Melancholia

January 22, 2013 § Leave a comment

Finished: The Fifty Year Sword, by Mark Z. Danielewski.

Reading now: 20 Lines a Day, by Harry Mathews; Vertigo, by W. G. Sebald.

I find myself with shockingly little to say about T50YS.  Lovely, and I enjoyed it, but I found it rather more gimmicky and full of design-for-design’s-sake than the two “novels.”  I look forward to another book-length work from Danielewski.  (All the same, though, I’m still giddy that my parents got me the signed limited edition that comes in the five-latched box.  Nice to have a pretty, menacing object on the shelves.)

Mostly, I’m full of *FEELINGS* thanks to Sebald and Mathews.  Sebald I expected this from.  The possibility of bawling and/or hysterically laugh-sobbing comes with every page, and the second section of Vertigo, “All’estero,” is filling me with equal parts the quintessentially Sebaldian sense of uncanny melancholy, delighted wonder, and the weird pressure you get behind your eyeballs from too much emotion trying to spill out.  Here, he’s moved from Freud’s Vienna to Mann’s Venice to Pisanello’s Verona, where he encounters incredibly bad omens.  A pizzeria with the proprietors listed as “Cadavero Carlo e Patierno Vittorio.”  Cadavero?!

The man’s words seem to make me a mess for reasons as yet unclear.

Mathews, on the other hand, I also dearly love, but I didn’t expect such emotional investment in a book of writing exercises and journal entries, ostensibly written as starters to heavier labor of working on his novel-in-progress in the early 1980s.  The book opens with a few very lovely and very sad entries, from St. Bart’s of all places, preoccupied with the recent death of Georges Perec.  One, in which the wind is treated as a kind of didactic metaphor, or literal “plot” device, or neither, or both, is a kind of masterpiece of very short memoir or prose poetry.  He then moves on to his time teaching in New York, and a series of entries featuring “Billy Bodega” as an alter ego for Mathews himself are troubling, touching, and somewhat tricksy in their confessional tone.  Nevertheless, they kind of make me want to curl up in a ball, too.

I have a new theory that January and February are the months in which a person changes the most, precisely because they are the months when little is happening in day-to-day life.  I may have made a mistake, reading these books in January.  I’m loving them both but didn’t expect such a strong reaction to them.  Here’s hoping for plenty of sunshine this week.

Top Ten of the 2000s, and New Year’s Reading Resolutions

January 3, 2010 § Leave a comment

I don’t read a ton of hot-off-the-presses contemporary literature, but I suppose I read enough to have a top-ten list. Herewith, my top ten books of the past decade, as originally presented in our Christmas letter this year:

10. The Raw Shark Texts, by Steven Hall.  A seriously entertaining mindbender, not the most original or avant-garde work I’ve ever read, but an extremely well executed piece of postmodern lit, with a ton of hidden goodies for obsessives to find online to continue the story if they so choose.  (Published in 2007, read in 2008; see four posts beginning here.)

9.  Pieces of Payne, by Albert Goldbarth.  I love Goldbarth’s poetry, and this lyrical novel of fragments, digressions, tangents, and footnotes is just awesome.  Goldbarth’s something of an alchemist, and his linking of the microcosm and the macrocosm, the human to the natural, the high to the low, the tragic to the comic, are perhaps not unparalleled in American literature, but he does it better than anyone I know.  (Published in 2003, read in 2006.)

8.  Consider the Lobster and Other Essays, by David Foster Wallace.  I am not one of the people who think DFW’s essays are superior to his fiction.  I think they are verifiably not as good, in fact; I just think people who are not passionate devotees of DFW set the bar of literary excellence lower for essays, and therefore think of his essays as “better” than other published essays in a way that they do not think of his fiction as “better” than other published fiction.  “Up, Simba” remains one of the great and most important pieces of creative nonfiction published in the 2000s.  It’s too bad his piece on Federer was published later; that is one of the great pieces of sports writing of the 2000s.  (Published in 2005, read in 2006.)

7.  after the quake, by Haruki Murakami.  My favorite book by Murakami this decade, a beautiful set of stories.  “Super-Frog Saves Tokyo” is one of my favorite short stories, period, and is a good primer on what’s great about Murakami if you’re looking for a place to start (and don’t want to commit to a novel).  We were lucky enough to see an adaptation of stories from this book at Steppenwolf in Chicago.  (Originally published in Japanese in 2000, U.S. edition published in 2002, read in 2003.)

