Sunday, January 23, 2011

Sorry, John Darnielle

Ok. In case the Herculean pause between the last post and now has not made it abundantly clear, I am a little in over my head with this whole Heretic Pride thing. My life lately has made it much too difficult to complete such a big task with the detail that it deserves. So, I would like to propose a return to form here, i.e.: less shit, more books.

One thing I would like to mention is that I have, myself, been writing a lot of fiction. I was humbly able to do a reading from a novel I have been working on at this year's LitQuake festival in San Francisco, which was tremendously exciting. Now, I would like to bring in some thoughts of a guy trying-to-be-an-author, as well to the format. That's sort of shit-and-books simultaneously, right? A sort of dialectical synthesis, or what have you.

Anyway. I have not been able to read quite as much as before, but I have still read some good ones lately. I hope to have my next post be on Jack Black's You Can't Win, a pretty nice piece of realist hobo-highwaymanism from around the turn of the previous century. I promise it will come sooner than this post did.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

2. San Bernardino

The mystery of the map, and of going somewhere is by now so much a part of The Mountain Goats' consciousness that it is practically a joke. "Going to San Diego," "Going to Jamaica," Going to Georgia," Going to Marrakesh," and the 41 other songs that fall into the Going to... category of Mountain Goats songs have helped to shape a large part of the band's identity to this point. And so how does the "Going to..." absent "San Bernardino" begin?

We got in your car and we hit the highway

Like at least 45 other Mountain Goats songs, it begins with the concept of "going" somewhere.

As the second track on Heretic Pride "San Bernardino" exists both to carry on the feelings begun in "Sax Rohmer #1," and to abate those feelings somewhat. Like the previous character, the hero of "San Bernardino" has a purpose and a direction. But unlike his chronologically older brother, this one also has an object of his anxiety: he is almost a father.

I am not a father. I still drink Four Loko much too often to be ready to be any kind of father figure. But there is something in this notion of giving birth which seems to exist so deeply within the human conscious that it is practically a given of our thrownness in life. Just hearing about people becoming mothers or fathers seems to arouse an overwhelming sense of wonder. It just seems...impossible. Or at the very least implausible. We are so used to being completely out of control that the thought of physically creating something real and living seems absolutely baffling. I think that this experience must be even more baffling for us guys, since the mother has an intense physical connection to her baby for nine months. For us, suddenly it just exists.

These feelings of becoming (and specifically of becoming a father), however implausible, seem to be embedded within "San Bernardino." Like The Sunset Tree's "Dilaudid," the music accompanying Darnielle is almost entirely strings. Frenzied pizzicato plucks describe the nervous energy of the moment, while warm long strokes belie the calm underneath, as the character finds a motel where his wife can give birth to their soon-to-be son. Unlike "Dilaudid," which gives in to the tension and ends frantically, "San Bernardino" finds a very sincere care in the husband's attempts to help orchestrate the event. As he (somewhat cartoonishly) fills the bathtub with flower petals for his water-birthing wife, he guilelessly admits, "I loved you so much just then." It is a rare occurrence for a Mountain Goats song: a moment of tenderness that isn't delicately intertwined with cruelty.

The universality of how fresh this moment is for everyone who experiences it comes through in the unnamed protagonists' experiences. Darnielle refers to the guard at the gates to the Garden of Eden, then states, "but we consulted maps from earlier days," implying a history before history, like something arcane and eternal. Dead languages. Nearly quantum truths. Like every other song on the album, the lyrics evoke great mystery. And as if to mediate on these mysterious thoughts, after the final lyric has been sung the strings continue for almost a full minute of its taut 3:15 running time.

Like all the album's stories, these characters deal with things which are much larger than themselves. However, none of the others do so with such a peaceable wonder as is felt on this song. The fears in "San Bernardino" arise from genuine concern, and give way to an earnest calm, and the music reflects this beautifully. They may not be Going To San Bernardino specifically, but it welcomes them.

Darnielle has always been a mature lyricist, but I really think that these lyrics bespeak a new maturity, putting some of the youthful frenzy aside and edging closer to something which is universally Human. For once we see a couple struggling for each other, instead of constantly struggling with each other.

