Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Notes and Remixed Notes on "A Monster's Notes"

Still Alive!
Some Notes on Laurie Sheck's "A Monster's Notes"

To call something "notes" means it isn't finished.

A preparation for something else, or a work in progress.


It means I know this is less than perfect. It means the piecemeal composition is acknowledged, should be applauded.

"And to my horror (for I had read the books which now all but crowded us out of the apartment) I discovered I knew nothing whatever about the grueling, mundane business of making form out of fragments." -- Frederick Exley, "A Fan's Notes"

"Form connotes and carries with it expectation." -- Ander Monson, "Fragments: On Dentistry"

It means this is less than perfect, and hence more real. The crude shape a virtue. The rough edges. Texture over all.

In Laurie Sheck's novel, "A Monster's Notes" (Alfred A. Knopf: 544 pp., $28), Victor Frankenstein's creation is alive and well and living in New York.

Mary Shelley's creation has come unstuck in time. He lives in New York or did until recently. He passes Tower Records, a Duane Reade drugstore. He takes notes on the news, developments in science. He reads abandoned books, is privy to whole correspondences, is a historian of his own loneliness.

The novel's first part is "Ice Diary"; the second is "Dream of the Red Chamber"; the last is "Metropolis/The Ruins at Luna." But the best parts of the book are in the "notes" -- lyric essays on time, space, leprosy, art. On Albertus Magnus, on John Cage. The sinews of this odd and unwieldy creature.

"I didn't seek to find her," Sheck writes in her preface, "wandered instead within and among her fragments of language -- notebooks, drafts, journals, fictions, letters, essays, and found there whole worlds spinning like planets, lived in their cold light and burnings light, wondering where I was, where they might take me. Curious, I heard a monster's voice, and out of some sharp need I followed."

Mary Shelley's stepsister Claire's letters, invented, real. Hesitant, aborted:

"So even liberty is a prison xxxxxxx and xxxx"

Much in that manner.

Writing is revision, or a kind of madness. Claire's cross-outs (xxx) resemble the stitches on the monster -- they are words left suspended in the air of the page.

When does a poet (Sheck is one) become a novelist? Sensationally great novels by poets: James Lasdun, "The Horned Man"; Robert Kelly, "The Scorpions"; John Ashbery and James Schuyler, "A Nest of Ninnies"

Ashbery and Schuyler trading off lines initially.

"On the first notebook's pages," Sheck writes in the preface, "she penciled in a left-hand margin, and there Percy Shelley left his comments and marks. Picture two hands moving side by side, she writing 'creature,' he (in some impulse of tenderness, kindness?) crossing it out, replacing it with 'being.'

Reading "Frankenstein" afresh: I see it as a commentary on (and twisted how-to kit for) the novel, that magpie form. A restlessness of form. A series of letters by an Arctic-bound explorer to his sister gets taken over by Victor Frankenstein's life story (a tangled affair in itself), which dissolves the artifice of correspondence for most of the book. And, at one point, Frankenstein's narration gets dominated by a soon-to-be one-sided dialogue with his creation.

We unthinkingly refer to the monster as "Frankenstein," understandable when the frame is so crooked, and creature and creator present themselves with equal eloquence.

Sheck embeds texts or, rather, lets them slip into and out of the pages; she compounds the vertigo. Characters write letters about books that they're translating; they quote passages, which are in fact like passages from one world to another.

The text as body.

Any line could serve as a metaphor for Sheck's project and process, such as:

"[Lady Su Hui's 'Xuan Ji Tu shi' is] a poem composed of 841 characters woven into a five-colored tapestry and arranged in a perfect square. Reading it, there's no need to start at the beginning or move straight to the end. Instead, it can be entered anywhere."


"Of Archilocos we have not one single work entire and most of the context's fallen away".

As the monster explains: "You worked to make the parts of me combine to form a new, amazing being."

More where that came from.

A commonplace book, a cover version of "Frankenstein," a epistolary novel. A commentary on revision, translation -- what lives in the margins.

"Where do you end and I begin?"

The fiction of "A Monster's Notes" is framed (as a found text) by a letter, dated June 30, 2007: "This is to inform you that the final closing on your building at East 6th Street was successfully completed . . . [Y]esterday afternoon as I made my last walk-through, I found on the second floor a shorter note, a manuscript wrapped in a rubber band, and an old computer. . . ."

It's the monster's handwriting. He muses: "And Clerval, that gentle man who everyone thought dead -- in fact he traveled east as he wanted. Even now I sometimes picture his hand moving in patient transcription as day after day he translated the 'Dream of the Red Chamber' in his house at the foot of Xianghan Hill. . . . " Clerval was Victor Frankenstein's faithful friend, destroyed by the monster in Shelley's novel, but here living in China, translating "The Story of the Stone," or "A Dream of Red Mansions," or "Dream of the Red Chamber."

"Dream of the Red Chamber," 18th century. Unfinished by the author, who is Cao Xuequin, or is he. Commentary by "Red Inkstone," who might also be Cao.

Originally published anonymously.

Unfinished by the author and hence potentially perfect, endlessly expandable in the mind.

Question for the reader: Why start what cannot stop?

Partial list of books never completed by their authors but published: Charles Dickens, "The Mystery of Edwin Drood"; Robert Musil, "The Man Without Qualities"; Walter Benjamin, "The Arcades Project."

"Those days in the graveyard I traveled across many pages which frequently ended in mid-sentence -- the books I found were mostly torn -- so my travels were wayward, random, disrupted, though maybe the mind mostly travels in this way."

"The whole issue of the unfinished is a living idea," writes the monster.

"[S]omething unfinished changes," he continues. "That means it's in a certain way alive."

As Sheck demonstrates, the lyric essay is a kind of Frankenstein's monster, equipped with parts sliced out of others, stitched up with genius and white space:

"Claire. Air. Care. Clear. Claire."

"If I could see intervals as well as objects. . . ."

"How slowly the time passes here, encompassed as I am by frost and snow!" -- "Frankenstein"

"Architecture of oblivion, its drifts."

"Winter darkness pulls over like a monk's cowl, enclosing us in worlds where strange things take place, where anything can happen, where the mind goes where it's never gone before, and stays." -- Gretel Ehrlich, "The Future of Ice"

I started this review before finishing the book, in the form of notes. I didn't know I was writing the review yet. I have another file just as long.

