Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations


Yoko Ono, Visionary

by Levi Asher on Sunday, February 17, 2013 11:46 pm

The last time I saw Yoko Ono in concert, which was just a year ago, I was handed a small blue plastic puzzle piece in a small fabric bag as I entered the club. It was a very Yoko Ono gesture, and I'm sure the piece symbolized a lot of things: the sky, world peace, an artist's anxiety in facing an audience.

Yoko Ono is a brave performer, but her anxiety and shyness is often evident when she stands on stage. It must be this shyness that drives her exhibitionism and displays of aggression; as a young experimental artist (before she met John Lennon), she created her famous "Cut Piece" (it's described in Ellen Pearlman's recent book Nothing and Everything) in which she invited viewers to cut off pieces of her clothes while she sat still. This gesture wouldn't have been as moving as it was if her anxiety were not so palpable on her face as she sat.

Philosophy Weekend: Finding Derrida

by Levi Asher on Saturday, February 16, 2013 06:37 pm

I've been trying for years to get a firm grasp on the work of Jacques Derrida. This philosopher has never fully caught on with the general population in the United States of America (yes, we do have popular philosophers here, but unfortunately they are Aristotle, John Locke and Ayn Rand). However, I know that Derrida has a foothold in academia, and he's vastly respected around the world. I sense a personal affinity with those of his ideas that I've been able to understand, but I've never had much luck reading his books, perhaps because the cultural references of mid 20th-century France are too alien to me, or perhaps because he wrote intentionally in a diffuse and enigmatic style in order to reflect what he saw as the diffuse and enigmatic nature of truth.

Wanting to understand Derrida's ideology simply and concretely (these are the terms on which I like to understand any philosopher), I tried chucking the books and watching a film called Derrida, a "cinema verite" portrait directed by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering in 2002, just a couple of years before their subject died. This film does a great job of capturing the philosopher's charisma and quick wit, and it also delivers the good news that Jacques Derrida appeared to be happy and well-loved at the end of his life. Perhaps this speaks more positively of his philosophy than any logical analysis could -- still, however, this film fell short for me in one way. It did not attempt to explain his philosophy in top-down terms that I could clearly understand.

Woe Is I: David Foster Wallace and the Pale King

by Alan Bisbort on Tuesday, February 5, 2013 08:46 pm

The life of a writer, musician, artist or celebrity who commits suicide at the height of fame will often assume the stature of legend. All work available before the suicide is suddenly, and then nearly exclusively, viewed through the lens of that final act. Then, invariably, posthumously released work that might not warrant worshipful adulation if the person were to live and continue working attains a power far beyond its intrinsic worth.

And then there is the case of David Foster Wallace, a genuinely gifted, chronically troubled writer who came off, on the page, as an over-caffeinated brainiac for whom language, pagination, even punctuation seemed an impediment to the nonstop whirl of thought. His work was alternately funny, depressing, perceptive, freakishly clear and yet also maddeningly obtuse—even though he went to absurdly great lengths to clarify and qualify everything in footnotes, sidebars, bullet points, boxes, all but leaving his phone number for you to call, if you had any further questions.

Haruki Murakami's Healing Anima

by Tad Crawford on Wednesday, January 30, 2013 07:33 am

Haruki Murakami’s novelistic fantasies offer a tonic — not only to a culture overly enmeshed in the realities of the day to day but to each of us individually. One aspect of this tonic is his view of the role women play in relationships with men.

When asked by an interviewer why women in his novels seem to embody and represent the fears and fantasies of his narrators, Murakami answered, “In my books and stories, women are mediums, in a sense; the function of the medium is to make something happen through herself. It’s a kind of system to be experienced. The protagonist is always led somewhere by the medium and the visions that he sees are shown to him by her.”

This remarkable view of the woman’s role closely echoes psychologist C. G. Jung’s theory of the anima. Anima means soul or life (especially inner life). Through such an image a man may seek for aspects of his life that are unconscious, undiscovered by him. The image of the woman may be seen in a vision, a dream, or even be a woman whom he meets.

