1. Winter's Bone by Daniel Woodrell
Winter's Bone is the straightforward saga of a brave teenage girl trying to hunt down her Meth-cooking father before she and her kid brothers lose their home to the bail bondsman. The book's most unique feature is its setting, a downtrodden Appalachian mountain community. I like Woodrell's minimalist pacing and deadpan storytelling, although by the book's end I wasn't sure if I'd missed a big emotional climax or if there just wasn't one at all (I suspect it's the latter). This novel strives for a flat tone, but it displays hidden depths -- for instance, this blogger finds references to ancient religious strains in some of the passages.
More than anything else, Winter's Bone reads like a template for a good movie, and somehow I have a feeling Sean Penn will be involved if this ever happens.
2. Eat the Document by Dana Spiotta
I wasn't sure what to think when I first heard of this novel, a rumination upon 60's-era and 90's-era political idealism that follows two fugitives from a hippie terrorist group now living as mature adults and interacting surreptitiously with a younger generation of "radicals" in Seattle. At first I decided not to read it because the cover blurbs compare Spiotta to Don DeLillo and Joan Didion (two writers I'm not always crazy about), and also because I know of "Eat the Document" as an obscure Bob Dylan film and I'm sick of writers borrowing titles from Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello (seriously now, people, think up your own titles). However, I was then persuaded to give the book a try after reading a recommendation from Champion, and I'm glad I did.
Luckily, Spiotta's prose is breezier than either Don DeLillo's or Joan Didion's, and I got quickly caught up in the fugitive intrique and the Seattle slacker/hipster/intellectual satire. We switch between several tableaus: a pack of hyper-ironic politically conscious bookstore rats gathers to plan meaningless protest events, while a Mom tries to communicate with her teenage kid who only appreciates the music of Brian Wilson, and then we cut to various communal farms and urban hideaways during the 1960's/70's flashback scenes. It all adds up to some kind of theory, which is roughly this: both the creators of corporate culture product and the rebels who reject it are locked together into a sinister and co-dependent dance. Starbucks is Big Brother, and Apple Computer and Gap Jeans are all in on the conspiracy too. I'm not sure if I've got this message right, and I'm not sure whether or not I agree with it, but I enjoyed the book enough that I don't mind puzzling over what it all means.
3. A Disorder Peculiar to the Country by Ken Kalfus
I'm surprised there isn't more buzz about this book (which was nominated for a National Book Award, yet nobody seems to have heard of it). This is a wonderfully dark, bitterly delicious book about two New Yorkers going through the shock of divorce in the age of terrorism. It's hard to describe Kalfus's odd cocktail, except to say that it mixes the violent societal satire of Chuck Palahniuk, the witty urbanity of Jay McInerney and the way-out-there strangeness of Richard Brautigan, and that it swirls global and psychological traumas together in a way that feels revelatory.
The book is often summarized by its back-cover punchline -- both Joyce and Marshall believe the other one has died in the September 11 attacks, and both are disappointed to find themselves back together in the Brooklyn apartment they are fighting over. Their ridiculous and ruinous battle over the expensive Brooklyn apartment evokes the battle between Israel and Palestine, and this is only one of several powerful connections that energize this rich book. Joyce and Marshall agonize with their lawyers (who are bleeding both of them dry) as they deal with anthrax scares and family weddings, and they fail to notice that their children are suffering badly. In one scene, Joyce and Marshall meet in a pizzeria just after hearing a news story in which a Palestinian bomber walked into a Jerusalem pizzeria, said "God is great", and blew the place up. A few pages later, Marshall shows up in their kitchen with dynamite wrapped around his belt.
"God is great," he announced. He took a moment to inhale and brought the clips together.
She looked up, annoyed that he had spoken to her, apparently without necessity. It was against their ground rules.
"Since when?" she snapped.
"God is great," he repeated, again touching the clips. He opened one and clipped it around the other, but it slipped off. He then squeezed both clips and snagged one in the other, jaw to jaw. They held.
"What are you doing? What is that?"
"A suicide bomb."
His bathrobe had opened and the explosives wrapped around his midsection were visible. She raised an eyebrow. "Really?"
"I made it myself. I have enough dynamite to blow up half the block. God is great."
