Tag Archives: spring 2010


Julio Cortázar
Alfaguara ($21.99)

by Jay Miskowiec

Published twenty-five years after Julio Cortázar’s death, Papeles inesperados (Unexpected Writings) brings together a vast range of little-known texts by the Argentine author. Though not all technically “unpublished” works, many having previously appeared in newspapers or magazines, this trove varying in style and genre offers Cortázar fans and scholars a fresh look at his work. Coedited by Carles Álvarez Garriga and Cortázar’s literary executor and former wife, Aurora Bernárdez, Papeles inesperados is among the most important books published in Spanish in 2009.

Jorge Luis Borges said that while Mexicans descended from the Aztecs, and Peruvians from the Incas, the Argentines descended from boats. That connection, closer to the old world than the new, has often set Argentines apart culturally from other Latin Americans. Even to call Cortázar an Argentine is incomplete. Born in Brussels in 1914, he grew up in Argentina but moved to Paris in 1951, where he wrote most of his notable work and where he died. While writers like Miguel Ángel Asturias and Gabriel García Márquez were forging a style that would become known as magical realism—based upon the very history of the Americas, where one need not look beyond the reality of this world to find the magical, the astonishing, the marvelous—Cortázar would be influenced by surrealism and the novelists of the nouveau roman like Alain Robbe-Grillet and Philippe Sollers, for whom punctuation and syntax were as important as words in conveying character and setting.

Cortázar’s 1963 novel Rayuela—translated by Gregory Rabassa as Hopscotch, one of the first works of the Latin American “boom” to enter the English language—employs a stream-of-consciousness narration that can be read a variety of ways: from beginning to end (although we are told that chapters 56 and following are “expendable,” making “the end” an arbitrary notion); according to a table provided by the author that directs an alternative non-linear ordering of the chapters, taking us back and forth and literally inside and out of the text; or any which way we may like, skipping around and reading some or all of the pages. Cortázar knew that the text really only exists at the moment we pick it up, that it is always already something different for each particular reader.

In the introduction to Papeles inesperados, editor Álvarez Garriga describes “la dispersion geográfica y lingüística” (“the geographical and linguistic dispersion”) of Cortázar’s work. He liked holes, lacunae, places without place, alternative ways of entering into the text. Papeles inesperados continues this realm of infinite possibilities. It is divided into three parts: “Prosas” (“Prose”), which takes up almost the entire book; “Entrevistas ante el espejo” (“Interviews Facing the Mirror”); and “Poemas” (“Poems”). “Prosas” is a heterogeneous collection with sections that include (in Spanish) “Histories,” “Moments,” “Circumstances,” and “Other Territories”: unpublished stories and chapters from previous books; prefaces; lectures; reviews; travel chronicles; and articles on politics, art, and culture; letters to and from friends; new events in the lives of his cronopios (those naïve allegorical characters Cortázar invented who are often in conflict with the “fames” and “hopes” they encounter); and myriad other brief texts, many of them less than a page long. We learn of his influences, including Homer, Garcilaso de la Vega, Jules Verne, Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Rimbaud, Alfred Jarry, Virginia Woolf, Jorge Luis Borges (of course), Charles Dickens (a bit of a surprise), and Jean Cocteau, whom he credits for having forced him to confront modern literature.

A story quite typical of his early work is “Manuscrito hallado junto a una mano” (“Manuscript Found Next to a Hand,” c. 1955). A man discovers that by thinking of his aunt when he attends concerts he wreaks havoc on the musicians: violin strings break, the piano top falls with a crash, the lights go out in the auditorium. With this newly discovered power he travels the world, blackmailing famous musicians such as Yehudi Menuhin, Isaac Stern, and Pablo Casals. Since he must be in the concert hall to inflict his damage, the narrator is forced to fly from city to city and country to country to maintain his racket, pressuring with interruptions and disasters at performances those hesitant to believe in his power. He remarks on the shameful nature of rich people not paying their debts on time, but adds “nunca he perdido tiempo en recriminaciones de orden moral” (“I’ve never lost time on moral recriminations”).

“La fe en el Tercer Mundo” (“Faith in the Third World,” date unknown) is a page-long sentence that describes a trio of priests who bring an inflatable church with them to a jungle hamlet in order to teach the ignorant savages about the grandeur of the Church. One of the natives sticks a knife into it and the structure collapses, causing chaos when the terrified people try to escape amidst the cursing of the priests. The title can be read two ways: how faith and religion take place in the Third World, but also as an instruction to have faith in the Third World, whose inhabitants can dispel and destroy the myths of the colonizers with the least of their gestures. This is real liberation theology, or, better, the experience of being liberated from theology.

The three new accounts of cronopios are snapshots of these innocent, often unlucky, travelers through the world. In “Vialidad” (“Highway Administration,” 1952) a cronopio gets into a car accident. When the police show up and question him, he is perplexed by their uniforms and can’t respond to their questions, because “entre desconocidos uno no puede entenderse” (“people who don’t know each other can’t understand each other”). Here is another brief allegory on the powerful and the powerless.

A longer piece about these enigmatic figures, though in this case based on real recollections of Cortázar, is “Un cronopio en México” (“A Cronopio in Mexico,” 1975). It begins, “Cada cual tiene sus encuentros simbólicos a lo largo de la vida” (“Each person has his or her symbolic encounters throughout life”), and the ones recounted here take place in two important regional cities of Mexico, Veracruz, and Oaxaca. The first meeting is between the illustrious author and a nine-year-old shoeshine boy who presents the paradox, or rather paradigm, of the bright child with no opportunity for school. Cortázar proves himself an insightful sociologist, probing into the implications for Latin America of the lack of education for so many youths. In Oaxaca (where he seems to find the densest congregation of cronopios in the world), this man who lived most of his artistic life in Europe has an existential moment, expressed in words and feelings right out of Neruda: “Siento más que nunca que ser latinoamericano cuenta más que ser mexicano o argentino o panameño, que nuestra sangre circula por el continente como una sola sangre” (“I feel more than ever that to be Latin American is more than being Mexican or Argentine or Panamanian, that our blood circulates through the continent like one sole blood”).

