Archive for April, 2008

Bullfighting: new story by Roddy Doyle

There was no sign of the bull, although there was dung in the air and—Donal saw it now—blood on the street. A topic for the phone call home in the morning.

That’s from “Bullfighting” a new Roddy Doyle short story, presently featured on the New Yorker website. In the story, Donal is a middle-aged, middle-class Irishman who is happy with his life, but occasionally has a nagging sense that there ought to be something more to it. The passage above comes just after Donal and some old friends have watched a bullfight in Valencia—but in a bar, rather than in the arena. They’ve gone on vacation, just the lads, but it’s far from an adventure out of Hemingway: for the most part, they drink and talk much as they would at home, and enjoy themselves in the same comfortable, deeply contented way. The story seems to be about the value of safety, of comfort, of boredom, and the idea that the prospect of adventure holds the strongest appeal from a position of safety and security. It’s like the Talking Heads song “Heaven,” Donal observes: nothing ever happens, and though it’s kind of dull, it’s also perfect.

Like pretty much all of Doyle’s stuff, this one is funny and carefully observed, and unfolds with a conversational, natural feel. Doyle doesn’t swing for the fences with “The Bullfighters,” and consequently he doesn’t hit a home run. But the story has its small pleasures all the same—and it also has a vivid, memorable climax that I won’t ruin for you by describing it here.

Dig, Lazarus & the Bad Seeds’ inner Grinderman

In a recent interview with Pitchfork, Nick Cave said that last year’s Grinderman record hit “like a bomb going off within the Bad Seeds,” shaking the band up and freeing them to take new approaches. On 2008’s “Dig, Lazarus, Dig!,” The Bad Seeds do, indeed, seem to have been liberated by the participation of several of their number in Cave’s stripped-down garage rock venture. This time out the band plays with a loose, freewheeling swagger; they sound adventurous, and at times almost youthful.

There’s no piano on Dig, Lazarus, Dig!; instead, the arrangements are generally centered around organ riffing and acoustic guitar. On top of this base, the band toys with any number of styles and textures: “Albert West” relies on a classic combo of distorted guitars and sha-la-la backing vocals to achieve a grungy pop-rock feel; “Jesus on the Moon” is haunting, slow, tense, and tuneful, and even employs a flute solo; and “More News From Nowhere” probably could have been mistaken for a straightforward pop tune if it weren’t for the rush of half-spoken syllables Cave squeezes into every line of the verses.

As usual, Cave offers lyrics containing equal parts of poetry and bombast, and declaims them with a sneering aggressiveness, just daring you to call him out for indulging in excess like that. And most of the time I’m happy to go along for the ride; I’m a sucker for any tune that has the nerve (as “Moonland” does) to open with lines as bold and evocatively grimy as “When I came up from out of the meat locker / The city was gone.” I’m also a big fan of Cave’s unabashed intellectualism, which is perhaps most obvious here in album highlight “We Call Upon the Author,” in which Cave offers a half-ironic challenge to all the writers out there to try to justify all their scribbling, when they’ve generally failed to explain much of anything about life or the world. “Bukowski was a jerk,” Cave sings, “Berryman was best / He wrote like wet papier-mâché, went the Hemming-way / Weirdly on wings and with maximum pain / We call upon the author to explain.” Which I guess means that for Cave’s speaker, Berryman’s “best” because he didn’t claim to have any answers and then had the decency to give up and kill himself. (Incidentally, Berryman seems to be enjoying a surge of popularity among indie rockers of late: The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn wrote a sharp-edged and insightful verse about him in “Stuck Between Stations,” and Okkervil River also namechecked him in an interview.)

But there are points on Dig, Lazarus, Dig! when Cave’s sarcasm can’t save him—sometimes I find that I just get tired of his way-overblown darkly-debauched-poet schtick a few tunes in. And that’s one fault that the Grinderman record definitely doesn’t have. Grinderman gave Cave a chance to try on a persona that cuts right through his pretension, and offered him means to channel his inner sexually frustrated teenager through the voice of a sleazy middle-aged poet. The setting of the tunes harnesses the naive ugliness of the hyper-masculine adolescent sexuality of garage rock in order to deflate Cave’s own persona. Nowhere is this more effective than in “No Pussy Blues,” in which Cave’s speaker repeatedly begs a much younger woman for sex, and comes off as both creepy and hilariously foolish. It’s impossible to take what Cave’s Grinderman persona says seriously, and so the Grinderman tunes have the power to absorb all of Cave’s bombast and drama. (Of course, with Grinderman, Cave has his cake and eats it too: much of the reason why the record is so successful is that Grinderman also captures the sexual energy of garage rock, and wallows reverently in its filthiness, even as Cave’s persona is being sent up.)

