Friday, December 15, 2017

In Memory of William Gass (1924-2017), One of the Consummate Sentence Sculptors of Our Time

The true alchemists do not change lead into gold; they change the world into words.
- William H. Gass 
I think of myself as a writer of prose rather than a novelist, critic, or storyteller, and I am principally interested in the problems of style. My fictions are, by and large, experimental constructions; that is, I try to make things out of words the way a sculptor might make a statue out of stone.
- William H. Gass

One of my favorite writers, William H. Gass, died last week at age 93. Since discovering his work a few years ago, I'd actually found it surprising that he was still alive. A figure such as he, tirelessly devoted to the primacy of the aesthetic experience of literature, seemed entirely incongruent living within our current times besotted with screen-addiction and momentary attention spans.

Gass made his living as a philosophy professor in St. Louis, Missouri of all places, while carving out a career as a prolific author and literary critic. His novels sit high atop the postmodern pedestal, but it was the delicious prose of his award-winning essays that led me to prostrate before the master in awe. Gass was a prose stylist extraordinaire, a devoted sentence sculptor who sought the perfect arrangement of sound and syllable in everything he wrote. I'll never forget the initial jolt of excitement upon experiencing his writing for the first time. It struck me that I now had all my life to devour everything this magnificent author had written. I was on vacation in Denver, staying at an Airbnb in a refurbished old gas station when I cracked open the book of essays A Temple of Texts and was entranced at the erudition and passion Gass delivered through a prose that was alive, popping, rhythmic, serious yet fun. I've never encountered anyone who can so perfectly communicate the rapturous pleasure of reading books, actual physical texts. I encountered his incredible essay "A Defense of the Book" and nearly stayed up all night reading it; only Gass could turn lit crit into a page-turner. Observe his argument for owning books and keeping a library:

Should we put these feelings for the object and its vicissitudes down to simple sentimental nostalgia? to our commonly assumed resistance to change? I think not; but even as a stimulus for reminiscence, a treasured book is more important than a dance card, or the photo that freezes you in mid-teeter at the edge of the Grand Canyon, because such a book can be a significant event in the history of your reading, and your reading (provided you are Significant) should be an essential segment of your character and your life. Unlike the love we've made or meals we've eaten, books congregate to form a record around us of what they've fed our stomachs or our brains. These are not a hunter's trophies but the living animals themselves.
It was my friend Charlie, a fellow book fiend whose knowledge bank is substantial with 20th century scribes, who pointed me towards William Gass. A few years ago I had asked him to recommend some modern authors who specialize in exquisite prose style. He'd already led me to Pynchon's novels and now he recommended the likes of William Gaddis and William Gass. I soon read Gaddis' A Frolic of His Own and sought out Gass, zipping through his short story collection and the monograph On Being Blue with mixed feelings about both. Once I found my way into the Temple of Texts, though, there was no escaping. I picked up another essay collection, Finding a Form, and marveled at pieces like "The Book as Container of Consciousness" and "The Vicissitudes of the Avant-Garde" and then slowly devoured Life Sentences whose most striking piece was a lengthy, sober meditation on the unfathomable, sublime quantity of people slaughtered by the Nazi regime. Since learning of his passing, I've summoned copies of the other essay collections produced by Mr. Gass from all corners of the globe to converge in my library.

The recommendation from Charlie came on the strength of the novel The Tunnel, Gass's masterpiece that he labored on for 30 years. I've been distantly circulating around that cinderblock-sized meganovel for a little while now, reluctant to get too close to it but intending to read it eventually. Book critic Steven Moore called it "truly one of the great books of our time" and observed, "The sheer beauty and bravura of Gass's sentences are overwhelming, breathtaking; the novel is a pharaoh's tomb of linguistic treasures."

I had actually written up my thoughts about William Gass last weekend upon hearing the news of his death, only to have that piece suddenly disappear into the ether. It was a rare and infuriating experience, but I soon accepted Joyce's dictum that mistakes are portals of discovery. It dawned on me that William Gass had nearly finished composing his first novel, Omensetter's Luck, when the manuscript was stolen off his desk, forcing him to devote six months to rewriting it all from scratch. (The resulting novel was hailed by The New Republic as "the most important work of fiction by an American in this literary generation" and listed among David Foster Wallace's "direly underappreciated" novels of the latter half of the 20th century.) This kind of devotion and determination exemplifies Gass's standing as a writer's writer. He was a fiercely passionate celebrant of the artfully written word, a prolific composer of ornate prose, and his penchant for luxuriating on the love of letters has served to exponentially amplify my own enjoyment of literature.

In the wake of his passing, a number of thoughtful obits have popped up. Here are links to those with some choice chunks from each as well as links to some Gass interviews.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Album Reviews: The Wu-Tang Phoenix Re-Arises Again

The sheen on the iron "W" was scuffed following Wu-Tang Clan's disappointing 2014 album A Better Tomorrow and the whole distasteful debacle of the Once Upon a Time in Shaolin project. Maybe any press is good press, but while Wu-Tang remains generally beloved and un-fucked-with, the PR hit resulting from the one-two punch of teasing fans with a new Wu-Tang Forever-sounding album assembled by one of the team's freshest new beat-makers sold as one single secret copy to one of the most hated men in the world while instead serving to the public a fractured and subpar group project produced by a rusty and out-of-touch RZA, definitively marked a low point in the Wu-Tang legacy. Maybe the lowest point.

