Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Auster Model



Ever since I was in college, my readings have led me to a particular habit that is both good and bad. It's a long-running tendency to claim affinity for an author based on the merits of a single text. This made for some intense praises when I was younger (see: Chuck Palahniuk) and some pretty safe bets as I've gotten a bit older (see: David Mitchell). As I noted last year, I fell in love with Paul Auster's creative non-fiction book The Invention Of Solitude. I explain my thoughts in full detail in the link above, but his thoughts on the nature of writing and the necessity of solitude were incredibly moving and reflective during a period of time when I lived in Washington state. I've long planned a return to Auster's fiction writings, and no matter what my verdict on his novels, the beauty of The Invention Of Solitude will never diminish in my mind.

I recently finished reading his 1989 novel Moon Palace, and beforehand, I read a profile of Auster in the November 30th issue of The New Yorker ("Shallow Graves" by James Wood).Quite a few of my friends are big Auster fans, but as Wood's essay reveals, there are many readers and critics who don't hold the man in high regard. What I thought would be a review of the recently published Invisible turned out to be a scathing look at the writer, his style, and even his positive reviewers:

"The pleasing, slightly facile books come out almost every year, as tidy as postage stamps, and the applauding reviewers line up like eager stamp collectors to get the latest issue (Wood 85)."

Moon Palace tells the story of Marco Stanley Fogg, a young man growing up in the late 1960s. He has never known his father, and his mother died when he was still a child. He lives with his Uncle Victor, an absent-minded yet loving musician and book collector. After his uncle dies, Marco plunges into poverty and solitude, even becoming a "resident" of Central Park. He's saved from an almost certain death by his friend Zimmer and Kitty Wu, a young woman he meets by chance and ends up with in a relationship. After getting back on his feet, Marco gets a job as a companion (and later, biographer) to an elderly, wheelchair-bound man named Thomas Effing. Effing's history and life reveals adventures, mysteries, and in turn, revelations that clear up some of Marco's own confusions and seemingly forgotten history. After re-reading Wood's essay, I was amazed that he didn't cite Moon Palace. Perhaps Auster's other books are better examples, but every critique and complaint had its place in the uncited text. Here is Wood's description of a typical Auster protagonist:

"A protagonist, nearly always male, often a writer or an intellectual, lives monkishly, coddling a loss--a deceased or divorced wife, dead children, a missing brother (82)."

Yes, Marco is the protagonist, and the novel is written in the first person. Despite his emotions (or sometimes lack thereof) and keen awareness of his own events and surroundings, he feels detached, not so much emotionally, but in a character sense, since virtually everyone in the supporting cast has a history that is just as amazing as his story. Everyone is connected to Marco, even if they don't know each other personally. The two main women in the work are somewhat stereotypical (as Jeff Ignatius commented on my piece "Solitary Pursuits," 'Has Auster written any female protagonists?'). Mrs. Hume, Effing's live-in caretaker, remains in the background, making the occasional appearance to the action at hand, and inexplicably taking the verbal assaults doled out by the old man. Kitty Wu (I cringed every time I read this name in the text) seems to be an early incarnation of Nathan Rabin's "Manic Pixie Dreamgirl:"

"Kitty was the one who finally broke the ice. 'Now that my brother is here,' she said, obviously entering into the spirit of the moment, 'the least we can do is ask him to join us for breakfast.' I wanted to kiss her for having read my mind like that. An awkward moment followed, however, when no extra chair could be found, but Kitty came to the rescue, gesturing for me to sit between her and the person to her right (Auster 36)."

The novel floats between various generations, the American East and West, wild personal histories, family relationships/dysfunctions, and a later manuscript that combines all of these elements (Wood again on an Austerian theme: "A visiting text...is elegantly slid into the host book"). Thomas Effing is either one of the most memorable characters in postmodern literature, or he's one of the most infuriating. With him, some of Wood's complaints are unequivocal. Auster's use of "B-movie atmosphere" is almost the textbook definition of the story of young Thomas Effing.

"He pulled the trigger, and an instant later the man went flying back in his chair, screaming as the bullet hit him in the chest, and then, suddenly, there was no sound from him at all. Effing re-cocked the rifle and pointed it at the second brother, who was hastily trying to scramble out of his bedroll on the floor. Effing killed him with one shot as well, hitting him square in the face with a bullet that tore out the back of his head, carrying it across the room in a spurting mess of brains and bone (Auster 180)."

The bulk of Wood's argument is that Auster's sketches and postmodern usage of cliches are deployed without any irony. However, the more I think about this notion, the more I feel that it's a compliment, at least in the case of Moon Palace. Auster's most blatant wordplays are often explicitly defined and explained in the course of the novel. You probably noticed a very obvious one in this essay: the name Effing. The double meaning is self-explanatory, yet Auster devotes a few sentences of definition. These can be distracting at times, but it seemed as if the hints of irony are being deflated in order to show that the writer is engaged in a strict piece of adventurous, reflective storytelling. For someone like Wood, this can be seen as having one's intelligence insulted.

The biggest distraction, as evidenced in the title, is the use of the moon as a metaphor and a constant presence throughout the work. The moon has always been used in the history of literature, but Auster keeps pointing to it, to the point that any personal meanings or symbolism that a reader could gain from it are lost. It's a classic example of "show, don't tell" rule being broken. Wood may not agree, but there are postives in Auster's fictions, and Moon Palace is no exception. Even if they are a bit sensationalized, his sketches of masculinity are striking and evocative. There's no misogyny here; if the men are assholes, they are unisex in this abrasive behavior. The looks at solitude are especially detailed, even if this acknowledgement blurs the line between the author (since he wrote an entire non-fiction account of solitary moments) and the text.

"I felt like someone about to be reborn, like someone on the brink of discovering a new continent. I watched the counterman go about his business as I smoked another Camel, then turned my attention to the frowsy waitress with the fake red hair. There was something inexpressibly poignant about both of them. I wanted to tell them how much they meant to me, but I couldn't get the words out of my mouth. For the next few minutes, I just sat there in my own euphoria, listening to myself think. My mind was a blithering gush, a pandemonium of rhapsodic thoughts. Then my cigarette burned down to a stub, and I gathered up my forces and moved on (Auster 52)."

Works Cited:
Auster, Paul. Moon Palace. Copyright 1989 by Paul Auster.
Wood, James. "Shallow Graves." Originally published in The New Yorker, November 30th.

Monday, December 28, 2009

2009 In Music: The Final 'Aught Music' Year

Well, this is it. I think I've hinted at it quite a bit in my last two updates, but we're winding down this year. There have been hundreds of amazing analyses and unabashed musical passions; it's not false modesty when I say that I was humbled when invited to join this collective. Many thanks go out to Jeremy P. Bushnell for starting this project and doing all of the behind-the-scenes updates and work. More thanks go out to the dedicated writers who put a lot of effort into Aught Music, all for the sake of enthusiasm.

So, here are my final selections, a few tracks that I felt were the best of this year. There's still a week left. Keep reading and checking out the other writers, and get the free track downloads while they are still available.

1.) "The Wanting Comes In Waves/Repaid" and "The Rake's Song" by The Decemberists (from the album The Hazards Of Love)

"The Wanting Comes In Waves/Repaid:"

Okay, I'm a little biased. I've gushed about the Decemberists for a long time, but still—this is my pick for the album of 2009. It's surprising how many magazines and sites have given The Hazards Of Love borderline reviews. If you're not a Decemberists fan, you might dismiss these tracks. However, this album not only adds more complex storytelling but uses guest vocals for maximum effects.

In "The Wanting Comes In Waves/Repaid," Shara Worden (of My Brightest Diamond) provides an excellent, compelling interpretation of the evil queen in the album's narrative. She's singing and acting at the same time—listen to her draw out the word 'repaid.' Her voice is stunning and controlling. Meloy wisely lets her have the listener's complete attention.

"The Rake's Song:"

"The Rake's Song" is one of the most straight-up rock tracks that the Decemberists have written. Meloy writes the character as completely without redemption or qualities. How many songs have a narrator describing how he killed his children?

Charlotte I buried after feeding her foxglove
Dawn was easy: She was drowned in the bath
Isaiah fought but was easily bested
Burned his body for incurring my wrath


It's gratuitous and over the top, but perfectly fitting for a villian straight out of Victorian fiction.

The album needs to be listened to in its entirety, but these tracks are the best examples of the full story. It's an ambitious effort, and a great example of how guest vocalists (Worden and Becky Stark) can add to a song's atmosphere. The Decemberists have a specific style, and it's not for everyone—but it's hard to deny the efforts and dimensions that went into the narrative structure, which enhances the music greatly.

2.) "Effigy" by Andrew Bird (from the album Noble Beast)

When I originally reviewed this album, I gave it some earnest praise, but felt that it didn't match up to Bird's earlier works. However, a few more listens have revealed a few ideas that I intially missed. "Effigy" is moving, and musically, it's one of Bird's minimalist efforts. His penchant for combining varying vocal styles and multiple instruments is stripped down,making for what feels like a soft, singer-songwriter type track. His musical talents and acumen could have made this a longer, more complex song, but "Effigy" is a great example of less being more. Most importantly, it shows that he's comfortable in any given style.

