Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations


Let’s Get Graphical

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, September 27, 2005 09:52 am

David Cronenberg's new film A History of Violence is based on a 1997 graphical novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke. Two bad guys roll into a quiet Indiana town intending to indulge in murder and robbery and mayhem, but they're disposed of by a mild-mannered family man whose only weapon is a glass coffee canister. He's a hero, but this is only the beginning of the story. As his fame spreads, other strangers roll into town, and it turns out the mild-mannered hero has his own "history of violence". That's where the story gets twisted, and it stays that way.

David Cronenberg is a great choice to direct this compelling tale. He's the filmmaker who turned William S. Burroughs' life story into a panaroma of intimate and creepy visual experiences with Naked Lunch, but my favorite Cronenberg film will always be his remake of The Fly featuring Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis in performances so good they had to run off and get married immediately after making it (though their marriage apparently lacked that Cronenberg magic, and didn't last).

I haven't seen A History of Violence yet, but I have read the excellent book that inspired it. I know some people are sick of the graphic novel fad, but I like them, and I hope this film will inspire more cinematic treatments of the genre's classics. Who wants to take on Persepolis? How about Ralph Bakshi trying Maus?

On a much gentler front, Nicholson Baker and Margaret Brentano's The World On Sunday is a gorgeous volume of archived newspaper artwork. It's amusing to learn that Baker's wife (who we have read much about in books like Room Temperature) is his co-author here, and one has to wonder if her literary last name (which once designated a great bookstore in midtown Manhattan, before it closed down) helped inspire the bibliophilic Baker to marry her.

The World On Sunday is not a major or definite Baker book, because words are his forte. But it is an overwhelmingly pleasing visual experience, and nobody but Baker would have worked this hard to bring it to you. When is somebody going to give Nicholson Baker a MacArthur genius grant, or a Nobel prize? The guy deserves it.

Thomas deQuincey: Victorian Confidential

by Bill Ectric on Tuesday, September 20, 2005 09:00 am

I admit to pleasures that some literary academics frown on. Sure, I love the classics, but I also like books about scandal and skullduggery. Bob Woodward's Wired: The Short Life and Fast Times of John Belushi; Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Ed Wood; and Penny Stallings' Rock'N'Roll Confidential are fun to read.

Perhaps this is why, when I am called upon to name my favorite writer associated with the so-called "Lake Poets" of the 1800's (William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Southey, sometimes Percy Bysshe Shelley), I will tell you that I like Thomas deQuincey.

Not a poet himself, deQuincey wrote most of his prose for magazines and newspapers. Much of these works were later collected and published as books. DeQuincey's best known work is Confessions of an Opium Eater. By today's standards it's a rather tame tale, but it was considered edgy in its own time. There is evidence that both Edgar Allen Poe and Charles Baudelaire were influenced by deQuincey to try the narcotic. Besides using opium in his autobiographical account, deQuincey raised eyebrows when he told his readers about a prostitute he befriended. Apparently, sex was not involved; people just didn't admit to "slumming" back then.

Lunar Park: Weird Happenings on Elsinore Lane

by Levi Asher on Friday, August 19, 2005 01:48 pm

Bret Easton Ellis's Lunar Park is more fun than any novel he's written before, and it's easy to see why it's become one of the hot books of the summer.

A satirical pseudo-autobiography as well as a creepy paranoid thriller, the book glides like a fast dream and keeps you in suspense, even though you won't care a bit about the well-being of any of its endangered characters. Everything still all adds up to less than zero in Ellis's world, and that's the way it's supposed to be.

The book kicks off with a hilarious summary of Ellis's writing career and his emergence as one of three super-hot lit-darlings of the 1980's (along with Tama Janowitz and Jay McInerney). He's bitter and funny as he looks back on all the parties he attended and all the celebrities he met, revealing that he remains just as callow, just as drug-dependent, and just as unenlightened now as he was then. But he recently got married, and trying to be a good stepdad to his movie star wife's 11 year old son and 6 year old daughter. This only seems to create a dark undercurrent of parent-anxiety, and images of Ellis's own dead father start to haunt him.

