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2016: A year of disrupted reading.

3 Jan

(2016 was a terrible year for me and for our country. A series of professional setbacks jarred my writing, sapped my resolve and left me an inner stew of rancor and resentment. As above, so below. The sinister election cycle and the ghastly result haven’t helped any. I’ve neglected the blog, too, although I have a dozen or so posts in various states of decay. But I did maintain my reading log, and here it is, 2016, with notes and annotations. I also read The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, and a smattering of monthly comic books. Around November I stopped keeping track of everything I was reading, and a few books slipped off the list. The most memorable novels I read were probably The People in the Trees and The Painted Bird. Anyway, here’s to a new year.)

 

Trying It Out In America: Literary and Other Performances—Richard Poirer’s essays on writers and writing, focusing on Whitman and Mailer and others, is funny, well-written and intriguing.

 

The Seven Madmen—Roberto Arlt’s astonishing novel of murder, madness and social instability. A down on his luck inventor decides to kidnap an insane friend to help fund an insane man, known as the Astrologer, who wants to destabilize the world to bring back an age of mystery and magic. Sounds funny, but reads as tragedy. Excellent and unforgettable.

 

Crow—Ted Hughes, y’all! His astonishing poems concerning the origin of good and evil, centering on a sometimes sinister creature named Crow, who is part Lucifer, part Pan, part Amerindian totem. Haunting stuff, and a great place to start for poetry neophytes. (A category I will probably remain in the rest of my life.)

 

The Armies of the Night—Norman Mailer inserts himself into this extended piece of new journalism, “history as novel,” as he calls it, and “the novel as history.” It’s a great companion to other books on the sixties, and Mailer’s abilities are on display. But it feels a bit dated. I keep coming back to Mailer (and Burroughs) even though he as often as not disappoints.

 

Exiles Return—Malcolm Cowley’s revisiting of the Lost Generation—their values, their ambitions, their triumphs and failures—is a masterpiece of criticism, belief and biography. I’ve wanted to read this for years.

 

Mapuche—Argentinian crime novel about a detective obsessed with the disappeared. Pretty good, solid stuff, if maybe not quite as strong as it sounds. A transvestite is murdered.

 

The Thirsty Muse—A critical and literary history of Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway and O’Neill through their alcoholism. Pretty damn good stuff.

 

The Hundred Days—Joseph Roth’s novel of Napoleon’s return from exile is interesting, if a major letdown compared to His masterful The Radetsky March.

 

Geniuses Together: American Writers in Paris in the 1920s—A solid history of the Lost Generation and their adventures and travails in Paris. Really enjoyed this one.

 

The Movie Book—I can never read enough overviews, histories, anecdotes and biographies about the movies and the people who make them. Great photographs.

 

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao—Junot Diaz’s polyglot novel traces a cursed family from the Dominican Republic, back and forth in time. This novel is many things, most of them enjoyable, some of them profound, but the pop cultural references and the occasional light touch barely conceal the anger.

 

Breaking and Entering—Joy Williams’s novel follows a married couple who break into vacation homes in Florida, as a way of adventure and relaxation. Stunning prose; she makes it all look so easy. (She’s kin, writer-wise, to Ellen Gilchrist.)

 

A Little Life—Hanya Yanagihara’s epic tale of trauma and sadism with little moments of kindness is compelling to read, but the engines are mucked with narrative torture-porn. She can write and write well, but the punishing, relentless torment of her abused man-child is . . . hard to understand. Why write a 750-page novel about how grim and shitty life is? Thomas Bernhard does this in 100. Still, unforgettable.

 

Three Hainish Novels—On a recommendation, I tried these novels from Ursela Le Guin. I shouldn’t have. The ideas are fine but the writing isn’t for me. There’s a couple of hours I’ll never get back.

 

The Story of a New Name—Elena Ferrante’s second novel of a sour friendship in the violent, mafia-controlled poor sections of Naples. Lean and superb.

 

Captain America: Loose Nuke—Writer Remender finds his groove with this third arc of his Captain America run. (His first two involved Cap trapped on another earth, with Arnim Zola in control. A great idea, but poorly executed.) Remender uses Nuke, the great cipher of Marvel comics, a stand-in for American foreign malfeasance, weakness and strength, depending on the author.

 

Terrorist—Moving and compelling comic portrait of Gavrilo Princip, the assassin who killed Franz Ferdinand and inadvertently started World War I. Great, haunting art and a firm presentation of the background conflicts in the Balkans. The best book on the subject since Hans Koning’s Death of a Schoolboy.

 

Best of Enemies—Comic history of the first order, about U.S. relations with the Middle East. Insightful and excellent.

 

Terra Obscura: S.M.A.S.H. of Two Worlds—The cover lists Alan Moore as the writer but he isn’t. He’s more of a story consultant, and it shows. Old characters from his late-90s run of Wildstorm comics make their appearances here, but the pacing is off and the story isn’t clear. Would probably unread this if I could.

 

Bacchus: Immortality Isn’t Forever—Eddie Campbell, underground comic artist extraordinaire—kicks off his long-running series of Bacchus in the present-day with moody art and a light, narrative touch. Not for everyone, but intriguing.

 

The White Hotel—A strange companion, of sorts, to Nabakov’s Pale Fire, a novel with poems, surreal catastrophes, and a case file written by Sigmund Freud. Perhaps not as great as its underground reputation—and inferior to Pale Fire, but most novels are—but still a good read. Pretentious weirdness.

 

Love Me Back—Fierce and stunning debut novel, about a troubled waitress and her navigations through an often sinister and traumatic world.

 

A Brief History of Seven Killings—Marlon James won the Man-Booker for this explosive crime novel based on a real-life assassination attempt on Bob Marley. James captures the rough and tumble terrors of Jamaica by utilizing the pidgin English of its people.

 

Solo—Wright Morris, a very fine writer now mostly forgotten, wrote a memoir of his time in Paris before World War II. He was young, hungry and alive, and this is one of the better books about the joys and risks of travel.

 

The Voyeurs—Graphic novel that is hilarious and self-lacerating, an American woman’s journey with her boyfriend to Paris. Similar to Peepshow.

 

An Imaginary Life—David Malouf’s novel of the ancient world follows Ovid and a feral child. Ovid has been banished to the edge of the empire by Augustus. There he tries to civilize a wild child. Short, lyrical, memorable.

 

Between the World and Me—Te-Nahesi Coates’s letter to his son outlines the dangers his son faces in America. It’s a very fine book, more of an extended essay really, that is touching and angry. The sections about his own experiences with police are jaw-dropping.

 

“The Great God Pan”—Arthur Machen’s short story I’ve been meaning to read for almost a decade. Atmospheric and intriguing, yes, but written in the Victorian style that I have less and less patience for as I get older.

 

“The Killers”—Gots to read it as often as you can, Hemingway’s perfect short story about two hitmen waiting to murder a boxer, while Nick Adams is held hostage with a black cook and the owner. So good.

 

The Oxherding Tale—Making my way through Charles Johnson’s oeuvre, and this is a funny—laugh out loud funny—novel about a mixed-race slave child who is educated by a free-thinking weirdo intellectual. Part renunciation of Candide, part picaresque romp.

 

Memorial—poet Alice Oswald invigorates the dead from the Iliad in a haunting and majestic 80-page poem. An absolute stunner.

 

Bacchus, volume one—A phone book, and a rich, strange, diverting, digressive comic book that follows the aging god of wine through essays, history, and gang-land violence. Eddie Campbell is fun, but not easy. For fans of literature and comics, here you go.

 

The Farmer’s Daughter—Jim Harrison’s latest novellas, and there quite good. My favorite is The Games of Night, a werewolf story in typical Harrison fashion, as a metaphor for sex and fishing and hunting and meat-eating.

 

The Long Home—the great William Gay’s first novel, and it’s a great and ghastly southern gothic, with loads of humor thrown in. Gay is a master of funny, deep south dialogue.

My vote for the most disturbing novel of all time.

My vote for the most disturbing novel of all time.

The Painted Bird—Jersy Kosinski’s World War II novel follows a lost child wandering through the Polish countryside. Kosinski paints one horrifying atrocity after another. One of the hardest, meanest, vilest novels I’ve ever read. (And I’ve read 120 Days of Sodom, The Story of the Eye, The Story of O, and My Dark Places.)

 

Avengers: Time Runs Out, vol. 1.—Hickman’s beginning of the end. He uses cosmic dangers to turn the super-intelligent characters—Black Panther, Dr. Strange, Mr. Fantastic, Hulk, Tony Stark, and a handful of others—from heroes into world-destroying monsters. It’s a grim and in its way terrifying feat, but Hickman pulls it off.

 

Avengers: Time Runs Out, vol. 2—The second installment, and it pits an aged Captain America against the Illuminati, the cabal of elite Marvel heroes who are destroying other realities to save the earth. Hickman is my kind of nerd: he uses Starbrand.

 

Uncanny Avengers: Avenge the Earth—Remender is a solid writer, but Acuna is a great artist. The storyline follows Thor’s failure, the destruction of the earth by one of the Celestials. The X-men are shunted away to an alternate timeline, where the children of Kang rule. But Kang has a trick up his sleeve, a way to save the old earth, by erasing everything that’s happened on their new planet. Convoluted, grim, but rewarding. (Not for new fans.)

 

The Getaway—One of the few Jim Thompson novels I haven’t read. It’s a crime caper gone wrong, with a quick double cross after a bank job and a surreal, violent journey into Mexico. Sam Peckinpah made a movie version that was pretty damn good.

 

Joe Sacco: Journalism—A collection of Joe Sacco’s shorter pieces. He’s an excellent journalist, and his work is a great argument for more comics journalism.

 

The Monster Show—David J. Skal’s history of horror movies (and to a lesser extent, horror fiction) shows time and again how atrocities in the real world impacted the presentation of horror tropes. I’ve come across most of it all before, but still a damn good book.

 

Area 51—comic reportage on the government testing site that is shrouded in mystery and, apparently, the air force likes it that way.

 

Winter’s Bone—Woodrell’s very fine crime novel follows a young woman looking for her missing meth-cook of a father, across a wintry Arkansas haunted by violence blood feuds and bloodshed. Great stuff.

 

Robert Altman: Jumping off a Cliff—For research, but worth reading. A careful study of Altman, his methods, his friends and collaborators, his victories and failures.

 

Junkets on a Sad Planet—Tom Clark’s biographical poems about the life of John Keats. I wanted to like it more than I did.

 

Palefire—diverting graphic novel about a young woman’s night at a party and her crush on an angry dude. Not bad, but . . .

 

Watermelon Wine—research, but excellent. Frye Gaillard wrote this in the 1970s, about the country music scene in Nashville, and how big money invaded the angry, hillbilly and mountain music.

 

Winners Got Scars, Too—I’ve owned this book for 15 years, was never sure what it was about, and never read it. Until now. It’s the story of Johnny Cash, zipping back and forth in time. Pretty damn good, if a bit straight-forward.

 

The Patrick Melrose Novels: Bad News—I read the first of these a few years ago. It’s brilliant, funny, devastating, about young Patrick Melrose and his horrid, rich family. I was so upset by the first book I put it down. Now I’ve picked it back up. Acerbic doesn’t begin to describe the rancor and rage hiding beneath the cleverness and wit.

 

West of Everything—Brilliant examination of western films and novels by Jane Tompkins. Picked this up at random, and enjoyed every minute of it: personal, academic, historical, a spicy and pungent book.

Pollock writes with a pulpy love of trash and excess.

Pollock writes with a pulpy love of trash and excess.

The Devil all the Time—Donald Ray Pollack’s first story collection, Knockemstiff, knocked me on my ass. This, his first novel, is similarly strong, grotesque, masculine. A very fine writer who shoves the reader into the gutter.

 

Patience—Daniel Clowes time travel fantasia is beautiful, cruel and fascinating. One of his better books, which is saying a lot. I can’t stop thinking about it.

 

The Trial—Mairowit’z graphic adaptation of Kafka’s best book. His notes are excellent, and informative.

 

Eat this document—Dana Spiotta’s subtle story of two ex-radicals living new lives after an act of terrorism twenty years prior. Spiotta is a strong writer, and does great work comparing the radicalism of the 1960s with the weird rebellion of the early 1990s.

 

Lovecraft Country—Matt Ruff riffs on America’s racism, pulp fiction from the 1930s, and the contemporary horror literature scene. Reminded me of Victor LaVelle’s Big Machine.

 

Animal Man, vols. 1-3—Grant Morrison’s self-reflective run on Animal Man remains not only one of his greatest comics, but also one of the best interrogations of morality, fate and responsibility in fiction. It’s getting better all the time.

 

Warning Shadows—Gary Giddins essays on film are chewy and delightful, intriguing and fun to read. I loved this book.

 

Where All Light Tends to Go—A southern noir, or Appalachian noir, that’s pretty good stuff. An eighteen year old man-boy works for his meth-kingpin father. Then it all goes to shit.

 

The Sellout—A dense, complex and funny as fuck novel about a black man in contemporary Los Angeles who ends up owning a slave. References galore, and a brisk pace that doesn’t hide the seething anger at all. Went on to win the Man-Booker.

