Monday, April 30, 2007

Destroys the Idea of the Novel

Ten days ago at Ready Steady Book, Mark Thwaite articulated a manifesto of sorts, "Against Establishment Literary Fiction":
When I talk to folk, especially publishers, about what kinds of books I like to feature on RSB, I often reach for the phrase Literary Fiction ... and then I quickly backtrack. Literary Fiction is one of the genres of fiction that I'm happy to feature on TBD's homepage, alongside a host of other types of books. And Literary Fiction is, undoubtedly, the genre that many of the books that have been reviewed on RSB in the past have belonged to. But, editorially -- and by that I mean, via the blog, and from my heart -- I'd actually like RSB to be seen as being anti-Literary Fiction. Indeed, what I've taken to calling Establishment Literary Fiction is, to me, the very antithesis of literature: it is hubristic, formulaic and trite; it is non- essential.

Literary Fiction is genre fiction; literature, art, is writing that deconstructs the very idea of genre. Proust's In Search of Lost Time isn't literary fiction, but a novel that destroys the idea of the novel in its very realisation. Beckett's famous lines from Worstward Ho -- Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. -- are in themselves a manifesto for writers and writing. If Literary Fiction is defined by its proud masterpieces, its smug perfections, literature should be known as a failed art that in its failing helps us to understand our own feeble inadequacies and helps us to fail better.
Mark rather pithily captures some of what I've been trying to get at here, where I've been banging away on this topic for a while now. I see The Existence Machine as, in part, engaging in this type of conversation. I, too, want to reach toward the phrase "Literary Fiction" when trying to characterize what I read and want to write about. But the term feels, aside from pretentious, false. The word "literary" is what grabs me, of course. I am interested in the literary, aesthetic qualities of fiction. I'm interested in figuring out what those are, in understanding them. I'm interested in discussion that attempts to deal with these things. But I am less and less interested in the hot "literary" titles. Certainly plenty of what I enjoy reading, and have written about, would fall under the rubric of "establishment literary fiction" (Philip Roth is surely establishment, no?). However, that some actual literature gets marketed as literary fiction is no reason to not read it. At the same time, I feel no particular need anymore to try to keep up with the latest releases. The point is not that none of this fiction is worthy, but that so much of it is as unquestioningly formulaic as the non-literary fiction genres. And all the chatter about it tends to obscure that.

One of the great things about blogs, of course, is the multitude of voices. It's useful and important to hear these voices. However, one of my personal frustrations with blogs--lit blogs in particular--is that there is so little baseline agreement on what is meant by certain ideas. For example, what is meant by "genre". Every so often a genre-fight/discussion will erupt in the comment section at this or that blog (like here, or here; see also Jonathan Lethem's much talked about piece on the alleged provincialism of science fiction, an exchange between Lethem and Ray Davis here, and Davis' longer reply here), but all too rarely, it seems to me, does the conversation build on itself. Each time the discussion appears as if anew--even as some of the participants express weariness at once again having to explain their particular point. And very few people seem to understand the word genre in the sense used by Mark, above. I've been trying to straddle that line. I've been trying to write about literature in a way that recognizes that "literary fiction" is merely another genre, but also trying to write about the more commonly understood sense of "genre"--science fiction, mystery, crime, etc.

About three weeks ago, Ellis Sharp had an interesting post in which he defended Philip K. Dick from the charge of writing awful prose:
In the case of Philip K. Dick, I don’t find the prose that bad. Yes, sometimes it’s very tired and lazy. Other times it’s dazzling. And when it comes to writing fiction, style and gleaming prose isn’t everything. Think about (for example) Henry James and Robert Louis Stevenson. Henry James might well seem to be the better writer, with a massively accomplished oeuvre. But I would argue that ultimately he never wrote anything as important as what Stevenson achieved in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which manages simultaneously to be a hugely accomplished piece of writing and a brilliant exploration of the contradictory nature of human identity and a very insightful account of Victorian society and its hypocrisies. And Stevenson arrived there by way of genre writing. Interesting.
Here, of course, Ellis uses the second sense of "genre" noted above. But more on Dick:
Dick reminds me of Stevenson in some ways. He’s more than just a great storyteller. He’s very good on paranoia, alienation and the self under stress. I first discovered Dick’s work as a young teenager, when I read his early work Eye in the Sky. At one point the characters discover their genitals have vanished, replaced by nothing more than smooth skin. I found that very disturbing. Rather more disturbing than, say, Gregor Samsa waking up and discovering that he’s turned into a giant insect.

[. . .]

What I require from any piece of fiction is: does the writer’s vision engage me? If so, is it true to itself as art? And is it true to the world? In the case of Philip K Dick the answer is yes, yes, yes.
In what way might a work of "establishment literary fiction", say, be true to itself as art and be true to the world? Is working within established forms necessarily lazy? What does it mean to arrive at an effect "by way of genre"? Could a writer not arrive at that effect by way of the genre of literary fiction? Or, instead, does the work written using the apparent tropes of an established genre (including that genre of literary fiction), cease to be of that genre when the work achieves a kind of artistic truth? (Even perhaps when the author might not be aware of it?) That is, when, for example, we speak of Proust's work which, in its realization "destroys the idea of the novel"--in what sense does this include or exclude fiction that appears to merely be of a genre (science fiction, etc), but instead in its realization itself destroys the idea of the novel? Proponents of genre per se might (and do) accuse readers who stick to that which can be called "literary fiction" as not being able to see those so-called genre works that do exactly that.

Anyway, this post has rambled on long enough. I feel these questions help illustrate the confusion that occurs when different types of readers try to talk about genre. Still further confusion occurs when the question of entertainment--escapism--versus literature arises. . .

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A Storm of Consciousness

In my most recent pre-California post, on Bernhard's Frost, I quoted a passage that I said "represents an unexpected nod from Bernhard--almost as if he is telling us what the point is (almost), not just of Frost and Strauch's despairing voice within, but all of his narratives." This has bothered me; I might have made my own point better if I'd taken more time. What I was trying to say was not that it was Bernhard telling us what the "point" of his fictions is, but, instead, that it seemed to me that the passage in question described some of the aesthetic effect of reading Bernhard. Which could be the point, yes, the point in reading fiction being to experience a certain aesthetic effect. But I was afraid I was not as clear as I'd intended.

Speaking of Bernhard, about a week after my post Ellis Sharp wrote an excellent piece about On the Mountain, which was actually written by Bernhard in 1959, before Frost (which appeared in German in 1963), but not published until after his death, in 1991 (so it says here). Ellis focuses on Bernhard's use of the comma--the whole novel is one long sentence:
A fiction of friction: the grinding together of a consciousness and everything that impinges upon it. [. . .]

