Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Underrated Blog-a-Thon: Postscript

I've received a belated submission to The Underrated Blog-a-Thon. Terrance at Blogsmos, co-creator of Treblezine, wrote an excellent history of this phenomenal music website, combined with the site's philosophy, and a plea to support intelligent music writing. Much like my thoughts on Red Meat, this is both a celebration of the underrated as well as a request for public support and knowledge.

Terrance writes: "But, to get back on track, this is a plea. If you love music, or have a friend who loves music, we simply ask that you tell them about our site. We’re quite proud of it. We feel that the past five years have only made it better. I couldn’t even begin to imagine what we could do with it if we could work on it full time. Ah, perchance to dream."

You've probably seen Treble linked on the Chicago Ex-Patriate sidebar, and for good reason. There are no agendas. No specific genre is overtly favored over another. The focus is simply on writing thoughtful essays on music, most current, with the occasional feature on the classics. Treble's calling card is the lack of numerical ratings for albums. If you want to know what the writer felt about the album, you have no choice but to read and understand their thoughts. There's no way to glance at a "5.0" or "3 stars" rating. Whether an album is good or bad, this site is not lacking in writing talent or enthusiasm. In a music review world dominated by cynicism, a little enthusiasm goes a long way.

Friday, March 27, 2009

The Underrated Blog-a-Thon: Conclusion

I've vastly enjoyed the fact that the days with multiple submissions have featured write-ups on films that have similar themes. On Wednesday, Shannon and Jeff contributed looks at underrated comedies; today, Joshua at Octopus Cinema and Jeff at Culture Snob provide looks at two underrated dramas with varying levels.

Joshua on The Prefab People:: "The film begins with the husband leaving the wife, storming out of the door amidst her pleas for him to stay and her helpless bellowing about her inability to escape from the children. Structurally, this is a scene out of place, but we get the sense it is not being pre-emptively shown without designs unfamiliar to Western audiences. The scene stops before it is finished and we are given a glimpse into the mostly unhappy lives of the two protagonists, the wife overworked and caged by her two children that demand her attention, and the husband lacking discipline at work yet feeling constantly oppressed under his wife's condescension."

Jeff on In Dreams: "But In Dreams isn’t about the story, and the title itself is a heavy hint that the symbols and visuals are far more important than plot. Pulling from myths and folk tales — the children’s production of “Snow White” is not merely a plot setup —[Neil] Jordan mixes motifs and images drawn (or seemingly drawn) from the oral tradition: the apples, the color red, the submerged city, the cruelly abandoned child, and a woman’s shoe, to cite just a few examples."

Thanks to Joshua and Jeff for their contributions, and I hope that everyone enjoyed reading the responses and essays this week! I don't think a long, dramatic conclusion note is needed; the contributions speak for themselves, and I hope they facilitated some thoughts or discussions. As I've mentioned consistently this week, if you have a late submission coming in, just send me an e-mail or a comment, and I shall update accordingly.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Underrated Blog-a-Thon, Day Four

Eefing Wonderful (My Day Four Essay)



With a voice as distinct as Eef Barzelay's is (imagine Colin Meloy a pitch higher and a tad smoother), and given the instability of his band Clem Snide, it seems strange that he hasn't had a more prodigious solo output (the soundtrack to the independent film Rocket Science is worth its own write-up for this blog-a-thon). His 2006 album Bitter Honey never generated much buzz, except for some appreciative raised eyebrows for the provocative track "The Ballad of Bitter Honey." In addition to being a sorely underrated album, it also marked a small milestone for me as a music fan.

"The Ballad of Bitter Honey" is a slow ballad, telling a story not usually heard in modern rock/folk: Barzelay sings from the point of view of a rap video dancer, one who gets a lot of attention off camera, but not so much in the actual video ("That was my ass you saw bouncing/Next to Ludacris/It was only on screen for a second/But it was kind hard to miss"). She is confident, knows the power of her sex appeal, but has a story that's heartbreaking. Her mother died a poor housekeeper, which is only a hint at more sadness that undoubtedly lies beneath the surface. The dancer has an assertive message that comes at the end of the song: "Don't hate me 'cuz I know what this world is all about." Again, when Bitter Honey was released, the song received some attention, probably because Barzelay's voice and style was such an opposite from the lyrics. When I first heard it, I smiled at the opening, but the message became thoughtful and sobering immediately. He sets the listener up for an unexpected change in emotion.