Again, Cortázar understood how the text exists in great part because of the reader (Papeles inesperados is precisely a case in point). “Acerca de Rayuela” (“About Hopscotch,” 1974) is a brief reflection on reading and generations. A decade after its original publication, Rayuela had begun to be discovered by a new generation that brought its own understanding to the novel, and in so doing “hicieron otro libro de ese libro que no les había estado conscientemente destinado” (“made a book different from that book which had not been consciously destined for them”).

The section “Circunstancias” is a shift in tone from the literary work to a more journalistic examination of the world—a part of his writing is unknown to most of his readers (though many modern Latin American writers have practiced journalism, including Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Eduardo García Aguilar, and Elena Poniatowska). Several of these pieces concern human rights violations in the Americas, such as “Chile: otra versión del infierno” (Chile: Another Version of Hell,” 1975), a critical look at one of the most notorious violators in modern history, the Pinochet regime put in place and supported by what Cortázar so agilely terms “Nixoncide.”

The longest text in the book—twenty pages—is a travel chronicle through Cuba, “Nuevo itinerario cubano” (“New Cuban Itinerary,” 1976). Cortázar’s main point is to refute the notion that the Cuban Revolution is only Fidel Castro, or even worse a puppet of the Soviet Union. The early section headings reveal the Argentine’s romantic view of this revolutionary Eden: “Pequeña música nocturna” (“A Little Night Music”), “Alomar, o las mil y una noches del trópico” (“Alomar, or a Thousand and One Tropical Nights”), “Un arte del pueblo cuando el pueblo puede tener un arte” (“An Art of the People When the People Can Have an Art”). But the second half of the essay shifts to a sharper lens, not so much on Cuba itself but how the world saw—sees—it. The change in tone is noted as well in the titles: “De resentimientos, malas voluntades y otras formas de no querer ver” (“Of Resentments, Bad Will and Other Forms of Not Wanting to See”), “Puerquito atado a una estaca” (“Little Pig Tied to a Stake”), and “Mitin de los asmáticos” (“Meeting of the Asthmatics”).

Another “circumstance” Cortázar examines is the press coverage of world events in “Poland y El Salvador: mayúsculas y minúsculas” (“Poland and El Salvador: Capital Letters and Small Letters,” 1982), where the murder of thousands of indigenous peasants in a Central American nation supported by the United States barely gets a paragraph on an inside page of Western newspapers. After a brief but detailed contrast of coverage of events in the two countries, Cortázar fumes, “Que esta desinformación abunde en las publicaciones de la derecha, es obvio y comprensible; pero que la prensa democrática, de izquierda o simplemente liberal acepte o fije cuotas informativas aberrantes es algo que excede toda paciencia” (“That this disinformation abounds in publications on the right is obvious and understandable; but that the democratic, leftist, or simply liberal press accepts or fixes aberrant news quotas is something that goes beyond all patience”).

One of the book’s most beautiful texts, in a sentimental way, is “De una amistad” (“On a Friendship,” 1979), which recounts how Cortázar came to know the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. These two great masters of Latin American literature carried on a dialogue where “muchas veces los silencios y las miradas llenaban el espacio mental de imágenes resplandecientes que el lenguaje sólo hubiera podido mostrar desde empañados espejos” (“often the silences and gazes filled the mental space with resplendent images that language would only have been able to show in cloudy mirrors”). That friendship lived on after Neruda’s death, and Cortázar relates how “cuando bebo, cuando amo, cuando miro algo que me parece bello o bueno . . . algún verso salta desde el trampolín de la memoria para responderme, para acompañarme” (“when I drink, when I love, when I see something that seems beautiful or good . . . some poem leaps from the springboard of memory to answer me, to accompany me”).

And there among the drawers that Aurora Bernárdez happened to look through one Parisian winter evening, when she discovered all the texts that would become Papeles inesperados, were a few scattered poems. Cortázar spent more than the last three decades of his life living outside Argentina, a citizen of his own world inhabited by cronopios like himself. “La patria” (“Homeland”), with its unknown date, speaks of that place we always want but can never have:

Patria de lejos, mapa,
mapa de nunca.
Porque el ayer es nunca
y el mañana mañana.
(Homeland from afar, map,
map of never.
Because yesterday is never
And tomorrow tomorrow.)

While the novels of magical realism seem almost a quaint regionalism now, Cortázar stands out as a forerunner of postmodern literature. When Papeles inesperados is translated into English, a whole new generation of readers here and around the world will find that for themselves.

(All translations from the Spanish by Jay Miskowiec.)

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2009/2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009/2010

DEVI: Volumes 1-4

Shekhar Kapur
Virgin Comics ($14.99 each)

by Spencer Dew

While Hinduism has a multiplicity of specific goddesses, they are all manifestations of a larger notion called Devi, the Sanskrit term for Goddess. Among the most venerated aspects of Devi is Durga, created to battle a demon undefeatable by the gods and thus equipped with more power than the male pantheon. Durga, unlike her unkempt fellow goddess Kali, is as beautiful as she is deadly, often riding ladylike, sidesaddle, into battle. In some variants of her mythology, she is explicitly seductive, using her own nudity— even the exposure of her genitalia— to distract and thus slay the demon, while in other variants she doesn’t even slay him, merely conquers his demonic nature and takes him as a lover.

Such rich mythical tradition, thick with ambiguity and deep reflections of our human fears and fantasies, is unfortunately absent from the ongoing comic book Devi, now collected in four volumes from Virgin Comics. Emerging as a collaboration between billionaire Richard Branson, filmmaker Shekhar Kapur (ElizabethBandit Queen), celebrity self-help guru Deepak Chopra (Golf for EnlightenmentAsk the Kabala), his son Gotham Chopra, and entrepreneurs Suresh Seetharaman and Sharad Devarajan, Virgin Comics was created as a bid to tap both the Asian market and Asian talent— to “redefine the Indian entertainment industry” by encouraging engagement between writers, artists, and filmmakers over the classical tropes and images of Indian culture. Titles such as Shekhar Kapur’s DeviShekhar Kapur’s Snake WomanThe SadhuRamayan 3392 AD, and India Authentic exemplify both the clever business tactics and intriguing artistic concepts behind this program.