The book is packed with literary references that refuse to take themselves seriously. The Ellis family lives on Elsinore Lane and shops at the Ophelia Mall, hints so hokey that Ellis can only be inviting reviewers to sneer at them. The punchy sentences Ellis uses to advance the creepy underplot recall Chuck Pahlaniuk, while the use of the author as a character in an implausible criminal plot indicates that Ellis has been reading Paul Auster (the title of the book also echoes Auster's Moon Palace). Meanwhile, the family dynamic, complete with clueless neighbors and sweet corrupted children in an affluent college town, recalls Don DeLillo's White Noise.

Back in the 1980's, when the Ellis/McInerney/Janowitz trio ruled the party photo pages in Vanity Fair and Spy Magazine, nobody ever thought Ellis would emerge as the only serious writer of the three. In fact he seemed the slightest of the trio, and the least original. But McInerney and Janowitz, for all their good haircuts, have clearly stopped experimenting with either form or content. McInerney has tried to position himself as the F. Scott Fitzgerald of his age (supposedly we'll all appreciate Brightness Falls twenty years after he's dead?) while Janowitz has simply stuck to familiar grooves. Ellis, on the other hand, has made a career of twisting his rich party boy persona into one odd tortuous new shape after another, and in 2005 he seems to belong more to this decade than to that one. We don't exactly love his books, because that's not what the Ellis experience is about, but it sure is easy to enjoy this one.

Great Moments in Literary Death

by Levi Asher on Thursday, August 18, 2005 10:41 am

Kevin Kizer has been keeping us up to date on the suitably gonzoid preparation's for Hunter S. Thompson's funeral. This ceremony will involve a very large cannon, and if you are anywhere near Aspen this Saturday it seems likely that little microscopic bits of Hunter S. Thompson will fall on you.

The best part of the whole arrangement is the Wonka-inspired Golden Ticket scheme, and the news is now out that this guy got the Golden Ticket. He's allowed to take a guest with him, of course, and we can only hope he's bringing his Grandpa.

LitKicks applauds Hunter S. Thompson for what may be the best literary final scene since Yukio Mishima committed hari-kari in 1970. We believe writers should always find a way to make their closing chapters (or afterwords, in HST's case) interesting. What's your favorite literary death/funeral moment?

Running With Lawyers

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, August 2, 2005 03:46 pm

This will be amusing for anybody who read Augusten Burroughs' memoir Running With Scissors, in which young Augusten is adopted by a flipped-out psychiatrist, Dr. Finch, a true patriarch of weirdness and by far the book's most memorable character. Now six relatives of the real-life doctor, who died in 2000, are speaking out against the book and taking the author and publisher to court for defamation of character.

Here are the sordid details. According to the article, the real Dr. Turcotte's identity was a thinly-vieled secret. The secret hadn't reached me, until now (it's not like I know any Massachusetts psychiatrists anyway, though I am now able to google him all I want). Nor had the news that the book is going to be made into a movie, directed by Ryan Murphy (Nip/Tuck).

I'm not sure if I can picture this book working as a movie. I think the guy who directed The Royal Tenenbaums might have been able to handle the odd material, but we'll have to just have to wait and see how this Ryan Murphy makes out with it.

As for the lawsuit, it sounds like good comedy and I wish I could sit on that jury.

Go Ahead Punk, Make My Day

by Caryn Thurman on Monday, July 18, 2005 05:14 pm

Since Levi's been reading Richard Hell and Johnny Temple's letting us all in on his punk indie publishing philosophy over at The Book Standard, it seems like a good time to let you know about another important punk literary event, the opening of CBGBs: A Place that Matters, a collection of statements and photographs of and by musicians. The collection will be on exhibit today through Wednesday, September 14, 2005 at Urban Center Gallery, 457 Madison Avenue at 51st St in NYC. The opening coincides with a reception and book signing for CBGB and OMFUG: Thirty Years from the Home of Underground Rock.

I See Dead People

by Caryn Thurman on Saturday, July 16, 2005 08:15 pm

If you're up for a field trip and you love taking tours that revolve around a century old murder, there's something in the works just for you! The residents of Herkimer County, NY are already planning centennial events to mark the county's most famous murder case. The story of Chester Gillette, the murder of Grace Brown and the subsequent trial became the basis for the classic American novel, An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser. July 11, 2006 marks the centennial of these events and that gives you plenty of time to plan your next summer vacation.

