Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Some kind of regard

When Catherine flew into London on the day the Settlement came through, I arrived at the airport just after her flight was due in. I saw from the Arrivals screens that it had landed and I hurried over to the area where the sliding screen doors separate the customs and immigration area from the public terminal. I leant against a rail and watched passengers emerge from these doors. It was interesting. Some of the arriving passengers scanned the waiting faces for relatives, but most weren't being met. These ones came out carrying some kind of regard to show to the assembled crowd, some facial disposition they'd struck up just before the doors slid open for them. They might be trying to look hurried, as though they were urgently needed because they were very important and their businesses couldn't run without them. Or they might look carefree, innocent and happy, as though unaware that fifty or sixty pairs of eyes were focused on them, just on them, if only for two seconds. Which of course they weren't — unaware, I mean. How could you be? The strip between the railings and the doors was like a fashion catwalk, with models acting out different roles, different identities. I leant against the rail, watching this parade: one character after another, all so self-conscious, stylized, false. Other people really were like me; they just didn't know they were. And they didn't have eight and a half million pounds.

— from Remainder, by Tom McCarthy.

I'm about halfway through and loving it. To this point, I don't know what the "remainder" actually refers to (what's left of the eight and a half million pounds?), but I find myself relating to the narrator quite intensely (apart from him having eight and a half million pounds), this constant, all-pervading sense of inauthenticity, like when you see yourself going to work on the metro, all dressed up and determined and serious, pretending to be a grown-up professional, or when you're out for drinks and you say witty things and toss your head and laugh like it's all been scripted, but you can't step outside of that role, cuz there's nothing outside the script, the play's the thing, this is what it is to be a grown-up: pretending to be a grown-up.

Or maybe it's just me. (And the narrator.) Maybe the book's supposed to be about something else entirely.

Monday, July 19, 2010

What should I read next?

I'm taking a train trip (soon), and I want to stock up on some fresh reading material (that is, something other than the classics I've got on standby). It has to be available as an ebook. I'd like it to be relatively recent (written this century). It must be engrossing, and easy enough to follow that when Helena announces that she's bored I can break away from the book to set her on some new tack and come back to it and know exactly who's who and what's what.

Should I choose:

Or something else entirely?

Saturday, July 17, 2010

In the year 2071

In the year 2071, the library has a different feel from the library of today. Apart from a lively, and book-filled, children's section:

...the rest of the main floor was given to rows and rows of partitioned carrels, each with its own computer and headphones.

"We went to the information desk," Anna said. "I asked the librarian where the books were. 'Is there a particular book you want to see?' he said. I said, 'No. We just want to browse.' He said, 'I'm sorry, but the stacks are not open to the public. The catalog is on-line. If there's a book you want, just click on it, and a staff person will bring it to your carrel. It doesn't take long.' 'Is there no way to see the books?' I asked him. 'I'm here with my son. I want him to see what a library is like.' The old man smiled at us. 'This is a library,' he said. 'I mean a library with books,' I said.

That is, this is how the library of 2071 is imagined by Steven Polansky in The Bradbury Report.

The premise: United States, 2071. The government has had a wide-scale cloning program in effect for some 20-odd years, so that clones can supply organ material to originals. (The rest of the world does not condone these practices, but this is not explored beyond Canada eventually being a kind of safeplace with respect to our main characters.) One clone has escaped form the Clearances and a series of circumstances brings him face to face with his original. Together with Anna, an activist, an old friend of the original's, they spend a year on the run from their government.

And it's all a bit complicated by the fact that the original is not in the best of health.

So there are some pretty interesting moral, philosophical concepts flowing through this novel. I see it as a kind of flipside to what I imagine Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go is like (I haven't read it).

[A lesson in spoilers wrt employer relations: A year or two back, my then boss, knowing how bookish I was, was excited to share the fact that she was getting into reading. Boss: I just started Never Let Me Go; do you know it? Me: I haven't read it, but I've heard a lot about it. That's the one about clones, right? Boss: Oh.]