Language like a river, flowing, unstoppable. A babble alert to its own condition (in a way that soporific comfort fiction never knows that it is drugged and easy-dreaming). Every letter matters. A storm of consciousness, of language. It drives the narrator into society – into an Austrian condition – from which he (the gender is not in doubt) recoils.

[. . .]

A kind of vertigo ensues. When the narrative rages against ‘a gigantic wave of price increases, a colossal wave of price increases’ is this the narrator’s anger or is he mocking the peevish complaints of the bourgeoisie? I don’t find it at all easy to decide.
This, too, describes well the aesthetic effect of reading Bernhard's narratives.

For more on Bernhard, if you haven't already read it, see Jonathan Taylor's amusing article in The Believer, "Admiration Journey" (link via This Space). Taylor embarks on a tour of Bernhard's house and country--the titular admiration journey he feels certain Bernhard would have scoffed at. He includes various quotes from Bernhard's writing, and comments some on that writing. Says Taylor on Bernhard's aesthetic:
The greatness of Bernhard’s novels and memoirs is, after all, philosophical, and stylistic. A brutally simple and apparently universal idea—Everything is ridiculous when one thinks of death, he said upon receiving Austria’s Förderungspreis für Literature in 1968—is embroidered into a vivacious comedy of pure thought, through compulsive repetition, confident self-contradiction, and heady exaggeration.
Taylor finds that, along with the exaggeration and contradiction in Bernhard's fiction, there is the contradiction of his life:
Bernhard, who mocked the visiting of places associated with writers as well as admiration journeys to museums and churches, had done nothing less than design a museum for admirers like us to visit, in the same way that he devoted his life singlemindedly to writing even though the writings we possess are only nonsense because they can only be nonsense. Bernhard’s house is part and parcel of his literary legacy: a seriously satirical stance that eludes the initial urge to peg him as a misanthrope, a pessimist, or a nihilist.
Whenever I travel to a major city with fine bookstores, I think I'm bound to happen upon certain authors I have a hard time finding generally. I keep thinking I'll find cache of used copies of Thomas Bernhard or Peter Handke or Gabriel Josipovici books, but no. None of the stores we entered in either San Francisco or Oakland had anything by these authors, other than the occasional copy of Frost, which hardly counts since it's a new publication and I already have it (ditto Josipovici's Goldberg: Variations). If I'd known I was going to be a Bernhard enthusiast when I bought Concrete several years ago at the Borders in Washington, DC, I would have snapped up all the several titles I saw there around that time, none of which ever appear there or anywhere else anymore. (Yes, I know I can probably find them online, and I probably will. But it's more of a thrill finding one in a physical store.)

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Blogs, Blogs, Blogs

I've been in California for the last week, so I have a lot of catching up to do. And I came home to like 500 blog posts to read in Bloglines. Perhaps not surprisingly, though, the blogs I think of as the most essential had comparatively very few new posts awaiting me. Both of these facts help to bring home something I've needed to realize about myself and blogs, and the net generally. I only have so much time. I need to recognize that fact, and act accordingly. So I will be making some changes in how I approach this blog, even if those changes may not be apparent to anyone who actually reads it (I may still post just as often--or as rarely). Some basic points, then: I am generally uninterested in book chatter, but I am very interested in actual discussion about literature. (Side note: I don't care in the least what non-blog people say about blogs.) The sheer quantity of book blogs that I "read" tires me, and too many of them engage more in the sort of chatter I have little interest in. Or they engage in actual discussion, yes, but of the kinds of books in which I have little interest, or the discussion is not of the sort that appeals to me. This is all by way of saying that, my time being limited, I'll have to curtail the amount of it I spend online--whether blogging or reading other blogs. Since I'd like to continue blogging, this means that my reading habits will have to change. (In part this is because, contra Ed, I find that the internet, while full of fantastic stuff, is indeed a great time-waster, that technology does indeed make it easier to not get things done, does help facilitate procrastination.)

The same holds with music, though since I rarely read any of the mp3 blogs, and spend very little time looking at the "music chatter" blogs, it's not as much of a problem. Most of the music blogs I frequent feature good, thoughtful writing about music.

The third big general Existence Machine topic has been, of course, politics. Naturally, I don't think I've posted anything explicitly about politics since I said I would be ramping up my blogging about the apparent run-up to an attack on Iran. This is because I just can't do it. I can't blog about current politics in anything resembling a timely manner. Those bloggers who do it and do it well amaze me. For example, I am in awe of the consistently excellent quality of the numerous posts that appear at Lenin's Tomb. One reason why I find myself unable to blog regularly about ongoing politics is that I tend to think in terms of longer pieces, but by the time I have a few minutes to scrape together to actually write something, the moment has passed, and the specific item is no longer "timely". Politics will not be disappearing from this blog, but I will make no attempt to be "on top" of things. Political posts that appear are likely to refer to news items or blog posts that are many weeks old, or else books. Again, this is really nothing new here, just more explicitly stated.

This has been a fairly pointless post. Happy blogging.

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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Cerebral Pulse

Thomas Bernhard's fiction presents us with a singular vision. In his novels we are witness to voices crying out in despair. This voice sometimes comes to us direct--as with the procrastinating Rudolph in Concrete, who is supposed to be working on a book of musicology, but instead obsesses over the perfect first sentence and rants about his sister and Austria and his illness. Or the voice comes to us by way of another party--as in Old Masters, in which Atzbacher spends much of the book waiting for Reger in the museum, and as he waits we get detailed reminisces of the things Reger has said, along with thoughts of his own, as well as those of the museum guard (see my entry on Old Masters); or in The Loser, in which the narrator, after the suicide of his friend Wertheimer, ponders their abandonment of careers as concert pianists, in the face of their contact and relationship with the fictionalized Glenn Gould. In Correction, the narrator accepts an invitation to sift through the papers of his friend Roithamer (who also committed suicide, and who was reportedly based on Wittgenstein), and similarly recalls the words and actions of his late friend.

In each of these books, Bernhard employs similar methods in the service of similar concerns (full disclosure: I have not actually finished reading Correction; I read about 45 pages several weeks ago, but sleepiness ruled the day, and I was not up to the task; I intend to return to it soon). Huge half- or full-book-length paragraphs; long, winding, repetitive sentences; displaced narration. We encounter rants--about art, humanity, above all about the corruption and filth of Austria. It might sound as if these books are virtually identical, but while the methods and concerns are similar, the effect is unique to each.

