At last, a literary breeze. OK, literary, qualify that term. Well, it is strange (or rather, comforting) for all us pretend- wannabe- and manqué-writers that a book comprising of little more than notes and short vignettes can get published as a novel/story. Having a name helps, true. Having great dialogue helps too. Riding on the implication of a lot of sex, even better. Though ultimately this ain’t a novel in the Balzac sense (ah, now there’s a novelist), it’s still a lot of fun to read, a breezy read easily taken in a single sitting (say, of an evening one’s forgotten the house keys and the lady is several hours away). As a transition work, Deception plays and enrages the idea of unreliable narrator as he morphs through the mirrors of fiction. Deception of the lover’s husbands or deception of the reader’s interpretation, like. It consciously sits between some of Roth’s major novels so it’s got great bibliographical/contextual value and biographer-baiting; but for us wannabes it’s far more interesting to tune into the writer’s mind at work: to intuit his literary sensibility and the awareness of what will work as drama on the page; the traps and incongruities of a life lead literarily, or noted directly; and the strange fluidity between private and real experience and the written imaginative representation. To hear Roth try things out and ask for suggestions. Above all, to hear Roth the listener — he is an amazing listener and subtle question-leader — and this is of course central to his writerly sensibility. How many times does Zuckerman listen to heroes reciting their tale. The artifice then, with all these little pre- and post-coital whisperings and phone calls and private exhalations, is that we’re listening to listening. Again, the value is primarily of benefit to writers. Not because Roth reveals himself clearly at all, but because he gives so much of his technique away (if you know how to read for it). I also realised how acutely characterised his dialogues can be — not just in the broken English of foreigners but in his subtle modulation of syntax that differentiates the Brits from the Yanks, for egg. Exercises in brevity, easy pieces of dialogue, and another study on the pace and terrain of affairs. Though it won’t quite give you the sang-froid of the average Frenchie in dealing with wives and mistresses.
More ambient noodling I hear you say. You say correct. And I’m lucky to have a partner with a keen eye for all things Eno to help me circumvent the personal embargo against cd-acquisition. If it’s a gift then technically it’s a party campaign donation, innit? The thing with so much of ambient music is that, definition-wise, you could just as easily call it soundtrack music. Vaguely insinuating moods and atmospherics and drawn out soundscapes and strings: all the hallmarks of a soundtrack looking for a film. A drama with lots of roads and a cool heist or two. But take the music on its own and the usual demands for content and subject-context rise to the surface, which you well know I’ve no trouble ignoring (the demands). Ambient pleases itself alone, hence the often pratty implication for its creators. It ain’t hard core or pure music in the jazz sense of ability; it’s all felt and sculpted like a physical space. End curator-communication. J.Peter is the percussion and drum loops to Eno’s synth washes and tonal projections. There’s some really effective string work (if by 'effective' you think purely in terms of soundtracks) and some nice percussion here and there: bells, shakers, treated deep-mixed drums and surprisingly average loops. There’s a voice contribution by Laurie Anderson heavily processed by the vocoder — indeed the vocoder is the treatment of choice for this record — Brian’s Ringo voice even goes into high synthetic stretches. The synth and keyboard sounds are all half familiar if you’ve listened to a lot of Eno’s other records: snippets of similar sounds crop up all over the shop, as well as what I assume are some of his sturdy old DX7 programmes. And some familiar guitar tones. As well as his preference for vocal treatment and half-whispered suggestive-conceptual words — 'More dust… more skill… more dry… more give' etc. So if you like Passengers you’ll interface with this stuff easily 'nuff, or Shutov, the Music for Films. Though this is decidedly calmer and stretchier, and the recording incredibly clear and spacious. There’s not much to hook or draw you in, but they are gorgeously calm and simple pieces. At times a little like futuristic boutique or installation music, it’s also er, great sexy music. I love the planes of music Brian works in.
