Tag Archives: fall 2007

AN INVENTORY OF OBJECTS

Ann Hamilton
edited by Joan Simon
Gregory R. Miller & Company ($60)

by Mason Riddle

Ann Hamilton: An Inventory of Objects is the physical and aesthetic embodiment of its very subject matter. Alluring in both form and content, the book investigates, with a careful eye to detail, the nearly two decades of object-making by Hamilton, who is recognized more widely for her site-responsive and often temporary installations. Editor Joan Simon, who is based in Paris, is curator-at-large for the Whitney Museum of American Art and also the author of Ann Hamilton(Abrams, 2002). Friends and colleagues, Simon and Hamilton have sustained a conversation about her work for more than twenty years. It was during this conversation that both writer and artist realized the significance of Hamilton’s objects whether they are integral to or independent of an installation.

Simon provides an in-depth, historical context for Hamilton’s oeuvre, rooting it variously in 20th-century practices, including Dada and Surrealist interventions that physically redefined architectural spaces, Kurt Schwitters’ ongoing autobiographical Merz interventions, the happenings, assemblages and performative events of the 1960s, and the 1970s projects of Los Angeles’ Womanhouse. The author also highlights Hamilton’s early ambitions to be a textile artist and the significance of this discipline to her later work. In addressing Hamilton’s work, Simon underscores the importance of abstract or elusive elements such as time, memory, sound, intangible cultural voices, innate cultural knowledge and spoken and written language to Hamilton’s conceptual practice. She also notes the impact of poetry, specifically that of Susan Stewart, and how it is integral to the artist’s work.

The book takes special care to illuminate the artist’s ongoing attempts to give concrete form to the relationship between a physical act or “gesture” and an object. Layered on top of these investigations is Hamilton’s desire to make resonate the relationship of the body, or “figure,” to a particular installation. Simon also makes clear the underlying symbolic and metaphorical power of Hamilton’s choice of idiosyncratic materials, from organza to red vinyl powder to human teeth. Within this context, Simon proffers that Hamilton’s objects are critical to her conceptually and materially complex installations, although they are less well known and understood. Whether sculpture, found objects, books, photographs or video and audio works, Hamilton’s objects are either a profound linkage between her ideas and installations, or function as an extension—another generation—of the artist’s ideas, while evolving into related but independent works of art. In this sense, the “objects might step outside the time and context of one of her installations.”

Simon also sheds light on Hamilton’s decision to call this investigation of her objects and the resulting book an inventory rather than a catalogue or, more specifically, a catalogue raisonné. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word inventory, among other meanings, as the “act or process of making an inventory, or the period of time when this is done,” “a stocktaking.” For Hamilton and Simon, the wordinventory connotes this book and the overwhelming research required for its making. The word encompasses the notions of time, process, and collecting of data, in addition to the actual objects themselves, all so critical to Hamilton’s practice. “This inventory means not closing the book in summary form but opening the book to go forward beyond the here and now,” states Hamilton. The author notes that this book could serve as a catalogue for future exhibitions.

The book itself deserves detailed description, as all of Hamilton’s objects do. Tactile, materially rich, and sparing no detail, its design by Hans Cogne is restrained and elegant, suggesting in size a classic tome on one’s private library shelf. Hamilton collaborated with Cogne on the book included in the 2004 installation aloud, and both artist and designer consider this book one of Hamilton’s objects. Its midnight blue cloth cover is finished with a black leather spine, and its pages are of a heavy pale cream paper printed with a serif font. The cover, spine, and midnight blue endpapers are embossed with the title, and, because of the darkness of the ground, the text comes into focus slowly. Illustrating the book is a lavish number of color and black-and-white photographs, and the luminosity of these images counter the book’s dark, mysterious shell. Further emphasizing the gesture of the hand and the element of time is a small, black-and-white photograph applied to the front cover. Selected from one of Hamilton’s projects, aleph, it is an image of Hamilton’s mouth with stone marbles rolling around inside of it.

The book’s somewhat unorthodox organization is also worth noting, in that it supports its status as an object in the artist’s oeuvre, and reveals, like one of Hamilton’s objects, its meaning incrementally. The book is divided into three main sections: the essay, the inventory, and reference information. Only at the end of the book does one find the contents page. Such design is significant for several reasons, reflecting issues central to Hamilton’s art-making. Not only is the organization here conceptually complex, like her installations, but the book in its construction amplifies the notion of “inventory.” It clearly reflects Hamilton’s love of sensual, often unorthodox materials, the sense of “making” an object, and the rigorous, formal concerns and attention to detail manifest in all of her work. Moreover, the book, both as a sculptural form and a container of information, is the most recurrent image in Hamilton’s body of work.

Ann Hamilton: An Inventory of Objects is an aesthetically sophisticated book whose materials and design corroborate the information it contains. Whether one is a supporter or not of Ann Hamilton’s work, the book has a place in anyone’s library who values the notion of a handcrafted book.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007

TIME

Christian Boltanski
edited by Ralf Beil
Hatje Cantz Publishers ($55)

by Jan Estep

After World War II, as thousands of children were displaced from their families, lost and homeless, the Red Cross publicly distributed posters in an attempt to find family members who might recognize their faces. Looking like a page from a school yearbook, the black-and-white posters contained photographs of the children’s faces and basic identifying information, along with an explanation of the situation and a call for help. Fifty years later, in the artists book Diese Kinder Suchen Ihre Eltern (Children in Search of Their Parents) (1994), French artist Christian Boltanski reprinted some of these post-war photographs. Citing one child per page, and rendered even more visually degraded by re-photography and the enlarged scale, in Boltanski’s hands the images resemble FBI “Most Wanted” ads. But in this case the children are wanting, an inhumane crime done against them. An opening note states that the artist wonders what has happened to these children, “Has fate brought them happy or unhappy lives, made them rich or poor?” He suggests that their lives are similar to his, and to ours. “We, too, are in search of our parents.” At the end of the book, a closing appeal asks, “If you recognize yourself or if you know who these children are, please write to Christian Boltanski.”

