Thursday, July 31, 2008

Do Mormons think regular Christians are hellbound?

Because if not (and apparently they don't), what was the point of starting a whole new...thing. I mean, sure, Joseph Smith wanted to fuck a whole bunch of oft-underage women (ooh, inflammatory!), but is there any reasoning beyond that?

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Tunnel

Hey, ya notice that amazon posts positive reviews almost instantaneously, but drags their feet on ambivalent reviews if it gets around to them all? What a co-in-ci-dence! I wrote a few notes on this novel, but I don't really think they're that enlightening, so here's the director's cut of my as yet unpublished review.

Loopy work of genius, or insane self-indulgence? I went back and forth in my opinion whilst reading this book, but ultimately, I think the only reasonable answer is "why not both?" Unfortunately, I think we can also add "artistic failure" to the list. An interesting, sometimes fascinating failure--but a failure nonetheless.

On a sentence-by-sentence level, Gass's writing is absolutely dazzling, it's true. That should not be understated, because it's what redeems the book, if you think it's redeemable. One might politely question whether it was actually worth spending thirty years to write, but it's obvious where all that time went. See, for instance:

A father speaks earnestly to his son and points at the heavens where surely there is an explanation; it is doubtless their true destination. The color of the sky cannot be colored in. So the son is lied to right up to the last. Father does not cup his boy's wet cheeks and say, You shall die, my son, and never be remembered. The little salamander you were frightened of at first, and grew to love and buried in the garden, the long walk to school your legs learned, what shape our daily life, our short love, gave you, the meaning of your noisy harmless games, every small sensation that went to make your eager and persistent gazing will be gone; not simply the butterflies you fancied, or the bodies you yearned to see uncovered--look, there they are: the inner thighs, the nipples, the pubes--or what we all might have finally gained from the toys you treasured, the dreams you peopled, but especially your scarcely budded eyes, and that rich and gentle quality of consciousness which I hoped one day would have been uniquely yours like the most subtle of flavors--the skin, the juice, the sweet pulp of a fine fruit--well, son, your possibilities, as unrealized as the erections of your penis--in a moment--soon--will be ground out like a burnt wet butt beneath a callous boot and disappear in the dirt. Only our numbers will be remembered--not that you or I died, but that there were so many of us. And that we were

Horrible, but the fact remains: that is writing that demands you sit up and take notice.

The frequent tyographical tricks are perhaps less groundbreaking than Gass thinks they are, but they're amusing enough, and they certainly don't detract from the work. For a pure aesthete, therefore, this novel--or, perhaps, "novel"--may be just the thing. Furthermore, some of the vignettes, particularly those concerning Kohler's childhood, are fairly arresting. In particular, the section towards the end which tells of his mother's alcohol-related institutionalization is repellant but quite arresting. So while I don't want to understate the things that The Tunnel does well, I cannot help but feel that when examined holistically, things fall apart a bit. A big bit.

Kohler, the narrator, is a repulsive figure. I think few would attempt to argue otherwise. His endless, resentful self-pity--I hate my colleagues; I hate my wife; I hate my parents; I hate my children; I don't get the respect I deserve just because I'm a Nazi sympathizer and possibly also because I abuse my power to seduce my students--is enough, truly, to wear a man down. Even if some of his complaints (not the last one) may have some legitimacy (and given what a wildly unreliable narrator he is, this is by no means certain) his inability to let ANYTHING go, EVER, is not itself a particularly attractive trait. Occasionally a tiny sliver of humanity may slip through, but it is quite overwhelmed by the ever-present darkness.

