Reading Edge: Strange Landscapes

Sugiera’s Nansensu gangsters in an Utrillo streetscape.

Outside my window, in the park, people are anxious to get on with their pre-pandemic lives. I’m not sure that will ever happen, but it’s a fantasy that won’t let go, and it’s leading to a resurgence in infections.

I have the luxury, and the imperative, to keep quarantining, to a certain amount. The recommendation for people my age is reduce contact by 65%, and while that may be unattainable as the world rushes to get back to what was once viewed as normal, I’m going to try to remain at home as much as I can.

The school is still closed to live classes, but online classes are starting, and I’m doing what I can to transition. I have a corporate slave job on a college campus that remains closed, and I do not miss that. There’s plenty to do at home, whether in my studio/office, or online.

I do miss the actual studio (at the school) which also remains closed. And I miss popping into a pub for a beer and a burger and a soccer game, but again, there’s no hurry, Fall or Spring will be fine for a return.

So that leaves, for the quiet evening hours after trying to maintain a career, reading. I’m watching movies online for variety, I’m tuning in as soccer comes back on TV, but mostly, I’m reading. Even what little online shopping I’m doing is mostly for books. In analyzing what I’m reading, I find I can’t really analyze what I’m reading. Part of the purpose of writing about what I read is to help me process it. Later, I might come back and look at these quarantine lists and think, hmm. Right now, it seems random, and you’re getting it face value. Most of these books were ordered on small press-oriented web sites at bargain prices, or pulled from my shelves after buying them on spec from used bookstores, so that may explain their eccentricity. But maybe not.

Last of the Mohicans, Shigeru Sugiera: One of the main joys of reading this beautiful little Picture Box volume is the long critical essay by Ryan Holmberg, whom I’d encountered in some Seichi Hayashi reprints from the library and who did a lot to put my ignorance of Manga into a historical context with other comics timelines. These essays, probably too detailed for many fans, touched on the artists who I’d encountered sporadically in the pages of Raw, and The Ganzfeld. Later on, the Mazur and Danner book, Comics: A Global History, 1968-Now brought my curiosity to a head. 

This book, as Holmberg explains, was a part of an artistic renaissance in mid-60’s Japanese Manga that for the first time, treated comics as an artistic art form. But it also is a remake of a manga that exemplified the cultural crosscurrents in play in occupation era Japan. The sources of this, American movies, often as filtered through American comic books, are at play ironically in both versions of Mohicans. Neither is so much an adaptation of the James Fenimore Cooper novel, as a Pop Art pastiche of cultural assumptions surrounding it. 

This is apparent in the visuals of the original comic, with some characters played in ‘straight’ images swiped from western movies and Classics Illustrated comics, which aspired to a literary/historical truth, but often missed by miles; and others conforming more to ‘Nansensu’ (Nonsense) children’s Manga of the 50’s. Thus the original 50’s version is strange enough, with big-eyed, round headed Astro Boy-style characters interacting with characters and scenes from Hollywood. Iroquois-era Native Americans find themselves anachronistically dropped into the sweeping John Ford vistas of Monument Valley, and Hawkeye, now a manga cutie, mimics the impossible action sequences of post war DC/Dell western comics. 

Sugiera’s second version of the comic ( printed here) does not stop there, though. Conversant with the intervening cultural appropriation aesthetic of Warhol’s Pop Art movement, and still fascinated by the comics and movies American GI’s introduced to occupied Japan during his formative years and before, Sugiera redoes the comic in the early 70’s, heightening, rather than downplaying its cultural collage. Characters such as Oliver Hardy and Little Lulu are added. Some characters seem to spring from a stylized, mask-like Asian folkloric aesthetic, others remain rooted in mass media ‘realism’. Holmberg exhaustively traces these sources, and the book, which it should be obvious- is pretty silly on its surface, now lives on my shelf, awaiting another reading as I continue to explore other works from this fascinating period in manga. This includes a riotously synthetic short from Sugiera that I ran across in The Ganzfeld #4 which mixes primitive manga characters with Utrillo street scapes and- Mr. Potato Head. A feast for the eyes, and a little explored instance of the clash of cultures. 

Pig Tales, Paper Rad: Paper Rad is a comics collective which grew out an earlier zine group called Paper Radio, and is contemporaneous and linked to the Fort Thunder collective. This digest-sized collection espouses, if it does not directly reference ( I don’t know for sure), the zine resurgence of the late 90’s and early aughts. 