Oulipo For Beginners and Chauvinists, by Scott Esposito and Lauren Elkin

by Levi Asher on Monday, January 21, 2013 08:47 pm

Where is experimental literature in the 21st Century? And where is it supposed to be?

Most generations probably fail to recognize their experimental geniuses in real time. However, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein were recognized in their lifetimes, so it's fair to ask who might be carrying that torch on the literary scene today. Only a few of the usual nominees seem very satisfying. Thomas Pynchon? Don DeLillo? Paul Auster? William Vollman? The late David Foster Wallace? The late W. G. Sebald? Jennifer Egan? Blake Butler? (Please don't bring up Jonathan Lethem in this context).

Some of these writers are doing good work (personally, I'll buy into Auster and Sebald as powerful experimentalists) -- and all of them are certainly knocking themselves out trying to be as experimental as all hell. But that's the problem -- the mainstream American/English hyper-meta-hystero-pomo-X scene is so self-conscious and steroid-driven that the books are just flat out wearying. The experimental scene I'm familiar with is also too solitary. It lacks the sense of unity and community power that a good experimental literary scene needs in order to thrive.

For Americans like me, a look to Europe can help. A movement called Oulipo (Ouvroir de literature potentielle, or Workshop of Potential Literature) has been growing for half a century, and it is still alive. It was born in Paris in 1960 with the express intention of shaking up the experimental scene. The original principals were Raymond Queneau, Francois Le Lionnais, Jacques Bens and Marcel Duchamp, and later members or quasi-members included Georges Perec, Italo Calvino, Jacques Roubaud, Herve Le Tellier, Jacques Jouet, Daniel Levin Becker, Jean Queval, Michele Audin, Henry Mathews and Tom McCarthy.

Gary Shtynegart: A Blurbing Intervention

by Levi Asher on Sunday, January 6, 2013 08:45 pm

It's well known that hipster Brooklyn authors -- well, all authors, but especially hipster Brooklyn authors -- sometimes go too far in blurbing each other's novels. Recently the acclaimed comic novelist Gary Shtynegart, author of Absurdistan and Super Sad True Love Story was detected in the repeated act of excessive blurbing -- extreme blurbing, even -- and became the subject of a mocking Tumblr called The Collected Blurbs of Gary Shtynegart. He has now also become the subject a unique 15-minute documentary film, Schtynegart Blurbs, narrated by Jonathan Ames and directed and conceived by my friend Edward Champion.

The film amounts to a cinematic intervention, and a fascinating real-time case study of a literary habit gone off the rails. It's also fascinating for me because I show up in the film (around the five-minute mark) along with many other New York based literary brats including Joanna Smith Rakoff, A. M. Homes, Alan Shephard, Jeopardy champ Jacob Silverman, Ron Charles, Tobias Carroll, Michele Filgate, Joshua Henkin, Rachel Shukert, Sarah Weinman, Edmund White, John Wray, A.J. Jacobs, Alexander Nazaryan, Hari Kunzru, and even Molly Ringwald. In the end, blurb-crazed Gary Shtynegart makes an appearance and tries to explain himself. Check this movie out ...

Sometimes a Great Novel: A Look Back at Ken Kesey's Second Book

by Michael Norris on Wednesday, November 28, 2012 10:29 pm

First, we are transported to the Oregon Coast:

Along the western slopes of the Oregon Coastal Range ... come look: the hysterical crashing of tributaries as they merge into the Wakonda Auga River ...

The first little washes flashing like thick rushing winds through sheep sorrel and clover, ghost fern and nettle, sheering, cutting ... forming branches. Then, through bearberry and salmonberry, blueberry and blackberry, the branches crashing into creek, into streams. Finally, in the foothills, through tamarack and sugar pine, shittim bark and silver spruce -- and the green and blue mosaic of Douglas fir -- the actual river falls 500 feet ... and look: opens out upon the fields."