 

Country: The Crazy roots of Rock n Roll—Nick Tosches being Nick Tosches. A rumination on and rooting around in early rockabilly and country music stars, stitched together with first-class research and Tosches demon-dog sensibility.

 

The History of Rock ’N’ Roll in Ten Songs—I’ve been on a kick lately, reading books on music and musicians. I enjoy Greil Marcus’s writing as much as anyone’s, even if I don’t always agree or even quite understand. He has a strange lyricism, a chewy way with words, that grips me. Here he roots around in the lesser known songs that often resulted in big hits.

 

Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh—An astonishing biography of Tennessee Williams, one of the best I’ve ever read, sexy, erotic, heart-breaking. A must-read for everyone interested in theatre, fiction or wild lives on the periphery.
Killing Yourself To Live—wunderkind Chuck Klosterman’s personal journey visiting the sites where rock stars died, only it’s really an odyssey through his fuckups, relationships, tastes.

 

Beatlebone—Kevin Barry’s follow-up to his acclaimed City of Bohane follows John Lennon over a four-day crack up, as he tries to visit his own personal island. An astonishing marvel of a novel.

 

The People in the Trees—Hanya Yanihagarah’s first novel is a compelling, sinister experience. A Nobel-prize-winning anthropologist is accused of sexually molesting his adopted children. His defense—and the novel­—is his life story, layered with intimations of psychopathic impulses and a bizarre disaffection for fellow human beings. Excellent stuff.

 

The Searchers: The Making of An American Legend—the story behind the story, with the captive narratives of the 1830s and 1840s, on up to John Ford’s drunken misbehavior on the set. A good, solid book.

 

The Fifth Beatle—graphic biography on Brian Epstein, with beautiful art, if a bit sloppy storytelling.

 

In a Lonely Place—Dorothy Hughes’s absolutely smashing crime novel from the 1940s—and a damn good film from Nicholas Ray ten or so years later—follows Dixon Steele, a psychopath and murderer, as he meanders through Los Angeles in the post-war years. What makes it so good, besides the spare and clean writing, is Hughes places the reader’s sympathy with Steele, showing is repulsive, but identifiable, self-rationalization and self-pity.

 

A Manuel for Cleaning Women—Lucia Berlin’s autobiographical stories are straight-forward, brilliantly written, heart-breaking and wonderful.

 

Paper Girls—Brian Vaughan’s newest science fiction comic, and it’s a fun ride. Papergirls, who delivery newspapers, run afoul of a war between time traveling factions in the suburbs of the 1980s. Great fun.

 

Showman—Had this book for a long time. Film critic and historian David Thomson covers the life and films of David Selznick, the brilliant, contradictory, self-sabotaging movie producer who made Rebecca and Gone with the Wind, among other films.

 

The Expendable Man—Dorothy Hughes’s mid-century crime masterpiece, a tour into the dark corridors of American justice, where a black man is accused of murdering a white woman.

 

Father of Lies—A very disturbing novel by Brian Evenson, his first, about a pastor in a church who is hurting his parishioners, but he doesn’t see it that way. Reminiscent of Jim Thomson, in a good way.

 

The Bad and the Beautiful—An interesting overview of 1950s movie culture, with the gossip rags as the narrative through-point for the book. Douglous Sirk, Charles Loughton, Burt Lancaster, Kim Novak—an intriguing book, if perhaps not quite the overview of the decade’s movies that it seems.

 

I Lost it at the Movies—Pauline Kael’s best book? Probably. A collection film reviews and essays, including her devastating, and hilarious, take-down of La Notte, La Dolce Vita, and Last Year at Marienbad.

 

The Dick Gibson Show—Stanley Elkin’s superb, and very strange, story of a man’s love affair with radio, and the pitch and timbre of people’s voices, including his own. Similar to Pynchon, although with more syntactic control.

 

The Great Movies III—Roger Ebert’s astonishing last collection of film essays, every bit as good as part II, and a very fine piece of writing. I loved it.

 

Negative Space: Manny Farber at the Movies—Hard to describe, as it hasn’t dated well, but a precursor to most of the great American movie critics.

 

Post Office—Charles Bukowski’s first novel, a very funny, bitter exploration of a working man’s life, and how he hates his job. A great place to start with Bukowski.

 

Women—Bukowski’s pornographic novel about his relationships with different women, when he is in his fifties and beginning to build a reputation as a poet.

 

The Trip To Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking—Olivia Laing’s excellent history cum travelogue of the hard drinking of a handful of great writers, including Tennessee Williams and John Cheever. Unforgettable; Laing is a masterful storyteller in her own right.

 

The Paper Menagerie—Fantastical short stories from Ken Liu. Read most of them, and like a lot of fantasy writers nowadays, he is a controlled and talented stylist.
The Reivers—Faulkner’s last novel, a picaresque journey involving a stolen car and horse racing. Pretty good, pretty funny, a meandering little thing.

 

Intruders in the Dust—Two-thirds a good novel, one-third a didactic piece of butt. A black man is arrested for the murder of a white man, and a white teenager—who loathes the African American man because he once did the white boy a favor—who tries to prove his innocence.

 

Sanctuary—Faulkner’s gothic potboiler, one that he was embarrassed of and tried to rewrite. The result is odd; it feels trashy, but it’s written in an often dense and opaque style. Not sure what to make of it, really.

 

The Looming Tower—Should have read this years ago. Lawrence Wright’s epic reporting on the formation of terrorist groups in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and how these often educated men became involved in a foreign war in Afghanistan, and how their hatred of the Soviet Union turned toward the U.S.

 

The Hero’s Journey—Transcriptions of interviews with Joseph Campbell. His erudition, and his eccentric interpretations, are legendary, and rightly so.

 

“The Swimmer”—One of John Cheever’s most haunting short stories, which is saying a lot. A middle-aged man decides to swim home through the backyard pools of his neighbors. It sounds silly or droll or dumb, but it is none of these. It’s magnificent.

 

Storm of Steel—Picked it back up in October—it’s amazing. Junger’s memoir of being a German soldier in World War I might be the best book about that war I’ve read.

 

Barbarian Days—William Finnegan’s astonishing memoir of a life consumed by surfing. The writing is jaw dropping.

 

Mississippi, 1964—Dispatches on the civil rights movement from here and there. An interesting and diverting piece of writing, with some great anecdotes.

 

Innocents and Others—Dana Spiotta’s fractured novel about artists, filmmaking, success and purity is a very fine, very thoughtful piece of work. She’s always good.

 

The Flamethrowers—Rachel Kushner’s novel about art, artists, motorcycles, business and Italy is intriguing and worth reading.

 

<Trump won the electoral college around here; my reading life, along with every thing else, was disrupted; I read four or five books here but can’t quite remember what they were. I think I read two other Brian Evenson novels, but that might have been last year>

 

It Can’t Happen Here—Sinclair Lewis’s late novel, not a good novel at all, but chilling, about an American dictatorial takeover by a tough-talking non-politician.

 

The Plot Against America—Philip Roth’s very fine counter-factual novel, where Charles Lindbergh defeats Roosevelt on an anti-war, anti-Jewish platform. A very fine, very disturbing novel about how quickly American politics can go wrong.

 

The Death of Jim Loney—James Welch’s near-perfect slim novel about an American Indian’s last days. He is deranged by the past, and alienated by the present, meandering towards a bitter end. Excellent.

 

Dead Man’s Float—Jim Harrison’s last collection of poetry is beautiful and soothing, like swimming in a cool creek on a hot summer day. His same obsessions—horses, fishing, sex and food—are infused with an end of life acceptance of death and suffering.

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Interlude 2: Comics roundup.

16 Oct

(I’ve been writing. A lot. And lots of different things, including a novel manuscript tentatively titled Think Vainly of the Guilty Land. But ye old blog has been a bit disrupted. I have pieces I want to post, but I can’t quite pull the trigger. Anyway, here’s a roundup of the latest comics I read, most of which I read last night.)

The Nameless.

Disquieting, unnerving, smart.

Disquieting, unnerving, smart.

Grant Morrison is the comic book world’s Woody Allen or Frederico Fellini. He returns, over and over, to three or four big themes. Here he revisits, in horror form, the question of what happens when we interact with a higher intelligence. What would a higher dimension look like? He’s asked this over and over, often using comics as a real, one-dimensional universe, with our universe serving as a higher level of reality. (Read The Filth, or Flex Mentallo.) Morrison sees existence as a series of cascading realities and points of view, with real, conscious beings above us—probably reading us, just as we read the characters in the comics. So what would a higher dimension look like? Here it’s hell. He takes the (pretty miserable movie, really) Event Horizon as a starting point—or as one character in the comic says, “It’s like The Exorcist meets Apollo 13!”— with an asteroid approaching earth, and the astronauts who are tasked with stopping it. Only, the asteroid is transmitting messages, in a language that seems to be driving people insane. Morrison remains one of the strongest comic book authors, but his major obstacle as a writer is his own restless intelligence. Here he utilizes his vast and lifelong readings in the alchemical/gnostic/conspiratorial literature to provide a very fine, if profoundly disquieting, horror comic.

B.P.R.D.

The monsters keep winning.

The monsters keep winning.

Hellboy started as an occult detective, rooting around in various folktales and myths around the world, with a back-story he didn’t understand. The comic was quirky and beautifully drawn, if a bit one-note and thin. It was clear that the sidekicks—Abe Sapien, Liz, and Johann, among others—were more interesting. So the spinoff. And what a glorious series it’s become. At this point, the earth is overrun with magnificent creatures, larger than small islands. They emit steam that turns humans into mindless, omnivorous creatures. Other sinister forces appear. B.P.R.D. remains a dynamite comic, with great artwork and dialogue, if a bit disheartening, as the monsters never seem to die. The disintegrating world, and the dwindling place for humans in it.

Abe Sapien.

Lonely, one-of-a-kind genius, and possible destroyer of the world.

Lonely, one-of-a-kind genius, and possible destroyer of the world.

The most interesting of the Hellboy characters, a Victorian-era alchemist transformed into a potentially world-destroying mer-man, Abe Sapien in his own title wanders around a ravaged American southwest, meeting up with the remnants of destroyed towns, villages and cities. Weird cults. Murderous gangs. And plenty of monsters. A very fine, if a touch repetitive, comic in its own right, Abe Sapien just recently has been delving into his past, which is great.

Hellboy in Hell.

Marvelous but despairing, like Beckett and Sartre. With fistfights.

Marvelous but despairing, like Beckett and Sartre. With fistfights.

Hellboy dies. His heart is pulled from his body. And he awakens in Hell. Only, Satan has been slain, and the entire underworld is in disarray. Hellboy, it seems, is prophesied to take over. But he won’t. His stubborn, weary psyche ends up wandering from one nightmarish aspect of the realm to another. Hellboy’s surreal journey through Hell is an excellent, and despairing, comic narrative. Think Beckett and Sartre, with fistfights. And superior artwork.

Sandman: Overture.

Wonderful return to form.

Wonderful return to form.

Neil Gaiman returns to his most famous—and most enigmatic—work, with a prequel of how Morpheus came to be trapped at the series beginning. I didn’t think he had it in him, but Gaiman not only matches the tone and quality of the original series, he also adds depth and meaning to what was already a high-water mark for comics. He even introduces new characters! The art by Williams is absolutely stunning. A lot of the Sandman spinoffs have been of uneven quality—some of The Dreaming storylines were good, many were just a hair above mediocre—but here we have a very strong piece of the larger drama. For fans, perhaps, but none will be disappointed. Gaiman still has the goods.

Providence.

Eerie, rambling, but there is something here.

Eerie, rambling, but there is something here.

Alan Moore continues his journey into the psychic underpinnings of H.P. Lovecraft with this oddball story of a journalist investigating occult happenings near Salem, Massachusetts, in the 1920s. The story is filled with eccentric panels, strange points of view, and an unclear, at least so far, message or even storyline. But it is Alan Moore, one of the great horror comic writers, and the comic remains fascinating and unnerving. I think it’s a kind of prequel to The Neonomicon—a deranged, unhinging, fabulous little comic that haunted me for days—but I’m not quite sure. It’s hard to describe, as some of the issues seem to ramble, only they seem to be rambling on purpose.

Secret Wars.

Hickman continues his historic romp through the Marvel Universe.

Hickman continues his historic romp through the Marvel Universe.

Jonathan Hickman is a special kind of comic writer. He’s patient, careful, attentive, and able to think in a vast, cosmic scope. But he also manages to maintain the integrity of the characters, while making them feel fresh, something that is very, very hard to do. His restructuring of the Marvel Universe has been stunning. After all the existing realities collided, Doctor Doom saved what he could from a dozen different realities. He also installed himself as the supreme deity. A handful of heroes—and horrifying villains—survived, too, and come crashing into the new reality, intent on destroying it. Wonderful.

interlude 2: True Detective and Sinister Forces.