One complaint I have against this book is that it simply didn't feel future-y enough. Of course, you don't want the details of the setting in time to overshadow the point of the story. But this goes too far the other way. The only point of being set in the future is to allow for the plausibility of cloning. Everything else about this novel feels like an old man writing about and bemoaning 2010.

I had trouble buying into a number of innocuous details: In the year 2071, will anyone casually and inconspicuously wear a Montreal Expos cap? The narrator of the report was born the year the team moved. In the year 2071, hotel-room bedding is drenched in cigarette-smoke. In the year 2071, a high school math teacher rarely uses a computer. In the year 2071, street maps are common and inconspicuous. In the year 2071, TVs are commonly set on low tables. In the year 2071, another teacher has trouble coming to terms with a library, as described above, as if she hasn't been in one for 60 years. I can imagine good possible reasons for all these things, but they don't feel natural.

On the other hand, I quite like the depiction of the weekend Ray and Anna spend in Montreal. It read like a love letter to the city I call home.

On several occasions, the characters describe the clone as being like a child, only he's not a child. In fact, I smiled in recognition more than once at situations I've encountered as a parent, in particular the problem of expressing oneself clearly and with finality but without condescension. No one hates being condescended to more than children do, but adults tend to allow it in their case. The clone, oddly enough, wasn't, I believe, sufficiently socialized to recognize the tone. In that it's a book about what it means to be human, in some ways, I think, it would've served this purpose just as well to feature a child rather than a clone.

What it means to be human? It goes beyond science, of course. Ritual, manners, identity, ownership. A kind of meta-ness. Some cultural memory, cultural consciousness.

Not quite science-y enough to be science fiction, the pacing's off for it to be a thriller (though some other plot elements of the genre are present), and not quite satisfying enough (clever enough? passionate enough? pretty enough in its individual sentences?) for me to consider it "literary fiction." But interesting enough to those who like dystopic fiction and appreciate considering the moral quandaries that science — that progress — poses.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The nightmare that is life

Just wow! Nightmare Alley (1946, reissued in 2010 by NYRB Classics), by William L Gresham, is hands down the best book I've read in ages, a stay-up-way-past-your-bedtime page-turner kind of book. It had me crying out loud, "Oh, my gawd!" and "No!" and "What are you thinking?!"

Stanton Carlisle is a carny, with ambitions for a better, easier life. He learns a mind-reading system, and eventually sets up a séance scam. He goes from mentalist to spiritualist minister. He has the sometimes unwitting help of Molly, who doesn't approve of Stan's methods but can neither sway him nor break free of him. She wants out, but Stan revels in this life; it's the only way he can see through to the top. Stan's poising himself for the big one, the dream mark.

There are carnival freaks and gorgeous ladies and some real regular folk, unstable childhoods, unstable minds, crossings and double-crossings, sex and alcohol, mild misgivings and in-too-far-to-turn-back.

It's gritty noir, Jim-Thompson-style (how do I explain the feel?), inside the head of, the more it goes, an increasingly unsympathetic (mostly), really pretty deplorable person. He has it coming.

Nightmare Alley also happens to be a very finely crafted novel. Every chapter is named for a tarot card; taken in sum they map out a reading for Stan. It's clever, but not too clever. And the pacing is brilliant.

Gresham writes some marvellous sentences. When they head to the South: "This was dark and bloody land where hidden war traveled like a million earthworms under the sod." Or about the industrialist with the electricity plant: "The old man's power covered the country like a pair of bat-wings, flapping cold and black."

The mood is relentlessly bleak, and I just ate it all up. The novel seemed particularly fitting for the hot, humid nights we've experienced of late.

Paperclip People (mild spoilers).
Washington Post.

Nightmare Alley was produced as a film (Tyrone Power, 1947) (I'll be looking out for this), and was recently adapted as a musical.

