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Janice Lee

http://janicel.com

Janice Lee is the author of KEROTAKIS (Dog Horn Press, 2010), Daughter (Jaded Ibis, May 2011) & Damnation (Penny-Ante Editions, 2013). She currently lives in Los Angeles where she teaches at CalArts and is co-editor of [out of nothing] and Founder/CEO of POTG Design.

Reviews

The Whole of Life by Jürg Laederach

wholeoflife-193x300The Whole of Life
by Jürg Laederach
Dalkey Archive Press, Jan 2014
300 pages / $15  Buy from Amazon or Dalkey Archive

 

 

 

 

 

 

Waiting for the publication of Jürg Laederach’s The Whole of Life, out now from Dalkey Archive Press, I revisited his very funny and hip 1990 Semitext(e) collection, 69 Ways to Play the Blues. Laederach is a one-time enfant terrible of Swiss literature (he writes “I’ll be called a young writer until I’m eighty,”) and his work epitomizes boomer cool. A devotee of Jazz and Downtown Music, Laederach made several trips to NYC during the 1980s. 69 Ways was written on the third trip.

Laederach is an avowed devotee of improvisational music:

69 Ways crackles with wry observations. On Bleecker Street: I am Bleecker Street, “that intersects and eschews any rude display of house numbers.”

On the view from Swiss cemeteries: “To a majority of the inhabitants of Switzerland, death, not Lake Geneva, brings about a marked improvement in their standard of living. Great pains are taken to see to it that graveyards have a “view” they are thus conceived with a strong sense of landscape and perspective.”

When authors get hungry: “All he could do was point a shaky finger at a sandwich and growl.”

The Whole of Life shares this offbeat cool. Framed as a sort of messy first-person, the plot follows a Swiss everyman, Bob Hecht, (endearingly called “My boy Bob Hecht” a la Charles Mingus: Beneath the Underdog) as he navigates mid-century industrial Europe.

The book is very funny and sprawling. The ethos of improvisation is most noticeable in Laederach’s pastichework. Different styles and references are co-opted and incorporated as a sort of self-analysis. In one section, a year of unhappy cohabitation is narrated as a boxing match. In another, he parses out the existential implications of deleting a Jewish character from the text. He has persistent dopplegangers, including a pair supposedly co-writing his memoir. The text falls into stage directions. And technical directions: “PAN F Perceptol min 68 F 10 ASA 25 DIN 15 Microphen min 20 C 4 ASA 64 DIN 19 or 68 F 5 650 ASA DIN 29 with reduction to 125 … The kind of prose we can expect in the future.” But through all this, he maintains a detached cool.

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April 18th, 2014 / 10:00 am

Reviews

Crystal Eaters by Shane Jones

18220681Crystal Eaters
by Shane Jones
Two Dollar Radio, June 2014
202 pages / $16  Buy from Amazon or Two Dollar Radio

 

 

 

 

 

 

The first, most obvious observation to make about Shane Jones’ Crystal Eaters is that it begins with a countdown. Its first page is numbered 183, and it descends from there, 182, 181, 180, on and on, a timer that makes this novel feel like an unusually rigid experience, temporally speaking. After all, most books are objects that readers pick up and interact with on their own terms, at their own individual paces. Crystal Eaters’ countdown, however, makes the book feel fleeting. While in the midst of reading it, I imagined it still counting down even when sitting on my coffee table, closed—like I would eventually open it again only to find all its pages blank, its time expired.

Crystal Eaters focuses on a village that “survives on myth,” and Jones’ paginated countdown helps immerse the reader in the village’s central belief: that human beings are filled with crystals—100 at the time of birth—which crystals are then lost over the course of a life (bled out, vomited up, etc. etc.), until a person’s number reaches zero, and that person dies. The crystals are multi-colored, and Jones writes of village kids witnessing “their parents vomiting blue and yellow slush into kitchen sinks, toilets, couch cushions, their laps.” Illness in this book is surprising in its glowing, cotton-candy brightness. Almost psychedelic.

Jones’ cornerstone character—named Mom—is an example of psychedelic sickness. Shriveled by illness, Mom spews red everywhere at dinnertime. She’s down to her last few crystals, and she will die soon, a reality with which her family struggles. Her husband—named Dad—is aloof, trying to make the impending tragedy easy for everyone, but ultimately helpless against his wife’s disease. Their daughter—named Remy—believes that there must be a way to increase a person’s crystal count, thus staving off death. “The universe is a system where children watch their parents die,” perhaps, but not Remy: “She’ll save Mom from experiencing the number zero.”

A fourth character, however, expands the novel’s scope beyond the village. This character—Mom and Dad’s son, and Remy’s brother—is imprisoned, and his name is Pants McDonovan. (This may be the key question of my entire review: Do you or do you not want to own a novel that features a character named “Pants McDonovan”?) Pants used to be a revolutionary, waging a war against the unnamed metropolis that inches closer to the village each day (modernity threatening to engulf the village’s way of life). Now, Pants lingers in his cell, eating pieces of his secret stash of “black crystals.” No villager apart from Pants has ever seen a black crystal before; they exist as part of the larger system of myth that Jones suggests through his use of in-text citations, e.g., “His left eye drips crystal (Chapter 5, Death Movement, Book 8),” and, “the city has powers (Chapter 14, Resurrection, City Hospital Myth).” Remy thinks these black crystals might hold the secret to increasing Mom’s crystal count, but Pants, locked away from his family and unaware of the severity of Mom’s illness, uses the crystals in a different way: he ingests them to prompt hallucinations that help him escape the indignities of prison life.

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April 14th, 2014 / 10:00 am

Reviews

The Selected Letters of Robert Creeley

indexThe Selected Letters of Robert Creeley
Edited by Rod Smith, Peter Baker, & Kaplan Harris
University of California Press 2014
512 pages / $65  Buy from Amazon or University of California Press

 

 

 

 

The Selected Letters of Robert Creeley is an engaging, thoroughly worthwhile selection of the poet’s correspondence spanning his complete life. The editorial work done here is quite impressive. The only areas to be possibly improved upon would be further notes in the back of the book and more illustrations. The letters span some sixty odd years, so although Creeley is perhaps one of the greatest over-photographed poets of our time it seems appropriate to have at least one photograph per decade. As it is there’s about three, including the photo on the cover. It is admittedly difficult to locate yet-unseen images of him, but several pages of reproduced letter manuscripts or perhaps images of this or that difficult to obtain publication would have sufficed instead. And it proves difficult not to wish for some further elaboration upon the minimal notes included. Not every reader has the book open next to the computer to take advantage of Wikipedia and Google. Yet as stated the overall skilled arrangement of the whole book is such that these are minor quibbles.

