Chris Ware, Random House,
Oct. 2, 260 pp.
Chris Ware’s new Building Stories confirms his place alongside Nabokov and David Foster Wallace in the pantheon of masterful mindfuck writers. It’s hard to know where to start with Building Stories: Once you open the board-game-style box, you need to spread out its 14 pieces on a desk or the floor and just kind of wing it. The guide on the back of the box only suggests where in your house you should “dismiss” each piece (under the coffee table?). Like your own memories, this is meant to intrude on your life.
The size and binding of the pieces — one of which is a mock Little Golden Book — might hints at a hierarchy of importance, but it all feels equally meaningful as we learn about our one-and-a-half-legged heroine and the two major male characters: Branford (a bee) and the eponymous building that serves as setting for most of the stories, the content of which — images of mammorific fruit and penile peaches, the sexual life of a drone bee, discourses on loneliness and motherhood — is enough to launch a hundred gender-studies dissertations. Ware’s artistic skills are unmatched. The most remarkable panel, printed twice, shows the female protagonist standing sad and naked while her also-naked husband looks at an iPad, fully unresponsive. If the New Yorker showed genitals, this would be the cover of our times.
The ultimate takeaway, though, is that Building Stories is a work where form and function play with each other, suggesting hidden meanings nestled within powerful storytelling, while questioning just what “reading” means.
[ comics ]
Charles Burns, Pantheon, Oct. 9, 56 pp.
Charles Burns’ new book is the second in a trilogy that has a lot in common, structurally and tonally, with David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. It gradually becomes clear that what appears to be the main plot, with a confused cartoon protagonist who wakes up in a frightening, ugly fantasy world, is a dream of the similar but more realistic-looking art-school student Doug. The reader’s task is then to puzzle out the real story — whatever trauma is being interpreted as aggro lizard-men and horrible things to eat by Doug’s subconscious — by working backwards from occasional flashes of the real world.
The Hive has a lot more hints and context to offer than the first in the trilogy, X’ed Out, where the connection between the two worlds was less clear. Here, we get larger chunks of real-life Doug and begin to see common themes between his now-over art-school romance with messed-up photographer Sarah and the adventures of Nitnit, his Tintin-esque avatar in nightmare land. Though we don’t get enough of either world to get a clear picture, we can watch for significance in the things that appear in both— a bandage on the protagonist’s head, things belonging to Doug’s dead father, images in the Polaroids he takes.
Pregnancy is only touched on in real life, but seems to be a big deal. Horror-infused fetal imagery pops up everywhere in the dream, and Nitnit is now employed at “The Hive,” where bedridden human “queens” or “breeders” look about 20 times too pregnant, occasionally scream all night and have to be cleaned up by hazmat crews afterwards as bins of huge eggs are shipped out the back. Nitnit visits a Sarah-doppelganger queen, who gripes about the two missing issues of a series she’s reading: “It’s pretty obvious that something really, really awful happened, but what? It’s driving me nuts!”
I know, right? As enjoyable as puzzling is, it does make you wish the slim books had been released as a single volume — it’ll be another two years before the set of clues is complete with Sugar Skull. As is, the series is like one of Doug’s half-developed Polaroids: You can make out shapes, but no details.
[ fiction ]
John Banville, Knopf, Oct. 2, 304 pp.
A mediation on the unreliability of memory, John Banville’s Ancient Light is both regal and despondent. Narrated by 60-something actor Alex Cleave, the plot has two strands: One is Alex recounting the affair his 15-year-old self had with his best friend’s 35-year-old mother, and the other revolves around an out-of-the-blue movie role Alex gets offered.
