Friday, February 27, 2009

From the Library: "No One Belongs Here More Than You" by Miranda July

When it was first released, No One Belongs Here More Than You, a slim and sleek volume of stories, was available in pink and yellow. Now in paperback, however, still slim and sleek, it comes in four bright colors. And though that description could also easily work to open a review of naughty selections at truck stop bathrooms and seedy downtown shops, it works tremendously well here, too, considering the numerous times sex (and derivations thereof) plays into Miranda July’s debut collection. For anyone who has seen July’s 2005 full-length film You and Me and Everyone We Know this may very well not come as a surprise since sexual deviance is explored by many (if not all) of that film’s characters. If there is a constant to July’s off-the-wall work, then, it seems to be an investment in confirming that the abnormal is actually commonplace.

July herself (who once lived in SE Portland and would walk aimlessly up and down Division in the rain) is the sheer embodiment of awkwardness. She’s lanky, weird (though this could just as easily be aloofness or brilliance), has a shaky voice, and stares as though she is constantly lost (see photo above). In sum, she's wholly ethereal and waifish, but even so, there is something undeniably likeable about her, which must also be said of her stories. July’s writing is sometimes as awkward as she is, but its strangeness strikes a chord.

The stories in No One are all built on giddiness and straightforward honesty. Many of them seem as though they might collapse at any second (some of them do), but several do not and rather successfully ponder various internal dilemmas. In “The Shared Piano,” for example, a woman has no idea how to comfort or protect her neighbor, on whom she has a secret crush, when he unexpectedly begins convulsing. In fact, the narrator's decision at the height of the drama of this man's imminent death is to fall asleep and dream that he is caressing her breasts. In another story, a man is duped by his long-time coworker into taking Ecstasy and exploring, however reluctantly, his latent homosexuality in a painfully weird scene. In yet another, a woman dreams of being undressed and licked by Prince William. The list goes on.

The danger of all this crazy sex and weird arousal, frustration, and experimentation is that it becomes July’s schtick, not unlike gore and porn have become Chuck Palahniuk’s. The collection itself straddles a fine line between gimmicky and good, but its wonderful moments (of resonant uncertainty and recognizable humor) are worth wading through the weirdness to experience.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

From the Library: "November 22, 1963" by Adam Braver, with additional author interview

November 22, 1963
: A Novel
Adam Braver
Tin House, 206 pages

Much like you, I remember exactly what I was doing September 11, 2001. I can repeat conversations I had in those first minutes after planes slammed into the towers and can recall sitting motionless that afternoon listening to the radio. Something ineffably enormous had just happened to me, though I was some 2000 miles from Manhattan.

Things could never return to how they were before and hence, this moment was truer and more real than all others simply because of how unreal it was.

The poetic horror of this paradox is the very issue behind November 22, 1963, an unsettling new novel by Adam Braver, published by Portland's Tin House Books.

As you have undoubtedly guessed, 11/22/63 recreates that historic day JFK was assassinated. Combining disturbing facts with delicate fiction, Braver succeeds from that foundation in building a beautiful contemplation of collective and personal trauma. In a way, then, the book is not unlike the investigation we have all come to know by heart. And yet the novel, told as is it through a mélange of different perspectives (from Jackie O, who refuses to change her blood-stained dress, to a motorcycle policeman on whom blood and brain splatter, to the man who almost didn’t catch the whole awful episode on film) really becomes more about shock and suffering than anything else.

The successes of 11/22/63 lie in Braver’s ability to gently and respectfully reside, like a professional surgeon might, in the stomachs and minds of the people who lived through that day. The sourness of nausea; the dizziness of nerves; the anger at the continuation of time; the limp paralysis of dread: these are the facts that Braver offers up.

Halfway through 11/22/63, you realize the novel is somehow not about JFK at all, but about us. A lesser writer would have failed at piecing this story together in such a way that we are okay reliving that monumentally awful day, but in Braver’s hands, we come back to the present wiser versions of ourselves, if also a bit sadder.