Word is that there will be another Grinderman record sometime in the not-too-distant future—I’m not sure if it’s a trick Cave and company can pull off again, but I’ll be looking forward to it, in any case. And in the meantime, the Bad Seeds sound like a band half their age. Sometimes this comes off as a bit of a reach, or even sleazy (not unlike Cave’s character in “No Pussy Blues”)—but on the whole it’s thrilling to hear an able and experienced band playing with renewed vigor.

Paul Auster on protest and writing

Silliman pointed a recent NY Times column by Paul Auster, “The Accidental Rebel,” in which he reflects on his experiences as a student protester in the 1960s.

It’s a well-written piece throughout, but I think it’s interesting primarily for the conclusion he offers:

What did we accomplish? Not much of anything….We at Columbia were powerless, and our little revolution was no more than a symbolic gesture. But symbolic gestures are not empty gestures, and given the nature of those times, we did what we could.

I hesitate to draw any comparisons with the present — and therefore will not end this memory-piece with the word “Iraq.” I am 61 now, but my thinking has not changed much since that year of fire and blood, and as I sit alone in this room with a pen in my hand, I realize that I am still crazy, perhaps crazier than ever.

I’ve attended a number of anti-war protests in recent years, including some enormous ones, and (rather obviously) none of them brought about an end to the war. Nor did any of the petitions I’ve signed, or any of the letters I’ve sent to my representatives. But all the same, I do have my voice, however ineffectual it ultimately may be. And as Auster points out, the creation of art is much the same. A book isn’t likely to change the world, and the gesture of writing one is largely symbolic. Your voice probably won’t be heard at all, and even if it is, it almost certainly won’t change anything. But all the same, you must not be silent: it’s important to speak out, and to struggle to speak the truth as you understand it, because to do otherwise is to cede whatever small powers you may have.

And though Auster doesn’t discuss this, it’s probably worth noting that the student protests of the 60s did ultimately help to bring about change—they even helped hasten the end of the Vietnam War. Perhaps the siege of Columbia University accomplished little; but at the same time, it was part of a much larger movement, involving many sieges, and many protesting voices, that did, in fact, make a difference. And again, it’s much the same for the creation of art: all you have to offer is your one small voice, but many voices together make a culture, and do, indeed, shape the ways in which people act and think.

Or at least I hope so. I think the romantic and the cynic in me do battle on this kind of question—as to what real power, if any, art and political protest might have. Though I can tell you that making art and participating in protests for a just causes are both things that make me feel more alive, and more deeply connected to other people.

Last Night at the Lobster

Having grown up in a solidly middle-class American household, I was raised to believe in the value of hard work, and that hard work has its rewards. Though you might begin your working life flipping burgers, it was understood that your labor and persistence were bound to bring you personal fulfillment and prosperity in due time. From this assumption, it follows that this kind of job is only temporary—that it’s possible to endure the low pay and lack of dignity because the experience is only a character-building stepping stone on the way to a world of better and more remunerative opportunities.

Many of the stories told in fiction and movies about low-wage work operate under exactly these assumptions: that it’s temporary, because that the characters couldn’t possibly suffer under these kinds of conditions forever. Characters at fast food restaurants and similar establishments are almost invariably very young, and we enjoy seeing them goofing off and resisting the tedium and humiliation of their day-to-day work, knowing all the while that they’ll find their way to something better before the story’s done.

