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Monday, February 28, 2005

Star of Gypsies

The origins of the people we call Gyspies have always been in question; historians claiming they originate from areas as diverse as Turkey, Romania and even Egypt. Robert Silverberg makes great use of these mysterious origins by pushing it even further in his newest novel, Star of Gypsies. In the world of this novel, the gypsies, or Rom as they call themselves, immigrated to Earth thousands of years ago from a distant world and became a part of our society. Or at least the fringes of our society. Living on the edge in their own way, they developed into a nomadic people made infamous by their image as fortune tellers, thieves, and scam artists. Their natural predilections for journeying long distances and an unusual knack for piloting makes them instrumental in the development of mankind's space age; without the Rom it's quite apparent that mankind may have floundered and found themselves trapped on an Earth ravaged of all its natural resources.

The Rom use their new unique position to gain some measure of power, and establish their own loosely connected kingdom within the growing empire of man. Although technically science fiction, this future universe of the Rom holds equals levels of fantasy. Alongside starships and suspended animation lie centuries-old prophecies, and ghosts. At the book's opening, Yakoub, king of the Roms, lives on the barren, cold world of Mulano. Although still technically king, Yakoub left his throne behind to focus on a way to take his people back to the long lost home they call Romany Star. After three long years in isolation he receives word that a new upstart has taken over the mantle of Rom king, a cruel and terriying man named Shandor who happens to be Yakoub's oldest son. When Yakoub returns to reclaim his throne he finds himself immeshed not only in a political fight for control over his own throne but a burgeoning civil war within the empire of mankind.

As a first-person narrative, this book's a rarity in science fiction that focuses not on action but on character. Yakoub's storyteller voice is so strong I can't imagine this tale being told in any other fashion. Reading Yakoub's words, I get the feeling like I just sat down next to someone at a bar and am listening to odd little pieces of his fascinating life. Because it has an almost oral tradition feel to it, the novel interweaves the main story line with a series of colorful flashbacks and diversions. While the flashbacks do enhance the main plotline here and there, most give Silverberg the opportunity to build on our understanding of Yakoub. In lesser hands this novel would be a mess, but Silverberg maintains tight control over the flow. We relive his early days as a slave, watch him work and scheme hard enough to win his freedom and eventually claim the throne of all his people. Behind all the political manipulations, murders and explosions Star of Gypsies is ultimately a portrait of Yakoub, and it's a portrait well worth reading.

Excelsior.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Beam Me UP, Peter Jennings!

I got bored with the Oscars tonight and popped in my tape of the Peter Jennings "investigation" into UFO's tonight. It aired Thursday but I hadn't gotten around to watching it yet; it seemed a fitting escape from all the bad jokes and self-congratulations out in Hollywood.

Jennings didn't really offer up anything new or shocking. Mostly it was a recap of the history of UFO research, stretching back to the early 1900's. The usual suspect like Roswell, Art Bell and Whitley Strieber made their requisite appearances. Some fun links were made between alien abductions, succubi, and faery folk. Good fodder for fiction, but I have a hard time picturing the wee folk flying around in giant tin foil disc.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not arrogant enough to completely ignore the possibility, but I've read a fair bit on the subject and I have yet to see anything remotely resembling hard proof.

Perhaps the oddest part of the whole program is the involvement of Peter Jennings. Granted he's not much of journalist anymore; like any anchor man he's really more of a face for the ones who do the real investigation. I know Dan Ackroyd became obessesed with alien invasions in recent years, obesessed enough to have his own radio show, but maybe it's spread to others. I would think Jennings would have better things to look into. Social Security. Poverty. The War in Iraq. The tense atmosphere in Korea.

But no. He goes after little green men and the government cover up. Maybe he secretly wants to be Fox Mulder.

Excelsior.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

It's All In the DNA

I'm probably butchering this paraphrase, but Jorge Luis Borges once said no one ever needed to write a biography on him. To know him one would only have to read his complete works and he would live again through those words. It's quite the romantic ideal, that the full spirit of the writer can be brought forth by reading and understanding their work.