3.) "This Tornado Loves You" by Neko Case (from the album Middle Cyclone)

It's what's on the inside that counts. For all the (well-deserved) attention to Case's sexy, almost campy album cover, the songs on Middle Cyclone were fantastic, with one or two misses. "This Tornado Loves You" is the perfect opening to what's superficially referred to as a 'nature album.' The melody is upbeat, the vocals are confident, and the lyrics are a great example of Case's gift for metaphor:

I carved your name across three counties
and ground it in with bloody hides
broken necks will line the ditch


Perhaps some might view this as a metaphor for a woman scorned, but for me, it goes beyond simple gender classifications. Sometimes, when we're trying to get someone's attention, we end up doing more harm than good.

(Note: This was part of a roundtable post, with further commentary by Rich Thomas. Click on the song link for the full writings. I'd also like to thank Jeff Ignatius of Culture Snob for pointing out that, in interviews, Case explains that the song is meant literally, which rightfully takes away from my interpretations, but also provides another shade to this already poignant track.)

4.) "Summertime Clothes" by Animal Collective (from the album Merriweather Post Pavilion)

Upon reflection, it's staggering to remember the varied albums that came out, of all the months, in January. Andrew Bird, A.C. Newman, Morrissey, Franz Ferdinand...but, no album set the tone quite like Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavilion. I was working in Seattle before this disc dropped and had the fortune to work with and become good friends with Terrance Terich, co-founder of Treblezine.com. After long discussions about music, he burned me a copy of this album, among others. I immediately agreed with him (and everyone else) that this was already one of the best albums of the year. "Summertime Clothes" is an addicting single, with a varied mix of sounds and influences. The emphasis here is on the notion of "collective"--this is a true group effort. I love how the group blends sampling and small sounds (listen carefully--it almost sounds like there are sound effects mixed in) with vocals and guitar that could have come from the 1970s. I played the crap out of this during the dreary winter, and it helped alleviate the depression of Lynnwood, Washington.

Friday, December 18, 2009

"Infinite" and Beyond



I was thirteen years old in 1996, and that year I read a major bestselling book. I was years away from having any knowledge of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, which was published that year, as well as years away from having any personal indications that I would eventually major in English and devote my time to reading and writing. The bestseller I read was H. Jackson Brown Jr.'s Life's Little Instruction Book. Looking back, it was a pseudo-religious, "holier-than-thou" collection of tidbits that were at best common sense and at worst cheesy. At that young age, I remember being irked at the instruction to "buy great books even if you never read them." What was Mr. Brown's logic? Was it his goal to have millions of people with impressive bookshelves to show off when hosting guests? Elsewhere, he suggested reading the Bible in the course of a single year, which is fitting when you're not meant to read the books you've purchased with no plans of reading.

I bought Infinite Jest for a college course some years back, and due to time and semester constraints, we spent only two weeks doing a basic study of the opening chapter. Yes, two weeks on a mere fraction of a book that's 1,079 pages. Since then, the book has been a fixture on my shelves, and it has traveled across the country twice during moves, and it came dangerously close to being my own "great, unread" book. I've read almost all of David Foster Wallace's other books (with the final exception being his debut novel, The Broom Of the System) and decided this past September to finally read Infinite Jest. After nearly three months (which seems to be the average, even for the fastest readers) and a few near postponements, I'm happy to say that I've seen this goal to the end.

Any analyses of the text tends to come with two distinct problems. One, depending on the reader, the act of reading the book becomes the focus instead of merely enjoying and studying it. There are scores of websites and online threads which, in addition to having valuable summaries and insights, also serve as a tangible statement: "Yes, we're reading Infinite Jest." This isn't meant to show off, but rather to verbalize the size of the reading. This understanding ("Infinite Jest is long and complex") too often becomes the plot, instead of the plot itself. This brings us to the second problem.

In a sort of paradox, the plot of Infinite Jest is both extremely complex yet easy to break down in a superficial manner. I'll give the superficial one, but I'll gladly acknowledge that this has been given hundreds of times. If you've read the book, you can skip ahead; if not, understand that this will not spoil or sufficiently summarize anything. The book is a study of happiness, pleasure, entertainment, and family relationships. It's set in the future, and the years have been subsidized by corporations (The Year Of the Tucks Medicated Pad, The Year Of the Perdue Wonderchicken). The bulk of the action takes place in the Year Of the Depends Adult Undergarment, which, depending on the chronology, is generally accepted to be between 2009-2015. North America has merged into the Organization of North American Nations (O.N.A.N.), and the U.S. and Canada are at odds over the Great Concavity, a toxic dump located in what used to be the bulk of the Northeast. Québécois Separatists commit acts of stunning and inspired terrorism in the United States, with a dangerously addicting film cartridge factoring into potential future acts. In the metro Boston area, the reader is given an interlocking, wildly complex, and multiple-character driven account of the lives and actions of The Enfield Tennis Academy and Ennett House, a drug recovery/halfway house. The tennis students form a character backdrop for the Incandenza family (the youngest son, Hal, is a student at the Academy; his late father founded it, and his mother is an Administrator). Don Gately, a counselor/former addict, is the focal point of the halfway house, with an equally compelling and messed up supporting cast.

Yes, fans of the book will cry foul at this summary, since it leaves out so much and probably sounds like the kind of description attributed to a high school student writing with Cliff Notes under his desk. All of my book reviews/essays are done with the intention of appealing to people who have either read the book in question as well as people who haven't. With Infinite Jest, it's a case of damned if you do, damned if you don't: giving a full explanation of the characters would simply be too long. On the other hand, not giving enough information leaves out too many narratives and too much of the smaller details.

The Incandenza family (father James; mother Avril; sons Hal, Mario, and Orin) is often tidily described as dysfunctional, and while this is true, what seems to be overlooked is Wallace's theme of dysfunctional fathers. Every father/child (be it male or female) relationship in Infinite Jest is marred by problems, whether these are emotional (the following passage, to me, is incredibly reminiscent of William Gaddis-type dialogue, even if most earlier reviewers fell back on describing Wallace as "Pynchon-esque"):

"...Jim, pick the book up if it's going to make you all goggle-eyed and chinless honestly Jesus why do I try I try and try just wanted to introduce you to the broiler's garage and let you drive, maybe, feeling the Montclair's body, taking my time to let you pull up to the courts with the Montclair's shift in a neutral glide and the eight cylinders thrumming and snicking like a healthy heart and the wheels all perfectly flush with the curb...(Wallace 162)."

or painfully incestuous:

"Matty'd [Pemulis] shrink away: shy are we sone scared are we? Matty'd shrink away even after he knew the shrinking fear was part of what brought it on, for Da'd get angry: who are we scared of, then? Then who are we, a sone, to be scared so of our own Da? As if the Da that broke daily his back were nothing more than a. Can't a Da show his son some love without being taken for a. As if Matty could lie here with his food inside him under bedding he'd paid for and think his Da were no better than a. Is it a fookin you're scared of, then (684)."

These citations are not meant to absolve the mothers of wrongdoing. However, the way the characters are shaped by the actions of their fathers reminds me of a quote by, of all people, George Carlin (not an exact quote): "All the problems of the world can be traced back to what fathers do to their sons." In Infinite Jest, this goes for daughters as well. The first quote is part of a rambling dialogue by James O. Incandenza's father, planting the seeds of competitiveness and masculinity in a father figure who, for the most part of the novel, is seen as a ghost or in post-mortem flashbacks. In their own (sometimes very twisted) ways, the fathers either don't see the problems of their actions, or feel that they're doing good in some way. Therefore, a lot of the issues presented in the novel can be traced back to the dysfunctional fathers.

In a wildly opposite point of view, it's hard to overstate how wildly funny Wallace was as a writer. For all the interlaced characters and actions, for all of the pages of pychosis and visually striking drug problems, Wallace outlined the book as a comedic masterpiece. A small example of this is his gift for writing quick, juvenile, but ultimately hilarious dialogues between the boys of Enfield Tennis Academy. In this passage, some of the players are attempting to figure out if the cafeteria milk is real or powdered:

"'You're saying they mix powered milk and then try and pour it into milkbags, all to allay?'
Schacht clears his mouth and swallows mightily. 'Tavis can't even regrout the tile in the locker room without calling a Community Meeting or appointing a committee. The Regrouting Committee's been dragging along since May. Suddenly they're pulling secret 0300 milk-switches? It doesn't ring true, Jim (630).'"

This is not the most obvious example, but for such a seemingly inane piece of dialogue, Wallace combines both intelligent insights and hilarious ramblings. Perhaps citing such a random snippet is best, since they're spread out throughout the novel. Given its length, that's part of the beauty of Infinite Jest: Wallace provides both the important "big picture" scenes and events mixed in with these smaller moments, all of which combine for authentic characterizations.



After finishing the book, I set out to find some critical essays on the text, and stumbled upon a valuable collection of reviews that came out in 1996. The collection is run by one or more diehard fans, since any review that has even a whiff of criticism is put down (Jay McInerney, for example, is referred to as a "has-been"). I selected two different reviews at random to read, and I was especially taken by this passage from Michiko Kakutani's review in the New York Times, originally published on February 13, 1996:

"Perfect, however, Infinite Jest is not: this 1,079-page novel is a 'loose baggy monster,' to use Henry James' words, a vast, encyclopedic compendium of whatever seems to have crossed Wallace's mind. It's Thomas Wolfe without Maxwell Perkins, done in the hallucinogenic style of Terry Gilliam and Ralph Steadman. The book seems to have been written and edited (or not edited) on the principle that bigger is better, more means more important, and this results in a big psychedelic jumble of chracters, anecdotes, jokes, soliloquies, reminiscenses and footnotes, uproarious and mind-boggling, but also arbitrary and self-indulgent."

