Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

David Sedaris’s Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk

October 19, 2010

Once, when I was in sixth grade and charged with babysitting my younger brother, I came home from school to find him waiting on our front steps. He’d discovered a small, spongy football by the tire of a parked car and was beaming over the find. I was in a dark mood (my studied scowling act hadn’t kindled a single female heart at recess) and now I was jealous: Happiness for him was something found curbside, found too easily. I snatched the ball from him and, ignoring his protests and pleas, rolled it down the sewer and then we both felt terrible.

If you found this ugly little tale funny, you’ll like Sedaris’s collection of nasty, brutish, and short-short fiction wherein the author has, in the tradition of fabulists and folk tale-tellers, gifted his animal characters with human-strength powers of speech and cognition. Except Sedaris’s, with few exceptions, employ their abilities to relentlessly miserable effect. Most tales open with a character thinking ungenerous thoughts toward another. He or she then emerges from the reverie and, blinkered by a stingy spirit, acts callously or violently or stupidly toward his neighbor and the act succeeds or backfires. It’s like a print version of “The Itchy and Scratchy Show” but with a less winning brand of cruelty. Some didactic message is usually available and so are some illustrations but you’ll likely not bother lingering over either; each tale is so singularly unsatisfying, so insufficiently funny, that I found myself plunging ahead, keeping things moving the way you walk off the pain of a dashed shin, feeling hopeful, then less hopeful, then frowning, then quitting with a quarter still unread.

This is a collection that would not have seen print had it landed on a publisher’s desk with an unknown author’s name beneath its title. If only this were an early work, some scrap of juvenilia that Sedaris’s agent had greedily bullied him into releasing. But I’ve heard no such news. Seems Sedaris expected we’d devour these deadening stories, each as small, hard, and bitter as an acorn, and come away smiling. Me, I’m backing away, shaking my head, wondering what happened to the man whose books used to make me laugh so hard that I wouldn’t let myself read them on public transit. I can only hope the author finds an improving message in the tale of this book’s inglorious and inevitable relegation to last place on lists of Sedaris fans’ favorites.


Happy Hour

October 1, 2010

Friday springs into view and stands before me grinning proudly like it’s been here all along, like it hadn’t run out on me a week ago, leaving me to pine for it like a prisoner in an oubliette pines for the retina-searing blast of light overhead. But Friday is sometimes a too-cheerful chum, a beamish brat who needs a cuffing like the one Denis Johnson deals out in his short story “Happy Hour.”

The day was ending in a fiery and glorious way. The ships on the Sound looked like paper silhouettes being sucked up into the sun.

I had two doubles and immediately it was as if I’d been dead forever, and was now finally awake.

I was in Pig Alley. It was directly on the harbor, built out over the waters on a rickety pier, with floors of carpeted plywood and a Formica bar. The cigarette smoke looked unearthly. The sun lowered itself through the roof of clouds, ignited the sea, and filled the big picture window with molten light, so that we did our dealing and dreaming in a brilliant fog. People entering the bars on First Avenue gave up their bodies. Then only the demons inhabiting us could be seen. Souls who had wronged each other were brought together here. The rapist met his victim, the jilted child discovered its mother. But nothing could be healed, the mirror was a knife dividing everything from itself, tears of false fellowship dripped on the bar. And what are you going to do to me now? With what, exactly, would you expect to frighten me?

Friday’s power to liberate is myth, one we give ourselves permission to credit collectively, but one I’d not dispel, even if I could, because a world without a grimy happy hour is world I’d not soon look upon.

A Mowgli Esquire Exclusive: Jarred Mechanick’s “In Memoriam David Markson”

July 31, 2010

In June, the literary world lost one of its true luminaries with the passing of postmodern novelist David Markson.  Jarred Mechanick, one of Markson’s disciples, had a fitting tribute to offer exclusively to Mowgli Esquire:

At 6’4”, over the age of 26, and lean and sinewy, I come to you, dear readers, full of electricity and a focused, intensfanaticism found usually in junior high school girls’ ceramic experiments.

What has led me to this point is irrelevant; what matters is only my unyielding adherence to the barest of bones, any stillborn kernels caught in the thick miasma of Everyday and its Nonsense (but …you must pay attention to your nonsense…). To monkey my way through the leech blood oozing from everywhere you look.

I may not post much (hell, I may never post again), but rest assured, and Adeste Fideles, that I am never more than a stone’s throw from the frying fat, with at least one eye cast towards and against the Absolute.

In Memoriam David Markson

I was born on April 26, 1979.

Over the course of about two years, I mailed two letters to David Markson. The first one I dictated to my girlfriend, as I had recently fractured my finger playing basketball. I mentioned this in the letter. Markson began his response by stating that he hoped my finger injury wasn’t a result of fouling somebody.

