View current page
...more recent posts
Following up on my Jonathan Lethem post, I'm going to out-geek him here by noting that the cover he describes for an imaginary science fiction book (by "F. Fred Vundane") actually blurs two distinct eras of sf book illustration. The Mirů/Tanguy-style cover mostly came out in the early '60s (below, left), a wildly experimental and exciting time (imagine: quirky abstraction on book covers!) but by the '70s, the period Lethem is describing, book jackets got much more blandly illustrational (right); the "computer style letters" he mentions, however, would more likely be seen in the latter decade. The "electric yellow," "Peter Max" influence did survive into the '70s (e.g., Brian Aldiss's Barefoot in the Head cover), but never with as much style as those early '60s editions. A nice picture essay on the Ballantine book covers, from which the blurry images below were taken, is at Strange Words, a regrettably-not-very-active sf e-zine.
Lethem also plays fast and loose with his Marvel Comics chronology, muddling Silver Age ('60s) stories and characters (eg, Silver Surfer, Black Bolt) with books produced almost a decade later (Luke Cage, Power Man). In 1974 he has kids looking at a book that wouldn't come out till 1976 (Dr Strange #12) and another that in '74 would be hopelessly vintage (The Incredible Hulk #115, 1969). OK, maybe the latter's not so implausible. Also borderline but still dubious is whether a kid would say "Use the Force, Luke" the "morning after the last afternoon of seventh grade" in 1977 when the movie opened in limited theatrical release May 27. (Star Wars opened in a few select theatres and word of mouth built over the summer; if Dylan had been part of the first-month vanguard for this generation-defining epic, you'd think Lethem would have at least mentioned it.) The discrepancies only irk because Lethem's so casual about forsaking the dweebs he claims to be one of--he doesn't have to get his facts right because these people don't matter any more; the readers and writers of Great Novels he wants to run with can be easily fooled with some comics lore tossed off for "authenticity."
My point here isn't to engage in literary class warfare but merely to express disappointment that Lethem has written an old-fashioned bildungsroman after a few forays towards a new kind of narrative, with one foot in popular trash and the other in post-humanity. For a writer grappling with the realities of the disassociated, multitasking electronic media age, the novel, Great American or otherwise, is a limited and convention-bound vehicle. Being obsessively true to pop culture without shucking literary skill could be a way to a different, more relevant verbal art, in the tradition of Burroughs, Kathy Acker, et al (and from there to performance video, games on CD-ROM, web-writing...) Hmmm. This may be circling back to the "Why is Wm. Gibson Writing and Not Blogging?" question. Theory in progress--more later. Also, I really need to finish Fortress before popping off again.
Jonathan Lethem's Gun With Occasional Music and Amnesia Moon read like better-adjusted Philip K. Dick: what's missing in authentic brain-addled paranoia is (almost) made up for in wordplay pyrotechnics. Motherless Brooklyn represents a quantum leap: suddenly an emotional undertow appears beneath the dazzling language and off-the-wall premise (a detective with Tourette's). The emergence of its unlikely heroes from a Brooklyn boys' home keeps the reader on the verge of tears, while the Tourette's creates constant suspense, because you never know how or when the protagonist's outbursts will get him in trouble.
Suspicions about the newest book, The Fortress of Solitude, should have been aroused when some fool came out in Salon, pre-release, calling it the greatest American novel. That's clearly the kind of accolade Lethem's after, because he's turning his back on that silly surrealistic stuff and Writing About His Childhood, thus satisfying English teachers, librarians, and people who give out book awards. Cause for concern number 2: the main characters are named Dylan Ebdus (a Jewish kid growing up in all-black Gowanus in the 1970s) and Mingus Rude (his black best friend). Bad, obvious sociocultural call.