I'm severely disappointed to learn this was Gresham's only novel. But really, a novel like this says everything it has to say. [Edited to add: See comments. He wrote one other novel after all.]

I haven't felt this way since I discovered Patrick Hamilton, and there are some similarities between the two writers: they're of the same generation (indeed, they died within about a week of each other); both had a tortuous relationship with alcohol, and with Marxism (which relationship I know not how tortuous); Hamilton had an affinity for the theatre, Gresham was fascinated by the stage that is the carnival.

And then there are the conmen. Stan Carlisle doesn't start out quite so low, so evil, as I remember Ernest Ralph Gorse to be. But they're both highly ambitious, hardworking in their way, and resourceful. They live by their wits. Everything depends on how well they read people.

So, both writers provide deeply psychological character studies, a close look at the underbelly of the mind. And this kind of character fascinates me. The practical matter of plotting out this kind of an existence and the moral matter of coming to terms with it; living it and living with it; the rationality and the rationalizing.

I'm the sort of person who tries, and I don't think I have to try very hard, to see the best in people. I take things at face value, unless given good reason to suspect it otherwise. I do not think the world is out to get me (though maybe it is, maybe I should). I share my life with someone who suspects the worst of everyone (and to be fair, in his line of work that's a reasonable and effective stance to take). He sees malevolent intent everywhere, and takes it personally. Maybe I'm not very good at reading people but I'm awed by how others do it (whether or not they do it well).

I was conned a few weeks ago, and I knew it even before I handed over my $10, but I handed it over anyway. Why would I be perceived as a mark? (And why did I give her the money?)

[Woman, about 50, reasonably well-dressed, outside the mall entrance to the metro approaches me (and Helena) frantically with, "Do you speak English?" and a story. Her luggage (with purse) was stolen at the train station, she's missed her train now (going back home to Toronto), she's short $8.43 to be able to change her ticket, she came to the mall hoping to catch her friend who works there. She'll send me a cheque, she owns a restaurant. Maybe it's true. If I were conning somebody, I'd try harder for it to make more sense. I gave her $10, which only minutes before I didn't know I had (I found it in a forgotten pocket). Helena and I had an interesting chat about whether we believed her and, regardless whether it was the truth, was it the right thing to give her money. I'm still grappling with why I found it easier to surrender cash to her than I do to most panhandlers.]

According to Stan, fear is the key, the great motivator. So what is the fear that marked me? Fear that I might be seen by my daughter to be cold and unfeeling toward someone's plight? Fear that that plight might actually be true?

Umm, where was I going with this story?

The conman, the con, the con mind — riveting stuff. Nightmare Alley — a bang-up, crackerjack, first rate piece of book.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

At loose ends

I was certain, some mornings, that I heard her watching TV, feeding the cat, but I caught myself. The girl stayed with her grandmother for a couple weeks, and I missed her like crazy. Somehow, a week away from her in midwinter in Cuba was easy; but a summer weekend in a cabin on a lake without her was empty.

She knows we went to Jazz Festival without her. "But we always go to Jazz Festival! Together!" By "always," I guess she means, like, twice. Last year I dragged her out with me in the drizzle, and we stayed for less than an hour, but evidently she had a memorably spectacular time.

I've been luxuriating in sleeping and drinking and smoking and reading, and being generally unproductive. There are closets to clean. Bookshelves to organize. I wanted to take inventory of all that remains unread around here. Perhaps that's a job better done slowly, after all. Maybe by the time Helena goes back to school I'll have my own reading plan sorted out.

While she was away, Helena turned into a reader. All it took, it seems, was a stash of Tintin books. I'm determined to find out for myself once and for all what the appeal is. And maybe it'll help me bring my French vocabulary up to Helena's speed.

She's also taken to journalling, on her teacher's suggestion. Someday it's just a sentence, but most days it's more than I bargained for.

