Play it as it Lays by Joan Didion

When he spoke, all she heard was a distant hum, something like the dull resonance of the big bang, or the whine from the empty center of the Milky Way. She knew he was saying words, could see his lips moving, knew he was talking to her about the Benz, the mortgage on the lake house, a vacation to the Mayan Riviera, their daughter’s credit card, his mother’s third divorce, but she couldn’t hear him, hadn’t been able to hear him for months. While she watched his lips move, she thought about the feel of the terrycloth robe on her back, and the way the material irritated her nipples, making them erect. She saw him looking and immediately pulled the robe tighter around herself. She thought maybe he was now talking about who had last taken the trash out. She thought that was his job. She thought she didn’t care about the trash. But she certainly cared when it started to stink, and shouldn’t the man take care of things when they started to smell bad? As a pastiche, I’m not sure the above is entirely fair to the source text. Another not entirely fair thing I thought/wrote about the book in question was: I have not read any John Updike, but now feel as though I have. Didion_PlayItAsItLays

Agapé Agape by William Gaddis

Obviously Benjamin, and he is also namechecked. But also Beckett in the way the slowly fading mind meanders within the broken body. Beckett and Der Mensch erscheint im Holozän by Max Frisch. But then also somehow Babyficker by Urs Allemann, because, and obviously, both concern a first-person narrator in a bed exploring an obsession in a kind of fugue (state) where themes are repeated to the point of becoming leitmotifs. But then, in the way Gaddis’ narrator “hallucinates,” begins to flip or meld the standard “what is outside of me is reality / what I think is not,” there is also Pynchon, there is Doc Sportello never quite sure if his connections are justified or simply an effect of the drug (in the case of Agapé, prednisone). And if there is Inherent Vice, there is, and again, Burroughs’ Cities of the Red Night. Just look at all these white men. What there is not, and what was then surprising about a book initially conceived as a history of the player piano (but which quickly, and at the end of Gaddis’ life, became a meditation on art vs. mechanization (and here we are back at Benjamin)), is that there is no Conlon Nancarrow. And because there is no Conlon Nancarrow, the composer who put the human back into the player piano by attacking the thing from the other end, he is thus placed here: Gaddis_AgapeAgape

The White Album by Joan Didion

Reading a borrowed book, one in which I am unable to mark or write, means that my memory of it is then compromised. Before opening this book, I would have sworn to you that I had never read any Didion, but somewhere in the middle of the book, about the point I was getting a little frustrated with Ms. Didion’s strangely strident tone and her obvious privilege (which, in the 70s, would not have been perceived as such, and so why am I even mentioning it?), I had a semi-distinct memory of having read her story about Jim Morrison lowering a lit match to his vinyl-clad crotch. I would like to be able to say, here, that that image is somehow emblematic of my reading of this book, but it is not. This book is not sex and death. This book is stubborn perseverance in the face of the grinding, albeit privileged quotidian. There isn’t much particularly sexy about that. And but then there’s the cover image. I had the book with me at my place of work one day, and one of my co-workers saw the cover and said, “Wow, that is an incredibly sexy woman who looks as though she’s been through some kind of harrowing psychic experience and come through strangely both stronger and more fragile.” I asked him if he was familiar with Didion. He said no. So I read him her psych evaluation from the title essay. Didion_TheWhiteAlbum

Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer

I'm not sure Feiffer's illustration style, which I know primarily from his work with Norton Juster, is sustainable over a whole novel, nor am I certain that his messy line is suitable for noir, which I think of as clean. The revelation at the end about the imaginary mother "Chelsea" felt deus-ex-machinal and/or unnecessary; Annie's change of heart in the face of danger/loss made sense without "Chelsea." On the other hand, the way Feiffer braids and then ties together the various strands of the plot, with at least one big surprise, is masterfully done. Perhaps I shouldn’t have read this book immediately after finishing Pynchon’s Inherent Vice. Feiffer_Kill-My-Mother

Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

This book’s similarities to Cities of the Red Night by William S. Burroughs are uncanny. Both contain/deal with: the transmigration of the soul; paranoia (the freedom in finding connections between seemingly unrelated things and how too much of that finding becomes a constraint (fear)); the mourning/celebration of a freedom we, as a culture, almost had (life under Captain Mission’s articles in Burroughs, the psychedelic 60s in Pynchon); drugs (and the tension between freedom and control they create); sex (random? in Pynchon, ritualistic in Burroughs (but, and again, in both books, a fulcrum point between freedom and control)); a pirate ship (which may or may not be bringing a release from (a kind of) slavery); and private detectives (who are both, ultimately, investigating the same loss of freedom, how we almost achieved it, how it was taken or given away). It is possible that these are simply (some of) the main themes taken up by Post-Modernism, but that idea may just be the fear end of what began as a useful paranoia. inherent_vice_book_cover_01

Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner

The one image I keep coming back to happens late in the book: The narrator is showering, realizes he has not drunk any water in a long time, and so stands there and drinks. While I was reading this book, I saw the film Whiplash twice. I don’t know why I keep coming back to that image of the narrator in the shower. Is it similar to Andrew Neiman plunging his bleeding hand into ice water? Is it similar to the change that occurs on Neiman’s father’s face as he watches his son from the wings of Carnegie Hall? I’m also not sure why, as I write this, Lerner’s book and Whiplash seem so closely related. I finished reading the book well over a week ago and have had all sorts of trouble motivating myself to write this. a05d42026d42006b0378483fc7809cd7