This isn't a review, because your correspondent is only 153 pages into the 511 page book. I keep putting it down; I had already finished Motherless Brooklyn in this same amount of time. I'm enjoying the snippets of cultural criticism, written by the same guy who rhapsodized about nerdy collecting of Dick paperbacks and the Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name (Marvel Comics) in the pages of Bookforum and who wrote so engagingly about Prince and Don Martin in Motherless. Like Motherless, parts of the book make me sad, but other parts seem really contrived. (Just as Mingus is about to get Dylan in tight with his homeys by taking him on a subway-car-spraying expedition, a white woman walks up and asks Dylan if he needs any help, thus tagging him irrevocably as a privileged white.) I found more humor and pathos in the fall of Dylan's father from artist to paperback cover hack, as captured in this passage, where the book with his first published cover arrives in the mail, wrapped:
When he finally tore it open a shudder of self-loathing went through him, and he nearly ripped the package in half down the center [...]"R. Fred Vundane" breaks me up every time I think about it. This is Lethem getting in touch with his inner sci fi nerd, and it's more convincing than the race theme, which as Joshua Cohen writes in the New York Press, seems awfully sensitized:
Neural Circus by R. Fred Vundane, the first in a series called the New Belmont Specials, heralded as "Mind-Warping Speculative Fiction for the Rock Age." Jacket art by Abraham Ebdus: a third-rate surrealist landscape or moonscape or mindscape of brightly colored yet somehow ominous biomorphic forms, indebted to Mirů, indebted to Tanguy, indebted to Ernst, indebted even to Peter Max, and repaying none of those debts in the least. The art department of Belmont Books had overlaid his gouache-on-pasteboard with an electric yellow sans serif font meant to resemble computer screen lettering. Abraham Ebdus wished now he'd denied them the use of his real name, substituting a pseudonym instead, as the author apparently had: A. Fried Mothball or J.R.R. Foolkiller. The colors he'd applied with his own brushes hurt his eyes.
[T]he great white-written New York race book, especially Jewish/Black book, has already been written: The Tenants by Bernard Malamud. Published in the '70s as a direct response to racial tensions in post-hippie New York, itís a heartfelt novel that makes Lethemís attempt seem too little and too late. [...] In the last pages of Malamudís masterwork, [the protagonists] end up killing each other; whereas Lethem, expounding upon the decades, offers something some critic or marketing exec would call "more complex" or "nuanced" or "textured."More when I've finished the book. If I do.
Miscellaneous links I've been meaning to post:
Computer Movies Suck. This rant is several years old but still entertaining. (
Samuel Jackson Young girl hacker in Jurassic Park: "This is UNIX! I know this!" --described under the category of "blatant factual errors.")
Atomic Cinema. Well-written blurbs about cult, art, horror, and sleaze films, crafted to sell tapes and DVDs (you'll want to buy all of them), but with a prevailing point of view that is pro-erotic & anti-control process, much like RE/SEARCH's Incredibly Strange Films book.
Bonaire Webcams. From this desert island in the Netherlands Antilles, stationary views of beaches, a "reef cam" about ten feet underwater, and a view out the window at Kaya Rotterdam 2 (a street in the Hato section of the island).
More film (and music) stuff. Some new PreReviews are up, describing movies the reviewers haven't seen and neither will you: Karate Kid III, Mystic River, The Human Stain, Elf... This is some kinda service. In his Karate Kid review, Joe McKay mentions a bit from the Jamie Arcangel and the Arcangels show I posted about earlier and forgot to describe: the guitar duel between Arcangels guitarist Cory and Ralph Macchio, using clips from the Macchio film Crossroads. That mid-'80s gem, directed by Walter Hill (48 Hours, The Warriors), is basically Karate Kid with an old bluesman instead of a martial arts master; it climaxes with a battle of the bands type scene where Ralph wows the crowd with some stellar guitar, overdubbed by Zappa/Whitesnake prodigy Steve Vai.
