Friday, June 30, 2006

Literary links round-up

In lieu of my being able to finish any post of substance in a timely manner, here are some recent lit-related blog posts and articles I've enjoyed and/or found interesting:

Waggish compiles a list of authors that seem to appeal to engineers--"left-brain literature". Interestingly, some of the writers listed are among my favorites, including Richard Powers, arguably my favorite living novelist.

Bud Parr on Hobson's Island, by Stefan Themerson, an author I've been drawn to since I first saw his novel Tom Harris, but have not yet read anything by. Speaking of Tom Harris, Bud points to a post about that book by Derik Badman from last year, which I somehow missed or forgot about. Both posts only increase my interest in reading this writer.

Steve Mitchelmore on notebooks and note-taking:
...the book to which all those notes relate would itself have to be written again. So much is left out after all. It too is only almost a book. Note-taking and review writing and essay writing would not be enough. Indeed, writing the entire book again would not be enough. One would need to write many more books in addition to that one. Each line of text evokes a cascade of ideas and associations, each one demanding a book in itself.
Posts like this remind me again why I like reading Steve's blog, This Space: is it too much to say that I find the experience of reading some of his posts not unlike that of reading Walter Benjamin? From another recent one, this from last Saturday (June 24):
However, after reading these novels and trying to recall the details, to sort out the facts, the characters, the digressions and the anecdotes, the sort of thing one imagines make each unique, I was left almost blank. It took a lot of work (notetaking, re-reading) to retrieve an account for an audience. All that's left in my memory after hours and hours of patient reading is the general movement of the story, the sense of its created world, the taste of its atmosphere: in fact, just the reading experience.

But isn't that just more or less everything? It is probably why I am attached to some short stories or novellas as much as I am to standard length novels. They are, in effect, all the same length; they take up the same amount of memory space.

Another of the more literary blogs I enjoy is Ellis Sharp's, The Sharp Side. Today, he discusses John Updike's "figurative language":
But often what seems impressive on a first reading is like [the movie] Big Fish. When you consider it, it seems empty; a box of tricks. As in

His sobs were tangled with loud sighs like the hissing of truck brakes and with the broken words of his attempt to keep talking.

I know exactly what Updike means by the sound that truck brakes make. As he says, they hiss – in a loud, squirty, abrupt, brief sort of way. But a hiss is not a sigh. A sigh is surely something low, closer to a moan or a groan than a hiss. A hiss is high pitched, a sigh is not. I think the simile is more of an attempt to impress the reader with Updike’s cleverness as a technician than something which clarifies or deepens the situation which is being dramatised – an adulterous husband in conversation with his bitter, anxious wife. Updike’s eye is on the reader, not his characters. To me the simile doesn’t ring true.
I mostly skimmed this New York Review of Books piece on Beckett by Tim Parks, largely because I have yet to read Beckett. I bought the fancy new Grove set, and I look forward to finally diving in, soon. I got the NYRB link via Jenny Davidson; not wanting to overly clutter my initial reading of his prose, like her I did read more closely the passages on Beckett's plays, such as this:
But most importantly of all, the theater allows both silence and physical movement to come to the fore in a way they cannot on the page. A blank space between paragraphs simply does not deliver the anxiety of a hiatus in a stage dialogue. Only in the theater, as the audience waits in collective apprehension for the conversational ball— between Didi and Gogo, Hamm and Clov—to start rolling again, could Beckett's sense that any deep truth must be located in something, or nothing, beyond speech come across with great immediacy. Likewise the actors' interminable and pointless movement back and forth across the stage is a more immediate statement than the words of a page-bound narrator telling us of his aimless daily wanderings. When we watch the plays, the impotence of language to explain the characters' experience is powerfully evident. Conversation serves above all to pass the time.
Speaking of Beckett and of Parks' essay, at the blog Anecdotal Evidence, Patrick Kurp has this to say:
Realism is a notoriously sticky Tar Baby of a concept. Most of the theorizing and maundering about what is realistic and what is not seems sterile and unproductive. According to Parks’ unconventional accounting, one I would endorse, Beckett, especially in his later fiction, is a realist, though not in the Flaubertian or Dreiserian modes. We might call it philosophical realism, to distinguish it from literal-minded physical realism:

“Yet [quoting Parks] for all these aggressive experiments one is struck on rereading Beckett that he did not dispense with traditional realism tout court. Throughout his work we come across passages of haunting descriptive power in which we cannot help feeling the author has a considerable emotional investment.”

Reading Beckett’s work, at least from the time he wrote Watt, during World War II, is an emotionally engaging act. We identify with his characters – Watt, Molly, Malone, the Unnamable, Didi and Gogo, Hamm and Clov, Krapp – in a way postmodernists would say is trivial and silly, even impossible. But if Beckett were merely creating clever but ultimately empty word games, only the professors would still be reading him. Even with his abhorrence of sentimentality, Beckett remains a storyteller (anti-storyteller, if you must), and stories are about you and me.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Business as Usual

Using Dara Hunt's novel The World to Come as a jumping off point, Dan Green discusses the ways in which much contemporary fiction does not challenge received ideas on what fiction ought be like:

...if I were an editor beginning to read The World to Come for potential publication, I would almost immediately conclude that it [in Sven Birkerts phrases] "assumes a basic condition of business as usual," that numerous "tired assumptions remain in place," that while the novel does attempt to "create its own world," this attempt comes not from the "threshold," but from a place where fiction is regarded as a set of fixed assumptions and techniques from which is chosen the one that will most efficaciously carry the narrative burden to be placed on it. In this case, Horn doesn't so much lean on the "literature of a former era" (she actually takes this as part of her subject, and her examination of Jewish artistic/literary traditions is one of the more compelling aspects of the novel) as on this set of presently-established conventions, themselves a product of "modern" storytelling practices but, as I have been contending, now urgently in need of reexamination. In invoking the "world to come," Horn's novel is, of course, endeavoring to capture something essential about this world, about our longings and frustrations, but it is impossible to read such passages as the one quoted above without thinking that this is at odds with its very prosaic language and method of character creation, which do depend on customary "props."

This is a common theme of Dan's, but this is one of the few posts I can recall in which he's used a new novel to grapple with them. I believe he's recently expressed a desire to post more about current fiction, as well as fiction in translation; I look forward with great interest to more such posts from him.

When I wrote about Jonathan Coe's novel, The Rotters' Club, I said that he used a variety of narrative techniques and that the novel was entertaining enough. The truth is, I was occasionally bored with it, and this was largely because Coe's prose wasn't terribly inventive and, though Coe tries to shake things up with the differing techniques, none of these techniques is novel in its own right. In the early pages, I found my attention starting to waver because it felt to me that the prose was often merely at the level of a series of "and thens", the main minor novelty for me being that it was more English than American in syntax and vocabulary. I was ultimately able to enjoy the book, for the most part, but I definitely saw it as being outside my main reading focus. It's possible that my greater enjoyment of Coe's earlier novel, What a Carve Up!, is in part due to my having read it earlier in my development as a reader (but I also nevertheless still think it's a much better book).

