It’s not news drawing attention to the fact that books released in different markets almost always have different covers. But what do we make of three different editions of an illustrated fiction, two of which have been translated to English from Japanese, with covers and interiors that could not be any more different from one another? Such is the case with the latest Haruki Murakami book, The Strange Library. What’s that? You thought Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage was the most recently translated Murakami novel? You are correct, and incorrect. Without getting involved with trying to delineate the differences between a novel, a novella, and a short story, it just doesn’t seem right calling The Strange Library a novel. The U.S. edition is a 96-page paperback with elaborate flaps that open vertically and the 88-page U.K. edition is small hardcover embracing the library conceit with a check-out card holder on the cover -- both versions are heavily illustrated and use the same Ted Goossen translation, with American English spelling and punctuation, and the text probably only takes up about half of the pages in both editions. The Japanese edition is also illustrated and was released in 2008 in the compact dust-jacketed paperback format known as bunko-bon. Murakami’s most enduring talent is his ability to rein in his expansive imagination with sentences strung together with elegant simplicity. As is the case in most, if not all, Murakami, The Strange Library features a male protagonist unexpectedly caught out of sorts, unsure how to extricate himself from the predicament, and reliant on eccentric characters, one of whom is, of course, a beautiful young woman. In many ways, The Strange Library is familiar territory, but even by Murakami’s standards this prose is sparse, and, it turns out, secondary to the storytelling. The unnamed narrator goes to the library to return books and find more about tax collection in the Ottoman Empire. After being directed to a room in the basement, the narrator is confronted by a cranky old librarian who procures three tomes. The appreciative narrator tries to check out the books only to learn that they cannot be removed from the library. Not wanting to worry his mother by being late for dinner the narrator apologizes for any inconvenience he might have caused the crusty librarian, but the old man guilts the narrator into staying after hours, at which point he forces the narrator down a dark staircase and imprisons him, with the assistance of a sheep man. The narrator is ordered to read the three books the librarian pulled for him so that the old man can eat the narrator’s brain. When the narrator asks why, the sheep man explains, “Brains packed with knowledge are yummy, that’s why. They’re nice and creamy. And sort of grainy at the same time.” Without spoiling the ending, that’s The Strange Library. The story’s pacing is dreamlike with very little consideration of events as they happen and how they are all accepted no matter how absurd. When the narrator is told his brain will be eaten, he isn’t happy about it, but he resigns himself to the idea and gets reading about the Ottoman Empire. As captors go, the sheep man is quite likeable, especially since he fries up a mean doughnut. The enchanting woman is mute, but the narrator is able to communicate with her effortlessly. From a psychoanalytic perspective, it is not a reach to posit that we are reading the narrator’s dream. The old man could easily symbolize an estranged father figure and the repeated appearance of a green-eyed dog represents trauma. Plus, a library, like a brain, is a place full of knowledge we think we want to access and knowledge we have no idea that we want to access, or should access. Everything that comes to pass in The Strange Library, like in so much of Murakami’s fiction, questions the differences between what is real and what is not, and whether such a distinction even matters. In 1Q84, the intersection of two different temporal realms drives the plot, and in Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, certain occurrences take place in “reality, but a reality imbued with all the qualities of a dream.” But in both of these books the characters devote themselves to fleshing out the mysterious intricacies of these unreal realities, whereas in The Strange Library the narrator simply accepts everything that comes his way. The illustrations, more than the words on the page, are what ignite the reader’s thoughts about what the narrator is up against. In the Japanese edition the kooky Saturday morning cartoon images are quite literal -- there is the narrator crying on his bed, a ball and chain shackled around his ankle; and here is the sheep man carrying in a tray of doughnuts. There is nothing dark and foreboding about the images and they come off more like an afterthought and not integral to the text (which I cannot read). What is immediately clear upon seeing both English-language editions is just how much thought went into the design and illustrated content of these two very different books. Published by Knopf, the U.S. edition is a Chip Kidd production (top), and while Kidd’s prolific portfolio demonstrates how comfortable he is working within any and all design idioms, The Strange Library is an in-your-face zoom-in on the faded comics qualities Kidd so often employs when working on Murakami titles. Suzanne Dean, art director for the book’s U.K. publisher, Harvill Secker, takes a very different approach to The Strange Library (bottom). Open up that edition to any page and the word “vintage” will spring to mind, from the lovely marbled endpapers to the reproduced antique plates of dogs and birds. Both designs inject a sinister quality into the goofy story, but the illustrations and design interact with the text quite differently. In the U.K. edition, the illustrations and design are about much more than ornamenting the story; the illustrations actually complete sentences and respond much more literally to the words on the page, making the relationship between the two dependent on one another. In the U.S. edition, certain of the illustrations respond directly to the narrative flow, but in a more evocative, atmospheric manner. Some of the images, judging by the colors and pulpy quality, appear to have been scanned from source material that probably qualifies as vintage, but how they are used on the page gives them a more contemporary collage dynamic a la Roy Lichtenstein and FAILE. It is fascinating that Murakami would permit his words to be so freely interpreted, but perhaps that was his intention all along with this story. As an author who has devoted a great amount of thought to dreams and dreamlike realities, it might have struck him as fitting to let designers manifest the elusive qualities of dreams on the page. (And it is impossible not to think about what these three different editions say about the differences between publishers and readers in Japan, the U.S., and U.K., but that is a topic for another time.) Both English-language editions are aesthetically pleasing as objects, but the designs eclipse the text like a new moon-doughnut (an actual image that fills two pages in the U.S. edition). One traditional tenet of graphic design is that it shouldn’t be noticed, so as not to interfere with the reading process. Here, it is impossible not to notice the designs, but rather than distract from the reading experience the designs force the reader to actually read, and read into, the design, giving it more thought than the narrator gives to his circumstances. The three different designs employed for this one story provide readers with three very different psyches for the narrator, reinventing the narratives in a way, the same as when you remember a dream after waking up and then think back on it later in the day and it never seems quite the same.
