Wednesday, July 30, 2008

How To Read Ulysses at Nerd Nite

Nerd Nite might be one of the coolest intellectual events in the metro Boston area. Basically, people who are passionate about some topic, in my case books, give Power Point presentations at a bar about their topic. The event features up to three different presentations. This Friday, August 1 at around 9 pm at the Midway Cafe, 3496 Washington St. in Jamaica Plain, I will be giving a presentation called "How to Read Ulysses." Ulysses is of course James Joyce's massive masterpiece that too often gets used as a shelf-spacer than as a novel. If you've never read it but have always wanted to this is a great chance to get the skills you need to finally get through it. If you have read it, this is your chance to heckle someone in a bar... about Ulysses. Is there a better way to spend a Friday night? There is a $3 cover charge but along with three presentations there will also be live bands. For the full August 1 line-up and for more information about Nerd Nite please visit Nerd Nite's Google Group, here.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

And Justice For All

I find myself muddling through questions about 'Justice' these days. And maybe it's just justice systems that have me muddled.

It started with a book called Child 44 by Tom Smith (Hachette). The story is about a serial killer in the time of Stalin's rule in Russia. It is roughly based on the real serial killer, Andrei Chikatilo, and is set in the 1950's. What could be just another serial killer story line (how jaded we've become) is wound around the horrors of the Stalinist concept of society and 'justice'. There was no crime in the perfect Russian state. So how could there be a serial killer!
But all citizens were treated as criminals. The hero and heroine find themselves on the wrong side of this very warped system and are hunted as if they were the killers, not the person they were pursuing.

In the midst of this novel, to relieve the stress , I picked up The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi (Grand Central Publishing). Not quite the light reading I imagined. It seems that Mr. Preston and family decided to move to Florence early in the new century so he could write his next novel.
He found himself more interested in an old unsolved serial murder case and investigated and wrote about it with the help of his co-author, an Italian journalist. During the course of their investigating and interviewing, they themselves came under the scrutiny of the Italian justice system. Preston was jailed, and upon release, hustled out of the country. Spezi was then hassled and ultimately arrested for the murders! It took an international effort to get him released.

Again, all citizens are treated as criminals. And this in a 'modern democratic' society!

I'm still looking for a little light reading!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Jack Kerouac's "specific elsewhere"

My book group just wrapped up our close reading of Jack Kerouac's On the Road. It was fascinating to see just how much depth the book has beyond the adolescent energy that most people talk about. In this reading of On the Road two things stood out to me in particular; the idea of Sal Paradise as "gonzo journalist" and Kerouac's concept of a "specific elsewhere."

"Gonzo Journalism" is mostly associated with Hunter S. Thompson and is a kind of journalism where the journalist is intimately involved with whatever is being written about, with the piece ultimately being as much about the journalist as about whatever was supposed to be reported on. (Desert race anyone?) In On the Road, Sal reports on two major entities, Dean Moriarity and America. In reporting Dean, Sal presents all of Dean's wild antics, his great rants, and his "digging" and in doing so Sal both creates and destroys one of the great mythological figures in American literature. In reporting America, Sal takes great care to give us a picture of everywhere he went and everywhere he drove through, building a portrait of the country through the accumulation of snapshots. On the Road is also filled with great Whitmanesque lists of the people of America. Juxtaposing these two subjects makes On the Road a book about the closing of the frontier. Both Dean and America vibrate with the energy of pioneers and the commitment to be always in a state of going where no one has ever gone before. But America has gone as far as it's going to go. There is no frontier left so that pioneering energy is turned in on itself, reverberating into the perversity of Wild West shows and eastern businessmen stuffing themselves into cowboy costumes. That same perversion of energy happens to Dean as well. He bounces from coast to coast, from place to place, leaving wreckage and wives everywhere he goes. In one moment this energy turns him into a godly hero and in the next it leaves him a raving madman. In a sense On the Road is an elegy to the frontier, a long wild wake for an American identity we have yet to replace.