6.  Magic for Beginners, by Kelly Link.  I am somewhat surprised to find four short-story collections on my list, because I’m always thinking that I don’t read enough short stories.  But this was a great decade for the short form, and also a great decade for playing with genre.  Link is the reigning champion of the “interstitial” or genre-defying or genre-appreciating-and-transcending story.  This is the best example of same which I’ve read yet, and I think the explosion of interstitial lit was one of the coolest trends of the decade.  Here’s hoping it keeps gaining momentum, and that Kelly Link writes a novel or ten.  (Published in 2005, read in 2006.)

5.  The Secret Life of Puppets, by Victoria Nelson.  I’ve raved about this before; there are at least 10 great books I’ve read since reading this just because they sounded so damned fascinating in Nelson’s book.  A great, great piece of literary and cultural criticism.  Caves, mannequins, automatons, and horror films will never seem the same to you.  An impassioned defense of the irrational, the surreal, and the uncanny in art and in life.  Seriously.  Pick it up.  (Published in 2001, read in 2004.)

4.  Pastoralia, by George Saunders.  Proud to say I’ve been a fan since the beginning.  The best satirist working today, and I personally think this is his best book so far.  Another writer who could do with stretching out and trying a novel; it’s time, isn’t it?  The title novella may be the funniest thing I read all decade, and an absolutely perfect snapshot of America at the turn of the century.  (Published in 2000, read in 2002.)

3.  American Gods, by Neil Gaiman.  The most entertaining book of fiction published this decade, period.  I will accept no other answers.  (And Gaiman’s got a good claim to Writer of the Decade status, when you stack it all up.)  A book that felt as though it were written as a gift to me, by a great friend who happens to be a genius, from a blend of transcripts of my dreams, short stories I’d written, and ideas I’d tossed out at 2 a.m. in dormitory bull sessions.  Of course, it made me jealous as hell, but at least it convinced us to go to the House on the Rock.  I am sure the inevitable movie franchise will be a gigantic success in 2015 or whenever it finally gets made. (Published in 2001, read in 2003.)

2.  Oblivion, by David Foster Wallace.  It will never cease to piss me off how this book was dismissed as DFW stuck in a rut, or a step backward, or whatever.  Total bullshit, written by lazy, conceited, and/or envious reviewers.  I think the fact that “Mister Squishy,” probably the most challenging story in the collection, is the first, had something to do with that: probably an editorial mistake, setting the wrong tone for said lazy reviewers.  “The Soul Is Not a Smithy” and “Good Old Neon” are masterpieces — not just of form, or execution, or craft: of feeling, of connection with the reader, the lack of which was the supposed knock on DFW.  You cannot read those stories and tell me he wasn’t progressing as a writer.  Whatever; the stories will live on in anthologies forever, if there’s any justice.  (Published and read in 2004.)

1.  House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski.  He’ll never top this, I’m afraid.  Hardly a week goes by that I don’t pull this off the shelf and think about rereading — but I’m a little scared.  The perfect storm of fear, paranoia, domestic turmoil, technological and textual overload: the book of the Horror Decade.

So that’s my list.  Now, looking forward: my friend Danelle is starting a project to read twelve books this year which she’s been putting off for years, and inviting others to join in.  I’m game!  So here’s my list of long-neglected hopefuls for 2010, in the order in which they occurred to me:

  1. Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell
  2. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon
  3. GraceLand, by Chris Abani
  4. Everything and More, by David Foster Wallace
  5. The Gambler, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  6. Speak, Memory, by Vladimir Nabokov
  7. The Ring and the Book, by Robert Browning
  8. Coriolanus, by William Shakespeare
  9. Mulligan Stew, by Gilbert Sorrentino
  10. The Divine Husband, by Francisco Goldman
  11. Poems, by Emily Dickinson
  12. Possession, by A.S. Byatt

My two alternates, should I give up on any of these, are South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami and Tales of the Unexpected by Roald Dahl.

Top Fives for 2009

December 31, 2009 § Leave a comment

Just like last year, here are lists of my top five recent/lesser-known books read in 2009, and top five books read overall in 2009, including classics.