I have actually read very little of the literature that built these sets of readerly expectations for what fiction should be like. I've read only two novels by Jane Austen, two by Dickens, nothing by James or George Eliot or Fielding or any of the Brontës, none of Tolstoy's novels (though I have read several of his stories), two by Dostoevsky (one of the long ones, one short), one by Flaubert... the list, alas, goes on and on. I consider this a major gap and I have been trying to address it, but slowly, slowly. I've read Mansfield Park, Oliver Twist, Notes from the Underground, and Madame Bovary (not to mention Tristram Shandy!) all in the last couple of years, and have plans to continue to read several more novels of similar vintage mixed in with everything else. The point of this mini-confession, though, is not some sort of self-flagellation, but to say that, even having missed most of the major path-setting works in the genre, I nevertheless still come to a book with a received set of generalized readerly expectations, so that I'm afraid that I haven't always noticed when a writer is following the well-worn path set by previous writers. I mean, hey, the book is (or is not) enjoyable, or well-written, or whatever, and that's just fine (and sometimes it is). Among my reasons for wanting to read the classic novels, other than simply wanting to read great literature, is so that I may better appreciate when writers are doing something new, when they have departed from established modes of storytelling.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Listening - pop edition

It's very late and for some reason I have not collapsed asleep yet. Seems like a perfect time to post the list of pop songs I've been semi-obsessed with lately:

  1. Beyoncé - "Naughty Girl"
  2. Robyn - "Be Mine"
  3. Feist - "Inside and Out"
  4. Annie - "Heartbeat"
  5. Kelly Clarkson - "Since You've Been Gone"
  6. Vitalic - "My Friend Dario"
  7. Nina Sky - "Move Ya Body"
  8. Rihanna - "Pon de Replay"
  9. Usher w/Lil Jon & Ludacris - "Yeah!"
  10. Amerie - "1 Thing"
  11. Missy Elliott - "Lose Control"
  12. Basement Jaxx - "Oh My Gosh"
  13. R. Kelly - "In the Kitchen (remix)"
  14. Brooke Valentine - "Girlfight"
  15. Ciara w/Ludacris - "Oh (remix)"
  16. Mariah Carey - "We Belong Together"
  17. Britney Spears - "Toxic"
  18. Snoop Dogg w/Justin Timberlake & xxxx - "Sign"
  19. Beyoncé - "Crazy in Love"
  20. R. Kelly - "Ignition (remix)
Most of this is from the last two years and is stuff that I've downloaded. "Toxic" is the only Britney song I could identify if forced to. And I'd never heard a single song by R. Kelly before December, not even the remix to "Ignition", which people assured me I had to have heard before. Nope, I really did have my head in the sand. I don't know what I'll think about the man's larger body of work, but these two songs make me incredibly happy each time I hear them; I break out in a huge smile when they come on. The sheer goofiness is infectious. Would you believe that some of us tried to start an "Ignition" singalong around the campfire at Assateague last week? It didn't get very far. I listen to plenty of Missy Elliott anyway and have been loving my recent rediscovery of Basement Jaxx. Chart pop is not going to become a major musical focus for me, if only because there's only so much time and you can't be into everything and I still firmly believe that my time is, in general, better spent listening elsewhere (I came home tonight with 9 new cds, and the closest to pop was Three 6 Mafia; Jesu and Six Organs of Admittance and the Red Krayola are not going to be racing up the charts anytime soon), but when I listen to these songs, I want to sing along to them and I want to dance and it's good. Plus, it's a nice change of pace having some idea what's been going on up there in chartland. (Incidentally, I only realized the other week that Feist has some connection to Broken Social Scene, so her song is probably the most "indie" on this list--but, you know, it's a Bee Gees song--followed, I guess, by Annie, for what little it's worth....)

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Friday, June 23, 2006

Reflection, affinity, and self-cultivation

Jodi points to a thoughtful article adapted from a talk she gave last year on the nature of blogging. She is talking specifically to an academic audience about theory blogs (incidentally, a number of the blogs I read fairly regularly are steeped in theory, and it's a little overwhelming; I've read almost no theory, and I'm interested but not sure where to start), but her thoughts apply generally, as she notes here:

...theory blogging, as and with personal blogging, involves a kind of experiment in writing, in writing with others one may not know, in working through a sense of self through presentation. To be sure, the self that emerges, may not be the one that the author intends. Combinations of posts, over time, can produce the sense of a self that one might not have expected or designed.

At the moment, this blog is just about the only practical outlet I have for writing. In addition, though I do talk about things with my wife and my friends, and conversation is great and occasionally intellectually rewarding, it is nevertheless difficult to truly articulate, to work through, my own thoughts if I am not writing them, writing about them. And I think this is interesing, too, the idea that, based on what I manage to post about, a different self might emerge than the one I've projected to people, different than the one I might think I'm projecting while writing. Jodie goes on to say:

I’ve been arguing that theory blogs belie three assumptions about blogging in particular and networked communications in general, assumptions about speed, punditry, and self-indulgence. In contrast, my experience with blogs is that they allow for slower reflection, the emergence of spaces of affinity through specialized writing, and the experience of a presentation and cultivation of a self. And these three attributes of blogs—reflection, affinity, self-cultivation—necessarily traverse the old liberal division of the world into public and private spheres. This division does nothing to explain or express blog patterns. Most bloggers are not speaking to some kind of infinitely large audience that could mistakenly be deemed a public. Rather, they are speaking to strangers, to ones they do not and may not ever know.

Reflection, affinity, and self-cultivation, whether done in direct conversation with others via the comments feature, or less directly via responses to other blogs that one writes in one’s own way, on one’s own blog, are necessarily exclusive. This is obviously true when we recall the issues of language and access to technology. It is also true when we think of the topics and terminologies, the terms of art with which one thinks, the contexts to which Fish draws our attention. And, it is true when we recognize that one does not have time to read everything, respond to everything, link to everything, explain everything, to debate every single point. To offer one’s thoughts, one’s reflections on one’s life, then, is not enter into a discussion forum where one expects to have to defend every utterance or event from attack, to give reasons for everything one thinks or does. At the same time, it is also not to expect simple acquiescence, agreement, or praise from one who might happen on one’s post and decide to comment. The writing, the thinking, is rather different—more an exposure, invitation, or gift, an offering of one’s vulnerabilities in the hope that the one who accepts the offer will not simply respond, but will be responsive.