Creeley himself well understood the massive assembling project that any selection of his letters represented. Writing to editor Rod Smith, Creeley describes his sense of how “some general ‘map’ or sense of focus or parameter would be the first need.” He then immediately suggests the then-recent “selection of [Charles] Olson letters–or Gregory’s, just out from ND” as some examples of what he has in mind as successes.  The latter volume, An accidental autobiography: the selected letters of Gregory Corso (New Directions “ND” 2003), I fondly recall a poet-pal curling up with in bed while down LA’s Chinatown for a reading, a small group of us having driven down for the event.

Creeley’s Selected, however, easily outshines my experience of reading Corso’s correspondence. This is no small feat given that so little is readily available concerning Corso, while material on Creeley is quite plentiful. I say this having an equal interest in both poets and having read ALL available material on each of them. Corso’s letters, for all his charm, are just too repetitive. They round out the experience of his poems but are ultimately as inhibited by his vices as the poems too often sadly prove to be. On the other hand, Creeley’s letters truly offer all that any of his readers might imagine and more. Not that Creeley didn’t indulge his share of vices: mention of numerous illicit substances make repeated revolving door appearance in the letters as do his (nearly) overlapping romances and marriages.

As a persistent reader of all things Creeley I would have thought there was little to be newly discovered about his life and writing. But the letters quickly prove just how wrong it is to make such an assumption. The simplest of fresh things I’ve come across is Creeley’s repeated use of “voila” throughout his correspondence. He’s usually using it as a turn of phrase to sum up his recounting of some recent excitement to a correspondent. Often it occurs near either the conclusion of the entire letter or some lengthy passage in particular, as if to say “see what I mean! And so now:” before continuing on to his next thought.

This reoccurring word appears early on in the letters and at first had me thinking it was something he just tried out which would then disappear as time went by; but I found it continued throughout decade after decade. This caught my attention because it is not a regularly used figure of speech I’ve found in any of Creeley’s other writings, poems, published interviews, essays, etc. where appear an abundance of what I term Creeleyisms. Familiar phrasal patterns to which he easily returns over and over again, yet the “voila” is present just in his correspondence. My new found Creeleyism: Voila.

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April 14th, 2014 / 10:00 am

Random & Reviews

Some Poems…

indexRussian Novels
by Luke Bloomfield
Factory Hollow Press, 2014

Unlike the archetypal Russian Novel, Luke Bloomfield’s Russian Novels is little more than a centimeter or so thick, 60-some pages of poems with names like “The Duffel Bag” and “Fisticuffs.”  Most of the poetry inside the book feels as flat as the book, a sort of day-old-seltzer meets #normcore poetics.  The first poem, for example, begins “When I go 2 Paris / it is like Paris,” and goes on to blanket classically French France in stereotypical American stereotype: “Voila, Paris France! / All the cigarettes everywhere / are pronounced cigarette.”  In this trick, Bloomfield spells cigarette cigarette and, abracadabra, we the audience mind-mold the word like Play-Doh.  The point seems to be that language is as wild and plastic as a “bird” that appears, disappears, and reappears throughout Russian Novels, always cast as simply “bird”—and yet each of these birds, conjured in Bloomfield’s magic, manages to manifest a somewhat unique form. The limitation of such simple syntax is clear however, when, in certain poems like “The Affair I Had With Sweden,” the author tries to reveal some semi-complicated personal gunk: “It sent me over the edge. / I don’t leave the kitchen ever. / All day I hack food into Swedish shapes. / And you know what else I do.”  I don’t know, do you?  What are we supposed to know? I know Russian Novels is not a novel; the MARC code on the back of the book says Poetry and the Very Poetic Word “flotsam” appears in the title of a poem on page 47. I know that the cover of Russian Novels presents a blurry photograph of a nose, but I don’t know whether or not this is Bloomfield’s schnoz?  And I just don’t know what Bloomfield thinks he knows that I know.

Flat affect tends to belie emotional content, and in lines like “Pity me.  I have nowhere to walk,” Bloomfield has incanted a dissociative poetics reminiscent of Nintendo sidescroller.  The action is pretty fun but Russian Novels, like video games, lacks a third dimension.  The book’s tender moment of intimacy (MOI), imo, comes in the author’s dedication, “for my sister.” A close second: Bloomfield’s confession that he sleeps in astronaut-themed bed-sheets.

***

IMG_2194Manual for Extinction
by Caroline Manring
The National Poetry Review Press, 2014

 

The earth in Manual for Extinction is a dour place where to be “alive was as good as dead.”  The manual doubles as a field guide for understanding this wilderness-less mess, a contemporary big-boxed landscape that, lucky for us, Caroline Manring has surveyed with her poetic binoculars.  Fans of “flotsam” will be pleased to find the word has survived End Times (hi flotsam!) and can be found in this book alongside lots of titles that start with the word how, as in “How to Go Extinct” and “How to Write a Debut Novel.”  There are a few outliers, such as “The Cartographer’s Children Go Without Shoes,” an evolutionary meditation that invokes the proto-winged avian-ancestor, Archaeopteryx, in which “A fossil is deciding / whether to save us.”  Manring demonstrates a cool familiarity with Biology while at the same time grappling with the paradox that Borges called exactitude in science. “A copy of a wolf & the wolf itself / are the same if you draw them both.”

A world of illustrated (aka dead) dodo birds, lost turkeys, and dilapidated human remains sounds shitty and scary but it is also quite literally what we’ve got.  In place of live starlings and spring robins we might increasingly encounter the complexity of nature only in the complexity of research finding that predict diminishing populations of red-winged blackbirds, ruby-throated hummingbirds, and buffleheads alike.  Manring writes in sympathy with these vanishing species, “I want less & less to be in present use.”  Would that we were all to follow such a guide.

***

tumblr_mj61u0pCl81qit5mao1_1280My Enemies
by Jane Gregory
The Song Cave, 2013

 

We’ve a lot to learn from My Enemies.   As the title suggests, many things are often as much what they are as what they are not.   Take, for example, Jane Gregory’s sonic yin and yang, “Cymbals / when washed up or out to sea are silent.”  Much like the potential for both mute and crash held in tempered bell bronze, Gregory has set temporality in opposition to intuition, and by that I mean . . . listen to her ring like an animated slomotion gif of a Zildjian: “I recognize the tongue of the wolf / before it is in the wolf’s mouth.”

1309197226_cymbal_hit_in_slomo

Wallace Stevens sez “Poems must resist the intelligence / almost successfully,” and My Enemies outmaneuvers the brain’s insistent cognition, which just cannot compute Jane Gregory.  The many poems entitled “Book I Will Not Write” are, as announced, books never really written.  But in the poetic summation of these non-books, the author has penned a must read.

