.

The novel's main character is named Tender Branson--and there are many other Tenders that he grew up with. He is from the religious cult known as the Creedish. Palahniuk does an excellent job of detailing all the beliefs of the cult, making it believable and real, and connecting it to previous mass-suicide cults such as Heaven's Gate in 1997, perhaps an inspiration in the writing of this novel. All of the Creedish men are named either Adam or Tender. The first born is named Adam, and they are set to marry a woman in the cult, all of which are named Biddie, and all of the rest of the sons are named Tender, and at 17 they are asked to leave the 20,000 acre neighborhood in Nebraska where they all reside to go into the outside world to perform menial labor tasks with a percentage of their money going back to their cult. In this particular case, Tender is only a few minutes younger than Adam--they are twins, but the cult does not believe in the phenomenom.

As the novel opens he is aboard a hijacked 747, speaking into the "black box" (which is actually orange) and recording his life's history before the plane plunges into the Australian outback. He goes onto describe his life cleaning houses for ten years for employers that he never sees but only hears through a speakerphone. He talks about his daily planner, which has his entire life accounted for on an hour-by-hour basis. He talks about his suicide hotline, where he has posted stickers in phone booths throughout town, promising a supportive voice, and in which he constantly tells people to kill themselves.

One of his victims, Trevor Hollis, leads to the other main character in the novel. One day Tender is at a mausoleum, cataloging fake plastic flowers (which he uses in his employers garden because they don't look at it close enough to realize it is fake) and sees a girl he believes might be a zombie. She ends up being the sister of Trevor, there to pay her respects at his grave. She also is calling the suicide hotline and trying to have phone sex with Tender, though there is apparently a disconnect between the man she finds unattractive in person, but very hot over the phone. This does not go very well as Tender is a virgin and has been taught to despise the idea of sex through an approach utilized by the cult that I will not give away.

The other main character, the case-worker (who doesn't get a name, neither does the agent, or the make-up artist later) has been working with him for ten years--since the big event--the mass suicide. She is supposed to keep track of him so he doesn't commit suicide, which is what he has been programmed to do. She ends up being just as (probably more) mentally unstable and quirky as he is. I also will not give away what happens to her, and when consequently, the novel shifts into a separate movement.

There are three distinct movements to the novel, and just as a screenplay is often discussed as having a three-act structure, this book would also make for a great movie. Perhaps it's just a matter of time. For Palahniuk's being active little more than ten years on the literary scene and having produced as prolifically as he has, he himself may be worthy of a MacArthur. Maybe he is not pushing the boundaries of "literary fiction," but he is a very good storyteller with a style that is certainly different from everyone else. He may not be Philip Roth, and he may not win Pulitzers, but perhaps it's only a matter of time before people start recognizing him for his contributions to the "Zeitgeist" and bequeathing awards upon him. I'll go to see Choke and I'll read that too, but also Invisible Monsters, and then maybe Rant, Snuff, Lullaby, Haunted, and Diary. And by the time I get to them there will be probably be two more to add. Meanwhile I continue to wait with baited breath for the next book by Bret Easton Ellis.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Lost...and Never Found - Anita Gustafson

A few nights ago, my sister came down from her room and said she was too scared to go to sleep, because she had glanced at one of the volumes on her bookshelf--Lost...and Never Found--and had become filled with fear. I walked her back upstairs and took the book and told her that I would like to read it because I have been interested in the idea of disappearing recently.

This is a thin volume, perhaps published for children, in 1985, though some of the subject matter might be slightly inappropriate for children. Most notably in the Ambrose Bierce chapter, which is certainly the most fascinating. The book is about ten different people who mysteriously disappeared and were never seen again. That said, you know how ever story is going to end, but there is still a bit of intrigue for the few times that new clues in their cases surface.

