Sunday, November 11, 2018

Discovering David Markson, Wittgenstein's Mistress and "The Notecard Quartet"

Somebody is living on this beach.
- Wittgenstein's Mistress, p. 240

Quelqu'un vit sur cette plage.
[Somebody is living on this beach, French]

Alguien vive en este playa.
[Somebody is living on this beach, Spanish]
- Reader's Block, p. 178


My reading recently has quickly ricochet'd through the later works of author David Markson, catapulting from Reader's Block (1996) through This Is Not a Novel (2001) into Vanishing Point (2004) on the way to The Last Novel (2007). My binge through this tetrad of experimental novels known as "The Notecard Quartet," styled as meandering strands of loosely linked bits of art historical data written as terse one or two line paragraphs (and originally composed by Markson on index cards), this began on the strength of persistent hints from my Santa Cruz pals Charlie and Luke to read Markson's postmodern masterpiece Wittgenstein's Mistress. My copy of that novel was acquired in Austin a couple years back when I happened to be at a bookstore with Charlie and Luke and they both suggested I'd dig it. They were on point. During a recent trip to Santa Cruz and the San Fran area I finally cracked open Wittgenstein's Mistress and zipped thru it enthralled. The impact of jutting single line paragraphs presenting one mental nugget after another over and over becomes a compulsive reading experience, oddly addictive. Bookworm host Michael Silverblatt compared it to a nutritional snack food for the mind.

To compose an impactful page turner out of a staccato of epigrams and ephemera with no chapters or conventional story elements was Markson's stated goal and manifested gift, repeatedly achieved over the latter stage of his career. After starting out publishing a handful of pulp western and noir novels in the 1960s including The Ballad of Dingus Magee which became a film starring Frank Sinatra, David Markson eventually began to move toward more experimental and original uses of the written word. In the mid-1980s he wrote Wittgenstein's Mistress, a story consisting of the interlinked mental fragments of a narrator known as Kate who seems to be the last person alive on earth. Persevering through 54 (!!!) rejections from publishers who found it either too unconventional or unfit to sell, Markson finally got Wittgenstein's Mistress published in 1988 by Dalkey Archive Press, thanks to the brilliant Steven Moore. The book garnered some laudatory reviews, most notably from David Foster Wallace who described it as "pretty much the high point of experimental literature in this country."

Sunday, October 21, 2018

A Brief Note on "Marksmen": the Intricate Lyrical Design of Citizen Ka

Preparatory to an upcoming review of my favorite album of the year thus far, Orpheus vs the Sirens, by the Hermit and the Recluse also known as rapper Ka and producer Animoss (of the Arch Druids), I'd like to briefly make a note on a lyrical tactic from a different song involving these two. The song is "Marksmen" from Roc Marciano's 2017 album Rosebudd's Revenge, featuring Ka on the first verse and production from Animoss.




I love this beat from Animoss, it seems so odd and simple. The distinctive short looped sliver of lightly dribbling guitar string was shrewdly selected out of the original sample "Love Feeling" from Mecki Mark Men, the song title "Marksmen" partly an homage to them. The tiny piece of sound Animoss chose here, and how he deployed it in the beat, fascinates me. Only somebody in a crew with a name like the Arch Druids could have devised this sound.

I've listened to this song frequently the last few months while binging on some of the more recent music from Ka and Roc Marci. The more I've heard this the more things I've noticed in it. The track interests me for a number of reasons. Besides Roc Marci's verse weaved as an array of interlocking musical instrument references, what stands out to me is Ka opening with what seems like a hook over the beat's initial bridge and how he then transitions into the verse. It is that transition from hook into verse and especially the final bars of Ka's verse, that I want to focus on here. There's a fascinating bit of self commentary on the design of the verse itself.

At the end of Ka's verse he says:

"A true verse but too terse
I hope the hook grab em"

and then repeats "I hope the hook grab em."