The rest of the album falls (this is not a negative assertion) into fare which could be pegged as singer-songwriter material, but Barzelay wrote songs on this album that went against any preconceived notions I may have had. The notions might have come from Clem Snide's landmark album End of Love, which was full of lyrics that felt like a twenty-first century take on Bob Dylan's 1960s poetic music. As a soloist, Barzelay tones down his usually vast lyrics and opts for more concrete emotions. My favorite track off of Bitter Honey is also the saddest one. "I Wasn't Really Drunk" offers support and compliments to a woman who is an alcoholic, and it can be difficult to tell at times if the narrator's tone is genuine (albeit misguided) affection ("You look so pretty when you've been drinking") or bordering on predatory. However, as the song progresses, the listener is able to gauge the loneliness of both characters, and the unrequited love of the narrator. It also contains a line that could be cheesy, but Barzelay's voice (and the surrounding lyrics) pulls it off authentically: "I would gladly sip my champagne from your shoe."

So how was this a milestone for me? At the time, as my musical tastes were maturing, I was the kind of listener who, after moving from listening to basic Top 40 hits, could be subconsciously swayed by album reviews instead of going with my gut instincts. Bitter Honey wasn't panned, but the general consensus at the time was that it was decent at best. It remains one of my favorite albums, and I was able to appreciate it for what it was, regardless of the fact that it will likely never appear on any "best of" lists in the future. Despite my appreciation, I still wouldn't call it a classic; rather, it's one of many, many albums which could be called aesthetic gems. In my mind, it's the definition of underrated.

NOTE: Tomorrow will be the conclusion of "The Underrated Blog-a-Thon." Feel free to send me an e-mail (jyates3@hotmail.com) to let me know if you've updated your blog, or if you have any last-minute questions.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Underrated Blog-a-Thon, Day Three

I've received two excellent submissions for Day Three, both of which have a thread of similarity.

Shannon the Movie Moxie fends off any doubters who would dare question the film Gidget. There's an inherent sweetness, inspiration, and unexpected (for 1959) female empowerment. She writes:

" Gidget has her own interests and excels at them. Sure they may not always fit along the lines of what girls are 'suppose' to do but she doesn't let that get in her way! Go surfer girl go.

Gidget believes. In herself, in her friends, even in people that others have given up on. Sure, at times it is slanted at a bit of naiveté, but it's also comes from the heart. This in turn inspires those around her."

The second post comes from Jeff Ignatius over at Culture Snob. While "Heal Thyself" was not originally written for The Underrated Blog-a-Thon, Jeff was kind enough to suggest it. I read this essay on Stuart Saves His Family immediately after mentioning Happy Gilmore in my comment on Shannon's blog. Both Shannon and Jeff take unexpected comedies and find true value beneath the surface. Jeff writes:

"Stuart, like This Is Spinal Tap and A Mighty Wind, somehow manages to nail the details of its subject without abandoning broad comedy or affectionate satire. Ramis brings a workmanlike professionalism to the project, with a good sense of timing and deft handling of the movie’s shifting tones."

Thanks to Shannon and Jeff for contributing today. Only two days left!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Underrated Blog-a-Thon, Day Two

Critically Underrated (My Day Two Essay)



When creating the collage image for announcing The Underrated Blog-a-Thon, one of the pictures I used was of Milkman Dan, a recurring character in Max Cannon's alternative comic Red Meat. I didn't have a set intention to write about the images I used, but my goal was to have them be a sort of brainstorm for myself and potential contributors. However, after recently visiting the Red Meat website, I realized that it needs all the attention it can get.

The main webpage and subsequent archived comics have a very sobering plea from Cannon, not just for himself but for artists and cartoonists who support and supply independent and alternative newspapers with their creations. With the economy in such turmoil, alternative papers may very well cut comics, even ones with rabid fanbases. This is also not a case of "oh well, I can just read the comics online." Cartoonists, as Cannon mentions, rely on the newspaper revenues and advertising to help fund their sites. This should hit home for people who prefer strips like Red Meat and Get Your War On as opposed to Family Circus and Marmaduke. The major papers and syndicates do have the occasional great comic strip, but this is a plea for the hundreds of independent artists and their livelihoods.

