Tag Archives: winter 2005

BLACK HOLE


Charles Burns
Pantheon ($24.95)

by David Kennedy-Logan

With only a cursory flip through the pages, Charles Burns's epic graphic novel Black Hole might seem to be a schlocky horror comic with antecedents such as EC's Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror from the fifties, or the gleefully crude and lascivious underground "comix" movement of the sixties. The pages, after all, are filled with freaks, violence, sex, drugs, and depravity. But spend a little more time poking around, and several qualities of this amazing work will prove that initial impression radically incomplete.

The first is the appearance of the book itself, a hefty and striking hardcover. The second is Burns's eminently recognizable artwork—swaths of solid black chiseled with white, impeccably rendered, like woodcuts printed with pure oil—each page is a revelation, and, at over 300 pages long, it's no wonder it took ten years to complete. The final and most impressive quality, revealed only after the hallucinatory narrative takes hold, is the writing. This graphic novel holds its own as a novel in the literary sense, plumbing emotional depths with complexity, subtlety, and multilayered symbolism.

Black Hole relates the trials and tribulations of a group of high school students in 1970s suburban Seattle. Like typical high schoolers, their symbiotic existence is defined by a Darwinian struggle for social standing among their peers—they are concerned primarily with being cool, fitting in, or, at the very least, being left alone; their bodies and minds are hostage to their pituitary and reproductive systems; they have crushes and infatuations; they feel love, lust, jealousy, and betrayal; they smoke pot, drop acid, get drunk, and have sex. The subject matter is not all that dissimilar from, say, Fast Times at Ridgemont High—except there's no gratuitous nudity, cheap jokes, or Spiccoli. Instead, there's the plague.

When the story begins, a sexually transmitted affliction that causes a smorgasbord of physical deformities—from dermatological oddities to genetic mutations to leprotic abominations—is starting to spread among the teen population. Some sprout horns, others become full-on, rotted-flesh zombies. One character grows a mouth on his chest. Another starts shedding her skin. Yet another grows a tail. (As if it weren't hard enough to get a date.) With a new physical taxonomy for labeling and ostracizing "weirdos," the most hideously deformed flee school and home altogether, setting up camps in the woods outside the city. Proving the author has a wry and sardonic sense of humor, one of these ogre-like monstrosities is a former chess club geek.

Structurally and visually, Black Hole is a tour de force. A palpable tension is generated between the ice-cold, hard-edged, clean look of the art and the warm, odorous, messy organic processes that it depicts. The narrative point of view is subjective, and rotates among different characters from chapter to chapter. Sometimes the point of view changes without warning within a chapter, to jarring effect. The story also includes harrowing dream sequences, memories, and drug-induced hallucinations, and Burns presents the entire affair in a nonlinear fashion, placing visual markers delicately here and there to help the reader piece chunks of time together. It would all be unintelligible were it not for the author's mastery of comics' unique ability to manipulate time and space. He creates a simulacrum of subjective consciousness unparalleled in the graphic novel format—and not often matched in even the best prose fiction.

Without a doubt, the plague wreaks havoc on the lives of these young men and women. But the havoc—and here is the key to the singularly convincing artistry of this book—does not differ qualitatively from that wrought by the run-of-the-mill acne, voice changes, body hair, growth spurts, and sexual urges of puberty. It differs only by degrees. Among the worst fears of adolescence is that of being cast out, considered unwanted or unattractive. Black Hole takes this fear—a faint but persistent hum in the background at any high school—and amplifies it to a wail, omnipresent, deafening, inescapable. Compounding the tension and dread is the fact that, as in a Peanuts strip, the parents and teachers of the town are all but nonentities. These teens, on the cusp of adulthood, face their hellish problems alone. Just as they do, for the most part, in reality. And while some have argued that the debilitating, misunderstood, and uncurable ailment Black Hole depicts is a metaphor for AIDS, most readers will find that restricting the scope of the work to a specific disease rather than a fundamental aspect of the human condition is unnecessarily reductive.

An alumnus of Art Spiegelman's seminal RAW magazine, Burns himself grew up in Seattle in the '70s. Kurt Cobain, another Seattle artist obsessed with biology, mortality, alienation, and decay, in the most famous anthem to teen malaise ever recorded, sang, "Here we are now / Entertain us / I feel stupid / And contagious." The song makes a good soundtrack to the book. As a portrait of high school, Black Hole is disorienting, disturbing, and depressing. Rarely has the genuine terror of this stage of life been explored and presented in such an unadulterated and honest way. High school is a pressure cooker that will, when conditions get bad enough, explode with murderous consequences. There is a thread that, even if only tenuously, connects this fictional work of art to real tragedies like the Columbine and Red Lake shootings. That thread is the terminal isolation, crushing self-doubt, and excruciating growing pains of adolescence.

Despite its fantastically horrific episodes, in the end Black Hole is a tender and heartfelt meditation on the turbulent journey from childhood to adulthood, the painful search for a place to belong, and the fragile, malleable, and resilient nature of identity. It is also a treatise on, and a testament to, artistic commitment. Its roots may be in those schlocky horror comics, but its uppermost branches—like those of the whole comics medium—are growing toward the sky.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2005/2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005/2006

WOODY GUTHRIE ARTWORKS

Edited by Steven Brower and Nora Guthrie
Rizzoli ($45)

by Charles Homans

Woody Guthrie's visual art may have originated in the same place and time as the music that made him famous: Shorty Harris's drug store in Pampa, Texas, circa 1929. Between intermittent shifts as a soda jerk, the 17-year-old Guthrie painted murals of desserts and wintry mountain landscapes in watercolors on the front windows of the store, and discovered in the back room an abandoned, rusty-stringed guitar. The former, Guthrie believed, would be his meal ticket when he left Pampa for California in 1937. The latter would help him create one of the most durable archetypes of 20th Century America.