He put the two clips between his thumb and forefinger, squeezing hard. He imagined, for a moment at least, that he could feel a tickle of a shock.
"Why doesn't it work then?"
"I don't know," he said, irritated. "The wiring is tricky."
"Did you follow the instructions?"
By this point, the narrative has become completely unhinged. And so has the world, so this feels just right.
I strongly recommend that you read A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, if you haven't already. Eat the Document gets a qualified "buy" from me, and so does Winter's Bone.
2. I'm still learning the ropes at the Litblog Co-op, and I'm looking forward to participating in the next Read This! selection. The current selection is Michael Martone by Michael Martone, a metafictional tour de force that evokes M*A*S*H and many other things, and it was selected by Dan Green, who explains his choice.
3. I attended a Cynthia Ozick reading at Barnes and Noble on 86th Street last week. She is a charming speaker with a surprisingly sweet and musical voice, and her demeanor was much gentler in person than on the page. She chose an illuminating biographical piece about Helen Keller as a sample from her new book of essays, A Din in the Head. I was not aware that Helen Keller faced great public derision (as well as great acclaim) during her difficult life; some authorities considered her a fraud, and she suffered terribly when a story she allegedly claimed to have written turned out to have been previously published by another author. It's not at all clear that Keller was a plagiarist (it's much more likely that she never intended to represent herself as the story's author), and I'm guessing that Ozick selected this essay partly because it provides interesting historical perspective on the famous plagiarism scandals of 2006. But I believe Cynthia Ozick mainly chose this essay because it expresses a private connection she feels with the legendary deaf dumb and blind girl, who also had to struggle to establish her career as a writer. I enjoyed Cynthia Ozick's subtle and edifying presentation very much, and I recommend that you catch her if she comes to your town.
4. Let's see, what else? Via Rake's Progress, here's a description of an upcoming new Thomas Pynchon novel that leaked out briefly on Amazon. A few interesting obituaries of Indian author Raja Rao can be found here. Finally, Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh has declared himself a political conservative. I don't know enough about the U.K. political scene to say anything intelligent at all about this, so I wish one of these guys would provide some context (Unless I've missed something, neither has mentioned it yet).
The hype about this play, which got rave reviews but no Tony Awards in last night's ceremony, is that it's the most violent thing to hit midtown Manhattan since Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen checked into the Chelsea Hotel. It's definitely got a harder-hitting attitude than most Broadway shows, which some people think is great while others fear the Quentin Tarantino-ization of Broadway.
At the beginning of the evening I did not have a strong position on this matter, and I entered the theater ready to be swayed one way or the other.
The lights fall, the audience ruffles its jewelry, and the spotlight shines on two very scared Irish men, a father and a son. The son seems to have just smashed into the family's beloved cat, Wee Thomas, with his bicycle. The cat is dead, and this is bad news because the family's eldest son is a famous (and famously deranged) terrorist who loves the cat more than anybody else, and will surely kill his brother for killing his cat.
As James Kirkwood once proved in a novel called P. S. Your Cat Is Dead, an expired feline is sometimes all the material required for an entertaining evening. The father and son desperately try to scheme a way out of their impending doom as the terrorist returns home, having interrupted an important act of torture (which is apparently his day job) to rush back as soon as he'd heard his cat was in trouble.
We soon learn that this terrorist exists without a coherent cause. He has splintered off from his I.R.A. splinter group, and is now left in a ragtag gathering of tired friends who mouth bored cliches about Irish freedom. He's in love with guns, though, and so is a neighborhood girl who adores him and has a habit of shooting the eyes out of cows. The strange thing about all of these people is that they seem addicted to violence the way people can be addicted to television or junk food. It's all anybody talks about in Inishmore, the only language anybody understands.
More gun-toting people show up on stage, and most of them end up killing the rest of them, after which the stage of the Lyceum theater turns into the grisliest tableau I have ever seen on a Broadway stage, featuring enough fake-blood and bleeding limbs to power a Korn video.
Let's just say that the stage crew must have a hell of a clean-up job every night. The play starts moving fast as it moves towards the end; secrets are revealed, more cats are killed, more people are killed, and we discover which character will truly emerge as the Lieutenant of Inishmore by the end (hint: it's not the tough guy).
