Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations


LitKicks Reviews: Triangle, Londonstani and Stet

by Levi Asher on Monday, July 31, 2006 07:25 pm

I've got three novels to talk about today (and many more in the queue). Today's report will include one rave, one shrug and one argument.

Triangle by Katharine Weber

Just off the east edge of Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village, New York is a building that once housed the Triangle Shirtwaist factory, where a terrible fire killed 146 people in 1911. Most of the victims were young immigrant women, and this famous disaster led to a criminal trial for the sweatshop owners, who were accused of criminal indifference to worker safety.

Triangle, a slim new novel by Katharine Weber, opens with the recollections of an elderly woman who survived the fire, though she lost both her sister and the man she loved when they jumped from the building to escape the flames.

When you begin this book, you expect it to head for familiar territory: outrage, recovery, resolution. But Triangle's title has multiple meanings, and this story takes at least three sudden sharp turns. The scene quickly changes and we're with a wealthy married couple in post 9-11 New York. Rebecca, an acerbic medical researcher, is the survivor's granddaughter. George, her husband, is a quirky but world-famous musical genius, a composer of highly unusual avant-garde classical works based on natural forms such as protein molecules or strands of DNA. These compositions, we are coolly informed by the book's straight-faced invisible narrator, seem to have magical powers to heal or disturb people.

Next we meet an obnoxious professor named Ruth Zion who has written a book about the Triangle Fire and descends upon Rebecca and George with a rapacious appetite for information. She's a hilarious character, but at this point I began to worry that the author was losing control of her story.

But the clear, smooth narrative tone and the knowing smile in Katharine Weber's jacket photo reassured me. A disturbing and unexpected new angle begins to emerge towards the end of the book, and by the last chapter it is clear that this book is not about an industrial fire at all, but rather about personal hazards more common to everyday life.

I like this book a real lot. Two days after finishing it, I am still threading through the connections (and unthreading through the deceptions) in my head, and marvelling at the author's perception and compassion. This book is something special, and I definitely recommend that you put it at the top of your next-to-read list.

Londonstani by Gautam Malkani

I wanted to love this book, and I managed to like it. I guess I'm predisposed to like a book that introduces a strong regional accent (a highly hip-hop influenced and pop-conscious Brit-speak, innit) and aims to make a big statement about the moral status of modern society. This book is about a gang of teenage desis (which can include Indian Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims) living with their parents in a bland suburb of London. They run a cell-phone laundering business, drive BMW's and love to get into fights over the slightest racial insults.

It's a rollicking enough story, and the author gets in a good occasional joke, but the plot takes way too long to get started and rarely keeps me gripped. Some have described this book as "disturbing" and compared it to Clockwork Orange, but I'm pretty sure there's more Holden Caulfield than Alex the Droog in Londonstani. Malkani gives that away early on, in fact, with this bit:

Anyway, whatever the fuck we are, Ravi an the others are better at being it than I am. I swear I've watched as much MTV Base an Jiggy D videos as they have, but I still can't attain the right level a rudeboy finesse. If I could, I wouldn't be using poncey words like attain an finesse, innit. I'd be saying I couldn't keep it real or someshit.

That ambiguity is what drives this book. It's charming enough, but Londonstani feels like a first novel (which is exactly what it is). I'll have to wait to see this author's next book before I start clapping.

Stet by James Chapman

I've written about James Chapman's Stet before. I can sometimes be overly dismissive when I review books (especially when my stack of incoming titles begins to oppress me), and I used Stet as an example of good writing stuck inside bad packaging. The book design fails to yield the slightest hint as to what the book contains, which leaves a reader unmotivated to enter inside.

This was probably too harsh a dismissal, and I was glad when the author contacted me to object. That led to this discussion, which then led to this discussion on The Reading Experience in which Dan Green found my conclusions "bewildering". In the end, I agreed to give the book another chance.

Re-entering through the front page, I found once again a series of well-crafted enigmatic sentences that proved the author's skill and intelligence, and I found once again that good sentences are not enough to propel a reader to finish a book.

I now realize I was using the book jacket design as a metaphor for a more general lack of magnetic power. A killer first paragraph could create the same anticipation as a well-chosen promo, but that is lacking here as well. At it's best, I find Stet to be composed of aphorisms and suggestions with some of the spooky mystery you can find in Nietzsche or Camus (and certainly this is high praise). Here are some examples:

Today the Finn remains in his own land, eating canned sardines and weeping.

A poison mushroom can weep only tears of poison.

The earth is black, children, the black of burnt meat. Black birds walk on the chaff.