I agree with her general point here. Mainstream media attempts to characterize blogs and blogging tend to be oblivious to the kinds of blogs that I most appreciate. Which I guess is fine. My favorite blogs are not the ones that are necessarily updated multiple times a day; there are plenty of those that I do like and look at frequently, but they are often more glib and tossed off than I prefer. The ones I get the most out of tend to be updated less frequently and at somewhat greater length. Nevertheless, the speed of the internet weighs on me. So much appears online that I find edifying and thoughtful, that I am unable to respond to much of it. This is inevitable, of course, and the particulars of my own life--a full-time job, a lengthy commute, a young marriage, commitments to family and friends--mean that, for now, there is very limited time in which to compose my thoughts. I am frustrated with this lack of available time in which I may write and post. And now that it's out there, I feel a responsibility to the blog; I don't want it to lie fallow for too long. I feel like the world's slowest writer. In part this is because I spend too much time on each post, fretting over details (you may not have noticed), when, as Jodi says, in no way am I expected "to give reasons for everything" I think and do. This will, I trust, only get better with time and practice.

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Some brief thoughts on Liberals and the antiwar movement

Last week, Richard at American Leftist wrote about the anti-war movement and its fixation on Bush. It's a typically good post. In the context of discussing periodic protests in Sacramento, where he lives, he says this:

The protests, at least the times that I attended, focused exclusively upon Bush and the Republicans, with an understandably strong emphasis upon their "lies", implicitly supporting the intellectually dishonest position that the Democratic Party leadership in the House and Senate only voted for the Iraq war because they had been mislead. It is a "lie" that is as equally brazen, and as equally offensive, as the lies that Bush told to frighten much of the public into supporting the war.

[...]

I don't recall ever seeing any signs condemning people like Hillary Clinton, Joseph Biden, Joseph Lieberman and Dianne Feinstein for their votes for the war and their continued support for the occupation. Nor I have I recently heard that this event has begun to emphasize the prospect of a war against Iran, a war that, if launched, will have the same strong bipartisan support (Clinton is especially hawkish in this regard) that the war and occupation in Iraq does.
Of course, this is a widespread problem. We attended the last day of CODEPINK's Mother's Day weekend anti-war vigil outside the White House. It was an interesting day. When we got there, the group was in the process of being organized into concentric circles, each person holding a flower, the circles moving in opposite directions. There was chanting or singing. It was a little corny. I have some difficulty letting myself go, so I was not fully involved in this mini-event (it's true that the three semi-stoned teenagers directly in front of me did not help). But plenty of others were and I was actually moved, observing the group, predominantly women, largely middle-aged, fully swept up in the moment. I thought of some ass like Christopher Hitchens sneering at these women, and I wondered, not for the first or last time, what the hell is wrong with people.

And yet, the event was sparsely attended, and fell prey to various problems common to demonstrations and the anti-war movement generally. First of all, there is little call for "Give Peace a Chance", a tired song if there ever was one. But more to the point, as usual there were numerous speakers throughout the day, including various well-known people, such as Colman McCarthy, Susan Sarandon, Medea Benjamin, etc, but also some of the ordinary mothers who had lost children to the war. Many of the women in attendance had also lost their sons in the war; one women was especially moving as she talked about her 18-year-old, who'd asked for a video game in his last letter before he died, bringing home with great effect how young most of the soldiers are. There were some inspiring speakers in the mix; I remember especially an Iraqi women who spoke with great eloquence. But, far too many of them, Sarandon included, seemed fixated on Bush, kept referring to the actions of "that man". Well, yes, "that man" is odious and deserves all the scorn you can heap on him. But the culture of war is inherent to the American political class. If Al Gore had been president, the US may not have invaded Iraq, it's possible, but it's unlikely that he would have put a stop to the abhorrent sanctions regime that had so debilitated Iraq throughout the Clinton presidency, and it's unlikely that the US would not have attacked Afghanistan. (I should say that CODEPINK in general knows the score and does a lot of work targeting clueless leaders of the Democratic Party, such as Hillary Clinton; for example, see Medea Benjamin's recent piece in CounterPunch.)

Indeed, Liberals' adoration of Bill Clinton is depressing. Two weeks ago, some friends and I saw An Inconvenient Truth, Gore's documentary about global warming. The movie is pretty good, when it's actually about global warming; when it focuses on Gore and his political life, it's more than a little insufferable. Anyway, it's worth seeing. But, returning to the matter at hand, one of the previews we saw was for the crossword-documentary, Wordplay, which features a bunch of celebrities, including some politicians. When the image of Bill Clinton appeared on the screen, the theater audience cheered. Seriously. I don't get it. I mean, ok, Bush is superficially much harder to stomach. I've never been able to listen to the man speak for more than 5 minutes without turning off the tv or radio. Three years ago, packing to move, I looked at some VHS tapes I'd used to record tv shows to see if anything was worth keeping, and I came across one of Clinton's State of the Union addresses. And, yes, it was something of a revelation to listen to a president who could apparently speak extemporaneously without sounding like an idiot. I get that, I do. But, people, Clinton was always full of shit, his speeches were always performance (as, indeed, are all presidential speeches; let's not kid ourselves). And he passed NAFTA. And cynically ended "welfare as we know it". And illegally bombed Kosovo. And presided over the almost daily bombings of Iraq. And continued the murderous sanctions regime there. And any number of other shitty acts I don't have time to remind you of here today.

Liberals, and too many on the left, so love Clinton and Gore, are so fixated on personality, that they are incapable of seeing any larger picture. I long ago stopped reading with any regularity the big political bloggers such as Atrios and DailyKos because, while they do some excellent work on various political stories, they seem on the whole more interested in getting Democrats elected than anything else, or seem to believe that getting Democrats elected will do much of anything. Earlier this week, Alexander Cockburn wrote about the fixation on Karl Rove and Dick Cheney as evil masterminds, and the general bent of the main political websites:
Rove has swollen in the left’s imagination like a descendant of Pere Ubu, Jarry’s surreal monster. There was no scheme so deviously diabolical but that the hand of Rove could not be detected at work. Actually the man has always been of middling competence. He makes Dickie Morris look like Cardinal Richelieu.

Since 9/11 where has been the good news for the Administration? It’s been a sequence of catastrophe of unexampled protraction. Under Rove’s deft hand George Bush has been maneuvered into one catastrophe after another. Count the tombstones: “Bring it on”, “Mission Accomplished”, the sale of US port management to Arabs. It was Rove who single-handedly rescued the antiwar movement last July by advising Bush not to give Cindy Sheehan fifteen minutes of face time at his ranch in Crawford.

