Monday, December 31, 2018

Books Read in 2018

Here are most of the books I read in 2018. Now that I have affiliated with IndieBound, I won't be linking any more to Amazon.

I found an old journal entry from several months ago that listed some typically outrageous resolutions for a previous year. One read, "To defang the small minded." That's the only resolution I'll make for 2019. I encourage you to also make this same resolution.

Friday, December 21, 2018

The Bride from Odessa

Some nights I am overcome by a strange sensation that I can only define as cultural nausea.
 When Chris Marker, in one of his rare interviews, recommends a book, you can bet I'm going to read it. In response to the question "What makes you jump to your feet, react, shout?" Marker responds,
... as long as you’ve handed me the microphone, I would add one more name to my list of the little injustices of the year: no one has said enough of the most beautiful book I have read for a long time, short stories again—La Fiancée d’Odessa, by [filmmaker] Edgardo Cozarinsky.
The Bride from Odessa is a collection of eleven stories by Argentine-born Cozarinsky. An English translation by Nick Caistor was published in 2004.

In the first story, which shares its title with the collection, a man's identity unravels with some unexpected news from an aunt that puts into question the last one hundred ten years of family history all because of his great-grandfather's three-day layover in Odessa on his way from Kiev to Argentina. The narrator receives his aunt's letter while he's convalescing in a Paris hospital.

This structure spanning continents and centuries is repeated in many of the stories. As is the family secret motif. These are stories riddled with confidences barely whispered, barely noted in the margins of inherited books, translated from scrawled notes from a famous archive about less famous people in the past. There are many ghosts keeping these closeted skeletons company.

Coupled with the microhistories of the narrators is the broad sweep of history writ large: "Did she die at Babi Yar?" "At first we were kept nearby, in Dachau." "The car was advancing slowly along the Andrassy út (which had once been called Stalin Avenue and Avenue of the People's Republic, although no one had ever used those names). The façades had not been cleaned or restored, but still boasted the bullet holes from October 1956."

Well-crafted sentences abound, and the English translation reads elegantly:
In some mythologies, death is not a sudden event, the abrupt transition from one instant when there is life to another when it no longer exists. Instead, it is represented by a symbolic journey, which can be understood as a process of letting go and of learning at the same time.

It is possible to imagine that during this transition there subsist, like islands floating in a nighttime sea, fragments of awareness, memories, voices, and images, remnants of the gradually dimming existence, temporary baggage the traveler clings on to for a brief but imprecise length of time that our instruments cannot register.
If memory, mistaken—no, assumed—identities, familial secrets that barely come to light, whispered words of love spoken at water's edge and twilight's brim, notes passed from hand to hand across the hostile breadth of the twentieth century (from Kiev to Buenos Aires, from New York City to Lisbon, from Vienna to Budapest, Paris, Madrid, in ever more claustrophobic passages), loves and rumors of love transcribed in foreign tongues by strangers' hands, and emigrants and refugees ("all of them prisoner to a Europe more longed for than remembered") are your thing, then there are few better books than Cozarinsky's The Bride from Odessa.

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Monday, December 10, 2018

Shit Writer

I don't consider Fernando Sdrigotti a friend. I've known him for a a few years, sure. Mostly via Twitter and several emails. He's edited my writing. I think calling him a friend is perhaps too optimistic. Unnecessarily twee.

I find myself covering the covers of his books when I read them in public. A nonstop attempt to hide the filthy urinals on both the front and back covers of his Dysfunctional Males or the word "shit" in red printed on his most recent cover. A friend wouldn't require such acrobatics to prevent offending my puritan compatriots. I find myself hiding his offensive covers even when I'm in the comfort of my own home. I don't think I'd try so hard to distance myself from the work of a friend.

La Casita Grande published Dysfunctional Males in 2017. It's a collection of five short stories and Sdrigotti's first book in English.

The irony of the title is that the males he writes about function perfectly in the shit society of contemporary London, which stands in as an empty context. The specificity of London serves as a generic site. It might as well be Paris or New York City or Tokyo—any place where people who wander find themselves.