The play does suggest Tarantino (which is not, in my opinion, a bad thing), but it also suggests Harold Pinter and David Mamet, and I recommend it to anyone who doesn't mind watching a human body get jointed with saws and drills while enjoying a relaxing evening of theater. In other words, it's a good play but it's not a date play (and I think I personally lucked out that my girlfriend was busy that night).
More than any work of drama, though, what this play suggests is the newspaper I'm going to read tomorrow morning. As shockingly violent as this play is, it's really only just violent enough, just cartoonish enough, just Absurdist enough to equal the real crap that's going on around the world today. Aggresion speaks. From Ireland to Israel to Palestine to Iraq to Iran to Chechnya to Moscow to Darfur to Texas, the warlords shout their slogans and hold us all at gunpoint, and we cower in fear instead of standing up and fighting back. The characters in this play are almost ridiculous enough to be real.
If you're interested in catching The Lieutenant of Inishmore the next time you're in New York City, the theater is offering a discount code to readers of LitKicks: just go to www.broadwayoffers.com and enter code INHDS28, call the box office via the website above, or show up in person with the code at the Lyceum Theatre in Manhattan.
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.
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
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
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.
I'm not going to champion a book that doesn't know how to champion itself. And you all know how I feel about spelling errors. (Don't even. Just don't.)
In this spirit, here is the latest installment of the LitKicks indie reviews, February 2006 edition.
Delphine LeCompte's Kittens in the Boiler, published by Thieves Jargon Press, feels more like an objet d'art than a book. The cover is gorgeous. The typography is impeccable. As if to contrast this clean white vision, the words are a dark fount of anger, guilt and disgust. "Wee wolves and big pervs/i was brought up by wolves", the story begins. Later: "Tinned death threats and plastic dolphins/i wrote stories on the tinned meat yesterday in the godforsaken supermarket". It's rage poetry with a autobiographical tint, a book-length torrent of words by a self-proclaimed former milk bottle stacker, barmaid and hooker. I'm not sure what a book like this is meant to do in the world, but I'm glad the book exists.
Tim Hall's Half Empty is another admirable effort, and a much more traditionally satisfying narrative. It's a story in the classic confused-young-man genre of Goethe's suicidal aesthete and Salinger's irritable preppie. The opening chapter relates the horrible morning observations of a deeply depressed recovering alcoholic living in a Brooklyn apartment building:
Dennis suddenly felt nauseous. He sat up again and waited for the dizziness to stop. When he felt steady enough he got up and went into the kitchen. The sink was filled with dishes and oily, tepid water in which floated carrot peelings, coffee grounds and used matches.
This guy makes his way from occasion to occasion, often obsessing about his life before and after alcohol, and finally reuniting for a tragic (wouldn't you know it) half-reunion with the love of his life, who he cannot get through to no matter how hard he tries. Tim Hall's publishing skills are outstanding (his own Undie Press publishes a variety of authors besides himself) and the cover design perfectly matches the mood of the work.
Dark, dark and more dark: the sea is not yet full is another transgressive fever dream, an intense, assaultive descent into the horrors of self, by a young Australian author named J. J. DeCeglie:
Yes, I say fuck it. Over and over and again and again. As my fingers pound this borrowed keyboard two demon deft digits me hunched over it in monitor glow drooling from a smeared mouth with food in my teeth and beer on my breath.
The cover design is, again, quite good (what? three in a row?), and I admire the author's austere consistency. But there is one thing missing: a sense of anticipation and forward momentum. What am I about to read? What will I get out of it? Who is the author? The minimalist narrative calls out to me, but doesn't call me in, even as I admire the propulsive energy of the prose. (Another thing this book is missing is a URL; I could not find a way to buy it online).
Midnight in America is by an author and poet named D. Eminizer who often contributes to the LitKicks Action Poetry board. I've always liked his eclectic and elliptical poetry, which has a weird modern music to it. But I had some trouble with the physical appearance of this novel. The cover art is okay, though the guitar and the gravestone evoke a cliched Jim Morrison aesthetic. But the inner layout is very distracting, with tiny cramped text that appears, inexplicably, only on the bottom three-fifths of each page (the upper two-fifths are blank). With that said, I was drawn in to the hypnotically depressed mind-moan narration of an impoverished drug-taking societal ne'er-do-well. He goes to a Pink Floyd concert (but fails to tell us whether or not Roger Waters was playing bass or whether they opened with "Astronomy Domine"). The narrator has a slippery relationship with everything around him, and with reality itself:
I'd merged with the chair and there was no escape. Why struggle anymore? No matter how hard I tried I could not release my grip, or perhaps the chair wouldn't let go of me.