Fungibility of the notebook mode. Juxtaposition is easy, at times even arbitrary; effects perhaps no less revelatory or pungent.

"As the minuteness of the parts formed a great hindrance to my speed, I resolved, contrary to my first intention, to make the being of a gigantic stature; that is to say, about eight feet in height, and proportionally large. After having formed this determination and having spent some months in successfully collecting and arranging my materials, I began." --"Frankenstein"

Cut and paste.

When am I writing this sentence?

Page 271, in its entirety: "The monks in their patchwork rags . . . and I a patchwork . . . the workings of each mind a patchwork, each self roughly stitched as you stitched me."

The energies of "A Monster's Notes" are not incompatible with those of the Web. Thought for future development: Unruly, genre-leaking books like Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's "Dictee," Ishmael Reed's "Mumbo Jumbo" and David Markson's "Wittgenstein's Mistress" might seem merely reflexive today, when we write in fragments, when our blogs and Twitter feeds and Facebook pages are de facto lyric essays, Frankenstein creations.

The intricacies of Shelley's life (who was Claire?) unclear to me till I went to Wikipedia. Sheck also embeds into her book Wikipedia, Google searches, Unknown Hosts, Redirections. All this webwork.

"The dissecting room and the slaughter-house furnished many of my materials; and often did my human nature turn with loathing from my occupation, whilst, still urged on by an eagerness which perpetually increased, I brought my work near to a conclusion. . . . With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet." --"Frankenstein"

R. e-mails me that our friend J. has to take blood pressure medication because she drinks too much coffee, which makes me laugh. But also that J. "had this horrifying story about recently running into a crime scene near her house where a man had been cut into little pieces in a box." Which makes me think I will never get to sleep. I do, but in the middle of the night a storm centers itself overhead. I am not dreaming and now I understand the term "rolling thunder," the noise caroming like a ball in a roulette wheel, a ball the size of 20 baseball stadiums, a wheel with a diameter the length of Manhattan. Car alarms go off. I silently count the seconds before, or is it after, lightning penetrates the armor of the venetian blinds, to scrape my eyes and shock the bedsheets silver. —Los Angeles Times, June 14, 2009

Remixed Notes on "A Monster's Notes"

“Good idea the repetition. Same thing with ads.” -- Joyce, "Ulysses"

Mary Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, died 10 days after giving birth to her.

“This is ordinary. I was a body coming out of another body that died. That died because of my body.” -- Laurie Sheck, "A Monster’s Notes"

“This was scant said but all cried with one acclaim, nay, by our Virgin Mother, the wife should live and the babe to die.” -- "Ulysses"

I don’t know which file contains my review in the form of notes and which contains my notes for the review in the form of notes.

Bloomsday now. Still writing this.

In the midst of putting together this monster I get an e-mail from R., who writes that our friend J. has to take high-blood pressure medication because she drinks too much coffee, which makes me laugh. But also that J. “had this horrifying story about recently running into a crime scene near her house where a man had been cut into little pieces in a box.”

The fiction of poet Laurie Sheck’s novel "A Monster’s Notes" is framed by a letter, dated June 30, 2007: “This is to inform you that the final closing on your building at East 6th Street was successfully completed. . . . [Y]esterday afternoon as I made my last walk-through, I found on the second floor a shorter note, a manuscript wrapped in a rubber band, and an old computer. . . .”

Page 271, in its entirety: ". . . The monks in their patchwork rags . . . and I a patchwork . . . the workings of each mind a patchwork, each self roughly stitched as you stitched me."

“Winter darkness pulls over like a monk’s cowl, enclosing us in worlds where strange things take place, where anything can happen, where the mind goes where it’s never gone before, and stays.” -- Gretel Ehrlich, "The Future of Ice"

Fungibility of the notebook mode. Juxtaposition is easy, at times even arbitrary; effects perhaps no less revelatory or pungent.

On Amazon’s Omnivoracious blog, Tom writes: “Ed Park's notes on 'A Monster's Notes' by Laurie Sheck: ‘I started this review before finishing the book, in the form of notes. I didn't know I was writing the review yet. I have another file just as long. Fungibility of the notebook mode. Juxtaposition is easy, at times even arbitrary; effects perhaps no less revelatory or pungent.’ [His notes weren't really revelatory for me -- what do you think?]”

I think you’re wrong.

And we’re not done yet.

“The whole issue of the unfinished is a living idea,” writes the monster in his “Notes on Eva Hesse.” “[S]omething unfinished changes. That means it’s in a certain way alive.”

“Save your screams until you see its face.” -- movie poster, "It’s Alive!" (1974)

“It’s such a gamble when you get a face.” -- Richard Hell, “Blank Generation” (1977)

“Years later when I got smallpox it was as if that hatred was finally writing on my face. Scrawling all over it. That it had been waiting all those years. . . . My ugly, ruined face.” -- Mary Shelley to stepsister Claire, "A Monster’s Notes"

Clerval was Victor Frankenstein’s faithful friend, destroyed by the monster in Shelley’s novel, but in “A Monster’s Notes” he’s living in China, translating "The Story of the Stone," or "A Dream of Red Mansions," or "Dream of the Red Chamber," 18th century, originally published anonymously. Unfinished by the author, who is Cao Xuequin, or is he. Commentary by “Red Inkstone,” who might also be Cao.

Unfinished by the author and hence potentially perfect, endlessly expandable in the mind.

Partial list of books never completed by their authors, but published: Georges Perec, "53 Days." Ralph Ellison, "Juneteenth." Jane Austen, "Sanditon." P.G. Wodehouse, "Sunset at Blandings."

Nabokov, "The Original of Laura," to be published.

J.G. Ballard, "Conversations With My Physician," never to be published. David Foster Wallace, "The Pale King," to be published.

Title of Musil book: "Posthumous Papers of a Living Author." Published.

“[E]very book in the world is out there waiting to be read by me.” -- Roberto Bolaño, "The Savage Detectives"

Read that some scholar said the unfinished fragments of stories on the late Roberto Bolaño’s computer could be read as having conclusions -- they ended, sometimes mid-sentence, in a way that made as much sense as if he’d actually finished them. Now mortality shapes them, a hidden theme emerges.

