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[JUNE 2005.]

sisyphus gets outsourced

Have wanted to say things, but I've been sick and tomorrow I have to leave on a work trip around California for a couple of days. I am losing, will have lost, a week of this precious summer—which is incredibly dispiriting, much more so than I would have expected. This is my last ration for the foreseeable future of the freedom I enjoyed for a couple of years after Iowa, before my luck ran out. You can't be free of the world until you write your masterpiece; you can't write your masterpiece until you are free of the world. I didn't pull it off with the time I was given, and I don't know that this book is going to do the trick either. Maybe two, three, four books from now. I am tired.

 

backup

Not dead, like the Norwegian Blue. Beautiful plumage. I was restored to myself by watching the cat have a showdown with a squirrel: it stayed six feet off the ground and whipped its tail back and forth, chattering, its malevolent black eyes fixed on her, while she sat transfixed at the base of the tree. I think the squirrel would have won, had I not stood to get the camera and scared it off. It didn't know the yard was safe. Nothing terrible ever happens in the yard.

 

look ma, a neologism

Bloglines isn't updating the RSS on the Kafka site any more. I sent them an email, I don't know. This was unexpectedly discouraging last night.

Only Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos know if I'll ever get to see Wire in concert, but seeing Spoon cover "Lowdown" for their encore Monday night wasn't a bad runner-up. I don't know the two sides of Monsieur Valentine, I don't know anything. Wrote very little yesterday, lay in bed a long time this morning, I think from fear that the same will happen today. It isn't fear of finishing, it's wanting too badly to finish. The dissonance between knowing that as a matter of percentages it's mostly in the bag, and knowing that there are still twenty or thirty thousand more words to slog through. Keep the cork on the champagne.

It turns out some sample questions from past oral exams are online. For example, "In Culture of Redemption, Leo Bersani accuses Ulysses of reinforcing heteronormativity in the final chapter. Do you agree?" Heteronormativity? To the fire with that oppressive modernist tome! I wonder if they still need English teachers in China.

 

you cannot beat teleology with a stick

A continuance. A delirium, in many ways a pleasant delirium. If the reserves drain—but one must not think of the reserves draining. One must not think of anything. This book is a boulder rolling down a hill. You know what happens if you step in front of it.

At the cat's insistence, spending more time in the backyard. I love the backyard, I love so much.

The idea of the summer was an idea of emptiness. The summer, of course, is full. Why must everything be filled—simply because I'm going to die one day? Because there are still people fuller than me, quicker than me?

I once had an idea of getting a little money, digging it out of the ground or something, and buying a house, because in a life without children, a house is a terminus. It really seemed like the last thing I would have to do. You buy a house, you paint the walls whatever color you please, and then you can leave the world. That was ludicrous, of course, but I feel as if I am still guiding myself by some similar narrative—only what on earth has replaced the house this time? Where does it end?

 

fifth act

It will break two hundred thousand—that much is clear. Revision can probably cull it back below that limit, but not too far. I believe in the principle of parsimony, is the problem, and I think I've followed it. There isn't much that's extraneous. There are only two stories, and they aren't particularly complicated; they're just so improbable that they take a long time in telling if they are to be believed. Of course I could tell them in half the length, or a third, but then it wouldn't be the same book. It would be much harder to swallow. I don't want to write that.

Of course if it had turned out to be half its projected length, I wouldn't have any doubts about its marketability. Everyone loves intrigue abroad, everyone loves "searching for your heritage," and it seems like at least part of the industry has cozied up to the idea of sci-fi crossover. (By which I suppose I mean sci-fi that the author has bothered to populate with characters—I might just call it "good sci-fi," but that's another debate, isn't it.) Its volume is the major strike against it, and it's also the only thing that makes it any good. Which is a perfectly familiar complaint (replace "volume" with your favorite abstract noun), so I'll stop.

That ETA up there should not be a problem if I keep turning out a thousand words a day. I can do this. I will eat eggs and peanut butter and soy, comfort myself with Cervantes and Kafka, do what I can to stop thinking about the world out there. I do not like that other world. If it doesn't want this book, I will write them a shorter one and bind up a single copy of Approaching Zero in green cloth and call it work well done. At least I know that it's good. I haven't really doubted it since I started this draft two years ago. First time that's happened.