And when Rove’s disastrous hand is wrenched from the steering wheel it passes to another bugaboo of the left, in the form of Dick Cheney. It was the imbecilic vice president who gave Jack Murtha traction last October when the Democrats were trying cold shoulder him for calling for instant withdrawal from Iraq. In his wisdom the draft-dodging Cheney insulted the bemedaled former drill instructor as a clone of Michael Moore, and had to apologize three days later.

Rove and Cheney, the White House’s answer to Bouvard and Pecuchet, are counselors who have driven George Bush into the lowest ratings of any American president. Yet the left remains obsessed with their evil powers. Is there any better testimony to the vacuity and impotence of the endlessly touted “blogosphere” which in mid June had twin deb balls in the form of the Yearly Kos convention in Las Vegas and the above-mentioned “Take America Back” folkmoot of “progressive” MoveOn Democrats in Washington DC.

In political terms the blogosphere is like white noise, insistent and meaningless, like the wash of Pacific surf I can hear most days. But MoveOn.Org and Daily Kos have been hailed as the emergent form of modern politics, the target of excited articles in the New York Review of Books.

Beyond raising money swiftly handed over to the gratified veterans of the election industry both MoveOn and Daily Kos have had zero political effect, except as a demobilizing force.
The inability of the Democratic Party to truly take advantage of the massive unpopularity of the Bush Administration is striking. That so few Democrats are willing to take a stance against the wildly unpopular war in Iraq should tell us all we need to know about the viability of the Party as a progressive force in American life. Certain things are not irrelevant. For example, that the Republicans stole both the 2000 and 2004 elections is important. But the left should not pretend that either Gore or Kerry were going to be agents for any kind of real progressive change. In fact, they and their partners in the Democratic Party are actively part of the problem.

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The Rotters' Club, Jonathan Coe

In the middle of my other reading, having just read Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet and Walter Benjamin, and now finishing up Sorrentino's Mulligan Stew, Jonathan Coe's The Rotters' Club is comparatively slight. In many ways, a standard "coming-of-age" story, it's nevertheless an entertaining novel and, as it happened, perfect for the beach, where I spent last weekend. I'm not going to write at length about it, but I will offer a brief response (I'm going to try some shorter posts--maybe that'll help me finish them in a more timely manner...).

As with What a Carve Up!, the only other novel of his I've read, Coe employs a variety of techniques to tell his story, including letters, articles in a school paper, "unpublished" stories, diary entries, as well as more or less straight narrative. Coe effectively conveys a sense of what England might have been like in the 1970s, with its pre-Thatcher political tensions, including unions battles and IRA bombings, as well as the culture and music of the time. The main character is Benjamin Trotter, who is a student, madly in love with Cicely, who he is afraid to talk to; he plans to be a writer or composer of some kind. Early in the novel, he is exposed to the music of Henry Cow by his sister's boyfriend Malcolm, and he is soon fascinated by the kind of prickly music they made and is inspired to write his own music. It was a pleasant surprise reading about Henry Cow in a novel, and the bits about music are mostly well done and often quite funny. Many of the adult characters in the book are affiliated with the local auto workers union in some capacity, and there is some good stuff here on the tensions between workers and union leaders on one side, and the managerial class on the other. It was interesting reading this book after having read both David Harvey's A Brief History of Neoliberalism and Simon Reynolds' Rip It Up and Start Again earlier this year. Reynolds describes over and over again the economic malaise and everyday tedium that produced the various English musicians that got turned on by the promise of first punk and then its aftermath, whereas Harvey describes the economic conditions in more detail and how they led to the election of Thatcher and the neoliberal privatization program she pushed. Coe writes well about much of this, and his characters are, for the most part, believable (Benjamin's younger brother Paul, who actually reads Milton Friedman and is an early Thatcherite, is less well fleshed out and is thus a little harder to credit).

Coe does not tie everything up for the reader; much of the story is left unresolved, or the only account we have of an event is one character's subjective perspective. While there are some tedious passages (the 30+ page "sentence" that closes the main portion of the book, before we return to the present-day framing scene, is frankly a chore to read), The Rotters' Club is generally an enjoyable and often very funny novel. But it's not nearly as good as What a Carve Up! (published as The Winshaw Legacy in the US), which I wholeheartedly recommend (and which is an interesting recent example, I think, of excellent fiction with explicitly political content). (See The Complete Review's page on Coe, which includes links to their reviews of all of his books.)

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Listening

I saw a huge spike in traffic here in the middle of last month courtesy of links from Simon Reynolds and Carl Wilson, after I'd written three consecutive posts about music. Naturally, until my last two posts, I hadn't posted about music at all since then, which no doubt means that plenty of those readers who visited at that time haven't bothered to come back often, if at all. Oh well.

In any event, I've been reading with great interest the various posts in recent weeks in the aftermath of the original EMP/Stephin Merritt brouhaha--some good stuff from Simon (here and here and most recently here) and Zoilus and uTopianTurtleTop and rebel machine and Peanut Butter Words and Ha-ha Breath... There's much to process and I've had complex responses to a lot of it--and, alas, almost no time in which to organize my thoughts about it (or much else) of late.

Until I do, then, this is just a round-up of stuff I've been listening to this year. Uncharacteristically, the wedding and attendant money and time issues being what they were, it turns out I've only bought thirteen albums released in 2006:

Belle and Sebastion - The Life Pursuit
Built To Spill - You in Reverse
The Coup - Pick a Bigger Weapon
Destroyer - Destroyer's Rubies
Ghostface Killah - Fishscale
Kalas - Kalas
Liars - Drum's Not Dead
Love is All - Nine Times That Same Song
Joe McPhee - Survival Unit II with Clifford Thornton, N.Y.N.Y. 1971
Om - Conference of the Birds
Bruce Springsteen - We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions
T.I. - King.
Tapes'n Tapes - The Loon

The outliers are Springsteen and McPhee. My wife is the Springsteen (and Seeger) fan in the house; I'm rather indifferent. That said, the cd is better than I expected it to be--more exuberant then I've heard from Springsteen in some time. The McPhee cd is an archival release by Hat Hut of a previously unreleased performance. I've listened to it once so far, and it's pretty good. McPhee is great.

So that brings us down to eleven--three metal, three rap, the rest indie rock of some kind--all of which I like just fine. If I had to pick the favorites of the bunch, I'd have to go with the three metal albums, along with Love Is All, Ghostface, and Built to Spill (the best review of which is this one at Dusted). (And, yes, I did learn about the Love Is All and Tapes n'Tapes from Pitchfork, which I do still look at more or less every day, and which some people take just a little too seriously. The Love Is All is by far the more interesting of the two, but the Tapes n'Tapes is plenty enjoyable in its own right.) Upon first seeing the title of Om's Conference of the Birds, I immediately thought of Dave Holland's classic of the same name (with Sam Rivers and Anthony Braxton--seriously, a beautiful record; if you haven't heard it, please try to), and I wondered if there was any link. A wee bit of google-work turns up the Persian poet Attar, whose masterpiece bears the same name. Shows you what I know.