Using the New York City borough of Queens as a linchpin, Jonathan Lethem’s latest novel, Dissident Gardens, questions the American twentieth century’s “great comedy: that Communism had never existed, not once. So what was there to oppose?” Yet, every character in this book, which seamlessly bobs in and out of the last century’s decades and into the recent past of Occupy Wall Street, leads a life of great opposition, resisting everything their eras throw at them: electrified rock ‘n’ roll drowning out the pacifist strumming of folk music; the painfully belated attention, and lack thereof, from distant parents; the “ritual compliance” to TSA indignities. At the core of this resistance are two women, Rose Zimmer and her daughter Miriam. Steeped in Marxism but having no choice but to cope with how “true Communism had floated free of history, like smoke,” after Nikita Khrushchev delivered a speech in 1956 denouncing Stalin, this cell of two takes shape, a solidarity of dignified disappointment. The ghosts of European Diaspora drive Rose’s husband back to his native Germany, leaving the two Zimmer women in Sunnyside Gardens, a still-standing 1,200-unit planned community built around communal gardens. It is here, only six stops away from Manhattan on the 7 train, where community organizing blurs with neighborly nosiness and Rose and Miriam anneal their individual strengths through clashes that demonstrate the women’s similarities. Their time living together comes to an end after a precocious teenage Miriam, Rose’s “renegade self” who has skipped her last year of high school, brings home a young man. Rose discovers the two of them in Miriam’s bedroom and after the suitor is permitted to leave, Rose, having turned on the gas, crawls into the oven before removing herself to shove in Miriam, an episode of utter histrionics that will haunt both women for the rest of their lives. But before the suitor is sent on his way so mother and daughter can tussle, Rose declares: “I tried to raise a young woman but apparently produced an American teenager in her place.” Spend enough time in Queens and you will invariably hear such lamentations from foreign-born parents raising their children in this melting pot borough, explaining why it plays a central role in this novel. True, all of New York is a melting pot, but Queens has always been a remarkable amalgam of multiple nationalities living in close proximity, maintaining aspects of home while embracing New World attitudes. These hybrid identities, however, test and taunt Rose, Miriam, and their chess-playing, numismatist cousin Lenny Angrush, all committed Communists with increasingly less to share in common with their comrades. As Lenny says, “Fuck the amnesia of Communists who’d conveniently forgotten they were Communists, of the immigrants who’d forgotten they were immigrants.” Miriam moves to Manhattan; her son Sergius is sent to a Quaker boarding school in Pennsylvania; one of Rose’s causes, Cicero Lookins, the overweight, gay son of Rose’s lover, a black, married cop, eventually ends up as a university professor in Maine. But no matter how far any of the characters travel, they cannot escape Queens. Lethem does not let them; the borough exerts a heady presence. He evokes the crazy convergences of streets, avenues, roads, drives, and lanes; he frames the genesis of the Mets as the “death of the Sunnyside Proletarians”; there are flickering-reality interactions with Archie Bunker; the 7 train rising above ground in Long Island City and careening toward Queensboro Plaza against the backdrop of Manhattan is “progress up out of the darkness, scraping moonward into the constellation of streetlights and signage along Jackson Avenue.” Queens is the perfect metaphor for the world, as it contains the world, making the lives of the Zimmer women universal in that like them, every single one of us must struggle with our own identities in order to understand the identities of others. Frustrated folk singer Tommy Gogan, Miriam’s Irish husband, is jealously in awe of Bob Dylan, thinking his shape-shifting theatrics compromise the integrity of music, of the music’s message. But then he realizes that “Dylan, having shrunken an entire world to his sole person, was terrified by the isolation.” Both Rose and Miriam also fear isolation so they spend their lives trying to expand their worlds through the collective and individual gestures of causes, from workers’ rights to helping Cicero and the Sandinistas. Rose believes that all true Communists die alone, but that is just an easy way to accept that we all die alone: “Always opt for civilization’s brutalities, for the stupidities of the urbane. Not for Rose or Miriam the primal indignity of nature.” Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude features one of the best endings in all of fiction as father and son drive through a blizzard, listening to Brian Eno’s Another Green World, “two gnarls of human scribble, human cipher, human dream.” This is the moment of implicit reconciliation and a nod to how the unexpected can bring together individuals. The characters in Dissident Gardens grow from the expectations of planned, organized communities intended to unify individuals but they spend their lives trying to extract themselves from these contexts only to realize that it is not their individuality that defines them but their solitude. Dissident Gardens is an intricately detailed meditation on varieties of emotional isolation. When the 7 train charges above ground today the majority of people just keep watching their screens or check their phones for service, oblivious to the surroundings of the borough that most of them call home. The graffiti-adorned 5 Pointz standing resolutely under the growing skyline of Long Island City is no match for Angry Birds or a text message about baby names. Technological connectivity isolates us from our surroundings, and from others. A political ideology meant to unite communities around the skills and abilities of individuals splintered those communities. The irony in both examples is the same – what in theory should bring us together keeps us apart. In Dissident Gardens, Jonathan Lethem leverages this irony, bringing to life characters who want no parts of what they feel connected to but cannot quite latch on to what it is they really need.
