Monday, December 31, 2007

"Lost chapter" from "Guided by Voice-Overs"

IV. The Empty Orchestra and the Drowsy Chaperone

“Karaoke makes no one marginal,” write Zhou Xun and Francesca Tarocco in their recent book Karaoke: The Global Phenomenon (Reaktion). As opposed to the godlike quality of voiceover (or in-the-know DVD commentaries), then, karaoke (literally “empty orchestra”) sounds a little like democracy. (On Broadway, the musical The Drowsy Chaperone is introduced and narrated by “Man in Chair,” a devout fan of the gleefully formulaic ersatz-’20s entertainment we’re about to see—but essentially a spectator like us.)

Xun and Tarocco turn up some curious facts (Japanese magazines feature karaoke etiquette columns; “90 percent of Filipinos are good singers,” according to one leader) as they dutifully chart the phenomenon’s rise worldwide, but too many dull anecdotes clog the narrative, and the authors lack Dolar’s incisive way with connections. Karaoke is both exhaustive and already out of date. It doesn’t cover the hypersuccess of a program like American Idol (essentially karaoke to the millionth power), which has found a strange mutation in two new television programs, The Singing Bee (CBS) and Don’t Forget the Lyrics! (Fox). Unlike Idol, these shows emphasize knowledge over emotion; contestants need to sing the right words to chestnuts of various genres.

Passionate vocalizing adds entertainment value—but then so does out-of-tune wailing. Neither determines whether you take home the purse. (You could probably just recite the lyrics.) A flubbed line in Idol can be salvaged by inspired improvisation, but on these shows you get sent home. Interestingly, though these contests would seem to eliminate the hierarchy of voice over writing (which [Mladen] Dolar asserts in his “Voice of Ethics” chapter [in A Voice and Nothing More]), in the end they maintain the status quo. Though logically the challenge would be the same if competitors wrote out the words to “Fortunate Son” or “Have You Seen Her?,” few televised challenges outside of Final Jeopardy have a written component. The title of The Singing Bee alludes to its spelling-bee format, but this reminds us that a spelling bee isn’t simply a spelling test. The vocal component is theater—but theater is the only thing worth watching.

When words elude the contestants of Don’t Forget the Lyrics!, they try to commune with the collective memory by riding the rhythm, searching for the great jukebox in the sky or their own internalized iTunes playlist.

—Deleted from "Guided by Voice-Overs," Modern Painters, December 2007/January 2008

Thursday, December 6, 2007


The Year of Endless Sorrows
by Adam Rapp
New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 403 pages. $15.

In Here Is New York, E. B. White discerns a trio of invisible cities overlaying Gotham: that of the native, the commuter, and the outsider who comes in search of fame, fortune, or freedom, Everybody in this last, romantic category “embraces New York with the intense excitement of first love, each absorbs New York with the fresh eyes of an adventurer, each generates heat and light to dwarf the Consolidated Edison Company.”

Tell that to the Midwestern transplant who narrates playwright Adam Rapp’s debut novel, The Year of Endless Sorrows: “Eventually, Con Ed shut off the electricity in the common area, so coming home at any hour of the evening turned into a kind of silent horror film. We anticipated rapists and stranglers and giant kidnappers on every landing. . . . Stepping safely into the apartment carried with it a historical, emotional weight.”

The unnamed young protagonist—a fledgling fictioneer with an entry-level job at a Viking-like publisher—fits White’s description of “a boy arriving from the Corn Belt with a manuscript in his suitcase and a pain in his heart,” except that he keeps his slowly growing manuscript in the empty freezer of his East Village walkup, and his main wound is the gnarly result of a hoops injury. Limping becomes “a kind of personal theatre,” and he tells anyone who asks that his book-in-progress is about “acute knee pain and the end of the world.” It’s a heartbreaking work of staggering.

Rapp immerses his wide-eyed scribbler in the mundane urban despair that White’s template leaves out: daily office inanities, bad roommate situations, and the less hygienic aspects of la vie bohème. (A small river’s worth of bodily emissions courses through the chapters.) Humming with verbal energy and anchored by a wry, melancholic narrator (think Murakami), The Year of Endless Sorrows manages to be several things at once: an overstuffed Künstlerroman, a pungent lit-world satire, and a backhanded valentine to the New York of the early ’90s. Set in roughly the same era and neighborhood as Rent, it depicts the artist’s life as one of resignation, status anxiety, if not so many dance numbers.