1. Sax Rohmer #1

However quietly, the shadow that has been cast by the full-bandedness of the Mountain Goats' previous four albums (Tallahassee, We Shall All be Healed, The Sunset Tree, and Get Lonely) finally emerges into the fullness of the day at the beginning of Heretic Pride's first track:

The album starts with a four count of drumsticks.

This is no small statement from a band whose previous 15 albums(!!!!!!!!) were almost entirely lowest-fi acoustic affairs, with Darnielle belting his particularly genial brand of human misery over it all. It almost slips by you, too, which is the first indication of the strength of the arrangements on the album. On Heretic Pride, The Mountain Goats appear to have actually turned into a band, and what's more notable is the fact that it works so naturally that it actually takes a few listens to even notice.

From the first lyrics that follow those four clicks, "Sax Rohmer #1" is an enormous, nightmarishly anxious song. Everything is distorted to inhuman proportions--from the threat of Imperial spies, to colossal machinery miserably decaying; from chalk marks that seem to imply some deeply paranoidal dead drop, to nature taking its course as predators swoop in on their tiny, helpless prey. The classic story of coming home ("if it's the last thing that I do") culminates in what is one of the most strangely powerful visuals that the strangely powerful band has ever written: "All roads lead toward the same blocked intersection." As unreal and untrue as the events are, they nonetheless feel remarkably real, terribly true, tangible and frightening.

One of the most striking themes both in "Sax Rohmer," as well as the rest of the album, is the futility of violence and how this stands in for a futility of larger action. There is no mistaking the violence and struggle at the heart of the song, but there is simply never a winner. "Every battle heads towards surrender on both sides," Darnielle insists, hideously. Even as he returns to whoever is waiting for him at home, he has his "own blood" in his mouth--implying more a shocked sucker-punch than a successful fight of any kind. But there is also no "enemy" of the song. It is the story of battles, wars, spies, and blood, all without a knowable opponent. The mystery and horror of this feeling implies the later track "Lovecraft in Brooklyn" (also about a xenophobic genre author), and is best evidenced by the fact that "Sax Rohmer #1" is bookended by the lyrics: "an agent crests the shadows." Somewhere out there something has power, something has agency, but all we can see is the movement of shadows in distant alleys.

For anyone else this would be all that is needed to shake at least a few sturdy listeners, but, oddly enough, this is all territory that Darnielle has been pacing around in for some time. What makes it different this time is how boiled down the lyrics feel, and how tight and propulsive the arrangement is. All of the groaners are gone (no horribly twee lines like: "our love is like the border between Greece and and Albania;" no half-thoughts like: "I wanna say I'm sorry / for stuff I haven't done yet") leaving almost nothing but choking terror. And instead of pick-on-crappy-strings percussion (something I do quite like), we are surrounded by the huge crashing of cymbals in the song's post-chorus, hammering home the desperation of Darnielle's fever dream. The Ennio Morricone guitar riff in the second verse lends the whole thing a sense that there really is danger lurking around the corner--while still pushing the song's heart-thumping melodicism--and the tinkling-down-the-major-scale riff builds that ball in the throat as we struggle through the scenery.

"Sax Rohmer" manages to lay the foundation for all the coming themes of the album: alienation, hopelessness, the futility of violence, the creation of monsters, and the results of creating such monsters. And to top it all off, the song fucking rips.

Monday, June 7, 2010

How to Embrace a Swamp Creature

Today is my birthday. As a treat to myself, I am going to begin a new project here. From the first listen, The Mountain Goats' album Heretic Pride quickly reserved a very special place in my heart, but whenever I mention this to people I inevitably get one of three responses: 1) "Really?" 2) "Have you heard Tallahassee?" or 3) "There's a couple good songs on it." Respectively, I would like to respond, "Yes," "Yes," and "Keep listening to it."

