"Atheists are as dull," the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning once wrote, "who cannot guess God's presence out of sight."
I don't know if atheists are dull or not, but lately I've been feeling the incredible dullness of political pundits and commentators who have nothing but gloomy cynicism to offer, who cannot see the dynamic nature of the changes that take place on this planet every day. What can be duller than a person who truly and deeply believes in statements like these about the human condition, about the prospects for the future of our world?
Nothing will ever change.
Politics is just a lot of noise.
It's a corrupt game. Only the worst people can win.
This week, USA President Barack Obama and Cuba's President Raul Castro reached a historic (though still informal) agreement to suddenly end the state of hostility that has existed between these neighbors for 53 years. The news dropped in the middle of a busy holiday season news week, briefly dominating social media and the airwaves for a few hours between other major global political stories involving CIA torture and North Korean cyberterrorism. I wonder if many people do not realize how momentous the news about Cuba is.
A strange kind of anxiety can occur when attending a concert by an artist like Bob Dylan. I was struck by a sense of this anxiety as I stepped into Constitution Hall in Washington DC last night. I began to worry that it would impact my enjoyment of the show.
This can happen. A few years ago I attended an amazing Ralph Stanley show in a smoky nightclub in Virginia. All night long, I felt so overwhelmed by the fact that I was sitting there staring at one of the very inventors of modern bluegrass style, the small craggy old man calmly shredding his banjo strings in front of my eyes, that I forgot to tap my feet.
I think of this sensation as a form of anxiety because it's a self-disturbance, an unwanted reaction. When I have the privilege to hear a musical genius in person, I want to simply sit there and enjoy the music. I want my brain to be quiet while the sound waves soak in. Instead, I sit there pondering the significance to musical history. This happened to me in an especially bad way in 2006 where I luckily found myself at the famous Jay-Z concert in New Jersey where Nas came out to end his beef with Jay, and to share the mic with him on "Dead Presidents".
I was already very pumped at this point in the show, especially since Jadakiss, Sheek Louch, P Diddy, T.I., Freeway, Young Jeezy and Kanye had already been on stage -- so when Nas showed up, what did I do? I pulled out my phone and texted Caryn, and since this was 2006 and I wasn’t very handy with texting yet, this ended up taking a while, which distracted me from living in the moment itself. (Caryn later told me that she never saw the text anyway, as she had already gone to sleep).
I used to read short stories all the time. At one point, I was more into short stories than novels.
Well, why not? This was back when Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Tama Janowitz, Lorrie Moore, John Updike, Cynthia Ozick, Alice Munro and William Trevor were all putting out stuff on a regular basis. It sure did seem like a golden age.
I never put much stock in golden ages, though. I'm sure there are just as many good short story writers out there today as there were in the Breakfast Club years. But I'm not always sure who these short story writers are. So, I made it a point to read three recent volumes by three acclaimed short story writers recently. I must have chosen well, because I struck gold of some sort with all three.
Flings by Justin Taylor
I almost had a bad experience with Flings by Justin Taylor. This is probably because I didn't begin on the first page, but instead skipped ahead to the one story named after a Phish song. This turned out to be one of the only stories in the book I didn't like.
Justin Taylor is the kind of hip young over-educated brooklyn writer I might never have noticed if he didn't have one quirk that caught my attention: his substantial knowledge of the Grateful Dead and Phish. Stereotypes about batik-wearing aisle dancers aside (and really, these stereotypes have become extremely stale), there is a lot of fresh energy and intellectual depth in our long-running jamband subcultures, and it's about time a hip young over-educated brooklyn writer decided to turn these subcultures and their fringe members into material for fiction.
I thought Justin Taylor really nailed the aching sweetness of modern-day hippiedom with his clever novel The Gospel of Anarchy, which is about a houseful of collegiate Florida neo-Situationists who conjure up a new religion from the filth of their communal kitchen. I remembered this book for its warm characters, but I was left cold by the selfish and thick-headed Dad who takes his gloomy children to a Phish concert in "Mike's Song", the first story I read in Flings. Perhaps I came to this story with unfair expectations, but I can't help hoping that a story about a Phish concert will capture some of the joyousness of the actual event. I didn't get the point of this story, and I couldn't help wishing Taylor had written with the mood of the story's setting instead of against it.
