Tuesday, September 25, 2012

An intimate knowledge of rap

On the light rail last night there were two guys behind me both listening to hip-hop, one leaned over to the other and read him some lyrics off his phone and after every two bars or so the other would say,
          "Now to the uninitiated they would hear these lyrics and would be like 'Damn man! Are you on drugs? Are you smoking something?' but with my intimate knowledge of rap...I know exactly what he is saying."
He said this no less than three times, with minor variations on the theme:
         'To someone who doesn't know rap this would be meaningless, but I have an intimate knowledge of rap terminology and understand what he is saying completely."

Sunday, September 23, 2012

City on a hill (Confluence of forces)

          Wending out of downtown, aimless, sloshed to and fro along the sidestreets by the last vestiges of their doses and the invisible strings of the night Jeff and Keely wander. The become caught up in the middle of the street looking at a strange bug or the interplay of shadows on a fence. They laugh, they talk, the world seems new to them, all the anxiety felt earlier has dissipated. Keely listens more than Jeff, and is content with this. The night breathes cool on them, a slight breeze ruffles his hair along with the cadres of leaves which gather at every boundary on the ground: between street and curb, curb and lawn, lawn and home. At a certain point in time, where the descent of their reeling minds meets the brace of the rising chill, the decision is made to return home. They are spent, but in the good way. The walk back is quiet. Even Jeff is wrapped in the serenity of the night. The distractions are fewer, the allure of home too great now to allow meager stops.
But ahead: shouts.
        "Hey! The Fuck are you doing?" coming from behind a small house. It is unusual in this neighborhood, so steeped in its domesticity. Keely and Jeff look to each other for some explanation, some security. A few bobbing pulsing cherries emerge from the darkness of the front porch to form human shapes in the street light. They tentatively ease around the front of the house to peer along the side and into the backyard where the commotion lives and is growing. A tangle of flannel and pastel tumbles through the side yard rendered greyscale under the streetlights, those few watching from the front inch back onto the porch. Jeff and Keely pause, now directly across the street.
      "The fuck bro!?" It becomes apparent that there are two men, one obviously dominant, larger, his frame pulled back and up pushing another, the same height but shabby and stringy in all his characteristics. The larger one advances and pushes the other. He stumbles, and falls. In a move of pure instinct the larger closes the distance in two steps and finds him on the ground with two hands around his neck. "DON'T EVER COME TO MY HOUSE AND TRY TO FUCK WITH ME...AGAIN" the words barrel out, into the yard, into the street, the small crowd behind him them now watching, hands over mouths, eyes wide, unsure.
      Jeff is gone, sprinting toward the two, who have become a statue now: the two locked in fear and anger. From where Keely stands the actions unfold as a mobius strip of bodies and clothes, Jeff barrels in and becomes a part of the other two, fusing with them one sided and revolving into their bodies and the ground below. The one below pops up, a loaded machine, and takes off at an overdriven and embarrassed walk. Down the small hill from the house to the sidewalk in one bound, stumbling once and regaining traction then swigging from a double long can, swaggering off away from Keely. Jeff gets up a second later and trots after him. Keely is left staring, mouth open and hands locked before her. It all happened so fast, and now over seems as if it never happened at all. Within seconds the crowd dissipates back into the house, the incident already forgotten, the attacker even showing off as if nothing had happened, brushing himself clean and giving one last hard stare, the potential repercussions of his actions just barely peeking through his drunk to touch his last conscious parts.
    Keely looks for Jeff and spots him already at the end of the block catching up with the other figure. She crosses the street and approaches them but is waylaid by a yell from the porch.
       "Yo! Keely?" She looks up but only sees the bobbing cherries.
       "Who is that?" she shades her eyes from the streetlight but it doesn't help.
       "It's Cole. Hey what are you doing?"
       "Hey! I'm walking home." She moves toward the porch "Do you know what happened?" up the stairs and entering she discovers two couches laid out perpendicular full of silent bodies, male and female crushed together.
       "I donno I guess this guy was really wasted and Joel was talking to him and he just started cussing him out so Joel picked his scrawny ass up and and hauled him to the front. He fukin choked him out too, I can't believe he did that..."
       "Do you know who it was?" She leans back, out the porch and sees Jeff and the other still talking. How does Jeff know him, how did he pull him off?
       "Naw, I donno. I don't know how he got here." The door to the house opens and Keely looks up. The porch is so dark that the little light streaming from inside inscribes a halo around the body there leaving a hole, a human shaped void for a long moment. The door closes like a water rushing back over and yet the body is still obscured by tired rods and cones. As the porch returns to darkness Keely sees a man of average height, wearing loose clothes and a resigned look.
       "Is everything calm here? Now?" his voice rolls out smooth and deep and yet it seems as if no one pays him any attention. Keely notices he is looking directly at her and she answers:
       "Yeah." He steps over to her and extends an arm to her shoulder, she feels like flinching but is too exhausted to, his eyes settle on her only she can't see them can only feel them and when his fingers settle on her it's like insects crawling down her ski nfrom whe rehe ist ouch ing andhe say s
"You look distraught." and then "Is everything, O-Kay?"