It doesn't really take much effort, nor does it take much critical analysis or systematic observation, and in fact, a second-rate gypsy with a scuffed plastic globe could discern these facts with similar effort, but I'm starting to get a grip on the NeoCon mindset and worldview. Firstly, there's the religious angle. NeoCons have no qualms aggressively mobilising Christians to vote on a card blatantly sympathetic to the Christian fundamentalist POV. To this end a deluded (fundamentalistically deluded) President who leads his committees in group prayer, who publicly declares his faith in a god-given mission for the US with him as its prophet. US Christians are a stable and easily-led (malleable) electorate. And therefore a faith-based principle of governance — because Bush believes what the NeoCons feed him, he believes that with god, his actions are right. No worries here about the merger of church and executive branch, of god and policy, no nervous glances back to the Declaration of Independence and its deliberate separation of these, but then again no hesitation to exploit the terms of freedom and the founding ideals. Then again, it's not really about church and state, it's more the NeoCon religion and state — a ruthlessly pragmatic grinding of a naively christian monkey. The organ grinder metaphor is seriously underused here. It's a religion bordering on idealistic mania, a belief in America as unilateral thug concocted in some disenfranchised professor's cold and clammy night of the soul — all the hallmarks of a conservative academic nightmare. Hence the propagation of belief in the myth of America, big dopey bovine America, as the foremost bastion of freedom and the corporate model of nations. A fatuous myth, but easy to consume and excrete. Lo-cal, highly processed. Vibrates with all that flag-hailing latent patriotism slash nationalism slash unilateralism. A belief that the myth is sufficient to make Americans feel better about themselves in the world. But ultimately, the NeoCons know this is a necessary myth. Hence their equally disturbing hubris and anti-intellectual (where 'intellectual' equals advice, dialogue, empathy, understanding, rational diplomacy and being right) dismissal of criticism and accountability. For all intents, the NeoCons are a junta in suits. And then there is the management of illusion — much like an advertising exec's offer of a complete marketing package beginning to end. The steady PR buildup to create an enemy of the American people (and this is generally consistent with Republican thinking since Truman, Reagan, and Rumsfeld for the last 25 years, be it communism or terror), to manufacture a need to go to war, to evince the reality and urgency of the threat. To create economic climates which conversely become dependent on military spending, and for defense contractors to jump in on. To create the illusion of an humanitarian intervention, to stand up for an exportable freedom in the little countries — I mean LBJ spouted this shit in the 60s too. Or let's talk about Nicaragua, El Salvador, Granada and, er, Cambodia etc etc. And then always to follow the predictable pattern of non-involvement, reinforcement, buildup and then bombing, more troops and presto! entanglement, quagmire and exit strategy. Well, the NeoCons accelerated this process somewhat with the pre-emptive doctrine. To create the illusion that free market forces and interventionist competition (economic imperialism, what you will) will be the greatest boon to a 'liberated' people. To deny the reality of any situation, just like denying the subtleties of impending civil war and the difficulty and gross inhumanity of the NeoCon model for social happiness, actually, to completely avoid reality and convince the voters at home that things are going well in Iraq. To maintain the illusion that withdrawing from the Kyoto and non-proliferation treaties are beneficial to world stability — to keep at bay the reality that NeoCon think is explicitly creating the conditions for future wars and greater oil-dependence. To build the illusion that cutting tax for the rich is actually good for the poor too — like what, some 'trickle down' effect there? To destroy the illusion that citizens, combatants and enemies have rights and humanity. To maintain the canting illusion that the war on terror is actually fighting terrorism. To keep up the illusion that America has lots of popular allies all round the world. Or the far more disturbing sanction of torture — hard core torture — destigmatised by a bunch of glib-tongued idealists? This is the sickest of all. To so blatantly miss the point that deliberate torture is probably the single strongest determinant in making terrorists out of people who might previously only have been nationalists. And I'm not even going to begin talking about exploiting a Republican-sympathetic media. Or the corporate fundraising behind the election. Mix it all up: faith, myth, illusion — that's NeoCon think. Go forth and conquer.