In fact, Rapp’s brother, Anthony, played the scarf-wearing painter Mark in Rent’s original and film versions. He’s reimagined here as the narrator’s younger brother, Feick, an actor whose swift rise to fame (via a dreadful-sounding Off Broadway smash) is the glittering reverse of his sibling’s descent into obscurity. The novel’s title initially scans ironically, amid the first-person-plural declarations of milk-fed normalcy (“We generally look like the people walking through the Indianapolis Metropolitan Airport on any given day”) and caricatures of East Coast literocracy (“I had to protect myself from the arch, homogenized pitch of her speaking voice and the predatory cut of her editorial pantsuit and her English degree from Brown with its concentration on the late twentieth century novel”). Surviving in the city on a tiny paycheck is rough, and Glenwood, best friend and fellow hinterland escapee, devises a mantra to help them stay put: “No westbound buses.”

Of course, the endurance test is completely self-imposed; our hero’s mom would be thrilled if he pulled up stakes and came back home. But when the downhill slide starts, and the city rapidly becomes more prison than promise, The Year of Endless Sorrows fulfills its title in earnest. It’s that rare first novel that finds its inspiration and grandeur in failure.

Though we never read a line of the narrator’s novel in progress, Year itself has a bracing purity to it, as a chronicle of time wasted, as the history of an abortion—as the sort of groping epic one imagines buzzing on the laptops of a thousand of his real-life Village (or Brooklyn) counterparts today. Even the occasional missteps feel right: The reach of a massive first novel about someone laboriously pounding out his massive first novel should exceed its grasp. Rapp’s maximalist style spins out lists and similes and variations at every opportunity; he means to dazzle us, and for the most part he does. The wit works best when hammered into the precise lunacy of early DeLillo: “Our dumbshow took on a strange Eastern European theatre quality when Lacy started meowing,” runs the description of a particularly memorable roll in the hay. Someone on the phone emits “a kind of Las Vegas jackpot laughter that kept topping itself as though she were being continuously and lovingly goosed with a pencil by a good pal.” And preserved for the ages is a conversation we’ve all had. Here our writer (not having known Feick was gay) meets his brother’s boyfriend—in the middle of a blizzard, no less:

“I’VE HEARD A LOT ABOUT YOU,” Ruben screamed.
“OH, NO,” I said.
“ONLY GOOD THINGS,” he assured me.

In Rapp’s electrifying 2003 play Stone Cold Dead Serious, the lead character in the first act hitchhikes from Illinois to New York to participate in the brutal, live-action component of a video game competition; he spends the second act immobilized and mute. The Year of Endless Sorrows features a cautionary tale in the form of a monster of inertia who insists that his roommates call him “the Loach.” Ostensibly a stand-up comic, this character is only funny in his appalling laziness and squalor. He claims he’s “too busy working on his material,” when “in reality he was too busy sleeping and farting and eating our food.” Forever marooned on the couch, he eventually loses the power of speech. Our narrator toils over his novel (an editor at his company is “enthusiastic”) but in the end it’s as though the malodorous settings and bad vibes of the city itself that loom up to silence him. Here is E. B. White’s New York with the seams showing, with the toilet backed up, with the incessant siren call of wherever it is you came from. —Ed Park

Bookforum, Feb/Mar 2007


Born Under Saturn: The Character and Conduct of Artists
By Margot and Rudolf Wittkower
New York Review Books, $18.95

“Painting…was first invented, saith Patricius, ex amoris beneficio, for love’s sake,” writes Robert Burton in his 17th-century bestseller, that massive headrush of contradictions known as The Anatomy of Melancholy. “For when the daughter of Dibutades the Sicyonian was to take leave of her sweetheart now going to wars, ut desiderio ejus minus tabesceret, to comfort herself in his absence, she took his picture with coal upon a wall, as the candle gave the shadow, which her father admiring perfected afterwards, and it was the first picture by report that ever was made.”