Though unable to locate a single instance of “flotsam” inside this text, I found plenty of poetic words like “guncotton,” “ecdysis,” and “Proust.”

***

Peter Nowogrodzki lives in Hudson, NY

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April 11th, 2014 / 10:00 am

Reviews

Made To Break by D. Foy

indexMade To Break
by D. Foy
Two Dollar Radio, March 2014
242 pages / $16  Buy from Amazon or Two Dollar Radio

 

 

 

 

 

Friendship is a two-headed beast. As humans, our continuous need for interaction, communication, and companionship regularly clashes with fear of exposure, the sourness that comes from the inevitable accumulation of failures in life, and our proclivity toward pettiness when faced with frustrating situations. In Made To Break, author D. Foy explores the conflicting sides of amity as well as the unexplainable cohesive element that hides in the interstitial spaces between the good and the bad and ultimately holds friendships together.

Lucille wants to celebrate her new high-paying corporate job, so she decides to spend New Years’ Eve weekend drinking and getting high in a cabin in Lake Tahoe with Dinky, Andrew, Hickory, and Basil. When the five friends get there, there’s a dead caged bird filling Dinky’s family cabin with the smell of rot. Instead of taking it as a bad omen, the group starts talking about childhood pets and argue about who’s going to get ice. Dinky and Andrew end up having to leave the cabin despite that fact that weather forecasts warn of an impending flood. On their way to town, they crash their truck and Dinky is seriously injured. Broken and without ice, they finally encounter a strange man called Super who takes them back to the cabin. With the storm raging outside, no car, and the phone lines dead, the group turn to a game of Truth or Dare to help them pass the time until the sky clears and help can arrive. However, what starts as a game quickly transforms into a series of attacks, thinly veiled insults, and cruel accusations. Old wounds bleed again and new ones open up while weather conditions worsen and Dinky’s health deteriorates. Before the night is over, everyone will have to face, and question, themselves, death, and each other.

Nothing is what it seems to be in this narrative. There’s supposed to be a celebratory mood in the air, but hidden agendas, snarky comebacks, and the type of wittier-than-thou personalities that inevitably cause conflict whenever they’re put together give the novel a surprisingly oppressive and noirish atmosphere that it never shakes off. Andrew acts as narrator and slowly reveals his crush on Hickory and a romantic triangle between Dinky, Basil, and Lucille. With each revelation, a piece of each character is exposed, and they’re all flawed. While being imperfect is part of human nature, when flaws are exposed in public and boosted by vindictiveness, they become enlarged and serve only to inflame any situation and bring forth retaliation. Foy understands this, and so do his characters. However, knowing about it doesn’t stop them from repeatedly trying their best to eviscerate each other with words, fully aware of the fact that they’re using them as weapons and deriving a bizarre pleasure from it:

“There was that briefest moment of doubt where Basil and I considered exchanging our knives for guns or throwing the knives away. But really the doubt was feigned. We knew what would happen. The kill was just a dream. The sight of blood was enough. We were only after the blood. This of course was a perversion cultivated over time, like a taste for taboo food, monkey brain or mice. The satisfaction of knowing we’d wounded one another was more than sufficient. In fact, it had become for us a fix of sorts, why our hate for one another always equaled our need. Basil and I were Siamese twins parted only in flesh.”

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April 7th, 2014 / 10:00 am

Reviews

Bald New World by Peter Tieryas Liu

jhp52dfd4ab263f2Bald New World
by Peter Tieryas Liu
Perfect Edge, May 2014
229 pages / $16.95  Pre-order from Amazon
 

 

 

 

Having been thrilled by the imagination in his short story collection, Watering Heaven, I was excited to see Peter Tieryas Liu was taking on a larger work: his new novel Bald New World. The play in the title on the canonical dystopian work by Huxley only further stimulated my appetite.

How would it be handled? Would it be playful? Would it be strange? Would it be dystopian? Yes, yes to all those things (other than the one that isn’t a yes/no question):

I was eleven when everyone in the world lost their hair. I got up from bed, terrified to see that all my hair had fallen out. In the mirror, the uneven bumps on my head formed an alien tapestry that made me feel like I was staring at a stranger. I spotted a thick black mole above my ear that I’d never seen before and scratched it, only to find it wasn’t going away. Both of my parents were away on a business trip so I ran to my older sister, Kelly, hoping she knew what was wrong with me. I found her crying on the bathroom floor, clutching her own fallen hair. My eyes went to her scalp, an oddly shaped oval with protrusions jutting out. “What are you looking at?!” she demanded.

As the title suggests, everyone has mysteriously gone bald. One would hope that people would learn to live with baldness, since no one has any hair. However, we should all know human nature better than that by now. Superficial, vain, and capable of endless denial. There are riots, chaos. This goes hand in hand with the actual problems in the world: overpopulation, diminishing food supplies, wars over resources, and so on. Wig companies dominate the global economy.

As one would demand in a dystopian novel, life becomes even more hellish than it already is. Body modification, visits to the United States (though most of the book takes place in China) fraught with the almost certainty of being shot, North Korea kidnapping people from other countries to be slaves in forced labor camps, and more. The term ‘dystopian’ certainly fits.

Within all of this, we have Nick. Nick has spent his life trying to cut himself free from a horribly abusive family…trying to be free. Modernly, he’s a filmmaker:

After the African Wars ended, many of us wondered what we should do next. I took to making films with a fellow grunt, Larry Chao. He nearly got discharged from the army twenty times because he was always running off “in love” with some new girl he swore was “the One.” He wasn’t especially handsome, but had a jovial grin that made everyone feel welcome in his presence. Between his indefatigable exuberance and his easy- going nature inspired by an early bout of mutated typhoid that nearly killed him, his charm more than made up for his plump nose, small eyes, and fat lips. He had a suite of women who worshipped him. For my part, I never thought our lives would become so intertwined, our names would be synonymous with each other.

His friend and employer, Larry, is the heir to the world’s most powerful wig corporation. He’s also somewhat of a fuckup.

However, something particularly strange is going on. Larry may be in over his head, caught up in a conspiracy with far-reaching and possibly deadly consequences. At the heart may be the very secret behind why everyone went bald. Of course, he pulls Nick in. Things wouldn’t be very interesting if he didn’t:

He laughed. “Maybe I’m being a touch melodramatic. Beautiful women always do that to me. Let’s give it one more shot. This new film I was mentioning. It’ll be the biggest ever.”

“Can you give more details?”

“At first, I thought maybe I’d do a documentary about my family. Or maybe I’d make it into a film about a rich family with an idiot son who squandered everything. Would that be too cliché? I don’t want to be that idiot,” he said. “I’m starting to settle on one idea.”