The pigs referenced are big haired, ‘fab’ fashionistas who like to party and shop. The plotting is abrupt and even arbitrary, and the satire deliberately obscure. The cartooning is garish, cartoon brut imagery that seems to source the 70’s faux psychedelia of Saturday morning cartoons. The book is a flip book, and the other side, Cartoon Workshop #3, makes these references even more explicit, with Hanna-Barbera type images spliced in. This is also put out by Picture Box, a now-defunct imprint published by radical comics/art critic Dan Nadel which I’ve been searching out on small press oriented sites because they offer the most comprehensive selection of an edgy comics underground that hasn’t quite reached the mainstream yet. It’s coming on fast, though. 

Nadel edited and published The Ganzfeld, a journal which only lasted for 7 issues, but which represents a very momentous and substantive look at how comics, as art form, intersects with high art. Thus, if you are interested in understanding comics as one of the 21st Century’s most vital art forms, then any book with the Picture Box imprint is a great place to start. 

Nadel doesn’t seem to have been able to make it work. Remainders from his often exquisite output are still available on the web, usually at remainder prices. They are intellectually very ambitious, and range from examinations of Henry Fielding to post war manga to ’00’s zine collectives, the undercurrents of pop culture made manifest. He has made the linkages between comics and high art explicit, at times; for example, a long article on the Hairy Who, the Chicago Art Collective whose images and aims often intersected with comics. 

Emily Dickinson: An Interpretive Biography, Thomas H. Johnson: I found this slim volume from the 50’s a few years ago at a favorite little shop on Broadway, Fahrenheit books. I put it away for a rainy day read which the pandemic brought along. 

As an amateur reader, I often run into a problem with more challenging material, as Dickinson, with her highly specialized imagery and language and difficult rhythms, definitely is. That is: critical support materials related to the poems often (unsurprisingly, I guess) prefer to address other academics, embedded in the wars of words surrounding a given author, rather than a general reader. I’ve complained about academic jargon, but it goes beyond that. Certain critics just do not want to take time addressing basic concepts of American Romantic literature covered in undergrad courses, and skip right to theses that will make their careers. 

I did take several Lit classes in my undergrad career, but none that I can recall, on poetry. Thus, Johnson’s discussion of the meters and rhyme schemes in Dickinson was very welcome. Not that his treatment of recurring themes and metaphor in E.D. are simplistic. It makes for a gem of a book, a real page turner, in fact.

I’m not trying to minimize the intense investigations of academics who like Dickinson. In fact, this book will make a possible return to Cynthia Griffin Wolf’s examination of the poet, which I put down 2/3’s through, not out of confusion, but more out of a sense of having come into the middle of a conversation, more likely, and more enjoyable. 

I received a 3 issue bundle of Pressing Matters, a beautiful printmaking magazine from England, and I’ll write about that upcoming. I also got Powr Mastrs, a book by a Paper Rad alum, C.F., a tour de force in comics brut lyricism, and will try to mention that. I’m re-reading Pynchon’s wonderful funny/scary Mason and Dixon, and ordered a collection of critical essays on that, and those will get a post. With Dickinson’s revivalist gothicism, Sugiera’s pop culture frontier pastiche, and Pynchon’s surreal Enlightenment walkabout, I guess we do have a slender theme: American Romanticism in the Blender for 100, Alex.

I do miss the pub, but books provide a certain amount of companionship, and I don’t mind being judged by the company I keep.

The Reading Edge: When the Going Gets Weird

“When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”

Hunter S. Thompson

A vacancy of purpose takes hold. This is not necessarily a bad thing in a creative sense; I’ve alluded to large empty landscapes in my work and in my creative process. An idea, I’ve said, might be compared to a single rider appearing on a dark plain.

It becomes a bit disconcerting, doesn’t it, when vacancy overtakes your daily routine. It’s an issue I’ve seen coming but delayed addressing, but as I reach official retirement age next spring, it’s been a subtext to my lockdown activities. What to do to keep everyday fresh. I’ve got projects, like everyone, there’s the slow reorganization of life around the idea of staying home. I’ve made a teaching video, applied for economic relief, attended to chores both bureaucratic and domestic. Odd that enrolling in Medicare came at the same time as the virus exposed the weakness of the American health infrastructure.

I had set aside creative production with the closing of my normal workspace, but now I’m looking to return to sketching and studio tasks in anticipation of its eventual reopening. I’ve kept busy. But a creative response was always going to be a must going forward.

But what’s the response? What is the meaning of this newly recovered time? That’s not as easy to resolve as painting the bedroom or as simple to unlock as a studio door. I’ve always turned to art and pop culture in my resting hours to inform that investigation, but now, in a sort of free floating anxiety, I found it hard to pursue new, complex projects. So I returned to older revelations to see them in a new context. Creative flipping, I’ve called it- like a monkey with a stick, I’m turning things over to see if there’s some important function I’ve missed. It can feel repetitive. But in repetition is motion, in motion there can be found rhythm and in rhythm can be found music (art).