Anyway, I'm thinking about this today because it came up yesterday in class through kind of a back door. I don't think I've mentioned it, but I'm taking a class in editing. This particular class focused mostly on fine-tuning and odd eccentricities of the English language, but a small portion dealt with the challenge of editing a person's work while maintaining the unique sense of the author's style. Discussion even covered computers used to examine and imitate an author's style.

The teacher cited a book called Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous by Don Foster, who apparently coined the term literary DNA. His theory is that a sense of our identities is encoded into the way we use language. To a certain point, that's obvious. No one can confuse the writing of William S. Burroughs for the writing of Diana Gabaldon. But Foster not only presses his idea, he proved it to a point by using his methods to identify Joe Klein as the author for Primary Colors and identify Ted Kaczynski as the Unabomber.

It's a beautiful idea when you think about it. Running with the theory, it could mean that every paragraph, every sentence, every word you write contains some sort of inherent code connecting it to not only the work as a whole (be it a short story or novel) but also to the author. Reading writing should, and most often does, impart a sense of the author. Pushing it to this extent gives it a little magical feel. Magical in a postmodern sense, but still magical. I guess it appeals to my vanity a little bit, too, thinking that I may live on in some small way through my writing.

And you never know. Perhaps some future episode of CSI will feature a murder of a publisher by an angry, rejected writer. The only clue left behind: a copy of an unnamed, rejected manuscript.

I can just imagine it.

"How will we find the killer?" Detective Brass asks.

"We have the killer's DNA," says Grissom.

"What do you mean? The killer didn't leave any fingerprints. No hairs. No skin cells."

"Not that kind of DNA," Grissom says holding the manuscript. "This killer left his... literary DNA."

cue cheesy guitar riff and cut to commercial

Excelsior.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

HST

Well I'm sure most everyone has heard of the death of Hunter S. Thompson. It's a sad day, because we've lost one of those rare people who dared to wear his opinions on his sleeve, on his pants, on the top of his head without any tinge of regret. This is his last column, and is pretty indicative of his style and thoughts if you've never read him.

I have a book of his journals I've been meaning to read for awhile. I think it will be my next book. I'm sorry he had to die for me to pick it up.

Excelsior.

Searching for Thomas Pynchon

This past Sunday I caught the last ten minutes or so of the Simpsons. I was reading at the same time, so I wasn't paying that much attention. The episode had something to do with Marge writing a novel. But in the credits under guest voices I saw something surprising: Thomas Pynchon.

Now if you don't know much about Pynchon he's a bit of a recluse. A well respected novelist, it's thought he lives somewhere in Mexico but no one really knows for sure. Well, someone knows, but they're not talking. The only photo I've ever found of him dates back to the 1940's when he served in the Navy. Despite his reclusive nature, he pops up in strange ways. Every once in awhile you'll see a book review or blurb on the back of a friend's book. Even more strangely, I've run across a few music reviews in places like Spin and Rolling Stone. In the early 90's the odd sitcom The John Larroquette Show made an obscure Pynchon joke/reference and he sent them a fan letter. Other than that Pynchon's had very little contact with the public world.

So first I checked IMDB. There I found Pr├╝fstand VII, a german movie that looks to based on Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. Even more strangely is the movie A Journey Into the Mind of P., a documentary that investigates the known facts of his life and theorizes on his motivations for writing and being a recluse. One of my favorite bands, the Residents, apparently did the soundtrack. Definitely something I'll have to seek out.

From there I found this, a fun little site on all things Pynchon. There's even a link to some guy who makes paper dolls of the writer. Anway, that led me to an article on The Modern Word about the Simpson's appearance. Some of the article's history is wrong, but the details on the episode sound fun. Oh, why did I have to be reading when instead I could have enjoyed the masked cartoon visage of Thomas Pynchon? For an odd, postmodern recluse appearing on the Simpsons seems somehow strangely appropriate.

Probably not many here as amused by this as I am, but I thought I would share anyway.

Excelsior.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Crouching Tiger, Thousand Daggers

Saturday night after work Miss L and I went to see The House of Flying Daggers.