So, as Darnielle himself once did for Radiohead's fantastic Amnesiac, I would like to embark on a track by track exploration of this album that I think is fantastic, rewarding, and (in my opinion) the best Mountain Goats album there is. This will begin shortly, starting chronologically with the instantly canonical "Sax Rohmer #1." Soon we will all be perched atop a throne of human skulls.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

A Farewell to Arms (Hemingway)

"The poetry of heroism appeals irresitably to those who don't go to a war, and even more so to those whom the war is making enormously wealthy" - Louis-Ferdinand Céline

Since I'm pretty late to the game, I'm sure many people already know the basics of this book (Henry is an American acting as an ambulance driver in the Italian army during WWI, he falls for an English nurse, leaves the service, and they abscond to Switzerland), so I won't go into it at great length. Instead, I'd like to look briefly at a few literary analogues, and see how the war affected much of the literary consciousness of the time.

There are two other novels which strike me as going through similar movements via WWI: German Ernst Jünger's Storm of Steel, and Frenchman Louis-Ferndinand Céline's Journey to the End of the Night. All three of these novels involve young men enlisting in their respective countries' armies, and all three problematize this immediately. Hemingway's Henry seemingly arbitrarily joins in the Italian army. Céline's Bardamu enlists anarchically, to prove a point to his friend. And Jünger's memoir immediately belies a breakdown of language--what is seen cannot be said, and what is said has nothing to do with what is seen.

Though these novels all come from different sides of the war, all result in the absurd, and all explode the concept of heroism (I think, despite Jünger's beliefs). Hemingway's Henry is very nearly murdered by members of his own army, simply because of his rank (and he, himself, only kills an Italian during the whole war). Céline's Bardamu comments, while fighting, that he has never been hurt by a German before, and can't understand why he must now kill one (I would quote this, but I can't seem to find my copy at the moment). And Jünger comes out of the war a hero, simply by dint of the fact that he was injured 14 times and survived.

The first two thirds of A Farewell to Arms deal directly with the war. Henry relates much of the day to day life he leads, which primarily involves drinking, going to whorehouses, chatting with a priest in the canteen, and joking with his close friend Rinaldi. Hemingway's Henry doesn't seem to particularly think about the war too much at this point: it is simply something that he is caught up in. Even after he is injured, he goes back to the front and takes place in the massive retreat. As his final action in the service, he is literally forced to go AWOL to save himself from being executed by a group of young Italian soldiers who are murdering all officers they come upon.

For Bardamu in Journey to the End of the Night, escape comes only from injury. Unlike the other two protagonists, Bardamu is free from the immediate grip of the war after being wounded only once. It is at this point, however, that we see the real affect that the war has had: Bardamu is cracked open by the experience, and nearly every other experience he has is an hallucinatory frenzy of senselessness. The brute truth of death and destruction caused by one man to another is felt in every lingering action afterward; from the French colonies of Africa, to the Ford Motor plant in America. Bardamu sees it all as cruelty. And he generally engages in cruelty himself, finding it the foundation of all human action, and finding death as the concrete reality waiting at the end of all human action.

For his part, Hemingway's protagonist is a bit more bright-eyed than Céline's. Henry and Catherine Barker (the English nurse who becomes his constant companion) make it to Switzerland. They are optimistic about their future and look forward to raising their child. But, again, the ground is unsettled beneath civilian society after having seen the massive senselessness of the war. It seems to open up a chasm beneath all who enter it, revealing death as the only reality left. As Henry states:

You died. You did not know what it was about. You never had time to learn. They threw you in and told you the rules and the first time they caught you off base they killed you. Or they killed you gratuitously like Aymo. Or gave you the syphilis like Rinaldi. But they killed you in the end. You could count on that. Stay around and they would kill you.

They, in this instance, is not the opposing army: it is the formless They which perpetrates bad deeds on the innocent. It is the They which kills and inflicts diseases and leaves people homeless and hungry. And it is this They which is forever on the edge of the page in both A Farewell and Journey.

Yet somehow, in the end, Jünger comes to a slightly different conclusion than Hemingway and Céline. Many people have criticized him for being a proponent of war--or, at the least, not damning enough--and he does seem to cling to the "poetry of heroism." After the initial publication of Storm of Steel, he added to the introduction the lines:

Time only strengthens my conviction that it was a good and strenuous life, and that the war, for all its destructiveness, was an incomparable schooling of the heart.

