Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Roz Chast (ed.) and Bill Kartalopoulos (series ed.), _The Best American Comics 2016_

JUST GOES TO show me not to presume--since Roz Chast's New Yorker cartoons, which I enjoy, derive a lot of their humor from the timidity and circumspection of mild-mannered, utterly domesticated people in utterly normal settings, I expected this volume to stay put in the respectable middle of the road.

And certainly most of the book is about in that range--strong, excellent work that is not particularly risky: Chris Ware, Adrian Tomine, Joe Sacco, Richard McGuire, Nina Bunjevac. But then there are also some nerve-scraping pages from Casanova Frankenstein (a nom de plume, do you think?) the E.C.-Segar-on-bad-acid of Marc Bell's Stroppy, and the self-published "Don't Leave Me Alone"by G.G., which is terrifying.

So you never know--more to the point, I never know. As Bill K. announces in the very first sentence of the foreword, "There is no 'mainstream' in comics."

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Elif Batuman, _The Idiot_

AN AMAZING DEBUT novel, I thought. Best novel of the year, possibly.

As with Batuman's non-fiction book of a few years back, The Possessed, the title evokes Dostoevsky. The main character is Selin Karadag, which I am guessing is metrically equivalent to "Elif Batuman." Like Batuman, Selin is the American-born daughter of Turkish parents, and like Batuman, she is matriculating at Harvard in the fall of 1995. I suspect Batuman drew on her own experiences in the novel, but who knows?

Selin is not a figure of unworldly saintliness like Prince Myshkin, but she is, like just about every first-year college student before or after 1995, a bit clueless and blundering. The biggest misstep is becoming obsessed with Ivan, a Harvard senior from Hungary. A great deal of flirting via e-mail occurs (e-mail was a newish thing in 1995), but Ivan cannot figure out quite what Selin wants, and Selin seems not altogether sure either. She even takes a summer job teaching English in Hungary with a view towards somehow crossing paths and getting together with Ivan, but then, once she is actually in Hungary, she waits two weeks before calling him.

Thus the 19th century novel that seems the closest precedent to Batuman's The Idiot is not Dostoevsky's novel of the same name, but Flaubert's L'Education Sentimentale, for Selin and Ivan rival Fr├ęderic Moreau and Mme. Arnoux in the never-quite-getting-there department. (Or even the all-time champs, John Marcher and May Bartram.) The plot event we are anticipating for most of the novel's 400 pages never occurs.

Which seems perfect, to me.

But what I most enjoyed were Batuman's powers of observation, her ability to conjure up a milieu (a college dorm, a transatlantic flight), and particularly her voice. Deeper than that, the themes of the novel--not just Selin's sentimental education, but the vagaries of translation (hilarious and tragic), the peculiar entitlement of the USA, the ironies of elite education--could make this novel a classic down the line. I don't think I've relished a first novel this much since White Teeth. Is White Teeth a classic yet (17 years old already)? Well, I'm going to say it is.


Friday, January 5, 2018

Eula Biss, _On Immunity: An Inoculation_

MAINLY ABOUT THE anxiety over infant immunizations of a few years back, now largely quelled I think, but this book does not depend on topicality all that much. Walden has tips for living in the countryside, but we read it more for the sensibility it presents and the grain of its voice; On Immunity similarly is more than the information it conveys. It's contemplative, in a down-to-earth way; it contains information, but is more thoughtful, personal, exploratory than advisory.

Immunity, in the medical sense, has a lot to do with what the body recognizes as its own and what it identifies as a hostile intruder, and Biss spins out the metaphorical potential of this in pondering self-and-other, us-and-them questions, as well as science-and-superstition, reason-and-emotion, expert-and-layperson sorts of agons. The chapters are short and would work (I think) as free-standing essays, vivid, graceful, humane.

Which reminds me of my guess about the subtitle, "An Inoculation." In what sense is the book about a small quantity of illness taken from one body and placed in another, giving that other body a little dose of evil to prevent a greater one from taking hold?

In the sense that Biss's anxiety-verging-on-panic for her infant son (that is, the recognizably perfectly normal behavior of a new mother) turns out to inoculate us (supposing we have infants arriving in our own lives) against the follies that anxiety and panic all too readily lend themselves to.

Biss is probably a lot better grounded and less susceptible to jumpiness than the persona of the book is, but the contrast between the "I" of the book and her calm of her husband, the common sense of her oncologist father, and the liveliness and imagination of her pre-schooler, who somehow survived infancy, repeatedly testifies to the wisdom of not letting what you read on the internet get the better of you.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Jeff Gold, _Total Chaos: The Story of the Stooges, as Told by Iggy Pop_

IF YOU HAVE read or seen Paul Trynka's Open Up and Bleed or Jim Jarmusch's Gimme Danger or Iggy's own I Need More, as I have, you have already seen a lot of these photos and heard or read a lot of these stories...but you are going to acquire this book anyway, as I did, because...well, because.

The punk band I was in from 1979 to 1983 had a standing policy: we covered at least one song from each Stooges album and each Iggy album. I think we had three apiece from the debut and from Raw Power.

Total Chaos is a coffee table book, in effect, lots of large format photos, most of Iggy and the band but also of news clippings, show posters and legal correspondence, plus Gold's interview with Mr. Osterberg himself providing a running commentary on the images, a kind of voiceover for the slide show.

The very idea a coffee-table book about the Stooges is a little incongruous. It's hard to imagine them having anything so bourgeois as a coffee table at the Funhouse, to say nothing of having a book whose main purpose was to be available for browsing on a coffee table, unless it was of Nazi regalia.