Coincidences imply meaning.

At my best and at my worst, I’m motivated only by sex, death, and Wittgenstein (‘s Mistress).

Hart Crane.

What can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence.

Richard Burton, I am not.

Play a little. With luck a phrase or three worth some lonely pretty girl’s midnight underlining

Evelyn Roak.

When I left the Unitarian Universalist, I got caught in a warm, soaking rain. When I left the Dream House, I got caught in a warm, soaking rain. When I left the school, it was warm and bright, late morning. When I left yet another school, it was warm and bright, early morning September.

The science of the impossibly small.

What should we gain be a definition, as it can only lead us to other undefined terms?

Every goal has its dark corners.

April 25-26, 1979.

There are always questions.


To furnish a crystal clarity daily, living amongst the lichens of the mind, the barnacle and rust, the city bread and the farm haul, while all the same, a deep-seated internal thrust pushes one ever further into extreme alms and barest isolation. Meager means to a not-so-abrupt end. Antagonism and introspection as dull blades stretching late into life. The palace hinders the guards’ dreams; furrow and infinite regression.

In my second letter, I inquired how he was doing and remarked upon his poem ‘Relevance’:

Coincidences undeniably imply meaning.

I am rereading Hart Crane.
I notice the date
On which he stepped off that boat
Was April 26.

Tomorrow is April 26.

The year of his suicide was 1932.
I was four.
I am now fifty-one.
One undeniable implication in this case then
Is that the year, today,
Is 1979.

Afterward, Crane’s mother scrubbed floors.
Eventually, I may or may not
Jump overboard.

Are there questions?

but it’s being held together by something else. And not everybody cares about this. So to recognize their needs would be in opposition to where I’m going. I appreciate what they want and sometimes I want the same things…But there’s no way I can compete.


July 19, 2010

There is something at once delightful and discomforting about finding oneself depicted with photorealism in a work of fiction. Coming upon this bit from Nabokov’s The Defense, I nearly upset my jar of breakfast whiskey.

“Mrs. Luzhin, incidentally, liked him very much, and precisely because of his plainness, the neutrality of his features, as if he were himself only the outside of a vessel filled with something so sacred and rare that it would be a sacrilege to paint the clay. His name was Petrov, not a single thing about him was remarkable, he had written nothing, and he lived like a beggar, but never talked about it to anyone. His sole function in life was to carry, reverently and with concentration, that which had been entrusted to him, something which it was necessary at all costs to preserve in all its detail and in all its purity, and for that reason he even walked with small careful steps, trying not to bump into anyone, and only very seldom, only when he discerned a kind of kindred solicitude in the person he was talking to did he reveal for a moment—from the whole of that enormous something that he carried mysteriously within him—some tender, priceless little trifle, a line from Pushkin or the peasant name of a wild flower.”

(I exaggerate Petrov’s likeness to myself. I can make no claims to plainness, having once won the title of 5th Most Eligible Bachelor in the hamlet of my birth after edging out James O’Shaughnessy, a scrofulous epileptic we permitted to live on the outskirts of town as he proved useful in keeping packs of wild dogs at bay, a’feared as they were of his slavering and sweaty quaking. For a payment of an orange peel he’d lurch about the perimeter all night. Yes, I beat him soundly.)

Passages like this assure me that I am not and will never be a first-rate writer.  A master miniaturist, Nabokov needed only three sentences to stand before the reader a breathing, shuffling character. A nearly unholy power in the man’s pen. It simultaneously crushes my own ambitions and consoles me with the promise that more art of this caliber awaits. Some days, knowing that you get to share the same world with writing like this is recompense enough.


July 15, 2010

Yesterday I finished Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s The Makiokia Sisters, the ne plus ultra of the Japanese postwar novel.  Far be it from me to adjudge a work so canonical, but I couldn’t help but feel let down by the Sisters’ final sentence: “Yukiko’s diarrhea persisted through the twenty-sixth and was a problem on the train ride to Tokyo.”  That’s it: The End.  Now, Miss Yukiko, in her thirty-third year, is on her way to the big city to marry and thereby resolve the novel’s chief concern.  Of course, her diarrhea is symptomatic of the mood disorders that continually thwarted her marriage prospects, and, as this trouble is occurring on the eve of the war, it is symbolic of the woes about to beset Japan, but, nevertheless, I found this last note to be – initially – an unsatisfying one.  Couldn’t Tanizaki have concluded his magnum opus with an image commensurate with its grand themes?