For those of us who care about such things, the publication last year, for the first time in English (translated from the German by Michael Hoffmann), of Bernhard's first novel, Frost, was a major literary event--of significantly more importance than most of what seems to set the book world atwitter. Frost was originally published in 1963, twelve years before Correction (which is the earliest of the other Bernhard novels I own). Flipping through the book, right away differences are apparent: actual paragraph breaks! Rarely a paragraph longer than two pages! And, at 342 pages, the book is considerably longer than his other fiction (100-150 pages longer than Correction and The Loser, more than twice as long as both Old Masters and Concrete). In other ways, however, it quickly becomes clear that Bernhard's concerns in this novel were of a piece with his later fiction, though he had not yet refined his methods.

In Frost, we again have an anguished voice coming to us, this time again filtered through a narrator. The narrator is a medical internist who has been tasked to observe and report on a man named Strauch, a painter, the brother of the assistant doctor's. He poses as a law student so that Strauch will not suspect him of any connection with his brother, who he has not seen in years. And so we get Strauch's despairing and contradictory view of the world, which is not at all unrecognizable in a Bernhard character. We get comments like the following:
"Nothing is progressive, but nothing is less progressive than philosophy. Progress is tripe. Impossible." (86)
Or:
"Lawyers make nothing but confusion," he said. "A lawyer is an instrument of the devil. In general, he's a fiendish idiot, banking on the stupidity of people much more stupid than himself, and by God he's always right." [. . .] "Jurisprudence creates criminality, that's a fact. Without jurisprudence, there would be no crime. Did you know that? Unlikely as it may sound, that's the truth of the matter." (125)
Or:
Newspapers were the greatest wonders of the world, they knew everything, and only through them did the universe become animated for their readers, the ability to picture everything was only preserved by newspapers. [. . .] "Of course, you have to know how to go about reading them," said the painter, "you mustn't just gobble them up, and you mustn't take them too seriously either, but remember they are miraculous." [. . .] "The dirt which people hold against newspapers is just the dirt of the people themselves, and not the dirt of the newspapers, you understand! The newspapers do well to hold up a mirror to people that shows them as they are--which is to say, revolting." (140-141)
The use of quotations marks setting off Strauch's supposed actual words from the narrator's recounting of them is something Bernhard abandoned in the later books. The sentences are much shorter. Though the book is still darkly comic like the others, the tortured worrying of a topic from every possible angle, to extreme and ridiculous degrees, is foreshortened here. Strauch does beat on a subject for a time, per the internist's account, but not to the excessive extent of later Bernhard characters. Still, the methods are recognizable, though the effect is perhaps somewhat muted by comparison.

But, Strauch talks like this, on and on, bending the narrator's ear, occupying most of his time, till the narrator forgets why he is there, what he is supposed to be doing. What can he say about the painter? Everything seems clear to him, but impossible to convey to another. And here the narrator produces a fully formed thought that, I think, represents an unexpected nod from Bernhard--almost as if he is telling us what the point is (almost), not just of Frost and Strauch's despairing voice within, but all of his narratives. Here it is:
What sort of language is Strauch's language? What can I make of his scraps of thought? Things that initially struck me as disjointed and incoherent, actually possess "truly immense connections"; the whole thing is in the nature of an enormous transfusion of words into the world, into humans, "a pitiless proceeding against stupidity," as he would say, "an uninterrupted, regeneration-worthy backdrop of sound." How get that down? What notes? Schematic or systematic to what point? His outbursts descend on me like rockfalls. Abruptly, things he says detach themselves from the explosive guffaw of ridicule which he reserves for himself "and the world." Strauch's language is the language of the heart muscle, a scandalous "cerebral pulse." It is rhythmic self-abasement under the "subliminal creak" of his own rafters. His notions and subterfuges, fundamentally in accord with the barking of those dogs that he drew my attention to, with which he "scattered me to the air." Can it still be described as language? Yes, it is the false bottom of language, the heaven and hell of language, the mutiny of rivers, "the steaming word-nostrils of brains that are in a state of endless and shameless despair." Sometimes he will speak a poem, and then tear it apart, reformulate it as a "power plant," "a barracks for the raw philosophy of a wordless tribe," as he says. "The world is a world of recruits, it needs to be brutalized, you need to teach it to shoot, and not to shoot." He rips the words out of himself as from a swamp. This violent ripping out of words leaves him dripping with blood. (148-149)
A passage like this strikes me as highly unlikely to appear in the mature Bernhard fiction. But I submit that it serves very well as a description of not only Bernhard's fiction, but also, perhaps, the attitude we might take to the anguished voices contained in it. Because these are indeed voices of despair, from characters who are suffering, characters who have all but given up, in the articulation of the despair, and who, in some cases, ultimately actually do give up. A "pitiless proceeding against stupidity"; "rhythmic self-abasement": these phrases are incredibly apt. In Old Masters, Reger spends most of his time ranting about art, the awfulness of it, the absurdity of it, but art is ultimately all that makes life worth living. In the other books, as well as in Old Masters, life itself is found wanting, but life is all there is, except for death.

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Axes of Judgment

At Fact Magazine, k-punk has a great interview with Simon Reynolds, on the occasion of his upcoming book, Bring the Noise: Twenty Years of writing about Hip Rock and Hip Hop. I've written some about my own approaches to pop and rock. I've wanted to open myself up to the possibilities of finding pleasure in different kinds of music previously unknown to me, but in thinking about it I've managed to confuse myself. Plenty of music I like I can only listen to as a complete outsider, unless I invest a lot of time and money into obsessing about each and every scene. Some of the anxiety I've felt about music has stemmed from the insane realization that I cannot do this (as if I should want to!). So the music comes to me as pop, and must come to me as pop, in a sense, or divorced from the scene from which it comes (unless it exists purely as pop, i.e., music to meant to chart, as something like Kelly Clarkson is). And I cherry-pick various styles of music, getting enjoyment across the board. But my main mode of association with music, I sometimes forget, is in delving deep. If I find something I dig, my tendency is to want to hear everything I can by that artist, and all related offshoots and bands. (Incidentally, I think of these questions as being related to certain literary questions I've been asking, particularly into "genre".)

Anyway, I'll be reading this book when it appears. Here's an excerpt from the interview.
Fact: Let’s turn now to your rehabilitation of 'rockism'. You situate the book as picking up the story where Rip it Up left off, but the attack on 'rockism' originated with post-punk. Is the reclaiming of 'rockism' an unlearning of post-punk orthodoxy, or can your take on rockism be seen as in some ways continuous with post-punk?

