Thursday, May 19, 2016

Zero K - Don DeLillo (2016)

Oeuvre rule: I have read White Noise, Underworld, Cosmopolis, Mao II and the first 50 pages or so of Americana.  Don DeLillo is one of my favorite authors, period.  Obviously one of my very favorite living writers.  I would return to Americana (and likely will one day, as my friend Katerina gave me her copy, at the same time she gave me this book and an autobiography by Isadora Duncan), but I must leave it out of this ranking.  Here is how I would rank these four novels, alongside Zero K.

White Noise

Zero K
Mao II

Granted, the only one I reviewed was Underworld.  I met DeLillo when I bought Cosmopolis, and recorded the encounter in the Underworld review.  Both White Noise and Underworld are modern American classics, but White Noise is the stronger novel, in my opinion.  Underworld is a powerhouse novel, but White Noise is just so sharp and pointed and entertaining and hilarious and deep and moving, where Underworld is, primarily, impressive.  I'd really need to read Mao II and Cosmopolis again to articulate my rankings, I just remember them as a bit boring (I still haven't seen the film of Cosmopolis, but I did see Game Six, and that was also pretty good).

So then, Zero K begs immediate comparison to White Noise, as Meghan Daum points out in her review, which reminded me that I should reserve this book at the CPL.  I did that, and I was the first person to reserve it from my branch and I got it immediately.  This is definitely one of the most "current" reviews I've done, certainly from a traditional fiction author that I like very much.

It begs comparison because both are deep meditations on death.  In White Noise, it is the medication  of fear of death, and in Zero K it is mastery over death through cryogenics.  But White Noise has a better story, and Zero K is more impressionistic and abstract.  It feels very meaningful and heavy as DeLillo approaches 80.  But it is strange and ultimately difficult to really "get into."  That's not to say that there aren't a few great parts,  Overall I would call it a very good novel, it just didn't grab me by the throat in the way that say, White Noise or Underworld  did.  And it has so much potential, because it has a pretty good plot setup.  A science fiction writer, or so-called speculative fiction writer, could have taken this novel in dazzling directions, but that's not DeLillo's style.

Essentially, the story is narrated by Jeff Lockhart, who is 34 and the son of a very rich and successful businessman who has decided to tell him about his secret operation, the Convergence, which is somewhere in the desert of Eastern Europe/Western Asia, not far from where the meteor fell in Chelyabinsk a few years ago.  The novel seems to take place in true present day.  There are references to the Taliban (though not ISIL) and the recent disturbances in Ukraine.  His father, Ross, is in his mid-to-late 60's, and married to a woman dying of a terminal disease (Artis).  Previously, Ross had been married to Jeff's mother, Madeline, but he left them abruptly and Jeff deals with this throughout the novel.  It is a bit surprising that he admires Artis and seems to connect with her very closely as a kind of stepmother, though Ross was not really in his life at all.  As he remembers, Ross's face was on the cover of Newsweek when Madeline died.

Artis is dying and Ross has invested in this facility that will freeze everyone and bring them back at some point to be determined in the future when technology will allow them to live again.  At the beginning of the novel, Jeff is blindfolded and transported for the better part of two days and brought to the facility and given a sort of extended tour.

As Jeff meets new people along his journey, he gives them names.  They never introduce themselves.  Two of the more notable architects of the Convergence are the so-called Stenmark twins.  Their back-and-forth pleasantly reminded me of a similar scene in White Noise, where Jack Gladney and a new professor at their college traded details about Hitler and Elvis and their mothers:

"'When the time comes, we'll depart finally from our secure northern home to this desert place.  Old and frail, limping and shuffling, to approach the final reckoning.'
'What will we find here?  A promise more assured than the ineffable hereafters of the world's organized religions.'
'Do we need a promise?  Why not just die?  Because we're human and we cling.  In this case not to religious tradition but to the science of present and future.'
They were speaking quietly and intimately, with a deeper reciprocity than in the earlier exchanges and not a trace of self-display.  The audience was stilled, completely fixed.
'Ready to die does not mean willing to disappear.  Body and mind may tell us that it is time to leave the world behind.  But we will clutch and grasp and scratch nevertheless.'
'Two stand-up comics.'
'Encased in vitreous matter, refashioned cell by cell, waiting for the time.'
'When the time comes, we'll return.  Who will we be, what will we find?  The world itself, decades away, think of it, or sooner, or later.  Not so easy to imagine what will be out there, better or worse or so completely altered we will be too astonished to judge.'" (74-75)