Writing about the various aspects of memory and forgetting in Boltanski’s work—one of several essays collected in the catalogue published for the exhibition titled Christian Boltanksi, Time—literature professor Aleida Assmann points out that family memory as marked by old photographs is destined to disappoint. As those who remember the pictured individuals die off, generation after generation moves farther away from being able to identify whom the photos represent. At some point in every photograph’s lifespan, those who can give real reference to the image fade away, and along with them, any definitive tie the image has to the past. However, although the specific family memory may disappear, photographs can still manifest a cultural memory, albeit one that is necessarily abstracted and generalized from particular individuals. Unless a person enters the history books as someone famous, the specifics of their life are ultimately forgotten, despite being ontologically concretized in a photograph. As an archive of memory, then, and against the clichéd understanding of how they function, photographs eventually fail, even if someone’s image continues to represent a trope or category.

August Sander, photographing in Germany before the war, understood well this particular photographic limit. His ambitious yet unfinished project, Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts (People of the 20th Century), attempted to create a comprehensive anthropological catalogue of the German people, classified into various social “types.” His documentary-style portraits are titled by a person’s profession or class, rather than by their name: Pastry cook. Young Farmer. Anarchist. Circus Artiste. Despite the obvious idiosyncrasies of each person’s face and body, it is assumed that the unique individual at the center of the photograph will be forgotten, remembered only by what we can discern from his or her dress and surrounding context in the most generalized way. Evidenced by Sander’s categorical titles, the One is taken to represent the Many from the start.

Boltanski exploits this lost photographic reference and its inability to sustain family memory repeatedly in his work. Where the Red Cross poster relied on the temporal proximity of its publication to the events that transpired—its effectiveness depended on people being able to recognize the real person in the photos—for most of us in Boltanski’s version, Gerhard Gronau, Anita Swiantel, Werner Klaar, Ruth Scharfe and the other named and unnamed children can only be seen culturally as lost children in search of their parents. The loss of their specificity mirrors the original loss created by the war. Nostalgia for any single individual is cut short, replaced by the recognition of the more general human condition at stake. Bébés négatifs (2002), two black-and-white enlarged appropriated negatives lit as to appear positive, reworks a tradition of one Warsaw newspaper that prints full pages of photographs of newborns, taken on the day of their birth. Given the broader collection of Boltanski’s work, the images that in normal settings celebrate a child’s new life here commemorate his or her eventual, impending death. To borrow a phrase from the philosopher Martin Heidegger, Boltanski reminds us that we are beings-toward-death at the very moment of our birth. Taking the void at the heart of photography to a logical extreme, Mes morts (My Dead Ones) (2002) eliminates the personal photograph altogether, representing several dead relatives and friends each by a large white metal panel that simply states their birth and death dates in black letters. Here the failure of the personal photographic memento as an aid to memory is acknowledged completely. One feels the lack of something more personal: an object, a photo, a story. There are in fact only the beginning and end points on a timeline.

This tie of photography to death, and to the relentless passing of time and its concomitant forgetting, works against the grain of the medium’s organic and material dependence on real, physically present subjects. In other words, photographic portraits rely on the living persons of both the photographer and the photographic subject. It also works against the idea of the photograph as a relatively reliable historical document. In “Deathwatch on the Southside,” one of several literary excerpts included in the Christian Boltanski, Time catalogue, Jorge Luis Borges names death as “a mystery whose empty name I know and whose reality is beyond us.” We so easily speak of death, but it is experienced only as it occurs to someone else. The mention of death as an empty concept foregrounds the eventual lack of reference that confounds photography. Like death, each photograph becomes an empty concept, something for which we know a name but not a reality.

Coming full circle in his contribution to the catalogue, scholar Gabriel Ramin Schor, citing Günter Metken, points out that death deprives photos of their referent, this lost reference being a hallmark of Saussurean structuralism. But paradoxically enough, Boltanski’s images don’t operate as “pure signifiers,” utterly devoid of original reference. He simultaneously reminds us of their historical tie while embracing the abstraction from their historical moment. In the catalogue interview, the artist stresses that he is not a 21st-century, post-humanist artist; because of the accident of his birth date, he is concerned in a “fairly old-fashioned” way with 20th-century ideas. That he is able to take the loss of reference, a potential harbinger of radical cultural relativism and post-humanism, and make it palpable in its nothingness—to bring us back to death—attests to the 21st-century need to confront a world increasingly devoid of enduring reality.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007

AXIAL STONES: An Art of Precarious Balance

George Quasha and Carter Ratcliff
North Atlantic Books ($30)

by Deborah Karasov

George Quasha’s extraordinary sculptures place natural stones in a state of breathtakingly improbable balance. This fitting follows strict rules: one rock must be balanced on another at a narrow point of contact; no adhesive is permissible, nor may either rock be modified in any way. The result is so delicately balanced that, in Quasha’s words, “sometimes even a breath can bring it down.”