30 Aug
  1. I set out to write an entry on True Detective, season 2.
  2. But I didn’t, I couldn’t, I can’t. The show was/is too frustrating, but in a banal, insipid way.
  3. I made it this far in my little draft-critique: “Self-awareness isn’t satire. Self-awareness isn’t even clever, anymore. Self-awareness is just self-awareness. Nothing more.”
  4. That could have been the tag line for the season: nothing more.
  5. I dug the masks, the totem animals. Pizzolato has a thing for them. Animal masks cover the faces of the killers in the first season, and they cover the killer here. (They also adorn walls, etc.) It’s interesting; Grant Morrison has a pig-faced man reverberating through most of his comics. I’m betting—and I said this before—that Pizzolatto is a comics fan. Did he borrow again?
  6. One of the major influences on this season is David Lynch.
  7. Lynch is a very difficult filmmaker to copy, and no one should try. He works with an idiosyncratic intuition that is unnerving; he pulls his stories from dreams, raging caffeine highs, and an underlying sensibility that is dapper and decent, right out of the 1950s. He combines the nightmarish images with moments of sweet innocence. He is, as Mel Brooks described him, “like Jimmy Stewart, from Mars.”
  8. Pizzolato is not like Jimmy Stewart from Mars. This season has no balance. There’s no humor, no pathos. No horror or scares, either. Just grim and dour people making long speeches punctuated by pregnant pauses. Ugh.
  9. Here I am doing the thing I said I couldn’t do. Writing about True Detective. It’s like gummy bears. Or quicksand. Once you start . . .
  10. There’s one thing a crime show cannot be and that is boring. And let me tell you, True Detective was a slog.
  11. So I’ve been reading Peter Levenda’s Sinister Forces. It is a revisiting, retelling, rehashing, revising of American history, with occult patterns and forces at the fore.
  12. Don’t roll your eyes. (And bear with me.)
  13. Levenda is a very fine writer and a very fine researcher. I’ve read way too much in the conspiracy/underground/counterfactual genre, and Levenda is hands-down the best writer I’ve come across. Too good, really, for what he is doing. He’s seductive. He’s alluring. He’s tempting.
  14. His central thesis revolves around American religious belief, which he sees as a mash-up of the European alchemist tradition (itself a line of magical thinking dating back to ancient Egypt), Gnostic Christianity, mainstream Christianity, and Celtic pantheism. Many of our most important thinkers, writers, scientists and politicians were believers of one kind or another, often of off-shoots of mainstream religion.
  15. These politicians made decisions, many of them profoundly impacting the lives of Americans today. And they based these decisions, often in large part, on their beliefs.
  16. So our country, he argues, has one foot in the occult tradition. And that occult tradition has had a profound, if often misunderstood impact on our political history. (True Detective, season 1?)
  17. Levenda is working in both vertical history (the cause and effect, look at this and then look at what it caused, mostly interviews and primary documents) and horizontal history (everything is an interconnected web of near-invisible tendrils, impacting everything else, a kind of synchronicity writ large, encompassing literature and pop culture and folklore and yes, the occult). The problem with the former method, favored by most historians, is it often presents history as a fixed thing. Which it wasn’t, not when it was happening. The problem with the latter is that it often substitutes coincidental accidents as intentional events. Which, of course, isn’t how the real world works at all.
  18. Put another way: both approaches suffer from the invasion of novelistic techniques. (Truman Capote and Norman Mailer, you were right!) But Levenda addresses this very problem in his book. “You can’t tell stories without . . . telling stories.”
  19. Everything is true. All is permitted. Truth is fiction.
  20. Both approaches also apply to crime fiction. Crime novels—and movies and shows—tend to follow one of these two techniques. Breaking Bad is mostly vertical. Characters make decisions, people die; this type of crime fiction is looking to make sinners find penance and criminals redemption. Or death. True Detective, however, was mostly horizontal; it (attempted) to offer a delicate web of interconnectivity.
  21. Sort of, anyway. My biggest problem with the show was its inability to show the events that actually mattered. The entire story rested on a break-in and double murder that you never see and only hear second-hand.
  22. Anyway, in history, the horizontal approach—these are my terms, I’m sure they aren’t the preferred ones—is refreshing. Levenda pulls from all over the map, movies and literature and historical events, focusing on ancient Amerindian burial mounds in one chapter and serial killers, many of whom come from West Virginia, which is just bizarre, in another.
  23. Levenda does a fabulous job of connecting the dots between the crazy theories (there’s one that Charles Manson was killing people for the government, and then hiding their true purpose inside the massacres; think on that one for a moment), and the documented facts. (Operation Paperclip. Wilder than most fiction. Look it up.)
  24. But he suffers from the same problem of every conspiracy theorist. Or rather, the same two problems. A. There are no accidents. (Of course, there are.) And, B. there’s a key—if you dig enough, and make enough connections, and uncover enough hidden information—to unlocking what appears to be vast, interlocking, inter-dependent (yet somehow co-dependent) events. (There isn’t.)
  25. The problem here is that Levenda is a very fine writer and stylist. I’ve only read one other book in this spectrum that was as well-written. (John Keel’s The Mothman Prophecies; read it like a novel and it will stick with you for months. It’s dynamite.)
  26. Levenda builds his scaffolding carefully. Multiple times I felt my subconscious mind beginning to agree with him. I had to assert my rational side. (And part of me regrets it. But that’s a story for another post.)
  27. One of his major themes is that there are historical figures in America’s history that are loci of events: Jack Parsons, Ray Palmer, Robert Oppenheimer, Charles Manson, Marilyn Monroe, E. Howard Hunt and half a dozen other post-war OSS to C.I.A. dudes. These figures, among others, form an subterranean layer. Levenda calls it “the darker mechanism of history.”
  28. I love this kind of approach. For years I’ve argued that there are semi-hidden novels—some near forgotten—that are hugely influential in American literature. Fat City, Little Big Man, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle among them. (I have a list of these somewhere.)
  29. Ditto for movies: The Trial and Touch of Evil, Thieves’ Highway and My Darling Clementine, The Hit and After Hours, movies that aren’t forgotten exactly, but seem to reverberate through other films to a larger degree than anyone seems to notice.
  30. Levenda has others, including Cotton Mather and Joseph Smith, who bop in and out of the narrative he’s telling. But he keeps hammering home the weird connecting points between the Nazi scientists, UFO sightings, serial killers, ancient burial mounds, and the assassinations of the 1960s. He loves uncovering relationships, oddball coincidences.
  31. Here’s a wild one: J. D. Salinger worked for the U.S. counter-intelligence during World War II. Later, his novel The Catcher in the Rye was associated with a number of assassins, and Mark David Chapman had it on him when he killed John Lennon. Salinger’s novel was, in at least two movies I’ve seen, used as a mechanism by counter-intelligence agents to train assassins.
  32. Life imitating art imitating life imitating what? A vague notion? A coincidence?
  33. That’s weird, right?
  34. And yet it probably means nothing.
  35. Which brings me back to True Detective, Season 2. Weird, and it probably means nothing.
  36. And yet, the show still has something intriguing inside of it, some piece that kept me watching. I think it has to do with its pagan roots. Like the Green Man in the first season, here it’s the snaking highways and the industrial settings, the psycho-sexual overlay of the land on top of the characters and their disturbed desires, the totems. There seems to be a sub-strata, hidden components, that if I looked at it long enough, would reveal themselves to me.
  37. But, just like Levenda argues about American history, the show doesn’t seem to know where its residual power lies. Pizzolatto is very bad at the Chinatown/James Ellroy/Raymond Chandler plotting. He can’t hack it. He is excellent at the almost supernatural, the high occult weirdness.
  38. Which is one of the many, many things season 2 was missing.
  39. He should have set the show in the early 1960s, during the time of the sci-fi and horror television shows. Rod Serling! Joseph Stefano! Harlan Ellison! Gene Roddenberry! You can see his detectives wandering through cheap-o television sets, interviewing zonked out actors with the end of the humanity by nuclear winter is corroding everyone’s thinking and the Zodiac Killer and other west coast weirdoes hover at the edge of the story.
  40. Including Charles Manson.
  41. With Ronald Reagan as the governor.
  42. Peter Levenda, you rascal. Darkening my thoughts.

Books I read in 2014.

5 Jan

So, I wrote a play. My second. Or third. Or fourth, depending on how you count it. (I wrote a miserable screenplay, plus a play with another writer. I’ve also written some short plays, and I helped a friend write a play, uncredited of course.) I don’t know what I’m going to do with it, but I’m rewriting and editing now.

You can tell how much work I’m doing on fiction by the lack of entries here. Hence the lack of entries for most of December.

Anyway, here’s my reading list for last year. With a few caveats and asides.

The problem is, I never record what I’m reading in the first half of the year. So I have to reconstruct the books I read. And I always forget things. And I don’t read bad books, so if a book slips on me, I drop it. I’ve tried to record the dropped books at the end. But the nature of the books I gave up on is, well, they’re forgettable.

So this is most of the books I read this year. I discovered six great new writers (for me): Anne Carson, Richard Brautigan, Richard Flanagan, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Bruce Duffy and Ted Hughes.

I read tons of comics, too—I collect five or six monthly comics titles—and tried to list the graphic novels when applicable. I also re-read Grant Morrison’s run on X-men (better than I remember), as well as Roger Stern’s run on The Avengers (pure delight). I read the NYTimes Book Review and Arts section every week, plus all the movie and book reviews in The New Yorker. Plus a few random articles here and there, although as I get older this gets less and less common.

The books I read in 2014 (mostly in order):

Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History—Really a series of lectures, intriguing in their outlook but vague, lacking in the zesty anecdotes I look for a book like this. MacMillan’s thesis is that history is misused, either on purpose or through poor scholarship, to a variety of ends.

Marathon—Graphic novel about the runner, the battle, the Persians and the Greeks. I didn’t love it.

The Sour Lemon Score—A Richard Stark Parker novel following a double cross and Parker, once again, stalking his quarry for revenge.

Behind the Scenes of Otto Preminger—This was for research, and I love Preminger, and the book has interesting anecdotes, but I felt like the man remained a bit cloudy.

At the Mountains of Madness—The Lovecraft novella I re-read every few years, and this comic book version is very fine.

The Underwater Welder—A bizarre little comic from Jeff Lemire. He’s a very fine writer, when he isn’t prostituting his talents for bloviating DC comics. (His superhero stuff—and I’m not snob, I love superheroes—is horrible.) The same issues of time, sadness, regret, mistakes, and cosmic re-alignment all play out here.

A film education unto itself.

A film education unto itself.

Truffaut/Hitchcock—A film education unto itself, and a must-read film book for all movie fans. Truffaut interviews Hitchcock, and his answers are enlightening and intriguing. Great full-page photos, too. Hitchcock’s mind is so visual, and film-oriented, reading his analysis of his own movies makes for a fascinating exercise.

The Time of Illusion—Schnell’s thesis—that Nixon was the first president obsessed with the projection of his image out in the world, more concerned with his image than with reality—and his book is very good.

Enemies, a Love StoryIsaac Bashevis Singer’s novel about the Holocaust and a philandering Jew in Brooklyn, as he finds himself stuck between three women. Funny and acerbic.

The Crown of Feathers—Singer’s short stories are better than his novels, though. He remains one of the masters, and he can evoke a time and place and complex feelings in a few lines. My favorite is “One Day in Coney Island,” about a Jewish man in the late 1930s about to be deported back to Nazi-occupied Poland. He knows he will be killed, but cannot seem to bring himself to try and save himself. Funny and harrowing.

The Fixer—Bernard Malamud, one of my favorite writers, fires on all cylinders in this novel about a Ukrainian Jew who is wrongfully accused of murder, and his long incarceration and torture at the hands of the Czar’s operatives in prison. This is the second time I’ve read this, and it retains all the surprise and jolt and power.

Poems of the NightJorge Luis Borges’s collection of poetry, and unsurprisingly, it’s good. He’s succinct and deft and thick with classical allusions. He’s melancholic and witty. My favorite line: “Know that in some sense you are already dead.”

Film in the Third Reich—A major study of the movie industry under Goebbels in the 1930s, is an anecdote-rich story of the Nazi propaganda machine. I was doing research, but found this book to be a good starting point for the subject.

Men of Tomorrow—An academic-ish study of the first comic book creators. A lesser book than The Ten-Cent Plague, and inferior to Supergods, too. Still, worth reading for fans of the funny pages.

The Ministry of Special Cases—Nathan Englander’s novel about the disappeared in Argentina. Heralded to the heavens, but I can’t see it. I did not love this novel.

AmericanaDon DeLillo’s first novel, and it’s as if his talent emerged fully formed. If you like him, then this novel will make you happy. If you don’t, then all the shortcomings of his other novels are present here.

Disaster Was My God—I was so excited to read this after falling in love with The World As I Found It. And I love Rimbaud. So this “non-fiction novel” arrived with high expectations. But the author is too close to Rimbaud, somehow, to really make his sections come alive. Somehow, he knows too much about Rimbaud and cannot invent anything insightful about him. Good, interesting, even memorable, yes, but a major step down from his other novel.

Profoundly, absurdly good.

Profoundly, absurdly good.

The World as I Found It—Probably the best novel I’ve read in ten years. It follows Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittengenstein and G.E. Moore through four decades of life, as they collide with each other across multiple countries. A non-fiction novel, I suppose, and thrilling, heart-breaking, terrifying, moving, and perplexing. I cannot recommend it enough.