The passage appears in the Anatomy’s final section, “Love-Melancholy,” and it’s a pithy template for the emotional component of the creative drive. Burton ransacks a library’s worth of classical reading for his treatise on the malady, though few painters appear in his pages. Nevertheless, his conception of melancholy, as well as his example-studded narrative technique, inform Margot and Rudolf Wittkower’s Born Under Saturn.

First published in 1963 and currently reappearing thanks to New York Review Books, the Wittkowers’ micro-informed study entertainingly dissects the pervasive image of the moody, alienated artist. Cautious and provocative, presuming to balance theory and anecdote but happily indulging the latter, Born Under Saturn reads like Vasari’s Lives of the Artists rewritten as an appendix to Burton—a colorful tour of eccentricity and genius, populated by all manner of rogues, gentlemen, penny-pinchers, hypochondriacs, and enduring masters. Every page has a diverting tale, and the cumulative effect is to set the reader’s mind reeling.

The stereotype of the artist as an emotional outsider—brooding or batty or what we would now call bipolar—was cemented in the Renaissance, as the profession detached itself from the sphere of craftsmen. But the book’s title (astrologically, Saturn was thought to preside over the birth of homo melancholicus) is a misnomer. For every account of a Piero di Cosimo boiling 50 eggs at a time while simultaneously heating his glue for practicality’s sake, or a Silvio Cosini, wearing a jerkin of human skin, the Wittkowers process all the available data to show that, in fact, artists were likely no more saturnine—or bizzaro—than anyone else. Burton implicated everything from solitariness to onions as a cause of melancholy, to the maniacal degree that it became a metaphor for the human condition. Similarly, Born Under Saturn, for all its lurid scenes, ultimately points to commonality, showing that artists behave as well or as badly as their noncreative counterparts.

Wittkowerian analysis can be thrilling. Elucidating how a famous line from Seneca (“there never has been great talent without some touch of madness”) has been misinterpreted by everyone from Dryden to Schopenhauer, the Wittkowers reveal how its meaning warped to suggest general insanity rather than the more limited Platonic furore of artistic inspiration. Nevertheless, as the authors write at the book’s close, “Misinterpretation is one of the great stimuli for keeping the past alive.” Though convincingly debunking the “mad artist” ideal, they recognize that “the notion…is a historical reality and by brushing it aside as mistaken, one denies the existence of a generic and deeply significant symbol.”

According to Joseph Connors’s introduction, Margot Wittkower wrote Saturn’s first draft, and Rudolf crucially “pulled it to pieces and put it back together again.” When he urged her to publish the book under her name alone, she reasoned that his stamp (he had been at the Warburg Institute and was a Columbia professor) would increase its stature. Nearly all the artists anatomized here are men, but per Burton, the origin of painting—a collaboration between the sexes—began with a woman’s sketch. It’s doubly fitting, then, that this new edition reverses the book’s bylines to give its primary writer her place in the sun.

––Ed Park

Feb. (?) 2007, Modern Painters

Review of Adam Roberts's GRADISIL

Kinbote in Space
Astral Weeks/Ed Park

Sitting on the bookstore shelf, Adam Roberts’s new novel, Gradisil (Pyr: $15, 551 pp.), makes few appeals to the general reader. The title, in a hard-to-read Transformers font, suggests an epic story centering on hair-regrowth formula, and the curiously cropped cover illustration manages to make an explosion soporific. But if you just pick it up—perhaps with a furtive glance down the aisle—and read the first paragraph, something interesting happens:

Take this printed page, the very one you are looking at now. Take away all the letters and all the commas and the dashes, and take away the apostrophes, and leave only the full stops, the colons, the dots over the “i”s. You will have a star map, cartography that describes precisely the sky of my imagination. I want to go there, you’ll say. So do I.

That’s as elegant as invitations come. Roberts starts us off in the sky—in that blank canvas of so much science fiction—but simultaneously grounds us by evoking the visual, nearly tactile experience of reading. By the three-word finale, you might find yourself hooked.
Additionally, close readers of Vladimir Nabokov will detect a nod to VN’s late quasi-SF tale “Lance,” whose narrator sees his story’s “every dot and full stop” as describing a “kind of celestial star chart.” Coincidence? Maybe. But consider that, on Gradisil’s acknowledgments page, Roberts not only references a 1959 book called Theory of Wing Sections, Including a Summary of Airfoil Data but thanks, amidst the names of friends, one “Charles Kinbote”—the mad annotator who turns Nabokov’s Pale Fire inside out. (Near the novel’s end, Roberts swings a double reference to Look at the Harlequins!) Which is to say that Gradisil operates on multiple levels, and that its pleasures lie not just in its densely plotted particulars but also in its unconventional, playful construction.

