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.

Monday, November 3, 2008

How Fiction Works - James Wood

Near the end of my second novel, Self-Mutilation, the protagonist, Oscar, has lost his confidence in the world and remarks that there is no one to trust except the greatest authors of all time:

"Life is not one big Greek drama, complete with a protagonist’s tragic flaw. It’s just babies being born, growing up, doing the things adults do, growing old, and dying. It’s just making a living, that’s all it comes down to. Work. Why can’t we all live in harmony, God? Why can’t there be enough for everyone to go around? Why do we always have to worry about how we’re ever going to be able to survive? Is it just this country I’m living in, that has perverted the basic elements of human existence, or is it the entire world, and is this place actually better than others? I don’t know who to believe about anything anymore. The greatest writers in history. Plato and Aristotle, Sophocles and Homer, Aeschylus and Aristophanes, Dante and Cervantes, Shakespeare and Milton, Lao Tzu, Flaubert and Balzac, Tolstoy and Kafka, Joyce and Proust, Nabokov and Mann, Hemingway and Fitzgerald. They’re the only ones I can believe. And who knows how many of them were motivated by commercial popularity. Who knows how many of them were fixated on immortality." (184-185)

I shouldn't post this excerpt because it comes from the final page of the manuscript itself, but oh well, it related too closely to James Wood's recent volume on literary acumen called How Fiction Works, a book I half-heartedly recommend (I "half-recommend" it). The book is closely related to the passage because, of the 21 authors named as the greatest of all time by me (in my own, non-English majored, barely well-read estimation) 16 are mentioned. Some of them barely (Aristotle, Balzac, and Hemingway), some of them fairly (Cervantes, Mann, Nabokov, Joyce, Kafka, and Proust), some of them rarely (Homer, Plato, Milton, and Fitzgerald), and some of them heavily (Flaubert-especially!-, Tolstoy, and of course, Shakespeare). Just for fun, let's point out who Wood doesn't discuss at all from my list: Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Aristophanes (no love for Greek Tragedy!), Dante (right, he meant, like, nothing, to literature), and Lao Tzu (which is not surprising at all, as Lao Tzu is not a novelist and is included in my novel's list as the separating element between the roughly chronological listing).

Enough with the list already! But seriously, the listing of authors is one of the chief pleasures of How Fiction Works. In his introduction, Wood makes several impressive claims:

"As a teenager I was very taken by the rather fancy note to Ford Madox Ford's The English Novel: "This book was written in New York, on board the S.S. Patria, and in the port and neighbourhood of Marseilles during July and August, 1927." I cannot claim proximate glamour, nor a similar feat of library-less memory, but in the spirit of Ford, I can say that I have used only the books I actually own--the books at hand in my study--to produce this little volume. I can also add that, except for a paragraph here and there, none of it is previously published." (xv-xvi)

Now that we've gotten that out of the way, I would like to point out the absence of the Beats. No Kerouac, no Ginsberg, and no Burroughs. Granted, I do not put them on my list as the greatest of all time, but no one, NO ONE, can argue that they have not played a crucial role in the development of the novel post World War II. They are positively modern compared to the moderns that Wood namedrops (David Foster Wallace, Rick Moody, Jose Saramago, J.M. Coetzee). Sure, none of them may have won the Nobel, but they do not deserve to be ignored. Oh wait, I think Ginsberg is mentioned ONCE:

"...the Milky Way flows out of her breasts, and the children come from between her legs ('the Monster of the Beginning Womb,' as Allen Ginsberg calls it in Kaddish). Men cannot rival that, even as they, like Mickey or late Yeats, rage on about male 'vitality.'" (201)

That, in a discussion of Philip Roth's Sabbath's Theater, and further, even Ricky Gervais and Seinfeld merit mentioning the same number of times as Ginsberg. Burroughs is not there, Kerouac is not there (and Bob Dylan is not there either, so at least there is good company). How can you leave out Burroughs, when he has created his own literary genre (even if it is pretty "out there"), and how can you leave out Kerouac, when EVERYBODY knows and reads On the Road in the same way as The Great Gatsby. And Gatsby only gets mentioned for the sake of its main character, whose private thoughts we do not get to read. Other OMG absences include J.D. Salinger and Kurt Vonnegut (how can you ignore The Catcher in the Rye, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Cat's Cradle?).

