If you haven’t already, wander over to the LBC blog to check out our newest “Read This” selection. Personally, it’s my favorite out of all the books I’ve read for the Litblog Co-op. The book is called Television and it was written by Jean-Philippe Toussaint and Jordan Stump.
“My name is Marina Abramović and I think I’m an artist,” were the first words the performance artist spoke at a post-show panel last week, two days after the conclusion of her eleven-week performance, The Artist Is Present, at the Museum of Modern Art. I observed the artist twice during this time, once in March and again in April. The only visible differences were her sitting partners and the color of her dress, the first floor-length in blue and the second identical, in red. The colors were selected to aid her endurance: blue to calm, red to invigorate, and in May she wore white for purification. Although I had watched Abramović sit for hours (though not face to face) I’d never heard her speak. In fact, I’d barely seen her move. The way she held her pose with her shiny face gazing forward, she resembled a wax figure from Madame Toussads. Abramović sat quietly with strength, but when she finally spoke, she spoke with command--her husky voice issuing words in an Eastern European accent. “Anger,” she claimed, was a driving force for staging the re-performances of her work. She listed the mass media, the fashion and design industries, theater, and MTV as culprits who have re-appropriated images and performances from her oeuvre without giving attribution. She would like to lend order to re-performances of performance art, something she also emphasized with her re-performances in Seven Easy Pieces at the Guggenheim in 2005. She acknowledges that re-performed pieces inevitably change, but likens these adjustments to new interpretations of Beckett or Mozart. Abramović added that she won’t allow re-performances that endanger the performers’ lives--such as one piece that involved a pistol and bullet. Still, she dismisses her own, prior self-endangerment with brio: “It was the seventies. I was crazy.” Abramović's The Artist is Present played on similar restraints to those in her MoMA performance in the 1980s. Nightsea Crossing consisted of 22 performances in 19 locations where Abramović and her partner Ulay sat facing each other motionless seven hours a day for days on end. Of the powers one gains through stilling oneself in this way, Abramović has commented: “Kafka said in one of his stories, ‘Just sit at a table and do nothing and the whole world will be revealed in front of you.’” Which is exactly what happened with The Artist Is Present, and not only on a metaphorical level. The world came to Abramović. Over two-and-a-half months, 1,545 people sat across from her (while even more waited for the chance) and over 700,000 museum-goers witnessed her atrium performance. Who knows how many more observed from the virtual world as the performance was streamed online. Celebrities sat. Many people cried. Other performance artists co-opted her performance. At the Wednesday evening panel, the exhibition’s curator, Klaus Biesenbach, admitted that when he first envisioned Abramović's performance, he thought the second seat would often remain empty. He seemed pleased to be wrong. Also in attendance Wednesday evening were the thirty-six performers who re-performed Abramović’s five pieces within the exhibition. It was revealed that several of the performers had fainted the first day, unaccustomed to the duration and the physical demands of the performances. Marco Anelli, the photographer who sat behind Abramović and took portraits of each sitter’s face, was present. As was Paco Blancas, a makeup artist whose visage resembles Edgar Allan Poe. Paco sat across from Abramović twenty-one times during her performance--more than anyone else--and commemorated the experience by having the number 21 tattooed on his arm. Another woman in the audience said she was overseas when the exhibition started. She began watching Abramović’s performance over the internet, and it quickly turned into an obsession. Why this sudden obsession with Abramović? Yes, there were nude performances. And Abramović, the artist, was present. But that alone doesn’t offer much of an explanation. Abramović’s re-performances in Seven Easy Pieces garnered less attention even though the pieces were more sensational. Consider her re-performance of Vito Acconci’s Seedbed, where museum-goers listened while Abramović masturbated under the stage and related her fantasies about the observers above her over a loudspeaker. Her re-performance of her own Lips of Thomas involved cutting a pentagram into her stomach with a razor blade and then lying naked on a cross of ice. The Artist Is Present was on camera. It was interactive and online. Abramović has spoken many times about how her duration pieces have the capacity transform both herself and the viewer. But I also wonder if the interactive and ever-changing nature of the piece influenced the popularity of the performance, which by the end had become a media phenomenon. Gauging the endurance of each sitter was like sport. As my friends and I observed from the sidelines, we speculated how long each person would last. Catherine Lacey at HTMLGiant compared Abramović ’s performance to Zen meditation. There was a competitive and a meditative side, but was there also a gimmick? We the museum-goers were invited to participate in a work of art greater than ourselves, where we