Friday at Enrico’s—Don Carpenter—Hard Rain Falling is one of my all-time favorite novels—wrote this novel about writers passing through their lives and it remained unpublished at his death. Jonathan Lethem helped bring it to publication, and he should win some award for it. Enrico’s is touching, sad, harsh, gentle, insightful and thrilling, while remaining realistic, natural. His was a rare talent.

Sailing to Alluvium—John Pritchard’s third Junior Ray book and it’s probably the funniest. Profane anecdotes, x-rated recipes, japery and tomfoolery. The second half of the book follows Leland Shaw, from the first novel, in his undulating poetic journals, obsessing over the askew in nature and time. Somehow encompasses the entire Southern literary canon in its pages.

Galveston—After True Detective, I rushed out to read Pizzolotto’s novel. I needn’t have bothered; the things that made Detective fantastic—the darkness, the narrative trickery, the high weirdness and occultic ambiguity—are all missing from this crime novel that is pretty run of the mill.

Hawthorn & Child—Stunning. A crime novel that has no crime and no detection, instead a series of finely etched scenarios where two detectives, Hawthorn and Child, perambulate in and out of this snaking narratives. I loved it.

Annihilation—Oh boy, a misfire. The first in a trilogy about nature run amok, a group of scientists push into the zone, to discover what happens to their predecessors.

Swamplandia!—Hmmm, a tough one. Russell writes good sentences—she captures the wild fecundity of swampy Florida with perfection—but her storytelling is off. The characters do odd things, the story flits from different points of view, all to the detriment of the novel. I wanted to read more female novelists this year. This was not a great place to begin.

Chess StoryGrand Budapest Hotel brought Stefan Zweig back into my life. This, his last manuscript he mailed to the publisher before committing suicide, details a chess match between two chess players, one an idiot savant, the other a refugee who mastered the game by playing games in his mind, while incarcerated.

Erasmus—One of Zweig’s many biographies, a hollering cheer for one of the most learned men in the Middle Ages, and filled with accolades. A fascinating book.

The Good Lord Bird—James McBride won the National Book Award for this fine and funny picaresque following a cross-dressing freeman who joins up with John Brown. Modeled after/inspired by Little Big Man.

Young God—A short story or novella stretched to novel length through white space. Still, a pretty good book. She details the rise of a young white trash hooligan in her father’s drug and prostitute trade. Fun to read in a brutish, nasty sort of way.

A Good Man Is Hard To FindFlannery O’Connor’s best collection of stories, and one of the greatest collections of the Twentieth Century. She’s artful, horrifying, and haunted by a dark Catholicism and a half-hidden racism.

Wittengenstein’s Mistress—David Marksen’s last woman on earth story, filled with mystery and word play and rumination on two thousand years of western civilization. A challenging but rewarding wonder.

Going After Cacciato—Tim O’Brien’s first Vietnam novel. An evocative, witty, and heart-breaking novel of American magical realism, and a very fine compendium to The Things They Carried.

Collected Short Stories of Gabriel Garcia Marquez—It’s sacrilege to some, but these stories just aren’t as good as they should be. Wordy, a bit deflated, pales in comparison to his good novels.

Sailor & Lula—I’m not a big fan of Barry Gifford, and the Sailor and Lula stories—the basis for the great David Lynch movie, Wild At Heart—served as another confirmation of this. When reading Gifford, I always think, “There’s something missing.

Tres—Roberto Bolaño’s best book of poetry.

Autobiography of Ms. Jane Pittman—Ernest J. Gaines’s very fine novel of a long-lived woman, who as a child is freed from slavery and lives to see much of the 20th century. Gaines is a somber, dedicated craftsman, and an underrated writer.

Southern Cross The Dog—Not a good book. A pastiche of half a dozen Deep South tropes—the sinful preacher, the bluesman who sold his soul, etc.—held together by over the top writing. How this got a front page review on the NYTimes is a mystery.

The Collected Stories of John Cheever—What can I say? A must-own, must-read book by an American master.

Kubrick—Michael Herr’s insightful, conversational study of Kubrick through the years. Lucid and enjoyable.

Augustus—I reread this John Williams’s novel every other year. He tells the story of Julius Caesar’s death and the rise of his appointed heir through letters between various parties. It’s at once learned, thrilling, elegant and dignified. I cannot praise it highly enough.

Mr. Sammler’s Planet—A misfire from Saul Bellow, but a fascinating one. Sammler is a Holocaust survivor wandering around New York, seemingly pursued by a buff African American criminal. There’s other stuff going on, and Bellow’s prose is sometimes a bit overheated, but he never, ever bores you.

Conspiracy Against the Human Race—A summary of the pessimistic philosophers—including Schopenhauer—who argue for an anti-natalist position: the human race should stop having progeny, collectively, and die out. A bizarre book, mainly because it was kind of boring.

Them—A group of characters in a dysfunctional information system, writ against the backdrop of social unrest in Detroit. Joyce Carol Oates has written bucketloads of novels of varying quality, but this is a very fine piece of fiction.

Dog Soldiers—Robert Stone’s novel of drug dealing and Vietnam follows a handful of hippies who have stumbled into a drug deal gone sour. One of my favorite novels.

Steps—Jerzy Kosinski’s bizarre, cryptic, but marvelous short story collection is a study of perverse sexuality, aggressive machismo, and innate evil.

Blind Date—A wild, violent, rapey novel by Kosinski that is well-written, intriguing, and it feels artful, but it’s mostly filth. Perhaps the most evil novel I’ve read this year.

Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter—One of the more heralded short story writers, and she has plenty to say. The form has rocketed along, however, and Porter’s stories feel quaint and dated.

He Slew the Dreamer—William Bradford Huie paid James Earle Ray to tell him everything he did in the years leading up to the assassination of Martin Luther King. Huie then checked out each claim, finding some to be true and others false. But what he discovers is that Ray did indeed kill King, and kill him alone. (He might have been helped by one other man.)

Clark Gifford’s Body—Bizarro cult writer Kenneth Fearing (of Big Clock fame; and despite appearances, he’s American) wrote this pastiche novel about a pirate radio station being taken over by militants. Not as good as it sounds.

The Galton Case—Heir to the Raymond Chandler tough guy patois (and very fine writing), Ross McDonald’s most famous novel, partly the basis for the Paul Newman movie, Harper.

The Great Gatsby—I decided to re-read Fitzgerald’s slim masterpiece after suffering through twenty minutes of the Baz Lurhmann doggerel. I found the novel spare and moving, and also misunderstood; the characters aren’t facile, they’re damaged. They’ve found a way through their suffering and indignity is a derangement of the senses.

An Empire of Their Own—Jewish moguls brought Eastern European shtetl values to a new, mythic vision of America; this is Neal Gabler’s thesis anyway, in this very fine history of the first movie producers and the empire they built. Gabler makes a very convincing case that each studio reflected the values of the men who ran it.

Seriously Funny—An episodic tour of the outlaw comics of the 1950s and 60s, including Mort Sahl, Bob NewHart, Sid Caesar, and Woody Allen. Good but not great.

A Ghost on the Throne—The history of the civil wars that followed in the wake of Alexander the Great’s death. Perhaps the best book on ancient history I’ve read, with detailed accounts of all the major players, lucidly written, with an eye on novelistic pacing. I couldn’t get enough.

The Time of the Assassins—Henry Miller’s astonishing manifesto on Rimbaud, which reads as equal parts autobiography, exegesis, and defense of poetry. Perhaps Miller’s best book (a claim which will strike many as sacrilege).

Slayground—Darwyn Cooke continues his superior adaptations of the Richard Stark novels on Parker. This is the weakest of the series so far, but still filled with fantastic drawings and design.

Five Ghosts, Volume 1—Intriguing graphic novel of a man who is possessed by the ghosts of literary characters. Great art, great conceit, we’ll see if the writer grows into his creation.

Ship FeverAndrea Barrett’s erudite short stories detail scientists struggling at their profession in an age of superstition and distrust. A very fine collection.

The Jugger—Another Parker novel, and as good as the rest of them, as Parker grapples with small town hoods and an unscrupulous doctor.

Travels with Herodotus—Krupskinski tells of his early travel writing days, juxtaposing his adventures with those of the great Herodotus. Charming, insightful and very, very good. A masterclass in autobiographical writing.

Mad as Hell: The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in America—Dave Itzkoff tells the backstory of Network—one of my all-time favorite movies—and although this book is diverting, it seems to sidestep something vital about the movie. Not as good as it sounds.

Going Clear—Oh my God, the book gave me nightmares. Lawrence Wright unearths the genesis, evolution and (alleged[1]) abuses of the church of Scientology through some of the most harrowing reportage I’ve read in years.

The End of Vandalism—Tom Bissell’s small-town novel of manners, following half a dozen characters through quotidian crises that resonate with a warm comic glow. Reminiscent of Charles Portis, only Bissell is a major talent all his own. One of the best novels I read this year.

Shocking, informative, beautiful, wild.

Shocking, informative, beautiful, wild.

Gabrielle D’Annunzio: Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War—One of my favorite books of the year, a sprawling, epic study of the Italian writer who decided to set himself up as dictator of a tiny island after World War I. Excellent, excellent, excellent.

The Poison Belt—Droll, arch, possibly it’s the end of the world science fiction comedy from Arthur Conan Doyle, who accomplishes a lot in the course of this little novella. My favorite line was from a butler to his employer, hearing the world is going to end that very night: “Very good, sir. Can I have the rest of the evening off?”

Grove Book of Hollywood–Vignettes and letters from the producers, writers, and stars that haunted Hollywood for the past forty years. A very fine book, with a thousand anecdotes. Research, but worth reading.

The Dinner—Herman Koch’s over-praised and just, well, not very good novel about manners and lurking criminality and I didn’t hate it but I didn’t love it either. I would re-read another novel on this list before returning to it.

“The Man Who Would Be King”—I hate to say it, but I think the movie might be better. Kipling’s tale of two soldier-adventurers who journey into Afghanistan to set themselves up as kings in the tribal areas. It all goes so very, very wrong.

After Earth—I wrote this title down, and I must have read it, but I can’t remember it and I can’t find it online. Which is puzzling. The mind is a strange thing. Either the book was bad, or I have the title wrong, or I’m crazy.

The Education of Little Tree—Asa Carter—the author of George C. Wallace’s “Segregation Forever” speech—writes a touching, funny and wonderful autobiographical novel about being raised by his American Indian grandparents in Depression-Era America. So much better than it sounds.

Educating Esme—Written about the very school where I work! Esme keeps a diary of her first year teaching, filled with witty little asides and her observations about her students. It’s a fun, if thin and self-congratulatory little book.

The Talented Mr. Ripley—A book I should have read a long time ago. Ripley is a beguiling, sexually ambiguous schemer who is paranoid and cruel. Here he navigates murders and intrigue through a miasma of self-pity. Patricia Highsmith rules.

The Noir Years—A nonfiction account of the 40s, and I cannot remember a single word of it. (Which, for people who know me, is very, very rare.)

Shosha—Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel about a Jewish writer in Poland juggling his personal and professional failings as the Nazis inch closer and closer. Philosophical, funny, bitter, heart-breaking.

Dissident Gardens—Lethem’s wordy novel about leftist radicals in Brooklyn, I wanted to love it but I didn’t, every character has a dozen qualifiers, every sentence is too dense by half, everything is working too fucking hard, I didn’t finish. Another Lethem disappointment.

Have You Seen . . . ?—David Thomson’s book of 1,000 mini-essays on movies he loves, and I love it, too. I dip into it every few weeks, read one or two, and put it back on the shelf.

Moments that Made the Movies—The first David Thomson dud, a closer look at two dozen scenes from famous films that Thomson argues created cinematic language. Great photos, though.

Warlock—Jim Starlin’s fabulous—and stunningly strange—odyssey of a cloned man who sacrifices himself to save a fake world, is resurrected, worshiped as a god, and must defeat the worst evil the universe has ever seen: a future version of himself. Wonderful, silly, chatty nonsense from one of the great comic artists in his prime.

A Sentimental Novel—Alan Robbe-Grillet’s last novel, and it’s a doozy. Increasingly violent descriptions of pornographic violence towards adolescent girls, rendered in not that interesting prose. The French condemned it as the perverse ramblings of a semi-demented man. Having read most of it, I can’t disagree. One to avoid.

To Urania—I didn’t read all of Brodsky’s sad, trembling poems, but enough. He’s dense, erudite, serious and melancholic.

Beautiful Ruins—Wow, what a disappointing novel. The first fifteen pages are excellent, then Jess Walter lets his narrative slide into sludgy drivel. I won’t tell you the plot; it’s not half the novel it’s blurbs pretend it to be.

Collected Poems of Gwendolyn Brooks—Brooks is a fine poet, and her cycle of poems about Bronzeville, much of it included here, is very fine indeed.

Assumption—Percivel Everett remains an overlooked writer of immense talent and ambition. Here he tells what seems to be a straight-forward tale of a shaggy dog police officer in a small town, but there’s darkness and plenty of it afoot in his sleight of hand trickery.

Girl lit only by fireflies—Jim Harrison’s three novellas, and the first one, Brown Dog, is fantastic. Brown Dog is a summation of many of Harrison’s heroes: grumpy, aging, epicurean, philosophical, ribald. He gets stuck with a corpse and—just go and read it.