To be fair, this is not a list of all the greatest writers of all time. This is a book in which Wood purports to explain what he views as the inner workings of fiction--character (flat or round ones), detail (relevant or irrelevant--or is anything truly irrelevant?), dialogue, narrative voice, free indirect style, and language. Sometimes the book works wonderfully. The chapters on "Dialogue" and "Language" are excellent, and very instructive for the apprentice writer. However, while Flaubert may be one of the all-time greatest literary giants, Wood masturbates a little too much to the great man's name and monkish attitude towards the literary craft. Also, Wood seems to have a pretty concise idea of what makes great literature, and while reading large sections of this, I reflected on my own work and considered that Wood might denounce it as inadequate, and that all of the other anonymous critics who have dismissed it may be right, and I may not have any talent to speak of and I will be a total waste of life for writing novels that will never be published. Still, Wood does have the ability to surprise (his namedropping the "sadistic eros" of Dennis Cooper in comparison to Kafka and Beckett near the end of the work was a moment of personal vindication) and this volume will be quite titillating for anyone who claims to love literature. Wood might think my fiction doesn't work, but I'll take the company of his authorial voids any day.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Studs Terkel - 1912-2008

Last night, one of the most legendary figures in the history of Chicago passed away. Studs Terkel has been a prominent figure on the city scene since the early 1950's, has beaten the odds to live longer than the vast majority of the human race, has won the Pulitzer, has endeared himself to several generations of the inhabitants of one of the greatest cities in America, and has died on Halloween. One only hopes that his ghost will haunt the city streets and remind people at bus stops about how hard times really were in the 1920's compared to now. One only hopes that his passing is to signal the passing of the torch from one legendary Chicagoan to the next, just a few days before history will, or will not be made. And one only hopes that the new torch bearer will consider Terkel's oeuvre and take direction from the author's benefit from government-sponsored program like Roosevelt's WPA.

Touch and Go is the only Terkel volume I have read. I read it rather recently, after I had started reviewing every book I read for Flying Houses. I read it after Crossing California, feeling it was appropriate to follow up a decidedly "Chicago" novel with arguably the most "Chicago" author. Saul Bellow and Nelson Algren and Richard Wright may more closely approximate that distinction, but they had their ties to Terkel that they too would acknowledge were they still around. Touch and Go is a memoir published in 2007, written when Terkel was 94 years old, after he had undergone a rather complicated heart surgery, for which he may have held the record as the oldest patient ever to successfully undergo it.

Today the Chicago Tribune listed the five most essential Terkel volumes--among them Division Street, Working, and Hard Times. But Touch and Go not among them--nor P.S. his newest volume, being released this month or the next. This man had to have led one of the most productive lifetimes in modern American history. Granted, his writing mostly came out of his interviews done on the radio, but just the idea of writing a memoir at 94 is incredible, particularly with a memory as startlingly strong as Terkel's. I saw footage of him giving interviews on PBS last night after they announced his death and he reminded me quite a bit of my grandmother, who was born around the same time as Terkel and who also was a lifelong Chicagoan. They had a similar way of not being able to stop talking, of never being able to communicate enough information about the past, despite their advanced age. It was kind of hilarious in a way.

I didn't review Touch and Go, because I honestly didn't know what to say about it. I will say that parts of the book were stronger than others. There were definitely some very interesting chapters and there were a few chapters that felt too disconnected from my present situation to interest me that greatly. I remember watching the Democratic National Convention from a motel room in Cedar City, UT and swearing I saw Studs sitting behind Hillary and Bill Clinton. But I couldn't be sure. Then in the paper today it showed a picture of Bill giving him a medal in 1997. Regardless of whether or not he was still at the convention, he did appear at last summer's Printer's Row Book Fair (which I missed because I was attending the Los Angeles equivalent) and he did speak about the election--one can only presume that he supported Obama. It is a shame that he will not be able to vote (or, maybe he did, early...though it seems unlikely). Regardless, politics played quite a role in his life, and he led a wonderful one, an extremely inspiring one as well. Before I mentioned that I wished I could live Chuck Palahniuk's life. Well, I also wish I could live Terkel's life. I wish I could mean as much to this city as Studs did. But he really, truly, was one in a hundred million.