Monday, February 25, 2019

That damn book

The author is a prat.
No, really.
Readers less-than-well-versed in Islamic histories and traditions find the book baffling and tedious (I never finished it). Even readers informed and deeply fascinated by these matters come away from the novel non-plussed.

And yet it is probably the single novel published within my lifetime that has altered history the most — largely by people who haven’t read so much as one bloody word of it.

Bruce Fudge, over at Aeon, presents a terrific overview of the novel, the “affair” and subsequent cultural outcomes.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Talking to myself

I've got a few scattered links that have deposited irritants around which my consciousness salivates, in aid of digestion or -- who knows? -- producing a pearl of great price. Or at least an object of personal fascination.

As has become the norm lately, Warren Ellis is the chief provocateur. His latest newsletter (hey, why aren't we all doing this?) sees him enthuse about a new book. Take it away, Mr. Ellis:
THE WORST IS YET TO COME by Peter Fleming does what it says on the tin.  It's a set of thoughts and survival tips on... well, it all starts when Fleming goes, as many people do, to view a cupboard that someone's offering for rent as an apartment in London:
That awful apartment told me something. Neoliberal capitalism had probably run its course, spawning progeny it could no longer protect itself from. The constellation of possibilities that once flourished in cities like London had vanished. There were no antibodies left. Capitalism was undoing itself at nearly every turn. A kind of neo-Feudalism was on the march. Perhaps we were witnessing the birth of post-capitalism after all, not a clean and better alternative to the system, but (rather paradoxically) a much worse version of it, one that will make the “Trump Years” look like a tiptoe through the tulips. 
My theory is this. Most advanced industrial societies have actually outlived the principles of capitalism and are busy transitioning into something else. It is still too early to say what that “something else” might be. But we do know the break won’t be clean. So the post-capitalist future we should prepare for will be no classless utopia. The worst features of capitalism will be amplified and applied reductio ad absurdum, coalescing around the return of preindustrial norms of authority and an incredible polarisation of wealth. 
Donald Trump, Brexit, the impending environmental eco-blitz (or what NASA calls a “Type-L” collapse given the role played by elites) and the prospect of another Radiohead album give the appearance that things couldn’t possibly get worse. And yet, I disagree. They probably will.
It's cheerful, yes.  It's also great fun to read, free of jargon, and very clear about where it's coming from and where it's going. It is, in some ways, a collation and re-statement of a lot of themes that have emerged over the last while, but it has new ideas too. I am very grateful for a book of this kind that does not also do one all over itself about the genius of Karl Marx.  Also, goddamn, any work of political economics that talks about WG Sebald has my immediate vote.
Ooo -- Sebald! Yes, this is worth a closer look.

Ellis also advocates for the resurrection of the RSS reader -- so if you haven't yet subscribed to his newsletter, give it a go and see what you think.

  • Chris Fleming's (any relation?) amusing and provocative thoughts about Theoretical Cool are worth the long-ish read. I'm a little peeved I didn't post this earlier, as I stumbled across it a few days before ALD linked. But that's what happens when you occasionally allow your analog consciousness sway over its digital alter-ego.
  • Sven Birkerts' My Sky Blue Trades has sat beside the bed for some years now. As of this writing, its melancholic undertow is in sync with my own, allowing me to slip past the book's faults -- I hope to finish it today. Birkerts' The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate Of Reading In An Electronic Age is the stronger work -- it turns 25 this year.
  • Tomi Ungerer died earlier this month. The Hat --  in which a dissolute veteran's life is transformed triumphantly by the sudden appearance of the titular hero -- was one of my favourite childhood books (also here). But Ungerer's work was not merely aimed at children -- oh, no no no. The man's oeuvre was, shall we say, quite robust. I got quite a kick out of him. The gate to his homesite is SFW, but proceed any further and you are on your own. Say -- The Hat's objet d'affection bears a passing resemblance to Mr. Ellis, does he not?

Thursday, February 07, 2019

“Dave who?”

There's a New Yorker article that got me scanning our bookshelves. I was wondering what might be the most recent “It” novel in my possession that reached #1 on the NYT bestseller list. Near as I can tell, it's probably Jennifer Egan's A Visit From The Goon Squad.
Next to other au courant titles, including Neuromancer and Cheever's shorts.
Cretinous characters behaving cretinously, sweeping themes of innocence lost, youth vampirically feasted upon and betrayed — “Time's a goon, right?” — all of it steeped in rock 'n' roll. Good book. It came out in hardcover in 2011. I have the paperback, likely purchased the following year, when I was 47. Five or six years ago, in other words.

Back to the New Yorker story, a.k.a., the latest episode of “I'm not just getting older — I am getting OLD.”

This was the first I'd heard of NYT bestselling “It” novelist Dan Mallory.

In my 40s I could have told you his name and the title of his book, and probably summed up the plot in a way that didn't give up the game. In my 30s I would have made a point of checking out the book, and following up the who's who list of literati surrounding him. In my 20s I would have read the book and recited what was known about the author — because I made it my business to know about all the authors who made it to the NYT bestseller list.

But I am in my 50s.

Yesterday I read Ian Park's terrific expose of this young writer's bizarre cons, carried off with evident personal charm. The piece resonated with me — deeply, in fact — and yet one day after I finished it I still could not tell you the name of this guy. I might have settled on the title of his book — something about a woman . . . on a train? In a window? In a window on a train? A woman watching a train through a window?

Dan Mallory. There you go.

I think much of what grabbed me about Park's depiction of Mallory were characteristics I recognized in myself, when I was young and hungry and spending what little discretionary income I had playing SASE Roulette. It is perhaps difficult for me to judge from this distance of years, but I believe there was a vulnerable point in my mid-20s where I would have said and done just about anything to get into the authorial spotlight.

Writing and “being an author” are concerns that quickly conflate, for young fellas in their 20s. We settle on someone who's made a big splash, then puzzle over how best to emulate without aping. Bukowski was popular with some of my chums. Mallory's star to steer by appears to be — eep! — Patricia Highsmith's fictional psychopath Ripley.

In my case I was preoccupied with Robert Zimmerman's antics in his early 20s. I had the good fortune of a) not liking myself in that mode, and b) being surrounded by friends who called me out on it. Those are friends you keep — close.

Today there is an entire “call-out culture,” and nobody is your friend. I doubt a new Bob Dylan would get very far in the present environment — at this point it is difficult to discern what we as culture-hungry consumers gain and lose by such developments.

I'll admit I'm quietly hoping Don Maloney recovers. I may even make a point of buying his next book, just to encourage the poor guy.

Friday, February 01, 2019

I miss the magazine rack

Expanding on this sentiment would be akin to this lament.
All I will add is that with the digitization of all things magaziney, we have arrived at an aesthetic moment when ALL publications look alike — for digital reasons (naturally).

Reconsider my two purchases from last year.
The evident contrast — Dark vs. Light; grim, ersatz Satanist vs. hammy, committed Catholic — relies on an identical layout: large solitary figure set against solid backdrop and minimal type. As for the interior content, the trained focus on genre distinction (“Extreme” music/culture vs. Pop) is equally superficial; the political-ideological acumen of the two magazines is wholly identical.

And that is perhaps the apocalypse of the digital revolution — a reduction of aesthetic and intellectual content to the simplest consumable unit.

But never mind: check out Spencer McDonald's fabulous photo of a Seattle magazine stand.