New York City
2. It's very weird that attempted Times Square terrorist Faisal Shahzad left a DVD of the anomie-striven movie Up In The Air to be found in his home. Novelist Walter Kirn, who we recently interviewed about the film of his book, wrote this on Twitter: "times sq. bomber leaving behind copy of 'up in the air' reminds me of chapman, lennon's killer, and catcher in the rye. icky feeling now."
(Dedi Felman's coverage of PEN World Voices continues with this tale of what it takes to put an exceptional novel in front of American readers. -- Levi)
What sells a book?
Picture an editor desperately scribbling at her desk. She’s drafting a “sell sheet” for a book for which she hopes to gain her publishing colleagues’ support. The author has indie appeal but virtually no mainstream recognition. Said author is also very dark, feminist, brilliant, and experimental. She’s perhaps just a bit too lucid about sexual power games to be a male critic’s darling (and most mainstream media critics remain male.) The zeitgeist also feels ever so slightly off. In her book, the author goes for the throat of an issue -- Race -- that most Americans, loudly proclaiming their liberalism in having elected their first black president, increasingly prefer to avoid. Evidence of the new postracial America is spotty but debate has, at least for the moment, been somewhat silenced. Finally said author, who is NOT Toni Morrison, is a foreigner. Even worse, the language in which she writes, Afrikaans, has associations that make people scratchy. The book is a masterpiece. Our poor editor is in a muddle:
In Charlie Kaufman’s classic screenplay Adaptation, the main character (also named Charlie Kaufman) is charged with adapting Susan Orleans’ colorful albeit densely layered book The Orchid Thief into film. Unable to find a through line (or spine), the sine qua non of narrative film, the vexed screenwriter moans to his agent, “The book has no story. There’s no story.” Replies the agent blithely, “Make one up.” As anyone who has seen the movie knows, it’s a response that can only deepen Charlie’s already high anxiety. Adaptation is a process that requires an improbable balancing act of fidelity to the author’s original text with sufficient creative freedom for the filmmaker. Torn between his responsibility to the author—and her many readers--and the agent’s and moviegoing public’s expectation of “story”, Charlie spends the rest of the film desperately attempting to pay proper obeisance to others while somehow also asserting himself and his own artistic vision.
Listening to the panel of novelists/screenwriters on stage at the Jack Skirball Center at New York University for the “Adaptation” panel at the PEN World Voices festival on Thursday, I was reminded of this delicious exchange—the bewilderment of the screenwriter, the callousness of the Hollywood agent, and mostly, the utter agony and joy that adaptation entails. The process of adapting books into film, it seems, can be a hellish vortex from which few emerge unscathed.
1. Beat poet Michael McClure's new book of poetry is called Mysteriosos. In his long and exciting career McClure has collaborated with Janis Joplin and Ray Manzarek, written influential plays like The Beard, and appeared as a character (a voice of sanity, strangely enough) in Jack Kerouac's novel Big Sur. He's also, in my opinion, a better nature poet than W. S. Merwin, and a whole lot more fun to read.
Mysteriosos is a wildly adventurous (typographically and otherwise) romp through existence and language. Characteristically for McClure's work, the consciousness of the poetic narrator is not restricted to the human species, and instead generally aims for a universal or animal awareness. Sometimes this is even achieved. Check out this good book (an earlier version of which was previewed temporarily on LitKicks during our 24 Hour Poetry Party in 2004).
(Last week I talked to Ron Kolm, who's been a friendly and productive presence in downtown New York's literary universe for decades, about his newest anthology. Here's the second half of that interview, where we talk about what it's like to be a friendly and productive presence in downtown New York's literary universe for decades. The painting of Ron is by Bob Witz)
Levi: How did you first become a part of the NYC literary scene? What were your first impressions of the "scene", and what are your impressions of it today?
