Magic Trip, a new film by Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood, tells the story of novelist Ken Kesey's 1964 road trip across America in a painted bus with a troupe of fanciful hippies and legendary beatnik Neal Cassady at the wheel.
This bus trip was immortalized in Tom Wolfe's 1968 bestseller Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, which is also currently in production as a Gus Van Sant film (this will presumably come out near the same time as the long-awaited film of On The Road, which means two major Hollywood films featuring Neal Cassady's driving skills will hit the screens at the same time). Magic Trip, a modest and straightforward documentary, has at least one claim to authenticity over the eventual Van Sant work: it presents the actual film footage produced by the camera-wielding hippies as they drove across the country in 1964.
The remarkable novelist Katharine Weber has published her sixth book, her first work of non-fiction. The Memory of All That: George Gershwin, Kay Swift, and My Family's Legacy of Infidelities is a memoir with a subtitle that evokes the great Broadway composer George Gershwin, who played a key role in Weber's family past.
But Weber is a novelist, and her faithful readers will not approach this new book as a diversion but rather as the sixth entry in a series marked by creative and stylistic variation. None of her previous five novels resemble each other in terms of storytelling approach, tone or setting; she has reinvented her mission as a novelist with each work, and the memoir is clearly the latest step in this progression.
The notion of a Katharine Weber memoir raises immediate questions, because she has always played with real life and fiction in her novels. Her characters play with real life and fiction too. Her well-loved first novel Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear presents a young female narrator so full of verve, affection and enthusiasm that she has to constantly contain herself and rein in the power of her imagination. The tension between Harriet's beckoning sense of romantic possibility and her impulse to control herself and appear polished to others supplies the core of this character's voice. Weber's second novel The Music Lesson offers a heroine who willingly falls for a charming criminal's thin veneer of lies, preferring not to abstain from the great sex that accompanies the story. Her third novel The Little Women, a jaunty comic tableau, then presents an entire family of incorrigibly fanciful souls, spinning together in the whirlwinds of their half-composed psychological theories and illusions. Her powerful fourth novel Triangle also explores what it means to live a life defined more by fiction than by reality, and her fifth True Confections, her broadest comedy, takes the form of a legal affadavit by a woman who is obviously straining at the boundaries of truth.
Many of these works capture the voice of a child's mind, though the "child" may be in the body of an adult. Some writers eschew parent-child relationships (Charles M. Schulz of "Peanuts" comes to mind, since he never drew a parent or an adult in a "Peanuts" comic strip). Katharine Weber is his opposite, as far as subject matter is concerned. Without a parent or grandparent to defy, disappoint, become enraged by, look up to, accept gifts from or give help to, a Katharine Weber character wouldn't know how to live.
Stone Arabia is a new novel by Dana Spiotta, a writer from California. It's about a sister and brother, fast approaching middle age, both grappling with the failures of their once-bright artistic dreams. They are mutually supportive opposites. She's an earthbound, discouraged office worker (who narrates this story in a series of sardonic fits and starts), while he carries on a bizarre habit that provides the koan at the center of this strange book. Having failed as a rock star during the late 1970s, he began a lifelong construction of a fantasy career as a rock star, complete with homemade CDs, extensive bootlegs, memorabilia, fan mail, good and bad reviews. This is his life's work, even if nobody but his sister, his niece and a few assorted ex-girlfriends ever see it. As he nears his fiftieth birthday, impoverished and nearly friendless, he begins to face the fact that this made-up world has gone as far as it can go.
1. I'm just curious: is this subway ad trying to imply that subscribers to the New York Times online payment plan will get some kind of special access to Jay-Z? If so, I'd really like them to substantiate this. If not, why is he on this poster?
2. I still love the New York Times, even though I hate their payment plan. This weekend's New York Times Book Review includes a satisfying knockdown by Christopher Hitchens of a dumb new book by David Mamet.
3. Also in the New York Times: the inspiring story of 26-year-old Amanda Hocking, who shook off years of rejections and invented herself as a very successful writer.
4. "A direct line to the planet of fear and the imp of the perverse ... the desire to do that which we know is wrong". Lou Reed is channelling Edgar Allan Poe again, this time in a book with illustrations by Lorenzo Mattotti.
The time is 1985, one year before Ronald Reagan’s massive Tax Reform Act began a sweeping overhaul of the federal government's byzantine Internal Revenue Code.
The place is Peoria, Illinois, a gritty blue collar and farming town in America’s heartland.
In David Foster Wallace's The Pale King, Peoria is home to the IRS’s Midwest Regional Examination Center, or REC. The IRS, of course, is the bureaucracy of all bureaucracies, or as a character in the novel describes it: “arguably the most important federal bureaucracy in American life”.
The mission of the IRS is to administer the income tax code, one of the most staggeringly complex pieces of legislation ever stitched and bolted together by the U.S. Congress. As the novel unfolds, the IRS is in the throes of change.
Zazen by Vanessa Veselka is an amazing novel, easily one of the most exciting books of the year.
