Tag Archives: fall 2011

“YELLOW KID” WEIL: The Autobiography of America's Master Swindler

J. R. Weil
AK Press ($18)

by Niels Strandskov

Things have changed since Joseph “Yellow Kid” Weil prowled the racetracks and saloons of turn-of-the-century Chicago looking for people with more money than sense who would soon find that ratio reduced, considerably. Weil's autobiography, co-written with W.T. Brannon in 1948, makes it clear from the outset that while the urge to get something for nothing is eternal, many of the forms and predicates have been altered beyond recognition. If we are to believe Weil, as so many others did to their chagrin, many of the changes in American swindling can be traced directly to his own innovations. Although Weil tends to gloss over his antecedents in the confidence game, it is clear that whatever instruction he got as a young con man was only the catalyst around which a brilliant crystal of deceit would form.

In a light, breezy style, the irrepressible fraudster outlines scheme after scheme, each with a little fillip of panache that often seemed to mollify the otherwise angry recipients of his lessons in dishonesty. The most famous of Weil's creations is of course the extended set-piece that forms the basis for The Sting—a fake gambling hall where everyone but the mark is an actor or conman, perfectly orchestrated to separate cash from its owner, by means of a sure thing that never existed. That con depended on manipulating the mark's trust in technology, in this case telegraphy, and as Weil spins out his tale, this theme recurs frequently. Faked-up geological maps of oil wells, money-copying machines, and doctored photos of bogus Michigan resorts all figure in the litany of deception.

The difference between the joyful brio of Weil and his cronies and the desperate, grinding tedium of today's spammers and gold-farmers seems to boil down mostly to personal attention. Weil tells of one con where he solicited 2,000 owners of worthless property to get useless title abstracts drawn up through a legitimate (though corrupt) lawyer for a decent profit of $50 or $100 a throw. Starting with newspaper ads and phone calls, he eventually narrows down the list to several hundred, all of whom he meets personally to con in less than a month. There's a level of virtuosity implied by the relentless repetition of a crooked sales pitch that would put today's hardest-selling phone bank speed-dialers to shame.

On the other side of the law, the same personalization apparently obtained. When Weil started in Chicago, the local justices of the peace were so corrupt that every case was determined in advance, with juries hand-picked (often by the very men, like Weil himself, who often came before them as defendants) to deliver the “right” verdict. Too, Weil drolly relates of a time when, after cheating a notorious madam of $2,500 in a race-fixing con, her Chicago police detective boyfriend set several men to catch Weil, who managed to avoid arrest mostly by dint of being quicker on his feet than the lumbering lawmen.

Unlike many of the previous biographies in AK Press's Nabat series, Weil's entry rarely dwells on what might have been, or on the privations he occasionally faced. In contrast to Jack Black's tale of woe and addiction in You Can't Win, Weil seems to have regarded the path of excess as a laudable end in itself. Of the millions Weil apparently made in his long career, most of it went to wine, women, and song. Lavish multi-day parties ate up cash as fast as he could make it, but that didn't bother Weil too much. Why else was he stealing money in the first place, if not to have a good time? Compare this to the dreary capitalists Weil so often snookered—tight-fisted grumps who only loosened their purses when they thought they were getting the better of someone. Like Black, Weil was the kind of criminal who never stiffed a landlady or dashed out on a restaurant check.

Although Weil's ethics leave much to be desired in any objective calculus, it is of course his style which keeps the pages turning. Always attuned to the details of luxury and flair, he frames every con with a concise explanation of why that particular swindle could appeal to this particular mark. It would not be absurd to speak of Weil and his ilk more as performance artists of the life actor variety than as criminals. The talent for extending someone's consciousness just past the boundaries of good sense, and opening up the heart of a staid small-town banker to the joy of larceny must surely rank with any other expert display of thespianism. Indeed, perhaps it was Weil himself who got the worst of his many swindles. All the marks lost was a little cash, no more than most of them could easily afford to lose. Weil gave them each a glimpse of his genius, a little piece of perfection.

Things just aren't the same today: the suave lions of Weil's confidence game are replaced with the braying hyenas of a million call centers and anonymous script kiddies like dung beetles rolling up credit card numbers by the thousand on their dank, boiler-room screens. Where's the beauty in that? When the Yellow Kid took you, you knew you'd been had.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011


Walter Benjamin
translated by Howard Eiland and others
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press ($27.95)

by Nathan Clay Barbarick

One hundred years ago, a twenty-year-old Walter Benjamin argued that "the best part of our youth has been spent far from school, far from a school that pays no attention to this youthfulness and imbues it with no ideals, that takes so-called foolish pranks, nonsense and childish behavior in front of teachers, to be expressions of true youthfulness." At the time of this writing, Benjamin was just leaving high school to go study history, literature, and cultural philosophy in Freiburg, and much of Early Writings (1910–1917) consists of the young thinker’s analysis of the milieu in which he found himself—in this case, the didactic, repressive educational system run by pedants and adults who won arguments by virtue of having once been young themselves. "And herein lies the secret:" Benjamin writes in "Experience," a short essay published in a radical school reform newsletter, "because he never raises eyes to the great and meaningful, the philistine has taken experience as his gospel."

For better or for worse, Benjamin was always one to take his experience as a kind of gospel. We see in this collection a young Benjamin developing the intellectual method that would become his distinct brand of Marxist spiritualist analysis later in life: analyze the circumstance and end at some Hegelian incarnation of Spirit. After returning from private boarding school in the countryside, where he found intellectual kinship with students and teachers, he was able to see in education the outlines of youthfulness; after losing his virginity to a prostitute, he was able to bring eroticism into his theory of a new romanticism, an openness that would embolden his fellow youth and leak into their daily lives; after the double suicide of two student-activists, and his denunciation of his relatively radical mentor for writing in support of the Great War’s first rumblings, Early Writings evinces a break in tone and focus, a shift in thinking, a dissociation from the spirit of the youth who were, by that time, "incapable of even formulating the question of scholarly life, the life of learning, or grasping its irreducible protest against the vocational demands of the age.” Benjamin, quite obviously, made intellectual avocation his vocation, yet had trouble understanding any apprehensions his peers might have had toward ideas that could, after all, connect them to the grand, benevolent, aesthetic-theistic Spirit.

Similarly, as the chronology of Early Writings unfolds, we see Benjamin’s style respond to the circumstance of his readership, his audience, and his limitations as a young thinker. The earliest works here show Benjamin’s thought reaching deeply via overwrought allegory. The poems and parables and polemics he published in the student journal Der Anfang (“The Beginning”) achieve a conspicuous sense of awareness for his high-school audience, one that prides itself on its emblems of intellectualism and erudition. The earliest of these writings are all charming; many metaphors are steam-rolled, many symbols suffer directness or abstruseness, much of the mood of the poems and the fictions is transparently obedient to German romanticism, which Benjamin knew and loved well. In one story, “Quiet Story,” a young, shy man follows a woman home. On a quickly-moving streetcar, “a sovereign feeling overcame him, and he conceived the idea of a poetic composition.” Benjamin’s career, begun herein, was more devoted to making theories of art than making art, that is, conceptions of poetic composition instead of compositions. For this, Benjamin’s readers and his legacy benefit.

Perhaps these characterizations are unfair for a man who so enthusiastically believed in the pantheistic powers of art, and in the ability of education to harness these powers in the emergent humanity of the student body. After all, this book documents the development of a writer, a writer whose poetic inclination has always been difficult to separate from his cultural analysis. More than several of the book's forty-five poems, stories, essays, criticism, or polemics deal exclusively with the work of artists: Holderlin, Dostoevsky, Balzac. There are many references to Goethe and Nietzsche sprinkled about, both of whom Benjamin mightily admired and occasionally echoes. Early Writings gives readers a glimpse into the public and private mind of young man who was genuinely excited to do his work, a young man who saw the system that facilitated this work—the educational system—as the great impediment between his generation and their actualization as mature intelligences, ones to be taken seriously.

Indeed, idealism is important to many of Benjamin's writings on education and its utility for human progress. In "Teaching and Valuation," he chides educators who have not attempted to instill values in the youth, which to Benjamin amounts to not spending enough time with the classics and not subjecting those works to a fruitful analysis, instead focusing on boring details of plot or of their formal elements. In addition to critiques of his school masters' pedagogy, Benjamin actually demands more homework. Plato’s Symposium should be read "in its entirety, gentlemen, in its entirety!"

If his critics deride his high-flown style, his swinging for the fences of abstraction, then early Benjamin, growing up before the reader’s eyes, gives them fodder in pieces like “Metaphysics of Youth,” where youthful spirit is historically constituted through the connections of silence, history, and women. This essay, part of a longer, unfinished “cycle,” even includes a dialogue between Prostitute and Genius:

The Genius: All the women I go to are like you. They gave birth to me and I was stillborn, and they wish to receive dead things from me.
The Prostitute: But I am the one who has least fear of death. [They go to bed.]