“What is it?”

“I’ve always wanted to do an epic about the Baldification. Maybe call it Bald New World. Do a film about the people in it. It’ll be massive. I guarantee you. This’ll be the film that everyone notices.”

“No one’s figured out what exactly happened yet.”

“That’s what the businesses would like people to think,” Larry said. “What if I told you people like my father knew exactly what happened?

“What do you mean?”

“Well—”

Behind us, one of the factories exploded, blowing the plates off the table and knocking us both back. A second factory blew up, the fire blasting against our faces. My ears were ringing and the smoke made everything hazy. I heard a third boom but couldn’t tell where it was from. Sirens were ringing.

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April 4th, 2014 / 11:00 am

Cris Mazza Virtual Book Tour Stop

Something Wrong With Her VBT Banner

Cris Mazza stops at HTMLGIANT as part of her virtual book tour…

***

Cris Rants:

2013 author photoI was prepared to sit here and rant about having to change my author photo to a more friendly, smiling image, certain that practically zero men ever get told they need a smiling photo (or to “look cute” as another writer wrote about being advised). This advice (and that I felt pressured to follow it) was particularly troubling this time, for this book: because the book is nonfiction, because part of it is about female sexual dysfunction, about not feeling sexy in a sex-hungry, sexiness-demanding world. The photo I had chosen, a selfie, showed the mood I thought the narrative conveyed.

happy author photoWhen the smiling photo was requested (not by my publisher), I didn’t have the time (and was very low on inclination) to create another photo, to “try” to smile for it without appearing conscious it had been requested.  So I went back to the most recent photo I had where I was smiling (also containing my dog, the same dog, so not that long ago).  Unfortunately, it was taken in the summer and I was wearing a tank top.  I truly and firmly did not want to be showing skin in the author photo for this book.

I’ve seen too many books by women recently where the author photo is beyond “you’re pretty when you smile.” From seductive to downright trampy, wearing a lacy slip or camisole, professionally made-up, professionally applied cleavage (if none was readily available). Why do we have to look ready for sex to have our books respected, or just read?

Did I say respected?  I was pleased to be reviewed recently in an esteemed review vehicle, but I’d like to assume the header was not written by the reviewer, because the title completely trivializes the three books covered in the review.  “On Losing It And Other Chick Stuff.”  I can’t imagine a book by a man that reveals a lifetime of erectile dysfunction would have been devalued as though it was about boys snapping towels in the locker-room.

Ok, so I did start my rant.  I was going to say I didn’t need to write it because before I did, Rae Bryant posted this:

I find it interesting when editors or presses promote an International Women’s Day when their aesthetic really only promotes women writers writing about sexy sex. Don’t get me wrong. I like the sexy sex in literary fiction when it’s done well and witty (toooo many times it’s not) but International Women’s Day really requires a sense for GENDER EXPLORATION, including sex in all its sexiness and dark and nasty. Just aren’t a whole lot of editors who really know what that is. A few who really do.

There also seems to be a collect of editors/publishers who publish the “sweetheart crowd.” Male run/fraternity like publications who have decided upon their “fraternity sweethearts.” These fraternity sweethearts must have the following attributes:

  1.  DO NOT bitch about our maleness in any shape or form.
  2.  You MUST entertain us by sexy words on page and more preferable, a willingness to perform your sexiness at readings and other such events.
  3.  A constant sense of humor about your gender. If you get PMSey at any point in time, we reserve the right to oust you, our boy club friends will oust you and you’ll never again be on the fraternity sweetheart list. Blacklisted. Or Blackballed.

Of course no one’s going to name names, me included, but … over a drink somewhere, I’d love to hear the experiences that brought this out on a Friday afternoon.  My little author photo misery might have to take a smaller role in a larger conversation.

***

Cris Mazza is the author of over 17 books, including Various Men Who Knew Us as Girls, Waterbaby, Trickle-Down Timeline, and Is It Sexual Harassment Yet?   Her first novel, How to Leave a Country, won the PEN/Nelson Algren Award for book-length fiction.  Mazza has co-edited three anthologies, including Men Undressed: Women Writers on the Male Sexual Experience.  In addition to fiction, Mazza has authored collection of personal essays, Indigenous: Growing Up Californian.  Currently living 50 miles west of Chicago, she is a professor in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Author Spotlight / 12 Comments
April 4th, 2014 / 10:00 am

The April 2014 issue of Words Without Borders features writing from South Korea. It’s pretty excellent. Check it out.

Reviews

Nothing by Anne Marie Wirth Cauchon

41jKTq2ZuuL._SY346_Nothing
by Anne Marie Wirth Cauchon
Two Dollar Radio, Nov 2013
178 pages / $16  Buy from Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

“The question is how much reality must be retained even in a world become inhuman if humanity is not to be reduced to an empty phrase or a phantom. Or to put it another way, to what extent do we remain obligated to the world even when we have been expelled from it or have withdrawn from it?… Flight from the world in dark times of impotence can always be justified as long as reality is not ignored, but is constantly acknowledged as the thing that must be escaped.” — Hannah Arendt, On Humanity in Dark Times: Thoughts about Lessing

Mrs. Wirth Cauchon’s novel Nothing confronts us with a startling self-portrait, at least for my generation. All who cannot see a part of themselves in this story simply have not been paying attention. Her narrative concerns the exploits of two young women and one young man whose lives intersect in bizarre and serendipitous ways in the modern American West, a place of danger, intrigue, and darkness, but also of an earthy, natural vitality. The setting is deliberately emphasized and plays a vital role in the plot, but it by no means confines the story, for like all good stories, it explores the being of people in the world.

Why so lost? Why such dark times? Our dark times consist not so much in the active persecution and expulsion from the public realm that were the hallmark of Ms. Arendt’s, but instead the “irreality” of politics that attends our own. James, Bridget and Ruth are all expelled from the public realm into merely personal society and suffer tremendously for it. In the absence of anything in particular to do, their personal quests metastasize into monstrous projects all out of proportion to their potential payoff. These are the conditions in which we find them, and the results are fascinating.

Of the three, James has the most tangible quest, to find out the “truth” about his father. As he makes his way to the book’s setting in Missoula, Montana there is an evident relish in the manner in which he chooses to convey and conduct himself that belies his deeper nature. He doesn’t want to find out about his father, he wants to be a guy who wants to find out about his father, one whose very nature is consumed by this oh-so-meaningful project to the degree that he will endure any discomfort to see it accomplished. He wants to embody passion, to demonstrate it to the world in such a way that he will be recognized for it. Why this perversion of a straightforward quest? It tips us to the conditions in which he operates, a sneaking suspicion that the world around him has grown cold and flaccid. His is a demand for hardness in a soft world. To him, his step-father embodies this tendency toward dissolution. He is what society expects him to be and nothing more: quiet, respectable, financially-successful. He lives up to his end of the social contract that offers no great reward, but also no great risk. James wants to be a conqueror, not a sober merchant, in a world that offers little of value to conquer.