The kid's been back a couple days. Life is almost normal again.

I've been trying, without success, to write about Nightmare Alley (William L Gresham). I don't know what more I can say than that it's absolutely the best book I've read in ages.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Sexy reading

I picked up Granta's sex issue a while ago as it seemed to feature even more than the usual lot of great and interesting-to-me writers. And, yeah, I guess I was feeling kinda sexy that day.

The Roberto Bolaño story, "The Redhead," is taken from Antwerp, so if you have a copy of that book, you don't need to search out this anthology for completeness. Barely 2 pages.

On the basis of the excerpt presented here, I've determined that, much as I loved The Keep, I have absolutely no interest in reading Jennifer Egan's A Visit From the Goon Squad. Zilch.

Similarly, there are a number of other authors I will not be seeking out.

After reading Tom McCarthy's story I've pushed his Remainder a little higher in the list of books I mean to get to real soon. I'm definitely interested in reading more of Natsuo Kirino, and possibly Victor LaValle.

Sex is, I think, hard to write about, and probably best tackled obliquely.

(William H Gass tackle the subject in On Being Blue, which was reviewed thus: "It's about sex and about language and about the language of sex, and how we're failed by language in writing about sex, and how we fail sex with language.")

It's a huge subject matter, of course — the coming of age stories, the sexual identity stories, the longing for it, the absurdity of it, or the futility of it, or the disappointment of it, or the necessity of it. So very rarely the sexiness of it. And most stories about sex, in any of its complicated manifestations, I don't really care for, I've finally decided. (Except Houellebecq — Houellebecq fascinates me.) Most reading is about getting inside other people's lives, other people's heads, but when it comes to sex...? Maybe because it's so intensely personal, maybe it's the one thing where you have to get inside your (my?) own head first. (And maybe I see Houellebecq trying to do this? Grapple with it inside his own head, I mean.)

Only one entry to my mind qualifies as erotic, and it was a pleasure to read, and that's Emmanuel Carrère's "This Is for You." It was first published in a literary supplement to Le Monde in 2002 (available online, in French), as an open letter to his girlfriend. Ah, the French! You'd never find a North American newspaper printing any such smutthing.

You can read more about this piece in terms of its tackling a taboo as well the performative function of language (about Carrère's comparing the power of a statement like, "You are getting wet," to the effect of, "I declare war." (I almost wish I was doing a Linguistics PhD thesis on sex talk)).

Monday, July 05, 2010

The ugliness of sleep

Why do I have to frig around with all this chickenshit stuff? I didn't want their dimes. I wanted to see if I could take them. Jesus, the only thing you can depend on is your brains!

In the coach, under the dimmed lights, the crowd of carnival performers and concessioners sprawled, huddled, heads on each others' shoulders; some had stretched themselves on newspapers in the aisles. In the corner of a seat Molly slept, her lips slightly parted, her head against the glass of the black window.

How helpless they all looked in the ugliness of sleep. A third of life spent unconscious and corpselike. And some, the great majority, stumbled through their waking hours scarcely more awake, helpless in the face of destiny. They stumbled down a dark alley toward their deaths. They sent exploring feelers into the light and met fire and writhed back again into the darkness of their blind groping.

— from Nightmare Alley, by William L Gresham.

I didn't mean to be reading this book now, yet, but in sorting through my stack I happened to open this one, and I saw "the stubble on the deputy marshal's chin was white — like a white fungus on a dead man," at which point I had to start at the beginning, and I couldn't put it down.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Inky and tentacled

Take a Frankenstein-type story against a backdrop combining Margaret Atwood's Year of the Flood and Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials and do it up Doctor Who style, but more menacing, and you'll get something like China Miéville's new novel, Kraken.

While not my favourite of China Miéville's novels (though I'm not sure which of a couple others I'd name for this distinction), Kraken is certainly the most rollicking fun!