became creative subjects as well as voyeurs. Is the overwhelming response to this participatory performance much different than our attraction to reality TV, to YouTube, to monitoring status updates on Facebook? Did The Artist Is Present also respond to a cultural habituation to the constant update? To our narcissism? Abramović said that as she stared into her sitting partners’ eyes she acted as a mirror so that they could look inside themselves. Or was Abramović’s act of sitting for more than 700 hours and sacrificing sleep each night (waking every 45 minutes to rehydrate) in order to share herself and her art with her audience an act of tremendous benevolence and generosity? I would say both. Abramović called the experience the most profound of her life. She claims, “My spirit is different.” And perhaps that is enough. [Image credit: Jim Kuhn]
The unexpected pleasure and wonder of my book year is Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex, which was a birthday present from dear friend Judith Schneider. I started the novel because Judith was egging me on and realized immediately that I was in for a treat. The story of the Stephanides family begins in Uludag, now Turkey's premier skiing resort, in the city of Bursa, during the Turkish Independence War. Brother and sister Stephanides leave Bursa as the Greeks are pulling out and travel to Izmir (Smyrna) to take a ferry to France, during which the siblings get married. In the epic story that follows, Eugenides takes the reader through the struggles of this first generation Greek couple in Detroit during extraordinary times: first prohibition, then the Great Depression, and finally World War II. In the meantime, the Stephanides family grows and Eugenides moves on to the baby boomers, the hippies, and the seventies as he describes the life of the narrator and third generation granddaughter Calliope Stephanides. Calliope, or Cal for short, discovers during her teens that she is a hermaphrodite and develops an affection for a girl she names "Object of Desire." Middlesex is a very unusual novel, and as weird as the protagonist is, it is really easy to connect with Cal and travel through the extraordinary events of the twentieth century and the psyche of a teenager, who is more at odds with her/his being than most others. Euginedes' writing is very fluid and Middlesex is an amazing piece of work that leaves one wondering how autobiographical it is. I suggest that you find out for yourself.Previously: Part 1, 2, 3, 4
The current issue of McSweeney's includes a short story by Michael Cera, whose contributor's bio informs us that he was "born in Brampton, Ontario and now lives in Los Angeles," and, inevitably, that "This is his first published story." Yes, this becomingly modest debut author is that Michael Cera, co-star of Arrested Development and Superbad and avatar of skinny-geek chic (for which at least one Millions contributor owes him a debt of gratitude). For those keeping score at home, this makes Cera at least the fourth movie star in the last two years to turn his talents to the only marginally less glamorous and remunerative field of short fiction. (Others include Miranda July, James Franco, and Sharon Stone.)The forthcoming 106th issue of Granta suggests that even the World's Most Serious Literary Magazine is not immune to the trend. Through our vast network of informants, we've obtained page proofs, and the "Contributors' Notes" include one or two names you may recognize, behind their veneer of careful self-effacement:M. Louise Ciccone is a media professional who divides time between the New York Kabbalah Center and the Miami Kabbalah Center. This is her first published story.Washington-based R.I. Emmanuel spends weekends in Chicago with his wife and beloved children. He promised to shove Granta's head so far up Granta's f*&^ing a^% we'd be able to see our &^%[email protected] if we didn't get his first published story published.Julius Erving, a retired physician, lives in the metro Philadelphia area. This is his first published story.Phillipa Longstocking is one of world literature's most beloved characters. For more information, you may contact the Wylie Agency.P.R. Nelson is a Minneapolis-based composer and erotic acoustician. His work has appeared widely, under a variety of names. His 4thcoming memoir, All of My Purple Life will B published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux this fall.Joaquin Phoenix, an obscure itinerant musician, scribbled this, his first published story, on the back of a New Jersey Turnpike exit ticket.Julia Roberts is Julia Roberts.Borat Sagdiyev is making the literature sexy sexy for much enjoyment of Kazakh people. His story "My Goat, She is Not Breathing" (translated here by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky) appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, and was selected for Best Central Asian Short Stories 2007.Schmary Schmate and Schmashley Schmolsen, whose first published story this is, are sometime undergraduates in NYU's make-your-own major program. They are majoring in Undeclared, and also this is their first published story, because what, do you think they have time to be writing stories all the time, or something?The late Dave Thomas (1932-2002) was the founder of Wendy's and creator of the internationally acclaimed Chicken Cordon Bleu. This is his final published story. The Chicken Cordon Bleu is back for a limited time.All your base are belong to Carnie Wilson.
