February 19, 2012 § 5 Comments
R.E.M. broke up last year, and I’ve been wanting to write something about them ever since, but I’m just now getting around to it. This may be ridiculous to say at our particular, continually overhyped and hyperventilating historical/cultural moment, but I do feel like the breakup was a bigger deal, in fact, than it was made out to be. R.E.M. was one of the world’s greatest bands. For certain people — mostly (but not all!) white, mostly (but not all!) well educated, mostly (but not all!) creatively inclined — they were paragons. They made art, not product. They cared about beauty and integrity. They cared about not selling out. They were from Athens, not New York, not L.A.
I’m old enough to have cared deeply about R.E.M. when they were at their peak, but not old enough to have caught onto them when they were still under the radar. But if you were listening to music when Out of Time, Green, and Automatic for the People came out, you went back and found the earlier stuff, too. I mean, I went to a small Lutheran boarding high school in Nebraska, and our dorm supervisor had a t-shirt from the Automatic for the People tour. Everyone loved this band. They are now retired as a band (although of course there’s always the possibility of a reunion). They would probably get my vote as the greatest American band, period.
Of course, there was that long trough between New Adventures and Accelerate — those three boring albums after Bill Berry quit the band. But I feel like their last two albums made up for that: these were really great records, overlooked mostly, I think, because R.E.M. had just been around for so long, and they were always going to sell a certain number of albums. R.E.M. embraced their status as elder statesmen on these albums; their songs weren’t preachy, but they often contained a message. The sound seemed to epitomize what people think of when they think of R.E.M.
My favorite song from these two albums is probably “Supernatural Superserious” off of Accelerate, though there are a number of great tracks on Collapse Into Now as well.
This is, to start, just a great song, with that R.E.M mix of chime and jangle with power and hook. I love basically any R.E.M. song that features Mike Mills chiming in on vocals, and this has some lovely harmony/background vocals by him. It also features an especially inspired performance by Michael Stipe: he sounds like he cares on this track. (My least favorite part of the song is probably the somewhat cutesy title. I learn that the Coldplay dude renamed it from its superior working title, “Disguised.” That would explain it.)
There’s a lot going on in these lyrics. It starts with a terrific, epigrammatic first line: “Everybody here comes from somewhere that they would just as soon forget and disguise.” And then we get this knockout verse:
At the summer camp where you volunteered
No one saw your face, no one saw your fear
If that apparition had just appeared,
Took you up and away from this base and sheer humiliation
Of your teenage station
No one remembers and nobody cares
So we have a song about adolescence. A summer camp; a hypothetical, perhaps hopeful “apparition”; teenage humiliation. And this astonishing bit of advice: Nobody cares. No one remembers, and nobody cares. This is like the flip side of “Everybody Hurts”: everyone is disguising something they feel humiliated about. Everyone is too wrapped up in their own dilemmas to care about yours. That summer-camp humiliation? Forgotten. Not worth all the angst. The chorus (“Yeah you cried and you cried/He’s alive, he’s alive/Yeah you cried and you cried and you cried and you cried”) doesn’t sound uplifting based on the lyrics — at all — but it is, especially with those sweet Mike Mills vocals. We have another implication of the supernatural in that repeated “he’s alive”: is “he” Christ? The teenager’s “apparition”?
This first verse and chorus remind me of a story by Reynolds Price entitled “Michael Egerton.” It was written when Price was still a teenager, but Mr. Price seems to have been born something of an elder statesman. It’s a summer-camp tale in which the title character is bullied for missing a championship baseball game, metaphorically “crucified” for his sensitivity. (It also references the folk song “Green Grow the Rushes,” which is of course also an R.E.M. song. Not that I think there was any influence by Price on R.E.M., just a funny coincidence.)
Stipe then builds in references to sexuality, theatricality, and S&M (safe words, chafing “ropes,” “fantasies” dressed up as “travesties”) to complicate these themes of disguise and “humiliation,” leading to a straightforward message: “Enjoy yourself with no regrets.” And that’s as good an encapsulation of R.E.M.’s message as you’re likely to find.
There follows another great verse:
Now there’s nothing dark and there’s nothing weird
Don’t be afraid I will hold you near
From the seance where you first betrayed
An open heart on a darkened stage
A celebration of your teenage station
A seance that’s also a celebration, which was formerly a humiliation: that’s memory, folks. That’s R.E.M.’s past, that’s the past for all of us. You will end up celebrating, reminiscing about, calling up from the dead those events that were once so embarrassing. Enjoy yourself, with no regrets.