Hardness he seeks and hardness he finds. When James locates life’s crueller edges he beats a partial retreat back into the world of softness where he finds Ruth. He will discover that she too has hard edges. Their inability to communicate effectively, to understand one another sympathetically, undoes them both. It seems so odd at points, this inability, but is it not a habit that we have done a good deal to disburden ourselves of? Our world moves at a speed and a level of self-absorption that is conducive neither to quiet contemplation nor thoughtful dialogue.  What we cannot digest in thought, we vomit at one another. Ruth and James unravel as quickly as they fell into one another, bound together ultimately by as much nothing as surrounds them.

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March 28th, 2014 / 10:00 am

Reviews

MFA vs NYC vs WWE

cover_wtruckThe ring is sparsely decorated: a white mat with pleasant turquoise bands to hold the war in. The crowd’s looking at it. The lights go down. Chad Harbach walks out into the middle of the ring. The crowd goes silent.

He clears his throat. Points a rusty revolver at the ceiling. Fires it.

George Saunders crawls under the ropes with a folding chair and unfurls it, sitting down cross-legged in the corner of the ring. Chad Harbach has retreated to the announcer’s table. Meanwhile, Maria Adelmann walks onstage with her hands in her pockets. She looks out idly at the stage-lights, the thousands gathered in the stands. Suddenly Eric Bennett leaps into the ring with a sheaf of paper and clocks Adelmann in the head with it. He stands there, suddenly mournful, looking at what he’s done. George Saunders still sits on his folding chair with his hands in his pockets, looking mildly perplexed.

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March 26th, 2014 / 11:00 am

Reviews

HILL WILLIAM by Scott McClanahan

513yHSRDOAL._SY346_Hill William
by Scott McClanahan
Tyrant Books, November 2013
200 pages / $14.95  Buy from Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today was a day I skipped lunch for Newcastles.  It was 83 degrees outside and I nestled into a lawn chair with Hill William and a shirtdress that had no pants. As soon as I started and the beers grabbed hold  I wanted to tell someone about it because EMOTIONS so I thought I would tell Siri.  This is what she said back because she is like a parrot. Exactly like a parrot because parrots aren’t exact and can’t get everything right. But luckily there is a cage around them so you can’t hurt them easily.

I’m going to drunkenly live Siri Scott McClanahan’s Hill William

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March 24th, 2014 / 11:00 am

Reviews

Actors Anonymous by James Franco

james-franco-actors-anonymousActors Anonymous
by James Franco
Little A / New Harvest, Oct 2013
304 pages / $26  Buy from Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

James Franco seems to want to be anything he can think of. He is an actor-writer-director-producer-musician-artist, as well as a PHD candidate. This novel, Actors Anonymous, suffers from the same desires that the author does; it wants to be every kind of novel it can think of. The novel-group of stories-abstract meta sentences is arranged in a sort of alcoholics anonymous style, with twelve chapters apparently representing the twelve steps.

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March 21st, 2014 / 11:00 am

Who’s Playing Doctor to the Physicians of the Soul?

Poets are the physicians of the soul.”—Irving Layton, Canadian Nobel nominee for literature.

“She wouldn’t react that way to rape—you bet your life she wouldn’t. Along with the rest of her sex she’d lie back and enjoy it”—Irving Layton in private correspondence. Wild Gooseberries: The Selected Letters of Irving Layton (Toronto: Macmillan, 1989), 53.

***

oh-canada

Canadian Lit likes to think it’s known for being boring, or multicultural, or for surviving in the wilderness. It is hardly known at all, besides by a certain charming Scandinavian institute for Canadian Studies, and those non-Canucks who do know it exists prefer not to think about it. We have heard dull battle cries from other bookish people: “Can Lit isn’t literature”; “Or you could read an actual book” & “Don’t waste your time with that shit”. The Stephen Leacocks, Michael Ondaatjes, Margaret Atwoods, Alice Munros, Anne Carsons, Robertston Davies and Irving Laytons be damned; there’s nothing particularly Canadian about them, they just live north of the 49th. I don’t care to address those suckers of canonization’s long, evil phallus. “Tell us what to read!” they say. “Tell us what set of pseudo-conflicting opinions to harbor,” they murmur through their facile, troubled dreams of greatness. This letter is also not to the children of Canlit, those ‘iconoclasts’ who treat famous poets like demigods, and who worship in a side-chapel of the same institution of thinly-veiled brain-death. Keep your precious feelings, everybody, but leave discussions of taste to snobs who read.

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March 17th, 2014 / 11:00 am

Overboard

I.

On this particular evening, the musician allows his fellow lodger in the house on Rue d’Auseil to listen to his feverish viol music. “It would be useless to describe the playing …. He was trying to make a noise; to ward something off or drown something out—what, I could not imagine,” writes H.P. Lovecraft in “The Music of Erich Zann.” The listener, a metaphysics student at an unnamed university, is an interloper, a voyeur who, on hearing Erich Zann fill his garret room with this crazed playing, hopes to peak into the source of the music’s beauty, to penetrate some “far cosmos of the imagination.” On this particular evening, the cosmos stabs back. Lovecraft describes Zann’s playing, which grows “fantastic, delirious, and hysterical …. [l]ouder and louder, wilder and wilder,” until other-worldly chaos and pandemonium explode into the house on Rue d’Auseil and the listener flees. It is a bit much.

zann

Howard Philips Lovecraft wrote “The Music of Erich Zann” in 1917. Over the next 20 years, he would go on to write his best known tales of horror and wonder, those involving Cthulhu, Nyarlathotep, and Azathoth, his mythos monsters, the Great Old Ones whose names you can’t pronounce. The language in “Erich Zann” is toned-down, tolerable, a pale lilac compared to the rich purple of his later prose, where, as Michel Houellebecq writes, “the adjectives and adverbs pile upon one another to the point of exasperation, and he [Lovecraft] utters exclamations of pure delirium.” Most readers would not consider anything by H.P. Lovecraft well-written in the traditional sense, and yet there is power in his work, a majestic and odd darkness that isn’t matched by much else, an appeal to the unimaginable, our dread of looking into the night sky and hoping, only hoping, we’re alone. Lovecraft’s best sentences are always overwrought. There are excesses of bland fright words—“monstrous”, “horrible”, “grotesque”—mixed with archaic vocabulary, weird words that both in texture and meaning evoke the unusual, “eldritch”, “rugose”, “squamose”; there are extended hallucinations, delirious exclamations, and dream descriptions of nightmare cities, all of which are the antithesis of subtlety. All stylistic restraint has been set aside. Lovecraft eschews any kind of linguistic modesty so he can unleash his unmistakably curious vision of cosmic horror and god-things—this is the source of his style.