At the same time, these sentences are both praises and criticisms of the same idea. In the Boston Book Review, David McLean (in the other review I selected) offers the same argument, but with a dose of optimism and, for lack of a better word, forgiveness:

"What follows is a scattered, non-linear, hilarious, sometimes aggravating collection of voices that somehow manages to hold together to create an aggregate, a world, that works. Wallace has not so much written a novel as created a system that is fueled by his endless imagination, his pure verbal prowess, and a language that looks familiar but feels utterly invented. Critics will debate the efficiency of the system, while others will simply put the book down in annoyance." (italics mine)

Granted, hindsight is 20/20. Later interviews and revelations revealed Wallace to be a writer who wrote fiction because of or in spite of crippling depression (my reading of this book coincided, unintentionally, with the one-year anniversary of Wallace's suicide). Writing was his way of creating order and almost scientific balances. In a strange way, the realization that even the most intelligent, well-read reviewers fell into the "is this book too long?" question is comforting. Then and now, thirteen years later, readers and reviewers struggle, not with trying to understand the book, but to understand the audacity of such an undertaking. The simple answer is yes, perhaps some scenes could have been left out. The more complex answer is no, that Infinite Jest is essential in its entirety. As I mentioned earlier, the readers get the big pictures (the characters, the vision of the future, the philosophical metaphors of the existence of a film, a piece of entertainment that is deathly perfect), along the the smaller slices of the lives, dialogues, and thoughts of even the most minor characters. There will always be a debate as to whether Wallace was indulging himself or creating his word system. Again, with the understanding of hindsight, and given how the book has become almost its own genre by itself, every word is essential. The future will bring more examples of encyclopedic narratives and post-modern showcases, but David Foster Wallace's definite masterpiece will continue to be the example by which all others are judged.

Work Cited:
Wallace, David Foster. Infinite Jest. Copyright 1996 by David Foster Wallace.

Friday, December 11, 2009

2008 In Music: Recap

We're almost done...I have a feeling that the conclusion of Aught Music will be both satisfactory and bittersweet. However, it's not over just yet. Here are my selections for 2008.

1.) "Librarian" by My Morning Jacket (from the album Evil Urges)

Finding beauty and sexiness in a quiet, alluring librarian? No, this isn't a Whitesnake song. This is a beautiful evocation of the kind of connection that all of us have every now and then, admiring someone from a distance and letting daydreams run wild. My favorite line is one that is only a part of the set-up:

Ramble up the stairwell, into the hall of books...
Since we got the interweb these hardly get used


This almost makes the song a sort of rambling inner dialogue, but it builds into a beautiful love story. The lyrics are a bit more direct than Jim James and company usually go for, but the difference works amazingly well, combined with their atmospheric music.

2.) "Acid Tongue" and "Carpetbaggers" by Jenny Lewis (from the album Acid Tongue)

"Acid Tongue:"

As I've written about Lewis before, I'm utterly convinced she would have been just as relevant and emotional had she been singing in the 1940s or 50s. This song is no exception. The combination of sadness and hope are perfect, with neither one dominating, but blending into an atmospheric haze. It's the soundtrack of sitting in a bar after a bad week and feeling a little sorry for yourself.

To be lonely is a habit
Like smoking or taking drugs
And I've quit them both
But man, was it rough.


"Carpetbaggers:"

I'm sure that most of my co-workers have wished bodily harm against me, since I've played this song dozens of times. It's unbelievably catchy and a piece of alluring storytelling. I can easily imagine the Decemberists covering this one:

They come to town when the war is over
Dirty boots in the middle of the night
Trolling the bars, hitting on the soldiers
Boys give it up without a fight
They say, "Hey, boy, how about your place?
I know you really want to take me home"
Drop the bags off on the bedroom floor
They make love with the lights on


It's also a testament to Lewis's prowess as a vocalist that she can duet with a legend like Elvis Costello and completely overshadow him. That's not to say that he doesn't fit in on this track; but there's no denying that this is a Jenny Lewis song, despite the amazing collaborations on the entire disc.

3.) "Long Division" by Death Cab For Cutie (from the album Narrow Stairs)

As much as I love Ben Gibbard and company, as much as I appreciate their evocative, poetic lyrics and soft accompaniments, it's refreshing to see that they can rock out now and them. Long Division doesn't sacrifice any of the lyrics that Death Cab has been known for since Day One:

The television was snowing softly
As she hunted for her keys
She said she never envisioned him
The type of person capable of such deceit


The atmosphere is still the same as you'd find in their slower numbers. Perhaps this is a case of 'don't fix it if it's not broken,' but a little energy can go a long way, as this song proves.

4.) "Ragged Wood" by Fleet Foxes (from the album Fleet Foxes)

It's so odd that the Fleet Foxes have been compared to 1960s folk acts, when in fact, at least in my opinion, they (almost scarily) sound like My Morning Jacket. However, despite this similarity, they still manage to retain their own style and creativity. This track is uplifting, folksy, and yet has just enough echo and reverb to sound haunting. A lot of criticism in pop music focuses on technology and production overtaking the actual process of singing and creating music. The recording on this track is all about the song, yet there's just a hint of recording manipulations that add just a touch more atmosphere.

5.) "(I Don't Want To Die) In the Hospital" by Conor Oberst (from the album Conor Oberst)

Like a lot of great tracks, this one can either resist strict genre classifications, or it can be viewed as a blend of a few different ones. The opening honkytonk piano is almost too brief, but the rest of the track keeps up a strong, folk-rock tempo. Perhaps I'm way off, but the lyrics can be easily interpreted into a folk-protest song, not unlike a faster Pete Seeger song for the 21st century.

I don't give a damn what the doctors say
I ain't gonna spend a lonesome day
I don't wanna die in the hospital
You gotta take me back outside
They don't let you smoke and you can't get drunk
All there is to watch is these soap operas


I see a ton of excellent metaphors here. I could get into some slightly outlandish hypotheses, but I think anyone can come up with their own views. Or...maybe Conor just really hates hospitals.

As I mention with every Aught Music update, the links go to free listens and downloads. These are just my contributions; there are literally dozens more for each year, selected and written by some impressive writers/music lovers. Check it out while you still can...2009 shall be commencing very soon.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Going On Nerve



Several weeks ago, a friend of mine shared a link to an article published by the website This Recording. The aim of the article was simple, even if the content was not--to present a list of the one hundred greatest writers of all-time. I immediately skimmed the list, made mental notes of the big names, and sent it to others. Another friend was quick to share his disapproval of the concept, the idea of quantifying creativity and the grouping of vastly different artists. The more I think about it, the more I agree with this critique. I went back and read the piece with more care, and I was dismayed by the fact that the writers were actually ranked from 1-100 instead of randomly compiled. Picking a list of the one hundred best [anything] will never be either complete or strictly unbiased. This month, as we get closer to a new decade, more contemporary lists will be written in a mad dash attempt to celebrate the Aughts, but in actuality, everyone should realize that these lists are opinionated, and it's impossible to assign tangible rankings to intangible works and people.

However, the list on This Recording did have its sharing of redeeming qualities, providing an excellent list of writers who I want to return to or discover more about as I take this blog into 2010 and beyond. I decided to do some studying of the poetry and history of Frank O'Hara (to prove the absurdity of the listings, he was apparently the 83rd greatest writer ever. That, of course, says absolutely nothing). Primarily in the 1950s, he wrote hundreds of poems and inadvertently created works that fit into categories and molds that he passionately resisted. For a better understanding, read the famous opening to his "Personism: A Manifesto," a brief writing that has been defined as a spoof and a spin on somber artist statements.

"Everything is in the poems, but at the risk of sounding like the poor wealthy man's Allen Ginsberg I will write to you because I just heard that one of my fellow poets thinks that a poem of mine that can't be got at one reading is because I was confused too. Now, come on. I don't believe in god, so I don't have to make elaborately sounded structures. I hate Vachel Lindsay, always have; I don't even like rhythm, assonance, all that stuff. You just go on your nerve. If someone's chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don't turn around and shout 'Give it up! I was a track star for Mineola Prep' (O'Hara 247)."



His works have a definite individual rhythm, and his dismissal of "expected" poetry norms is, to me, a revelation of a more pure definition of poetics: the use of words and language for emotional effects and a sort of brief storytelling. In some of the overviews of his works that I've read online, some of his earlier poems are described as surreal. While he was a friend of painters and an astute student of art, I don't think the definition of "surreal" applies to his early works. It's more about creative positioning of the words. Some of his early 1950s works can also be viewed as definitions of the poetic form. An excellent example of this is his 1950 poem "Today," which could very well be mistaken as Surrealism in writing. To me, it's more of a sketch, an idea that a poem can be shaped out of any ideas or objects.

"Oh! kangaroos, sequins, chocolate sodas!
You really are beautiful! Pearls,
harmonicas, jujubes, aspirins! all
the stuff they've always talked about

still makes a poem a surprise!
These things are with us every day
even on beachheads and biers. They
do have meaning. They're strong as rocks (6)."

As naturally gifted as O'Hara was (virtually all biographies of him have anecdotes about his penchant for writing poems instantly in the span of just a few minutes of time), there's no doubt of his dedication and studies of the form. As David Lehman writes about O'Hara's "Why I Am Not a Painter:" "What looks spontaneous may really be the product of a calculation, a fabrication...Like a crime, true innovation in art requires premeditation, means, motive, and opportunity."