At the performance Saturday, a video projector rolled a clip of Macchio playing a few notes, then the tape stopped and Cory tried to "beat" Macchio with his own, live guitar. This continued through several tradeoffs. Cory has the moves to pull this off, up to a point, but a small minority of people (who knew Crossroads) knew that inevitably Ralph was going to kick his ass. Thus, suspense was created and a kind of unconscious caste system developed in the crowd between the Crossroads elite and non-initiates. At the end of the performance, Ralph let rip onscreen with a long sequence of cascading notes roaming up and down the fretboard like an impossible physics formula, while the old bluesman looked on approvingly. This was the big moment, and singer Jamie asked the crowd if Cory should go for it, prompting a chorus of mostly yeses and a few skeptical jeers. Cory started a solo and then a few bars into it petulantly smashed his guitar to the floor and walked off, leaving the feeding-back instrument lying there howling. What else could you do?
Speaking of PreReviews, I need to eat some crow for calling The RZA's great Kill Bill music "generic hip hop" (without seeing the movie). Turns out the complex, sample-heavy score is one of the two reasons to see it. You don't really realize how much material was ingeniously mashed up until you watch the song credits scrolling forever at the end. [Update: For some reason Elvis Mitchell in the NYT gives credit to Tarantino for all the music choices and doesn't even mention the Wu Tang guy. What's up with that???] A really lovely tune plays while Darryl Hannah prepares to kill the comatose Uma Thurman; I want to go back just to hear it again.
Oh, and here is the other reason to go see the film, the second in a series of Females I'd Like to Be Slaughtered By (the first being the T-X Terminator). This kind of unabashed fandom is just to help the film industry and America's ailing economy, that's all, really.
Chiaki Kuriyama: Scary.
[The following found sentence has been inserted for design reasons, to put a kind of text buffer between completely unrelated photos. OK, there's an animated .gif, too, but it's way over on the right.] Less than a week before "putting to bed" the second half of Artforum's two-volume look back on the '80s, organized by my predecessor, Jack Bankowsky, I found myself seated across from sculptor Haim Steinbach at a Brooklyn kitchen, a late winter light waning on the running tape recorder and a half finished plate of marzipan between us.
Black Hole Sun
Above: The Black Hole, 1979, lobby card image Below: Olafur Eliasson, The Weather Project, installation at Tate Modern, 2003
Below: Olafur Eliasson, The Weather Project, installation at Tate Modern, 2003
My dream is that we'll pull out of Iraq, soon, and that George Bush will be judged a miserable failure and consequently lose the next election. He'll then have to go back to the Midland Racquet Club, and spend the rest of his life tapping his friends on the shoulder and saying, "We gave'em a hell of a run, didn't we?" while they pretend to listen.
Well, if we can't have that (yet), let's settle for Bush's Dad giving a public service award to Ted Kennedy, who recently called the Iraq war a "fraud." Talk about a vote of no confidence from the Pops! I wonder, do they sit around at Kennebunkport making stupid small talk under Bar's authoritarian eye, and then return to their respective mansions and bicker via broad symbolic gestures? How did we get in the middle of this weird family's dysfunctional arguments? Anyway, if Junior's angry, and therefore one step closer to a (preferably non-nuclear) meltdown, we should all be happy.
Performer above: The Plantains; Song: "Pop Iconography"; Video Projection: English Kills; Event: NY Underground Film Festival "Audio Visual" Live Showcase, October 8, 2003. Picture in background behind the musicians: that guy who's passport the FBI found lying on the ground a few blocks from the World Trade Center on 9/11. The Plaintains are a slick, funny sendup of a British neuromantic duo circa 1982, a dapper Spinal Tap for the synthpop era. Other performers included LoVid, Jamie Arcangel and the Arcangels, and the incredible Dr. Doo, who sat at a drumkit working the sticks athletically while lo-fi symphonic synths chugged and transcendental cartoon videos dazzled (sample frame below). The vibe was Soft Machine sound-and-light shows circa 1969 by way of Atari and Gumby, and wonderfully loud. Music to drive the bad shit away. (On-the-fly rock journalism type photography by yours truly.) Oh, yeah, I really wasn't into the last act, Ssion, which I would describe as Voice Farm meets B-52s meets dancers from Cats. Their pop irony seemed too much like MTV pop irony. Tryin' too hard.