But the characters in Stewart O’Nan‘s novel Last Night at the Lobster don’t have the luxury of goofing off on their way to a solidly middle-class future. The book’s central character, Manny, has succeeded in making his career as a Red Lobster manager into something dignified and at least somewhat fulfilling: he’s worked hard, has climbed to the rank of manager, and now approaches his job with a dedication, thoroughness, and sincerity that has earned him some amount of satisfaction. But because of a decision made in a distant corporate office, Manny is now facing the task of guiding the restaurant from open to close for the final time—the restaurant’s being shut down for good, and on Monday he’ll report to an Olive Garden, with what amounts to a demotion to assistant manager. This change in fortune is causing Manny to take stock in his life, and to consider exactly what all his years of hard work has actually gotten him.

On this day, Manny offers the company-standard farewell (“Thanks for thinking of Red Lobster”) to some departing customers as usual, but now he wonders about the emptiness of his words. O’Nan writes:

By now he says this as a reflex, but what does it mean? Who, besides the people who actually work here, thinks about Red Lobster? And even they don’t really think about it.

Manny is haunted by the sense that he’s done everything right, everything he was supposed to do, for years, yet he hasn’t seen any trace of a real reward. And meanwhile, he’s not sure that his life outside of the Lobster has added up to much more. Though he’s about to have a child with his girlfriend, he’s far from certain about his love for her, and seems to take very little joy from their relationship. He feels much greater passion for Deena—a Red Lobster coworker with whom he recently had an affair. But now it’s over, and Manny wonders about the meaning and value of their brief love for each other:

He used to marvel at the fact that out of the millions of people in the world, they’d somehow found each other, whether it was an accident or destiny or the result of some logical, cascading chain of events. Now, looking out at the snow falling on the darkened cars, it’s an even bigger mystery, and, like the Lobster, a waste.

Though the bulk of Last Night at the Lobster concerns itself with the details of the restaurant’s operations, at its heart is Manny’s frustration, longing, and confusion over the fact that he can’t seem to find any way to get what he wants out of life. Near the end of the book, O’Nan offers a litany of pointless loss: “Everything gets tossed. The skewers, the fries, the rice–everything they stockpiled. The coleslaw goes, and the baked potatoes, all the cauliflower, tray on tray of biscuits….” It’s all a terrible waste, and for no good reason. What’s the point of working so hard for the restaurant, when nobody would remember it a few days after it closed? And what’s the point of being in love, if in the end that love will just be tossed away?

O’Nan doesn’t treat Manny’s life as a joke; he recognizes the tragedy in the frustration Manny feels as he leaves one mostly meaningless job behind, and prepares to take on another with no real hope of finding anything better. Just like the middle-class kids goofing off in the fast food kitchen, Manny can see the absurdity of the work he has to do, and longs to find something more fulfilling. But unlike those middle-class kids (or the protagonists of most fiction and movies about the frustrations of low-wage work), no one’s going to pay for Manny to get to college, or offer him any other kind of hand. There’s very little he can do except keep working hard—whether it ends up paying off or not.

Titus Andronicus, punk rocker

I’m having an absolute blast listening to The Airing of Grievances, the debut album from New Jersey’s Titus Andronicus—who were recently recently anointed by Pitchfork with an 8.5 and a booking at this year’s festival. I’d say Pitchfork hit the nail on the head this time—this record is an energetic, rough-edged, punk rock joy, and one of the best indie rock debuts I’ve heard in recent memory.

The Airing of Grievances definitely doesn’t carve out any new musical territory; nor does it rely on exceptional chops or especially strong songwriting. Instead it’s one of those records that remind you why punk rock will always sound great—that there’s always room for another sloppy, noisy, hard-rocking record that careens along largely on the tremendous force of its own energy and excitement. The recording is appropriately lo-fi—everything’s turned up to the point of distortion, and it sounds perfect. The drums pound, the guitars crunch, and the singer screams, yelps, and bleats, and all of it sounds fantastic.

The lyrics are often depressive, and contain an element of self-aware scenesterism—not particularly likely to be a turn-on for me ordinarily, but the music is so genuinely joyful that it hasn’t become a problem for me so far (during the half-dozen or so times I’ve played the record in the last 24 hours). But the humor in the lyrics goes a long way—for example, here’s the first verse of “My Time Outside the Womb”: “The first thing you see is the light / And then you focus on a man with a mask and a knife / And then he cuts you away from everything you thought you knew about life.” And then there’s the record’s true highlight, the eponymous “Titus Andronicus,” an infectious, hilarious punk stomper anchored by a memorable (end very often repeated) chorus of “Your life is over / Your life is over.” The singer also details exactly what the end of your life will mean: “No more cigarettes/ No more having sex / No more getting drunk till you fall on the floor….”