Guthrie is so permanently linked in the popular imagination with the folksongs he authored that it's easy to forget his apparently boundless creative energies were not—and probably could not have been—confined to a single discipline. He never considered himself to be strictly a songwriter, embracing instead the idea of the folksy polymath embodied by one of his earliest heroes, the singing cowboy Will Rogers. Before Huntington's disease halted his prolific artistic output, Guthrie had been not just a songwriter but a socialist newspaper columnist, a well-received novelist, a radio personality, a modern dance accompanist, and the creator of countless works of visual art, ranging from political cartoons to watercolor portraits to bizarre backyard found-object sculptures.

Nora Guthrie (Guthrie's daughter and director of the Woody Guthrie Archives) and Steven Brower (a graphic artist and writer) make an extensive argument for the importance Guthrie's visual output in Woody Guthrie Artworks, a lovingly assembled volume of some 300 Guthrie drawings and paintings. These run the gamut from a studious 1937 oil painting of Abraham Lincoln to haunting 1951 watercolors of lynchings in rural Florida, and they demonstrate, as Brower says in his accomplished introductory essay, "surprising depth, variety, and a highly refined understanding of composition and expression."

It is true that Guthrie possessed an understanding of and interest in highbrow artistic pursuits, though he took considerable pains to conceal it. Ed Cray's 2004 biography Ramblin' Man amply illustrates that behind the self-styled Dust Bowl hobo poet was an avid intellectual who rubbed elbows with Jackson Pollack and Willem de Kooning in the bohemian Greenwich Village of the early '40s, enjoyed John Cage's piano music, and was married to one of Martha Graham's dancers, Marjorie Mazia Guthrie, for a large portion of his adult life.

His wide-ranging interests notwithstanding, Guthrie's greatest gift was his ear for language, and his paint and ink endeavors pale in comparison to his poetry and prose. While the pieces collected in Woody Guthrie Artworks are often striking, none of them compare to his Dust Bowl ballads or his self-described "autobiographical novel" Bound for Glory, a prose work that reads like the literary missing link betweenThe Grapes of Wrath (Steinbeck was a friend and mutual admirer) and On the Road. As a writer, Guthrie was capable of rendering even throwaway sentences indelibly his own, bristling with invented words and lyrical cadence; in his posthumous novel Seeds of Man, he offhandedly describes the flora of Pecos County, Texas as "sandy cactus of every kind, slim and long, fat and thick, wide and low, high and skinny, curly, twisty, knotty, stickery, thorny, daggery-knifed, razor sharp." A cactus observed with similar casualness in the 1943 drawing "Dream" is depicted competently enough, but it's nothing extraordinary.

Woody Guthrie Artworks' revelations are thus more biographical than artistic, and they are most plentiful in Guthrie's later years. When Bob Dylan visited Guthrie in East Orange, New Jersey in the winter of 1961 to collect his torch, his hero hadn't written a song in nine years. The final watercolors in Woody Guthrie Artworks, however, postdate the last of his known songs.

Although Brower presents Guthrie's interest in abstract art as evidence to the contrary, it's hard to see the dominant influence in Guthrie's faceless portraits and spectral forms from 1951-53 as anything other than the artist's deteriorating mental condition. They are often difficult to look at, and under other circumstances, they might raise questions about whether their maker would have wanted them published at all. But Guthrie's true masterpiece was his life itself, and he seemed determined to put as much of it as possible on the public record. In the end, the only thing in this book guaranteed to raise Guthrie's hackles is its price tag.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2005/2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005/2006

INNOCENT WHEN YOU DREAM: The Tom Waits Reader

Edited by Mac Montandon
Thunder Mouth Press ($16.95)

by N. N. Hooker

Image is a complicated business, particularly when selling authenticity. "Part of my character and personality and image that I have cultivated is that I do not endorse products." Waits successfully sued Frito-Lay for an unauthorized imitation. "I hate it when I hear songs that I already have a connection with, used in a way that's humiliating." Yet, Waits enjoys "hearing things incorrectly." Where is the divide between corrupt commercial culture and authentic street sounds? Waits isn't one to examine such situational ironies. His romance with "outcasts" persists as an imagining of the past as more pure.

Charmingly, Waits never considers his work or the work of those he admires as "product." Such innocence after 375 pages feels less like romantic resistance than aesthetic bad faith—the dreamy innocence might benefit from some real guilt. Waits has always been a post-modern collagist: a second generation Beat singing tin-pan alley to post-punk hipsters. (Waits never was a satirist, however—he believed his myths). Waits has yet to produce anything like Bukowski's Women—a deconstruction of his own myths. He drank. He looked the fuck-up, but his career has been charmed and includes an Oscar nomination. Not that any of this success matters, except that Waits's life and music were always collapsed into the "real" thing. "I got a personality an audience likes. I'm the guy they knew . . . who never really amounted to much . . . good for a few laughs . . . a victim. But I don't mind the image." Bonnie Raitt is less circumspect in the same 1969 (!) Newsweek (!) article: "He's able to make all the double knits both tragic and romantic at the same time."