The first is Orion Williamson, the oldest, a farmer in Alabama who disappeared in 1854. His wife and son were sitting on their porch, and then Orion walked out into the field to inspect something, and another neighbor and his son rode by on their wagon and waved to Orion, and then they looked away for a second, and he had completely disappeared. This is definitely one of the weirder stories--because most people in this book end up getting lost in New York, or oddly, Des Moines. It is weird because no one could explain where he went, and he was in an open field. Many people are intrigued by his case and come to visit the site. Even stranger, the wife and son of Orion claim that the area in which he suddenly vanished had become a 15 square foot patch of dead grass, and that they had heard his voice calling out from it and believed he had turned invisible. The voice stopped after a while and they supposed he died of starvation. But interestingly enough, Ambrose Bierce came to visit the site (he was about 11 or 12 when this happened, so I take it he showed up long after the fact) and he consulted a German scientist who came to the most original theory presented in the book on any of the cases:

"This young farmer, he suggested, had walked into a 'void spot of universal ether.' He explained that these void spots were short-lived, lasting only a few seconds, but they were immensely strong--able to completely destroy any solid objects such as grass or people that happened to be in them. The searchers who had combed the field had been saved from Williamson's fate because, by the time they got there, the void spot had vanished.
"Another scientist had a different idea. He thought Williamson had walked into a 'magnetic field.' Like void spots, magnetic fields were momentary but powerful; walking into one would completely disintegrate a person. If that's what happened to Williamson, this scientist went on, the very atoms of his body had been rearranged. According to his theory, Orion Williamson had walked into a magnetic field and had been hurled--in a different form--into another dimension." (9)

Ambrose Bierce is the subject of the next chapter, and Ms. Gustafson is clearly most entertained by this persona, as the writing goes beyond the basic elements of incident, short biography, and explanations. She contends that Bierce wanted to disappear and it is not hard to understand why. All of his life, he had been intrigued by the occult and the morbid. His chapter opens up with a description of a dream he had when he was sixteen where he enters into a house, finds a dead corpse inside, and realizes that the dead body is in fact, his own. Gustafson goes on to describe his heroic, fearless efforts in the Civil War as an 18-year-old soldier. Born in 1842, Bierce disappeared in 1913. But before getting to the story of the incident at hand, more hilarious anecdotes (maybe not so funny to some people) are offered up:

"Bierce was a satirist--a comedian with more on his mind than a couple of laughs. A satirist wants to change the world, and on at least one occasion, Bierce's satire worked spectacularly well. Almost single-handedly, he stopped a federal treasury "raid" connived at by one of the "robber baron" railroad owners of the times.
"That probably made Bierce happy for a few minutes, but most of the time he was bitter. In fact, a lot of people called him 'Bitter' Bierce.
"A lot of people also wondered why Bierce behaved the way he did. Sometimes he just wasn't quite nice.
"For example, even though he continually thought about death, he didn't seem to know how a civilized, normal person was supposed to deal with death. He wouldn't allow tombstones to be placed on the graves of his wife and two sons. People thought that was a little peculiar.
"And when Day, one of his sons, killed himself, Bierce went down to the morgue and identified the body lying on the slab. So far, so good. But then he pulled himself erect and shouted at his dead son, 'You're a noble soul, Day--you did just right.' Definitely peculiar!
"And he had the body of his other son, Leigh, cremated. So far, so good. But then he kept the ashes in a cigar box on his desk. A cigar box! To make matters worse, he occasionally tapped his burning cigar into the same box!
"'Why do you act like that?' people asked him.
"'Nothing matters,' Bierce replied, meaning that none of the rules of society really mattered to him. He thought they were silly. His bleak childhood may have inspired his disregard for living 'right,' or it may have grown from his disillusionment at the Civil War's corrupt aftermath. Whatever the reason, the way Bierce behaved wasn't the way polite society expected any normal person to behave." (20-22)

At the age of 71, Bierce informs his friends and family that he is going to tour some old Civil War battlefields and then go on a scenic tour of Mexico. He was never seen again. Apparently, he met Pancho Villa (this is one theory) and then wanted to fight in another war, and ended up dying in battle, though there are crazy theories that he switched sides in the war and was murdered for being a traitor.