Poetic? Yes. But even as the echoes of Camus and Nietzsche kept me intrigued, I began to remember how hard I had to work to get through Thus Spake Zarathusra and The Plague. If I felt there were a good chance this book would offer the same intellectual rewards as either of those, I would have persevered, but lacking that I was unable to continue, and I shut the book yet again.

I continue to think James Chapman a very interesting writer, but I stand by my original conclusion: a book needs to generate some kind of forward momentum to keep me interested, and all the poetic sentences in the world aren't enough to keep me reading if I can't discern the outlines of a plot.

LitKicks Reviews (Part Two): June 2006

by Levi Asher on Friday, June 30, 2006 07:54 am

I'm very impressed by demons in. demons out by Travis Lawrence, who also runs a website called A Poet Instead. Lawrence's words present simple, transparent epiphanies:

the city is crying
cop cars
ambulance, ambulance
falling to pieces
throw the bodies into sewer streams
wash away the skeletons of yesterday
cages upon cages
give us some air to breathe
ants bump together in single file lines

But it's the sketches and illustrations that knock you out. Lawrence is an accomplished cartoonist whose work recalls Jules Feiffer and John Holmstrom, and the bug-eyed, poetic creatures that crawl around the margins of these carefully illustrated manuscript pages make each poem come alive. If you buy only one poetry chapbook this year, maybe demons in. demons out should be the one.

I had some trouble figuring out how to approach Frank's War by Chris Boucher, subtitled "A Novel Inspired by 9/11 and the War Journal of Vietnam Veteran Fred Galus, Jr. Is it a novel or a journal? The arrangement is way too Borgesian for a stark story about the legacy of a soldier, although I applaud the efforts of the author, a technical writer living in Boston, to turn the found notebooks of his late father-in-law into a meaningful book. But it seems Chris Boucher has fictionalized all the war journal entries in this novel, and I'm not sure I wouldn't rather read the real journal entries. I hope Boucher will persevere with this material, but he should publish the journals and write a novel, instead of trying to combine both into one slim volume of 104 pages.

I felt similarly frustrated with Stet by James Chapman, an undeniably smart and well-written book published by Fugue State Press. The title character is an allegedly legendary Russian filmmaker stuck in a prison camp, and the narrative recalls the moody philosophical musings of a typical Dostoevsky character:

The disposition of this planet is such that impractical people are cut out. If you are an eastern mystic and you don't even know how to hold your alms-bowl right-side-up, you are going to be tried and judged by your own stomach.

But the publisher makes it very difficult for a reader to enjoy this book by presenting it without the slightest explanation or explication, either on the back cover or anywhere else. No publisher should underestimate the importance of a back cover introduction, especially for a book and an author that nobody knows anything about. Why do I want to dive into a thick block of prose if I have no idea what I am diving into? I look in vain for a frontispiece, an endpaper, anything for me to grip onto. I double-check -- am I holding a galley instead of a finished book? No, this is the whole book. I hope some readers will decide to take the plunge into this volume, because it seems to have something to say, but I could not find an entry point and gave up after a few pages.

LitKicks readers may have already looked at Gus Openshaw's Whale-Killing Journal, a comic novel by Keith Thompson that originated in a very funny blog and was a finalist for a Blooker Prize (along with LitKicks) earlier this year (LitKicks lost, and so did this book). The book is a lively spin on Herman Melville's Moby Dick, featuring a fearsome whale nicknamed "the blubbery bastard". Some of the surreal jokes work (like a character named "Thesaurus") and some don't. A look at the blog gives you a good idea what you'll find between these covers. Like Melville's book itself, you'll either like it or you won't.

What can I say about a whimsical book called The Legend of Juggin Joe by Joseph Yakel? It's told completely in hillbilly dialect, like so:

Joe picked up the first big jug an' started blowin'. First time he done so, he durned near jumped outta his skin on account ah the "Hoot" that come emanating from that there jug. It wuz a mournful kind sound an' skairt 'im tah the point ah lookin' round the shed tah see if'n there wuz a ghost er goblin 'bout.

Juggin' Joe turns out to be a musical genius, up there in the hills. Well, hey, Garrison Keillor has made stuff like this work, and James Dickey has visited this territory before. I would like to see Joseph Yakel get somewhere with this endeavor, but I have to complain about packaging yet again. How many self-published or indie-published books never get to first base because of design/presentation problems that undercut any chance of success? It's a shame. A book like this one should have a homespun country look, but instead the cover illustration is a computer generated portrait of the main character that does not match the tone or style of the book in the slightest. This turns out to be a fatal flaw, as the reader will feel dislocated before reaching page one.