First, the recent/lesser-known list:

5.  Only Revolutions, by Mark Z. Danielewski.  A truly astonishing book/performance art piece.  I suppose I should really have it higher, but it’s like rating Finnegan’s Wake: it barely fits into the same category as other works of fiction.  Certainly worth experiencing, but not exactly a beach read.  (See my four posts beginning here.)

4.  The Savage Detectives, by Roberto Bolaño.  The second-most-exhausting book I read this year (see above), but much more readable.  Astounding and encyclopedic in the Melvillean senses.  It makes me both look forward to and dread reading 2666, which will surely eat up most of a summer’s worth of reading either this year or next.  (See three posts beginning here.)

3.  Atmospheric Disturbances, by Rivka Galchen.  A really cool book about doppelgangers, the weather, paranoia and other delusional states, marriage, and how these things all fit together.  It’s one of those books that doesn’t necessarily knock your socks off as you’re reading it, but sticks with you for weeks after you’ve finished.  (See two posts beginning here.)

2.  The Interrogative Mood, by Padgett Powell.  I didn’t write about this for professional reasons, but speaking completely impartially, this book kicks ass.  A series of questions — odd and banal, rambling and terse, hilarious and deadly serious — addressed to the reader by either the author or a slightly unhinged narrator, depending on how you choose to read it.  It gets under your skin; you actually start pondering your responses to these bizarre rhetorical inquiries; you start examining your life, which is one of the things literature is supposed to help us do, after all.  (I actually considered posting my responses to every question until I realized that this would take me weeks to accomplish and I would be revealing some seriously embarrassing things.)

1.  Ms. Hempel Chronicles, by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum.  I’m not sure if Bynum is underrated or overlooked or what, but she should be getting press, after only two books, as one of the great writers working in America today.  This slim little book, a series of stories about the titular seventh-grade teacher, is moving like The Savage Detectives is never moving.  It is gorgeous and thoughtful and it says something that my favorite book of the year is more or less realist literature.  If only all realism were this well done.  (See post here.)

And now for my list including classics:

5.  The Interrogative Mood, see above.

4.  White-Jacket, or, The World in a Man-of-War, by Herman Melville.  Currently neck-and-neck with Pierre for second place on my personal list of Melville’s best books.  A dry run of sorts for Moby-Dick, but quite a successful book on its own terms, as Melville finds his rhetorical voice and rails against injustice in the Navy in some particularly effective passages.  The balance between narrative and digression is not quite there in the way it is in M-D, but it’s close.  (See three posts starting here.)

3.  Ms. Hempel Chronicles, see above.

2.  Villette, by Charlotte Brontë.  Just a fascinating work on every level, including its treatment of genres and its status as a post-Gothic feminist work.  Lucy Snowe is one of the great Victorian characters and one of the great Victorian narrators.  (See five posts beginning here.)

1.  The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, by Jan Potocki.  It amazes me that this incredible book, enveloped in layers of mystery in both the narrative itself and the history of its writing and publication, is not better known.  (Obviously that’s what happens when you happen to be a Polish nobleman writing in French.)  Exoticism, eroticism, colonialism, metafiction, writing within, across, and between genres, stories within stories within stories, secret societies — it’s tricky and weird and obviously too interesting to be taught in Lit classes though you can teach anything and everything from it.  It helps that I read a lot of it while on a fun vacation to the Pacific Northwest (thanks again, Spiff!); I always remember books I read while traveling.  (See six posts starting here.)

So those are the lists this year; perhaps I’ll post my top-ten of the decade in January.  In the meantime, here’s wishing you happy reading in 2010.

Two Bluebeards, Four Passages

September 7, 2009 § Leave a comment

Just finished: A Child Again.

Well, I had grand plans to do a whole comparison of Coover’s Bluebeard retelling, “The Last One,” with Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber.”  It’s interesting how Coover chose to use the first-person perspective of Bluebeard himself, while the child bride narrates Carter’s early-twentieth-century update; and the treatment of Bluebeard’s twisted psychology in each is worth considering, and their varying depictions of sex and sexuality; and their endings differ in useful ways, pedagogically speaking; but I find it hard to compare anything to Angela Carter.  It’s not really Coover’s fault — just about any other retelling would seem facile by comparison.

So I’ll just say: read “The Bloody Chamber.”  And if you’re going to pick up A Child Again, here were my four favorite stories (besides “McDuff on the Mound,” discussed previously), with favorite passages from each:

-“Punch.”  Yes, narrated by Punch the puppet, going through his show.