Where did I read this thing about Bolaño’s abbreviated works? Real? A dream?

Note to self: Take better notes.

Open up the paper: “Roger L. Kay, one of the most prominent analysts of the PC industry, described the new generation of machines as “Franken-products,” a reference to the monster cobbled together from various parts.” -- New York Times, June 7

Cao Xuequin’s "The Story of the Stone." Five volumes in the Penguin Classics edition. I bought Volume 1 during my weekly lunch-hour book-buying allowance, at my old job, circa 1996, at Tower Books on Broadway at 4th Street, New York.

Sheck’s monster passes TOWER RECORDS in New York.

Found Volume 2 in a box in front of a store in Cambridge, Mass. I thought it would go on like this, with me finding further installments at used bookstores, stoop sales, Salvation Army shelves. But it stopped there.

“A darkbacked figure scanned books on the hawker’s cart.” -- "Ulysses"

Found in an old folder of mine, notes for an abandoned novel, April 30, 2000: “I believe the Korean War has never ended, just as I believe the 1999 Stanley Cup finals, between the Sabres and the Stars, continues to this day.”

Next page is from a New Yorker piece, dated Sept. 30, 1996, author and article unknown: “Under the narrow legal definition of the term, Tigar found, the only national emergency even hypothetically still in existence in 1969 was, strangely, the Korean War. ‘We argued on appeal that no rational person could think the Korean War was still going on in 1969,’ Tigar explained. ‘The Tenth Circuit agreed, and dismissed the whole case.”

It seems I read 318 pages of Volume 1 of "The Story of the Stone." The bookmark is a business card from Taj Mahal Indian Restaurant, where I used to eat lunch once or twice a week. On the front I’ve written either “locus of history” or “loans of history.” On the back I’ve scrawled some unfamiliar words that I’ve encountered in the book: cangue, flocculus, incrassation, camlet. And this plaintive question: “Why does one begin to read an unfinished novel?”

“Jia She led a cultured life and never did anything.” -- "The Story of the Stone"

The bookmark at P. 178 of Gretel Ehrlich’s "The Future of Ice" is a ticket stub for the Neil LaBute play "Fat Pig."

“If 'The Story of the Stone' is a sort of Chinese 'Remembrance of Things Past,' it becomes doubly important to us to know as much as we can about the author’s life.” -- from David Hawkes’ introduction

Sheck’s Mary: “My days spent imagining his parts.”

Sheck’s monster: “I tried to piece together what I could. The lost Atlantis of her.”

“What words will you cut?” -- "The Story of the Stone"

Cut as in incise. But I’m reading it, now, as abandon.

Strike-throughs, slashes. Brackets and underlinings. Double-strike-throughs. Question marks. Different typefaces. Obelus and ellipsis.

Words and names dissected, syllable by syllable. Silent letters identified. “The silent ‘e’ in hide, the silent ‘i’ in pain and recoil. The silent ‘g’ in sign.”

“If I could see intervals as well as objects...”

“It’s in the silence after you feel you hear. Vibrations. Now silent air.” -- "Ulysses"

“But it must be stressed that metaphor is not a completely successful or controllable means of communication. We employ inadequate language always.”

Mistyped: “meataphor.”

"I collected bones from charnel-houses and disturbed, with profane fingers, the tremendous secrets of the human frame." -- "Frankenstein"

The lyric essay is a kind of Frankenstein’s monster, equipped with parts sliced out of others, stitched up with genius and white space.

Where a man had been cut into little pieces--

“Those days in the graveyard I traveled across many pages which frequently ended in mid-sentence -- the books I found were mostly torn -- so my travels were wayward, random, disrupted, though maybe the mind mostly travels in this way.” -- "Frankenstein"

Another novel by a poet, Robert Kelly’s "The Scorpions" ends mid-sentence. As does "A Monster’s Notes."

List of books in "A Monster’s Notes" includes Mungo Park’s "Journal of a Journey in Africa."

Mungo Park disappeared in Africa.

As did his son, who went to find him.

“The Japanese word ‘oku’ means not only ‘north’ but also ‘deep,’ ‘inner,’ ‘the heart of a mountain,’ ‘to penetrate to the depth of something or someone,’ ‘the bottom of one’s heart,’ and ‘the end of one’s mind.’” -- "The Future of Ice"

“Sometimes I feel my own body turning into words, my skin a living network of words.” -- "A Monster’s Notes"

I misread “netsuke” for “network.”


“Claire” and “Cerval” both have “err” in them, or “air.”

“My head aches, I’m tired all the time and clumsy. My right hand’s not working right, I drop things for no reason.”

“BE SUSPICIOUS OF ANYTHING.” -- NYC MTA poster, quoted by Sheck

Meditation on themes suggested.

I mistyped “meditation” as “mediation.” “Thems” for “themes.”

Meditation on themes suggested by Mary Shelley’s "Frankenstein."

On spaces created.

My notes written on the endpages, on the upper margins, on a torn sheet of a publicity letter, on a dry-cleaning receipt, across four different files on my laptop. Words in the air.

In China (relates "A Monster’s Notes") every scrap of writing is sacred, to be collected and burned. Words in the air.

Are these my real notes or the ones I will publish? Which version has more energy?

“Twenty-four-hour-a-day sun and I’m living in a skin turned inside out.” -- Gretel Ehrlich, "This Cold Heaven"

Sheck’s novel acknowledges Google searches. Wikipedia. Redirections. All this webwork.

"A Monster’s Notes" is an uncommonplace book. A site for revision, translation, error, confusion, melancholy. Limits of this method. Book is over 500 pages long, not without longueurs. (Could it have worked at 100 pages, at 50?) But heft becomes crucial to the experience. To exhaust the metaphors and the monster.

A mirror, an instant replay, “the automatic relation to himself of a narrative concerning himself.” ("Ulysses")

Sheck: “I’m reading and she’s listening.”

Every line potentially last or first.

-- Ed Park
Bloomsday 2009
New York City

Monday, January 11, 2010

American Fantastic Tales: A Cento

The cautious reader will detect a lack of authenticity in the following pages. I am not a cautious reader myself, yet I confess with some concern the absence of much documentary evidence in support of the singular incident I am about to relate. It is true that I have sent six bullets through the head of my best friend, and yet I hope to shew by this statement that I am not his murderer.

