I have read only a very few graphic novels, but the ones I have read all seem to tread the same emotional ground. Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World and now I Never Liked You by Chester Brown. Their stories center on a sort of teenage emptiness that inspires a combination of pity and fascination in me. Visually, however, the three are quite distinct with Brown’s artwork being far more spare than the other two. Brown’s jagged panels placed asymmetrically on the page are surrounded by black, drawing the eye to his simple lines. (Unfortunately, later editions of the book have replaced the black pages with white.) His panels are devoid of details and instead focusing of the setting, the reader dwells on the characters, primarily young Chester himself. Brown’s picture of himself is both funny and sad, and while the book touches on his mother’s death, the focus is on his interaction with girls. He tells his friend Sky that he loves her but doesn’t know what to do next. His neighbor Carrie has a crush on him and they engage in this strange wrestling ritual as a stand in for actual communication. Girls are drawn to the odd, artistic boy but they are also repulsed by him. In the end, the book is about Brown’s inability to engage emotionally – with these girls, with his mother, with the rest of his family. It’s a poignant and quick read (it took me about an hour), but Brown’s dreamy artwork will stay with you.
In a much-quoted Guardian interview, the British novelist Rachel Cusk said that following the publication of her divorce’s chronicle, Aftermath, she was unable to write memoir. Trying instead to write a novel she found herself, additionally, “embarrassed by fiction.” “Once you have suffered sufficiently,” she said, “the idea of making up John and Jane and having them do things together seems utterly ridiculous.” Where does that leave a writer, when you can neither invent, nor tell the truth? Transit, along with its predecessor, Outline, seems to be an attempt to solve this problem -- and I suspect that whether or not a reader responds to this book ultimately depends on whether she finds Cusk’s solution successful. Transit pursues Outline’s unusual formal strategy, in which a cagey first-person narrator relates the stories of people she encounters during the novel’s plot, or “plot.” As with Outline, the story is, at best, wispy -- our interlocutor, Faye (like Cusk, a divorced writer), has returned to London and bought a run-down apartment in a fashionable neighborhood. She has two children, though we never meet them. They are installed with the former husband while she gets the flooring replaced and deals with unpleasant downstairs neighbors -- the central problem of the book. She also has a haircut, goes to a literary festival, tutors an annoying woman, teaches a class, and attends a dinner party. If this sounds slight, it is. The story serves only to bring the narrator into contact with other characters, all of whom have a story to tell, related in chunks of dialog and third-person exposition. The effect of these stories, essentially novelized dramatic monologues, is both interesting and tiresome. There is interest in what they replace, the silence they fill, as the narrator’s reticence communicates a traumatic past that is finally -- though incompletely -- revealed by novel’s end. There is also a voyeuristic interest in hearing these voices speak. We have no real reason to care, for instance, about the abusive youth of Julian, the voluble festival co-attendee, yet it is compelling, the same way overhearing a stranger talking on a flight or train ride can be compelling. But just as that chattering voice behind you can become dull, even maddening, so it sometimes is here with these reported anecdotes. Though Cusk has a good feel for how long to linger before moving on to the next talkative stranger, the book is necessarily hemmed in by its own rules. The book is told from her perspective, yet the narrator cannot or will not divulge too much of herself; the interesting walk-ons quickly walk off stage again, eliminating any conventional narrative drive. For me, the experience of reading Transit was largely the experience of wondering about these constraints -- mainly, what purpose do they serve? For one thing, perhaps, they allow Cusk to write quasi-memoir without any personal shame. By creating a narrator of such fuzzy reluctance, she offloads the confessionality onto these peripheral voices, emboldened to speak precisely by not bearing the burden of the novel’s focus. At the same time, by promoting these extras and crafting the book from their summarized stories, she dodges the embarrassing task of “having them do things.” In one representative section, the narrator, teaching a creative writing workshop, thinks while gazing out the window at a cloud: “I heard the students speaking and wondered how they could believe in human reality sufficiently to construct fantasies about it.” The workshop continues without her instruction, digressing from a student’s appreciation of his dog, a Saluki, to a several page biographical account of the breeder from whom he purchased his dog, to a history of Saluki breeding and dog training, culminating in an philosophical riff regarding “the unitary self being broken down, of consciousness not as an imprisonment in one’s perceptions, but rather as something more intimate and less divided, a universality that could come from shared experience at the highest level.” Here, our narrator turns away from the window and