Emiziner also runs a suitably energetic web community called 99 Burning. The design can only be described as "brutalist", and I think this is what the creators had in mind.
We move on finally to Bill Ectric, a good friend to LitKicks, who has regaled us here with excellent articles like this and this and this. His story collection Time Adjusters and Other Stories is the most ambitiously postmodern of the five reviewed here today, and no less stark or transgressive because of it. A short piece called "Bucket Head" is narrated in a cheerful, folksy cadence as it relates what happened when some schoolkids played a prank on a janitor, gluing a bucket to his head.
Gravis woke up confused in darkness. He slowly stood up and fumbled for the light switch. It was hard to breathe with his head in the bucket. Gravis panicked and tried to find the door. He tripped over a mop and went crashing into a shelf full of cleaning supplies. A bottle of solvent cleaner spilled all over him. Gravis reached into his pocket for his cigarette lighter, thinking it would give him some light. When he flicked the Bic, the flammable liquid solvent cleaner went FLOOM and the big janitor felt the flames of hell engulf him.
Ouch. Ectric's stories often contain hidden nuggets of menace, though they are always told with a smile. "Cut Up (the Stolen Scroll)" is the definitive piece in this collection, a Lynchian saga about a stolen Kerouac manuscript and a secret message that turns dangerous when subjected to Burroughs-style poetic cut-ups. Ectric seems like too nice a guy to be evoking William S. Burroughs (as he does frequently in this book), and in fact it is this discrepancy that provides his unique identity as a writer.
The only thing I don't like about Bill Ectric's book is the cover. Even fluourescent orange shading can't turn a mundane photo of a Jacksonville office building into a worthy visual corollary for this book of experimental prose. But then I've been yelling at Bill for years to please stop using Comic Sans and Times New Roman on his website, and the guy doesn't listen.
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A Voice Above the Din by Steven Holbrook Hill
Steven Holbrook Hill's first novel A Voice Above the Din kicks off like a buddies-travelling-together story, a sort of male Thelma-and-Louise. As in many roadgoing tales, the two main characters have complementary rather than similar personalities. John is the crazed, fast-moving one, and narrator Spencer supplies the caution and introspection John lacks. Anybody who knows On The Road will recognize the setup, but Hill's book is heavier on plot and lighter on tone than Kerouac's. One of the characters is dealing with a serious disease, along with legal problems and attitude problems, and the story takes twists you won't see coming. Hill has created a blog to promote this book ... he also contributes occasional excellent articles to LitKicks as Stevadore. Check his stuff out.
Like Herman Melville, Doyle struggled his whole life to break free of the chains of his literary success. Doyle even famously killed off Sherlock Holmes, in the hope that readers would finally agree to read about other characters. The readers wouldn't, and Doyle eventually relented and brought the detective back to life.
Sherlock Holmes is a character you can approach from many angles. Too often he's a cliche -- a dog with a felt cap and a magnifying glass, or Peter Brady with a felt cap and a magnifying glass. In fact Holmes was a troubled loner, a Hamlet figure, playing his violin alone in his chambers at night, drug-addicted and society-deprived, and congenitally incapable of ever approaching the one woman he loves, the untouchable Irene Adler.
The vast sprawl that surrounds high-finance corporate publishing is more than the minor league of literature. It's a permanent home for an incredible range of wildlife and humanity. Here are some of the books that showed up in our mailbox recently:
Harold Pinter, the British playwright who just won the Nobel Prize for Literature, was savaged as an idiot and a fashionable phony when the play that made him famous, The Birthday Party, opened in London in 1958.
It was one of those famously bad opening nights, though it didn't cause a riot like Stravinsky's Rites of Spring. The play is an existentialist tableau, a British nod to the then-fashionable European absurdism of Alfred Jarry, Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco and Jean-Paul Sartre. We open in a dowdy seaside bed-and-breakfast, where a slightly giddy but charming old lady named Meg is prattling to her bored husband, who works as a deck-chair attendant on the nearby beaches.