Complete poems of Raymond Carver—Excellent, terse poetry from a hard-drinker, and every bit as good as his stories (if you are a fan; better, if you are not). The book that got me back into poetry.

The Great Leader—Jim Harrison—one of my favorite novelists, for he is so very, very wild—returns to the detective story, of sorts, as a retired police detective hunts for a cult leader, while taking time to get drunk, peep at his young neighbor, genuflect at the alter of the derriere, and walk through the upper peninsula of Michigan. A great novel.

Crow—Ted Hughes’s bizarre poems about a character here at the dawn of existence. Simply great.

Wodwo—Another Ted Hughes bizarro book of half-poetry, half-prose. One of the weirder poetry collections out there, written by a master.

Shirley—I was excited about this half-homage, half-creepy character study of Shirley Jackson. But the best thing I can say about it is that it sent me back to her stories. Not very good, and perplexingly so.

“Seven Types of Ambiguity”—Shirley Jackson’s simple, short, ultra-disturbing tale of a small act of viciousness.

A marvelous conundrum of a book, simple and complex, funny but sad.

A marvelous conundrum of a book, simple and complex, funny but sad.

Trout Fishing in America—Richard Brautigan’s superb book, that appears to be nonsense, but is a profound statement on living in a country that makes less and less sense. Still relevant, and still superior, and yet also a time capsule of the various counter-cultural movements of the 1960s. I loved, loved, loved it.

The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster—Brautigan’s whip-smart collection of poems; the best follow Baudelaire through various American cities and events. Maybe my favorite poetry collection this year, although there is some truth that Brautigan is, like Maugham’s self-deprecating analysis of his own work, the king of the second-tier writers.

In Watermelon Sugar—A very fine, if thin, novel from Brautigan, nestled somewhere between The Journals of Albion Moonlight and Steve Erickson’s Amnesiascope.

“Charles”—Shirley Jackson’s chilling story of kindergarten malfeasance and parental apathy. Great.

James T. Farrell Literary Essays—Pretty good little pieces on a variety of 1920s and 1930s American writers. His piece on Dos Passos—one of my favorite authors, and the writer of the last book I read this year—is probably the best of the bunch. Still, I wouldn’t run down to the bookstore looking to buy it.

Selected Non-fictions by Jorge Luis Borges—Borges’s essays fit perfectly with his short stories, which fit perfectly with his poems; all of it is a superior, magical, oblique mind at work, that loves paradoxes, labyrinths, antiquities. Borges seems to have understood his body of work as a body of work.

Best American Comics, 2013—Meh.

Flex Mentallo—Perhaps the key comic to all lf Grant Morrison’s varied obsessions, themes, motifs, and multi-linear narrative brio, the comic to unlock the Morrisonian conundrum at the center of his vast oeuvre. A junkie is dying in the rain. The last superhero in the world is looking for one of his former colleagues. A little boy sees the future in comic books. Circular, self-perpetuating, comics as mimetic virus—brilliant. And who will choose to save the world?

Confederate General at Big Sur—A step down for Mr. Brautigan, from Trout Fishing and In Watermelon Sugar, this novel feels the most like a Beat novel. In some ways, it’s a comic equivalent to Kerouac’s Dharma Bums. Still worth reading.

Captain America: Winter Soldier—I re-read most of Ed Brubakers run on Captain America, and it’s a historic run. He heightens the various side characters, including Sharon Carter and Sam Wilson and Arnim Zola, but he also brings in the Winter Soldier, one of the best resurrects Marvel has pulled off. Michael Lark and Jackson Guice and Steve Epting are three of the finest pencilers in the business, so the art is great, too.

Downstream from Trout Fishing in America—A writer and friend of Richard Brautigan, Keith Abbott, writes a very insightful, and heart-breaking, account of his friendship with Brautigan. A very good book.

The DreamerCharles Johnson’s novel of Martin Luther King and the vexing swirl of philosophy, Christianity, and non-violent ethics that surrounded him. Being Johnson, he creates a doppelganger—a rough and tumble rogue who happens to be a dead ringer for MLK—as the entry point to this very fine novel of ideas. Johnson is underrated.

Fibonacci Batman—Poems by Maureen Seaton, and pretty good ones at that.

Agostino—A short novel about a young boy and his burgeoning sexuality, as filtered through his falling in with a band of young hooligans. And yet, all of Italy’s racial and political problems seem to be contained in the boy’s peregrinations. One of the best short novels I’ve ever read.

Dreaming of Babylon—Richard Brautigan’s wry, oddball take on the detective story is amusing, but thin. Not his best book.

A novel in verse you won't soon forget.

A novel in verse you won’t soon forget.

Autobiography of Red—Anne Carson’s brilliant, astonishing, hard to describe novel in verse is one of the best books I read this year. It follows Geryon and Herakles, both the myths and as two teenage boys.

The 47 Ronin—Comic book version of the classic Japanese tale. The story explains a lot about the extreme nature of Japanese honor and the Bushido Code.

The Henry Miller Reader—Dense, intricate, full of verve and brio, with highs and lows, a very fine book. Miller remains one of the great outlaws of American letters.

The Lifetime Reading Plan–Clifton Fadiman’s outline of the western canon—it’s all the reading you’ll need for a lifetime, as he suggests—is a very fine overview of the great writers of the past. This is the third time I’ve read it. The only caveat: books like this can supplant the reading of the books they’re about. Put another way: it’s a very simple trap, to read summaries, introductions and overviews, as opposed to the real thing.

Nixonland—One of the best books I read this year, 800 pages following the rise, fall and rise of Nixon, while also encapsulating the student movements, the Vietnam War, the Black Power movements, the urban riots, the various commissions and the despicable black bag tactics of the increasingly paranoid Nixon. I can’t recommend it enough.

The Seventies—Historian Bruce ‘s survey of the American cultural and political landscape in during the 1970s. I read this for background research, but it’s very good.

Plainwater—Essays and poems from Anne Carson, one of the best writers I “discovered” in 2014. Her pieces on the Camino de Santiago are superb.

The Green River Killer: A True Detective Story—The author’s father was the lead detective on the Green River Killer case for two decades, and this graphic novel follows the ups and downs of the case. A white-knuckle comic and a touching monument to a father.

Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews—Interesting bit of ephemera that is more hagiography and self-love than anything else. Still, Bradbury was a warm, generous person and it shows. There are some worthwhile little nuggets in here, too.

The Penultimate Truth—One of Philip K. Dick’s lesser novels, following the bulk of humanity working underground, believing the surface is unlivable; on the surface, wealthy ad men keep the subterranean slaves working, through false news feeds and a fake leader. Dick being Dick, he focuses on mid-level office workers being bounced back and forth between near-omnipotent powers. (And there’s a time traveling American Indian.)

A Girl and a Gun—An overview of the best crime films from the 40s and 50s. A reference book I return to every few years.

Drown—I finally made it around to Junot Diaz, and he is a very fine short story writer.

Lila—Masterful return to Marlynne Robinson’s Gilead, delving further into the complicated theology of Calvinism, sin and redemption.

Another great short novel from a very fine novelist.

Another great short novel from a very fine novelist.

The Laughing Monsters—Denis Johnson’s slender novel of international intrigue follows an American agent in a convoluted triple cross. The novel starts poorly but the last fifty pages are dynamite: bizarre, thrilling, and unsettling.

Tales of Ovid—Ted Hughes translates Ovid in a very fine and oddly disturbing version of the Greek shape-shifting opus.

The Company—Ehrlichman, one of Nixon’s main confidantes, wrote a couple of mediocre novels in the early 1980s. This is one of them. I read it because I stumbled across this doing some research. It follows a story similar to Nixon’s, and it isn’t very good at all.

The Book of Strange New Things—Michel Faber’s science fiction first contact novel, and it’s a heartbreak. A Christian minister travels to a distant planet to witness to an alien race that is excited—perhaps too excited—about the Bible. Meanwhile, his wife faces crisis after crisis here on earth. A very good novel, but saturated with melancholy and loss and sadness.

The Ladies’ Man—A lesser known Richard Price novel, following a confused protagonist through a week of hard-living in New York. Funny, harrowing, sexy.

Gaudette—Still working my way through this novel in verse, by the inimitable Ted Hughes, and it’s a doozy. A pastor slips into the underworld and is replaced by a manqué, who tries to live as the pastor does. Disaster follows.

The Sportswriter—Always wanted to read this, and now I have. Frank Bascombe was once a promising fiction writer but he’s turned his back on all of it to write about sports. He’s a dreamy, disassociated fellow, and the novel follows a chunk of his life. The writing is clean. The characters are interesting. And the novel is significant. But it’s also infuriating, with a poisonous undercurrent of malaise and ennui. (It isn’t clear how much of this is actually Ford’s point of view.)

Andre The Giant—Box Brown’s comic autobiography of one of the greatest wrestlers of all time is touching, taut and thrilling

The Dead Circus—Bouncy crime novel of Hollywood in the 1960s and the 1980s, as imagined by a screenwriter, the author Kaye, who is interested in neatly constructed scenes and ultimate redemption. He’s picked the Manson family as part of his saga, and looking for redemption there is a futile endeavor. Kaye isn’t a bad writer, but he isn’t a great one, either.

The Words—Jean Paul Sartre’s autobiography focuses on his childhood in the French countryside. His evocation of the falling-in-love feeling of learning how to read is a superbly moving experience. I forget, and so does much of the culture, that Sartre was a writer of fiction, first.

“No Exit”—Sartre’s one-act play about three characters in hell. His argument—and he grinds the reader’s face into it—is that it’s other people, with their petty desires and jealousies, that make us miserable and insane.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North—A novel of Australian POWs in World War II, being worked to death by their Japanese overlords, who are simultaneously starving them. Elegant, sophisticated, grim, violent, funny, jarring, sexy, ingeniously plotted and told out of sequence, this intricate novel follows a handful of characters, and their wives, through fifty years of their lives. Winner of this past year’s Man Booker Award, and I loved every page of it. A story that stays with you.

Books—Larry McMurtry’s comforting and solid book about his love of reading and his related passion for antiquarian bookselling, as well as the eccentric lessons he’s learned from being a book-dealer for the last 50 years. Feels like chatting with a well-read friend, while sitting in a comfortable chair.

The Corpse Exhibition—Short stories, a la Bolaño, from the first major Iraqi writer to emerge from the war-battered country. The stories deal with horror, terror, murder, alienation, confusion, but what should we expect from a title like this? I liked these stories, but I didn’t love them.

Sixty Stories—Barthelme is an important writer, a serious writer, a comic writer, and an acquired taste. His stories follow no set pattern; they belong to no genre; they veer from the sarcastic to the ironic to the violent to the silly to the slaptstick; they offer no resolution; and yet, they stand as a major achievement. A love it or hate it kind of book. I like it just fine.

Number One—John Dos Passos is one of my favorite writers, and I try to read one of his novels a year. Number One is the story of a political consultant falling to pieces as his candidate rises in stature. A propulsive and shattering experience, leaner and less verbally pyrotechnic than his great U.S.A. trilogy, but still one of the better political novels I’ve read.

Books I failed to read much of:

The Enormous Room—I’ve wanted to read e.e. cummings’s World War I autobiographical novel for almost 15 years. I got the chance and . . . I hated it. Cummings emerges as a pompous, bloviating, self-loving ass.

The Annals of Chile—More poetry, only this collection, which is pretty good, didn’t blow my hair back.

Leapfrog—Just . . . nonsense.

Hard to be a God—the best argument for good writing being a priority. This very fine idea—future humans have found an earth-planet with humans on it, going through a period of the middle ages, and one of them decides to descend from his perch and declare himself a god—is ruined by really bad writing. A friend of mine says he thinks it’s a bad translation; I think he’s being generous.

Redeployment—I made it through three of Phil Klay’s stories before the library asked for the book back. He can write. He deserves praise. I will make it back to his collection in the new year. I hope.

Renoir, My Father—Lovingly rendered, textured and highly readable account of Renoir, the painter, and his life and times, by his son, the filmmaker. I will read the rest of it, but I wanted to savor its evocation of a lost time in small allotments.

A Death in Belmont—Well, I was reading this in a pinch, as I had read all the books I brought with me on vacation and this was only a quarter. It’s by Sebastian Junger, and follows a man wrongly accused of a murder done by the Boston Strangler. Not bad—I have a guilty pleasure kind of relationship to lurid true crime books—but once I returned home I cast it aside.

The Prime of Ms. Jean Brodie—God, I tried to make it through Muriel Spark’s novel of a teacher and her students, where the teacher oversteps her mission and begins to manipulate her students. I tried and failed.

There were others, but I cannot recall them. And that’s it. Here’s to the books of 2015.

[1] Must be careful.

Interlude 1: Thomas Ligotti, True Detective, and the conspiracy against human race.

11 Apr

1.