So why, one might ask, are we subjected to six hundred fifty pages of EVERY SINGLE DAMN THING that goes through this man's head? Is this not a deeply perverse exercise? Gass has stated that the book is meant to serve as "a progessive indictment of the reader;" that he "want[s] to get the reader to say yes to Kohler, although Kohler is a monster. That means that every reader in that moment has admitted to monstrousness." Very well: but does he actually achieve this effect? I'm not trying to sound self-righteous, but I think that I personally must remain unindicted here. The only times it's possible not to object to Kohler is on those uncommon occasions when he's not being objectionable--and that doesn't seem like much of a feat on the author's part. As for Kohler's bitterness, his hated of everything around him, his self-identification with the Nazis: no. No, not at all. His explanations of bigotry and his rationale for the Party of Disappointed People (which is to consist primarily of bigots) are unconvincing. The point that people behave as monsters because of comprehensible socioeconomic disappointments is so obvious as to go unsaid; that doesn't mean that one has to identify with them or accept what they do. It's not a matter of not wanting to be the kind of person to whom this stuff appeals; it's a matter of it simply NOT APPEALING, and I would be a little nervous to meet someone to whom it did. You know what novel succeeded in implicating the reader--or this reader, at any rate--by making him say yes to a monster? Lolita. So it can be done. Gass just hasn't done it.

So what's left? All we really have is pages and pages of an unpleasant individual expounding upon his unpleasant life and his unpleasant philosophy. Yes, there are dirty limericks aplenty--always a plus--but most of them scan quite poorly and/or try to use the same words twice for the rhymes, so even that's a letdown. The book is impressive as a character portrait, granted, but is it really useful or informative or edifying or ANYTHING to force readers to spend so much time with this guy? Yes, I feel, to the extent that such a thing is possible, that I understand Kohler, for whatever that's worth, but I'm not sure it's worth much. Is it a cautionary tale? Perhaps, but at a certain point his evil becomes so cartoonish that it's difficult to see what application it has to real life: we may all have the potential for evil in us, but I kind of doubt that any of us equate our own petty disappointments with the Holocaust. Please tell me this is not the reason why people love the book so. Seriously, someone kindly tell me: if not that, then what purpose does all of this serve? It's not a rhetorical question; I would be much obliged if somebody would enlighten me. Most of the glowing reviews seem extremely vague on exactly what, in their view, makes this a great book.

Again, I want to emphasize: the writing on display here is amazing, and it's enough to render the book at least somewhat readable. For that reason, and because there's really nothing else like it, it might be worth a go. It's certainly memorable; I hope, however, that, if completed (write faster! You're eighty-four years old!), the legendary Middle C has more to offer the reader than occasional bleak aestheticism.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Mind-blowing facts

There is an unabridged audiobook of The Tunnel, read by William H Gass himself. I don't know that I really want to subject myself to such a thing, but still--holy shit, dude.

Update: seriously, this is nutty. Sure, maybe he could approximate the different fonts by shouting or something, but this is a book that includes: little comic panels. Musical notes. A concert ticket stub. Flags and other assorted insignia for the PdP. Two pages where the entire right side has crossword patterns running down it. A page with text arranged in a star shape. A page with text arranged in the shape of a wineglass. A page with text arranged in the shape of a whirlwind. A page with text arranged in the shape of a dick and balls. A page with the texture of a paper bag. A page with a picture of a tray covered with assorted calling cards. And oh so much more. I don't know how you're gonna convey that shit out loud.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008


What do you think it means?

Saturday, July 19, 2008

All your shoe are belong to Celia

You know, I don't understand hard math, but I would never claim that therefore it has no meaning.

Not to seem, like, super-humorless or anything, and I usually enjoy xkcd, but it's sort of hard to effectively make fun of something if all you're doing is riffing on broad stereotypes. Not that there isn't plenty to criticize in the field, but dude, I really don't think it would take me more than a few minutes--a generous estimate--to realize you were bullshitting. I'm just saying.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Q. How many liberals does it take to change a lightbu-A. THAT'S NOT FUNNY.