In that spirit of celebration, here’s my R.E.M. favorites playlist (not in order of preference, but an order in which I enjoy listening to them — and apologies for whatever annoying ads you may encounter):
- Finest Worksong
- It Happened Today (this has a great video with extended version of the song, by the way)
- Swan Swan H
- You Are the Everything (sadly, no “official” version; this is a near-contemporary live version, and it’s beautiful, but I do miss Mike Mills’s background vocals from the album track)
- Don’t Go Back to Rockville
- Try Not to Breathe
- Man On the Moon
- Cuyahoga (fairly faithful live version, but no substitute for the original. There’s also a very nice cover by the Decemberists here)
- Near Wild Heaven
- Sweetness Follows
- Driver 8
- What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?
- Orange Crush
- Turn You Inside-Out
- Supernatural Superserious
- Undertow (live version, but very close to the album track. Note: I love the New Adventures in Hi-Fi album. It was tough not to include “E-Bow the Letter,” “Electrolite,” “How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us,” and others.)
- Let Me In (there’s also a truly amazing live version from the Monster tour)
- Fall On Me
- Half a World Away
December 24, 2010 § Leave a comment
Now reading: David Copperfield.
My favorite passages from chapters 7 through 12, including David’s adventures at Salem House and Murdstone and Grinby’s:
An unhappy culprit, found guilty of imperfect exercise, approaches at his command. The culprit falters excuses, and professes a determination to do better to-morrow. Mr. Creakle cuts a joke before he beats him, and we laugh at it — miserable little dogs, we laugh, with our visages as white as ashes, and our hearts sinking into our boots.
This passage is the kind of thing you’d be hard-pressed to find in earlier Dickens: the virtuous protagonist taking part in cruelty, the author showing us a fault in the wronged. Another good example is David’s pride he feels in the “dignity attached to [him]” among his schoolmates by the death of his mother. The shift to the first person is part of this — Dickens’ earlier third-person narrators have little heart for showing actual sin, rather than harmless foibles, in their favorites, whereas David himself can more easily admit to wrongdoing. Of course, Dickens qualifies the wickedness by stating that the children laugh because they are afraid (and that David’s pride was nothing to his “sincere grief” at his mother’s death), but this scene of cruel laughter at others’ misfortune startled me. It brings such a terrible, true image to the mind. I suppose it is good and characteristic of David (and Dickens) to blame the laughter on fear and abuse rather than on genuine enjoyment of another’s misfortune.
What yawns and dozes I lapsed into, in spite of all my care; what starts I came out of concealed sleeps with; what answers I never got, to little observations that I rarely made; what a blank space I seemed, which everybody overlooked, and yet was in everybody’s way; what a heavy relief it was to hear Miss Murdstone hail the first stroke of nine at night, and order me to bed!
This, the culmination of a pageful of “what”s on the grinding anxiety, embarrassment, and boredom of David at home with his mother and the Murdstones, brilliantly done. I do not know how large a part the Murdstones play in the later plot of the book; at the moment, after having read the first eighteen chapters, I feel that Dickens may have underestimated the evil that they convey, and could have used them more extensively than they did. They are so malevolent. In keeping with David’s earlier recollection of the acute sensitivity and perception of children to sensations and to emotional states, the bending of Clara and David Copperfield to the Murdstones’ fascistic, petty will makes his life a living hell, simply by his being made into a “blank space,” and by his being made to feel guilty for his mother’s love of him.
The work being now finished, the two girls, whose names I had not heard, brushed the shreds and threads from their dresses, and went into the shop to put that to rights, and wait for customers. Minnie stayed behind to fold up what they had made, and pack it in two baskets. This she did upon her knees, humming lively little tune the while. Joram, who I had no doubt was her lover, came in and stole a kiss from her while she was busy (he didn’t appear to mind me, at all), and said her father was gone for the chaise, and he must make haste and get himself ready. Then he went out again; and then she put her thimble and scissors in her pocket, and stuck a needle and threaded with black thread neatly in the bosom of her gown, and put on her outer clothing smartly, at a little glass behind the door, in which I saw the reflection of her pleased face.