Some of Virgin’s titles are quite strong: Shakhar Kapur’s Snake Woman, for example, adapts a loose collection of myths and folktales about Nagas (snake people), mining their Freudian resonance with sexuality and sexual fears. Writer Zeb Wells weaves this all into a compelling tale of occult intrigue placed in contemporary Los Angeles but with roots in the pillaging of the East India Company. Other titles are less successful: the awkwardly titled Ramayan 3392 AD draws inspiration from epic poetry that details Rama’s attempts to recapture his wife Sita from a demon, but Chopra and Kapur’s version suffers from what reads like an unfamiliarity with the complexity (and tragedy) of the familiar tale—not to mention a willful ignoring of the role the Ramayana has recently played in justifying horrific mob violence by Hindu nationalists. (That a demon suicide bomber declares “God is great” before detonating will surely be read as a reference to the very Muslim citizens these lynch mobs have targeted).

But if, beyond any instance of political or even religious use, great myths have something in common, it is their compellingly human portraits, the intimacy and authenticity with which they explore our weaknesses and our resiliency, our contradictions and passions. Here is where Devi fails most spectacularly, in part because there are clear gestures at an attempt. For inexplicable reasons, gorgeous and kind young Tara Mehta is cohabitating with a particularly broad-chested Indian gangster in the invented city of Sitapur, where giant ruins meld with contemporary architecture. Mehta has been targeted, however, by a dagger-wielding, saffron-robed sect, intent on kidnapping her and using her body for a ritual that involves possession by the Goddess. While goddess possession is a fairly standard religious event in Hinduism, these baddies have something else in mind. Suffice to say, the ritual goes sour, as do the various sinister plots afoot. Instead of being sacrificed, Mehta becomes fused (old school fashion— think the professor/student mind meld of the old Justice League Firestorm) with a particularly limited example of “divine consciousness.”

The Devi in question doesn’t know what a birth certificate is, nor electromagnetism, yet she comes with a variety of powers, handed down by a decidedly non-Hindu pantheon. There is Mars, god of war; Kama, the Hindu deity of love; Death, personified; “Interface,” a sort of cosmic consultant; the generic chief of the pantheon, a bearded “all-father,” “sky-emperor”; Ra, the solar god of Egypt; and “Kapital,” who assures the new semi-deity super-heroine, “Let’$ not forget that your project i$, fundamentally, a re$ource optimization problem like any other. A$ an effective benefactor, I must make $ure that your initial endowment$, at lea$t, are abundant.” This may be meant as a double-entendre about Mehta’s super-heroic breasts—this particular Devi is, after all, a “leather-clad superbabe,” accompanied on adventures by an alcoholic policeman and stalked by a clawed female assassin in even more outrageously tight clothes. Unlisted among her new powers is the handy fact that the skirt of her outfit varies in length, allowing artists to offer views, when appropriate, of the leather-clad orbs of her ass.

Yet apart from a tendency toward curves and cheesecake poses, the art is as unremarkable as the writing. Volumes 3 and 4, scripted by Saurav Mohapatra and drawn by Saumin Patel, Edison George, Siddharth Kotian, and (for Volume 4) Chandrashekhar A., offer a more realistic view of India than the earlier volumes, giving us at least moments and details reflecting real observation (the cup of creased napkins on the restaurant table, the bucket in the shower, one authentically overpopulated street scene). The dominant tendency (perhaps motivated by plot) is toward recyclable settings; an expansive abandoned dock figures centrally, presumably because, with its emptiness and measured grid of bricks, it seems designed for large-scale, Devi-on-demon smackdown.

It’s tempting to dismiss the series as so many silly plot lines and so much rehashing of clichés, except that Devi’s presentation of sexuality and violence is not as innocent as its random inclusion of a robotic dog or its penchant for routine resurrections. In his introduction to Volume 3, Kapur writes that he “was fascinated by the representation of the female energy in our mythology as complete opposites . . . the Avenger and the Nurturer.” This is one of the central religious paradoxes, usually read as pointing to the insufficiency of human metaphors (language and thought in general) to comprehend the divine. Allah, in the Qur’an, is likewise all-merciful and an avenger, the maternal creator and ultimate judge. But Kapur is not interested in reading Devi theology as theology; he’s interested, as he admits, in “the psychology of the modern male” (obviously his assumed audience for these comics).

The average male, Kapur claims, “desires both” forms of the feminine “and is reviled for that dual desire.” On the one hand, such a man suffers from “the absolute need to put the female that he loves… on a pedestal.” He compares this aspect with the Virgin Mary, in part because he wants to make a pun on the idea of sins, since “sins” in this case are precisely “those deep dark desires of mad sexuality with the very idol of his worship. The search for the object of intense sexuality. The schizophrenia of separation of the same object. To worship and to ravage. To separate and then to find union through an act that is mad, passionate and sometimes violent.” Such rehashing of the old Freudian desire for the virgin and the whore is entirely unrelated to the theological paradox Kapur has identified in Devi imagery: the ferocious Kali, for instance, her tongue dripping blood, is a loving mother figure as well as a warrior against evil. But Kali’s feminine energy is never whorish, nor is the Goddess imagined as manifesting the spectrum of “sexual energy” Kapur claims to be pursuing with this comic, running between “the nurturing kind” to “the flirtatious and outrageous kind.”