SR: A complicated area. Obviously, the idea of rockism as a bad thing, a blinkered mindset, was a really useful initiative when first mooted in post-punk days, and it carried on being salient and productive for some time after that. There are many aspects of rockism that remain worth attacking - privileging of the electric guitar; any approach that fixates on the song and sees rock as form of surrogate literature, the songwriter as story teller; limiting notions of authenticity, et al. I would agree with those who argue that rockism actually limits one’s understanding of rock music itself, of where its power lies. And those died-in-the-wool rockists still lurking out there who dismiss disco/rap/techno/etc aren’t “real” music are reactionary fools who deserve our scorn.

That said, the anti-rockist polemic that resurged this decade seems to have developed a kind of runaway momentum, a malign logic that some people followed through to absurd places. You started getting people arguing that singling out a figure like Timbaland as an auteur and an innovator, that is rockist. Or that if you allowed your sense of the artist’s personality - their intent and integrity - to interfere with your enjoyment of a record, that meant your mind was still shackled by rockist hang-ups. There seems to be a drive towards eliminating all axes of judgement beyond pure pleasure, the supposed purity of the consumer’s unmediated experience of the pop commodity. The distinction between “urgent” and “trivial” is obviously a no-no for these heroic anti-rockists, but you even get people seriously debating whether distinctions based on quality - good/bad - are rockist and should be jettisoned. The most recent test case figure for this lunatic fringe of anti-rockism is Paris Hilton. When you’re developing elaborate validating analyses of Paris Hilton, that ought to be a sign that you’re gone too far!

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Monday, April 16, 2007

You Have to be Careful With the Essential

It's somehow not surprising that Lars at Spurious, one of our more enigmatic and literary bloggers, should be attracted to the music of Jandek, one of our more mysterious musicians. I have but one of the approximately 50 Jandek releases, but there is a hard-to-describe something--at once distancing and inviting--something which I can sense may draw me in further, though I haven't yet made the needed effort. I really know very little at all about him or his music.

Lars says:
Sometimes I think there's nothing I want to hear except for Jandek and nothing I want to think about except for Jandek. Everything else is pointless, non-essential. I listen to Comets on Fire and Espers and Boris and all that sort of thing. It's good, all good, but not essential. I listen to Mark Kozelek, which is nearly essential, and Bill Callahan and Michael Head - all very good, close to essential, but not quite essential. But you have to be careful with the essential, not to come too close to it. You need distance. You need time and space set aside. Sit down on the sofa. Do nothing else. Listen to nothing. Just Jandek. Just that: Jandek.
This more than anything I've yet read makes me want to spend some time with this music. But I come here, really, to talk about Bill Callahan, otherwise known as Smog. Because, for me, Bill Callahan's music is essential. I have and listen to a lot of music, but if I were forced to get rid of the bulk of my collection, Smog would survive. And if I were further forced to pare down to a tiny select few dozen albums--there would be much Smog remaining.

To Lars the essential requires distance, as well as time and space. The other music he references here can all be found in my collection (Michael Head aside, who I've not heard of), and they along with much else help form my daily soundtrack. But a lot of it is excellent aural wallpaper. Smog I listen to almost every day at work, too, his unlikely words and baritone voice piping in my ear while I'm doing something else, which would seem to not be the optimal use of this kind of essential music. The difference is Smog calls to me at odd other times. Those times when I'm home alone. After midnight. The quiet hours (though much of his music is plenty noisy).

Lately I've been listening continuously to the most recent Smog recording, A River Ain't Too Much To Love. A new album comes out next week credited to "Bill Callahan". Why the switch? Have we seen the last Smog record? Or (smog)? Will it make a difference? When A River Ain't Too Much To Love was released in 2005, I liked it right away, but it's not till recently that it's come to rival the very best of his music, which I consider to be, for example, 1997's Red Apple Falls or 2000's ill-titled Dongs of Sevotion. That my favorite had been ten years ago should not be taken as implying that the man's fallen off. He has not. Rain on Lens, from 2001, and Supper, from 2003, are both full of interesting, prickly music. Not to be ignored if you're interested in looking into Smog. (While we're at it, don't miss the great Wild Love (1995) and The Doctor Came at Dawn (1996), either. Or Knock Knock (1999). Ok. So I'm a fan.)

Reviewers have, with Callahan, all too often fallen prey to the tendency to attribute the opinions and attitudes in the songs, some of which are unsettling, to the man himself--the pitfall, I guess, of the music being the singular vision of one person, in a culture obsessed with personality, conditioned to only take art seriously, somehow, when it's factually true. Not to mention 40 years of confessional singer-songwriters. Callahan distances himself from this by the mere use of the Smog name, of course, but this doesn't stop people. (I can't imagine the adoption of his own name at this late date will do much to prevent this.) But his songs are true, the way art is true, true to themselves, to the singer, to the situation.

Callahan gives us excellent, quotable lines ("Whenever I get dressed up/I feel like an ex-con trying to make good", from "Ex-Con" on Red Apple Falls), but the unexpected grace notes are perhaps more striking. One of my favorite moments is in "Red Apple Falls" itself, when the singer pulls back from singing about the widow who "says it's hard to live/on the lonely version of love I give", reminded of the time his brother died, his parents "slowly trying to do themselves in/inch by inch/day by day/and the telephone ring's/like a banshee wail". This is a slow, dirge-like song, with minimal instrumentation, some acoustic guitar, piano. When the words "banshee wail" are sung, Callahan's voice is subtly louder, punctuating the startling moment.

One of the standout songs on A River Ain't Too Much To Love is "The Well", and it has a moment that has bothered me. As the song begins, over a minimal repeating guitar figure and simple drum pattern, with violin, the singer "could not work/so I threw a bottle into the woods", but he "felt bad for the doe paw/And the rabbit paw" (I love this). He runs into the woods and encounters "an old abandoned well", "With a drip hanging from the bucket still". Periodically the words are punctuated by a more insistent drum beat, which retreats to the original pattern. The singer pulls the boards off the well and stares into the "black black black". Then comes a great touch: "I guess everybody has their own thing/That they yell into a well". He yells his yell, into the black, only to find the drip has dropped onto his back:
I knew if I stood up
That drip would roll down my back
Into no man's land

So I stayed like that
Staring into the black black black
Then comes the line that nearly upends it for me: "Well they say black is all colors at once". Except that they don't. "They" conventionally say white is "all colors at once". I've stumbled on this line since I first heard it nearly two years ago. But I've decided to let it go, not least because he could merely mean that black absorbs all the colors of the visible spectrum and reflects none of them (oh come on! he could totally mean that!). But more importantly, the idea suits the song. It's true. In the specificity of the moment, it works. He sings:
So I gave it my red rage my yellow streak
The greenest parts of me
And my blues and I knew just what I had to do

I had to turn around and go back
And let that drip roll down my back
And I felt so bad about that

But wouldn't you know
When I turned to go
Another drip was forming
On the bottom of the bucket
And I felt so good about that

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Sunday, April 15, 2007

Paper Anniversary

One year ago today, right around now actually, Aimée and I were married. It's been a good year. We've learned a lot about ourselves and about each other, some of what it takes for two people to live together, committed to a life shared. Last year, I described Aimée as "a beautiful, wonderful woman: [...] fiercely intelligent, independent-minded, sexy, funny, sweet, and more than a little crazy." All true. I am fortunate just to know her, let alone find myself married to her.