Errol Morris, The Fog of War
A well-timed effort from a master docomaker which nonetheless lacks teeth and balance. I was in a mood to bone up on MacNamara in Chomsky et al but my library don't stock him. I wanted that pre-emptive context. The problem with Fog is there's almost no context in 't. None of the dirt and urgency of current docos like those reviewed further below. Fog is a monoperspectival piece of self-celebration, a safely circumscribed recollection. Mac is a seductively likeable old man, full of intelligent charm, but by the end this charm actually becomes closed and sinister, a glib political act. And since we only get his POV, this shouldn't really be called a documentary per sé. "I lived the cold war" he proudly exclaims, implying he helped make it what it was. Mac is a numbers man and often his early years come across like a statistician’s dream of war, all efficiency and shifty ethical rhetoric. There's a subtle parallel of the Tokyo firebombings (efficient order there) and footage of napalm canisters being filled in Vietnam — and Morris, regrettably doesn't force the point though it could've damned the Mac and his efficient blame shoveling. Then there's the acutely political tactic Mac espouses to 'never answer a [journalist's] question, but to answer as if they'd asked the question you wanted' — which is an incredibly cynical/revealing observation for a non-elected civilian to make, and waters down the mettle of his veiled criticism (in the extras) of a US government acting unilaterally on the world stage. It also makes you wonder what skills a former Secretary of Defense brought to the World Bank. He's a player yet non-partisan, an executive professional. The arbitrary way he became SecDef under Kennedy is glib and cronyistic, just like becoming president of the World Bank because LBJ pulled a few strings — and he laughingly puts the deprecating gloss on it himself — is all highly suspicious. Ultimately there's no critical balance here, no corrective viewpoint outside of the Mac's head; some inconclusive lesson plans for immorality and criminality in war and serious mistakes and errors of judgment; but ultimately this player won't disclose more than is politically necessary to politically appear like the better man. He admits to making mistakes but won't elaborate on them — he knows exactly when to close the lid on all those vicious worms, he knows to keep himself unaccountable. Mind you, the questions were pretty stupid at times: "Do you feel guilty for Vietnam?" — I mean really, Errol, do you think that'll trip him up? In terms of look though, this is quite well done — with a really effective montage of people moving at two speeds, stillness and movement; and there's some amazing archival footage and taped conversations — none of the stock footage we've come to expect. And there's Philip Glass' moody score deepening the shallow context unnecessarily, which at time had me thinking of an inverse parallel with The Thin Red Line, I know not why. But I wonder when Henry Kissinger is going to get his documentary due. Would a rehabilitated Hitchens be up to the task?
David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest
Yes, and again. This time almost exclusively reading the footnotes. Still amazed I can dip into the Jest at any page and have my faith in fiction Of Our Time renewed, revitalized, refuelled. It still makes me laugh consistently and maniacally. It still has more precise description than the average dictionary. Faves: this, the closure of Orin’s account of the Hal/mould episode:
'"Help! My son at this! My son has eaten this! Help!" she kept screaming, running in tight little right-faces just inside this perfect box of string [in the garden], and I’m seeing The Mad Stork’s face at the glass door over the deck, palms out and thumbs together to make a frame, and Mario my other brother next to him as usual down around his knee, with Mario’s face all squished against the glass from supporting his weight, their breath on the window spreading, Hal inside the string finally and trying to follow her, crying, and not impossibly I also crying a little, just from the infectious stress, and those two through the back door’s glass just watching, and fucking Booboo [Mario] also trying to make that frame with his hands, so finally it was Mr Reehagen next door, who was so-called "friends" with her, who had to come out and over and finally had to hook up the hose.’ (note 234, pp1043-4)
And then, cross-checking the references back to the main text. The amazingly/anally detailed Thanksgiving dinner where Joelle is introduced the sad family unit; with Jim’s drunken discourse on Studio and Method and Orin’s impression of Carl Sagan (pp744-7). Hilarious. Also, I’m starting to think that not Gus van Sant (who owns the rights) but Wes Anderson is the ideal man to direct a film of the Jest.
Listening to Pet Sounds after Smile
PS is definitely pop-format compacter than the explicitly widescreen Smile, but there’s similar attention to instrumental detail and unique-affective sound, for complete 'feels'. PS is acid self-consciousness to Smile’s hashed-out fun. I can't quite put my finger on the musical theory or technicality of the chords, but the arrangements of PS are unexpectedly complex, the furthest thing from three-chord rock. Everything sounds mixed for directest communication, cf Brian singing solo sans backing on two tracks. Which makes me determined to hear the full stereo mix on the boxset — the mono is very compressed but the detail still contributes to the ‘feel’, minimally perceived. The odd chunky rhythm and reach for Spector-fullness; the instrumental breathers and the extension of songs — some seem to grow in strange directions; the general upward trend of the great bass lines especially, cf Smile’s general downward rumbles. The bass is the primary rhythm instrument here — not a backbeat to be found. Sonically PS is ruby and gold to Smile’s mellow browns and greens. Though there’s innocence-lost themes on both, PS lacks the apotheosis of the Child suite. But again, in terms of progress and development, there’s more space between PS and Smile than there is between Sgt Pepper and the White Album — worlds apart. Still, it takes a certain bent genius (or a musical monk — aldus Van Dyke) to realise that a heavily-echoed empty water container is sonically appropriate for a song of love lost (Caroline, no). Also, I’ve been paying closer attention to Mike Love’s singing. Particularly, how he always puts in a basic level of effort and commitment. There’s times when he goes that extra yard of course (I Get Around, All I Want to Do etc), but even in hardcore Brian songs like That’s not Me he puts in a sufficiently good vocal — though he knows it’s up the Brian country. Singing a line like "all that matters to me is how good I could be to just one girl" — you just know Mike doesn’t think that way, that old Love stud.