 

solo!

Happy Bloomsday, all—have yourselves a pint or two. Last night we were talking about the silly re-released Star Wars with the silly inserted Jabba the Hutt, and it occurred to us that any number of classic films might benefit from a Jabba-enhanced re-release.

"Louie, this could be the start of a beautiful friendship."
"Ghablaggregr rblugr!"

"Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."
"Ablrrgrh rrliilrfhj grablblpl!"

"Rosebud!"
"Ablabl graglgugg rosebud!"

Also, see what Lauren's been sewing! Synchronicity.

 

auch du hast waffen

Web work, part two. I really had planned to get this done before now, but it turns out that hacking Movable Type to be truly bilingual requires both Perl and PHP, both of which I use about once a year and never learned in the classroom or anything, so the occasional situation that actually calls for a few lines of code always requires me to go back and learn the language from scratch. Perl and its uppity punctuation. Anyway.

I've been following the adventures of W.N.P. Barbellion over past months with great pleasure, and with admiration for the brilliant conceit of serializing such a diary. (Samuel Pepys is also out there, if that's what you're into.) I've never been much of a systematic thinker, and my favorite weblogs tend to be the impressionistic ones, those that are neither "this is what I ate for breakfast" nor "this is what I think about grade inflation": I get too much of that elsewhere. There are a few gems out there whose entries are prose poems—they illuminate a private world—and Barbellion does something similar for me. It is parallel to a diary. At times I've tried for such an effect on this site, but it devolves all too easily into mundanity on the one hand or amateur critical argument on the other.

So I have decided to do something very presumptuous, and have reached into the recent literary past in order to turn one of its pillars into my ideal blogger. He doesn't link to things. He doesn't tell you about his day—or if he does, it's not an account of his day that would be recognizable to anyone else who was around. He's not trying to impress anyone. He has no interest in convincing you through argument. Often his entries completely lose any diaristic quality and become a rehearsal space; we get to see him testing out scenes and sentences, sometimes for possible inclusion in longer work, sometimes for their own sake. Its final sentence, which will not appear online for a long time, is Auch du hast Waffen—you too have weapons. That is the overall dramatic arc: the author's sustained attempt to master a frightening world by rendering it into language. It is white-hot.

Meet Franz Kafka's blog. It will be there when you need it.

 

the portly mayor cuts the ribbon

Web things are happening. The big one is that I reworked the official part of this site, bringing to light some stuff that's been hiding for a while. There's an mp3 up from the new record, which will be out in July.

 

language is a virus from outer space

I already posted this in the comments at Geegaw, but as I lack any content of my own and have a responsibility to pass the meme on, I suppose I had better put it here too.

Total number of books I've owned: By my crude estimate, there are about a thousand books in the house right now. If you add the ones I've gotten rid of over the years, maybe 1500.

Last book I bought: After last week's binge of sci-fi books and German books I can't read, I picked up a twofer: Tolstoy's What Is Art? and Gardner's On Moral Fiction. "Beach reading?" asked the woman at the counter.

Last book I read: Galaxies Like Grains of Sand by Brian Aldiss. I quite liked one of his anthologized stories once upon a time, but these turned out to be silly, though the one entirely starring robots was silly in an endearing way. (Update: this is now Samuel R. Delany's Trouble on Triton, which rocks.)

Last book I finished: That darn Aldiss.

Five books that mean a lot to me: These were hard to narrow down, actually. 1) My well-beloved Modern Library hardcover Ulysses, which I bought at age 17 and which forever ruined me for useful work.
2) The 37-year-old hardcover of Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations that Pica gave me this fall, obviously battered and beloved by many hands before mine.
3) Cien Años de Soledad, García Márquez. This was the first foreign-language book I ever bought, thus a monumental act of book-buying hubris. I finished it two or three years later.
4) The Egyptian Book of the Dead, translated and edited by E.A. Wallis Budge. When I was eleven I pretty much carried this around everywhere I went, including Egypt. Also battered beyond belief.
5) H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds. I’ve had this one even longer. It lost its spine long ago. Great drawing of tripods on the front.