The title of this sculptural series and the book that documents them, Axial Stones, draws attention to the axis around which each configuration must, out of deference to gravity, be organized. As explained in the foreword by art historian Carter Ratcliff, most axes—the axis of the earth, for example, or the crossed axes of a Beaux Arts building—are not only clear, but also stable and permanent. The axes of Quasha's Axial Stones are different: clear and for the moment stable, but charged with an air of contingency.

Quasha has called this dialogue with the natural world speaking in stones, and in the book he uses image and text together to help visualize this process. He tells the stories behind the works, the principles driving the work, and the connections with other of his art practices. For Quasha, an axis is like an intention: a force that generates possibilities as well as order. Every esthetic advances some kind of hope, for truth or clarity or beauty or whatever. “Quasha’s esthetic,” Ratcliff writes, “is driven by the hope that possibility will always be open and fresh, never predictable.” The stone sculptures themselves are open-ended, minutely moving all the time, as the Earth moves. That’s why axial stones can remain where they are for months and years, and suddenly, unprovoked, they fall.

As a young artist, George Quasha was liberated by the interdisciplinary ideas of composer John Cage and poet Robert Duncan, among others. He moved to Barrytown in the early 1970s, when he was teaching at Bard College, ultimately enticing Fluxus artists Dick Higgins and Alison Knowles to join him. Along with his wife, Susan, he founded Station Hill Press, which specializes in publishing art, poetry, and philosophy, with titles ranging from presentations of work by performance artist Gary Hill to novels by French thinker Maurice Blanchot. A recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in poetry in 1975, Quasha also received a Guggenheim Fellowship for his video project Art Is: Speaking Portraits, a series of short statements by almost 500 artists, poets, and composers from seven countries and in 17 languages.

Quasha came upon his axial art by chance, walking with his wife Susan and the poet Chie Hasegawa, examining stones and heavy boulders along the pathway from the waterfalls at Bash Bish Falls in the Berkshires. But he had a lifetime of artistic and spiritual preparation to be able to recognize what he was seeing. “For an artist to enter into ‘the state of the axial,’ she or he must be willing to be somehow ‘rediscovered’—or to be in such a state of flexibility that continuous change becomes normative.” Elsewhere, he compared the balancing aspect of the work “with the relaxed alertness and dynamic alignment in the practice of t’ai chi chuan, which I had already been studying for some two decades.”

The concepts Quasha uses to describe his axial art can sometimes be tedious and awkward: he favors phrases like “elemental opening,” “tortional syntax,” and “performative indicative.” Yet, his search for a poetic language to capture the seemingly simple act of placing one stone upon another in an implausible yet necessary way has its own kind of revelation. “The stones mostly originate along riverbanks, in streams, and around waterfalls. In what we call their ‘natural state’—meaning their ordinary condition—they are nondescript, unremarked. Something occurs to displace the inattention that is their condition. One looks directly at them, creating a new axis of attention. Now they are moving in the mind of the observer, turning and becoming attractors. The stones come into relation.”

Quasha teaches us that in the axial state of open perception, things are never just one kind of thing. As with people, whenever you think you know something definite, you soon see it changed, perhaps within the space of a thought. “Stones are only visiting us,” he writes in one of the many poems in his book, “here in the realm of perception. / They have a time / deeper than time. / They sing / quiet. They hold / space open / for shadows / and tilt the continuity / of the empty view.”

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007

PHYLLIS WEBB AND THE COMMON GOOD: Poetry/Anarchy/Abstraction

Stephen Collis
Talonbooks ($24.95)

by Kate Eichhorn

Poet, broadcaster, public intellectual, recluse, artist—Phyllis Webb has been appearing, and disappearing, from public life for more than half a century. In Phyllis Webb and the Common Good, Stephen Collis avoids any attempt to pin down this elusive poet. Sparing readers from trite autobiographical details and dry publishing histories, Collis meets Webb on her own terms enacting “the poetics of response” that he cites as a central feature of her work.

It is by strange and untraceable paths that one poet finds her way to another, seeking what she needs. It is wayward, unpredictable, governed as much by chance as by personal proclivity. Strange attractors of the imagination’s companions.

Collis, the author of two collections of poetry (most recently 2005’s Anarchive), engages as a theorist and poet with Webb. His study is a dense, thought-provoking, and at times exquisitely written response to a poet who deserves no less meticulous attention. Collis shares Webb’s conviction that “The proper response to a poem is another poem” and delivers a study that “flows from this stricture” even in its prose form.

Phyllis Webb and the Common Good is comprised of three essays. The first essay traces Webb’s “poetics of response,” beginning with a close reading of her prose-poem statement on poetics, “There Are the Poems,”

An editor asks me to put it all down: the reasons I write. And I thought "it" was a gift. Homo ludens at play among the killing fields of dry grasses. Playful woman making a space to breathe. "There are the poems," Sharon says, she means, between the critical flash. There are the poems, like fists wearing birthstones and bracelets, her ‘roses & bliss.’ And there are the poets doing what? And why, the editor asks. What does he want? Contributions to knowledge? Civilization and its discontents? Chaos among the order—or, oh yes, french doors opening onto a deck and a small pool where we can watch our weird reflections shimmering and insubstantial? (Hanging Fire)

Webb’s poetic statement is a response to an editor’s request that she “put it all down,” but she undermines his authority—not to mention the need for such statements—by reframing the piece as a response to another poet. “There are the poems” is a line borrowed from Sharon Thesen, and while the editor remains unnamed, Sharon is affectionately mentioned. But Thesen, like most Canadian poets, is a mere footnote in this study that rightfully locates Webb in a literary field that extends far beyond region and nation.
From Webb’s allusions to T. S. Eliot to her shared poetic sensibilities and associations with Robert Duncan to the traces of H. D.’s Sea Garden that appear in her own collection, The Sea Is Also a Garden, Collis meticulously traces Webb’s dialogues with other poets. But Webb’s poetry and criticism have also solicited response. Phyllis Webb and the Common Good is one example of the form these responses have taken, but regrettably Collis offers few insights into other poets’ dialogues with Webb.