Aside from these, I've been listening to a lot of reissues, esp. Can and Talking Heads (all of which sound fantastic, the Can stuff being MAJOR improvements, I think), and to some other proggy stuff, like Robert Wyatt and Henry Cow, and finally got that Eno/Bryne thing, which is about half "as cool as I expected" and half kind of meh; have been loving the Human League's Dare, which, other than "Don't You Want Me", I'd never heard a single note of prior to a couple of months ago... and have been catching up on some rap from the last few years (including the Coup's excellent Party Music, alas without the controversial cover). I spent the better part of Monday afternoon listening to several Boredoms cds (managed to get tickets to their gig in Philly the end of this month: I'm excited, my wife is more than a little afraid), pleasing the neighbors to no end I'm sure... various admixtures of prog and krautrock and post-punk (the Fall, finally, for one) have been my main focus...

I plan to get as soon as I can the new albums from Sonic Youth, Mission of Burma, Matmos, Six Organs of Admittance, Pere Ubu (unfortunately titled as it is)... that Burial record all the kids are talking about looks interesting (how wrong is it that I know almost nothing about dub? quite, I imagine... where do I begin? the various pseudo primers I've seen have only confused me more than I already was); I've never heard anything by Scott Walker, so I don't know whether I should get the new release or go for an old one first; have been curious about Isolee and Broadcast for some time... etc.

Important Clarification: listening to it on the ride home from work, I am reminded that I did not stress how much the Boris album totally kicks ass. My apologies.

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Sunday, June 11, 2006

Music Matters

Woebot, as part of his re-investigation of The Beatles (which has me thinking of pulling out my own cds; I haven't really paid much attention to them in quite some time):
I’m particularly interested in The Beatles at the moment as because of this fascinating and iconic battle which has been staged (again) between Apple and Apple. This time round it’s a battle foundering on the issue of whether Steve Jobs has instituted a record company (he’s successfully and convincingly argued he’s running a kind of record shop) but I’m perhaps imaginatively construing it to be a cosmic struggle between two ideas of what music is. I’m obviously on The Beatles side, and what they and (coughs) I are saying is that music matters. We’re letting it loose like a cougar. We’re celebrating its transformative powers. We’re saying it deserves to have a physical presence, to be embodied amongst us. We’re the good guys. What Steve Jobs is saying is that music needs to know its place. He’s saying: “Feel the pleasure you get when you tame this wild animal.” He’s actually capitalising on all the energising work me and The Beatles have done saying, kinda slyly, “Doesn’t that feel nice”. Did you notice the evil way Apple pretended to extend the olive branch; offering to sell The Beatles's tracks at the iStore having crushed Macca in the lawsuit? Jobs is damping the whole thing down. I think if we’re ever going to stop the rot that’s eating away at music, we need to go back and have another look at The Beatles.

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Psychological Calisthenics

From Christgau's review in The Village Voice of the new Sonic Youth record (which, by the way, I will be acquiring as soon as possible):
All of which I find pretty exhilarating. Of course, you may not. When Murray Street came out in 2002, non-old Amy Phillips notoriously asserted in this very newspaper that since Sonic Youth hadn't made a good album since (1995's) Washing Machine, they should break up already. Who's to say her opinion isn't worth as much as mine? Me? Well, yeah. One concept the non-old have trouble getting their minds around is the difference between taste and judgment. It's fine not to like almost anything, except maybe Al Green. That's taste, yours to do with as you please, critical deployment included. By comparison, judgment requires serious psychological calisthenics. But the fact that objectivity only comes naturally in math doesn't mean it can't be approximated in art.

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Friday, June 09, 2006

War as Simulacrum

On point as ever, Lenin nails it on Zarqawi:
...it seems to me that they couldn't have done a better job: news reports need a hook on which to hang their stories, and complex discussions of a vast, geographically diffuse, organisationally decentralised and acephalous movement won't do. Zarqawi's Myth provided that hook. For that reason, the news of his death is almost a negative version of Diana's death - no one will weep, but a proportion of cranks and obsessives, egged on by an hysterical media, really think it matters. All of the observations, questions and caveats being supplied by the media rest on a supposition of Zarqawi's centrality, rely on the narrative eagerly and skilfully supplied by the US military. And of course, everyone will be familiar with the script provided by the propagandists: its all foreign fighters causing the trouble, they're ruining the infrastructure, they're disrupting the 'transfer of sovereignty' that a benign and disinterested army of occupation is readying.

[...]

What we experience as 'the war in Iraq' is a simulacrum, mediated by military-vetted imagery and embedded reporters. The sheer dependency of Western reporters in Iraq on official sources is compounded by the fact that most reporters can't get about in Iraq, can't move far beyond the Green Zone. There is, even among the better journalists, a willingness therefore to accept enabling narratives, plot devices, decoys and so on. Racist assumptions about Iraqis and a total failure to understand the extremities to which the imperatives of US policy will take the occupiers has been a useful alibi in cementing the grip of these stories. Iraq's legitimate rejection of the occupation, with its armed and unarmed wings, has been studiously reduced to Zarqawi and his group, whose actions have been so contrary to the interests of the resistance that they have alienated local populations and nationalist resistance organisations everywhere they went, often ending up in bloody battle against them.

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Thursday, June 08, 2006

John Crowley

I'm nearing the end of John Crowley's Little, Big, and I'm enjoying it immensely--it's utterly enchanting. There's so much going on in it that I know it'll be a novel that I return to. Alas, the copy I have was already pretty beaten up when I bought it, and its condition has not improved over the last several days. The good news, of course, is that this might give me an excuse to sign up to order the lavish 25th Anniversary edition that is being planned. As it is, I think I'll be giving the novel as a gift to at least one person on my list, and I'll be reading a lot more of Crowley in the future.

Via Mad Ink Beard I found this interesting interview with Crowley (which contains news that the fourth and last book in the Aegypt series will finally be published) and Crowley's own engaging livejournal.