Though the others have been ripped free of any form of nostalgia, I do believe that all three considered the war a thickly cerebral form of schooling. However, if Jünger found it schooling for the heart, Hemingway and Céline can only be said to have found it schooling of the absurd, and a schooling in cruel mortality.

A Farewell to Arms is a good book, I've decided after much thought. Hemingway fans will tell you that he's the best writer who ever lived. Personally, I'm still only an initiate to his writing, however, I can say that the last 20 pages of this novel nearly knocked me out. Even if I don't count his as high in the ranks of authors yet as other people, I do see much merit in his writing. Though his works seem un-poetic in their simplicity at times, there is a poetry to their pointedness. He exemplifies another quote by the furious Céline:

If you've lived this long, it's because you've squashed any poetry you had in you. - Louis-Ferdinand Céline

Saturday, February 20, 2010

In the First Circle (Solzhenitsyn)

Abramson was naturally slit-eyed, and when he removed his glasses, his gaze seemed to show more plainly than ever his boredom with the prison world. He had seen it all before; the Gulag Archipelago could hold no new shocks for him. He had been in prison so long that he seemed to have lost all feeling, and what to other people was a tragedy he accepted as merely a modification of routine.

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) has, in a very short period of time, gone from an author who I appreciate to one who consistently amazes me. Though this book originally appeared in 1968 (six years before his massive The Gulag Archipelago project), it has only recently been restored to its original state--with the re-addition of nine whole chapters, a slew of details, name changes, and fleshing out of characters. As it stands now, it is a novel of extreme complexity. However, this is not because its ideas are so abstract, but because the care poured into each of the novel's 59 central characters(!) causes every action to send ripples out for miles. Like the sharashka prison where most of the events take place, the book is so packed full of individuals that it is practically a Monadology.

In the chronology of his fiction, one could see this as prologue to One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which then leads to Cancer Ward: it is the first circle in Solzhenitsyn's own trip through the Gulag. The sharashka (where Solzhentisyn, himself, spent a few early years of his decade long sentence) is a manner of indentured servitude. It is where the arrested scientists, mathematicians, and engineers who were still useful for the Soviet state were placed, rather than sending them to a labor camp. Because of this, the regulations are a bit less strict than elsewhere. The prisoners are allowed to converse, are fed relatively well, can read, submit complaints, and have the occasional visitor. However, the freedoms that they have are kept on such a short leash that it only serves to make their arrest all the more apparent. Conversations are always monitored by informers among the ranks, books are subject to censorship (and personal dedications from loved ones are torn out), complains often go unheard, and prisoners are only allowed to talk about a short list of things with their once-yearly visitor (no talking about work, regulations, status of their case, and no touching, hugging or kissing is allowed), and there is a guard in the room during the entire visit. Each prisoner works at least 12 hour days, and food privileges can be revoked, or simply ignored if a prisoner is interrogated during meal time. For Solzhenitsyn, the sharashka is Dante's first circle of Hell. As in The Inferno, what is most notable in this circle is the pain of separation. Prisoners are given hopelessly long sentences (ten or twenty-five years), and are never sure if the end of their sentence means freedom or simply a second sentencing. They are strung along by their nose, always kept in the dark and in danger of losing what freedoms they have. Those with nothing left have no fears, but those in the first circle are kept in fear of losing still more, endlessly.

And yet, as always, Solzhenitsyn paints with thick strokes of humanity. Though the cast of characters takes up four pages, each feels as though he or she is human, through and through. This goes for the guards and the ministry of state, as well as the prisoners. Nearly 100 pages are devoted to understanding Stalin as a human, though the result is less than favorable. Everyone--everyone--is kept inches from destruction by Stalin's sweeping gaze, and somehow Solzhenitsyn keeps every character's particular interests and investments close at hand, from state minister Innokenty's decision to warn America of the Soviet development of a nuclear bomb, to the prisoner Rubin's unwavering love for the Soviet state; from Yakonov (the chief engineer in charge of the prisoner) who can feel his own time in power running out, to Solzhenitsyn's self-modeled Nerzhin, who can feel that he will soon be shipped out to a hard labor camp. What is amazing is how each characters motivations and actions are not only believable, but understandable. It shows a deep connection to human nature, running from the top to the bottom of the social ladder.