Surveying his life in print, Waits's convincing "surrealist mix n' match" (Luc Sante) persists. Rolling Stone tries a resurrection storyline, but Waits's death, like the throat cancer rumor, was groundless. A sober, smoke-free family man (why is that particular generation so all or nothing?), Waits is also the rare individual who grows more "out there." The incessant mutation of genre has given way to a more organic music—less pastiche. The cleverness has more risk. He may never have the irruptive genius of Captain Beefheart, but as this book reminds us, his wonderful voice from the corners of America has great breadth and poetic power.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2005/2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005/2006

THEORY'S EMPIRE: An Anthology of Dissent

Edited by Daphne Patai and Will H. Corral
Columbia University Press ($29.50)

by Raphael Allison

Theory's Empire announces itself as a long-awaited and much-belated response to the repressive orthodoxy of Theory, Theory "emblazoned with a capital T." Theory with a capital T refers in this case to a generalized reduction of the ideas of writers like Ferdinand de Saussure, Mikhail Bakhtin, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Luce Irigaray, Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man, Emile Benveniste, Judith Butler, Jacques Lacan, Louis Althusser, and Edward Said. This list could be extended in many directions, but the editors wish to localize it around a few basic principles: the decentering of subjectivity, the politicizing of literary and aesthetic artifacts, the undecidability of meaning, and the recent professionalization and institutionalization of these ideas to the point of intransigence. As the epigraph to this volume by Christopher Ricks aphorizes: "Theory's Empire [is] an empire zealously inquisitorial about every form of empire but its own." Once proclaimed as an ambitious form of cultural revolution, Theory has become what the editors of this volume call a "tedious obligation" for students interested in literature, inspiring just the thing it hoped in its grandiose and arrogant way to avoid, "the passive assent to established routines." With this collection of 47 essays, written by a wide variety of academic insiders and outsiders—there are considerate essays by eminent scholars like Tzvetan Todorov and Marjorie Perloff as well as screeds by journalists like the hysterical Lee Siegel—the editors hope to offer a counterstatement to this "empire" of intolerance which is ruling universities, limiting a full-blooded engagement with literature, and generally traducing a much-maligned tradition that longs for a phoenix-like return.

It is true that Theory can turn to dogma in about the time it takes to say "phallogocentrism." In her contribution to the volume, "Feminism's Perverse Effects," Elaine Marks relates an experience common to many university professors of what could be called the tyranny of the under- or partially-informed undergraduate Left. In a class on Zora Neale Hurston's Dust Tracks on a Road, Marks was shocked to find that the students could not tolerate the fact that "Hurston's narrative did not focus sufficiently on what the students expected to read: the unrelieved story of Hurston's oppression as a black woman growing up in the South in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries." Raised on a crash-diet of highly politicized Theoretical corn, Marks's class could only read Hurston's narrative in ideological terms, and they even had difficulty confronting the very fact of this surprising discrepancy. "In a sense," Marks explains, "the students were denying Hurston the right to write in a certain style, the right to write against the doxa and the discourse of her time and place. They could read Dust Tracks on a Road only in terms of racism and sexism. And because they could not find in it what they were looking for, they denied themselves the pleasures of discovering a new and different text, another mode of writing and reading."

In a similar vein, Valerie Cunningham suggests that the "domestication" of Theory by a cottage industry of critical Baedekers has led to what might be called "Theory tourism," the notion that there are a series of "approaches" one might choose from, and the job is simply to visit each and then decide which one to "apply." From this consumerist perspective, students gas up their chosen theoretical S.U.V. and then plow it through every possible textual terrain, ever missing great vistas for the dogged asphalt. Many essays in this volume address this real problem, and are often eloquent and weary pleas for a "return" to a kind of literariness or aesthetics that guards the literature as a special and unique kind of writing. It is hard to read as informed a scholar as Marjorie Perloff without sympathy as she reviews studies of Conrad's and Joyce's complicity with "power" and concludes that in the "zeal to unmask the hidden ideologies of these and related novels, critics seem to have forgotten what brought them to Ulysses or Heart of Darkness in the first place—namely, the uniqueness of these novels as works of art."

Yet while some such arguments are reasonable, reading through 47 of them over roughly 700 pages raises a few problems. The first is the problem of the discarded baby: with so much dirty bathwater to discharge, few of these writers seem to recognize the many healthy theoretical correctives to a problematically un-theorized professional field that, say, overlooked women and writers of color, or promulgated cultural and aesthetic norms that concealed political suasions. It is easy to dismiss baldly politicized identity politics, as Todd Gitlin does in his essay "The Cant of Identity." Kwame Anthony Appiah's entry, "Battle of the Bien-Pensant," is a more measured critique not of academic moralism as such, but "moralism run amok," which gets to the main issue more clearly and fairly. But so bent are many of these essays on jettisoning Theory's missteps and blunders that they rarely acknowledge any of its successes.

Another glaring issue is repetitiveness. One thing that can be said for Theory is that it is rarely dull. Perhaps, as many here claim, Theory holds in common a certain set of basic ideas and assumptions—what body of work doesn't?—but one of the "joys" of reading Theory is that it is continuously surprising, challenging, different, elusive, maddening, frustrating, devious, wrong, right, insane, other, ugly, contradictory, queer. You don't step into the same river twice reading Theory in the way that you do reading Theory's Empire, which feels more like a thin trickle of harassments, repeated over and over again with righteous outrage and exasperation. Perhaps most problematically, only a few cartoonishly abstracted and simplified claims—ideological critique only carries us so far, there are absolutes we can agree upon after all, literature is special, etc.—stand in for the immensity of theoretical discourse. Yet only a dogmatist or ideologue would contradict such claims.

And so Theory's Empire shreds a straw man. This straw man is constructed of almost willfully blind ignorance and reductiveness, paradoxically revealed in the very places where Theory is charged with being vague, empty, and misinformed: "What precisely is an interpretive community?" asks one critic. "It's just one very loose cannon of a notion knocking about the Theoretical field." In fact, the "interpretive community," whether you agree with it or not, is an idea carefully articulated by Stanley Fish in his essay "Interpreting the Variorum" and elsewhere. Others may use it irresponsibly, but that's not a sufficient critique of Theory. And if Fish is anything but dull, the shrill refrain that Theory is misguided, misinformed, and misused over and again is excruciatingly dull. Also, the books editors, Daphne Patai and Will Corral, often come off as sloppy and biased guides, citing their classroom experiences with "the student who asserts that any interpretation of a literary work is as valid as any other" as self-evident proof against Theory in general. It doesn't take a Frederic Jameson (or a Leo Strauss, for that matter) to realize that the fault here is not with the stars, but with ourselves. Rather than castigate relativism out of hand, they might do better to castigate students who misread and misuse complex relativistic positions out of ignorance and intellectual immaturity. By Patai and Corral's standard, we might as well blame Shakespeare if a student thinks MacBeth advocates regicide.