Five people I want to see do this: Pica Pica, Lauren/Kidchamp, Hannah/Ravenousplankton, Julia K., anyone over at Iowablog.

 

forest for the trees

We caught Sleater-Kinney at the Warfield last night. The show reaffirmed both my opinion that they're one of the best bands out there, and my ambivalence about the new record.

When The Woods works, it really works. The opener "The Fox" is a great vicious slab of rock, with Corin Tucker's cry of "Land ho!" being one of the most thrilling moments the band has ever caught on tape; "Entertain" and "Rollercoaster" have great riffs; "Jumpers" is driving and affecting, with great lyrics, and is marred only by a chorus that never quite takes off the way it wants to. But there's a lot of material on the record that I can't get into, even after several listens; it's abrasive without being energizing. The difference between a great rock song and a great pop song has more to do with sonic texture than structure—a hook is still a hook, even if it's so drawn-out that it takes several listens to grasp (Radiohead) or if it makes deliberate use of monotony (Gang of Four). With All Hands on the Bad One, Sleater-Kinney brought pop to the forefront of their songwriting, and even the harshest moments on One Beat were built invitingly enough to carry you along after a couple of listens. On The Woods, the band only gets there about half the time.

Some corners of the music press are calling this album a great leap forward for them, and perhaps for rock in general. But the departure has little to do with songcraft and everything to do with production. The best thing about Sleater-Kinney is the distinctive musical vocabulary they've developed over their last few albums, consisting of clipped and disjunct guitar lines over shifting, oddly staggered beats; it has proven to span a large expressive range while remaining very much their own. The Woods sticks with this style, but this time around the band and producer have decided to process it far more overtly. The first thing you notice on popping the disc in the player is how noisy the sound is—not loud, but noisy. It's not layers of shrieking guitars à la Sonic Youth or My Bloody Valentine, nor is it the sort of glorious, painstakingly shaped static that for a while managed to mask Trent Reznor's deficiencies as a songwriter. It sounds more like everything—guitars, drums, voice—is getting fed through the same distortion filter. Sometimes this approach fits the material marvelously, as with "The Fox," but what works for one song is harder to sustain throughout an album. On the weaker songs the added harshness is simply off-putting, and occasionally, as on the gently satirical pop of "Modern Girl," it just sounds out of place.

The record's key departure in terms of song structure, as all the reviews have noticed, is the seven-minute guitar solo that closes out "Let's Call It Love." It's hard to know what to make of this, since the extended guitar solo has such a troubled history in rock anyway. The extravagant bluesy solos of the sixties had a pretty definite expiration date, and have long since devolved into Jeff Beck. Most seventies prog instrumentals (excepting weird outliers like Can, who were more of a jazz band anyway) cultivated virtuosity at the price of becoming pretentious and, far worse, deathly boring. It's very rare that a rock musician can match the both the intelligence and the passion of a great jazz soloist for any length of time, because note for note, the jazz player always has the better chops. The most successful soloists in recent rock are people like Thurston Moore, Jonny Greenwood and Graham Coxon, who understand that their kind of music is largely about sonic texture, and that the anatomy of the electric guitar makes its texture uniquely pliable. Carrie Brownstein is a fine guitarist—she did a knock-down job last night—but on the album, her solo is never allowed to break out of the sandpapery patina of noise that coats the whole record, and it just can't do the work that it should over a seven-minute span. It doesn't help that "Let's Call It Love" is one of those pounding numbers without a sharp enough hook that never quite gets off the ground.

I've spent so much time dwelling on what doesn't work in The Woods only because there's also much that does, and because the strength of the band's back catalog prohibits any easy dismissal of new efforts. The Hot Rock, All Hands on the Bad One, and One Beat are three records that, if not perfect, have staked out singular and important territory in contemporary rock. Sleater-Kinney's inventiveness as songwriters and instrumentalists, combined with the strength of their personae as rock stars, has resulted in music that is very smart and very passionate—which combination doesn't happen nearly often enough. Here's hoping it holds out.

 

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