Saturday, March 21, 2009

Clowntime Is Over


Hicksville by Dylan Horrocks : Excellent comic book, with multiple levels of narration that don’t make it impenetrable but only add to its charm. The story is set in a town in New Zealand where all the citizens either write comic books or talk about them at the local tearoom. It’s one of those quaint villages full of colorful locals who all know each other. We get samples of comics writing from many of the characters, one of which contains this great bit of dialogue: “Perhaps I missed my true vocation when I became a cartoonist… Maybe I was meant to be a mortician… or else Morrissey.” In its evocation of place, Hicksville reminds me a bit of Night Fisher by R. Kikuo Johnson (Hawaii) and Waterwise by Joel Orff (Pacific Northwest, I think? In any case, its Northwestern-ish locale is well conveyed).

Home Land by Sam Lipsyte : Am I not accustomed to books that bend reality to such a great degree for the sake of humor? I forgive it all the time in movies. Well, I’ve warmed up to this, because (1) the underlying tragedies of the reprehensible narrator’s life start to emerge in pieces fairly early on, and (2) a crucial moment in which he proves himself, with unquestionable logic and great emotion, to be the least reprehensible character in the book. If you haven’t forgiven the book’s absurdity by the time his former high school’s former principal engages in sex with a vacuum, it’s time to give up, and I haven’t given up yet. Here’s my favorite line: “I’d hopped the bus out there to perv on rich wives from Tobias Hills, drop in on Roni’s mother at Slice of Life, cop some snatches of what contemporary amnesiacs call punk rock on those consoles at the record outlet.” Specifically the last part.

No mystery why Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train is such a “seminal text,” if a work of rock criticism can be so named. Just call it an established classic, I guess. The best compliment I can give it is that I now want to start listening to The Band (couldn’t shake the feeling he was actually writing about Fleet Foxes in that chapter) and Randy Newman, and at the same time know that they won’t live up to Marcus’s descriptions. He writes with such authority, which only bothers me when the subject is Sly Stone or Newman’s slave ship fantasy “Sail Away.” If you’re going to start a sentence with, “Young black men began to imitate the movies,” at least insert a “some” or a “maybe” at the beginning. But then, I’ve always been apologetic in my writing.

Other recent reads:

The Strange Case of Edward Gorey by Alexander Theroux : Not very informative Gorey biography, though I suppose it’s the best we’ll ever get. It works fairly well as a character sketch, but is mostly just an endless list of the man’s varied interests. Most of the sentences follow this construction: He liked ____, and also _____! Fill in the first blank with a work of high art, and the second with some low culture junk. The novels of Anthony Trollope and Days of Our Lives? Yep, he liked both of them.

Speaking of, the remainder of Amphigorey was wonderful. I agree with Theroux’s estimation of Gorey as a writer of realism; a story called “The Willowdale Handcar,” in which three bored young people go riding off on a handcar, have some modest adventures, and never return, could not ring truer, in any of its details or in overall effect.

Girl Factory
had a characteristically great ending, an unexpected indictment of the American prison system wrapped up in the narrator’s plea to remember his sad tale.

Haunting my bookshelf:

Early William Maxwell novels; Dennis Lehane’s The Given Day; Jonathan Coe’s The Rotters’ Club; William Kennedy’s Ironweed; the rest of James Baldwin; Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin. Can anyone recommend any of these? Is John Wray’s Lowboy as great as they say? Why am I such an undisciplined reader these days? Why do all these authors have such unspectacular names?

Happy birthday to occasional blog commenter Aaron (I still feel guilty for forgetting earlier).

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

March (Beware)


Girl Factory by Jim Krusoe : 2008 novel that initially seems to come from the McSweeney’s school of funny premises (women suspended in yogurt), but then, like the comics of Jason, takes that premise to examine some slippery moral questions and the big themes of life and death. Krusoe is very good at a number of things:

—Creating a system of metaphors (mostly involving yogurt) that is determined by the unlikely images within the story, so that a crayon drawing that looks like “claw marks on the inside of a jar filled with yogurt” 1) is a functional, not outlandish, metaphor, 2) keeps the story tightly knit, and 3) is very funny.