Granted, this is just an overview of O'Hara. He was just as prolific in writing poetic sketches of New York, friends/lovers/acquaintances, somber reflections, bombastic excitement, and moving elegies and odes. His refusal to adhere to any set style manifests itself in both the ability to categorize his poetry into multiple forms as well as the chance for readers to scope multiple meanings out of his most abstract works. Poetry has so many intentions and definitions, and it's almost unintentionally insulting and simplistic to say that O'Hara's works were celebrations of life and languages. This obviously doesn't tell the complete story, nor is it any kind of substantial insight.

I'll close with one of my favorite poems, "Anxiety," written in 1957. As I mentioned above, some works lend themselves to multiple interpretations. With this one, the anxiety presented can also be a look at struggles with the creative process.

"I'm having a real day of it.
There was
something I had to do. But what?
There are no alternatives, just
the one something.
I have a drink,
it doesn't help--far from it!
I
feel worse. I can't remember how
I felt, so perhaps I feel better.
No. Just a little darker.
If I could
get really dark, richly dark, like
being drunk, that's the best that's
open as a field. Not the best,

but the best except for the impossible
pure light, to be as if above a vast
prairie, rushing and pausing over
the tiny golden heads in deep grass (119)."

Work Cited:
O'Hara, Frank. Selected Poems. Edited and selected by Mark Ford. Copyright 2008 by Maureen Granville-Smith.

NOTE: The text of "Anxiety" is not presented in its original book format due to spacing.

Friday, November 27, 2009

2007 In Music: Recap

The Aught Music contributors (myself included) are getting close to the end. This week has seen the start of the best tracks of 2008, with the final year set to begin in the next two weeks or so. So, as I say with every update, keep checking the blog out before we reach the conclusion. Free downloads and samples are available with every track, along with some wonderful memories, analyses, and deconstructions. Here are my write-ups for the best tracks of 2007.

1.) "Impossible Germany" by Wilco (from the album Sky Blue Sky)

Even today, I'm still on the fence in regard to my opinion of Sky Blue Sky as a whole. I genuinely like the album, but I don't get the same intangible feelings generated by their earlier works. Also, I remember reading more than one review that classified it as Jeff Tweedy's "happy album." With Wilco's music, there's usually so much more to think about in terms of music and lyrics, so determining or classifying an album by so generic an emotion as 'happy' or 'sad' seems utterly pointless. However, this is my favorite song featured. There's a definite melancholy in the lyrics:

But I know you're not listening
Oh I know, you're not listening


If this is supposed to be "happy," then the reviewers must be borderline suicidal. A lot of Wilco songs seem to deal with strains in communication and understanding between two parties, and "Impossible Germany" is an excellent example of this. Also, despite the well-documented control that Tweedy has over Wilco's sound and production, this track feels like a true group effort.

2.) "Don't Make Me a Target" by Spoon (from the album Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga)

This track is deceptively simple. I went through a few different ideas for a write-up on this one, but nothing seemed to work. More than once, I've written about some songs here sounding like inspired jam sessions, and this one is no different. A little research on Wikipedia proved my hypothesis correct, as it states that Britt Daniel and company went through quite a few trials on this track, attempting to find the best sound. The bass line is blunt, and the lyrics work almost like a protest song against an ambivalent but worrisome opponent. The final two lines offer what sound like some awesome novel titles:

Clubs and sticks and bats and balls
For nuclear dicks with the dialect drawls
They come from a parking lot town
Where nothing lives in the sun.


3.) "Brunettes Against Bubblegum Youth" by The Brunettes (from the album Structure & Cosmetics)

This song never gets old for me. It's a sly wink at pop music, both as criticism and homage. Take these lyrics on their own, separate from the song:

B-a-b-y
I love to call you 'baby'
When we're this spaceship


Sappy? Yeah. Surreal? A little. But the Brunettes know exactly what they're doing, making this an intentional mashup of pop, rock anthems, and a little bit of soul for good measure. However, the kicker is that it doesn't feel like any sort of hipster irony; there's a lot of love here. I've put this track on countless mix compilations for people, yet nobody seems to share my enthusiasm. This always gives me a little boost of energy.

4.) "My Moon My Man" by Feist (from the album The Reminder)

The abstract idea of "cute" depends on personal opinions, and can be used as an insult ("oh, that was cute.") However, Feist is one of the few musicians who can use cuteness as a benefit to their music. She sounds adorable here. While at first glance that may sound chauvinistic, it's anything but—her voice is stunning, her songwriting is terrific, and her sweetness works in stark contrast to the lyrics, which aren't as bouncy as the sound would imply:

My moon and me
Not as good as we've been
It's the dirtiest clean I know


Along with '1234,' this song was inescapable for quite some time. But going back, it hasn't lost any freshness, and Feist, in video and song, always makes me smile.

5.) "No Cars Go" by Arcade Fire (from the album Neon Bible)

Quite a few Arcade Fire tracks, if not all of them, are almost begging to be heard live. "No Cars Go" is no exception. This is the indie-rock answer to the stadium anthems of the likes of U2 and the Rolling Stones. In 2007, I saw them perform this live at the Chicago Theater, and the acoustics of the venue were literally perfect for the rise and sonic atmosphere. The lyrics are simple and beautiful, but the music here always draws my complete attention. The background vocals serve as separate instruments, creating a stunning blend.

6.) "Plasticities" by Andrew Bird (from the album Armchair Apocrypha)

They'll fight, they'll fight
They'll fight for your neural walls
And plasicities
And precious territory


As much as it fits the other songs and atmospheres of Armchair Apocrypha, Andrew Bird's "Plasicities" feels like it would have blended well on his previous work, The Mysterious Production of Eggs. With an amazing "orchestral-pop" backdrop and lyrics that blend art and science, this track represents the best of Mr. Bird. This song is especially poignant. The "they" mentioned feel especially ominous, paired with the battle cry to reclaim space, thoughts, and independence. It's indie pop meets dystopian future landscapes. This may not have been his original intention, but if a track can lend itself to such wild possibilities, that's not a bad thing.

We're almost done!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Substance Misuse



My recent reading of the graphic novel The Alcoholic was done in the interest of satisfying two slightly different goals. First, as I've mentioned here once in awhile, I'm woefully behind on readings in the graphic novel genre/format. This applies to both major works and less heralded ones. Quite a few of my friends have given me a lot of suggestions in order for me to get a few titles knocked out, and I figured that The Alcoholic would be a decent place to start. The second goal was to familiarize myself with the writings of Jonathan Ames. For someone who has been writing for as long as he has, it seems that a lot of his mainstream and everday attention has been intesified recently. Undoubtedly, this has a lot to do with "Bored To Death," the HBO series that he created. The Alcoholic has its share of brilliance in small flashes, but I do have a few criticisms with the text, ones that I'll address shortly. Normally, I wouldn't have to preface this in any way; I'd simply go about my analysis as I've always done. However, since I'm so new to the form, I had to think about my reaction to the book a little more than usual, to make sure that I wasn't missing anything or looking at the book differently merely because of a format change.

The story tells about the life and substances of a "fictional" writer, Jonathan A., and how his missteps, problems, and social woes can be tied into his alcoholism. The protagonist never hides his disease. He shares his thoughts immediately, after a blackout finds him in a very precarious situation. "I have a lot of problems. Not more than the average person, really, but I have a propensity for getting into trouble, especially when I've been drinking. This one night, I came out of a blackout and I was with this old, exceedingly tiny lady in a station wagon (Ames 6)."

The reader then goes on a dizzying journey of Jonathan's life and relationships, with three people sharing the duties as the most important in his life, for better or for worse. His childhood friend Sal attempts to make love to Jonathan in high school, leading to an unspoken attraction between the two that's marked by their friendship growing increasingly sparse and fractured over the years, with the occasional reunion that goes nowhere. After Jonathan's parents die, he grows closer to his Aunt Sadie, sharing (and hiding) his problems with her, and sharing a relationship that toes the line between genuinely touching and subconsciously incestuous. Whether sober or drunk, he carries a torch for a dead relationship with a younger woman whom he refers to by the name of the current city in which she lives after their relationship ends (San Francisco, Seattle, etc.). Jonathan not only has to deal with his alcoholism, but also with increasing forays into cocaine. Even his respect as a novelist cannot compensate for his substance abuses. It leads to him losing potential teaching jobs and acting with low social decorum.

This might seem like a simplified overview of the plot, but it's difficult to give too much away, especially when the words need to be read in conjunction with the illustrations by Dean Haspiel. Also, since this is a graphic novel, it's imporant to realize that these sketches, both logistically and formally, don't give nearly as much away as it may seem in the above paragraph. Returning to the notion that I don't want any of my critiques to be a result of my simply being a novice to the form, I'll understand if anyone reading this takes my opinions with a grain of salt. That said, I had some problems with Ames's vision of the character. The best, strongest moments in The Alcoholic come when he reveals Jonathan's deepest, most open thoughts regarding his relationships. Sal is the best example. In the early developments of the relationship, as well as Jonathan's subsequent attempts to reconnect with him, Ames's attention to emotional detail is beautiful as well as saddening. There's a definite love between the two, and whether or not they're both gay (Sal definitely is) is besides the point. It's a love, platonic or otherwise, that's nearly tragic in its depiction. Combined with Haspiel's gift of facial nuances (see the image below for a semi-decent example), the full, combined effect truly hits the intended chords. Nothing is embellished on the page.