The third chapter concerns Dorothy Arnold, who was a 5th Avenue socialite that disappeared December 12, 1910. She had graduated from Bryn Mawr in 1905. She wanted to write stories as a living. Her parents kept her cloistered and away from men, though she had a secret boyfriend named George Griscom, who was actually 42 years old and wanted people to call him Junior. She had told her father that she wanted to move to Greenwich Village and become a writer (this is a bit of a questionable detail as she was living at 108 E. 79th St--incidentally not far from where I worked at the IFA Library). Her father had told her that she could be a writer anywhere. Actually, one day he had found some of her stories underneath her bed, read them, and found them to be rubbish. She had sent two stories titled "Poinsettia Flames" and "Lotus Leaves" into the magazine McClure's and had been met with rejection. A note she wrote to herself appears to be quite the piece of evidence, but again, no answers appear at the end:

"McClure's has turned me down. Failure stares me in the face. All I can see ahead is a long road with no turning. Mother will always think it was an accident." (34)

On her last day, she went to a bookstore, saw a friend on the street, chatted for a while, said goodbye, and disappeared into a crowd, never to be seen again. There were theories that she had settled in a fashionable part of Europe (Florence, Italy) with George Griscom, but once he had been gotten ahold of, insisted he didn't know where she was. There were theories that she had had a back-alley abortion that had failed, or that she had ended up in a small Mexican town, kept captive, drugged, and powerless, or that she had moved to Honolulu with another young lover. There were 100 cases of her being sighted elsewhere and each turned out to be false. Again, the most intriguing story that appears is of a literary reference:

"In England, a twenty-year-old woman read the accounts with much more than casual interest. For more than ten years afterward, this woman was obsessed with the fate of an American girl she felt she understood. They had a lot in common, she thought. And she would herself disappear for a short time before she came home and began to write her own stories. She wrote mysteries--what else?--and her name was Agatha Christie." (36-37)

The most famous person in this book is the subject of the 4th chapter, Amelia Earhart. I will not bore my readers with the details of Earhart's disappearance, as it is well known that she was trying to complete the first circumnavigation of the world by plane, and failed somewhere in between the South Pacific and Hawaii. There are a lot of crazy theories about what happened to her, and this was actually one of the more compelling chapters from a storytelling basis. The last eight hours of Earhart to her radio control team on Howland Island, where she was slated to land, are described in quite precise detail. The most incredible theory holds that Earhart had actually planned to crash her plane near Japan, so that a search and rescue could be called on so that the U.S. Military could survey what preparations the Japanese were making for WWII.

The 5th chapter concerns the disappearance of a Professor Thomas Riha at CU Boulder on March 18, 1969, who was a Czechoslovakian immigrant. This chapter went into huge descriptions of conspiracy and a crazy woman who claimed that she had been a secret agent. This was the most confusing chapter in the book, with the most loose ends, and probably the most possibilities for what could have happened to Riha.

The sixth chapter is about how Alice van Alstine disappeared from Des Moines on March 26, 1976. Apparently she was a sharpshooter. She and her husband lived in an apartment with pockmarked walls from bullet holes, since they held target practice inside their own home. It appears that her being an ex-member of the Minutemen (in this case, not the indie rock band or the Revolutionary war soldiers or the immigration monitoring group, but an anti-communist group who believed they would overthrow the U.S. Government and who planned to fight back in their own manner) had something to do with her disappearance. Some people believed she was an "adult dropout":

" Descriptions of Alice's personality lend some support to that theory. Her sister noted how deeply Alice became involved in whatever she was doing. She seemed to sponge up the personalities of other people and become like them. If the people around her in March, 1976, had talked about dropping out and finding a new life, Alice may have done it.
"One of Alice's friends mentioned another facet of her personality that could fit in with the 'dropout' theory. Alice was intelligent and sensitive, but she also loved intrigue and mystery. When she confided to her flying instructor that a gang was after her, she had added that she was a member of the American Nazi Party. Dropping out and disappearing--especially after delivering murky hints like this--could be very satisfying to someone who loved intrigue and mystery." (80)