It’s not that easy, you villain, says the hangman with a cruel laugh.  Prepare to meet your Maker.  I already know him, says I.  He’s a drunken wanker.  That’s enough now, Mister Punch, just put your head in here.  I’ve never done this before, says I.  I don’t know how.  Show me.  He does and I jerk the rope and hang him.  There’s nothing to it.  He’s dancing on air.  I whistle a little tune.  The mob loves me for it.  I’m a fucking hero.

-“Playing House.”  Which is creepily reminiscent of House of Leaves, and also its own very strange thing, about dark and light, story and reality.

Once there was a house, goes another story we have heard, called the House of Anxiety, in which the corridors all led onto other corridors, provoking ceaseless motion without respite, the rooms all trapped somehow between, if in fact there were any.  The story says there were, but how can a story know?  We suppose these rooms exist in a story where they do not exist simply because a house qua house is unimaginable without them.  We call it the Fallacy of A Priori Judgment.  Still naming things.

-“The Return of the Dark Children,” which I’ve mentioned before: a great story, a perfectly timely sequel to the Pied Piper tale.

And at home, in their rooms, when the children played with their dolls and soldiers and toy castles, the dark children with their mysterious ways now always played a part in their little dramas.  One could hear them talking to the dark children, the dark children speaking back in funny squeaky voices that quavered like a ghost’s.  Even if it was entirely invented, an imaginary world made out of scraps overheard from parents and teachers, it was the world they chose to live in now, rather than the one provided by their loving families, which was, their parents often felt, a kind of betrayal, lack of gratitude, lost trust.

-“Suburban Jigsaw,” a puzzle-story about serial fornication in the suburbs (if you’re going to write about this, might as well make a game of it).

Capricious.  Malicious.  Vicious.  Delicious.  Perverse.  Curse.  Verse.  Or worse.  Gross.  Eros.  Is that a rhyme?  Hmm.  A dose is.  Verbose.  No, she is not verbose.  She’s ribald.  He scribbled.  Improper.  A showstopper.  A whirly girly.  Illicit.  So, kiss it.  Don’t miss it.  Obscene Irene.  Lean and mean.  She’s offbeat.  Indiscreet.  Street meat in heat.  Rick is sitting all alone beside Lily’s pool like the period at the end of a sentence, tripping (ripping? flipping?) on her little pills and searching for the right words (it’s easy, they’re flying all about him) to describe the crazy creature from the corner bar for a lyric he is writing, probably not for the Sunday supplement.

Five Favorites, Five Mysteries from Only Revolutions

July 20, 2009 § 1 Comment

Just finished: Only Revolutions.

Okay, enough attempts at coherent thought: let’s do some lists on this soggy, boggy monster!

Five favorite things about the book that I haven’t discussed yet:

-The call-and-response of plants and animals, coming to life in the first half of each narrative and dying in their turns (boldface turned to gray).  The pronouncements about them maybe forming a kind of Whitmanian choral voice of “the land,” and an ecological message.  This is also one of the elements that seems to indicate that Sam and Hailey are more than human: symbols, but also perhaps gods — of nature and technology?

-The 10th section, p. 73-80, S&H’s adventure in New Orleans.  I love any epic poem which makes room for two different lists of pies.  Also love how this section leads us into the roaring ’20s in Sam’s narrative, and through ’68-’69 in Hailey’s: the mix of debauchery and darkness, plus the voodoo sexuality of The Creep (see below).

-HONEY.  I love honey.  When I worked for a food broker in Chicago, I got to know about the different grades and varieties, and totally fell in love with the stuff.  (As I told Jaime the other day: people should care less about wine and beer and more about cheese and honey.)  Here, it functions as something like ambrosia: the food of the gods, powering Sam and Hailey’s love.  Its gold color, the fact that it is one of the only foods which never spoils, that it is a completely natural product which requires husbandry rather than slaughter, and of course its relationship to stinging bees: it all seems perfect.  (I must say I’m baffled as to why they always have a half-jar left in their stash, though.)

-The mindbending, slapstick St. Louis center.  Especially the use of St. Louis’s awesome street names like Chouteau (although I was sad he didn’t use Kingshighway).  And throughout, the poetry of American place: “Mishishishi” (the S&H-centric spelling of Mississippi), Nauvoo, Hannibal, Keokuk.