So, apart from gestures or trappings of religiosity, Devi is interested in sex, in the conflicting desire that guides the male gaze. We, Kapur declares, want a Tara Mehta who is good with children, handing out cricket supplies to neighborhood kids. But we want her to wear a dress that barely covers her pubis while she does so. We want her to be a nice, charitable person, willing to wait alone in a club for her boyfriend to show up, but we also want evidence that she’s a freak behind closed doors, hence her cohabitation with said boyfriend, and hence said boyfriend’s being a vicious killer solidly twice her size. And what does this desire demand of a woman who’s turned super-powered? The same thing, it seems, as it demands of the ladies of World Wrestling Entertainment: conflict with larger and larger men, more and more fierce and ferocious women, abject violence, and bondage postures. The “we” assumed by Kapur’s psychology may be divided about punching our own female acquaintances in the nose, but “we” thrill to see it in living color on a comic panel. Likewise with seeing Devi lifted up, writhing, with pulsating tentacles tightening around her leather-clad body, strangling her unconscious.

If all this seems like standard comic book chauvinism or sexual fetish, consider again the claim that, withDevi, a new collaboration of artists and writers sought to “redefine the Indian entertainment industry.” Perhaps it would be useful to consider, too, the extended all-village gang rape scene in Kapur’s Bandit Queen (another story about a woman who becomes, or at least is believed to be, a manifestation of Devi). When the film debuted two decades ago in India, crowds protested its sexual explicitness (in a culture where on-screen kisses were still taboo), but crowds (of men) also lined up for blocks to see and be titillated by it. While Indian society has, without a doubt, changed in remarkable ways, it was only eight years ago that groups of Hindus, inspired by Hindu nationalist rhetoric, launched lynch mobs against their Muslim neighbors in Gujarat. As Martha Nussbaum has recently detailed in The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India’s Future (Belknap Press/Harvard, 2007), this wasn’t merely violence, it was sexualized violence; women were gang raped and then, literally, raped to death, metal objects inserted deep in their vaginas. It is not a stretch to see an echo here of Kapur’s musings on male psychology, and it is not enough— nor can it ever be enough— simply to assent to such psychological realities as unchangeable.

In this light, it is hard to see Devi as harmless eye candy. Rather, the rich tradition of goddess worship and goddess mythology has here been twisted into soft-core pornography for sale to a new generation of Indian and international males. It may “redefine the Indian entertainment industry,” but it’s the oldest marketing trick in the book.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010


Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely, and Philip Tan
DC Comics ($24.99)

by James Fleming

In the 1980s, graphic novels such as Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke offered a radical reformulation of Batman that transformed the character from pop icon into a gothic, existential, disturbed crusader for vengeance, more spiritually and intellectually akin to Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Lord Byron’s Manfred than to Superman or Captain America. Miller and Moore’s characterization of Batman as decidedly dark and tortured came to dominate virtually every depiction of the character over the next two decades. While plenty of good Batman stories appeared after Miller and Moore’s books, the character nevertheless did not develop again in any meaningful way until Grant Morrison began writing the monthly Batman comic in 2005. Through storylines such as “Batman and Son,” “The Black Glove,” and “RIP,” Morrison has taken the Batman mythos in entirely new directions by absorbing forgotten and erased aspects of Batman’s comic book continuity, offering a potential destiny for him, and establishing new relationships and dynamics within his world.

Morrison’s latest graphic novel, Batman & Robin: Batman Reborn, collects the first two storylines from Morrison’s ongoing Batman & Robin comic: “Batman Reborn” and “Revenge of the Red Hood.” Morrison, who deconstructed the character of Bruce Wayne and seemingly killed him off in his recent “RIP” and “Last Rites” storylines, opens “Batman Reborn” with Dick Grayson, the original Robin, reluctantly wearing the guise of Batman. Wayne’s long-lost son Damian Wayne is cast as a violent, impulsive, brilliant and pre-pubescent Robin. Morrison uses this change in the characters’ identities to shift the standard Batman and Robin paradigm. Grayson is depicted as being less disciplined, assured, and intellectual than Bruce Wayne, but also as a far more daring, fun-loving, emotionally balanced and self-conscious Batman. Damian Wayne is presented as an arrogant, slightly sadistic, and deadpan Robin who possesses all of his father’s mental prowess and courage but little of his humanity. By taking the bold leap of changing the very essence of the long-standing Batman and Robin dynamic, Morrison has made the most famous superhero team in pop culture fresh and relevant once again.

The storylines collected in this volume—which represent only two parts of the much larger Batman epic that Morrison has been working on for the past five years—establishes the new status quo in Batman’s world and sets Batman and Robin up against the new enemies and challenges that have arisen in the wake of Bruce Wayne’s apparent death. In the first storyline, Batman and Robin investigate an army of bizarre circus freaks undertaking a twisted master plan which involves an insane professor conducting face transplants, human sex traffickers, and an identity-destroying street drug. In the second storyline, a new vigilante duo with a gift for multimedia self-promotion, as well as ties to the pasts of both Batman and Robin, surfaces in Gotham City and embarks on a particularly excessive and amoral solution to criminality. Thematically, Batman & Robin: Batman Reborn is about a lot of things: the complicated relationship between fathers and sons, the burdens of legacy, the temptations and dangers of vengeance, the ways in which a family copes with grief, and the relevance of the superhero in a late postmodernist world of moral relativity, ultra-violence, and constant media surveillance.

While Morrison’s characterizations are pitch-perfect and his plots are engaging and entertaining, he also provides his stories with a measure of levity largely lacking in contemporary superhero comics. Not only do his characters fight, crusade, and investigate, they also eat, joke around with each other, worry, and reflect upon their actions. The seemingly off-hand details that populate the story serve to provide the characters with a measure of humanity and realism that helps us to identify with them more closely and suspend our disbelief against the absurdities and impossibilities we encounter over the course of the narrative.

Given his playfulness, intelligence, and creativity, as well as his love of intertextuality, Morrison—at least in terms of his work on Batman & Robin—is more akin to Thomas Pynchon than Stan Lee. Like Pynchon, Morrison has a tendency to overwhelm his stories with plot, characters, and references to histories both real and imagined, to such a measure that the reader’s head spins under the accumulation of details the story presents. Morrison’s love of mystery, trickery, and postmodern literary tropes is also reminiscent of Paul Auster’s early work, City of Glass in particular. And his characters’ subversive self-awareness and humor, as well as Morrison’s distinctly English fascination with hyperactive American culture, recalls Martin Amis at his very best.