“HPL would probably have considered a story a failure, if in writing it he did not have a chance to go overboard once at least,” Houellebecq writes in H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life (published in France in 1991; translated into English by Dorna Khazeni and published by Believer Books in 2005). Houellebecq, a French novelist who writes about sex, brand names, technodystopian malaise, and ennui-ridden postmodern consciousness (very French, yes), sees Lovecraft as an American original whose uncompromising weirdness and “stylistic explosion[s]” lead to a unique body of work, the sole goal of which is to fascinate the reader. Houellebecq sets Lovecraft up against more mundane sci-fi and horror writers and against all realism. Lovecraft, Houellebecq argues, whose style is defined by precisely that which it’s easiest to criticize, is interesting not in spite of his grandiose and ridiculous prose, but because of it.

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March 14th, 2014 / 11:00 am

Reviews

Daddy Cool Edited by Ben Tanzer

daddy-cool_coverDaddy Cool: An Anthology of Fathers Writing For and About Kids
Edited by Ben Tanzer
Artistically Declined Press, 2013
272 pages / $15  Buy from Amazon or Artistically Declined Press

 

 

 

 

 

 

My wife and I are arguing over the amount of books in our house. She says it stresses her out that there are stacks of my books piled into every corner of our duplex.

I ask if it would make her feel better if all of my books were placed on the built-in bookcase in the back of the house.

She reminds me that the back bookcase is already overflowing, some shelves being two books deep, others having stacks of books on top of the books lining the shelves.

We start boxing up some books and DVDs to sell at the McKay in Nashville. I hope this will alleviate her stress, but then she asks what we’ll buy with the store credit I’ll inevitably insist upon in exchange for my prized books.

We can get whatever you want, I tell her.

All I want are books and things for the baby, she tells me. Then she concedes we’ve already developed a pretty great book collection for him.

Finally, something we can agree upon with regards to books. Our son is not even six months old and he has an entire shelf of board books and even more picture books. My wife and I have also prided ourselves on our discerning taste, returning or selling books like Chamelia and Skippyjon Jones with problematic messages. Plus, in our state all newborns are eligible for the Imagination Library, so our son’s book collection grows by at least one book every month.

My wife and I come from impassioned reading stock. My mother bought me tons of books (some of which are now on my son’s aforementioned shelves) and my mother-in-law was a preschool teacher for years. I’m certain ya’ll can see why we want to pass on the joy of reading to our kid.

Daddy Cool is “an anthology of writing by fathers for and about kids.” It’s an idea that is intoxicating to Gen X and Y parents—the hip dad, the cool dad, the dad who shares an interest with his children. In many ways it’s a direct backlash to how their boomer parents treated them.

I can certainly relate. I spend far too much time agonizing over which book to read my son at bedtime (it’s not like he cares). I also am on the hunt for books to share with him that match my same literary tastes, which is why when I learned about Daddy Cool  I was very excited, especially because it’s edited by Ben Tanzer, who is a shining star in both the dad writer and indie writer circles.

Tanzer’s introduction to the anthology is heartrending, too. He begins his introduction by discussing how he intended to begin his introduction:

I imagine I would have gone on to say something about the profound impact of reading to your child, telling stories, bonding, and brain development, and how as a writer anything I might say about any of this can only be magnified, or maybe it’s illuminated, though regardless, I would have said something about just how cool this project is, because we are about words and narrative and immersing ourselves in the stories of our lives.

But what Tanzer winds up doing is even more important than stressing our future’s need to love reading. Tanzer writes about his dad, how he read to Tanzer and his brother as children, how he frequented the library, how he made Tanzer the writer that he is today, and how now that he’s gone, Tanzer thinks about his dad, especially when working on projects like the Daddy Cool anthology. It’s this sort of honest pathos that draws me into a book.

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March 14th, 2014 / 11:00 am

Herschel Hoffmeyer, Dinosaur Enthusiast

Herschel Hoffmeyer alternate image“I’ve been learning about and drawing dinosaurs since I was a kid,” explains Herschel Hoffmeyer, creator of the Apex Theropod Deck-Building Game, now on Kickstarter. “I even won a dinosaur art contest at a local library when I was very little. I was made to create these guys and bring them to life.”

Apex Theropod looks like a dinosaur-lover’s nocturnal emission…and Herschel himself might be the biggest dino-enthusiast you’ll ever meet. “I have National Geographic’s The Ultimate Dinopedia and the super-sized book Dinosaurs by David James. I really love what the indie company Lukewarm Media has done with their game Primal Carnage,” he gushes, adding as an afterthought that he hasn’t actually been able to play said game yet.

According to his Kickstarter bio, Herschel is an 8-year Army veteran and Game Art and Design student at the Arts Institute International in Kansas City. Intrigued about how his Army life segued into his current saurian pursuits, I contacted Herschel for an interview. “Apex started as a simple prototype dinosaur-themed game used for an assignment in one of my game design classes at the Arts Institute International of Kansas City,” he explained. “After seeing my game concepts compared to others, I knew I had a knack for game design. Shortly after, I worked on many different prototype games under the same dinosaur theme, game goals, and playable class ideas.”

“The dinosaur theme was definitely the theme from the beginning, just because I thought it would be really fun to play.” As for the mechanics, they were inspired by the Legendary: A Marvel Deck-Building Game, published by Upper Deck Entertainment. Like other deck-building games, Legendary starts each player with a small deck of relatively weak cards (in this case, S.H.I.E.L.D. agents). However, over the course of the game, they can use these cards to “recruit” more powerful, iconic Marvel heroes into their deck, and the winner will be the player who builds the cleverest deck in the shortest time. This evolution from humble beginnings is a potently addictive formula, which explains the explosion of popularity deck-builders have experienced since they were popularized by Donald X. Vaccarino’s Dominion in 2008. Herschel isn’t naive to the economics of the situation: one reason he selected the deck-building format is that, since the bulk of their contents are composed of duplicate cards, deck-builders are relatively inexpensive to manufacture.

Apex theropod cardsThis evolutionary gameplay is also the perfect complement to the theme of becoming the world’s top saurian predator. Herschel explains, “Most of the game’s mechanics are shaped around the theme, and three are really unique to the game. The first is the territory-based decks. With the environmental deck affecting those territories, that drives a sense of environment immersion. The second is that each player has a nest. The nest is separate from your playing deck and unique to whatever dinosaur you’re playing as. In the nest, you hatch cards that consist of just your dinosaur, and you also bring any prey hunted back to your nest to eat later. The third unique mechanic is the unforgiving boss battles. To dominate each territory, you have to fight off the other competing apex predator of that territory, and that is the boss. In a 5-player game, you have eight total bosses, and in a single-player game, you have three bosses and one ultimate boss.”

