Loads of Learned Lumber

Monday, January 21, 2019

Sam Sax, _Madness_

ONLY ONCE IN a while do I encounter a poet's second book and like it so much that I seek out the poet's first, and even more rarely do I actually make the time to read it, but yes, I am that big a fan of Sax's Bury It.

Madness (a National Poetry Series winner, selected by Terrance Hayes) has a lot of what made Bury It so appealing: rhythm, candor, critically-inflected (i.e., in this instance, Foucauldian) identity politics, a lyricism that the book's anger only enriches.

The poems revolve around illness, and what gets defined as illness (cf. Foucault), and cures, and what gets defined as a cure (cf. Foucault). The speaker of the poems is usually a young man up against his diagnoses, their associated cures, and the professionals in charge of administering same. A vein of humor runs through the book, but it's dark.

A design/structural feature of the book is a recurring reproduction of Appendix C of the 1952 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (which lists "Homosexuality" alongside "Acrophobia," "Pyromania," and "Tantrums") that gets methodically erased as the volume proceeds. This erasure may be a progress, but the final poem--titled, sure enough, "Erasure"--raises the fearful possibility that if you remove all the wrongs and mistakes there may not be much left.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Ben Katchor, ed., _Best American Comics 2017_ (Bill Kartalopoulos, series ed.)

BEN KATCHOR'S SELECTION stays a good instance from the mainstream. He includes quite a few self-published items, for instance. A few things might even be called outsider art rather than comics: that is, they have not been "published" at all, but exist as singular items in art galleries. These items are "comics" in form, words, pictures, panels, so they fit in well and certainly reward attention--I'm not objecting to their presence.  That presence does, though, suggest a surprising development.

Comics, in the forms with which we are most familiar, were a commercial product designed for mass consumption before they were anything else. Whether newspaper "funnies" or comic books, their very origin occurred in a context that was all about broad appeal and high sales. Like the earliest cinema, they were about being as entertaining as possible for the greatest number of people possible, not about their creators' particular vision or sensibility.

It did not take long at all for an expressive, auteur-like streak to emerge in newspaper comics--Winsor McCay, George Herriman, E. C. Segar--and comic books eventually had their Will Eisner and Carl Barks. But these artists' brilliance was continually in negotiation with the necessity of pursuing the same objectives pursued by the creators of The Gumps and Nancy and Archie. I might even argue that it was not until the emergence of R. Crumb, S. Clay Wilson, and the other underground-ers in the 1960s that we had comics that were mostly derived from the peculiar obsessions and fixations of their creators.

If Katchor's selection represents the best in American comics--not everyone would agree, but let's just assume for the sake of argument that it does--we are now 180 degrees away from those origins. Katchor includes nothing from the mainstream, not much from even the more prestigious kind of graphic novel. With a few exceptions, the material here is deeply personal, idiosyncratic, expressive, even alien and strange. Not only would they never appear in a newspaper, but even Fantagraphics would probably say, "Geez, I dunno...."

A surprising development, but an appealing one.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

James Baldwin, _If Beale Street Could Talk_

THE ENVIABLY-NAMED Thomas Chatterton Williams began his review of Zadie Smith's Feel Free (London Review of Books, August 30, 2018) this way: ""Several of the last century's finest non-fiction writers--Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, James Baldwin--longed to be novelists." He is setting up the point that Smith, indisputably a novelist, happens also to turn out excellent essays, but I was pulled up short by the implicit suggestion that Didion, Sontag, and Baldwin were not novelists, but only (apparently) aspirant novelists.

I can see what he means about Sontag, even though The Volcano Lover actually sold well, as did Didion's Play It as It Lays and Book of Common Prayer; Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain made it on to a lot of syllabuses, I believe, and Just Above my Head got a National Book Award nomination. Still, I suppose Baldwin's name simply equates to The Fire Next Time and the amazing essays for a lot of people.

I wonder whether the movie adaptation of this novel, besides selling some copies of its source, will re-direct attention to Baldwin's fiction somewhat. It may well, because this is an excellent novel. As you likely know (I haven't seen the movie yet myself), it's about a romantic couple in Harlem. By the time she learns she is pregnant, he is in jail, wrongly accused of rape. Most of the novel is about her ongoing relationship with him, memories of their early time together, and her and her family's efforts to free him.

The novel's point of view is mainly the woman's--Tish's--a risky choice, but I think Baldwin succeeded. The portraits of her family and the family of her lover, Fonny, are rich, particular,, and indelible.

The lovers' main problem--i.e., the patterns of law enforcement that Michelle Alexander has taught us to call the New Jim Crow--is so enduring a one in their community that it hardly feels that the book is set in any particular time. Historical locators are scarce; the book was published in 1974, and there is a quick reference to Les McCann's "Compared to What," which was a hit in 1970, but the action could be occurring in just about any decade after World War II, including the present one.