       After they leave the street lays bare behind them.
The street lamps had stood for four years and would stand for fifteen more. The asphalt had lain for ten years and would lay for ten more.
The trees along the road had stood for thirty two years and would stand for one hundred and seventeen more.
The dirt below which ran hard packed and dry was lain down one hundred and fifty years before and was always turning, always changing.

Review of "Orange Eats Creeps" by Grace Krilanovich

             I rarely read books twice, but when I do I do it back to back, like I'll finish page XXX then start up again on page 1 with little to  no gap in between. I usually find myself rereading because I didn't like the book the first time and was hoping for more.

State of the nation

We are a nation of wanderers,

We all have a bit of the jew in us

You have heard them,

         you surely have heard them

during family reunions, and in bingo halls

at all day breakfast houses and feed lot buffets

at the chain coffee shops and supermarkets

speaking disparagingly of the one

that stayed in their home town

or as if it were a quaint and

old timey thing to have done

The child that didn't move across the country

or strike out on their own

after 30

As if the spirit of the pioneers

is so deeply rooted in our national genetic

that every new generation must pick up at a point

and haul out

to start anew

in some far off place

like Akron

or L.A.

or Tampa

as if everyone believes there is something better there

or at least there is something there

             which is not here

Friday, September 21, 2012

Interview with Mark Gluth the author of "The Late Work of Margaret Kroftis"

        Mark Gluth is the author of a "The Late Work or Margaret Kroftis" a terrifically sad and labyrinthine novella that came out in 2010. I reviewed it a few months ago and it left an indelible mark on me. I was fortunate enough to get to talk with him about TLWOMK, his influences, his interest in black metal, and his next novel at the Kulshan Brewery in Bellingham Washington on a stunning PNW evening.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The two Marias