It was his idealism that summoned his ideas, that pulled him into the practice of writing, but it was the sharp edge of experience—the inevitability of growing up—that came to cut the tether, causing Benjamin to float away at a specific historical moment, for good. Early Writings functions as a prelude to the theorist known so well today, and exemplifies Benjamin as a figure as divisive as he himself was divided—that wise youth, that inartistic aesthete, that old-money socialist. Walter Benjamin’s circumstance in 1915: separation—from his mentor, from the aesthetic-philistinism of the youth movement, and from the European political formulation of Spirit, which was inspiring a major war. As he approached his middle twenties, his writings focused less on the problems that surrounded him and more on a purer philosophical inquiry. That is, either the contents of his circumstances were obscured by life itself, or he sought refuge from them in abstraction. Accordingly, the last three years of Early Writings do not concern education, but color, language, truth.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011

GRAVEN IMAGES: Religion in Comic Books and Graphic Novels

edited by A. David Lewis and Christine Hoff Kraemer
Continuum ($34.95)

by Spencer Dew

This collection of essays emerges from an academic conference, its contents touching on issues relating to comic books, broadly, and “religion,” more broadly, aiming to capture such facets as magic, in theory and practice; Christianity, as creed and culture; and certain Islamicized aspects of culture as experienced through certain Westernized lenses. The book would have been strengthened, however, by editorial clarity in regard to subject matter and editorial rigor in regard to the selected essays. “Whatever course one takes through Graven Images, the reader should have faith that these essays are not random selections. . . . they draw a particular strength from one another, even those that presuppose distinctly different theologies (or none at all),” the editors tell us in their introduction, but readers who lack such faith will more likely see this book as roughly stitched together, of more use on the resumes of the academic professionals involved than for the stated goals of providing “comics readers” with “a tool for discussion that continues to legitimize the medium . . . and that may, perhaps, catalyze fans’ efforts at comics criticism and scholarship,” while simultaneously offering “teachers and scholars . . . exciting entry points for group discussions on religious issues and paths.”

Some fascinating work gets referenced and discussed in these pages, and the book has a use value in getting folks to read more such exciting stuff, but it’s not always clear what “religious issues and paths” are getting explored or why. Yes, God gets killed in Garth Ennis’s acclaimed series Preacher, and, yes, this has something to do with existential angst; yes, Superman (and various other tights-wearing types) have a tendency to die yet not quite die—but the burden on the enthusiastic young scholar is not merely to locate an example within its cultural context but to show us, as readers, why this particular instance of the larger cultural trope matters—why, in a world of things to read and look at, it is uniquely worthwhile, with more ammunition than the fact that “myriad spin-off websites and discussion pages explore the series at length.”

I say this because while this volume touches on important work, most of the essays in Graven Imagesengage in something more like free-form confessionalism, articulating a kind of experience, practice, and worldview that, while rooted in American religious milieu, operates outside of traditional boundaries. Midrash gets mentioned, for instance, but no one here seems to be approaching religion from within the notion of Oral Torah and the legacy of rabbinics; likewise, there’s a nice reading of the reconciliation of agape and eros in Craig Thompson’s Blankets, but this essay, like that book, seems to speak from a sort of post-denominational Christian stance. Why does this matter? Because zealous universalism can be as exclusivizing as rigid fundamentalism, and outside of a comparative scholarly framework, ideas can get sloppy and readers can get bored, lost, or fed up with pious gassings. “If you make your criteria broad enough and abstract enough, you can prove—or seem to prove—almost anything,” one author writes. Unfortunately this is proven true multiple times throughout the book.

Where the book is consistently strongest, and—not coincidentally—most self-reflexive, is in regard to those comics that explicitly play with metaphysical function: “the books themselves are an act of magic,” as one author says of Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles. Another piece, on Alan Moore’s Promethea, co-written by co-editor Christine Hoff Kraemer, who holds a chair at the Cherry Hill Seminary, carefully and compellingly parses out how this series was designed to work, exploring Moore’s “pedagogical aims.” In these essays, situated within the broader Western occult traditions, the tricky issue of “religion” is nicely narrowed down, and we can examine sympathy and contagion and meditation and temporality. Had Graven Images pursued a more focused selection of essays along these lines, it would have been able to offer the reader more depth and more dialogic connection. As it is, we have a motley assemblage, nodding to an array of interesting texts but unable, with its scattered foci and unexamined assumptions about its subjects, to warrant serious attention.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011

RETROMANIA: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past

Simon Reynolds
Faber & Faber ($18)

by Marshall Yarbrough

A lack of inherent value characterizes the music industry. As in the fashion industry, novelty reigns; indeed, “fashion—a machinery for creating cultural capital and then, with incredible speed, stripping it of value and dumping the stock—permeates everything.” Part polemic, part survey of the present-day musical landscape, Simon Reynolds'sRetromania bemoans the current state of affairs in pop music, in which a constant recycling of the past prevents the emergence of anything truly new.

At times, Reynolds's critique of present-day music resembles that leveled at the “decadent” art of fin de siècle Europe. The last years of the 19th century saw European society struggling with a new social order. Gone were the old pillars of church and nobility, and in their place was a capitalist class system in which social roles were defined not by birth but rather by profession. This new order led to fragmentation. As art came to be seen as just another profession, the artist found his role limited. His subject was no longer the totality of life itself, but rather its depiction through art. Figures like the dandy and the flâneur became objects of public scorn; the decadent artist was seen as a dilettante, a shallow aesthete whose sterile art drew parasitically from what came before, preserving its outward appearance but lacking its vitality.

This is an imperfect comparison. Reynolds insists on pop music's adherence to “the modernist credo: art should constantly push forward into new territory, reacting against its own immediate predecessors in violent gestures of severance.” Fin de siècle artists yearned for the stability they saw expressed in the work of the old masters. For Reynolds, however, the past fifty years of pop music are defined by its practitioners' drive for upheaval, for constant innovation. Where artists at the end of the 19th century struggled to maintain vitality in classical forms, today's musicians draw indiscriminately from old forms in hopes of creating something new.

There follows what Reynolds, along with others, calls a “nostalgia for the future,” a sense of “not feeling at home in the here-and-now, a sensation of alienation.” Applied to the present, this feeling is bound up with the odd timeless quality of the current moment. Unsatisfied with our version of the present, we yearn for the dissatisfaction of other eras, when the sense people had of their own era was unique enough to allow them to envision an alternative.

In examining pop culture's relationship to nostalgia, Reynolds draws from the work of Fred Davis, citing his claim that “bygone mass culture increasingly superseded political events like wars and elections as the warp-and-weft of generational memory.” It seems a logical extension of Davis's argument to say that politics plays an ever-diminishing role not only in what defines a generation collectively, but also in how individuals think of themselves. The extent to which members of the World War II generation see themselves reflected in the political events of the 1940s is likely greater than that to which Baby Boomers identify with, say, the Vietnam War; boomers identify instead with the cultural events of that decade, such as the folk revival or the hippie movement.

What complicates matters is the fact that these cultural events were in part a reaction to politics. Reynolds reveals the key problem of our mania for revivalism: that in mining the past for inspiration, we tend to remove cultural artifacts from the context in which they had meaning. If culture has assumed Davis's role as the key repository of generational and individual identity, then to remove the products of culture from their original context—to take them out of time—would create social upheaval on par with what produced fin de siècle decadence. Today's version of the dandy, the hipster, has unlimited access to aesthetic artifacts, cultural capital with which to form an identity. Robbed of their original meanings, however, the value of these artifacts, and thus the hipster's sense of self-worth, lies only in novelty.

So Reynolds paints a bleak picture: 19th-century decadence laid the groundwork for the renewal of modernism, but what is to come after the present moment, when the call for innovation persists only to be answered with ever-diminishing results? After the decadence mourned the death of an old order, modernism cleared away the ruins. Marching ever-onward into the future, pop music has left countless abandoned structures in its wake. It remains to be seen if some of them are salvageable.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011

COMING HOME CRAZY: An Alphabet of China Essays

Bill Holm
Milkweed Editions ($16)

by Emily Walz

More than twenty years after Bill Holm first traveled to China, his writing still captures the spirit of the China experience. Coming Home Crazy is a vivid picture of a foreigner’s life in China, of teaching English abroad, and of the author’s delight in his students. Presented as an “alphabet of essays” with names like “Book Smuggling,” “Chinglish,” “Dumplings,” and “Swiss Army Knife: A History,” Holm's piecemeal approach brings together singular elements to evoke a rich and complex experience.

A treasured Minnesota poet and essayist who died in 2009, Holm was a perceptive, engaging, and funny writer. I stumbled across this book already hooked on China, some twenty years after its initial release, on my own trip to the Middle Kingdom. My experience coming from southwest Minnesota to cities like Shanghai and Chengdu echoed Holm’s jump from Minneota, Minnesota, to Xi’an, China. I was surrounded by people from everywhere except Minnesota, and, as is the shifting nature of identity, I felt more Minnesotan all the time. Holm's humor and insight spoke directly to my experience. His China is a grimy, gritty place where things are always breaking and everything is out of stock. In the midst of the cold and frustrating bureaucracy, he finds warm and wonderful people, dumpling recipes and Mickey Mouse, and the experience of a lifetime.

Contracted as a “foreign expert” to teach literature at a premier engineering university in Xi’an, Holm finds himself teaching students from all over the countryside. Noting the difference from his American students, he declares: “At last, I was teaching human beings for whom books meant something besides furniture and an intrusion into their beer money!” His students, not at liberty to choose their own majors, dreaded futures spent teaching engineers to translate technical writing, and were wholly absorbed by the literature to which he introduced them. He writes: “I had the feeling, as I did so often in China, that most of her technocrats and scientists would rather have been poets, calligraphers, or musicians if the world had been saner and sweeter.” Such was their fascination with English literature that they would follow him to his apartment and interrupt his afternoon nap to continue classroom debates, a behavior that simultaneously irritated and delighted Holm. With them he was able to establish friendships, visit their far-flung hometowns, and navigate Chinese society.

The choices Holm makes in translation show a comprehensive understanding of the language and the humor he finds in it. I’ve not been anywhere that sets apart foreigners quite as enthusiastically as China.Waiguoren is one of the first words any traveler there is likely to learn, usually from children pointing and yelling in his or her direction. Most translate it as “foreigner,” but Holm opts instead for “barbarian” to better capture the undertone that outsiders are and have always been less human, less civilized than those in the Middle Kingdom.