Banville’s style is a thick brocade. On a seaside vacation, the world beneath the water’s surface is described as “glaucous, turbid, sluggishly asway.” Characters’ actions and reactions can seem unlikely: “Shaking hands always gives me the shivers, the unwarranted clammy intimacy of it and that awful sense of having something pumped out of one.” The shivers? Really? Certain descriptions and metaphors are marvelous, such as this one of a father at a tween-girl birthday party: “Tall, thin, angular, he stood in the kitchen amidst a pool of little girls, like one of those poles that stick up crookedly out of the lagoon at Venice.” But while a gesture or a setting might get described at great length, basics often remain vague, as if it were beneath Banville to tell us, say, a character’s age. Some will find Banville’s Nabokov-aspiring style to be beautifully evocative (he’s won plenty of awards, including the Man Booker Prize), but it kept me at arm’s length, as did several of the more improbable aspects of the illicit affair.
The main characters here have appeared in two previous Banville novels, which I haven’t read. After I finished Ancient Light I took a look at several synopses of those books and became dismayed at the heavily plotted coincidences that Banville has built up. (Alex’s movie role is based on the biography of a man who, unknown to Alex, actually impregnated Alex’s daughter.) Ancient Light is preoccupied with the search for meaning and order: “Why should I not allow of a secret and sly arranger of seemingly chance events?” Alex wonders. Obviously that arranger — an overly forceful one — exists.
[ fiction ]
Michael Chabon, HarperCollins, Sept. 11, 480 pp.
A failing record store, its owners — a couple of embittered audiophiles clinging to the regal but sinking ship that is retail vinyl in the 21st century — this is the world into which Telegraph Avenue first deposits us. Snap diagnosis: a 50-50 chance that this’ll be a more literary version of High Fidelity.
But then, it is a Michael Chabon novel we’re talking about — progeny of the man who spawned a million fanboys with Wonder Boys and the Pulitzer-winning Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. In his hands, the tale of Brokeland Records evolves into something much larger: the fates of marriages, race relations, the record industry and the entire long-suffering neighborhood of Brokeland — straddling the Berkeley-Oakland border — all on the line. If Chabon is looking to create the modern, American answer to the Greek tragedy, the sins of the deadbeat father revisited on generations to come, he achieves it in this chronicle of the long, slow strangulation of dreams.
Chabon is a writer’s writer, riddling his text with startlingly fresh metaphors, shards of efficiently funny dialogue and fragments of plain brilliance — like describing former blaxploitation siren Valletta Moore (catch phrase: “Do what you got to do, and stay fly”) as “on the fatal side of fifty.” And as record-store owners Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe navigate their fraying partnership, fraught home lives and the impending arrival of a much-hyped superstore, their world — populated with outsize, quirky characters, toned sepia (and disco-era neon) with nostalgia and sprawling uneasily between white and black, crunchy Berkeley and blighted Oakland — comes into cinematic focus.
Chabon, who’s written about his own adjustments to marriage, fatherhood and settled middle age in Berkeley, is kinder to his cast of sinners than the reader, by the end of the book, may feel they deserve. But those who believe in the redemption of losers and the recalibration of dreams should be willing to cut him a break for cutting them a break. As Telegraph Avenue shows us, the next generation will have plenty of time to mess things up all over again. (Note: Chabon and Cloud Atlas author David Mitchell will be reading at the Free Library this Tuesday, Oct. 16.)
[ horror ]
Justin Cronin, Ballantine, Oct. 16, 592 pp.
I’m convinced that the thing in novels from the past couple years that will date them most severely is the torture scene; nearly any novel with pretensions of topicality has a chapter in the middle where someone gets isolated, beaten, waterboarded. This used to happen occasionally in a certain kind of book — Bond gets held hostage while a nefarious plot unfolds — but it’s become endemic. Sometimes it’s appropriate; more often, it’s monotonous and momentum-killing (like in Nick Harkaway’s otherwise-delightful Angelmaker, where the plot stops dead when the hero’s locked up and bloodied, and it takes ages to get back up to steam).
Justin Cronin, in The Twelve, is no better than he should be: There is indeed a particularly rape-filled torture sequence late in the book. But it’s his earlier description of one particular labor-camp guard, who “set her sights on you and the next thing you knew you would be pulled out of the latrine line for a pat-down just when it was your turn, or assigned some impossible and pointless job,” that captures the bureaucratic horror of his setting — at that point, post-apocalyptic Iowa. “You found yourself wishing for the suffering to befall someone else, and thus you became complicit, part of the system, a cog in a wheel of torment that never stopped turning.”