               I come from a dancing family. a recently dancing family: my mom came into belly dance, and later flamenco, as her main hobby starting around the time I being formed born, roughly a quarter century ago. For a time I participated, learning the basics of flamenco, but  can one really dance flamenco if not Spanish? All with the duende and dolorous spirit? I think not. Not some gangly Jewish teenager. So I left it, but still my mother and sister dance regularly, religiously, it is everything to them that a religion is what with its pigrimages, revered teachers, rituals and transgression. Our teacher for a number of years was a woman named Maria, this sort of a force of nature from Los Angeles with bomb spray mascara and a disposition at the time compared just favorably to that of a Catholic school teacher. During my adolescence  I was terrified of her, but as time went on  I became numbed and we parted ways.
                I only recently came into contact with her again. I came home to interview for a job near my childhood home and needed a ride to it about half an hour away. Maria is deeply in debt to my mom favorwise and as she had nothing else to do on the foggy April Thursday she offered to drive me up. The drive up was uneventful: small talk, whatever. She was significantly more pleasant than I had remembered, and as we drove past a McDonalnds she let me know that later that afternoon she would be hitting it it for her daily hamburger which gets her all the calories she needs for day in one meal, plus the low price.
              We had some time to kill so we decided to get some coffee up the street from the building I would be interviewing at. Maria had seen a sign for a cafe and homed in on it, I couldn't tell why. The name of the cafe rhymed and she said it over and over, though it's out of my reach now. Inside the cafe was pretty bare, a coffee machine, a stand with some chips, pretty empty in terms of bodies as well. Damning too as it was that glorious time in the morning where everyone feels the have earned there first break for the day, around 10:30. They try to sneak away from their mundane activities with ever excuse to get a snack. The cafe had cheap Lebanese paraphernalia all over the walls: flags, pictures, little shiny metal things and this little Lebanese woman, hearing us, walks out from the back all smiles and perfume.
             We each ordered a coffee and Maria and I sat down for a moment. Maria walked up to the counter when the order was ready, then introduced herself, a sort of ethnic bond between them. Maria was second generation Latina or something like that, no accent but dark enough eyes and that almost haughty self conciousness that made her stand out sore from the WASP and Skandanavian crowds.
          "Hello, where are you from" Maria asked
          "I am from Lebanon," the woman smiling, so small and proud "and you?"
          "I am from all over. My name is Maria. What is yours?" and when Maria says this the little Lebanese lady laughed
          "I am Marya. We have the same name." And I kid you not there was this moments, the two of them, from so far apart, different parts of the world like two sister witches coming together, meeting for a moment, held together by their names, the name of the mother of Jesus and they took on the archetypal role that the name gave them, transcended a bit their cheeseburger eating coffee serving lives and became MARY halo and all, stabat maters staring at each other with infinite sadness and compassion over the creamer. The events of their lives mapping perfectly onto each other, the births and deaths and loves and movement experienced by each like the arms of a cross heading toward this moment, a moment of complete recognition. Then into divergence: back again separating, moving apart into other things, this name so common anyways, the meeting meaning nothing. The laughed a little and separated, Maria came and sat across from me putting the coffees down and sliding mine over across the table.
         "She had the same name as me..."

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Review of "Action/Figure" by Frank Hinton