-The language itself, with its loose poetry of rhymes and rhythms and portmanteau words, is often amazing.  A (less than amazing, but representative) example, from a random opening, and incorporating those place names I love: “Confined to no loss.  Beyond stops we all/ toss.  Because we’re emergent.  Allways divergent./  Down shifting only when we reach La Crosse.”  (As a footnote, I also really loved the use of allone and allways: allone, especially, really added something to the meaning of alone for me.)

And then five things I’m fairly baffled about:

-The Creep.  The villain of the piece, and I guess it’s possible to just see him/her/it as something like the twirly-mustache-black-cape figure of melodrama, but there actually is something creepy about him.  The book felt most like House of Leaves to me in his sections: the purple-pink in which his name appears somehow leaving you with this dread akin to some of the colored words and typographic effects in HoL.  He is described in such mysterious ways: he might be simply a concentrate of dark American impulses towards taking what we want when we want it, or a sort of “dark side” of Sam and Hailey, or something else entirely (in my brief dabbling on the OR forums on Z’s website, I came across a thread suggesting Creep might be the destructive aspect of Sam/Hailey in the other’s narrative.  Interesting, but I remain baffled.)

-“Flash, searing lime to wide.”  Wha?  I guess it’s the lightning to the “ThUuuUuunder” on the opposite side of the page.  But why lime?  Why wide?  And why the lightning/thunder at all?  I appreciate the assonance, and the attempt (maybe?) at the effect of really bright lightning on the backs of your eyelids.  It just seems so out of context whenever it appears.

-The small circles in the corners of a few pages.  These are black circles with gold or green “irises”, or near the end of each narrative, the book’s symbol of two lines in a circle.  Never really got my mind around what these were meant to indicate, except (perhaps) a restarting of the narrative for the two-line-circle symbol.

-The Leftwrist Twists.  Either watches or bracelets, made of materials from “Shit” to “Gold”; since the book itself is a timepiece of sorts, these are perhaps just a reflexive way of pointing to that fact.  Again, though, the frequent references to these are dropped into the narrative in a jarring, seemingly random (but surely not) way of which I could never quite seem to grasp the full significance.

-The marriage and consummation.  Somehow I’ve gotten through all this without discussing the sex.  It seems so out of step with the whole tone of the rest of the book that Hailey only comes, and Sam only refrains from withdrawing, after their marriage.  Why is this marriage necessary?  Is Z actually trying to say something about responsibility, abstinence, “safe sex,” or is it a contrivance to discuss prohibited forms of marriage in America, or a way to link to Romeo and Juliet, or what?  I think it does have to do with S&H committing to each other — valuing the other over the self — but for some reason the marriage bothered me, in such a heightened, stylized, idyllic work.

Haleskarth, Contraband, Samsara, Samarra

July 19, 2009 § 1 Comment

Just finished: Only Revolutions.

I feel like I’ve been rather too crabby about the book in my previous posts.  It undeniably gets bogged down after the escape from St. Louis, around p. 220,  after the truly amazing and hallucinatory effect of the center of the book, when both sides of the narrative on each page mirror each other as well as mirroring the other half of the narrative retreating away into the other half of the book — it’s really wonderful, a genuine delight.  (It made me giggle.) From 224 or so to p. 312, it’s a slog.

But from then on, it’s a bloody miracle.  (You should probably stop reading this if you want to go into the book without knowing how it ends.)  The urgency and passion of the language in those last 8 sections is astonishing.  Somewhere along the line you realize you’ve been reading Romeo and Juliet again, only it’s as if Shakes had written R&J after King Lear. Just… heartbreaking.

And theoretically, at least, we’re unsure what has happened in the end, but then we’ve been bludgeoned over the head with the fact that the book is a circle — so conveniently it’s right there, on the flip-side of the final page.  And those mysterious first lines begin to make a kind of sense.

For Sam it’s “Haloes!  Haleskarth!/ Contraband!”  “Haloes”  neatly combines circularity with death-imagery and saintliness; “Haleskarth” is an obsolete word meaning “free from injury” (thanks, OED); “Contraband” is a tricky one with an obvious meaning which doesn’t make much sense.  Since Sam’s narrative starts in the middle of the Civil War, “contraband” has a very specific slang meaning at the time: a fugitive slave was contraband.  Is Sam “contraband” in that he’s escaped from the enslavement of death, or in that he feels himself as “smuggled” out of the grave into a new life?  Or is he (also) an actual fugitive slave — is that his role at the book’s opening?