I first discovered Red Meat in Chicago, when the highlight of my Thursdays was picking up the latest issue of The Onion. Quickly, my habit became reading Red Meat before any of the other articles and features in that paper. When I first visited the website, I was overjoyed to find that Cannon had the complete collection of his work available for free viewing. The comic follows the exploits and adventures of many varying characters, ones who even at their most grotesque, retain an innocent nostalgia, reminiscent of wholesome postcards and vintage advertisements. A recent popular phenomenon consists of calendars, books, and greeting cards with actual vintage images containing updated captions and modern, irreverent word bubbles. The beauty of Red Meat lies in its originality. Even with the hint of those vintage illustrations, the actions and dialogue are original, witty, and have a tendency to border on disturbing.

The face of the comic is Bug-Eyed Earl, a creepy old man with a penchant for regaling the readers with his tales of psychosis and debauchery. His stories are matter-of-fact, and while some of his actions are downright sickening, there's a strange innocence to his demeanor. As unsettling as he is, his recollections of dead relatives in the kitchen, public nudity, and anti-social behavior come across with an "aw, shucks" mentality.

My personal favorites are shown above: Ted Johnson and Milkman Dan. Johnson could easily be the father figure in any mainstream comic, with his outlandish ideas, disastrous family trips, and his parenting skills that combine old-fashioned values with off-kilter behavior. You will probably never see Dagwood locking Blondie in the attic, and having the punchline be as hilarious as Cannon usually makes them.

Milkman Dan is the epitome of psychotic, in addition to his unashamed substance abuses. His all-American job and visage conflict greatly with his sexual deviance and anti-social dealings with his bosses and neighborhood associates. His greatest nemesis is Karen, a little neighborhood girl with wits and depravity that mirror his own. The two characters stop at nothing to humiliate and psychologically scar each other, yet these actions are presented in such a fashion that they could easily be best friends as opposed to mortal enemies.

This is merely a sample. Cannon has blessed us with Wally, the Tobacconist (with hints of dementia and incontinence); The Old Cowboy (equal parts philosophical and mentally challenged); Johnny Lemonhead (probably the greatest victim in the history of American comics); and others who live in an absurd, dangerous world that does not seem too far-fetched at times.

I've shared this comic with quite a few people, and most of them do not share my enthusiasm, another reason I feel that Red Meat falls into the "underrated" category. However, even if it's not this particular one, everyone has a favorite underground/independent strip that could very well be on the verge of collapse. As Cannon quotes a friend, very simply (but also very urgently): "If your local paper stil runs the cartoons, please shoot them a quick e-mail and let them know how much you appreciate it."

NOTE: If any submissions come in today, I'll be updating this post later tonight. Thank you!

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Underrated Blog-a-Thon, Day One

Yes, the day is still very young, but no time like the present to get things kicked off. I'll be updating the daily posts as I get notifications throughout the week from contributors.

The first submission comes from Joshua at Octopus Cinema, writing about the Canadian film Gross Misconduct, a film (and filmmaker, Atom Egoyan) I'm not familiar with, thus holding true this blog-a-thon's theme. Joshua writes: "Gross Misconduct uses Brian Spencer's vicious, extroverted rage to counterpoint his father's impotent, more frustrated temper. Whereas Brian attacks people out of a sort of one-upmanship that was nurtured at a young age, his father is shown as striking out against a world he feels helpless in and because of."

In the past ten years or so, dozens of American films have explored the seeds and sociology of violence; thanks to Joshua's write-up, we learn of a little-known film that came before Fight Club and A History of Violence, and also gives light to Canadian filmmaking, which tends to get lost in the international shuffle.

Foole's Gold (My Day One Essay, Not Safe For Work)

Let's begin with a hypothetical situation. You walk into a relatively crowded bar and ask people to name their favorite stand-up comedians. Within seconds, almost everyone will be calling out names, both legendary and new. Your second query is to ask everyone's favorite bit from said comedians. Again, you'll likely be given lines memorized to the last detail: Chris Rock's take on the Columbine massacre ("If you're white and under twenty-one, I am running for the hills!"), as well as some Dane Cook fans stammering on about sangwiches. Your third question is to ask for everyone's favorite comedy album. At this point, silence may very well ensue.