The plot starts simply enough: Who stole the giant squid from the British Museum? We follow Billy, the curator who preserved this particular specimen, into the mystery. Before you know it you're immersed in a London teeming with end-of-times religious cults, among whom some revere this squid as representative of their Kraken god, and criminal gangs. The city is regarded as a living entity unto itself, and magic is commonplace (though it was never clear to me whether average citizens understood these workings and ignored or dismissed them or maybe were magicked into being oblivious about the situation; as a "secret" knowledge it belongs to a vast underground society that operated just slightly out of step alongside a seemingly perfectly ordinary city). The allegedly neutral Londonmancers are taking sides, the familiars are on strike, and the memory angels are taking action. There's a lot to keep track of and I occasionally faltered, but at its heart this book is a whodunnit and you keep reading to find out.

We meet some deliciously creepy baddies — part Dickens, part noir — along the way:

They were in a beat-up car. The man Goss drove. In the back, the boy, Subby, held Billy's arm.

Subby had no weapon and did not grip hard, but Billy did not move. He was frozen by the man and boy having unfolded in his room — the intrusion, the drugged dragging of the world. Billy's thoughts stuttered in loops. He felt dragged across time. A smear of pigeons was behind the car, pigeons that seemed to have been following him for days. What the hell what the hell, he thought, and Leon.

The car smelt of food and dust and sometimes of smoke, Goss had a face wrong for the time. He looked stolen from some fifties. There was a postwar cruelty to him.

I envy the person a hundred years from now who ventures to annotate this novel. Miéville's descriptions are grounded in now, some cultural references more popular than others: Harry Potter, Star Trek, Life on Mars. One cop has Winehousey hair.

We're steeped in a world where nerds drive science and engineering (and this is seriously relevant to a few plot points). Miéville imagines that, for example, in his London, Doctor Who fans fashion untraditional magic wands and call them sonic screwdrivers.

Apparently, Billy thought, he lived now in a trite landscape. Deep enough below the everyday, Billy realised with something between awe and distaste, a thing has power, moronically enough, because it's a bit like something else. (p 260)

These revelations into a paradigm of recusant science, so the goddamn universe itself was up for grabs, were part of the most awesome shift in vision Billy had ever had. But the awe had been greatest when he had not understood at all. The more they were clarified, the more the kitsch of the norms disappointed him. (p 263)

So Miéville managed to extricate himself from my accusation of kitsch just before I named it. It was all starting to seem disappointingly silly and over-the-top, but he acknowledged it, explained it, and argued successfully for the relevance of his approach. I let myself enjoy the rest of the rollercoaster ride.

More than once I was reminded of Doctor Who (wouldn't you love for Miéville to contribute to that show!). This book shares with the most recent series story arc, to some degree, the concepts of erasing time and rebooting the universe. But some episodes from series past are also called to mind, in particular The Shakespeare Code. The power of the written word, the old magic of naming things. You will find some profound ideas beneath the surface, if you care to look.

Above all, I love how Miéville uses language. He excavates old words and reinvents them as required. He verbs nouns and adjectivizes verbs. He just writes so bloody evocatively well.

There is no knowing beyond that membrane, the meniscus of death. What can be seen from here is distorted, refracted. All we can know are those unstrustworthy glimpses — that and rumour. The prattle. The dead gossip: it is the reverberation of that gossip against the surface tension of death that the better mediums hear. It is like listening to whispered secrets through a toilet door. It is a crude and muffled susurrus.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Brave new jazz

Last night, we took in a show at the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal: John Zorn with Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed. Arguably, Lou Reed is the most recognized name in this trio, but it's actually the other two whose music I'm more familiar with.

Laurie Anderson holds a special place in my musical development. It was a thrill for my teenage-self to realize playing violin (which I did) didn't restrict you to Vivaldi. I saw her in concert back around 1989, and that was a "performance."

