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 Pok茅mon, 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 doppelg盲nger 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.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Madlib Interview NYC 2016 (Video) & More

Posting this not because it's a fantastic interview or anything, but a new(ish) appearance of an interview with Madlib in that type of setting is worth celebrating and paying attention to. The interview technically isn't even anything special, mainly because Madlib is such a notoriously quiet character. But for me, as a huge Madlib fan, his elusive nature and bizarre personality---buried as it is within a thick turtle shell whose surface is decorated with jewels and whose cavernous depths echo exotic clanky music---is fascinating in and of itself. It's amusing watching Madlib here squirm away from straightforward answers, or use humor and sarcasm as subterfuge.

More importantly, Otis Jackson Jr. aka Madlib is widely considered (by those who know who he is) to be one of the great musical geniuses of our time. When he speaks (whether in a rare interview or through music), you listen. A multi-instrumentalist who transcends mediums and genres, his trippy crate-digging mixes of Brazilian jazz or African rock or other miscellaneous gems are just as interesting as his one-man band jazz releases or his legendary beat tapes. He's always been one of my favorite artists to write about and a constant presence in my daily playlists. I'm thrilled to see the mind of Madlib open up here even just a little bit to share his wisdom. Plus, above all else, the common thread of intrigue about his sound is his style, and the man's unique style certainly comes across in this interview. So do check it out.

After that, you can listen to this Madlib mix of Brazilian records from the crates, entitled Speto Da Rua.

(If you dig that, then also check out his newer mix, Mind Fusion: African Ear Wax.)

Lately, I've been immersed in the instrumentals he produced for Strong Arm Steady's 2010 album In Search of Stoney Jackson. I could listen to this for days:

And, lastly, one can't talk about Madlib without lamenting the absurdly long wait for the new Madvillain album with Doom. Here's Madlib's remix of a track from another long-awaited collabo, Doom and Ghostface:

Monday, April 3, 2017

MLB 2017 Season Predictions

In the aftermath of the Cubs winning the World Series in 2016, it feels weird we're even still having baseball. It feels way too soon for a new baseball season to begin. We still need more time to recover and contemplate that Game 7. The fucking Cubs won the World Series! We're in a post-Cubs-shattering-their-108-year-drought period now, a whole new cosmic epoch. Oh, and in other news we've got a new president, the first one in more than 100 years to decline to throw out the season's first pitch. 

So here we are, a new season begins already. I don't quite feel ready for it and actually feel less enthused about baseball than I have in forever. This explains why last year I read a dozen baseball books and this year I've barely read one. It's why after writing up a set of predictions for all 30 baseball teams before opening day in each of the last seven years, I've neglected to do so until now, with games already underway.

Other factors contributing to my relative unpreparedness for baseball season: I bought a house, have been renovating it for a month, and am packing to move next week. It's been one of the busiest and most stressful periods of my life. So during any slivers of free time I've had lately I've tried to engage in marathon writing, both to maintain sanity and assure continued writing progress in this chaotic time.

So here, as quickly as I can prepare them, are my predictions for each MLB division and team. (Presented in the usual format of choosing Over/Under for the team's 2017 win projection from Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA as of March 31, 2017.)

Friday, March 31, 2017

To Witness the NBA Renaissance

(Credit: Getty Images)

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

Amid the backdrop of a crumbling country, the NBA has been experiencing a new golden age.

And while the league reaches new heights, its storied New York Knicks franchise achieves ever deepening levels of rock bottom.

The frantic artistry and entertainment of last year's seven-game NBA Finals between the Warriors and Cavaliers sparked a surge in my basketball interest. When the 2016-17 season began, I was latched on to my favorite team, the increasingly frustrating and weird New York Knicks, keeping up with basketball mostly through them while they showed plenty of early promise. They were 14-10 at one point, creating the early illusion of a shot at playoff contention. During that first month of the season, when family members asked what they could get me for Christmas I figured some new Knicks gear might be a good idea.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Sudden Relevance of Children of Men

Poster by Mondo.

One day last year, I sat down and wracked my brain to come up with a ranking of my favorite films of all time. After much deliberation, I determined my top film ever is Children of Men, the dystopic masterpiece from director Alfonso Cuar贸n, released on Christmas Day 2005.