What hurts the text the most is the constant winking between the author and the reader. Ames names his character 'Jonathan A.," and as Neil Gaman is quoted in his blurb in the book, "I don't know how much Jonathan A. is Jonathan Ames. I'm not sure I want to." Yes, there are two equal hypotheses at play. Perhaps Ames is giving a genuine autobiographical sketch, or maybe he wants the reader to merely think as much. There's also the excellent chance that he's turning the dynamic of "don't confuse the author with the protagonist" on its head. This literary style has the potential to be a great branch in postmodernism. However, I found it more distracting than anything else. The book also sets up what could have been more in-depth plotlines (a shady drug dealer named Art, and the aftermath of September 11th), but these are immediately dropped for other developments. Perhaps more expansion would have taken away from the immediacy of the main plotline, but the effect is jarring.




However, I highly enjoyed my introduction to the art of Dean Haspiel. His drawings are heavy on small details, especially the aforementioned facial expressions. The pictures are an almost flawless blend of noir atmospheres and shadings with almost cartoon-like evocations of the major actions. This is all done in the most serious way, allowing him to capture both the drama of the actions as well as the absurdity of some of Jonathan's more shocking escapades. I know that I have a lot of ground to cover in this genre, and hopefully in due time I'll have some more works to write about as I increase my knowledge of the graphic novel medium. The Alcoholic is not completely lacking in worth, not in the slighest bit. I'm also curious to see how Ames's writings work in longer formats. I'm sure others would be able to suggest better introductions, but this slim volume at least has the foundation for what I'm sure to discover in the future.

Work Cited:
Ames, Jonathan and Dean Haspiel.The Alcoholic. Copyright 2008 by Jonathan Ames and D.C. Comics.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Booked Solid



As I was reading Bill Simmons's The Book Of Basketball, I realized that writing about it would coincide, seasonally, with my previous post. My review of Lew Paper's Perfect came the day after the 2009 Major League Baseball season ended. Today, I'm looking at a book about professional basketball when the 2009-10 NBA season is less than a month old. This will surely be the last sports book that I'll read this year, and having back-to-back looks at my two favorite sports was entirely coincidental. However, with one season gone and one season underway, I couldn't help but notice this chronological symbolism.

I've spent quite a few months waiting for the publication of The Book Of Basketball, but in spite of my excitement, I realized that I wouldn't immediately call myself a "fan" of Bill Simmons. I read his Page 2 columns on ESPN.com whenever I see them linked, but they've never been an essential part of my online readings. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I've never read a bad article by him (given my admitted sporadic patronage, I'm sure he has a few duds). My eagerness to read the book stemmed not so much from the author, but rather the subject. As I've mentioned a few times, passionate NBA fans are sometimes hard to find, since the prevailing assumption is that NCAA basketball is superior, and that the professional ranks are easier to criticize. The example I usually fall back on is writer Chuck Klosterman, a writer I deeply respect for his intelligence, humor, and love of NBA basketball. Now, I'm happy to include Bill Simmons in this category as one of my two favorite basketball writers, based on the strength of his latest book. Two weeks after publication, The Book Of Basketball already ranks as one of the best works on the sport, and the research that went into it is commendable on its own.

The title is perfect in all of its simplicity. This isn't a strict history of basketball, nor is it merely a collection of anecdotes and memories. While these are featured prominently, for all intents, this is a book of basketball in every sense, and from every angle. Simmons discusses the evolution of the professional game, analyzing everything from single games, players, drafts, and happenings. He also deftly shows how aspects of the game cannot be immediately compared throughout the eras. This refers mainly to statistics, and how averages from the 1950s and 1960s cannot be adequately compared to the stats of today's game.

"[Celtics guard Bob] Cousy got screwed historically by his first four years (the pre-shot-clock era, when nobody scored more than 75-85 points a game) and the last five years (when they started counting assists differently). Cousy averaged 8.9 assists for a '59 Celtics team that averaged 116.4 points per game; John Stockton averaged 12.4 assists for a '94 Jazz team that averaged 101.9 points per game. How am I supposed to make sense of that? How do we know Cousy wasn't averaging 15-16 assists per game if we applied the current criteria (Simmons 492-493)?"

Refreshingly, Simmons does not shy away from the racial areas of the game. He gives stunning accounts of the racism in basketball, injustices experienced by such legends as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson. "When Oscar's Crispus Attucks High School became the first all-black champion in state history in 1955, Indianapolis rerouted its annual championship parade toward the ghetto, with the implication being, We don't trust the blacks to behave themselves, so let's keep this self-contained. Oscar never got over it. Nor did he get over Indiana University's coach, Branch McCracken, for recruting him by saying, 'I hope you're not the kind of kid who wants money to go to school' (559-560)."
According to Simmons, the rise of pro basketball correlates with the rise in black players, athletes who were able to add speed and creativity to the game even while facing prejudice on and off the court. These realizations and stories are not new; however, basketball history and racism are not as well known as baseball. Baseball players weren't the only ones who dealt with (and overcame) such injustices.

The bulk of the book is devoted to Simmons's excellent idea of the Pyramid, a combination hypothetical revision of the Basketball Hall Of Fame/detailed history and rankings of the best players of all-time. This is not the obvious list that might appear in lesser hands; Simmons has done staggering amounts of research, reading dozens of books and watching hours of seemingly forgotten game films. Even the players ranked in his Pyramid aren't exempt from harsh criticism. All of it is constructive, however. Take his look at former Indiana Pacers guard Reggie Miller, a player recognized as one of the best in the modern game:

"At no point was Reggie considered one of the NBA's top ten players for a single season. Nine of his contemporaries at shooting guard made All-NBA (first or second): Jordan, Drexler, Dumars, Latrell Sprewell, Mitch Richmond, Kobe [Bryant], T-Mac [Tracy McGrady], [Allen] Iverson, and Ray Allen. Reggie only made third-team All-NBA three times ('95, '96, and '98). That's it. And his reputation as a "great" Playoffs player has been slightly overblown. The Pacers were bounced from the first round in his first four trips to the Playoffs (344-345)."

These examples are just a fraction of the topics covered. The Book Of Basketball is the type of book that needs to be read in its entirety for one to fully appreciate its scope and research. Also, Simmons's style might not be for everyone--he's serious when he needs to be, but the statistics and analyses are kept humorous and light, and are marked with hundreds of footnotes that often deal with funny stories or far-reaching pop culture references. This is not to say that this isn't a serious work. As opposed to other sports books, however, Simmons thankfully keeps a lot of cliche and melodrama under wraps. He's a naturally funny writer and is able to mesh this comedy with basketball issues that are never trivialized, unless he does so intentionally. Perhaps I spoke too soon when I claimed that this work is already one of the best basketball books ever written. However, in time, I feel that the research and opinions will still hold up.

Work Cited:
Simmons, Bill. The Book Of Basketball. Copyright 2009 by Bill Simmons.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Not Quite Perfect



So far in 2009, the book world has seen a stunning wealth of baseball books, spanning an excellent, diverse array of subjects that appear fitting for involved, book-length studies--Thurmon Munson, Satchel Paige, and a joint interview between Bob Gibson and Reggie Jackson. However, the one baseball book that I've read so far this year would, at first glance, seem like a tired subject: a New York Yankees championship team. After the Yankees won their 27th World Series last night, I'm sure that most people (myself included) have had their fill of superlatives and outlandish hyperbole, and aren't interested in books or reviews about the team, no matter what era is being discussed. With baseball season now over, the focus will and should shift completely to football and basketball. However, Lew Paper's Perfect: Don Larsen's Miraculous World Series Game and the Men Who Made It Happen proved irresistable for me. The subject (Don Larsen's perfect game in the 1956 World Series) is well known to baseball fans, but lends itself to wanting more analysis and facts. On top of that, Chuck Klosterman gave the book a strong review in Esquire magazine.

Despite my interest, I nearly stopped reading this book after only half a page. The prologue is entitled "The Moment Of Truth," and begins with this opening:

"The tall right-hander peers down at the catcher from his perch on the pitcher's mound under the fading afternoon sun in the cavernous environs of Yankee Stadium (Paper 1)."

The tired title, coupled with the even more tired description of Yankee Stadium as "cavernous" made me worry that the rest of the book would be filled with obvious metaphors and overwrought attempts to convey the "magic of baseball's Golden Age." Even as someone in my mid-20s who never saw baseball in the 1950s, there are enough books and documentaries that depict baseball at its acme in the mid twentieth century. I kept going, and was happy to find that the book provides extremely detailed biographies of the players on both teams (the Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers). For baseball fans, some of these are well-known (Mickey Mantle's alcoholism, the stunning racism expressed towards Jackie Robinson), but Paper does a great job of giving the lesser known players the same amount of coverage as the legends. For example, before picking this book up, I had never heard of Dodgers outfielder Carl Furillo, and Paper's profiles work extremely well, educating the reader on the backgrounds of the players. The chapter on Furillo depicts him as an above-average baseball player, even if he's not as well known as some of the other men from that era:

"Furillo knew all about the trickery of the right-field wall [of Ebbets Field], and he meant to master it. 'He was a workman,' teammate Carl Erskine later said of Furillo. 'I studied every angle of that fucking wall,' Furillo later explained. He would have teammates hit him flies so that he could see how the ball responded to different situations. In time, he knew every quirk. When a sportswriter later asked him how he learned to play the wall so well, he had a simple response: 'I worked. That's fucking how.'(83)."

Paper also does a commendable job as a journalist, showing an unbiased look at both the positives and negatives of the individuals. Furillo made an off-hand, negative comment about Jackie Robinson, and, regardless of his views on race, found himself linked to the racism of the era.

"...Furillo later said that he had no interest in signing the petition that Dixie Walker circulated among the team to say that they did not want to play with Robinson. Having grown up in a small community where Italians were a distinct minority, Furillo knew that ethnic and racial discrimination was not confined to blacks (81)."

