from Tree of Smoke
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
Tuesday, June 16, 2009
Journal Review 1: Noon 2009, the Terse Fecalists
Terse, tough mini-stories populate the 2009 edition of Noon. Shot through with common shades of brown, a number of the stories survey the scatological and pornographic. The good ones, and almost all of them were good, are abjectly unsentimental little blasts. I'd like to pick up some back issues. It looks like they keep a pretty firm stable of regulars from year to year, but the overall voice is refreshing. The shortness of some of these stories makes the longer ones seem sentimental. Captive moods and moments. The stand-outs include Brandon Hobson (the title of this entry comes from his "Gas Station"), Tao Lin, Deb Olin Unferth, Rebecca Curtis, Clancy Martin, Christine Schutt, and Gary Lutz.
Christine Schutt's "Hair of the Dog" presents an interesting contextual ambiguity. The couple progress through the story committing what seem to be decadent acts that go by undefined. The reader has only the character's reticence to interpret what may have happened. A sort of tantalizing vagueness that does a lot to summarize the sliding line of what's acceptable in society.
Gary Lutz and Rebecca Curtis both make some interesting syntactical leaps. Curtis's "On Rape" turns on the same satiric dime as Swift in "A Modest Proposal". Curtis's piece comes off with both ambivalence and sardonic anger. Lutz (dealt with in atomic precision here) works with a kind of syntactic enjambment, forcing words into places they don't normally belong. The result is either a brutalization of the word or an expansion of language (depending on the delicacy of your linguistic sensibilities).
Well laid out, somewhat adventurous, Noon 2009 is a tight collection of stories.
I would like to here-by call a moratorium on all and any back cover copy comparing all or any characters to Holden Caulfield. That donkey is dead and the flogging of it will only bring it back to life as a zombie donkey. As we all know zombie donkeys still eat carrots, are twice as stubborn as regular donkeys and are voiced by Charlie Murphy in their animated forms. Okay, moratorium canceled in the hope of a zombie donkey renaissance.
I mean book reviewers have a tough enough job, right? How else do you coax a gaggle of parochial readers into buying a book about a hermaphrodite or about a stranded wannabe infrantryman (who is also compared to Forrest Gump by another back-cover blurb)? Maybe its the kind of marketing juju sometimes celebrated by giving the name of something popular (225,000 copies of Catcher are still sold a year?) to something else less popular. Crystal Pepsi for instance bore no relation to original Pepsi (in taste, color or consistency).
Or maybe not. Maybe the best we can hope for is that dust jacket comparisons to Holden Caulfield are actually back-handed compliments or better yet code for the books ghostwritten by J.D. Salinger. Though, the more I think about Philip Roth's The Ghostwriter, the more I think he is one of the few writers to actively engage against the aura of Caulfield, Zuckerman performing the coup de fait of dual iconoclasm making a Salingeresque writer the reluctant lover of Anne Frank, an alternative reality Anne Frank who survived the war.
Saturday, June 13, 2009
Karl Marx once said something about equality that you probable read elsewhere and if you haven't: shame on you.
That thing he said, which you should know, extends to literary journals. Writers of short stories, submitters of novel chapters scour the shelves for suitable pages on which to push their projects, to gain a little notoriety, flash and pomp. Or to be dinged down by contrast: the sweaty new fiction sharing a spine with lauded masters. This isn't to say that the lauded masters are necessarily better, but they are generally received better. This is due to the lauded masters other works which you should all be familiar with and shame on you if you are not.
Even if you are not familiar with their works, you are likely familiar with their names, always feeling guilty when someone asks, "Have you read so and so," and knowing deep in your heart that you haven't and may never get around to it you offer an ambiguous, "mm-hmmm," and nod your head vigorously at each of the ensuing comments.
So some writers arrive with cachet, a long running history with the reader that they invoke simply by publishing. You know their work and love it, or hate it, or are ambivalent about it, but pick up the journal hoping to be won over or to say that finally and forever this bastard is dead to me. But the journal is itself a grab-bag. There are currently several trillion literary journals operating in the borough of Brooklyn alone (and that's not counting blogs, zines or blogazines), each full with the brow sweat and courage of the tromping literati. Yes the journals are manifold and as someone who has never been published in one I should mind my p's and q's. But in the purblind infinity of America's slackening publishing industry where does one go for the true goods, for the levitation that accompanies reading something just plain fantastic?
Well I'm starting a project. Over the next few weeks (months if I really get into it) I will be buying journals in bulk and scouring through them to look for 1) amazing new writers 2) amazing old writers I've never heard of (Goodreads.com has actually turned me on to at least one of my new favorites) 3) amazing journals. My criteria for numbers 1 and 2 are the levitation effect I spoke of before (levitation can also just be an infiltration of my daily thought process). For number 3 I'm looking for journals that will allow writers' voices to show through, that don't overpopulate the page (I long ago gave up on McSweeney's for this reason), that give new writers a fair shake and who don't let known writers sit on their laurels (I actually really liked what was going on in Jonathan Lethem's last New Yorker piece, Eva's Apartment, but felt a little swindled afterwards from the holes in the logic and Lethem's on-going relationship with cool-- no doubt if I had a readership they would have long ago left me for my own sciatic groaning and malformed logic). At the end I would like to present a good, serviceable list of journals and writers that I discover in the process and who I will then track and watch for development.