There's no obvious hook on this track though and certainly the repetition of "I hope the hook grab em" isn't a hook. So what he's referring to here then is the slower delivered set of lines that open the song. Ka rhyming over the beat's precursory windup, beginning of course by saluting the production itself:

"To our production, much destruction for our appetite
With steel fist, if meal missed wasn't for lack of might 
We been binging, we purging dividends with snub nose 
My buds rose, my service citizens..."

I add the ellipsis at the end there because this transitions directly into the first lines of the verse, "My service citizens... Cain and Abel my rapping plight." I believe when Ka mentions he hopes the hook grabbed em he means I hope the listener is drawn to the hook and the clever triple entendre I built there. He draws our attention to it and by doing so gives even another layer of meaning to it.

The first connection that stands out is to the film Citizen Kane, wherefrom the "rosebud" of the album name Rosebudd's Revenge came, with allusion to it in "My bud's rose" and the aural sound of "My service citizens/ Kane." Of course there's also the allusion to the Biblical twins Cain and Abel. And to service citizens cain would be to serve dope to the citizenry, Ka often invokes the economy of crack cocaine cooking and dealing. (Using this last angle then "My buds rose" would also be cooking crack like baking bread, rising yeast.)

So already that quick transition from the final line of the "hook" into the first line of the verse has at least three references:

- Citizen Kane
- Cain and Abel
- Selling crack

He doesn't have to say much in order to invoke these, it's basically all stuffed into one line or one and a half lines. That alone is extremely clever. The creative tactic of directly feeding from the "hook" into the verse, that alone is cool too.

Then to actually make a reference to this "hook" and confirm that the opening is a hook while also explicitly hoping the listener picks up on what he's doing in the hook, you catch the last trick he embedded here: that line "I hope the hook grab em" refers to the hook which hook's right into the word "cane" after all. He hopes to hook you in as with a cane. Or to get citizens hooked on cocaine. Or provide a service to the citizens in the form of cooked verses, an addictive crack of intriguing lyricism.

This little bit of ornate lyrical design, finishing the verse by sending the listener back to the beginning to focus on what he planted there while layering one last bit of meaning onto that part of the song, is just the type of lyrical craftsmanship I've come to associate Ka with. Much as with dudes like DOOM and GZA, Ka is a writer intensely devoted to devising the cleverest turns of phrase, puns, and triple/quadruple entendres with every chance he can get. It is the artful verbal tricks deployed in the hooks throughout his newest album Orpheus vs the Sirens that intrigue me the most about that record. Fitting, then, that I've been so preoccupied with this clever lyrical device from Citizen Ka attempting to pull the listener in with the hook of "Marksmen."

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Book Review: Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day is Lit!


Last summer, topping off a binge of reading Thomas Pynchon books, I set forth on the long, arduous, and vastly entertaining excursion of reading his 1,085-page epic, Against the Day. Almost a year later, I'm still preoccupied with this multifaceted meganovel. Before putting the cinematic cinderblock of letters back on the shelf for a while I've got some thoughts I'd like to share on it here.

Mainly, I must declare that Against the Day is Lit!!! As in, Against the Day is Literature in extremis! Literary, narrative worlds taken to extreme levels of world building, as Bruce Allen of Kirkus Reviews captured it, "Pynchon is both wordsmith and world-smith." The book is all about journeys traversed around the world, and it is told in a bountifully rich style of extremely erudite yet comedically committed prose that serves to weave a vast interconnecting network of literally hundreds of characters across the span of a few decades surrounding the turn of the 20th century.