The first thing I'd mention about this comparison is that the writing is just not as sharp as in White Noise.  I've never read The Body Artist, but I've heard that it's sort of abstract and experimental, and I'd say the same thing about Zero K, particularly the the short section of the book that seems to portray Artis's consciousness after the cryogenic process.  I'm not sure how DeLillo comes out on this issue, but my guess is that he thinks the concept is insane, but may actually gain traction.  DeLillo is often portrayed as some kind of cultural psychic, that he sees the way things are now and he predicts the way things will be.  The idea of consciousness after freezing and before "rebirth" is sort of frightening, perhaps more frightening than an absence of consciousness.  In this sense, DeLillo may be expressing an acceptance of death in a different way than many other artists before him.  Death is one of the greatest inspirations for art, and his achievement with this novel is noteworthy, but I am sorry to say it is not as essential a work as those previously mentioned volumes.

But I love DeLillo and want to read several of his other books.  This is sort of a chilling addition to his oeuvre, and a pretty cool one to release at his age.  Some artists might put out their best work around age 80 (I'm thinking primarily of Thomas Mann here), and though in my opinion this is not DeLillo's best, it's quite good, good enough to say he hasn't lost it and could put out a still more impressive book yet, if he hasn't run out of subjects that he'd like to write about.

Regardless, there are still little moments of comic absurdity like this, which is pure DeLillo:

"Soon I was turning a corner and going down a hall with walls painted raw umber, a thick runny pigment meant to resemble mud, I thought.  There were matching doors, all doors the same.  There was also a recess in the wall and a figure standing there, arms, legs, head, torso, a thing fixed in place.  I saw that it was a mannequin, naked, hairless, without facial features, and it was reddish brown, maybe russet or simply rust.  There were breasts, it had breasts, and I stopped to study the figure, a molded plastic version of the human body, a jointed model of a woman.  I imagined placing a hand on a breast.  This seemed required, particularly if you are me.  The head was a near oval, arms positioned in a manner that I tried to decipher--self-defense, withdrawal, with one foot set to the rear.  The figure was rooted to the floor, not enclosed in protective glass.  A hand on a breast, a hand sliding up a thigh.  It's something I would have done once upon a time.  Here and now, the cameras in place, the monitors, an alarm mechanism on the body itself--I was sure of this.  I stood back and looked.  The stillness of the figure, the empty face, the empty hallway, the figure at night, a dummy, in fear, drawing away.  I moved farther back and kept on looking." (24-25)

Ultimately, my opinion of this book is colored by feelings of wasted potential and obfuscation.  It seems like there is another deeper layer to this novel that I'm just not getting (it may have something to do with Stak--and indeed I felt the strongest part of the novel was the middle part outside of the Convergence) and it seems like DeLillo doesn't want to write the more "commercial" version of this novel that would be more of a crowd-pleaser, something about how the Convergence actually turned out in the end, and deciding if it is a good or bad thing.  Like I said, my feeling is that it's a bad thing, and DeLillo (ever the satirist) is mocking science and the belief that we can be all powerful gods with a mastery over nature, when we don't even know what that means for us spiritually (i.e. we are not meant to live much longer than 100 years on this earth).  Even though I think DeLillo is ultimately better off being ambivalent, I am still sort of a sucker for the happy ending.  Having said all that, it's definitely an interesting read and I recommend it--I just don't think it will change your life the way say, two of his other novels might.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

See a Little Light - Bob Mould (with Michael Azzerad) (2011)

I first became aware of Bob Mould and Husker Du in late 2003.  I forget what spurred me to ask for Our Band Could Be Your Life for Christmas that year, but it had only been out for a couple years, and I tore through it rapidly.  My memory must be off because I recall also getting Mission of Burma's Vs. and Husker Du's New Day Rising on that day.  Whatever, it was basically my junior year of college that I got into them.  I had also been aware of them via the Dennis Cooper novel Try, in which the main character is a real fanboy.

Soon after New Day Rising, I got a burnt copy of Zen Arcade.  About a year later, after college, I picked up Flip Your Wig.  Not long after that, I saw Bob Mould play at the Metro in Chicago, on the Body of Song tour.  Of course during this time I was clamoring for all of the OBCBYL bands to reunite so I could see them live.  Mission of Burma did, and soon after so did Dinosaur Jr.  Husker Du never did, and apparently never will, even though rumors will always continue to swirl, such as last year when they decided to reissue some of their merchandising.  Bob Mould just plays some Husker Du songs live, and that will be as good as it gets.