          Though she is widely published online I haven't yet read much by Frank Hinton. A piece on Popserial maybe, but from what I can tell she is one of the more prominent names in the Alt-Lit scene and I have noticed her and her work referenced again and again. Action/Figure came out a few weeks ago on Tiny Hardcore press so this is some seriously fresh shit. The book itself is roughly half the usual paperback height,  pretty thick and the cover has this full color picture which is rare i feel on the small presses. This said it certainly stands out at first glance, though following the great maxim: judgement must wait until the cover is out of sight...
        The majority of Action/Figure follows two storylines disparate in setting but similar in themes and tone. The first opens with Rapunzel, who has suffered a strange accident in a foreign, war-torn country. We come upon her amnesic, blind, restrained and surfacing from delirium. She is cut off from those around her by the language barrier. When English speakers do begin to arrive and speak with her their intentions are not clear. The chapters alternate with the stories of Frank and Lili, two room mates in Halifax. Both are graduated students, aimless and confused about their imminent adulthood. While they only allude to past events it is obvious that in past years their house was once a chaotic party spot, but is now reduced to a shade of its former self as former room-mates left to pursue other endeavors. The way Hinton paints this setting, the ruin, and allows us to fill the gaps of the past through only a few dropped lines is quite impressive and allows each reader to potentially form a personal back story to suit.
        Rapunzel's story forms and resolves slowly as she, and we, learn about the events that lead up to her hospitalizaiton. At a certain point she begins to mention You. The reader or another, You are very important to Rapunzel and she did something very dire to attain You and which was the cause of her hospitalizaiton. You are home to Rapunzel, and in this foreign land her central desire is to get to you, to get home.
        Frank and Lili are almost defined by their inability to function in society, but in very different ways and Hinton mirrors this in their narration. Lili's chapters are told in first person and this fits well as she is wracked by an introspective obsession. When the novel opens she is on a "good" day and seems like any other 20 somethings, a little lost in the world but otherwise okay: she creates a city of clothes in her room, visits with her "boyfriend" with whom she has a confusing and complicated relationship and worries about a meeting with her family. In fact both Lili and Frank obsess over imminent meetings with their families, and both groups are toxic in appropriately different ways to each, their influence driving both into their respective mental cages. As time goes on it becomes apparent that this "good day" is a rare one for Lili, a fluke, and her insecurities begin to come out in disastrous ways. Frank's narrative is told in the third person; he is apart from himself, unable to connect with his thoughts, emotions or the world around him. He seeks and coerces sex from Lili and his cousin and seems unable to feel affection, simply screwing to pass the time and branding himself as abusive (and rightfully so). Frank's entire post college goal amounts to playing with action figures for half an hour a day to become more childlike.
       Navigating the hazy labyrinth between childhood and adulthood is a major theme of the novel. Frank and Lili are on the edge, either unsure or unable to commit to a stable adult life style. Along with Frank's action figure collection one night Lili takes cocaine with some friends and goes to a playground and meditates:
"I look around the playground. When is the last time I played on a playground? Why do people grow up and  work and do things? I imagine a society by balancing their time between self-sustaining farms and playgrounds. You work a little, play a little. You hoe a little, you slide a little. Why doesn't this society exist? Why can't I be the leader of a society like this? I want my childhood back." 
      The childish genius, the naive clarity of this statement... Some of us entertain thoughts like this every day, for others of us the very notion is completely ludicrous. Lili continues:
"I am going to unlock some secret from my youth in this playground. The secret will help to understand my adult-self more maybe."
          This is the thesis of the work, looking back to childhood to break through the barrier to adulthood, trying to find the spark that will carry one through the tedium and malaise of adult life. Lili and Frank are the casualties of this endeavor, and Hinton closes the novel before we ever learn whether they are successful or not. In a similar vein Rapunzel describes her first "awakening" in the hospital as a birth and she is cared for yet confined, much like as in childhood. At a certain point Rapunzel finds herself alone, yet free to do as she pleases and takes the first steps into the outside world. She describes this as a second birth: her attainment of a symbolic adulthood. Rapunzel attains what Frank and Lili fear and hope for and her story spirals off into a poetic journey into the heart of her forsaken country and ends ambiguously, at her darkest moment an apparent redemption arrives, perhaps.
        I felt a distinct sadness at the end of Frank, Lili's and Rapunzel's stories. Not a sadness for the characters themselves but that undefinable sadness one may feel as a really good journey ends, as you realize that the place you have been for the last few days or months is not and never has been real. The sadness that the world of the novel, no matter how flawed and dark was an almost realer place than the one we experience during waking life. I found this novel to be quite personal, Hinton allows enough room for the reader to fill in gaps and unconscionably make it their own.
        The final episode in Action/Figure is distinctly separate from the other two stories and follows a boy and a girl who eternally walk along an isolated shore. The prototypical love story: just two people finding solace in each other amongst the waste of the world. Perhaps this story is a dream or hallucination of Frank or Lili's, perhaps it is not linked at all. It does however draw the sadness birthed at the end of the novel out just a little longer and puts the relationship of Frank and Lili, Rapunzel and You into perspective. It brings out the flawed beauty of each and provides the ideal of love, unattainable except perhaps for in the realms of ourselves.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Review of "Nothing" by Blake Butler

