Thursday, April 27, 2006

Politics and Literature

In response to a brief post about George Saunders at The Reading Experience, commenter Tony Christini (see his website, Politics and the Novel) says, in part,
All story is in some sense tentative, of course, just as all science is in some sense theory. It doesn't mean nothing is proved.

As Noam Chomsky notes: "It is almost certain that literature will forever give far deeper insight into what is sometimes called 'the full human person' than any modes of scientific inquiry may hope to do...."

But don't hope to give "deep insight," striving writer, because you just might wind up proving something, like there's a bunch of "Good Germans" around here, in this way and that way and the other way, which would in any case be utterly useless and unimportant knowledge, since soft heads like Chomsky are surely wrong that:

"We learn from literature as we learn from life.... In fact, most of what we know about things that matter comes from such sources, surely not from considered rational inquiry [science], which sometimes reaches unparalleled depths of profundity, but has a rather narrow scope."
Before I go any further, let me say that I first encountered Tony three or more years ago in the ZNet forums (unfortunately, these old forum exchanges no longer appear to be archived over there). There had been, as I recall, an interesting discussion of The Corrections and James Wood's criticism. I then posted something recommending Peter Dimock's A Short Rhetoric for Leaving the Family, a strange little novel with definite political themes; Tony read it and posted some critical observations of his own about the book. I found him to be a careful reader and an intelligent, thoughtful guy.

However, this is at least the third blog post I've read where he has commented and has quoted Chomsky in support of the "political novel" (the others that I immediately remember have been at The Valve, here and here). I admire Chomsky's political writing a great deal, and I even more or less agree with the quoted remarks. So my problem is not with the remarks themselves. But, first, they are exactly that: remarks. They all come from forum discussions or interviews (they are familiar to me, both as a regular reader of Chomsky and as a semi-regular visiter to, if not participant in, the ZNet forum), and as such are basically "throwaway" lines, typically in response to questions about science and "human nature"--that is, Chomsky himself is not extolling the virtues of political fiction. I don't mean to suggest that all of Chomsky's responses in the forum or in interviews are throwaway lines. Of course they are not. Chomsky is a very thoughtful and generous respondent. But he does not engage in these exchanges for the purposes of discussing literature. In fact, on several other occasions it has become clear that he keeps his reading of literature separate from his political reading. In general, I have found that he is reluctant to comment on fiction, or the arts in general (he is occasionally asked--people ask him all kinds of weird things). (Granted, in his writing Chomsky does quite often describe political statements as "Orwellian" or sarcastically sum up a situation with "Orwell would be proud"--but then he doesn't consider 1984 to be of especially high literary quality. It's one of the few novels on which I can recall him expressing an opinion of any kind.)

Second, the remarks strike me as highly unlikely to persuade anyone. Certainly not Dan Green, whose position on the matter is clear. Indeed, in a post from December 2004, Green sought to clarify his position on political literature, in the wake of the discussion resulting from this post (also from December). In doing so, he quoted a statement from the site Imaginative Literature and Social Change (another, related site run by Tony Christini):
Imaginative writing can be both literary and political simultaneously, and inevitably is, to varying degrees. In its own way, fiction can accomplish something similar to what Noam Chomsky and many other progressive workers try to accomplish through non-fiction: the creation of works that clarify and better the world socially, politically, culturally. . . .
Dan follows this immediately with this:
Right down to the invocation of Chomsky, this is the sort of thing I object to when I hear talk about "political literature."
Given a statement like this, it strikes me more than a little odd that one would continue to cite Chomsky (or for that matter, Howard Zinn, as he has also) in this context. It amounts to little more than an appeal to authority, and it does not further the debate. At the outset of the later December post, Dan specifies what he means by "political fiction":
When I use the word "politics" in this context, I am referring to its narrowest, most concrete meaning: "the art or science concerned with guiding or influencing governmental policy"; "the art or science concerned with winning and holding control over a government"; "political actions, practices, or policies." In my opinion, when writers or critics speak of fiction as being "political," they most often mean that it concerns some subject or idea that might have some immediate consequence in terms of "influencing governmental policy."
I actually find this to be a too narrow view of "political" art. More to the point, I do not think this is necessarily what is most often meant when people refer to fiction as "political". However, for the sake of my own clarity, I should reiterate that I agree that the aesthetic experience of art is what is of foremost importance, by far. I agree that attempts by artists to intentionally send political messages with their art most often fail to succeed as art. But, good art can and does nevertheless powerfully communicate social or political ideas. They can be "political" in effect, if not in intention per se. Not that they incite people to, for example, demand a certain course of action or a certain piece of legislation, but that the experience of art can and does influence the ways in which we see the world, perhaps opening our eyes in the process, allowing us to see how other people live, to understand a little bit better. This experience is often better at illuminating "human nature" than is science (the claims of evolutionary psychology notwithstanding). I have no problem calling this experience in some way "political"--and, unlike Dan, I don't think that this drains the word of all meaning. But, that said, I wouldn't try to convince someone, Dan Green in particular, by quoting vague remarks from Noam Chomsky.

Interestingly, in the comment section to the earlier December post, there is much ado about what is meant by "political" (hence, of course, Dan's desire to clarify). One commenter asserted that overtly political literature offers "little surprise", to which Tony objected by citing various novels and satirical pieces such as "A Modest Proposal". Dan responded:
Political fiction that uses a political subject or seems inspired by some political concern will be "surprising" if it uses this inspiration to explore the complex and inevitably muddled conditions that actually motivate human behavior and institutions, that underly the superficially "political." (Satire such as Swift's is something else entirely.) Unsurprising political fiction merely rehearses already familiar political or politicized ideas. Surprising political fiction winds up not being about politics in the superficial sense at all. Unsurprising political fiction does indeed just "grind away to make a point." Unfortunately, most political fiction falls in the latter category.
I find this interesting because I think the first sentence fits in with what I'm trying to define above. Continuing in that vein, the following passage appears on Tony's site immediately after the paragraph Dan quotes:
Fiction can be used to address what Chomsky calls "Orwell's Problem": How is it that oppressive ideological systems are able to "instill beliefs that are firmly held and widely accepted although they are completely without foundation and often plainly at variance with the obvious facts about the world around us?" In other words, how is it that people are persuaded to act willingly and willfully against their own best interests and against values - regarding themselves and others - they otherwise hold dear? Fiction can debunk harmful propaganda and taboos; it can help energize, motivate, inspire and all the while maintain a vital literary quality by staying focused in part on fiction's core strengths, the plumbing of the depths of the human condition through character -- psychology, personality, motivation, mindset....
I have little problem with most of this--on the surface it's also not incompatible with my own conception outlined above, except that, crucially, I think that when a writer's primary goal for creating a work of fiction is to "debunk harmful propaganda and taboos" and "help energize, motivate, and inspire" then that work of fiction is highly unlikely to succeed as art. (Note, also, that here again Chomsky is anyway not talking about fiction himself.)