Holm battles constantly with administration officials, bank tellers, the “Barbarian Handler’s Office” at the university, and the local staff at a fancy Western hotel—on his own behalf and for his students, most of whom seem better able to tolerate injustice than he. At times the situations he recounts are amusing, if only in retrospect. He describes crawling out of a stalled elevator in a second-rate hotel only to find himself locked in the stairwell. With his ride about to leave, Holm raises his suitcase over his head, bangs it against the window and yells in “special English” that if they don’t unlock the door immediately he will break the glass. “Dong, bu dong?” he shouts—a Chinese phrase meaning “do you or do you not understand?”—and sure enough, someone comes running.

Since the book was written, China has become more accessible to outsiders and has relentlessly pursued economic development. Not everything Holm chronicles in Coming Home Crazy still exists in today’s China, such as ration coupons for flour, green cards for internal travel, and papers granting permission to spend the soft currency. Their mention is a reminder of the not-so-distant past.

Today's China is still in many ways a grimy, gritty place where things are always breaking. There is far more merchandise available, though it’s cheaply made and doesn’t last long. The predominant color in the landscape is gray. After repeated washings, the color even seemed to be leaching out of my clothes. Inefficiency abounds and construction is constant. In four months the sidewalk outside my apartment building was torn up and re-set no fewer than three times. Many buildings are concrete iceboxes, and hideous at that. The pretty, old, traditional buildings—those that seemed to give Chinese cities most of their character—stand the best chance of immediate demolition, and in their place appear yet more concrete boxes. All this leads to a pervasive sense of impermanence at odds with China’s millennia-old civilization.

And the bureaucracy! China is a nation of bureaucrats, fond of demonstrating their power through what they can keep from happening rather than what they can do to help, coming up against Americans who don’t like to be told what to do and aren’t used to others wielding such influence in even mundane matters. The control and censorship Holm chafes under is alive and well: the banned books you’d have to smuggle in, the topics you aren’t supposed to mention in public (especially the three T’s—Tibet, Tiananmen, and Taiwan), and now the battleground of the Internet and the Great Firewall of China.

Cheese is difficult to find, peanut butter and chocolate candy is all but nonexistent, and the wine is terrible. Yogurt is something consumed with a straw, not a spoon, and milk is powdered, though many Chinese don’t like the taste of dairy products and avoid them altogether. Despite this, eating is one of the most delightful things you can do in China. China has a rich array of regional cuisines and something for every price range, from street vendors selling bowls of hot noodles to elegant restaurants with platters of Peking duck. Eating is a communal activity; instead of ordering for yourself, you and your dining partners decide on dishes for the table to share. The dishes are usually placed on a lazy susan in the center of the table; everyone reaches their chopsticks into the mess and pulls pieces into their rice bowls to eat. Holm had a special affection for the dumplings of Northern China. Like other traditional dishes the world over, dumplings are as much ritual as sustenance, and best enjoyed in the company of friends.

Beyond all this, the overarching message of the book is about what happens to the traveler and why we should seek to inhabit new places and experience what happens when we do. Holm claims that every American in China for an extended period creates a re-imagined version of America. Sure enough, when I imagined America from China, it was filled with vast open spaces and blue sky; a place where people had houses (entire houses!) to themselves; where anything I wanted was available for purchase and everything was written in my native language; where censorship remained a foreign concept (or at the very least, I had unfettered access to Twitter and Facebook); where people freely baked things like cookies using ovens (none of this toaster-oven nonsense) and libraries kept their books out in the open for patrons to look at and touch and even take home.

And then there is the reality of coming home—having grown up on the Minnesota prairies, Holm noted the transformation China wrought. The place he had thought “the bleakest, most boring landscape on the world” became beautifully picturesque, filled with rich farmland and well-maintained roads, grocery stores overflowing with all the things he hadn’t been able to buy, and hardware stores selling “gadgets and parts that could have fixed half of China.” The landscape is the same, but the viewer is different.

This is what it means to come home crazy. China is a maddening, beguiling place, and just when you’re about to give up and go home, something makes you reconsider. There’s something about China that gets under the skin, that drives you crazy until you can’t wait to get away, only to find later that you can’t explain it to anyone back home, and shockingly, you miss it and want to return.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011

MADAME XANADU: Exodus Noir & Disenchanted

art by Amy Reeder Hadley

Matt Wagner
Vertigo/DC Comics ($12.99 each)

by Stuart Hopen

This review gets personal.

Madame Xanadu is a beautiful Gypsy tarot reader who comes to the aid of young lovers threatened by a variety of monsters, mostly of the B-movie ilk. The sign on her shop invites the passer-by to “enter freely, unafraid,” though the shop is closed most of the time, and is, in fact, only open to people who have a great deal to fear.

I knew Madame Xanadu intimately, back in the days when she first appeared. I co-scripted, with Catherine Barrett Andrews, three Madame Xanadu stories for the original Doorway to Nightmare title back in 1978 and 1979.

The series was conceived after DC’s last romance title, Young Love was cancelled. Each story was to contain a mix of 75% horror and 25% romance. “Just like real life,” I quipped to Editor Jack C. Harris when I was first offered the assignment. Writers and interior artists would change issue to issue, or rotate until someone clicked with the readership. Michael W. Kaluta designed the visuals for Madame Xanadu, and Joe Orlando, who edited the first two issues, contributed much as well.

The required story structure for Doorway to Nightmare brought to mind another character associated with Kaluta, namely The Shadow, who strode through the periphery of his own magazine making brief but startling appearances. Likewise, Madame Xanadu would participate in the plot on an intermittent basis, but more often, the love interests (unique to each issue) would dominate the spotlight while she skulked about her shop, speaking cryptically in fortune-cookie style aphorisms. She dispensed advice that she should have had the foresight to know would be generally ignored, because young people in love usually only heed the counsel of their hearts (or whatever other organs they might be thinking with at the time). Besides, heeding Madame Xanadu’s advice would have derailed the coming plot complications.

Nothing was known about Madame Xanadu’s past—this was by design, and part of the guidance given to the writers. Yet she arrived with a long list of required elements and series conventions that seemed to invest her with a corporate genealogy, a childhood begotten by a committee. She was known to be a collector, driven by a compulsion well understood by comic book readers. Mostly what she collected was damned souls, which she kept imprisoned in mason jars. Talismanic images shimmered through the mists within these jars: the blood red tear of a vampire, the six fingered mummified hand of a Chinese princess, the intertwined pentagrams of werewolf lovers, and the profane brand of the Ouroborus, twisted into the symbol for infinity and used to burn out the eyes of a saintly physician who replaced them with zombie eyes. There are other mysterious items within her shop in Greenwich Village, tokens and trophies of countless stories. No doubt within the backrooms and basements, there is a wondrous stash of comic books and pulp magazines.

Madame Xanadu seemed cursed and doomed from the start. Her preposterous name seemed more suited to an aging stripper than a woman of mystery. Perhaps her name was selected because the letter X has been known to enhance comic sales. (At least it wasn’t as awful as Mr. E., a similar DC character from that period.) Yet Doorway to Nightmare began to falter, and was swept up in the series of massive cancellations now generally known as the DC Implosion.

Madame Xanadu was exiled to the back of Tales of the Unexpected, and only every other issue, at that. She briefly enjoyed the spotlight again when she premiered in one of the earliest direct sale titles under a masthead bearing her own name. But again, her resurgent career was cut short. There wasn’t a second issue, for the legendary creative team of Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers absconded with her and fled to a rival publisher, where they changed her name to Scorpio Rose.

So I was surprised and delighted to see Madame Xanadu featured in a new trade paperback from DC’s Vertigo line under the capable authorship of Matt Wagner, with interior art by no less a talent than Michael W. Kaluta himself. A Madame Xanadu story with interior Kaluta art had been kind of a dream fantasy for me. Here was all the meticulous craftsmanship, the moody line work suggestive of classically trained pulp magazine illustrators.

If anything remains classic about the early issues of Doorway to Nightmare, it is the Kaluta covers, each one a masterpiece of illustration. The first time we see Madame Xanadu’s lovely face, it is framed by lustrous black hair with bangs that curl upward like horns over her forehead. Her silver chandelier earrings seem too ancient and valuable for anything but a display case, and yet they suit her as if she were the original owner, heirlooms handed down over centuries to herself. Her blue-eyed gaze regards with reader with confidence and warning as she leans back against a cushioned chair carved with intricate gargoyles, flashing the Tarot card of Death. Another cover shows her cradling a horned crystal jar like a baby in her lap. Smoldering candles and jars full of damned souls surround her. For all of her sensuality, she is alone, dangerous and unapproachable.

The story, titled Exodus Noir, told of doomed love. It was a familiar theme for the character, but this time it was Madame Xanadu herself who was a youthful—though not young—lover threatened by another monster, in this instance, the Spanish Inquisition.

In New York City, 1940, a woman seeks out the services of Madame Xanadu because none of the Private Investigators she hired were willing to deal with the supernatural aspects of her problem—as if occult cases constituted a disreputable end of the detective business, lower than divorce work. Madame Xanadu finds clues that point toward a family curse dating back to Spain in the 1400s. Over the course of her investigation, she recalls a love affair she had with a woman in that place and time. Madame Xanadu’s female lover winds up on the auto da fe, the victim of an Inquisitor who persecutes Jews, though he himself is of Jewish descent.

The curse Madame Xanadu is investigating began with a different sort of hidden Jewish identity. There were three men who had outwardly converted to Christianity, but continued to worship as Jews in secret. As part of their disguise, they betrayed others to the Inquisition. They made the unfortunate mistake of betraying someone who had a vengeful wizard for an uncle.

There is a startling scene in which Madame Xanadu steals into a private room where pornography and sex toys are on open display, but sacred items associated with Jewish observance are concealed in a hidden compartment. The gentleman in question is a closet Jew. Wagner draws implicit connections between the Spanish Inquisition and the modern persecution of same-sex couples, suggesting that the drive to persecute often stems from self hatred of the persecutor’s own repressed or hidden traits.