While stand-up comedy has been consistently popular since the days of vaudeville, the comedy album tends to be an afterthought at times. Granted, there are exceptions to this rule. Bob Newhart's Button-Down Mind Of Bob Newhart won the 1960 Grammy for Album Of the Year, before the inception of the separate award for comedy albums. I remember excited, well-intentioned buzz for David Cross's 2004 release It's Not Funny. However, even some of the classic albums are not completely popular. For example, how well-remembered would George Carlin's Class Clown be had it not been for the final track "Seven Words You Can't Say On Television?" His 1973 album Occupation: Foole is an underrated gem, but not just for the comedy. Granted, comedy is the primary quilt, but the patches consist of wonderful elements. The album should appeal to anyone who loves smart comedy, but also to anyone who considers him/herself a sociologist, linguist, or an aficionado of cultural observations.

The title stems from his opening observations of the fact that, while he is doing stand-up, he is actually at his job. "Welcome to my job...I've always wanted to put that down under 'Occupation' on a form. Occupation: Foole. I think I'd spell it with a final 'e' just to piss them off, you know?"

The best tracks of the album come back-to-back-to-back-to-back: "White Harlem," "The Hallway Groups," "Black Consciousness," and "New York Voices." These monologues have traces of Carlin's recollections of growing up Irish Catholic in New York (from Class Clown), yet he expands on the ideologies, voices, and differences between Irish, Jewish, Puerto Rican, Italian, and African-American citizens. Sound familiar? Of course it does, since virtually every comedian has at least one bit devoted to the differences and tendencies between various races and ethnicities. The difference in Carlin's work is that its wholly original, and his voices are not played for cheap laughs. It's a wonderful celebration of culture, infused with honesty and appreciation.

"If you take five white guys...and put them with five black guys and let them hang around with each other for about a month, at the end of the month, you'll notice that the white guys are walking, and talking and standing like the black guys do! You'll never hear the black guys say 'Oh, Golly, we won the big game today!'"

On the second side, of the album, he goes into "Childhood Cliches" and "Cute Little Farts," combining two themes for which he'd become very well-regarded: American language cliches and universal shared experiences (in this case, farting).

Cliches: "Get down off there, you'll break your neck!" "I suppose if Johnny Finnigan jumped off the Empire State Building, YOU'D jump off the Empire State Building."

Farts: "Farts are fun! Farts are shit without the mess."

This leads into the final track, "Filthy Words," which adds a third theme, his fascination with profanity in American life. Granted, "Seven Words You Can't Say On Television" will always be most famous piece, but in "Filthy Words," he lists the variations of the word "shit:" "Hot shit," "batshit," "shit-eating grin," "shit hits the fan," "holy shit," etc.

Granted, calling Occupation: Foole "underrated" might be a stretch, coming from one of the best American comics of all time, and also dealing with subjects that have been re-done, ripped off, watered down, or simply told to death by the comedians who have come after. However, his albums are rarely thought of as whole pieces, just as music should usually be viewed in terms of the album instead of just select singles. It's also underrated in the sense that racial and ethnic differences can be discussed both comedically but with respect, and not just for the sake of insults. Black and white comics are equally guilty of this, and Carlin represented the old adage: "It's not what you say, it's how you say it."

More to come this week!

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Heroic Art, Superstitious Interpretations



After roughly two months, I recently finished reading Roberto Bolano's 2666, probably the most exciting, heralded novel of 2008 (the English translation). After a reading of any text, I always allow a day or two before attempting to write about it. This personal rule seems imperative in the wake of this novel, given its sheer size, in terms of page length and in terms of information. Anybody reading this opening paragraph will be forgiven for thinking that these sentences seem more appropriate for a tenth-grade term paper. There is simply no way to pick an appropriate starting point for an analysis of 2666. As with Bolano's previous novels, the pages demand attention and multiple readings.