Have a look at this, and scroll through the comments until your eyes have rolled back so far in your head that you can't see anymore. I always like the New Yorker's cover, and this is one of the funnier ones in some time. Michelle as Angela Davis is a nice touch. It is very difficult for me to fathom how ANYONE could perceive the picture as anything other than a not-that-subtle swipe at republican hysteria, but evidently there are actually a disheartening number of people who are champing at the bit to confirm the stereotype of liberals as dour and humorless by fulminating that they are NOT amused--many if not most of them sufficiently dimwitted that they didn't even understand that it was meant to be a joke. There are actually fucktards in that thread urging people to CALL THE MAGAZINE and threaten to CANCEL YOUR SUBSCRIPTION if they don't change it (the idea that anyone that cognitively primitive actually has a New Yorker subscription is, if true, highly dispiriting). No, actually, you're wrong: it IS funny. What's also funny is that I somehow share a political party with a bunch of joyless ideologues like you. Lighten the fuck up. Nobody who was ever going to vote for Obama anyway is going to see an obvious bit of satire in the New Yorker (isn't that one of them there dreaded élitist magazines?) and think, whoa--he really IS a terra-ist! Gadzooks, and furthermore, odsbodkins.

Update: improved title with old but sadly accurate joke

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

One album per year

There's this blog post on the avclub where you're supposed to pick an album for every year you've been alive, and huge music geek that I am, I had no choice but to participate. There were a few tough calls, but I'm generally happy with the results. I will stand behind every last choice as a stone-cold classic, and I think overall the list stands as a pretty good representation of my range of musical tastes (there would be more folk music had I been born earlier in the seventies). Apologies to Reverend Glasseye: it was a tough call, but Johnny Dowd was the sentimental favorite. Also to Manic Street Preachers: if it makes you feel any better, there's no way you would have been supplanted by the Handsome Family had I written this five years ago.

1979: Elvis Costello & the Attractions, Armed Forces

1980: Tom Waits, Heartattack and Vine

1981: Ultravox, Rage in Eden

1982: Joe Jackson, Night and Day

1983: Heaven 17, The Luxury Gap

1984: Soft Cell, This Last Night in Sodom

1985: The Pogues, Rum, Sodomy & the Lash

1986: Stan Ridgway, The Big Heat

1987: Depeche Mode, Music for the Masses

1988: Leonard Cohen, I'm Your Man

1989: The Cure, Disintegration

1990: Marc Almond, Enchanted

1991: Ray Fisher, Traditional Songs of Scotland

1992: Oysterband, Deserters

1993: James, Laid

1994: Suede, Dog Man Star

1995: Blur, The Great Escape

1996: Steeleye Span, Time

1997: Jim White, (Mysterious tale of how I shouted) "Wrong-Eyed Jesus!"

1998: The Handsome Family, Through the Trees

1999: Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros, Rock Art and the X-Ray Style

2000: 16 Horsepower, Secret South

2001: Johnny Dowd, Temporary Shelter

2002: Mary Gauthier, Filth & Fire

2003: Calexico, Feast of Wire

2004: Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Abattoir Blues

2005: Decemberists, Picaresque

2006: Legendary Shack Shakers, Pandelirium

2007: Strawfoot, Chasing Locusts

2008: Slim Cessna's Auto Club, Cipher

2009: Sparks, The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman

2010: Munly & the Lupercalians, Petr & the Wulf

Friday, July 04, 2008

Europe Central

William T Vollmann: Europe Central. A historical kind of beast that spans the history of Russian and Germany from the turn of the century more or less to the 1970s. It's an intriguing book. I want to be careful about making overly sweeping statements, but it seems to me like it simultaneously illustrates and challenges Jameson's notion that genuine historicity has been lost in the postmodern--that all you can do is take pieces of the perceived past and throw them together, hoping to make something out of it that, nonetheless, will not be the same thing as the actual past. There is certainly a pastiche quality to the novel, as Vollmann places mostly real historical figures (Kathe Kollwitz, Dmitri Shostakovich) in little vignettes that move through time freely. The fact that various sections are narrated by various figures, including Vollmann himself, adds to the disorderliness. On the other hand, one has to ask, is this REALLY to be considered only a simulacrum of history? Is it any less artificial than more conventional, ordered, linear histories? How so? You're leaving stuff out and putting stuff in according to an ideological plan no matter how you swing it. I think I might have to argue a bit with Jameson on this point.

This is a riveting book. A lot of the laudatory quotes (including one from my former writing teacher, Melvin Jules Bukiet) talk about its "moral seriousness" and the like, and I think that's right. Some of the stuff I'm reading seems comparatively trivial by comparison. I'm particularly thinking of the Delillo, which claims to be dealing with similarly Big Issues but doesn't get at them in a really substantive way.