But perhaps the most glaring problem with this volume is that for all its outrage and urgency, Theory's Empire reads like a belated commentary on a stale zeitgeist. Most of the essays here were written in the 1980s and the early 1990s (to be precise: two essays are from the 1970s, six from the 1980s, 27 from the 1990s, and 12 from the 2000s). At the risk of seeming faddish, it could be said that times have changed. For instance, we get D. G. Myers's essay on "bad writing," originally published in 1999 in the neoconservative Weekly Standard, which hauls out the cliché that academicians like Judith Butler are stylistically obscure. Turning to this familiar punching bag as a way to condemn "Theory" tout court not only seems to ignore how Butler's language is unrepresentative of current critical discourse, but also makes it clear that Myers is unaware of how often this dismissive strategem has been invoked. Alan Spitzer's essay about the contradictions between deconstruction's commitment to antifoundationalism and its "fact"-based defense of Paul de Man's pro-Nazi writings is at once an excellent article and somewhat of a museum piece. The subsection titled "Linguistic Turns" contains some excellent writing, in particular John Searle's detailed rebuttal of Derrida. It's a wonderfully reasoned piece, but—if one may be so bold as to play weatherman—the wind doesn't blow that way anymore. Derrida is dead, quite literally, and the controversies this volume dredges up do not seem to dominate the work being done in current academic scholarship, which has by and large moved on.

One nagging issue with this volume, as mentioned earlier, is the unavoidable suspicion that there really is no such thing as Theory, at least not in the ways in which this anthology supposes. Many of the book's early essays spend a lot of time defining the term, and the amount of energy it takes to do so should suggest how fraught such an enterprise really is. It is reductive and misleading to say that there is some monolithic, unified movement afoot, some conspiratorial group of leftist academics arrogantly protecting their cultural capital. Yes, theoretical language is often deployed to obscure scant knowledge of and engagement with literature, and yes, part of "professionalizing" oneself in academia includes becoming conversant in a torrent of discursive regimes. One of the frustrating elements of Theory's Empire, however, is that it doesn't allow for the existence of this discipline at all, just a simplification of it. For example, a common tactic many writers use is to condemn certain theoretical positions because they fail to conform to other theoretical positions. Raymond Tallis's attack on Derrida (again with the Derrida) relies on the charge that Derrida "misreads" Saussure by failing to distinguish between langue and parole, eventually dismissing the French philosopher as not Saussurean enough: "Most of the errors in . . . post-Suassurean thought derive, paradoxically, from thinkers overlooking Saussure's fundamental doctrines." Well, it depends on whether you see Of Grammatology as "overlooking" Saussure's doctrines or challenging them. After all, they call it post-structuralism for a reason. Tallis's argument tautologically rejects post-structuralism because it is, well, post-structuralist. Does Tallis understand that Derrida meant to overturn Saussure?

Of course, it is difficult not to agree with some of what is said in this volume about the abuses of Theory. But you might say that Theory is like fire: it can destroy a village, or be used wisely in a control burn to avoid the destruction of a village. Or it is like a sword: it can be plunged into an innocent victim's chest, or it can defend an innocent victim's life. Perhaps the N.R.A.'s traditional argument in defense of the Second Amendment might come in handy here: theory doesn't kill literature, people kill literature. There were bad, reductive readers before Wimsatt and Beardsley came along, and there are surely more to come. But with the turn of the new millennium, which begins a period that falls beyond the moment of all but a quarter of these essays, things have started to change. It might even be said that Theory's "empire" has already begun the long, slow process of attrition experienced in the preceding century by other empires of even greater consequence. If so, this book is a little much, and a little late.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2005/2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005/2006

LIKE A FIERY ELEPHANT: The Story of B.S. Johnson

Jonathan Coe
Continuum ($29.95)

by Scott Esposito

Why has Jonathan Coe—author of several distinguished, if decidedly non-experimental, novels—spent the last seven years writing a biography of B. S. Johnson, a writer who tried to write books that made Ulysses look like a starched shirt? And does this odd coupling result in a worthwhile book?

The answer to the first question is to be found in the introduction to Coe's biography of Johnson, Like a Fiery Elephant.

In the three decades since Johnson's death, the British novel has reinvigorated itself in other ways, ways which he did not foresee: not by 'making it new' with ever more radical attempts at formal innovation, but by recognizing the multi-ethnicity of modern Britain and opening itself to influences from other cultures . . . there are so many other things to admire in Johnson's work, even if you reject his dogma: his command of language, his freshness, his formal ingenuity, the humanity that shines through even his most rigorous experiments, his bruising honesty. For all of these, he remains one of my greatest literary heroes.

As to the second question, Is the book any good? Unequivocally yes. Coe's biography is unequivocally spectacular because, like Johnson's novels, it combines formal innovation with a humanistic portrayal of a compelling protagonist.