And that is -of course! -what led me to Thomas Pynchon and Neil Young. I won’t try to link them- a process that would certainly fill time, but also condemn this blog to the farthest, and very vacant reaches of SEO exile. But I will post separate speculations as evidence of something I consider an essential truth: art’s rarely great, without first being weird. Both Pynchon and Young have had long successful, honored careers. Neither ever foreswore their insistence on being weird.

Mason and Dixon, Thomas Pynchon: In the void that opened up between daily creative purpose (what to do?), and mindfully spent days (what to make of this?), my full docket of readings collapsed. I’m a browser. With the library closed, limited budget and shelf space for online purchases, and the strange, vacant days having tracked us down, I searched my shelf and found a reliable poltergeist to fit the zeitgeist. This is the third time I’ve read it. Why?

Pynchon, like America- and let’s be honest, we didn’t need a pandemic shutting down The Cheesecake Factory to show us this, it’s been right there in front of our faces all the while- is weird and more than a little scary. Pynchon happens to be much better at dressing up the existential paranoia with humor, with robust sentences and images, with the sort of literary parallax that post modernism specializes in, than the country, especially as represented by the incomprehensible word salad of its titular spokesman. We wish America was funny-weird-scary right now, rather than scary-weird-scary. As soon as I pulled the book from my shelf, hefting the 865 pages of funny weird creepy improvisations on the very heavily loaded line drawn in 1863 between Delaware, Maryland, and Pennsylvania and a host of very American histories they stand for, I knew I was home. I wish I could say the same when I look out my front window.

Novels having flown their arcs, this is a very simple tale. Straight line, east to west, actually. To complicate it: some monarch ( James II and VII, but who’s counting) has botched the math in awarding proprietorship in colonies to Penn and Calvert, and borders must be surveyed to fit the authoritarian ignorance. Mason and Dixon, between gigs sighting Transits of Venus, a measurement of solar parallax that was a landmark in determining astronomic distances, are hired. The line surveyed took 4 years of hacking their way through the wilderness and triangulating it with the stars. It eventually wound up becoming a political-cultural touchstone when Americans could not triangulate their way around the question of owning human beings and how much the darkness of their skin devalues them. It sits there invisibly in the pleasant rolling Middle Atlantic landscape, having become as much scar as inscribed line.

That’s where Pynchon comes in. His genius is exploring the dark dreamlike wilderness between science and storytelling. Apocalyptic rainbows etched by erectile weaponry, capital “V” vectors between identity and desire, that sort of thing. The astronomers/ surveyors survive sea battles to get to slave states, pick up chicks with Franklin, smoke pot with Washington. Then they get out their instruments, and the weirdness really kicks in.

This is not beach reading, though it is at times hilarious. It puts the lie to the Rousseauan Arcadia of pre-revolutionary America, and includes Indian massacres, professional-grade geometry and robot ducks. This is an America that is unmapped, and thus dreamlike. “Does Britannia when she sleeps, dream? Is America her dream?” There is a long section in which a character lives through the 11 days that everyone else skipped over when England converted to the Gregorian calendar. It immediately came to mind when the reality of the shelter-in-place was fresh, and weird.

I set myself up on the couch in the hours formerly known as morning rush hour, or the now perfect silence that settles after dark, with my beverage ( coffee, the official drink of Enlightenment era political ferment, now the drug of choice for essential workers, gets a starring role in the book) and my Pynchon Wiki, a pioneering internet lit crit innovation that TRP can justly claim indirect credit for. The wiki helps one to negotiate the myriad historical and scientific allusions, the coffee opens one’s eyes to Pynchon’s rich imaginings, faux Early Modern English patois and robust syntax, the quiet streets remind us that however strange and frightening our history, we are still a work in progress, a nation that can be about the future. Who, after all, writes a book about 18th Century surveyors; unless he thinks it can tell us something about how our lines are drawn now?

Familiar, and yet strange. That is the textbook definition of the surreal, and not to overuse a very overused term, a perfect description of what passes for our daily lives right now. A bit of a horror show, really, though not without its irony, humor and possibility. These days, like all days, once we see them, for all their weirdness, approach the sublime. We’re going to need artists like Pynchon, who in this book says, through the voice of a framing character:

“Who claims Truth, Truth abandons. History is hir’d, or coerc’d, only in Interests that must ever prove base. She is too innocent, to be left within the reach of anyone in Power,- who need but touch her, and all her Credit is in the instant vanish’d, as if it had never been. She needs rather to be tended lovingly and honorably by fabulists and counterfeiters, Ballad-Mongers and Cranks of ev’ry Radius, Masters of Disguise to provide her the Costume, Toilette, and Bearing, and Speech nimble enough to keep her beyond the Desires, or even the Curiosity, of Government.