Ron: To be honest, I’ve never really been a part of the NYC literary scene. There was a brief period when Eileen Myles was the Director of the Poetry Project that I got paid to read there and was part of the New Years Benefit Reading -- but I was writing fiction then; small dirty stories about a couple (Duke & Jill) that sold junk on the street, and since I wasn’t a Language Poet, or any of that ilk, I fell off their radar, which was fine by me. What I did do was work in bookstores. I was at the Strand in the early to mid 70’s, when Richard Hell, Tom Verlaine and Patti Smith worked there. In the late 70’s I worked in the East Side Bookstore with guys who would later found St. Mark’s Bookshop –- that’s where I got stabbed by a junkie, etc. By 1980 I was managing a bookstore in Soho, pre-tourist trap Soho, which was owned by High Times Magazine. I had to take a subway uptown to their office, where I partook from the canisters of nitrous oxide standing around everyone’s desk, before getting the checks I needed to pay for things signed. Then I worked at St. Mark’s Bookshop, and finally at Coliseum Books.
If you are a publisher or publicist who sends me books to review, please note that I have changed my mailing address:
328 8th Avenue #337
New York NY 10001
Also, if you're a publisher or publicist who sends me books to review, please know that I'm probably sorry for being so absolutely terrible about getting back to you. My review copy situation is a mess, I never get around to answering emails in time, but I do appreciate when you send me a book I'm interested in and I will try to be better about keeping in touch.
And now ... some more interesting stuff:
A casual society of underground/alternative-minded writers calling themselves The Unbearables have been spreading joy and literary wisdom around downtown New York City for as long as I can remember. They protested the cravenness of the New Yorker magazine and the growing commercialism of the surviving Beat Generation writers during the 1990s, and now they're back with The Worst Book I Ever Read, a diverse collection of essays about terrible reading experiences that, I think, many literary folks will relate to. I interviewed ringleader Ron Kolm about this book.
Levi: The Worst Book I Ever Read shows a really eclectic range of choices. We've got the Bible, a dictionary, a 5500 page autobiography by Henry Darger. Michael Carter hates John Locke, and Sparrow picks a psychology book. Were you surprised by the range of responses?
I began investigating the real-life setting of some key scenes in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby after discovering an amazing new online historical map of New York City, a photographic mashup that allows you to see detailed images from 1924, 1951 and the present time. When I saw that 1924 was represented on this map, I immediately realized that it would yield a rare opportunity to see New York City exactly as F. Scott Fitzgerald would have seen it during the period that he lived in the Long Island town of Great Neck (represented in Gatsby as West Egg) and traveled frequently to Manhattan. Therefore, since Gatsby was set in Fitzgerald's present time, it would allow us to see New York City exactly as Nick Carraway, Jay Gatsby, Daisy Buchanan, Tom Buchanan and Myrtle Wilson would have seen it.
According to the biography Some Sort of Epic Grandeur: The Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald by Matthew Bruccoli, one of Fitzgerald's earliest inspirations for The Great Gatsby was the striking vision of a vast, desolate "valley of ashes" -- a gigantic trash burning operation -- on the road between Great Neck and Manhattan. The infernal vision seemed to provide an ironic counterpoint to the opulent social swirls of New York City and Great Neck, as if the passage revealed some deeper truth about the souls who traveled it. Fitzgerald described a small edge settlement just east of the valley of ashes where a billboard with blazing eyes advertises the services of eye doctor T. J. Eckleburg, and where Tom Buchanan's mistress Myrtle Wilson's husband George runs a decrepit auto garage.
1. What on earth are these little kids doing on this "Kiddie-A-Go-Go" 1967 TV show? Is it the Pony? The Frug, the Watusi, the Mashed Potato, the Alligator? It's pretty cute and weird, whatever they're doing.
2. Friend of LitKicks (FOL) Tim Barrus at Electric Literature! What a combination.
Here's the first great book of the new decade. Just Kids by Patti Smith is a major work, an act of creative discovery, and a surprising new step in its author's riveting career.
Was there every any doubt that Patti Smith could write? She wrote before she sang, actually, publishing rock criticism in Crawdaddy, Creem and Rolling Stone and several poetry chapbooks before ever entering a recording studio. But it's rare for a musical artist to master the memoir format, and when I heard that Patti Smith's first book would focus on her early friendship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, who died of AIDS in 1989, I was worried she'd phone in a Valentine.