Should a book like this even be counted as a "novel?" Sometime-recurring characters, but the only plot is history, and even that's somewhat slippery. It's difficult to tell the difference between what is factual and what is fabricated, which is part of its achievement. People are in situations with no good solutions; how, I wonder, can any sort of moral judgment be meaningful? That's not to say that you SHOULDN'T judge, just to say that it may be a necessary fiction that you're really dispensing justice. What, for the love of god, is someone like Andrei Vlasov--Soviet general captured by Germany and convinced to propagate anti-Russian propaganda--supposed to DO? What would YOU do? There's nothing you CAN do, other than kill yourself, and how does THAT accomplish anything? Ack!

A character I like a lot is Soviet filmmaker Roman Karmen. Whether or not he was a great filmmaker (none of his work seems to be commercially available, which is a shame), and whether or not he was anything more than a mindless apparatchik, he comes across very sympathetically. I wish I could say the same--or anything similar--for Elena Konstantinovskaya, whose existence seems to serve little purpose other than to torment the men who fall for her. A lot of male authors really DO have a problem drawing women. Which shouldn't be surprising, I reckon, but still...

This book kind of sneaks up on you, and then you realize you've been punched in the stomach. The section called "The Last Field-Marshall," for instance, featuring Friedrich Paulus, the German general saddled with the impossible task of taking Stalingrad (and who, I can't help but note, looks an awful lot like Mike Huckabee). The section is full of military tactics, which can be sort of numbing at times, but that seems to be intentional, as it ends up perfectly conveying the numbing futility of the whole endeavor. He survives the war and is allowed to work in East Germany as a police inspector, but it's clear that he's a shell of a man. He wasn't, per Vollmann, a bad guy; he tried to avoid needless death and wasn't keen on ethnic cleansing (which I suppose is the definition of damning with faint praise, but still...), but he was just in an impossible situation. Even more harrowing is the story of Kurt Gerstein, the conscience-stricken SS officer making vociferous but futile efforts to save Jews and to tell the world about what was going on. Reading it is like being punched repeatedly in the face. And then when you're done you just COLLAPSE. I guess I don't really have a point to make. This is just a very powerful book.

Things starting to get a little crazy. There's a section called "Operation Citadel" in which an anonymous German soldier, the rest of his unit killed, wanders around witnessing various figures and icons from Germanic/Wagnerian and Russian folklore. This makes a certain amount of sense, if it's all just simulacra anyway. Is it that this war cannot really be rendered realistically? Anyway, it's pretty striking. Then there's a section which I really don't understand very well: it's 1951, and a guy is ordered by the Gehlen Organization to assassinate Shostakovich, apparently for being kind of the soul of Russia. Only everything east of the Iron Curtain is a kind of dreamland, and when he kills Shostakovich--which he does many times in many ways--it turns out just to be a...dream? Hallucination? He starts to have a kind of love/hate relationship with the man, and he in turn is executed a number of times by Stasi and NKVD officials, but it's never real. I don't know what to say about this. It's pretty surreal.

Right. Another one down. The last section includes a little fantasia about the supposed development of color throughout the course of the twentieth century. It's clearly meant to say something about Europe's moral state and development, but the exact specifics remain somewhat hazy.

I think that "Opus 110," the longest section in the book and its climax, might be a bit protracted. Shostakovich is a fairly compelling character, but his unrequited love for Elena Konstantinovskaya...well, I'm not sure it's as deep or interesting as Vollmann perhaps imagines. I listened to that there opus on youtube; per the book, it's supposed to contain all of Shostakovich's bitterness about the war and violence and cruelty all around him; I can see it, I think, but I sort of doubt I would without having read the book.

Anyway, that aside, this is a great book; maybe the best on the list. Excluding Pynchon, but hey, what can I say? I'm a partisan.

Next: The Tunnel. Let's do this thing. Opinions of Gass are extremely mixed, to put it mildly, and I'm afraid I'll hate it, but I do not think I can avoid it. But also, some theory, so there may be a longer-than-expected delay between entries here.