I am the most unfortunate of men. When I was eight years old my father was killed in the war, and my mother was broken-hearted. My best friend when I was twelve was inflatable. What began as a game, a harmless pastime, quickly took a turn toward the serious and obsessive, which none of us tried to resist.

What can I do? There is only one thing.

I don't know why I should write this.

I don't want to.

I don't feel able.

I'm having trouble remembering things. Small things, like where I put my keys, for instance.

It's fortunate I've dabbled a bit in psychiatry. I have faithfully served Yuggogheny County as its district attorney, in cases that have all too often run to the outrageous and bizarre. I should think the evidence was clear enough to corroborate my story, but I suppose I should have expected the reception it received from the police.

Aside from my teaching, I had for some years been engaged in various anthropological projects with the primary ambition of articulating the significance of the clown figure in diverse cultural contexts. I was interested in original sin and had dabbled in esoteric philosophy; my remote ancestors had been Salem witches. I owed the formation of my character chiefly to accident. I shall not pretend to determine in what degree I was credulous or superstitious. I shall tell you what occurred, and let you judge for yourself.

I read of it first in the strange book of Von Junzt, the German eccentric who lived so curiously and died in such grisly and mysterious fashion.

And then one afternoon ----

That afternoon, Mother introduced us to the man who was to be Father's successor in the household, and to his three children, who were to be our new brothers and sister, and we shook hands shyly, in a state of mutual shock.

Twilight was settling over L.A.'s Koreatown, the lights of the stores clicking off, the lights of the restaurants and bars flickering on. An inner voice warned me: Don't go! I walked up, and I walked down, and I walked straight into a delicately dying sky, and finally the sequence of observed and observant things brought me, at my usual eating time, to a street so distant from my usual eating place that I decided to try a restaurant which stood on the fringe of the town. It was in this sector of town, known generally as the East Side, that the brewers and tanners who made our city's first great fortunes set up their mansions. Their houses have a northern, Germanic, even Baltic look which is entirely appropriate to our climate. Of gray stone or red brick, the size of factories or prisons, these stately buildings seem to conceal that vein of fantasy that is actually our most crucial inheritance.

"As a matter of fact," the real estate agent snapped, "it is."

I found myself sitting in the library, and again sitting there alone. It seemed that I had newly awakened from a confused and exciting dream. The manuscripts were as I had left them, undisturbed. I sat at the table, slid on the cloth gloves, and began to read, following the first text with the index finger of my right hand, the second with the index of my left, my head turning from one text to the other. It had clearly been copied from a photocopy, and originally composed on a typewriter. I remember after finishing the first act that it occurred to me that I had better stop. It was then that I first came face to face with myself -- that other self, in which I recognized, developed to the full, every bit of my capacity for an evil life.

Night had fallen without sound or ceremony when I came out again. The silence pursued me like dumb ghosts, the still air held my breath, the hellish fog caught at my feet like cold hands. It was a female figure, dressed in black. She was seated on one of the lower steps of the scaffold, leaning forward, her face hid in her lap, and her long disheveled tresses hanging to the ground, streaming with the rain which fell in torrents. The flower heads were heavy with sodden, brown-edged petals and their stalks bent wearily as if cognizant of the fact that their lives were held by a tenuous thread that was soon to be snapped between the chill, biting teeth of an early frost. I was compelled to make a drawing of it, almost against my will, since anything so outré is hardly in my line.

On the worst possible stretch of dirt you can imagine, I blew a tire and discovered that my spare had leaked empty. In the darkness one of the computer banks began humming. For the smallest fraction of a second no sound issued from it but its own mechanical hum. The sparkle faded and died. There was silence on the line. Have you ever been on the phone, canceling a credit card or talking to your mother, when all of a sudden -- with a pop of static -- another conversation bleeds into yours? No longer a world of material atoms and empty space, but a world in which the bodiless existed and moved according to its own obscure laws or unpredictable impulses. My travels were at an end, for here was the end of the machine.

Los Angeles Times, November 29, 2009

(For solution, click here.)

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

"High and Low"

[Review of a 2002 production of Don DeLillo's Valparaiso, Blue Heron Arts Center, NYC]

Ten minutes after we were airborne a woman asked me for my autograph.
Americana (1971)

"Fame requires every kind of excess," Don DeLillo wrote in Great Jones Street (1973), the rock-and-roll novel par excellence. Nearly 30 years later, when a real music-world has-been gets second-active by giving an MTV crew carte blanche around the manse, that last word might be access. In the Rude Mechanicals' whip-smart staging of DeLillo's play Valparaiso (through August 18), Michael Majeski (Matthew Lawler), inadvertent world traveler turned instant celebrity, tells the first of many interviewers how to reach him: "I'll give you some numbers you can call. Home. I have home. I have here. I have my private number for here. I have my secretary when I'm away."

The syntax snaps satisfyingly, at once fresh and familiar; as in much of DeLillo's work, talk is performance, not to mention incantation, habit, falsehood. The invasion begins, encouraged and desired by the ones who will be its victims. The word-thirsty world initially learns of Michael because of the foul-ups that turned his simple business trip to Valparaiso, Indiana, into a voyage to the end of the earth, routing him to Valparaiso, Florida, and finally Valparaiso, Chile. ("They called me Miguel," he reports proudly. "I'm learning Spanish on tape.") Despite the heavenly toponyms, his twin journeys—geographic, then public—spiral into an infernal descent, in which grids of systems dice identity into a scatter of sound bites. (Lest this seem preposterous: Last week it was reported, with requisite snickering, that a couple who bought airline tickets online for a vacation to what they thought was Sydney, Australia, found themselves in a same-named northern town, "one of the worst industrial waste sites in Canada.")

Published in 1999, Valparaiso was less a coda to his 1997 Cold War omnium gatherum Underworld (which ended with the word "Peace") than a dry run for The Body Artist (2001), a slim work of calibrated radiances that presented language as erasure, a text for nothing. Thankfully, the talented Mechanicals (under Hal Brooks's direction) dust off the play's hidebound glories with a blast of pure oxygen, conveying menace and humor with remarkable assurance. Act II's assorted content providers thrum with hilarious life, and the sexual confessions (and offstage couplings) crystallize the self-fertilizing nature of the mass-media beast. There is the Brit reporter who takes up fencing poses while commanding, "Give me faster!" and a vérité-shooter (both Andrew Benator) who seduces Michael's wife, Livia (Elizabeth Sherman), a nursing-home physical therapist and "part-time unpublished poet" whose fame-craving matches her husband's. There is the soft-touch telejournalist (Kate Nowlin) who rigorously stage-manages Michael's narrative ("But first take us back"), exposing the play's recursive heart. There is ABC Australia and a morning radio show originating in either Detroit or Seattle.