The tiny hands of corruption are all over the narrative of the present day; the poets and artists- essential workers, by Pynchon’s lights- are on the back heel. In casting about restlessly in my quarantined space I found, on my shelf, the perfect book for this eerie, vacant lost world. Fabulist, counterfeiter, ballad-monger, crank- which am I? In a time when society tends to put people like me, older, poorer, marginalized by choice of profession- on a shelf; in a nation that has never prioritized the health of its people, it’s a healthy question to ask.

And here is your reminder that whatever you read, listen to, or do to get you through this bizarre period, to remember to vote on November 3, as the health of a nation depends upon it.

My Favorite Mistakes

“Did you know when you go

It’s the perfect ending”

Sheryl Crow, My Favorite Mistake 

 

“My Favorite Mistake” is the title of my list of books I thought would be great, but couldn’t finish, or even start.

I’m not bored with writing blurbs and reviews, but do they really tell as much about my reading life as the couch potato drama that is my Coffee Table Stack or the labor of love between the covers of my Nightstand Stack? Aren’t the eye-crossingly soporific failures just as revelatory of my intellectual struggles as the PMBs (Post Modern Bricks) and Victorian classics I’ve triumphantly crossed off my bucket list? Sure, it’s a bit of an obscure question, but that’s why we have obscure blogs. Onward-

Reasons for not finishing, or not starting, a book:

Readability: An ex-girlfriend once got me an academic critical study of Thomas Pynchon’s novels, because she knew I loved ( and repeatedly read) them. Though I’d read many Pynchon exegeses before, I put it down quickly as it was clotted with post modern jargon and elliptical syntax.

By the same token, I admit I recently put down a book on post modernism’s misuse of higher mathematical principles because I really didn’t understand academic postmodernism’s basic concepts, not to mention those of higher mathematics. That was the point of the book, of course, I GET THAT, but obviously didn’t get it.  I was not well read enough to understand why PoMo philosophy is often unreadable.  I got a few sentences into the first, struggled through a chapter of the second.

I kept the first book, though, because she wrote a nice note in it. I occasionally pull it out, in case something clicks, but inevitably the first sentence I pick out to read is a clotted mess. Although challenging oneself is clearly a good thing sometimes, I think  it’s very healthy to read stuff that appeals to us, for whatever reason.

Shove me in the shallow water: The Enlightenment and the Book, by Richard B. Sher seemed, despite its fussy academic aspirations, to offer perspective on the Age of Reason. Cultural histories are an exciting genre, and getting my history of ideas through a history of publishing excites my nerdy, bookish little mind to no end, at least in the abstract. But I probably needed a bit more basic explication on the Scottish Enlightenment itself and a little less on the effects of quarto and octavo editions on the marketing of Locke’s ideas. Got through a chapter, I think.

This differs from The Novel: A Biography, whose oblique evaluations of ancient books I (mostly) hadn’t read I loved so much I snatched up a used copy to keep at home and refer to, and have actually referred to. I finally got through Part One of Don Quixote, and read all of Mill on the Floss (rather than Dickens), because of Novel.

Book not what was expected:

A Traveler’s Guide to the Restoration, I’ve forgotten the bloody author’s name: This just happens to be the tome I was reading when the idea for this post occurred to me. It looked like one of those day-to-day, street-level cultural histories that can breathe air into heavily historicized and romanticized eras (in this case, England’s return to monarchy after the beheading of Charles I, and the ensuing Puritan Interregnum).

But it could have used a bit more historicization. We get precious little on Charles II and James II and VII (really, isn’t a king with TWO succession numbers worth a bit of historicization!?), and quite a lot on the prices paid for each of the 17 or so meat dishes included in the typical upper middle class Sunday meal.

Plus, he really does sporadically attempt t0 maintain its awkward conceit of being an actual travel guide, thus killing its potential appeal as traditional history/cultural history hybrid, which is what I wanted. I cherry picked a few of the more interesting chapters, then sort of slid it into my bag of returned books one Sunday afternoon. So I can’t really tell you why I didn’t finish this book, because I never really finished not finishing it.