In the past couple of years, Adam Mansbach has gone from respected novelist to pop culture lightning rod thanks to a little book he wrote about trying to put his daughter to bed. Having already been a go-to expert for all things hip hop, as well as fiction writing and the politics of race, he unexpectedly found himself answering endless questions about parenting. He’ll probably never escape being known as the guy who wrote Go the F**k to Sleep, but 2013 will put some distance between him and that book with the release of two novels, the first of which, Rage Is Back, delivers readers to New York in 2005, where an old-school crew of graffiti writers attempts to recreate the past. TM: This is the story of a family and gentrification, but graffiti is the vehicle that carries the book. What made you want to write a novel based on the evolution of New York City graffiti? Adam Mansbach: I've been fascinated by graffiti for a very long time. As a kid, during the time I was coming up in hip hop, you were expected to be conversant with all the art forms -- the sonic, the kinetic, and the visual -- and to be proficient in at least a couple in order to fully "be" hip hop. I was an MC and a DJ, but I also wrote graffiti. I wasn't great, but the thrill of it was captivating, and I quickly discovered that graffiti writers were the mad geniuses and eccentrics of hip hop, the guys whose relationship to their craft was the most fraught and intense, the guys who labored in the dark, literally, whose lives were a discourse between fame and anonymity, who used "beautify" and "destroy" almost interchangeably when they talked about their work. And when I first got into hip hop around 1987, graffiti was already being forced off the New York subway trains, which had been its canvas since the beginning. So there was this sense of a death throe, and of guys outliving the form they'd created, which was weird and tragic, even though graffiti had already gone worldwide by then. By the '90s, you had all these writers living in, and beefing about, the past -- who was king of such and such line in '78, who started writing when, and so on. TM: How do you square that with graffiti today, especially in terms of how some the original writers, like TAKI 183 and BLADE, have been resurrected and found some mainstream, international recognition? Years ago I met STAY HIGH 149 and he couldn't believe that all of the sudden people cared about him again, and were willing to pay him to tag. AM: The death throes I'm referring to were not of the movement as a whole, just of its original conception as an art form inextricably and brilliantly bound to New York’s subway, which gave writers a perfect platform to be seen, incubated a certain set of aesthetics because of the fact that the pieces would be seen in motion, and also fostered a particular kind of competition and ruggedness because of space limits and working conditions. But by the time the buff eradicated the last train pieces in 1989 graffiti had moved into, and back out of, galleries, and had a huge impact in Europe and across the U.S., largely through the book Subway Art and the film Style Wars. In Sweden, for instance, Style Wars played on national TV on a Wednesday night, and by Friday there was a graffiti scene. Guys with the right combination of skill and savvy had already transitioned into art careers, and a lot of other guys got into graphic design and advertising. So the interest in graffiti never really abated, but when the train era ended everybody came above ground and a new era of street-bombing got underway, with a lot of throw-up kings like VFR, JA, and SP ONE getting big, new school iconoclasts like REVS and COST doing their thing, and clever muralists like ESPO figuring out ways to piece illegally in broad daylight. But for every writer who made it, found a niche, sold some pieces, there are 100 who have been trying to drive their lives on the fumes of their train reps for the last 20-plus years. You can't live on the adulation of a bunch of graffiti fans, and for a lot of the real innovators and workhorses of the train era, it's been pretty rough going, even if their names have made it into some history books. TM: And Rage Is Back is really more about the unsung heroes, right, the workhorses? The key players are legends in their world but are otherwise unknown. AM: I knew I wanted the book to be told from the perspective of somebody who wasn't part of the glory days, somebody who inherited the culture, was born into it, and had a complicated relationship to it. For Dondi, graffiti is old man shit, the thing that derailed his parents' lives. I wanted this to be about a reckoning between generations, and I wanted to do something exciting, a heist story with plots and setbacks and lots of moving pieces, big stakes and big payoffs. And for the record, everything in here about the train mission is totally plausible. My consultants were people who've thought for years about how to pull off something like bombing every train in the system at once. TM: How did you educate yourself about the New York graffiti scene? AM: I moved to New York in '94, and started a hip hop magazine in '95; my partner was a graffiti writer named Alan Ket, who also started Stress Magazine. We met in Tricia Rose's hip hop class at NYU. He was and is a major figure in the scene, and through him I met a lot of other writers. I'd just try to soak up lore and stories from all these cats; they were like the ultimate New Yorkers to me. Nobody knows a city as well as its graffiti writers. The book evolved out of my belief that the history of graffiti is a really interesting window on the history of New York. The "War on Graffiti," first declared by Mayor Lindsay in '72, and prosecuted by a series of like-minded mayors ever since, has really been a war on young people, especially young people of color. It's about public space, and who has the right to it. It presaged and ushered in zero tolerance policy, prejudicial gang databases, quality of life offenses, epic incarceration -- the whole way a generation has experienced law enforcement and personal freedom, basically. TM: There is a wild-style manner to the narrative, both in terms of how the story unfolds -- the dialogue snaps with the rat-a-tat cadence of ball bearings rattling around in an aerosol can; you describe pieces and tags at length; Dondi, the narrator, possesses pop-culture-rich street savvy and heightened self-awareness -- and in its layering. We are reading the book that Dondi is in the process of writing, but you let another narrator hijack a chapter and also manage to slip in a short story. Were you intentionally trying to connect the visual intricacies of graffiti to the book’s narrative structure? AM: Not explicitly, but it's gratifying to hear you say that. I knew, from day the first, that the book was going to succeed or fail based on the strength of Dondi's voice: it's his show, and his narration had to be funny, captivating, believable, digressive, unpredictable, but still in the pocket. My model, in that, was Russell Banks’s Rule of the Bone. I'd always shied away from first person before -- loved to write it, but been afraid that I'd paint myself into a corner doing a whole novel that way since you're limited to writing scenes at which the narrator is present. It turned out to be incredibly liberating. And making Dondi a kid who's explicitly writing a book, with no experience doing so, was like free money. The narrative handoff, where CLOUD 9 takes over for a chapter because Dondi wasn't there, is something I jacked from Treasure Island. There is a collage element to the book, and that is intentional. Layering and flow and the strategic, intentional use of rupture are tenets of hip hop’s aesthetic DNA, and I definitely wanted to reflect that in the book. TM: Words are the only tool novelists use to convince readers. Rage Is Back is your fourth novel; your previous one, The End of the Jews, came out in 2008. But in the last two years you not only grabbed the whole world’s attention with Go the F**k to Sleep, but you also co-wrote Nature of the Beast, a graphic novel, and worked on film projects. How has your relationship to visual storytelling changed over the last few years and did Rage Is Back gel because of it? AM: I've definitely become comfortable moving across genres in the past few years. As you say, I've been doing screenplays, I did the graphic novel, did the "Wake the Fuck Up" Obama video with Sam Jackson, sold a sitcom pilot to CBS. And my next book after this is a supernatural thriller called The Dead Run that HarperCollins will publish in September. Partly, these are all pre-existing interests of mine, and Go the Fuck to Sleep opened some doors and I took advantage. I think I've always thought visually, as a writer: I envision scenes in space, if you will; I think about blocking and where the light's coming from and that kind of thing. But it's also that I really appreciate parameters, and being forced to work within them. My first love was MCing, which means making a statement in 4/4 time over a set number of beats per minute, and making it rhyme. GTFTS was basically me seeing if I could tell a story in an ABCB rhyme scheme and find 14 words that rhymed with “sleep.” Screenplays are similarly regimented, and writing a thriller is too: push the plot forward, interweave four voices, end each chapter with a cliffhanger. Ultimately, though, it's all storytelling. That's always been my passion, and for me the story has to dictate the form. If it wants to be a short story, you've got to let it be one, instead of trying to make it a screenplay or a haiku.