It's near the end of the Tang Dynasty, and police deputies Jin (Kaneshiro) and Leo (Lau) tangle with Mei (Zhang), a brothel dancer suspected of having ties to a revolutionary faction known as the House of Flying Daggers. After arresting her, Jin concocts conconts a plan posing as a wannabe revolutionary, breaking Mei out of prison so she can lead him to the secret camp of the faction. There are a number of plot twists that pit Jin and Mei against hordes of the Tang millitary, showcasing some slick high-wire martial arts choreography. Not surprisingly, Jin falls in love with Mei (who wouldn't) and further twists develop into a final battle encapsulating a desperate and angry love triangle. With lucid cinematography showcasing landscapes in China and the Ukraine, it's easy to get lost in the visual beauty and making it something really made for the big screen. The acting, particularly the chemistry between Kaneshiro and Zhang, is effective and quite powerful.

Several of the reviews I've read tout it as even better a film than Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon It is an excellent movie, but I'm hard-pressed to put it above CTHD. A handful of the fight scenes seem almost a little too choreographed; for example, at one moment Mei and Jin are surrounded by ten soldiers. The soldiers move in synch, stabbing their swords at the same time and creating a pattern of criss-crossed metal. A beautiful visual, but it bothered me for some reason. I've liked martial arts movies since I was a little kid, but CTHD really raised the bar with it's level of story, acting and visual beauty. I will concede that I was simply blown away by the newness of CTHD and my memory may not quite be fair.

It's far and away better than Hero, though (which I also like). The story here in Daggersmanages to wrap a much more complex and moving story over Hero's straight action/adventure storyline.

Excelsior.

Friday, February 18, 2005

The Harrow

I was looking over The Harrow today and found this, a new anthology they're putting together. Sounds like a cool idea. Time for me to pull out the notebook of ideas and see if I have anything that fits.

Excelsior.

A litte help

I'm starting some research for the next story, which among other things features werwolves. I'm finding lots of good non-fiction. Myths, how werwolves are made, how to kill them, their general behaviors. My personal favorite is an Eastern Russian superstition to always sleep with your shoes on, otherwise a Werewolf might come along and make a little snack out of your toes.

But I'm not having much luck on the fiction route. I'm looking for any suggestions on good fiction that use werwolves. There's a ton out there on vamps, but I'm having trouble finding much of anything dealing with their fuzzy little opponents. Vamps certainly have the whole romantic mystique thing going, but it's hard to beat a werewolf on pure, unbridled, chaotic aggression. I would have thought there'd be more content out there. I'll keep looking, and post anything I find. And thanks in advance if anyone has pointers.

Excelsior.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Damon Knight's Way

I've had Damon Knight's Creating Short Fiction for a couple months now, but haven't cracked it open until today. If you don't know Knight at all, he's no relation to Michael Knight of Knight Rider fame. He's an author, primarily of sci-fi, but also a pretty important critic. Particularly in the 60's and 70's, he was a very vocal personality to raise the bar of quality in sci-fi and how we criticize it. He felt sci-fi not only could but should be criticized as heavily as any other type of writing. He passed away last spring, I believe.

Fairly close to the beginning of the book, he goes into his idea of the four stages of writers:


1 You are writing for yourself, and your stories are essentially daydreams.

2 Now you are trying to break out of your shell, trying to communicate your ideas but your stories are what editors call "trivial".

3 You are writing complete stories, but are being held back by technical problems like structure and character development.

4 You have solved these problems, at least well enough to get by. You have the skill to achieve some level of success at a professional level.


He goes on to say that there are stages after #4, but the author doesn't need help or guidance once the author reaches that point. I thought it interesting enough to blog about. Using his little guidelines, I probably fall somewhere between 3 + 4. I have had some limited professional success, but I definitely still have some problems I'm working on. Ah, perhaps someday I too can look back on stage 4 with fondness.

I'll probably pull more from this book as time goes on. It looks like it has a lot of good material and thoughts for writers. In the meantime, I need to finish my infernal income taxes.