Morrison might even be inventing a new genre of comic book here: the flashy, self-conscious, and socially, politically, and aesthetically subversive superhero comic. In his afterword to Batman & Robin: Batman Reborn, Morrison states that his intention was for the book to be “fast-moving, twisty and physical, like paint being flung around a room by chimps in a gabba gabba frenzy of violence without consequence—as garish, sensationalist and flippant as we could make it.” While Batman & Robin: Batman Reborn is certainly fast and garish, thanks in large part to the outstanding, lively art by Frank Quitely and Philip Tan, the book itself is hardly sensationalist and flippant. If anything, Batman & Robin: Batman Reborn serves to counter the sort of sensationalism that has been in vogue in popular superhero comics for the past twenty-five years by offering a story that is timely, subversive, and intelligent and moralistic above all.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010

ACROSS THE PLAINS: Sarah Royce’s Western Narrative

Sarah Royce
edited by Jennifer Dawes Adkison
The University of Arizona Press ($19.95)

by Emy Farley

In April of 1854, Sarah Royce and her family left Iowa in a covered wagon bound for California, the land of opportunity. Along the way, Royce kept a journal that would, thirty years later, serve as the basis for a memoir entitled Across the Plains. Now, more than 150 years after Sarah Royce first set out as a pioneer, her story is finally being told in full, faithfully rendered with careful and attentive editing by Jennifer Dawes Adkison.

Across the Plains was originally published with several sections of the manuscript omitted or reorganized. This editorializing led to a misrepresentation of Royce and of the significance of her memoir; further, it marginalized the importance of the religious faith Royce credited with sustaining her on her journey. Adkison’s edition keeps the memoir intact, allowing Royce to tell her story in the way she intended. The ample introduction provides readers with a vibrant picture of the author and the necessary historical framework to make the memoir truly come alive.

Royce’s journey across the plains is fascinating and surreal. Several scenes are such strokes of luck they sound almost providential: an Indian attack that threatens but never materializes; a blacksmith who comes along at just the right time; and U.S. government rangers with spare mules for mountaineering. As is often the case with historical memoirs, the modern reader must continually remind herself that these unimaginable incidents actually happened.

Once the Royces reach California, however, the memoir changes tone. When the party is safely in the mining camps, Sarah fixes her gaze on the social workings of her new environment, particularly those associated with class standings and religious associations. In this half of the book, she devotes as much space to discussing the way western women force their way up the social ladder or gushing over the virtues of her newfound congregation as she spent worrying over starvation or Indian attack in the earlier trek across the plains. It is at this point that the reader becomes aware of Royce’s intent to make history take note that the lawless, rough Western archetype does not fit every mold. Royce wants her expert testimony to reflect that there was another, orderly element to early California society—one based on law and faith and common decency.

Sarah Royce has no shortage of company in the pioneer memoir, but the clarity of imagery and the level of detail with which she recounts her experiences, as well as her constructed, authoritative voice, sets her memoir apart. Adkison’s clear analysis of her subject and her focused research also aid in bringing Across the Plains back to life. A brief but rewarding read, it is sure to transport anyone on an astounding journey along the wagon tracks of our nation’s grand history.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010

THE EXTENDED WORDS: An Imaginary Dictionary

Sid Gershgoren
Red Dragonfly Press ($23)

by Jenny Dunning

FLUG /fləg´/ n. 1. A substance reputed to wash haze from some, but not all, early mornings. 2. By extension, any act or word or image which clears ambiguous action and verbiage from any given group of co-terminous situations selected by chance or, barring chance, by outright chicanery.

You won’t find flug in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, or even in theOED. It’s a word from Sid Gershgoren’s “imaginary dictionary,” The Extended Words. Yet, like so many of Gershgoren’s inventions, once you’ve encountered it, it seems like a word English should have.

The author of four books of poetry, Gershgoren has compiled a list of plausible-sounding words, defined them, and provided invented quotations that demonstrate their use. The words range from pure whimsy—such as galisse, a shoe that knows where its wearer wants to go and how to get there—to barbed rants aimed at intellectuals and mass culture alike, as in synecdofuge, “a device used to expel verbal, long-range, parasitic reductionisms.” Some are onomatopoetic—pecta pecta, an often fatal stuttering disorder—while others, like ikristics (frozen particles of air indistinguishable from snowflakes) wear their etymology on their sleeves.

As fun as it is, there is a serious point to the project. In a “Short Note” by “the Author Himself” (with its echoes of Fielding), Gershgoren exhorts the reader to participate actively in the text. He even includes exercises in which the reader is invited to invent her own definitions and supply words for definitions provided. Language, Gershgoren maintains, is arbitrary, and we benefit from exposing this, from pushing at the perceived limits of meaning. Ultimately, Gershgoren’s goal is for the extended words to “serve as a basis for the liberation of our linguistic sense, which has been so long held in its real and virtual shackles.”

Finally, though, it’s Gershgoren’s irreverence that makes this book worth reading. Nothing is sacrosanct. Underneath the standard “all rights reserved” copyright notice, a note specifies that copyright “should not and does not and will not apply in any way,” and goes on to riff on the word copyright, concluding that there “is no copy and . . . no right to copy, since there is nothing whatsoever to copy.” In a similar vein, the back cover mixes a presumed actual blurb from Albert Goldbarth with inventions attributed to Maria Twominds and Last Fancy.

These names are typical of other Gershgoren inventions—Hank Panky, Sister Mammary Angelica Pouncer, Roger Curmudgeon, and the like, all supplied with their own “biographies” at the back of the dictionary. Mary Border Redemption’s first book, A Manual for Eating, has few extant copies as it was printed with vegetable dyes on spinach paper so it could be “digested” on reading. Lait de L’Etat, the “real” founder of the La Leche League, expounds on his child rearing theories in his article “The Substance of the Afterbirth,” found in his sixteen-volume tome on weaning. You get the idea.