A brief sketch of the events presented in its pages will give an idea of how vast and intertwined the novel is as a whole. Four professors, scholars of a reclusive, mysterious writer named Benno von Archimboldi, try to find the writer (and ultimately themselves) in a flurry of conferences, intercontinental travel, sex, nightmares, and the fictional Mexican town of Santa Teresa. Another professor is both bemused by his unstable ex-wife, haunted by voices, and seemingly on the verge of insanity (or perfect clarity). A New York journalist gets caught up with a mysterious woman while on assignment to cover a boxing match in Mexico. Hundreds of women, mostly working class teenagers and women in their twenties, are brutally raped and slaughtered. A young German writer experiences war and complex relationships (both familial and social) in World War II and the ensuing fifty years until the present. As is expected from Bolano, these characters and developments are presented both as singular entities as well as painstakingly connected fabrics. However, despite the connections, the passages can be looked at individually. In fact, Bolano's intention was for the five chapters to be published one at a time as a way to provide financially for his family. Luckily, his heirs (as noted in a brief introduction to the text) saw the need for 2666 to be published as a whole.

The opening chapter is a wonderful example of Bolano's gift for varying literary styles. The adventures (and misadventures) of the four professors spin between academic mystery, cinematic love affairs, and Bolano's incredible attention to detail. Take this passage, which is rendered carefully described and ends on a wonderfully abrupt note:

"Three days after the meeting with Archimboldi's publisher, [Pelletier] showed up in London unannounced, and after telling Liz Norton the latest news, he invited her to dinner at a restaurant in Hammersmith that a colleague in the Russian department had recommended, where they ate goulash and chickpea puree with beets and fish macerated in lemon with yogurt, a dinner with candles and violins and real Russian waiters and Irish waiters disguised as Russians, all of it excessive from any point of view, and somewhat rustic and dubious from a gastronomic point of view, and they had vodka with their dinner and a bottle of Bordeaux, and the whole meal cost Pelletier an arm and a leg, but it was worth it because then Norton invited him home, officially to discuss Archimboldi and the few things that Mrs. Bubis had revealed, including, of course, the critic Schleiermacher's contemptuous appraisal of Archimboldi's first book, and then both of them started to laugh and Pelletier kissed Norton on the lips, with great tact, and she kissed him back much more ardently, thanks possibly to the dinner and the vodka and the Bordeaux, but Pelletier thought it showed promise, and then they went to bed and screwed for an hour until Norton fell asleep (Bolano 29-30)."

The longest chapter of the novel describes with sickening (yet coldly detached) descriptions of the rapes, murders, and tortures of dozens of working class women in Santa Teresa. These passages sometimes last no more than a paragraph, moving almost like the killer(s)--quick, accurate, and moving on to the next victim very matter-of-fact. Suspects are arrested and released, most of whom are clearly innocent, but victims of a corrupt, ineffective Mexican police system. However, in the middle of this chaos is probably the second-most important character, police investigator Juan de Dios Martinez. While he genuinely wants to have the murders solved, he understands the impossibility of that happening, especially with the lackluster colleagues at his disposal. He's detached, yet his emotions come achingly close to being expressed. It's the classic cliche of the veteran American police officer/detective, familiar from the days of pulp novels as well as modern cinema and television. However, Bolano creates Martinez originally, with a Mexican backdrop, and even adds the occasional North American police officer as a subtle point of comparison. Martinez has feelings for the director of a mental hospital, an older woman partly involved in the murder investigation. His obvious emotions towards the case are mirrored in the emotions he wants to express to the woman:

"Sometimes Juan de Dios Martinez would sit and think how he wished he knew more about the director's life. For example, her friendships. Who were her friends? He didn't know any of them, except for a few employees at the psychiatric center, people the director treated warmly but also kept at arm's length. Did she have friends? He suspected she did, although she never talked about it. One night, after they had made love, he told her he wanted to know more about her life. The director said he already knew more than enough. Juan de Dios Martinez didn't insist (423)."