Despite these compelling insights, the actual game that's supposed to be the subject seems to be lost at times. Don Larsen gets the same amount of coverage as the others when he should be the primary focus. A lifelong average pitcher dealing with a failing marriage and alcoholism pitches the only perfect game in postseason history? This should be receiving the most attention, despite the excellent backstories of the players on both teams. Paper profiles Larsen in the beginning of the book, and occasionally returns to him. What brings the book down the most is the style that Paper employs at the end of each chapter, detailing every at-bat of the game.

"Jim Gilliam is more concerned with getting on base than retaliating against a knockdown pitch as he steps into the batter's box in the top of the seventh inning of the fifth game of the 1956 World Series. But Don Larsen is not making it easy for him. The Dodger second baseman takes a called strike, watches another pitch go by for a ball, and then fouls off a pitch (224-225)."

Paper is obviously trying to create what feels like a radio play-by-play, and this ends up being incredibly distracting. Personally, I've never been a fan of present-tense writing, and this is made worse by Paper injecting the perceived emotions of the particular players in the various parts of the game. While these emotional assumptions are understandable, it feels like Paper is trying to create fictionalized scenes in a book that is otherwise a strong history text. Overall, Perfect is amazingly well-researched, but is weighed down by these little problems. Had Paper focused more on Don Larsen and strictly adhered to his journalistic tendencies, this pivotal game account would have been so much better.

Work Cited:
Paper, Lew. Perfect: Don Larsen's Miraculous World Series Game and the Men Who Made It Happen. Copyright 2009 by Lew Paper.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

2006 In Music: Recap

After a week off, Aught Music will resume tomorrow with the best tracks of 2007. This has been an amazing project to contribute to, and I'm sure that 2007-2009 will fly by as we approach the end of this year. Here are my contributions from 2006. Just like with my previous updates, click on the links below for free listens/downloads.

1.) "(Do You Wanna) Come Walk With Me?" by Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan (from the album Ballad Of the Broken Seas)

With quite a few of my selections for this project, I've written about how some female singers can sound strong and fragile at the same time. Mark Lanegan does that perfectly on this track. He and Campbell sound amazing together on this disc, but I almost wish that this particular song was a solo for him.

I'm not saying I love you, I won't say I'll be true,
There's a crimson bird flying when I go down on you
I'm so weary and lonesome and it's cold in the night,
When the path to your doorway is a pathway of light.


There are very few songs that can be evocations of both masculinity, insecurity, and sensitivity. Lanegan sounds tough, but there's much more being painfully pushed down below the surface. Jeremy wrote about The National expressing masculinity in the twenty-first century on the track "All the Wine." While these are two vastly different songs, I think that "Come Walk With Me" is another chapter in intelligent musical looks at what it means to be a man, fraught with complexities and a myriad of emotions.

2.) "Sons & Daughters" and "O! Valencia" by The Decemberists (from the album The Crane Wife)

"Sons & Daughters":

With this track, three simple adjectives sum it up quite well: moving, simple, and beautiful. Given the winding story arcs and characters featured on the rest of the album, it's amazing that it ends on such a small treasure.

When we arrive, sons & daughters
We'll make our homes on the water
We'll build our walls with aluminum
We'll fill our mouths with cinnamon.


Personally, I'll always hold this song very close. When The Crane Wife was released, my eldest brother was serving his second tour in the Iraq War. For varying reasons, I was much more scared and despondent during that second year, as if the reality of it all had truly hit me. Many a night, I was moved to tears by the closing lines:

Here all the bombs fade away,
Here all the bombs fade away.


He returned home safely, and that Christmas, I put "Sons & Daughters" as the final song on a mix CD that I made for him. I've never explained this significance to anyone until now.

"O! Valencia":

Yes, this story line has been done a million and one times, spanning every medium, and most well known from "Romeo and Juliet" and "West Side Story." So on, so forth, etc. Two lovers find themselves carrying on a secret tryst under the noses of their warring families. However, as familiar as this is, it's hard to listen to it and not root for the lovers to live happily every after, even if it's an obvious lost cause.

All I heard was the shout
Of your brother calling me out
And you ran like a fool to my side.


Both in this song and the official music video, the Decemberists do their usual job of taking a subject steeped in history and nostalgia and giving it a modern spin. It's not nearly as inventive as what they're capable of, but it's a great listen.
(Note: This post was part of a roundtable with Rich Thomas, who writes about his take on "O! Valencia.")

3.) "Star Witness" and "Maybe Sparrow" by Neko Case (from the album The Fox Confessor Brings the Flood)

"Star Witness":

This has one of my votes for the best song of the decade, not just for 2006. As stunning as her voice is, Case earns major credit for her songwriting talent. This is a loose "homage" to the rough Chicago neighborhood of Humboldt Park, and it's staggering how she can take such haunting moments and turn a complex poem into a beautiful song.

Hey pretty baby, get high with me
We can go to my sister's if we say we'll watch the baby,
The look on your face yanks my neck on the chain.


The first time I heard this, I played that last line at least ten times in a row, rewinding my CD a few seconds back. Forgive my hyperbole, but it's a punch in the stomach everytime I hear it. Songs, poems, and books are full of metaphors, but that one is literally perfect, both in the delivery and the context of the track.

"Maybe Sparrow":

I'll be honest: I still don't really know what this song means, or even if it's supposed to mean anything. The album is laced with mythogical animal imagery, so this is appropriate. I love how Case's voice rises, along with the music, to create a stunning chorus:

Oh, my sparrow, it's too late
Your body limp beneath my feet.


I always get very reflective whenever I hear this track. It's so short, yet packs some dizzying arrangements and atmospheres. As I type this, I realize that this description could fit quite a few of Case's songs. It's very difficult to explain, but this track is the one I would use to explain to anyone why Case is my favorite female vocalist. I guess that's the beauty of great music: it moves me in definite ways that, as a writer, I'm at a loss to express.
(Note: This post is part of another roundtable with Rich Thomas, who writes about the album as a whole.)

4.) "It Wasn't Me" by Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins (from the album Rabbit Fur Coat)

It's amazing how confident and sultry Jenny Lewis can sound, even when a given track is intended to sound lonely and depressing. Her voice barely rises above a forced whisper, and it creates a moody, echoing atmosphere, a sort of modern spin on the torch songs of the classic female vocalists of the early to mid 20th century. As depressed as she sounds, there's a hint of defiance in the lyrics, which are open to varying interpretations.

It wasn't me, I wasn't there
I was stone drunk, it isn't clear
And it doesn't count because I don't care.


The point of view can be interpreted as an intentional distance from any negative situation. Insert the situation of your choosing, and the song will more than likely fit perfectly.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Man Of the Hour



"This is an essential element of the business of being a man: to flood everyone around you in a great radiant arc of bullshit, one whose source and object of greatest intensity is yourself. To behave as if you have everything firmly under control even when you have just sailed your boat over the falls. 'To keep your head,' wrote Rudyard Kipling in his classic poem 'If,' which articulated the code of high-Victorian masculinity in whose fragmentary shadow American men still come of age, 'when all about you are losing theirs'; but in reality, the trick of being a man is to give the appearance of keeping your head when, deep inside, the truest part of you is crying out, Oh, shit! (Chabon 129)"

The above passage does wonders for me. The cultural and genetic aspects of masculinity have long been of interest to me, both in studies and in the writing of my own fiction. Re-read it, and you very well may see some glaze of the cliche of "being a man," as well as the undercurrent of many a tired stand-up comic's jokes. However, on the sheer strength of his writing style, Michael Chabon renders a part of masculinity utterly unique, even though it's been shared by every man at times. With crisp writing, honesty, and a well-placed citation, he's elevated what could very well have been blatantly obvious in lesser hands.

I recently finished reading his latest essay collection, Manhood For Amateurs. During the course of the reading, it struck me that, despite his staggering publication resume, I've never read any of Mr. Chabon's non-fiction. I've read two of his novels and one of his story collections, and despite having some catching up to do with his complete bibliography, I've long counted him as one of my favorites. Happily, this collection reaffirmed this, and elevated him (in my personal views) among the champions of fiction and non-fiction, being able to create stunning paragraphs, "real" or otherwise. In addition, the collection has masculinity as its central theme, even if not every essay deals with it explicitly.

In recent years, it seems as if the book world has been staggered with the weight of both memoirs, "books for men," or a combination of the two. While both of these genres, like any, have the potential for thought-provoking results, a lot of the efforts have been lacking. The memoir genre seems (as of late) to be heavy on a sort of "this is how messed up my life is" theme. Of course, there's no such thing as a spotless life or one with no regrets or mistakes, but a lot of memoirs seem to serve as "fly on the wall porn," not unlike describing the Saw films as "torture porn." Books that are aimed at men have a tendency to offer horrible stereotypes, fratboy-esque debauchery, and an underlying misogyny (Tucker Max comes to mind). Yes, these criticisms may seem a bit uptight, but Chabon's writings prove that personal essays can discuss masculinity, sexuality, and drug use in an intelligent manner, retaining all aspects of quote/unquote manliness and not making the writer come out looking like a pig.