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Barbara Ehrenreich

I discovered yesterday that Barbara Ehrenreich has a blog. Ehrenreich has long been one of my favorite writers on politics and social issues. While in college, I read The Worst Years of Our Lives, a collection of columns from the 1980s (which, as far as I can tell, is currently out of print), and her wit and sarcasm certainly appealed to the smart-ass in me. Since then I have continued to read her with great interest, including many of her books. Her later collection, The Snarling Citizen, is worth a look, and, of course, the famous Nickel and Dimed is excellent. But, for me, her most valuable books have been Fear of Falling and For Her Own Good. Fear of Falling is an absorbing account of how the professional and managerial classes, essentially the middle class, create and protect their own class standing (inheritance not being an option) through elaborate education and certification rituals in the main not accessible to the working classes. It's been a while since I've read it, and I'm not doing it justice here, but it's an essential book. As, I think, is For Her Own Good, written with Deirdre English, originally published in 1978, with the subtitle 150 Years of the Experts' Advice to Women. This was the version I read, and I found it fascinating, especially the social history side of it--how men, in the name of medical science, ignored and discarded everything that women knew about health and childbirth in the push to professionalize medicine, and protect their own nascent authority (this part dovetails nicely with Fear of Falling) (and, incidentally, I read Tristram Shandy some time after reading For Her Own Good--it was thus interesting to read a book published in the 1760s expressing the distrust of doctors, particularly when it came to childbirth: the doctor clearly has no idea what he's doing and is scorned by the women in the novel). The part of For Her Own Good that dealt with the "present day" was necessarily out of date when I read it a couple of years ago, so I thought it was a book that cried out for a revised edition. One of my closest friends (a mother of two) works as a midwife's assistant (doula), and I've learned much through her about recent trends in and research on birth and children and childcare. In light of this I was very curious to know what an updated version of the book would have had to say about the current situation (the general state of things, of course, but also the countercurrents back towards midwifery and birth clinics, etc.). Happily, it turns out that last year a revised edition was indeed published, as I learned when I went to Amazon to find the link provided above; the new subtitle is Two Centuries of the Experts' Advice to Women. I may need to revisit the book in its new edition.

I found Ehrenreich's blog in the course of reading this interview with her, at ZNet:
TD: You recently commented, "Thanks to Reagan, Clinton, and Bush, we now have a government with vastly expanded military and surveillance functions and sadly atrophied helping functions. Imagine, for an awkward zoological analogy, a lioness with grossly enlarged claws and teeth but no mammary glands."

Ehrenreich: This was something I first wrote about in 1997 in an essay in the Nation which they entitled, "Confessions of a Recovering Statist." I talked about the shift of government, at the end of the Clinton years, away from the helping functions and toward the military, penitentiaries, law enforcement. At what point, I asked, do progressives have to say: I don't want to expand the helping functions of this government because look what it's doing? A nice example is public housing -- okay, public housing's a good thing, but when you start doing drug tests on people to get in or stay in such housing, then it's become an extension of the law enforcement function of government.

I still raise that question. Today, we have this even larger federal government, more and more of it being war-related, surveillance-related. I mean it's gone beyond our wildest Clinton administration dreams. I think progressives can't just be seen as pro-big-government when big government has gotten so nasty.

TD: And also when civil society has been stripped of so many of its "civil" capacities, including, as with Katrina, the capacity to rebuild.

Ehrenreich: Katrina's a perfect example of how militarized the government has gotten even when it's supposedly trying to help people. The initial response of the government was a military one. When they finally got people down there, it was armed guards to protect the fancy stores and keep people in that convention center -- at gunpoint! I mean, this is unbelievable.

TD: And what about the fobbing off of the civil parts of government onto religious and charitable groups, often politicized?

Ehrenreich: It's partly that the evangelical churches have reached for these things, and then there's the faith-based approach coming from the Bush administration where the dream was: Let's turn all social welfare functions over to churches. A lot of the megachurches now function as giant social welfare bureaucracies. I wouldn't have found this out if I hadn't been researching Bait and Switch and gone into some of them, because that's where you go when you want to connect with people to find a job. That's also where you find after-school care, child care, support groups for battered women, support groups for people with different illnesses. As government helping functions dwindle, the role of the churches grows. What's sinister is that so many of these churches also support political candidates who are anti-choice, anti-gay, and -- not coincidentally -- opposed to any kind of expansion of secular social services.

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Friday, June 02, 2006

Idle Pursuits

I return to something about books after a couple of political posts (it's difficult to strike the right balance). I am now in the midst of Little, Big by John Crowley, which so far is delightful. I'd never heard of Crowley before last year, when I read posts at Mad Ink Beard and The Pinocchio Theory about his newest book, Lord Byron's Novel: The Evening Land (the title reminds me of the title of Paul West's Lord Byron's Doctor (which I haven't yet read, but have sitting on the shelf), making me idly wonder about the mini-genre of novels about literary figures). I was intrigued, but didn't want to jump right into this latest work to start. Then last fall I was excited to find a used, beat-up copy of Little, Big. Waggish's interesting post from earlier this week, in which he discusses his re-reading of it immediately following Finnegans Wake, prompted me to pull it off the shelf and read it. (Incidentally, his post about reading Wake was fascinating and has me thinking that, who knows, I may eventually read more of it than I'd hoped.)

In my post about Harry Mathews, I linked to the Lit Blog Co-Op discussion of Jean-Philippe Toussaint's novel, Television. I read and enjoyed this novel last year (I bought it based on this review, also by Derik Badman at Mad Ink Beard). There's some good stuff about this novel in the LBC discussion; I don't have much to add to it, other than it's made me want to read the book again.

As for the Lit Blog Co-Op, I've been following it from afar since it started, occasionally commenting. I haven't yet been able to acquire or read too many of the books that have been discussed, so that's kind of limited my involvement, though I have added a number of titles to my list. Overall, I think the last couple of batches of books have been the most interesting yet. I did read the Winter selection, Kirstin Allio's Garner, which I enjoyed immensely, as well as the previous selection, Steve Stern's The Angel of Forgetfulness, which I also liked, if not as much as I expected to (anyway, as with Television, I already had this book, this time because of an earlier rave by Dan Green). Also, the discussions with Edward Falco were very interesting and, as a result, I sought his nominated collection of stories, Sabbath Night in the Church of the Piranha. I wasn't able to find it in a store (I wanted to see and hold it before buying), but I did unexpectedly find his earlier collection, Acid, which contains some of the stories later to appear in Sabbath Night. I thoroughly enjoyed Acid--the stories were astonishingly good and subtle--and as a result I intend to find and read a lot more of Falco (Wolf Point is high on my list of books to get). From the current group, I'm really looking forward to Yannick Murphy's Here They Come. All in all, I'd say the LBC has found its legs and is doing the job it set out to do.