The final chapter partly takes place in Nazi Germany before fast-forwarding through fifty years of developments that tie up the mysteries while leaving some obvious questions unanswered. One of the scenes has a wonderful discussion of culture that is reminiscent of the closing library scene of Italo Calvino's If On a Winter's Night a Traveler:

"Hoensch said that culture was a chain of links composed of heroic art and superstitious interpretations. The young scholar Popescu said culture was a symbol in the shape of a life buoy. The Baroness Von Zumpe said culture was essentially pleasure, anything that provided or bestowed pleasure, and the rest was just charlatanry. The SS officer said culture was the call of the blood, a call better heard by night than by day, and also, he said, a decoder of fate. General Von Berenberg said culture was Bach and that was enough for him...The life of a man is comparable only to the life of another man. The life of a man, he said, is only long enough to fully enjoy the works of another man (683)."

These final two sentences of the passage seem open to interpretation, and to me, they fit well into the meaning of Benno von Archimboldi, and therefore, the complete arc of 2666. His life is written about both in detail and with mystery, his writings and existence shaping (both intentionally and otherwise) the lives of the other men and women of the novel. The professors whose stories begin the tale are not content to know Archimboldi's life through his work. Their research and determination are staggering, with the occasional dead end, but their lives are comparable to the life of Archimboldi. Deep down, their lives are long enough to enjoy his works.

2666 continues a theme that I've noticed in literature both past and present, a theme hinted at in my mention of If On a Winter's Night a Traveler. There is probably a term for this that has simply slipped my mind, and it's the idea of novels presenting characters and events so detailed and definitive, yet completely open to other strains of interpretation, and perhaps contradiction. This work does not have the romance of The Savage Detectives, yet this is worth the hype of being considered Bolano's masterpiece. The themes of literature, identity, and landscapes are classic, yet he shapes them as a stunning maze. As I mentioned above, these descriptions may not be as strong as they should be, but multiple readings of 2666 will undoubtedly bring more to these discussions in the coming years.

Work Cited:
Bolano, Roberto. 2666. Copyright 2004 By the Heirs of Roberto Bolano.

NOTE:

The Underrated Blog-a-Thon starts on Monday! Click the link for full details, and multiple submissions are welcome. If you're contributing, either shoot me an e-mail or post a comment on the original announcement link (here). I can't wait to read the contributions. Let me know if you have any questions. Also, it runs until Friday, so there's a bit of breathing room if you'd like to contribute, but don't have any ideas at the moment.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Casual Friday--Poetry VIII

Writing about Charles Bukowski is never easy, and anyone who reads him (or writes about him) most likely cannot help but be torn between the ideas of Realism vs. blatant psychosis/misogyny. Either way, his writing always strikes some emotion, no matter which direction it aims. This week, I started reading a collection of his poetry entitled Come On In!, and my expectations were not completely met. Poetry is obviously a different medium than the short story, but given Bukowski's style and reputation, I went into the reading of his poetry expecting that difference in form, but with the same messages. I was wrong, and not having my expectations met is a good thing.

In the poems that I've read so far, I've been struck by a vulnerability and emotional range that I haven't found in his stories. Some critics/theorists may be able to see some morality and redemption in his stories, but my belief has always been that his fiction is meant to be taken at face value. His characters are unsympathetic, immoral, and most importantly, do exist in day-to-day life. Normally, if a Bukowski-esque character were to appear in someone else's fiction, it would be to illuminate the idea of bad, especially compared with the generally assumed notion of "good." However, I've felt that Bukowski presents his characters as-is, take them or leave them. His poems can also contain the same shocks and visceral intensity, but there's also an element of regret and understanding that appears at times:

"in the clubhouse"

"he is behind me,
talking to somebody:
'well, I like the 5 horse, he closed well last
time, I like a horse who can close.
but you know, you gotta kinda consider
the 4 and the 12.
the 4 needed his last race and look at
him, he's reading 40-1 now.
the 12's got a chance too.
and look at the 9, he looks really good,
really got a shine to his skin.
then too, you also gotta consider the 7...'

every now and then I consider murdering
somebody, it just flashes in my mind for a
moment, then I dismiss it and rightfully
so.
I considered murdering the man who
belonged to the voice I heard,
then I worked on dismissing the thought.
and to make sure, I changed my seat,
I moved far down to my left,
I found a seat between a woman wearing a
sun shade and a young man violently
chewing on a mouthful of
gum.
then I felt
better (Bukowski 34)."