Q & A with Adam Braver

PDXWD: Was there ever a moment in which you felt somewhat irreverent having “fictionalized” one of the nation’s most tragic episodes?

Adam Braver: I never had a feeling of irreverence, in part because I was trying to be honest to the events and the people. Oddly enough, some of the seemingly most irreverent parts of the book are the most factual—such as the transcripts of the conversations between LBJ and Jackie Kennedy.

PDXWD: Was there specific criteria you used to decide how and with which pieces of information to take creative liberty?

Adam Braver: The most creative liberty was taken with the pieces where I had the least amount of information, like with Jackie Kennedy, where there is so little available insight into her mind in general, especially on the flight back from Dallas. My goal was to strip away the larger-than-life aspects and see her as a human being who is suffering real human emotions following the sudden loss of her husband. Of course in my portrayal, the public is always on the verge of interfering with the private, but I wanted to see a woman who was in a sense having her last private moment with her husband and the tragedy before both forever became owned by the public.

PDXWD: To what extent do you think that personal and communal catastrophe is always somehow immediately mythical?

Adam Braver: I agree for the most part. Certainly television had a big part of this instant nostalgia and mythology, as everybody could experience it in real time, with a collective reaction—and, equally important, all getting the same interpretations, images, etc. But that is what really drove the book for me. My intrigue was in the equation fact + memory + story = history and how often that combination is the beginning of mythology, depending on what people do with it.

From the Library: "The Grey Seas Under" by Farley Mowat

You know the novels by obscure authors that your parents or grandparents had lying around when you were a kid? The books you read because grownups recommended them before you were old enough to doubt their opinions? In this reader's house, the author was Farley Mowat: first introduced as the author of the book about the guy who ate the live mice in the movie Never Cry Wolf, which was borrowed from the library, watched three nights in a row, the length of the rental agreement on one of the two VCRs available at the town's only store. Farley Mowat: author of yellowed paperbacks about Arctic survivors, one-man voyages across the Pacific in a sailboat, the long slow winter starvation of an Inuit tribe and the last minute day-saving killing of a whale.

Waiting for her parents' old computer to start up today, this reader noticed a never-read Mowat novel on the shelf: Grey Seas Under, the story of "Heroic Adventures of a Gallant Ship and the Brave Men Who Battle the Cruel Sea." Under this tagline, a Turneresque watercolor of a tugboat at full power, two stacks billowing black smoke, small figures standing on the bridge. The waves are high. In the background, an enormous ship burns. [Ed. note: a different edition of the book is pictured on this post.]

One always hopes that a book that looks like this will deliver on its promise. One always hopes that the beloved books of childhood will withstand the test of time. Two chapters in, Portland writer, the outlook is good. Stay tuned.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Nine Questions for Justin Vernon about the woods, Bon Iver, and For Emma, Forever Ago

1. You have said that before moving to the cabin something “had gone wrong” with you and you were “on a path to nowhere.” So you left. You packed up and headed deep into the woods where you lived alone and, albeit unintentionally, made a beautiful album, For Emma, Forever Ago. Now that you’re back and touring as Bon Iver and being featured on TV and even putting out a new EP, how has it gone reconnecting with society after your time alone with no one and nothing but your thoughts?

2. What do you now care less about?

3. You have also been quoted as saying, “If you drown yourself long enough, you realize you are just running from some truth.” What truth was it that you confronted as you chopped wood?

4. Since you have mentioned that the song “Skinny Love” is, in a sense, directed at yourself, some lines such as, “Cut out all the ropes and let me fall,” “I told you to be patient / I told you to be kind,” as well as “Who will fight?” remind me of a scene in David Fincher’s film version of Fight Club in which Brad Pitt’s character burns Edward Norton’s character’s hand with lye. The point of this scene is that not until you hit rock bottom and lose everything will you ever truly be free, and only we can get ourselves to that point. Are you free?

5. Your album has a reverberant, plangent component to it, as if it was recorded in a cathedral or a canopied forest somewhere; that is, your voice floats around and echoes within the songs, giving the entire work a spiritual quality. I guess this really isn’t a question.