Book Duplicative: The Best Non Required Reading, 2017, Sarah Vowell editor: It’s an impeccable anthology, and I think most would agree there’s no shame in not reading every morsel of an anthology, even one edited by the irrepressible Sarah Vowell.  It includes short fiction and essays, and I impulsively grabbed it during a binge of short fiction and essay reading from a stack I’d squirreled away against those dreaded, and mostly imaginary, moments when I tell myself there is NOTHING TO READ.

Currently, those include  a stack of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concerns I scoop up for $5 everytime one appears at my favorite used bookstore, a George Saunders collection, Denis Johnson’s newest and a Fitzgerald collection. There are a couple of essay collections, too, and I pretty sure I’ll die alone.

Secondly, the non-fiction in the collection mostly concerns, unsurprisingly, Trump, and I regulate my intake carefully. ‘Read rage’ is painful and counter productive, however worthy. Trump will be hammered by any and all thoughtful writers in the next two decades, then relegated to the end of the presidential shelf, with Millard Fillmore and Warren G. Harding. It’s an irony how many trees will die for this anti-environmentalist thug.

I did read Ta-Nahesi Coates’ My President Was Black, and a couple of great stories. It’s recommended, if you don’t mind recommendations from anthology-grazers.

Bus/train reading, not on bus/train: Superficial perhaps, but a book of a certain size, optimal chapter length and expendability, I will often put in my kit bag for the ride to work.  I really loved Adam Gopnik’s essay on comics and high art in High Low, where he bravely and convincingly documented R.Crumb’s influence on Phillip Guston,  so when I saw At the Strangers Gate on the freebie advance reading pile at work I speculatively picked it up.

I soon happened across a review in the NYT somewhat dismissive of this memoir of life in 80‘s and 90‘s New York because nothing bad ever really happens to him. It’s true that Stranger reads like a history of white liberal entitlement at times, but it turns out that Gopnik can make almost anything, including copyediting fashion magazines, seem interesting and culturally significant. But the book never really left my book bag when I got home.

I actually began the ‘Reading List’ portion of this blog in homage to Nick Hornby’s The Polysyllabic Spree, published originally in Believer Magazine then collected into a tidy little (kit bag-sized) paperback that yo-yo’ed up and down the E-Line with me and was titteringly ingested in perfect little DU-to-Union Station’-sized bites. Part of the appeal of Hornby’s blurbs are his admissions of when a book just isn’t for him, like losing a lover: some one had to make that call, but you’ll always wonder what might have been in the next chapter.

Call of Duty: I had long ago read a euro comics version of DeSade’s Justine, and when I saw a thick Collected Works at the library it seemed superficial to base my whole impression of this very influential writer on that, so I read a couple of introductory essays and some Dialogues and Philosophy in The Bedroom.

Then I was done. I’m pretty sure I’ve read more DeSade than most who presume to judge him, and I understand why he’s influential- doesn’t Raskolnikov later pose the same moral questions, albeit with his ax, as DeSade does with his dick? And what does that say about us that we avoid such an influential writer because of anal sex?

But how much lecturing on the libertarian fantasy should we have to subject ourselves to before we decide that its absolutist seductions are not morally defensible and thus not possible? And shouldn’t fantasy, whether sexual or political, contain some small kernel of possibility? Or philosophy, less self indulgence and more rigor? I’ve crossed it off my bucket list and installed it on my ‘rhymes-with-bucket list’. When I need to get up someone’s ass, reading-wise, it’ll probably be some actual porn, rather than bedroom philosophy.

Finishing books is a positive character trait, I believe. But so is admitting when you’ve made a mistake. Life is short and procrastination is the mind’s way of telling you there are better things to be done with your time.  I’m certain that my list of mistakes will grow. But I should stop here and try to finish a book, or at least start one.

 

Read Flag!

I found this image on Tumblr. I recognize the contradiction of a visual artist using someone else's image without proper credit. If anyone has a source, or needs it taken down, please contact me.
I found this image on Tumblr. It’s very cool! I recognize the contradiction of a visual artist using someone else’s image without proper credit. If anyone has a source, or needs it taken down, please contact me.

It’s Banned Books Week. 

Though it’s been a busy Summer, I’ve gotten quite a bit of reading in. Evenings and mornings have mostly been spent catching up on my reading on the back porch, thankfully relatively cool this summer.

Here is what I’ve been reading. Rather than compile a comprehensive entry, which I’ve identified as a reason I have trouble posting regularly, I’ll make it a two-parter, leading up to an update on comics and other media.  Does anyone else have this problem? I’m hoping that splitting up the posts will lead to more (and more fluid) posts. I’m also updating the page on Monotype Workshops with new info on the free Denver Public Library/ Art Students League drop-in workshops I’m leading. Come down and try a monotype!