       There are a few things I'd like to get out of the way before I review this book. First: I haven't read any other reviews of Nothing as of yet so I am completely ignorant as to the book's reception among professional and amateur critics. I'm not trying to include myself or revolt against any mass sentiment for or against Butler that may be out there. Second: I've been trained (at the undergrad level) as a scientist and have some experience reading professional science writing so when I read any science writing I tend to compare it to professional research journals, text books, etc. This may result in my being overly critical of the sections of Nothing which touch on the science of insomnia. Third: I've read one piece of fiction by Blake Butler (Anatomy Courses) as well as his stuff in Vice and on Twitter all of which I have enjoyed but I haven't read either Scorch Atlas or There is no Year. I do intend to read those in the future, at some point. Finally: if you happen to have a rebuttal to this review, or think I missed something crucial please let me know, send me a comment or whatever. I'd be interested in hearing others thoughts about the book.
        Nothing is part "memoir", part "history" and part fictional account centered around Blake Butler's experience with insomnia. Each of these modes is interspersed throughout the book and each has a separate flavor from the other. Chapters will switch from one to the other with little warning and this breaks the book up well, gives it a sort of hyperactive quality though sometimes the switch can be a little jarring. The memoir sections were by far my favorite and I thought them the best written. Blake has an excellent way of portraying his subjective experience through idiosyncratic language (more on this later however) and puts you right in his shoes, experiencing the frustrating agony of insomnia first hand. One section approximates this (I think) with copious footnotes, the eye brought back and forth from text to footnote as the wandering insomniac mind from restless thought to restless thought. Butler has very strong feelings about how society, the ubiquity of media, our relationships with each other, and technology interact and makes his opinion known often. His views are nothing terribly new (computers pull us apart, the amount of information we are surrounded by is staggering, etc.) but he is convincing and it is always good to get perspective on the effects the internet has on our lives. Butler's family is always held at arms length in the book, his mother, father and sister making appearances but never becoming full characters. A little disappointing, as I found myself curious to learn more about the relationships Butler has with them and how this influenced his insomnia. Reality and dream frequently mix and the memoir can shift into a strange dreamlike tone without any warning.
       Unfortunately the strict memoir sections are far fewer than they should have been. Other parts of the novel are taken up by a look at the "science" behind insomnia and the treatments for it. Toward the beginning of the book Butler recounts a history of theories and treatments for insomnia, interspersing them with other inventions that occurred around the same time:
         "In 1949, Egas Moniz wins the Nobel Prize for popularizing the lobotomy. We further customize our homes. Ranch-style homes become popular for their open floor plans and larger windows, allowing in more light. The first U.S local TV station opens in Pittsburgh."