Coe starts things off with a short section entitled "A Life in Seven Novels" in which he provides an overview of Johnson's works. We begin with his debut Traveling People, in which "Johnson [is] testing the water: it contains plenty of experiments with form, but they are not radical. Each chapter is written in a different mode (third-person, epistolary, film script, stream of consciousness, and so on), but this veneer of stylistic adventurousness hides a conventional enough Bildungsroman." By the time Johnson reaches his third novel Trawl, he has discovered and embraced his personal dogma: that novelists should tell no lies but instead strive to tell only the truth about themselves. "It is, according to the author himself, 'all interior monologue, a representation of the inside of my mind . . . the closest one can come in writing.' . . . Trawl contains no plot and no invented characters." Following Trawl is The Unfortunates, an infamous work composed of several unbound signatures delivered to the reader in a box—the reader picks at random, reading in whatever order chance dictates. And then there's Johnson's second-to-last novel, House Mother Normal,

a novel which shows one single (and fictional!) event from ten different points of view. [It] is set inside an old people's home. This nine inmates are sitting down to dinner, along with the House Mother herself, and Johnson gives us ten interior monologues . . . each successive character is more infirm than the last, so that the monologues get more and more fragmented, partial and incoherent as the book progresses . . . Finally we get the House Mother's own version of events, which turns out to be even more unreliable—or at least bizarre—than those of her elderly charges.

"A Life In Seven Novels" is a strong opening, familiarizing us with Johnson's work and philosophy, while tantalizing us with clues to the demons that he struggled with throughout his career. Coe chooses an ingenious method for depicting the latter, one worthy of Johnson himself: commentary on 160 fragments of documents from Johnson's life. The thoroughness of this section is breathtaking, as Coe quotes from not only novel excerpts and letters, but also articles Johnson wrote, unpublished pieces, abandoned novels, scribbled notes, and even a request to Beatle Paul McCartney (spelled "MacCartney") to grant him £50,000 as a fellow experimental artist.

Although he is writing a biography, Coe isn't afraid to open up his novelistic bag of tricks. He makes it clear up front that he will be taking liberties to project himself into Johnson's mind and complete the trajectories sketched out by the fragments. The result is a believable account of a stubborn, conflicted man destroyed by his rigid determination to write shockingly difficult works, even as their lack of commercial viability tore at his confidence, fed his indignation, and put him at odds with larger and larger segments of the British literary community. Coe reveals a man with no center, soaring when his work was reviewed favorably and mired in depressed rage whenever his art met with the tiniest slight. This unflattering portrait is tempered by an understanding of the complexities behind Johnson's gruff exterior, imbuing Coe's subject with the universal humanity Coe so admires in Johnson's characters.

One might think that giving us a compelling life of a brilliant writer would be enough for Coe, but Like a Fiery Elephant has yet another dimension. The central dilemma in Johnson's life was that he could not reconcile what he felt in his heart with the fact that the novels his heart told him to write were simply not going to be appreciated as he thought they should be. This is a dilemma that every good writer must resolve; either she will plow forward, market be damned, or forever remain a prisoner to commercial deities. By presenting Johnson's painful thrashings over this dilemma, Coe makes Like a Fiery Elephant not only an engrossing biography but also a profound investigation into what the writing life is like.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2005/2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005/2006

FORTIFICATION RESORT

fortification-resortLynn Crawford
Black Square Editions ($11.95)

by Jim Feast

In her new work of short stories, Fortification Resort, Lynn Crawford seems more in tune with the French New Novelists of the 1960s, such as Alain Robbe-Grillet and Nathalie Sarraute, than with the more formalist Oulipo school with which she is sometimes associated. The New Novelists employed a deadpan, impersonal prose that focused on the depiction of exteriors and surfaces rather than inner states. Their purpose was not to forestall sentimentality in the manner of similarly toned American hardboiled writers, but to exaggerate (with a straight face) the characteristics of scientific and academic style and to explore the power to move readers via a mode of writing that is emotionally tamped down.

While Crawford draws from this heritage, the formidableness of her satirical attack gives her writing a different focus. Her language is modeled on—and quietly spoofs—upscale New Age promotional writing, fluff that would extol a spa, new skin enhancer, Pilates program or other psychic or physical rehabilitation. While her prose parodies this material, her content matches style to subject in describing the world of New Age service providers and their clientele. She never voices open criticism of the group, but offhandedly skewers the pretensions, muffled cruelty, and sometimes downright wackiness of her characters.

In "Scout," for instance, the protagonist describes different areas in a deluxe retreat, each more outrageous than the last. In the ocean room, the narrator mentions, "Today, in the mood for something calmer, we set a light wave / light breeze program and discharged imitation sea creatures, designed to users with gentle pressure, no biting, no rough rubbing." That's nothing compared to what we find in the Mean Sex building, where the narrator visits the Potty Room, "a station used by a few regulars who orchestrate their play around going to the bathroom: forcing one another to go, not allowing one another to go," in order to "test bacteria levels." And then there's the UFO Abduction area. The agility of Crawford's writing keeps such descriptions from going over the deep end into obvious satire; she balances readers on the knife edge of uncertainty as to whether she is being straightforward or slyly devious in her tales.

Take "Eco Lady," in which she pokes mild fun at Green Party politicians. In this piece, the feisty grandmother who leads the local ecology movement decides to repackage polluted land while it is awaiting cleanup in the following manner: "She enlivens potentially dead land with a synthetic modern forest-park: clumps of plastic painted to resemble seasonal trees, groves of firs, bushes, and well-marked paths." Or look in "Fancy," the tale of a daughter who is reminiscing about the spirited hi-jinks of her mother. The daughter good naturedly suggests that no one could be offended by this prank: "Mom makes a stew and stirs in, along with peas, beef, carrots, a half dozen buttons."

