Power and pace with a little bit of sweetness, that’s what sets this song apart. Maybe I’m reading too much into the wonderful cover art of Mike Simonetti’s EP and letting the images of a Candyland discoworld run wild in my head, but it’s tough not to think about those qualities while listening to Song for Luca: energy, tenderness, space, color. Neon pink sky at night, delight. Pockets of synths that just keep opening up.
The Art of Noises, Luigi Russolo
In antiquity, life was nothing but silence. Noise was not really born before the 19th century, with the advent of machinery. Today noise reigns supreme over human sensibility. For several centuries, life went on silently, or mutedly. The loudest noises were neither intense, nor prolonged nor varied. In fact, nature is normally silent, except for storms, hurricanes, avalanches, cascades and some exceptional telluric movements. This is why man was thoroughly amazed by the first sounds he obtained out of a hole in reeds or a stretched string. Primitive people attributed to sound a divine origin. It became surrounded with religious respect, and reserved for the priests, who thereby enriched their rites with a new mystery. Thus was developed the conception of sound as something apart, different from and independent of life. The result of this was music, a fantastic world superimposed upon reality, an inviolable and sacred world.
This, Vorspiel, is the cascade of the Rhine. The beginning of Das Rheingold is certainly ‘something apart, different and independent of life.’ (even though this is exactly the kind of music Russolo was writing against)
Special effects in a song. Someone put the tape in a bath and scratched it up. Cardboard covers, even the CDs. Everything on Constellation felt (still feels) like an urgent dispatch. There was nothing open or apparent about this music. Fly Pan Am were the third and most ethereal part of the (for me) early-CST trinity, along with GY!BE and Do Make Say Think. There was the litany of names, each attached, it seemed, to every release; the sometimes indecipherable artwork; the inserts, the fold-outs, the packaging that felt and looked nicer than most hardback books.
More books from 2011.
The Moors by Ben Marcus
The Moors is not quite a book in the traditional sense–more of a complex and involving pamphlet–but it represents the longest piece of writing, bar the Flame Alphabet (which just came out), that Ben Marcus has released or published in the past nine or so years. Marcus is one of my favorite writers, and not only for his style, which is, if not 100% his own, then as close to it as any contemporary author’s can be. He seems to incorporate a number of ideas from philosophy of language into his fiction, in ways that are less didactic and more straight-up bewildering/terrifying. It’s almost as if he takes the serious hypotheses of people like Kripke or Wittgenstein or Quine or whoever and imagines the world in which those hypotheses would be true everyday and everywhere–atomically. For instance, in Notable American Women, there is a long section on the Naming Machine (it ran as an excerpt in McSweeney’s #8) where different names are tested by members of a family upon the daughter/sister figure. Her reactions–which vary widely and are sometimes grotesue and negative, other times very positive–are recorded for government use (see Kripke, Naming & Necessity. Marcus is sort of perverting the causal theory of reference, or just turning it to his own uses), and the girl ends up being tortured by the process, with the lasting point being that there is something essential about the name that has an effect upon the person bearing it.
The Moors is almost nothing like Marcus’s other writing, and, from what I’ve heard about his new novel, seems closer in spirit to the Flame Alphabet. It’s a turn towards more traditional forms and style, though the rigorous thinking is still there, and that’s maybe what I like most about Marcus. He notices down to the most micro, fine-grained detail, like most great writers, but he knows how to use that info in service of a well-placed heartbreaker of a sentence, or for a great joke. Like Padgett Powell, Marcus is a grammar virtuoso, and, since he knows the rules so well, he has a good ear for constructions or usage in English that can be bent to perfect effect, for example, there’s this from near the beginning:
Anyway, Thomas couldn’t fathom how a person who hoped to live through the day could subscribe to such a Lego-ridden fantasy of worker relations the word colleague implied: as if a group of people whose heads were darkened by the very same hovering ass–something he decidedly never learned in night school was the term for how the human voice sounded when the mouth was smothered by an oily slab of buttock–would ever link arms, sing songs, and be massively productive together, just because they peed against the same wall or starched themselves into a stupor on the salted Breadkins from the vending machine every day.
There are portions of The Moors during which it’s tough to keep up with the jokes, each sentence is rich with weird humor or an off-use of a cliched term or an unbearably nuanced analysis of office mores, etc. If you enjoyed Wallace’s Pale King at all, you will definitely enjoy this book. And for all its weirdness, the ending will kill you, I promise. I have a suspicion that The Moors is Ben Marcus’s version of a sitcom, or at least his way of relaxing a little and taking a risk in a manner that doesn’t involve the re-invention of contemporary American experimental fiction, and it might be the best thing he’s ever done (though it’s true I haven’t read Flame Alphabet yet).
More books from 2011.