Just prior to reading Mathews' 20 Lines a Day, I'd read Stanley Elkin's A Bad Man (finally) and Carole Maso's The American Woman in the Chinese Hat. I didn't like A Bad Man nearly as much as some others by Elkin, particularly The Franchiser and The Magic Kingdom. It starts off great--there are some wonderful set pieces, but about halfway through, the language felt a little too close to being schtik, the jokes and puns grating, something Elkin usually manages to avoid. I feel as if it's because the language riffs didn't go on long enough--it never really took off for me. With the best of Elkin, I am continually astonished by extended stretches where the language comes fast and furious: jokes, puns, metaphors piling up for pages at a time, after which you can only gasp for breath. I didn't get much of that with A Bad Man. Don't get me wrong--there's some good stuff here. The Kafkaesque setting and story (imagine K. gets sent to prison; and is a department store owner in the Land of Consumer Abundance; and talks like Stanley Elkin) is bizarre and funny in its own right. It's a fine novel, but not his best.

(By the way, at one stretch I suddenly felt that, in some obscure way, reading Elkin is not entirely unlike reading Richard Powers. There are some obvious differences: Powers is not funny, for one--so it may seem a weird comparison to make. But, I feel like the thick sentences--not long, thick--loaded, almost over-loaded with unexpected, vivid, and yet extended metaphor, are not too far off from what Powers does. Maybe I'm insane.)

The American Woman in the Chinese Hat is the third novel by Carole Maso I've read (the others are Ghost Dance and Defiance). Depression plays a big part in all three--the titular character in this one is a writer living in Paris, trying to do what she can to hang on. I liked the novel. I don't have a lot to say about it (though I may polish up and post something I wrote about Ghost Dance a couple of years ago); it's sad; Maso's writing is typically beautiful.

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Iran: Here we go

This article in The Washington Post struck me as ominous when I read it first thing this morning:
The United States and five other major world powers agreed Thursday to offer Iran a broad new collection of rewards if it halts its drive to master nuclear technology, but they threatened "further steps in the Security Council" if Iran refuses.

[...]

Iranian diplomats on Thursday did not reject outright the U.S. proposal for talks, but they criticized the demand that their country end enrichment first.

Although details of the five- to six-page document agreed to in Vienna were not announced, incentives discussed before the meeting included an international effort to assist Iran's nuclear industry, including construction of a light-water reactor and guarantees of a long-term supply of fuel. That would represent a significant shift from the Bush administration's past insistence that Iran has no need for nuclear power. Increased trade and investment have also been discussed.

Aides to Rice said the deal also commits China and Russia to a long list of specific steps to punish Iran if it refuses to halt its enrichment program. Both countries have resisted sanctions for months, arguing that they could backfire.

Addressing reporters here, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov emphasized the incentives in the package and did not mention possible negative measures. He said it was important that all six powers be united in making the offer, including the United States, which he said found it difficult to offer inducements to Iran.
To put it bluntly, Iran has every right to pursue nuclear power, and, by all credible accounts, has done everything in accordance with the applicable international agreements, which is considerably more than can be said about the United States. I find this "accord" ominous because, though it appears to re-commit the US to diplomacy and multilateralism here, in reality it merely establishes a pretext for future action and makes it more difficult for Russia and China to stand in the way. In any event, the US will take "multilateralism" when it can get it, but will happily ignore everyone else when it's not getting its way. Far too many people opposed the war in Iraq only because it was waged "unilaterally" by the US, as if it would have been just swell if a broad "coalition" had been convinced/bribed to take part. (Meanwhile, the "good" liberal NATO war over Kosovo is generally accepted as having been "just".) On the face of it, this accord seems to me to be designed for Iran to reject it.

For an interesting discussion of the latest developments, see this excellent article at the Asia Times:
...if Iran rejects the US offer for talks and the European package altogether, it will almost certainly lose the battle for world public opinion, and that is a hefty price it can ill afford.

After all, the non-aligned countries have thrown their weight behind Iran's nuclear rights, this after much diplomatic energy and expenditure by Iran - praised even by Iran's critics in the Western media. Yet the new US move has the ability to knock down this diplomacy if Tehran takes rash missteps instead of prudent counter-moves.

With the ball thrown back in Iran's court, the burden is on its diplomats to devise a concerted effort that acts in anticipation of the next two or three moves by the US and its allies, within a coherent strategic whole.

Iran has a tendency to trade diplomacy with rhetoric, and there are political limits to its nuclear flexibility. The latter is, however, a double-edged sword, given that any future sanctions would hit many Iranians in the pocket and thus add to political turmoil at home.

All in all, the United States' shrewd maneuver has opened a new window of opportunity for a diplomatic solution of the crisis, irrespective of the tactical nature of the move, due to its implications for global multilateralism. And the fact that only half a window is open does not by itself mean it is a dead end.

Rather, the fear of unwanted consequences by both sides is a primary motive for seizing on the opportunity of this crisis to create a real way of finding a way for the Islamic Republic and the US to get along together. The only trouble is that
there are other, conflicting motivations that impede this force.
And about the manufactured Iran crisis generally, see this article by David Peterson at CounterPunch:
At this stage in the dangerous and escalating, largely U.S.-manufactured, and wholly unnecessary "crisis" over Iran's nuclear program, the question the world ought to ask is not whether Iran intends to develop nuclear weapons, and therefore poses a Chapter VII-type threat to international peace and security. Quite the contrary. The crucial question is whether the United States, as the most belligerent and serially aggressive power in the world today, will be able to use its considerable influence over the three peripheral belligerents (Britain, France, and Germany) to bribe and cajole both China and Russia into enforcing from the floor of the Security Council the NPT-violating principle that "no enrichment in Iran is permissible"?
As of now, with this agreement announced this morning, the answer appears to be "yes".

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Too Powerful for Humans to Resist

I don't have anything interesting of my own to say about Haditha specifically, but a number of other good people do. This is an excellent post, by Richard Estes at American Leftist:

Even Americans opposed to the war find it difficult to emphathize with Iraqis as victims of this conflict. On this site, and others, such as Eli Stephens' Left I on the News, I have frequently encountered the troubling tendency of evading the enormity of the violence inflicted upon Iraqis by making it general, and detached from any American responsibility by rendering it as some kind of objective, elemental condition, while the numerically much lesser brutalities inflicted upon American troops receives a heartfelt, specific response.

It commonly goes something like this (after a comment or post describing a detailed episode of brutality inflicted upon Iraqis by US troops): yes, war is a terrible thing, and innocents are invaribly killed and maimed, and it is horrible that our troops are over there, and find themselves inevitably caught up in such situations.

Get it? The Iraqis aren't being killed by Americans, they are being killed by that awful, perpetual condition known as war, analoguous to being killed in an earthquake or a hurricane, while war is simultanously victimizing our troops by involuntarily compelling them to commit such appalling acts. In other words, "they were just following orders" has been dressed in the clothes of metaphysics, the loss of free will when confronted with the day to day reality of combat. War is apparently the violent, deranged mythic brother of Adam Smith's invisible hand that controls the economic universe, too powerful for humans to resist.