His characters remind me of the types that populate the novels of Flaubert and Zola: exotics from faraway places who attempt to merge with the wealth and privilege of the capital. In spite of their proximity, these foreign-looking people nevertheless remain marginal, with various levels of fluency in "kebab English." In "Elision" he describes the landscape: "The roads were jammed with cars and buses. The air thick with horns and carbon monoxide and the glossolalia of tourists loitering round Piccadilly Circus."

And later, in "The Vanishing Onanist of E5": "London is the perfect place to disappear. There are cracks in the pavement everywhere, gashes through which to fall. Living in London is like walking in this gigantic field full of potholes. Nobody asks any questions here. You can exist or you might not and nobody gives a shit. People are found after three years of rotting in their flats, the telly still on. Or after thirty years of being kidnapped by a Maoist sect. It happens all the time. London is a city of erasure."

And from "Satori in Hainault": "New North Road. Little houses on one side -- they all look the same. Suburban transit cutting the landscape. Shops on the right side. Dry cleaners. Nail studio. Bakery. A tanning shop. Auto parts. After a while every single house, every single shop, becomes the same. Pet shop. China Chef. Before or after? Another dry cleaners or the same? They melt, they merge into a single über-shop, a mix of each and every one in the street: dry nail bakers auto tanning Chinese takeway offlicence."

The short stories are filled with terrible people. They're not child rapists or genocide apologists,  but it's probably because they haven't stopped masturbating enough to explore these options. Or the shit London weather is keeping them in.

The characters are obsessed with sex and with their asses and with the sexual capabilities (and capacity) of their asses. Sdrigotti writes about sex like someone unacquainted with the act itself except theoretically. The masturbation scenes, on the other hand, are almost too believable.

In some ways, Sdrigotti's tone throughout the short stories seems akin to Bret Easton Ellis' in Less Than Zero. An ironic detachment coupled with an antagonistic relationship with the city and environment. A digging through the ways in which the characters, their neuroses, are symptoms of—or causes of—the city's own sickness. In "Herne Hill," he writes, "Having a body is being always already ill." He could've easily replaced the word body with city.

A potent symptomatic image that repeats in the stories is of a character trying to find a place to fix his gaze. The Onanist thinks, "Boredom dictates that I must look at her tits. Every other guy without a book, a mobile phone, drinking alone in this place would look at her tits. That is every other guy except Big Guy, drinking here next to me, observing an impossible dusk in an impossible horizon.... I don't feel like staring at her tits. I concentrate on trying to find the horizon instead, it seems so interesting to Big Guy. There's no skill involved in staring at boobs, no art. I stare at the mirror, just below the bottle of Bailey's. But soon enough I realise I won't succeed, that I need to find my own staring point. That's the whole point of staring: you're staring into your own vanishing point, not someone else's. Staring into his vanishing point would be like stealing a mantra. I look around."

From "Satori in Hainault": "The true face of stasis and boredom fills your gut -- restlessness. A disease all too familiar to the human race, the main occupation of those in a state of detention. Restlessness, the fear of constant paralysis that makes you take in as much as possible, think as much as possible, change your position in bed as much as possible -- the perverse fantasies recede and the eyes loiter from one place to the other, looking for something worthy of attention."

In the nonplace of London, time also means nothing. Again, from "The Vanishing Onanist of E5": "It's only four o'clock and it's already four o'clock. I have all the day ahead and I have already lost the day.... I feel myself catching up with myself and I need to move." And from "Herne Hill": "It takes time to learn how to wait, but once you can there's no stopping you." Stopping you from what? From further waiting? Yes, take some time to let that logic sink in. It'd be too easy to skip over it.

Unlike Bret Easton Ellis, Sdrigotti allows his ennui-inducing prose to think and to allude. In "Herne Hill" he references, among others, Walter Benjamin, Plato's aporia, the Futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, and director Alfred Hitchcock among the paragraphs of parataxis. Despite the unlikable characters who accomplish little, there are little nuggets buried throughout.