First, some books:

Bleeding Edge, Thomas Pynchon. Another “detective” story from Pynchon, actually a private Certified Fraud Investigator tale. Maxine smells a rat when a shady “Silicon Alley” corporation starts buying up failing dot coms to use as shell companies. Set in NYC in the 9/11 era, so you know all the expected Pynchonian paranoia is here. But unlike his last door-stop novel Against The Day, or his surf-hippie noir, Inherent Vice, the plot is one of his most straightforward, which helps with this type of genre pastiche. It’s no Gravity’s Rainbow, but it’s a fun read.

The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, Mark Lewisohn. Sounds geeky, and I guess it is, as there is technical data on each session given, but the commentaries are compelling reading, in the same way that the Beatles Anthology discs, and Tim Riley’s Tell Me Why are indispensable: they get you into the same studio as, and into the heads of, the Fabs at each juncture of their amazing creative journey. Matter of fact, just buy all three, and some beer or Blue Sapphire gin, and your reading/listening is all set. Thank me later.

Women, Art and Society, Whitney Chadwick. Not exactly a page turner, as this sort of thing usually needs to cater to the freshman text trade, and pay respects to the academic/feminist/cultural studies tenure track convo as well, but relatively free of post-modernist jargon. As such, it’s a tidy little overview of some of the issues and societal shifts that have kept all but the least well-behaved (and most talented) women out of the history books. Also: not likely to, nor intended to, make you proud to carry a Y chromosome.

Soccernomics, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski. Been meaning to read this forever, so rather than sit and day-drink between WC games one day, I walked down to the Tattered Cover and finally picked it up. Short, essay-sized chapters on topics that footy fans expound on with great certainty, that these guys (one a football scribe, the other an economist) put to the test. Which side to go during PKs. Why soccer teams don’t, and shouldn’t make money. Do coaches make a difference? Buy this,The Ball is Round, some beer or gin, and the MLSLive package, and watch soccer become a favorite American sport. Thank me later.

A whole big stack of Atlantic magazines that I didn’t have time for in the winter/spring, but which I refuse to recycle till I’ve read them because when the Atlantic publishes on a given topic one month, it becomes a major topic in the mainstream media and parties the next 2-3 months, every single time. Why Big Oil isn’t going away ( Technology makes it ever cheaper and easier to find and extract). Why the foodies’ anti-processed food crusade is wrong (it can easily be retooled for healthy eating for poorer Americans, unlike organic, GMO-free “natural” foods). Why the Beatles’ creative style fits the “team of rivals” mode more than the popular “two solitary geniuses” model ( John’s interjection “It couldn’t get no worse” to Paul’s “It’s Getting Better” lyrics exemplifies how they completed each other in making unique, complex pop.) You should subscribe. It’s cheaper than beer or good gin. Thank me later.

A whole big stack of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, the quirky and irresistibly stylish journal of fiction, non fiction and publishing design gimmickry. I buy every 3rd or 4th one and keep them on the shelf in the bedroom, and I can pull one out when I need something to read at night. Often I’ve read barely half of a given issue anyway, but I often return to past favorites as well. Such as: ‘Hadrian’s Wall’ by Jim Shepherd, in #14, in which we meet one centurion who did not share in the glory of Rome. ‘The Stepfather’ by Chris Adrian in #18, where we encounter a family more preposterous and absurd than even our own. And ‘Fox 8’ in # 33 by George Saunders, in which we meet, then say farewell to, a creature who knows us better than we know ourselves. Each features a dark, insinuating humor that stays with you.

 

 

 

Weekend Squish: Book Review

It’s Pynchon month in Squishytown! We started the festivities off by bussing down August 4 to Tattered Cover for his latest, INHERENT VICE. Things really ramped up with a 94-word run-on tribute sentence wedged into the previous Squishtoid post – still far short of the 400+ monster that opens MASON AND DIXON, but I guess that’s why TP has a MacArthur Genius Grant and the Squish doesn’t (yet).

And now, because 77,000 reviews ( one for each wacky TP character moniker) in 2 weeks just don’t seem enough, comes my review. And unlike all the others, this one doesn’t mention the word “paranoia”. Oh. Damn.

Thomas Pynchon, a writer whom many associate with dense, hard to read doorstop -type books, has created what will surely become the entry point for his work with INHERENT VICE. The previous entry point, CRYING OF LOT 49, deals with the same place, Southern California, and many of the same cultural and metaphorical issues, but doesn’t have two things that VICE does: the easy flow of genre (here, detective) fiction, and an agreeable, heck, lovable- central character who smokes way too much pot, in much the same way Phillip Marlowe drank way too much whiskey.