I’m not sure if this is a record for the ages, but it sure is a whole lot of fun.

The technological wild west

Some years after defeating Custer, Sitting Bull joined Buffalo Bill‘s famed Wild West Show, in which he acted the part of an Indian for an appreciative audience of whites. During the course of westward expansion, white people had utterly destroyed his way of life—yet they came to watch his performance out of a sense of romantic nostalgia: a belief in the natural beauty of the vanished west, and in the wild, noble freedom of its savage onetime inhabitants.

For Rebecca Solnit, this is the history of the American west in a nutshell, and also a lens through which we can understand the birth of Hollywood and the creation of our present-day culture of pervasive image and fantasy. The real west was destroyed—the land became home to cities, farms, factories, and mines; and the Native Americans were killed or confined to reservations—and meanwhile white people read dime westerns about the heroic Kit Carson (who once found a copy of a fictional account of his heroism with the body of a woman he’d failed to rescue) and tourists started to visit the first national parks to appreciate the tamed beauty of the west. As America industrialized and began to conquer time and space through inventions like the railroad and photography, reality gave way to image, and the world we all live in now came into being.

This is only part of the thesis of Solnit’s truly extraordinary 2003 book, River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West—you’ll note that up until now I haven’t even mentioned the book’s central figure, a photographer who laid the groundwork for the invention of motion pictures, and meanwhile cast a very long shadow over the arts and sciences. And even that’s not the whole of Solnit’s story: she’s also very much concerned with issues of class, and the ways in which the culture of industrialization impoverished the lives of ordinary people, while meanwhile vastly enriching a fortunate and merciless few. It’s a story of great cultural and environmental change, of politics, murder, science, art, and loss. Solnit’s depth of knowledge is astonishing, but this book is in no way episodic, prone to tangents, or bogged down with unnecessary details; instead, she weaves all of this material into a seamless and powerful whole, told in beautiful, passionate prose, and bursting with rare and compelling insight.

Muybridge—an immigrant from England who would change his name or its spelling several times—first settled in San Francisco during the Gold Rush, where he for a time ran a bookstore. Eventually he became a photographer, and enjoyed great success making landscapes, often in the employ of railroads or other corporations who hoped his pictures would promote their services and the west in general. But his greatest contribution would come through his motion studies—under the patronage of railroad baron (and founder of Stanford University) Leland Stanford, Muybridge became the first person to accurately capture motion on film. His photographs of Stanford’s horses required a significant technological advance, and the end result astonished many people: since no one had ever been able to freeze motion before—to show motion as a sequence of discrete events, rather than as a continuous whole—no one had previously been able to answer questions about motion as basic as whether or not all four hooves of a galloping horse ever left the ground.

Horse motion study

For the first time, an image became more compelling than perception: the “truth” of a horse’s gait could be more reliably described by the camera than by an unaided human eye. This, Solnit argues, is the birth of our contemporary culture: in which we live constantly awash in images, and devote much of our time and consciousness to the experience of those images, rather than to the “real,” more direct experiences of life to which people were limited until the abstract powers of the image were fully unlocked. Further, Solnit sees this culture as fundamentally shaped by the history of the American west: a place where people had the freedom to re-invent themselves, and who chose to re-shape the the places of the West with very little regard to its cultural or natural history. Media culture operates in much the same way: it’s a space of image and abstraction, where history and nature are little more than raw material for representation, for transformation into elaborate shared fantasies. We all live in the wild west now: a place where everything is mutable and free, and where people and cultures and history and the land all get swept up in the inexorable flow of the omnipresent river of images.

And still, that’s not all there is to Solnit’s book—but short of retyping it here, I think I’ve about exhausted my ability to describe it. But one more story/image from the book: after Sitting Bull’s time in the Wild West show, he returned to a reservation, where he became involved in the Ghost Dance religious movement, which promised the retreat and disappearance and death of the white man, and which gained adherents in many different Native American cultures in the last days of the Indian Wars. Solnit writes:

The reservation administrators saw the Ghost Dance as insurrection and Sitting Bull as a leader, and they wanted him arrested. On December 15, 1890, the reservation police woke up Sitting Bull to take him away. While he was getting dressed, his small house was surrounded by his supporters, and in the shootout that followed he was fatally wounded. But the white horse Buffalo Bill had given him was trained to perform at the sound of gunfire, and for a moment that fused entertainment, spirituality, and confusion, everything stopped when it seemed that the horse was doing the Ghost Dance.