Where Pale Fire features Kinbote’s commentary and other textual apparatus wrapped around John Shade’s 999-line poem, Gradisil gives us two heart-pouring memoirists, the adrenalized thoughts of a soldier freefalling thousands of miles from space (as his unprotected left hand withers away), 22nd-century pop song lyrics in three languages, and passages crafted using a futuristic argot in which the letter “c” has apparently been outlawed. And for all the seriousness in conception and technological accuracy (see Theory of Wing Sections, above), Roberts, the author of numerous parodies, including something called Dr. Whom, or E.T. Shoots and Leaves (“about a grammatically correct time lord”), leavens the proceedings with a wicked satirical thumbnail of a mumble-mouthed, war-mongering president, “tailored books” (classics in which the reader’s name is inserted), and awful poetry that could give the Vogons a run for their money.

At well over 500 tightly printed pages, the sprawling Gradisil has its longueurs, but for the most part Roberts (a professor of 19th-century literature at the University of London) keeps the pages turning with a skill for richly characterizing his generations-spanning dramatis personae. The title refers to the charismatic de facto president of the Uplands, a loose aggregation of Earth-orbiting homes. Gradisil Gyeroffy is a shrewd, three-steps-ahead politician and matter-of-fact maneater (in one case, almost literally), who motivates the freedom-loving Uplanders to provoke a galvanizing, seemingly unwinnable war with the territory-hungry Americans. (In a mind-bending touch, Roberts notes that one postbellum lawsuit “disputes the term ‘territory’…on the grounds that vacuum and emptiness is not territory.”)

Gradisil is heroine of the book’s long middle section, and even after death she generates much of the book’s drama. Perversely, she’s never a narrator: Most of what we know of her is via Paul, her rich husband (and former homosexual), whose admiration for his wife gets pushed to the edge by her adulteries and messiah complex; and Gradisil’s mother, Klara, who authors the novel’s compulsively readable first part.

It’s Klara, of course, who gives Gradisil her medicinal-sounding name; the odd word stems from her own youthful mishearing of Yggdrasil, the world-tree of Viking mythology. As a 13-year-old she listened to her father, one of the first homeowners in the Uplands, describe the Earth’s magnetosphere as a version of Yggdrasil, “its branches reaching into space”: “Then we could climb up, couldn’t we?” He’s seen as mildly nutty for championing the use of electromagnetic fields (rather than rocket power) to get into orbit, but history will vindicate him.

When her father is cold-bloodedly murdered by Kristen Janzen Kooistra, a grotesquely fat serial killer, teenaged Klara vows to avenge his death—think True Grit in space. This purest of motivations, coupled with the relative simplicity of the Uplands frontier at this point in the future (about 50 years from now), makes for an engaging novel in itself. (The similarity to Charles Portis’s classic Western resonates all the more when we realize Klara is penning her story as an octogenarian, just as Mattie Ross chronicles her youthful adventure from a distance of decades.)

It’s fun to watch Roberts build his universe, describing the outsider culture of the Uplands and conveying the exquisite sense of being out of reach, above it all. At the same time, he describes the hassles of housekeeping so far off the ground, and spacewalks have rarely been less romantically described: “[A]fter half a day you developed a form of habitude that enabled a sort of progress around the Station in a weirdly dangling-zombie style of perambulation.”

Klara’s section of Gradisil is a revenge story, but then so are Parts Two and Three, and the entire saga portrays bloodlust as an unquenchable but wearying human condition, like a futuristic version of Park Chanwook’s “Vengeance” trilogy. The moral quandaries multiply as political intrigues and death wishes snap into place; the Uplands become developed, just like “downbelow,” becoming just another field for commerce. By book’s end, the Gyeroffy family tree, for all its greatness, has grown into a twisted version of Yggdrasil, whose branches once promised so much possibility.