It is very easy for publishers to market his novels as a rallying cry for the West in Cold War terms, but to do so is to completely miss the point of his work. Solzhenitsyn's characters are the victims of politics, but his work is never political: it is all about the human experience in desperate conditions, about retaining dignity in squalor, and simply about the beauty of the written word. He is clearly Russia's successor to Dostoevsky: an author whose works greatly exceed the breadth of their pages. And he is probably one of the best authors the 20th century ever produced.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Up Above the World (Bowles)

I had often heard the name Paul Bowles uttered in the same breath as many of my favorite books. The words most commonly accompanying descriptions of his works were ones that piqued my interest: horror, viciousness, fear, and simplicity. My childhood fascination with all things frightening has given way into a love of a sense of sublimated horror in literature. Kafka, Hamsun, Celine, even Dostoevsky: all know how to insert some unknown dread into their books which seem to arise from somewhere near madness.

Paul Bowles certainly fits into this strange niche. His books seem to primarily revolve around couples who are out of their depths in some foreign land, and always give the impression that something horrible is on the verge of happening. In The Sheltering Sky a young couple implodes while traveling through Africa, leaving traces of their own insecurities and inhumanities in the form of death, fear, and failed immersion. The pair are notably lopsided, as they travel with a friend who is more often than not a source of animosity for the two.

This lopsidedness appears again in Up Above the World, this time in the form of a sizable age difference between the male Dr. Slade and his young wife, Day. Again, the couple is on holiday, this time in South America, and again Bowles teases out a discomforting feeling of alienation in every movement the two make. By chance, the Slades meet an ex-pat living in the unnamed country and are invited to his lavish apartment, where most of the rest of the novel unfolds.

The body of the text is a strange sort of chess match. Day begins to grow uncertain about their host's motives, and her fear only serves to drive a wedge further between her and her husband. There is a constant sense of impending threat surrounding Grove, their host, but it is impossible to say whether this is unfounded or not. Bowles purposefully avoids tipping his hand too early, keeping the reader unsure of both the direction the book will take, as well as the true intentions of many of the characters. It is a strange sort of fever dream that only really makes sense when looked at afterward.

However, there is truth in the events as they are happening, and they are not merely lead-ups to some reveal in the end, a la Shyamalan. Bowles exhibits a deep care for his characters, bringing them to life very naturally and imbuing a sense of cruel reality into each scene.

Where Bowles truly succeeds (again, as he did in The Sheltering Sky) is in the depictions of an unraveling reality. For example:

In front of him, not three feet away, there was a face--a muzzle, rather, for it surely belonged to an animal--looking at him with terrible intensity. It was unmoving, fashioned from a nameless, constantly dripping substance. Unmoving, yet it must have moved, for now the mouth was much farther open; long twisted tendons had appeared in each cheek. He watched, frozen and unbelieving, while the whole jaw swiftly melted and fell away, leaving the top part of the muzzle intact. The eyes glared more savagely than before; they were telling him that sooner or later he would have to pay for having witnessed that moment of its suffering. He took a step backward and looked again. There were only leaves and shadows of leaves--no muzzle, no eyes, nothing. But the leaves were pulsating with energy. At any moment they could swell and become something other than what they were.

Scenes like this one evolve from seemingly nowhere in Bowles' writing. He seems deeply in touch with a lurking madness which most people wish to coat over with a successful relationship, job, friends, and vacation. In his writing, it is always still there, beneath it all. This immediately makes him a difficult author, though a very rewarding one.

The Sheltering Sky is considered his masterpiece, and I do think that it is a more complete statement than Up Above the World, however, if you like The Sheltering Sky, know that his other works are equally as well honed. Up Above the World probably won't end up being your favorite book when you're through with it, but it is the product of an incredibly skilled writer. And in the couple-in-trouble-on-vacation genre, this is far and away superior to Ian McEwan's fairly crappy novel The Comfort of Strangers which was, probably, modeled after Up Above the World.