Chabon tackles the usual topics--marriage, youth, and fatherhood--but gives them all a colorful spin, even if the only light that's shed upon the topics are for his own growth and personality. It's a nod to his strengths as a writer that he can make the most mundane occurrences feel vibrant. It also helps that, even when taking on a philosophical hypothesis, he can be hysterically funny without distracting from the subject at hand. For example, in the essay "The Memory Hole," he writes about the act of a parent throwing away a young child's artwork:

"Do I care? Does it pain me to have lost forever this irrefutable evidence of my having been, if neither a prodigy nor an embryonic Matisse, a child? If my mother had held on to more of my childhood artwork, would I be happier now? Would the narrative that I have constructed of the nature and course of my childhood be more complete? I guess ultimately, I have no way of answering these questions. It's like wondering whether sex would be more pleasurable if I had not been worked over by that old Jew with a knife at the age of eight days. How much more pleasurable, really, do I need it to be (38)?"

In addition to his writing prowess, Chabon is also a gifted vocal interpreter of his own essays. Two nights ago, I had the good fortune to see him read two of the essays at Chicago's Harold Washington Library. His timing, enunciation, and inflections provided not only humor to the funny parts of "The Cut" (about his son's circumcision) and "Like, Cosmic" (a wonderful narrative of space travel, the passage of time, and ultimately, masculinity) but somber reflection on the central themes of these works. His reading highlighted quite a few parts that I had missed in my intial reading, as well as highlighting his gift of craft. His prose is almost musical, and even if a given passage is embellished with grand metaphors, not a word feels out of place or overused. Despite being behind on quite a few of the notable books that have been published this year, I can say, with full conviction, that Manhood For Amateurs is one of the best books of 2009.

Work Cited:
Chabon, Michael. Manhood For Amateurs. Copyright 2009 by Michael Chabon.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Various Souls of Literature



For the past two weeks, I've been devoting a substantial amount of time to the Milan Kundera essays that make up his 2005 book The Curtain. However, I should add that I finished reading it a few days into those two weeks. As I make halting, delayed progress on reading David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, I've also been looking for shorter books to accompany that project. To be more specific, even though I need to be fully devoted to Wallace's masterpiece, in the interest of this blog and my personal studies, it's hard to give my all to just one book over the course of many weeks. This has led to a contradiction of sorts. Instead of setting a definite schedule for Infinite Jest, immersing myself in the complex novel, I've immersed myself in a slim book of theory about the novel as a whole. This is not a bad thing. The problem is that Kundera's musings on literature rely heavily on outside sources and novels, making it difficult to find passages to cite for a general overview. This leads to multiple readings of the same passages, time that could be put towards Mr. Wallace's book and my goal to finish it by the end of October (not very likely).

In college, I read some selected passages from another Kundera essay collection, The Art Of the Novel. No, one should never judge a book by the cover, but with these non-fiction works by Kundera, this is almost impossible, and I end up judging the books in the best of ways. An essay collection by an international master, accompanied by visually striking cover paintings? Aesthetically, it's hard for me to resist. Much like Italo Calvino, Kundera's works are marked by an intelligent optimism about the benefits, joys, and the ultimate future of the novel. This is evident even as he defends an author like Gustave Flaubert, who in his time was criticized for a lack of "goodness" in his works.

"But, memories aside, is it really so inappropriate for the most prestigious French critic [Sainte-Beuve] of his time to exhort a young writer to 'uplift' and 'console' his readers by 'a picture of goodness,' readers who deserve, as do we all, a little sympathy and encouragement?...Flaubert replies that he never sought to write either criticism or satire. He does not write his novels to communicate his judgements to readers. He is after something entirely different: 'I have always done my utmost to get into the soul of things' (Kundera 59-60)."

Even though he's discussing a nineteenth century writer, I was struck by how Kundera's analysis could be applied (both ways) to two other books that I've written about here. Given that "the soul of things" means showing the bad without judgement, a modern example could be Roberto Bolano's 2666. That work depicts, in a few hundred grisly detailed pages, the murders and rapes of women in Mexico. As gruesome as they are, there's an unspoken, undeniable "soul" of the people who are either involved or implicated in those crimes. Bolano felt no need to balance these with obvious "opposites," i.e. goodness for the sake of counteracting the badness. Flaubert's critic would likely have been a fan of Jose Saramago. In Blindness, there's a definite feeling of Saramago giving the good and the bad an equal billing, with goodness poised to win in the end. This is not at all a criticism of Saramago's novel, but merely an example of the critic's argument.

Towards the end of The Curtain, Kundera examines a part of reading a novel, one that should be obvious at first, but rather shapes a fascinating realization.

"The novel, on the other hand, is a very poorly fortified castle. If I take an hour to read twenty pages, a novel of four hundred pages will take me twenty hours, thus about a week. Rarely do we have a whole week free. It is more likely that, between sessions of reading, intervals of several days will occur, during which forgetting will immediately set up its worksite. But it is not only in the intervals that forgetting does its work; it participates in the reading continuously, with never a moment's lapse; turning the page, I already forget what I just read; I retain only a kind of summary indispensable for understanding what is to follow, but all the details, the small observations, the admirable phrasings are already gone. Erased. Someday, years later, I will start to talk about this novel to a friend, and we will find that our memories have retained only a few shreds of the text and have reconstructed very different books for each of us (149-150)."

This notion of forgetting was evident as I re-read various passages of this book in preparation for this post. Some of Kundera's ideas were familiar as I read them a second or a third time, but a few of them felt new or different, even though I knew that I had encountered them at least once before. I like to consider myself a studious reader, but even Kundera himself admits to the forgetfulness that plagues all readers. Sometimes, if I find myself glazing over a page, I snap myself out of the trance and go back a few pages; more often than not, I realize that I've missed essential passages, or I've read them in a vastly different context. This makes Flaubert's notion of "the soul of things" much more accurate. When it comes to books, with the exception of some brilliant lines or self-highlighted passages, we retain only a rough outline of the plot and the meaning. Soul encompasses all of the small and finite details, even if as readers, they've been unintentionally lost or overlooked; they're still there.

I hope to get much more out of this theory in the near future, as I get into some of Kundera's actual novels as opposed to books on novels. This also refreshes my resolve to finish Infinite Jest, especially with the onset of forgetfulness; I need to keep reading it, despite time constraints, in order to retain its details, and ultimately, its soul.

Work Cited:
Kundera, Milan. The Curtain: An Essay In Seven Parts. Copyright 2005 by Milan Kundera. Translation copyright 2006 by Linda Asher.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

2005 In Music: Recap

More updates from the Aught Music side project. The song updates for 2006 are being posted almost daily, with excellent writings on old favorites and overlooked gems. Here is another compilation of the songs and write-ups I submitted, this time for 2005. If you'd like to contribute, contact Jeremy via the link above. Just like last time, click the links below for a (free) listen.

1.) "Girl" by Beck (From the album Guero)

Even if Beck didn't reference "my summer girl," this would still be a great summer song. The production by the Dust Brothers is pitch-perfect, and Beck seems to be blending three very distinct genres—soul, electronica, and an atmosphere of 1960s beach songs—into one terrific track. It's also wonderfully evocative of late teens/early twenties love in any city on a sweltering summer day. However, just one thing might cause some confusion:

Walking crooked down the beach She spits on the sand...

In all honesty, he doesn't paint the picture of the most attractive girl in the world. However, this only adds some gritty realism to the song. Imperfect though she might be, she definitely doesn't give a fuck what anybody else thinks, and given the person and the situation, that can be pretty attractive.

2.) "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." and "Chicago" by Sufjan Stevens (From the album Illinoise)

"John Wayne Gacy, Jr.":

No matter what year, I cannot think of any other song as beautiful and literally haunting. This brings tears to my eyes every time I hear it. Stevens crafts a look at a serial killer with none of the obvious expectations. He hints at Gacy's childhood, the accident that may have been one of the factors in his later killing spree, some of the personality traits that people admired in him, and his deadly legacy. The part that gets me the most is the look at his victims:

Even more, they were boys
With their cars, summer jobs
Oh my god.


I'm getting chills listening to this right now. There's no overt sympathy and no overt judgement. It's a painting of a distinct personality, one who killed twenty-seven people. Stevens' "fifty states project" is only two albums deep, but there's a wealth of history and meticulous detail. He takes the bad with the good in Illinois history, as evident with this track.

"Chicago":

This has an initial vote for one of my favorite songs of all time. This is a city anthem that doesn't mention any specifics of the area, and even mentions another state, New York. It's a reflection on youth, road trips, friendship, and coming to terms with past mishaps. These mishaps and mistakes are not mentioned specifically, but one can only imagine that they're the tyical blunders associated with being young. However, this the ultimate anthem to the city of Chicago, even though the emotions can be reflective of any major city. The vocal chorus towards the end of the song is achingly beautiful. Stevens is the ultimate musician, combining beautiful melodies and evocative lyrics, and this is one of the highlights of the decade. There is no hyberbole here; just listen.

3.) "The Sound of German Hip-Hop" by Clem Snide (From the album The End of Love)

I bought The End Of Love on a complete whim after hearing a co-worker talk enthusiastically about the merits of Clem Snide. After just one listen, I was in complete agreement, at least regarding this album. I love Eef Barzelay's voice, and the lyrics are almost begging for any kind of interpretation. They go all over the place, a sort of poetic stream of consciousness. There's really not much to add. It works perfectly, and it's just a beautiful song.