He goes on an on listing inventions that could be related to insomnia but often are not. I found this to be the first of some very tedious and entirely unnecessary sections. It is obvious Butler did some research into the science behind insomnia but it ultimately comes off as amateurish. He also places similar to this one a few times in the novel, one simply lists drugs another website names, and I  found them serving no function other than to up the number of pages in the book. He also seems to give much greater weight to discoveries and thought from earlier in the century while making little to no mention to recent thinking, of which there is a considerable amount, aside from huckstery online treatments. Obviously Butler is not a science writer, and  I appreciate that fact, but I strongly believe that if you are going to address the science you should do it thoroughly and do it well or at least hand it off to someone that will. Butler does none of these things. He also quotes frequently from other writers but often I had trouble connecting the quote to the surrounding text and there is rarely any explanation as to who these people are, or why we should care what they think. Perhaps one of the most inexplicable parts of the book was that Butler felt it necessary to explain to us that the Disney character Goofy is a "man-dog" but then assumes we all know who Johannes Gorannson is, and that we should be interested in his sexual tendencies.
         The other aspect of Nothing that I found endlessly frustrating was Butler's writing style. Butler is obviously a devotee of Gertrude Stein and her methods of writing. Stein is an excellent and varied artist from which every writer could glean some tool with which to enhance their own prose. She is also flexible enough to be capable of writing groundbreaking experimental verse such as that in Tender Buttons while also being capable of writing more straightforward prose such as that in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. But always she uses a style appropriate to the subject matter. Butler uses a nonstandard writing style in his memoir sections and while it could be argued he is approximating the "dream logic" that occurs in the areas between waking and sleeping during insomnia I found myself alternately cringing and lost far too often. Some sentences are simply incomplete, others ponderously overwritten. Butler seems deathly afraid of using certain words multiple times (or even once) but injects words like "meat", "flesh", "gloam", "troll" and "waddle" at seemingly every opportunity and subsequently beats the words to death, the repetition numbs the words leaving them bereft of any meaning. His obsession with how air interacts with objects, endless attention to the shape and nature of our homes and his repetitions of "[an object] within [an object]" is completely beyond me. I figure it has something to do with literary theory, though I may be wrong, in the end I just had no idea what he was getting at. While being difficult or obscure in literature is certainly not a bad thing by any means, in the past when reading "tough" books I would often go back and carefully parse what the author was getting at, if  I felt there were rewards to be had. I never got that feeling with Nothing and after attempting to decipher a few sections just gave up and glossed over them. I eventually eased into his style but toward the beginning I honestly considered setting the book down and letting it be, something that  I haven't done for years. This is such a shame as the concept and content of the book is very promising and is almost defeated by the "unique" writing style.
       The book concludes with Butler interacting with a confusing and malicious simulated text-based role-playing game which torments him and leads him through his home to himself. It was a nice ending to the book, a summary or prototype of that ever too common pre-sleep activity here wandering over into nightmare territory: the normally docile computer taking on the self-defeating, illogical feel of insomnia. It does not explicitly "bring the book together" but does provide an appropriate cap to the memoir. I was really looking forward to reading Nothing (perhaps one of the reasons I was so disappointed with it) and as I mentioned above am looking forward to reading Butler's fiction in the future. I found the book to be prety tedious and without many rewards, though I could see those interested in experimental writing styles or literary theory really liking this.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