Though I read Exodus Noir first, it turned out to be the second trade paperback in the series. I immediately sought out the first volume, titled Disenchanted, also written by Matt Wagner, but this one featured art by Amy Reeder Hadley and Richard Friend. The art, nominated for an Eisner Award, was superb, looking something like a cross between contemporary manga and medieval tapestries. In my estimation, it wasn’t on the same stratospheric level as the Kaluta art, but then, it didn’t have the advantage of gestating as a wish for thirty-three years.

I plunged into Disenchanted, and found to my immediate dismay that it was an origin story—Wagner was violating the taboo about speculating on Madame Xanadu’s past that had been drummed into writers like me three decades earlier. To make matters worse, a quick thumb through the pages revealed that Madame Xanadu was tripping over various minor DC characters who had been dusted off and given guest spots to keep the trademarks from lapsing into public domain—like Madame Xanadu herself.

But once I got over my initial reaction, I found the story in Disenchanted to be even better than the one in Exodus Noir. What emerges is a compelling character study of the woman who graced the originalDoorway to Nightmare covers. It is all here—the sensuality, the timelessness, the restrained impulsiveness, the magic and the melancholy. There is even a mildly palatable explanation for that ridiculous name, though I would have imagined she acquired her trademark sharing opium dreams with Samuel Taylor Coleridge rather than actually consorting with Kubla Khan himself.

The story involves a series of encounters between the title character and the Phantom Stranger, one of those aforementioned minor DC characters. Their complex relationship starts with fascination and yearning on the part of the immortal woman who would later become Madame Xanadu. We find her as the nymph Nimue, the enchantress of Merlin. Beset with a loneliness born out of longing not simply for the company of others but for the company of her own kind, she fixates on the Phantom Stranger, even though he has been known to wear a fedora with a sports jacket and a business tie while decked in gold chains and an opera cape (surely the most fashion challenged of all the immortals). Her unrequited longing, frustrated over various encounters, evolves into hatred, but eventually, she settles into an acceptance of their mutual places within the cosmic order.

It is a common story, part of the ordinary life cycle of failed romances, but here it is given mythic weight by spreading it over centuries. Their exchanges touch upon grand philosophical problems. They each see the future, but from different perspectives. Madame Xanadu uses emotional rhetoric, couched in moral terminology but essentially anchored to the values of whatever civilization she has allied herself in the present. The Phantom Stranger does not argue; he states his propositions as if they were objective truths. She represents energy, youth, and idealism; he, the cruel nature of the way things are. At times it seems as if he functions to keep the course of human development free of occult interference, and at other times it seems as if he functions according to compulsions that have no meaning but must be followed, simply because they are part of the immutable laws of the natural order. She debates, rages, seeks revenge, but eventually comes to cosmic terms with the Phantom Stranger—all this against a backdrop of interwoven historical and mythical monumental events, such as the fall of ancient Camelot, the meeting of Kubla Khan and Marco Polo by the glow of a Green Lantern, the French Revolution, the bloody reign of Jack the Ripper, and the origin of the ghostly superhero known as the Spectre.

The final sequence catches Madame Xanadu in yet another doomed love affair, this time with Zatara the Magician, a Mandrake knock-off who casts spells by talking backwards. Their romance is doomed because the Tarot reveals that Zatara will find true love, though not with Madame Xanadu, and their respective best destinies do not include one another. Zatara is destined to fall in love with someone else and father a child. Madame Xanadu is destined to open a fortune-teller’s shop in New York City.

The icon of Madame Xanadu brought me face to face with my younger self, and brought back in a rush all the hopes and dreams and wild aspirations I poured into three issues of Doorway to Nightmare. After I read Disenchanted, the exchange that followed between my past and present selves was not unlike the exchanges Madame Xanadu had with the Phantom Stranger over the course of centuries. That is what great art does; it takes grand unusual ideas and personalizes them for an individual. But in this instance, it was really personal.

Click here to purchase Madame Xanadu: Disenchanted at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Click here to purchase Madame Xanadu: Exodus Noir at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011

mnartists.org presents: Ghost Crawl

In the Saturday, September 9, 1989 issue of the Star Tribune, art writer Mary Abbe wrote a column entitled “Lush growth of art blooms in 21 shows.” In it, she previewed a few of the art openings going on that evening, mostly in and around the Warehouse District in downtown Minneapolis. “Nothing demonstrates the unprecedented expansion of the Twin Cities art scene better than the 21 galleries that will premiere new shows tonight,” she wrote. “That’s right, 21.” The art calendar published on the same page offers confirms it with half a broadsheet-sized page packed full of gallery listings, many of them within a five-block radius around 1st Avenue North and 4th Street North. It was an area sometimes known, in a pique of nihilistic ’80s art humor, as NoWare (North Warehouse, get it?), but then as now more generally familiar as the Warehouse District.

If you’re an artist in Minneapolis, you likely know the broad outlines of the Warehouse District story. However, in reading Abbe’s piece, I wondered what it was actually like to be in the area: What are these buildings and spaces like now? How are they used? What do they look like? What do they feel like?

So one recent Friday afternoon, before a Twins home game, I bicycled down to 1st Avenue with a photocopy of the newspaper article, a map, a sketchbook, and a camera to find out for myself—to undertake a Ghost Crawl, two decades later. I picked a game day because I figured people would be out en masse, replicating to some extent the feel of a large weekend gallery crawl.

Here’s some of what I experienced.

Ten of the 21 spaces referred to in Abbe’s article were, at the time, located inside the Wyman Building, located at 400 North 1st Avenue in the Warehouse District, so that seemed like the place to begin. The Wyman was perhaps the flagship space of the Warehouse art scene in the 1980s. The exterior looks much the same as when it was built as a warehouse for dry goods sellers in 1901 (it’s one of the most prominent features of the skyline visible from Target Field—the building with the rooftop water tower). I discovered the inside, however, was completely renovated in the mid-2000s and now appears to be a totally different space than the one that housed those ten galleries in the 1980s.

In the Wyman Building, I start at the top. The seventh floor, where Jon Oulman and Vaughan & Vaughan were located in suites 706 and 712 respectively, is now a single open office space occupied by the advertising agency Colle + McVoy. The elevator opens right into the reception area, where I am instantly regarded with suspicion by the woman at the front desk (probably because I have camera with me). I take a look around at the very polished, wildly well-appointed space, mumble a ridiculous lie about my dad once working there, and turn right around, back into the elevator. On this floor twenty-two years ago, Vaughan & Vaughan exhibited sculptures by noted New York artist Cara Perlman.

On that 1989 weekend, the second floor of the Wyman was occupied byAnderson & Anderson (240), who were showing new work by sculptor Wayne Potratz, and Peter M. David(next door in 236), who were showing prints by nationally known heavy-hitters Dine, Hockney and Motherwell. Now, this floor seems to me the most unchanged by the intervening years. Both 236 and 240 are still present and accounted for: the latter is occupied by the offices of Connect Retail Services (“where the customer meets your brand”), and the former is currently vacant, with drawn wooden slat shades. It’s not hard to imagine a small gallery in either one.

The first floor of the Wyman is now home to two of those Warehouse District nightclubs with stupid one-word names: Aqua and Envy. Other nearby clubs with similarly dumb names: Elixir, Epic, Karma, Drink.

Exiting the Wyman, I head a block south to the one-time site of Peterson Fine Art, at 506 1st Ave. N. That night twenty-some years ago, the gallery featured oil paintings by MCAD alumnus Wayne Ensrud and prints by then-deceased Cubist Max Papart. The space is now the home of Pizza La Vista, a gyros-and-pizza joint catering to the late-night club crowd. Despite an obvious remodel, the interior is easy to envision as a white-wall gallery space, with exposed brick and high ceilings. Two TV sets play a country music satellite station. I buy a Coke and sit at one of the tables. The area feels quite lively, with Twins fans crowded onto the sidewalks, heading for the ballgame.

The Women’s Art Registry of Minnesota at 414 1st Ave. N. was back then opening a group show of Native American artists. The building is one of those gorgeous, red brick warehouses right next to the Wyman. WARM was one of the earliest arts groups to set up shop in the area. WARM is still active as an organization, but the building is now vacant, with the windows papered over. It was obviously the home of a restaurant or bar recently, but I can’t for the life of me recall which one, and all identifying signage has been stripped away. I peek in the window, past the paper, and there are piles of dusty stools and cardboard boxes inside. A sign on the front door reads, “CLOSED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE.”

Thomson Gallery, located at 321 2nd Ave. N., is noted in the body of Abbe’s article (“‘This year has been one of our busiest ever,’ said owner-director Robert Thomson”), but my calendar doesn’t list an opening that particular evening. Presumably they were open—it was a big night, right? Despite featuring a graphic for an apparently defunct group of crafters and artisans on the window (I checked, but the website listed on the flier is inactive), the windows are papered over, and the space appears to be vacant. It’s in a slight state of disrepair—boarded windows, missing bricks.

The entire block seems deserted.

In fact, I am surprised at how many of these once vibrant art spaces are now vacant. The stadia and nightclubs aside, walking this route is probably closer in some respects to what it must have been like in the early 1980s than in the years immediately following the 1989. I’d fully expected to encounter an advertising agency or sports bar located in every one of these spaces, crouching inside the shell of an identifiable one-time gallery. Really, though, I came across boarded windows, dust, and removed signage as often as I came across thriving boutique agencies.

Perhaps we’re coming around to the end of the cycle that began when those first artists discovered the infrastructure of the Warehouse District was cheap and spacious enough to make for a good home, and which crested when the developers and opportunists came in to take it all over. Maybe the cycle is just waning, putting us back at some point that seems more like a beginning.