It's interesting that three of the above five books suffer from packaging problems. I have no lack of sympathy for anybody who endeavors to begin the thankless task of small press publishing, but it's a shame when a publisher undercuts his book's slim chance of success with poor design decisions. Maybe some of these authors and publishers should give their material a second try.

LitKicks Reviews (Part One): June 2006

by Levi Asher on Thursday, June 29, 2006 07:33 am

I've been absolutely flooded with review copies lately (and some people worry that the internet is making books go away? HAH.) I can't fit all of this month's new book notices into one article, so I'll cover some today and will return with more tomorrow.

Wolf Boy by Evan Kulhman is a new kind of hybrid vehicle for fiction: a straightforward story that morphs into a comic book for certain key scenes, then returns to peaceful prose. Most of the time, Wolf Boy is a touching story about an ordinary kid in an ordinary family whose beloved older brother dies in a car accident. For these parts of the novel, the narrative voice is childlike and almost too sincere. But the comix sections provide the complexity and ambiguity missing in the straighter sections, as the young hero invents a superhero character to help him deal with his repressed feelings. We meet Wolf Boy in illustrated panels, but he's just as earthbound as the flesh-and-blood character who created him, and like his creator is mired in a troubling family drama (his mother is a malfunctioning robot, alternately manic or stalled, with all the symbolism this entails). Evan Kuhlman's experiment is worth checking out; I had trouble with the treacly simplicity of the family drama at times, but the comix sections pulled the work back together.

Where Kuhlman's novel displays sweet sentiments up front for all to see, Richard Grayson's And To Think That He Kissed Him On Lorimer Street allows the touching moments to sneak up on the reader. This is a surprising collection of assorted writings by a veteran Brooklyn author who once published a diary of a New York City congressional campaign and has produced numerous other books with intriguing titles like The Boy Who Fell To Brooklyn and I Brake For Delmore Schwartz (a long list of the author's books can be found here). I really like the first story in this collection, in which a good-humored narrator chaperones his teenage son to a loud punk concert at the Northsix club in Brooklyn. His son is openly gay, and the title of the book is explained when the trio amass at the L Train subway entrance on Lorimer Street and the father averts his eyes, wondering at his own amazing tolerance, while the two boys kiss goodnight. Elsewhere, Grayson's book gives us a tour of Brooklyn neighborhoods, a list of bad sitcoms nobody else remembers, and many other scattered ideas. The book has more sprawl than focus, but then so does the borough it proudly represents.

In Our Own Words: Volume Six is the latest entry in a series that reminds me of our own Action Poetry in that it finds its energy in the diversity of an almost excessive number of voices, preferring the joyful cacophony of a crowded room of writers to the more focused tone of a typical themed anthology. Well over a hundred writers are represented here, their writings packed together with barely a double line-break between, but the effect is a happy and generous one, especially because the editor's international range is unparalleled. Radico Draghincescu of Romania and France, Nora Nadjarian of Cyprus, Daniel Montoly of the Dominican Republic, Andres Bohoslavsky of Argentina, Cenk Koyuncu of Turkey, Mimoza Ahmeti of Albania, Gerour Kristny of Iceland, Gaston Ng of Singapore, Triin Soomets of Estonia co-exist with countless Americans and Brits. How does editor Marlow Peerce Weaver reach into so many countries, so many languages? I really can't imagine. A few of the names are familiar, like Kenji Siratori of Japan and Shlomo Sher of the USA. The writers are unified by generation, all being born between 1960 and 1982, but I find the general diversity more interesting than this one attempt at unity. I wish the book had a better looking cover (and I especially wish all six volumes in the series didn't all feature variations on this same uninspired design), but this project is clearly about the words, and that's good enough. Here's a PopMatters article about an earlier volume in this admirable series.

Index.html by Cold Bacon is one of the most amusingly formatted books I have recently seen. The front cover is an attractive abstract photograph of an old wooden wall, and when you turn to the table of contents you are faced with the directory listing of a website, like so:

/virus.html ......................... 1
/diary.html ......................... 3
/bigsmall.html ...................... 7

followed by:

/movies/bowlingforcolumbine.html ... 69
/movies/happiness.html ............. 74
/movies/napoleondynamite.html ...... 75

Let's face it: the table of contents (or, should I say, the /tableofcontents.html) is my favorite thing in this book, and I'm really not sure what the whole thing is about. Nor can I figure out what the corresponding website is about, or why the author's name is "Cold Bacon". But, the packaging really made me smile.