After years of taunting me from a bookshelf close to my desk, I’ve finally faced up to the portrait of Robert Musil spread across the two spines that hold together The Man Without Qualities. The decision to read this modernist masterwork started out as a reluctant acceptance of a self-imposed challenge. I mean, who really wants to read over 1,000 pages about Austrian-Hungarian aristocrats trying to invent ideas about how to maintain power structures that have already crumbled? Yet Musil, who started the book in 1921 and worked on it until his death in 1942, wastes no time establishing a scope of ideas that are prescient and read as if written today, fully-realized observations of how commerce and industry render us anonymous cogs in a great global machine that chips away at the individual. Here are two gems to whet your appetite: “A world of qualities without a man has arisen, of experiences without the person who experiences them, and it almost looks as though ideally private experience is a thing of the past;” “Democracy means, expressed most succinctly: Do whatever is happening!” I don’t like toting around big books though, so when on the move my reads were physically lighter but just as memorable. Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero is like a translation of itself, stories told and retold across eras between Northern California and rural France, hauntingly delicate like whispers not meant to be heard. The Bay Area is also a character in McTeague. Frank Norris’s tale of a boarding house dentist has all the qualities of any good story -- faith in the future, betrayal, soured romance, comic relief -- not to mention a Death Valley showdown that makes for one of those pitch-perfect endings. All writers should aim to wrap up their stories with such precision. And though I read it early this year, and reviewed it here, I keep thinking about Geoff Dyers’s Zona, erudite, intimate, and humorous, I wish more books about other works of art were so assured and capable. More from A Year in Reading 2012 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
When first I learned about Leanne Shapton’s Swimming Studies, I anticipated delicately written and visual riffs on swimming, a topic dear to me. I didn’t realize that Shapton, best known for her art direction and illustrations for The New York Times, was a serious competitive swimmer as a teenager growing up in the Canadian city of Mississauga. What Swimming Studies reveals is how those experiences have guided her, have in fact infiltrated her adult life on a molecular level it seems. Like Shapton, I too was a competitive swimmer. Unlike her, I’ve never won an officiated competitive race and my times certainly never qualified me for Olympic trials, like hers did. I came to swimming as a kid who loved the water. By default of not being very good at any other sports I ended up on the swim team in middle school and then discovered water polo, drawn to the sport’s splashing full-body-contact. I joined the water polo team in high school and for a few summers played in a league. Because most water polo players were swimmers, during the winter season I too became a swimmer. Five days a week, I’d churn through thousands of yards of water, from time to time I’d do two-a-day practices; I would weight train, carbo-load, and even shave my legs before the big meets. My senior year I was one of the team’s captains, but only because some of my teammates felt bad that I hadn’t been selected to captain the water polo team. It didn’t matter -- I had fun. Some of these guys counted among my closest friends, and the team’s coach changed my life (another story for another time). There were a few guys on the team who were on Olympic trajectories, or at least that’s what coaches and parents told them in order to justify their grueling year-round schedules and regimens. I was always happy to cheer them on or be a lap counter for their long-distance races, but that was as close as I got to being a champion swimmer. Swimmers like me had weekends and would go months at a time without structured practices. My body is not big and lanky and I do not have feet that resemble flippers. No amount of training would have gotten me to the Olympic trials. Physical attributes aside, I never had the drive to be a serious swimmer because I discovered other interests, like the girls’ team and The Grateful Dead. So I simply swam for fun and in doing so built up a familiarity and comfort level with the water that I’ll never lose. I basked in the easy paychecks of lifeguarding at summer camps and country clubs, sometimes earning extra teaching little kids how to do flip turns. To this day, any swim I take, whether doing laps at the Y or floating in whatever body of water I can access, is a pleasure, and a respite from the gravity of life on land. Doubtless, if we raced, Shapton would beat me, but we both possess, and thrive off, “a knowledge of watery space, being able to sense exactly where [our] body is and what it’s affecting, an animal empathy for contact with an element.” And here we start getting at the heart of the matter and what makes this book astounding. Any dedicated swimmer knows exactly what Shapton means; we sense and control our movements, from the tips of our fingers to the flutter of our feet, breathing very specifically, detecting any shifts in conditions, from the presence of other swimmers to the tug of a current. For those intimidated by the water, such intimacy with it is horrifying, or at least serious enough that you never go out beyond where the waves break. But Shapton pares down her experiences as a swimmer and grafts the core lessons to other parts of her life, allowing them to bloom in ways that have everything and nothing to do with swimming. Surprisingly, the most important lessons are not about her life as an artist, but as an individual and as a woman, a woman who learns to love herself and others. As a swimmer trying to make the Canadian Olympic team, she was a machine honing in on a number, an all-consuming quantifiable ideal, as recounted in a passage about a solitary early morning pre-training breakfast, consisting of her own milky instant bran muffin mix concoction: I put the batter-filled mug in the microwave and set the time to 1:11:00, the time I want to swim the SC 100m breaststroke in 1987. Then I cover my eyes with one hand, finger on the start panel, imagining my starting block and the pool...I push Start on the microwave. Breath, dive. In the kitchen, in my track pants, there are eight or nine strokes the first length, a two-handed touch, and silence again at the turn...Halfway down the pool on my final length I hear sharp beeping and open my eyes – the microwave is flashing 00:00:00. Too slow by about five seconds. Competition, especially at the Olympic level, makes all too clear the risks of striving for perfection. The importance I attach to swimming is very real, but swimming has never been the basis of my identity. For Shapton, at least for a time, it was -- a chlorine-cured identity built of a body and mind constantly processing lap times and adjusting stroke lengths to achieve record swims. What her elegant prose allows to float slowly to the surface with the fluid definition of air bubbles is the fact that because she did not succeed at the Olympic trials she has succeeded in life by learning that life is “complicated, mostly sad, and mostly beautiful.” Living in northern California after college, I always got a kick out of never really being able to swim in the frigid Pacific waters, even during summer, but during the winter always being able to find an open outdoor pool. It was in these years when I met the woman I would marry. Here again Shapton and I share something else in common: a bond with our spouse forged by water. In the case of my wife, I taught her to be more at ease in the water by teaching stroke mechanics and the importance of exhaling when your face is submerged. And while she still refuses to join me out in the big swells off a beach like Waimea Bay on Oahu’s North Shore, I turned her on to