We by Yevgeny Zamyatin
Possibly the father-book of Brave New World, 1984, and Player Piano, We is a sci-fi wonder, a crystalline world where state-sponsored rocketry and state-sponsored sex go hand-in-hand. Told via D-503’s (the narrator) journal, the plot follows the emotional awakening of D-503 (who is in charge, in some capacity, of the construction of the Integral, the aforementioned state rocket that will carry their culture into space) and his falling in love with a woman who foments a new revolution within the One State, the totalitarian regime under which they live. There is a surprising amount of very bleak humor in this book, and some scenes that, depending on how you might imagine them, could be either grim drama or hilarious slapstick (better to go with the latter, it’s a satire, after all). Lots of math and number theory woven seamlessly into the narrative, which makes sense, given the narrator’s profession. There are a lot of sci-fi books that–at least to me–focus on the world-making to the detriment of the characters, but D-503 and his friends are so vivid, heartbreakingly so at some points, that it sometimes becomes easy to get lost in the human drama of the love triangle(s), and you forget that the story takes place inside a city made of glass. The only Soviet futurist noir I’ve encountered, and it’s an amazing book. Breathtaking passages on freedom, jealousy, regret, nostalgia. Better and more thoughtful than almost all recent instances of dystopic/post-apocalyptic literary fiction.
There are a number of translations, and the one I read (which is old, but, as I just discovered, because it’s old, it’s online as a PDF), by Gregory Zilboorg, the first English translator of We, was less clumsy when compared to at least one of the newer ones (Mirra Ginsburg’s).
Webern steps out to have a cigarette (not a cigar, as the rumors say). Webern steps out to check on the cat. Webern steps out to see what that noise is. Webern steps out to retrieve the morning’s paper, forgotten until night. Webern steps out…now he can’t remember why. Webern steps out to look at Orion. Webern steps out to listen to the wind. Webern steps out, thirty-seven years before Joe Jackson’s hit, “Steppin’ Out.” Webern steps out to have a cigarette and is hit by a ball. Webern steps out to have a cigarette, but left his matches in the house, a carelessness that saves his life. Webern steps out to have a cigarette, and a young woman skips down the street humming. Webern steps out to have a cigarette, is shot by a foreigner, and says, “It’s over.” Like a pilot, going down. It’s over.
Girls and King Krule played at Union Transfer in Philadelphia last Thursday, and it was a wonderful show, up there with some of the best I’ve ever been to in Philly (including the Excepter show that took place in someone’s cramped basement, and the November 2003 Liars show, memorable for many reasons, the least of which was the 11 or 12 year-old kid wearing a feathered headdress).
King Krule played six or seven songs, I think, among which were most or all of the songs from the EP, plus a couple older ones from Zoo Kid-era recordings. When I heard “The Noose of Jah City” for the first time a couple months ago, I was hit with the feeling of encountering something brand new, and that feeling was constant during the band’s set. They, like Girls, have major chops, and played so well, stretching out some moments of the songs, indulging in the drama and tension, but never really letting loose–they were under control at all times. There is definitely that aspect of Archy Marshall’s music that borrows from the technical and jazzy, and it’ll be fascinating to see what happens with this band next. There were ideas enough in each song that I could see them going in a hundred different directions.
Girls started off their part of the show with Alex, then Honey Bunny, then My Ma, which was quite a run. They played almost everything from “Father, Son, Holy Ghost,” and quite a few songs from “Album,” and “Broken Dreams Club.” They performed with three back-up singers. Bouquets of flowers tied to each mic stand (they later threw the flowers into the audience). Every song sounded so full and so intense–I thought during Vomit that they could easily be playing huge clubs, their sound is so immediate, and maybe that’s what people are picking up on when they say that Girls’ songs have a ‘classic’ vibe–everything does feel sort of familiar, but familiar in terms of having come from a certain age, or having a certain aura (not as in homage or pastiche, though there is some of that). It’s almost like someone stumbled on a cache of previously unrecorded hits, except, you know, all these songs actually came from Christopher Owens.
More books from 2011.