City on a Hill (Jeff and Keely take a journey)

            -I think I'm coming down, Jeff sits up in the chair, brushes himself off and stares at the floor for a second.
            -Yeah. You wanna go downtown?
         They take time to remember how to put on extra layers, the temperature has been dropping outside recently and tonight is a full breath of autumn. Stepping outside Jeff looks at Keely, shivers and pulls out a cigarette. He offers one to Keely, she declines, has always declined every time he's asked. Either he has never learned to withhold from her or this offering has become a force of habit. Jeff stands just shy of six feet, a ring of forgettable brown hair sits above his pale face. He's got an army surplus parka on, German flag pasted on the shoulder for authenticity. She starts walking, passing him as he dallies to light up. He rushes ahead to catch up, they step into the back alley (always a shade darker than the rest of the world it seems, even on nights like this where the lack of light seems to transcend itself into a fifth dimension as ineluctable as space or time) shapes darting from car to bush, from fence to hedge.
      They are walking side by side, silently. He considers whether the silence makes his feel awkward, she is a holy enigma to him and he leaves her silence in reverence.
       -What are your parents like?
       -Uh. Haha, I donno...
She asks again
      -Well my mom is pretty cool. She works in Olympia, in the capitol doing something, like a secretary or something...
     -How old is she?
     -Uh let's see, she just turned 39 a few months ago I guess.
     -Wait, your mom was 19 when she had you?
     -Yeah. He laughs nervously -She was pretty young...
There is an increase in traffic, the lights around them rise in strength and warmth, they are nearing downtown.
     -What's your dad like?
     -Uh actually, he sort of ditched my mom pretty early on like when  I was a bay maybe? or before I was born, so I don't know him.
     -Yeah that was the same for me. He looks over at her, probably for the first time tonight. She is easily 7 inches shorter than him, her jacket envelops her, makes her seem even smaller, yet she seems to him to be, somehow very much in control. So composed. The holder of some sort of knowledge, elegance, or form that is fundamentally apart from him. -Yeah I mean my mom was a little older than yours when she had me but I never knew my dad either.
    -Yeah I guess my mom has his name and address and stuff and she said she would give it to me if I ever wanted it. They walk on in silence for some time. The activity downtown increases steadily until about 1 am when, inevitably, a handful of cop cars descend on a drunken fight or...
        No it's always a drunken fight which seems to clear out the majority of those wandering around, only a few of the most drunk stragglers waiting around, swinging on light poles, stumbling through crosswalks, yelling at bouncers, for something. They so far gone that the earlier diversion of gathering the attention of the meek and female has somehow lost its appeal.
    -Whatever I'm never having kids.
    -Really? Keely's tone has shifted, she seems surprised, concerned even. -Do you not think you would be a good dad or...They wait at a crosswalk, cars ambling past them toward mysterious goals and unknown destinations. Jeff does not speak until the light turns as if waiting for it to allow their conversation to continue.
    -I donno its like, the last conformity right? The last capitulation, the last loss of freedom. But I guess even now there is no rebellion. You have these 'cool dads' going snowboarding or whatever, fuckin' grups hanging around at our shows, talking about how they played with Mudhoney one time and now they come by our place and slam a six pack before slinking home to get yelled at by their wives. He seems mad, or confused, or sad or angry. All the same really, for him, never taught to emote properly, never schooled in the nuance of feelings that one is capable of generating. The opposite set of emotions holding horny, drunk, hungry, excited and novel. The majority of his emotions falling into one of these two categories, and if asked he would name them "un-chill" and "chill" respectively.
    -Jeff it's not all about rebellion, it about making yourself happy, its about becoming fulfilled. Her eyes follow the pavement ahead of her, thinking or conditioned by a few years out here (mostly alone those times) to keep meek, to avert her gaze.
   -Okay I believe you, but it's more than that. It's that I don't want to follow in the footsteps of those before me. I abhor tradition simply out of curiosity. Like...I want to experiment, I want to see other ways of living. That was what was great about all the subcultures, I think. Not the art, not the drugs...
     -Yeah bro! Drugs! This catches him for a second but as he looks up he notices the voice came from a meathead easily twice Jeff's size and anyways he is so caught up in his monologue that a witty quip is simply out of the question. Jeff doesn't realize it but he is getting worked up, his voice rising in volume and pitch.
     -But they set out to see if there were better ways to live their lives. Most of them failed, I mean that's why old hippies suck so much, or like these burned out punks are so shitty. But there has to be...His hands start waving wildly in his frustration to find a word. The movement causes him to expel little gasps of air which create awkward noises.
     -Another way? His hands drop, How did she know, like she can read my mind almost or is a part of me...
     -Yeah. I guess. But it sounds so corny you know...
       The city reels on around them oblivious to their miniscule desires. Movement and stasis, consumption and rejection tug at each other and intertwine forming the conversations remembered or forgotten the next day that shoot and whisper through the air around them. There is no morality here, neither good nor evil, simply a machine running through its paces, the cogs turning unaware of themselves, of the whole. Forces drag and burst unevenly following the grid of the streets, concentrating at nodes and dissipating to nothing at the edges.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Review of "Chromos" by Felipe Alfau