That sharp, detailed writing is what made the opening of The Passage — the first installment of this projected trilogy of thick zombie-vampire-apocalypse novels — so surprising, and so clearly the best-case pairing of belletristic sensibility with the guts of Stephen King. The Twelve shows off middle-child insecurities, with occasionally chunky exposition and characters dispersed all over the landscape. And it’s comfortable enough in the overarching stakes of the series that this volume’s villain — Guilder, a near-immortal Homeland Security functionary, pitched as satire but only rising to slapstick — hardly represents a credible threat next to the 12 vampires of the title, who largely stay offstage. But if the writing is seldom as good as the first installment’s, Cronin’s growing cast offers him far better opportunities for cliffhangers and shocks; and 1,000-plus pages into his genre experiment, Cronin’s learned how to turn a shock into sheer momentum.
[ essays ]
Lost At Sea: The Jon
Jon Ronson, Riverhead, Oct. 30, 416 pp.
Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope of Insane Clown Posse aren’t just an easy target, with their dumb clown makeup and even dumber lyrics — they’re also a common target these days. Once something’s been filmed, satirized and memed unmercifully, you’d imagine Welsh superjournalist Jon Ronson would steer clear. After all, this guy favors rare game, like crazy people (see last year’s brilliant book The Psychopath Test), secret government nutjobs (The Men Who Stare at Goats, 2009) and cult/conspiracy types (his whole career). Aggro-dipshit hip-hoppers shouldn’t even be on Ronson’s radar. But they are, and his interview with ICP in Lost at Sea, a new collection of his articles originally printed in the Guardian, is wonderfully enlightening.
Ronson amiably, skeptically investigates the Clowns’ sudden revelation that they are and always secretly have been evangelical Christians. It’s a funny, weird, fascinating and dubious claim. Ronson’s wheelhouse, in other words, especially when J and Shaggy try to put into words their belief that everything from magnets to rainbows to giraffes is a miracle that the explanations of science can only ruin. Says Ronson: “For ICP, a true understanding of ‘fucking rainbows’ would reduce them to, as Keats put it, ‘the dull catalog of common things.’”
And that’s essay number one. After that, we meet the newscaster who (falsely) confessed to killing somebody on the air, the people who think their children are superbeings, the billionaire trying to create a sentient robot version of her lover, and so on. Ronson’s an effective everyman, a deadpan narrator who treats his subjects with a grain of salt and a spoonful of sympathy. He doesn’t mock Robbie Robertson when the pop star drags him to a UFO convention. He lets the citizens of North Pole, Alaska, rectify their year-round Christmas theme with the news that middle-schoolers were caught plotting a Columbine-style attack. Yes, there are plenty of cult leaders and fanatics, but Ronson wisely lets the reader decide which ones are crazy. It’s probably that open mind, sympathy and barely judgmental attitude that keeps the nutballs from hanging up on him. Also, they’re crazy.
[ historical fiction ]
Kim Young-ha, translation by Charles La Shure, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Oct. 30, 320 pp.
It’s not immediately apparent whether it’s the story of Black Flower or the fact it’s being told by Kim Young-ha that’s more curious.
The story, true in its basic facts, concerns a shipload of Koreans who left their homeland shortly before it was subsumed by the Japanese empire in 1905; 1,033 Koreans boarded the British steamer Ilford, journeyed to Mexico where they were unwittingly sold into bond slavery and ultimately established a new country of their own, briefly, in the wilds of Guatemala.
And it’s odd that this is Kim’s story; in his early 40s, Kim is at the leading edge of a new breed of South Korean writers, postmodern and irreverent, incorporating global influences in the place of traditional themes and stories. A large-canvas historical epic set against the last days of feudal Korea seems like an uncharacteristic choice.