Unfortunately, it appears that Tony Christini does subscribe to Dan Green's definition of political fiction, as demonstrated, for example, in his same comment to Dan's clarifying December post (where, again, the words of an authority are provided):
(1994) Michael Hanne, The Power of the Story: Fiction and Political Change: “One of the earliest, and best known, examples of a novel which is claimed to have exercised a massive, direct, social influence is Goethe’s story of hopeless love, The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), which is said to have so stirred the feelings of a whole generation of young readers all over Western Europe that a number were recorded as committing suicide in imitation of its lovesick hero. Of a very different kind is the impact claimed for the novels of Dickens and Charles Kingsley, which have been credited with contributing, through the exposure of some of the social evils of mid-nineteenth century Britain, to the most important pieces of reform legislation enacted in the later part of the century. Perhaps the most specific (and best-documented) claim for a novel’s leading to significant legislative change relates to the publication in 1906 of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which, through its depiction of the lives of workers in the Chicago meatpacking industry, is reliably said to have been instrumental in ensuring the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in the U.S. Congress a few months later…. (A curious knock-on effect of the widespread anxiety about the health risks associated with canned foods provoked by The Jungle was the immediate collapse of whole communities based on canning quite remote from Chicago—including those in my country, New Zealand.)”
The examples provided do not inspire confidence. Note that the social or political impact of the novels in question is mentioned, but there is no commentary about their respective literary merits. So this passage does nothing to further the argument that fiction can be both politically motivated and literary. As for the effects themselves....for one thing, at risk of being excessively glib, I strongly doubt Göethe intended to raise the rate of suicide with his work. I've never heard of Charles Kingsley, but certainly I've often read about the impact Dickens' novels allegedly had on popular awareness of social conditions in Britain. But nothing is said, either by this critic or by Tony, about the literary aspects of Dickens. Maybe it's to be taken for granted that Dickens' work was generally of high literary quality, but I don't think that's getting us anywhere, especially when the next example is Upton Sinclair's muckraking novel, The Jungle. It's well known that Sinclair wrote The Jungle with a political purpose in mind (though it might be worth considering that the political purpose he had in mind was different than the one that was achieved), but I've never heard anyone seriously praise its aesthetic qualities.

Backtracking a little to Dickens, it can be argued that he succeeded aesthetically in spite of whatever political motives he may have had in his fiction. In fact, Dan, an admirer of Dickens, is on record as doing exactly that. In another post, this one from last November, addressing an Ellis Sharp post in which Sharp, in part, argued against Nabokov's "aestheticizing impulse" in the latter's discussion of Bleak House, Dan wrote:
In my view, that Bleak House might express Dickens's "rage and contempt" is not necessarily one of its admirable qualities. Fortunately, what Dickens really did in this novel--perhaps more effectively than any of his other books--was to transcend his rage and contempt and to translate them (if indeed they were feelings he held) into literary art, into a novel that is indeed fully shaped and ingeniously structured. And so what if the novel "projects Dickens’s vision of England as a rotten and corrupt society"? Such visions are a dime a dozen. The only thing that distinguishes Dickens's "vision" is that it served as the impetus for a series of great fictions. Nabokov was right: What makes Dickens still a writer well worth reading are his specifically literary gifts, his ability to create singularly memorable characters, his prodigious prose style.
I'm more sympathetic than Dan is to the general position held by Sharp in his post (which is ostensibly about politics and literary allusion in Bob Dylan songs), but I agree with Dan that ultimately it's because of Dickens' aesthetics that he is still worth reading today. The point is not that it's irrelevant that Dickens wanted to expose certain social conditions. But that's not why Dickens was a great writer, and his fiction is at its weakest when it is most obviously political.

I think Tony Christini has made many valid points when he's commented at some of the blogs I read regularly. For example, where Dan says "If the goal is so resolutely political, it can't also be literary, or the two terms are simply washed of their meaning..." I agree with Tony that "This is not argument, or evidence, or explanation. It is simply your assertion re-asserted." I think Dan has a tendency to do that in the comment section when pressed. But he also often revisits topics in more detail in subsequent posts. However, I don't think Tony's comments, in the vein quoted above, further the discussion either, or indicate that he's been paying attention to what Dan and others say. It would be more interesting to read an actual demonstration of the political elements of a novel enhancing its aesthetics or not hindering them. (To that end, I'm interested in taking a look at his own explicitly political novels, which are available through Mainstay Press, which he co-founded.)

More Jane Jacobs

Maud Newton provides space for a nice tribute to Jacobs by Duncan Merrill:
...Jacobs’s whole body of work, engages something much bigger than architecture and planning.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities is a humane book, a book about what we aspire to be and how we aspire to live, a book that stands in opposition to the idea that other people are to be escaped, or turned away. In Jacobs’s view, isolation was the problem in failing neighborhoods, and if you take that a step further, you see what she was suggesting about human life more generally. Any writer could learn something from her understanding of isolation and its varieties.

Jacobs was tough-minded, and a piquant writer. She had no time for squishy ideas about how communities might work. She wanted to know how they did work. That meant being right in the middle of it all and watching closely for months and years on end.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Smaller Sovereignties

In the wake of learning about the death of Jane Jacobs (link via Ed), I read this interesting interview with her, over at CounterPunch.

It's at first surprising to learn that she favored Quebec's separatism, but in her reasoning it makes perfect sense:
In 1979 and 1980, Jane Jacobs reached the conclusion that Quebec sovereignty was necessary because of her understanding of how cities emerge and how they influence the development of nations. She looked specifically at Montreal and Toronto and foresaw the regionalization of Montreal, making it into a sort of feeder for Toronto as regional airports are to a hub. “In sum,” she wrote, “Montreal cannot afford to behave like other Canadian regional cities without doing great damage to the economic well-being of the Quebecois. It must instead become a creative economic centre in its own right… Yet there is probably no chance of this happening if Quebec remains a province.”
Jacobs discusses the separation of Norway from Sweden in the early 20th century, which she says was positive for both countries, before the discussion moves on to Europe generally. I've long been suspicious of the unification of Europe; it's often argued that it's necessary, if only to combat the overweening power of the United States. Perhaps. But, the fierce opposition in France and in Ireland should give one pause (as should Big Money's overwhelming support for the EU in general). On balance, I tend to agree with Jacobs, who
is not terribly impressed by the blurring of national sovereignties and currencies in Europe. “I think it’s a mistake for all these Western European countries to blot out so many currencies in favor of who knows which one will win out, maybe Frankfurt. It will not favor all those countries. Europe had something really wonderful going for it with the different currencies. Look at all the development in Europe over so many centuries. They did get into those wars and pretty well ruined it. But they also had an awful lot of relationships which didn’t involve fighting each other, but involved learning from each other, and building on each others’ successes.”