The Association for Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) met in Chicago this week for their annual conference and book fair. Tin House was there. Granta was there. Every university press known to mankind was there. One Story delivered valentines, and Avery offered lollipops. Many, many writers showed up to network, get ideas, and press the flesh. You wanted to be there.Alas, I wasn't. L.A. is far from Chicago, and I'm broke, and I had to work. Thankfully, there was an alternative...L.A.D.W.P., which might stand for the Los Angeles Department of Writers and Poets, or, say, Los Angeles Drinking Writing People, hosted its first event on Friday for all us Angelino writers who had missed the events in Chicago. We congregated in the back room at the beloved H.M.S. Bounty, a nautical-themed bar on the first floor of the famous Gaylord apartment building in Koreatown. We wore name tags. We drank martinis, beer, and even the occasional shot (who invited the poets?). There were writers working on short stories, or on their first novel, or their second or third, or, in the case of Mark Haskell Smith, on their fourth. The kids from the Hipster Book Club even made an appearance.We talked shop. The paperback of Janelle Brown's first book, All We Ever Wanted Was Everything, is coming out soon, and we discussed how to get it on the enviable fiction table at Skylight. (Good thing I work there now.) I asked the students at UC Riverside's Palm Desert MFA program if there was a rivalry with the M.F.A. program at Riverside's main campus; a consensus was not reached. Fiction writer and Los Angeles Times book blogger Carolyn Kellogg suggested we hold these events fairly regularly - perhaps one during the book festival?A painter who had been dragged to the event by her writer-friend asked me what I was reading, and then apologized, saying, "Is that an okay question to ask at these sorts of things?" I told her of course it was, and that I was almost done with Mrs. Dalloway.Antoine Wilson, author of the riveting novel The Interloper, had just flown home from a family trip to Mexico. From the plane window, he said, he had witnessed Los Angeles in its glittering, sprawling vastness, and just driving from his house on the westside, to the Bounty on the east, he had experienced the various, wildly different landscapes and milieus the city has to offer. Between my first and second martini (or, was it my second and my third?) Antoine and I talked about trying to write the L.A. Novel. We both agreed that capturing our hometown on the page might make your head explode. Thinking about it now, I know we've got Play as it Lays, The Day of the Locust, Ask the Dust, The Big Sleep, and Their Dogs Came With Them, among many, many others; but can a single book capture the entire city? (And don't you dare say Bright Shiny Morning.)I asked Karen Moulding, who has recently come from New York, what L.A. was like for a writer. She said, "Oh my God! Writers are so nice in Los Angeles!" Author Janet Fitch added, "Yeah... because there's so little at stake." Perhaps YA author Cecil Castellucci had the wisest answer: "Bette Davis said, 'Take Fountain.' I say, 'Take Franklin.'" Everyone agreed.
