The Dead Fish Museum by Charles D’Ambrosio : These stories, set in the present-day, seem to inhabit some shadowy bygone era of the Pacific Northwest, as if Washingtonians are still living in the blurry, rainy world of McCabe and Mrs. Miller. I love that mood. D’Ambrosio strikes a reverential tone and finds beautiful images in his final sentences in a way that most writers would kill for. His endings don’t blindside you though. They’re the sort of perfection you expect to find every so often, the sort of genius that seems available to everyone—like the melody of a great pop song—but that very few possess.
Astro City: Life in the Big City by Kurt Busiek et al : Busiek says in the introduction that if Watchmen was the deconstruction of the superhero comic, Astro City is the series that put the pieces back together. That’s about right; the fullness and detail of the metropolis are similar, but the tone is flipped, rollicking and freewheeling but sacrificing none of the intelligence of late 80s comixistentialism. The Spirit is another point of reference, in the way that each Astro City story ends with a punchline that signals narrative completion.
Other recent reads:
They Came Like Swallows is another small miracle from William Maxwell, who beautifully captures the strange and inescapable fact of being alive. That may sound like a blurb, but it’s true.
Keyboard Presents The Best of the 80s: The Artists, Instruments & Techniques of an Era is a collection of interviews from Keyboard magazine in the 1980s, in which all your favorite synth pop artists talk about their interests, their gear, their live shows, and more. I read the articles about OMD, Erasure and The Human League, and the common factors in their worldviews seem to be these: rejection of punk rock instrumentation but a desire to channel its energy; interest in synthesizers not for the sake of the technology but because “we like the way they sound,” and because synths allow autonomy and don’t require great musical skill. All valid reasons, but the proof is in the music, and these are three of my favorite bands ever. They didn’t use keyboard presets, but built all their sounds from scratch, and it shows in the warmth of their recordings. Andy McCluskey of OMD made a prediction in 1982 that the synthesizer would become the cliché instrument of the 80s for all the wrong reasons, and he was right.
Note: When my WMCN membership expires, I will have to reconfigure this as a music blog, so it’s good I’ve been writing a lot about music-related books recently.
Other recent curiosities:
“The Pavement Tapes” by Alex Ross originally appeared in The New Yorker in 1997 and can now be found in that very cool Brighten the Corners reissue that came out last year. Ross writes about how the meaninglessness (or the meaningfulness that defies meaning) of Pavement’s lyrics is one of the band’s greatest qualities, which I completely agree with. I rarely listen to lyrics except when I feel the music urging me to (making Brighten the Corners one of the few albums I can quote) or when the message is especially tied to my worldview (The Queen is Dead and Pet Sounds being two more albums I can quote). The sound of the words usually takes precedence over the words themselves, and as Bob Dylan might have said, rock ‘n’ roll’s meaninglessness is holy. But Alex Ross writes about meaning/words/holiness much more eloquently than I.
Basically I’ve just been thinking a lot again about the genius of Pavement. I never noticed until recently how absurdly (and subtly) elaborate their song structures are (did they ever write a simple verse-chorus-verse?), and (as The Man Who Invented Himself and I discovered) how much wisdom is embedded in a song as seemingly random as “Gold Soundz.” You can never quarantine a past. You’re empty, and I’m empty. They’re coming to the chorus now. But I don’t want my appreciation to become too academic, because that would negate the deep feeling I’ve always had for them.
I was sent a William Saroyan story called “Dentist and Patient” with my Beefheart, and found that it reinforced what I love about Saroyan (whose novel The Human Comedy is one of my favorites). This, in a nutshell, is what happens: the patient refers to himself as a cheater to the dentist, but the dentist, unwilling to believe him, fails to realize he has been cheated by the patient. Saroyan has been criticized as a naïve writer, or one unwilling to recognize the existence of evil (in the way that Roberto Benigni’s fictional denial of evil in Life is Beautiful makes the film itself evil (supposedly), or whatever). In “Dentist and Patient,” Saroyan seems to be casting himself as the naïve dentist, celebrating his own ignorant optimism. If evil in the world makes optimism wrong, does good in the world make pessimism wrong?
I finally watched the feminist masterwork True Grit, whose central character is an androgynous lesbian teenager (Kim Darby, my new icon) who recruits an alcoholic marshal (John Wayne) to help avenge her father’s murder. The film doesn’t quite deliver on its initial promise as a playful and progressive Western; Wayne, being such a dominating personality, eventually takes the spotlight, and while it’s a thrill to watch him do any old thing, it’s at the expense of Darby’s own “true grit.” Even so, the film puts most “revisionist” Westerns made in the 40 years since to shame, and has a touching denouement. Wayne and Darby stand by the dead father’s grave, and Darby says that one day she will be buried in this plot, and that she would like Wayne to be buried beside her, as he doesn’t have any family of his own. “But you should be buried next to your husband and children,” Wayne says, and Darby doesn’t respond. Here’s what she wants to say:
“You know I’ll never have a family. This country, in this unenlightened era, won’t let me marry who I want to marry, nor adopt children. You and me, we’re meant to be alone. You, because you’re just a loner, and me, because I like womenfolk. Let’s be each other’s family.”