Not to be kept down for long, the Wu phoenix has re-arisen again. The whole Wu-Tang conglomerate has regrouped and brought forth a swarm in 2017, releasing a slew of new projects that serve to reassert their present skills and still-fearsome roster depth while burnishing the legacy of the brand. No bullshit, no gimmicks, just dope beats and dope rhymes. (To top it off, the asshole who acquired the single copy album, Martin Shkreli, was sentenced to prison in a case where a prospective juror stated on the record that he held a grudge against Shkreli because "he disrespected the Wu-Tang Clan.")

Here are some capsule reviews of the new projects brought forth in 2017 thus far.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Book Review: How Thomas Pynchon's Novel Bleeding Edge Hit Close to Home

When the miasmic shitstorm of authoritarianism and real-life Idiocracy gained full force earlier this year, I felt compelled to dive into Thomas Pynchon's novel Vineland in search of informed, anti-authoritarian entertainment and guidance. The novel mostly takes place in the year 1984 (a recent edition of Orwell's 1984 has an introduction from Pynchon) depicting Californians fleeing the militarized police state carrying out Reagan's war on drugs, with frequent flashbacks to the impact of COINTELPRO's insidious dismantling of resistance movements in the 60s. It sounds dark and bleak, but Vineland is a hilarious and uplifting adventure.

Nobody does it like Pynchon. His works feel like an essential road map for navigating our contemporary political madness. It seems every damn dumb, absurd or gross thing that unfolds in the Trumpocalyptic age begs the question of whether this is actually Thomas Pynchon's world and we're all just living in it. Even the fucking names! When I saw that the source behind a recent NSA leak was a 20-something blonde girl from Texas named Reality Leigh Winner, I thought: go home Thomas Pynchon, you're drunk!

I've been seeing tweets like this every day:

After zipping through Vineland, I was craving more Pynchon but had my own anti-authoritarian writing to do, an essay on the treatment of warfare and invasion in Finnegans Wake for the Diasporic Joyce Conference in Toronto (an experience chronicled here). Once that was completed, I took a much-needed break from Joyce to crack open Pynchon's latest novel, Bleeding Edge, and holy shit what a treat it turned out to be.

Bleeding Edge completely stunned me. Not only is it a funny and engrossing web of stories carried by characters engaged in sharp, witty dialogue, but also the setting of turn-of-the-millennium New York City spoke directly to me and my background in a way Pynchon's work never has before. More than anything else, the prime display of the master author's precisely researched rendering of setting just blew me away. Pynchon was born in 1937, a year after my dad. He's a pretty old dude. Yet the cultural milieu he recreates out of the minutia of video games, TV shows, internet culture, rap music, pro sports, etc from that 9/11 time period in Bleeding Edge (published in 2013) suggests an old man who's as with-the-times as anybody alive. He references Dragon Ball Z and Pokémon, for instance, and describes nuances of the Metal Gear Solid video games in such shocking detail that one internet reader suggested the only explanation is he must've had input from his then-teenage son. The book is littered with nuggets of culture like a character holding "a mug that reads I BELIEVE YOU HAVE MY STAPLER." (p. 77)

That mug appears in a scene with weed smoke hovering in a hacker's lair, as our protagonist Maxine Tarnow explores the dimensions of her techy friends' creation called DeepArcher, a sort of cross between virtual reality and online multiplayer games. Maxine (who Pynchon helpfully describes as a Rachel Weisz doppelgÀnger early in the novel) is a fraud investigator in Manhattan in the years following the dot-com bubble, hot on the trail of a shady Internet security firm called "hashslingerz," itself a sort of pun encompassing Pynchon's penchant for pot references and the term hash used for computer coding. This is a novel full of tech geeks, subversive bloggers, radical filmmakers, hackers, stoners, Mossad agents, Russian mobsters, shadow government assassins, and every other variety of spooks and weirdos. A typically Pynchonian web of colorful characters expanding so far out that I finally had to jot down a who's-who primer in the back of the book.

A book jacket blurb mentioned that, "We are all characters in Pynchon's mad world" and that starts to feel true. He creates such a broad network of characters, male and female, with all range of backgrounds and quirks, that I begin to see myself and my friends appearing in there. That's part of what is so special about Pynchon---his fiction hems fairly close to realism while always keeping things zany, off-beat, and funky with every person, place, and thing having some deliberately weird or funny name (I burst out laughing on a flight when I read of a strip club called "Joie de Beavre") so that you eventually start to view this world a little differently, noticing its inherent weirdness.

*   *   * 

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Rest In Peace Prodigy of Mobb Deep

These dark times we've been living in of late, dominated by headlines about Russian mobsters and spies, neo-Nazis and Klan rallies, environmental disaster and predatory power structures, have also been ripe with death with the departure of powerful souls of our culture like Carrie Fisher, David Bowie, et al. The death of the rapper Prodigy of Mobb Deep last month at the age of 42 struck me sharply and I've been experiencing its resonance ever since.

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