Obviously, the Warehouse District will never be what it once was. However, in some of the spaces—the old Thomson space in particular, and the last I saw before heading off—I came across something very striking. The Thomson space seemed abused and cast aside, but it also looked full of promise. It looked exactly like the sort of space an enterprising young gallerist might want to move into.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011


An Essay on the Iowa Writer’s Workshop 75th Anniversary Reunion

by Shawn Patrick Doyle

In popular culture terms, Iowa seems like a state in need of a publicist. For screenwriters, it’s a fallback hometown for any character who is just a bit too earnest or naïve for her own good. Iowans don’t seem to mind. In fact, they seem to invite it. They walk around with t-shirts with the word “native” printed inside an outline of the state. They take that line from Field of Dreams, “Is this Heaven? No, it’s Iowa,” discard the irony, and print it on bumper stickers.

And yet, in creative writing circles, Iowa could not be more prestigious. Writers who have studied or taught at Iowa link themselves to the 75 years of tradition of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. In doing so, they pencil their names at the bottom of a list of illustrious names like Kurt Vonnegut, John Cheever, Rita Dove, and Flannery O’Connor. The Workshop receives 1600 applications yearly for roughly 30 spots, and continues to produce Pulitzer winners and attract big names. Marilynne Robinson continues to hold seminars each semester where members of the entire university community come together to read the great works like the BibleUlysses, or Moby Dick. The University of Iowa continues to reap the benefits of the foresight they had when they began to accept creative dissertations for graduate work and to invite great writers of the day out to the edge of the prairie to talk about their work.

So when presented with the opportunity to get press credentials and kibitz on the Writer’s Workshop reunion, I was both thrilled and terrified—eager for the opportunity to eavesdrop on the affair, but at the same time feeling like a crasher at a party I should have long since had no desire to attend.

Scanning the promotional materials for the conference online, it was tough to get a feel for what type of party that would be. Officially, it billed itself as the Iowa Writers’ Workshop 75th Anniversary Reunion. Many events (two dinners, a dance, an alumni open mic, and a Poets vs. Fiction Writers softball game) seemed to facilitate the kind of collective reminiscence that go with such reunions. Yet there were also two public talks, Robinson’s keynote address “The Workshop as Phenomenon” and a panel on “The Writer as Public Figure” featuring Ethan Canin, Michael Cunningham, Jane Smiley, and Abraham Verghese, bookending the weekend. The rest of the schedule was filled with an array of attendee-only panel discussions to which I’d have access as a member of the press.

When I agreed to attend, I assumed that these panels were created to celebrate the Workshop and would present the kind of congratulatory speeches one might hear at a retirement party, congratulations and humorous reminisces of the older days. However, while the titles of some of the panels addressed the history of the Workshop, the majority did not. Instead, they advertised a collection of panels on topics of concern to writers, focusing mostly on the profession of a writer and the place of literature in society. Showing up to Robinson’s keynote address, I wasn’t sure if this was going to be a conference, a birthday party, or an event for alumni to meet and catch up.

The festive mood before the keynote suggested the celebratory tenor. As current director Lan Samantha Chang stepped to the microphone to introduce Robinson, a rousing cheer went up through the crowd. In her introduction, she called Robinson’s move to Iowa from Massachusetts a “phenomenal stroke of good fortune” for the Workshop. Robinson would later repay that compliment by noting that Chang’s hiring as Director of the Workshop in 2005 was a similarly fortunate event.

The rest of Robinson’s talk sought to strike the tone for the rest of the weekend. In it she humbly outlined the principles on which the Workshop was founded and to which it still holds true. At the same time, she persistently defended the place of literature and of programs that train practitioners of literature. She opened her talk by noting the prevalence of MFA programs that resemble Iowa’s and offered that this influence is “owed to the fact that it is at base a very good idea,” which she summarized as providing a place to engage in a good faith collaborative, to criticize work, and to have one’s own criticized by others. This idea, she claimed, is at the heart of a liberal arts education before moving on to define the Workshop’s place against other graduate English programs. In doing so, she emphasized a common defense of workshops, the value of practice in concert with critique.

In elaborating on such a model, Robinson offered answers to two persistent questions that pop up around the Workshop, namely, “Can writing be taught?” and “Why is Iowa the Workshop in Iowa the state?” Addressing the first question, she echoed what seems to be the party line for the Workshop, that writing can’t necessarily be taught, but writers can be nurtured by providing writers, as Chang put it in her opening comments, “support to focus on idiosyncratic work.”

In responding to the “Why Iowa?” question, she offered simply, “because the Workshop expresses the place” before going on to elaborate on her affection for the “the unpretentious urbanity” of the “quietly mythic little town” and the earnest politeness that some of her students take some time to get used to. This expression of the place and its welcoming atmosphere became more important later in the talk when she discussed how competitiveness and divisiveness can poison the well and ruin the collaborative environment. In essence, Robinson argued that the Workshop is in Iowa because Iowa is uniquely suited to the collegiality of the Workshop.

To her celebration of the project of the Workshop, Robinson added a discussion of the Workshop’s place in the present and future educational environment where cultural institutions seem to be under such a broad attack. She remarked that she is often asked if she feels that the Workshop simply creates “auto mechanics for a world with no autos.” She juxtaposed those external concerns with the internal worries she hears from those who wonder if the proliferation of MFA programs and the linking of writing workshops to universities creates a monotony of voices that seeks to suit the academic critics who read and promote their work. In response, she took an approach that redirected these questions. Rather than defending the practice of linking workshops to universities, she observed that writers and universities have been linked for much longer than the seventy-five years that creative writing workshops have been in existence, yet original voices have continued to emerge. She then favorably compared this model to those of the past where writers lived in poverty or were supported by patronage from the government or ruling party, quipping, “What could possibly go wrong with that?”

Robinson certainly made the Workshop the star of the show, however, as time passed, I found myself questioning whether that was really her goal. She expressed fondness for the Workshop and Iowa City, but this was no eulogy. There was no ending or closing of a circle. Even the 75th anniversary, she noted, was an arbitrary measurement reflecting only the first year when degrees for creative work were handed out. Such arbitrary measurements hid the years spent prior by literary clubs in the city who invited famous writers out to Iowa to read and talk about their works.

Still, Robinson’s keynote established the themes that would continue to be revisited throughout the weekend. In lieu of putting forth a straightforward commemoration of what the Workshop accomplished, the weekend’s panels located the Workshop within the larger contexts of literature and the profession of writing and examined those within the wider context of what they mean to society. Many of the presenters wove nostalgia and enthusiasm for their time in Iowa into their speeches, but almost always, their reminisces were smaller parts of speeches that focused on an issue of importance to writers and readers at large.

As I arrived to the Friday sessions, I was curious how Robinson’s tone would carry over to the private panel discussions, but more immediately, I was anxious about being exposed as a fraud when I asked for my press credentials. The Thursday evening talk with Robinson had been open to anyone who wished to attend, but starting with the Friday morning talks, I’d need a pass. The last time I’d needed to secure credentials to anything was a school trip to the White House during the Clinton administration. I feared this time around those giving out the credentials would be more suspicious, despite a round of phone calls to establish that my intentions were bona fide.

I had to go through a few people to find the appropriate contact. All were nice and friendly, but as far as I could tell I was one of only a few outsiders at the event. Finally, a man came up and introduced himself to me, verified I was meant to be there, and had the volunteer at the desk write my name and Rain Taxi underneath on a black bordered name tag. Alumni of the Workshop had a blue-bordered nametag that listed their full name and their preferred first name. I imagined that quite a few were wishing to be like those more prominent alumni who were recognizable enough to walk around without a nametag at all.

The press contact told me that I should feel free to stop and talk to anyone I liked. I thanked him, but I knew this wasn’t going to happen. I wasn’t a reporter by training or trade nor was I outgoing enough to stop anyone at their reunion and attempt an interview. Besides, I’d already spotted several authors whose work I’d read and loved over the years, and anyone who I admire intimidates me. So I counted myself as fortunate to hide in the large crowd, which showed up for the first session. The size of the crowd surprised me. I suspected that some of Thursday evening’s cheer might thin out the numbers, at least throughout the first few sessions. Yet despite what I’m told was a rather large crowd at Dave’s Foxhead Tavern the night before, the hundred-plus chairs in the IMU ballroom were mostly filled with alumni, many of whom had brought along partners or children for the event.

Continuing in the family theme, the day’s session was called to order not by Chang but by her pre-school age daughter, who spoke a tentative “Hello” into the microphone before placing her stuffed penguin next to the microphone so that the audience might hear its recorded chirping sound. Chang then handed things over to the master of ceremonies for the conference who gave an overview of the weekend’s events and invited alumni to stop by an audio booth that would be operating throughout the weekend to record favorite stories from Workshop. It was here where I found out that I’d caught an additional break. All of the sessions would run in the same room, so instead of having to mill about and select which sessions to go to, I’d be able simply to sit as the schedule cycled through.

In the first panel, “What we learned from Frank Conroy,” the reason for the attendance at the morning session became clear. Conroy, who passed away in 2005, was one of the most beloved faculty members of the Workshop, and as director from 1987-2005, he shaped a lot of what the Workshop has done over the past few decades. Three presenters—Charles D’Ambrosio, Curtis Sittenfeld, and Abraham Verghese—relayed their favorite tales about the man whom Sittenfeld described as “funny, candid, and unflappable.” With each speaker, the affection and appreciation for their mentor was apparent. All three shared bits of wisdom they’d gleaned from Conroy on how to read, write, teach, and live. D’Ambrosio spoke of how Conroy’s influence on him extended beyond his writing, admitting “I didn’t have a model for thinking differently about my life until I met Frank.” Verghese noted that Conroy’s class gave him as close to dogma of writing as he found anywhere else: “The writer exists as a collaborative venture between writer and reader.”

The format of the panel, bouncing stories back and forth, worked for the topic, and picked up and reinterpreted the themes that Robinson had established in her keynote. Following this session, the agenda for the conference became clearer to me. This was certainly a time to remember times spent in Iowa, but more importantly, it was a time to reflect on the practice of reading and writing and to discuss those reflections.