Cities must relate to each other and flourish as equals according to Jane Jacobs. That explains why European cities like Paris, Copenhagen, Stockholm, and Berlin have all had important roles, because of their independence and their equal stages of development. When cities trade with each other, they require this kind of independence or else one becomes a supplier of the other and the relationship takes on some of the terrible aspects of empire, supply cities being bound to trade exclusively with the metropolitan city

Among the many lessons to be drawn from David Harvey's excellent study A Brief History of Neoliberalism (about which I plan to post at more length soon) is the idea that, with the dominant neoliberal policies, there is a lot of noise about "freedom", but the notion of freedom has almost completely been reduced in the popular imagination to "freedom of consumer choice" and other such limited conceptions, and people have internalized the alleged virtues of the freedom of capital to do as it pleases so that other ways of organizing things are literally unimaginable. The periphery is ever more subservient to the "center"--in this case meaning that resources are depleted in poorer countries for the sole enhancement of rich countries, with the poor effectively "paying tribute" (one of Harvey's favorite phrases) to the rich. Without economic independence, the freedom for regions to pursue independent courses is impossible, nominal political independence is moot.

In the interview, Jacobs talks of "nations" fighting for and/or gaining independence (Croats, Slovenians, French-Canadians). This is how the issue is invariably framed, but I think that it's highly problematic to think of sovereignty only in terms of nationality (Israel/Palestine and the problems in the former Yugoslavia strike me as emblematic of this). However, I think it's very true that social and economic organization work much better in smaller units. Back to the interview; Jacobs
developed the idea of smaller sovereignties in her recent book Dark Age Ahead. In it she explains how early medieval cities helped pull Europe out of the Dark Age because of subsidiarity, the principle that government works best when it is closest to the people it serves and the needs it addresses, and fiscal accountability, the principle that institutions collecting and disbursing taxes work most responsibly when they are transparent to those providing money. Both of these principles have almost disappeared from the modern world.
Dark Age Ahead sounds interesting (admittedly, I should probably finish reading her classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities first before getting to that one). These themes dovetail nicely with my growing interest in Anarchism; I'll be exploring them in more detail in the coming months. In that context, I also hope to finally get around to posting something halfway intelligent about Murray Bookchin's Anarchism, Marxism, and the Future of the Left before too much more time has passed.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Aidan Higgins

Among the many short works of fiction I've been reading lately have been some stories from Flotsam & Jetsam, by Aidan Higgins, the Irish writer. This is one of the books I acquired in the Big Dalkey Get mentioned previously. I read the first couple of stories and have been admiring his use of the language.

Here are some samples, all from the story "In Old Heidelberg". First:
A weak light left much of the face in shadow. A stiff crown of hair stood on end as though meditations of an intense and pious nature had been rudely interrupted. The face below showed neither surprise nor pleasure. It might have belonged to a disobliging churchman from a bygone time. A person, moreover, whose chief characteristic seems to be one of waiting and who, whether priest or defunct, is obliged to regard the living with a certain amount of apprehension, and almost resentment, as if by living they delayed the Judgement Day -- as in a sense indeed they did.
And here, describing the work of Irwin, a painter (with links to Wikipedia articles for those art-related items I had to look up):
Delicate colours emerged as though wrung out from their darker background [...] bemused little faces picked out of the surrounding dark by his brush and patience, fainter and more hopeless than the prisoners wilting under endless litigation in a canvas by Forain.

He first laid down a foundation of black and out of this primeval bog, in a month or two of excavating, a misted scene at last emerged -- grey, bled-off, revolving slowly within the frame, colourless as a dream, an image of the caul itself, a thin piping out of the utmost darkness. And it was on these Zöllner's Patterns of paint and canvas that he hung, when his strength was up to it, his better fancies.
And, on the death of Irwin's father:
So they found him, spilling from the oven, survived by wife and son. As it happens that in the marches of history that a people, lacking a voice, lose themselves and are forgotten, so he had been forgotten.

Playing the Race Card

Tim Wise is perhaps the best white writer on the subject of race out there. In another typically lucid article, he addresses, again, white denial and the so-called "race card":

Nothing, absolutely nothing, has to do with race nowadays, in the eyes of white America writ large. But the obvious question is this: if we have never seen racism as a real problem, contemporary to the time in which the charges are being made, and if in all generations past we were obviously wrong to the point of mass delusion in thinking this way, what should lead us to conclude that now, at long last, we've become any more astute at discerning social reality than we were before? Why should we trust our own perceptions or instincts on the matter, when we have run up such an amazingly bad track record as observers of the world in which we live? In every era, black folks said they were the victims of racism and they were right. In every era, whites have said the problem was exaggerated, and we have been wrong.

Unless we wish to conclude that black insight on the matter--which has never to this point failed them--has suddenly converted to irrationality, and that white irrationality has become insight (and are prepared to prove this transformation by way of some analytical framework to explain the process), then the best advice seems to be that which could have been offered in past decades and centuries: namely, if you want to know about whether or not racism is a problem, it would probably do you best to ask the folks who are its targets. They, after all, are the ones who must, as a matter of survival, learn what it is, and how and when it's operating. We whites on the other hand, are the persons who have never had to know a thing about it, and who--for reasons psychological, philosophical and material--have always had a keen interest in covering it up.

Monday, April 24, 2006

LBC on short novels and re-reading

Interesting couple of posts over at the LitBlog Co-Op, ostensibly as part of the discussion around Sheila Heti's Ticknor.