asks another question that occasions two pages of reported introspection. This is extraneity elevated to art, an aesthetic choice that strikes me as perverse in several senses. It is perverse in its effect, in the engrossing alienation it creates. It also seems grandly perverse for an author reportedly hostile to fiction, and the artificial demands of invention it imposes on writer and inflicts on reader, to create a book from marginal anecdotes. Read in this light, Transit can, at times, feel like an expression of this hostility, alerting the reader to the arbitrariness of story by telling dozens of arbitrary stories. It is also surprisingly effective. The accumulation of peripherality works as both a critique of narrative, and as narrative in its own right. Though perhaps narrative isn’t the word, exactly -- it’s more of a thematic scaffolding, as experienced by the exquisitely inert and receptive character at the center of the novel. Her receptiveness is sincere, and in the end, I don’t believe that Transit is fundamentally an exercise in formal cleverness. There is a generous spirit behind this storytelling mode, articulated elegantly in the last scene of the book: What mattered was to learn how to…see the forms and patterns in the things that happened, to study their truth. It was hard to do that while still believing in identity…just as it was hard to listen while you were talking. I had found out more, I said, by listening than I had ever thought possible. And through this listening, what a reader hears, in the end, is philosophy. I find these novels (a third in this loose trilogy is slated for release in 2018 or 2019) best appreciated as philosophical tracts, full of mini-disquisitions on subjects like representation, literature, authenticity, modernity, hate, anger, and love, among many others. By the end, my reader’s copy was full of little colored flags marking places where I’d admired the clarity of Cusk’s perceptions, trains of thought worked fully through in her smooth and stylish prose. Try this: “The idea -- of one’s own life as something that had already been dictated -- was strangely seductive, until you realized that it reduced other people to the moral status of characters and camouflaged their capacity to destroy.” Or: He had come to the conclusion…that up to a certain point his whole life had been driven by needing things rather than liking them, and that once he had started interrogating it on this basis, the whole thing had faltered and collapsed…He was used to being with [his wife]: once she was gone he was left with a need that could not satisfy itself because the cycle of repetition had been broken. But he had started to realise that what he called need was actually something else, was more a question of surfeit, of the desire to have something in limitless supply. And by its nature that thing would have to be relatively worthless, like [a] cheese sandwich, of which there was an infinite and easily accessible number. The peripheral narrative construction of Transit -- the feints and evasions and elisions -- is finally peripheral to the central pleasure: spending time with the book’s animating intelligence. The slipperiness of this intelligence -- the refusal to express itself in banalities like plot and conflict -- can be frustrating at times, but is also integral to its character. It is a perceptual mode that is necessarily elusive, and it builds something up into the air like a tower that is all crossbeams, a tree that is all branches.
I'm not ready this month.Seriously. I've only had 28 days of reading, a good number of which I spent failing to write a short story and traveling to Minneapolis. I've only read two books. And one of them took me three weeks. I'm just not ready for February to be over.I shouldn't complain, though - both books I read were fantastic and both dealt with much stronger versions of my current problem: running out of time and being dropped into situations without the proper preparation.Of course, in both What is the What (David Eggers) and The Handmaid's Tale (Margaret Atwood) this lack of preparation was life altering. My problem is that my simple blog post isn't being started until the eleventh hour. Big difference.What's intense about both of these books is the idea that there are authors who can so perfectly get inside the head of someone and spell out the anxieties involved in being relocated - in being thrown into a new situation with little, if any, warning, forced to live life under the gun, subservient because they don't know any different and are afraid to do otherwise. Who knows what lies outside of their life? Who knows if they'd even live to find out.In The Handmaid's Tale, Atwood creates a dystopian masterpiece - a country so frightened of itself that it has no choice but to obey. It's a breakdown of the social hierarchy, a primer into what could happen with information control and women's rights in a future that doesn't respect either ideal. It's frightening in its own right - women forced to be subservient because that's the only way they can figure out to keep lust on the backburner. The Handmaids are there to have their wombs occupied, but not to enjoy any second of it. It's scary.And, at times, it seems so real. But the brilliance of the story isn't the science fiction aspect - it's the loss that the protagonist feels. It's a powerless struggle against an old life - a women's lib upbringing filled with lesbian friends and understanding husbands. Imagine being stripped of all identity, separated