4.) "You're the Reason I'm Leaving" by Franz Ferdinand (From the album You Could Have It So Much Better)

Wow. The more I give hard listens to Franz Ferdinand, the more I realize how deceptive their music can be at times. At the start, this is a terrific, rocking kiss-off. The person from whose point of view the song is sung is letting someone go, but with no remorse or reasons. This is a definite power play, but the chinks in the armor show as the song progresses. It's almost unnerving (not to mention unstable) that someone is gleefully singing about the prospect of commiting suicide if the relationship keeps going another four years. But at the end, everything is flipped around:

I'm the reason you're leaving (Leaving alone)
If we're leaving we don't stop livin', you know


So what's going on here? Was our narrator putting up a facade when in fact he/she was the one being dumped? Did the love interest realize how horribly he/she was going to be let down and decided to do it first? Is this the entire situation being played out in someone's head as a sort of hypothetical situation? I'm almost going into Chuck Klosterman-esque analysis. You be the judge.

5.) "Anytime" and "Off the Record" by My Morning Jacket (From the album Z)

"Anytime":

The opening strains of this song always excite me, no matter how many times I hear it, because I know what's coming. I cannot understand why Jim James isn't considered one of the best singers in music today. Is there any voice that could work better on this track? My favorite part is actually one that can be easily missed. Listen to the opening line—"Is this climbing up to the moon?" With both the studio recording and the live versions (the audio file is actually taken from the 2006 live disc Okonokos), James' voice always tends to crack and drag out the word 'to' for just a split second longer than normal, and for some reason, I always focus on that. His voice isn't perfect, it lilts a little, but he's obviously pouring himself into every word. That one little crack always makes me smile.

"Off the Record":

This song is phenomenal, because the focus is on the music and the emotion. As with "Anytime," James' voice isn't perfect, and at times, the lyrics are downright unintelligible. However, he doesn't dominate at all; the entire band is both in harmony yet distinct, from the bass to the drumming. I've also picked the live version for the audio file because it's a longer version than the studio one, and it combines the best of both worlds: it's definitely their song, but in the middle, it turns into what feels like a jam session or an improv experiment. However, this only adds to the beauty.

6.) "At the Bottom Of Everything" by Bright Eyes (From the album I'm Wide Awake It's Morning)

Conor Oberst is one of those artists whom, even though I love his music, I can totally appreciate and understand someone NOT liking him. The opening track off of I'm Wide Awake It's Morning represents Oberst at his best (or worst, if you share the opposing sentiment). First and foremost, he's a poet, and the lyrics following the spoken word introduction are beautiful and scary.

While my mother waters plants
My father loads his gun
Says "Death will give us back to God
Just like the setting sun"


The beauty of this song is that his lyrics cover such a vast scope of ideas and metaphor, everything from family to the "American Dream," yet everything fits comfortably under the same musical umbrella. As inventive as he is, nothing seems too far-fetched, and the music is so captivating that by the end, the idea of plunging into a metaphorical cavern feels entirely plausible.

7.) "I Turn My Camera On" by Spoon (From the album Gimme Fiction)

I turn my camera on
I cut my fingers on the way


Can any band claim to sound any sexier in a non-love song situation? Methinks not. The beat of the song makes for unavoidable strutting when listened to while walking, and while "I Turn My Camera On" was almost overplayed, it never loses its freshness.

This particular track comes off of an album that, from top to bottom, doesn't have a bad song available. However, it wins thanks to a special memory. A few years back, I was living with my best friend, and one evening after a rough day, he came into the apartment, wordless, and visibly tired and pissed off. He sat on the living room floor and began to re-string his guitar. On a whim, I put Gimme Fiction on, and by the time "I Turn My Camera On" played, he was bouncing his head to the music in much better spirits. Such is the power of a phenomenal track.

8.) "Tymps (The Sick In the Head Song)" by Fiona Apple (From the album Exraordinary Machine)

Given the complexities and intelligence in Fiona Apple's lyrics, I'm sure that a thousand different people have interpreted this song in many different ways. I like my own spin on the song. In interviews, Apple has explained her fierce independence in relationships as well as her creativity. I don't have an exact quote available, but she commented on even maintaining two seperate houses if she ever got married. Here's a sample lyric:

So why did I kiss him so hard
late last Friday night
Keep on letting him change all my plans
I'm either sick in the head
I need to be bled dry to quit
Or I just really used to love him
I sure hope that's it.


For some reason, I find it comforting that anyone, especially someone as honest and authentic as Apple, can completely relapse on his/her independence based on a strong attraction for the wrong person. We've all pined for someone whom we knew wasn't right deep down, and we all have (or would have) kissed said person with just as much fervor. It doesn't matter how intelligent we are...lust wins sometimes.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Defining the Impossible



At one point in the performance of Eugene Ionesco's The New Tenant, one of the movers (Erica Barnes) begins an exaggerated, funny, and defiant vocalization of Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer." She's tired, sweaty, and overworked, having spent all of her time assembling a myriad of objects into a formerly vacant apartment. The apartment is now overrun with furniture, knick-knacks, boxes, and an accumulation of a lifetime's worth of objects. The movers (Barnes and Amanda Lucas) are dedicated, yet clearly unnerved by the demands and focus of the tenant (Stephanie Brown). The musical interlude provides some much-needed laughter to counteract with the tension, but for me, it provided a clear definition of the undefinable: namely, the emotions and actions that sum up the Theater Of the Absurd, of which Ionesco (1909-1994) was a major contributor. The song is naturally jaunty and light, but the mover inflects it with stress and confusion, even though she's singing it to fend off the exhaustion. As vague as human nature as a subject can be, it's rife with contradictions, and this performance highlights the absurd both literally and metaphorically.

Blank Line Collective kicks off their fall season with a major challenge, performing the Chicago premiere of Ionesco's The New Tenant. Milan Kundera once wrote of Ionesco (along with Samuel Beckett): "How many dramatists of the past century have had such power, influence? One? Two?" An appraisal of this magnitude offers two observations. One, how is it possible that this piece has gone unperformed for so long, in one of the country's most prolific theater cities? Two, such a gem is vital for the creative side of a small company. This particular play demands a lot from its actors, not just in historical stature, but in the performances, which are written with the intentional possibility to be over-acted to the point of absurdity, and not in a good way.

The play opens with a building caretaker (Jen Sava-Ryan) meeting the new tenant, who has arrived earlier than expected. The tenant is dressed in black, uptight with a sense of decorum, and oblivious to the hilarious, gossipy ramblings of the seemingly lonely caretaker. As the tenant takes notes on the state of the new apartment, the caretaker gives a virtually non-stop monologue on the inhabitants, both past and present. There's a loud police officer who lives upstairs, and the previous tenants were prone to domestic violence. The caretaker knows everything, but claims to not pry into anyone's private lives, even though she blatantly gives off the vibe of someone who listens through walls with a drinking glass pressed against the door. For anyone unfamiliar with the Theater of the Absurd, this is a wise opening; one would expect that The New Tenant would be a standard, two-act play that's heavy on dialogue. However, once the movers show up, absurdity and surrealism take over, along with the aforementioned contradictions.

The movers know exactly what to do, but are given constant directions and orders by the tenant. She allows them to place some objects wherever they want, but for the most part has a strict order that she wants to follow. The bulk of the play revolves around the dizzying amount of objects that fill up the apartment. There are boxes, a mattress, paintings, a large camping tent, chairs, and lamps. In the middle of this move, the movers are given a quick break, monitored by a cooking timer. This, along with the final scene, are the only real moments of calm that permeate the entire piece. It allows the movers to rest, but it's also a rest for the audience, a small chance to process the speed of which everything has accumulated. The tenant and the movers have a very strict relationship based on the job at hand, but one cannot help but wonder if there's more below the surface. The movers shoot each other the occasional exasperated looks, as if they've known the tenant's eccentricities all along, bracing each other for what could happen next. The final scene is somber and unexpected, yet seems to make perfect sense in context. Most importantly, it just adds more intended questions to the poetry of the movements, and the absurdity of life's actions. As Barnes said after the show, "when you think about it, moving is absurd." This might seem almost too easy of an explanation, but given the play and the movement from which it came, this definition works.

The performances are almost reserved in spite of the kinetic pacing. Barnes and Lucas play the movers with an air of comedy, complete with almost slapstick movements and exaggerated determination. This is not a knock against them, since the characters are given no time to react in between their given tasks. Their eyes and facial expressions are giveaways, since they see something either wrong or amiss below the surface of the tenant's expectations. Stephanie Brown's performance is the center of the play, an almost uncomfortable calm in between the accumulation of materials. She plays the tenant with an almost minimalist tint, her cold eyes taking constant mental notes, her perfect posture never wavering, and a wealth of emotion portrayed with a stare or a purse of her lips. Jen Sava-Ryan's portrayal of the caretaker is intriguing, the kind of role that seems to be a constant in many of the productions I've seen. She's needy and scattered, and works as an excellent foil to the tenant. They act as opposites, but from the first moment, they have each other figured out to a tee, even though their private opinions of each other are probably not savory.

Without giving anything away, there is a slight element of audience participation in this performance, which made me slightly skeptical at first. There's only so much breaking of the fourth wall that can be done without it becoming a distraction from the performance, but this interaction is kept to a minimum and works well. Overall, this is an excellent production, but I felt it would have benefited from a slightly slower pace. Yes, there's an energy that needs to be maintained, not to mention the wealth of materials that need to fill the apartment in little time. The fleeting moments of serenity highlight the metaphysical nature and questions of the play's theme, and one or two more "breaks" would have helped to let the audience catch up, mentally. However, the questions that people will have after the performance are the best kinds, and they will likely center around that most impossible, vague query:

"What does it all mean?"

Blank Line Collective's performance of The New Tenant runs every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday of October. 8:00pm, 1803 W. Byron, Unit #104, Chicago, IL. Click here for more information, or call 773.325.2119.