Teeth and the Man I Sing

April 23, 2008 § Leave a comment

Just finished: Sharp Teeth.

One last, short note on this.  I didn’t think about it much until I finished it — maybe I have allusion-fatigue after Welty — but the arc of this book’s plot does have some interesting parallels to the ancient epics, and especially the Aeneid.  It’s there explicitly in the first line, “Let’s sing about the man there…”

You have Lark losing his pack, wandering and finding comfort with a kind woman, then founding a new pack and going to war.  There are bits of Aeneas and bits of Odysseus here.  There’s maybe a sly reversal of the Circe myth in the story of Bonnie and Lark, in that unlike Circe changing Odysseus’s crew into wild beasts, Lark changes from dog to man under her nose, as she sleeps the sleep of the drugged.  Bonnie seems to kind of be Dido and Circe and Calypso and Penelope, at various times.

There’s also Venable’s great soliloquy in the third book (p. 175), on the violence to the earth done by the sprawling L.A. megalopolis.  The taming of the Italian wilderness, and the violence of that civilizing, is a theme that runs through the Aeneid, as well.

It’s all fairly subtle, and restrained.  Does seem to be there, though.

The Market-Ready Free Verse Novel

April 22, 2008 § 3 Comments

Just finished: Sharp Teeth.

Reading next: The Wet Collection, by Joni Tevis.

One of my favorite comedians, Bill Hicks, had this incredible bit in which he suggested that anyone working for an advertising or marketing firm should just go ahead and kill him- or herself, and then speculates on marketers’ reaction to his “going after the anti-marketing market.” Hicks was about a decade and a half ahead of his time and was funny as hell, with or without a mullet.

I bring this up because, much as I try to avoid delving into authors’ bios (and yet I’ve done it twice since I started doing this, what a hypocrite!), I can’t help but notice that Toby Barlow works in advertising. More than that: “Toby Barlow is executive creative director at the advertising agency JWT…” It’s right on the back of the book. The man’s no drone; he’s a big shot. (JWT used to be known as J. Walter Thompson until they “relaunched their brand” a few years ago — a la “KFC,” I suppose — and, in my ongoing quest to Fully Disclose, I suppose I should say that my employer holds the archives of this agency. All views only my own etc. etc. You know the drill.)

Okay, so actual (very prominently displayed) copy from the JWT website: “At JWT we believe advertising needs to stop interrupting what people are interested in and be what people are interested in.”

Ahem.

Advertising does play a small but significant role in Sharp Teeth: there’s a campaign orchestrated by the rogue wolf Baron and his friends in the industry to stop the execution of strays and plaster L.A. with celebrity-endorsed ads to take in a stray dog. It’s a strategy to infiltrate homes with werewolves planted in the shelters, gradually taking over the city for the wolves, and it works for a while; then the reprieve is lifted, the campaign ends, the adopted remain adopted, waiting for a signal to strike that might never come. So Barlow doesn’t shy away from the dark side (or at least the darkly humorous side) of his day job, it would seem.

What we have here, then, is the work of a nighttime novelist. There’s plenty of precedent here; I mean, DeLillo and plenty of others wrote ad copy, too. Kudos to Toby Barlow for juggling work and more personal work. The book is remarkably devoid, in this day and age, of brand names; no complaints there.

It’s tempting to see a self-allegory in this tale of white-collar workers transforming into vicious dogs and wolves at will, but the book seems to resist that: one of the best things about this book is its playing with the werewolf trope without simply exploiting the wolf-man dichotomy. They’re doggish-wolfish-mannish beings, in this book, their desires and motives and appetites all jumbled up. It’s clever that there are white-collar wolves in law and advertising, but it doesn’t seem to be more than a slight joke, a touch of surrealism, and a Zevon homage.

Now, I’m an old fogey when it comes to advertising. (I don’t think advertising firms even like to call themselves advertising firms anymore; it’s all branding and promotion and such.) I like ads to be ads, the better to ignore them. I hate it when songs I love get plopped into commercials. Hearing about viral marketing campaigns and product placement (even — hell, especially — ironic product placement) and branding strategies is nails-on-a-chalkboard stuff for me. (I hate that I know the terms, actually, but what can you do?) So it bothers me that the book is in free verse which often seems just like prose. It seems like marketing, which is apparently something Gavin Grant, Elizabeth Hand, and others have also indicated.

The book’s a novella, really, if it’s on the page as prose: 150 pages, tops, probably less.

No one buys a novella. No one reviews a novella. No one sells a novella, much less a first novella.

Then there’s the climax. Don’t worry, I won’t give anything away; let’s just say that the presence of a Blackhawk helicopter and government snipers made it seem an awful lot like a glorified film treatment.

I’m bothered by this book, because I liked parts of it an awful lot. The parts where nothing important is happening are great: people falling in love, keeping secrets, going to work, feeding dogs, playing bridge, hanging out at the beach, telling tales. There are some lovely passages in here, and some really great action-packed prose that does flow as fluidly and naturally as poetry.