from your spouse and child, forced to watch as people were sent away for not obeying, struggling to understand how to escape, how to continue living. How things got this bad.That's what Atwood really does in this book - she illustrates the internal struggle, between a physical life and a mental stability - the mind and the shell, the womb and the woman.Of course, not all displacement is fiction. David Eggers' What is the What chronicles the life of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese refugee who experiences his own type of sudden movement, from the gentle village he grew up in to the front lines of the war to the confusing spectacle of the United States.This is real. The story has been fictionalized to a slight extent, but for the most part Valentino's Sudan is real - a true to life picture of what can happen when the wrong people are in power. It's vividly recounted but not flowingly so. It's written in Valentino's voice, using Valentino's visions and painting Valentino's picture.What a picture it is. A young boy is forced to flee his village, his mother, his father, and join a walking group of other young boys - the Lost Boys of Sudanese lore. He's brought in as a soon-to-be Army boy. He's placed alongside the resistance forces. He's forced to find his place in a refugee camp, living in temporary shelters for a permanent amount of time. He's miserable. And he's got no escape. After all, where could he go?The story is interspersed with quips from his current American life. He eventually makes it to the United States, so you know the ending will be somewhat happy. But he finds the U.S. to be just as difficult, just as dangerous - just as utterly confusing as any war torn village outside of Kenya.I'd call it a coming of age story, but Valentino never had a chance to come of age. He was forced to grow up at the age of eight.So when I complain about not being prepared to write a simple book article, I can't really be taken seriously. Especially when my month of reading was filled with the type of stories that create cold chills and boiling blood - words that piece together the horrors of uncertainty and unfamiliarity. Sure, I had to jump head first to meet deadline. But my consequences were slight - an e-mail from Mr. Magee, a personal disappointment, a rushed article that's a few days late.I mean, my life wasn't on the line. That's pressure. That's displacement.Corey Vilhauer - Black Marks on Wood PulpCVBoMC 2006, 2007: Jan, Feb.
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1991 may be known as the year punk broke but 2013 may soon become the year of its canonization. The phrase “the year punk broke” was coined by filmmaker David Markey after watching Motley Crüe cover the Sex Pistols on television in a jetlag malaise with members of Sonic Youth, whose concert video he was then shooting. It quickly became an inside joke—he says, “They kind of snickered, and from there we all started saying it to each other,”—and was later immortalized as the tour video’s title. If the notion of punk breaking was laughable then, its current cultural cachet would have been unthinkable. But fast-forward twenty years and punk is in vogue. However, it’s also no surprise that the current fêteing has lost touch with punk’s confrontational roots, its urgency and exigency—the capstone being the punk show at the Met, currently exhibiting facsimiles of CBGB’s bathroom walls. The antidote? One comes in the form of the latest chapbook, Punk, from Sarah McCarry’s Guillotine press. Punk skewers this kind of nostalgic teleology, among other things, in the dialogue between lifelong lady punks, Mimi Thi Nguyen and Golnar Nikpour. Nguyen has been making zines like Slander and Race Riot since 1991 and has written a great deal about punk along the way; Nikpour grew up in New York by way of Tehran and was a co-coordinator of seminal punk fanzine Maximum Rocknroll, which she still contributes to intermittently. Their final note is a good starting point for the conversation, as Nguyen defines punk as “a plural, rather than a coherent, series of forms or formations, that can and should resist institutionalization,” and that “attempts to describe punk are always partial because punk is—” And so the chapbook ends, leaping into whitespace that refuses to propose a stable definition of punk. This end hews firmly to their belief that punk consists of a multiplicity of local scenes; the text’s conversational form embraces Nguyen’s and Nikpour’s differences in experience and perspective. Both write of how they became invested in punk’s strains of feminism, gender deviancy, and radical politics. They concur that punk by its own definition exists as a constellation of scenes united by a rather elastic set of punk ethics, and that history cannot be reduced. Which isn’t to say that this doesn’t happen, but that what matters within punk history extends far beyond the traditional celebrated history of punk spawned in the UK and New York City, of the Sex Pistols and Sid and Nancy, of Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren. To this end, Nguyen also ties in Roderick Ferguson’s writing on the cultural appropriation of minority movements, what he calls “the will of institutionality.” She states, “I am suspicious of the incorporation of a punk canon, managed then by punk experts. What will be determined worth remembering? Only the most useful forms of punk, and useful to what purpose? And what else falls away?” If anything, Punk, and the entire Guillotine chapbook series, adheres to