I’ve long been a fan of what’s labeled weird fiction for a long time. This includes horror, science fiction and fantasy, but only in so far as the narrative is damaged somehow, askew, bent. My canon for weird fiction is lengthy, a sort of catch-all, including H.P. Lovecraft—who is a touch overrated, despite writing some excellent stories[1]—Robert Howard, Robert Chambers, Algernon Blackwood, E.T.A Hoffman, Philip K. Dick, Barry Hannah, Flannery O’Connor, Michel Houellbecq, Jonathan Carroll (Voice of Our Shadow is excellent), Roberto Bolano, J.K. Huysman, Angela Carter, Victor LaVelle, James Ellroy, as well as the literary pornographers Marquis DeSade, Anais Nin, George Bataille. Obsessives, lunatics, visionaries, perverts, creeps both high and low—I welcome weird writers of all types. I include in the above list the comic book writers Alan Moore and Grant Morrison (and don’t ask me to weigh in on that particular debate; I love them both), Neil Gaiman, to a lesser extent Peter Milligan and Ed Brubaker.

The point: I like the weird, the dark and the bizarre. Always have.

I also thought True Detective was excellent. So I was excited to dig into some new weirdoes on the literary fringe. I dipped into Brian Evenson (intriguing and singular but one note) and Heidi Julavitz (a very fine writer I must return to).

Which brings me to the horror writer Thomas Ligotti. Ligotti is a horror writer of some reputation. I haven’t been able to get my hands on his fiction as of yet. But I did pick up his merciless, vicious overview of pessimist philosophy, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. I just finished it.

I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.

Um, no and kind of boring.

Um, no, and kind of boring.

2.

Ligotti summarizes the pessimists including Nietzche, Schopenhauer, Heidegger, Cioran, Weineger (a minor character in the excellent The World as I Found It), alongside other angry, dour, despondent dudes. The basic belief is this: consciousness is a curse, an evolutionary mistake, and mankind should quickly and quietly bring itself to extinction by not having any more offspring. A collective eradication of our species.

Ligotti reiterates certain key points to his philosophy, but the big one is the oldest: space is empty and bleak, airless, full of sucking black holes; life exists to gobble up other life; non-life exists to gobble up life; nothing can justify or redeem humanity because humanity is temporary and useless; and humans are merely meat puppets with no agency, free will, and only the illusion of control. Ligotti’s using this tradition of pessimist philosophy to argue for nothing less than the complete extinction of the human race, and as quickly as possible. His version of reality is the ultimate reduction, and therefore very difficult to crack[2].He and his ilk invert the values of most of history by laying all our turmoil at the feet of hope and belief, while arguing that there is succor in nothingness and suicide.

Here’s a taste:

“We know we are alive and we know we will die. We also know we will suffer during our lives before suffering—slowly or quickly—as we draw near to death. This is the knowledge we “enjoy” as the most intelligent organisms to gush from the womb of nature. And being so, we feel shortchanged if there is nothing else for us than to survive, reproduce and die. We want there to be more to it than that, or to think there is. This is the tragedy: Consciousness has forced us into the paradoxical position of striving to be unself-conscious of what we are—hunks of spoiling flesh on disintegrating bones.”

No daisies or puppies or rainbows for him.

Fifteen years ago this would have gnawed at my waking hours and plagued my dreams. I would have jotted down notes, read arguments against Ligotti’s summation. I would have fretted, worried, paced. I would have lost sleep, had nightmares, night sweats. I would have suffered.

Now I just shrug. Hundreds of thousands of thinkers, artists, poets, and theologians have grappled with these issues for millennia, so I’m not going to add anything by trying to contradict his claims. I’ll just say that he’s cartoonishly[3] negative. Not content to live in a shitty paradigm of joylessness, he insists that everyone from the dawn of man to the end of time lives in the exact same terror that he does. In a word, he’s wrong.

I defer to Epicure and sunlight and the transcendentalists and the music of Bach and Ray Charles. I would also quote William James on rationality and logic and philosophy:

“There arises a certain insincerity in our philosophic discussions: the potentest of all our premises is never mentioned . . . . What the system pretends to be is a picture of the great universe of God. What it is—and oh so flagrantly!—is the revelation of how intensely odd the personal flavor of some fellow creature is.”

Put another way: Nothing is logical. Not even the most basic premise. Everything is preconditioned by the flawed human minds that create them[4]. We are our experiences and beliefs.

Eat it, Ligotti.

3.

Much of the book is an oddball sequel of H.P. Lovecraft’s overview of the at the time current weird fiction, Supernatural Horror in Literature. (I wouldn’t recommend this either; for fans of weird fiction I would suggest the out of print and magnificent Illustrated History of Fantasy by Franz Rottensteiner). Ligotti is on his surest footing when writing about other writers, adding a few surprises into the mix. He covers Poe and Lovecraft, but also Pirandello and Conrad (he correctly loops in Heart of Darkness in this literary lineage). I almost enjoyed his literary analysis, although his stilted writing style, a kind of faux doctoral thesis psychobabble, never really worked for me.

With all those caveats, there’s something disturbing—and intriguing—in Ligotti’s tone, almost ironic, close to Swift in his famous essay, “A Modest Proposal.” Only Ligotti isn’t joking, satirizing, pretending. He believes his own nonsense, like one of Jim Jones’s acolytes guzzling the kool-aid.

I’ll let him have the last word. You tell me if this wouldn’t work as some type of absurdist high-concept comedy routine (voiced by Adam West, perhaps):

“You would then know the horror and know that you know it: that you are nothing but a human puppet would not be impossible to believe. What now? Answer: Now you go insane. Now our species goes extinct in great epidemics of madness, because now we know that behind the scenes of life there is something pernicious that makes a nightmare of our world. Now we know that we are uncanny paradoxes. We know that nature has veered into the supernatural by fabricating a creature that cannot and should not exist by natural law, and yet does.”

Gimme a break.

 

[1] I love At the Mountains of Madness.

[2] It’s simplicity should be a huge warning sign to people.

[3] You can hear the nihilists in The Big Lebowski yelling from the pages: “We believe in nozing, Lebowski, nothing!”

[4] And this, too, offers little solace in the final tally.

Interlude 3: Red Riding plus Alan Moore plus Cormac McCarthy equals True Detective.

11 Mar

(Here there be spoilers)

  1. True Detective was/is brilliant. I loved it.
  2. But boy, does it borrow and borrow and borrow. From the Red Riding trilogy, from southern gothic and crime fiction, and most notably, from Alan Moore.
  3. The last lines of the last episode—and the ultimate point of the show—were cribbed directly from Top Ten, Issue number 8. (The page is below.)
  4. Carcossa and the King in Yellow—Alan Moore connects these dots, folding in Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith and Robert Chambers, among others—in his fabulous, and fabulously disturbing, The Neonomicon. Moore uses these references to make his metaphorical point, that language is a virus, and infects everything with its usage.
  5. Language is flawed, full of gaps, incomplete, imperfect.
  6. The only way we can understand reality is through language.
  7. Therefore reality is flawed, imperfect and incomplete.
  8. This tautology highlights True Detective’s underlying view of knowledge and knowing. Our mechanisms for understanding are inextricably bonded onto imprecise machinery.
  9. Put another way, we can never know anything absolutely.
  10. Put another way, the language we’re forced to use to describe and categorize something to understand it impedes our understanding.
  11. Put yet another way, how we look at something affects what we’re seeing. (It’s Heisenberg, baby!)
  12. Language as a violent virus; Alan Moore channeling William Burroughs and Philip K. Dick.
  13. Comics is a language.
  14. Film is a language.
  15. Therefore, right?
  16. The biggest visual influence on True Detective is the Red Riding trilogy.
  17. Both deal with abused children and murdered women, police corruption and cover-ups, moneyed powerful doing what they want.
  18. Red Riding is dark, tormented. A dreary existentialism—poisoned by the casual nihilism of the late-stage decadence of our current age—manifests as urban decay, dark clouds, weird lighting, long takes and haggard, haunted faces.
  19. The most disturbing thing about Red Riding is that it’s loosely based on a real case.
  20. True Detective uses Riding’s visual scheme, only replacing the urban decay with rural dilapidation. I kept thinking the directors were the same. (They’re not.)
  21. The most troubling aspect of True Detective is that the particulars of the crime are based on a real case.
  22. Reality as cosmic horror.
  23. Detective’s ominous, horrifying commentary about time, personality, free will and fate are most applicable to the show itself.
  24. True Detective, the show, is a flat circle.
  25. Put another way, the characters in the show are locked into their actions, ad infinitum. As Cohl says, everything will happen again and again. None of them have free will.
  26. Put yet another way, in the universe of True Detective, all time is happening at once. Cohl is being stabbed. Russ is slapping his daughter. Cohl is cutting a beer can with a hunting knife. All of these things are happening right now.
  27. And, yet, they aren’t happening at all.
  28. The central image of the last episode is a black hole that isn’t real. This is the perfect capstone for a show that has space/time collapse as one of its central themes.
  29. Nothing is real. Therefore all is permitted.
  30. Fiction as the worm ouroboros, swallowing its own tail.
  31. Fiction as a black hole, bending all other fiction into it.
  32. H.P. Lovecraft read Robert Chambers who read Ambrose Bierce who read Poe. Each incorporated elements of the man who came before. Everyone read Lovecraft.
  33. Fiction as not so noble lineage.
  34. The best of Southern gothic—The Inkling by Fred Chappell; Feast of Snakes by Harry Crews; Child of God by Cormac McCarthy; Dagon by Fred Chappell; Carson McCullers and Joe Lansdale and Barry Hannah and Flannery O’Connor and William Gay; the films Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte and Angelheart.
  35. No, no, a thousand times no to Emily Nussbaum’s review. She. Misses. The. Point.
  36. And yet, her wrap-up on the finale is just about dead-on. The ending is disappointing, moving the show into conventional and, well, predictable storytelling. Nussbaum sees, correctly, that the show has less content than style.

 

A page from Alan Moore, one of the biggest influences on True Detective.

A page from Alan Moore, one of the biggest influences on True Detective.

  1. True Detective’s logic is rooted in procedurals. The ending satisfies the needs of the genre, not the needs of the show. The true ending would have Cohl and Hart never get any closer to the killer, just slide through the same clues over and over. Like one of those spirals, that adorns most of the victims. They would strive and strive and strive and never get anywhere.
  2. Vladimir and Estragon on the case.
  3. As bleak and complex as Detective is, our world is much bleaker, much more complicated. Our world is a labyrinth, only the labyrinth has no exit, no minotaur at its center. Crime fiction provides a structure for us to sublimate this terrifying fact.
  4. Put another way, our world is chaotic while appearing ordered. True Detective is ordered while appearing chaotic.
  5. The lessons of Watchmen and Pulp Fiction, among others, operate here, too: how we experience something is more important than how it actually happened.
  6. Questions remain. Who is the naked man in the gas mask?
  7. Why does Ledoux say, “Black stars”?
  8. Why does Hart’s daughter draw pictures that are eerily similar to the cabal of murderous pedophiles?
  9. What is Cohl building with his beer can cutouts? (Is it the scene from the video?)
  10. Who killed that dude in the prison? And why?
  11. A few more odds and ends.
  12. My mom was born near Houma, Louisiana.
  13. I visited Houma throughout my childhood, driving through those swampy lowlands of the Louisiana coast. I don’t have fond memories. There was always something . . . creepy about the land down there. Crawdads everywhere. An electric violence in the air.
  14. After episode 7, I woke up hearing a woman being strangled in my apartment.
  15. Years ago, I wrote two distinct scenes, with two different characters, delivering two separate speeches in two different manuscripts that are almost identical to Cohl’s ramblings. Weird. Pizzolatto and I reverberate with the same influences.
  16. In the comic Animal Man, near the end of his run (issue number 26), Grant Morrison the writer entered the fictional world he had created. Like the Biblical God with Job, Morrison confronted Buddy Baker, refusing to justify his actions. The writer is god of his/her creations, Morrison says. I can do what I want.
  17. Who is the god of True Detective?

Interlude 4: My life in comics, part 1: Mark Millar is an overrated idiot.

12 Nov

1.

I learned to read on comics, my first love was comics, and I still collect. I don’t write about comics much. Not sure why. But last night I read a comic that infuriated me, and I feel the spirit to comment.

Time to get my nerd on.

I’ve collected on an almost continual stream for thirty years. Like other fans, I think the comics are infinitely more complex and sophisticated than the movie versions; that graphic fiction, graphic literature and the like are insulting, demeaning terms; that comics are a rich, fertile and elastic medium that can be used in manifold ways; and that Jack Kirby[1] is one of the great unsung artists of the twentieth century.

The top tier writers are Alan Moore, Grant Morrison[2], Neil Gaiman, Ed Brubaker, Havey Pekar and Warren Ellis. (Peter Milligan is close.) The writing team of Mike Mignola and John Arcudi must be included. (B.P.R.D. and the other Hellboy offshoots are all absolutely astonishing.)

Then there are the great writer-artists, including Jack Kirby, Daniel Clowes, Darwyn Cooke, Charles Burns, Craig Thomson, Barry Windsor-Smith and Paul Pope, to name a few.

The middle writers—solid, a touch predictable, but capable of great stuff—is an enormous group, including Andy Lanning and Dan Abnet, Kurt Busiek, Jonathan Hickman, Mark Waid (his run on Daredevil is fantastic), J.M. DeMatteis, Jeff Lemire, I don’t know, there are dozens of talented writers who fall into this category, the bulk of comic writers both in the past and today.