Listening to Baroque music
Especially JS Bach: infinite embellishment within the scale, a rigorous structure and the beauty arising from rigour. An aesthetics unencumbered by form yet intensely formal. So naturally paced and cohesive, from exploratory to inward and meditative moods to chorals of praise; a sense of sufficiency with form and hence with man under god. I love it all, the Brandenburgs, the harpsichords and fugues; the music of precision within a genre. And a reminder that such music is the directest and least error-prone means to experience and understand the mindset of the past. Completely cerebral, completely lacking all dance, but nearly perfect as rarefied music.
Philip Roth, I Married a Communist
A testament to betrayal set in the treacherous period of McCarthyist America. The crush and crumple of another vivid, rangy athletic male and his passionate particularity. A brilliant establishment of a political era, but in equally tall and rangy prose lacking the verve and raciness of Sabbath’s Theatre, that hysterical desire machine. I guess this is part and parcel with a novel told in recollection whilst building a double, triple, then quadruple character portrait. Roth handles it effortlessly of course but the fare is drier than his contemporaneous books. The US fetish for righteous blamelessness and betrayal though no one really knew what Communism was; the undercurrent of a-Semitism in Red-baiting; the destructive tides enveloping the righteous, usually to further a personal cause. The pleasure of betrayal. The purifying acid and abrasion of the purely literary Glucksman. The rather brilliant rundown of the Nixon funeral (p278) fittingly closing the Tricky portrait; the hilarious account of getting laid for the first time at an Abbott & Costello drive-in movie, the windows steamed and the engine flooded. Memorables: «… nothing so audaciously creative in even the most ordinary as the workings of revenge. And nothing so ruthlessly creative in even the most refined as the workings of betrayal.» (p184). The entire page of 223 («Politics is the great generaliser… and literature the great particulariser… in an antagonistic relationship [to each other]» is full of exemplary advice. «I think of the McCarthy era as inaugurating the postwar triumph of gossip as the unifying credo of the world’s oldest democratic republic. In Gossip We Trust. Gossip as gospel, the national faith… the American unthinking.» (p284) And of course there’s Roth’s sustained work of the memory, painting a complex background to partly explain the world we inhabit and inherit today.
Scraps of contrasting televisuals: I’m starting to think that much if not most of an actor’s onscreen ability has to do with that difficult essence: screen presence. Basically, notice its terrific absence whenever Nicole Kidman is on screen. There’s nothing there: just a face reading lines. More explicitly, put her next to a Lauren Bacall (upcoming film), or hell, even compare her with Scarlett Johansson (only 20 yrs old!), and it becomes clear that all those directors and co-stars are full of shit when talking 'bout her ‘amazing talent’ (Nicole’s). She does nothing technically to suggest presence of character, or of a character inhabiting space or silence. She has a problem externalising the punctuated differences of identity. She doesn’t have the gravity of attraction and appeal, the mechanics of presence.
Holy literary crossover, Batman. I got the word on TV and a quick browse confirmed that Michael Winterbottom is adapting and filming Tristram Shandy! I wonder how Mr W.B. (and Mr Steve Coogan, ideal choice) will translate to screen this most digressive, tangent-prone and formally satirical novel. How to film its myriad deviations, meanderings, alternations and u-turns, all its swerves and slews and knotty elaborations and detailed expansions, its rabbiting bush-beatings and non-tautological paddings. How to visualise its effusive and time-compressing anecdotal, parenthetic and episodic discontinuities into a coherent narrative? Nothing so odd will do long.