That combination, lifted whole from the classics of the Noir era, smooths the way for Pynchon’s usual mix of irony, pathos and satiric humor, and provides a peek into the heartbreakingly funny and ineffectual lives he celebrates, along with the crushing, relentless systems of power and control that provide the juice for his electric and very post modern prose. It’s always sex magic versus death-mongering with Pynchon, but here he adds in a lot of nostalgia for late 60’s Los Angeles, and a spirit of place that, like Raymond Chandler’s, feels like the real deal.

Like LOT 49, and another earlier NoCal novel, VINELAND, that are quickly being formed by the commentariati into an ad-hoc trilogy, the goofy proles and bra-less babes who redeem their floundering, drug enhanced lives, speak to the betrayal of simple pleasures by those nameless, humorless forces of greed and frigid fear that would bulldoze a community to erect soul-less developments rather than nurture a neighborhood. Only this time, unlike past TP epics, even some of the villains have names and come off as flawed, almost lovable losers themselves.

Discussing plot is always somewhat beside the point in Pynchon. His characters are questers, lighting off manically in search of answers to questions they know not, stopping for a quick buzz or fuck along the way. There is enough here to keep the lovable losers scrambling and the pages turning, but Doc Sportello, The laid-back, hard-“baked” PI who tries to sort it all out, understands that in the end, it’s finding kinship through the smog that makes a city, however Noir, vivid and real. Pynchon appears to have made that leap as well, with the later novels, from VINELAND on featuring progressively more sympathetic characters; special mention made here of the exquisite MASON AND DIXON.

But will VICE please the lovers of intricate, labyrinthine masterpieces such as LOT 49, GRAVITY’S RAINBOW, and V? As one who’s read all of his books, many twice, and counts RAINBOW among the century’s best, I say it doesn’t have to. Pynchon’s done his fair share of heavy lifting. He’s metaphorically compared Information Theory to Thermodynamics, hefted Riemann surfaces and Hollow-Earth theories and squished in hashish and weird menages a trois. Now he wants to be Chandler or Elmore Leonard, or even Jeff Lebowski. Or all three. Wait, that’s a weird menage a trois, too.

Pynchon, if the famous Simpsons “appearances” and the trailer he did for VICE are any indication, may want to be popular for once. That’s not such a bad thing, and INHERENT VICE is not such a bad way to get there. If you never got past the famous 100-page barrier of GR, this eccentric yet agreeable book may get you to the bottom of the mystery of why it’s worth another try.

Goin’ Down the Road…

We’ve all got wheels,
to take us far away.
We’ve got [Squishtoid blogs] to say, what we can’t say…

-Flying Burrito Bros.


Spent the weekend listening to mountain music. That specific mix of Bluegrass, Folk, and Country Rock I first inhaled after leaving the bleak, Hard-Rock steel yards of the Queen City of the Lakes many moons ago.


It hasn’t changed much since I left the Queen City of the Plains (so many queens! There’s a Dame Edna joke in there somewhere..) to come to the Denver Punk scene. Some of it I can go months or even years without. But I don’t mind snoozing through the obligatory Grateful Dead homage to get to the good stuff- Billy Bragg or Gram Parsons. This is the sound track of the many mushroom- and pot-fueled mountain camp outs I’ve stumbled through out in the sage, under the Wyoming moon.


It’s late summer in the Rockies. That time when each hot day contains a hint, like a strip of cool white tan line at the edge of a well-filled yellow bikini, of something to be simultaneously longed for yet postponed as long as possible: Fall. Downtown Salida sitting in its 19th century glory on the banks of the preternaturally turbulent Arkansas River ( August would normally mark the end of flow, and the rafting, but we’ve had a wet Summer), rimmed by the Collegiate Peaks -tall iconic pyramids dappled with the slightly tarnished sunlight of August and skimmed by the fluffy billowing white clouds strobing by like freight cars, with the rustle of cottonwood leaves and the strum of mandolin riffs from the stage at this little festival in the park, is where wraith-like, Autumn ’09 first appeared for this Squishtoid.


It was a pleasant enough show, with a fairly steady stream of interested visitors, many of whom, I heard later, were still raving about my work when they entered the local Mexican bistro across the street; faint praise indeed when none were willing to put pen to checkbook. Oh, well.


Driving out, late sun sliding across rippled arpeggios of mountain peaks like a Sneaky Pete Kleinow solo, then up past the tailings and Superfund degradation of Leadville and onto 70 and down through its interminable, apocalyptically signed descent- ” TRUCKERS DON’T BE FOOLED! STILL 4 MORE MILES OF 6% GRADE WITH TIGHT CURVES!” and as a GP-synth-fill grace note the jagged lightning strokes slashing and hacking away at Lyons, or some other some poor farm town east of Denver.