6. I find myself putting on For Emma, Forever Ago when it is cloudy and cold and rainy and really sort of depressing, especially when I want to be kicked in the ass to get going on being who I want to be. What do you think of this?

7. I have watched the several intimate performances you gave that were filmed by Vincent Moon and posted on La Blogotheque. You should do more things like that, don’t you think?

8. Do you want to have a pipe and talk about the recession? I would like that.

9. In the end, I keep coming back to the image and idea of you in the cabin: totally alone (except for the animals); hunting your own food; capturing your own heat; sleeping through the harsh winter nights; and then being prompted by something primordial inside of you to make this album, as if you had no choice. “It wasn’t planned,” you say. “The goal was to hibernate.” I mean, you really did it; you left everything behind and survived on your own for months in the woods. That’s an amazing feat in itself, and a gorgeous new album happened into existence, to boot. Why don’t more people do this?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

From the Library: Thomas Bernhard's "The Loser" and "Frost"

When first encountering the fiction of Thomas Bernhard, the voice and form provoke the reader to make a decision: these are either the words of an unbalanced rambler, or we have before us the work of one of literature's major stylists. It only takes a few more pages of reading to realize it isn’t rambling.

Bernhard's career as a novelist spans the 1960s to 1980s (he died in 1989), but most of his novels weren't translated into English until the 1990s. Back-cover copy on the Vintage paperback edition of The Loser states that “his formal innovation ranks with Beckett and Kafka, his outrageously cantankerous voice recalls Dostoevsky, but his gift for lacerating, lyrical provocative prose is incomparably his own.” We enjoy the arch close-reading of a copywriter as much as anyone, and neither is mocking someone’s hyperbolic marketing beyond us, but after considering Bernhard’s work...and then looking at that sentence...and then turning back to Bernhard…well, okay. Maybe so.

The Loser is ostensibly a recounting of what happened to two talented pianists after they were unfortunate enough to study next to Glenn Gould—unfortunate, because time spent next to a genius incontrovertibly damages the confidence and vitality of the lesser artists. The narrator of the novel is one of the two, and the occasion of the writing is the death, by suicide, of Wertheimer, who was the other. The novel consists of four paragraphs: the first three are dispatched with on the first page, and the fourth runs 170 pages. Early in that fourth paragraph—it makes no sense to call it a paragraph, but you know what we mean—the narrator says:
We begin as piano virtuosos, and then start rummaging about and foraging in the human sciences and philosophy and finally go to seed. Because we didn’t reach the absolute limit and go beyond this limit, I thought, because we gave up in the face of a genius in our field. But if I’m honest I could never have become a piano virtuoso, because at bottom I never wanted to be a piano virtuoso, because I always had the greatest misgivings about it and misused my virtuosity at the piano in my deterioration process, indeed I always felt from the beginning that piano players were ridiculous; seduced by my thoroughly remarkable talent at the piano, I drilled it into my piano playing and then, after one and a half decades of torture, chased it back out again, abruptly, unscrupulously.
Bernhard’s writing reads, at a certain level, like the uncompromising work of a writer who takes, as his subject matter, the lives of characters who refuse compromise. It’s a fictionalized Glenn Gould who appears in The Loser, but the choice of name and position makes sense: if one isn’t interested in holding any chair other than the first, then the result of seeing or hearing someone of Gould's caliber moves that goal forever out of reach. The Loser concerns characters who gave their lives over to the piano, and who discovered there a transcendent beauty. What is unfortunate—the nasty turn they have had to deal with—is simply that the transcendent beauty they discovered wasn’t theirs, it was Gould’s.

A related passage from the novel—and this, too, appears early, is just Bernhard setting the table—appears when the narrator recounts a conversation he had with Gould:
The majority of even the most famous piano players haven’t a clue about their art, he said. But it’s like that in all the arts, I said, just like that in painting, in literature, I said, even philosophers are ignorant of philosophy. Most artists are ignorant of their art. They have a dilettante’s notion of art, remain stuck all their lives in dilettantism, even the most famous artists in the world. We understood each other immediately, we were, I have to say it, attracted from the first moment by our differences, which actually were completely opposite in our of course identical conception of art.
The overlapping, indefinite shifts of dialogue and narration, the eccentric use of italics, the ability to carry a tone that can shift, at any moment, from grotesque and disturbing to deeply, deeply funny: that is Bernhard.

