Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Karaoke Singer's Guide to Self-Defense - Tim Kinsella (2011)

Flashback 14 years to Fall 2000, my senior year in high school, chatting on AOL Instant Messenger with a friend I had gotten to know the previous year in an English class.  He was pretentious.  Definitely not popular but so weird and laconic and humorous that he carried his own cultural cache which others had to respect.  We started by giving feedback on college essays we were writing.  We wrote short stories and sent them back and forth (his were much better, or at least seemed to be written by a much older and more intelligent person) and he contributed a couple iconic lines to a play I was writing.  Five years later we'd stop speaking, and I wrote my first novel as a kind of response to that rejection.  He'd later describe the event as an "epic falling out" to a mutual friend, though it seemed anything but that to me (swift, no words, little explanation).

However, back in those idyllic late high school times, I was very into three bands, in this order: Smashing Pumpkins, Radiohead, and Rage Against the Machine.  The Beastie Boys and Foo Fighters, among others, took up lesser spots, but these three comprised the majority of my listening.  My friend saw a problem with this, and he did me the favor of lending dozens of CDs to me over the next few months.  Some of these bands would go on to become my favorites: Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, Fugazi, and the Velvet Underground, to name a few.  But more interesting was a sub-set of music that shocked: emo.  It shocked because it did not fit in with this refined adult taste.  He was weirdly looking forward to the new Weezer album, which would be their follow-up to Pinkerton (which I never heard until I got to college).  He said Sunny Day Real Estate was emo.  He said Cap'n Jazz was emo.

I was surprised I liked Cap'n Jazz because they were so obscure.  By that point in my life honestly I had never really made the effort to give "underground" music a chance.  My friend had told me, "Just play the first track and wait til the end."  I did that, and to say it changed my life would be an overstatement, but it sort of changed my life.  Cap'n Jazz was not necessarily "underground," but I am pretty sure you could go out on the street and ask a bunch of people in Chicago (their hometown) who they were and 95-99% would profess ignorance.  So while my friend and I may be "separated," and while I was pretty mad at him for a while, I will always be grateful for making me his "project" and turning me on to indie rock, because it's been one of the few enjoyable pursuits afforded me in this miserable life.

Fast-forward to July 2010 when a re-formed Cap'n Jazz played the Wicker Park Festival and I promptly lost my shit for an hour.  Flashback to April 2002 when I went on what I considered a very romantic date to an Owls concert at North Six in Brooklyn and sat on the bleachers and watched the members of Cap'n Jazz play weirder songs, but still catchier ones than Joan of Arc put out.  Fast-forward to December 2005 when I went alone to see Make Believe play with Islands at Beat Kitchen.  Fast-forward to some other time in 2006 or 2007 when I saw Make Believe at the Wicker Park Festival.  Fast-forward to July 2014 when I saw Owls play at the Wicker Park Festival on the heels of their well-received 2nd album, 13 years in gestation.

It's possible you're reading this and wondering what the hell this has to do with a book--but more likely, if you know the name of the author, you know why I started the review off this way.  Tim Kinsella's reputation precedes him, and with his recent literary output as well as the new seemingly more mainstream Owls record, it may appear he is in the process of shaking that off.  However, if the Owls performance three weeks ago is any indication, he will never stop being obtuse, inscrutable, and defiantly anti-establishment.

As previously mentioned here, I saw him read at the Printer's Row Lit Fest (more than 2 months ago already - sad that the summer is wearing out).  He read from his second novel, Let Go and Go on and on, and I approached him afterwards and told him I didn't have the money to buy a book, but would he sign my journal?  He graciously complied and I told him I would be reading "the Karaoke Singer" soon and I review every book I read and would he like to see the review?  "No...I don't really try to pay attention to reviews."  I wouldn't pay attention to reviews either with the way he has been skewered by Pitchfork in the past (The Gap at 1.9, How Can Any Thing So Little Be Any More EP at 2.2, So Much Staying Alive and Lovelessness at a nearly-favorable 4.2, In Rape Fantasy and Terror Sex We Trust improving to a 5.0, Joan of Arc, Dick Cheney, Mark Twain... at an almost-respectable 5.3, Joan of Arc: Presents: Guitar Duets at a near-median 3.5), but it seems like he knows how to get better reviews when he's not trying to be experimental or engaging in the practice of obfuscation (Owls' S/T record came in at 7.0 and Two got a 7.3 and the two Make Believe albums that were reviewed came in between Joan of Arc and Owls, generally).  Pitchfork never reviewed Analphabetapolothology but there is no way they could give it anything less than an 8.7, if not a 10.  It's just ridiculously inspired and influential and if you haven't heard it already and are even the slightest bit aware of "emo" as a genre (even if you hate what it represents), you owe it to yourself to at least listen to "Little League" (and especially the end of it).

So Tim Kinsella is carrying a lot of baggage going into publishing his first novel, and it seems like his fans will stick with him no matter how far out into left-field he wants to stray.  But books and music are two different mediums, and I am happy to report that The Karaoke Singer's Guide to Self-Defense is "more mainstream" Kinsella, and that people who might be completely unaware of his indie icon status over the past 20 years will probably find this book intriguing--if not exactly a masterpiece--provided they can get past page 100.
This is because up until page 100 the reader may find themselves lost, and unable to figure out just where the narrative is heading.  However, around that point it all begins to make sense.  Then the book shifts to "Part 2" and some confusion is likely there as well.  But I will try to sum it up for you without spoiling too much.