And then, for all of Act II, there is nationwide television personality Delfina Treadwell (Carla Harting), a thimble-sized Oprah Ricki Raphael, who deconstructs, on air and with playful savagery, not just Majeski's story but the man himself. Effortlessly moving from come-hither banter to monstrous contempt, Harting makes Delfina convincing as both mother confessor and torture-room interrogator, and the Majeskis bask and unravel in her pertly demonic presence. She's aided by cynical sidekick Teddy (David Fitzgerald), who delivers his acid contributions while thumbing through magazines—a brilliant offhand gesture of mediatainment at once bored and self-absorbed.

Delfina is always "on," literally—"I'm live, I'm taped, I'm run, I'm rerun," she says, a poster girl for the tube's sham immortality. "Everything is the interview," says one of Benator's characters. The production smudges the line between stage and spectator, from the Negativlandish soundscape that precedes the play ("Please turn your cell phone off immediately. There is no one on the other side of the phone") to Delfina's calculated leap into an audience member's lap, consists almost entirely of interviews. On the page, Valparaiso can seem static, its satire appropriately nasty but a touch obvious. Embodied Rudely, with its boundaries blurred, the play now has a discomfiting directness. It works both as entertainment and a critique of its ingredients: the poses, the meaningless hunger, the glib banalities.

During the chat show's occasional commercial breaks, a chorus of airline attendants intone security queries and emergency instructions like a fearful mantra—a more sinister variant of the way a daughter in White Noise's post-nuclear ménage takes dreamy solace in the words Toyota Celica. "Then place the mask," they say, not completing the sentence. The last words spoken adumbrate even this fragment: Then place—a final dislocation. The mask in question is the plastic visage of televisual fame, or else the suicide shroud that our ostensible hero had in fact cobbled (out of dental floss and an airline-blanket wrapping) during his trip south. Only at the end does the play's opening image (an enigmatic video projection) scan intelligibly, as surveillance footage of a suffocating man; after two hours of hairpin banter and coruscating vernacular, all becomes wordless once more. With this energetic and frightening production, Valparaiso adds to the surfeit of proof that no writer better isolates than DeLillo our idiot grammars and makeweight pieties, our drivetime phoners and daytime talk, our American magic and dread.

The Village Voice, August 13, 2002

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Review of "Jandek on Corwood"

Jandek on Corwood
Directed by Chad Friedrichs

As with much outsider art, biography is as crucial to Jandek's legend as the actual output. Since 1978, the enigmatic musician has released 33 records through the equally secret Houston-based Corwood Industries. In theory, the stuff is great: insect corpses glued to staff paper, or atonal marathons of ghostly koans and mental-ward blues, performed over gangrenous guitar. One could also justifiably situate Jandek's music right at the border of the listenable—which begs the question: would anyone but a journalist find the Jandekalogue worth wading through?

Chad Friedrichs's doc has too many rock-crit talking heads, too often saying the same thing based on scant information—though Voice contributor Douglas Wolk is eloquent on the sense of an ending he derives from the last song on each Jandek album, a pseudo-finality waiting to be trumped by the inevitable next release. Katy Vine actually tracked down the reclusive Texan, and her fascinating account of an immaculately dressed man, refusing to talk about the music but inviting her to a bar (where his similarly attired colleagues are) is diminished by the pedestrian visuals (cufflinks, glass of beer). A recording of John Trilbee's 1985 interview for the first issue of Spin is graced with a shot of a telephone. (What we see doesn't do justice to perhaps Jandek's true aesthetic achievement—album cover art as unified and resonant as the Smiths' or Belle & Sebastian's.) "Your review of Ready for the House [debut album] was the inspiration and force behind the continuation of Corwood Industries," he wrote to music writer Phil Milstein years after the fact, and one senses that the outsider knows how to play the publicity game better than was imagined. Though a clumsy portrait of the artist, Jandek on Corwood inadvertently serves as a mirror on the critical faculty itself. —Ed Park

[Some version of this appeared in The Village Voice, in November 2004

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Stories Are About Stories (II)

In last month's column, I pointed out some recent short stories that shine a light on their own construction. This month, we begin with David Marusek's clever epistolary yarn, "Yurek Rutz, Yurek Rutz, Yurek Rutz," in which the whole motivation behind the writing is tied up in the odd, repetitive title.

But then, every bit of correspondence, from a terse business e-mail to a tear-soaked confession on lavender-scented stationery, is a narrative with built-in motivation. Something is desired, whether it's the removal of a credit-card charge, or the return of a lover, or simply an expiation of the writer's guilt for not having written in so long. To effectively amuse or upset or inform, the writer must bear the recipient in mind, gauging tone and structure accordingly. The pages of the letter work like frames, fixing aspects of the relationship between writer and reader: their respective locations, the level of intimacy or enmity, the time since the last communication. Such considerations make the letter a sturdy form for the short story writers.

In the introduction to "Yurek Rutz, Yurek Rutz, Yurek Rutz," collected in "Getting to Know You" (Del Rey: 269 pp., $15), Marusek relates how elements of the plot had fermented in his head for years. It was only after attending a literary panel, in which magazine editors read "actual cover letters they had received from aspiring authors desperate to break into print," that he figured out how to write the story.

"Yurek Rutz" unfolds as a letter from one David Marusek to Gardner Dozois, longtime editor of "Asimov's Science Fiction." Marusek, "a borough zoning code examiner" whose literary career is a secret to his Fairbanks neighbors, accepts a strange commission by a not-quite widow named Emma Rutz: She wants him to compose her husband's epitaph. The rate: a thousand bucks for four lines.