These examples should indicate that Crawford's Fortification Resort, which might have resulted in heavy-handed exercises in French-derived prosody and jejune protest, has been filled with amazing élan, rib-tickling humor, and effervescent delicacy.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2005/2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005/2006

FLEDGLING


Octavia E. Butler
Seven Stories Press ($24.95)

by Shannon Gibney

Octavia E. Butler's Fledgling offers a new vision of the Other, one which is grounded as firmly in biology as it is in technological experimentation. In this sense, Butler's fourteenth book covers similar ground as her acclaimed book Dawn and her Parable series, but in exploring the theme of an amnesiac genetically modified vampire, Fledgling is thoroughly new territory.

Fledgling is the story of Shori, a young vampire who awakens at the beginning of the book to find herself half-dead and surrounded by the charred remnants of what used to be her home. Blind with hunger but still not remembering who or what she is, Shori stumbles upon Wright Hamlin, a human who she feeds on and who later becomes the first in her new group of "symbionts." Shori eventually mates with other human symbionts, whose blood she feeds on and who, over time, grow addicted to her venom (which in turn, prolongs their lives and makes them healthier).

Shori and Wright begin a journey to uncover her story and also to find any family who may have survived what they learn was a vicious attack on her community. Along the way, they discover that Shori is part of a new race of vampires who have been crossed with African Americans in order to prolong their resistance to sunlight. The race is called the Ina, and Shori is the only living female Ina in her family. Someone, Shori and her ever-growing group of symbionts discover, is threatened by the existence of daylight-immune vampires and is trying to wipe them out.

Although Fledgling takes awhile to get going, the tenacious reader will be rewarded with an interesting Ina trial at the end. These scenes, as well as Shori's interactions with her symbionts, reveal the tenuous relationship between evolution and regression, power-sharing and power-holding, insider and outsider status—all themes which Butler has been exploring for some time. Less interesting are the frequent and rather bland descriptions of food, and the novel's less-than-tension-filled plotline.

But hardcore Butler fans who are addicted to her unique blend of speculative fiction, feminism, and African American culture will not be disappointed with Fledgling. The book delivers the reader into a world that refuses to be predictable and comfortable, a world where your most basic assumptions are inverted, and eventually, dissolved.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2005/2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005/2006

HERE IS WHERE WE MEET


John Berger
Pantheon ($24)

by John Toren

Today's culture, instead of facing mysteries, persistently tries to outflank them. —John Berger

At the age of 80, John Berger retains the curiosity, originality, and daring that have made him one of the Western world's most engaging thinkers for nearly half a century. To describe him as a thinker, however, does not do justice to the immediacy of his recent essays, novels, stories and critical works, which seldom remove themselves for long from the experience at hand. Here Is Where We Meet offers somewhat longer forays into that zone of meditation-experience than those to be found in Photocopies, yet whether he's visiting the pre-historic rock art in the caves at Chauvet, describing the preparations for a friend's wedding in a remote Polish village, or attempting to differentiate the flavors of various types of fruit, Berger succeeds in sustaining the quivering flow of sense and thought that made those brief sketches appealing. Berger's prose is seldom exciting. It takes us in the opposite direction, in fact, away from the rush of drama toward the penetration of people and things. Though it's described on the cover as "a fiction," Here is Where We Meet is actually an autobiographical pastiche. By the time we reach the end of it, we've been taken from Berger's father's experiences in the trenches of World War I to a recent motorcycle trip he took with his daughter to visit the grave of Jorge Luis Borges in Geneva.

Whether any of the events Berger describes are actually true I have no idea, but they are not relayed in anything resembling a chronological order. The first essay-story-meditation, in fact, describes Berger's encounters in Lisbon with his mother. Strange as it may seem, she happens to be dead. Once we've quit trying to figure out how Berger can be talking to a dead person, we begin to more fully appreciate the richness of the mother-son dialogue that's going on. It would appear that Berger is trying to re-imagine his mother's early life, re-sort the impressions and snippets of conversations he overheard as a child, and also fill in a few blanks. This is the way the mind works, remembering, re-ordering, looking for what will hold together and make sense. Berger meets up with his mother only occasionally, however, and meanwhile he's passing the days in Lisbon, relishing its people, its markets, its aqueduct:

The trams in the center of Lisbon are very different from the red double-decker ones that used to run in Croydon; they are as cramped as small fishing boats and they are a lemon yellow. The drivers, as they negotiate the steep, one-way streets, and nose their way round blind jetties, give the impression of hauling in ropes and holding rudders rather than turning wheels and operating levers. Yet despite the sudden descents, the lurches, the choppiness, the passengers, mostly elderly, remain contemplative and calm—as if they were still sitting in their living rooms or visiting a neighbor.

One essay is centered around a poverty-stricken tutor Berger had as an adolescent who introduced him to Orwell and the Spanish Civil War. Another describes his attempt to remember the name of an art-school lover by looking up another student from that era who also knew the young women. In the course of the narrative Berger gives us a vivid rendering of the affair, his own nature at that distant point in time (the Blitzkrieg), and also the attempts of the third student, now a professional well along in years, to re-fashion his life following the recent death of his wife. Though Berger has sought out his old friend largely in order to uncover a lost segment of his own past, in Berger's eyes the man is a character no less interesting than anyone else in the tale. It may be another mark of subtly that Berger begins the piece with a discussion of the neighborhood where his friend now lives, Islington, and how it has changed over the years.

The weakest of the pieces, set in Madrid, involves, once again, an old family friend, along with several characters blatantly drawn from Greek myths of the underworld. But the forced and jangling quality of this piece merely underscores the remarkable coherence of the rest of the book. During his long career as an art critic, Berger's has learned to recognize and despise rhetoric in all its forms, and his prose has a simplicity and directness that may tire readers who are yearning for radical mind-bending stuff. In any case, the best (and the longest) piece in Here is Where We Meet is the last, which draws Berger's deep familiarity with the lives of peasants and construction workers into an extended description of a Polish friend's courtship and wedding. The piece is filled with vintage Bergerisms, such as:

[The priest] knew that each marriage at which he officiated had been agreed upon within an intricate web of calculation, desire, fear, bribes and love, for such is the nature of the marriage contract. Each time, however, the task he set himself was to try to locate what was pure in this web. Like a hunter going into the forest, he set out to stalk a purity, to entice it out of its cover and to let all those present, and particularly the couple involved, acknowledge it.