Michael Rockefeller, the subject of chapter seven, has one of the shortest and most intriguing stories. He had graduated from Harvard and wanted to have one final adventure before he began his career, so he set off on an expedition to the exotic lands of New Guinea. He was there, in the Aragura Sea, between New Guinea and Australia, on a catamaran he had built, sailing with a 34-year-old, Rene Wassing. During a storm, the boat capsized, and two native guides who had been with them swam to shore. After a night of drifting, Rockefeller figured they were close to 3 miles from shore and he decided he didn't want to wait around for anyone to find them. Wassing believed that the Dutch government, who patrolled the waters, would find them. Rockefeller went off swimming, believing he could make it, and Wassing was rescued 8 hours later. Interestingly enough, Rockefeller's father was the Governor of New York at the time, and he spent $38,000 chartering a private jet to search for his son in the region. John F. Kennedy heard about it and sent in the military to search for him as well. Nobody ever found him, and it seems obvious that he would have drowned, but some theories hold that he made it to shore and was then cannibalized by one of the tribes there.

Dr. Charles Brancati, Chapter 8, is another New Yorker who disappeared, on December 19, 1928. He lived in Pelham and his last words were "Paint the place--the whole house!" which he screamed as he entered the subway station there and was never seen again. It seems as if he was associated with the Italian mob or something and that they may have had something to do with him disappearing. I don't remember many of the specifics of this chapter. Like the one on Professor Thomas Riha, there are tons of loose ends.

Chapter 9 is one of the most epic stories in the book and concerns Judge Crater, who was a very well-respected judge on the New York State Supreme Court, whose ultimate goal in life was to be named to the U.S. Supreme Court, who disappeared on August 6, 1930. He lived in a luxurious apartment at 40 5th Avenue, which incidentally is across the street from where I once lived. Later it turns out he was a crook, and that was how he had become so rich. Something about the Libby Hotel on the Lower East Side, something about buying the building cheap for $75,000, selling it to a private buyer, and then having it sold back to the city of New York for $2,850,000. The post at the Supreme Court of New York only paid $22,500 per year, but he had also been an assistant professor of law at Fordham and NYU. His wife was in Maine at the time of his disappearance. It appears that he was a very crafty individual, but most theories hold that he was murdered by the same people that he had entered into a crooked business dealings with, because they figured with him dead, there would be one less share to distribute out amongst their group. But there were other very strange things that happened, like how the police searched his apartment, found nothing in a secret drawer in the bedroom, and how his wife returned to find a manilla envelope in the secret drawer with checks that had been written by Judge Crater after the date of his disappearance.

The final story is very sad, and it took place not too long ago. Johnny Gosch, a 12-year-old paperboy in, where else, Des Moines, IA was delivering papers on September 5, 1982. He woke up before six o'clock and one of the customers on his route complained at 7:45 that they hadn't received their newspaper. Two cars had passed by Johnny--a dark, blue car, whose driver had pulled aside Johnny asked for directions, and a silver Ford Fairmont with a wide black stripe on its side--and they are of course the prime suspects for his disappearance. Theories are that he was either kidnapped, or become a runaway.

This is a book that is mostly forgotten. Amazon barely lists it, and there are no reviews. So let this blog post suffice as the most comprehensive review of Lost...and Never Found ever done. I have done my own little part. Any of these stories would make for excellent Hollywood films. They are interesting stories, but of course not many people will be exposed to them--unless they happen to have younger sisters who are scared of books they have previously read because they have families that have large collections of obscure books. One wonders what happened to the author, Anita Gustafson, as the series appeared to continue, but with a different author. The mystery deepens...

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

David Foster Wallace - 1962 - 2008

In the grand scheme of things in 2008, the shocking death of a literary celebrity barely passes for news, particularly when we are just a month and a couple of weeks away from an highly historical election. It doesn't help that it first started getting reported the night of a rather historical, happy occassion in Chicago. On Sunday, September 14, 2008, what remains of my family living at the base compound was gathered around the television, watching Carlos Zambrano accomplish the highly unlikely. He did it. He threw a no-hitter. It was the first one thrown by a Cubs pitcher since 1972. At a highly tense moment, just before Zambrano induced a foul pop fly which he rushed over to catch, my little sister, on a laptop computer, said, "David Foster Wallace."

I said, "What, what did he do?" Thinking perhaps he may have been nominated for the Nobel prize for literature, or had a new book coming out that was going to be news-worthy, or Pulitzer worthy...