Tuesday, June 9, 2009
Monday, June 8, 2009
Has anyone ever been seduced in a Barbershop? Not necessarily even by a barber?
Do barbers seduce? My gut tells me they get laid. They lay out money for a good meal. They look dapper, make small talk with the object of their affection, then keep things thoroughly separate. They don't shit where they eat. Horse sense? Barber trust.
I shut up around barbers. I shut down. I lose track of my expression, my head the odd pinnacle of the mountain made of my caped, seated torso. My face is there, solitary-- seemingly for study, somehow my eyes find a dead zone to latch onto-- a place to avoid his eyes as well as my own.
The barber trims. Men flip over pages of Maxim and Playboy.
A man in a white smock with hair on his huge meaty hands slips a digit through the stainless steel ringlet, avoiding the pinky handle while gingerly snipping the sharp metal about the locus of my sensory organs with sharp. A bulwark of duty and lost styles, breathing slowly through the sides of his mouth. The hair drops away and lands on my nose and neck, ants crawling on my honey-drizzled head, my arms irrevocable buried in the deep desert sands of the Mojave. Horror he defeats with a big soft black whisk brush. Whisked away the brief torture after deliberating for a moment.
"Why is a woman... like a condom?" A barber asked me once. "'Snip, snip.'" letting it settle, "'Snip.'" then lowering down beside my head and engaging my eyes in the mirror, "Bitch spends more time in your wallet then she does on you cock. 'Snip, snip, snip'"
Another barber, another time after taking clippers to my head directed a stream of bologna particles at the back of neck, blowing away the razor-loosened hairs. Stuck, immobile. Fixed by the barber's cape-- who gets up, outside of that one guy in Flannery O'Connor's "The Barber"--I'd spill hair all over the place. But the breath and now his B.O., also bologna tinged, pressing in. I breathed through my mouth, nearly suffocating in that man's lingering lunch.
The Russians seem to be the best. Former boxers and ex-patriot military barbers, cutting hair on the border of the Ukraine and now living out in Queens, commuting into the city. They use straight razors, unafraid of AIDS or other blood born diseases. They use scissors if you ask for a trim, leaving the clippers for those who want them. They snip away silently, or if prompted, can tell you stories that aid their razors. The boxer in Brooklyn informed me of the depradations of life on the amateur circuit in Moscow. Bits of metal in the gloves. Razor blades. Fractured skulls. A manly seduction. The leading truths or half-truths or invented histories that don't send a stray arrow through the place-- the clean, sober rule of the masculine game. Violence and its wending path to America, the family back in Queens, the soul's right to breathe.
Monday, June 1, 2009
While I'm not exactly anti-neologisms, I am suspect of them. Since most neologisms are Greco-Roman style tongue wrestlers meant to clarify the more abstruse portions of contemporary theory (that sophist's pool of intrametaphysics--score!) they generally go the way of most academic language-- pressed between covers and shelved or breathed with dynamic inflection by the bright students of So and So U-- with thin chance of ever making it into the language proper to be abused by circumstances to fit new terms and conditions (deconstruction-- is the one example I'm coming up with right now).
But what about words that can actually be used when the circumstance is presented? In Pale Fire, Nabokov's parody of academia, Kinbote coins the term irricule to describe a hole in a group of clouds through which light passes. Yeah that Kinbote is one questionable narrator-- but way to nail the landing. Of course, Kinbote was created by a gifted multi-linguist, so I imagine the word may actually have roots in other languages (Mother Russia?), but irricule! ... okay try using it without feeling self-conscious, though.
Then there was Philip Roth's attempt to enter the colloquy, Portnoy's Complaint (the dust jacket provided a handy Webster's style definition). He was one of the many authors blown away by Joseph Heller's success in Catch 22. Yep- Catch 22, Heller's invention, an entirely serviceable little phrase that works and finds use in day-to-day America. That seems a bit like a one-time only trick, though. Roth's attempt, while brilliant, proved that old hipster truism, that conscious exertion towards effecting people's behavior through example generally fails (you can lead a horse to water but you can't make him speak).
Okay so new words are tricky, unless they come from say famous rappers or rise up from the bubbling crude of the internet. But those words, like new elements, have (or should have) a very short life span. That language is made to describe a moment and is dead once its novelty wears off. Fo shizzle. That's not to discount the endless fountain of argot produced from the street, euphemistic or analogous mostly associated with shady and dubious dealings (Dubious-- a theory exists that literally any word can be used as slang for pot-- look around the room and try it out, just make sure you say, "Hey, bro, you got any..." beforehand.) Neck and neck with the horrid utility sprach of corporate America-- the actionized nouns that germinate in MBA programs and get fed through the filter of officals to the uneducated lackeys (read: me) who have to cobble together some semblance of idiom from the linguistic equivalent of a manilla folder (that tongue shall not be spoken here).
So how do the good people at Merriam Webster's continue to fatten their publication with solid, usable language? I was trying to think up a good single word that would sum up the title of this piece; caffeinabled, anxienated? But it seems like good words can't just be those German style train car combos or Lewis Carroll type portmanteaus. I like that Nabokov went for the sense of the thing rather than building a word from other words-- irricule just nails it phonetically. How about the multiple movement of leaves and tree limbs in a steady breeze? Sway doesn't really cut it for me there, there's a sort of a rustling rhumba going on-- yeah that tree is having a personal jam session with the wind, but can it be resolved down into a single word?