A “poetics of response” is not limited to citation or allusion. As Collis explains, “The argument of this book, however, is as much about the lyric and the evolution of the lyric towards sequence and abstraction as it is anything else.” For Collis, and apparently for Webb, the poem is response. As such, poetry implies an ethical responsibility to the other, and by extension an obligation to question self/other dichotomies, especially the traditional lyric’s I/you dichotomy.

Collis is not the first critic to write about Webb’s innovative use of pronouns. In Naked Poems, the minimalist work for which Webb is most acclaimed, the “I” and “you” are both distant and fused. Webb’s use of pronouns undermines the traditional lyric’s division between the speaker and listener, placing the speaker as part of the poem’s collective audience. What distinguishes Collis’s reading in this instance is his insistence that Webb’s move from a self-centered “I” to the collective “we” reflects her broader interest in the politics and aesthetics of anarchism. While the existence of her “Kropotkin Poems”—an incomplete poetic response to Russian anarchist philosopher Peter Kropotkin—supports Collis’s case for establishing Webb’s anarchist poetics, his reading of Naked Poems through this lens is deceptively narrow.

Although Collis mentions “grounds for establishing the lesbian ‘love story’ of the poem,” he otherwise dismisses any discussion of Naked Poems as a poem about female desire. Given the pre-Stonewall context in which the poem was written and published and the objectives of Collis’s own study (to situate Webb as poet/activist/public intellectual), downplaying this reading of Naked Poems is a notable oversight. Here, rather than respond to Webb, Collis permits his own interest in anarchist poetics to subsume the subject of his study. This tendency is also apparent in the final chapter, “On Abstraction.” In what promises to investigate Webb’s move from writing to painting, Collis submerges his subject in pages of preliminary discussions on abstract art.

This is where Phyllis Webb and the Common Good may appear to falter—at least for some readers, but it is important to understand this apparent shortcoming in context. Collis is working within a tradition of literary criticism—the poet’s response to the poet. Like Duncan’s unpublished H. D. Book, which is as much about Duncan as it is about H. D., Collis’s response to Webb is about the author and subject’s shared relationship to poetry and criticism. The reader searching for a concise study on Webb may find Collis’s theoretical tangents tiresome, but just as a good poem has a responsibility to act, good literary criticism should do more than simply describe an author’s accomplishments or critical reception. As Collis puts it, “For the reader, there are the poems—engaging practices in the public sphere. We can respond to Webb’s responses—this is in fact our responsibility.”

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007

YOU’LL BE OKAY: My Life with Jack Kerouac

Edie Kerouac-Parker
City Lights ($14.95)

by Mark Terrill

Neither scholarly tome nor critical analysis, Edie Kerouac-Parker’s new memoir is a warm, intimate, and colorful portrait of the embryonic journey of Jack Kerouac, whose seminal novel On the Road celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. You’ll Be Okay is thus a timely contribution to the ongoing reassessment of Kerouac’s role and importance in post-war American literature.

In 1940, at the age of eighteen, Edie Parker left Grosse Point, Michigan and moved to New York, hoping to study art and settle in Manhattan or even Paris, where she could live out the fantasies of Bohemian life that she’d been entertaining for many years. Born into a wealthy upper-class family, Edie grew up surrounded by a life of privilege and prosperity that she began to see as a sort of ghetto, a gilded cage she desperately wished to escape. In New York, by way of a mutual friend named Henri Cru (who became Remi Boncoeur in On the Road), she met Jack Kerouac, also eighteen, and soon became enmeshed in his wide circle of friends. Kerouac was attending Columbia on a football scholarship, already a devoted writer and student of literature. They soon fell in love and moved into an apartment with Joan Adams (future wife of William Burroughs), and the circle of friends widened to include Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Lucien Carr, Hal Chase and many others—all key figures in what was later known as the Beat Generation.

Kerouac obtained his seaman’s papers and began shipping out, while Edie got a job as a longshoreman working on the docks. After Lucien Carr stabbed would-be stalker David Kammerer and disposed of his body in the Hudson River, Kerouac was arrested as an accessory to murder, and to facilitate the raising of the bail money from Edie’s family, she and Kerouac needed to get married right away. Upon Kerouac’s release the newlyweds moved in with his parents in Queens, a difficult and trying time for all, but left soon after for Grosse Point, where Kerouac got a job inspecting ball bearings on the night shift and managed to pay back their debt to Edie’s mother. But Kerouac did not fare well in sterile, upper class Grosse Point. Eventually he returned to New York, alone, and caught another ship; from then on the couple began to drift further and further apart, until Edie finally filed papers for an annulment, after barely two years of marriage. Soon after that Kerouac met Neil Cassady, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Edie’s prose in You’ll Be Okay is rich with detail and laced with humor, and her vivid memory of everything from what they ate and drank to what films and musicals they saw make even the well-trod portions of this tale newly engaging. While not providing any startling insights into Kerouac’s character, we do see the young writer—hungry for knowledge and experience, and determined to “make it”—at a critical stage on his way to becoming an important figure in American letters. We also get a detailed picture of life in New York City during the throes of World War II, underpinned with its various privations, strains of patriotism, and the growing conservatism (and paranoia) that would help fuel the oncoming Cold War. All this provides a large and vibrant context in which the development of the Beats is portrayed.