Retrospective: 19 February 2014: A Miniature Film Festival

[To see this post in its original context, click here.] The mystery illness I've been fighting off-and-on for well over a year now (and which may very well simply be stress (which seems— (wait! rabbit hole!))) returned this weekend, and so, in between naps, I used Netflix and iTunes to curate a miniature film-fest. The theme of the festival was John Carpenter and/or Kurt Russell (with exceptions (to be explained)) and included the following films (in the order watched) (and none of which I had previously seen):
    Big Trouble in Little China (1986 by John Carpenter and starring Kurt Russell) • The Thing (1982 by John Carpenter and starring Kurt Russell (and a moustacheless Wilford Brimley!)) • Robocop (1987 by Paul Verhoeven) • Stargate (1994 by Roland Emmerich starring Kurt Russell and James Spader) • Escape from New York (1981 by John Carpenter and starring Kurt Russell) • Escape from L.A. (1996 by John Carpenter and starring Kurt Russell) • The Thing (2011 by Matthijs van Heijningen)
I have been a huge fan of John Carpenter's They Live (1988 starring "Rowdy" Roddy Piper) ever since I accidentally saw it on the Fox 42 Late Night Movie sometime in 1994, though I don't think I learned what it was called until probably ten years later. I was talking with a colleague (whose opinions on film and music I hold in high regard) the other day about it, which is, in part, what prompted this mini festival in the first place, and he suggested that They Live would have been better if Kurt Russell had starred in it. Not knowing any of Russell's work with Carpenter, I could neither agree nor disagree, but something about his assertion didn't feel right. Now, after seeing four of Carpenter and Russell's collaborations, reacquainting myself with Jonathan Lethem's book/essay on They Live (entitled, appropriately enough, They Live), and remembering that Slavoj Žižek has quite a bit to say about the film (in part that it is one of the greatest leftist films to ever come out of Hollywood), I can say this: Kurt Russell would have been entirely too movie star for They Live, and would have lent it a completely different sense of irony and camp (I mean, just look at Big Trouble in Little China and Escape from L.A.!) than the decidedly working-class irony and camp lent to it by professional wrestler "Rowdy" Roddy. Before I continue: It has occurred to me that my mother is likely reading this. Mom, yes, I am writing about film, but please notice that I am not writing about film in any technical way: I do not know anything about lighting, or setting up shots, or what they're called, or editing, or really any of that stuff. I might be able to identify a wipe or a dissolve, but I couldn't tell you what they mean. I am writing about film from a literary/cultural studies perspective; I am qualified to do that. I am not qualified to write about film from a film studies perspective, and it is my lack of technical knowledge (and, obviously, a degree in film studies) which disqualifies me. Also, I love you and I got your Valentine's letter today, so thanks! Moving on. Mostly, I just wanted to present some notes I took in my head as I watched these seven films, but this seems to have turned into something made of paragraphs. I suppose the obvious thing to do would be to write one paragraph per film. Let's see what happens. Warning: Even though I hadn't seen any of these films before this last weekend, I'm going to write about them as though they have been seen (I mean, they're (nearly) all 20-30 years old), which means there may be spoilers. Big Trouble in Little China is fun and silly and attempts to present Russell as a truck driver, but he's entirely too pretty to really pull it off, which is fine, because the film isn't trying to be a serious piece of cinematic realism (what with its giant green fireballs and mythological Chinese demons). I don't mean to say that there aren't pretty truck drivers out there, either, but I'm aware that it's a difficult life that wreaks havoc on the body in ways most people would rather not consider, and I would imagine that maintaining Hollywood Pretty in truck stop restrooms is not easy. That same colleague mentioned above and I also talked about The Thing. What he said he loved about the film was how Carpenter refused to let the viewer ever know for sure if Russell's character had been infected or not. Said colleague seemed pretty convinced he had been. Again, I'm not so sure I agree. Carpenter does a pretty effective job of both cluing the viewer in to who's been compromised without also making it obvious (who the dog touches). Russell also unambiguously passes the blood test. It isn't until the very end that there is any ambiguity about Russell's status, and that's when he and the last guy simply decide to wait where they are, which is exactly what the thing had been doing for the 100,000 years before being extracted from the ice. Also, the special effects are awesome and gruesome and disturbing. Robocop doesn't exactly fit the theme of my mini-festival, but it doesn't not. I feel as though Verhoeven probably took a couple of cues from Carpenter. Robocop and Escape from New York share an awesome post-apocalyptic vibe and, strangely, a bad-guy with a high-pitched laugh. Also, Verhoeven's use of TV news and commercials is reminiscent of similar things in both Escape from New York and They Live. If I had seen Stargate when I was 13, it would have been the best movie ever. Russell manages to pull off suicidal father and military man by never moving his face or really ever saying much. Had he smiled (and at this moment, I wonder how much Russell's (goofy?) smile resembles that of the character Plucky Purcell in Tom Robbins' first novel Another Roadside Attraction), he likely would have ruined his entire performance. I should have used the Escape From films as bookends? I liked that Escape from New York had a slightly more serious tone despite its also campiness. Its indictment of U.S. politics and (east coast?) culture are reminiscent of They Live. I read on Wikipedia that the script was written in response to the Watergate scandal. It's oblique, but not opaque. The physical portrayal of the president made me wonder when we last had an obviously overweight chief executive. I just looked at Wikipedia's list of presidents: Taft was huge; Hoover may have been a bit chubby. Escape from L.A. is an indictment not only of the City of Angels but also of the film industry and especially of the so-called moral majority (I think one could make a fairly convincing argument that Carpenter at least knew about if not has read The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood), but probably that's been said a million times. It's also an indictment wrapped in camp (the cars! a revolutionary leader named "Cuervo Jones"! Pam Grier in drag in drag!) which adds bite to the satire. Snake Plissken is obviously the one-eyed king in the land of the blind. I should have used the different Things as bookends? No. So, the 2011 The Thing is supposedly a prequel to Carpenter's film, but the things that would make it a prequel are haphazardly tacked on at the end and make almost no sense. The film is effectively a showcase for better special effects but contains almost none of the serious psychological tension of the original which would have made those better special effects worth the time and money it cost to make them. I will say this though, the frantically waving tentacles and the way the one infected character rubbed his face on and then into the other, non-infected character's. . . . A good essay writer would now use that image to say something about all the films, about how they were all about the culture wars, or multi-culturalism, or how science and society often rub each other the wrong way, and ultimately, how we can't help but infect one another with our ideas and ideologies, but these are just notes, and this is just a blog, and I'm not a film writer or even a serious student of film--I'm just a guy who watched a bunch of films between naps during a recurrence of the mystery illness this last weekend.