Excelsior.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Duck Chang's

A couple of weeks ago I made the trip to nearby Annandale to one of my favorite restaurants, Duck Chang’s. It’s a family run place. Mrs. Chang greets you when you come in, the son or daughter will seat and serve you. If you’re lucky Mr. Chang himself might be standing at a carving table, knife in hand, carving up a special order of Peking Duck. Everything’s decorated in that 1970’s Chinese Restaurant style...lots of white, red, and jade. The occasional painting of a dragon adorns the walls. The food’s not fancy, but always excellent and I’ve been going there for at least half of my life. That rare kind of place where they know you well enough to poke fun at you for bringing in a date.

When I got there a couple of weeks ago, the door was locked and all the lights were off. A handwritten note was taped to the door.

We regret to inform our valued customers that Mr. “Duck” Chang passed away this past weekend. Duck Chang’s will remain closed for the next week. We appreciate your understanding.

Tonight I made the first trip there since Mr. Chang’s passing. The place was packed, much busier than I’d seen it in a long time. Apparently they reopened last week for the Chinese New Year. Despite the high activity level, the staff was fairly subdued, their loss still obviously on their minds. Most wore black,while those who didn’t had a black arm band tied around their bicep. The son was making his rounds to all the customers; he got to me about the same time as the fortune cookies.

I expressed my condolences to him, and told him how much I’ve enjoyed coming to their restaurant over the years. We talked a bit about loss, and he told me a good bit about his father. Apparently he was somewhat of a restaurant tycoon in Asia, owning and running several businesses in Hong Kong and Thailand. He left it all behind him in the early 70’s to come to the U.S. so his children would receive a better education and have broader opportunities in life. Mr. Chang opened his place in Annandale in 1975. His son went on to earn a Phd Microbiology, his sister a Masters in Business and a Phd in Computer Science. But they chose to continue working in the family business all these years.

Strangely, just this week in the newest issue of Esquire, Duck Chang’s was rated #8 for an article on Best Bites in the U.S. I’m not sure what the rating system was, or even who did the article, but it’s a fitting and final testament to man who poured his heart and soul into his business. If Mr. Chang’s still looking down on it, I hope he knows how much joy it’s brought to people over all these years.

Excelsior.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Cut-up results

I meant to post this earlier, but for the curious this is what happens with a cut-up:

his discovery was true. They lacked his claw. He would prove it to them the only way he know better: he'd continue retreating. Well during the thesis defense your sweater like it wasn't hour 4 already. odd runes, the whole Norse myths. One anger academia at first Stone in Oklahoma and burial sites of a little sports car. Paul turned into Korn and into Led Zeppelin. The cold of the predictions collapsed flat on the ground. Bergelmir redressed in a pizza reopened his eyes to find Dr. Carroll's baseball cap scraped and cut. But Paul knew inside just slightly through the food he pulled his hand out stretching out to the snowflake, knocking him on the Viking helmet. colorless, gray hue. the steady flow. Paul paused. likely to bring the wind circles a Raven could talk called upon the expertise of Dr. Laughter. Well, if that's what you think satisfying himself by viewing her discoveries of small tools by her neck. one hand two sizes too small before he died. the ice and snow burned into him, starting a patch of pepper-gray hair sniffing the air.

Not all that helpful this time, but it did generate some fun descriptions. I'm now shopping for a couple markets and will send it out tomorrow.

In other news, I just got the official contract for the anthology that's running another story of mine. I should be getting galleys next month, and then it's supposed to be published sometime in April or May. I'll post more as more happens.

Excelsior.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

The Day of Hearts

My early Valentine's Day yesterday ended up a mix bag of emotions. It started rather early with very discouraging job fair. The fair was hosted by an association of independent schools, and featured about 50 schools throughout Maryland. Despite the literature posted by the association, I came away feeling pretty unqualified for what the schools were looking for. Of course, most were after teachers in Math and Science and didn't want to bother talking to a writing guy like me.

After that, though, things improved. Anonymous L and I made a trip to the Visionary Museum for their new exhibit called Holy H2O. If you've never been there, all the works exhibited are Visionary or Naive Art. In broad terms, it simply means artists who are untrained. Often times the artists involved are working out odd frustrations and obessions, in some cases creating very powerful work. This exhibit, not surprisingly, focused on work inspired by water. Paintings of storms, fountains created out of bric-a-brac, and boats made out of toothpicks are just a few of the highlights. It's also the first time I've been there since the expansions, so it was interesting to see what they've done with their new space. They've added a lot of classroom/activity room areas, and I can easily see school kids having a great time with their programs.