When I lived in Japan, my fellow Western barbarians and I marveled at the local toilets.  The finest of them had self-sanitizing heated seats and control panels which were complex yet elegant.  With these panels, one could employ a bidet function, release a deodorant spray, or simulate the sound of running water, presumably to mask a plop or a grunt.  It was not until I recalled these toilets that I realized that Tanizaki’s ending is a manifestation of his genius for mapping the intersection between the physiological and the historical (e.g. his “The Tattooer”).  Being the Western barbarian that I am, the potty language distracted me from the sentence’s true essence.  To me, the toilet is an excremental confessional of sorts, a place where my gustatory sins are expiated; it should be spare and unadorned, and any reference to it is beyond the pale of seriousness.  In Ulysses, Joyce strives towards an earthy domesticity, but he closes the novel with Leopold Bloom, not on the toilet, as in the “Calypso” episode, but in the conjugal bed.  In any case, Joyce was always something of a petulant schoolboy, what with his overweening desire to thumb his nose at the bourgeoisie.  At the end of “Calypso,” he even went so far as to have Bloom wipe himself with a page of a story by a fictional Victorian author.

While Tanizaki transcends the filth by being serenely honest and open about its existence, Joyce wallows in it as he sniggers derisively at his detractors.  In short, he affirms that the filth is filthy, while Tanizaki, in a zazen turn, escapes the contradictions inherent in Joyce’s abnegation of bourgeois values through a sagacious neutrality.

Keith Gessen’s “All the Sad Young Literary Men”

July 9, 2010

Neither fish nor fowl, neither a short story collection nor a novel, Keith Gessen’s All the Sad Young Literary Men is, according to its cover, “fiction.”  Mind you, that’s not the countable plural “fictions” (e.g. Borges’ Ficciones), not the indefinite article “a fiction,” but simply “fiction.”  Mr. Gessen (or his editor/publisher) proves to be triply ingenious here, as it is with this appellation that he shrugs off the epiphanic duties of the shorter form, the structural incumbencies of the longer, and the ethical responsibilities of the memoir.  (There is a character named “Keith” who, like Mr. Gessen, attended Harvard College and associated with the then-Vice President’s daughter.)  Aside from “Lauren” (Kristin Gore) and “Keith” (Gessen is somewhat famous himself as founder of the journal n+1), other roman a clef personages include “Prof. Lomaski” (Noam Chomsky) and “Morris Binkel” (Lee Siegel).  Otherwise, we are to assume that the characters are fictional, although I suspect that if you went to Harvard in the late 90s or to Syracuse University in the 2000s (as Gessen did as an MFA student) you might recognize some of your classmates in the pages of this “fiction.”

What this fiction is, more precisely, is a book of loosely interconnected stories, each featuring one of three protagonists.  While “Keith” serves as a stand-in for the author, the other two, “Sam” and “Mark,” seem to be more like refractions of Gessen’s identity, the former in his Jewishness (Sam wants to write the “great Zionist epic.”) and the latter in his experience as a divorced graduate student at Syracuse (Mark is writing a history dissertation on the Mensheviks.).  As long as you don’t expect these stories to have the revelatory pop and sparkle of Chekhov and Cheever (The interconnectedness of them won’t exactly blow your mind, either.), you won’t be disappointed, as there is much to be admired in Gessen’s prose.  He writes with unfailing elegance, occasional lyricism and frequent humor.  As a well-educated male denizen of the Boston – D.C. megapolis, I’d be lying if I said this book didn’t charm me into laughing at the quirks of my existence.  It did, very much so, like when, for instance, Keith professes that “my father fervently believed [that] I-95 was so heavily trafficked, so miserable, so corrupt, especially in its Delaware portion, that one should take the long way – up to Harrisburg and then across the great state of Pennsylvania at top speed.”  Or, when Mark reflects in a self-conscious moment that, “[r]ap music was the music of the lonely.”  And then there’s Sam’s concern that “[h]is Google was shrinking.  It was part of a larger failing, maybe, certainly, but to see it quantified . . . to see it numerically confirmed . . . it was cruel.  It wasn’t nice.”

The less favorable reviews of All the Sad Young Literary Men have taken the book and its author to task for navel-gazing.  The reviewers behind these screeds are either willfully missing the point or engaging in embarrassingly regressive criticism.  As I see it, Gessen is chronicling a particularly solipsistic demographic through increasingly solipsistic times, and thus it is only natural that the narrative feel rather ingrown.  Could he have chosen something more ennobling than these young men, with their online dating and their lewd list-making, for his subject (“Sam found similarly that no matter how much he recalculated and recalibrated, took circumstances into account and multiplied by three, there was no avoiding the fact that he hadn’t, in his life, received enough blow jobs.”)?  Certainly.  Should he have?  Of course not.  For the sake of both aesthetics and the historical record, the novelist is not obligated to always write about the extremes of human experience.  While I would not presume to argue that there are too many novels about cancer or the Holocaust, I will say that there are enough of them, but not nearly enough as spot-on and risible as Mr. Gessen’s All the Sad Young Literary Men.