In the first one, Sam Jones praises the joys of re-reading:
In response to my remark about re-reading [previous LBC nominee] Maps for Lost Lovers, commenter Mike kindly reminded me that not only did some people not re-read novels, they couldn't understand why anyone else would. I thought of this recently because there's a passage from Ticknor I've read with delight a dozen times already, and probably will read a dozen more.
As well as the pleasures of short novels:
One of the things I love about a short novel—Ticknor is 188 pages, around 40,000 words—is that it's possible to hold the entire book in your mind, and remember and revisit passages like this when you've finished the book. In a longer novel, it seems to me, one pleasure is quickly replaced by the next, and you (or at least I) quickly forget little touches [...] Long novels work by accumulation of detail; short novels by subtraction. I don't think it's a stretch to say that short novels can achieve a kind of perfection that long novels cannot. It's probably no accident that the book that repeatedly comes up on surveys as the greatest American novel, The Great Gatsby, is only 50,000 words long.
Mark Sarvas picks up the thread, again extolling the virtues of re-reading, in part by recounting a story in which he'd convinced a co-worker to re-read a favorite book, which co-worker had previously wondered why anyone would "waste time" "reading something he'd already read".

My ambition is to re-read many books in the coming months and years. And not necessarily "favorites" but also some of those books that perhaps I read at too young an age, books that clearly had more to offer than I actually got out of them at the time. Or, books that, although bewildering, nevertheless drew me in and kept me reading. Naturally, this ambition is consistently undercut by the ongoing effort to read books that are new to me. So, as it is, I can unfortunately count the number of novels I've re-read in short order--it's surely fewer than ten. However, in recent months I have managed to re-read a few (Delillo's White Noise, Banville's The Book of Evidence, and Nabokov's Despair); it's interesting to discover how little of the books actually remain in memory over time--stray images, phrases (this is especially true, no doubt, if one has not written about the book in question--hence, perhaps, the urge to blog). So a re-reading is a re-discovery, a recognition.

On the matter of length, I have no preference and see no reason for one. Certainly the choice to read a given book at a given time is affected by length--I had by comparison relatively little time to read recently, so short novels and short stories suited me just fine. But I have many long-ass books awaiting my attention, and I looked forward to tackling some of them. Indeed, by coincidence, before reading these LBC posts, I had a post in mind about how, after recently reading several short novels and collections of short stories, it's nice to settle into a prodigiously long one (Hermann Broch's The Sleepwalkers, about which more soon, I hope).

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Random book meme

This is one of those books-you-have-read memes that go around every once in a while. This one comes to me via Ed.
Look at the list of books below. Bold the ones you’ve read, italicize the ones you might read, cross out the ones you won’t, underline the ones on your bookshelf, and place parentheses around the ones you’ve never even heard of.

The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown
The Catcher in the Rye - J.D. Salinger
The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy - Douglas Adams
The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald
To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
The Time Traveler’s Wife - Audrey Niffenegger
His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince - J. K. Rowling
The Life of Pi - Yann Martel
Animal Farm: A Fairy Story - George Orwell
Catch 22 - Joseph Heller
The Hobbit - J. R. R. Tolkien
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - Mark Haddon
Lord of the Flies - William Golding
Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen
1984 - George Orwell
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban - J. K. Rowling
One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden
The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini
The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold
Slaughterhouse 5 - Kurt Vonnegut
The Secret History - Donna Tartt
Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe - C.S. Lewis
Middlesex - Jeffrey Eugenides
Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte
Atonement - Ian McEwan
(The Shadow of The Wind) - Carlos Ruiz Zafon
The Old Man and the Sea - Ernest Hemingway
The Handmaid’s Tale - Margaret Atwood
The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
Dune - Frank Herbert
Sula by Toni Morrison
Cold Mountain - Charles Frazier
(The Alchemist) - Paulo Coehlo
White Teeth - Zadie Smith
The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
Haven't really read too many of these. I've read Lord of the Rings, but not The Hobbit--don't expect to, really, but it's not impossible. Actually, at least half of my "mights" are closer to "unlikelys", but that's largely because I may have missed the optimal time in my life to read them. I still need to finish anything by Hemingway and don't expect it to be Old Man and the Sea that does it. Have read much Morrison, but haven't made it to Sula. Loved Atonement (fuck Saturday, by the way). Still looking forward to finally reading most of the Victorians.

Ok, let's see what happens when I append Ed's additions:

John Henry Days - Colson Whitehead
Great Expectations - Kathy Acker
Gain - Richard Powers
(Good in Bed) - Jennifer Weiner
Mulligan Stew - Gilbert Sorrentino
Veronica - Mary Gaitskill
Wake Up, Sir! - Jonathan Ames
The Tortilla Curtain - T.C. Boyle
(Crescent) - Diana Abu-Jaber
Brick Lane - Monica Ali

Hm. Not much better. Well then, dunno who might be reading this yet, but let's shake it up a little further with some that I have read:

Mansfield Park - Jane Austen
Voss - Patrick White
The Tent of Orange Mist - Paul West
Nothing - Henry Green
Mrs. Ted Bliss - Stanley Elkin
How German Is It - Walter Abish
Galatea 2.2 - Richard Powers
Ghost Dance - Carole Maso
Fading, My Parmacheene Belle - Joanna Scott

Finnegans Wiki

This is one of the coolest uses of the internet I've ever seen (link via Chekhov's Mistress).

Finnegans Wake is perhaps the only book I own that I bought fully expecting that I would never read it. I've read Dubliners and The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and I'm looking forward to finally reading Ulysses one of these days. But Finnegans Wake seemed highly unlikely. For one thing, it's surely the apotheosis of the kind of heavily allusive novel that makes me nervous. In theory, I love the allusiveness of fiction, but secretly (and now not so secretly, I guess) I always fear that I won't have read enough to "get" this or that crucial allusion--even as I know full well that no one can read everything and the key is to be as alive as possible to the text. And to re-read as much as I can. Anyway, I found a used hardcover of Wake for $5, figured it was worth it, decided that one day I would sit down with dictionary, internet, and other resources to hand, and try to read like two pages of it and have fun with it. This wiki is a hilariously awesome resource. It makes me think of the possibilities for other, ever so slightly more readable novels.