Hailey begins with “Samsara!  Samarra!/ Grand!”  (Notice each begins their narrative with the other’s initial, and that second-line cross-narrative rhyme.)  “Samsara” is, in Indian philosophy, “the endless cycle of death and rebirth to which life in the material world is bound” (thanks again, OED).  “Samarra” is a kind of garment to be worn by those burned at the stake during the Inquisition, but it could also be a reference to An Appointment in Samarra: a commonplace for the inevitability of death.  “Grand!” could have some meaning of which I’m unaware, but I think it’s mostly just an exclamation of delight and surprise.

From these obscure meanings and their place at the beginning/rebeginning of the narratives, we can reread the early sections as a kind of reimmersion in life for both reborn characters: from these early indications that they know they’ve been reborn to their early characterizations as deities or earth-spirits of sorts, to their reimmersion in human life, to their conjoined lives and their love of one another, their placing another’s needs before their own.  Is it this that allows rebirth?

Everyone and the Dream

July 18, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Only Revolutions.

Reading next: We Always Treat Women Too Well, by Raymond Queneau.

Here’s a fact smuggled into the copyright page of Only Revolutions: the book has a descriptive subtitle.  It is The Democracy of Two Set Out & Chronologically Arranged.

The Democracy of Two: and right away, we are invited to view the work as an American allegory, something like The Pilgrim’s Progress.  (Side note: as a kid, when I first heard of that work, I thought it was funny that its author was named Bunyan, like Paul Bunyan.)  Plus one of the characters is named Sam, as in Uncle Sam.  And Sam and Hailey refer to themselves as “US,” in caps, throughout.

Then there’s one of the more compelling motifs in the work: the phrase “Everyone [verb]s the Dream but I [verb] it.”  The first time it appears in each narrative, in the fifth line, it is “Everyone loves the Dream but I kill it.”  And so we’re led to believe that “the Dream” is the American Dream.

But what’s the American Dream?  The meaning and its application are as fluid as everything else in this book, but Sam and Hailey, these apparent stand-ins for America, are constantly framing themselves as in opposition to it or outside of it: they’re eternal teenagers, after all (“allways sixteen,” in the book’s phrasing), with teenagers’ typical reflexive insistence on “individuality,” on rebellion against whatever’s there to rebel against, with no real examination of whether the status quo is worth rebelling against, or whether their rebellion takes worthwhile forms.

Then again, America is supposed to be the place where you are free to pursue happiness whatever it may be: the status quo is there precisely to be challenged, to be shown that definitions of liberty, happiness, and reasonable conduct as codified in such things as laws, business practices, and the arts become ossified and need constant reevaluation.  One of the most expertly executed facets of this book is the interplay between the real-world events in the chronological sidebar and the lyrical word-collage of the narrative thread.  Danielewski gets just right the allegorical import of Sam and Hailey’s adventures and the amount of period detail in the main narrative — such that in the two narrations of Sam and Hailey’s attempts at marriage, the 1990s attempt is equated with a homosexual marriage, the 1950s attempt with an interracial marriage.  (That these two marriages, like all of the book’s events, take place in precisely the same place in their respective narratives, thereby reflecting upon each other, is one of the payoffs of the book’s circular structure and repetitive style.  Personally, I found the dual marriages one of the more heavy-handed uses of this pseudo-historical technique, not to mention quite confusing in terms of S&H’s character development, but it works really well as agitprop.)

Freedom is what the Dream often comes down too, and the trickiness of negotiating the limits of that freedom.  Another of the book’s strategic misspellings comes into play: the word fear is here feer, a rearrangement of free.  The progress of Sam and Hailey is fascinating in this light: they are supremely “free” at the book’s beginning, insisting on their abilities to do whatever they want, to destroy and create, to impose themselves on the World: “I’ll devastate the world,” says Sam (Hailey uses “destroy”), “I will sacrifice nothing./ For there are no countries./ Except me.  And there is only/ one boundary.  Me.”  But as they come to know and love each other, this rhetoric softens: there is more “feer,” more concern for the other, less braggadocio and posturing (although it’s interesting to consider whether it is posturing, at the book’s beginning: or are Sam and Hailey also two aspects of a destroyer/creator god: a SHiva, of sorts?)  Freedom is the freedom to fear.