I'm only half done with this month's set of reviews -- please check back tomorrow to read about five other new titles I've recently checked out.

The Overrated Writers of 2006

by Levi Asher on Thursday, June 8, 2006 11:03 pm

Here they are, the Literary Kicks Overrated Writers of 2006: Philip Roth, Joan Didion, William Vollmann, Cormac McCarthy and Jonathan Lethem.

What these writers all have in common is that I once cared about each one of them. You don't get on my Worst Five list unless I once had high hopes for you. Each of these five writers seemed to be right up my alley when I first heard of them.

My fateful Cormac McCarthy encounter came on an airplane to California, after I'd excitedly purchased Blood Meridian for a gripping read. I ended up reading the in-flight magazine for six hours, because the writing was better. But I sure thought I'd love that book.

I had very, very high hopes when I first heard of William T. Vollmann, because the subjects he writes about are fascinating to me. I share his interest in the philosophy of history, I like his eclectic craziness, and I bet I'd become a big William Vollmann fan, if the guy would only deign to become readable. I still hope someday he will ... maybe after carpal tunnel syndrome catches up with him.

What I'm trying to say here is -- you can't really hate a writer unless you also love something about them. For example, Joan Didion came up with one of the all-time best book titles ever, the Yeats-inspired Slouching Towards Bethlehem. That's some title. Jonathan Lethem is a Mets fan. Philip Roth is a cranky old weirdo. What's not to like, right?

Overrated Writers, Part Four: Cormac McCarthy and Jonathan Lethem

by Levi Asher on Thursday, June 8, 2006 07:05 am

Cormac McCarthy and Jonathan Lethem are my final two selections for the five most overrated writers of 2006.

Some readers find Cormac McCarthy's stiff, humorless syntax appealing. I guess this is the way people talk out on the wild western frontier, in long flat sentences, with no commas to spare. Here are the first lines from The Crossing, the first volume in Cormac McCarthy's acclaimed Border Trilogy:

When they came south out of Grant County Boyd was not much more than a baby and the newly formed county they'd named Hidalgo was itself little older than a child. In the country they'd quit lay the bones of a sister and the bones of his maternal grandmother. The new country was rich and wild. You could ride clear to Mexico and not strike a cross-fence. He carried Boyd before him in the bow of the saddle and named to him features of the landscape and birds and animals in both spanish and english.

Would you like a Slim Jim or a pack of Marlboro's with that? I'm sorry, Cormac fans out there, but the whole tumbleweed-on-the-prairie routine feels hokey to me.

Not that there isn't a lot of hokey on a typical bestseller list, but what bugs me about Cormac McCarthy is that he so often shows up on lists of serious authors and gets compared to Faulkner and Hemingway. I don't think he has the depth. Granted, I don't always go crazy for Faulkner or Hemingway either, but at least they were blazing their own paths in trying to invent a syntax and a voice that would portray the wide-open American soul. As far as I can see, McCarthy is just following their template.

I can think of some newer books that also rely heavily on a "deep country" narrative voice, but manage to make it feel real, like Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier or Beloved by Toni Morrison. McCarthy's books feel superficial compared to these. They're all mood, all saddle leather and sinew. All drifters on journeys. Rivers that need to be crossed. People talking without quotation marks.

Clint Eastwood already directed the movie of every Cormac McCarthy novel put together, and it's called Unforgiven. I just don't think Cormac McCarthy's body of work rises to the status of great literature. Here's what I'm missing: humor, suspense, ideas, revelation.

I checked out the back cover blurbs of all the McCarthy novels I could find (and there are many, including Suttree, Cities of the Plain, All The Pretty Horses, Blood Meridian, No Country For Old Men). Almost every book is described as taut. Taut, taut, taut. Cormac McCarthy has been publishing novels since 1965 -- how long can a guy be taut before he finally snaps?

Or, more to the point, how long can he be taut before I snap? Because McCarthy keeps turning these taut books out, year after year, with characters from Central Casting and props left over from Heaven's Gate, and I'm sick of hearing top critics talk about how great they are.

Jonathan Lethem. Where do I start? I have written about Jonathan Lethem before. That was a year ago, and I still don't like his books today.

Overrated Writers, Part Three: William Vollmann

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, June 7, 2006 06:55 am

I have tried hard, so very hard, to appreciate William Vollmann, a wildly original postmodernist obsessed with history and human aggression who is considered a great intellect by several people I respect. I've eagerly bought his thick, intimidating books, and I have put in solid time trying to read them. I will not try anymore.