"Is dead. He killed himself."

I said, "No way, that's unbelievable."

My parents didn't know who he was and I went off about how intelligent he had to have been.

Zambrano caught the foul pop fly and my father went nuts over the athletic feat that he had just accomplished, which was the first or second out of the 9th inning, and my mom seemed temporarily more concerned about my concern for this modern author who probably only wasn't more famous because he wouldn't want to sell out and be accessible, despite her being a lifelong die-hard Cubs fan. After a couple sentences exhibiting my shock, I stopped, and enjoyed the enthusiasm that everyone on the Cubs began to show. Screaming and shouting, excitement, this was the big milestone that was going to psyche them up, that proved that they truly were a different team this year and that it was no question they could play with anyone in the World Series.

The next day there was a short article in the Chicago Tribune written as a tribute to Wallace, and there was a segment on NPR that I happened to hear that was very moving. Both mentioned his previous musings on suicide. Some of the ideas they discussed were exceptionally powerful. And to think that I myself questioned Wallace, found him to be a bit more difficult than he needed to be, thought him to be something of a snob-genius, elevating himself above the masses, publishing a book that could insult anyone who ever thought they were intelligent. The NPR tribute made the exact opposite claim, that he wrote to prove to readers that they were intelligent.

That book of course is Infinite Jest, his most famous, and it should be a love-it-or-hate-it volume. Whenever I meet anyone who has happened to read it, and who has happened to love it, I am always shocked and feel they are lying for saying they liked it, or actually got all the way through it. I stopped around page 350. It may be an odd coincidence (but I am not making it up) that I had a vivid dream about reading that very book, about three weeks or a month ago, how in the dream I had picked it up again and come across a very revelatory section, something clear and precise and comprehensible, much like the second "chapter" of the book that I liked very much, and how I was going to finish it now that it seemed there might be another part like that too. Well it is in storage in a box in a garage in Northbrook, and soon enough I will go and reclaim it. Perhaps on Sunday when I have to evacuate this house along with the pets for an open house showing.

In the Paris Review anthology released on their 50-year-anniversary, there was a story by Wallace which was my first introduction to him and I was totally, totally blown away. The story was called "Little Expressionless Animals" and concerned a lady who was about to become the all-time longest-running Jeopardy! champion (many years before Ken Jennings began his famous streak) and I read it in one sitting and considered it as close to a perfect short story as a person can write, particularly in our present cultural milieu, which is so distracting and makes you wonder if literature has any place at all in it anymore. After trying to read Infinite Jest, I had the sense that Wallace himself (strongly resisting the urge to capitalize that) could have gone on Jeopardy! and had his own ridiculous streak--it almost seemed like there was no limit to the knowledge he had accrued in his lifetime.

As far as literary giants go, I feel this is nearly as cataclysmic event as Ernest Hemingway's suicide, or at least contemporaneously, those of Kurt Cobain or Elliott Smith in the music scene. Since barely anyone on the major media outlets seem to notice that this happened, and only those who are more-or-less dedicated to the literary cause seem to care, it is very depressing indeed, for more than the obvious reasons. At the very least, one could hope that Wallace's books will enjoy a resurgence in popularity (I particularly want to get Oblivion), and that challenging, experimental literature will be given a a brief moment of deeper examination. But people would rather hear more about Tina Fey's impersonation of Sarah Palin on SNL. It's significantly more prescient information.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Crossing California - Adam Langer

Crossing California is Adam Langer's debut novel, published in 2004, when he was roughly 37 years old. The setting is immediately apparent as one of the primary motives of the novel--1979 - 1981, or more particularly, as explained by Langer in the short afterword, the 444-day Iran hostage crisis, ending on the day of Ronald Reagan's inaugaration. Also, the title of the novel refers to the setting--California Ave. in the Rogers Park section of Chicago. Most of the characters are about 13 when the novel opens in 1979, making them close to the same age as Langer, though he purports that the novel is not autobiographical but merely shares some of the experiences of many of his characters.