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Watch out! Vonnegut is definitely habit-forming! -From a Dell Books Advertisement for Welcome to The Monkey House, 1974 On a recent morning, I boarded a New York subway car, glancing at the riders as I settled into a seat. A homeless man slept in a corner; three skate rats hovered above him, snickering greasily. A few others read tabloids with Manhattan disinterest; an Orthodox wife corralled her squirming kids. Despite the varied scene, I was most interested in the man sitting across from me. He was roughly my age, and was intently reading a book. I looked away—then, with blasé nosiness, went back for the title: Bluebeard, by Kurt Vonnegut. The man was absorbed, no doubt reading it for the first time. I turned away again, mild jealousy creeping in. I wish I could do that, I thought. I wished this not because Bluebeard is a great book—though it’s close, one of Vonnegut’s best late novels—but because it was a Vonnegut. It’s been years since I’ve read him, and in the weeks since that train ride, I’ve come to see how much his work once meant to me, and how much I miss it now. I discovered Vonnegut, unoriginally enough, in college. In a small used bookstore, long since vanished, a row of hardcovers caught my eye. I knelt and came up with Breakfast of Champions. The title was written in tiny aqua type; underneath, much larger, was the author’s name, in an appealing Cooper font. The name “Kurt Vonnegut” was both familiar and intrinsically appealing: spiky, ugly, and elegant. As I flipped through, I found crude pen drawings—tombstones, cows, an asshole. In between were passages like this: Sparky could not wag his tail—because of an automobile accident many years ago, so he had no way of telling other dogs how friendly he was. He had to fight all the time. His ears were in tatters. He was lumpy with scars. And this: The humanoids told Don that if he went home with a whore, she would cook him a meal of petroleum and coal products at fancy prices. And this: A dinosaur was a reptile as big as a choo-choo train. It seemed sad and strange and new. I was in. I gave five dollars to the smiling elderly clerk, walked it home, and, splayed in my beer-stained beanbag chair, flew clean through it. As it turned out, I’d been right: Breakfast of Champions was crushingly sad, thoroughly strange, and unlike anything I’d read. It was anguished by our mindlessness, but laced with knowing glee. Despite its outraged pessimism, it was quite a lot of fun. I needed more. I returned to the bookstore and made its Vonneguts mine. A different second-hand shop kept their KVs behind the counter, as liquor stores do with their best stuff. The books back there were more expensive, but I didn’t care. Could I have those? I asked. Yes, please. All of them. Though I read other authors in the months that followed, Vonnegut was the magnetic core of my reading world. I jumped from the brilliant (Cat’s Cradle) to the good (Player Piano) to the blah (Jailbird) to the brilliant (God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater). I was troubled by Mother Night, addled by Slaughterhouse-Five. On a visit home, I found Hocus Pocus on my father’s shelf, and promptly stole it away. Even at their leanest, Vonnegut’s stories worked by wheeling massive concerns—annihilation, fate, the return of Jesus Christ—through bloated cartoon worlds. He hit the pleasure centers with sickening ease; the junk was strong. I read his short stories and essays, interviews and speeches; I painted an elaborate gouache portrait of him. I befriended a collector of “Vonnegut ephemera” who claimed to have been a character in Slapstick. I pushed the books on others, then fretted for their return. I read The Eden Express, his son’s psychosis memoir. And then, within a year or so of finding Breakfast of Champions, I was done. It had been like bingeing on mangoes. In this way, Vonnegut’s virtuosity was its own detriment: having fallen so hard for his humor-glazed rage, I had no choice but to rip through everything. There are plenty of other authors who I’ve liked just as much—T.C. Boyle, say, or Michael Chabon—but with them, I’ve never felt the completist urge. Riven Rock, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and the rest have been set aside for the future. But Vonnegut disallowed such patience. Once I began, the existence of more fed a steady, low-grade mania. It’s a testament to his skill that in the years since, I’ve never become embarrassed by that mania. There’s a tendency to disown one’s teenage enthusiasms, to feel that our supposed refinement has made us somehow wiser. To be sure, I’d rather sand off my nose than read Skinny Legs and All to the strains of Jethro Tull. But Vonnegut, though best-loved in the days of beanbag chairs and Escher prints, is different. Unlike Pirsig or Meddle or Jäger, he transcends the collegiate—too sternly pissed to be relegated to a rash and eager past. So I’ve resolved to reread the man. I’ve taken my favorite Vonnegut novel, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, down from the shelf. To my surprise, having it so near has made me anxious, as if an ex-girlfriend has returned. Its tattered front cover is taped to the spine; its pages are flaky and tan. The back cover says that “Only recently has the general public become aware of his unique genius.” It’s old and frail, but its words remain pungent, tragic, insane: “And then they tied me to a stake, burned me alive, and dumped my ashes into the nearest stream. As I say, I haven’t been back since.”