I spent Monday organizing the garage, to avoid the sort of loading slip-up from Friday, in which a minor part of the tent was left behind ( Um. The roof). I avoided the 5 hour retrieval round trip thanks to a nice woman who had a spare, slightly wind-mangled pop-up, which thanks to the calm weather, worked like a charm. Except, of course, for the no sales part.

But to paraphrase Freewheelin’ Franklin, times of time and no money are better than times of money and no time. Part of the promised but still undelivered Squishtoid Manifesto, folks! Watch for it!

Of course, Freewheelin’ Franklin and his cannabinoid musings are very much on my mind lately, as I solaced my self after my zippo blanco show by laying in bed and finishing Inherent Vice. About which, full review tomorrow, though speaking as one who the only Pynchon books he hasn’t read twice are the ones he’s about to read twice, don’t expect a negative reaction, as it turns out to be kind of a page-turner without losing that delightfully bizarre TP mojo.

The run-on sentence in graf three being in his honor.

Days with out job: 139
Squishometer: “We’re not afraid to ride…”
Number of Words in Graf 3 Run-on: 94

Weekend Squish: A Squishing Comes Across the Sky.

Days without Job: 122

Days Without New Pynchon Novel: -3

In this newly job-less ‘slacker’s’ version of heaven, the required beach read is Thomas Pynchon. So the news, late last year, of an new TP novel, Inherent Vice, out August 4, is welcomed. The unusually quick turn-around, three years – with 10 not unusual for Pynchon, 13 the longest- makes me all squishy inside.The fact that it’s a Noir detective story, unusually light at 369 pp. compared to his last monster (Against The Day, 1000+), is intriguing.

The first reviews have been trickling out.Now they have reached flood stage. They tend to fall into three distinct categories: outraged screed; jaded, knowing intro for newbies; and thematic speculations.

The first, a hallmark of his Gravity’s Rainbow era, is now rare, though you can usually count on some curmudgeon at Slate or wherever to trot one out at some point. That 1974 blank spot in the list of Pulitzer Prizes for Literature is the legacy of this mindset. The second is now standard, and this one typifies the genre: bemused listing of Pynchon tropes; disclaimer about the rather nonchalant plots; toss in a snarky comment about the character names; and you’re done. Mail it in.

The third, my favorite, links the subject novel with his others in terms of Pynchon’s ongoing thematic obsessions, but without the jargon that tends to choke the academic journals clustered around our era’s pre-eminent Post-Modernist writer. These are the most useful to those trying to enjoy or understand the cult surrounding him, and Sarah Churchwell, in the Observer, provides a nice overview:

The book’s title provides Pynchon with a new metaphor for three of his oldest preoccupations: entropy, capitalism and religion, specifically Puritanism. For insurers and preservationists, “inherent vice” describes the innate tendency of precious objects to deteriorate and refers to the limits of insurability and conservation; it suggests that matter (and thus, by extension, materialism) carries within it the seeds of its own destruction.”

But since this is a Noir novel (of sorts), another kind of review has joined the fray, basically asking the question “Is it Noir?” And since the gumshoe genre is one of my favorites, I had to read “Death Becomes Them”, an exploration of literary giants trying out Noir in Newsweek, by Malcolm Jones:

“No one will ever accuse Pynchon of wearing his feelings on his sleeve, but in Inherent Vice there’s no mistaking his affection for his private detective, Larry (Doc) Sportello. Using Chandler territory as inspiration, Pynchon launches a tale as complicated as anything he’s ever written, a tale that involves rotten cops, a missing girlfriend, a murdered developer, and a sinister menace called the Golden Fang, which is a mysterious schooner used for smuggling, but also the name of a shadowy holding company and maybe even a Southeast Asian heroin cartel. There are times when the false starts, red herrings, dead ends, and duplicities get so tangled that all a reader can think of is the story about Faulkner and Leigh Brackett, who, in the midst of writing the screenplay for The Big Sleep, had to call up Chandler to ask who killed the chauffeur—and he couldn’t remember either.”

Jones’ conclusion:

Does it add up? Maybe. Do you get lost? Lured down a long linguistic dark alley is more like it. It’s always weird but always fun.

I’ll be at the Tattered Cover early Tuesday for my copy, and I’ll post my preliminary thoughts in a Weekend Squish soon, and more when I’ve finished it. The single quotes around “slacker” in the first graf above are a warning that I’m actually quite busy in the next three months, and don’t know when this will be.