I then had a rough time with the opening story of Flings, which is also the title story of the collection. I found myself wearied by the endless stream of jumbled hapless college graduates who work for non-profits and try heroin and gossip about each other. Finishing the story, I had no idea what I was supposed to feel. I later read the acknowledgements at the end of the book:
"Flings" is, among other things, in loose homage to Virginia Woolf's 'The Waves'
To which I thought: thanks a lot, Justin, but you could have at least told me about the required reading in advance. All would be forgiven, of course, if the story worked on its own, but I don't think it does.
Fortunately, Flings immediately got better for me once I proceeded to the next story, Sungold, a playful romp that takes place in a college-town vegan pizza chain store, featuring a few of the wan anarchists and naive idealists Taylor draws so well. Then I loved Poets, maybe the best story in this book, which follows two egotistical young creative writing program junkies from their sophomoric beginnings to the eventual ravages of middle age, literary obscurity and romantic disconnection.
Even if it doesn't manage to find joy at a Phish concert, Justin Taylor's Flings is a delightful postmodernist grab bag, an accessible series of experiments in irony and attitude. The collection's title describes the book well: some of these flings don't fly, but that's the nature of a fling.
(I didn't make it to the Brooklyn Book Festival this year, but Tara Olmsted did, and here's her report! -- Levi)
The Brooklyn Book Festival can be a mixed bag. At its worst the annual autumn event is complete chaos: no consistent theme, hot and crowded rooms, poorly moderated panels, no-show authors, smug hipsters as far as the eye can see. This year's list of participating authors is less exciting at the outset than in previous years: the type of book being discussed on all the panels feels pretty much the same, as if some kind of homeostasis has been achieved.
But at its best, the Brooklyn Book Festival s a platform for small, independent presses. Publishers like Melville House, New Directions, & Other Stories, Europa, Other Press, Archipelago and Greywolf are there. (Technically some of these are not exactly indie publishers anymore, like New Directions, which has been absorbed by the big five publishing conglomerates. I still consider the presses “indie” because they’ve managed to retain the literary identity and traditions on which they were founded.)
Smaller indies are here too: Zephyr, Bellevue, The Head & The Hand. There are literary magazines: BookForum, The Paris Review, NYRB and Lapham’s Quarterly. And many of Brooklyn’s independent bookstores attend, including WORD, The Community Bookstore and Greenlight. There’s a lot to discover at the outdoor booths. And for me the highlight of the festival has always been (and remains) the author panels.
If you're on the east coast of the USA these days, you might catch a painted bus called Furthur running up and down the seaboard. This colorful vehicle is named after the original Furthur that took novelist Ken Kesey, Neal Cassady, Ken Babbs and the rest of the Merry Pranksters across the country on a famous road trip 50 years ago. I caught up with Zane Kesey and the giant rolling metaphor he designed for his father when they finally rolled into Brooklyn, New York last month.
Sometimes shuffle mode on my iPhone really comes through for me. I was having a pretty bad day yesterday, and it found a song that cheered me up.
I was having a bad day for a few different reasons. The biggest is something that's been going on for a while now. An older member of my family -- a person who I really care about and have always had a great relationship with -- has been stricken with a cruel health problem, and is suffering a lot.
This kind of ordeal puts other problems in a certain perspective, but not necessarily a perspective that's helpful. For instance, I've been looking forward to celebrating the 20th anniversary of this website on July 23rd, but I've also been feeling very frustrated about my progress as a writer. During those poisonous moments in which everything on Earth seems pointless, I can only see this blog as a symptom of my chronic need to be idiosyncratic at any cost, and thus as a bizarre monument to my own lifelong failure.