Although Edie married twice again, she lived at home until her mother’s death (when Edie was 57), much as Kerouac lived with his mother until his own death in 1969. Of course it’s tempting to speculate what might have happened had the two of them remained together, or if it even would have been possible, considering their ultimately different natures. As Edie says in her foreword,

Jack Kerouac was the fulfilment and nemesis of my youth. He was not a rebel by nature, but was curious and fascinated by those unlike himself, and could not resist the lure of those temptations. My heart was with him always, but my values ultimately led me back home. I was never able to reconcile the dualities within myself. I never will.

You’ll Be Okay is enhanced with enlightening essays by co-editors Timothy Moran and Bill Morgan; many photographs from Edie’s private collection are included as well. Above all, however, it’s the unique female voice and point of view that gives this memoir its strength and importance in the otherwise male-dominated canon of Beat Literature.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007

HOW SASSY CHANGED MY LIFE: A Love Letter To The Greatest Teen Magazine Of All Time

Kara Jesella and Marisa Meltzer
Farrar Straus & Giroux ($18)

by Stephen Burt

I was never the Sassiest Boy in America; I hardly aspired to be one, much less to resemble Ian Svenonius, the first (and only culturally significant) young man to bear that putatively annual honor, bestowed by the teen mag Sassy at the apex—around 1990—of its wondrous influence. Instead, I wanted to be the target audience, the girls just slightly younger than me who were reading it and, learning to be at once independent and cool—what movies to watch first, how to start a band, how to get active in politics, and what lip gloss and sandals to wear to the beach. The early 1990s seemed to me then a kind of hinge, the start of a slow power shift in youth culture, from tired gender roles and omnipresent homophobia to… whatever is going to pop up in their place. That shift is hardly over—some would say it’s barely begun—and many people, institutions, and publications have done more to help it along than the makers of Sassy, but few have had more fun.

Svenonius sang in Nation of Ulysses, part of the DC-to-Washington-State indie axis that helped launch Bikini Kill, Nirvana, the Riot Grrrl movement, and a couple of hundred fanzines in the early 1990s. Svenonius’ connections—and writer Christina Kelly’s musical tastes—made Sassy a site for cross-pollination, a pre-Internet way for more-or-less indie culture (Sonic Youth, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?) to pull in new members and fans. That story—how many young women discovered DIY aesthetics while still in high school, and how indie-rock became a bit less of a boys' club—is one of several told in How Sassy Changed My Life.

It’s not the main story, though. That would be the rise and fall, year by year, of Sassy itself: how Australia’s Dolly by 1987 became “the highest selling teen magazine, per capita, in the world” by talking like (instead of down to) its readers; how an Australian company tried to duplicate that success in America, and hired Oberlin grad Jane Pratt to do it; how Pratt hired a youthful staff whose stories encouraged readers “to be themselves” (and to attend left-leaning liberal arts colleges); how “the first American teen magazine to accept condom ads” became “an immediate business success” in 1989, before advertisers ran scared from a boycott led by the Christian right; how the magazine’s subsequent changes of ownership built a financial roller coaster, with highs, lows, and an eventual crash. (The mag readers loved folded in late 1994, though an anti-feminist impostor, with a new design and different writers, used the same name for almost two more years.)

Jesella and Meltzer tell a story, in other words, about the economics of glossy-magazine publishing, and it’s a depressing one. Kelly even regrets that Sassy’s success inspired some readers to enter an unexpectedly grim, bottom-line-oriented, recession-prone industry. It would have been neat to see more business statistics—how many copies did Sassy sell, where, and when?—though such numbers can be hard to interpret, once found. It would have been neat, too, to know more about the teen readers, now in their thirties, whom Jesella and Meltzer often quote. How did the authors find them? Where do they live? (Do any live outside big, hip metro areas?)

Another, weirder, story consists of gossip: Jesella and Meltzer depict with lipstick-bold strokes the office culture created by hip 24-year-olds writing for girls of fifteen. “Dealing with the material of teenage life,” Kelly says, “made us all act like teenagers.” Part of the magazine’s downfall involved skittish advertisers and clueless, volatile owners; part of the problem, late in the game, was Pratt, who reveled in success created by people she hired, then spent her time and attention launching a failed TV show when those same people felt that they needed her most. “Now I’m the popular kid I wasn’t when I was sixteen,” she mused at the time; no wonder she left her old clique.

This well-designed book also tells stories about politics, both cultural (who’s a sellout? what’s authentic?) and electoral. Sassy must have been the only teen mag that made clear how its writers would vote (none were fans of George H. W. Bush); often it was outspokenly pro-choice. It also, of course, encouraged its readers to buy stuff: start your own band, but pick up these records first; make your own skirt, but try out these sharp-looking shoes. Sassy asked readers both to consume and to create—in particular, to create their own publications. Its celebration of zine exchanges briefly backfired (if you were named Zine of the Month, you’d get thousands of orders, rather than the accustomed couple of dozen, and the photocopying costs could be ruinous), but did far more democratizing good than harm (especially after they started to ask the anointed zines for permission). The mag also ran annual "Reader-Produced Issues," designed, assembled and written by teens who spent the summer at Sassy HQ in New York.