It's chilly and rainy this Sunday here in Baltimore, whereas last year at this time it was an unseasonably warm, clear-skied Saturday. The rain has more or less kept us inside, which is nice. We've slept in lavishly and done a little calming yoga, later we'll eat dinner and watch Buffy before turning in. Next Friday we travel to California for our official anniversary gift to ourselves. But today, after several hectic weeks, quietness was just what we needed, and so we've marked the day itself just by being together.

Aimée, I am proud to know you and proud to call you my wife, my spouse, my partner in life, my love. Let's make the next year even better.

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Friday, April 13, 2007

Vonnegut

I haven't had much time lately, keeping me away from here and forcing me to leave some posts on the back-burner, unfinished. I did, however, want to duck in and say a wee bit about Kurt Vonnegut, who died the other day. I've always liked Vonnegut, read several of his novels, though I was never a huge fan. Outside of Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat's Cradle (my two favorites), and maybe Galapagos, much of his work seemed sort of random to me. It was never entirely clear to me what the point of some of the books was--often things didn't seem to hang together much. That said, even the seemingly more random works were often full of a lot of great, funny writing. And it occurs to me now that perhaps they weren't meant to "hang together" and that I may have been trying to force them into novel-sized holes.

I have a friend who is a huge Vonnegut fan. In fact, it was mostly her copies of books I read, when we were roommates nearly a decade ago. (Unfortunately, she didn't have Mother Night, a book I've seen several mentions of in the last couple of days, so I've not read it. I did see the mostly panned movie starring Nick Nolte. I liked it.) Before that, I used to sit around with her and her other friends, listening to them talk about writers, in a way I'd never experienced, and they all loved Kurt Vonnegut. His humor and basic humanity is enormously appealing to a lot of readers. For me, I think it might be time to re-visit Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat's Cradle, and seek out Mother Night and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.

Another friend used to enjoy telling the story of a high school friend of his who wrote Vonnegut a letter, asking him for advice on being a writer. Vonnegut wrote back to the effect of "Screw you! No one ever gave me any advice!" His friend thought this was fantastic and got the letter framed.

In recent years, with Bush and the terror war against Iraq, Vonnegut had of course re-emerged somewhat as a sort of Mark Twain-style anti-imperialist quipster. And he remained enormously entertaining as such. But I felt a certain unease watching his appearances or reading his columns and interviews in these recent years. He would make appropriately biting remarks about politics and bitterly cynical comments about human nature, all well and good, and often very funny. But then he'd talk about wishing he were dead, that everyone he'd loved was dead, that he wished he'd died in his house-fire, and he seemed to really mean it. He seemed to be bitterly pissed that he was still alive having to put up with the likes of people. I wasn't offended or anything, but I felt for the man. He might not have wanted my sympathy, and of course he thought it was great joke to speak of atheists in heaven, but I hope he's in a better place now, whatever that might mean. Rest Well.

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Thursday, April 05, 2007

iPod rundown - 04/05/07

1. Matmos - "For the Trees (Return)": This pretty, sort of country-ish song is from The Civil War. In the first episode of Woebot.tv, in which Woebot talked about his favorite albums from 2006, he praised Matmos' fantastic The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of the Beast as their best album (I agree), but then referred to The Civil War as embarrassing. Hey! Anyway, I like the album. It's not nearly as good as the later one, but it has a lot of great music on it, I think.

2. Throwing Muses - "Epiphany": In 2003, Throwing Muses unexpectedly released a new album after having had to break up several years earlier for financial reasons (no one bought their consistently excellent records, no one went to see them play; I went by myself to see them at the 9:30 Club in DC in 1996, just before the end, in support of the great Limbo cd, and the place was only 1/3 filled; they were amazing...). This "reunion" album is self-titled (they claim their first full-length album, from 1986, was actually "untitled"), and it's hard-charging, raw stuff, of which "Epiphany" is a representative example.

3. Cat Power - "Salty Dog": This nice version of the traditional folk song appears on The Covers Record.

4. The Ex - "Fistful of Feed": More excellent rock music from the Dutch anarchists; awesome. Dizzy Spells is the album, and was actually my introduction to this essential band (recorded by Steve Albini; it sounds great).

5. Fridge - "Ark": I was briefly really into Kieran Hebden's solo project, Four Tet, and his band Fridge (AllMusic describes them as a post-rock trio, which sounds about right). I played Fridge's Happiness cd incessantly for months. And yet now it's been several years since I've listened to it at all. This track is the opening song from the earlier Eph. I still like it quite a bit. It always feels to me like it's on the way somewhere, but never quite gets there.

6. Beanie Sigel (feat. Bub B) - "Purple Rain": This was the most-talked about song on Sigel's The B. Coming, one of the most praised rap albums of the last couple of years. I like the album, though I admit that I've had a hard time seeing why this song in particular excites everybody. A little too much of the izzle-speak, frankly.

7. Fleetwood Mac - "Little Lies": Another Fleetwood Mac song for one of these things? Well, at least it's again from a different album. Funny, in 1987, as I've mentioned more than once before, I was still listening almost exclusively to classic rock. So, when news came that Fleetwood Mac had a new album coming out, it was a big deal to me. A little embarrassing. In the event, Tango in the Night is only half good. There are some interesting Lindsey Buckingham songs (like "Big Love" and "Caroline"), weird and really kind of bad Steve Nicks tragedies ("Seven Wonders"?), and the typically boring fare from Christine McVie. "Little Lies" is a McVie song, and it became a pretty big hit. I have some affection for it, but it's rather cheesy. I've gotten rid of the cd.

8. Hendrix - "Stone Free": From Are You Experienced?, obviously. Maybe I just missed it, even with all my classic rock listening, but I don't really notice Hendrix's influence on any other rock. Unless it's so pervasive I just can't hear it.