I can remember seeing it for the first time. I was in San Diego visiting my brother and his wife. We all went to see it together. When it was over, I felt stuck to the chair, unable to move. The emotional impact of the film felt like a spear had impaled me, pierced my chest and nailed me to the theater seat in wide-eyed shock. It was an experience I'll never forget.

Despite the premise being a distant future---the year 2027 in which humans have lost the ability to reproduce leading to anarchy and rampant terrorism all around the world---everything about the film felt relevant to the current moment. I can remember being viscerally stunned at the force of the filmmaker's message, it felt like a desperate plea, trying to re-awaken our sense of humanity through art. Now, a little more than 10 years later, this sci-fi dystopian display of theatrical imagination feels more realistic than ever, loaded with xenophobic nationalistic politics conveyed through news media, ever present armored police militants, and extreme anti-immigrant, anti-refugee policies leading to frequent terrorist attacks.

Lately Children of Men, which was a box office flop when first released, has been gaining more and more attention due to its sudden allegorical relevance in our alarming contemporary situation. Abraham Reisman of Vulture recently summoned director Alfonso Cuar贸n to discuss the film as framed in the context of Brexit, the Trumpacolypse, etc, leading to an in-depth feature piece entitled "Future Shock" positing that Children of Men "might be the most relevant film of 2016."

In the feature, Cuar贸n describes the conception and execution of the film's most famous cinematic feats, its long uncut shots with the masterful cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezski. I enjoyed this bit about working with him:
He recruited his longtime friend and frequent partner Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki to be his cinematographer. Together, they hit on the idea of loading up the background with information — graffiti, placards, newscasts — and thus limiting the kind of expository dialogue that often plagues dystopian stories. Cuar贸n recalls Lubezki declaring, “We cannot allow one single frame of this film to go without a comment on the state of things."
And Cuar贸n expresses his view of our current wayward moment in history:
The gap between our world and that of Children of Men is closing rapidly, but he refuses to give up his faith in our wayward species. There are dark days ahead, to be sure, but perhaps they will also be days of transformation. “Look, I’m absolutely pessimistic about the present,” Cuar贸n says. “But I’m very optimistic about the future.”

Following the feature, Vulture also published an expanded interview with Cuar贸n where they go into more detailed depth on the making of the film, what he felt it was really about ("it was more about spiritual infertility"), and the filmmaker's enduring hope for the future.

On the same note, YouTube film analyst Nerdwriter created this fantastic, enlightening glimpse of the symbology within the film's loaded frames, "Do Not Ignore the Background":

To the excellent observation that the shot of pregnant Kee in the barn echoes the posture of Botticelli's Venus, I want to add that the scene is also literally overflowing with symbols. Kee, the key symbol of the film, the future of the human race in the form of a young pregnant mother from Africa, stands surrounded by cattle, symbols of fertility from time immemorial, with their mother's milk being extracted. Fertility, fecundity, pregnancy are the story's most important symbols. Note the year is 2027, and it's been 18 years since the last child birth. 27 and 18 are both divisible by 9, the number of gestation. I could go on forever about this movie.

Here's hoping we as humanity get through our current bleakness and continue to produce beautiful art like Children of Men

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Street Lamps: Hip Hop in the Dark Ages

Mural by Retna.

The Trumpacolyptic Revelations of Amerikkka

Since the Trumpocalypse began, most of the world has been mired in despair, confusion, and uncertainty. The highest office in the land, the most powerful position atop the most powerful country in the world, has been handed over to a capricious billionaire whose most ardent supporters include the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis. To make matters worse, he quickly loaded up his cabinet with all manner of ghoulish racists, white nationalists, and billionaire bankers. The last few months have felt like the scene in Ghostbusters where the prick from the city inspector's office pries open the containment unit opening the floodgates for an overwhelming stream of ghosts and demons. Somehow this is reality.

During this period of darkness, I've found there are very few indulgences that make sense within this context, few things that really feel right. Thomas Pynchon makes sense. So I read Vineland, the paranoid novel inspired by the fearful proto-fascism of Nixon and Reagan. Philip K. Dick makes sense. So I've checked out the new series The Man In the High Castle based on his novel, a bizarre scenario envisioning America if the Nazis and Japan had won World War II.

And, above all: Hip Hop makes sense. Hip Hop feels right during these times.