It's also Lit as in Bonkers as in yo this book is lit af. (Millenial slang for "yo it's wild as fuck!") In Against the Day, Pynchon takes risks, letting the imagination expand in full flourish of zany, unpredictable explosive interactions and storylines, straining the limits of credulity as he works within the genre of what Wikipedia calls historiographic metafiction or metahistorical romance. The powerful electrical experiments of Dr. Nikola Tesla himself make up part of the story, mixed with the ominous tensions of turn-of-the-century political revolutions and the buildup to World War I, witnessed by a team of globe-trotting, time-traveling aviator adventurers (the Chums of Chance), with the overall storyline centered around a decades long struggle between the family of a murdered anarchist bomber (Webb Traverse) against a merciless robber baron/cartel boss (Scarsdale Vibe). It is the grandest manifestation of Pynchon's consistent theme of the struggle throughout history between what he labels the elect vs the preterite or the rich and powerful vs the common man. Serious, important historical stuff. But as Steven Moore noted in his review, the book's Marxist melodrama is laced with the comedic strain of Groucho Marx. Since this is Pynchon in full force, the novel is completely bonkers, often hilarious or silly, and sometimes ridiculous in its sexual excesses.

For example, flipping open the book at random, on page 384 we encounter a freedom fighter in the Mexican Civil War named El Ñato described as an "energetic presence" dressed in an "officer's jacket from the defunct army of some country not too nearby" with a ridiculously oversized parrot perched on his shoulder, "so out of scale in fact that to converse with its owner it had to lean down to scream into his ear." Then we meet the parrot:
"And this is Joaquin," El Ñato smiling up at the bird. "Tell them something about yourself, m'hijo."
"I like to fuck the gringo pussy," confided the parrot.
Later on when one of the main characters is about to strangle the insolent parrot, Pynchon describes El Ñato "sensing psitticide in the air." Parrots being of the Latin order Psittaciformes, Pynchon invents a clever word for parrot murder.

And finally, the novel is also Lit in the sense of Illumination. One of the main preoccupations of Against the Day is Light. The novel is full of newly lit cities, luminous prose, an ever expanding glow of creativity and proliferant storylines intent on covering everything under the sun. The force of the Tunguska event plops upon the text with "A heavenwide blast of light" (p. 779) that leaves the sky over the European continent alight for weeks. The light-refracting crystal Iceland Spar is a recurrent element in Against the Day. We experience frequent digressions into philosophical, scientific or occult contemplations of Light itself, as in the scene where the young genius mathematician/engineer Kit Traverse argues with his cynical brother Reef on science vs mysticism, pointing out how wireless waves were complete "bunk" not very long ago, then he reminds us: "Seems every day somebody's discovering another new piece of the spectrum, out there beyond visible light, or a new extension of the mind beyond conscious thought, and maybe someplace far away the two domains are even connected up." (p. 670)

To illustrate the ways in which Against the Day is totally lit, let's further expand on each aspect of its lit-ness:

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Healing Ingredients for Hard Times

Greek street art from here.

"A middenhide hoard of objects!" 
- Finnegans Wake, p. 19


"To clean and tidy up Matter...
To put back all the things people cluttered up
Because they didn't understand what they were for...
To straighten, like a diligent housekeeper of Reality,
The curtains on the windows of Feeling
And the mats before the doors of Perception...
To sweep the rooms of observation
And to dust off simple ideas...
That's my life, verse by verse."

- Fernando Pessoa (as Alberto Caeiro), 17 September 1914 
(from A Little Larger Than the Entire Universe: Selected Poems, p. 56)


Besides the increasingly entropic, sad and infuriating thunderstorm of drama unfolding daily in the news, my closer circumference has also been racked with scary, turbulent, and unpredictable drama lately. The tension of the times is inescapable, it seems.

Besides the weight of experiencing people close to me fighting life-threatening illnesses, family friends passing away, and cherished friends leaving town, the last few months have featured the misfortune of a nearby neighbor exploding into a dark psychotic and meth-aided breakdown bringing nerve-eroding levels of disturbance and threat to my immediate community. My strong woman is terrified, deeply rattled, and my infuriated Italian Staten Island dude energy is trying to force its way into the situation. Plus it's Texas so the entire neighborhood is armed. Dealing with all of this has been rough.

What's helped me keep my head on straight is regular indulgence in the following ingredients: reading the poetry of Fernando Pessoa, exploring the music of rapper Ka, vibing off daily doses of Fela Kuti or lines from Finnegans Wake, and both watching and playing lots of baseball. Here are some thoughts on all of those.

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