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March 12th, 2014 / 11:00 am

Reviews

Kaleidoscopic Omniscience by Will Alexander

kaleidoscopic300Kaleidoscopic Omniscience
by Will Alexander
Skylight Press, 2013
274 pages / $21.99  Buy from Amazon or Skylight Press

 

 

 

 

 

 

What is in essence a collected early works Kaleidoscopic Omniscience gathers together Will Alexander’s early collections Asia & Haiti and The Stratospheric Canticles along with a long-promised but never published collection of shorter poems Impulse & Nothingness.

Vermillion shades of astral haunts abound as Alexander takes his readers through a psychedelic romp that leaves the consciousness reeling. There’s nothing usual about Alexander’s visionary take on history: the contemporary, the ancient, and the yet-to-be-possible-yet-possibly-not all come together simultaneously happening in the immediate now of his poems. Welcome to the sci-fi gothic splendor that is Alexander’s forte.

This is news from the beyond gathered by a shamanic visionary. Spun from out his psycho-imaginative journeys through previously unheard realms of existence. All grounded within his particular chthonic as well as vatic orders. He’s listening to frequencies to which few others are privy. (Too few others.) The messages conveyed by his poems are imbedded beneath soaring tonalities and scattered throughout lines with cryptic zeal.

Both “Asia” & “Haiti” are epic in scope. The ghosts of silenced communities spanning a global axis of oppression and denied freedom are given voice. The poems from beginning to end are one long address.

“we
the once green wings of magical Tibet
accused by the Maoists
by the exterior flames of ideology & assault”
(“Asia”)

And

“it is we who speak
with a sun of splinters spewing from our heart
from our thorax burning with intestinal moray explosion
we
the Africa of Songhai & Mali
we
of original reptile wisdom
we
the first gatherers of wool
through sun
through apertures spinning
in a ruptured lightning gorge”
(“Haiti”)

The spirits of “Asia” announce “we’ve emerged / with our murmurs” carrying their stories into the public address of the poem.

“we
the old fiery Lamas from the ocean
from the great green thrones of infinity”

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March 10th, 2014 / 11:00 am

Reviews

The Tooth Fairy by Clifford Chase

ows_139172290065204The Tooth Fairy: Parents, Lovers, and Other Wayward Deities (A Memoir)
by Clifford Chase
The Overlook Press, 2014
256 pages / $24.95  Buy from Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

Clifford Chase’s The Tooth Fairy begins with an epigraph, a line from a James Schuyler poem: “Out there/ a bird is building a nest out of torn up letters.” And this is Chase’s task in The Tooth Fairy, to weave a home from fragments of thoughts, memories, journals, dreams, and song lyrics, each ribbon and twig twisted with the other ribbons and twigs, until the strands form dense architecture, a story that holds one close.

At first, it seemed The Tooth Fairy would be an exhausting read. In the first chapter, an essay partly about the extraction of molar #30 from the author’s mouth, each of the fragments—which meditate on everything from blood oranges to antidepressants to sexual confusion—are, with few exceptions, a single sentence long. I’m a reader with an affinity for books made of fragments—I adore Barthe’s A Lover’s Discourse, Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, Wayne Koestenbaum’s Humiliation—but I wondered if I could keep up. The sentences leap swiftly from image to image, subject to subject, developing few of the connective strands. The images are at turns funny (a fat little dog with a plastic steak in its mouth), and at turns lyrical (clouds are “golden cloth with a purple sheen”). My mind felt a little jet-lagged. Chase was building this nest from such small twigs. But the warp and weft of the first chapter continued into the second, and the nest began to grow.

Each chapter considers a different time in the author’s life: a trip to Egypt with his partner John, a period of sexual confusion in college and afterwards, the deaths of his parents, a strange luggage mix-up. And each chapter has its own narrative arc, a central focus for meditation. There are strands, too, that connect each chapter to the next: Chase worries, suffers guilt, attempts to be a good son, partner, and brother, loses family members, loses part of his city, loses his sense of himself, loses love. He gains things, too—understanding, occasional connection. The book is full of emotional punches.

The Tooth Fairy invites one to seek patterns, and some of the fragments can be sorted into categories, one of which could be labeled “meta-fragments.” In these, Chase often considers or directs the reader about how the white space between fragments is working.  In one instance, Chase writes that the white space represents “the gap between the part of [himself] that was happy with John and the part of [him] that wasn’t.” In the final chapter of the book, “Ken,” Chase reconsiders his brother, who died of AIDS in the late 1980s and whose death is the subject of Chase’s earlier book The Hurry-Up Song. In The Tooth Fairy, Chase has acquired Ken’s journal, and uses Ken’s writing and interviews with Ken’s friends to gain a multifaceted understanding of his brother. In this chapter, Chase tells us that the white space represents “several months in 2009 and 2010 of trying to absorb and understand [Ken’s] suffering.” Here, the gaps between fragments represent time and thought and sorting. In another chapter, Chase tells us that he assembles these “simple, factual sentences” in an attempt to “make the past seem almost comprehensible—not normal exactly, but closer to it—that is, an objective story I can view without shame.” This proclamation is followed by three such sentences, each of which speaks simply and literally, and also hints at a narrative iceberg sleeping beneath the surface:

“Superman was a turn-on.

The basement used to flood regularly.

The pipes froze.”

In all of the white spaces, the reader (and maybe, too, the writer) builds a narrative while also accepting that there is no perfect, comprehensible narrative, no perfect answers to Chase’s questions. Each sentence stands like a tooth in a mouth, perfect on its own—an independent unit with root, dentin, and enamel—yet rooted and most functional alongside the others.

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March 10th, 2014 / 11:00 am

Reviews

Mira Corpora by Jeff Jackson

jacksonMira Corpora
by Jeff Jackson
Two Dollar Radio
182 pages / $16  Buy from Amazon or Two Dollar Radio

 

 

 

 

 

To some, writing is a ritualistic act, the only anchor that steadies the self with processed meaning in an otherwise meaningless life, a life that threatens to carry a person away with it into excessive uselessness. It’s not actually that dramatic, but with writing, getting carried away with emotions finally given freedom—emotions that usually lie beneath layers of all sorts of psychological weights—is common, at least in the earlier stages. There’s been a trend with newer literature to explore a muffled numbness, to keep the storyteller detached from his own emotions and the childhood that generated those vulnerable feelings, which easily fell prey to the machinated contradictions of the world. This numbness is somewhat helpful for readers to connect to a first person narrator fluidly and without judgment—so that the reader can slip into generated feelings, assume them instead of flatly being told about them from the narrator. At the same time, the imagination required for good storytelling can’t function to its fullest without a sense of childlike playfulness to accompany the forced numbness. The balancing act the constructor of a bildungsroman needs to walk has therefore become more burdensome than most other fiction writing, especially in this age when the form’s already been nearly exhausted and left uninteresting.