It’s quite fair to ask if the post-Svenonius Sassy became too alert to a with-it late-teen and twentysomething audience, abandoning younger readers who needed it most, and to ask whether it created (in the words of "Reader-Produced Issue" beauty editor Lara Zeises) “this smugly superior alterna-chick. . . conforming to some standard of non-conformity.” It’s less fair to complain, as Jesella and Meltzer do, that Sassy remained “a very middle- and upper-class magazine.” No advertiser-dependent mag could exist without touting some products, which, of course, cost money to buy—but the writers tried to compensate, visiting Indian reservations and other sites where girls without money or privilege explained the choices they could make.

All teens—all adults—have to find some middle path between trying to be original all the time, doing exactly as they want to do, and conforming to some set of expectations (friends’, parents’, employers’). And not just any middle path will do. Sassy’s attempt to juxtapose recommended cosmetics with recommended social causes, defiant self-assertion with sociable compromise—visible, in retrospect, in every layout and on every contents page—might make a better guide to growing up than any number of hermetic, purist punk tracts.

Much that was forward-thinking in 1990 or so seems ordinary now, but to say that something called a mainstream (NPR? CBS? VH1? a randomly chosen high school lunchroom?) has caught up to Sassy’s mildly indie values, thus rendering the magazine’s project obsolete, is to underestimate what Sassy meant. If anything now makes Sassy look old-fashioned, it’s not a changed “mainstream” but a newly decentralized, teen culture epitomized by MySpace: to know how much has truly changed, though, you’d have to ask a teen, or a thousand teens.

If a work of art says to us (as Rilke put it) “You must change your life,” does any published writing that has changed our lives count as a work of art? If so, Sassy has a durable claim. Jesella and Meltzer’s researches imply that the contradictions of a politically savvy, center-left teen mag are the contradictions in most of our lives: don’t we all want to look good? Don’t most of us want to keep up with our times? Don’t we want to do it in a way that gives power to us, and to our friends, rather than to faceless systems and (beauty) myths that continue to get in our way? Don’t we want to feel both autonomous and endorsed, successful and attractive and interesting according to some set of outside standards, and yet able to create our own? Sassy never denied those contradictions: it tried to point them out, to work around them, and to look cool. And it did—well enough, for a few years, to change a few lives.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007

THEN WE CAME TO THE END

Joshua Ferris
Little, Brown and Company ($23.99)

by Lucy Biederman

Joshua Ferris’s debut novel, Then We Came to the End, is a uniquely concentrated expression of what it feels like to work in an office. The book abjures a protagonist, instead relying on a nebulous group of advertising agency employees that narrates the novel in first-person plural and that seems to shift in number depending on who happens to be in the room or who has been fired recently. Ferris’s choice of personal pronoun might sound gimmicky, but it works; without an Almighty dictating in the third person or a familiarly human first-person voice, the book feels as lonely as the lunch hour of one of its characters, Carl Garbedian, who stays at his desk eating takeout penne alla vodka while all his co-workers go out to lunch together.

Most of the action takes place in 2001, that ominous year. The nationwide downturn seems remote to these characters until it walks into their office and makes itself comfortable. “The austerity measures began in the lobby, with the flowers and bowls of candy,” Ferris writes. Everyone has a different reaction to the mass layoffs that ensue, and as we get to know the office and its personalities, a profound melancholy sets in and deepens with each inevitable departure. When Jim Jeffers’s time comes, for example, his co-workers go “down to his cubicle, miserable with happiness that he had been chosen over us. Everyone who had spoken ill of him at one time or another was there to offer him condolences. Jim’s reaction was magnanimous and pathetic at once.”

Ferris, who once worked at an ad agency, nails the details of working life that hover just below consciousness: the procession of co-workers, who seem tender in their individuality compared with corporate culture’s surgical sterility: the petty jealousies, as when a fellow worker gets praised (“It was disgusting to look over and see Karen’s face just then”); and the distortion of time, given shape when someone can’t remember whether a certain incident happened yesterday or today: “It wasn’t as absurd a notion as it might sound. Some days, time passed way too slowly, other days far too quickly, so that what happened in the morning could seem like eons ago while what took place six months earlier was as fresh in our minds as if an hour had yet to pass.”

One of the many wonders of this book is that despite the specificity of its subject, its perspective is huge. Characters die too young, die old and lonely, deal with mental illness and grief. Ferris could have been content to hinge the novel on his clever choices of narrators and setting, but he big-heartedly takes on the humanity that sprouts up everywhere, even in an office. Furthermore, while Ferris’s writing can be clunky, it’s the clunkiness of discovery. America has a tradition of work-related fiction, from Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener on down, but it’s always been about hating work and trying to gather up the courage to quit. What of the majority, the people for whom work can be a drag but isn’t one of life’s tragedies? Ferris speaks for them—and the literature of work receives an update long overdue.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007

RUSSIAN LOVER AND OTHER STORIES

Jana Martin
Yeti / Verse Chorus Press ($15.95)

by Spencer Dew

“The taste of coke through a gold straw is different than the taste of coke through a hundred-dollar bill,” Jana Martin’s nameless makeshift dominatrix discovers, squeezed inside a keyhole dress that smells too much like bicycle tires. Her job for the night is making a rich man weep with gratitude for the public humiliation inflicted upon him—plus she gets to scar up his back a bit with whip marks. The rod, though, is merely an accessory, a shiny prop to any s/m scene. The real tools are strength of stance and speech, attitude—inner resolve and its projection.