The Big Dalkey Get

As I mentioned below, I was able to take partial advantage of the Dalkey Archive's "100 books for $500" sale. I split it in half with a friend. Since we did it by a certain time (August 2003, as I recall), we were able to get an additional five books for free, with free shipping. My friend let me have the extra five books. This is what I ended up with (those I've read as of today are bolded):

1. Chapel Road, Louis Paul Boon
2. Rigadoon, Céline
3. Some Instructions to my Wife, Stanley Crawford
4. Storytown, Susan Daitch
5. Island People, Coleman Dowell
6. Too Much Flesh and Jabez, Coleman Dowell
7. Phosphor in Dreamland, Rikki Ducornet
8. Criers and Kibitzers, Kibitzers and Criers, Stanley Elkin
9. George Mills, Stanley Elkin*
10. The Rabbi of Lud, Stanley Elkin
11. Van Gogh's Room at Arles, Stanley Elkin
12. Mrs. Ted Bliss, Stanley Elkin*
13. Foreign Parts, Janice Galloway
14. Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife, William H. Gass
15. Quarantine, Juan Goytisolo
16. Blindness, Henry Green
17. Concluding, Henry Green
18. Nothing, Henry Green
19. Doting, Henry Green
20. Fire the Bastards!, Jack Green**
21. The Questionnaire, Jirí Grusa
22. Flotsam & Jetsasm, Aidan Higgins
23. Crome Yellow, Aldous Huxley
24. Time Must Have a Stop, Aldous Huxley
25. A Minor Apocalypse, Tadeusz Konwicki
26. The Age of Wire and String, Ben Marcus
27. Reader's Block, David Markson
28. AVA, Carole Maso
29. The American Woman in the Chinese Hat, Carole Maso
30. Cigarettes, Harry Mathews
31. Singular Pleasures, Harry Mathews
32. 20 Lines a Day, Harry Mathews
33. The Human Country, Harry Mathews
34. The Case of the Perservering Maltese, Harry Mathews***
35. Women and Men, Joseph McElroy****
36. Impossible Object, Nicholas Mosley
37. The Hesperides Tree, Nicholas Mosley
38. Odile, Raymond Queneau
39. Collected Novellas, vol. 1, Arno Schmidt
40. Nobodaddy's Children, Arno Schmidt
41. Two Novels, Arno Schmidt
42. Is this what other women feel, too?, Jill Akers Seese
43. The Sky Changes, Gilbert Sorrentino
44. Imaginary Qualities of Actual Things, Gilbert Sorrentino
45. Mulligan Stew, Gilbert Sorrentino
46. Pack of Lies, Gilbert Sorrentino
47. Blue Pastoral, Gilbert Sorrentino
48. Under the Shadow, Gilbert Sorrentino
49. Something Said, Gilbert Sorrentino
50. The Making of Americans, Gertrude Stein*****
51. Annihilation, Piotr Szewc
52. Monstrous Possibility, Curtis White
53. Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, vol. one, Marguerite Young
54. Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, vol. two, Marguerite Young
55. Marguerite Young, Our Darling, Miriam Fuchs, ed.

* Actually read these in ugly-ass Avon paperbacks; used spots upgrading to the vastly more attractive Dalkey edition.

** Read part of during brief involvement with Gaddis Drinking Club.

***Read about half, but that half--mostly about translation--was fascinating.

****Coveted this book when I first saw it in Borders many years ago, shrink-wrapped. It's a massive book. Read The Smuggler's Bible, which was interesting but not exciting. Then read this about McElroy at The Reading Experience, in which Dan Green judges McElroy's fiction to be, in the end, "really pretty boring". Now even more leary of 1100-page book than I might already have been.

*****Frankly sort of afraid of this one.

Some statistics
Number of books by female authors represented: 10
Number of female authors: 7
Number of books by American authors: 35
Number of American authors: 18
Number of books by African American authors: 0
Number of books by non-American, English-language authors: 10
Number of non-American, English-language authors: 5
Number of translated books: 10
Number of translated books by female authors: 0
Number of non-fiction books: 5
Number of non-fiction books that are not essentially literary criticism: 1

Some observations
- My desire to fill out, especially, my Sorrentino, Elkin, and Mathews collections left less room for taking chances on lesser known (by me) authors.

- The number of female authors represented is too low, but unfortunately more or less reflects the general trend in my reading life. Even with periodic and ongoing attempts to redress this shortcoming, only four of the 25 books I've completed this year were written by women. I will note that of the female authors listed above, I had already acquired and read previously books by Daitch, Galloway, Ducornet, and Maso. I find them all, Maso particularly, to be excellent writers.

- Dalkey publishes very few books by African American authors (is Ishmael Reed the only author represented? I don't want to make any assumptions. Anyway, I've read two of his, and have two others). Alas, this too represents the general situation.

- On the relatively low figure for translated works, I think I can be partially forgiven since Dalkey has amped up its production of books in translation considerably since 2003. Already owned non-Dalkey editions of Terra Nostra by Carlos Fuentes and Pushkin House by Andrei Bitov. Look forward to reading many more of the translated books in the future.

Context, etc

Sunday before last, I wandered up to Atomic Books to browse, kill time. I like Atomic. Its chief virtue, of course, is that it's only five or six blocks from my house. It's known, I guess, for its interesting and bizarre selection of (radical and otherwise) magazines, graphic novels, and bizarre porn, as well as a decent, tiny stock of radical literature. And it also carries a small selection of fiction, mostly leaning in the direction of niches: some science fiction, some fantasy, a lot of Bukowski, a lot of Murakami, local authors, McSweeney's books, other small presses. It can be relied on to have the latest books from such authors as David Mitchell, Jonathan Lethem, and Paul Auster. But I like to go mainly because it carries a lot of Dalkey Archive books. I don't know how many it sells, but it always seems to have a fair supply of the latest ones.

I love the Dalkey Archive and the Center for Book Culture. I know I'm not alone in this. But I love that it exists, I love its mission, I love the look and feel of the books, and I've enjoyed reading them. Before the lit blogs became a regular part of my online reading, I used to pore over the index in the back of Dalkey books for books and authors to check out. (Well, ok, I still do that.) I think the first Dalkey book I read was Harry Mathews' strange, excellent novel The Journalist. When the local (not very good) chain Bibelot was closing some years ago, I loaded up on fire-sale books, including the wonderful Dalkey books Aberration of Starlight by Gilbert Sorrentino and Springer's Progress by David Markson (not to mention three books of essays by William H. Gass and a hardcover of Vollmann's The Royal Family for super-cheap). Around the same time, I became aware of Stanley Elkin. I knew he was someone I was going to have to read, but all of his books appeared to be out of print, and I was only able to find remaindered copies of a few of the old, seriously ugly Avon paperbacks. But Dalkey came to the rescue, bringing pretty much all of them back into print, and now he's one of my favorites; I'm especially partial to The Franchiser and The Magic Kingdom. In the process, Dalkey became easily my favorite publisher. I also managed to be able to take partial advantage of its awesome big sale by splitting it with a friend, loading up on Sorrentino, Elkin, Mathews, and a bunch of interesting translated titles in the process.