The chapter from OBCBYL on Husker Du is one of the best.  Most chapters would make me want to listen to the band in question, if I hadn't heard them before.  Their music fit my taste: loud, fast, angry/anguished.  Perhaps more intriguing is that 2 of their 3 members were gay.  They were sort of a mysterious band to me, and I was really into them from about 2003 through 2007 (though I've always listened to their albums), then my ardor sort of faded.  I'd check out the last few Bob Mould albums, but a true reunion was the only thing that would have really excited me.

Enter Mould's latest album, released a little over a month ago in late March 2016.  It was probably the Pitchfork review that did it, reminding me that he had actually released a memoir.  I remember hearing about it when it was released, but I guess I was distracted in law school or whatever in 2011.  Anyways I put a hold on it at the CPL, and voila, it arrives quickly and now continues along our path of indie rock memoirs after Kim Gordon and Carrie Brownstein.   

It's hard to compare the three.  I don't want to say any single one is the best.  The most obvious thing is that Mould's is the biggest.  It's definitely the longest, around 380 pages, and it feels more revealing than the other two, even though one could not call either Gordon's or Brownstein's opaque.  Here is the best way I can differentiate them: theirs are more poetic and impressionistic; Mould's is more intricately detailed and informative.  One might say that Mould's is less edited, but the book is credited "with" Michael Azzerad, who is, of course, the author of OBCBYL.  So yeah, maybe it is a little more bloated, but I found pretty much the whole thing entertaining.  I guess him and Kim Gordon have been active in the music scene for roughly the same amount of time, but the kinds of songs they write are quite different, and that translates to different styles of memoir.  But enough with the comparisons--most people are not going to blindly pick up See a Little Light, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, or Girl in a Band unless they're already familiar with the artists.  All three are great.

If what was previously known about Husker Du was mysterious, then this book changes everything.  Mould is completely open and honest throughout the entire narrative, and he provides very detailed accounts of his entire musical journey, from his early upbringing, through Husker Du, his early solo work, Sugar, his shift to electronica, and back.  Perhaps sensing that he is kind of a unique figure in the larger scheme of gay rights, he writes quite eloquently on the topic.  Obviously, apart from interband tensions (only a small portion of which overlap with such themes), this is the major "drama" of the memoir.  Most of the passages I would like to quote, the most compelling portions of the text, are on this topic.

But also, like OBCBYL, this book made me rediscover some older material.  I had never really heard "Eight Miles High," a cover song that I would probably rank in their top 5.  I had never really explored Candy Apple Grey or Warehouse either--not even Metal Circus to be honest.  I had Land Speed Record but I still haven't really heard Everything Falls Apart.  As for Sugar, the only thing I previously heard was File Under: Easy Listening, which I bought in the summer of 2007 on my road trip through the U.S. from some random record store in the Midwest for a few bucks.  Copper Blue and Beaster seem to be the more definitive releases, and Mould mentions the Beaster track "JC Auto" several times, and yes, it is a really intense and awesome song.  Also interesting is that "Gift" from FU:EL, which I considered that album's best song, features a guitar pedal that Kevin Shields lent to Mould, the same one used on "You Made Me Realise."  Mould was also heavily influenced by Loveless at the time of its release.

Mould also moved around the country a lot.  Off the top of my head, he is born and raised in a small town in upstate New York, then moves to Minneapolis for college, and lives there until Husker Du becomes big enough that he can purchase a home in a rural suburb, where he lives through their end.  After that, he moves to New York City (being something of a pioneer in Williamsburg), then Austin, then back to NYC, then Washington D.C., and finally ends in San Francisco.  I feel like I'm missing a couple places in there, but whatever.


Anyways, I've finally returned from a weekend away in which I neglected to bring the book and reflected upon it in absentia.  I went to see my sister graduate from college and I brought way too much stuff for a two night stay as it was.  Here is one of the aforementioned promised quotes.