My other favourite little low-brow pleasure of late has been American Chopper — the Series over on Discovery Channel (the Orange County Chopper lot). It’s like watching a script-girl’s wet dream of directing a TV show. You’ve got tight deadline-driven action (to build a custom bike in so many days), you’ve got all the unpredictable events and errors, and you’ve got a killer cast of contrasts: the walrus father with head fulla steam; the moderate son trying to screw his girlfriend without cleaning the shop; another doofus son and a bunch of mechanics just jawdropping "awesome" whenever something goes right. But especially, the innate knack they all have for spinning neat summaries at every junction. A quick sum-up of what was good about making the deadline, or when the parts came in on time, or that awesome paint job on the fender, or the problems of working with Dad. It’s like the script girl provides every cue to interpret and thematise every event in the same bland manner of Americans and their seeming preparedness/spontaneousness in appearing on TV. The show shovels cliché, and the bikes are "awesome" works of mechanical art, and the dramas are carefully edited into the narrative, and those hunks of shiny metal look awesomely uncomfortable to ride, and it’s as deliberate as hell without quite being pro wrestling, but I love watching its drama by numbers, its tattoo and tough love Americana. Hilarious.
Of things past which get reassessed and measured anew, I’ve given the Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream a bit of a turn. Does it hold up to post-grunge scrutiny and my current demands for interesting and sophisticated songwriting and musical craft? Does the memory of it reconcile with this contemporary/seasoned ear? Well, for the most part it does. Cherub Rock is a great opener — it’s one of my clearest memories of their concert — Corgan crank-kicking his pedal effect and this huge mountain of distortion and feedback erupting. Hummer is still an emotional congruence with the troubled/angsty/petulant late teen mood of when I first brought the disc. On Quiet there’s a scream and guitar solo segue which is freakishly tight. Mayonaise is good grunge fun and the slower tracks with the exception of Sweet Sweet are passable to decaying in memory’s charnel house. The one exciting exception to everything is Silverfuck — the loudest raucous piece of shredding on the album. It’s the ‘realest’ song, the one that feels most genuine. Real as in real psychological (self) conflict, real anger and loathing, real pain and destruction. I love the rumbling run of the middle section and the sudden drop into bass-only pacing. I love the real mental space of it. The insinuating reverse-vocal-echo effect. The shredding closer. Over the top idiocy. Great stuff. Probably a state of mind that Billy doesn’t like having to relive or recount in his atrocious new book of poetry.
I am convinced that I Get Around is the greatest pop song ever. This year, this week, my mood today and for all time. I can’t get enough of it — it’s got it all. Stomping rhythm and cool tempo changes, riffs and handclaps. The Fender bass. The call and response harmonies and sheer automotive optimism. The Brian lead line unifying the whole track. So much vocal beauty and interplay and melodic appeal in a song celebrating cars and chicks; the way the chorus so joyously sails off and takes you on board; and historically speaking, the first time (ever) that cruising and cool vocal harmonies were brought together. Another great American moment. So much value from a neat, compact little package. So much — even by the standards of 60s pop.
Youssou N'Dour and the Fathy Salama Orchestra, Vicar Street Dublin
Amazingly sophisticated big band playing a powerful blend of Afircan and Egyptian-Arabic music. I love big bands in almost any format — and here, I’d never thought how well Senegalese-African blends with Egyptian-Arabic — the reminder is that Egyptian culture is historically an extension of the African tradition. A different world of virtuosity; a different sense of enjoyability (I’m starting to think along this axis: patient, open wide earthy music and rhythm vs. the quick sugar fix of Western pop and structure). A gifted voice. Dramatic and contrapuntal strings. A potent sense of this being truly healthy music — good for the body and the soul. Though the language barrier prevented a direct connection — the feeling was there so strongly in the music and affective import. I was expecting something more Nusrat-styled, but last night was closer to Om Kalsoum, not the Persian East. Had a vision of the woven interconnectivity of near-Eastern music from the gifted oud player — a carpet of influence from India into the Arab lands (which way Indian music did spread) — with the spiritual approach to virtuosity and improvisation; and which spread upwards into Europe via the guitar and with folk/gypsy musics.
One strange turn of event (before the music) was the band members’ expressed discomfort with playing a licensed venue in the middle of Ramadan. Mr Promoter came out and begged indulgence and understanding and asked if all drinks could be finished within 20 minutes (the band finally came on about 50 minutes after schedule (which also had to do with the bar closing and everyone shuffling slow and dawdling to their seats). Bear in mind that Dubliners tend to bring in about two or three pints for a show — this was no mean feat. Imagine the restless audience going for regular pissstops. In my growing misanthropic state I can’t see any reason for bringing a big band such as this, playing serious music, to Dublintown with all its drunken hecklers. Still, it must’ve been some managerial/booking agent oversight of the kind freshly-multicultural Ireland is newly coming to grips with.