The entire scene at Omer’s funerary shop is utterly remarkable. The three “young women,” the Fates, at work on “black cloth”; the “RAT — tat-tat, RAT — tat-tat, RAT — tat-tat” of hammering outside, eventually revealed to be the hammer of Joram making David’s mother’s coffin; David’s observations of being among these happy, lively “creatures” at work upon death; it’s a work of genius, playing on all of the senses, resonant as mythology, and one of the most remarkable blends of memento mori and dolce vita I’ve ever read.
These offerings of affection were of a most various and eccentric description. Among them I remember a double set of pig’s trotters, a huge pin-cushion, half a bushel or so of apples, a pair of jet earrings, some Spanish onions, a box of dominoes, a canary bird and cage, and a leg of pickled pork.
This list of gifts that Barkis gives in wooing Peggotty displays again Dickens’ gift for lists. Part of it is a delight in everyday things from another time; part of it is the joy in his choice of objects; most of it, I think, is his utter gift for the musicality of language, the flow of vowels and words.
Mr. Micawber had a few books on a little chiffonier, which he called the library; and those went first. I carried them, one after another, to a bookstall in the City Road — one part of which, near our house, was almost all bookstalls and bird-shops then — and sold them for whatever they would bring. The keeper of this bookstall, who lived in a little house behind it, used to get tipsy every night, and to be violently scolded by his wife every morning. More than once, when I went there early, I had audience of him in a turn-up bedstead, with a cut in his forehead or a black eye, bearing witness to his excesses over night (I am afraid he was quarrelsome in his drink), and he, with a shaking hand, endeavouring to find the needful shillings in one or other of the pockets of his clothes, which lay on the floor, while his wife, with a baby in her arms and her shoes down at heel, never left off rating him.
Ah, the book trade. Really, this should probably be the passage in which David shows us one of Mr. Micawber’s creditors yelling at his window from the street, or the description of rat-infested Murdstone and Grinby’s, or the introduction of Micawber’s prison quarters, or just the simple fact of the sublime name “Mealy Potatoes” — but who can resist this scene of the debauched, disreputable bookseller?
“He is the parent of my children! He is the father of my twins! He is the husband of my affections,” cried Mrs. Micawber, struggling; “and I ne — ver — will — desert Mr. Micawber!”
The Micawbers are fascinating, like a trainwreck. Their histrionics, their violent swings from threats of suicide to irresponsible overspending, their insistence of respectability in the worst state of squalor: it’s fascinating, especially when you factor in their basis in Dickens’ own parents. Mrs. Micawber’s fanatical vows of loyalty to Micawber after listing all of the reasons she should leave him smacks of protesting too much, and perhaps of Stockholm Syndrome.
August 1, 2010 § Leave a comment
Just finished: Mulligan Stew.
Reading next: The Lost Books of the Odyssey, by Zachary Mason.
You probably already know this, but I found it helpful to remember that a mulligan stew is hobo food, composed of whatever’s available, thrown together with contributions from different sources. Of course, I imagine it being prepared over an oil-drum fire in a rail yard, while a ragtag group of misfits pass around a bottle of cheap gin and sing “Jimmy Crack Corn.” Standard hobo romanticism.
The title does double duty here: Mulligan reminds us of Buck Mulligan, the “stately, plump” opener of Ulysses, one of the book’s touchstones, in addition to indicating that the book will be a “stew” of various kinds of documents from various sources. More on the Ulysses connection later. For now, let’s focus on the stew.
I propose that what Sorrentino has composed here is not only a stew, but a kind of fictional archive: an assemblage of fictional papers. He encourages us to understand his unhinged character, Antony Lamont, and the characters Lamont “hires,” through documentation, rather than narration, and he further uses that fictional documentation to form a kind of microcosm of a milieu, the “experimental” literary world of the ’60s and ’70s. What differentiates Sorrentino from an epistolary novelist, or a documentary novelist like John Dos Passos, is the variety of unorthodox fictional documents and the uses to which they’re put. There are letters and journals, of course — the very kinds of things one finds in traditional collections of personal papers — and also more esoteric forms which are saved in Lamont’s scrapbook and Halpin’s journal: junk mail, scorecards, pamphlets, a surrealist play, a scientific paper with odd, conversational, tenuously connected footnotes (one of the more mysterious things in the book), and more.
