Inspired by the recent release of The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, podcaster Len of Jawbone Radio paid a visit to Bill Watterson’s home town, Chagrin Falls, Ohio. He ended up interviewing Watterson’s mom, laying eyes on some original Calvin and Hobbes artwork and sharing some interesting bits of trivia about the beloved strip.
In one of my favorite sequences of Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, you see an editor splicing film offset with shots from the footage being cut. Normally, when we watch films, we take a series of unrelated shots and project causality between the images. Vertov, along with other montage theorists like Sergei Eisenstein, wanted to interrupt this process, forcing us to come to an overarching picture out of conflict and collisions. Simple narrative just couldn’t be revolutionary.
In The Revolutionaries Try Again, debut novelist Mauro Javier Cardenas writes renegade political fiction that would have made Vertov proud. Stream-of-consciousness and meta-fiction meet radio plays, phone conversations, and spliced up pop-lyrics. The tone varies as often as technique: pages and pages of interior monologue with no punctuation, enough em-dashes to look like line divides, sections entirely in Spanish, references to ABBA and The Exorcist alongside Pablo Neruda and Julio Cortázar. You’re never directly informed about what counts as revolution and who in particular is trying to achieve it. Instead, The Revolutionaries Try Again dissects a decade of Ecuadorian austerity and idealism through often jarring and always stunning literary montage.
Cardenas’s novel centers on three alumni of a Jesuit school in Guayaquil: a writer, a bureaucrat, and a playwright. Antonio left Ecuador over a decade ago for Stanford and is writing a memoir about a crying baby Jesus. His best friend Leopoldo, left behind in Guayaquil, takes a job with the pro-austerity government. As the novel begins, Leo has just persuaded Antonio to return to the city, and together they’re supposed to help a friend run for office, which never really happens. Meanwhile, we get oblique connections to their poor classmate, Rolando, who with his girlfriend Eva attempts to rouse people to action by staging a series of radio plays.
But all of this feels like an aside, and whatever revolution we thought would be staged isn’t.
No political campaign, no people taking to the streets. But The Revolutionaries Try Again is just as much an attempt to sort out why telling feels so futile: as a writer, as an undocumented migrant, as a person. Rolando never tells Eva that his sister was almost raped while working as a fifteen-year-old maid. Eva never tells Rolando about how her brother was abducted during her youth. Instead they have imaginary dialogues with the siblings they love but don’t speak to, replaying conversations that can’t, and won’t, happen. Nor are they alone. Leopoldo and Antonio are extremely close friends, but don’t have an easy emotional intimacy. Antonio dreams up, time and time again, what it will be like to see Leopoldo for the first time in over a decade, thinking about what he might like to say but won’t. What’s the point, the suggestion is, of recounting things when things can’t be adequately characterized by words?
To search for the source of his impulse to return to Ecuador by revisiting the night the baby christ cried was pointless, Antonio thinks, just as it’s pointless for him to teach English to immigrant women at El Centro Legal for one measly hour a week, photocopying pages from an ESL book at the last minute and hoping they would smile at him in gratitude, knowing he was fooling himself into believing he was being useful— if all the NGOS and nonprofits of the world ceased their activities, Antonio had asked a British art critic during their first date, would anyone notice?
Many things in the book are described as pointless: Antonio’s baby Jesus story and his tutoring, but also Rolando’s radio plays, Jesuits serving the poor (and, for that matter, the very existence of the lord above), and the unrealized political campaign that brings Antonio back to Guayaquil.
But what Cardenas does so adeptly in his debut novel is highlight conditions against which feelings of pointlessness emerge in the first place. Economic, political and social violence are senseless, and render us unable to tell neat linear narratives about injustice and protest. We’re left with montage, one that resists neat stories about revolutionaries taking on their oppressors, left with weeping statues of baby Jesus, rape, false accusations, and economic sanctions.
Amidst violence, one worries that words too will be twisted and appropriated to serve other ends. But silence is too easy, as Alma reminds Antonio: “I did say you’re an imbecile of course everything’s pointless we’re all going to die doesn’t matter we’re still here/ I’m still here.” That injustice may be here for a long time, is all the more reason that Cardenas’s book should too.
New Yorker writer, George Packer has written some impressive articles on the Iraq war over the past few years (rivaling those of another favorite, Jon Lee Anderson.) Of late, I’ve been hearing good things about Packer’s new book on the subject, The Assassins’ Gate. From a Washington Post review:How did this happen? How could the strongest power in modern history, going to war against a much lesser opponent at a time and place of its own choosing, find itself stuck a few years later, hemorrhaging blood and treasure amid increasing chaos? Americans will be debating the answer for decades, and as they do, they are unlikely to find a better guide than George Packer’s masterful new The Assassins’ Gate.The Post will also be hosting a live discussion with Packer today at 3pm Eastern.