Also of note was the decidedly middle-aged constitution of the audience. I felt very, very old of a sudden. An old rocker with leather pants and vest here, a bearded greyhead with a new age couple there, him in a ‘save the whales’ shirt. I got to thinking: what is it about World music (and how I loathe that blandly levelling moniker) that draws out the middle-age new-agers? Is it the safety of the music? The continuation of a touristic mentality? My third wife and me went to Turkey for our honeymoon and now she wants to go bellydancing? Or is it that mocking Western search for an easily-accessible or essential and authentic spiritual experience as expressed through ethnic and other-worldly folk traditions? And all the cynicism that implies. It’s a difficult bind to view the industry in, and it warrants further essaying because there’s a scrap of truth there; at the same time that all rhythm musics are vitally exciting, and how partaking in the full spectrum of human expression is a noble thing.
Christophe Gans, Le Pacte des loups / Brotherhood of the Wolf
What a strange mismatch of stylings — there’s period-piece bodices and French frills with Predator action and martial arts gymnastics and all the modern editing techniques that go with it. There’s a Name of the Rose hero with an Indian American sidekick, and sloppails full of Indian mythology and totemology. There’s libertines and sly marchionesses, there’s mock-devil-worshipping African bestiaries, secret anti-royalist societies, corrupt intrigues and brigandry. And lots of damsels sacrificed to a suspiciously animatronic beast. Pack it all together with incohesive and occasionally obtuse narrative directions, stage some really obvious set-piece fights with one guy beating twenty others and that very annoying stop-start-staggered-speed editing John Woo pioneered (methinks), add a few cuts and torn tunics and near-deaths and that’s it. Some blatant 'hey, where’s the good guy gone when the sidekick gets it?' gaffs. I dig genre splicing when it works, but this is going overboard. It could’ve been the lousy dubbing that did it for me, with a Donald Sutherland type mouthing mealy philosophy and mock-wit in very murky translation. It could all have been played for broadly comic cynicism or genre jokes but in the end it ends up looking like an expensive and very un-serious movie that isn’t halfway as cool as the by-lines say. Too big for its own britches. Not enough yucks. Why would someone bother borrowing this wasteful turd? Maybe Monica Bellucci had something to do with it. Hm yum. I rest my case.
Read my rambling baggy column on Brussels, that sloppy European city here. Not sure if I believe it anymore. Quatably:
As I walked through the boulevards and narrow lanes, stopping for a building façade here, a crepe there, and even for a dramatic-hysterical suicide attempt at the Hotel Métropole (she was finally cornered and rescued), and with the words "scrappy, baggy" running a loop in my head, I got to thinking about the grand, bookish idea of the capital city expressed in Dickens' living, breathing London and Joyce's Dublin; an idea of the city as a kind of contextual model for character and narrative depth.
Roth excels at splicing comedy and rage. An especially sexual splicing — which from the start had me in mind of Sabbath’s Theatre. But then again he’s also one of the finest channelers of rage operating in fiction today. And when he’s not writing full comedy, is also one of the sharpest craftsmen of psychological realism. A serious one. A rare technician of prose joining pain and surprise, the ruthless and the defenceless, the sincere and the performed. The power of human chaos entered through the minds and language of characters with staggering fullness. To reveal all the self-preservations of ego, the smarts of pain and broken love, the shards of identity — in the lawyer, Faunia, Delphine Roux, Farley — whose nightmare is rendered with amazing justification and Hemingway jolts of prose. I loved the youth and energy of the boxing-related chapters, how the sport ignites Coleman’s dormant hate of race/colour awareness. The cutting portrait of pride-afflicted Delphine with her Continental vocab and polished complexities, the complex phony. «She seemed to herself to have subverted herself in the altogether admirable effort to make herself» (p272) in contrast to Coleman. Was her undoing a little too blunt? I loved the early (narrative-late) seed of appropriateness/correctness in the home visit with Steena, the struggle for formality. I love Roth’s concern with genealogy and full family backgrounding — not so much a Jewish concern as a biblical mode — how shall we tell our story? — in the language of our forefathers etc. I especially like — now that I know how to look for them — Roth’s little parallels of character-thought and writing method, his particular focus and devotion to the art: «The task, nothing but the task. At one with the task. Nothing else allowed in.» (p121) (tangential topic: the love of writers for boxing). And of always using characters to express your deepest criticisms of society: «…their shallowness they call lovingness, and the ruthlessness is camouflaged as lost self esteem. The hyperdramatization of the pettiest emotions.» (p147) «All that we don’t know is astonishing.» (p209) «The fantasy of purity is appalling. It’s insane. What is the quest to purify, if not more impurity?» (p242) And of course there’s Roth the prosemeister, from the super first page to the sustained ambivalent closure of the ending. «To become a new being. To bifurcate. The drama that underlies America’s story, the high drama that is upping and leaving — and the energy and cruelty that rapturous drive demands.» (p342) The book is littered with simple-word/complex-idea expressions. «He didn’t so much laugh aloud as nibble at the bait of an out-loud laugh, work up to and around the laugh without quite sinking his teeth in. Close to the hook of dangerous merriment, but not close enough to swallow it.» (p357). It’s not the easiest on the eyes, but certainly deeply rewarding to read — a pleasure that mixes cerebrality with visceral urge. The book does sag in the middle, and occasionally he lays on too many questions, labouring the reader with «By the time I met him, was the secret merely the tincture barely tinting the coloration of the man’s total being or was the totality of his being nothing but a tincture in the shoreless sea of a lifelong secret?» (ref lost) Almost purple, that. Brave, but purplish. Still, a great picture of America.
