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“My favourite is the mangled wreckage of a truck engine embedded in the sludge of a dried-up irrigation pond, framed by grape vines shrivelled from the temperature rise none of the farmers wanted to believe in. It’s the result of a car bomb set off by a bunch of right-wing students in Stellenbosch, who thought they could do a better job than government inc. with the drought and the superdemic. The only thing they managed to accomplish was blowing themselves up.”

Lauren Beukes, Moxyland

That selection is interesting here especially because aesthetics (and, well, art) is secondary, subsumed in a larger category of media that runs from advertising to agitprop; Moxyland is near-future dystopia (corporate government, multiple catastrophes) that bears and acknowledges a strong debt to the William Gibson of “the future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” The cynical-paranoid style, though, is the most comfortable and conventional thing Beukes does, and the dressing around it, both the details of artistic practice and especially the specifics of Moxyland’s Cape Town setting, carry much more interest and estrangement. It’s hardly more than cliche to realize, as one character does at the end, that a short-cut to coercing consent is that “you just have to create your own terrorists.” More interesting and more resonant is the discussion, jumping between audio reproduction and camera technique, of introducing noise to avoid uncanny cleanness: “You can do the same thing in photography. Apply effects, lock-out the autofocus, click up for exposure, all to re-create the manual.”

Angry Robot 09.10



April 19, 2014, 10:30am  Comments

“Commercials really get to him. He says you used to be able to skip them, just prog them right out of your recording, but it’s hard to imagine that now. Then he’ll launch into a rant on how the world has evolved for the worst, even though crime is down. But the truth of it is he likes to yell at the television, and I should just leave an old grouch in peace.”

Lauren Beukes, Moxyland

Sometimes reading in this way—that is, in close-read pull-quotes, which is of course not the sum and total of my reading habits, but is something that I do and have done for a while—gives interesting results, shows pretty clearly that what I think is interesting about a particular book is not necessarily what the book itself thinks is interesting about itself. This is the case with Moxyland; all the quotes I pulled came from one of the four narrators, and not even the one I thought was most successful, and they all line up around photography.

Angry Robot 09.10



April 18, 2014, 1:55pm  Comments

“At other times Juleson tried to picture the animal he would imagine if he didn’t know these sounds were made by a man, and he saw a small—the big voice was obvious camouflage—sorrowing, cowardly creature the color of sunbaked mud, crouched in the far corner of its cage, its feet soiled with its own filth, but its eyes hopeful in spite of their manifest stupidity. Large, round, dull eyes, stained with hope, while its bell-shaped muzzle throbbed and quivered with a frustrated need to communicate.”

Malcolm Braly, On the Yard

Music-practice time on the cell block. Paul is listening to someone a ways away trying to learn the saxophone. Please think back to middle school: this is in fact what it sounds like when someone tries to learn to play the saxophone.

NYRB 01.31.02



April 14, 2014, 10:30am  Comments

“Mendoza was a tall elegant Mexican with graying hair and distant black eyes. He carried himself with extreme coolness and the natural remoteness of his handsome face aided the illusion of poise. He communicated almost exclusively in the set phrases of the hipster, and it was a while before one realized Mendoza was a fool, but when the realization came it was with the force of revelation. Seemingly in an instant, like the shift of an optical illusion, his air of elegance deteriorated into dumb farce.”

Malcolm Braly, On the Yard

But where Kesey is sometimes mystical and sometimes goofy, Braly is remarkably level, deadpan. His cons have some great one-liners, sometimes in spite of themselves but not really always. There’s the scene in the group therapy circle where the fellow in jail for murdering his wife and two children protests it’s unfair to keep him imprisoned, because his crime would never happen again; another con points out that he’s run out of children. But Braly’s narration as well performs this deadpan, wised-up and sharp-eyed.

NYRB 01.31.02



April 13, 2014, 10:30am  Comments

“He watched the men walking in the rain—nuts, exercise freaks, claustrophobes—they dug their chins into their upturned collars, and plunged their hands into their pockets. The wind whipped the bottoms of their pants around their ankles. Chilly noted scornfully that a good third of these aggressive outdoorsmen wore sunglasses.”

Malcolm Braly, On the Yard

Published originally in 1967, set behind the walls of San Quentin, and kind of fascinating both as a tragedy (in the sense of inexorable flaws in character and situation driving its people to bad ends, inside and outside the walls) and as a document, a critical idea of the prison that is, at this distance, shot through with the ideals and the idealism of the late ‘60s. I mean, at the end, one character escapes in a homemade hot-air balloon. There’s no mention in the foreword of whether Braly, who was a career inmate when (or shortly before) he wrote the book, read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; in its setting, its humor, and its disposition of its characters, though, the two books resemble each other, beyond just doing the work of trying to comprehend a huge disciplinary institution through a ‘60s humanist lens. Also: what a perfect bit of observation, classification: nuts, exercise freaks, claustrophobes.