swimming as exercise and the joys of long relaxing paddles through the tranquil waters of lakes in central Maine. James, Shapton’s husband, imparted to her something even more important than taking a shine to water: “Watching him in the waves, I realize he doesn’t see life as rigor and deprivation. To him it’s something to enjoy, where the focus is not on how to win, but how to flourish.” As Shapton comes to terms with her life as being more than just a swimmer, her flourishing is the ability to share herself with James, her family, friends, and herself in a way that had not been possible when she was more a swimmer chasing a record than an individual. Exploring memories of meets and practices, while also talking to her family and friends today, and paying close attention to swimmers of all sorts, Shapton is able to identify competitive swimming’s influence on her out of the water. We learn that next to her bed she keeps a framed black-and-white photograph of a woman swimming. In Shapton’s mind, the swimmer is oblivious to the photographer: “It reminds me of the love I have for James when he doesn’t know I’m looking at him.” Reading of Shapton’s process of accepting her new relationship with pools, she unpacks several such insights and perspectives, referring not only to her relationships with people but with her approach to art. Trading water-pruned fingers for ink-stained ones, Shapton recognizes the similarities between the two equally ambitious pursuits. “Artistic discipline and athletic discipline are kissing cousins,” she writes, “they require the same thing, an unspecial practice: tedious and pitch-black invisible, private as guts, but always sacred.” The coral blue cover stamped with a dark blue swimming cap makes clear that Swimming Studies is indeed meant to be a physical object, a piece of art. The book features some of Shapton’s watercolors. Their subtleness is strikingly appropriate. The same as a flailing splashing crawl stroke does not result in swimming fast, no matter how quickly you move your arms, Shapton knows how to make both her written and visual ideas glide, concealing the hard work necessary to create the perception of effortlessness. All that matters is the end result. Though in this case, the artwork is secondary because Swimming Studies is not about Leanne Shapton the artist, it is about Leanne Shapton the person, and while swimming, visual arts, and other people are all vital components in her existence, she has learned how to define them, rather than let them define her: swimming not as a way of life but life as a way of swimming. Image Credit: Wikipedia
In Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s The Colonel, a novel banned in Iran but just recently published in the U.S., rain falls constantly, “mercilessly,” across the days and years. It is not a cleansing rain, but rather a bleak torrent of erosion and decomposition, agitating a festering wound simply incapable of healing because the cause of the problem never lets up. In this muddy, clouded-over, small town near the Caspian Sea, a family comes undone as it copes with the decisions made by its patriarch, “the colonel,” as well as the erratic and conflicting policies and actions of those in power during various historical eras. The novel opens in the middle of the night, during a downpour, “so unceasing that it amounted to silence,” as the colonel is roused by two soldiers who take him to claim the body of his youngest daughter, Parvaneh, so he can prepare the corpse for burial. From this starting point, Dowlatabadi’s nonlinear episodes jump in time and perspective, a puzzle as fragmented whole as when it is in pieces, an appropriate quality for a book about the shattering of individuals and national identity. Parvaneh is not the colonel’s only deceased child. Two of his sons have also fallen, one during the 1979 revolution and another during the Iraq war. Two of his children are still alive, though not much better off. His eldest son, Amir, has suffered a mental breakdown after serving time in prison, a victim of the Shah’s regime; his other daughter, Farzaneh, is married to an unprincipled man who makes his way by standing behind those in power at any given moment, regardless of the ideology that props up that power. The fates of the colonel’s children result from his actions as both an officer in the Shah’s army and as a father and husband. Dowlatabadi’s nuanced treatment of his characters permits readers to understand and empathize with their choices, though they hardly understand one another, or see the world in the same ways. This is due in great part to the colonel, a man who considers himself an independent thinker, but is also beholden to cultural traditions, so much so that he eviscerated his adulterous wife. For all of the death contained in the book, the only one to appear on the page is this murder, for which the colonel spends time in the same prison as Amir. But death is not the story. The dead are the lucky ones, freed from the burdens of history. Life in Iran today, as Dowlatabadi makes all too clear, spares no one. He performs an autopsy on Iranian national identity, ravaged by generations of war and conflict, which can be made “responsible for anything, except for the lives of the people caught up in it.” There is not a single victor in the novel and this fact brings into harsh focus the cultural complexity that plagues Iran and Iranians. Because outside influences, working overtly and covertly to push their agendas, shaped Iran’s 20th century, the plight of the colonel and his family mirrors that of the entire nation, baited and divided by false promises for which men and women made ultimate sacrifices and suffered countless humiliations “only to discover that the truth they have found is nothing but specious doctrine and bogus ideology.” As a soldier, the colonel was also one of these dutiful followers, until his core belief in Persian history led him to disobey an order to fight for the British and instilled in his children the pride of living by your own code. But the contortions of Iranian history leave no individual free from group influence and so the colonel’s children disband in the name of their individual beliefs, joining competing factions, leaving the colonel with nothing to do but watch it all happen, knowing they are as helpless as him. Through the colonel filters the confusion and contradictions that menace Iranians, but it is Amir who offers some of the most acute insight. Knowing his siblings’ fates, freighted with the belief that his own actions somehow abetted their downfalls, he lives a self-imposed exile in the basement of the family home. As the political tides once again shift, Khezr, a man who interrogated and tortured Amir, appears. He spends a night in Amir’s room, eating the family’s food, drinking their arack. Amir posits that his situation is a result of his “lack of certainty about anything.” The disorienting shifts in perspective utilized by Dowlatabadi do take some getting used to, but this is of course intentional. Foreign influences and interests have merged with and co-opted thousands of years of tradition in Iran and what has at times been a faction’s weakness later becomes its strength, or least the fulcrum used to leverage control of the national dialogue. Steeped in historical references and crafted with a degree of heightened realism that comes off like a documentary, The Colonel offers a portrait of a nation that has grappled with the same problems for so long without being able to remedy them. As outsiders looking in, we can never comprehend fully this reality. But, as an insider who has remained in Iran through these tumultuous decades, been imprisoned and censured while recognized widely as Iran’s greatest novelist, Dowlatabadi’s message leaves no doubt that the greatest victim is an Iran that continues to incubate these problematic relationships. As Amir tells Farzaneh: “The tragedy of our whole country is the same: we are all alienated, strangers in our own land. It’s tragic. The odd thing is that we have never got used to it.”