Martin’s characters crackle with these, and Russian Lover is a collection, foremost, of inimitable voices. Snarling with moxie, cultivating wounds, and always determined to survive, the women in this book work with what they have available, weaving logic to fit their circumstances. Witness the whip girl, sipping rum from an empty aspirin bottle she carries around, making her own way through the unfamiliar, morally upside-down frontier town of Miami:

For a week I stayed in, watching the Spanish channel. Ate at the Howard Johnson’s right next door. Tried to eat aquatically, as if to acclimatize: clam chowder, fish and chips, fried clams, fish chowder. It all tasted the same, like old grease, a slightly alcoholic tinge to the tartar sauce…

The story here involves bondage play and coke-fueled orgies, but isn’t about them. It’s not even about the psychotic with the baseball bat or how his break-in turns the bondage tables on the dominatrices in a bad way. The story is essentially about how the protagonist phrases what she feels: “And I did get stupid, numbed by the yellows and then snowed under until that part right above the back of my throat began to click, so I went for the champagne,” she says, in retrospect, of her first big party and performance. All the trappings and theatrics and pantless men in tuxedo jackets add up, in her mind, to one simple thing, “A holiday bonus: I wasn’t boiling dishes in a Hobart anymore.”

The women in this book are familiar with hunger and know what it feels like to catch a bus out of town, toward the sort of rebirth that involves pest-infested motel rooms and the sight of fat strangers copulating in the moonlit pool. They know that hope is something you can cash in, but it’s also something you have to work to earn:

I will jerk orange juice into cone cups at a drugstore. I will dust off boxes of envelopes in the five-and-dime. I will time dental X-rays. I will rotate the chickens roasting on the supermarket rotisserie for the retirees to buy, so they can gum the soft meat and get some protein, which everybody needs.

Wrecked relationships, crashed cars, freak wind storms, swollen and infected limbs—Martin’s heroines negotiate these scenes with pluck and sinews, occasionally dazed, sometimes pissed as hell.

In the title story, a woman drafts a series of letters to her former mother-in-law attempting to explain a certain holiday rampage. The verve and venom vented here pits the woman, betrayed for some “Russian rimjob Korsakov,” against the stiff facades of her husband’s old money family. The Christmas goose glistens under its sheen of fat, and various antiques and heirlooms get clawed, kicked at, and broken apart. The clash of voices, though, is what makes the story really writhe. After an icy airport reunion and a variety of nonverbal rebuffs, the best the husband can come up with, in terms of giving phrase to his emotions, is “a translation of the Russian interpretation of the English colloquial, which he found far more realistic and better suited for use.” So contrasted to “the proverbial straw that fractured the back of the camel” there is the volcanic hyperbole of the wronged wife, who informs her former mother-in-law about, among other things, the sort of man she’s moved on to, one who doesn’t wear scarves indoors or spend time studying Russian texts, but, rather, “is old-fashioned, no-holds-barred, rear-wheel drive… And he has never even been to Massachusetts and can’t name any of the Pilgrims and thought the ship they came in on was called the Wallflower.”

There is something almost disembodied to this emphasis on speech. Martin’s characters live in a dirty, dangerous world and are thus familiar with filth, though less disgusted than dismissive of it. They approach physicality as something to work with and transcend, another accessory. Physical but not flesh-bound, these characters rise above the roach carapaces in the carpet or the yellowing ooze of a sore to revel, even get lost in, the play of words. As a needled, Greyhound-bound, ex-junkie puts it, plastic “can never really be cleaned. You have to abrade it.”

The use of language in this book has its own abrasive quality, forcefully clarifying. How the stripper lost her job is secondary to the salt-tinged pulse of the prose through which she sees the evening come down: “hours crawling towards night. Rank sunset coughing up a sallow moon.” What happens to the indie-band girl takes backseat to the narrator’s pegged sketch of her: “retro fleshpot, cinched into vintage, black lacquered hair, black nails, dark voice.” The taste of these golden passages is shot throughout Russian Lover, and such craft is the mark of a unique talent, a master of character and voice.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007

PART OF THE WORLD

Robert Lopez
Calamari Press ($17)

by Blake Butler

Perhaps it was Samuel Beckett who first projected, or at least perfected, the art of the novel in which almost nothing ever happens. In each of the three parts of his trilogy MolloyMalone DiesThe Unnamable we are offered interior monologues of a mind so tripped and embedded by itself that it can't rightly tell what is what—yet it does so on and on for pages, magicking the reader along with just the marvel of its prose.

Similarly, there are few major events in the 181 pages of Robert Lopez's debut novel Part of the World. "I'm not sure how I had the money to buy the car," says the nameless narrator in the first line. "Sometimes I know the particulars when asked but I just as often forget." Thus begins the rambling of a character so meticulous and absentminded at once that his consciousness—rendered to us in Lopez's exacting, infectious prose—becomes a sort of textual optical illusion; we have so much information yet we know almost nothing. Even as the narrator spends pages describing the condition of his car, his process of renting an apartment, his odd friendship with his neighbor, and even his maintenance of a logbook recording what side of the bed he wakes up on and whether or not he has an erection, it never really comes to a conclusion. Despite, and perhaps in light of, this flatline, it is impossible to stop reading; these mundanities go on in wondrous ways. A playfulness is provoked: "Whenever I see tits I wonder if anyone has touched them or when was the last time someone had touched them," he says about the chunky man he buys his car from. "And idle thoughts should go unexamined."