You & I by Padgett Powell
The very beginning of this book ran in McSweeney’s issue #15 under the title “Manifesto,” and it was the first thing I ever read by Padgett Powell. “Manifesto” was beyond bizarre: within the first few sentences, the prospect of a lard and hair sandwich is discussed by two unnamed speakers, who seem to both rest comfortably on the border between whimsicality and dementia. You & I is 182 pages of those unnamed speakers talking to each other, taunting each other, comforting each other. The book is beyond funny, somewhat philosophical, occasionally infuriating. One of the most impressive things, to me, about Powell’s writing is the way he slowly turns a topic that is patently absurd or nonsensical into a situation (or, more likely in this book, a discussion of a situation) that is affecting in the extreme. There’s a technique that he uses where he will make a slight, non sequitur mention of something, move on to another topic, and then return full-force to the topic he mentioned, which might seem a little deceptive, but it’s extremely effective and in the service of providing the reader an emotional jolt. One example of this comes pretty early in the book, when one of the two unnamed speakers mentions a child counting to one hundred and then stopping herself to yell out, “I love forty-four.” The speaker who tells the anecdote says, “That was a unique moment in the child’s life, and in mine.” That gets mentioned almost in passing, framed as a throwaway anecdote, and then much later in the book the unnamed speaker talks about one’s own daughter coming to look through his things after he’s died, and for that daughter to see:
our effects, our toys, books, how many or few shoes we had, observe how worn or not worn or how pitiful they are (in my old man’s case it was about nine or seven pairs of Hushpuppies identical except in their pastel colors), put it all in boxes, locate the will, call some people. Feel sad. Go on her way….
You, for example, you even wrote some of the books this daughter will handle. What is she to do with them?
She should put them with the others and be done and they be gone. I was a sad sack, end of chapter. I like that. I’d like a drink
That is moving on its own, but another part of this that’s interesting is that the book itself is dedicated to Powell’s daughter, “who loved forty-four,” and Powell has said in a recent interview, when asked who is doing the narrating or talking in his books, that “c’est moi. It’s always c’est moi.” There are a number of moments like the above throughout You & I, which is filled with expressions of regret, solid and unsentimental thoughts on aging and dying and becoming feeble, and meditations on what it means to be a man, or be seen as a man, and how that has changed a lot in the past thirty or forty years. I’m making it sound like a dour book though, and it’s anything but that–what it is mostly is funny, with at least one or two great jokes on every page. There are many instances of spontaneous creation of new proper nouns and people from thin air–for instance when one speaker states: “Today we are becalmed, as we are daily becalmed,” and from that comes the sentence, “Becalmed is our middle name,” and eventually the creation of an uncle named Studio Becalmed, who becomes a recurring character in the book, a man (Studio) who enjoyed an affair with Jayne Mansfield and owned a dog named Final Alps of Heaven. This book and Tristram Shandy were the funniest things I read this year. You & I, which is out now in the UK, will be released as You & Me in North America some time in the summer of 2012.
You can read a long excerpt from the book in Little Star issue #1 ($4 for the PDF).
More books from 2011.
Life: A User’s Manual by Georges Perec
Easily one of the best books I’ve read in the past five or six years. Perec was a member of Oulipo, and this book was written in accordance with a million constraints he had set himself, among which was moving, narratively, among the apartments in a building based on the Knight’s Tour progression/problem, and using certain elements in each chapter (e.g. paintings/sculpture, characters’ reading material, furniture, flooring, etc.). I’ve never read and enjoyed as much pure description in my life. You will know 100 more words related to furniture by the time you finish this book than when you started, and will be a better person for that knowledge. Corollary to that: I looked up so many words while reading this book, but, while that is occasionally annoying with other, less entertaining novels or prose, with Life it felt like it was part of the game–a moment of pause for the reader before moving on to something else. PACKED with mini-stories, too many to count, on the level of something like “The Manuscript Found in Saragossa,” ranging from the fantastic to the eye-tiringly mundane, some of which mini-stories are in fact allusions to other stories by other authors, or to whole novels, or are just straight-up wholesale representations of those stories (Kafka’s “First Sorrow” is right there, pretty much word for word, in the book). Affecting to the point where it became tough to read at times, always fascinating, often funny, this is one of those books that could really have gone on forever, the care and effort expended by Perec in writing this is unimaginable. There are levels and levels to this, close to the kind of white dwarf density in “Ulysses,” but more on-the-move, more like the extra pleasure of DVD easter eggs than the grim, almost mathematical challenge of Joyce’s references and allusions. The main plot, touched on intermittently throughout the entire book, is wonderful, totally fragmented for reasons that are clear once you grasp the main project (or look at the 1987 hardcover’s jacket). You can pick this up and put it down, but it will stay with you, the little stories, the big story, the words, the furniture, the food, the jobs, the clothes and jewelry, the families. Here are the words that stuck with me: heteroclite, ferrules, theorbo, marquetry, parallelepipedic.
The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason
Mason is clearly some kind of polymath, having written this beautiful book, in part, during lunch breaks from his job as a computer scientist at a Silicon Valley company. I bought this in New York at the Madison Square Garden Borders for nothing (this was during Borders’ long meltdown) and read it in the couple hours (+3 after) it took to ride the train back to Philly. Incrediblly diverting. Similar, in a way, to Christopher Logue’s poetic reinterpretation of the Iliad (weird that not many reviews mention that, though maybe I read the wrong reviews). Easy read, engaging, some parts more so than others, though overall great if you love both the Odyssey and Borges.