And just like that, my Los Angeles chapter has been brought to a quick and frenzied close. After a marathon of packing and a lot of time spent trying to make all of the junk we acquired over the last few years disappear, Ms. Millions and I set off east through the desert, nine and a half hours behind schedule but determined to make up the time. Unlike four years ago when we spent three weeks driving five thousand miles, pausing often, here and there, when we found a place that held our interest, this trip was a delirium of driving, hundreds of miles between stops, trying to keep the needle of the speedometer above 90 as we traversed desolate stretches of highway in New Mexico and Texas. But now I am in Washington, DC, which will be my base of sorts for the summer, leading up to and beyond my wedding until it is time to move to Chicago. I no longer have a fantastic book store at my disposal, but I am hoping to offer some insight, now purely as a reader, even though my bookselling days are behind me. Another thing I would like to do this summer, between wedding planning and hopefully a little traveling, is work. If anyone out there knows of or can offer me an internship for the summer, preferably in journalism, let me know. I don’t need to be paid much or at all, really; just looking for some experience and for something to do. Email me if you can help. But enough of that, on to some books.While on the road, I received an email from Steve from Virginia containing a couple of recommendations. First, noting my interest in the books of the British war historian, John Keegan, he suggested that I endeavor to read The Mask of Command as it is, in his opinion, Keegan’s best. Also of note: Keegan’s latest, The Iraq War, will be released soon. It will be interesting to see how a man of Keegan’s expertise analyses such a modern and non-traditional conflict. Steve also wrote in suggesting that I take a look at Nicholas Rankin’s Telegram from Guernica, a book about George Steer, the South African war correspondent who broke the story of the firebombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. Thanks for the recommendations, Steve!As I was packing up to go, I heard on the radio an interview with the author of a new book called, Hideous Absinthe: A History of the Devil in a Bottle. Jad Adams, the British journalist behind this book, wanted to explore the curious hold that this beverage had on generations of artists and writers who were looking for inspiration.Finally, I caught this amusing little story about the intersection of fiction, marketing, and copywrites. The cover of Tom Perotta’s Little Children will be switched from goldfish to cookies sometime soon.
Recently I got a very interesting email from a reader. Frank Kovarik writes and teaches English in St. Louis. For the last five years, he has also been keeping meticulous track of the fiction that appears in the New Yorker. Not just the titles and authors, but things like gender, country of origin, and frequency of appearance.Frank has generously offered to make his spreadsheet available to download in Excel format. If you’re interested, you can get it here.Having this data allows us to dig deeper into the proclivities of New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman and whoever else has a hand in what fiction appears in the magazine’s hallowed pages.Gender: From the database we learn that, of the 257 stories in the New Yorker from 2003 through 2007, 96 or 37.4% were penned by women.Nationality: Americans account for a fairly substantial portion of the stories that appear in the New Yorker, 134 of them, or 52% (and this leaves off several writers who could be conceivably classified as both American and a native of another country). Coming in tied for second are the Brits and the Irish at 18 stories apiece.Frequency: Much of that Irish total comes from master of the short story form, William Trevor, who readers were most likely to find if they flipped through an issue these last five years. Trevor was there on nine occasions. Including, an issue that included three separate but linked stories, Canada’s Alice Munro comes in second with eight stories. 12 other writers have appeared at least five times over the last five years, meaning that 14 writers have accounted for 32% of the fiction in the magazine during that period.9 stories:William Trevor8 stories:Alice Munro7 stories:Tessa HadleyHaruki Murakami6 stories:Thomas McGuane5 stories:T. Coraghessan BoyleRoddy DoyleLouise ErdrichLara VapnyarJohn UpdikeGeorge SaundersEdward P. JonesCharles D’AmbrosioAntonya NelsonIf anybody else draws interesting conclusions from the spreadsheet, we’d love to hear about them.
If you’re a New Yorker obsessive like I am, then you’ll love the new feature at Emdashes. Emily has lined up a pair of librarians who work at the New Yorker to answer questions about the magazine, and as one might expect, they are very thorough in their responses. The first installment covers A.J. Liebling’s start at the magazine, spot illustrations, typewriters, Calvin Trillin’s food writing, movie reviews, and fact-checking cartoons. There will be more installments to come, so send in your questions.