Hunter S. Thompson: Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride

by Kevin Kizer on Thursday, July 7, 2005 08:33 am

Flying Dog Ales has placed a golden ticket in one of its containers. The ticket is good for two round-trip tickets to the August 20th Hunter S. Thompson Memorial celebration in Woody Creek.

Here's what Flying Dog's website said:

A golden ticket has been placed, 'willie-wonka style', inside one of containers. The ticket is an invitation for two to Hunter Thompson's memorial at Owl Farm in Woody Creek, Colorado on Aug 20. You and a friend could be joining Hunter's inner circle, including Willie Wonka himself, aka Johnny Depp, to witness Dr. Gonzo's final departure from the business end of a cannon! The prize includes round trip airfares from anywhere in the continental US, two nights accommodation and transportation to and from the memorial.

Godlike, by Richard Hell

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, July 5, 2005 11:21 pm

If more writers could write like Richard Hell, I'd be a happier man.

Hell doesn't write very much, or very often. He'll give us one new book of poetry or a slim paperback novel every few years. Godlike, his first novel since 1997's superb Go Now, is an absolute pleasure and a perfect distillation of this unique author's talents.

Godlike purports to be the scribblings of a middle-aged poet named Paul Vaughn who sits in a mental hospital reminiscing about a younger poet named R. T. Wode, but it becomes quickly apparent that Hell is basing the story on the real-life relationship between two 19th Century French poets, Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud. He tells the tale with a light, glancing touch. Imagine if Jim Jarmusch made a movie about Verlaine and Rimbaud, and you get the idea. The Vaughn/Verlaine character also resembles Richard Hell himself, and the story is updated to Lower East Side New York City circa 1971.

But enough about the plot, because when Hell writes I only care about the sentences. I couldn't get through half a page without pausing for a big smile or a grateful sigh of recognition. Hell's writing is pointed, sharp, like a junkyard of broken glass. Surprising connections abound, celebrating random oddness, reaching for beauty or truth:

To give offense was his mission, his meaning ... People say James Dean was the same way, mean and arrogant and competitive. And I remember having this revelation watching Bette Davis on-screen one time. That everything that was magnificent about her in the movie would be impossibly obnoxious in the same room with you ...

Nixon the opposite of Dylan, right? Does that make them creators of each other? What would you do with that? Was there anywhere to go with that? Dylan's name looked like Dylan too ... They both have hanging noses and tense mouths. Richard Nixon -- cross-eyed, his tight downturned lips where the spit leaks out at the corners. What if you switched their names?

Why are soap containers so beautiful? The packaging, I mean. Brillo, Ivory, Tide, Comet. It can't be a coincidence. But the thing I really love to see, that gladdens my heart, is a thick stand of empty two-liter generic soda bottles pressed against each other on the floor. The soft gleanings, the complexity of the light, the humility, the blue labels, the uniform bottle shape in the random blob of the clustering ...

Snot is white blood cells that've died fighting germs.

Some writers are dull at heart, and mask their dullness with literary complexity and intellectual obscurity. I don't like writers like that. Hell is my kind of writer; his sentences are rational, direct, clear as water. It's the ideas behind the words that stand surreal and gather poetic mystery.

Like Paul Verlaine himself, Richard Hell suffuses his writings with images of filth and depravity but expresses, through it all, a surprisingly affirmative and affectionate view of life. As the pages of Godlike progress, we know that Vaughn will have to shoot Wode (without seriously injuring him), that Vaughn will go to prison and that Wode will disappear, reemerge and die. After this all plays out, Vaughn tells us the difference between Wode and himself, which is the difference between Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine:

He looked at emotions as a scientist, but there are things I know more about than he did. I know that love is real."

I think this is also the difference between hundreds of mediocre writers and Richard Hell, a great modern transgressive poet and author who writes about nothing but the joy of our world, and of life.

Write It Like It’s Hot

by Levi Asher on Friday, June 17, 2005 03:07 pm

This just in ... Snoop Dogg is planning to write ... not one book, but seven.

This is good news, although we're still waiting for the rumored Black Book by Jay-Z and Nas's mythical autobiography, so I wouldn't bet money on any of these seven books actually existing at any point soon. And I'm kinda confused about this statement that he wants these books to set a good example for kids. Snoop thinks he's got seven volumes worth of good example in him? We are mystified but curious.


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