Most obvious, and notorious, are the lists. There are lists in this book that go on for pages and pages, including a seven-pager to close the novel. They are usually used to plant little bits of comedic business, like funny names, pretentious titles, and excessive alliteration; to make literary allusions, including allusions to characters in Mulligan Stew itself; and to indulge in surrealist wordplay or imagery. But they are also, frequently, snapshots of a character. When Lamont’s character Martin Halpin records all of the books and periodicals he finds in his cabin early on, we could read the list as a window into Lamont’s character or (perhaps) his subconscious (a highly contentious reading, as you learn more about the fictional setting later in the novel, but a valid one at the time, and the same can be said for a list that Halpin finds, of bad reviews Lamont’s works have received, with enraged or defensive annotations, which certainly seem to be “written” by Lamont’s imagination or subconscious). We can also read it as a product of its times: of the crazy fecundity of 20th-century publishing, with its vast output of garbage, its undergrounds and avant-gardes, its niche publications and cheap paperbacks.
The lists, finally, become exhausting, in the same way an extensive archive is exhausting: it is difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff, or the signal from the static, and one’s attention finally cannot hold after pages of the same kind of thing over and over again. This seems to me to be a key to understanding Sorrentino, as an experimental critic of experimentalism. His is not only a narrative imagination, but an archival one. He creates a story, but not only a story: also a collection, an archive. He shows us not only the novel-within-the-novel, but also the (ludicrous, delusional) process by which Antony Lamont goes about trying to write this (ludicrous, delusional) novel. The presence of such things is important, even if they are only skimmed.
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.
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.
May 17, 2009 § 1 Comment
Now reading: The Savage Detectives, by Roberto Bolaño.
Jaime warned me that she’d never read a book with more characters than this one. I’m starting to believe this wasn’t an exaggeration.
The first section of this book is an immersion in Latin American poetry and literary history; for someone like me, with little knowledge about Mexican or Latin American literary history, one of the challenges of this book is trying to sort out the real poets given fictional parts — the ones that are supposed to resonate in one way or another with educated readers — from the “purely” fictional poets, the ones created by Bolaño or at least not known to readers. Given how much of the book so far is made up of discussions and mentions and critiques of these poets real and imaginary, I am somewhat amazed that an American publisher had the courage to publish this book, to expect us, the notoriously insular and xenophobic (not to mention vanishing and subliterate) American Reading Public, to care about this flood of narrative about Latin American poetry.
And yet the gist of all of these names is fairly clear: this is the diary of a young man, a young Mexican poet, casting off the shackles of academia to read whatever he wants, to try to live the life he thinks a poet should lead, to talk about poetry and receive recommendations for poets to read, poets he thinks he should already know but does not, poets others seem to take for granted as major figures but whom he’s never heard of. Anyone who’s been in a literature class in college has had this experience, and anyone who’s actually been an English major has had it frequently.
But the names! My God, the names! Bolaño reminds me a lot of Melville at times, in his overindulgence in lists and names, although I’m sure Whitman is probably the more logical influence. The most obvious example is the exegesis delivered by Ernesto San Epifanio in Garcia Madero’s November 22 entry. This section reminds me a lot of the famous “Cetology” chapter of Moby-Dick, which divided whales into groups by size like books. Here, San Epifanio divides literature into sexuality by its form (novels are hetero, poetry homo), and subdivides poetry into many different subcultures: “faggots, queers, sissies, freaks, butches, fairies, nymphs, and philenes,” according to the intent and the effect of the poetry. (Whitman, if you’re wondering, is “a faggot poet.”)
Like “Cetology,” it is satirical; both works are attacking pedantry at some level. In both works you get the sense that the author is very much in on the joke, recognizes the absurdity of these semantic systems they’ve created. However, I’m not sure to what degree San Epifanio himself takes his labeling system seriously; he may be critiquing the splintering and ghettoization and mindless ideological following of the many schools of poetic practice, or he may be a part of that splintering and ghettoization. He may not even know about the satirical content of his classification system; as a homosexual in the macho Mexican 1970s, and a founder of the “Homosexual Communist Party of Mexico,” he may just be trying to queer his literary heritage.
Whatever the case may be, this passage points out the excellent, subtle touch Bolaño seemed to have at letting his book work on multiple levels. It is deceptively simple; it can also be deceptively boring at times. But there’s always a lot going on, even in lists of names I need to feed to Google for verification of identity.