And, as noted above, it's mainly photos you've seen before, glittery Iggy, dog-collar Iggy, Iggy at King's Cross, and stories you've heard before, Danny Fields discovering them at the U. of M. student union, recording with John Cale in a cape, drugs, groupies, John Sinclair, David Bowie....

...but we don't mind hearing the story of Hamburg, the Cavern, Brian Epstein, and the Maharishi again and again, do we? Or the story of Greenwich Village, Joan Baez, booed at Newport, motorcycle accident, basement tapes? For me, this is one of those stories. If there's ever a Total Chaos II, I'm getting that one too.

Albert O. Hirschman, _The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy_

A BRILLIANT BOOK--short, plainly written, original, illuminating. I had never heard of Hirschman until I read an article about him by Cass Sunstein in NYRB a few years ago--I picked this up about that time, but only got around to reading it now in my trying-to-understand-the-Trump-phenomenon reading campaign.

Hirschman looks at what I'm going to call three families of arguments that have served conservative intellectuals from the beginnings of consciously conservative thought (Burke, de Maistre) up to the present.

"Perversity" arguments claim that the proposed progressive solution to a problem will exacerbate the problem. Poverty programs will lead to deeper poverty, attempts to counter racism will generate worse racism, etc.

"Futility" arguments claim that the proposed progressive measure will fail because of some basic, unchangeable foundation within human nature, e.g., universal public education is folly because a large number of people are just plain ineducable and always will be.

"Jeopardy" arguments claim that the proposed progressive measure will undermine some kind of progress that has already been achieved. The classic version of this we recall from Alexis de Tocqueville: social equality can only be gained at the expense of individual liberty.

Hirschmann (persuasively) argues that these arguments get recycled repeatedly in the late 18th century arguments against the abolition of aristocratic privilege, then in the 19th century arguments against widening suffrage, then in the 20th century arguments against the welfare state.

Really glad I finally read this book, but I'm not sure how much help it will be in understanding Trump. Most of Hirschman's examples are European, and perhaps American conservatism just does not map onto this template readily--just as American Christianity often seems to be its own thing, distinct from European Christianity. Or perhaps Trump is not exactly a "conservative" at all, just your garden variety xenophobic populist opportunist.

Or perhaps Corey Robin is right--just recently looked at his piece in the Fall 2017 n+1 in which he says that classic conservative thought gets its edge from its dialectical engagement with the best ideas of the left (this parallels Hirschman's thesis nicely) and the American left of the present is so foamy and incoherent that the right does not have to generate any ideas at all--it can just enjoy its hegemony and not even worry about who its figureheads are: "Having achieved so many conservative goals--a labor movement in terminal decline, curtailed abortion rights, the deregulation of multiple industries, economic inequality reminiscent of the Gilded Age, and racial resegregation--the right can now afford the luxury of irresponsibility."

Sunday, December 31, 2017

D. A. Powell, _Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys_

MYSTIFIED AT WHY I took so long to pick this up--it came out in 2012, and I had liked Tea, Cocktails, and Chronic--well, better late than never, and it's excellent. In a different vein from his earlier work--more formal (quite a few sonnets in the first section), more elegant, more mandarin perhaps...I kept thinking of Auden and Merrill.

The first part, "Useless Landscape," seems to be be looking more at the present, the second, "A Guide for Boys," to be more based on memory. They differ a bit in voice, too, with the second section a little closer in tone to Powell's previous books, but both parts seem to be contemplating the Central Valley, geographically near but culturally distant from the earlier work's center of gravity in San Francisco.

Glad I finally got around to this--shows Powell has a lot more range than I had suspected. Greatest Living American Poet? He's in the hunt.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Edward Hirsch and David Lehman, eds, _The Best American Poetry 2016_

Yes...last year's. Took me a while to get around to it. I've had a difficult year, though I had it easier than many (hello, Houston & Puerto Rico).

I am among those who classify American poetry into two broad camps, but I'm not sure what to call them. Traditional and experimental? Those terms seem a poor fit, since someone like Ed Hirsch is obviously not experimental, but you wouldn't say he sounds much like Shelley or Robert Bridges or Frost--so what "tradition" are we talking about? Avant-garde and mainstream? But is any poet mainstream, given what a small and specific readership poetry has? If you're publishing poetry at all, you are already part of group that is basically on the margins compared to novelists, memoirists, biographers, and so on.

I am going to go with "representational" and "non-representational," as with painting. A great many (most, I'd say) poets are engaging with phenomena--persons, places, objects, events--with some investment in "getting it right," fidelity, accuracy, truth. Quite a few poets are more interested in what is generated by language itself, or problematizing the whole question of representation, to the point that asking what a poem is about is just the wrong question.

Representational poets can certainly dip into the toolkit of the non-representational ones, and vice versa, which I think was the point of the Cole Swenson and David St. John anthology, American Hybrid. (Which must be about ten years old now, I think). By and large, though, the two camps do not seem to be paying much attention to each other.

All the above is my wide turn into the point that Edward Hirsch, a representational poet, has (I would say) a 100% representational anthology here. This gives the book some consistency, but risks monotony. Sometimes the chance operations of the alphabet underline how like each other the chosen poems are. A poem by Rowan Ricardo Phillips of about two dozen lines in loose blank pentameter, syntactically all one sentence, is followed by a Stanley Plumly poem also of about two dozen lines in loose blank pentameter, this one in three sentences; one run of four poems includes three sonnets (Silver, Sleigh, Stallings).

Not that the work herein is weak. Just the contrary. Seventy-five really good, worthwhile poems, just as advertised. I do prefer it, though, when the editor decides (as did Denise Duhamel and Terrance Hayes) to mix it up a little.