this essential punk ethic that Nguyen and Nikpour identify with and promote. For one, it’s a DIY endeavor and McCarry designs, letterpresses, and sews the chapbooks herself—a practice more common within poetry circles. The series is dedicated to publishing “revolutionary nonfiction,” front-loaded with incendiary political material that’s also quite timely and often couched within a personal narrative. McCarry spoke of her grounding in “revolutionary nonfiction” in a conversation with Chris Higgs: “To me it means work that feels necessary or challenging, that is demanding the world be remade in a better way…. I’m very invested in supporting work that’s explicitly queer, feminist, anti-racist, anti-colonial. Punks and weirdos, setting shit on fire and rioting in the streets, all that good stuff.” Personal encounters with these chapbooks are like an assault with daggers: brief, cutting, and confrontational. I mean this in the best of ways. The first chapbook, Violence, features a conversation with Vanessa Veselka and Lydia Yuknavitch that’s partially available online via the Believer. Veselka and Yuknavitch’s conversation is heated. They discuss the ways they’ve resisted cautionary advice to make their narratives more palatable and feminine, advice to integrate redemption and make their women less violent. This resistance is essentially punk, too. Kate Zambreno’s Toilet Bowl, chapbook #3, riffs on violence too, and toxicity, and feminine rage as a form of resistance. She asks: “Is toxicity the accumulation of rage, or the inability to exhume it?” And Bojan Louis’s Troubleshooting Silence in Arizona speaks of the repression of minority voices through Arizona’s bill HB2281, that bans a maddeningly long list of books by authors like Junot Diaz and Sandra Cisneros, whose books purportedly “promoted resentment toward any race or class” and “advocated ethnic solidarity.” “I write as a way to scream, ” Zambreno writes. Screaming is in opposition to swallowing the rage, to resist social toxicity so that it doesn’t consume her. These chapbooks give a voice to the rage, to cacophonous voices that the mainstream would rather quell, the incisive, impertinent, the desire for change. Veselka and Yuknavitch pit hope against desire, and it’s no contest. The active urgency of desire wins. This resonates with an activist punk ethics, and also with the end of Slavoj Zizek’s speech in Zuccotti Park, printed in Occupy!: Scenes from Occupied America. Zizek urges, “We know that people often desire something but do not really want it. Don't be afraid to want what you desire.” Don't be afraid to want what you desire” seems to be a good slogan for this revolutionary nonfiction. Imagine these chapbooks as samizdat. Imagine a lending library filled with urgent, incisive voices. Imagine these chapbooks as punk entities, DIY and beautifully crafted, offering up original and angry voices, voices of cultural resistance, a plurality.
The fear that the human race might not survive has been replaced by the fear that it will endure. Joseph Skizzen, the main character of William Gass’s masterful new novel, constantly reconsiders and rewrites the above sentence, sometimes with slight modifications; other times, the sentence balloons to more than a page, but its despairing tone never changes. Gass would certainly sympathize with Joseph’s compulsion for revision. “Something gets on paper,” says Gass about his methods, “and then it gets revised, and then it gets revised, and then it gets revised.” Due in part to his obsessive rewriting process, Middle C took the author nearly 20 years to finish, and The Tunnel -- a tome that has baffled critics and sustained a cult readership since its publication in 1995 -- took Gass nearly three decades to complete. Middle C begins in Austria, where Joseph’s father decides on a whim (“presto-chango”) to persuade the family to forgo their Catholic upbringing and assume Jewish origins instead. This way, the poverty-stricken family can access the underground organization that smuggles Jews to England and escape the trajectory of fascism that was beginning to take hold in Austria, one that Joseph’s father anticipates. In London, Yankel Fixel, Joseph’s father, once again sheds his name (and identity) for one more properly English: Raymond Scofield. It is as Raymond that the father suddenly stumbles into a great fortune that irrevocably changes him once more. He deserts the family without notice, leaving his wife and two kids to board a New World-bound ship to search in vain for him in America. Only much later on in life, still trying to make sense of his absence, does Joseph, in his rather bookish way, forgive his father: “...you wouldn’t arrest the actor who played Hamlet for the death of Polonius.” But despite the appearances of its beginning, Middle C is not just another story of the immigrant struggle in America. The main struggle, as the central sentence of the novel alludes to, is the question of whether or not the human race, given its bloody history, deserves to go on, to survive. Joseph’s a clipper: he cuts newspaper articles about the world’s atrocities and posts them on the walls of his attic, a collection he refers to as the “Inhumanity Museum,” a museum that will “remind its visitors of the vileness of mankind -- not its nobility and triumphs.” He undertakes this task as if it were his life’s work. Professor Skizzen resembles more the thoughtful, melancholy professor-protagonists that inhabit Saul Bellow’s work than he does the rambling Professor Kohler of The