Berger wrote in Photocopies, "Sometimes it seems that, like an ancient Greek, I write mostly about the dead and death. If this is so, I can only add that this is done with a sense of urgency which belongs uniquely to life." It might better be remarked, with respect to Berger's approach to death, that for him, the dead are alive and well, and full of interesting things to say to us all. For Berger the past is neither something to be "worked through" nor escaped. It is simply another ever-present layer of experience. That he feels its presence so strongly may help to explain why his descriptions of seemingly insignificant experiences can rivet our attention—echoes of the unseen are everywhere.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2005/2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005/2006

FREDDY AND FREDERICKA


Mark Helprin
Penguin Press ($27.95)

by Nicole Duclos

You would never guess it by his fiction, but Mark Helprin is a conservative. Had I known this ahead of time, it's quite possible that I never would have read him. Having not known, the opposite has happened—Helprin is one of the very few living authors that I hold in the highest esteem, expressing such original and exceptional talent, and such love for the craft of writing and for literature itself, that it is nearly impossible to read one of his novels without feeling that the world has changed much for the better.

Helprin's latest novel, Freddy and Fredericka, was published in July of 2005. To say that this is Helprin's first novel in 10 years is true but a bit misleading. Since the publication of his last novel, Memoir from Antproof Case (1995), Helprin has published two illustrated stories, A City in Winter (1996) and The Veil of Snows (1997); a collection of short stories entitled The Pacific (2004); and a towering collection of editorials and articles for the likes of ForbesAmerican HeritageNational Review, the Wall Street JournalCommentary . . . the list goes on. Helprin has been doing anything but resting on his (literal or literary) laurels.

For the diehard Helprin fan, Freddy and Fredericka may look like uncomfortably different territory. Dressed in the garb of a farce, Freddy and Fredericka veers stylistically from his usual fantastic and bittersweet fare. It is the story of two characters very loosely based on Prince Charles and Princess Diana (or perhaps, more precisely, based on what could have happened to them had she been a little bit less than she was, he a little bit more, and the world more than a little bit crazy) who, in an effort to resurrect the regal name Freddy has unwittingly dragged through the mud, are dropped by plane onto American soil having been given the mission to conquer the United States for England.

It is not avarice, nor idiocy, nor selfishness that has put Freddy in such a position, but rather a genuine desire to be a noble and honorable man and king. Bordering on the absurd (think Abbott and Costello in print), the book is, as most Helprin novels and stories are, a book about courage, honor and the willingness to not only accept one's fate but to stand bravely and magnanimously in the face of all obstacles that may thwart it. It is ultimately the story of a hero.

Freddy and Fredericka proves that Mark Helprin has a knack for anything he sets his mind to. He simply never fails. Refiner's Fire: The Life and Adventures of Marshall Pearl, a Foundling (Knopf, 1977), Winter's Tale (Harcourt, 1983), A Soldier of the Great War (Harcourt, 1991) and Memoir from Antproof Case are all testaments to some of the most abundant and moving literature in the last 50 years. His characters are people one can actually admire, not because they are endowed with any special powers or remarkable traits, but simply because when faced with the decision between good and evil, they always seem to choose good, but not cheaply. Helprin's characters are bracingly self-sufficient, something Helprin prides himself on being as well, both in his approach to fiction and to life itself, and especially in his politics.

It is in this arena that Helprin shows a different face. Gone is the romantic, the poetic, and the passion. Helprin divides with stark and strong lines his literary life from his political one. From an interview in the May-June 2005 Harvard Magazine: "Modern literature is all cool and detached, even though a lot of modern writers are passionate about their politics. To me, passion should be for literature, and reason and detachment for politics." Though in his editorials, Helprin seems anything but detached.

September 11 was not so much a discrete event as part of a continuum. It was the result of broad strategic failures that, preceding it by decades, continue to this day and are likely to continue on. It is as if the country has lost, as exemplified by the Left now out of power, a great deal of the will to self-preservation, and, as exemplified by the Right now in charge, not a little of its capacity for self-defense. Our politics and policies have somehow been parceled out to opportunists like Michael Moore—purveyor of conspiracy theories and hatreds, whose presentation, unclean in every respect, is honored nonetheless by the controlling rump of Democrats—and to Bushmen like 'Kip' Hawley of Homeland Security, father of the proposal to allow carry-on ice-picks, bows and arrows, and knives with blades up to five-inches long.

That—an excerpt from Helprin's September 9, 2005 Wall Street Journal editorial—is a perfect example of Helprin's cutthroat attitude towards policy, and his complete lack of fear in expressing it, all caution be damned. In 1983, he argued for the deployment of short-range nuclear missiles in Europe (and has been told that doing so would ruin his chances of ever winning another literary award—a comment that has proven to be true). Helprin publicly advanced his case for impeaching Clinton, served as the Adviser on Defense and Foreign Relations to Bob Dole, and also wrote the former's retirement address. He currently serves as senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, a conservation think-tank dedicated to "a limited and accountable government that respects private property, promotes stable family life and maintains a strong defense." Though his resume may read as one of the glorified G.O.P., it is safe to say that Helprin would prefer not to associate himself with any particular side, and that it is a well-won pride that keeps him from doing so. He is conservative, but he is also anarchic. Republicans don't want him because he speaks out against their failings. The Democrats don't want him because he simply doesn't agree with anything they do. The literary pundits don't want him because he is too outspoken. In his interview with Harvard Magazine, he explains how his individualistic attitude has frightened both the literary and political communities: "I try to determine the truth of a question and am not deterred by the damage that will be done to me by moving out of the herd."