Cerebral Reckoning: “His Songs and Sayings”

July 8, 2010

I was recently accosted by a bearded homeless woman…the confrontation changed my whole perception of reality.  I was walking by, minding my own business, wearing a friend’s stolen Harvard Lacrosse shirt, when she leaped out of a pile of rubbish, and waved an accusatory finger inches from my face.  “You didn’t go to Harvard!” she shrieked, her toothless maw twisted with rage…She had called me to the floor.  I didn’t go to Harvard.  I was a fraud…I should have listened to the old American parable:

“You can hide the fire, but what are you going to do with the smoke?”

(Harris, Joel Chandler.  Uncle Remus:  His Songs and Sayings, 1881)

Olga Grushin’s “The Dream Life of Sukhanov”

July 6, 2010

Anatoly Sukhanov exchanged his gift for painting forbidden surrealist canvases for a cushy job cheerleading the practitioners of crapulous Soviet socialist realism.  Now in his late middle-age, the apparatchik finds his comfortable existence impinged upon by odd visitors and dream-like flashbacks.

Throughout The Dream Life of Sukhanov, Olga Grushin exhibits some truly diamantine prose; it’s just that lucid and brilliant.  Kick back and enjoy the following, context-free:

“They feel into an uneasy silence, listening.  The rhythmical liturgy went on and on: ‘Damnation, damnation to her, damnation to her for all of eternity!’  And as the minutes passed, it began to seem to Sukhanov that their warily expectant courtyard was being gradually transformed into the interior of a great, roofless, solemn church.  The Big Dipper swung like an incense holder, spraying drops of stars into the skies above; gilded squares of lit windows all around them turned into jeweled icons, encircled by candle flames, glimmering with blackened lacquer on ancient stone walls – and for an instant he even imagined that the spirit of some fallen angel was truly being cast out by communal condemnation into the chilly August nothingness. . . .”

“Here, in the countryside, the summer still lingered as if charmed.  A rich smell of cut grass rode into the air along with a midday chorus of somnolent crickets; bumblebees hovered with contented weightiness under a sky blue as the brightest faience; orchard trees rippled in the breeze, revealing flashes of the light green of Antonovka apples among the dark green of restless leaves.  On both sides of the path, tumbling branches of blossoming wild roses, red and white, rained petals onto his feet, and their sweet, heavy scent unexpectedly summoned to his memory a delightful tea Valya had occasionally brewed from rose hips.  In a few more strides, the white stone walls of the house gleamed through sun-dappled branches of a young oak, reminding him of some impressionist study of color and light.  Swinging his bag back and forth like an impatient child, he ran up the steps.”

“Infinitely relieved, he returned his glasses to their place, only to discover, upon straightening up, that half of his world was now crisscrossed by a radiant, trembling cobweb: a star-shaped crack, the imprint of someone’s vengeful step, had shattered the left lens.  The crack splintered the light into dozens of cubist fragments and imparted a rainbow-tinted brightness to one side of his vision, granting unwitting haloes to a night brigade of women in orange overalls who were presently illuminated by the flickering beams of their flashlights on a parallel track, and, once the last vestiges of the unknown town had fallen into the darkness, endowing his own reflection in the window with the multifaceted eye of an insect and sending silver waves across that of a strikingly beautiful girl who had just passed behind him in the aisle.”

If you agree with Henry James’ assessment of the Russian novel as a “loose baggy monster,” then Grushin, who was born in Moscow in 1971, has rebuffed her native legacy twice over: first, by writing a novel in English, and, second, by writing one with such painstakingly perfect craft.  As in dreams, even the smallest details in Sukhanov are laden with latent symbolism.  But one fears that for Grushin this writing of novels in a third language is merely an intellectual exercise, a chess problem, as it was for her fellow émigré and literary forefather, Vladimir Nabokov.  It is a piddling criticism, but she might do well to occasionally channel the “loose baggy monster,” and, instead of manicuring her prose after the prim geometry of the English garden, let it overgrow with a superfluity of life like the arbor of a neglected dacha.