As for John Zorn, saxophone god, I stumbled upon the first of his Masada albums in 1994 (it was playing in the record store; I asked what it was, bought it on the spot), and I continue to regard it as my desert-island pick. We saw his Acoustic Masada at the festival a few years ago, and it was one of the most spectacular concerts, of any musical genre, I've ever seen, in terms of intensity and vitality.

Lou Reed? I don't know much about Lou Reed. Walk on the Wild Side. Sweet Jane. That thing in the Wim Wenders movie.

What to expect from this show? I didn't expect Zorn to be playing Velvet Underground tunes, Anderson to interpret Masada, or Reed to be singing Home of the Brave. (I admit I was a bit nervous, actually, having heard about Anderson and Reed's recent gig in Australia that was audible only to dogs.) I jokingly tweeted that this combination was something akin to, in lit terms, interleaving the pages of Julio Cortázar, William S Burroughs, and Nelson Algren. I think I'm not far off. It's a brave new animal I heard, growling its way into existence. (I learned after the fact that it was all improv.)

Preshow press conference with Anderson and Reed: This is really interesting, actually — I just listened to it — wrt Anderson's relationship to technology and approach to art in general. She talks about what you hear, as a violinist, happening right next to your ear, the grinding, the overtones and harmonics, how the synths are a way to bring that to the whole audience, to lay bare the machinery of the music. (But, no, Lou, there was no rock and roll.)

Reed contributed, I think, very little to the show, and compared with the others on stage, he seemed not invested in the music, not fully present. (He's also old, and not very mobile.)

Musically, Reed laid down a floor of sound, a kind of throbbing static, a loud white noise, over which Anderson and Zorn stomped and frolicked. Four guitars were onstage — he switched between a couple of them and put a few notes on sustain, but there was very little discernible guitar playing. For one piece his attention was entirely on the reddish panel in front of him — some kind of equalizer? synthesizer? sound board? but I couldn't see any knobs, keys, levers. It looked like he was operating it like a touch pad.

Two pieces in came the booing, "Play some music!"; Zorn suggested to those audience members who don't like to "get the fuck outta here." Allegedly, many people did.

[I couldn't help thinking that this was the perfect soundtrack to my current read (China Miéville's Kraken) — the squelch and roar of the end of the world through which strains this near-angelic tinkling, like delicate glass.]

It felt like being at the centre of a wet sponge — there's a heaviness, but with all these porous spaces teasing you through a labyrinth toward light and air.

Anderson and Zorn traded off between (some semblance of) rhythm and melody. Cacaphony at times, but ordered — Anderson kept time with her feet, Zorn slapped is sax.

I couldn't tell you what kind of violin Anderson was playing, how it differs from the traditional instrument (apart from being electric). What struck me, though, is that despite her musical evolution and reputation for avant-gardism, her playing was decidedly more traditional than ever; that is, although there were instances of her sliding her hand over the fingerboard from the left, and that sound when you play on the wrong side of the bridge, the execution of this improv was fully grounded in basic, traditional bowing and fingering techniques. And this to me was a nice surprise — to hear the strains of something almost Vivaldi-like issuing up through something completely modern. This music isn't just new, it comes out of what came before.

Zorn is delightful. He plays (and I credit this description to J-F) like a kid who just got a new toy, determined to squeeze every ounce of life out of it, run it through its paces, try to break it. The man's a genius.

The main criticism levelled in the review in the local newspaper (in which they get the photo caption wrong) is that the show was short, barely over an hour.

I choose to believe this was not in response to the hostile reception. What Zorn does is extremely physically demanding. (Can anyone play saxophone for more than an hour? Can anyone play saxophone the way John Zorn does for more than an hour?) The Masada show of a few years ago was of similar length. Simply, the show had reached its (physical, but no doubt also emotional) limit.

I don't feel equipped to describe music, let alone jazz. I don't know jazz beyond knowing what I like. This was undeniably experimental. Was it music? I think so. Was it art? Definitely. Not for everyone, but I'd do it again.