And yet it bothers me that the book has this gimmicky no-dust-jacket design (which does, I suppose, help the book stand out on a shelf, but it’s impossible to keep the glossy labels on the covers in decent shape), and that there are blurbs all over the front and back endpapers. I know, I know: you’ve got to sell books to keep publishing more books, I know that even the most lily-white work of art needs a patron. And yet it bothers me, like graffiti ad campaigns bother me, and Clash songs showing up in commercials bothers me.

(I promise to be less cranky with the next contemporary book I read.)

The Freedom of Constraint

April 19, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Sharp Teeth.

There was a terrific, seemingly out-of-the blue post on Slate this week by Robert Pinsky, a kind of manifesto on the laziness of complaints on contemporary poetry. I enjoyed it, and his second point was especially appropriate for my current reading. He gives a couple of excellent examples of free-verse poetry.

I am beginning to realize that Sharp Teeth does not belong in this company. I am beginning to wonder if its free verse really is “just prose chopped into lines.”

There are any number of examples I could give. Here’s just one:

They exited the freeway and pulled

into a neighborhood

just east of Huntington Park.

Ray slung the van up a drive and shut off the engine.

He pointed to Frio and Penn and said,

“After you change, hit the back of the house,

and be ready to rush.”

(Sorry, too dense to figure out single spacing right now.)

You see anything poetic there? Anything requiring line breaks besides the clauses of each sentence? Any careful wordplay, alliteration, internal rhyme? I don’t. It’s utilitarian prose. There are some nice flights of fancy in this book, but nothing that couldn’t be contained in prose. Some nice metaphors, turns of phrase, digressions.

I’m having a lot of fun with this book, don’t get me wrong. But what annoys me is that I really could have loved a book that actually was a rigorous piece of poetry about packs of werewolves in L.A. Because there’s a nice tension there, see? The constraint of writing within the urbane, civilized, even antiquated constraints of metric, even rhymed verse could have made an ingenious counterpoint to this book so much about the human and the animal within the human which we all live with. I could even have gone for sections of verse broken up with sections of prose, Shakespeare-style. I’m afraid Barlow wanted this kind of effect, but was either too lazy or too scared to go whole hog. Instead he just broke his sentences up into lines. Too bad, really.

I’m one of those people that thinks what we need in literature (insofar as “we” need anything, overall) is more constraint. I’m an OuLiPo fan, in other words. I adore books written without the use of the letter e. I admire fantastically elaborate linguistic or structural puzzles embedded in novels. I love poetry marrying  torturous demands to gorgeous language.

Shakespeare’s the summit of literature for a reason, right? I mean, mostly because he was a genius, and would have been a genius whenever he lived. But partly, I insist, it’s because he lived at a time that demanded that he place constraints on his passions; that he write his dialogue in iambic pentameter, that he create words to fit that meter, that he structure couplets to end his scenes, that he conform to the rigors of the sonnet and only occasionally take liberties. Shakespeare’s great lines, soliloquies, and speeches would simply not be were it not for his operating within these structures. This is the genius of the OuLiPans. It’s only when we limit the set that things get interesting; structureless freedom in art leads to a multiplicity of tempting, horrible choices (see Art Scene, Contemporary American).

Lawyers, Wolves, and Bridge

April 16, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Sharp Teeth, by Toby Barlow.

This is the werewolves-in-L.A. novel, written in verse, that I mentioned a while back.  My favorite subplot so far involves two of the werewolves in a pack led by a cutthroat lawyer named Lark.  The wolves are sometimes like dogs, sometimes wolves, sometimes human; Barlow’s not your typical genre writer in that he’s fairly disinterested in the specific mechanics of such things.  Anyway, Lark teaches them all bridge, trying to sniff out a player who seems to have an interest in dogfights.  The two wolves who seem to have a talent for the game get sent to a tournament in Pasadena, playing little old ladies and such.  Great conceit, there.

If this isn’t a novel inspired by Warren Zevon songs, I don’t know what is.

The Combination to Unlock the Vault of My Heart

February 1, 2008 § 3 Comments

So between books is the time when I engage in that futile attempt to catch up with the magazines we subscribe to. (We only get 4 or so; somehow I am always behind by 4-6 months. I have no idea how I do this.) Reading Nick Hornby’s column in a Believer from a few months ago, I came across this: a novel, in blank verse, about werewolves in Los Angeles. And one of the epigrams, sez (probably-compensated-or-even-employed-by-the-book’s-publisher) Amazon reviewer Alexander Chow-Stuart, comes from Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London”–a song (and singer) I unabashedly, unironically, unequivocally adore. Apparently this book was, serendipitously, just released in the US. I must have it. Oh yes, I must have it.

So now you know: outlandish formal experiment + classic horror film plot elements + Warren Zevon-inspired author=the combination to unlock the vault of my heart. Use this knowledge only for the good of mankind, please.

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