At last, an inaresting and appreciative, thoughtful Smile article on PopMatters. Notable quote:
There's so much poetry inherent in the idea of the child fathering the man (which I think actually stems from Wordsworth's poetry) that I've always regarded this song as a key moment in Wilson's musical and personal life: the moment he turned away from the surf/beach/youth formula of the Beach Boys and really found himself artistically. To first-time father Brian, as he was at the time, children represent the death of one's own youth, but also a reconciliation of sorts, of youth matured and defined, which observes, as though for the first time, the generosity of innocence in the child. It's an idea expressed slightly differently but with similar idea-power by Andy Partridge: "Now the son has died, the father can be born". It certainly lends a philosophical weight to the abstract poetry of the lyrics. Again, the child-child-child motif and sustained backing vocals render the song and the poetic movement complete.
The article misses the subtle point that though some of the tunes sound incredibly childish/naff, part of the album’s essence is to make music even kids can relate to in a way. The Song for Children, the fun of Barnyard, the whistles and vegetables, the chalk and numbers of recess hopscotch, the tear rolling down the cheek, even Fire. Kids can interface with this stuff emotionally. This makes Surf’s Up slightly more poignant, vis the thesis that this song expressly farewells Brian’s youth. It also misses the superior version of Heroes & Villains on the Hawthorne disc, which a colleague said sounded like 'being attacked by a choir singing a Beach Boys song.' The new album version, in trying to cover too many bases (and its less effective vocal mix) wavers in comparison. Also, it misses the fact that humour plays a decisive role in the sequencing — take the workshop sounds mending the broken heart in the third suite, which then segues effortlessly into the healthy Vega-Tables. It doesn’t always wedge so neatly, but listen again to Master Painter/Sunshine: the effect or context is somehow made bigger before effortlessly drawling into the up Cabin essence. Also, the article could’ve mentioned the unnecessary addition of Good Vibrations, which in retrospect smacks of hedge-betting and an insecurity that Smile itself might not be enough or simply too weird musically not to have at least one bona fide/tested hit.
I was also thinking of a new acid test for concept albums posed uncertainly on the classic/dud turnpike: the Smile Test. Method: consider whether the potential-classic album at hand would garner as much mystery, reputation and effect if it had been semi-abandoned, let out in beautiful fragments and speculated on by devoted fans as Smile did done do over the last 37 years. Does it have the reach and scope and mad virtuosity? Would it make you a believer?
Also, more than the mealy concept or rock opera albums of the 60s and 70s, Smile gives some confidence again for musical work on the grand/planned scale, for unified "big picture" works.
Rest assured, Australia. I’ve done my bid to oust that lying, nefarious Little Man from office. I’ve responded to the call of democracy and humanity. I’ve voted.
If you want to hear a supremely confident, swinging jazz album, I suggest sampling Cannonball Adderley's Them Dirty Blues. An improviser at the peak of prowess and style; a switched-on, lock-tite band, a consistently great album of tunes. If only all jazz could be like this. Forever. Alas.