That night, though, was the highlight. We went to a campy burlesque-style show called Trixie Little & The Evil Hate Monkey's Valentine's Day Cabaret.

Really.

I'm not kidding.

Trixie's a self-dubbed burlesque superheroine defending the world from the evil of the tap dancing Evil Hate Monkey. It was an odd mix of dance, acrobratic tricks, pasties, volcanoes, and goofy performance art. The humor's very Baltimore, so not for everyone. But worth it if you appreciate a little bizarre camp served with your humor. Definitely a fun way to celebrate that most fabricated of holidays.

Excelsior.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Such a Cut-up

My day job forced me to miss my reviewers meeting this week. I thought I would go without books from them this month and use the time to wade through the piles I have on my bookshelves. Like just about any booklover, I have your standard bookshelves all pretty well filled. But in front of the neatly lined up books are piles of other books I have yet to read. The editors sent me a few things anyway, so the piles keep growing.

First is The Capital, which is part two of the graphic novel series Isaac the Pirate. Part one was one of the first things I reviewed for the magazine, so I'm pleased to get this one. They also sent me Star of Gypsies, the newest novel by Robert Silverberg, and new bios on Tori Amos and Ray Bradbury. All look pretty good. It's kind of scary that the editors are zeroing in on my tastes so easily, but I take it as a good sign that they're sending me things when I miss a meeting. Perhaps I'm just that scary good.

Fiction-writing wise, I've made good progress on my story. Although not perfect, it's a lot better than it was on Monday. Late tonight I'll be performing the old cut-up routines on it. Although it doesn't always work, sometimes it shakes up the writing enough to give you some new ways to look at the story. If nothing else I'll get some fun combinations of words I would otherwise miss out on.

Tomorrow I'm up to Baltimore for a job fair, and then an early Valentine Day celebration with Miss Anonymous L. She has things planned for us, but I don't know what. The only thing she's told me is that she's not sure if we have to dress up "nice or funky". So long as "funky" doesn't involve a pair of wooden clogs, it's cool with me.

Excelsior.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

They're Baa-aack

I was doing a little sweeping up last night and came across some discarded carcasses of long-dead Lady Bugs. Those of you who've been with me since October or so probably remember my earlier posts about my little friends. I've been finding dead ones the last few days, just scattered about. Mostly around windows, probably trying to get outside with the 50 degree weather we've been graced with over the past week here in D.C.

Well, as I was sweeping I noticed one of them moving, its bright red, black spotted body trying to scuttle away on its little legs. I popped it out of the dustbin and it crawled away under the laundry machine. I can only assume going home by way of some magic portal. I imagine their homeland to be some vast forest that's always green and lush, and there are plenty of aphids to munch on. At least I hope they have better places to go than under my washing machine.

Excelsior.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Openings

Below my navel stetches a long tattoo that says "Fuck...U...S..." The skin above those dots has shriveled as though scarred by burns. Like a talisman, the tattoo has protected me in China for almost five decades. Before coming to the States, I wondered whether I should have it removed. I decided not to, not because I cherished it or was nervous about the surgery, but because if I had done that, word would have spread and the authorities, suspecting I wouldn't return, might have revoked my passport. In addition, I was planning to bring with me all the material I had collected for this memoir, and couldn't afford to attract the attention of the police, who might have confiscated my notes and files. Now I am here, and my tattoo has lost its charm; instead it has become a constant concern.

This is the opening paragraph for Ha Jin's novel War Trash. I've always got my eye out for really good openings in novels and short stories, because they are so hard to pull off. The writer needs to grab the reader, but ideally through a way that connects well to the work as a whole.

A lot of writers, particularly in recent years, opt for the violent or shocking opening. Carl Hiassen, for example, always opens his comic-crime novels with a wacky yet graphic murder. It's a good way to go for the right book, and it certainly get the reader involved in the story right away.