Gershgoren himself cautions that attempts to read the book cover-to-cover will likely result in an “incapacitating linguistic indigestion.” It’s the kind of book best left in a place where one might spend longer than expected and look for a no-strings-attached sort of entertainment. Gershgoren’s word xeticseems to apply: “wildly improbable, but always, on slightly closer inspection, ‘refreshingly’ improbable.”

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010


edited by Vanessa Guignery and Ryan Roberts
University Press of Mississippi ($22)

by Jeff Bursey

Throughout the eighteen conversations appearing in Conversations with Julian Barnes, the English author comes across as private, relaxed, mindful of his interviewer, and intelligent; the interviewers come across as dull-minded (Caroline Holland), sharp-witted and challenging (several), and whimsical (Margaret Crick). It says something about Barnes that in the worst conversation, with the disrespectful Stuart Jeffries, he retains his dignity while Jeffries comes off as a prat.

Like his contemporaries Ian McEwan and Martin Amis, Barnes is regarded as one of the leading writers in England. Over a long career that shows no signs of abating, he has written on many different topics, and the interviews here reflect this. The most frequent subjects are writing, Flaubert, satire, taboos, God, religion, death, influences, history, and journalism. There are asides on literary theory (he has no time for it), criticism (he used to have time for it, but hasn’t for some years), old age, and how to write. The editors have provided a well-rounded picture of the author, while respecting his private life.

Many of Barnes’s provocative remarks reveal his attitude toward writing and its interaction with the world. In an early newspaper interview he is asked, “What is the purpose of fiction?” and he replies: “It’s to tell the truth. It’s to tell beautiful, exact, and well-constructed lies which enclose hard and shimmering truths.” Yet here as elsewhere in the book, one can ask what truths Barnes has in mind. Those he refers to in Conversations concern facts—the few we can agree on—and a small range of specific actions. His characters make “moral decisions,” a sign of their “middle-class background,” but this only leads one to question what merit, legitimacy, or universality they could possibly have. Barnes states that “immediate questions of what’s right and wrong” occur “only in sexual relationships,”—a rich topic that doesn’t get explored thoroughly.

During the last interview, conducted by both of the volume’s editors, Barnes states that his “family’s vestigial to nonexistent sense of religion over successive generations is typical of what has happened to religion in Britain, at least in terms of the indigenous British Anglicans.” Certainly this is interesting to think about when considering Barnes’s works; however, his family doesn’t help us understand the growing numbers of adherents to other religions in his own country.

“‘The idea that God created the world in which we live, given its inequalities and injustices, is incredible. If He were an unjust God and He created the world, on the other hand, that might make more sense.’” This view that Barnes holds, more pithily summarized in his phrase “I don’t believe in God but I miss him,” causes one to wonder where morality itself comes from. It also may be a reason why he objects to his work being classed as satire, preferring the word “semi-farce.” In another interview he states that “the official purpose of satire is to chastise the mighty and to correct the powerful, but the mighty and powerful are remarkably unaffected by this.” Instead, satire’s “legitimate purpose” he claims, “is to mock the mighty for the consolation of the weak and the poor.”

Barnes is one of those writers who compose without a specific program. “Appetite comes with eating and ideas come with writing,” he says; “I never start my novels wanting to prove something; I never start my novels with any sort of thesis.” Still, we might note with Vanessa Guignery that Barnes is noted for his tendency “to experiment with new narrative forms.” He responds: “Yes, of course, it’s one of my key motivations. I think form is terribly neglected in the contemporary British novel.”

Unfortunately, Barnes does not refer to his near contemporary, Gabriel Josipovici, whose works, often of deep emotional resonance, are formal inventions carried off with grace. But the main point is taken. It’s a disappointment that so many books that are in any way outside the norm get categorized as “experimental,” which only frightens off many readers and does no good to literature. In the next interview, Barnes makes a remark that could be pasted above every writer’s desk: “But the main lesson would be a general one: to take the idea you have for a novel and push it with passion, sometimes to the point of recklessness, regardless of what people are going to say—that is the way to do your best work.” There’s really no other way to do it, though it can be a lonely road.

It is one of the insults thrown at fiction written outside the norm (whatever that is) that such work is not engaging: they don’t have characters one can get behind, the situations are not realistic, the writing is “difficult,” and so forth. Barnes speaks to this quite nicely. Responding to Robert Birnbaum’s comment that “some things can be more of a rational exercise or an emotional outpouring,” he says, “Well yes, but I think there is a lot of emotion in ideas. . . . When we talk about a novel provoking emotions, we tend to think of the emotions that have to do with our own amatory life. I think that books can be emotionally exciting in many different ways.” One could offer, for example, Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities and Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style as books whose ideas and style generate the electricity that courses through a reader encountering them for the first time.

Comfortable with the form of the interview, Barnes doesn’t repeat himself too much, which is always a hazard in such books. There is much to mull over in this comprehensive and worthwhile collection that will give new and old readers of Barnes’s work a greater appreciation for his erudition and geniality.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010

DANCING IN THE DARK: A Cultural History of The Great Depression

Morris Dickstein
W.W. Norton ($29.95)

by Tim W. Brown

Morris Dickstein’s Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression is an extremely timely and fresh study of 1930s literature, film, photography, and music. The book presents a vivid portrait of the era, as illustrated by eyewitness testimony and cultural artifacts. Demonstrating a mastery of his source material, Dickstein persuasively argues that "the arts of the thirties give us a richly subjective understanding of the mind and heart of the Depression" as well as "an incomparable case study of the function of art and media in a time of social crisis."

Dickstein extensively discusses the influences on, and intricacies of, dozens of literary works, including those by John Dos Passos, James Agee, John Steinbeck, Erskine Caldwell, Nathanael West, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, James T. Farrell, Clifford Odets, and others—works which conveyed several general themes of the era’s high art and popular culture: discovery of the "common man"; loss of faith in capitalism; longing for a grander past or better future; adoption of communist, socialist, or fascist poses; and rejection of the traditional success model that had seduced Americans since colonial times.