9. The Black Heart Procession - "A Heart Like Mine": This comes from my favorite Black Heart Procession album, Three, also the first one I ever got. I like them; they remind me of Tom Waits in some respects, of Souled American in others. First encountered them opening for Modest Mouse.

10. The Rapture - "Sister Saviour": Another song from the second DFA label compilation, a dub mix of one of the better songs from The Rapture's Echoes. I like it.

11. Palace Music - "Tonight's Decision (And Hereafter)": Is Will Oldham our most death-haunted songwriter? This song appears on Viva Lost Blues. Some choice lyrics: "the rest suffer death in its own black blur"; "where are the days I used to be friendly?"

12. The Game-"Don't Worry": Pleasant, boring rap from The Documentary. This may be axed from the iPod.

13. Kid606 - "Longer": From Wire magazine Tigerbeat label-comp. I'm not really into Kid606's brand of electronic mash-up, though this track is not too annoying, and at 38 seconds doesn't wear out its welcome.

14. Polmo Polpo - "Like Hearts Swelling": Title track from a simply gorgeous record. I have Polmo Polpo categorized as "electronic", but this 9+ minute track doesn't sound like much electronic music; it sounds more like music from a strange, distorted string quartet, with some other instrumentation I had a hard time picking out of the mix (it does sound as if the performance has been processed with electronics to a certain extent, so like Matmos' music in that respect, I suppose). A peek at the liner notes tells me that this track was, in fact, built around a live, improvised performance of double bass, accordian (the instrument I couldn't identify, I'm sure), electronics (by Sandro Perri, who basically is Polmo Polpo), and viola. Plaintive. Mournful.

15. Richard & Linda Thompson - "Streets of Paradise": I've talked about them before. This is a lovely Richard-sung song from Pour Down Like Silver, an album I looked for and coveted for years before it finally was reissued on cd a couple years back; it's now pretty easy to find.

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Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Sam Harris v. Andrew Sullivan

Mark at Ready Steady Blog points to a lengthy debate between Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan at Beliefnet. Since I find both Harris and Sullivan generally unimpressive, and debate about the existence of God extremely tiresome, I wasn't planning on plowing through the thing any time soon. However, I got involved in a mini-exchange in the comments to Mark's post (based on the opening email in the debate from Harris, I said that Harris' definition of "reason" is problematic; another Richard said that Harris had not actually defined reason, but had attempted to define faith; I argued that his definition of faith implied a definition of reason; he said it didn't, and that Harris' use of reason was more expansive than I was giving him credit for), prompting me to read it now. On balance, I was not blown away; some observations follow.

Harris says a lot that I more or less agree with when it comes to questions of empirically verifiable knowledge about the world, and the likely factual truth of any particular religious belief. And Sullivan does, indeed, as Harris charges, basically ignore this stuff. This shouldn't be surprising, at least in part because Sullivan routinely has problems with evidence in his political writing. However, Harris comes off as remarkably tone-deaf, and Sullivan at times surprisingly compelling--but only when he's talking about his experience of his faith, not the "beliefs" themselves. Harris is wrapped up in factual truth-claims of religion, Sullivan is more interested in his religious experience.

I used to make all kinds of arguments like those that Harris makes, until I realized that they didn't matter; I recognize his tone-deafness as resembling my own. Other-Richard was disturbed that Sullivan, he says, "essentially said that his beliefs existed independently of any form of evidence or argument". But he doesn't quite say this (or, if he does, it's more because he's an inept debater). He really says this of his faith. I think atheists all too often refuse to see a distinction.

But, as might be expected, my main problem with the exchange is this: politics. Harris claims that the survival of the species may well depend on our ability to eradicate religion. Religion, therefore, must end (good luck with that). He says, in his opening salvo:
We are both especially concerned about Islam at this moment--because so many Muslims appear to be 'fundamentalists' and because some of the fundamentals of Islam pose special liabilities in a world overflowing with destructive technology.
And in his first reply, Sullivan says:
We agree that Islamic fundamentalism is by far the gravest threat in this respect (because of its confort [sic] with violence); and that the core feature of what occurred on 9/11 was not cultural, political, or economic - but religious. We agree that a large part of the murder and mayhem in today's Iraq is also rooted in religious difference, specifically the ancient rift between Sunni and Shia. We also agree, I think, that the degeneration of American Christianity into the crudest forms of Biblical inerrantism, emotional hysteria and cultural paranoia is a lamentable development.
The fact that they, and too many others, agree on this is part of why this conversation, as ever, basically goes nowhere. The fact that they believe that the problems besetting the world (from 9/11 to Iraq to American domestic problems, etc.) are basically religious and not "cultural, political, or economic" means that those problems will not go away. They are effacing politics, because discussing politics in any useful sense would mean challenging some basic premises of their own privileged existence.

Sullivan spends a huge portion of one of his replies in the exchange talking about "contingency"--how our lives are necessarily contingent: on time, place, culture, parents, history; how there can be no "contingency-free" existence. His bringing this up is interesting (even if he's constructed a straw man, since Harris never really said there could or ought to be a contingency-free existence, as he later points out). It's interesting because, in effect, in their refusal to admit that culture, politics, and economics might be determining factors even for those who seem to be in the grip of these religious fundamentalisms, they refuse to notice that the experience and practice of religious fundamentalists might also be contingent. And they absolutely refuse to recognize some of what that experience and practice might be contingent on: for example, the giant elephant in the room of Western Imperialism, in general, and American foreign policy, in particular. They refuse to notice explicit, longstanding policies of liberal economic dominance and their military enforcement. They refuse to notice intentional American patronage (that is, calling it a "mistake" is wildly disingenuous) of the most extreme elements in various other countries, and how this patronage might have affected the options available to the people in those countries. When the fundamentalists are the only ones who can ensure clean drinking water, where might your loyalties lie?

If I had a copy of Sam Harris' book, The End of Faith, in front of me, I'd quote those passages that I read previously which demonstrated to me the massive political blindspot at the center of his "humanistic" quest to rid the world of religion, and which effectively ensured that I'd be unlikely to read the book in full or bother with him much in the future. But that'll have to wait for a trip to the library and another post. (Hint: it has to do with extremism he identifies in certain political radicals, an extremism he naturally equates with religious fundamentalism. Second hint: Noam Chomsky, you'll be shocked to learn, is one of these radicals.)