Jin certainly could have done that. The narrator Yuan is a captured Chinese soldier trying to survive in a U.S. POW camp during the Korean War, and he's subjected to and witnesses some pretty gruesome stuff. People around him are beaten, shot, stoned, and torn apart by hunger and disease. But instead Jin chose the image of this tattoo. It's a strong image, and one that Jin comes back to throughout the book in a variety of ways. Actually, what's shown in this paragraph is a defaced version of the original tattoo, but I won't give away its original form. In many ways it becomes symbolic of Yuan's constant struggle balancing his love for home and family with precepts of Chinese Communism and Nationalism that he doesn't fully agree with.

When I first read the above paragraph, it brought me nothing but questions. Why would this character get this tattoo? What does it mean for him? Why would someone with a tatoo like this end up in the U.S.? And finding the answers to these questions is part of why I kept reading. And that, I would think, is the whole point.

Excelsior.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Creating Deadlines

Lady Lit Blitz's post on procrastination inspired me to come clean.

I've been procrastinating like nobody's business on this stupid nordic dark fantasy/horror piece. I don't even know why. It's a throw away piece with little redeeming value as far as theme, etc, etc. But I keep poking at it, like a little kid jamming a stick into a dead dog on the street. And no matter how many times I poke this dead dog, it doesn't want to come to life.

I've been good the last few days editing it and playing around with it during my lunch hour, and using some slow moments either at work or at home to make the changes on the computer. (I love my data-stick, BTW. It's a life saver. Not that you're reading this, but thanks, Dad).

I've set a deadline for myself of Friday night. Friday's my next day off, so that gives me lunch hours today through Thursday plus all day Friday to finish this piece off. After Friday night I'm either sending it out or putting it aside for at least a couple of months. It's well past time to move on to something else.

Excelsior.

Friday, February 04, 2005

Some Housecleaning

These are some random tidbits I've been meaning to blog about for a few days.

First off, Andy Singer's coming out with a collection of his No Exit comics. If you're not familiar with him, he's a somewhat underground comic artist with a strip syndicated in some independant papers across the country. Picture a slightly edgier, more nihilistic version of Zippy the Pinhead with some Gary Larson thrown in, and you're on the right track. Congrats to Singer, though. He has a unique style and he deserves more attention than he gets.

Second, and somewhat related, I added a link for the Comics Curmudgeon. It's a fun blog the deconstructs and pokes fun at the daily comic strips. I think, but I'm not positive, that he hangs in Baltimore. It's good fun if you like comics. Thanks to Anonymous L for telling me about it.

Third, Random House has put together a really good author site for Haruki Murakami. Murakami is in the running for the top spot in my favorite writers lineup, based solely on his novel The Windup Bird Chronicles. Although the buzzword of New Wave Fabulists is dying down somewhat, I can think of no other living author that exemplifies the ideas of it. I have a collection of his novellas set up in my to-read pile, and will hopefully get to it soon. His new novel Kafka on the Shore is getting pretty favorable reviews in Salon, NY Times, and the Washington Post. The author site is very well done, and contains good descriptions of his work, reviews, and a fan section.

Lastly, I think I need to order this. Oddball pomo musician John Zorn doing Lovecraft/Crowley inspired music sounds almost too good to be true.

Excelsior.





Thursday, February 03, 2005

Getting Jiffy With JEF

One of my smaller resolutions for this year is to renew my interest in more experimental work. I have to read a lot of pretty commercial stuff, a lot of it good, for the mag I review for, but I have felt more than a little out of touch with the fringe movements in fiction. I'll be trying to read at least one book a month that's a bit more out there, either through its concepts, its ideology or its technique. My first dive back into it was the Conjunctions issue I blogged about earlier, and now I move on to the next reading.

In a way, my foray into experimental fiction for the month hits all of those above areas. Issue #29 of The Journal of Experimental Fiction (JEF) titles itself The Literary Terrorism of Harold Jaffe, and focuses solely on his work and career in one form or another. Prior to this mag, I was not too familiar with Jaffe. I know him primarily as the editor for the avant garde lit mag Fiction International, although I've read a piece or two of his in the avant pop anthologies.