So, anyway, already with a massive supply of books-yet-to-read and with the wedding looming (and so sort of not allowed to buy a ton of books), at Atomic last week I wrote down a short list of titles to remember:

Tom Harris and Hobson's Island, both by Stefan Themerson
The Planetarium, by Nathalie Sarraute
Things in the Night, by Mati Unt
The Enamoured Knight, by Douglas Glover
Natural Novel, by Georgi Gosposdinov

I haven't heard much about any of these. I note that Scott has read the Unt, an Estonian writer, and that it was also described by Associate Director Chad Post in this nice interview at Ready SteadyBook as "one of the best original titles we've ever published". Also, I recall Bud's post from last year about The Enamoured Knight (given that it's a study of Don Quixote, I should probably read it first). But that's about it so far.

On the way out, I noticed sticking out of the free periodicals rack the current issue of CONTEXT, the cover story of which happens to be an interesting profile of Mati Unt, who died last year. I had no idea the print edition of CONTEXT was free, or that Atomic carried it (although, I suppose I might have guessed the latter, given that they also carry the Review of Contemporary Fiction, along with the various Dalkey titles). I was particularly interested in this piece by Dubravka Ugresic, 'The New Eastern European Intellectual: "A Culture of Lies"'. Here's a sample, wherein it looks like the "new Eastern European Intellectuals" are mastering the tricks of the trade:

Our intellectual-in-transition lost his common cultural space with the collapse of Yugoslavia. Even for those who had never experienced this space as shared, the potential audience was noticeably diminished. If he was to hold his head above water, he had to change with the times. He had to embrace his ethnicity as his one and only identity; he had to get a new passport and a new language; and he had to move from the larger, common state to a smaller one. He had to agree to a radical break with the Yugoslav cultural legacy, particularly if he was a Croat. He had to embrace historical revisionism and make his peace with the notion that he had been living in a “totalitarian communist regime,” in a “time of darkness,” in “Tito’s Yugo-Serbian dictatorship,” although he had never really experienced that regime as “totalitarian,” nor particularly “communist,” nor even all that “dark.” Furthermore, our intellectual was now called upon to demonize his country after the fact: to spit, in other words, on the dead—on his own biography. He almost envied the Russians, Hungarians, and Czechs who had not only had communism but could point to countless proofs that it had dealt them a bad hand: their history of dissidents and political emigration, the intelligentsia that had been relegated to the underground for years, the pile of books that have been written on the subject. The post-Yugoslav intellectual, on the other hand, didn’t have nearly enough evidence to make the same case, that he had been shortchanged. He developed false memory syndrome, transformed himself into a “victim of communism.” Since everyone else had become victims too, no one asked for proof. Now he had to master a new rhetoric, swallow the host, embrace Catholicism or Orthodoxy, depending on his background. And if he didn’t swallow the host, he had to pretend to respect the priests, at the very least. Because they, the priests, were opening exhibitions, blessing schoolbags, university buildings, libraries, hospitals, and CAT scanners. The priests nearly stole his “bread and butter,” even writing introductory essays for books that had nothing to do with their spiritual merchandise.

Our intellectual had to embrace a new idea, that fascism and communism were one and the same. He had to deny the antifascist legacy in which he’d been raised. He had to close his eyes to the incidents of book burning, particularly in Croatia; to the destruction of monuments, graves, and statues—even those that had been raised to his literary predecessors, such as Ivo Andric and Vladimir Nazor. The first was a Croat, who declared himself a Yugoslav, wrote books about Bosnia and lived in Belgrade; while the second was a poet, and had been a partisan alongside Tito. But things didn’t stop here. Only a few years later the intellectual had to change his rhetoric again, because of entering the European Union. Quickly he mastered the new, European code of decorum. He found a hook in language. He started to use the phrase “Yes, but . . .” with striking frequency. “Yes” was his claim to having a firm position about a question. “But” was his cloaked defiance. His “Yes” was directed to one interlocutor, his “But” opening the possibility of revision, and his cooperation with another.

Currently, our intellectual is growing accustomed to the notion that life is packed with paradoxes. The most important new idea, however, is that young states need culture. To be the intellectual representative of a young state is to be guaranteed an income. Our intellectual has mastered the tricks of survival. He has learned first and foremost how to take the pulse of his own herd.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006


More or less, yesterday at the Soundgarden.

White Hipsterish Dude 1 is carrying some LPs, one of which can be seen to be the new Ghostface Killah record. White Hipsterish Dude 2 holds up a used (or, more likely, promotional) copy of the new Bubba Sparxxx cd.

WHD2, derisively: D'you see Pitchfork gave this thing like a 9? [Actually, a 7.7 - ed.]
WHD1: yeah... that sort of makes me want to hear it.
WHD2:'re not getting those...
WHD1: what do you mean? It's vinyl.
WHD2: yeah, but dude it's not like it's worth having Ghostface on vinyl, it's not like it'll sound that good or anything...
WHD1: But it's vinyl.
WHD2: Look, vinyl should only be for punk rock and like alt-country.
WHD1: But it's Ghostface.
WHD2: No, vinyl is only for punk and alt-country.

Thanks, Tom.

(Scrolling down to the last paragraph, here. By the way, the reason there wasn't more rap played at the reception is because, well, most of the hip hop I listen to is, like, The Geto Boys, and, besides, I don't spend much time clubbing--read: any--so am not as familiar with what rap the kids might be dancing to.)

Speaking of Tom, I'd like to take this opportunity to echo Matos' praise. I've been reading Tom's Voice blog daily since its inception, and I enjoy the fresh exuberance he brings to his music writing. I know Tom, of course, so it might seem that I am biased, but actually we definitely see and hear things in different ways and draw on considerably different music experiences. He's nearly 10 years younger than I am, for one thing, and much more tuned in to the pop moment. I like the Animal Collective (a lot), he doesn't. He is vastly more knowledgeable about hip hop (and, hey, he's pointed me to more than a few excellent rap albums), whereas I listen to a fair amount of jazz and love stuff like Gastr del Sol and Smog and Jackie-O Motherfucker. (Incidentally, I hadn't noticed this before, but reading Simon Reynolds' Rip It Up and Start Again recently, I was struck by how often his descriptions of the actual sound of the music under discussion reminded me of Tom's descriptions. Yes, that perhaps ought to be the other way around, but, before this book, most of Reynolds' writing I'd read had been a) on his own excellent blog, outside of reviews and b) of the less descriptive sort anyway.) In any event, given that I have a different take than Tom on pop in general, I might be more likely to link to his blog when I disagree than otherwise, as indeed I already have, but I wouldn't want that to obscure the fact that I enjoy reading him.

Reader, we married.