William Vollmann is, in my opinion, the David Blaine of literature. It's all an endurance act. Can a skinny kid with pimples and glasses really write a seven volume chronicle of the settlement of North America, follow it with a 3,300 page history of human violence and then toss out an 800 page rumination on the Eastern Front in World War II? Yes, he can. But if you take the "wow" factor away from William Vollmann, does his work stand up? I'm really not sure.

Interview with Steve Aylett

by Bill Ectric on Thursday, May 25, 2006 02:10 pm

Postmodern novelist Steve Aylett was born in 1967 in the Bromley Borough of London, England. His first book, The Crime Studio, was published in 1994, and his later works include Bigot Hall, Slaughtermatic and his most recent tour de force, Lint. Aylett's work has been variously described as cyberpunk, slipstream, postmodern, bizarro, or, in the words of Grant Morrison: "The Matrix choreographed by Samuel Beckett for MTV."

Steve Aylett's new Lint is to literature what Spinal Tap is to heavy metal music: a brilliant send-up of anecdotal, cult-of-personality biographies. The parody swings freely between the sci-fi genre, the Beats, and classic pulp magazines. We follow a comix legend named Jeff Lint, who lived in the age when "dozens of new magazines appeared, with titles like Astounding, Bewildering, Confusing, Baffling...Useless...Appalling, Made-Up ... Thrilling Wonder Stories, and Swell Punch-Ups" and editors would order up "an octopus, a spaceman, and a screaming woman" for the cover of a typical issue.

I like to call Aylett's work a combination of sci-fi, satire, and psychedelia. His sentences are not only sublimely expressive; they are beautiful in and of themselves. It's like opening a pop-up book to see gemstones and charms strung together on bracelet chains, rising to display the black noir onyx, the blood-red ruby, the diamond center of the mind, the flaming gold-leaf giraffe trinket of surrealism.

Karloff's Circus lights up the town of Accomplice with an anarchic assortment of demons, clowns, factory workers, zombies, politicians, and giant Steinway spiders. The action seems absurd until one realizes that the real world is no less freakish. Even today, we have people kept alive in hospitals against all laws of nature, connected to machines by tubes. We see self-mutilation in the form of extreme piercing and grotesquely overdone plastic surgery. Our children are sent to war by incompetent politicians. Well, you get the idea. Once we establish that our world is crazy, it makes no difference whether Aylett is using surrealism to parody reality, or if he is writing a straightforward story about paranormal creatures in a parallel universe.

Aylett cites Voltaire as an influence, and the influence shows. "Organised religion added Jesus to the food groups," he tells us, or "Pause any country and you'll spot subliminal torture in the frame."

Jacque Derrida maintained that all words have varying shades of meaning to each reader; therefore, every reader brings a certain amount of the story with them to a book. Maybe that is why I like Steve Aylett's prose so much -- he gives us plenty of raw material to process.

I asked the author some questions by email:

Q: It seems like you establish patterns of phrasing that are independent of the plot but that the reader can "pick up" on while reading.

Steve Aylett: Yes, there are several threads of sense going through it at different depths. I think the mind picks up which bits link in to which other bits. Some's almost a subliminal sort of thing going on, and then at the simplest level there's the running gags or repetitions like the "Snail, Sarge" conversation, which is just so stupid I really like it. And if you don't like all that there's always the story to fall back on.

Q: Even though Lint is a parody, I find that you throw in some semi-profound ideas. Like, commands materializing from thin air where someone's mouth happens to be. The opposite of cause and effect.

Steve: The parody thing was secondary to the meanings I was putting in there. I enjoy parody and stupid stuff, but more often than not I'll use it as a housing for old-time satire, politics and bitter axe-grinding. That thing about authority was about the fact that authority is actually quite arbitrary, and doesn't manifest any inherent quality. Traced to its root it's the result of luck, happenstance, crime and the sustaining of a set-up over many years as people hold on to power. It has no moral weight that stands up to a moment's scrutiny, and is enforced by the threat of violence. Reduced to its constituent atoms authority doesn't really mean anything. It's all just people.

Q: When you refer to Karloff Velocet as the "Fall Marshall" is this a reference to the idea of the "fall of man?"

Steve: As far as I can recall this was mainly from The Fall's album The Marshall Suite -- and he is marshalling the various falls and collapses in the circus. His circus is all about entropy.

Q: Which is better -- for countries to worry continuously about other countries' ability to build nuclear bombs, or the "stalemate effect" of each country already having nuclear bombs?