And with "nuggets" we can move into Sdrigotti's 2018 book Shitstorm, published by Open Pen. Shitstorm will go down in history as the first book ratioed by its reviewers. There's something about a book about Twitter that somehow encourages the playful worst in all of us.

If Sdrigotti's short stories are Ellis-eque, then this novelette is almost Orwellian. In fact, it should be required reading, paired with Orwell's "Politics and the English Language," in political journalism programs, for it elegantly follows the various registers of shit writing and shit thinking and shit emoting online that culminate into the titular storm that has become the most meaningful context in which we live.

While the author keeps from openly critiquing the characters in his short stories, his deadpan commentary on the ways of the Shitstorm let you know exactly how he sees his role as chief shit-meteorologist: "Soon the case of the white hunter with his bow and arrow and his issues or ennui or a combination of several things finds its way to the UK, the Shangri La of the opinion piece, where every once well-reputed newspaper or sensationalistic rag is now a blog kept by unpaid interns, where every half-chewed thought has a home as long as it is a cheaply-acquired whim likely to get clicks."

Just when you think the book is more or less the equivalent of those signs hanging in toilets the world over reminding people not to flush foreign objects, it turns into something graceful and poetic in the final sections. The tones of both books are different, but both have something quite profound to say about our world despite Sdrigotti's reluctance to become our new Paulo Coelho. For this, the author deserves our respect. I just wouldn't recommend shaking his hand when you meet him.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

World AIDS Day

Instead of a day without art, I'd like to celebrate two of my favorite artists: David Wojnarowicz and Ron Athey. Both unapologetically queer. Both HIV+. Both demonized by fascist right-wing politicians.

Both have contributed to my personal vocabulary of how to be an American when the entire system is rigged against you from the start.

Two of my all-time favorite books that I happened to have read this fall include Cynthia Carr's Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz and Pleading in the Blood: The Art and Performances of Ron Athey, edited by Dominic Johnson.

Carr's biography of Wojnarowicz is the best biography I've ever read. It sets a near-impossible standard for biographical writing. It's thoroughness is only strengthened by the fact that there is not a superfluous word in all of its 616 pages.

Johnson's edited volume on Athey is the best critical art book I've ever read. He has masterfully compiled a series of essays that intimately explore the meanings, contexts, and forms of Athey's work without slipping into mere academic wankery. These are astute pieces by the artist himself as well as by some of his closest collaborators. Johnson shows what a critical art book should be. (Also, I wish I was at the Biosphere today for Athey's performance.)

In conclusion, fuck George Bush.

Friday, November 23, 2018

The Poet in His Labyrinth

“Criticism unfolds the possibility of freedom and is thus an invitation to action.”
“Criticism tells us that we should learn to dissolve the idols, should learn to dissolve them within our own selves. We must learn to be like the air, a liberated dream.”—Octavio Paz, trans. Lysander Kemp
I recently finished Octavio Paz's The Labyrinth of Solitude. It's been on my to-be-read list since my undergraduate studies decades ago. Because I've been spending more time in Mexico over the past couple of years,  I finally decided to pick it up.

I thought the first few chapters were terrible. They read as if they had been written for the most virulent American racists and xenophobes. I found them misogynistic and clichéd. I was beginning to think that it wasn't worth the time or effort.

But then Paz started dealing with historical events, offering sociological interpretations of the Conquest and its aftermath. He critiqued positivism and its role during the Porfiriato. Who the fuck even knows what positivism is these days?! (Think of it as the shittiest view of the world and the unwarranted and privileged role of science in coming to know that world.)

His robust defense of criticism is impressive. His critical eye for the iniquities of orthodoxy in its various guises (religious, political, aesthetic) is necessary. His critique of the pyramid is substantial and essential. His insight into the United States's role in maintaining Mexico's labyrinth(s) of solitude shows the depth of his comparative knowledge and understanding.

It's not a perfect text. It's not even one of my favorite books. But still: essential reading for the intellectual who is about fifty years too late to the party. If I were teaching a course on semiotics, it would be required reading.