NYRB 01.31.02 (orig. 1967)



April 12, 2014, 10:30am  Comments

“David’s book of Greek myths, meanwhile, was the same size and color as a collection of poetry nearby, and he would sometimes pull out the poems instead of the myths. Some of the poems weren’t too bad, once he gave them a chance. One was about a kind of knight—except in the poem he was called a ‘Childe’—and his search for a dark tower and whatever secret it contained. The poem didn’t really seem to end properly, though. The knight reached the tower and, well, that was it. David wanted to know what was in the tower, and what happened to the knight now that he’d reached it, but the poet obviously didn’t think that was important. It made David wonder about the kinds of people who wrote poems.”

John Connolly, The Book of Lost Things

Don’t we all. This is one of those books where one suspects that the writer is having more fun than his reader—not that I didn’t enjoy the book enough, but Connolly structures the book so that he can rewrite and twist as many fairy tales as possible, while still holding on to his hero’s quest. And this is a little bit of a departure for Connolly, who ordinarily does mass-market series-character supernatural mystery (I think I read one of his once, The White Road, which I strongly did not care for). But the things that Connolly does especially well here—I’m thinking primarily about the tone of the prose, how it edges into fairytale flatness without losing all its realist definition—calls to mind Joe Hill’s more successful twisting of tales, and his more flexible touch in moving from recognizable reality to dreamspace.

Atria 11.07.06



April 10, 2014, 2:47pm  Comments

“As grass greened the plains of Nineveh and the weather warmed, we patrolled the low-slung hills beyond the cities and towns. We moved over them and through the tall grass on faith, kneading paths into the windswept growth like pioneers. While we slept, the war rubbed its thousand ribs against the ground in prayer.”

Kevin Powers, The Yellow Birds

From the first paragraph of the book — and this is something you see, occasionally, and if I had the tools to search through my archives right I’m sure I could pull up at least one other post about this, the unfairness of judging the first paragraph when it shows this much strain, rewriting and overwriting nearly to the point of mannerism. But grass greens and weather warms in a falsely parallel structure, while soldiers knead growth like pioneers: distanced verbs, metaphors, a final simile on top of it all make for an aesthetic effect different from what Powers, or at least his narrator, might intend for “the spoiled cities of America.”

Little, Brown 09.11.12



March 28, 2014, 9:30am  Comments

“When the first round snapped by my head, I was still thinking that the only shadows I had seen in the war had been made of angles: hard blurs of light falling on masses of buildings, antennas, and the shapes of weapons in tangles of alleys.”

Kevin Powers, The Yellow Birds

Hard blurs. One of the (generally acknowledged, often emphasized) tensions of war writing is the unknowability of the soldier’s experience, especially since Vietnam, and probably in direct contrast to a broader shared experience of the second world war: the soldier’s experience is different from, unavailable to, much of his audience. So the novel, the tool of fiction, becomes a mechanism to bridge that gap, with the insanity of Catch-22 or the surrealism of Meditations in Green. The Yellow Birds is much more straightforward than those two, at least — but there’s something in its language that’s uncomfortable, weirdly imprecise, that sits wrong. Hard blurs here — it took a few readings to parse out the sentence, to figure out the blurs precede the sharp angles of shadows, but the image doesn’t snap together right. Elsewhere, we hear “last echoes” “ringing through the evening heat.” Powers often uses his prose style very well — he’s excellent with using sentence length and structure for focus, pointed syntax in the moment of combat and long impacted run-ons in post-traumatic aftermath. But metaphors mix, and images hang unresolved, in his diction.

Little, Brown 09.11.12



March 27, 2014, 10:10am  Comments

“‘That may be true,’ he acknowledged, ‘but it’s completely accurate, and as long as the answer is right, who cares if the question is wrong? If you want sense, you’ll have to make it yourself.’”

Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth

Specifically in response to the objection that it’s irrelevant to figure out just how much larger a dam an enormous beaver would make than an ordinary one (given the difficulty of locating enormous real-world beavers); but really generally almost universally applicable. 

Yearling/Random 1961



March 20, 2014, 11:44am  Comments

“Fifteen years of war had ended with a baby boom, and these babies had not only revived a dead industry but become the arbiters of musical success. Bands had no choice but to reinvent themselves for the preverbal; even Biggie had released yet another posthumous album whose title song was a remix of a Biggie standard, “Fuck You, Bitch,” to sound like “You’re Big, Chief!” with an accompanying picture of Biggie dandling a toddler in Native American headdress.”

Jennifer Egan, A Visit From the Goon Squad

Unfortunately, the concluding story was the one that struck me as most grating. Goon Squad runs through a bunch of formal changes (yes, the powerpoint chapter, which kind of works, but also a second-person bit that ends in death, which, y’know, doesn’t quite, alongside other chunks of reference and pastiche). There are a couple of near-futures, too, and this one is the most distant, and the most bitterly nostalgic, with an unfortunately fogeyish picture of decline. Which is fine for satire, but sits uncomfortably alongside the intent of the final vignette, the moment of engineered but authentic connection.

Knopf, 06.08.10



March 19, 2014, 12:51pm  Comments