Steve: As long as America has the 'pre-emptive' policy of attacking non-nuclear countries without provocation, it's probably better that other countries have nuclear weapons also, as a deterrent to the U.S. (which doesn't like an even fight) -- but in any case there'll be a nuclear catastrophe at some point, either through psychotic panic or a technical error. It's inevitable.

Q: Did you ever hang out with the Krays?

Steve: No, I never met the Krays, but I knew their lawyer, and Ronnie liked The Crime Studio.

Q: Now I'm sort of freaked out because I'm not sure if you are serious. The Crime Studio was published in 1994, Ronnie was with us until 1996 ... are you serious?

Steve: Yeah. Actually, Ron liked it so much he wrote a story of his own, which he got to me via a mutual acquaintance.

Unfortunately, it was crap.
I think I'd got the book to him because the small publisher that did The Crime Studio originally wanted a quote from a 'name' of some kind, and I didn't know anyone in the literary world back then. Unfortunate things used to happen to people when I sent them books for cover quotes. I sent the re-print of The Crime Studio to William Burroughs and he died a week later; I sent Bigot Hall to Stephen Fry and he went insane -- temporarily.

Q: Uncanny! Speaking of insane, did you do the artwork for The Caterer? It is so classic.

Steve: It all started out as samples from a lot of 1970s comics -- that blonde grinning jock appears throughout those comics. Then I flipped them, changed colors, changed expressions and body positions etc, blended them into different backgrounds and with different characters, muted the colors down again, then added dialogue. Often I was doing so much re-drawing I was virtually drawing the character from scratch, by the end.

Q: Near the end of Karloff's Circus we read, "On the bluff behind them an angel landed, fragile as a feather made of bones. Under a sky deep as grief it closed its silent white wings."
Is Mike Abblatia the angel? And, at the beginning of the book, when Mike Abblatia jumps off the bridge, is everything that happens in the rest of the book happening in the instant that Mike falls?

Steve: I don't think the book occurs in Mike Abblatia's mind/dreams or whatever -- it happens, after he jumps. Regarding the mystery angel at the end, I wanted to make the suggestion that it might be Barney.

Q: On some level, Bigot Hall made me think of Kerouac's Doctor Sax, even though they aren't all that similar. Did you ever read Doctor Sax?

Steve: Yes, I've read Doctor Sax. Used to be a big Kerouac fan. That one was different from his others of course, being sort of cinematic and constructed.

Q: You write a lot about other dimensions; did you ever read Flatland by Edwin Abbott Abbott?

Steve: I have read Flatland, though I still believe he cribbed it from Charles H. Hinton, author of The Fourth Dimension (who I mention often in my books).

Q: If they made a Lint movie, who should portray Lint as an old man -- P atrick McGoohan or Christopher Lee?

Steve: McGoohan is more grouchy, so I'd go for him.

Q: I knew it! That would be my pick as well. So, do the English really say variations of "isn't it" all the time? For example, in reply to my last question, you might say, "Well, Lint is American, isn't he?"

Steve: English people say isn't, aint, aren't, innit, wot, and other things.

Neo-Human, All Too Neo-Human

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, May 16, 2006 09:25 pm

Michel Houellebecq's newest novel is about a future Earth ravaged by disasters and inhabited by two classes of humans: a small number of highly evolved and medically improved "neohumans", and a starving race of devolving savages who subsist in the uncivilized territories outside the settled zones. We are with the neohumans, who have discovered a remarkable way to become immortal: their bodies are genetically duplicated at the end of each generation, and their original memory systems are continually ported from each aging body into the body's younger equivalent.

The hero of The Possibility of an Island is a neohuman variously known as Daniel1, Daniel23, Daniel25 and so on, who lives on the Canary Islands near Africa with two female neohumans named Esther and Isabelle. They all practice a religion called Elohimism, the common faith of the neohumans.

I find the novel's concept exciting because it refers to a classic metaphysical question: are our entire souls implanted in our memories? If I transfer my memory system into an precise implementation of my genetic blueprint, has this copy suddenly become me? If so, what is left behind in the old me? Philosophers like Daniel Dennett have examined this question, but Houellebecq's new novel simply lets the scheme happen and shows us where the chips fall.

Michel Houellebecq is a French sensation, a postmodern brutalist whose fables recall those of Kurt Vonnegut and Chuck Pahlaniuk. But he is much darker and more cynical than Vonnegut, and he's probably even nastier than Chuck. He's also funny, with something like Douglas Coupland's droll computer-age satire combined with Norman Mailer's political outrageousness, and to top it all off there's a bit of William Vollmann's show-offy super-intellectualism.