For decades, critics and enthusiasts have picked apart Andrei Tarkovsky and his 1979 film Stalker, ranking both in the highest echelon of cinematic storytelling. Three men – Stalker, Writer, Professor – set off on a quest through the Zone, an area cordoned off for reasons unclear – “A meteorite? A visit of inhabitants of the cosmic abyss?” Within the Zone exists the Room, a space capable of fulfilling your innermost desire once you enter it. Yes, the goal of wish fulfillment is straightforward, but the journey is some radiation-deformed origami, its surface simplicity obscuring inherent and dizzying complexity navigable only with the aid of a Stalker. The Zone is active, intentionally teasing and taunting those with temerity enough to think they can compete in its game of self-discovery, a game the visitor can never win because the Zone knows exactly what it is, and it also knows exactly what its challengers are: humans. Geoff Dyer’s Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room apotheosizes Stalker. Though he pays extraordinary detail to everything from cinematography to gossip about the making of the film and elements of culture and landscape, like Communism, mud, and humidity, Dyer makes no claim that his musings unpack some undiscovered interpretation of these grimy details. Rather, Zona evidences how films, books, music, any artistic creations of the highest order, make unshakeable impressions on viewers, readers, and listeners. Dyer’s keen sense of humor propels the book, though Stalker is not a funny film. Mysterious, fantastical, depressing, revealing, allegorical – the list of adjectives could go on and on but funny would never make the cut. Yet right off the bat Dyer sets the tone by yukking it up about the dingy bar in which the film opens. Literally, starting from page one he takes pot shots at a flickering light and the barman’s dirty jacket, though nothing about the sepia-tone setting, obstructed by yellow “sci-fi Cyrillic,” conjures laughter, or even a giggle. In fact, Dyer didn’t laugh when first he saw the film on Sunday, February 8, 1981. That’s right, he remembers it to the day. He also remembers feeling “slightly bored and unmoved,” though the movie stuck with him, so much so that he attended a third screening almost exactly a year later, on February 4, 1982. Before beginning anything, still on the book’s first page, Dyer proclaims that we are “already in the realm of universal truth” and what becomes clear very quickly is that Stalker is Dyer’s religion, as channeled through William James’ oft cited The Varieties of Religious Experience and spiritual wanderer Alan Watts, who wrote “Belief clings, but faith lets go.” Dyer has complete faith in Stalker as a vessel of self-discovery and proves it with the nakedness of his thoughts, which he parades around with the bashfulness of a stripper. Whether or not you’re familiar with Stalker matters not; as Dyer describes it, Zona “is the opposite of a summary; it’s an amplification and expansion.” Rich with dramatic nuance but sparse on action, the film moves slowly, methodically, but Dyer breezily free associates and his diversions and frank admissions candied with self-deprecation tunnel into your own thoughts. In doing so, the book transcends being an examination of a film or an established author’s confessional, anecdotal indulgence. We first see Stalker as he wakes and sets to his morning ablutions. Dyer calls to our attention that Stalker has slept in his sweater, but is without pants. Within the context of the film there is no greater significance to this fact. According to Dyer, “in Stalker, there is nothing symbolic about what occurs,” yet this detail matters to him, linking to a childhood belief that American men always wore underwear to bed. All of the sudden, I’m thinking about the scene in Animal House where Donald Sutherland answers the door wearing nothing but a sweater and how we eventually see his ass. Even for such a slapstick movie, this scene has always stayed with me, in the same way Dyer is haunted by Stalker’s lack of trousers. Again and again Dyer’s caroming thoughts trigger your own associative leaps that take you away from Dyer’s text. But it works. What is memorable about this particular reading experience is that even if you’ve never given a second thought to quicksand, tried LSD, or watched The Wizard of Oz (Dyer hasn’t), his read of Stalker permits you to square your life with a film that you may or may not know anything about. For him, the film is shamanistic in its ability to dip in and out of time; he is “struck by the film’s reach, its ability to bathe events – both actual and cultural – in its projected light.” Such illumination, however, has its limits, the blind spots of fanatical personal taste. Sometimes too much information is distracting. Do we need to know that Dyer so adores Burning Man that when he arrives he is brought to tears? Or, for readers familiar with Stalker, what do we make of his omissions? In the film, the Zone is explained through a text credited to Nobel Prize winner Professor Wallace. Dyer mentions the caption without ever connecting it to Professor, or the fact that he, apparently, goes on to be famous. With so many japes and jabs about personal ambition, it is noticeable that Dyer elects to pass on an element of the film that relates to his overall response to it. One line in Stalker that Dyer does not address directly cuts to the heart of the film’s role in his life. The camera looks down on black, oily liquid, primordial in its hypnotic beauty as a reflection of the moon welters. Stalker pleads with the Zone to let his companions believe in its power, “And let them have a laugh at their passions.” Dyer realizes that his infatuation with Stalker borders on the absurd, as the consistently humorous tone indicates. He’s taking the piss out of himself and in doing so accessing the depths of self that the Room brings to the surface for those brave enough to dredge a wish that they might not want fulfilled. As has been noted by the likes of T.S Eliot and Robert Musil, humans have never been the biggest fans of reality. The Room’s power is ultimately its greatest pitfall, as Dyer notes: “Not to have to face up to the truth about oneself is probably high up on anyone’s actual – as opposed to imagined – wish list.” Zona is not about a film or a writer’s personal life. It’s about the power of art. It is a case study in how something created by anyone but you can seem like your creation, so deeply does it resonate with the details of your life. This is what Stalker calls the “unselfishness of art” and it is Geoff Dyer’s gift to his readers.