Cerebral Reckoning: “The Yage Letters”

July 2, 2010

“To whom it may concern:  Self deciphers this correspodnence thus:  the vision of ministering angels my fellow man and woman first wholly glimpsed while the Curandero gently crooned human in Ayahuasca trance-state 1960 was prophetic of transfiguration of self consciousness from homeless mind sensation of eternal fright to incarnate body feeling present bliss now actualized 1963.  Old love, as ever…Allen Ginsberg ” 

(Burroughs, William S.  The Yage Letters.  San Francisco: City Lights 1963)

Thomas Bernhard’s “The Loser”

July 2, 2010

Men of letters have a long tradition of firing off a parting salvo in their last will and testament.  Shakespeare, who bequeathed to his estranged wife, Anne Hathaway, his “second best bed,” is the most famous practitioner of this art.  While the Bard’s bequest was steeped in a subtle, bitter brew, other writers, such as the Austrian novelist and playwright Thomas Bernhard, have used their final publication to fling straight vitriol in the faces of the living.  Long known in Austria as a Nestbeschmutzer (one who soils his own nest), Bernhard nevertheless managed to shock his homeland after his death in 1989 when this clause of his will was read: “Whatever I have written, whether published by me during my lifetime or as part of my literary papers still existing after my death, shall not be performed, printed or even recited for the duration of legal copyright within the borders of Austria, however this state identifies itself.”  This last phrase is no doubt an allusion to Austria’s 1938 Anschluss with Nazi Germany, a shameful episode in his country’s history that Bernhard “commemorated” fifty years later in the play, Heldenplatz (Heroes’ Square).  I say “commemorated” in an ironical sense because Bernhard, being the provocateur that he was, surely delighted in rubbing Austria’s nose in its gravest mistake.

If “anti-Austrian” is one hyphenated word that describes Bernhard and his narratives, then “death-obsessed” is another.  Upon receiving the Austrian State Prize for Literature in 1967, he told his audience that “everything is ridiculous if one thinks of death.”  The unnamed narrator of The Loser has come to a similar conclusion, having lost his  conservatory pals Glenn Gould (“the most important piano virtuoso of the [twentieth] century”) and Wertheimer (The Loser’s title character, Der Untergeher, which, rendered literally, means “the one who goes under.”), the only “two people in [his] life who gave it any meaning.”  Gould died of a stroke while playing the Goldberg Variations (This is one of many fictionalizations that Bernhard performs on the historical figure of Gould; in fact, the stroke struck while the pianist was in his sleep.), while Wertheimer hanged himself in a spiteful and embarrassing plea for his sister’s attention.  It was Gould himself who, in his “ruthless and open, yet healthy American-Canadian manner” dubbed Wertheimer “The Loser.”  This epithet works in concert with Gould’s staggering virtuosity to wreck Wertheimer’s confidence, sending him to seek succor first in “the human sciences” and later in suicide.  The narrator asserts that the die was cast the moment they heard Glenn’s divine rendition of Bach’s Goldberg Variations.  (See and hear for yourself in the clip above.)

Variations, as a formal technique, rely on thematic repetitions, and The Loser is their prose equivalent.  Like a baroque fugue, the novel is polyphonic and maddeningly circuitous; the narrator’s compulsive mind returns again and again to Glenn Gould, Wertheimer, Austria, death and, of course, the piano: “My ideal would be, I would be the Steinway, I wouldn’t need Glenn Gould, he [Gould] said, I could, by being the Steinway, make Glenn Gould totally superfluous. . . . To wake up one day and be Steinway and Glenn in one, he said, I thought, Glenn Steinway, Steinway Glenn, all for Bach.”  The above quotation displays what Jack Dawson, the author’s assiduous translator, calls Bernhard’s “somewhat peculiar orthography and punctuation.”  Another quirk that Dawson faithfully preserves is the novel’s almost complete lack of paragraph indentation.  Joined with dozens of run-on sentences, these features convincingly capture the stream of thought in a consciousness beleaguered by madness.  It is this uncanny verisimilitude to the unhinged mind that makes The Loser a strangely rewarding – and possibly exasperating – read.

Pulp Friction

July 2, 2010

My copy of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock looks like this:

The black bar of bridge dominating the middle of the photo sweeps the eye from left to right, past the book’s edge and, with any luck, onto a more interesting  scene, such as a blank patch of white wall in your living room .  I challenge you to produce an example of cover art that succeeds in being as boldly boring, as singularly unremarkable. Now, consider the Bantam edition of the same book:

Now that’s the stuff. Sumbitch looks like he’s suffering from an untreated case of reefer madness. Wife ain’t letting him go to any more of those after-work happy hours after this stunt. There’s a lot of room in my heart for art like this. Bring it, please!

Nicholson Baker’s “Vox”

June 28, 2010

(Roy Lichtenstein, Ohh…Alright)

A couple weekends ago I went to D.C. to hear a lecture on the fantastical in modern Japanese literature at the capital’s renowned independent bookstore, “Politics and Prose.”  When I am visiting a famous city, I like to contrive little moments of literary serendipity.  In Moscow, for example, I discovered the works of Victor Pelevin while browsing the shelves of the English language section of “Dom Knigi;” at “Shakespeare & Company,” in Paris, I came across a copy of Jean Genet’s “The Maids” in the attic library and read it cover-to-cover in one of the plush overstuffed chairs; and, in Sandy Cove, Dublin County, at the James Joyce Tower (where the first chapter of Ulysses takes place), I purchased a stamped copy of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in the museum gift shop.  (As I said, these “serendipitous” moments could be contrived.)  I did not expect to have one such moment at “Politics and Prose.”  What other than Gore Vidal’s Washington, D.C. could be taken as emblematic of the city’s literary legacy?  I found the answer to my question tucked away in a corner of the reduced price bookshelves: Vox by Nicholson Baker.