Marusek confesses to Dozois that he writes to him "with grave misgivings" and to "pass along a certain questionable proposal." (Every letter is motivated.) Emma's husband, the eccentric Yurek Rutz, is ailing from Alzheimer's; Marusek learns that Yurek is distinctive only in his deeply narcissistic yearning for immortality. If Yurek's plan to keep himself cryonically preserved for future resurrection doesn't pan out, he's happy to achieve immortality via the world of letters. He's not a writer himself -- which is where the author steps in. Marusek will get a hundred dollars (from the Yurek Rutz Fund) every time he works the soon-to-be-deceased egotist's name in a published story. (Perhaps Marusek means to poke fun at those well-intentioned authors who agree to name a character after the highest bidder for a charity auction.)

Thus the letter to Dozois, replete with multiple instances of Rutz's name, becomes, in fact, the story itself (which Dozois, in the real world, published) -- a loop that's appropriately gimmicky and satisfying all at once.

As the title hints, Japanese writer Yasutaka Tsutsui's U.S. debut, "Salmonella Men on Planet Porno" (Pantheon: 272 pp., $21.95), bursts with wildly surreal situations. It too contains a loop story of sorts, "Rumours About Me," in which anything that happens to Tsotomu Morishita, the everyman protagonist, gets bruited by the mass media. One evening, the TV news notes that Morishita has been turned down for a date by a co-worker, then reports that "[a]ccording to well-informed sources, Morishita went straight to his apartment after work today, and is eating a meal that he prepared himself." It's a spryly absurd reduction of the very concept of narrative: It's literally what happens.

If nothing really happens, is it a story? It is -- if the frame is there, if the cameras are rolling, if anyone is paying attention. Narrative is in the eye of the beholder, and the simple fact of being observed changes the nature of the subject. Initially Tsotomu assumes that he hallucinated his appearance on the nightly news. Then the morning paper hits, with the headline "Morishita Rejected Again."

Any paranoid is a complete storyteller. In his version of the world, he's of utmost importance, the beleaguered point around which grand conspiracies (detected as the faintest whisper, a clump of bleached letters on a billboard) swirl. It's no great feat these days to satirize celebrity culture or the solipsistic virtual existences we create online, and by letting his conceit float in the realm of the fantastical, Tsutsui digs deeper. He externalizes all of Morishita's grandiose suspicions (triggered, we imagine, by his bungled attempts to woo the secretary), thus showing how a paranoid's auto-narration can work as an insanely incessant fiction.

The headlines alone are worth the price of admission:




When the world stops caring -- any narcissist's greatest fear -- the story ends.

The standout piece in "The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy" (Del Rey: 400 pp., $16), edited by Ellen Datlow, is also one of the collection's shortest. Jeffrey Ford's masterly "Daltharee" begins:

"You've heard of bottled cities, no doubt -- society writ minuscule and delicate beyond reason: toothpick-spired towns, streets no thicker than thread, pinprick faces of the citizenry peering from office windows smaller than sequins."

It's a sly strategy: "You've heard" slips us instantly into Ford's universe -- part of us always wants to appear in the know, so of course we've heard of those tiny worlds.

The city of Daltharee is one of these enclosed municipalities, and by the second paragraph Ford is already multiplying his conjurer's trick, giving us vertigo by presenting a miniature (a short story) about a miniature (a world that can easily fit atop a kitchen table). A conversation recorded by scientists (who are presumably the same size as us) reveals the inhabitants of Daltharee pondering the nature of their world, wondering if anything exists outside the glass.

The creator of Daltharee, the wayward scientist Mondo Paige (world on a page), is then reflected in the figure of the narrator himself -- or does Ford mean Ford himself? "Daltharee" ends on an exhilaratingly nightmarish note, with stories sprouting everywhere we look: "Each idea I have is a domed city that grows and opens like a flower. I want to tell you about cities and cities and cities named Daltharee." The narrator becomes his narration.

Los Angeles Times, Nov. 20, 2008

Stories Are About Stories (I)

In two installments, Astral Weeks samples intriguing tributes to Henry James, Philip K. Dick and others in new story collections.

"By excluding almost everything," Steven Millhauser recently wrote about the short story, "it can give perfect shape to what remains."

In his dazzling story, "The New Structure," which Harper's published earlier this year, Millhauser effectively leaves no remainder. He conjures a fantastically proliferating setting -- an air-conditioned nightmare of seamless consumerism, a vast subterranean mall that is also a smoothly acquisitive corporate entity -- which our unnamed narrator describes with a mixture of muted distress and sheer awe. But "structure" also refers to the unorthodox construction of Millhauser's story itself, with its uneasy voice of communal anonymity and comfortable claustrophobia. Just as the company comes to dominate the town, psychically, financially and geographically (buying up houses, turning the living rooms into offices), hardly a paragraph goes by in which the vast "Under" is not lovingly detailed. Nothing exists here that is not a response to Millhauser's setting; it is all setting. The structure, in short, is the structure.

And some of the best stories, I'll argue, are about stories. It's an admittedly somewhat tautological conclusion that I've reached over the last few months, during which I've consumed little fiction outside of short stories. For my next two columns, then, I've shaken up five recent and forthcoming collections, of interest to Astral Weekers, and rolled out a gem from each. What connects them is their playful interrogation -- sometimes subtle, sometimes glaring -- of the short story form. They jolt us into fresh ways of reading.

John Langan's "On Skua Island," from "Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters" (Prime: 256 pp., $24.95), kicks off with a twist on Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw." Langan's version of James' first sentence reads: "The story had held us, round the dinner table, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was weird, as, on a February night in an old house with a strong storm howling off the ocean, a story should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till the eight of us adjourned to the living room with our drinks." The narrator is a Langan stand-in, an academic and scribbler of weird tales himself, and the conversation in this seaside house quickly turns to the popularity and metaphorical resonance of various horror-story staples: ghosts, vampires, werewolves, zombies and mummies.

Those last lurchers are deemed the least in tune to modern times, its inception as raggedy-bandaged curse-bearers perhaps a guilty response to Britain's imperial legacy. Throughout this early sequence, lightly shaped by the Langanian "I," the banter is witty and informed, like a sophisticated Halloween cocktail party, or if the endlessly categorizing employees of the record store in "High Fidelity" had worked at a used bookstore instead, just outside Salem or Sleepy Hollow.

The impossibility of telling a modern-day mummy story is suggested, and since only a fraction of the narrative has passed, we know that a challenge has been set -- a beautiful, artificial drama-heightener -- and will be met. Soon enough one of the other guests (a previously tight-lipped archeologist named Nicholas) begins his tale.