This is probably the first Bukowski piece that I've read in which a character weighs the outcome of his/her choice and decides not to act impulsively. Granted, the fact that the character has to talk himself out of murder implies serious mental inefficiencies, but given some of the actions that have taken place in Bukowski's work, this almost reads as more or less heartwarming. Given that some of his characters do not think twice about debauchery, extreme alcohol consumption, and sexual assault, a resolution such as this seems encouraging. Bukowski is one of many writers whom readers can fatally interchange the works as well as the author's private life. While it's well-known that Bukowski engaged in some pretty intense behavior during his life, another poem ("Paris in the spring") attempts to clarify these assumptions. Again, assuming that what happens on the page is what happens in the author's life can be wrong, one can't help but wonder if this quote is at least partly autobiographical:

"I only photograph life, said the writer. I might write about a murderer but this doesn't mean that I am one or would enjoy being one (160)."

Work Cited:
Bukowski, Charles. Come On In! Copyright 2006 by Linda Lee Bukowski.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A Controlled Lack Of Control

Posthumous accolades can be a tricky road to navigate at times. In relation to deceased artists, the recollections seem to hit a high for roughly two weeks following the person's passing, and then quieting down. Once the reality has set in, once a (for lack of a better phrase) period of healing has been dealt with, more honest assessments can be made. In those two weeks (this is not at all a scientific time frame, nor is it meant to trivialize or quantify someone's death), the tributes can be clouded by honest, raw emotions, almost out of a disbelief of the death in question. One example is the death of Heath Ledger and his following performance in The Dark Knight. At first, the film was hyped because of Ledger's death (whether one wants to admit this or not), which quickly turned into honest praise once everyone saw his incredible performance. This led to sadness, given his talent and what he would have accomplished in the future. These ideas happen to lend themselves easily to David Foster Wallace. After his suicide, I wrote a pretty short tribute to him, under the influence of the aforementioned raw emotions. However, six months later, his work and life have taken on a new focus, thanks to the March 9th issue of The New Yorker.

The magazine ran a wonderful, touching biographical/professional tribute to Wallace, written by D.T. Max. This was followed by an excerpt ("Wiggle Room") from what would have been his third novel (the remaining manuscript is going to be published in the very near future). Max's essay, entitled "The Unfinished," is both a look at Wallace's talent and a look at his crippling depression, which were both related and separate at the same time. In what at first glance appears to be a straightforward essay, the reader is given the most honest, detailed look at Wallace's demons, both his mental illness and his feelings that his writings were never good enough. Granted, rare is the completely satisfied writer, but given his still devoted audience, it's shocking how Wallace's quotes paint the picture of someone who was both talented beyond measure and unequivocally unsure of himself in that same light.

"Wallace, at least, never felt that he had hit his target. His goal had been to show readers how to live a fulfilled, meaningful life. 'Fiction's about what it is to be a fucking human being,' he once said. Good writing should help readers to 'become less alone inside.'"

The debate over what constitutes good fiction will never end, but Wallace's almost generic explanation gives an apt definition. However, the work he left behind goes into the painstaking detail that his quote does not. "Wiggle Room" shows what it's like to be a human being under the constraints of extreme monotony, namely as a tax reviewer. As Wallace was skilled at doing, he takes a serious emotion, expands it in precise detail, and occasionally renders it darkly hysterical.

"Then three more, including one 1040A, where the deductions for A.G.I. were added wrong and the Martinsburg printout hadn't caught it and had to be amended on one of the Form 020-Cs in the lower left tray, and then a lot of the same information filled out on the regular 20, which you still had to do even if it was just a correspondence audit and the file going to Joliet instead of the District, each code for which had to be looked up on the pullout thing he had to scoot the chair awkwardly over to pull out all the way. Then another one, then a plummeting inside of him as the wall clock showed that what he'd thought was another hour had not been. Not even close. May 17, 1985. Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a poor sinner."

This piece goes on fluidly to analyze etymology as well as to introduce a ghostly character. Wallace (as Max explains) did a lot of research into the lives and work of tax officials, and the product he left behind is evidence of that, yet it feels spontaneous and real. Max, reminiscent of Wallace's own definition of fiction writing, offers this tidy (yet dead-on) view of Wallace's work: "His prose slid forward with a controlled lack of control that mimed thought itself."