Not surprisingly, criticism comprises a large part of this issue. But it's criticism turned slightly on its head. Most of the authors are friends and/or former students of Jaffe, and that brings some interesting color into their comments. His work's compared to punk rock, dadaist and postmodern theory, and some of the essays include personal stories along with them. The best of these are Michael Hemmingson's attempts at producing and directing Jaffe's texts as plays and Carissa DiGiovanni's stories on how helpful he was in inspiring and giving aid when she organized protests against the war in Iraq. A few people attempt some imitation, the best of which seems to be "Countdown" by Trevor Dodge and "Towers of Babel" by Andrew Koopmans. The interview with JEF editor Eckhard Gerdes opens the issue, and provides general but solid background necessary for the other essays and fictions in the issue.

From what I gather, Jaffe likes to take real news stories and spin them on their head in different ways. Two obvious examples are popstar Madonna having a raucous sexual affair with Henry Kissinger, and talk show hosted by Dr. Kevorkian. In some cases it appears he (re)uses the text straight from the newspaper or television, using a variety of techniques to manipulate it in a more controlled Dadaist fashion to create some of his outlandish, over the top, bizarre stories.

What's the point, you might ask? Well, at least according to the critics, Jaffe pretty consistently deals with the idea of the media and how they manipulate what we think of news and how this shapes the way we think both as individuals and as a nation. It's definitely coming from the far left side of things politically (in the interview he dubs himself a subtle anarchist), and race and gender issues seem to be of particular interest to him. Many of the pieces seem to end right at the climax, or even just before, often jarring the reader who's used to western standards of dramatization and structure.

He shares sensibilties with avant pop purveyors, particularly Kathy Acker and the great theorist of artistic terrorism, Hakim Bey. Yes, I realize I'm using a lot of links here, but it's probably better that I let these people speak for themselves than my trying to describe their work in pale, partially informed tones.

Anyway, I give high marks to the issue of JEF if you're feeling adventurous and want to shake up your style a little. Although not difficult reading, it still manages to hit on a lot of pomo and experimental ideas. I'll definitely be checking into Jaffe a little more as well.

Excelsior.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Woo-Hoo!

No matter what else happens culturally this year, it's all ok with me. Why, do you ask? Well, Dali is coming to Philadelphia.

After Duchamp, he's probably my favorite artist of the 20th century. His wild ideas, his high level of craft, his attitude all appeal to me in a variety of ways. Looks to be a huge retrospective, and Philly is the only U.S. venue.

So go. You owe it to yourself to visit him in 2005.

Excelsior.

Them Bones

Today I’m reviewing Seth Greenland’s The Bones by way of a literary technique.

In grad school a professor of mine was big on what he called a plot shift for any work over 20 pages. Basically, it’s a technique to shake things up a bit plot-wise, some kind of incident to throw your characters off balance and bring in more conflict when things are running just a little too smoothly. It can be a big thing like a car crash that hospitalizes one of the characters, or perhaps something they were expecting yet counting on, like a job promtion, doesn't come through.

My professor described it in a pretty clear way. If a plot is like a small stream, a plot shift is like a large rock that you toss right in its way. Some smaller rocks will briefly divert the stream, but it will eventually work its way back to its original course. A larger, more dramatic rock can completely divert the flow and take that stream places no one could have predicted.

How does this relate to The Bones exactly? Well, Greenland does an extraordinarily good job with a big honker of a plot shift. You might say he tossed a mountain in the way of his plot-stream. But I need to tell you about the story a bit so you know what the hell I’m talking about.

The Bones is primarily a novel about Frank Bones, bad boy comedian extraordinaire. His smart, in your face and downright insulting style of stand-up comedy has given him a relatively successful career on the comedy club circuit. But whether due to his severe bad-boy image or just a case of bad luck the Bones has never managed to make that career shift into mainstream entertainment through a popular sitcom or movie. As if by a miracle, he's offered his own sitcom at a new television network that can grant him this elusive shot at the big time. The catch is that they want Frank to play an Eskimo, an Eskimo sent on wild, cartoony adventures riding a giant walrus across the frozen tundra. It's obvious Greenland knows the world of television and comedy well, and he takes every opportunity to satirize the glitz and glam of Hollywood. From empty-headed pretty boys to social climbing wives, he populates this world with over the top characters that make you both laugh and think. Even the Bones, womanizing, drug using jerk that he is, comes off surprisingly likable through the quick wit and patter he brings to every scene.