However, accomplishing that agenda through the format of the conference would be a challenge. Following the Conroy panel was a string of panels that had a hard time getting their legs. Each seemed to get bogged down by the lack of a clear definition of what level of formality the format called for. Some prepared formal papers while others apologized for their lack of preparation and spoke off the cuff. The confusion did not hurt the depth of insight presented on the topics; these presenters were, after all, master readers. However, the panel discussion format seemed to stifle some of the back and forth that showed up in the first panel. It felt the entire time like eavesdropping on a conversation where the participants know they are being monitored and thus their responses feel censored and contrived.

The ambition of some of the panel topics might have played a role in creating the artificial feel. For example, from “What we learned from Frank Conroy,” the conference transitioned into a panel entitled, “What makes literature immortal?” That question might have worked on a twelfth-grade theme in the 1950s, but to expect someone to come up with an adequate answer in the forty-five minutes allotted for the session seems like setting oneself up for failure. The first two presenters, Deborah Eisenberg and James Galvin, refused to take the bait. Each unintentionally (or so they say) misinterpreted the title of the session to say, “What makes literature immoral? (I was certain that at least one latent-Freudian in the room enjoyed psychoanalyzing that one, and I scanned the crowd for telltale smirks.) Despite the confusion, both went on to present a fairly coherent argument that defended literature and its practitioners from claims of immorality: Eisenberg focused mostly on the literary reader’s ability to interpret and compose complex, nuanced positions in the face of a corporate totalitarianism, and Galvin put forth an argument that “if you look for the wildness evidenced in the world, you will find it in literature.” In other words, literature represents the world, and as the world is sometimes immoral, so is literature.

As the two finished, Allan Gurganus took his turn in the order. Attired in a suit and hat that made everyone else in the building look simultaneously underdressed and uptight, his speech outlined a much more straightforward and unapologetic aesthetic argument for what makes literature immortal. Delivering an impassioned performance, Gurganus marched through a string of logic that began with how we can tell the mortal from the immortal in 1930s film. Essentially, he argued that we sorted the eternal from the ephemeral by watching which films have died away as hackneyed regurgitations of clichés and tropes and which have survived. The same is true for literature: some literature has survived because readers have voted that it ought to be by reading and writing about it time after time. Immortal literature is, in Gurganus’s words, that which “always earns out,” and to illustrate his point and the value of the power of representation and invention, he cited Tolstoy and how no servants in his novel have walk-on parts; rather, every character that appears on the page in a novel like Anna Karenina appears fully fleshed out.

All of that represents about one percent of what Gurganus actually said, but getting that down was overwhelming. As he was speaking, I wished I’d taken shorthand at some point in my life, yet even a complete transcription could never capture the impassioned affectations and points of inflection put in throughout.

After only two panels, I feared I was already failing to capture the spirit of the moment. I felt the liability of my atrophied powers of observation all the more acutely for the skill of the others in the room. In my notes, I jotted down that Gurganus was wearing a linen suit before second-guessing myself. I searched my memory for other fabrics it might be, thinking it might be “seersucker” before realizing that I have no idea what “seersucker” is. Panic set in and for a short while, my notes on what it was like to be at the 75th birthday party for the Workshop turned into a meditation on lightweight fabrics.

For the presenters at least, none of the day’s remaining panels were quite as ambitious. Half of them, “The Writer as Outsider,” “The Urgency of First Books,” and “The Necessity of Estrangement,” focused on questions pertaining to the state of the writer in the world, a position for which the presenters had a more immediate analog.

In the first of these panels, Paul Harding presented an elegant version of the common argument that the writer must be an outsider because such a move is the only way to step outside the present and “build it up from zero to see again.” In conjunction to this building, he added that the writer must adopt the role of the outsider in order to “resist the temptation to come up with the current aesthetic.” The other two presenters Edward Hirsch and Francine Prose, presented an argument that agreed with and were aware of this position, yet both were careful to step back and question it. Hirsch examined the argument’s status as a literary trope, tracing it back to Horace, and then warned about the potential for writers who step outside of society and then use that position to assume a mandate to attempt to turn their observations of the world into prescriptions for reality. As an example, he offered the modernist poets, Eliot, Pound, and Yeats, who celebrated and admired authoritarian politics. Prose then followed with a talk that teased out some of the tension of the outsider position, noting that she frequently felt the burden of being “eclectic and misunderstood.” Writers have a responsibility, she felt, “to raise their hands and say the emperor has no clothes,” yet making such a statement is difficult, because no one really wants to be an outsider.

The “Writer as an Outsider” panel was one of the few that generated a natural conversation after the initial remarks. Each of the three writers explored the implications of the other’s argument. Prose provided Hirsch with the perfect example of his point that writers craft an outsider position for literary reasons by chiming in that she did not think Eat, Pray, Love was particularly subversive because it tells a tale of a writer who flees from a culture only to reproduce the narcissism of that culture. (She did not offer that Eat, Pray, Love has sold more copies than many of the authors’ books at the conference, but this fact shows the predilection readers, especially American readers, have for the outsider in literature.)

The day’s remaining writer-centric panels exhibited similarly thoughtful meditations on the profession of the writer. In each, the panelists interrogated the stereotypical experience of the writer to consider what it is like actually to be a writer in this social context. “The Necessity of Estrangement,” Scott Spenser, Z. Z. Packer, Elizabeth McCracken, and Philip Levine echoed a lot of what was said in the outsider panel. However, each found a way to connect their experience of estrangement directly to their experience with the Workshop.

Spenser began the session by remarking on how he felt it easy for an author to feel estrangement in a world of corporate-controlled culture. Such a culture creates an environment where finding entertainment is easy but developing as a writer is hard, because there are so few readers willing to give the time. This environment creates the space for the Workshop, a place where others have the patience to read the work of beginning writers. Packer continued this discussion, describing her experience of being challenged to imagine the type of estrangement Flannery O’Connor creates in Wise Blood. Like Spenser, she saw the Workshop as a place for her and her classmates “to estrange ourselves from what has been predetermined” and to resist putting forth the “official story.” McCracken then spoke about how teaching workshops taught her how hard it was to desire estrangement; she wanted too much for students to love her. This desire, she noted, is at odds with being a writer, and so one of the challenges of becoming a writer is to negotiate the desire to be engaged with the necessity of being estranged.

On the heels of these three meditations on estrangement, Levine then leaned toward the microphone with a mock reluctance that must be well practiced, and delivered one of the most enjoyable talks of the entire conference. He began by telling his story of coming to the Workshop, eschewing the theme of the necessity of estrangement in favor of the other necessities he found more immediately pressing. In doing so, he artfully wove a story that mimicked the movement of many of his poems. In humorous and seemingly innocuous anecdotes, he told of the need for shelter, of living in Iowa City with a view of an alley and a set of garbage cans, which he filled with other people’s whiskey bottles to annoy his landlady. He spoke of other, less pressing needs, such as his desire for a Triumph motorcycle. He spoke about the need for a mentor, reflecting that he learned very early on he wasn’t a genius and he needed someone who would be direct and honest but not cruel. He spoke with a self-deprecating modesty about the necessity of remaining humble, noting that John Berryman once told him he had a head start on this as he was “fortunate to be not all that great looking.” At the same time, Levine noted a need to balance such humility with the egotism a writer must have to believe he has things to say that others want to hear—a position he humorously mocked in the Q&A to this session when he noted how his first book was delayed for four months because the typesetter had run out of capital I’s. Throughout his talk, he casually built to the main theme, which he had seemingly dismissed at the outset. In his concluding remarks, he proposed, “Where does estrangement fit? I suspect it is either right before or behind, I couldn’t make up my mind, the need for an MFA.”

As the day wore on, I found my already poor journalism skills deteriorating. When I scan back over my notes, I find tiny nuggets that I feel hesitant to leave out and yet unable fully to explain. On “The Urgency of First Books,” Kathryn Harrison, Curtis Sittenfeld, Mark Levine, and Robert Hass presented their experiences with their own first books and with those they’d seen coming from their students; the reoccurring theme was that the experience of writing and releasing the first book is one unlike any other, filled with an urgency to finish it and a nostalgia for the whole experience once it was finished, an experience Harrison compared to looking back on a first love and feeling affection for it even though the subsequent relationships are much better. For “How Realistic is Realism,” Anna North, Justin Cronin, and Michelle Huneven spoke on the lack of realism in most fiction, presenting reinterpretations and examples of the old adage that fiction is the lie that tells the truth. For “How Does Humor Speak the Unspeakable?” Kate Christensen, Benjamin Hale, and Matthew Rohrer uncomfortably quipped about the expectation to be funny that their panel title placed on them, and offered examples of how humor can, as Rohrer put it, “shock us into recognition of what we forgot.” For “On the Future of the Short Story” T. C. Boyle spoke for only twelve of his slotted fifteen minutes, noting the irony of his presence after having spoken at the fiftieth anniversary reunion on the renaissance of the short story before going on to offer a fittingly brief defense of the short form.

If anything revealed the awkwardness of the form that the conference set up, it was the “Great Moments in Workshop History” panel with Glenn Schaeffer, Robyn Schiff, and Salvatore Scibona. Schiff told a story about encountering Jorie Graham while shopping for a dress and Graham offering two pieces of advice: “have a baby and collect your frequent flyer miles.” Scibona followed with a more earnest approach and spoke about learning in Workshop that writing was really just about “learning how to use words to mean what they say.” Schaeffer then followed telling a story of his attempt to set up a boxing match between himself and Norman Mailer, a fight he was advised he could not win. Schaeffer reflected that he “wanted to take the fight for existential reasons.” He envisioned turning it into a book with the subtitle, “How I Overcame My Anxiety of Influence.” As funny as these stories were, they felt stifled and at points contrived. The inside jokes received polite laughter from some or fell flat. As a whole the stories failed to add a sense of gravity to the occasion. In fact, they seemed to flee it. I don’t think this speaks to lack of skill in the storytellers, but to the impossibility of the task before them. After seventy-five years, the Workshop has accumulated a plethora of stories. Each group has their own that seem meaningful, tragic, hilarious, and poignant to them, and when shared over drinks or at a dinner party, I’m sure they’d bring the house down. But told under the title of “Great Moments in Workshop History,” they highlight how miniscule one’s own individual experience is in the collective.

