just trying to keep score.

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“Who was this boy who had just been born?”

Gaute Heivoll, Before I Burn

The opening sequence of Before I Burn is excellent, amazing—the account of a house burning, in close third person, from the perspective of the older woman as she realizes she’s about to lose everything she has. It’s a great chapter, a great piece of writing, a great beginning to a book about a small-town arsonist, that apparently comes from a real event. On the other hand, this is not exactly the book Heivoll has written: the identity of the arsonist is pretty quickly revealed to the reader; the crimes are historical, taking place right around the time of the narrator’s birth; and the novel focuses as much on its narrator’s decision to become a writer as his father dies as it does on the town and the fires. Which leaves me feeling as if I need context to make this make sense—not the decision to steer clear of genre or mystery or even true-crime; but the choice to take a situation with this much drama and interest (which Heivoll shows he can pull off!) and turn it into a semiautobiographical kunstlerroman, so that the question is not about the town or the arsonist or the aftermath of crime, but is instead ‘who am I?’

Graywolf 01.07.14

May 20, 2014, 10:30am  Comments

“As he crosses from this abandoned corner of the waterside back over to the Houses he becomes aware of the layers that form the Hook—the projects built over the frame houses, the pavement laid over the cobblestones, the lofts overtaking the factories, the grocery stores overlapping the warehouses. The new bars cannibalizing the old ones. The skeletons of forgotten buildings—the sugar refinery and the dry dock—surviving among the new concrete bunkers being passed off as luxury living.”

Ivy Pochoda, Visitation Street

Also probably a point where Pochoda over-eggs just a little, distilling too much into a single paragraph—but only because she’s done so well to this point making this point without saying it. Although, to be fair, I don’t think I’d willingly pass up the sentence about the new bars cannibalizing the old ones, even if I had already written the scene that carries the image.

Ecco 07.09.13

May 19, 2014, 10:30am  Comments

“This is how you walk home. This is how you look for June—you follow the precise route that led you to the water that night. You see yourself from above—a player moving through a video-game maze.”

Ivy Pochoda, Visitation Street

To be entirely fair, this is one of Pochoda’s few missteps—she’s occasionally uneven, but Visitation Street stands up well to the Lehane/Price/Pelecanos school of local noir—but can we please claim a moratorium on the second person?

Ecco 07.09.13

May 18, 2014, 10:30am  Comments

“People arrive with candles, flowers, and photographs of June taped to poster board. Fadi worries that it will appear as if a crime was committed in his store, but he allows the shrine to build. He hands out cookies. The owners of the bodega across the street eye him. They’ve put out lawn chairs and are blasting pop music.”

Ivy Pochoda, Visitation Street

Fadi’s wonderful, and is a wonderful choice for a chorus, the bodega owner as witness to the life of the neighborhood. Which strikes me as a very Richard Price kind of thing to do, and Pochoda manages to both use Fadi functionally while filling in the edges of his personality to make him a strong, round character—as here, where his desire for his shop to be the crossroads of his neighborhood rubs up against his wariness of his competition and his insecurity about the role he wants.

Ecco 07.09.13

May 17, 2014, 10:30am  Comments

“Below the picture of Ana Maria was a blurry photo of a group of men in mismatched military garb, walking through dense jungle. Next to the photo was a frown button that said ‘We denounce the Central Guatemalan Security Forces.’ Mae hesitated briefly, knowing the gravity of what she was about to do—to come out against these rapists and murderers—but she needed to make a stand. She pushed the button.”

Dave Eggers, The Circle

Mae is part of the problem, too—trusting and naive to the point of being an archetype or a convenience for the plot. She’s supposed to be a focal point for us to identify with, at least at the outset, but her responses and her actions are too often mystifying or nonsensical. Even ceding that The Circle isn’t realism, or anything close (weren’t there criticisms of the book that ran something like ‘Google HQ isn’t really like that?’), the Mae that not only believes that hitting a smile button to support a rape victim constitutes a positive contribution, but that hitting a frown button next to a picture of Latin American paramilitaries courts real-world danger doesn’t offer much to latch on to. Especially in the isolated world of the novel, she becomes too easy to dismiss, less a character than a function to extend the plot.

Knopf 10.08.13

May 16, 2014, 10:30am  Comments


California Über Alles — Dead Kennedys

Played 3,299 time(s).

Reblogged from flaming molotov.

May 15, 2014, 2:15pm  Comments

“Dan turned to look into the hills to the east, covered in mohair and patches of green. ‘I hate hearing that kind of thing. With the technology available, communication should never be in doubt. Understanding should never be out of reach or anything but clear. It’s what we do here. You might say it’s the mission of the company—it’s an obsession of mine, anyway. Communication. Understanding. Clarity.’”

Dave Eggers, The Circle

This is—maybe not the most pointed satire? It does capture a certain kind of corporate language, a buy-in to technological optimism that’s totally recognizable, and it also makes Eggers’s viewpoint on his characters and his subject very clear. And the absolute mildness of this, both the milquetoast corporate language and the author’s distaste, fits the subject matter I suppose, the consensual signing-over of civil liberties and freedoms for convenience. I can’t help but think, though, that the toothlessness of this comes from the fact that we already know this, and that even the escalating absurdity of the surveillance plot never quite gets sinister as a result.

Which is a shame, because Eggers is a very good writer; he’s able to switch styles, and can especially in his nonfiction put himself at the service of his subject. The blandness of The Circle’s prose does this well, I think: clarity and language as another vehicle for critique. I’m just not sure that his gifts as a writer are identical with his gifts as a novelist; he gets stronger ideas and characters from the real world. The Circle just gives us another version of the Jello Biafra smiley-faced California nightmare, thirtysome years on, nicer and with more irritating typography.

Knopf 10.08.13

May 15, 2014, 2:14pm  Comments

“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