Retrospective: 27 November 2013: What I Hear Behind Siri’s Voice/s

[To see this post in its original context, click here.] And right away, the computer told me the answer to the question, set the timer for thirty minutes, did so in a tone which implied it was happy to do these things, it was happy to be of service, in a tone which implied that it could do nothing other than be happy to be of service, in a tone which implied, deep in the hinterlands of that tone, deep, somewhere deep in the programming, and because computers are only as good as the humans who program them, a certain over-caffeinated, patronized, disgruntled, I-live-in-California-but-spend-all-my-time-in-a-cubicle ontology. Do we think these things are not somehow expressed in the code that runs the things that run our lives? The number of simple traffic warning displays that have been hacked to read zombies ahead or you're going to be late, and that we even know what easter eggs are, let alone are able to go looking for them should indicate the degree to which dissatisfaction and a kind of general powerlessness is part of everyone's subconscious, is part of programmers' subconsciousnesses. I want the programmers to be contented, calm people. I want the programmers to be well-practiced in the art of meditation. I want the programmers to practice mindfulness. If my body is made of billions of cells, and every single one of those cells (excluding, obviously, sperm cells) contains all 48 of my chromosomes, and one of those chromosomes can contain up to 440 million nucleobases, and the ordering of those nucleobases (the only good thing about the movie Gattaca was its title) is what makes me me, then I want the programmers, even though they're obviously not writing binary code directly, to take care with each precious 1 and 0. A friend of mine, when looking at the brand name of the relatively hi-tech trashcan in my kitchen once said, "Hmm, I expect 'Simple Human' is the last thing I'll hear before I'm struck down in the coming robot apocalypse."

Retrospective: 25 November 2012: Reading The Loop by Jacques Roubaud, pt. 7

[To view this post in its original context, click here.] map 1: Bifurcation A: §132-145 map 2: pp349-383
And I despised myself for being there again, for being unable to stop myself from being there in my suffering and in the abandonment to absolute suffering that being there signified, as the light, unforgiven, fled beneath the door, withdrew from the wooden floor, from the windowpanes, from the ceiling, the books, the chair, from my hands, from my eyes, from all my attention to the sky, gathering in the clouds, in the still very luminous estuary of daylight between the rooftops. (p351)
[the flies] flew through the luminous air amid the motes of dust following irresponsible Brownian trajectories . . . (p358)
An image to which I have been returning and returning via irresponsible, mental Brownian movements, and like the proverbial moth (because it burns after all and every time) is the luminosity of her eyes during those first few months, particularly in the dark, like lanterns of deep blue in the bedroom, like (and here is the problem with most figurative language) ignis fatuus or swamp lights (the problem being that yes, they did, I suppose, lure me to a kind of watery death, but really all I was trying to describe was their color and intensity (and, of course, the watery part of the simile stands in direct contrast to me getting burned by revisiting the image)), but there the image nonetheless is, tempting in its happy associations, but ultimately tragic. I am, of course, afraid that "tragic" is too much, sounds maudlin, and yet, and yet . . . I go first to her eyes, and then to the image of a Polaroid photo taken around that same time, where both, or rather, all four of our eyes are shining (drunk, in love, drunk on love), and then to a poem, a wonderfully silly poem that used my last name (her eventual but also now no longer last name) in a rather nice bit of wordplay, and then probably back to her eyes glowing in the dark, before lurching (can one lurch within Brownian movement?) off to some other once-happy, now no-longer-but-hopefully-someday-again-happy memory, Brownian lurching, Brownian tripping, Brownian falling back to those eyes which said things never otherwise said, which said things her voice would (also around that time) deny or avoid, and here is a trap into which I can easily fall and say, "And here my troubles began," but it's not true, because if it is true there, then it's also true at a point/moment behind that one, and if true at that point, then true at a point/moment behind even that one, and on backwards down a slippery slope which extends back, eventually, past my birth and toward the Prime Mover, and only then does it approach the Truth: Our troubles began/begin with the In the beginning, they begin with the Word.