Black Flower seems, if not old-fashioned, certainly out-of-step with the increasingly neurotic style of novelized history. In contrast to psychologically detailed doorstoppers like Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell books or frantic self-reflexive novels like Laurent Binet’s HHhH, Kim is calmly matter-of-fact and unconflicted, relating historical events and the actions of his characters in a streamlined, simple style.
But Black Flower is hardly straightforward. Kim’s cast brings together a wide range of ranks and types — aristocrats, soldiers, shamans and thieves. He introduces Ijeong, the orphan of a peddler, who dreams of making enough money in Mexico to return home as a landowner, and sets him alongside Yi Yeonsu, the beautiful daughter of an aristocrat, who hopes for some measure of independence in the New World. When they are sold off to different haciendas, Kim sets up the kind of frustrated romance that can animate and propel a historical epic. But instead of placing the pair at the center of the book, he interrupts, giving their story no more importance than those of their fellow passengers, or dryly recounted diplomatic machinations offstage. It’s a quiet, sly strategy for a postmodern writer to show the beginnings of modernity, mirroring with his story the way social and class distinctions break down among its inhabitants.
[ history/politics ]
How We Forgot The Cold War: A Historical journey Across America
Jon Wiener, University of California Press, Oct. 15, 376 pp.
Improbable as it may seem to some of us, babies born when the Berlin Wall came down are now college graduates. For more than 40 years the Cold War, author Jon Wiener writes, “served as the iron cage of American politics,” and its abrupt end inspired officials of the Reagan and George H.W. Bush eras to propose elaborate Cold War memorials to rival those of World War II: “The effort to construct a public memory around the ‘good war’ framework for the Cold War was undertaken by the same political and media forces that convinced Americans it was morning in America.”
While these giant monuments never came to pass, Wiener visits smaller ones in his new book. He proves an able tour guide for an array of relevant historic sites, from presidential libraries (visiting the Reagan Library as it hosts a “hippie contest”) to Westminster College in Missouri (where Winston Churchill coined “iron curtain” during a 1946 speech).
If not as cleverly written as Sarah Vowell’s comic travelogues, How We Forgot the Cold War has a dry sense of humor. He devotes one chapter to “the Graceland of atomic tourism,” Greenbrier Bunker in West Virginia. It’s a shelter straight out of Dr. Strangelove where D.C. bigwigs would have taken refuge in the event of nuclear attack, complete with a TV studio with a placid backdrop of the Capitol building to reassure post-Armageddon viewers. (“This assumes, of course, that Americans were still watching TV after a nuclear attack.”) Wiener’s wit and deft grasp of geopolitics make for one of the season’s most intriguing historical books.
[ music/bio ]
Marc Blitzstein: His Life,
His Work, His World
Howard Pollack, Oxford University Press, Oct. 3, 648 pp.
A classical-music prodigy born in Philadelphia, composer Marc Blitzstein studied at Curtis and with Arnold Schoenberg in Berlin. But he made his biggest mark in the theater with unconventional projects often based in social causes, like pro-communism musical The Cradle Will Rock and his 1954 English adaptation of the gutter-petri-dish Brecht/Weill musical Threepenny Opera, which made “Mack the Knife” a pop hit for everybody from Bobby Darin to Ella Fitzgerald.
Howard Pollack’s new biography of Blitzstein brings the composer into fascinating focus. He notes early on that many details about Blitzstein’s personal life are lost to history — though his social circle included luminaries like Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein and Orson Welles — but paints a robust picture of an out gay man of Jewish heritage, devoted to his family. Letters reveal the composer balanced intense work periods with cruising, mostly rough trade. Despite this, he entered into a platonic marriage with Eva Goldbeck, a writer who loved him but may have been on the verge of divorcing him in the months leading up to her death from anorexia in 1936.
At age 37, Blitzstein joined up to fight in WWII and was stationed in London during the Blitz, scoring Allied films. He maintained an active gay sex life in Europe and after his discharge lived with a fellow veteran. In the ’50s, Blitzstein was hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee, where he unabashedly admitted his past as a Communist Party member, but bravely refused to name anyone else. As with his biographies of Copland and Gershwin, Pollack distinguishes himself with impeccable research. One criticism: Show factoids belong in an appendix, where they won’t distract from Blitzstein’s story.