The writing, as is ever the case with Baldwin, is graceful and incisive at the same time. The drama feels real, especially the intense confrontation between Fonny's family and Tish's family at the book's mid-point. Tish and Fonny themselves are a bit too good to be true, à la Romeo and Juliet, but why don't we just say their love brings out the best in them and leave it at that? And the book is tight, succinct (maybe even a bit too succinct at the end, when I was hoping for a bit more denouement than we get), quick-moving. Maybe Baldwin-the-novelists's day has come.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Ryan H. Walsh, _Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968_

IF YOU HAVE not, you should read Quest for Corvo by A.J.A. Symons, even if you are not much interested in either its author (a relatively minor man of letters from interwar Britain) or his subject (a deeply eccentric late Victorian novelist, Frederick Rolfe, pen name "Baron Corvo"), because the book's method creates its own interest. Rather than research Rolfe and write an ordinary birth-to-death biography, Symons begins the book with his discovery of one of Rolfe's novels, then narrates his own deepening and widening research into who Rolfe was and what became of him. The book gradually evokes a whole moment, a peculiar English sub-culture of the 1890s. It's the Citizen Kane of biographies.

Walsh's book has a comparable approach, which is why you should not think of it, quite, as a book about the brilliant Van Morrison album from which it derives its title. Walsh writes of his introduction to it by the woman he later married, an dog his learning that the album was mostly written while Morrison was living in Boston in 1968, trying to stay clear of the organized crime elements in and around his American label, Bang Records. Walsh hears rumors that recordings exist of early versions of the album's songs, as performed around Boston and Cambridge by Van and a small group of local musicians, and he sets out to track them down.

This search branches out, though, into the whole counter-cultural underground of Boston and Cambridge circa 1965-68. Presumably, this is a mapping of the cultural context from which Morrison's album emerged, but it quickly becomes fascinating for its own sake. We encounter Timothy Leary, a ground-breaking local public television show, the Velvet Underground (who played a club called the Boston Tea Party much more often than they played any venue in New York), the Velvets' diehard young local fan Jonathan Richman, James Brown's role in preventing a riot breaking out on the night of MLK's assassination...and, especially, Mel Lyman.

Lyman was a member of Jim Kweskin's Jug Band, the missing link between the folk revival and hippiedom, and also a self-appointed guru who led a commune with cult-ish overtones. The commune put out a remarkable underground paper--Avatar--but became increasingly self-absorbed and defensive. This story winds up getting perhaps a few thousand more words in the text than Van Morrison does, but that's hardly a fault. It uncannily evokes the atmosphere of a certain part of the United States during the late sixties.

Walsh does nonetheless illuminate Astral Weeks, though. He did not interview Van Morrison--perhaps not much of a disadvantage, seeing as Van the Man says something different about the album every time he talks about it--but he did interview Janet Planet (Morrison's life-partner at that time), producer Lewis Merenstein (who picked all the session musicians), the musicians with whom Morrison developed the songs in Boston, and a few of the session men themselves. The heart of the album's mystery is not laid bare--it never will be, I imagine--but its incandescence is heightened a little by what Walsh discovers, and that is an accomplishment.

Insofar as the book is advancing the thesis that something going on in Boston around 1968 determined the shape of Astral Weeks, I would have to say the case is not entirely made. For all the intriguing connections Walsh brings out--that Lou Reed was a reader of Alice Bailey's Treatise on White Magic, for example--the threads are too loose and various to be pulled together into a fabric. That hardly matters, though. A book as smart, as passionate, as observant, as tellingly written as this one does not have to prove anything to be worth reading.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Jonathan Lethem and Kevin Dettmar. eds, _Shake It Up: Great American Writing on Rock and Pop from Elvis to Jay-Z_

I GENERALLY APPROVE of the much wider mission the Library of America has been pursuing under Geoffrey O'Brien. I do not read much science fiction, classic or contemporary, nor many murder mysteries, but I see the sense of giving them shelf space alongside, say, William Dean Howells or James Fenimore Cooper. A few latter-day volumes do make me ask, really? (Barbara Tuchman.) Some seem like long-withheld justice rendered at last. (Joe Brainard.) And some are just catnip for someone like me, such as the present volume.

Fifty selections of rock (and pop) music journalism from 1963 to 2014, arranged in order of publication--which was a great idea, by the way. The subtitle suggests we have a kind of mosaic of rock history rather like Jim Miller's brilliant original Rolling Stone History of Rock & Roll, starting with Elvis, going through the Beatles, punk, and so on up to the present. Which would have been fine, I grant, but what we get is a bit more interesting.

We get not only a thoughtful let's-take-the-Beatles seriously piece from the 1967 by Richard Poirier, but, hundreds of pages later, Devin McKinney's and Elijah Wald's revisionist takes on the Fab Four from the early 21st century. The book's first selection is Nat Hentoff's liner notes for Freewheelin' Bob Dylan; hundreds of pages later, we get Luc Sante's "I is Somebody Else" from 2004, the best short piece on Dylan I have ever read.