First, I would quote the whole opening of Chapter 17, but its not necessarily poetic.  It just tells the story of how Dennis Cooper interviewed him for Spin:

"The writer Dennis Cooper was a huge Husker Du fan.  He'd even touched on the band in one or two of his novels.  Now he was trying to build a name for himself as a journalist.  Dennis Cooper is gay.  So in the summer of 1994, Spin magazine asked Ryko, How about we send Dennis Cooper down to Austin to spend some time with Bob?
I knew what was about to happen.  This was to be the "Bob is gay" story, and I could do this the easy way or the hard way.  I wasn't thrilled about it for a number of reasons, beyond personal ones.  My first concerns were that this news would make it tough for my family, and that my fans and peers would recontextualize everything I had done with my work.  I also knew that the press was always going to write whatever they were going to write.  I could try to steer the story the way I wanted it to read, but ultimately, editorial always wins out.  It's the business."  (221)

Okay, I'm having trouble locating the one really poetic passage about how people might start interpreting the meaning of the songs differently after they found out he was gay.  He writes about how the themes of his music are universal and apply regardless of gender and sexuality.  Except for one instance, which comes amidst the description of side two of Zen Arcade:

"A lot of side two is my blind rage and self-hatred, my failed relationships, and my confusing sex with love.  That whole side was a blur while recording.  It sounds like someone is being pounded into a gigantic pile of broken glass.  Some of the words and ideas seem misguided now, but history has proven they're made of a lasting substance.  Gay people have always pegged "The Biggest Lie" as a gay song, and it is, seeing as it was informed by a sexual misadventure with a straight friend.  It was about me hoping an awkward physical tumble would turn into something more, and it not happening." (90)

Later, Mould mentions that the only part of his oeuvre that he will not revisit is this part of Zen Arcade and it is upsetting to think that we will never get to hear "I'll Never Forget You" performed live again.

Mould also tells the surprising story of how he briefly worked for the WCW in the late 90's.  He also fairly casually mentions how he started taking steroids after four weeks on the job.  He doesn't seem to mention stopping them, though one presumes that was the case.  He also tells the fairly insane story of the wrestler Chris Benoit from his perspective.

But it is the stories of his relationships with Michael and Kevin that are ultimately some of the most painful:

"I had been faithful to Mike, faithful to Kevin, and now I was single.  Everything was open and new.  I'd been unhitched for one month in the last twenty-one years.  Now I was learning the ropes of dating and casual sex in D,C.  I had my freedom, but I knew I had to be somewhat cautious.  I said to Rich, keep an eye on me and tell me if I start acting stupid.  I don't think I ever got too crazy." (333)

The ending of the book pretty much tells the story of how he never really embraced the gay community or the gay lifestyle until this period in his life.  The story of how he meets up with another gay blogger is "both comical and sad" and quite endearing, such as his disappointment with the dude being heavier than his pictures looked, but still being intimate despite a few other sketchy details.

Along the way there are some pretty good stories about other indie rock luminaries, and reflections on what it means to be "out" and his life's work (up to age 50).  He ends the book by saying that it has been a pretty good first 50 years and he is excited for what is to come.

Are you jealous?

Sure.  After reading this book, try and tell me that you could have a more interesting and entertaining life.  Not necessarily everyone wants and interesting and entertaining life, and I'm sure many would not want to have the experiences Mould has had.  The book is brimming with trauma, but I suppose that's the sort of material that makes for the best writing.

Take, for example, people who would never smoke:

"I started smoking a pack a day at the beginning of college, and by the end, I was up to three packs a day.  Smoking had become both the centerpiece and timepiece of my life.  Every cigarette was six minutes long, and I could practically mark out the whole day with smoking, like a sundial.  Six minutes on, nine minutes off.  Repeat sixty times a day.  It was like playing Scrabble: when it's your turn, you turn over the egg timer and start thinking.  I have an innate sense of time, but smoking was this additional timekeeper, like a wristwatch." (258)

You see, some people smoke and are just lazy, and other people that smoke are like super successful and amazing.  In short, while I could never say there is any "right" way to smoke, using it as a timekeeper through sporadic bursts of energy sounds nice in theory, but I don't think that's normally the way it is in practice.  Mould quits when he is 37, and also starts to make other changes in his life.  It's the focus on these kind of personal details that make this memoir so well-rounded.

There is not much more to say except that Mould is playing the Metro again, two days from now!  I just found this out a day or two ago.  Though it is sold out, I may try to go.  His newest album is very good, as have been his last few.  I'd imagine he can build a pretty strong setlist with his entire discography.  So, I guess this book came around at the perfect time for me, just in time to remind me that I should go.