See also this post at Lenin's Tomb:

Supposing the findings are as unambiguously damning as expected, this is a serious crisis of legitimation for the occupation which, it has to be said, should only have the support of psychotics and outlandish, hirsuit survivalists by now. However, it reminds me of a comment Alex Cockburn made about the corrections column in the New York Times - its function was to give the impression that everything else printed in the paper had been entirely accurate. Of course, it is unlikely that the US ruling class will be successful in making this the cathartic experience that they hope it will be. Official inquiries are always intended as expiation or, more accurately, to 'put a lid on it', but people know a symptom when they see one. Or at least I hope they do.

Lenin links to this piece by Simon Assaf at the Socialist Worker:

The Haditha massacre is not only about the crimes of a set of individuals or of one unit. It is an example of the systematic and much greater crime of Bush and Blair’s war.

In the months after the fall of Baghdad, the US touted Haditha as a success story. The US army had rebuilt a vital power station at the Haditha dam and felt confident enough to hand over security to a small contingent of Azerbaijani troops.

But in the summer of 2003 US troops rounded up over 700 young men in a mass sweep. The raids fuelled growing anger at the occupation. By April 2004, Haditha joined the revolt across Iraq.

The US responded by isolating the town, blowing up most of its bridges and inserting teams of snipers. Later they shipped in Iraqi death squads. The town rose in rebellion, driving out US troops and the local authorities imposed by the occupation.

In the summer of 2005 Haditha’s hospital was destroyed in fighting. The cousin of Iraq’s ambassador to Washington was shot dead by US troops during a raid on his house.

One resident told the Arabic Al-Quds newspaper that US troops were threatening to kill civilians if attacks by the resistance did not stop. On 19 November US soldiers turned those threats into reality.

And Mike Ferner at CounterPunch reminds us of the various laws and conventions, international and otherwise, applicable to this massacre and the war in general, in case you forgot.

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Harry Mathews

I've just read Harry Mathews' short book of prose 20 Lines a Day (Dalkey Archive). I actually found it inspiring. He borrowed an injunction from Stendhal to write "Twenty lines a day, genius or not," and this book is the result--not quite a journal or a diary, nor a collection of essays or stories. Simply attempts to get himself over the reticence (fear) of beginning to write, simply to write. Descriptions of the natural world around him, ruminations on friends, loved ones, occasional examples of automatic writing, self-conscious reflections about the purpose of the exercise at hand, thoughts about writing itself and attendant anxieties

A couple of samples of the latter:

During the days--at least fourteen of them--when I might have added to these pages and didn't [...], so many possible subject occurred to me and were let go with regret. And letting them go meant just that--I can't remember a single one of them. But there isn't any loss, because such subjects are the merest pretexts: they don't ever add anything to what gets written, and probably they are no better than other--no matter what other--points of departure. Lovely ideas belong to amateurs, or, worse, to might-have-been writers. Lost possibilities mean none at all. Nothing better than writing makes grotesquely obvious the obvious truth that what is is; or (to put it another way) the Marxist truth that there is no value outside of work done. (44)

Anxiety about writing feels like: I am poor in words, ideas, and feelings, and when I sit down to write, this poverty will be revealed. It is another example of the general rule about fear: fear has nothing to do with its object. (When I jump off a thirty-foot ledge into the sea, my experience bears no resemblance to what I so paralyzingly apprehended before making the jump.) It's obvious to me that if I have a problem with words, ideas, or feelings it will be due to their excess, not their lack. I'm stuffed from head to toe with them, and my reluctance to sit down at my desk, which this morning has led to my writing a letter, making several phone calls, and preparing a pot of lamb stock, all of which could have been done another day or even another week, must be regarded as definitely insane. Knowing what I do--how much I enjoy writing, how many ways there are to put the resources of language into action--I feel worse than insane (insanity still has a certain romantic attraction): I feel stupid. I think that what I must do to make the stupidity manageable is to apply to it a method that has worked with even more painful conditions: I shall schedule it. Every morning--early every morning--I'll set aside ten minutes and concentrate exclusively on feeling anxious on sitting down to write. The most rudimentary sense of absurdity should get me going by minute number three. (45)

I've enjoyed reading Harry Mathews' fiction for several years now, particularly his novels Cigarettes and The Journalist, but also some of the stories in The Human Country. But I think I most appreciate Mathews for how he has helped me think about writing, and especially about translation. I had planned to write something about his essays concerning translation in his collection The Case of the Perservering Maltese, but then I read, as part of the Lit Blog Co-Op's discussion of Jean-Philippe Toussaint's Television, Derik Badman's interview today with translator Jordan Stump. In the interview, Derik points us back to his excellent post "Mathews on Translation" at his own blog, Mad Ink Beard, sort of removing the immediate need I have to discuss it at length right now. I will say that I found Mathews' essays on the subject almost revelatory, helping to free me from an inflexible Nabokovian approach to translation I had been holding onto. His use, also described by Derik, of the Muir translation of Kafka's very short story "The Truth about Sancho Panza" is fascinating. I highly recommend the collection.

(Incidentally, a few weeks ago I was reminded again of Mathews' use of the Kafka story in this way when I read this entertaining post at the blog Critical Culture, which is nominally a review of the apparently terrible potboiler novel The Lincoln Lawyer, by Michael Connelly, but which is also a spirited defense of the semi-colon. Anyway, it's the portion of the post under the heading "Variations on a Theme" that specifically reminded me of Mathews' argument about form conveying meaning. Here, blogger Pacze Moj takes a generic sentence from the book and rewrites it in a variety of ways, using different punctuation, creating different form and rhythm. Worth a look.)

I said above that 20 Lines a Day was, in a way, inspiring. I mean that, for me, writing has always been something I've avoided doing, even as I write things in my head, only to lose them forever if not captured. Previous attempts to follow an example have not come to fruition. For example, after reading Gilbert Sorrentino's novel The Sky Changes, I thought it might be an interesting writing exercise to essentially copy wholesale the form of that book, using my own experiences as content fodder, my own experience with a deteriorating relationship. I wrote one awful paragraph, lost the private nerve to continue, gave up. An earlier glance through 20 Lines a Day gave me the brilliant idea to copy that, too, to little result. This blog, of course, is one attempt to counteract this tendency towards reticence but not, I hope, the only one. Having now read the entire book, I feel a renewed desire to briefly track thoughts that I have previously not written down, or dismissed as trivial (my internal editor being a ruthlessly cruel taskmaster), some of which may end up here.

For more on Harry Mathews, see also pages devoted to him at the Dalkey Archive site and at the Complete Review.