If you’ve read the Starr Report, the voluminous document which recounts, along with his other alleged misdeeds, President Bill Clinton’s affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, then you probably have heard of Vox.  Mr. Starr summarily refers to it as “a novel about phone sex by Nicholson Baker that, according to Ms. Lewinsky, she gave the President in March 1997.”  (Clinton, treating Lewinsky as he would a visiting head of state, gave her a special edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.  In a thank you note to “Mr. P.,” Lewinsky writes, “Whitman is so rich that one must read him like one tastes a fine wine or good cigar – take it in, roll it in your mouth, and savor it!”)  Flouting the subpoenas of two grand juries, Clinton failed to produce his copy of Vox, although the Report cites it in a list of books in his private study.  Could it be that the book was just so dear to him that he couldn’t bear to part with it?  Clinton was a Rhode’s scholar, after all, and Vox is something of a classic (although, as a classic of the erotica subgenre, it has enticements and charms other than its literary merit).  As for Ms. Lewinsky, she proves as lubricious yet literate in her choice of presents as she does in her assessment of Whitman.  “Lubricious yet literate” might aptly apply to Vox, as well, but before conflating the giver and gift, read this novel, savor it, and enjoy its sex, guilt-free.

When a writer, particularly a male one, writes about sex, he runs at least two risks: 1) Should he write the scene ham-handedly he may remind his reader of a little boy grinding together the erogenous zones of his sister’s Barbie dolls, or 2) should he write the scene perhaps too vividly he may turn the reader off with an impression of shady, prurient voyeurism.  Mr. Baker adroitly avoids both pitfalls by strictly limiting the narrator’s intrusion to the reportage of dialogue between two paying customers on a phone-sex hotline. (“‘What are you wearing?’ he asked.  She said, ‘I’m wearing a white shirt with little stars, green and black stars, on it, and pants, and socks the color of the green stars, and a pair of black sneakers I got for nine dollars.’”)  Since we are prying with our ears and not our eyes, we learn no more about them (and what they are doing) than they consent to share with each other.  That is not to say that they don’t share quite a bit.  They do, everything from their pet names for the opposite sex’s anatomy (Jim calls breasts “frans.”) and the random mental images that crop up when they come (such as, in Abby’s case, the great seal of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts) to their most vivid fantasies and experiences.  While even a modern erotica urtext like Pauline Réage’s The Story of O can be boring, Vox never is, probably because its protagonists are subtly yet strongly drawn, and the stories that they tell are quirkily playful, dramatically taut and deliciously sexy.  Above all else, Jim and Abby are so inherently likable that I exalted in their good fortune and practically rooted them on towards orgasm:

“This is a miracle,” he said.

“It’s just a telephone conversation.”

“It’s a telephone conversation I want to have.  I love the telephone.”

If I were a love-doctor, I would recommend that you take a cue from Bill and Monica, read Vox, and learn to love the telephone, too.

The Us by Joan Houlihan

June 24, 2010

"The Us was and then" by M.Diaz, mixed media collage

In this string of narrative poems, Joan Houlihan gifts an imagined tribe with English. The language the nomads return to us is begrimed, streaked with sweat, stinking of smoke, wild of eye, and three-fourths feral.  “Ice-taught, bit by sun’s low arc,” the tribe foots a hard route and gives rise to a poetry as rough and exciting as an arrowhead clawed free from a patch of land we all thought had been picked over and parceled out.

Craftwork abounds. Houlihan looses iambs as taut as skin and with all the rum-pum of a tribal drum (“A smoke struck high on a night’s half-light….”) and sometimes steers the poems into rhymes so tidy you’d sing them in the nursery if only they weren’t about, say, the final hours of fetid, fly-festooned livestock (“…hog and cow, sheep and fowl / bled black and brayed to blue– / wide-eyed and the light gone through.”) Can’t bed down baby with that one, but the point remains.

Running through each of these poems is a vein of ungrammatical speech, all of it arrestingly nascent and novel. When some wronged horses prove uncooperative, the tribe tells us, “Thems sickened to us. All the light went out / inside thems coats.” Impossible not to read aloud a language so textured and freshly-forged, so don’t resist. Intone alone in your bedroom. Clear yourself some space on the subway.

Embark. Houlihan’s wanderers will have your heart louding while they’re here, colding like a cookfire forgotten once they’re gone.