The Decadent Book, or the Book of the Decade?

July 14, 2009 § 1 Comment

Now reading: Only Revolutions, by Mark Z. Danielewski.

I will get into the specifics of what this very strange book might be about and how it might work soon, but first I can’t resist talking about the book itself: its physical form, its extravagant typography and layout, and the experience of reading it.  And in fact, as in all books, but especially in this strange one, that experience is a very large part of its subject and function.

Only Revolutions is a Choose Your Own Adventure: there is no set way of reading it.  Although there is a publisher-recommended way, the reader has to make many choices based simply on the book’s unusual presentation.  There are two title pages, one for the “story” by Sam, the other for Hailey.  The Sam-story and the Hailey-story start from opposite ends and meet in the middle, then go back the other way: the story you’re not reading is always upside-down on the page.  From the jacket flap: “The publisher suggests alternating between Sam and Hailey, reading eight pages at a time.”  They rather strongly suggest that — or, I suspect, Danielewski does — by introducing every ninth page with a large initial letter, intimating a break at the end of the previous page.  (And yes, I’ve followed this suggestion.)  But of course, you can start from either end.  And you can certainly disregard the advice and read all the way through one story, then all the way through the other.

But further, there is also more than one section of text on every page: there’s a main body of varying size and layout which looks suspiciously like verse, but always mostly right-justified on versos and left-justified on rectos.  In the gutter of each page is a sidebar, in small (different) font: a chronology of real-life national and world events, from 1863 to 2005.  (There are also empty sidebars up to 2063.)  These sidebar snapshots can be rather cryptic, given the space restraints and the author’s stylistic preferences: a typical line from World War II reads “6 German saboteurs go” (go being a multivalent word in the book, but very often meaning die).  Many are even less descriptive: a simple number, the meaning of which is only revealed (or not) after later repetitions.  (I hate to do this to someone as cool as Danielewski obviously is, but the device is reminiscent of nothing so much as the wildly popular but, in retrospect, horribly embarrassing Billy Joel boomer anthem “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”)

You can choose to read these and attempt to decipher them or just skim for a sense of time and zeitgeist or utterly ignore them as annoying contrivance, simply acknowledging their perceived use in the book.  But if you do pay attention to them, you can also choose what kind of meaning you wish to assign to them: are they summarizing events contemporaneous with the personal events in the main body of text?  Are they only a kind of symbolic anchoring of the themes of the text in the history of the “real” world?  What is the purpose of the bizarre but rigorously uniform phrasing and syntax and style evident in the sidebars — a cipher or code, or (dare I dream?) a kind of Oulipian game, or merely a sort of literary ticker-tape, or what?

But wait!  There’s more!  The letter “o” and the number zero always appear in green ink in Sam’s narrative, gold in Hailey’s.  The page numbers — two for each page, one for each narrative — appear on the side of the page, in two circles within a larger circle; the numbers rotate 360 degrees around each other through the course of the book.  The sidebar dates appear in a kind of deep magenta.  And the word “creep” (and character The Creep) also appears in a kind of reddish-purple (which may or may not be the same as the date-magenta — I really can’t tell if there’s a difference, because of the different sizes and fonts).  Also, characters’ names (and some important objects) besides Sam and Hailey appear in small caps.  Names of animals in Sam’s narrative, and plants in Hailey’s, appear in boldface (gray boldface in the second half).

Beyond all that, the book features across its boards a gorgeous photographic collage of plants and animals in green and gold and earth-tones, and on its two dust jacket covers extreme close-ups of a green-flecked gold iris and a gold-flecked green iris.  Plus two slightly different jacket blurbs — one for Sam, one for Hailey.  Also, gold and green ribbons, for keeping your place.  And a “concordance” of many overlapping circles of words on both sets of endpapers, to be read in a mirror.

If you’ve read his first book, House of Leaves (a book I utterly adore, and a real candidate for my favorite book of the decade), this is not exactly a surprise — but Jesus, what a load of paratext!  It is tempting to read it as a conceptual poem: more like Kenneth Goldsmith‘s work than Joyce’s, even though Finnegan’s Wake is what first springs to mind as a comparison, in that its existing is as much or more the point as anything it actually says.