Another, stranger level to this text is what's left within the strange erasure of the narrator's mind. As is mentioned in the first line, he often loses track of what he's said. Certain phrases or ideas are repeated at several different moments throughout the text, each refurnished with new surrounding detail, causing a slow reveal of the fractaled memory of a man left mostly to himself. The narrator's relationship with a neighbor slowly blooms and withers in its ways (occasionally he says he just calls her at scheduled times to be polite; later they masturbate watching each other from bedroom windows; later they share a bed but can't seem to touch. Things continue to expand further until the narrator's insular sexuality becomes so odd and frustrating it's almost painful. In certain moments the strand deteriorates even to the point we have to wonder how benign this man is. Two distinct sections of the novel find him slipping into a third person, symbolic form of speech, both of which seem to refer to the possibility of violence:

Faust on ground B looking for help. Not B looking for help. B back on couch drinking beer and watching baseball and fumbling with inhalers. Faust on ground grounded. Two despicables in conversation concerning toilets and left-fielders. Beer and shoes helping Faust to ground. Faust on ground maybe bleeding. Maybe gasping for breath. Faust on ground B looking at Faust on ground. Standing over Faust. Then beer and baseball and bedtime.

And then the first line of the next paragraph: "Faust spent the night, I think." It remains impossible to know what really happened—if the narrator is struck with flights of fantasy, of vision, or if he's actually more volatile than he lets on and/or remembers. As in David Lynch's work, the bigger questions are left open, only slightly shredded, making them that much more disconcerting.

Beyond any discussion of occurrence in Part of the World, though, the real treasure here is Lopez's writing. He's so in control of his character's voice and the layering of thought that to call him a more pleasantly imbibed Beckett seems precise. Part of the World is a book to be read with delight and wonder—and some slight miffing that it's over.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007

CROOKED LITTLE VEIN

Warren Ellis
William Morrow ($21.95)

by Spencer Dew

Crooked Little Vein, Warren Ellis’s dark reworking of America, mixes absurd fantasies with real horrors, though his imagery falls short of the nightmarish. Sure, ostrich fetishists are mentioned, and there’s a film screening for enthusiasts of Godzilla bukkake; we hear on the news that a blind man has raped his guide dog, and our heroes sleep (and screw) in a Vegas hotel shaped like Jesus in an Uncle Sam costume. But Ellis takes a sloppy approach to his subject, confusing categories in his catalogue of perversions. A Texas steakhouse that serves raw beef, the filthy rich junky who shoots not only heroin but also a weekly anti-cancer treatment of diluted fecal matter from genetically modified green monkeys, the overbearing mother who gagged her son’s girlfriend to death with the preserved placenta from his birth: these are signs of the time as sure as Ellis’s continuous references to box cutters on airplanes or those conceptual artists (who the main character despises) that work with severed sheep or sharks in tanks.

No wonder Ellis’s bum-luck private dick is so conservative: media-savvy serial killers and transsexuals injecting themselves with silicone are presented as equal measures of the apocalyptic now. “The current government is prosecuting a war in the Middle East that uses torture in the pursuit of securing oil interests,” we’re told at some point by a pansexual hottie whose dalliance with the detective reads embarrassingly like juvenile prurience. Our hero isn’t that political, of course, though he views the war as a quagmire in which American soldiers are confused and uncommitted. Less abstract and far away are scenes like the one where our hero, his scrotum swollen preposterously from a saline injection, seeks succor in his car radio, finding a non-corporate, underground, community station playing live local music full of clatter and twang. As he listens, however, government agents, in cahoots with Clear Channel, raid the studio, arresting the young DJs. “Pirate radio operations have been reclassified as Broadcast Terrorism,” they scream. “You’re going to be wearing dogs in your asses at Abu Ghraib for the next five years, you dirty bastards!”

The icons of our zeitgeist are indeed ugly: the same shellacked grin and vigorous thumbs-up offered by our President, strapped into a ludicrous flight suit and plopped on an aircraft carrier off the coast of California, is aped by Lynndie England and her colleagues, beaming over the shit-stained human pyramids of quivering prisoners they’ve spent their nights arranging. Terror leads to lawlessness leads to torture: the age has made buzzwords of terms like waterboarding and wiretap. Unfortunately, by placing such reality on equal footing with his own cartoonish creations, Ellis diminishes rather than satirizes. What Swift or Burroughs or even Hunter S. Thompson would have amplified, Ellis actually coats over—numbing us, through his fanciful barrage of nonsense, to what’s really going on in our world.

A repeating theme in the book is the idea of fiction placating the public, even being used by the government as a blind: “CIA’s been running Aaron Sorkin for years,” we’re told by an administration official. “He leaks this stuff out under cover of fiction to test the waters.” It seems, however, that Ellis has either not considered how his own fiction fits in with the reality it references, or he simply doesn’t care. Since the author has penned several noteworthy comics and graphic novels—including the widely acclaimed Transmetropolitan and Fell and the tremendously inventive Global Frequency—one can’t read Crooked Little Vein without wondering how the same conceit would have played out in that collaborative format, where the lack of description and flip-book pace would be colored and punctuated by the visual art. As it is, this dialogue-heavy journey isn’t quite worth the trip.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007

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