Example: in Frost, Bernhard’s first novel, a medical student is sent by his supervisor to a rural German town to report on the supervisor’s brother, “the painter Strauch.” The medical student pursues this project under the cover of claiming to be a law student spending some time reading Henry James, a fraud so odd that of course no one ever questions it. The novel, ostensibly the contents of the medical student’s notebook, consists primarily of loose, circular, wide-ranging attacks the aging painter makes on the residents of the country town specifically ("Time sends them on their way to unchastity with a slap,” he complains darkly, "Some are more accomplished at concealing it than others. With the canny ones you only realize when they're all done. But it's for nothing. All of them live a sex life, and not a life.") and on humanity in general as he and the medical student take daily walks in the cold and snow. Alternately spinning out gnomic insights and shreds of seeming-nonsense, he seems a person without any connection to day-to-day life at all, outside of his thoughts on a former profession:
The substitute teacher's union had kept trying to force him to join. "Even though I was only an occasional substitute...Just imagine, they sometimes waited for me in the street. They made threats against me." But they didn't know how stubborn he could be when it came to sticking up for one of his principles. "In addition to the substitute teachers' union, there was also a 'substitute teachers' association,' which was an informal initiative on the part of the substitutes. They meet every Saturday afternoon. Apparently they pass resolutions. What resolutions? I have no idea what resolutions. How they mean to oppose their union. How to support their union against other unions. How to oppose the school authorities. The state. Their enemies. Anyone they feel is doing them wrong." Apparently, there was also a "substitute teachers' fund," for the support of the widows and orphans of substitutes. "I've got nothing against such support...But basically I don't care how worthy a cause can be, I'm not joining..."
It would be inaccurate to suggest that Strauch is as focused and funny as that throughout the novel. He is vicious, confused, hypchondriacal, wily, depressed, disgusted and disgusting, contemptuous and admiring, quiet, thoughtful, raving, and enraged, and the constant walk-taking in Frost lends the novel the quality of a picaresque whose characters never actually manage to travel anywhere other than back to the inn where they live. Bernhard overlaps the dialogue of the painter and narrator enough that we suspect, long before he admits it, that the narrator is beginning to internalize Strauch’s speech patterns, and is in danger of having his own identity drowned beneath the sheer oceanic volume of Strauch’s linguistic inventions. The student doesn’t have the slightest idea how to compose any kind of meaningful report to send back to his mentor. How does one summarize the unsummarizable? And if you can’t summarize it, if you can’t get a handle on it, can you ever hope to diagnose it? In a letter to his supervisor, the student writes, “He is one of those people who refuse to say anything at all, and yet who are continually driven to say everything. Who tie tourniquets round the arteries of their thought, but to no effect."

Is the narrator of The Loser a broken person? Is the project of the student in Frost a failure? These narrators brush up against forces they can neither control nor fully comprehend, and yet they understand that they don’t understand. They try to comprehend, or at least to put into words, not what they cannot comprehend—that, they give up on—but rather what, exactly, the terms of their own incomprehension are, and how, exactly, it feels to be lost in their particular bafflement. And failing that, they are left stressing just how inexact those attempts at exactness are. “It will make you suspicious: on occasion, I move in the same mysticisms as your brother,” Frost's narrator admits.

Bernhard was born on February 9, 1931, and died on February 12, 1989. There is more to say about him than can fit here, but in an interview toward the end of his life, he said, “That’s all art is--getting better and better at playing your chosen instrument. No one can take that pleasure away from you or talk you out of it. If someone is a great pianist, you can clear out the room, fill it with dust, and then start throwing buckets of water at him, but he’ll keep on playing. Even if the house falls down around him, he’ll carry on playing.”