Dancing in the Dark will also reawaken interest in writers largely forgotten today, notably Michael Gold, author of Jews Without Money. A discourse on Gold and the “proletarian novel,” which had a brief heyday in the early ’30s, explains how writers returned to sociological subjects explored at the turn of the century by Theodore Dreiser and Stephen Crane, and largely rejected their immediate modernist forbears like James Joyce and Gertrude Stein, who focused obsessively on inner psychology. (Dickstein acknowledges that William Faulkner’s work defies such easy categorization, combining dark psychological insights with devastating social portraits.) Emphasis on social criticism intensified throughout the decade, culminating in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, America’s greatest social protest novel.

Dickstein is on less solid footing when describing film. Calling backstage dramas like A Star Is Born cautionary tales about the perils of success is rather self-evident; likewise, it is commonplace to consider gangster movies starring James Cagney, Paul Muni, and Edward G. Robinson as ironic takes on the Horatio Alger myth. The author's commentary on Busby Berkeley dance extravaganzas and screwball comedies like Bringing Up Baby is a bit stronger; not merely fairy tales that charmed economically downtrodden movie audiences, these films were a reaction against "the sense of stasis, the feeling of being bogged down in the intractable," substituting instead "a burst of energy, lightness, and motion. The psychological impact paralleled the morale-boosting effects of the New Deal, the can-do approach taken by FDR."

Despite Dickstein's unremarkable handling of film, Dancing in the Dark remains an engrossing tour de force of criticism, hearkening readers to a not-very-distant time when writers, filmmakers, photographers, and musicians concentrated less on ego and self-expression and more on equality and public spiritedness.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010

WILLIAM T. VOLLMANN: A Critical Study and Seven Interviews

Michael Hemmingson
McFarland & Company ($39.95)

by Jeff Bursey

I’ll begin with the negative. The proofreading of William T. Vollmann: A Critical Study and Seven Interviews is shoddy, with words and parts of words dropped, italicization missing, and names misspelled (Blaise Cendrars is rechristened “Blaise Cendrares,” though you won’t find him in the index anyway). Perhaps the publisher issued the book too hastily to coincide with the release of Vollmann’s Imperial, but the National Book Award-winning author deserves much better—especially when one considers how, with his own CoTangent Press, he carefully puts together art books. The errors irritate, and get in the way of the reading. It’s a pity, for as Michael Hemmingson writes in the preface: “This is the first book-length critical work on Vollmann; it is my intention that this study will be the starting point for all Vollmann studies.”

Those faults aside, this is a worthy critical study and interview collection for those both familiar and new to Vollmann’s work. Hemmingson follows his preface with an introduction that provides some biographical details about Vollmann’s life and career, then moves into thematic discussions that link his fiction and nonfiction (though You Bright and Risen Angels and Rising Up and Rising Down get separate chapters). The Seven Dreams fictions are summarized concisely, as are Vollmann’s most recent works,Poor People (2007), Riding Toward Everywhere (2008), and Imperial (2009). Hemmingson is throwing a net at a very fast-moving and productive target. “If you are reading this years after the 2009 publication date,” he writes, “there are most likely half a dozen Vollmann titles not addressed herein.”

It’s not easy to summarize such lengthy and/or complex works, and Hemmingson allows himself only eighty-one pages to do so—making it clearer than ever that the time is well overdue for a collection of essays by various hands on Vollmann’s work, as Hemmingson can only graze the many topics found therein. He sets out the main ones in the heading for Part I (the critical study portion): “Freedom, Redemption, and Prostitution.” There are more to the books than this, of course, and one looks forward to more in-depth examinations of, for instance, Vollmann’s methodology, language, and sentence structures; how pastoral, rural, industrial, and war zones exist side by side in his work; his quest for freedom and apparently careless regard for his own life; how character is developed; what captures his photographer’s eye; class striations; and the reception of his work in different parts of the world.

Part II, “Seven Conversations,” points to some of these topics, although what gets highlighted depends on who is doing the interviewing, and not every conversation is at the same level of intensity. “Moth to the Flame (1991)” with Larry McCaffery is of a high quality, as is “Vollmann Shares Vision (2000)” with Michelle Goldberg; “A Day at Vollmann’s Studio (2007)” with Terri Saul explores his art objects, thoughts on painting, and other less-visited terrain, and is enjoyable for this novelty. Naturally there is some repetition, particularly about his early books, but having these pieces assembled in one place is useful, and Hemmingson has chosen well.

In “The Subversive Dialogues (2006),” an amusing interview, Vollmann tells Kate Braverman “The New York Times tends to not like my work. Their reviews can be scathing. I get good reviews in Europe.” True to their history, Times reviewer Lawrence Downes declared in July that Imperial is “a vast, forbidding, monotonous, sprawling book” for one reason: “The problem isn’t the subject; it’s the author.” The problem may be this: instead of coloring within established lines, Vollmann is intent on capturing the drip or deluge of his (and others’) notions, fantasies, realities, and the factual and fictional aspects of anything he looks into. Life and art are messy. This “little corner that he can mark with his own piss,” as he describes part of his career in “Moth to the Flame,” is his alone, with his own rules.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010

OUR NOISE: The Story of Merge Records, the Indie Label that Got Big and Stayed Small

John Cook, Mac McCaughan, and Laura Ballance
Algonquin Books ($18.95)

by Kevin Carollo

Our antennae were tuned very specifically for like minds, as opposed to sending out a signal to convert people. There are some kinds of art that are trying to find their peers, and there are other kinds that are trying to make peers.      —Jenny Toomey

We’re in the office with the big cheese. . . . He asks, “How bad do you want it? From a scale of one to ten, where are you?” . . . And I said, “Man, it depends on what you mean by it. We have a different idea of what it is.” And he says, “Well, you don’t want it bad enough.”. . . So we basically sent the check back and said, “Fuck it.”      —Matt Suggs

During the last twenty years, Merge Records has amassed an astonishing discography of over 350 releases and counting, a list that reflects the Chapel Hill-based label’s penchant for the arcane, the quixotic, and the awesome. Since its inception as a pet project oft subsidized by the group Superchunk, Merge has promoted its artists with a business ethic that runs counter to market and major label forces. As many indie-turned-major bands were snatched up and dropped by the big companies in the 1990s, Merge emerged as a true alternative to the majors, as well as a less top-down alternative to bigger indies like Sub Pop, Matador, and Nonesuch. The “indie label that got big and stayed small” has always maintained a staunch belief in artistic freedom, as well as an understanding of the term “indie” that embraces the eclectic and unpredictable weirdness involved in capturing sound. Now the label has garnered acclaim for having released big-selling bands like Arcade Fire and Spoon. It also has given us some of the heartbreakingly best unheard music ever made: Polvo, The Magnetic Fields, Neutral Milk Hotel, Lambchop, and M. Ward, to name but a few.