I don't plan to spend much time discussing personal matters on this here blog, but today I make something of an exception. I got married on Saturday. It was a great day, a great weekend. The weather was spectacular; the wedding went off without any problems whatsoever. And I've never been happier. My wife (!), Aimée, looked stunning in her red dress and is anyway a beautiful, wonderful woman: she is fiercely intelligent, independent-minded, sexy, funny, sweet, and more than a little crazy. As was commented on more than once at the reception (e.g., by my best man in his toast), before we met it was feared that I was perhaps in danger of finally retreating into a hermetically sealed existence, surrounded on all sides by cds, books, and cats. Danger averted. More to the point, while I was relatively content to pursue my various interests more or less on my own, and with friends, I am much happier to pursue them more fruitfully alongside the woman I love. A woman who more or less shares, or rather complements, my own intellectual interests and pretensions, and challenges me in them, and is just a joy to be around. And who loves to dance.

Thank you, Aimée, for deciding to live your life with me.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

In a Hotel Garden, Gabriel Josipovici

"How deceptively light they are, the truly decisive steps we take in life." - John Banville, The Untouchable

What are the decisive moments in our lives? Do we recognize them when they happen? How do non-events, indecision, paths-not-taken affect the eventual course of our lives?

In Gabriel Josipovici's thought-provoking novel, In a Hotel Garden, a seemingly trivial event is related that haunts the book's central characters. A woman and a man share an idyllic afternoon in a hotel garden in Italy. The man leaves; they correspond for a time. He marries his fiancée; he continues writing, only now the woman no longer responds. Then, the man and his family are killed by the Nazis.

The novel is constructed primarily of conversations, all of which involve Ben—mostly Ben talking to Lily, a woman he’s met at an Italian mountain resort, and Ben talking about Lily to his friends, Rick and Francesca. Lily tells the story of the hotel garden to Ben. The woman in the story is her grandmother.

Ben finds himself repeatedly drawn to Lily, and they engage in several lengthy, bewildering conversations. Lily thought she'd come to Italy to take some time away from her life, to figure things out. She’d gone to Siena, and realized when she got there, when she saw a beautiful, unlikely hotel garden, what the true purpose of her trip has been. To see this garden. She knows, somehow, that this garden is the hotel garden her grandmother told her about.

Why does this garden matter to Lily? The man her grandmother remembers is not Lily's grandfather, he is nobody to her. If her grandmother had married this man, she would never have existed. Her grandmother went on to marry someone else, have children of her own, live her life, die. But she always remembered this hotel garden, and she told Lily about it:
We talked about everything. Nobody disturbed us. It was if we were sealed off from time. And from other people. It was as if I was there with him, talking, and as if at the same time I was at an upstairs window, looking down at us talking. I couldn't hear what we were saying but I could hear our two voices, like two streams, intermingling and flowing together. And then it was time for him to go, and he went.
Lily is haunted by this event, but she does not quite know why. In one sense, perhaps, it's simply that she otherwise might not have been born: this difficult to accept notion that one may not have existed at all. But also it's the fact that any Jews could have met the same fate as those killed in the Holocaust, if only they'd been born in a different time and place.

She says “when something like that happens it makes you think not just about your own past but that of Jews as a whole…What happened to the Jews in the past and then in this century - that’s alive to me. Through him.”

It came to me at the airport, she says. Why it was so important, that garden. It’s as if that day, their whole lives were present to them, their lives before and their lives after. Everything that would happen and not happen and all that would happen and not happen to their descendants. Everything. Enclosed in that garden. Held together by the trees and the wall and the silence. That’s why I had to go there. To feel it for myself.
Ben doesn't understand Lily's story, but he is also affected by it. He doesn't understand why the man who is not her grandfather matters to her (especially after it transpires that Lily decides the garden she visited may not have been the actual garden after all), but he is interested in her, interested that she is working through something, that she is unsure about something. It's an enigma to Ben, but he wants to know what she believes in, what makes her tick, why this event haunts her so. He tells Francesca:
I think it's because she's so concerned about something, he says. That's what I responded to. That she was struggling with something. That's what I responded to. That's what I want to get hold of.
Maybe we respond to those who are searching, who haven't figured it all out. In his conversations with Rick and Francesca, Ben tries to figure out the meaning of what Lily has told him, about the story of the garden and about the current details of her own life (has she or has she not returned to the man she was living with?). Ben spends much of the time trying to decide whether to call Lily or to meet with her again. The choices to do or not to do something--both have implications for our lives.

In a Hotel Garden effectively illuminates the role of choice in our lives, those choices we make for ourselves, as well as those made for us. And it joins that small body of Holocaust literature, along with the fiction of Aharon Appelfeld, that conveys some of the horror that was the Nazi Holocaust by not portraying it. In this case by, in part, throwing into sharp relief the question of the lives not lived.

I struggled with this post. The words would not come to me. I felt like the book elicited a strong response in me, but I kept saying the same thing over and over again. My vocabulary refused to supply the necessary tools. I wanted, I thought, to explore the themes of the book by using events and non-events of my own life, but it all came out wrong, clumsy, inappropriate. So I took it all out. I wanted to tie it in more with the Appelfeld I've read, but it wasn't working--and I found that I'd forgotten far too much about, say, The Age of Wonders, for anything useful to come of going into it. I debated about whether to leave the Banville quote at the top. I like it. It feels right, but then it doesn't. I'm leaving it there. I've decided to release this one as it stands and turn in for the night.

In any event, there is this much better essay about In a Hotel Garden by Lars at ReadySteadyBook. See also his previous post at Spurious.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Popular Trends

I haven't been feeling well, and it's a dreary day outside. But, I'm feeling better now, and I'm getting married in one week, so all is right in my little corner of the world.

I've finished three books since my last post--Simon Reynolds' Rip It Up and Start Again, Edward Falco's story collection Acid, and Kirstin Allio's novel Garner. I have things to say about each in due time (plus Despair, which I kind of left hanging).