At first I did not want to like this novel. I had heard a bit about it from my classmates in a couple writing workshops I took in Chicago. They said it was a great book about Chicago. I was immediately suspicious of it because it had been published recently and I find a huge swathe of contemporary literature to be simple-minded, uncomplicated, boring and troublesome in how seriously and safely it takes itself. This is probably due to the nature of the publishing industry, but Langer was lucky enough to slip through, presenting a manuscript of highly-consistent prose that should engage readers everywhere, but especially in Chicago. There are not enough novels about Chicago! All novels are about New York. Or, at least a ton of them are. I should not start slipping into generalizations. There is one problem with Crossing California and that is, when the paperback edition ends with a "sneak preview" of The Washington Story, I thought it was some sort of bizarre joke. Looking up Crossing California on Amazon, I found apparently this is a real book, and it is a sequel, published shortly after the first one. The first thought that comes to mind is, this is starting to seem like Twilight or Harry Potter but seriously for adults only. I don't think most 13 year olds pass around joints on field trips. Maybe they did in 1979 and well maybe these characters just do.

I did not begin reading this novel totally enthusiastically but after about 15 or 20 pages, I was pretty into it. The writing style is quite engaging. I found the characters engaging, even though I didn't expect them to be. Most of all, however, I found the similarities between this book and my first (attempted) novel to be quite unsettling. Basically, they are very similar novels thematically. They concern a cast of characters, rather than one primary protagonist, going about their daily lives in Chicago. However, Langer's novel got published and mine didn't for two reasons:
1) His came first and I wasn't aware of it until much later so now mine appears to be an imitation of his.
2) His is significantly more devoted towards traditional novel elements such as depth of character, authenticity, and he writes with much more confidence and authority.
My characters are older than his and probably less experienced and more stupid. Also, I write about 7 or 8 days, while he writes about 444.

A book review should not be a mope fest. Crossing California is a great book for the city of Chicago, and all of the characters--Jill Wasserstrom (younger sister), Charlie Wasserstrom (widowed father), Michelle Wasserstrom (older sister), Gail Schiffler-Bass (widower's 2nd wife), Lennie Kidd (Gail's ex-husband, comedian/magician-pseudo "Svengooli" inspired personage), Lana Rovner (younger sister), Larry Rovner (older brother), Ellen & Michael Rovner (ambivalent parents), Muley Wills-Silverman (only child, bi-racial, whiz kid), Deirdre Wills (mother, would-be writer, English teacher), Carl "Slappit" Silverman (ex-husband, record producer), Mel Coleman (public radio assistant, mentor to Muley, aspiring novelist/screenwriter), and "Peachy" Moskowitz-Wills-Silverman (a fictional character Muley creates who becomes a character played by Michelle, which is probably the most "clever" part of the book). And those are just the characters that receive their fair share of primary story-telling space. Among the notable others are Gareth Overgaard, Myra Tuchbaum, Douglas Sternberg, P.C. Pendleton, Steve Ross, Laura Kim, Cheryl Mandell, Hannah Goodman, and others I am too tired to recall. If there is one thing this novel has taught me, it is that publishable work should stress character, character, character. Writing this many different characters must have been a dizzying affair, but Langer juggles them all effectively. Let me be clear: this is not a flawless novel. But I am hard-pressed to point out the flaws in it. Perhaps the characters are overly sexualized and treated with too much cruelty at times by other characters. Perhaps it is a very "gossipy" book. But you can't really criticize a book largely about teenagers for being too "gossipy."

Maybe the best way to answer whether the book is worth reading or not is, would I read The Washington Story? I think so. I think I would like to read it. Langer's third novel is about New York, apparently abandoning this cast of characters. I think having a sequel to a novel could potentially cheapen the impact of the original, but I was a little bit upset when I finished the final paragraph today. In truth there are plot lines to the first that merit continuation, though it just goes to show how difficult writing a book can be. As Italo Calvino states somewhere in If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, either the characters die or they live happily ever after. The ending to Crossing California does point towards the latter for at least two of the characters, but as pointed out earlier, there are a ton of characters here, and many of them lack satisfying closure. So yes, I will read the sequel, and I recommend the original, quite highly, though I am suspicious the sequel may end up being too much of a good thing.