Erik Friedlander & Teho Teardo: improvised/electronic collaborations

The jazz/electronic collaborations between Steve Reid and Four Tet’s Kieran Hebden have garnered a lot of attention over the past few years. Both are tremendously talented musicians—but I have to say that I was disappointed when I saw the two of them live at the Empty Bottle a couple years ago. I’d hoped to see some genuine improvisational interaction between the two, and had high expectations, given Hebden’s exceptional work for his Four Tet project. But at the live show, it seemed that Reid was mostly limited to following Hebden—that Hebden couldn’t change up his electronics with the same ease and fluidity that was second nature to Reid on the drums. Also, it probably didn’t help that Hebden & Reid were preceded on stage by Chicago’s great Fred Anderson, who played a muscular and energetic duo set with his frequent collaborator, the incomparable drummer Hamid Drake.

In any case, I do really like the idea of top-flight improvisers and electronic artists working together, and I’m always pleased discover successful collaborations in this mode. One recent example: Giorni Rubati, cellist Erik Friedlander‘s collaboration with electronic artist and film score composer Teho Teardo (available from bip-hop records; also available via eMusic and as an Amazon MP3 download).

The record, while excellent, is far from entirely improvised—more on that below. But first, check out the YouTube video below of a live performance by Friedlander and Teardo at the Knitting Factory in 2005. Notice how the two respond to each other throughout the performance. Teardo opens in reaction to Friedlander’s percussive, repetitive playing by bringing out some glitchy noise, but then soon moves his way into a much denser wash of darkly warm sound, which Friedlander in turn responds to by getting out his bow and entirely changing his approach to the improvisation.

On record, the two take a different approach— and in fact they were on different continents while recording the collaboration. Friedlander recorded responses to poems by Giorni Rubati —some of which were solo improvisations, while others were multitracked. Teardo then took Friedlander’s recordings, added his own contributions, and manipulated the recordings. The result is a shapeshifting and thoroughly engrossing record, in which Friedlander and Teardo both cover a wide range of sonic territory. Friedlander’s playing is often percussive, but he’ll sometimes also offer melancholy bowing or keen noisily. Teardo seems equally fond of glitchy electronic and much warmer and fuller sounds, and does a superb job of interacting with and responding to Friedlander’s recordings. Occasionally voices reading fragments of Rubati’s poetry in Italian or English float in. (Somewhat oddly, the album ends with a cover of the Normal’s “Warm Leatherette”—it doesn’t have much in common with the themes or moods of the rest of the record, but it’s enjoyable all the same.)

I’d also very highly recommend Friedlander’s solo cello record Block Ice and Propane, which I’ll perhaps give a blog post of its own someday, as it’s a remarkable record—both virtuosic and fun, and a real joy to listen to.


Recent Publications

Review of J.M. Coetzee and Ethics: Philosophical Perspectives on Literature, edited by Anton Leist and Peter Singer. The Quarterly Conversation, September 2010.

Review of Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett. The Region, June 2010.

Review of The Man in the Wooden Hat and Old Filth by Jane Gardam. The Quarterly Conversation, Issue 19, Spring 2010.

Review of 1989: Bob Dylan Didn't Have This to Sing About by Joshua Clover. ForeWord, November/December 2009.

Review of The Humbling by Philip Roth. Identity Theory, November 25, 2009.

Review of Imperial by William T. Vollmann. PopMatters, September 18, 2009.

Review of Wonderful World by Javier Calvo. The Quarterly Conversation, Issue 17, September 7, 2009.

Review of Of Song and Water by Joseph Coulson. Identity Theory, August 3, 2009.

Review of Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music by Amiri Baraka. ForeWord, July/August 2009.

Review of Death in Spring by Mercè Rodoreda. Rain Taxi, Summer 2009 (#54). Viewable online via Powell's Books

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