Well, okay. Failure's been in the air, and not just for me: failure to communicate, failure to reach, failure to deliver. Failure seems to have been trending lately, at least in my corner of the universe. An insane incident occurred yesterday involving one of my favorite people in the literary world, a person who must have been soaking in his own psychological poisons during the same moments that I was too. Everything turned out okay, but for a few moments the incident got frightening, and after it was over it all seemed like a sign of a sort of general despair among many of my writer friends, all of whom have moments in which we feel desperately starved for connection and validation. Another friend who was caught in this whirlwind summarized her takeaway from yesterday's public drama with this accurate tweet:
Exactly 150 years today, the most grueling and relentless eight days of the Civil War in the United States of America began. These are the opening days of the Overland Campaign, in which two armies rampaged south through north-central Virginia in their final race towards Richmond, capital city of the Confederacy. They stopped frequently along the way to try to kill each other.
The Overland Campaign was recently featured in the TV series House of Cards. The crooked politician played by Kevin Spacey visits a newly dedicated (and fictional) battlefield park dedicated to the Overland Campaign, and meets a reenactor costumed as his own doomed Rebel ancestor. In real life, the park is known as the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Battlefield, and despite the House of Cards fabrication, it's not dedicated just to the Overland Campaign: there were so many fights in this region that Wilderness and Spotsylvania have to share space with Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, where major battles were fought in 1862 and 1963.
Those were also critical and immense conflagrations, but Civil War experts know the Overland Campaign was the greatest match of them all, because it was in these battles -- Wilderness, Spotsylvania, North Anna, Yellow Tavern, Cold Harbor -- that General Ulysses S. Grant faced General Robert E. Lee directly for the first time. This was the big one, the championship between the two top teams. This was the Finals, and it was a hell of a fight.
"The people dance passionately on the earth, sanctifying it and becoming one with it."
-- Igor Stravinsky
I'm sure it's a hipster affectation of mine: I try to listen to Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring every year when the Spring Equinox comes around. It's a hipster affectation because I don't really know much about classical music, and I can't deny that what thrills me most about this music is not the work itself but the knowledge that it caused a riot in Paris on May 29, 1913 when it was first performed. A riot in an theatre -- that's my idea of a rite of Spring.
The music sounds primal today, though it's hard to imagine how it could have caused a riot. In fact, it was not the music as much as the ballet, daringly choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky, that caused the sensation. Le Sacre du Printemps was a Russian debut in France, and as such a symbolic meeting between two nations that would one year later go to war together against Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey.
While I've heard the music often, I've never seen the work performed, and I've only just become aware of a Joffrey Ballet video that presents Stravinsky's music and Nijinsky's ballet in context -- Pictures of Pagan Russia is the subtitle -- so that we can get a better idea of what the whole sensation was about. Here's the first of three parts; you can click through from this one to the next two.
It's because I respect musicians who bravely venture into the dark literary territory of autobiography that I am so fascinated by musical memoirs. It's also why I'm sometimes critical of them. I have high standards regarding what a good memoir should be.
My standards are high but simple. An autobiography of a musician or any other artist must be written in a voice that feels distinct and artistic. It must tell a coherent story in chronological form. Most importantly, a good memoir must tell the truth.
On these terms, I criticized Neil Young's Waging Heavy Peace for lacking story coherence, and for substituting undercooked present-tense for thoughtful past-tense. I knocked Steve Tyler's Does The Noise In My Head Bother You? for an inconsistent voice: the first few chapters about Steve's childhood and teenage years were very well written, but once Steve grew up and got famous the book shifted in tone to something like a People magazine interview about his rock star lifestyle. That ain't memoir.
Today I'm going to tell you about a memoir that I bet you never heard of, even though there's a good chance you dearly love the legendary rock band the author of this autobiography played drums for.
He was the oldest of the major Beat Generation writers. That's why William S. Burroughs is today the first Beat writer to celebrate a centennial.
Burroughs was born on February 5, 1914. He arrived on this planet the same year as the First World War.
Some people don't call Burroughs a Beat writer, because they prefer to think of him as a postmodern experimentalist, or a psychic investigator, or a political activist. He was those things too, but of course he was a Beat writer.