We might be tempted to take such a diverse array of musicians for granted, if only because Merge continues to ensure their recordings exist. But if Merge didn’t exist—as many indie labels started with the same verve do not—neither might these baroque marvels of musical mayhem. What would our world be like without the Fields’s 69 Love Songs or Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea? One shudders to think.

John Cook’s moving oral history of Merge Records, Our Noise, co-written with founders and Superchunk members Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance, resonates with other loving treatments of independent bands, including The Replacements: All Over But the Shouting (2007) and Perfect Sound Forever: The Story of Pavement (2004), as well as documentary films about X (The Unheard Music, 1986), Guided by Voices (Watch Me Jumpstart, 1998), Fugazi (Instrument, 2001), and Daniel Johnston (The Devil and Daniel Johnston, 2004). However, Our Noise stands alone in its depiction of an independent label and the sonic intricacies of the underground music scene represented by that label. Cook’s writing both informs and delights, and his descriptions of bands are always on the mark. See, for example, his brief on Polvo: “a disheveled and detuned glorious mess that reveled in unusual time signatures, unconventional song structures, and Eastern tonal scales. They were hailed as leaders in the math rock movement, but played with an orchestrated imprecision that implied access to some sort of alien logic system.” Each chapter focuses on a particular band and time period, and includes fantastic photos and fliers, plenty of eye candy memorabilia, and insightful commentary from the people who were there.

As a whole, Our Noise details the evolution and devolution of the American music scene since the late 1980s with all the passion and intensity of the great bands on Merge Records, serving as a complex cautionary tale about the dangers of signing to the majors. Many bands have turned to major labels only to find themselves devastated by the experience. In this relation, the pursuit of profit seems vigilantly irreconcilable with the creation of beauty. As Julian Koster of Neutral Milk Hotel suggests more poetically, “we were conscious of the fact that a lot of people who had made really wonderful things stopped making wonderful things, and that it seemed to have something to do with their interacting with the real world.”

In a society increasingly predicated on consumerism and conformity, the continuing vitality of Merge Records after two decades is simply incredible. As so many independent labels, bookstores, and news sources are forced to scale back or make way for the bottom line, Merge’s milestone deserves as much celebration and hoopla as the twenty-year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. So turn up the music, and tune in to the magic that is Our Noise.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010

A FINE ROMANCE: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs

David Lehman
Schocken ($23)

by Douglas A. Smith

It’s not until the last chapter of David Lehman’s book A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songwriters that the author recounts to a friend, “I’m writing the book in a way that intermingles fact and fantasy even though it is technically a nonfiction book.” It would have been helpful to know that from the start, because the intermingling of scholarly information with chatty news and gossip is confusing. The first half of the fourth chapter, for example, is a mile-a-minute existential romp with multiple characters, an almost surrealist pastiche of real and imagined conversations between Lehman and those musicians and lyricists he loves. In the second half of the chapter, he bemoans the change of pop music from jazz to rock to rap and explains that this is what got him started on this project. In a way, this is where the book really begins.

Lehman, a poet and editor, uses language wonderfully, artfully extracting lyrics from the songs he loves even when he doesn’t tell us he is doing so; many of his phrases tickle the back of one’s mind with familiarity. This is truly his romance with the music—he has written a love poem in prose format, sprinkled with New York Jewish patois and rhymes. He tries to seduce us into this romance and often succeeds, even though his reader may be much less familiar with the songs and vehicles in which they appeared. To do this, he literally stops his narrative to put on an album, choosing the musicians carefully to create the mood, and then floors us with knowledge both intimate and monumental about his topic. One can read the endnotes for added scholarly information and wit, but it isn’t necessary as the text contains plenty of both: hometown gossip to keep us smiling while we wait, on the edge of our seats, for more factual information about the songs and the writers.

Lehman steals a line from Robert Alter in a 1965 Commentary to describe these Jewish songwriters, saying they were “culturally American in all important respects and only peripherally or vestigially Jewish.” Yet he makes the point that, for the most part, they came to America from Europe as very young children, spoke Yiddish, were exposed to Old World religion and customs, and that these things defined them as a group. Certainly something had to, as otherwise teams of Jewish songwriters and lyricists who had never left New York City might have had no shared experiences on which to base their songs about the Dust Bowl or the hope for snow on Christmas.

One wonders why Lehman waits over 180 pages to discuss the intersection, collision, and collaboration of African American music, i.e., jazz and blues, with the Jewish songwriters of Tin Pan Alley. He states one obvious answer: the subject is “conducive to controversy and misunderstanding.” Another is that it would require a separate book to do it justice. In his penultimate chapter, Lehman gets rather academic about this subject, spending a little time on Porgy and Bess and Showboat, and a whole lot of time on the multiple layers of meaning and psychology within The Jazz Singer. Unfortunately, readers won’t emerge that much more enlightened about the mixture of musical forms by the two groups.

While at times confusing, A Fine Romance is thoroughly enjoyable, right down to the short, witty, and informative chronology at the end of the book. Whether one is familiar with this music and wants to rekindle its romance, or unfamiliar and wants to ignite such a passion, this book is just the ticket.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010