Walking back to the parking ramp after the session ended, I left the first full day of panel talks jealous of the rest of the attendees (and not simply because their registration packet contained a validation for parking.) That evening, while the Workshop alumni attended a dinner and open mic, I sat and studied my envy. Sitting in the audience at conferences is usually fatiguing; following complex arguments delving in and out of secondary criticism takes a lot of mental energy, and if I don’t have a familiarity with the work, I can count on losing the train of the argument five minutes into most talks. I don’t recall that happening once the entire time. I leafed through my notes. In total, I filled thirty pages and felt like I hadn’t caught half of the interesting parts. I read a sloppily scrawled quote from Garganus’s talk which simply said “state capitol out of human nougat,” and it infuriated me that I have no idea of the context.

Returning the next day, my goal was to find a source for what I was feeling, and with those eyes, it didn’t take long to figure things out. Listening to the first panel of the day, “How Can Literature Imagine New Futures,” I determined it wasn’t that I lacked appropriate scrutiny; it was still there. But the scrutiny did not shut down my enjoyment of listening in to these discussions with respect and admiration. As Matthea Harvey opened the panel, I found myself unconvinced by her notion that the answer to the title question had much to do with a project encoding a poem into human DNA, but I appreciated it in the format of her talk, which optimistically imagined a new future where poetry was more prevalent. Kevin Brockmeier then spoke on the difficulty of writing about the past and present accurately and how this compounds the difficulty of writing about the future; I agreed with his pronouncement that the practical way to write about the future is for an author to follow the iceberg metaphor and “show little,” yet I questioned his offering Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which I found to be an oversimplified projection of the current language of crisis revolving around energy, use of natural resources, and literacy, as an example of a cleverly imagined future. At the same time, I took his point that such a risk, writing about the very near future, meant that “for the next two decades her book will remain teetering between naturalism and fantasy.”

I wished I could have the panel’s other two presenters, Margo Livesey and Susan Wheeler, as teachers. Wheeler’s lyrical imagining of a future in literature as haunted by the possibilities of the wide open path felt true and overwhelming; the longer she spoke, the more sloppy and disjointed my notes got, as I desperately tried to scratch down key words and phrases. Livesey’s talk also had a flair of the virtuosic. Speaking for fewer than fifteen minutes, she drew on references from poetry and prose, from works from England, Italy, America, and Russia, from the 16th century all the way up until the present, and quoted Deborah Eisenberg and George Orwell while providing in depth readings of Orlando FuriosoAnna Karenina, and Middlemarch. As ballast, she tied these readings together by concluding that as a writer and reader she was always looking for “a new emotional equation on the page which will be something I instantly recognize and will point the way.” That singular phrase struck such a chord with me that I’ve already used it four or five times since the conference, each time probably butchering the meaning in the process.

From this point forward, my notes thinned out, which I take as a sign of my growing recognition of the uniqueness of this conference. That uniqueness became fairly clear in the second panel of the day, “Can Literature Fight Hatred?” In it, Stuart Dybeck, Nathan Englander, Yiyun Li, and Robert Hass all gave generally the same answer: “Yes, but it’s difficult.” The entertainment of the panel lay in the breadth of their approaches. Dybek linked literature’s capacity for empathy to a writer’s capacities to invent new worlds. In doing so, he identified writers as “the custodians of humanity,” and went on to cite Zbigniew Herbert’s “Five Men” as a poem that forces us to recognize humanity in the most inhumane circumstances and to mourn what is lost in such circumstances. Englander picked up on these themes; he opened his talk by dismissing the primary question as obvious. It is, he said, like asking, “How can broccoli be better for you?” Yiyum Li took a different tack, insisting that she didn’t understand why literature had to fight anything. She related her desire when she first came to Iowa to feel more educated, which led her to take Latin and reading Winnie the Pooh in that language, which inspired her to read about the life of the translator, Alexander Lenard, after being told his translation was “not very elegant.” Several points of Lenard’s life—escaping from Austria at the time of the Anschluss with Germany, losing a brother to a Nazi labor camp, and treating the local population as a doctor in Brazil—offered “a lot of opportunities . . . for him to hate or to fight hatred,” but he also translated Winnie the Pooh, which Li suggests somehow did more. Hass concluded the session by presenting remarks that began in cynicism before confirming his experiences of encountering empathy in literature and eventually rephrasing the question of whether literature should fight hatred—to which he offered an answer of “yes.” In Dante’s Inferno, he noted, it is not hatred at the center of Hell but indifference. At the same time, he acknowledged that as artists, “we don’t know how [to fight hatred] but we have to act as if we can, and having said that, all we can do in our own lives is to exhaust our own imaginations.”

In hearing Hass’s call to arms—my inelegant label which I imagined he’d resist—it struck me that the difference of this conference from others was how unselfconscious all of these panels were in their ambition and scope. It’d be impossible get topics such as “Can Literature Fight Hatred?” or “How Does Humor Speak the Unspeakable?” on the program at the MLA Conference. For the past forty years or so, literary criticism seems more about specialization in one time period or genre. In the wake of modernism and fascism and the uneasy celebration of the exceptional that both pushed forward, reining in one’s own faith in the intrinsic value of literary scholarship seems like a good thing, yet that move has not come without a sacrifice for both writers and readers.

These tensions seemed to play themselves out in one of the day’s later panels, “What is the New Avant Garde?” In it, the presenters illustrated the stakes of the debate of sequestering workshops in English Department. Two of the younger presenters, Cathy Park Hong and Jonathan Thirkield, did so unintentionally. Both looked at the conditions and context for the creation of the previous avant garde through a lens that was heavily influenced by identity theory and postmodernism, to arrive (if tentatively) at what amounted to the same assumption, which was that a new avant garde would probably have some influence on technology but they were not entirely sure yet what it would be. Both had bright and intriguing insights about the types of societal repressions that a new avant garde might resist.

While Hong and Thirkield spoke, D.A. Powell, the panel’s third speaker, appeared to take notes and rewrite parts of his talk. When his turn came, Powell began by expressing his discomfort with the title of the talk, noting that he found the idea of the new avant garde “quaint, redundant, and capitalist,” before quipping “Why ‘not new and improved?’” He went on to talk more earnestly about his admiration for the Workshop, which he felt an affection for because of its willingness to take him in despite a less conventional undergraduate experience. He remarked that he always saw the Workshop as a “correcting balance,” because in it “criticism comes from practitioners and not from cataloguers or spectators.” He then went on to present one of the only arguments all weekend that seemed to take seriously many critics’ suspicions of the proliferation of MFA programs and the housing of such programs in universities. He worried what might be lost if things continue as they are. “What poetry has given us,” he said, “is newness,” citing an array of poets who wrote and existed outside of the university structure. He wondered what the place for these poets would be in an academic system.

The remainder of the day’s panels, “Resistance to Poetry,” featuring Eavan Boland, Geoffrey O’Brien, and Carl Phillips, “The Writer’s Voice and First Person Point of View,” featuring Marilyn Chin, Tom Grimes, Robin Hemley, James Tate, and Dara Weir, and “The Writer as Public Figure,” with Ethan Canin, Michael Cunningham, Jane Smiley, and Abraham Verghese, all seemed to recreate the same kinds of discussions expressed above. Each contained quotable moments, many of which I failed to copy down adequately; each expressed a willingness to talk in public in an unselfconscious way about issues that most of us have a hard time finding in other places, and sometimes long for.

Following the panel discussions, the conference held a public reception at the Museum of Natural History, which I skipped on the notion that attempting to schmooze as an outsider who spent the whole weekend longing to be an insider was just a bit too much social anxiety for me to handle. Following the reception were private speeches and a dinner/dance for alumni, and the conference wrapped up on Sunday morning with a softball game featuring Poets vs. Fiction Writers, for which I didn’t even get a score. Simply put, none of these events works as well for a thematic bookend to the weekend as Powell’s talk. The tone he struck was both dissonant and harmonic to that set by Robinson at the opening of the conference. Whereas Robinson saw the place of the Workshop in the university as better than the alternatives of government patronage, Powell saw all that such alignment might preclude. Yet both celebrated and characterized the place and the mission of the Workshop.

Writing, or art of any kind, is a constant negotiation of the tension that Levine noted in his talk between egotism and humility—believing that you have things to say and doubting whether anyone wants to hear them. For many, that tension is so great that they turn to chemical means to suppress one side or the other. What the Workshop seems to have created is a space where young authors can go and feel supported in their attempts. It is a place whose mission seems to be deliberately and adamantly conscientious about being unselfconscious. For someone who aspires to write, that’s not heaven. It’s Iowa.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011

My Internet Relations: an essay by Leslie Jamison

I became a writer because I’ve always enjoyed observing more than being observed. So it seemed unfair, a kind of callous cosmic irony, that realizing my Ever-Since-Childhood-Dream—publishing a book—meant I was expected to fight tooth-and-nail to be observed as much as possible. I’d known this would happen, but only in the vaguest terms, and I’d somehow imagined this limelight would be gently foisted upon me: a chattering Publicity Task Force from my publishing house would escort me from packed house to packed house, against my faint protestations—Really? They’re all here to see me? I guess I can’t disappoint them! The force and visibility of overwhelming demand would give me the strength, for once in my life, to be visible.