As the art director at Columbia Records in 1940, Alex Steinweiss came up with the idea of designing record sleeves to be more than plain monochromatic paper wrappers, solidifying the longstanding relationship between music and color. When Steinweiss added visual flourish to the packaging of music, Columbia’s sales skyrocketed, converting innovation into a market necessity. Since then, countless books about album covers, packaging design, and color have been published. Chris Force and Scott Morrow, the editors behind Chromatic: The Crossroads of Color and Music have put together a survey of how contemporary musicians and designers perceive and are inspired by the union of music and color, from elements of graphic design to dramaturgy. In the book’s introduction, Morrow makes it clear that Chromatic is not meant to be comprehensive. How could it be? Since Steinweiss’s first offering of album art -- a glitzy theater marquee trumpeting an orchestral recording of Rodgers and Hart songs -- there isn’t a musician in the world who has performed in public and not given color some consideration, whether in terms of what to wear, DIY photocopied show posters, or slick merch. In truth, there is really no way to separate music and color, which makes the book incredibly interesting, and at times mildly frustrating. It feels as if certain musicians have been shoehorned into the book for questionable associations with the theme of color, such as the band Dark Dark Dark. Compared to other bands that explicitly utilize color to make a point, as documented in Chromatic’s ample visual content, Dark Dark Dark seems to be included by virtue of its name; in a sunny outdoor space that can’t decide whether it’s a junkyard or art installation, the band’s five members pose in the standard untucked slim-fit uniforms of indie rock, trying to decide whether they are brooding or just bored. This is not to say the band isn’t good -- it is -- but in the book’s context, its presence distracts from those actively incorporating color into their musical output. Luckily, Chromatic is just shy of 400 pages and the majority of the content provides a great deal of insight into the processes of manipulating waves of sound and light. Mathias Augustyniak says of designing Björk’s Volta, “Each time we do an album for Björkk, it’s like doing a portrait of her . . . she sort of has a new personality for each album. All of those personalities complement each other or contradict each other; they make sense within a line of characters. But each time, we have to do a new portrait.” Most of the featured artists in Chromatic are not as famous as Björk, but on some level they all share in this approach. Individual songs are not necessarily the purpose of making music for these artists; they are crucial but not exclusive elements in bodies of work that are meant to elicit sensations that you hear, feel, and see as a whole. Take for example Timothy S. Aames’s account of how the charred remains of the Deyrolle taxidermy shop in Paris connect to the set design for a tour by Sigur Rós frontman Jónsi. From a book of photographs to full-blown multimedia spectacle, Aames reveals how Jónsi and Fifty Nine Productions brought to fruition something neither party had imagined until collaborating on the presentation of a narrative arc built of music and color. Jessica Steinhoff’s overview of synesthesia, a neurological condition in which the stimulation of one sense triggers an involuntary sensation in another sense, is among the most interesting sections of Chromatic. There is a long history of people seeing colors when they hear music, including composers Franz Liszt and Jean Sibelius, as well as Duke Ellington and Robyn Hitchcock. Steinhoff’s gloss of the phenomenon is full of entertaining anecdotes and first-hand accounts of how one sees music. For Greg Jarvis, from The Flowers of Hell, colorless “shapes float above the sound’s source, with high-pitched notes creating shapes high in the air and the shapes of bass-register notes almost scraping the ground.” Many of the featured designers and artists have musical backgrounds, making for explanations that far exceed what you would hear in a graphic design class. Andy Gilmore, whose fractal repetitions of color have earned him commissions from the likes of The New York Times and Wired, views “the CMYK color process as each color being a note . . . like these stacked values of these tones, so when I make an image, the computer-based imagery, I kind of distribute value in a way that I can create a melody. I view each individual value as kind of its own pitch.” The creations of Sam Blunden, Seripop, Walter Scott, and Lisa Czech are singular voices in a motley chorus of color and form that make you forget about music. In his introduction to Chromatic, Morrow writes, “As human beings, we are fortunate to be trichromats -- organisms with three types of color-receptor cells. . . This allows us to differentiate approximately 1 million colors.” It’s no wonder we are such subjective beings, especially when it comes to issues of personal taste. Chromatic is as much about the editors’ taste in music as it is about color. If you don’t like Force and Morrow’s taste it doesn’t matter; the book is a riot of ideas sure to engage anyone interested in visual communication. Truly interesting is that so many of these musicians embody Richard Wagner’s 19th-century notion of Gesamtkunstwerk (“ideal work of art”), the fusion of visual art with drama, music, and poetry. Chromatic is a first in the way it documents a segment of today’s music scene by favoring exciting and important visual examples that contribute to a sensory overload that better represents the music than words or notes ever could on their own. Image Credit: Flickr/Creativity103
When thinking about what I’m going to read next I do leave room for chance, for the unexpected bookstore find or the insistent, raving recommendation. But for the most part I establish a loose plan for the year that dips into unread classics, keeps tabs on new releases, and delves deeper into favorite authors. This year, in terms of paying homage to the canon, I finally got around to reading some Virginia Woolf. I know, I know, late to the party on this one, but at least I made it. The careening interior monologues of Mrs. Dalloway serve as a prescient forecast of today’s hyperlinked, click-through culture, shadowing characters through a single day, moving in and out of their thoughts as if characters and readers alike are a game of chess being played by Woolf. The story reads as effortlessly as shifting winds but you can’t help but think about how much Woolf worked the text to get it so breezy even though the novel of manners is anything but. Characters whose futures are mired in their pasts unknowingly answer the book’s ultimate question: “What does the brain matter . . . compared with the heart?” One writer who always lets the heart trump the mind is Frederic Tuten. I consider Van Gogh’s Bad Café a masterwork, so when Self Portraits: Fictions hit the shelves this year I read it immediately. The stories had all been published previously, but presented here as interrelated pieces the characters plait through time and space like smoke. Tuten’s painterly prose hauntingly daubs the many shades of love; in death, in confusion, in forgetting, in passion, in misunderstanding, in lying so we find love’s essence and power, not so much in how it brings people together, but in the residual of intimacy that remains after they have parted. Lorcan Roche’s The Companion falls into the surprise find category. The fiercely funny and cutting narrator, Trevor, is an outsize Irishman living in New York, working as a caregiver for Ed, who suffers from muscular dystrophy. The story contains a great deal of darkness, but Roche illuminates it with the enduring light of human fragility, which is annealed by doses of despair and humor. Even when Trevor’s first-person take on events leads to distrust, Roche shellacs Ed and his narrator with the honesty of self-deprecation so that the story shines redemption. This book provided me with more out-loud laughs than Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods. The two books are very different, but they both prove that laughter is often as close to the truth as we can get when it comes to skewering big ideas like national identity or humanity’s shortcomings. More from A Year in Reading 2011 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