That’s an overstatement, because documentation of the process is certainly not the end point of Z’s work, but it leads me to one of the things I find so interesting about the book’s format.  This is a book, published in 2006, and very much about cosmic themes of birth and death and renewal and obsolescence, which is also very much about being a book published in 2006, about what a book might be.  I don’t know how much Z actually thought about the book’s publication/marketing during its composition — while I think writers don’t much like thinking about publishing, I think Z is perforce an exception — but I think the folks at Pantheon/Random House must’ve thought of the book as a way to make “the book” hip again.  I think they had to think of it as futuristic/avant-garde/cutting-edge, for promotional purposes.  And perhaps it is; it certainly would’ve been utterly impossible to commercially produce 20-30 years ago.  But it also strikes me as, possibly, a kind of death-knell: a really remarkable piece of decadent bookmaking, an example of digital typography and layout and contemporary cheap-but-flashy binding run amok, the kind of thing that gets designed and pushed by a really very respectable publisher and nominated for the National Book Award when “the book” is going through a massive identity crisis.

In some ways the book is very book-specific, in that the look of it and the rotation of the book 360 degrees to read the other narrative and the thematic import of its typography and layout are meant to be quite profoundly part of the book’s meaning — its “content.”  In other ways it’s very hypertextual: one of those works moving past the book, which only feels constrained when it’s moved from a screen where it can more fully interact with a reader or “user” to a page.

None of which I mean to detract from the work itself, which is really quite remarkable in many respects.  It just strikes me, when I look at it on the table, and when I hold it in my hand, and when I read its overflowing pages, as being simultaneously a very exciting and very sad thing.  And even though I’ve just spilled a lot of language about it, I’m still not sure I’ve quite captured why that is.

The Art and Science of Travel

July 8, 2009 § Leave a comment

Finished long ago: Autonauts of the Cosmoroute.

Reading now: Only Revolutions, by Mark Z. Danielewski.

I’ve been traveling a lot this spring and summer (hence my very, very intermittent posts) — some for work, some for fun.  Autonauts of the Cosmoroute is a great travel book, although it’s made me itch to do the kind of travel I rarely get to anymore: the unhurried, meditative, purposefully digressive kind.  (Only Revolutions, which so far as I’ve been able to glean is more or less a centuries-long allegorical road trip to no particular place, is not really helping to ease this itch, either.  Come to think of it, The Savage Detectives was also singularly unhelpful.)

In Autonauts, Julio Cortázar and his wife Carol Dunlop spend a month in a VW camper van driving down the French “autoroute,” stopping at every rest stop along the way, two per day, and doing nothing else — seeing “the other autoroute,” the one that does not exist for those who just use it as a means of quickest-possible transport.  It’s the book’s playful, idiosyncratic, and finally bittersweet tone that makes it such a great read.  It’s made up of photos and captions, “travel logs” of meals eaten, “observations” made of the rest stop flora and fauna, short essays on the nature of travel and time and dreams and their journey, and flights of fancy in the style of a  scientific expedition.

(A digression: I’ve always wanted to travel around the country and live out of a homey little camper.  When I was maybe 13 or 14 I read Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley mostly because I found the idea of traveling around in an apartment-truck with your dog more or less irresistible — and the section of the book about Steinbeck getting his truck ready is one of the few things I still remember about it.  That was before I — or most people, really — thought about MPGs or carbon offsetting.)

It’s a book purporting to document the science of travel, but really it’s very much about an art: the art of memory.  If we think of the historical art of memory as Frances Yates examined it, with its imaginary theatres and palaces filled with rooms of memories, travel is like a kind of very elaborate landscaping: the decoration upon which the inhabitants of the palace gaze.  Isn’t travel a kind of device for making and recovering memories?  We all remember vividly our favorite vacations, road trips, destinations.  And while we’re traveling, can’t we see more perfectly than when we inhabit them our homes, and don’t we recall incidents from our lives with greater clarity?

I don’t know about you, but I also remember what I read when I travel much better than things I only read at home.  It must be something about being mentally absorbed in a different place, in unusual surroundings.  Some of my favorite memories are of reading something I love elsewhere: Ray Bradbury on a boat, Tom Jones in a Danish restaurant.  My choice of reading material always seems more important to me if I’m going on a trip.

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