The story is narrated by Della, a recent college graduate with a degree in paleontology, who kills time learning yoga and working in a vegan restaurant while her country, a slightly twisted mirror reflection of today's United States of America, slips into chaos amidst the failures of War A and War B. Della lives with her brother Credence, with whom she shares the disconcerting memories of extreme hippie parenting, and wanders her city (which resembles Portland, Oregon) wrestling with her anxiety, imagining acts of violence and developing desperate crushes on anyone who reaches out to her with a kind word. She's a wry, sarcastic narrator and a troublemaker, and the best thing about Zazen is the chance to see the world through this funny, brainy character's eyes.
As a bittersweet snapshot of a deeply confused alternative hipster counterculture, Zazen is reminiscent of Justin Taylor's The Gospel of Anarchy, another recent book I liked. But Gospel of Anarchy is about post-collegiate anarchists and punks, while Zazen is about post-collegiate anarchists and vegans, and Zazen is about ten times more manic. The comic prose recalls Matthew Sharpe's Jamestown, while the book's sense of traumatic disorientation and social disconnectedness calls to mind Tom McCarthy's Remainder. With all that said, Zazen is like nothing but itself -- a simply original story, emotionally resonant and crammed with nuggets of delightful observation.
This novel is one of the kickoff publications from a new publishing house, Richard Nash's innovative Red Lemonade, which invites you to read the entire novel online. But you may want to buy a copy of this book, or give one to an anarchist/vegan friend. I was very happy to have had a chance to ask Vanessa Veselka some questions about her brilliant work. Here's the conversation we had.
Mexico. The land of intrigue south of the border. The place where Dean and Sal headed for ultimate kicks. The destination of choice for taking it on the lam, as in “I’m goin’ way down south, way down to Mexico way” in the Hendrix reading of “Hey Joe”. So many images of Mexico, most of them on the dark side. Think back to the opening scene of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, where Humphrey Bogart is down and out in Tampico.
I wanted to get away from the endless Chicago winter. I wanted to feel sun on my face and soft breezes blowing through my hair. I wanted to go to Mexico. So I booked a flight to Querétero, a colonial town in the central highlands, and packed my bags. What to read, though? Graham Greene? Not in the mood. I wanted something dark that penetrated to the heart of my image of Mexico, but I wanted a writer other than Greene. Browsing through the stacks at the library, I found it. Under the Volcano, by Malcolm Lowry.
1. Billy Joel had a contract to write a memoir, but got cold feet. Too bad. We know this Long Island boy can write, and I bet he had some stories to tell. The alleged book (my personal guess is that he never began it, though the cover artwork was finished and released) was supposed to have been called The Book of Joel.
2. You know I've been wanting to read this Long Island boy's life story. Jay-Z's recent semi-memoir Decoded had its moments, but Jay hardly dug deep. Good hiphop memoirs or biographies are rare, but I eagerly snapped up Empire State of Mind: How Jay-Z Went from Street Corner to Corner Office, a new unauthorized biography by business writer Zack O'Malley Greenburg, who has covered hip-hop culture and money for Forbes magazine. I suppose it works as a business book, but I found it very disappointing. This white boy, unfortunately, does not know hiphop. The author also seems to think Jay-Z's best years must be right now (naturally, because this is when he's making the most money) which proves, once again, that he doesn't know anything about hiphop.
Two new anthologies explore the impact of technology on book culture, each featuring brief contributions from notable writers revolving around a specific question. The Late American Novel by Jeff Martin and C. Max Magee consists of essays in an appealing variety of postmodern styles about how electronic reading is affecting the craft of creative writing. Sean Manning's Bound to Last asks writers to look fondly backward at physical books that have been significant in their lives, and to write about the books as objects.
Here are some notes on a few of the pieces in each of the books.
Two and a half years after the shocking suicide of celebrated novelist David Foster Wallace, a conversation is emerging -- in fits and starts -- about how Wallace's readers can possibly comprehend his life story, and how the book industry may be processing it. David Freedlander wrote an article for the New York Observer titled "Dead Author Breeds Big Business". Closer to the heart, Wallace's good friend Jonathan Franzen set off a Twitter firestorm by musing during an interview with Tim Walker of the Independent:
The author struggled for years to get to grips with [The Pale King, a newly published posthumous novel] and, says Franzen, who was a close friend, “If he’d finished it, I think he’d be alive today. Boredom is a tough subject to tackle in a novel and, arguably, Dave died of boredom.”
At least one blogger was infuriated by "Dave died of boredom":
It’s enormously disingenuous and insulting, not only to people who are still alive and dealing with severe depression, but also to Wallace - who is ill-served by such poorly-executed mythologizing nonsense - and, well, *Wallace’s goddamn wife*.
I would give Franzen a pass here, since I think he was waxing ironic, pointing us piquantly towards the incomprehensible koan that the suicide of every talented artist or public figure leaves behind. Boredom is as noble a form of anguish as any other (as Lee Rourke or Lars Svendsen would confirm). I'm not completely sure what Franzen is alluding to with this remark -- boredom with literary possibilities? boredom with success? boredom with the inside of his own brain? -- but it's an interesting point, and Franzen could not have meant it to be understood in a trivial or demeaning sense.