Mira Corpora, Jeff Jackson’s first novel, is a bildungsroman placed in a familiar alienated age. It’s an emotional pseudo-biographical account of the author’s past, one that keeps the real life experienced roots beneath the surface and allows a lusciously imagined yet just barely realistic sequence of events to flourish instead as the account. Before beginning the novel, you are made aware by an author’s note that this story is inspired by childhood journals. The way Jackson revisits childhood winds up morphing memory into an open and abstractable form, one that when presented to a reader who questions the validity or accuracy of this recounting can nonetheless re-experience the confusion of the original moment. Importance is placed on generating a succession of emotions, so that through the narrator we can understand a fear that isn’t mature enough to recognize itself. The earlier years of the novel bring an awareness to the animalistic nature of humanity, recalling a little bit of Burroughs’s The Wild Boys, and then flows into distinct fragments that take place later in the character’s development.

The story is also one of recognizing ones self as a writer through a few metaphorical devices. In the opening to the first section he describes the sacrifice of his body to be able to write. Later on an oracle gives him a blank sheet of paper, which according to everyone else surrounding him won’t bode well. The message seems to be that he is damned to be a writer. The first artistic energy he’s drawn to is a singer by the name of Kin Mersey, who gets mythologized to no end by his group of friends. They find him later, unrecognizable like Syd Barret in his later years, and for Jackson (the character) it’s too much to handle and he bolts away. His friends, however, are too wound up in their ideals and projections that they can’t help but be overjoyed at seeing this figure they’ve worshipped for so long. Seeing the loss of creative vitality, the reality of something instead of the assumed transcendent nature of it is unbearable for Jackson. This scenario made me question whether it’s worse to realize your state of being washed up or to continue on in ignorance of being sapped of a divine aura after once having it, or if it matters either way.

The following fragment of events deals with Jackson being abducted and drugged by an ill-intentioned German man named Gert-Jan, who comes across like a symbolic Beckett character. The thing about Jeff Jackson’s writing that is most striking, besides the originality that’s received so many high-praising blurbs, is his ability to make characters, events, and forms that intersect at potent avenues of meaning. Readers can use these to fill in numerous metaphors. The description and action is just sparse enough to allow one his or her own input, and just detailed enough to make them feel nearly real. With the Gert-Jan sequence, one can fill in this larger than life character with nearly any conniving and manipulating institution in society. The evil underhanded aspects don’t exist on the surface, but only in intuition. “Gert-Jan’s persuasions are more effective the longer he holds your attention.” The idea of ‘not biting the hand that feeds you’ gets called into question when Jackson plots to escape Gert-Jan’s all encompassing grasp.

Overall the coming of age story doesn’t track any sense of progress. The narrator feels the same in the early years as he does by the end of the book. Nothing leads to anything else, as if all the outside experiences are just one big toxic wash. The approach feels like the inaction of a Tao Lin novel, and is narrated with a similar approach, but instead of minimal realism it’s told with a violent sense of survival imbedded within it; an undercurrent of energy rushes through the restrained prose. Traces of Dennis Cooper, and the aforementioned Beckett and Burroughs, are there too. But even with these elements, a larger portion of it is an original approach to storytelling, one that breathes new and exciting life into the trends of alienated numbness pervading current novels.

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March 7th, 2014 / 11:00 am

Organisms that do not exhibit recursion in communication still have the capacity for recursion

Hauser, Chomsky and Fitch 2002 (HC&F hereafter) incited a flurry of discussion in response to its distinction between the faculty of language in the broad sense (FLB) and the faculty of language in the narrow sense (FLN): “FLB includes a sensory-motor system, a conceptual-intentional system, and the computational mechanisms for recursion, providing the capacity to generate an infinite range of expressions from a finite set of elements. We hypothesize that FLN only includes recursion and is the only uniquely human component of the faculty of language.” (HC&F, 1569). The implication is that the observable structural differences between human language and other forms of animal communication can be explained by the exclusivity of recursion to human language. This statement also operates on the assumption that recursion is a universal trait of human language.

Image courtesy of this site.

Daniel Everett’s work with the Pirahã tribe in the Amazon presents evidence contrary to HC&F’s claims. Everett found that the Pirahã language lacked embedding, at least representational recursion1: “Pirahã does not make use of CP-embedding or recursive possessors.” (Kinsella 2010: 188)2 Nonetheless, they can, through other linguistic and pragmatic means, express concepts which in other languages would be expressed recursively (ibid.). Everett says “..Pirahã most certainly has the communicative resources to expresses clauses that in other languages are embedded…” (Everett 2005: 631) Therefore, though Pirahã does not seem to have recursion, it is by no means restricted in its expressive capacity, countering the claims of Hauser, Chomsky and Finch 2002 regarding “the rich expressive and open-ended power of human language (based on humans’ capacity for recursion),” which capacity they claim animal communication lacks because it does not exhibit recursion (HC&F, 1570). If Pirahã’s expressive capacity is not hindered by its seeming lack of recursion, then perhaps recursion is not in fact a distinguishing feature of human language (Kinsella 188), or at least not the only one: perhaps it can be found in non-linguistic and non-human domains.

Image courtesy of HC&F 2002.

This may in fact the case. HC&F 2002 themselves speculate that recursion may be evident in animal navigation and kinship cognition, and songbirds have exhibited the capacity to comprehend recursive hierarchical syntactic structure (Abe & Watanabe 2011; Gentner et al 2006). Bengalese finches exposed to an artificially-constructed, center-embedded birdsong grammar “revealed a striking sensitivity to the recursive structure of the grammatical strings [they] were exposed to.” (Bloomfield et al 2011) The finches responded equally to familiar and novel grammatical strings, but decreased in response when presented with ungrammatical birdsong strings (ibid.). This indicates that recursion is not necessarily specific to humans, and that it is only sufficient, not necessary for human language, as Everett’s work with the Pirahã indicates. Therefore, since recursion as a unique feature of language is questionable, it would be fruitful to comparatively investigate the other possibly-distinguishing properties of language— the syntax-semantics interface particularly, as well as the lexicon and the nature of phrasal categories (Kinsella 2010).

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March 3rd, 2014 / 11:00 am