The rifle-shot drum hit that looses the organ-hymn drone of “Like a Rolling Stone” still sends me back to the small, thin-walled house of my youth, the blaring record part of my father’s Saturday morning ritual, drowning out my morning cartoons. The melancholy of Blood on the Tracks conjures the teary-eyed blur of love lost during arguments on a worn yellow velvet couch, and yet I am happy to have known such misery. These memories will not change for me, though plenty about my life will change between now and my end. How much has the world changed in the forty-nine years since the 1962 release of Bob Dylan's eponymous debut album? What is the difference between the 1964 wake-up call that "the times they are a changing" and the 2000 pronouncement that "things have changed"? And what of the 2009 premonition from his latest studio album, "I feel a change comin' on"? The easiest and most common critique of Dylan is his inconsistency. True, the muddled, much maligned material from the "Christian period" does not stand up to the revelatory highs of the iconic songs that pin us to a wave of cultural history and personal emotion that has already crashed on the shore of the past, or do a better job than a mirror of showing us who we are by putting us in the shoes of a jilted lover. The intervening decades have raised the notion of consistency to an ideal, whether we're talking fast-food burgers or internet connectivity. But lurking in everything Dylan has ever done, for better or worse, is the myth of America, its chameleon-like quality to be everything to everybody its greatest asset, permitting openness, not for the sake of change but because of its necessity. This is the history Dylan, who turns 70 years old today, has drawn from to create his own history. First published in 1925, William Carlos Williams’s In the American Grain confronts “history”: “It is concerned only with one thing: to say everything is dead . . . History must stay open, it is all humanity.” From the fading echo of Walt Whitman’s chanting in praise of his country, Williams calls out where we as a culture went wrong, how Whitman’s shamanistic energy was bottled into an antidote for a sickness we never felt, though we were told the ailment afflicted us all: "That force is fear that robs the emotions; a mechanism to increase the gap between touch and thing, not to have a contact." Dylan has kept his ear pressed to Williams’s “back door gossip,” fearlessly transcribing the secrets of the American condition into songs – not Whitman’s chants, more Williams’s rants, gasping in verse, at times not bothering with a chorus, charged with emotion, the byproduct of change. Love, hope, faith, doubt, hubris, death – the challenges and majesties of relationships, which in so much of Dylan are relationships of thoughts, not always bodies in places, but feelings in one’s mind. Yes, the songs brim with sense of place – shadows in meadows; “hot chili peppers in the blistering sun”; lonesome valleys; honeysuckle blooms – and yes, there are people, too – Angel flies in from the coast; Alicia Keys makes a cameo; sisters Mary Anne, Lucy and Betsy are reminded to “pray the sinner’s prayer.” But all of these places and people are of the narrative past, still kicking around in the present, at times with the permanence of a regrettable tattoo: “You try so hard but you don’t understand what you will say when you go home.” Dylan's interest in change is more about the phases of his life than the cultural changes afoot at any given time. This is why the songs are timeless – we as listeners can situate ourselves in them, both in the lyrics and the sound of the songs, the pure emotional release they enable, whether pangs of heartache or the fancy of running along a “hilltop following a pack of wild geese.” Like any great writer, Dylan forges anew something we take for granted: “The sun’s not yellow it’s chicken." I don't think Dylan has ever written a song to influence change. But he has long mined that vein of American identity, the one you can't quite see through the skin except when you strain, though if you sit still in a quiet place you can always hear and feel its beat. The themes pounded out have not changed, and in this sense neither has Dylan. He casts his net of perception and pulls in songs. The anger that has bubbled up from Dylan not promoting dissidence during a recent tour of China misses the point of Dylan’s purpose. He sings that you’ve got to serve somebody. He serves himself. This is not to say he is indifferent about injustice, say the arrest of Ai Weiwei, but for all that his words freight, they speak beyond us as individuals, though we listen and make them our own. Writing at Slate, Ron Rosenbaum asks why these critics expected him to sing his most political songs, or do as Bjork did at the end of a 2008 concert there, shouting “Tibet.” If there is one thing Dylan knows for sure is that one shout, one song, these do not change the world, especially in 2011. Today, if Dylan made his move from acoustic to electric, would the crowds even boo or would they just hold up their phones, uploading their discontent? Dylan, like Williams, Whitman, and others of their poetic, patriotic ilk, sucks the marrow from America, gnaws on its bones and slurps – not so much concerned with decorum but getting the flavors – the grease stains on his sleeves, the gristle stuck in his teeth, evidence of the contact. These flavors he tastes are not always the same or always enjoyable, but they spring from deep-running sources, some of which are polluted or diverted, but their purity remains unquestionable. Unlike the aforementioned men of letters whose legacies have grown mythical after their deaths, Dylan has lived side-by-side with his own lore, equal parts his creation and the creation of others. Imagine living a life where people think you did change the world, or that you have the power to change the world. True, for some people, Dylan has changed their world, influenced their personal histories. But how has it impacted the country, the world at large? Acknowledging that he does pay some attention to what is said about him, Dylan recently addressed the China issue via a post on his website. What is more interesting than his assertion that he in no way was censored by the Chinese government is his closing remark: “Everybody knows by now that there's a gazillion books on me either out or coming out in the near future. So I'm encouraging anybody who's ever met me, heard me or even seen me, to get in on the action and scribble their own book.” A hyper-political protest singer, a shill for Victoria’s Secret, a seventy-year-old curmudgeon – think whatever you like of him. Write your own history of Bob Dylan, he dares us, it’s the only accurate one that will ever exist.