Rip It Up may figure in a longer post about the nature and evolution of my own music fandom, if I can scrape together the time to write it. For the moment, I'll just say that I think Tom rather misses Reynolds' point about the period under review in the book. Tom characterizes the book, loosely, as being about "the idea that the late 70s and early 80s were this ridiculous technicolor pop playground, that punk opened up all this space for people with big label contracts to fuck around with pop conventions and actually become popular in the process." Which I guess is close enough. But then:
I'm not sure about Reynolds' idea that this golden age came to a crashing halt in 1984; seems to me that just about any era has its share of unforeseeable radar blips, proud weirdos who manage to worm their way onto daytime pop-radio playlists through some combination of savvy image-positioning, ADD genre-blurring, and, um, like, songwriting.
This misses the point entirely. Reynolds is talking about the general feeling that anything was possible, that musicians were future-looking, some of whom may or may not have broken into the pop charts, some who may or may not have been trying to. In his Afterward (of course, I have the American edition--I gather that the UK edition is quite a bit longer), Reynolds writes:
The really depressing thing about 1985...wasn't the mainstream tyranny of nouveau riche pop so much as the unimpressive state of the alternative scene. The collective sense of purpose that bound together the diverse initiatives of postpunk had seeped away. Everything seemed desperately disparate and therefore somehow diminished.
He is not saying that there were no good records being made, nor is he saying anything about the actuality of seemingly unlikely acts scoring bizarre left-field pop hits. Of course there are always "unforeseeable radar blips" but that has nothing to do with the point at hand. Anyway, Reynolds allows that "[i]n retrospect, one can go back to the mideighties and find harbingers of future revolution. Rap was about to enter its most exciting phase yet, and there were early stirrings that would evolve into house and techno."

One of the things I found interesting about the book is how so many of the UK and American acts were again looking to black music for inspiration--reggae, dub, funk, disco--but of course the book is not about those musics, other than insofar as they served as inspirations. A vast amount of music that I have almost no contact with directly. I was becoming more and more aware of how disconnected from "black" music I have been. In his chapter on the art groups, Talking Heads, Wire, and Mission of Burma (three groups to whom I needed no introduction), Reynolds writes about Talking Heads' rhythm section, Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz, who "steeped themselves in funk and disco", before moving on to David Byrne, who
meanwhile, had started to believe that the production techniques in black dance music (disco's extended remixes, the sumptuous layering, and thick textures of everyone from the Jacksons to Parliament-Funkadelic) constituted a bigger musical revolution than punk. "When you started getting people doing the early remixes--stretching the song out, chopping it up--it was great," he recalls. "And it was all happening in the dance world, it wasn't happening in the rock world at all."
Recently I've been listening to more and more music from the period Reynolds is writing about, mostly coincidentally (for example, I bought my first Fall records just a couple of months ago). I bought the Soul Jazz New York Noise compilation back when it came out in 2003, largely because of the No Wave stuff that is on it (Mars, DNA, Theoretical Girls), but my favorite songs on it have turned out to be "Optimo" by Liquid Liquid and "Baby Dee" by Konk--two pretty damn funky tunes. Also, I have developed a relatively recent (last two years) openness to (chart) pop. This, combined with a considerable increase in the amount of Hip Hop I've listened to as well as some of the dancey moves of other bands out of the rock arena (DFA, Out Hud), has on the one hand opened things up for me quite a bit. On the other hand, however, given my difficult to avoid curatorial approach to music, this means that I feel like there's a big gap in my knowledge of, say, 70s funk, early hip hop, disco. Well, there's always been the gap, and I've always known that it's been there, but now I feel like I need to address it, that it matters to me. Aside from being expensive, this is a daunting prospect.

Anyway, I'll go into more of this when I go into that longer (!) post about how my musical fandom has changed over time. But, so, postpunk. I also bought, this much more recently, but still before I had or read Rip It Up, Ze Records' expanded cd reissues of the Mutant Disco compilations. (Incidentally, I had these on my radar in part because of a great piece from late 2004 by John Darnielle extolling the virtues of Cristina, whose two albums were also reissued by Ze, and who appears on Mutant Disco. Darnielle's piece is not just about music, by the way, but about sexual politics, and it's kind of awesome.) I love these discs. I mean, it's disco, right? I was supposed to hate disco, wasn't I? I'd more or less disabused myself of the notion that disco (or any musical form, per se) was ipso facto bad many, many years ago, but that's not the same as actually listening to it (and besides, you can't like everything). Granted, this is not the chart disco, generally, but still.

The point is that after postpunk, the (basically white) rock underground essentially stopped engaging with mainstream pop, which meant it stopped engaging with the innovations of black musicians, while also exhibiting a strong tendency to look back. Reynolds again:
In the mideighties, most chart pop was glossy, guitar free, black influenced, soulfully strong voiced, dance oriented, high-tech, and ultramodern. Indie made a fetish of the opposite characteristics: scruffy guitars, white-only sources, weak or "pale" folk-based vocals, undanceable rhythms, lo-fi or Luddite production, and a retro (usually sixties) slant.
I was a self-conscious teenager in the mid-eighties, living in the suburbs, away from any musical or cultural center that I could discern, and my response to "mechanical", as I saw it, chart pop, was to turn to classic rock. A steady diet of Zeppelin, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, Pink Floyd, Aerosmith, etc. In retrospect, when I began to allow that, hey, maybe there was some valid new music out there, I realize now that it was the retro-ish bands such as REM, the Replacements, U2 circa The Joshua Tree, or the more mainstream Guns n'Roses, who were added to my collections and listened to regularly. At the same time, I still followed the new releases from old farts like Eric Clapton and Don Henley.

As one who was not comfortable dancing in public, and having bought into the worst of the rockist ideals, I completely missed the rave culture, which Reynolds identifies as having in many ways embodied the spirit of postpunk. At that time in my life, I was not at all tuned in to the underground; Chicago house and Detroit techno were necessarily completely beyond my ken. I wouldn't even have heard of them until many years later, when I'd started to investigate the more electronic side of so-called "post-rock".

Ok, I'm rambling, and I don't want to get too far into the History of My Musical Life right now. But, I'm trying to tie together my own experience as a music fan and Reynolds' description of what happened when his period under discussion came to an end. By disdaining pop and looking back, the "indie rock" scene that developed in the wake of postpunk, cut itself off from the whatever may have been exciting in those years. By defining itself as, effectively, against the popular, innovative sounds of the day, indie rock found itself in a feedback loop. Plenty of excellent records were released in this time, many of which I cherish. And, there was, I think, a forward movement in some parts of it. I'm thinking here of the post-Slint, post-rock stuff, which engaged with electronic music, jazz, classical composition, and all sorts of other stuff. I spent a lot of time with this music in the early 2000s--much of which I think is both brilliant and beautiful. But even (especially?) this music generally evaded direct contact with pop currents and wasn't likely to move one to get up and dance.

Which I guess is a long-winded way of trying to demonstrate (belabor?) the point that, by defining his period as he does, Reynolds is not saying anything about, again, "radar blips" that reach the pop charts, but, rather, IS talking about general trends away from musicians looking to the future, from looking towards pop music (effectively black music) as something to engage with, as opposed to defining oneself against. Especially as this seemed at the time to those who had lived through postpunk and were excited by its possibilities.