On Tuesday I attended what will almost certainly be my last Dodgers game for a long time. It wasn’t one of the better games I’ve been to. Perhaps because they were playing the Mets, the stands were more crowded than usual. Halfway into a sloppy game the distractable Dodger fans devoted their energies to Thundersticks, shouting matches with transplanted New Yorkers, and the dreaded wave. Hideo Nomo didn’t have his stuff, and the Dodgers were plagued by timid, sloppy baserunning. There was a bit of history, though, as Mike Piazza hit his 351st home run, tying Hall-of-Famer Carlton Fisk for the most career home runs by a catcher. The ball was passed down through the bleachers and dropped over the wall to left fielder Dave Roberts who tossed it in to the ballboy. After the game Piazza said that he was happy to get the ball back and that he looks forward to getting his hands on the one that breaks the record. Over the last three years I’ve been to twenty or so ballgames. It became especially easy after I moved into my current house. At around six, I would hop in my car and drive north on Alvarado to Sunset. I’d park out front of Little Joy Jr. and stop in for a beer and meet whoever was joining me that evening. Then we’d walk back out into the sun and up the hill to Chavez Ravine, purchasing tickets on the way from the cadre of scrambling scalpers. Los Angeles, while better than some places, isn’t known as a great baseball town, and the Dodgers have certainly underperformed since I’ve been around, but I did have some moments at the Stadium that were truly sublime. If you go to enough games, you’re bound to. There was opening day 2003 when we paid 40 bucks to a scalper to sit way up in the top deck behind home plate. Fighter jets flew low over the field and the noise of the sellout crowd mingled with the leftover roar of the engines. Then an Army transport plane dipped low into view and a half a dozen paratroopers leaked out of the side of the plane. As they drifted down they emitted colored smoke, and the trails intertwined as the troopers landed on the ballfield. Then there was a rare damp day in May last year. The Dodgers were playing the Padres or the Brewers or somesuch lowly team. The scalpers were a forlorn lot, knowing that their profits would be slim. My purchase of a field level seat felt like charity. The Stadium was quieter that night and mostly empty, only the diehards had bothered to come out for this meaningless game. A collective calm settled over the whole place, folks in windbreakers with blankets on their lap mesmerized by the crack of the bat, the delicate arc of the ball, and pop as it hit the fielders glove in the misty twilight. Perhaps, the most memorable though, was May 5th, 2002. The Cubs were in town and my friend Matt, an artist who now lives in San Francisco, joined me in the cheap seats for a packed Sunday afternoon game. Cubs fans were liberally sprinkled among us and several fights erupted. Every inning or so another spectator would be escorted from the stadium owing to his disorderly conduct. Neither the game nor its outcome were memorable, the stadium was so full of life. Afterwards the PA announcer Mike Carlucci invited everyone onto the field for music and fireworks in celebration of Cinco de Mayo. As the stands emptied and people spilled across the outfield, the loudspeakers blared Mexican rolas interspersed with several American patriotic anthems. Matt and I spread out in center field, and up above, a fantastic fireworks show enveloped the heavens. An inebriated fellow Dodger fan stood behind us during the festivities and proudly belted out every word to every song, switching languages effortlessly. Even after the music had fallen quiet and the fireworks had faded from the sky, he wasn’t ready to leave, “Play some Puerto Rican music!” He screamed to no one in particular, “play some Puerto Rican music!”And to accompany my little ode to Dodgers baseball, I thought I should mention Roger Angell, whose writing about baseball is one of the reasons I love the game. Two of his classic collections have recently been released in spiffy new editions: Five Seasons: A Baseball Companion and The Summer Game.
The public literary program, One Book One City, that is half-heartedly sweeping the nation apparently has an outpost in my new city. They are already on book seven, which means that Chicagoans are reading circles around my former city, Los Angeles, which, last time I checked, was only on book two. The latest pick for Chicago is In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez. I’ll be looking out for it on the “L”. In other news, the first volume of Bob Dylan’s extremely long-awaited memoir finally has a release date. October 12th will see the release of Chronicles: Volume 1 as well as Lyrics: 1962-2002, both from Simon & Schuster. I think we know what Dylan fans will be wanting for Christmas.
It’s a bad time to be an author. A Kirkus reviewer discovered that “renowned children’s-book author and publisher” Harriet Ziefert borrowed from a 1983 book by Judi Barrett. One tip-off, both books have the same name: A Snake is Totally Tail. Barrett’s version appears to be out of print, meanwhile Ziefert’s publisher, Blue Apple, is pulling Ziefert’s version from publication. According to the article, Ziefert’s claim is that it’s just a coincidence, but the evidence seems damning: “Comparing the advance readers’ copy of Ziefert’s book to Barrett’s, it’s obvious right away that 12 of the 23 lines in Barrett’s version are repeated in Ziefert’s, including identical concluding lines: ‘A dinosaur is entirely extinct. This book is finally finished.'”