In a last ditched effort Bones calls Lloyd Melnick, an old acquaintance who just came off a very successful run as a writer on the massive hit The Fleishman Show. Bones pitches Melnick the idea of a show based on himself, using his own wild and crazy life as a backdrop for a cutting-edge sitcom. If Lloyd joins in with Bones, the show would get a free pass and lead Bones to every dream of success he's ever had. But Lloyd is burned out on the industry and holds secret desires to finally write that novel he's put off for so long. He turns the Bones down.

Melnick's refusal sends Bones spiraling out of control. After crashing his yellow Hummer into Melnick's house, Bones's anger pushes him ever more deeply into the opiates of narcotics and the Home Shopping Channel. After a few months time, Bones pulls himself out of this morass of self pity and takes his act on the road again, this time to Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Here comes the mountain.

After his act at the Tulsa club, Bones has a very vocal and public argument over money with the club’s owner. Bones takes himself back to his hotel and drinks himself to sleep. The city’s Sheriff, fingering him as the prime suspect in the club owner’s murder wakes him up in the morning.

The whole scene turns into a media-blitz. Entertainment and regular news sources fill up the city, hoping to catch an interview of this bad boy comic who may have just killed someone. Bones suddenly finds himself on the cover of Rolling Stones, his albums start sell like hotcakes and offers start poring in for film and television adaptations for his story. Melnick catches word of the story and jets out to Tulsa, hoping to make use of the Bones’s story for a novel or long work of non-fiction. The tale spins out even further, involving corrupt cops, running the border into Mexico, and yes, even a love story.

Now about that mountain.

Up to the point of sending Bones to Tulsa and involving him in this murder the plot moves on a pretty straight line. Although a fun satire, there are no real surprises and no unusual pressures on the characters to make them change. But this mountain, this plot shift, pushes both Melnick and Bones to learn at least a little something about themselves. What starts out as a simply funny and exciting story about dreams and desires transforms into a very moving story about two men finally growing up.

Excelsior.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

A Short Musical Interlude

While all those big fans probably knew months ago, Nine Inch Nails is releasing a new album in May called With Teeth, and the live lineup was released a couple of days ago. Performing with Mr. Reznor is former Icarus Line guitarist Aaron North, A Perfect Circle and Marilyn Manson bassist Jeordie White, drummer Jerome Dillon and keyboardist Alessandro Cortini.

So prepare for the deluge of promotion. The poster boy for closet rivetheads is back.

I don't have high hopes for the album, although I'm always hopeful to be surprised. Downward Spiral was a masterwork of pop, industrial and metal, and Treznor will probably never reach that height again. People who would never, never, ever listen to anything even remotely industrial or electronic accepted NIN, and it opened up the playing field for a short time. With the giant force of NIN alongside smaller acts like Machines of Loving Grace, Gravity Kills, and few others industrial was the next big thing for a month or two. Maryilyn Manson's a whole other deal, though.

There is this small part of me that hopes Treznor has it in him to rejuvenate a field of music that's essentially dead. Even the big boys like Skinny Puppy have moved on to forms a good bit different from what they used to do (curiously, the guitarist on their last album is also from A Perfect Cicle). But then, Puppy was all about evolution anyway. More info for the curious at the offical site of NIN.

On a completely different track, Cream is doing a very short reunion tour in the U.K. I'm not a big classic rock guy, and Clapton even less so, but Cream is one of those rare exceptions. Clapton by himself always comes off to me like an inauthentic white guy doing a passable job with the blues. But Cream was it's own animal, and was wholly different. I'd definitely make an effort to see them if they bother to come stateside. But I doubt Baker and Bruce would bother.

I'll have one more review up later tonight, or early tomorrow. Most of today's been taken up by the evil of income taxes.

Excelsior.