Bret Easton Ellis’ “Imperial Bedrooms”

June 24, 2010

Imperial Bedrooms is a lot like one of the upmarket cars which appear throughout its pages; it’s hard and fast, sleek and shiny, and, to the reader well-versed in the oeuvre of Ellis, sinfully comfortable.  In this slim volume, B.E.E. returns his cool gaze to the cast of Less Than Zero with his trademarked first person present tense.  (His previous novel, Lunar Park, had bucked this trend and employed the past tense in the style of a mock-memoir.)  Clay, the sexually omnivorous college boy and narrator of the 1985 debut, has become a sexually omnivorous bicoastal screenwriter in this 2010 sequel.  His high school sweetheart, Blair, is married to Trent, the male model who, having screened a snuff film in Zero, has parlayed this interest into a successful career in the movie industry.  Meanwhile, Clay’s former best friend, Julian, has kicked the smack habit and gone from pimped to pimping, while Rip, Julian’s former dealer, has become a procurer himself.  In homage to Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles, Ellis sets up a triangular conflict between Clay, Julian and Rip with a femme fatale at the center of it.  This plot device engenders many earnest entreaties on the part of Clay that are met – tiresomely – only with cryptic answers.  An occasional gothic accent or noirish element prevents the reader’s attention from wandering too far, but the novel’s middle action is its definite soft spot.  With the exception of a short bull session modeled after those of Patrick Bateman and his buddies, it is devoid of the pitch-perfect dialogue and keen social satire that enlivened The Rules of Attraction, American Psycho and Glamorama.  Far more interesting are the introduction and denouement, the latter being as disturbing as anything in contemporary fiction.  The former, from the first sentence, takes an intriguing metafictional tact: “They had made a movie about us,” Clay says, one that was, “surprisingly conservative despite its surface immorality.”  He opines, somewhat ironically, that “[Julian] had to be punished for all his sins,” and thus was killed off in the film adaptation.  The Clay of Imperial Bedrooms even goes so far as to criticize “the first book [italics mine] which depicted [him] as an inarticulate zombie.”  With this cunning legerdemain, Ellis establishes the more current Clay as the “real” one and Bedrooms as the authoritative text; what make this more than just a piece of literary showmanship are the final chapters, which offer a chilling revelation of Clay’s true character in the swift, merciless strokes that are vintage Ellis.

Jeffrey Eugenides’ “The Virgin Suicides”

June 22, 2010

(Ted Noten, Global Tactile Pieces ll Tokyo-Amsterdam)

At some point during my reading of The Virgin Suicides, I was reminded of the Slovenian intellectual Slavoj Zizek, who, in “The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema,” claimed: “Male fantasy is incapable of catching up with female fantasy.”  This aphorism had always contained a whiff of intuitive truth for me, but it was not until I had read this novel’s climax that I realized how astute it was.  This lag between male and female fantasy is poignantly illustrated in the penultimate chapter, when the narrators offer to take the Lisbon sisters to Florida – and they instead choose death. 

Despite their vigilant surveillance of the Lisbon house and its many apertures, “we” (the narrators) are unable to find the window that might shed light on the mystery of its captives, i.e. the window to their psyches.  Of course, as adolescents the narrators may be pardoned for their failure to find a metaphysical window with a backyard telescope.  In fact, much of the novel’s humor is derived from their obsessive, yet ultimately innocent, voyeurism, and their collecting and cataloging of Lisbonalia.  

Yet The Virgin Suicides is not a traditional bildungsroman in which a youthful folly (in this case, fetishism) is overcome and cast aside.  Quite literally, nothing is thrown away, as the narrators sheepishly admit; all of the “exhibits” pertaining to the Lisbon sisters have been preserved in a series of suitcases.  So if male fantasy is fundamentally adolescent (i.e. fetishistic, voyeuristic), what is female fantasy?  Despite their years, the narrators are never able to unravel this enigma.  In its stasis of irresolution, The Virgin Suicides is a piercing allegory for the fraught gender dynamics of postmodern society.

Victor Pelevin’s “Homo Zapiens”

June 18, 2010

(Mikhail Shankov, Baptism of Russia)

Rare is the book that is as uproariously funny as it is profoundly terrifying, but Victor Pelevin’s Homo Zapiens is just that: a novel that unflinchingly dissects your dismal fate as a 21st century accumulator-consumer only to leave you laughing about it. Set in post-Soviet Moscow, the narrative follows the meteoric rise of Babylen, a regrettably-named poet-turned-copywriter. After the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. renders his job as translator of the Soviet Republics’ literatures obsolete, he slaves away in a tobacco stand until a classmate from the Literature Institute steers him into the advertising business. Babe proves a quick study, churning out such winning material as, “Do it yourself, motherfucker. Reebok.”- that is, when he’s not gripped by paranoia from his dabblings in Egyptology, Eastern mysticism and psychedelics. When he is promoted to do PR for the Russia government (an institution which, according to his superiors, does not exist in any physical sense), the nagging fears brought on by his acid tabs and ouija board come to the fore in a recherche climax.

