The Gospel of Anarchy, a thoughtful new novel by Justin Taylor. begins with David, a brainy but fashionably bored college dropout who has pretty much run out of ideas about what to do with his life and has lately been spooking himself by posting photos of an ex-girlfriend to an amateur porn message board. A chance meeting changes everything: David runs into his old elementary school best friend Thomas scrounging for food in a dumpster while a beguiling punk girl named Liz acts as lookout. The falafel they get here tastes good, Thomas and Liz explain, and when David takes a bite it's an epiphany:
I took the biggest bite I could and stood there dumbly, chewing and being watched. It was drier than I'd thought it would be, and sucked up the moisture in my mouth. It tasted okay, other than not being an especially impressive falafel sandwich, which, of course, having been a customer there, was no more and no less than I already knew. No rancid aftertaste, indeed no hint at all of its having turned. The punks were right. It was fine. I swallowed.
David swallows all the way, soon happily giving up all his bourgeois possessions to live in Fishgut, the punk/anarchist house where this collective of extreme anarchists flops. Thomas, Liz, Katy, Anchor and various other drifters turn out to be pleasant housemates, and the endless partying and gratifying orgies easily win David over. This clever novel now changes tone, and we move past David's shallow epiphany to focus on this crazy group's core mythology. This involves an ur-anarchist named Parker, who once lived at Fishgut and left behind a mysterious book.
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.
Here are three books I've recently enjoyed. I'll cover a couple more next week as well.
The Shadow of What We Were by Luis Sepulveda
Chilean novelist and activist Luis Sepulveda lived through his nation's greatest political humiliation -- the overthrow of its democratically-elected leader Salvador Allende by rightists (backed by USA President Nixon's CIA) in September 1973 -- and now recalls that era in The Shadow of What We Were. This deceptively lighthearted comic novel presents a modern-day reunion of aging freedom-fighter heroes, fugitives, dreamers and organizers from 1973, now elderly men grown weak and bittersweet, gathering one last time to carry out a mission against the powers that still oppress them. Sepulveda skillfully balances the morose political overtones and deep sense of national loss with warm, wry dialogue and layered pop-culture references -- we catch glimpses of The Watchmen, Reservoir Dogs and The Magnificent Seven -- that point our attention to what has really conquered Chile since the days of Allende and Pinochet: western culture, and the complacent spirit of entertainment.
The name Denys Wortman (1887-1958) doesn’t roll off the tongue or out of the memory banks quite as readily as the contemporaries with whom he was most kindred: Reginald Marsh, Art Young, Alice Neel, Thomas Hart Benton, Ben Shahn and, to some extent, Ashcan School artists John Sloan and Robert Henri (under whom he studied). Nevertheless, a new collection of his work, rescued by James Sturm and Brandon Elston from an archive of 5,100 long-neglected works, should restore his place in the pantheon of Gotham’s artists.
Denys Wortman’s New York: Portrait of the City in the 30s and 40s, edited by James Sturm and Brandon Elston, has the look and feel of a lost archeological treasure, a trove of images that genuinely re-create what it was like to live, work, dine, drink, love and hate in the nation’s most exciting city at a time when the national economy was, as it is today, in a prolonged slump. Using little more than a few lead pencils and some sketch paper — and the blacks, whites and myriad shades of gray he could coax from his lead and eraser — Wortman created nothing less than, as the book’s subtitle accurately touts, “a portrait of New York City during the 1930s and 1940s”. He was the city’s virtually unsung visual chronicler during these years in the way that, decades earlier, Eugene Atget had obscurely wandered the streets of Paris with his camera equipment to amass his now legendary photo archive. Or, closer to home, Wortman depicted in pencil drawings and cartoons what writers like Joseph Mitchell, A.J. Liebling, Max Bodenheim and Kenneth Fearing captured in words, or what Walker Evans and Berenice Abbott captured in black and white photographs.
I know David Foster Wallace was a brilliant writer, but I've never been able to enjoy his ponderous novels. So I looked forward to the posthumous publication of Fate, Time and Language: An Essay on Free Will, a paper he wrote to earn his philosophy degree at Amherst College in the early 1980s. I was especially excited to read this work because I was also a philosophy student in the 1980s. I figured I'd be able to relate to this work more than I ever could to his fiction.
Fate, Time and Language is getting a lot of attention, partly because it's the first book release from the acclaimed postmodernist's archives since his inexplicable suicide (another book, a novel called The Pale King, will come out in April, 2011). Because it's a philosophy text addressing the question of free will, there is an implicit hope that the book may explain something about Wallace's work, or perhaps even illuminate the tragic thought process that led him to kill himself. It's also being floated as a serious work of contemporary philosophy, even a groundbreaking one.
I think Fate, Time and Language will have a lot of sentimental value to DFW fans, and is also valuable as an earnest, carefully composed demonstration of philosophical argument, or dialectic. However, I'm sorry to say there's nothing groundbreaking about this essay. It's thoroughly the work of a smart student. While I don't disagree with Columbia University Press's decision to publish it, I do find it hard to believe that Wallace, if he were alive today, would be particularly proud of it, except as a relic from his past. And I don't think it does readers a service for anyone to hype the book as an actual advancement in its field.