Retrospective: 13 June 2011: Dictionary Definitions

[To view this post in its original context, click here.] I am currently teaching a class on fictional reference materials. Every time I say or write that, someone (rightfully) asks, "What does that mean?" The answer I have been giving usually consists of examples: The Devil's Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, & Moby-Dick. Another answer I could give might be "fictional content in a non-fiction wrapper," but then what do we do with the example of Moby-Dick since it is just the opposite? That's one of the questions the course is asking. I recently gave my students the following assignment:
Pick an English word that either 1.has always interested you don’t know Write a new dictionary definition of this word. 1.Be sure to include all parts of a dictionary definition (as we have discussed them). 2.Try to include as many ways of defining as you can. 3.Think about the things we’ve discussed so far. 4.Obviously, you may (and probably should) make things up.
All of my students did really interesting things with this assignment, and I am really excited for their upcoming fake (?) encyclopedia entries. Three students gave me permission to share their work here: 1. Angela Allmendinger: Juggernaut (ˈjəgərˌnôt) n 1. A professional comic entertainer who performs wearing a spacesuit and whose sole form of entertainment is to juggle and make balloon animals shaped like black holes. During the Cold War it was common for parents to hire these entertainers for children’s birhday parties. 2. A type of highly trained astronaut whose sole responsibility when residing in a spaceship and/or when in orbit, is to juggle for at least 16 hours a day. Due to a lack of gravity when in space, these professionals must not only undergo extensive physical and technical training, but must display otherworldly hand eye coordination and reflexes. These professionals can be identified from the conventional astronaut by their brightly coloured spacesuit. They are especially coveted by the organizers of space programs who wish to make compactly sized spaceships, due to their ability to fit a large number of themselves into a small space. [from English verb to juggle + noun astronaut] Related noun: (derogatory) Space clownboys. 3. n The title of a 1983 classical-rap-electro musical production, written, produced, and performed by the South Indian Playwright, Abhinandan Karunanidhi Mitesh Karnataka. Inspired by Andrew Lloyd Weber’s production Jesus Christ Superstar, the story follows the personal exploits of the Hindu god Krishna after he is transformed from stone into a living god by Brahma. The bobble head stone souvenires for this production are still worshipped in some parts of Puri and Orissa. [from Hindi Jagannath, from Sanskrit Jagannatha lord of the world, from jagat world + natha lord] 2. Moritz Bareiß: turtle noun, adj., verb pronunciation: AE /ˈælbəˌtrɒs/, BE /ˈsiːˌɡʌl/ ■ noun 1 a small bird with gray, red or green feathers which lives in South American rainforests and primarily feeds on the leftovers of tourists (sometimes also called → touristbird). 2 informal A person who tries to receive approval and, more often, money, by making positive remarks about ornithology and/or ornithologists: He was such a turtle, you know, behaving like a bird-lover, just to get enough money to buy himself a telescope. 3 a children's game where three or more children try to confuse ornithologists by dressing up like birds. ■ adj. 1 the opposite of (→ boring), very interesting, exciting: I really enjoyed my Literary Studies II - course. It was very turtle. 2 used only by ornithologists: knowing a lot about birds, especially turtles: She is so turtle, she knows absolutely everything about turtles.verb 1 to make positive remarks/ to act very polite in order to receive approval (in some cases also: money): They finally called him the greatest ornithologist of all time after he had turtled around for over two hours. 2 to live on the expense of others, e.g. by eating their leftovers. etymology: Origin: mid 17th century: from Spanish tortugaviar, the name Spanish conquerors gave the bird after the first specimen was caught and documented by the discoverer Alfonso-Rodrigo Lacaza. First appearance in the English language in the first half of the 18th century in various scientific texts. 3. Carsten-Tobias Weigold: superperforator /’su:pə’pə:fəreɪtə/ n. In 1912 a big problem arose in the production of cheese. As a result of the industrialization, new efficient ways and techniques of cheese production, and the growing demand for cheese on the food market, modern cheese was produced and sold so fast that this lactate product was not stored long enough anymore to develop its typical holes. As a solution to this problem Edmund Emmentaler invented the superperforator- an electric device that shot holes into the cheese. This special device could easily be included into the production process of cheese. Today the superperforator is still used and is shooting holes into cheeses that normally do not have any holes- an idea which marketing strategists came up with to increase the collective aesthetic conception of customers for cheese. Moreover, the selling of cheeses perforated by the superperforator made the cheese production more profitable because in fact the customer gets less cheese than before but is buying it for the same price. Due to the great success of the superperforator device in the matter of cheese production, it caught the attention of military strategists. In 1915 Edmund Emmentaler was assigned to modify the superperforator for military purposes. In a short period of time he modified the concept of the superperforator and developed a device very similar to actual superperforator which today is known as the machine gun. Even in the field of medicine the superperforator found use. The Italian doctor Silvano Silly developed a modified version of the superperforator to make Caesarian deliveries faster and more efficient.