The notion of posthumous writing also showed itself in the same issues of The New Yorker, in the form of a book review written by the late John Updike. The magazine ran tributes to him shortly after his death, and the appearance of this review was strangely comforting. Even though he's gone, there was still something new to publish, since he contributed many reviews to the publication. There was no need to add any other acknowledgements of his death, and the review stands on its own. I might be expanding on this next week, when I write about Roberto Bolano's unfinished, posthumous novel 2666. I've been reading it for quite a few weeks, and as much as I'm enjoying it, sometimes I have the feeling that I'm not making any progress towards the ending. The mere existence of this piece of art, written when Bolano knew full well that he was dying of cancer, makes reading almost imperative, since the author wanted to get the work completed to be read and enjoyed. The same goes for Wallace's final works as well. While it's impossible to know how long his suicide was premeditated, there's the distinct understanding (as evidence by "The Unfinished") that he knew, deep down, that it was a possibility. This post might appear morbid, but in all honesty, there's still a lot of original work to savor, in spite of untimely passings.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Coming Full Circle




With U2 having the most high-profile new release this week, it's a victory for Neko Case's Middle Cyclone, which is holding its own with the legendary heavyweights. And, at first glance, she's getting much better early reviews. The buzz has been building for months, most likely fueled by the universal praise for 2006's landmark The Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. This dynamic is beautiful and doesn't happen as often as it should. Case has not changed a thing about her approach, still affiliating with excellent indie labels (Anti-), doing a lot of tireless self-promotion, yet she has been embraced by the mainstream. She might never have a Top 40 hit, which is probably fine by her. It's always literally been about the music since she started.

Middle Cyclone seems to be a return to her alt-country roots, a designation that seems to be occasionally misplaced on her. Some of her best songs ("Deep Red Bells," "Star Witness") would be better classified along the lines of "alt-neighborhood." They're not so much small-town (read: country) songs, but they're not big city anthems, either. Her first albums were stunning mixes of country and neighborhood stories (Tacoma, Washington and Humboldt Park in Chicago), worries, and angst. Then, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood went in a vastly different direction, taking those influences and blending them with modern folktales and mythologies. Middle Cyclone has been lauded for its nature imagery but there's much more to the picture. It's like saying Philadelphia has cheese steaks. Sure, it's true, but there's much more to take in.

The opening track, "This Tornado Loves You," is a wonderful, breezy song, combining Neko's vocals at their most confident, telling an offbeat love anthem from the point of view of said tornado. However, the album then takes a sharp turn in the opposite direction. "The Next Time You Say Forever" is quick and melancholy, hitting its target both heart-wrenchingly and violently. It would have fit in perfectly on 2002's Blacklisted. These two tracks are Case at her finest, both raucous and vulnerable. Returning to the nature motif, the album closes with the calming/eerie (take your pick) "Marais La Nuit," a thirty minute audio recording taken by Case at her farm in Vermont. Faint cricket chirps are the only sounds. Some might see this as an unnecessary addition to Middle Cyclone, but knowing the backstory helps. I like the mental image that accompanies the sounds--Case, quietly sitting outside, taking in a solitary night. It's definitely the emotional opposite of the fantastic album cover.

The only blemish on this album is the cover of Sparks's "Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth." This is hands down Neko Case's worst song, which is sad, since she's usually a master of cover songs (Harry Nilsson's "Don't Forget Me" is a return to this form six songs later). "Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth" has its heart in the right place as an impassioned plea for environmental awareness. However, it has too much schmaltz for Case, not to mention being too blatant. I'm sure she could have written her own version with the same message, with more metaphorical brilliance.

Overall, this album is terrific, with hints to her alt-country roots. It doesn't have the instant classic vibe of Fox Confessor, but listeners shouldn't be expecting that anyway. Her voice is as beautiful as ever, and her songwriting hasn't lost any originality (for example, take lines like "wretching pennies in a boiling well" or "waiting with a glacier's patience"). Since the songs switch tempos frequently (as between tracks one and two), Middle Cyclone feels like a live album. Case's ardent supporters (myself included) will look forward to these songs being integrated into her live sets.