The old warhorses, some of them excellent: Roy Thomas, Len Wein, Peter David (who remains a wry, humorous rascal; his mid-90s run on X-Factor was killer), Chris Claremont (God, the man had to narrate every single frame), Roger Stern (his mid-80s run on The Avengers and Captain American are crowing achievements of superhero comics), Mark Gruenwald (the man who made me love Captain America and his Squadron Supreme was incredible, a real powerhouse), Alan Grant, Chuck Dixon. There are tons of them.

There are the former champs who have gone to seed: Frank Miller, Jim Starlin and Garth Ennis. Miller was amazing, and then he was just terrible, and Starlin was cracking for years with Dreadstar and The Infinity Gauntlet and his early Warlock stuff, but then he stopped trying new stuff and he became stale. Ennis’s run on Hellblazer was incredible, and the first 25 issues or so of Preacher were great. But then he became a parody, and turned all of his work into a vehicle for mediocre black humor.

And then there are the overrated, dudes that either diluted their talents or were never very good to begin with: Brian Michael Bendis (he has some fantastic books, including the early Powers, but he has been one of the worst forces in the Marvel Universe for years, a very bad writer of action with a pretty wretched run on Daredevil, the comic that a good writer can always do well); Joe Casey, who had a fabulous initial run on Cable, but has put out mostly crap since; and the worst of the worst, the biggest turkey in the game, Mark Millar. A real son of a bitch creep.

2.

I fucking despise Mark Millar. He’s a terrible writer. And, I’m almost certain a miserable human being. Yet, he has interesting, often exciting setups and ideas.

Dumb jokes, bad morals, no sense of the characters and a self-satisified, shit-eating grin = a bad writer.

Dumb jokes, bad morals, no sense of the characters and a self-satisified, shit-eating grin = a bad writer.

Old Man Logan[3] is a good case in point. The world has fallen to the villains, some fifty years in the past. The country is divided into zones, each ruled by a different super-criminal. The heroes are either dead or in hiding. Wolverine is raising his family on a rundown little dust farm, he’s late on the rent, and his landlord is the Hulk. The Hulk’s grandchildren are super-strong thugs who rough him up. He has to make a delivery with an aged, blind Hawkeye, across all those enemy-occupied zones, to make enough money to pay his debts. And, because of a tragedy he won’t speak of, Wolverine’s a dedicated pacifist, refusing to unleash his claws.

A pretty nifty idea, derivative of Mad Max, Future Imperfect, Days of Future Past, and The Ultimate Warrior, among other sources, but pretty clever. Only delivered with a simple-minded, vicious, and callous nastiness that dismisses everything decent and good about these characters, about storytelling, about the human race.

I’m not kidding.

The Hulk emerges at the end as a homicidal lunatic who kills people indiscriminately because he’s bored. This isn’t edgy, it’s dumb and childish, and it reveals the lack of moral character and decency in Millar the person.

The Hulk only works as a character if Banner feels guilt over the Hulk’s actions, and somehow has to try to be a hero in spite of the raging monster inside. The Hulk’s value, as a concept, stems from Banner trying to assert influence on the damage the Hulk creates. Otherwise he’s just a monster, and a kind of boring one at that.

Yup. That happens in the comic, without any importance, emotional connection, nothing. Just a dude getting decapitated.

Yup. That happens in the comic, without any importance, emotional connection, nothing. Just a dude getting decapitated.

Here’s another example. Halfway through the story, Hawkeye meets his estranged daughter, who turns out to be a depraved, power-hungry killer. This subplot amounts to exactly nothing; it’s just another way for Millar to show how terrible humanity is. There’s nothing more to it. She’s a tough badass, and any kind of ethical or moral conduct can suck it. Millar admires her character, you can tell.

And, well, it’s a corny thing to say, but heroes matter, even made-up heroes, and to spend your lifetime diminishing them is, well, weird[4]. And kind of hateful.

By the story’s end, Wolverine has to reject his pacifism, that’s his character’s story arc. It’s replaced with a silly vigilante code of justice that comics were grappling with as early as the 1960s. In fact, the comic asserts that it is Wolverine trying not to kill that caused much of the problem in the first place. Okay, fine, but the moral weight of violence must be measured, interpreted. Good writers—and decent people—grapple with the underlying ethics of their fictions, even if the stories seem silly. Even in comic books. Wolverine must fight to keep his murderous instincts at bay, this is the essential conflict within him, and us. To reject this is to misunderstand the importance of restraint in storytelling and in life.

A very fine cover, but misleading. Wolverine and Hawkeye don't avenge their fallen friends.

A very fine cover, but misleading. Wolverine and Hawkeye don’t avenge their fallen friends.

His spin on Marvel Universe’s future—there have been dozens and dozens of dystopian future Marvel stories, including “Days of Future Past” and “The Age of Apocalypse,” even the New Warriors had a story set in some grim future—reveals how little he understands the characters. Wolverine is more than a killer. The Hulk is more than a monster. And I know to outsiders I sound like a nerd splitting hairs, but goddammit, it matters. To me, to other fans, to the medium and to our culture itself.

3.

I’m not finished. Millar’s Ultimate X-Men, besides being a total misfire, “updated” the mutants by making them horny, stupid, vapid, superficial and nasty. He doesn’t understand Magneto—a very hard villain to write well, I admit—and he doesn’t develop any of the other villains at all. (Chris Claremont would drop little clues to the villain’s backstories—he wrote in a time when most of the characters would think in dramatic monologues, asides, and soliloquies—and after a while, all the minor characters had the flicker of internal lives.) Millar doesn’t do any of this, so the minor villains remain mere henchmen. Why even name them? The storylines are all stolen from the original series. He added no new characters of any note. And he boiled the entire X-saga down to Professor Xavier and Magneto[5]. Worst of all, it was relentlessly boring.

Kick-Ass is my vote for worst comic of the decade (and a terrible movie), simplistic, boring even, unsophisticated, childish, a bit creepy with the adolescent sexual perversity. The story is a retelling of two dozen or so teenage origin stories, only marbled through with curse words and extra teenage angst. I hated it. You should, too. John Romita, Jr., is a great comic artist, and even his considerable talents couldn’t salvage this stinker.

4.

Other writers create ultra-violent stories. Warren Ellis, for example, also traffics in a hardline misanthropy, but he tempers his contempt with moments of wonder and transcendence. The Authority might be the best celebration of human ingenuity in the face of existential despair I’ve read. And The Ocean is hands-down one of the greatest science fiction comics of all time. My point: Ellis sees the good in people as well as the bad, and insists on giving some attention to the consequences of violent actions. And all of his output stems from his left-wing politics, which provides an ethical context and for his work.

Alan Moore’s From Hell is one of the supreme achievements of the medium, and it’s chock a block full of corpses, bloodletting, murder. And the Neonomicon, his Lovecraft-inspired miniseries, was one of the most disturbing horror comics I’ve ever read. And I loved it.

I could go on, but my point is that good writers have violence erupt from the characters, their passions, their flaws, their mistakes. Millar uses violence for nothing more than sarcasm, a big middle finger to fans, and I resent him for it. He wastes my time.

5.

Millar is bad at dialogue. It must be said. His characters are either stolen outright or weak retreads. His jokes are terrible. His one defining characteristic seems to be crass violence and unfunny tastelessness.

Okay, credit where credit’s due. His run on The Authority wasn’t terrible, but it was in some sense just a continuation of Warren Ellis’s excellent groundwork, and augmented by one of the great storytellers of the medium, Frank Quitely. His Wolverine: Enemy of the State had a great premise and was pretty fun to read.

And Millar has one significant comic, and I would argue that it is Bryan Hitch’s superb artwork—and there’s evidence that Grant Morrison, his former friend, helped develop the concept—and it’s The Ultimates. The dialogue is still bad. The characters are still vapid. But his run on the series had two great aspects. First, he shows how quickly the world would change, and how dramatically, if superpowers were possible. Second, he has an epic sweep to the geopolitical ramifications of super-powered beings. It’s poorly written, but still rousing stuff.

6.

Okay, I’ve kicked him enough. He’s prolific as hell, and I don’t feel like going through his back-catalog. I’ll finish with this. The artwork in Old Man Logan is exceptional. Steve McNiven is a very talented guy, and the landscapes and characters all look fantastic. But I kept feeling like the very essence of superhero comics was being twisted, but for no particular reason[6]. The crass jokes, the harsh ultra-violence, it added up to nada, zilch, nothing. It wasn’t any fun. I felt like he woke up one morning and thought, why don’t I have little hulkings raping and pillaging everything that moves? And Wolverine’s family will be killed for no reason? And Hawkeye will die for nothing at all? Wouldn’t that be cool?


[1] And Steve Ditko.

[2] I could write a doctoral dissertation on him. I love him.

[3] The comic that inspired me to write this post.

[4] By the by, I accept a kind of underlying viciousness to Celine, Trocchi, David Goodis, Genet and so on, but these men had formulated philosophies on how the world worked. Their misanthropy served a purpose; it was indistinguishable from their art. And none of them mocked the very artform they chose to write in.

[5] The best X-villains are the Reavers, cyborgs armed with futuristic weapons, who represent the other possible branch of human evolution, man melding with machine. And, for other reasons, Nimrod. And the Sentinels. And Mr. Sinister. And Apocalypse. And the Hellfire Club. I wasn’t lying when I said I was a comic junky.

[6] Alan Moore’s Watchmen is partially about the ruin of human ingenuity in the face of Dr Manhattan, and how superheroes would very quickly become ossified, boorish, or tools of the state.

Interlude: Lost in best-of lists, lost and loving it: A semi-formless riff.

14 Oct

(Taking a two-week break from the National Book Award books and posts. Pneumonia done been gone. Read Victor LaVelle’s Big Machine and loved it. Read Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One and loved it.  Am writing as much as am able. Submitting, too. Simone is acting out picture books in the other room while I frantically type. Hard to concentrate. Children are always the wolf at the door.)

1.

I’ve spent the last week or so reading and re-reading the Entertainment Weekly’s top 100 novels, movies, albums and TV shows. It’s a mania. And a big waste of time.

Only, it isn’t. I love best-of lists. Even when I hate them. I find them infuriating, exhausting. They tap into my compulsive side to consume, organize and synthesize. Lists also contain embedded values, and say a lot about an organization’s tastes. Or a people’s. Or a culture’s.

This particular issue doesn’t provide any criteria, so it’s hard to take seriously. Influence? Style? Psychological insight? Entertainment? Sweep and scope? Ambition? The list doesn’t say.

And when organizing art into a value system, criteria must be applied. Else things seem sloppy, slapdash and arbitrary. Which is exactly how I would describe EW’s novel list[1].

2.

The novel list is the most easily dismissed. EW stopped being a literate publication a long time ago, and the list reflects middlebrow, American-centric tastes. They’re more comfortable with movies and shows. They don’t have a significant book review section, and haven’t had an influential reviewer in years. (Time has Lev Grossman, who pisses me off, but the man can write.)

Still, even for a throw-away publication, there are some terrible choices. The Great Gatsby is not the number two novel of all time. No, and no. Neither is Great Expectations number four. (Take a look at the list here.)

A misleading misnomer of a title. More apt would be "100 pretty good novels, etc."

A misleading misnomer of a title. More apt would be “100 pretty good novels, etc.”

But the real hair-raising ire comes with number 7: the Harry Potter series. Ye gods. We’ve lost our way somewhere. Something poisonous has entered our reading lives. An obsession with easy books.

Numbers 11 an 12 are Mrs. Dalloway and The Sound and the Fury. Perhaps they both belong on a top 100 list of all time, but they are way too high. And not easy at all; ignore my aphorism above.

Okay, so yes to Blindness; yes to War and Peace; yes to Huck Finn; yes to Rabbit, Run; Crime and Punishment; Native Son; Moby Dick; Invisible Man; Pride and Prejudice; Catch-22 and Lolita. Probably yes to Disgrace. Probably yes to To Kill a Mockingbird.

Not bad books but still, no to The Sun Also Rises (I would pick The Nick Adams stories, maybe); no to The Catcher in the Rye; no to Portnoy’s Complaint (it falls apart about two-thirds of the way through, although I would include one or two of Roth’s other novels); no to Orhan Pamuk’s Snow (although I think it’s a fine novel); no to Lonesome Dove (I would pick True Grit or Butcher’s Crossing, or The Border Trilogy if I had to pick a western).

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is picked for number 15, which is nuts. He’s one of my favorite authors, but All the Pretty Horses and Blood Meridian both deserve a spot over his grisly survival tale. (Suttree beats it out, too.)

EW inexplicably includes Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, which is just strange. Who reads Hesse anymore? Other strange picks: His Dark Materials (I’m a big fan, but?); Neuromancer (ditto); Middlesex; The Talented Mr. Ripley; and Tristram Shandy. These aren’t bad novels at all, but I can’t understand how they would be included over Don Quixote, The U.S.A. Trilogy, The End of the Affair or hundreds of others.