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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Clumsiness in the Face of a Brilliant Narrative Mind

In my last post I wondered about the quantity of bad writing readers are willing to wade through in the name of story. In light of this, and the question of genre writing (and genre "ghettoes"), I was intrigued by this review by J F Quackenbush of Philip K. Dick's Confessions of a Crap Artist, at Wet Asphalt. The following passage in particular:
Dick's prose, and hence the true problem he presents to critical appraisal, is often slapdash, sloppy, and amateurish. This clumsiness in the face of the brilliant inventive narrative mind behind it has a way of detaching the reader, and with Confessions the themes of alienation and misunderstanding that so permeate his work function on that detachment in such a way as to leave the reader alienated himself, and yet completely engrossed. Here Dick's flaws as a stylist actually serve to heighten the reader's experience, and the obvious comparison is to much more well-regarded technicians like Thomas Pynchon or William Gaddis whose prose often reflects stylistically and structurally the themes and moods of the story. From this, it is apparent that Dick is postmodern in a very unselfconscious way. Dick's postmodernism is a product of neurosis and style, and does not rely on the skillful artifice of a Pynchon or a Barth to convey the images and feelings of a postmodern world adrift in it's own hypochondria. Dick himself is a product of that world, the author himself didn't seem to understand why it was that he wasn't accepted as a more mainstream author, and had an ironic and good-humored detachment from the insanity of many of his own beliefs. Philip K. Dick is often held forth as an example of the best that Science Fiction has to offer, and in a way that's true, but at the same time it reveals some of the failings of the Sci Fi ghetto. Confessions of a Crap Artist, relying for success so heavily not just on the readers understanding of Philip K. Dick the individual, but also on the accidental brilliance of Dick's mediocre prose, is (almost) accidentally brilliant. To offer Philip K. Dick as one of the great writers of the 20th Century, as many have done, is therefore not unproblematic. Like Frank Herbert, Dick has an almost cult-like following who seem to be almost completely unaware of the many technical flaws and rough edges to the works of the respective men. Of course, Dick isn't nearly as inept as Herbert, and in that way it's an unfair comparison, at the same time the comparison is revealing as one of the reasons that Science Fiction authors have remained so long in their ghetto, and that is the overly sympathetic reading that Sci Fi authors often receive from their fan base. This is, I think, a critical distinction between the work of Literary authors and authors working in the various genre ghettoes.
There's a lot to unpack here, and I'm not going to try to do it in this post, not least because I've never read anything by Dick. But I think Quackenbush touches on points that make various online literary debates so difficult. Too often readers seem to be talking past each other. People read for different reasons, with different ends in mind, so when we all show up online, with our overlapping reading communities, confusion seems inevitable.

On a related note, Steve Mitchelmore posted today about beginning to read a thriller:
I had no expectations at all and it began well. The main character was introduced in crisp prose with a wonderful pulse. I learned of his mundanely pleasant life, his mysterious girlfriend and the suggestion of a dark cloud waiting to float over and block out the sunlight. No trouble. I've read many infinitely worse “literary” novels. Yet it was here that I put the book down. Now that a world had opened up, I wanted more. I wanted the whole book to be like this; a book of beginnings, sunlight ahead, and I knew that was not going to happen. That dark cloud scuttled over soon enough.
Fantastic. I don't mean anything like "yay, Steve! screw that genre crap!" Rather, Steve knows what kind of writing he needs, and he is able to articulate it, in his inimitable fashion. But I suspect that this post is incoherent to a lot of readers. And I don't mean that to sound condescending. I mean that, hell, I very likely would not have stopped reading a book that got off to the kind of start Steve describes, even if I think I do know what he means by "book of beginnings" (in some respects, I think Paul Auster is like this). But I'm not quite as confident about what kind of writing I need. I could say I have different needs at different times, and to some extent that's true. But it's becoming less and less true the more I read. I'm less and less interested in being up to date, or in reading a little of everything, and more interested in fulfilling some ill-defined literary desire I have. A desire I'm trying to define. I lack the discipline, in an odd way. I still feel compelled to finish a book, if it's at least passingly entertaining, even if it doesn't really address a deeper need, and even as I increasingly resent being pulled along by plot.

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Follow up on Cormac McCarthy

Commenting on my last post, Brandon says that, in fact, like "a thriller" The Road "had a certain 'pulp' quality which makes it fun", contrary to Levi Asher's dismissal. Makes it sound sort of like a "genre" novel, doesn't it? Which is funny, since I wrote not too long ago that "It's pointless to say that [McCarthy] 'wrote a genre novel'." Well, I still think it's pointless, but largely because it doesn't mean anything. The claim is devoid of content, positing McCarthy as a so-called "literary" writer who has written some undefined thing called "genre". This tells me nothing.

Some might argue that he's always written genre, in the sense of that fiction marketed as "literary fiction", but which doesn't question or ultimately stray from the dominant form of the novel. One of these people might be Ellis Sharp, who writes that McCarthy's writing doesn't "engage" him: "Although the prose looks more technically up to date than [Kiran] Desai’s I’m not entirely convinced that they are quite as far apart as all that." Ellis notes this McCarthy sentence from the same extract presented by Asher: "And on the far shore a creature that raised its dripping mouth from the rimstone pool and stared into the light with eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders." When I first read this sentence I tripped over the "sightless as the eggs of spiders", and I would have hard time arguing against Ellis' assessment that this is bad writing. (I like this comment from Ellis: "McCarthy’s eye is on the reader – not the creature.") And yet, as mentioned in the last post, I liked the "glaucoma" simile from earlier in the passage, as well as the insistent rhythm of the prose. Those carry more weight with me than the later poor sentence, at least in keeping me interested in reading the book.

Also in his comment, Brandon observes that McCarthy "constantly bounces between really good and laughably poor" and that, for him, "[t]his is part of his appeal". How much work do readers do forgiving bad writing in search of story? A lot, I think. I'm usually not interested in doing it. I'm happy to expend even considerable effort when I read, but I'm not interested in forcing my way through bad or clunky prose because there just might be some "story" lurking behind there somewhere. I'll say more on this point later. I've already said that McCarthy is not a key writer for me; indeed, the books of his I have read did not compel me to seek out the rest of his fiction. We'll see what happens when I read The Road.

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Monday, April 02, 2007

Thoroughly Humorless

I acquired Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road yesterday, as part of a birthday gift certificate-enabled book-buying bonanza. I've previously read only Blood Meridian and All The Pretty Horses (in a bold critical move, I prefer the former to the latter, by quite a lot), and in general I don't consider McCarthy at all central to my reading interests. I expected to borrow The Road from my father eventually (he's a McCarthy fan), but I keep hearing more and more about it and, I admit, my interest has been piqued by all the hubbub (not that it matters, but I swear I decided I would get it just before I heard that Oprah selected it for her book club thing, though I find that she selected it rather entertaining).

