Two philosophical entertainments for a pleasant summer weekend:
1. I'm intrigued by a new novel called The New Moscow Philosophy by Vyacheslav Pyetsukh, originally published in 1989 and translated into several languages, but only now available in English in a new edition translated by Krystyna Anna Steiger and published by Twisted Spoon Press of Praque.
I'm only a few pages in, but am already impressed to find in this book a rich, obsessive look at the whole meaning of Russian literature. The endpaper copy explains:
... As two tenants engage in an extended debate over the nature of evil, the take it upon themselves to solve the mystery and nail the culprit, and it becomes clear that the entire tableaux is a reprise of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. Displaying a sharp with and a Gogolian sense of the absurd, Pyetsukh visits anew the age-old debate over the relationship between life and art, arguing that in Russia life imitating literature is as true as literature reflecting life.
Alchemy, schizophrenia, witchcraft, and religious fanaticism, all leavened with a knowing wink of humor, Inferno, by Swedish author August Strindberg is an early example of the “unreliable narrator” literary device, in which the reader learns that the storyteller is seeing things from a distorted perspective. It is also deliciously macabre, if you like that sort of thing.
The Inferno is far from Strindberg’s most famous work. In 1879, he became famous in Northern Europe with the publication of what is often described as the first modern Swedish novel, The Red Room. Set in Stockholm, The Red Room is a satire dealing with compromise and corruption in politics, journalism, and business in general. Strindberg wrote over 60 plays and is probably best known for his 1888 play Miss Julie, which told a tale of power and sex within high and low social classes. Other plays include The Father, Creditors, and The Ghost Sonata. He was also an essayist, a painter (two of his friends were Edvard Munch and Paul Gauguin), and based on at least one photograph, a guitarist.
Back when reading was the most popular form of entertainment, scores of pulps competed to feed the demands of a fiction-hungry populace. Outside the literary establishment, the pulps provided a place for up-and-coming writers to hone their skills, eventually giving birth to some of the most enduring offshoots of American lit. Among them, perhaps the most emulated around the world is the great tradition of the American crime novel.
The genre writers like Hammett and Chandler created and defined in the pulps of the 30’s and 40’s has become one of the most universally adored American exports. While the pulps that gave birth to American crime have been extinct for decades, the tradition has been kept alive by hundreds of independent publishers.
Over the next few months, we’ll introduce some of these indie crime presses and highlight some of their most innovative titles. We hope you’ll give them a chance. There’s no better way to keep fiction alive.
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.
(I especially appreciate Romanian-born contributor Claudia Moscovici's articles because they fill us in on literary/art scenes we'll never otherwise hear of. Here she introduces Barna Nemethi, a current sensation in Eastern Europe. -- Levi)
Newton’s third law of physics says for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction. However, things don’t work out as neatly in the world of art. There are some rules that govern the world of art, but these are constantly broken by new and innovative artists. One of the most creative and irreverent art movements was Dada, founded by a Romanian poet, Tristan Tzara. Like Surrealism, which later sprung from it, Dada was a broad cultural movement, involving the visual arts, poetry, literature, theater, graphic design and–inevitably–even politics.
Born in the wake of the devastation caused by the First World War, Dada rejected “reason” and “logic,” which many of its artists associated with capitalist ideology and the war machine. Despite becoming internationally known for so many visible artists and poets, the Dada movement could not be pinned down. Its aesthetic philosophy was anti-aesthetic; its artistic contribution was anti-art. As Hugo Ball stated, “For us, art is not an end in itself ... but it is an opportunity for the true perception and criticism of the times we live in.”
This is the first time and hopefully last time I'll ever review a true crime book in which I've met the victim. This unique viewing angle added a cutting edge to my reading experience, but Janet Malcolm's Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial needs no added edge; it's a crisp, tight little marvel of a courtroom drama, and a great demonstration of Malcolm's potent journalistic technique.
Janet Malcolm writes odd books with small narrative footprints, deliberately structured to deliver unexpected, even eccentric opinions. Her literary biography Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice scours the Gertrude Stein/Alice Tolkas love affair for signs of dysfunction, then examines the improbably friendly relationship the two Jewish-American women maintained with a vile French Nazi collaborator, Bernard Fay, who allowed them to remain in their idyllic French countryside home throughout the Second World War. Malcolm writes and argues with such skill and confidence that her conclusions often feel unimpeachable, though its not clear what we are supposed to do about them.
Iphigenia in Forest Hills follows a recent murder trial in central Queens, New York. A once-promising marriage between Daniel Malakov and Marina Borukhova, two attractive young ethnic New Yorkers (she a doctor, he an orthodontist, both members of the tight-knit Bukharian community in Forest Hills and Rego Park, Queens) took a wrong turn once they had a daughter. They fought over how to raise the child and caromed suddenly towards a nasty divorce and custody dispute. It got much worse when Marina accused Daniel of sexually molesting their toddler. Her accusation was highly unconvincing, a transparent effort at gaining an upper hand in the custody dispute, and a disgusted public official decided that the child should live with Daniel. Marina then hired an older family relative to shoot and kill Daniel. At the end of the trial observed in this book, both Marina and the hit-man Mikhail Mallayev are convicted and sentenced to life in jail.
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.
YES! Why Ayn Rand Is Wrong (and Why It Matters), the first Litkicks Kindle book, is generating some heat, climbing up the Amazon Political/Ideologies chart to number 21, which I am thrilled to note is two higher than Mitt Romney's No Apology, clearly a less exciting work.
Thanks to my swell friends who tweeted me up and Facebook'd me up, and to Conversational Reading, Literary Saloon, Lightning Rod's The Poet's Eye and the great Maverick Philosopher for posting blog notices. (If you blogged about the book and I missed it, please send me the link).
One person (who I do not know) has already reviewed the book on Amazon. This is a lukewarm but well-written and thoughtful review, and I'm sorry the reviewer feels I "didn't do my research" because I didn't know that Ayn Rand had addressed the validity of psychological egoism. I know Ayn Rand has addressed this, but I believe she's done so only superficially, and not satisfactorily. Indeed, that is the entire substance of my book: a critique of Ayn Rand's ethics on the basis of her reliance on the (weak) scientific doctrine of pscyhological egoism. However, I do appreciate the fact that this Amazon reviewer named "poem2poes" took the time to read and understand my book, and I am happy to have survived my first Amazon bad review. (May the next one please be better.)
An NPR review by Jessa Crispin alerted me that a book I'd been awaiting with some dread is now published.
Janet Malcolm's Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial is about the trial of Mazoltuv Borukhova, a young woman who arranged the murder of her ex-husband Daniel Malakov, a young orthodontist in Queens, New York, in an attempt to gain full custody of their 4-year-old daughter. The reason I've been awaiting this book with some dread is that, a couple of months before this murder, I met the victim.
We'll always circle back to our Beat roots around here. Here are a few things that've been going on.
1. I spotted the artwork above, a tribute to the epic poem BOMB by Gregory Corso, on a website by a young French artist named Vince Larue, which is mostly dedicated to 1960s culture and the Grateful Dead.
3. The Norman Mailer Center in Cape Cod, Massachusetts is presenting a workshop on the legacy of Hunter S. Thompson, featuring Doug Brinkley.
5. Jerry Cimino of San Francisco's lively Beat Museum is having a great time being an unofficial consultant (on Neal Cassady's dance moves, among other things) for the upcoming On The Road movie, which will be coming out later this year.