That's some happy meal, and John Updike takes a bite and makes a face in his well-written New Yorker review of this book. John Updike is probably my favorite literary critic, just because his sentences are so damn amusing, and he doesn't disappoint in this thoughtful and tempered smack-down.

The usual Houellebecq hero, whose monopoly on self-expression sucks up most of the narrative's oxygen ...

Updike delivers the knockout punches early in the article, then props the pummeled author up and admits that he liked one of his earlier novels. But Updike makes the book sound interesting even as he tells us to skip it, and some of his criticisms seem cloaked, as when Updike criticizes Houellebecq's sentiment that "All energy is of a sexual nature" (this would certainly seem to be an Updike-ean thesis).

Later, Updike describes a dull moment in the novel as "an interminable blog from nowhere", which is a sudden unexpected swipe at my profession when I thought we were in the middle of beating up this French guy. Well, it's such a funny line I'll forgive Updike for it, even though it's totally unfair (A New Yorker writer is going to talk about interminable?) ...

Anyway, it's an entertaining review , but I think I'm going to read the book even though Updike doesn't like it. It sounds like my kind of story.

My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, May 9, 2006 09:18 pm

My Name Is Red isn't Orhan Pamuk's most recent book, but it might be his best. This is a surprise because Snow was so good, but in fact the books make a great pair. One is as current as yesterday's newspaper and paints a frozen world of whites and grays, while the other takes place in 1591 and bursts with color and pure vision. Both books are classics, in my opinion, but My Name Is Red is the bigger book, and reaches for the grander statements.

Orhan Pamuk has a calm and modest demeanor, but this book is much a tour de force as anything Chuck Pahlaniuk's ever written, and it's nearly as manic. The book is mainly a murder mystery, set among a highly exclusive community of artists, soldiers and politicians in Istanbul at the height of that city's golden age (the Sultan himself even makes a cameo appearance in this book). The best painters in the Ottoman Empire work here as manuscript illuminators, or miniaturists. They are treated like celebrities, and their talents are viewed as mystical expression of Islamic ideals by their customers and fans. But the artists struggle to find their artistic boundaries, because their religion disdains representative illustration, which they all indulge in, as a form of vanity.

Much of the dialogue in the book revolves around this problem, and in this sense My Name Is Red is similar to other works that encapsulate religious debates, like T. S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral or Chaim Potok's The Chosen. Pamuk, however, is clearly more interested in art than in religion (he used to be a painter himself), as are most of the characters in the book. In fact several of them are literally crazed by the beauty -- and the forbidden vanity -- of visual art.

And one is more crazed than the others, because he starts killing people. That's the setup, and the murder plot gives the book plenty of forward momentum. But it's Pamuk's literary intelligence that raises this story to a much higher level than that of, say, a Turkish Da Vinci Code. Pamuk always writes with great control, and in this book he carries on a unique narrative conceit, allowing the story to unfold in a series of connected vignettes told in first person by each of the main characters in turn.

The first character to speak is the corpse of the murder victim. We then hear from a soldier, the woman he loves, a dog, each of the artists, a Jewish matchmaker, a horse, Satan, etc. As a writer, Pamuk probably got this idea from James Joyce and Ulysses (the vivid sex scene that closes the book, told in the voice of earth mother/mystical wife Shekure, recalls Ulysses as well). But, as an artist, Pamuk may also have borrowed this idea from Pablo Picasso, because his narrative has the same concise super-logical effect -- seeing the world from God's point of view -- as one of Picasso's Cubist paintings.

An overly clever narrative technique can doom a book where it doesn't belong, but this unique approach is a perfect match for this story, which is all about seeing. When the story finally reaches its crisis, I am pleased to report the surprise ending does deliver a strong punch (and it was better than any of the surprise endings I'd guessed). Here, the book begins to feel like The Alienist by Caleb Carr, as we approach the inner mental state of the killer and discover the secret object of art he has been hiding from the others, which he killed to protect.

I was also intrigued to discover a short chronology of Ottoman history at the book's end, which explains that one of the book's characters, the aging master artist Osman who yearns for blindness as the ultimate proof of sublime vision, is based on a real person. There is also a suggestion that another key character is based on a historical figure named Velijan, but Google turns up nothing about this name and I suspect Pamuk is just getting metafictional with us again.