There's a great memoir of Jim Morrison by Eve Babitz, but since it was published in1991, we get to it after we have read pieces on the Cars, the Ramones, the Slits, and...who out there remembers Aztec Camera? A piece on the Runaways follows a piece on Kanye.

And while we do get pieces on Elvis and on Jay-Z, as well as Dylan, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Nirvana, Jay-Z, and a variety of famous folk. there is no attempt to cover every important figure, and a lot of the artists who do get space are not at all Rock and Roll Hall of Fame types--e.g., the Runaways and Aztec Camera. The artists who show up in the volume show up because and only because someone wrote something insightful and powerful about them, something worth reading again, worth anthologizing. Tough break, Eric Clapton. That's the way it goes, Sting. No writer loved the Grateful Dead the way Paul Nelson loved the Dolls.

So, while history of rock and pop haunts the book, what we are really getting is the history of writing about it in fifty sterling examples, from the pioneer genre-definers (Paul Williams, Lester Bangs, Greil Marcus, Dave Marsh, Peter Guralnick) to the new breed (Sante, Wald, Hilton Als, John Jeremiah Sullivan). It's a fascinating story. Some of it leans towards academic formality (Poirier, Gerald Early), some of it is polished professional journalism (Jon Pareles, David Hajdu). Some of it is liner notes or record reviews. Some of it is just flat-out personal confession that may start with an affinity for a certain band but soon takes a left turn into all the reasons we--and I do mean we--start looking to certain musicians as seers who will help our lives and loves make sense to us.

These musicians may be as pedestrian as Motley Crüe (Chuck Klosterman) or Barry Manilow (Daniel Smith), may even be someone we don't even really like (Donna Gaines on Lou Reed), but the impulse to write out and make clear the way a certain band's music can seem, in those perilous years from seventh grade to your mid-twenties, to be the key--that's the impulse the animates the volume and makes it the only anthology of its kind.

Riad Sattouf, _The Arab of the Future 3: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1985-1987_, trans. Sam Taylor

THIS PROJECT CONTINUES to impress. This volume takes place almost entirely in Syria, save for a brief sojourn to France for the birth of Riad's second brother. Riad's father teaches at a university in nearby Homs while also trying to start a fruit orchard in the village where the family lives. The quotidian corruptions of the former and sabotage by envious relatives of the latter are likely responsible for the wiggles of white that now appear in his black hair; just the deprivation of living in a Syrian village has likely added the tiny lines under Riad's mother's eyes. (Sattouff is a brilliant cartoonist, getting striking effects from the simplest of means.) But Riad's father is not about to go back to racist France, however unhappy his wife is.

Read himself is in school, of course. His grades are excellent, and he has made a friend, but the daily whippings of students (including him, once in a while) create anxiety. He tends to terrorize his younger brother--the bullied learn to bully--and to lust for comics, toys, and videos that are extremely scarce in his small town. His father's tentative reconciliation with Islam leads to his decision to have Riad circumcised, the painful effects of which procedure are still lingering when the father announces that the family is leaving Syria for...Saudi Arabia. Out of the frying pan, into the fire.

I need to keep an eye out for volume four.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Geoff Dyer, _But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz_

WHEN I DECIDED to give Geoff Dyer a spin a few years back, I bought Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It and this. I read Yoga first, enjoyed it (LLL June 26, 2016), but felt no particular enthusiasm for it, so this loitered on my shelves for another two years or so. Turns out it's a better book--more cohesive, unsurprisingly, since Yoga is a collection of occasional pieces, but also more about his subjects and less about Dyer, more insightful and less flamboyant.

The core of the book is eight short stories. I'm not sure Dyer would call them short stories, and they are certainly not typical short stories, but they are quite a bit like the short stories of Guy Davenport--that is, they depict actual historical figures, figures Davenport studied long and deeply, and they are written with a poet's feel for language. Dyer's historical figures are all jazz musicians from mid-century: Lester Young, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Ben Webster, Charlie Mingus, Chet Baker, Art Pepper, and Duke Ellington (whose story, about a road trip with Harry Carney to their next show, is broken up into segments and interspersed between the seven others).

The stories are usually set in a particular moment (e.g., "He left the asylum on a clear late-autumn morning, noticing the crunch of gravel under his feet, the waiting car") but evoke the whole career ("Monk was used to always doing what he felt like and if he felt like staying in bed for ten years he'd so that, regretting nothing, wanting nothing"). Leitmotifs occur: encounters with racism, the difficulties of getting paid, the lure of alcohol and drugs. Dyer's portraits tend to drift into poète maudit clichés sometimes, but they still succeed in dropping us into what feel like convincing evocations of the musicians' days and nights.

The stories do not always dwell closely on the music, but to make up for that we have the book's concluding piece, a 30-page essay that draws on George Steiner to talk about the great paradox of jazz, at the same time both saturated in tradition and improvisatory, born of the moment.

I think this is only entire book about jazz I have read, so it would be ridiculous for me to say it is the best book on that subject, but it's hard for me to imagine there are many better ones.