Then, we notice that a human arm is dangling over the river:

Twisting and stopping and slowly untwisting in the gusting rain, eight or ten feet above the flood’s current, a human arm, tied at the wrist (just the arm; look) disappearing downward at the frayed shoulder where an invisible dancer performs twisting pirouettes for an enthralled audience (just the arm, turning there, above the water)…” [The human arm is also flipping the bird to the enraged union men on the other shore].

And from the very beginning of Sometimes a Great Notion, Ken Kesey's second novel and eagerly-awaited follow-up to his acclaimed One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, we are hooked.

A Hipster's Guide

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, November 27, 2012 09:00 pm

There's a pretty funny Hipster's What Should I Read Next? Flowchart up at, a social networking site for readers that I don't usually frequent because I'm too much of a hipster. I think whoever created this (a person identified as "Patrick") mostly nails this assignment, and I especially like the way he totally overemphasizes David Foster Wallace and knows that we already read Alison Bechdel. Not surprisingly, this chart touches upon several writers we either love or hate here on Litkicks, like Marcel Proust, Roberto Bolano, Salman Rushdie, Chuck Palahniuk, Sheila Heti, Hubert Selby, Jr., Colson Whitehead and of course David Foster Wallace. How the hell this article forgot to include Junot Diaz and Margaret Atwood is beyond me.

Who He Is: A Memoir by Pete Townshend

by Levi Asher on Monday, November 19, 2012 11:02 pm

Pete Townshend of the Who has been writing his autobiography for his entire career, starting with the band's first single "I Can't Explain". His rock opera "Tommy" was the symbolic autobiography of a shy and sensitive teenager who becomes a rock star ... transformed into a tall tale about a deaf, dumb and blind boy who uncovers an unnatural skill at pinball (Townshend's electric guitar, of course, was Tommy's pinball machine). The pinball wizard then becomes a famous religious leader until his shallow followers get bored and overthrow him. Tommy is a witty, self-mocking tale about childish wonder and spiritual overreach, and Pete Townshend would go on to reenact a real life version of the same story -- the ascent to fame, the inevitable cruel betrayal of the fans -- over and over again throughout his life.

The same storyline recurs at least four times during Pete Townshend's fascinating new memoir Who I Am. This new book is a worthy summation of a prodigal career, and a satisfyingly revealing (if occasionally compulsive and over-protective) autobiography.

We seem to be living in the age of rock star autobiographies, of course, and Pete Townshend's book appeared on bookshelves at the same time as that of of a fellow introspective searcher, Neil Young, whose Waging Heavy Peace is an uplifting, rambunctious self-portrait but fails as a memoir, because a memoir must dig deep into the dark regions of self-analysis and painful honesty, and Neil Young didn't seem to want to go there. Pete Townshend in Who I Am, on the other hand, is happy to go there.

Dark Heat by Barry Graham and Vince Larue

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, November 13, 2012 08:24 pm

I don't know much about the noir genre, but I checked out a new graphic novel called Dark Heat by Barry Graham and Vince Larue because I like Vince's beat-inspired writing and artwork, which often emphasizes themes from Michael McClure and Gary Snyder. Vince Larue also drew a very cool cover for my 2011 Kindle book about poker, The Cards I'm Playing: Poker and Postmodern Literature.

It's a strange leap that Larue makes from Snyder-inspired Zen Buddhism to macabre mystery comix, but Dark Heat shows many familiar influences, and also touches upon psychological and spiritual themes that remind me of The Sopranos, Psycho, Paul Auster, The Watchmen, Fletch, Taoism and a whole lot of good movies that have Steve Buscemi and/or Viggo Mortensen in them. This story begins in gritty realism, and ends with a postmodern exploration into what's real and what's not. For your noir pleasure: Dark Heat by Barry Graham and Vince Larue.


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