—Mocking the clumsy exposition (those moments when the narrator goes into a trance to remember some detail of his past), functional dialogue (“Instead, I propose that we all stay behind, and you try to take a nap”) and fetishistic detail (the father’s death scene, in which every image lays the pathos on real thick) of more “serious” writing by indulging in them himself for the sake of discomfort and/or humor.

—Also: long sentences; crosscutting for ironic effect

It’s not all cute tricks, though. The narrator, for all his psychosis, never seems like anything but a normal, and one who cares very deeply about animals. It is very affecting when those mice die, and then the rat, and then all those women, as he bungles it again and again, and even more affecting when he lists all of the dead in one especially masterful long sentence.

Amphigorey by Edward Gorey :
A collection of short works by the man who first entered my consciousness under the category of “famed children’s illustrator.” What I’ve read so far doesn’t seem especially intended for children. One of the pieces features limericks about subjects as diverse as a group of hairy Harvard men burning a fairy and a woman who feels she has become unsexed (Gorey’s word, not mine). The best, though, is one called “The Unstrung Harp,” about a novelist in the process of writing his new book. I read it just before beginning my own writing last week, and laughed in recognition (that old thing) a number of times: when he ponders how to insert exposition into a completely unrelated scene; when he moves through the house, with his permanently petrified expression, picking up loose objects before putting down a sentence. Later, the author is embarrassed to find his book sitting in a shop window; that and other modest skewerings of the publishing process seem to be sadly perfect, little as I know about it.

Mystery Train by Greil Marcus : Marcus is the epitome of the 1970s American rock critic, so no surprise that this book is so male-centric. Its subtitle is “Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll,” and while I don’t think Marcus believes that women haven’t contributed any worthwhile images of their own, there is a curious absence. That caveat aside, it really is a shame that this sort of writing is a lost art today. I’ve read so far Marcus’s musings on Robert Johnson and The Band; he digs deeply into the lyrics, the landscape, packs in the literary allusions, and still writes in a way that feels more perfectly suited for a rock mag than an academic journal.

One more caveat: Marcus says in the forward that he is writing about connections in the American imaginary that already exist, not merely synthesizing his own interests, but really, I believe it is more the latter. I don’t see how Randy Newman and Sly Stone inherently belong together

Other recent reads:

Searching for Robert Johnson by Peter Guralnick : I guess any book about Robert Johnson benefits from the inherent fascination of the Johnson mythology, though this one struck me as very well done, especially in the way it describes the greater relevance of his work. Guralnick writes that Johnson “was suddenly elevated to significance by an act of creative will, by a synthesis of all he knew, of all he ever was to be,” and while that may be overstating it, it is the same sort of thing (in the same hyperbolic terms) that I’ve recently been writing about. This book proved relevant to my own “short novel,” and surprisingly so, in a number of ways: thinking about a time when musical discovery could take place in a void; thinking about the rudimentary ways music was recorded in bygone eras.

We Disappear
continued to seem like a book I might write, and that sense of kinship with the author (reinforced by his blog) was more satisfying than the story itself. It lost some of its interest toward the end, but as a tribute to Heim’s mother it is very touching.

Little as I’ve been reading, the best writing I’ve encountered recently is from the best comedy of recent years, Tropic Thunder, which I watched again the other day. I transcribed my favorite scene, for my personal amusement and for easy reference. I’ve labeled the actors 1, 2 and 3, as it seems somehow improper to be absolute about their names. Here it is:

1: You gonna focus up now motherfucker and say it. “It’s me, Tugg.”
2: It’s me, Tugg.
1: That’s right, now Tugg who?
2: Tugg who? I don’t know, who are you?
1: Me, I know who I am. I’m a dude playin’ a dude disguised as another dude. You’re a dude that don’t know what dude he is.
2: Or are you a dude who has no idea what dude he is and claims to know what dude he is by playing other dudes?
1: I know what dude I am.
2: You’re scared.
1: I ain’t scared. Scared of what?
2: Or scared of who?
1: Scared of who?
2: Scared of you.
3: What’s going on?
2: The dudes are merging.

I’ve long thought that “the dudes are merging” is the sure-thing catchphrase that never was, but watching the movie a second time, I’m pretty sure I heard it as “the dudes are emerging.” “Emerging” is funny enough, but not nearly as funny as “merging,” so I stubbornly insist that the latter is still the proper reading.