Hitomi Kanehara’s “Snakes and Earrings”

June 17, 2010

(Takashi Murakami, Cosmos 2010)

Superficially, Snakes and Earrings begs comparison to nihilistic Western novels such as Allan Warner’s Morvern Callar and Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero. Lui, the anti-heroine of the novel, channels both Morvern’s airy amorality and Clay’s muted despair. Yet this is more than a first-person narrative of Western anomie/ennui transplanted to Japan; Ms. Kanehara has managed to remain grounded in the Japanese canon while documenting a society that is coming to resemble those of the West. Two of her literary forefathers, Jun’ichiro Tanizaki and Yukio Mishima, exert a particularly strong influence here. Tanizaki’s “The Tattoo Artist” and Mishima’s Confessions of a Mask are thematically salient, the former in its meditation on beauty and moral corruption, the latter in its fascination with sadomasochism. (It’s also interesting to note that the cover of Snakes and Earrings bears an uncanny resemblance to that of Seven Japanese Tales, a collection in which “The Tattoo Artist” is included.)

Snakes and Earrings is certainly a promising first novel, written with the same chilling economy of language as Less Than Zero, the first novel of Kanehara’s more immediate literary ancestor. Unfortunately, it also shares Less Than Zero’s glaring stamp of juvenilia, as well as the presumption that readers should content themselves with a wunderkind’s slim and large-typed first volume until s/he can produce a “mature” work. In the case of Ellis, we had to wait seven years, but the finished product more than justified the hype surrounding his debut; despite much hand-wringing from priggish reviewers and moral busy-bodies, American Psycho secured Ellis a place in the pantheon of contemporary literature. No stranger to controversy herself, Kanehara may well be joining him presently.

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower

June 15, 2010

The characters in Tower’s short stories please absolutely while consistently disappointing themselves, and every last, nasty page repays you for coming to the show.

Evoking Raymond Carver’s shabby saps right down to the brusque dialogue—a booze-infused “My life is on fire,” being the most poetic utterance allowed a character—Tower introduces his sore souls and, with the spirit of a dogfighter, drops them into hostile arenas. Here, they fumble for pockets of happiness amidst the destruction that is their lives or seek succor in destruction only to find the emotional payouts aren’t what they once were. The muddled malcontents find themselves cursed with companions whose sparkling circumstances spur them on to jealousy, to violence, to deeper isolation or to wrongheaded attempts at connection, oftentimes in close quarters: embattled brothers share a unfinished cabin; an ex-husband agrees to a car ride with the now-husband; war-hungry Vikings stuff themselves into skiffs alongside their disenchanted fellows. The existence of one party is an insult to the other, especially when one is actively insulting the other, and Tower makes sure these encounters stay aggressively entertaining.

The stories grow by careful accumulation of sentences, each line with a barb, a prize, each running on its own little motor. Never any air, not an ounce of fat. With a scaffold of solid sentences beneath him, Tower deflects any accusation that these tales are unfairly mean or cheap. Where too many authors delight in slamming shut the door in characters’ faces, Tower’s wounded retreat slowly, reducing their own odds at securing happiness until the author decides we’ve seen enough and caps the lens.

Nine stories, nine of the most deliciously sardonic smirks you’ll ever have smeared across your mug.

My Uncle Oswald by Roald Dahl

June 13, 2010


Wherein our man Oswald becomes a rabid tryster, steals sperm samples, and pairs wine with maxims so useful that, unless you’re a special stripe of fool, you’ll soon have printed a stack of business cards reading only, “It is better to incur a mild rebuke than to perform an onerous task.” (Slide one into your boss’s breast pocket and give it a reassuring pat.)

Dahl’s only adult novel boasts nearly a romp per page with no two alike and no scene sacrificing smarts for smut. The book rewards the reader so often, so surprisingly, and with such breezy confidence about its sunny comedic style (remarkably, nary a dark cloud scuds across these pages, despite the subject matter) that you’ll feel a pang of nostalgia about it before you’ve hit the midpoint.

 Now, if you’re like me, you don’t laugh. You don’t laugh because you realize that doing so gives others the impression that they’ve just told you something you didn’t know already and that’s a soft-headed look to sport on the street. Or maybe when you laugh you sound like a jammed Gatling gun and then people decide not to like you. If that’s the case, good luck holding the book upright, freak. You’re gonna lose it. Your fat will be shaking.

 Now go bone up on wenching and waxing axiomatic. Up the cad and long live the bounder.