Now the narration is all Nicholas', and any coziness the evening once held dissipates entirely. Early in his career, he had visited a remote island ("north-northwest of the Shetlands") to investigate some mysterious, rune-covered ruins at the even more mysterious behest of British intelligence. Digging at the site, the team uncovers an ancient sword above an equally ancient female body -- shrunken, and not all there.

In his careerist lust to make his name, Nicholas concentrates on his translation of the runes, even as violent nighttime raids deplete the armed retinue accompanying him. (He, and the other soldiers, suspect Russian interlopers.) Langan's decoding of the old story will shed light on his uneasy present circumstances, and the recounting of this legend represents yet another level of narrative, fixed much deeper in the past.

A mummy story, of course, is what we get, but the supple way Langan sets up the climax is just as responsible for the success of "On Skua Island" as its bursts of gore. By making the early conversation so believable (and even agreeable), and by acknowledging the weight of literary history (i.e., the seeming impossibility of telling a convincing modern-day mummy story), the author makes the Skua Island plot more gripping than if it had simply been presented straight, a grisly but safely fictional rendering of things that go bump in the night. What would initially appear to be distancing effects let Langan sneak up close and -- you can't believe it's happening -- grab you by the throat.

One of the head-spinning high points in Philip K. Dick's 1962 alternative-history masterpiece, "The Man in the High Castle," comes when we learn that, just as Dick's book imagines a world in which the Axis won World War II, an author in the world of the novel has imagined what the U.S. would be like had the Allies been victorious. (In a further destabilizing touch, the world of that interior book, "The Grasshopper Lies Heavy," doesn't entirely correspond to "real" post-war U.S. history.) One of the standout pieces in Benjamin Rosenbaum's first collection, "The Ant King and Other Stories" (Small Beer: 224 pp., $16), does Philip K. Dickian self-consciousness one degree better by recognizing what a trusty trope alternative history has become for science fiction writers.

"Biographical Notes to 'A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, with Air-Planes,' by Benjamin Rosenbaum" -- yes, the name is part of the title -- begins with the author's fictional avatar sharing a flight with the Raja of Outermost Thule. This world differs radically from ours, in technology and thought: zeppelins are used for air travel, and the Raja mocks the idea that "the events of the world were produced purely by linear cause and effect . . . How fanciful!" And this "Rosenbaum" isn't quite the Rosenbaum whom we think is authoring these pages. The story's Rosenbaum is the "plausible fabulist, Benjamin Rosenbaum" -- a pen name "taken from The Scarlet Pimpernel": "The name is chosen ironically. As a sort of challenge to myself, if you will. Bearing the name of a notorious anti-Hebraic caricature I must needs be all the prouder and more subtle in my own literary endeavors."

The fictional Rosenbaum, then, is a science fiction writer plying his trade in a parallel world, returning from the hilariously named convention Plausfab-Wisconsin ("the World's only Gynarchist Plausible-Fable Assembly"), with an assignment "to construct a plausible-fable of a world without zeppelins." Offered a different commission by his new friend the Raja, Rosenbaum suggests other, more esteemed writers he might contact -- Karen Despair Robinson, or "the great Sir Esau Asimov."

Even a casual science-fiction fan might find such in-jokes diverting, but what Rosenbaum -- the "real" Rosenbaum -- is doing goes beyond satire. As pirates, giant spacecraft, shootouts and other action-packing elements disrupt the baroque chat of the opening, Rosenbaum, the plausible fabulist, muses that if "by some unlikely chance" he survives his rapidly deteriorating plight and finishes his plausible fable of a zeppelin-less world, "I resolved to make do without the extravagant perils, coincidences, sudden bursts of insight, death-defying escapades and beautiful villainesses that litter our genre and cheapen its high philosophical concerns." He will strive to create a higher grade of plausible fiction, just as our Rosenbaum is trying to subvert the standard situations of science fiction. That the lofty goals exist cheek-by-jowl with rather fun fight scenes lets him have his cake and eat it too.

But the real punch line is that the story "Benjamin Rosenbaum" wants to write -- full of "high philosophical concerns" -- isn't what we're reading. We're simply getting the "Biographical Notes," a hilariously fast-paced para-text to an invisible document. It's a story about the impossibility of stories.

Los Angeles Times, Nov. 2, 2008

Next column: Story time continues, with narcissism, paranoia and snow globes.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Panic and emptiness!

Music of the mind
In 'Suzy, Led Zeppelin, and Me' and 'Master of Reality,' classic rock groups take their listeners to fantastic places
By Ed Park

Astral Weeks Pop Quiz: Name the piece of music responsible for these flights of fancy:

Example one: "About fifteen minutes [in] . . . I have entered a different reality and am in a strange part of the universe where you can sit on the tail of a flaming guitar and fly through the sun. It's fantastic."

Example two: "[I]t starts with just a one-string riff which late at night, everybody asleep, sounds like the world being born or something. It only lasts for a second. But it's this one note just sitting there. Do you even know what I mean? When I got to that point it was like I was flying so high above your world and I was so free. . . . "

Example three: " 'Now comes the wonderful movement: first of all the goblins, and then a trio of elephants dancing. . . . [L]ook out for the part where you think you havedone with the goblins and they come back,' breathed Helen, as the music started with a goblin walking quietly over the universe, from end to end. Others followed him. They were not aggressive creatures; it was that that made them so terrible to Helen. They merely observed in passing that there was no such thing as splendour or heroism in the world. After the interlude of elephants dancing, they returned and made the observation a second time. Helen could not contradict them, for once, at all events, she had felt the same, and had seen the reliable walls of youth collapse. Panic and emptiness! Panic and emptiness! The goblins were right."

The first two passages come from recently published novels: Martin Millar's "Suzy, Led Zeppelin, and Me" (Soft Skull: 222 pp., $13.95), a charming autobiographical novel with the band's epic 1972 Glasgow show as its life-defining event; and John Darnielle's brief, intense "Master of Reality," the fictional diary of a troubled Black Sabbath acolyte (Continuum: 102 pp., $10.95). (The songs in question above: "Dazed and Confused" and "Lord of This World.")