Tunnel. While much of the book takes place inside the world of Skizzen’s mind, a dark, roving mind preoccupied with the future of humanity, the sections that depict his childhood (as Joey) are so precisely told with vivid details that they read less like reminiscence, and more like scenes unfolding before our eyes. Gass, who was briefly a student of Wittgenstein’s at Cornell, is a playful writer. And Wittgenstein’s theory that language creates its own reality is very much apparent in Middle C, not just in its absurd, enigmatic beginning, or its many language games -- several words at the end of sentences intentionally rhyme -- but with its questioning of identity and reality, notions that Gass constantly upends. For who cares if Skizzen (German for “Sketches”) fibs about his age, lies about his family’s past, and even concocts an imaginary career for himself as a music professor? He is, after all, an invention. After leaving London, the Skizzens resettle in “The Heart of It All” -- the middle C of the country, if you will -- in fictional Woodbine, Ohio, a “tiny two-bus town” where Joseph and his older sister, Deborah, are raised by their husbandless mother. Joseph quickly loses himself in a love for the piano and eventually learns to play with some level of distinction, though not without great effort: “His approach to playing was like that of someone trying to plug always fresh and seemingly countless leaks -- his fingers were full of desperation...” The cast of grotesque characters that Joseph meets in Woodbine easily rivals those from Winesburg, Ohio (the comparisons are inevitable). There’s Mr. Kazan, proprietor of the High Note, the music store where Joseph works, “who brought his beard around every morning at ten when the store opened, if he remembered the key.” Madame Mieux, the bosomy community college French teacher who employs a fake French accent even when she speaks English and fails to seduce Joseph after she invites him over to her home decorated in piles and piles of pillows. The head librarian, known as the Major, not only gives Joseph employment, but also a place to live in the garage of her home, where the rooms overflow with puddles from house plants. Then there’s Hazel Hazlet, a black woman with a mullet who talks to her teddy bear and sells Joseph a beat-up car for under $50 (she also possesses an angelic singing voice). And those are just a few of the odd characters in a much larger cast, each of whom bursts with an eccentricity all his or her own, as if they’re trying to upstage one another in quirkiness. For an author who’s nearly 90 years old, Gass writes remarkably well about what it’s like to be young. The reflective lyricism of the passages on youth throughout the book recall Rilke’s great coming-of-age novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, a work Gass admits a fondness for in interviews. From Middle C: When you’re young, time is a puzzle, like interlocking nails. You wonder what you ought to be doing or what the future holds or how things that don’t seem to have worked out will work out; and in such a mood, even when you are focused on the future because you are yet to get laid, to bloom, to beget, to find your way, to win a tournament, you nevertheless don’t detail far-off somedays in your head; you don’t feel your future as you feel a thigh...because the present is too intense, too sunny, brief as a sneeze, too higgledy-piggledy, too complete, too total, a drag already, whereas there is simply so much future, the future is flat as the sea three miles from your eye while the beach you are sitting on is aboil with sunshine and nakedness. But unlike Rilke’s provincial Malte, Joseph never leaves his small town for the big city. For one thing, he doesn’t even have proper citizenship, an annoyance that surfaces just as he’s about to accept employment at a small library in Urichtown, or Whichstown -- as the residents pronounce it, partly because it’s said to be haunted by witches. Despite the risk, Joseph makes a fake ID so he doesn’t have to confront his past, and gets the job. Gass plays with the notion that each person has many “selves” in a lifetime, not just the one filed on bureaucratic records. Throughout the novel we see Joseph continue down a path of fabrication that his father had begun. He lies on his CV about advanced degrees acquired overseas in Vienna so that he can obtain a musicology professorship at nearby Whittlebauer College, where he calculatingly selects Schoenberg, the father of atonal music, as his area of emphasis. Although Joseph doesn’t even really care to listen to him, he’s such an “intimidating composer” nobody will question it. The book ends on a note of astonishing suspense when Joseph’s fate is quite literally sealed in an envelope. The president of Whittlebauer College discovers that an imposter is among them, a professor “with an educational history that has proved false.” What unfolds proves that readers would do well to heed the book’s epigraph: “Remember me! remember me! / but ah! forget my fate.” For as loveable and harmless a creature as Professor Joseph Skizzen may be, especially in a world so cruel, his behavior during the faculty’s Ethics Committee meeting in the final pages leaves us terrified and shows us that he too is only human. We’re left, like the apocalyptic sentence he’s forever rewriting in the book, to reexamine all that we thought we knew about him, about our place in the world, and the philosophy of the so-called “self.”
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