This is where one comes to respect Helprin, and not only because of his incredible talent, his refined aesthetic, his rare and exquisite appreciation of beauty and honor. Helprin stands on his own, and he does so with no concern for the opinion of others. And yet, somehow, this attitude isn't borne out of arrogance but rather an honest-to-God knowing of his own self, a trait that is so rare (not only in writers but in government and rulers) that it is impossible not to stand in awe of his confidence.

It is this confidence that is mirrored in all of Helprin's main characters, and it is this confidence that is found still in the hero of Freddy and Fredericka. In this way, the new novel is trademark Helprin. Freddy is not overcome by any difficulty, and it is easy to imagine that neither is the man who penned him. As Freddy himself says, "Peculiar? Why are we peculiar? We need only behave with dignity to carry ourselves effortlessly through any situation. The day is not even over." And perhaps it is this rare quality—dignity—that keeps Helprin at the top of his game in spite of what others assume about him.

What makes Helprin's views even more intriguing, if not merely controversial, is the fact that in the midst of it all, he maintains his writerly sense of justice and beauty. From the September 12, 2001 Wall Street Journal, Helprin states his views on the war on terrorism with as much poetry as vehemence:

The course of such a war will bring us greater suffering than it has brought to date, and if we are to fight it as we must we will have less in material things. But if, as we have so many times before, we rise to the occasion, we will not enjoy merely the illusions of safety, victory, and honor, but those things themselves. In our history it is clear that never have they come cheap and often they have come late, but always, in the end, they come in flood, and always, in the end, the decision is ours.

In a similar manner, the main character from Memoir from Antproof Case tells us of an equally committed philosophy:

But I have believed from almost the beginning—perhaps unwittingly, perhaps instinctively—that life and love are inseparable, that to honor one you must honor the other, that love can be many things and the cause of many exceptions, and that, as the greatest matter of exceptions, love can be God's permission—indeed, His command—to war against His order to which one is sworn, to war against other men, against nature, against God Himself. Only love can carry such a message, so strongly felt, so terribly laden, so right, so pure and so perfect. Only love.

Whatever the venue, Helprin does not write as mere political exercise or propaganda. He is not writing to convince us but merely to be who he is and what he is. Helprin's characters suggest to us that war and the fighting that is inextricably linked to it may happen for the most noble of reasons; that in the midst of supreme struggle, whatever the cause, we may all still remain whole human beings who live and die for love, for beauty, for dignity, for reasons beyond our own selfish wants and desires. We are not mere bodies, mere machines. We do not stand up to difficulty simply because we are told to but because we honestly believe there is something worthwhile to defend. If life is to have any meaning, we must witness in ourselves and the world around us, some force of grace. Helprin and his talent for storytelling make this, at least in part, possible.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2005/2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005/2006

POLITICAL CACTUS POEMS


Jonathan Skinner
Palm Press ($15.95)

by Francis Raven

Jonathan Skinner's Political Cactus Poems is a slim but relatively ambitious contribution to the field of contemporary experimental ecopoetics, a field for whose resurgence Skinner's journal Ecopoetics ("dedicated to exploring creative-critical edges between making and ecology") is largely responsible. Skinner's poetry is an ecopoetics for this new century, in that it is firmly rooted in our current world, while using many strategies in the tradition of experimental ecopoetics. It is an ecopoetics that knows traditional nature poetry will not get us closer to the natural world.

One of the most innovative pieces in the book could not be presented fully in the book format. "Little Dictionary of Sounds" consists of poems "written as echoes to sounds, recorded around Western New York, Southern Ontario and on the Normandy coast." The resulting pieces are included in Skinner's volume but the original sounds are not. However, they are available at his publisher's website (www.palmpress.org) where they are embedded as Quicktime files in the PDFs of the poems. It is a form that will surely catch on in the experimental poetry world. Using this technology, poems can talk against themselves, communicate with other sounds, or have individual soundtracks. The poems themselves are crystalline examples of an almost Objectivist mode, as in "Fall": "vinyl cooking is worn / in periodic waves with slips / circadian zone attunes rain / one final night of rest."

The question arising from many of Skinner's pieces is the role sublexicons play in experimental poetics. He uses the Latin names of plants and other technical words drawn from science in his poems. Some of these words can be easily investigated and are equivalent to any difficult words a poem has to offer. That is, they can be looked up, pinned down, and so on. But other words in his poems, such as the Latin names of the cacti in particular, cannot be investigated in the same way. They give the poems a certain look and feel of science they allow the poet to dig into the etymology of these words and riff off of their surfaces. They allow the poems to more easily slip from literal meaning, something which all poems must do, but they also don't push the poems forward. As such, they should be used sparingly as Skinner does.

The title sequence consists of more than two dozen poems about cacti and accompanying digitally altered photographs of mixed media cactus sculptures by Skinner's wife, the sculptor Isabelle Pelissier. While individually the Political Cactus Poems work well, their gimmick (or methodology) is quickly learned. According to Skinner, "The Political Cactus Poems were written using Clive Inness and Charles Glass's Illustrated Encyclopedia of Cacti and riffing off the Latin binomial names plus the description of the cacti, mixing in current events along with my own knowledge of desert ecology." It's an interesting technique, but the gambit goes on for too long. Still, Skinner's deftness in weaving together different modes of writing is an overall strength of both the Political Cactus Poems and the volume as a whole, and will hopefully lead to further ecopoetics from Skinner and others.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2005/2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005/2006

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