The third passage -- "panic and emptiness!" -- comes from E.M. Forster's 1910 novel, "Howards End," and describes Helen's vivid responses not to any sort of proto-heavy metal, but to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. (Though perhaps this "sublime noise" is proto-heavy metal?) In all three, shimmering worldviews and entire universes are born or destroyed.

What is it that makes us respond narratively to music, far beyond what the lyrics (if any) might indicate? ("The notes meant this and that to her, and they could have no other meaning, and life could have no other meaning," Forster's Helen thinks, after the concert.)

Spontaneous conjuring -- shapes and colors, creatures and deities, fantasy and recollection -- is commonplace. So are long-lasting associations, for melodies weave into a life to such a degree that they can emerge, years later, as if on a hair trigger. Millar's and Darnielle's books effectively capture this two-sided ability, featuring narrators who built their teenage alternative realities on tenacious, life-changing sounds, sounds that echo down the decades.

Millar is a Scottish writer whose two recent U.S. titles ("The Good Fairies of New York" and "Lonely Werewolf Girl," both from Soft Skull) mix fantastic creatures with contemporary settings. For some reason those books haven't quite clicked with me, but "Suzy, Led Zeppelin, and Me" makes me want to try again. Form does not follow function here -- despite the narrator's Zep obsession, the novel doesn't try to replicate the sprawling grandeur and virtuosic excess of the band's music. Instead, it unfolds in irresistibly short chapters ("Short enough for your limited attention span") and simple prose. (Toward the end, Martin explains his revision process: "If I find any fancy adjectives have crept in I replace them with small words like 'nice' and 'big.' ") This makes for an entertaining -- and at times quietly sad -- story that winds up saying a lot about teenage angst, middle-age angst, the ecstasies of fandom, the virtues of " Buffy the Vampire Slayer," how to judge literary contests (Answer: Give the award to the most attractive entrant) and the pants styles of yesteryear.

The novel toggles between the narrator's present-day London conversations with his friend Manx (a single mom with lingering postpartum depression) and episodes filled with the anxiety and embarrassment of being 13, when the promise of hearing -- and seeing -- your heroes perform could make everything right. Awkward Martin has a close friend (Greg), an unwanted admirer (violin-playing social misfit Cherry), a hero (charismatic Zed) and a hopeless crush on the titular Suzy (attached, alas, to Zed).

Martin and Greg have their own secret fantasy world, like a game of "Dungeons and Dragons" without any rules -- a realm of sorcerers and orcs that the music of Led Zeppelin (equally informed by the blues and Tolkien) intensifies. Martin and Greg, "joint masters of the Fabulous Dragon Army of Gothar," fight the Monstrous Hordes of Xotha, and the two friends await reinforcements from Atlantis, the only other region that has held out against the enemy.

So: Why can't they get girlfriends? Actually, they can: Cherry, deemed even less socially redeemable than Martin, wants to join them, but she's insensitively rebuffed. (Millar is excellent and clear-eyed when it comes to the small brutalities of adolescence.) Though the book's construction seems casual, Millar expertly maneuvers his characters toward the climactic Led Zeppelin show (with young Martin imagining actual zeppelins materializing over Glasgow, bearing prematurely dead icons like Jimi Hendrix) and presents how the event resonates in each of their interconnected lives -- complicating some things, clarifying others. Even readers who last listened to "Houses of the Holy" during the Reagan administration will find much to enjoy here. For 200 pages, Glasgow circa 1972 shimmers like a vision of Atlantis, a lost world.

John Darnielle is the single constant behind the group the Mountain Goats and arguably the most rewarding lyricist working today. Taking into account his prolific wordsmithery ("Laugh lines on our faces / scale maps of the ocean floor") and affinity for horror both cinematic and literary ("Heretic Pride," the most recent Mountain Goats album, has song titles naming Fu Manchu creator Sax Rohmer and H.P. Lovecraft), it shouldn't come as a surprise that he'd contribute to Continuum's "33 1/3" series of short books pegged to iconic albums. But "Master of Reality" departs brilliantly from the typical "33 1/3" format, not just by choosing fiction over criticism or recording history, but in its structural gambits and unwavering sense of purpose.

(Following on the heels of Carl Wilson's fascinating, probing 2007 Celine Dion book, "Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste," "Master of Reality" makes me think that the "33 1/3" line should devote itself to albums that aren't critical darlings -- the insights are fresher, the risks more worthwhile.)

Like one of Lovecraft's shattered narrators, teenager Roger Painter is writing from the other side of sanity -- or what we on the outside would call sanity. It is October 1985, and he is keeping a journal for his social worker, Gary, at the psychiatric center where his stepfather has deceitfully deposited him. His personal effects have been confiscated, and when the book opens his entries are terse bursts of all-caps rage. The words are all Roger's, writing toward an uncomprehending, withholding captor -- or god. "If you want me to focus you should let me do it the best way I know how!" writes Roger, in a conciliatory mood. "You should at least give me back Black Sabbath MASTER OF REALITY. It is my favorite."

Roger patiently explains what Black Sabbath means to him, and what makes the band unique: "Ozzy, he is the singer, he was singing about witches and wizards and corpses. . . . But there were barely any stories. Not like in Rush songs, where there is a wizard or whatever, there will be a whole story, like a Robert A. Heinlein book." The songs are direct in a way that most art isn't, at once frightening and exhilarating. Ozzy Osbourne's voice "doesn't sound like anybody else's, and also it sounds kind of like you know him. Like, when Robert Plant is singing for Led Zeppelin you can't really think you're ever going to see that guy at the arcade and play doubles on Galaga with him." (Some of Millar's characters would disagree.)

But it all falls on deaf ears, and Roger's situation resonates with the album's title: Who masters this reality? The asylum setting channels Roger's writing into an impassioned articulateness, words to ward off panic and emptiness -- yet his depressing fate shows how Gary literally holds all the keys. Then the thing splits open. Darnielle jumps ahead: Here is Roger, 10 years later, writing to Gary in complete sentences and brushed-up grammar but with not one iota of rage displaced. He listens to Sabbath from this new perspective -- call it wisdom -- but whether Gary ever gets the letter (in both senses of the verb), we'll never know. Darnielle's lost world stays lost, and it's a powerful, excruciating chronicle.

—Los Angeles Times, September 7, 2008