Not unlike the oddly reassuring Dave Chapelle appearance on SNL immediately after the election, where the message was basically that this latest travesty of hatred and racism is nothing new, I've found myself retreating into Hip Hop (real Hip Hop, not the fake shit) where the message has always been that the system is corrupt, racist, deceitful, and predatory. From the early days of Public Enemy, KRS-One, and Ice Cube on through Wu-Tang, Immortal Technique, Dead Prez, and Mos Def, the message has remained the same. Things didn't change with Obama in office. The drug war persists, the prison industrial complex grows, police brutality worsens, poverty lingers, and black disenfranchisement continues.

Back in 2011, as demonstrations were erupting around the world leading to what became the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, I wrote a review of the debut album from the late Kevlaar 7, Who Got the Camera?, a scathing sociopolitical wake-up call. I opened by quoting Ezra Pound who said "The artist is the antenna of the race, the barometer and voltmeter" and Marshall McLuhan who saw art "at its most significant, as a DEW line, a Distant Early Warning system that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it.” In Trumpocalyptic America, many are wondering who could've seen this coming, how could we have let this happen, how can America (or Amerikkka) really be this racist. Well, the answer is that true artists, in America's case, Hip Hop artists who have their antennas up, have been warning us of this for many years.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Secret Retributions

Secret retributions are always restoring the level, when disturbed, of the divine justice. It is impossible to tilt the beam. All the tyrants and proprietors and monopolists of the world in vain set their shoulders to heave the bar. Settles forever more the ponderous equator to its line, and man and mote, and star and sun, must range to it, or be pulverized by the recoil.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

(quoted in Vineland by Thomas Pynchon, p. 369, where a character has memorized the passage after discovering it quoted "in a jailhouse copy of The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James." Artwork: Paris Dream by Max Ernst.)

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Some Things I Wrote, Read, and Experienced in 2016

2016 was, at the very least, a great year to get lost in the things you love and indulge in healthy distractions from all the darkness and bullshit.

In that respect, it was a great year for me. Pursued my passions as much as ever, achieved some success, met some incredible people, went to cool places. Here's a summary of the things I wrote, read, and experienced in 2016.

Some Things I Wrote in 2016 On Literature/Art:

Detailing a fascinating theory put forth by Roy Benjamin positing that the structure of Finnegans Wake involves the precession of the equinoxes, the earth's wobble on its axis that leads to the pole star changing over millennia, a glacially slow sequence whose accounting is at the heart of most of the world's mythologies, symbolizing renewing cosmic aeons. This is the piece from 2016 I am most proud of and while I finished it in January, the ideas from here have been on my mind all year.

Rise and Shine: The Dawn Prayers of Book IV 
[of Finnegans Wake]


A close exegetical reading of the opening pages of Book IV in Finnegans Wake, focusing on the archaic prayers to the rising sun which have elements of Hinduism, Celtic paganism, and a snoozing sleeper's overheard radio advertisements, among many other things. In the Finnegans Wake Reading Group of Austin, we spent much of the year unpacking the rich pages of Book IV and I was inspired to fully interpret its especially astonishing opening pages, 593-594. The latter was especially fun to examine.

A book review of the latest work by John Higgs, one of my favorite reads from 2015, highlighting five of the most bizarre facts/stories from his astute overview of our previous century. Here's a snippet:

On the cusp of Einstein's relativity, and before Hubble's discovery that the universe is expanding, astronomer Simon Newcomb said in 1888 that we were "probably nearing the limit of all we can know about astronomy." Ha!

Max Planck, before he became one of the most important physicists in history with his development of quantum theory, was told by his teacher Philipp von Jolly not to pursue physics because "almost everything is already discovered, and all that remains is to fill a few unimportant holes."

Similarly, scientists thought it was virtually impossible that rockets would lead to space flight a mere few decades before it was achieved. Higgs notes that a 1931 textbook declared there was "no hope" for such developments, and that "only those who are unfamiliar with the physical factors involved believe that such adventures will ever pass beyond the realm of fancy." Within 30 years humans had launched the first satellite and sent a human in orbit around the Earth.

The recurrence of such foolhardy assuredness from scientists should serve as an important lesson for the present. Soon as you think you have it all figured out, the world flips upside down.

"Hide-and-Seek" by Pavel Tchelitchew

A short piece describing a connecting thread of thoughts I had about two phenomenal 20th century painters, Ivan Albright and Pavel Tchelitchew, as well as two literary critics whose work I fell in love with in 2016, Guy Davenport and William Gass. Go for the images of stunning, surreal art, stay for the quotes connecting the symbols from same.