A Wrinkle in Time doesn’t belong on any best-of list. Neither does John Irving. Go Tell It on the Mountain—a fine novel—doesn’t belong on the list. Murakami is included, as is Margaret Mitchell, Jonathan Franzen (a thousand times no), Michael Chabon, Charles Frazier (for shame!), Hilary Mantel, Tom Wolfe, John Le Carre, Ayn Rand (never!), Italo Calvino (nope), Orson Scott Card (um, no), Salman Rushdie (it cannot be) and Bram Stoker. None of these would be on any list of mine.

The list gets just two (not obvious) things right. Richard Price’s Clockers really is one of the great novels—at least of the 1990s—and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, although not one of the best of all time, is a very fine, moving novel about Iraq soldiers touring the U.S. on a PR trip.

What else does the list get wrong?

Underworld isn’t on the list (it’s tar and feather time), nor is White Noise. The Shipping News doesn’t make their cut (how in the world it wasn’t included I have no idea); On the Road, The Savage Detectives (or 2666 or both); The Dog of the South and/or Masters of Atlantis; Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep; Tree of Smoke; 120 Days of Sodom (it must be at least mentioned); Of Human Bondage belongs on any list, anywhere; Babbitt deserves a slot; Slaughterhouse Five is a masterpiece, and it’s not on here, either.

No Graham Greene, no Henry Miller, no Norman Mailer (The Naked and the Dead belongs somewhere in the vicinity); no Joseph Conrad (which is fucking sacrilege); no John Fowles; no Thomas Pynchon (V. is a must). No Jane Bowles, no Gertrude Stein, no Dorothy Parker, no Marilynne Robinson (Gilead belongs on every greatest novel list).

I could go on. But I’m more interested in why they picked these books and not others. It’s interesting to leave Ulysses off the list, but also inexplicably strange to include Charlotte’s Web on it. There’s little experimental fiction on the list. There’s no rationale for why some canonized books are still here (An American Tragedy, Bleak House, My Antonia) but not others (Mainstreet, The Grapes of Wrath, Candide and where the hell is The Scarlet Letter?).

The list excludes outlaw fiction. No Harry Crews, no Charles Bukowski, no Steve Erickson, no Anais Nin, no James Ellroy, no Jim Harrison. No Celine, no Gide (thank the heavens; I’m not a big fan), no Genet, no Hamsun, no Bernhard. I don’t see any African novelists—Achebe or Alan Paton are usually included in most lists, for the appearance of fairness, I suppose—and with the exception of Marquez, no South American novelists. That means no Fuentes, no Rudolfo, no Casares, no Llosa. Scandinavia is excluded completely. I don’t see any Chinese or middle eastern novelists.

And without an explanation as to why this list exists, it seems weird. Aggressively ethnocentric. And out of keeping with the 21st century world.

3.

The list has sidebars, so consider this a sidebar in my criticism of it. The best story collections is pretty solid: O’Connor, Munro, Borges, Shirley Jackson, Cheever, Raymond Carver, George Saunders among a handful of semi-duds.

But the graphic novels list is predictable and annoying.

Here’s mine, in no particular order:

Sandman—The greatest fantasy epic the medium has ever produced.

Watchmen—The best deconstruction of superheroes ever written. With stunning artwork.  

The Invisibles—Super-scribe Grant Morrison channels Philip K. Dick and William Burroughs in this epic, maybe-end of the world tale. One of my most profound reading experiences. 

The Complete Persepolis—The best non-fiction comic ever written.

Fun Home—The best confessional comic ever written.

Fax From Sarajevo—Joe Kubert’s knockout telling of the true story of his friend living in Sarajevo during the wars.

The Darwyn Cooke Parker books—Superb artwork, excellent writing, great crime capers. Flawless.

The Dark Knight Returns or Batman: Year One—Frank Miller before he lost his gift, telling the story of Bruce Wayne at the end and at the beginning of his career as Batman. Gritty, yet subtle.

David Boring or Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron or Ghostworld—Daniel Clowes’s misanthropic tales touched with science fiction and perversity. Glove in particular is a crazed ride. He’s the David Lynch of the comic book world.

Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid in the World—Stunning artwork and design, and a heart-rending story of three generations of melancholic dudes. Each page is a marvel.

From Hell—Alan Moore’s insightful, disturbed, non-linear take on the Jack the Ripper legend. Literate and unforgettable.

Enigma—High psychosexual weirdness from Peter Milligan, about a messiah child with superpowers left to die in a well, and emerging with a amoral value system and an affinity for lizards and other vermin. Mid-90s zeitgeist existentialism.

The Beats—Harvey Pekar’s superior essay on the life and works of Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Burroughs, as well as insightful appraisals of their work, in Pekar’s inimitable style. (Pekar’s post-American Splendor work, including Ego and Malice, The Quitter, and SDS are the best books he produced.)

Red Rocket 7—Mike Allred’s epic story of rock n roll music history intertwined with the personal history of an alien clone. One of the best things ever.

And that’s fourteen. Lists aren’t easy. I’ll stop there.

4.

And I’m losing myself here. So many lists crowd the digital eco-sphere it’s tough to digest. But I’ll try.

Time magazine has a much, much better list. It’s wilder, more inclusive, with weird choices (like Cheever’s Falconer, for instance) that are fun, as opposed to offensive.

Here’s a link to it.

They have A.S. Byatt, Ken Kesey, Richart Yates, Don DeLillo. Plus Philip K. Dick, John O’Hara (overrated; read my review of Ten North Frederick), Bernard Malamud and Robert Stone and James Dickey and John Barth. A wilder, better list, yet somehow even more Anglo-centric. (They should just do the best novels written in English, it would save them heart-ache and criticism.)

5.

The Modern Library list is in some ways stranger than both. Here’s the link.

They have Erskine Caldwell, an overrated writer of pulpy grotesques; Ironweed, an intriguing novel of ghosts and memory with some killer lines, but strangely difficult and obtuse; Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop which is just okay; The Moviegoer, which isn’t bad but come on (I review it here); and too much Faulkner, too many Henry James. (Plus James Jones, I review From Here to Eternity here, an awful mean-spirited book.)

Their list is—with the exception of Pynchon, O’Brien, Burgess and Lowry—staid, canonical and semi-safe. I prefer the old warhorses to J.K. Rowling and the like, but there’s something askew in this list. A reverence for writers of a bygone era. A resistance to genre fiction, which often makes sense but can exclude significant writers. The Modern Library list has no sense of balance, fairness, or exhaustiveness. The writers of the list picked their favorite authors and then front-loaded them into the rankings.

I’d rank the EW list the worst. The Modern Library and the Time list are interchangeable. The World Library best books of all time is fascinating, but also cluttered—for lack of a better word—with ancients texts. I love ancient literature, but with Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, The Bible and so on, there’s little room for novels. Here’s the list.

Enough. I’m ranking the best-of lists into a best-of list. As I said, it’s a mania. Best-of lists have a way of stealing time away from enjoying actual books. Must get back to my own work.


[1] I’ll address their movie list in my next post. Hold on to your butts.

First line of a failed short story: Sadness in Unending Time.

24 Oct

After Midas, I floundered.

People had responded to my little novella. The head of a book publisher read it and clearly was interested in a longer form. I was writing movie reviews for the free paper in town and meeting more and more writers. I met poets and novelists of some repute. I shook hands with agents and publishers and editors at conferences, galas and banquets. I felt like I was on my way.

But I struggled with finding a basic rhythm. I couldn’t settle in on a writing medium. I didn’t like writing by hand; I was easily distracted when writing on the computer; my typewriter was a manual. I tried all three. I wasn’t comfortable. I kept starting and stopping projects. Nothing grabbed hold. I was hitting my head on my lack of life experience. I was writing about writing—and books and writers and so on, the labyrinth of solipsism that so many writers fall into.

I also tried my hand at short stories. Writers who say short stories are more difficult than novels should be shot. They aren’t. (Maybe George Saunders or Steven Millhauser or alice Munro could make this argument.) But, they are a different form, and one I never quite got a handle on. My early stories were too simplistic, morality tales without any real moral. The best of these was my rewriting of Job.[1]

Because I was also trying to break into comics. It seems a bit silly now, but as I was writing novels and stories I was also trying to learn the craft of writing comics. Comics were my first love, really, and with the explosion of new adult-oriented comics—Sandman, The Invisibles, and so on—I felt the pull. I wrote half a dozen treatments; I met with different artists; I plotted, formatted, and slaved. I wrote query letters to Marvel. I even wrote about two issues’ worth of a comic biography of Dostoevsky. Nothing doing. Then my dad introduced me to an artist who was in his forties. We exchanged emails. He was a devout Christian, but militantly so. He said in one email he had no patience for “weak, mealy-mouthed Christianity.”  He was a very fine artist, though, so I tried my best.

So I rewrote Job, in a modern setting. Despite some problems, the story sort of works. As I envisioned it as a comic, I loosened up the prose a little. I borrowed from Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison and even Alan Moore in some of the devices.

I worked on this story for a long time. I sent the artist the prose version and he promptly cut off all communications with me. People are strange.

Here’s the first line of the story that I—embarrassingly, really, as it’s a bad, faux portentous title—titled Sadness in Unending Time:

“The radio wailed Jim Morrison’s deep voice asking to light his fire as Keith shook his head awake.”

As a side note, up to this point I was still using my friends and family for the characters’ names. Robert and Jeff and Chris and Keith, my closest childhood friends and my cousin—these were the main characters. People who had wounded me often had their names co-opted by the villains. Who says writers aren’t petty?


[1] I’ll get into some of the others in another post.

Wild Things with Baby Faces, part 2: The Blank Face of Wonder.

9 Oct

1. The blank face of wonder

Scott McCloud, in his book, Understanding Comics, offers up a way of looking at sequential art—art that tells stories—that reveals a number of reasons why Sendak’s book has remained so popular.[1]

McCloud argues that the simpler the face of a drawing, the more universal it’s appeal. Readers, he says, project their own face onto the illustration. Placing a simple face against a complicated backdrop, the reader can see the world as a real place, but identify with the main character (McCloud, 43). All cartoons utilize this technique, just some more than others.

Let’s look at Max’s face. It’s an oval shape, with vague features, little more than a mouth and eyes with two little slits for eyebrows. The face resembles a child’s drawing, albeit with a sophisticated design. There’s a little touch of hair, and a nose composed of an unbroken single line. It could be any of ten million faces, ambiguously ethnic but touched by the Nordic. He’s a thinner Charlie Brown. With curly black hair.

It could just about be any mischievous boy.

His body, in the wolf suit, is an outline of a figure, with no muscles, skin, or body parts showing. A line of four buttons bifurcate the suit, and on either side of the face there are four single whiskers. Atop Max’s face rest two pointy ears. It’s as close to a blank canvas a human figure can be, save perhaps for a stick figure, and in this way almost works as a “fiction suit.”[2] The fiction suit is a way for writers to immerse themselves into their own stories, and for illustrators to sneak readers into their alternate world.[3]

The author’s psyche dropped into his own creation in his ingenious fiction suit.

Max’s face is simple and plain. His body is half-white, almost blank. In contrast, the locales are lush, complicated tapestries comprised of complex cross-hatching. Placing an almost blank face into a lush background is a classic tactic, common in Japanese art. The idea is that readers will identify with Max, project themselves into his persona, while also placing themselves in a very real world. The best example of this is the angry Max in his room. Although spare, the room is a detailed place, with subtle gradations between the browns and grays of the rug, the walls and ceiling. The design is uncluttered but very complex. Max rests off-center, a disgruntled face, a cipher for the reader to enter a stimulating and all-too-real alternate world (McCloud, 43).

McCloud refers to a visual term called closure. Closure, in the visual world, is the mental process of completing a picture that is only half-formed. An example is a Coke can, half-turned, where only part of the letters are visible. The brain completes the letters automatically (McLoud, 67). In terms of sequential art, closure works in terms of story, too. The reader closes the story gap between the pages. The reader, in a sense, becomes the author of the unseen parts of the story.

The illustrations here don’t change the tone of the story at all, but fulfill it. The wild rumpus—giant wordless illustrations that span both the recto and verso pages—scrupulously detail Max and the creatures dancing, play-fighting and howling at the moon.  It’s the centerpiece of the story, a child’s version of a bacchanal, a pre-adolescent revelry that shrieks off the page.

The infamous wild rumpus, or is it a silent affair?

These three “silent” pages offer an example of this concept of closure. The reader’s imagination fills in the silence of the rumpus, extending the festivities. The reader can hear the howling creatures, Max’s growls, and the hooting, grunting, huffing and carousing of the scaly creatures. In each spread, Max sits close to the center, surrounded by the large, variegated creatures and the verdant forests and plush, sensual glades.

It’s clear that we’re supposed to identify with Max. We’re supposed to project our desires onto his simple features. He’s living out our pleasures for us.


[1] His explanations concerning comics apply to all picture books, and Where the Wild Things Are, it could be argued, is a comic (or almost a comic) in its form and content. See pages 9-13 to see how close the book comes to being a straight comic.

[2] Grant Morrison–one of my heroes—argues that authors do this all the time, and that the power of fiction often rests on this strange blurring between fantasy and reality. In a sense, he’s making McCloud’s argument in different terms.

[3] There’s another way of looking at it: the wolf suit is shaded on one side, sterling white on the other; perhaps Sendak is showing the dual nature of his little boy, the good and bad in all of us.