[ music/bio ]
New Kids on the Block: Five Brothers and a million sisters
Nikki Van Noy, Touchstone, Oct. 2, 288 pp.
This first “authorized” biography of New Kids on the Block — the late-’80s prototype boy band that has recently managed to reignite its fan-base with highly successful reunion tours — has gender trouble. Of the dozens of interviews Nikki Van Noy conducted with NKOTB fans (aka “Blockheads”), none was with male fans; they were either husbands of Blockhead wives, family members or industry insiders. Female fans, driven to (generally wholesome) sexual frenzy, are referred to as “Donnie girls,” “Jordan girls” and so on. Because NKOTB were stealing all the girls, argues Van Noy, “Boys hated them automatically.”
Hangin’ Tough — NKOTB’s 1988 sophomore album, which contained the hit singles “Please Don’t Go Girl,” “You Got It (The Right Stuff)” and “Hangin’ Tough” — was released when I was 9, and guess what? I’m a boy, and I loved it. The Hangin’ Tough cassette was on heavy rotation in my Walkman. I even owned a New Kids lunch box, which I carried to elementary school every day. I thought they were the coolest guys ever, especially the youngest one, Joey. He was everything I wasn’t: confident, popular and hip in the eyes of the older kids. Van Noy’s refusal to provide a more nuanced account of the group’s male fans, like me, is unfortunate. Her simplistic, gendered categories does a disservice to the NKOTB phenomenon.
Also banished from the narrative are those male Blockheads who loved the group because, just like the girls, NKOTB stimulated their sexual appetites. Considering that New Kid Jon is openly gay (despite his supposed relationship with pop star Tiffany back in the day), it’s a problematic, and unforgivable, oversight that his queerness is glossed over in one sentence. While the other four guys were singing these love songs to girls, Jon was singing them to boys. The real story of NKOTB fandom is much more complicated, and fascinating, than the one told here. A million sisters? Absolutely. But there are at least a thousand brothers, too.
[ music/bio ]
Where the Heart beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists
Kay Larson, The Penguin Press, July 5, 496 pp.
In a story quoted in Kay Larson’s new bio, John Cage recalls an incident from his time spent studying with Arnold Schoenberg. The stern composer asked his class to provide a solution to a particular problem in counterpoint. When Cage offered his solution, Schoenberg asked for another, and another, until Cage ran out — and then asked for the principle underlying all of those problems. It wasn’t until much later that Cage came to the conclusion that the answer was Schoenberg’s question itself.
Famously strident, Arnold Schoenberg is an unlikely candidate for a Zen guru, but it’s absolutely characteristic of Cage to mentally mold him into one. The pioneering avant-garde composer was so attuned to the contemplative and inquisitive aspects of Zen Buddhism that its introduction into his life didn’t so much alter his path as focus it.
In Where the Heart Beats, Larson, former art critic for the Village Voice and New York magazine, traces Cage’s life in view of the Buddhist principles that helped shape it. Throughout, she laces her own writing with Cage’s own koan-like assertions and anecdotes.
The author underwent her own enlightenment while on a trip to Japan, giving her a unique perspective on the Zen aspects of Cage’s peculiar worldview. Far from a spiritual evangelist, however, Larson broadens her frame to encompass the larger art world, which was busily breaking with its own long-held traditions and finding inspiration in those of other cultures. Asian philosophies were as attractive to these mid-20th-century Modernists as were the realities of industrial society and the shock of pure abstraction.
While she stresses the importance of Buddhist writer D.T. Suzuki on Cage’s thinking, Larson recognizes that his constant questioning of received wisdom and his playful cultural omnivorism had already opened his mind to a compositional approach focused on chance and sound. She suggests that his embrace of Zen merely provided the questions which tied together the endless solutions his music suggested.