All of which is just a lead up to my noting Levi Asher's post today in which he reiterates his hatred of Cormac McCarthy (link via The Mumpsimus). He is certainly entitled to his taste, and as far as I can tell his taste does not resemble mine (for starters, I have never had much interest in Kerouac or Bukowski), which is fine. His critical assessment is honest: he's not trying to suggest that other people are stupid for liking McCarthy; he just doesn't get it. I thought his post was interesting, though, less for what he says about McCarthy, than for what those things say about his interests as a reader and how those are quite different than mine. He quotes for us two opening passages, the first is from The Inheritance of Loss, by Kiran Desai, the second is from The Road. He does this to show what is good about Desai's opening, bad about McCarthy's (go to Asher's site to read them; they're too long for me to usefully reproduce here). I was amused to find that, after reading both passages, I felt little inclination to want to continue reading Desai's book, and I do still want to read The Road.

Then Asher tells us what he doesn't like about the McCarthy passage. He says:
The first thing the reader detects is that this will be a thoroughly humorless book, a book of punishing, guilt-ridden unpleasantness, a book that must be aimng to be "good for us", because it's sure not aiming to be fun. That's the moral outlook Cormac McCarthy always offers -- a stern "church lady" tone warning of stark choices between evil and redemption.
I think this is a strange comment to make. No one ever accuses Cormac McCarthy of being anything like a broadly comic writer, that's for sure, but an epithet like "thoroughly humorless" still seems weird. I've not read enough to be able to argue that there's some great comic vein in McCarthy's work that he's just too dense to get, but I seem to recall references in some reviews to dark humor in McCarthy in general, and The Road in particular. For example, in a review picked more or less at random, here is Benjamin Whitmer at The Modern Word:
As bleak as the novel is, it’s also funnier than one might expect. Granted, it generally takes a grisly sense of humor to properly appreciate McCarthy, but that’s what makes his humor so effective. The funniest bits of The Road are found in the viciously sharp dialogue, particularly in scenes where the man and the boy encounter other stragglers on the road.
Ok, so maybe there's some darkly funny stuff Asher just couldn't manage to get to, especially since he finds the prose itself so galling. I can see having trouble with McCarthy's style. In the past, it's taken me a few pages (ok, 40) before I feel like I've adjusted to it. But the quoted passage definitely sets a mood and a tone, and the prose has an insistent rhythm, which is aided by the hated "ungrammatical half-sentences" (which are "the prose signature of junior high school students everywhere"--a cheap shot, sure, but this is hatred he's expressing, so cheap shots are to be expected). And I like the simile in the third sentence, in which the days are said to be increasingly gray, "Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world." I want to read more.

But that stuff's all down to basic taste, more or less, or can be argued to be, but in the middle of that passage of Asher's I quoted above, he says The Road is going to be "a book of punishing, guilt-ridden unpleasantness, a book that must be aim[i]ng to be 'good for us', because it's sure not aiming to be fun". It's not clear to me why he should think that the book "must be aiming to be good for us" like "medicine". Rather, it's not clear why he opposes such books with books that are "aiming to be fun", as if these are the only options we have. And, fun? What does fun have to do with it? Using the word "fun" implies, to me, a desire for broad entertainment. I might praise a pop song as fun or a movie comedy (or thriller, or whatever), but I read very little literature that could be helpfully described as "fun" (which is not remotely the same as "pleasure"), but it's beyond me why anyone would go into a book by Cormac McCarthy expecting to find something that could be called "fun". And of course, he knows he won't, since he's already expressed his distaste before, so in that sense his attempt to read The Road was not entirely honest (I don't mean that to sound snotty), since he doesn't seem able or willing to put aside his expectations of what a novel should be like in order to discover what might actually be worthwhile in McCarthy. But then nothing says he has to; you can't read or appreciate everything.

I hope to read The Road relatively soon and report here at least a little of my experience of it.

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New Music

Three months into the year, and I've bought just eight new cds, only three of which are 2007 releases: Panda Bear's Person Pitch; LCD Soundsystem's Sound of Silver; and Deerhoof's Friend Opportunity. It's completely unheard of for me to not have already bought new albums by certain old favorites, such as Modest Mouse or, especially, Kristin Hersh, not to mention a whole slew of other interesting looking releases, but time and money are an issue, so they'll have to wait.

Person Pitch is gorgeous. I especially like the 12+ minutes of "Bros"; this is the kind of song I could easily listen to all day long. Since 2004's Sung Tongs, reviewers have repeatedly (and lazily, it seems) cited the Beach Boys as a point of reference for Panda Bear's group, Animal Collective. The comparison is more conceptual, I think, than anything else . People are more reminded of the Beach Boys than really claiming that Animal Collective actually sound like them (I could be wrong; I don't hear it, in any event). But with Person Pitch, the sound of Panda Bear's voice comes through very much like one of the Beach Boys (if I cared about the Beach Boys, and could thus differentiate their voices, I could tell you which one). (See Simon Reynolds on Person Pitch in the Observer: "Like Animal Collective, Lennox [i.e., Panda Bear] pulls off the trick of being simultaneously poppy and abstract, winsome and deranging.")

Sound of Silver is pretty good. People seem to be talking most about "Someone Great", but after a handful of listens my favorite track is easily "All My Friends". On a number of the other tracks, James Murphy's vocals are a distraction from the otherwise enjoyable music. Once again I feel that all too often Murphy sounds like he's suffering from a major head cold when he sings (see "North American Scum"). Check out Tom Breihan's entertaining feature about LCD Soundsystem and interview with James Murphy in The Village Voice. Interestingly, Tom seems to think (and appears to reflect a general consensus, not that I've followed up on it) that the slower songs (like "Someone Great") are more central to this record than the last one, which surprises Murphy. It surprises me, too, since the two albums don't sound all that different from each other (though I like the new one more, I think), but also, as with previous LCD Soundsystem music, all of my favorite songs are the faster songs ("All My Friends", of course, but also the opener "Get Innocuous!" and "Us V Them"). They're the songs on which the vocals are the least distracting, for one thing, but also, as with Panda Bear's "Bros" (or Animal Collective's "Banshee Beat"), the kinds of songs that have a kind of repetitive beauty that I can just get lost in.

Deerhoof's Friend Opportunity has, so far, alas, failed to click with me. It has some great moments, but despite its brevity, it seems diffuse. I have been unable to zero in on any particular track.

I expect to buy Bill Callahan's first non-Smog album, when it comes out later this month. And I think I'll post something about the other new cds I've acquired this year. They're all 2006 releases, and I think a reassessment of my favorites from last year may be in order. . .

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