Also, since I’ve imposed a ban on the purchase of new books and discs on myself (excepting the momentousness of Smile), I thought to try something different re: Tom waits’ new album, Real Gone (rather placidly reviewed here). I’m going to consume and participate in this album purely in degrees removed, through reviews, online snippets or related forum-opinions and articles. Through press promos and marketing dribbles and third-rate and/or tepidly composed opinions. I’m going to do everything except purchase the album. And then, later in time, because it’s unlikely his back catalogue will go out of print soon, I’ll compare the reality of the sounds and beats of the album with the mental picture created by all that secondary media. Hey, like, how shiftily ironic for a review website!
Oh, and I can’t remember laughing this hard for a while; but I'm gonna do a special edit of Oliver Stone’s The Doors with a laugh track. Whistles, Harpo-hoots and bells; BargeArse voices. And possibly some lifted commentary by the late Rodney Dangerfield. That film is so laughable, so tarnished with age and decay, so willfully naïve in narrative scope and editing, it had me stapling my sides to the couch with glee. What was he thinking? That man Stone is an unacknowledged master of comedy.
After about the third repeat now, I still draw a hearty chortle at Homer's 'Oh, save me Jebus!'
Sew together some short stories based on a single character and whatya get is a below-par novel (thanks for the tip-off, Ads). Not that nippy Nab doesn’t have a lot to say here, but ultimately there’s little more here than the brief and continual introduction/approximation of character in witty prose. No plot that is, just characters. And occasionally acute insight into the punctuation of personality, especially the dual personality of the émigré (Nab par excellence) as seen through the eyes of the lovable savant.
There’s also a subtle discontinuity at work, starting with what could’ve been a ladies’ library circle story about a distracted professor (Peter Sellers ideal casting, with pleasing sarcastic winks for all the bitty aunties); and ending as it does with a whodunit narrator-game uncloaking good old V.N., who had already appeared referentially as the poet Sirin. But as far as fairly narrating childhood’s memorial domain, Nab stands as resident genius. An accurate litmus test of authorial greatness is their sensitivity and panache in tackling the child’s perspective. Nab (nearly) stands alone here in not sentimentalising or romantically deifying Innocence über alles. He seems to tap into and build upon the child’s access and desire for maturity, as shoots of growth which every (child) character innately possesses. Already.
However, the overriding feeling in Pnin, despite its intensely enjoyable fun and academic puns is that Nab is cruising in third gear without hurry; he’s avoiding using the entire technical/novelistic manual and just coasting downhill with an easy read. There’s little rapid-fire fireworks or prose ingenuity. Just little vignettes to help his American friends understand the subtleties of Russian habit and gesture, and even then with not much continuity. The story of Pnin’s interestingly artistic step-son is left to dribble unconcluded. The glass bowl nearly shatters, suspenseful Nab, but thou art his keeper and must complete him! Please conclude — especially since the writing on art was acute by average fiction standards.
It was a fair fall night, velvet below, steel above. (p 138)
Technically speaking, the narrator’s art of integrating telephone conversations still lags far behind that of rendering dialogues conducted from room to room, or from window to window across some narrow blue alley in an ancient town with water so precious, and the misery of donkeys, and rugs for sale, and minarets, and foreigners and melons, and the vibrant morning echoes. (p 26)
There’s also the pure Nab fun of dental anxiety and falsies:
His tongue, a fat sleek seal, used to flop and slide so happily among the familiar rocks, checking the contours of a battered but still secure kingdom… but now not a landmark remained, and all there existed was a great dark wound, a terra incognita of gums which dread and disgust forbade one to investigate. (p 32, hello Amis)
There are, incidentally, lots of coloured descriptions of sky and shafts of light. There’s also the usual stock jabs at Freud and the manqué-Freudians. Also a loving rendition of the pleasures of private scholarship. Deliciously comical errors and subtle insinuations re marsturbation and homosexuality (‘curiously neat’) packaged with careful unstitchings of character.
A very interesting (if long) article by Naomi Klein on the shock 'n awe economic policy hatched by the Hawks in Iraq before things started to get, well, a little violent: Baghdad Year Zero
It makes the fuddled interim/transitional debate over a workable constitution stark and clear, and why any association with the Bremer-based yankee contracts is so dangerous for Iraqis.
Choice quote, theme:
The Bush Administration did have a plan for what it would do after the war; put simply, it was to lay out as much honey [reconstruction contracts, no taxes/tariffs] as possible, then sit back and wait for the flies.
The Financial Times has declared Iraq “the most dangerous place in the world in which to do business.” It’s quite an accomplishment: in trying to design the best place in the world to do business, the neocons have managed to create the worst, the most eloquent indictment yet of the guiding logic behind deregulated free markets.