Indie Reviews: April 2006

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, April 25, 2006 11:50 am

Slushpile recently presented a sporting rant that mocks annoying people who self-publish and then get way too excited about themselves. It's a good article, though it leads to the depressing conclusion that the future of literature remains in the hands of the large robotic corporations that occasionally bestow the magic word "published" upon a tiny selection of writers. Here at LitKicks, we've always supported the little guys in publishing, and we're happy to profile worthwhile new small press books, self-published books and poetry chapbooks. If you've got an independently published book you'd like us to review, we'll take a look. Here are a few we checked out last month:

The Garbageman and the Prostitute by Zack Wentz is a thrill ride down transgression alley, and if you go for this kind of thing (fragmented violent narratives with creepy psychological undertones) this book will probably please you. Wentz gets high marks for energy and consistency, because every sentence seems constructed for mind-numbing impact, and the excellent artwork (here's a sample, an animated version of the cover) neatly captures the mood. I did have trouble finding a clear plot in this book, though. I'm not sure if the plot is there or not, but I never found it. The Garbageman and the Prostitute is published by Chiasmus Press, and boasts a surprising array of endorsements from the likes of William Vollmann, Steve Aylett and Michael Hemmingson. The promo materials compare Zack Wentz to Richard Brautigan, Kathy Acker, Charles Bukowski, P. K. Dick and Thomas Pynchon. I see Acker and Pynchon here, but I don't see the simple, clear communication of Brautigan or Bukowski.

J Milligan's Jackfish has a great setup. A humanoid creature of some kind emerges from the ocean near Coney Island in Brooklyn, and gasps painfully to accustom himself to breathing air. Apparently this guy -- the Jackfish of the title -- is more comfortable extracting oxygen with his gills, which is mainly because he lives in the mystical underwater land of Atlantis. He's on some kind of noirish secret mission, and the whole thing reads kind of like City of Glass meets Aquaman, which is not a bad thing at all. In the end, it's not the suspense but rather the well-placed details (like the deep, jarring pain the fish-guy feels when forced to breathe air) that put this story over. Jackfish is published by Soho Press, a fairly large New York-based independent publisher that hasn't been swallowed up by a corporation yet, at least not as far as I know.

Not Having an Idea is a slim and expressive book of poems by Californian poet Donna Kuhn. Her work has a visual and visceral sense, marrying the random psychological splices of William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg to a distinctly feminine aesthetic:

particles of goat head fencing
cardinal of slouched fencing eyehole
smear a plot of murder i don't understand

fencing a platinum blong 4-plex
petty venders smoke up
i bend for your sandpapers
antlered sadness

Kuhn's book is a Lulu production, and so is Dutch-booked by Warren Weappa, a longtime friend of LitKicks. This is an ambitious and openly disorganized novel about a hapless sad-sack stuck in the ambiguities of his own mind, The best example I can give of this book's sensibility is Weappa's comically self-defeating comments to me as he sent it: "I don't want a review. I just want somebody in the world to read it." Well, Weappa is getting a review whether he wants it or not, because as I explained to him in my reply, I can't stand the responsibility of being the only person in the world to read anybody's book. The author's apparent agony about his book is very fitting, because the main character -- like the author, an expatriate in Asia -- suffers from the same endearing inability to seize the day. In the first two pages alone, he is referred to as "your antihero", "your valueless villian", "your working-class protaganist", "your serial loser" and "your clueless correspondent". John Kennedy Toole created a good book out of this type of self-deprecation (although, appropriately, he died before it was discovered). Reading Dutch-booked, I'm not sure whether to sympathize, laugh or yell at the author to shake it off.

Taking the Rest of the Week Off by Erik Linzbach is a humble, attractive chapbook that speaks clearly and simply, and I like it:

How you've changed
gone from the stereotype
divorce raged child
to the calm, secure
judgemental hawk,
flying high above all these
others, the rats from high school,
whom you'll eat one by one
by one, and you'll hate yourself
when they're all gone,
and no one can see your
new limitless brilliance,
no one can read your
gut check, relentless prose,
and you're once again found all alone.

Finally, it's not a book at all, but I've been meaning to point you all to Bear Parade, an online poetry exhibit designed by Gene Morgan and featuring enigmatic poet Tao Lin, the self-proclaimed Reader of Depressing Books who writes behind a mask of playful innocence and never breaks character. I like the clean presentation of this poetry exhibit, and I am looking forward to Lin's upcoming first hard copy publication, which he has promised to send me for future review.

That's it from the indie side of the street. I also have a few titles from more established publishers to review, and this will be up soon.


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