It happened quite a bit differently. True, I packed the bookstore in the city where I lived, and that was pretty great: a bunch of kids from a local Quaker high school came out; the bakery where I worked made a replica of my book cover from molten chocolate. But most readings were another story entirely. I once read to a crowd of four: my friend, my friend’s wife, my mother’s friend, and my mother. The bookstore clerk sat with them to occupy another seat. When acquaintances asked “How’s the book tour going?” they meant well, but I always flashed straight to that room, those empty chairs, and thought: To answer that question honestly, I’d have to give you an entire history of my hunger to be seen and my shame at that hunger. Hardly a book-biz anecdote.

Publishing, as we all know, is a business on the skids. My house was supportive, especially my editor, but their resources were limited. I started to realize that the real battle for attention isn’t being fought in bookstores anyway, or even in print—it’s happening on the Internet. And this was frightening to me. My worst nightmare had always been walking into a room of strangers and choosing a cluster into which to insinuate myself. This describes the Internet, more or less: a room of strangers bigger than Outer Space. It was a nauseating imperative: Where was I supposed to go? Into which clump was I supposed to insinuate myself?

I passed through the threshold of fear into a phase best described as pleading. I bought a domain name—my own!—and practically vomited in my mouth. I barely had enough money for rent and I paid someone to design my website. This seemed horribly narcissistic, in a kind of self-sabotaging way; my worst nightmare was coming across as self-promotional, and now I was paying money I didn’t have to make total strangers aware I was promoting myself. I pictured ex-boyfriends stumbling across my site, and on good days of daydream, they’d be muttering, hot author photo; on bad days they’d be chuckling, she bought a WEBSITE?

If only my publishing house had paid for it, I thought, I’d feel totally professional and justified. Because publishing industry resources aren’t just resources, they are affirmation and validation—a seal of professionalism that I was quickly realizing I was essentially, horribly, going to have to give myself.

So I “reached out,” as they say. I reached out to book bloggers and online magazines. My publicist helped. My friends helped. I liked the acts of self-publicizing that involved writing something new, something I might not have written otherwise (like this essay!). I wrote a little piece for Three Guys, Three Books about the summer my jaw was wired shut and I read straight through Faulkner’s county of Yoknapatawpha. I wrote a playlist for Largehearted BoyFor Flavorpill, I made a bookshelf full of weird heroines. For NPR, I wrote about the literature of poverty. I made contact with smart and devoted blog reviewers, like Alayne at The Crowed Leaf and Sasha at Sasha and the Silverfish and Rebekah at Mrs. O’Dell Reads, who said surprising and insightful and sometimes-but-not-always-complimentary things about my writing, which was okay. It was still a thrill to think strangers had devoted hours of their lives to my writing.

Great things still happen when I’m least expecting them. Just recently, for example, I was picked up by the wonderful pair who puts out the podcast Late Night Library, a conversation about a different debut book each month—which they created simply because they felt there’s not enough close reading going on outside the Academy. Amen to that. Paul and Erin found things in my book that I hadn’t noticed myself—the focus on dyads, the opacity of certain characters—and other things I’d been aching for someone to notice, like the way it wants to resist a certain sentimentality-phobia endemic to MFA culture.

My salad days on the Web, however, quickly devolved into another, darker stage of Internet Relation—a period of obsession marked by begging for love and then endlessly checking for proof of how much love had been offered: Google-stalking, for starters, then doing a separate self-stalk on Google Blogs, once it was up; checking my Amazon rank, and checking my Amazon rank on certain specialized sublists (e.g., “Domestic Fiction,” “Alcoholism”); checking my Google Analytics page to see how many people visited my website. My Amazon rank was always too high, my Analytics number too low (let’s not mince words, I mean six-digits and single-digits, respectively)—and yet, like any decent addict, dissatisfaction only made me hungrier for even more dissatisfaction, so I kept checking.

This is the part of the essay where I say: there were blessings in the fact that I was forced to self-publicize. And there were. For starters, I had to start owning my desires—my desire to be read, to have my words appreciated, to be in contact with a readership. I’d wanted others to take responsibility for my book’s presence in the world because I couldn’t own these desires wholly; I felt uncomfortable declaring them in the same way I’ve always felt uncomfortable about talking too much or taking up too much space. I wanted someone else to say I was worth the attention.

I realized that in the end it wasn’t about me—it was about a book I’d written, a book that I wanted the world to have. It was only an extension of the nearly tautological but strangely elusive confidence of writing, an implication already inherent in its premise: the belief that someone might want to read something you’ve written.

Here’s something nice that happened once: I got a letter from a real estate agent in Hawaii, named Kawaki. If I could track this man down, I would thank him in person; if only he could see me now, still thinking of him four years after his note. He’d read a story of mine about a girl who gets her heart broken, and he wrote a kind of confession to me:

My friends are annoyed with me because I gushed about it all through lunch yesterday, monopolizing the conversation.
‘Can we not talk about the story?’ my girlfriend says preemptively, as we get into bed.
‘But you do like it, right?’ I say to the back of her head. She doesn’t answer.
Now that I’m out of friends who will listen to me rave about the story, I find myself talking about it to strangers. I have considered paying homeless people to read it.

He went on to say the story’s protagonist reminded him of his younger sister—her “uncertainty” about men, a feeling for which he’d never had much patience or compassion—and he felt he had more sympathy for her (“a little wisp of understanding,” is what he wrote) now that he’d read it.

Moments after starting Kawaki’s note, I knew I’d reached one of the greatest—perhaps the greatest—experience of my entire professional life. Would I get reviewed in The New York Times? As it happened, I wouldn’t. But would I shape the life of a real estate agent in Hawaii, however briefly? As it happened, I would. I did.

Leslie Jamison is the author of The Gin Closet (Free Press, 2010).

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011


Alan Moore et al.
Knockabout ($5.95/each)

by Rudi Dornemann

Alan Moore tends not to stay in one place artistically. When he made a name for himself in comics in the early 1980’s, he reworked the conventions of science fiction and superhero comics. In the years since, he’s written extremely detailed historical comics (From Hell), highly artful erotica (Lost Girls), a novel in prose (Voice of the Fire), intricate performance pieces (e.g. The Highbury Working: A Beat Seance), and, of course, a varied collection of further comics (PrometheaTop 10The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen . . .). With the eight-issue run of Dodgem Logic he’s forged a path in yet another direction: magazine editor and publisher.

As to why a magazine, one need look no further than the first issue’s opening editorial, which includes the statement, “Clearly, what the world needs is a trippy-looking underground mag with a self-confessed agenda of aggressive randomness.” Randomness in a magazine is indeed a good thing. Much of the enjoyment of any magazine comes from articles you stumble upon: the more random a magazine, the greater the chance you’ll find something unexpected and wonderful. After all, who turns the page already 
knowing they want to sew a Feejee Sock Mermaid? Grow an urban guerilla garden? Puzzle out a cryptic, manic single-panel cartoon from artist Kevin O’Neil? Try a recipe for pumpkin risotto? Read a polemic on toilets, a World War II memoir from Michael Moorcock, an article on surviving the apocalypse, or an essay/interview by Iain Sinclair about the painting of a portrait of J. G. Ballard?

There’s a tension between randomness and the concept (ubiquitous these days) of curation. But in choosing to foreground randomness, Moore may be, to some extent, de-accentuating his imprint on the magazine. Dodgem Logic does seem to have an attitude and voice of its own—one that may be related to Moore’s own, but certainly isn’t identical with it. Part of this derives from the fact that the magazine’s contributors get to establish their own voices in their contributions without being melded into a common voice. A good example of this is Melinda Gebbie, Moore’s collaborator on Lost Girls and other comics, and now his wife, who contributes a number of very different, and often very personal, articles and stories.

Not that there isn’t plenty of Moore’s own presence; his voice is heard in articles and fiction, the transcript of a performance piece on William Burroughs, and even a little poetry. He doesn’t contribute as much in the way of comics as his legions of fans might hope—although there’s one that he not only writes, but draws himself, in fine underground comic style. And he closes each issue with a walking tour of some parts of his hometown in England, Northampton.

There’s in fact a strong Northampton strain in Dodgem Logic: a good many of the contributors are from there, a fair number of articles examine local events, the second issue includes a photo essay on the magazine’s launch party at Northampton’s Monk’s Park Workingmen’s Club, and every issue contains a local “Notes from
Noho” section. The Notes were originally a separate booklet within the magazine, intended to be replaced by special sections from other localities, but eventually just became a subsection of the larger magazine.

And “Notes from Noho” isn’t the only bonus between Dodgem Logic’s pages—other issues contain a CD, a mini-comic, an iron on transfer . . . In some ways, there’s nothing more random than having entirely separate objects contained within the magazine.

In the first article of the first issue, just after the opening editorial quoted above, Moore sets the stage for Dodgem Logic with a five-page survey of underground publishing from the 1200s to the present. He winds up what could be taken for a more serious version of a mission statement:

In the draughty, boarded-storefront landscape of the present day, when the most wild and radical ’sixties complaints regarding the environment, the government or the police have become commonplace mainstream public opinion, when we’re monitored to an extent that makes George Orwell seem an optimist and when the media serve up only regurgitated tinsel shit and naked propaganda, we would seem particularly needful
of the colour, sexiness and energy the undergrounds once offered. With regular society and culture clearly coughing blood, a counter-culture or alternative society might be things we could use right about now.

. . . There isn’t any reason why we shouldn’t have our information served up in a form that’s funny and intelligent and beautiful.

In a recent interview in The Guardian, Moore talked about Dodgem Logic returning to print at some point next year. With any luck, the relaunch will capture the same eclecticism, strong design sense, and combination of DIY ethos and high production values, and continue the original eight issues’ pursuit of the funny, the intelligent, and the beautiful.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011