This book is probably 45% about a family, 35% about a bar, and 20% about two random characters.  The family is comprised of Mel, Will and Kent, three siblings who have come back together for their Nana's funeral.  Ronnie is their mother, Dell is their estranged father, and Joe is Ronnie's new boyfriend.  Kent works at a toothpaste factory and is married with kids.  Will is the youngest of the three and has had problems in the past with fighting.  Basically, he went through rehab because he got into fights as his hobby.  Mel works as a bartender at The Shhh...

The Shhh... is a bar owned by Norman, who inherited it from his father Rich.  Norman is the closest thing this book has to a villain, and a certain proposal made towards the end of the book is the closest it comes to reaching a "climax":

"Mel understood.  She would tell Will everything if Kent weren't around.  How she hid the pregnancy at first so she could keep dancing.  How she could've had the baby if she could have kept dancing but couldn't keep dancing if she had the baby--Goddamn it, maybe she probably should've had the kid.  How Norman had been squeezing her and couldn't Will maybe do something, even just scare him, just this once?
But Kent was talking about his remortgaged subprime tax break insurance kid's sports team past glory with a snappy comeback Florida getaway I prefer a bargain or something.  It was getting late.  Will lit a cigarette." (248-249)

A side note: the book starts at a scene at The Shhh... and is also the closest the book comes to being about emo or punk rock because Cap'n Jazz has a song titled "Planet Shhh..."  So what I'm trying to say is, you're not getting a traditional novel here, nor some kind of thinly-veiled autobiography about life as a relatively obscure indie rock icon (which would be awesome).  However, there is a fair amount of material on the art of karaoke (mostly from Norman, who specializes in it) and there is this passage about another character, Gus.  Gus runs the kitchen at The Shhh... and he is also Mel's roommate and a poet:

"Too old to have really been a punk, Gus turned thirty in 1978, but loved Public Image so much that he began every karaoke session of his life with the same disappointment, looking up 'Public Image' by Public Image Limited.  No karaoke place ever had it.  Though its two note riff with no surprises was perfection itself to Gus, it would, he had to admit, be a very tough song to sing karaoke.  The 'melody' was all in the sneering attitude.  Except for the repetition of the words 'public image,' few lyrics were comprehensible after the opening line, 'You never listen to a word I'm saying.'" (74)

Side note: this is the 2nd review on Flying Houses in recent months to reference PiL.  I liked 85A, but I don't want to compare the two.  While they were both debuts and published not too far apart from one another, they're completely different books.  However I would have liked this book better if it had taken place in Chicago.  I do not know why Kinsella set the story in Stone Claw Grove, MI rather than Chicago, but apparently Stone Claw Grove is a fictional town.

But maybe the setting is why I liked this book in the first place: it is not a sugar-coated version of reality like so many other novels.  The characters are distinctly working class, and the disappointments in their lives are palpable and ring true.  In other words, reading the book as an underemployed attorney with a debt well on its way to six figures, I felt less alone.

Kinsella recently taught a class in experimental fiction at the University of Chicago, and that appointment was probably based on the strength of this novel.  It is "experimental," but it's straightforward enough that I could see it making a cool movie.  It's experimental in the sense that the action is constantly flipping backwards and forwards in time.  Primarily it takes place before and after Nana's funeral, but it jumps back to 9 months before the funeral (i.e. around the time Mel got pregnant) and other earlier points in time as well.

Another "experimental" aspect is the way Kinsella writes in the third person, but manages to imbue the narration with the personality of the character that is the focus of a particular section.  This is also a confusing trope at first, but by page 100, the reader should be able to figure out what is happening.  As mentioned, most of the characters are working class and the narration is appropriately down-to-earth, but Sarah Ann has a more intellectual inner monologue that makes her a very interesting but underused character.

The same can be said for the other two random characters, Wallace and Jesse.  I haven't read any other reviews of this book so I may be alone on this, but to me the chapters about Wallace and Jesse are the strongest in the book.  I'm just not sure they fit in all that well with the rest of the story.  Regardless, they are compelling.  They are not totally horrifying, but they are disturbing and sometimes deeply so.  Oddly enough, they are the most topical parts of the book, as the last few years have seen several young adults in the news break free from their captors who basically tortured them by forcing them to be their companions.  Wallace eventually does the "right thing" but the wrong way, and the depiction of Jesse's reaction almost made me want to break out in tears.

All throughout, the writing is strong, and I may have only picked up one typo.  Kinsella read from Let Go and Go on and on at the Lit Fest this year.  He sat in front of me with his mom, and then he got up to read and nobody seemed to laugh or "get it."  He was reading something about cockfighting and people living out of their car.  It didn't seem as "mainstream" as this book, but I am really glad I read this and may read that in the future.  Nobody may ever "get" Kinsella, but I feel like I understand where he's coming from a little better after reading this book.  I don't think I'm alone in hoping that Cap'n Jazz reforms yet again (I read one shocking interview where he said Owls' Two was almost released as the 2nd Cap'n Jazz album--which seriously would have fucked with everyone), but so long as Kinsella remains a stalwart on the indie publishing scene in Chicago, I can deal (fingers crossed that I get a copy of S/M out to him and that he's tickled by the fact that a scene in the novel takes place at a Make Believe concert and consequently considers me worthy of Featherproof's support).

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