(Here's our correspondent Alan Bisbort taking on the new version of a classic 1980s text that he never liked ... and still doesn't. -- Levi)
The other night in Hartford, Christopher Buckley -- you know, of the Stamford Buckleys -- was going on about how “uncivil” the world has become. Buckley was appearing at the Connecticut Forum, alongside fellow Yalies David Gergen and Stephen Carter, where this trio of stodgy know-it-alls were discussing the topic “The End of Civility.” That is to say, they were all quite civilly agreeing with one another that the rabble in America, online, offline or in line, were becoming altogether too rambunctious and bothersome indeed.
Of the three panelists at the forum, Buckley presented the most ridiculous spectacle. With his jaw locked tight and patrician nose pointed heavenward, Buckley oozed “prep.” The words flowed from his silver-spoon-fed lips with a sort of muted melancholy, as if he were -- only with great reluctance -- sharing pearls of wisdom with all the commoners gathered in Bushnell Hall who had been (by sad accident of lower births) denied the delights of sailing yachts, owning more than one house and engaging in spirited dinner repartee with the likes of William F. “Poppy” Buckley. Essentially, Christopher Buckley, a Skull and Bonesman like his Poppy, blamed all the usual suspects for the current climate of “incivility”: the Internet, “the Web,” the “blogosphere” and (hold for it) the BlackBerry (to milk his attempt at humor Buckley mock-sheepishly held up his own personal BlackBerry).
What happens to a close, loving family when one member of the family starts to go insane?
Writers have dealt with this before. Sometimes it's a son or daughter, or a brother or sister, or a father or, as in Allen Ginsberg's Kaddish or Susan Henderson's new novel Up From The Blue, it's a mother. Up From The Blue is narrated, Scout-style, by an inquisitive and charming little girl named Tillie Harris who lives with her taciturn older brother, her stern military father and her unpredictable mother, whose illness is worse than any outsiders could imagine. We discover the parameters of the problem as frightened young Tillie does, cringing as she wishfully tries to solve the problem herself and negotiate her mother back from the edge.
Filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Freidman have crafted a surprisingly accessible and engaging story out of three narrative threads: how Allen Ginsberg wrote this poem, how Lawrence Ferlinghetti nearly went to jail for publishing it, and what the words mean. James Franco, clearly tuned in to Ginsberg's wavelength, skillfully re-enacts the poem's famous debut at the Six Gallery in San Francisco, and the courtroom scenes that follow (with, predictably, Bob Balaban as the judge) are moving and suspenseful but also blissfully accurate and free of histrionics.
At least one person I know hated the vivid Eric Drooker animations that illustrate the poem's words, but I thought they were fine (though Ralph Bakshi would have been an edgier choice). I can't complain about James Franco's well-informed impersonation of Allen Ginsberg, though having met and talked to Ginsberg a few times (I tell the story here) I don't think Franco gets it completely right. He's just a little too cool and relaxed for the deeply froggy, proto-nerdy Allen Ginsberg. Unlike Franco's smooth operator, Allen Ginsberg was always hip, but he was never cool.
Has anyone misplaced a renaissance? Say, a Germanic one, about two centuries old?
We all might have, according to cultural historian Peter Watson's thick new book The German Genius: Europe's Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution, and the Twentieth Century. It's a big thesis, but the evidence is surprisingly strong. A summary on the book's back cover states the case:
From the end of the Baroque era and the death of Bach to the rise of Hitler in 1933, Germany was transformed from a poor relation among Western nations into a dominant intellectual and cultural force -- more creative and influential than France, Britain, Italy, Holland, and the United States. In the early decades of the twentieth century, German artists, writers, scholars, philosophers, scientists, and engineers were leading their freshly unified country to new and unimagined heights. By 1933, Germans had won more Nobel Prizes than any other nationals, and more than the British and Americans combined. Yet this remarkable genius was cut down in its prime by Adolf Hitler and his disastrous Third Reich—a brutal legacy that has overshadowed the nation's achievements ever since.
Worst of all was Jens Von Bretzel, a slim, unkempt guy with an army jacket, a luxuriant chabon of black hair, and a "to hell with this crap" demeanor that he barely concealed as he read from 'The Counter Life', his debut novel about a barista with a girlfriend who was too good for him, a future that was drifting towards oblivion, and a lousy attitude that kept getting him into trouble. The novel was based on the decade Von Bretzel had spent working at a Starbucks in Williamsburg. Von Bretzel's work was so much like the stories I was writing that I half suspected he had hacked into my computer and plagiarized my life. Except that Von Bretzel's work was more confident than mine, as if he considered his life worthy of committing to print, while to me, just about every aspect of my own existence seemed wholly unliterary -- how often had agents told me that my protagonists never did anything, that they always waited for things to happen to them?
Almost every character in Adam Langer's very funny, very expert satire The Thieves of Manhattan is either a frustrated writer or a successful one. The book's likable hero writes sensitive short stories that nobody cares to publish. He's bursting with jealousy over the success of a ridiculously popular memoirist who resembles James Frey, and he's so accustomed to defeat that he's barely surprised when his own girlfriend hits it big with a debut novel and leaves him for the memoirist. But literary striving is a complete, inescapable way of life to this character; even his vocabulary is riddled with references to the pantheon of popular and classic authors he yearns to join. A "chabon" (as in the quote above) is a wavy haircut, a "gogol" is an overcoat, and "franzens" and "eckleburgs" describe two different varieties of eyeglasses.