           Felipe Alfau's lost masterpiece Chromos may very well be the holy grail of postmodern literature. The novel is satisfyingly meta, referential, and structurally experimental without the cloying baggage of hyper self-awareness and intentional obscurity for its own sake. Alfau's life and the strange history of Chromos can be found here. On the surface Chromos is a novel about the Spanish American experience in New York during the 1940's, written in the place and at the time. An attempt to translate the raw emotional narrative of a Spanish ex-pat into the vernacular of modern America. Looking further it exhibits a range of philosophical  metaphysical and humanistic themes.
             The nameless narrator and his friends, one nicknamed "Dr. Jesucristo", one "The Moor", another "The Chink" wander around their predominantly Spanish New York neighborhood drinking at their homes or a bar known as "El Telescopio" after all the drunk Spaniards gazing up into their empty wine bottles as if peering into the heavens. These wanderings never sink into monotony: Alfau's descriptions of the city are lively and imaginative, his depiction of the 40's refreshingly natural and subdued. At various points the narrative dips into various stories and novels written by the narrator's friend Garcia: one a casi (corny) epic family drama involving the rise and tragic fall of a Madrid jewelry shop. Members of the family which run the shop commit incest, engage in BDSM and other frowned upon conduct. Another of Garcia's novels follows the life of a man given the power to skip ahead in his life over the "boring" parts without waiting. A classical "you get what you wish for" story. He similarly rises to great heights: becoming a wealthy businessman, then is sent to jail and loses everything over petty jealousy. Garcia recounts meeting him in his old age, destitute forced to live through all the memories he skipped over. It is a chilling scene. Both of these stories are dramatic almost to the point of absurdity but Garcia insists again and again that they are true. These were no doubt manuscripts which Alfau wrote and was highly self-critical of. The narrator often breaks in and comments on the absurdity of certain passages and begs Garcia to skip over the erotic content rendering the soap opera like sections immune from outside criticism form the reader. The stories play no major role in the overarching plot, or better said: there is little outside plot and these embedded stories provide a structure to a novel which is otherwise predominantly philosophical and aesthetic.
         One section which takes place in New York concerns the narrator reading some notes his friend had written regarding his theory of space-time. These notes (and subsequent dialogue) argue that time is actually a fourth spatial dimension, light a fifth. Keep in mind Alfau was writing this less than 30 years after the theory of general relativity was published so his interest is notable. Alfau conveys the theory well and the skeptical narrator acts as the reader's avatar, poking holes in the theory at every turn. In another noteworthy series of sections the narrator sees into the mind of a strange, distinctly assimilated man. This results in bizarre, tortured scenes, one of which is almost identical to a scene in Sadegh Hedayat's Blind Owl. The scenes are by far the darkest and funniest in the novel and the dream like air lends a nice contrast to the bare realism of the New York meta-narrative. 
        Alfau was a music critic by trade and this is totally evident in the novel. Music plays a large role in Chromos and his descriptions of music and musicians are amazing:
        "He was playing again from Chopin, something sad, sorrowful to the point of lugubriousness: "He was a sick man, no doubt of that," he said half to himself, "but in other things he showed tremendous force and rebellion-vitality. Berlioz made a mistake in judging him with a banal cruelty induced by the desire, fashionable at the time, of making one more phrase. Chopin was not dead all his life. He has not died yet"
         The finale of Chromos is a perfectly paced slow crescendo of scenes and ideas that build in intensity of movement and thought into a swirl of dream and reality which then bursts at the seams leaving the narrator and the reader wandering the streets of New York dazed and spent. This is unlike the ending of any novel I've come across in strength and mastery aside from perhaps Gately's story at the end of Infinite Jest. This is one of the few 20th century novels (that I've read) that allows itself to finish with a bang and does it really well. 
        The writing, and Alfau's grasp of language is excellent. The prose flows easily, is crisp and imaginative and is punctuated every now and then by "tough words" which is to say the novel will gently expand your vocabulary. The novel as well moves along at an easy, enjoyable, castizo pace and never drags. Alfau protested that there was no reason to publish Chromos as it did not "make sense". The book is interesting as the gap between when it was written and when it was published means it had no impact on the literature of its time and Alfau was out of the scene by the time anyone had time to interact with him and his work. Chromos stands as a sort of lacuna in the progression of fiction, while retaining even yet the potential for great impact. If you are at all interested in Spanish culture, New York during the 1940's, or post-modernism I could not recommend this novel enough.