Near the end of the book, when Sal, Dean, and Stan are in southern Texas, Kerouac uses the phrase "a specific elsewhere," and that described, to me at least, exactly where Sal and Dean were trying to go. A "specific elsewhere" is a paradoxical space in that the characters always know exactly where they are going—they're going to Denver, or New York, or Italy, or Mexico City, or "It"—and yet the place they are seeking is an inaccessible higher plane of existence that turns every arrival into the first step towards the next departure. Two techniques are presented as solutions to the paradox of the "specific elsewhere;" Dean's and Sal's. Dean's technique is to keep moving. Mexico City might be paradise but after three days, it's deficiencies in comparison to that higher plane of existence reveal themselves and push him on. Sal, however, creates a "specific elsewhere" through the writing of On the Road. By writing down his experiences, Sal creates a specific environment-- the words of the novel-- and in doing so creates The Denver, The San Francisco, The Texas, of his experience; he creates a place of inherent meaning, inherent it-ness. However, because it's a novel, its meaning has a level of flux and The Denver or The San Francisco will always be different to every reader and on every subsequent read.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

New England Crime Bake Mystery Writer/Reader Conference

If you're a fan of mystery and are looking for a conference to attend this year, check out the New England CrimeBake ( It's a great conference put on by the New England Chapters of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters In Crime. Now in it's seventh year the Crime Bake has attracted some great keynote speakers such as Robert B. Parker, Janet Evanovich, and Lee Child. This year's keynote is Harlan Coben. The conference is November 14 through the 16th in Dedham, MA .

If you're interested you should register as soon as possible. The conference also offers a full Friday evening agenda with a pizza party, master classes, and manuscript evaluations also being offered (additional fees may apply for some events). The website contains information about registration and fees.

Don't overlook the downloadable Pitch Tip Sheet as the highlight of the conference is, of course, your own one-on-one pitch to a literary agent.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Josh Barkan and the Literature of Failure

Of all the topics available to writers, failure might be the most rarely written about, and it's not hard to guess why. Even the most depressing topics; war, death, squalor, hate, fascism, prejudice, etc, allow for some kind of victory for the protagonist and provide a payoff for the reader. Regardless of what happens, these topics always allow for progress and improvement, so that, at the end of the work the reader feels as though the characters got something out of the experience.

But for an author to accurately explore failure, that progress can't happen, because once some kind of success is gained from the events that presentation of failure is compromised. You can't call a protagonist a failure if he or she gets something from his or her experiences. Furthermore, there's no moment of payoff for the reader, no event in the book where the reader can say "This is what we're supposed to get from the book," and no emotional release from the struggles of the protagonist. The reader has to find some way to develop through reading about failure, rather than through any provided epiphanies from the protagonist or the author. So writers tend to avoid the topic, so much so that I can only think of three protagonists I've read that are true failures.

First is Tyrone Slothrop from Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. In the beginning it is believed that Slothrop has some powerful psychological connection to the rocket development program in Germany. He's recruited as a spy, sent into Germany, subjected to psychological testing, and by the end, well, he's an unshaven grifter (at most) whose story concludes long before the end of the novel.

The next is George Harvey Bone from Patrick Hamilton's Hangover Square. Bone is a decent somewhat likeable, but ultimately pathetic character who is a borderline alcoholic with a split-personality. He becomes enraptured with Netta, a selfish, manipulative, would-be actress who strings Bone along for free drinks. Ultimately, Bone's melancholy conquers both of his personalities and his suicide is made all the more poignant by the glimmer of kindness that Bone still shows, by asking for someone to watch his cat in his suicide note. This kindness, though, was always in Bone, and he neither woke up to Netta's maliciousness nor developed as a person through his struggles against alcohol and mental illness.

Then there is Hal Incandenza from David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. Hal Incandenza is an intelligent, talented, tennis prodigy with a wildly dysfunctional family. When the novel opens we meet Hal after some kind of major mental breakdown. At a college interview, most likely his last chance at getting into any college, all his attempts to talk come out as incomprehensible screaming. The story then follows Hal (and dozens of others) through the events that lead up to Hal's breakdown, but we never see the direct cause. The book ends before the moment of Hal's breakdown and readers can only guess at what ultimately happened. So not only is Hal denied any chance of redemption, but there is also no way to evaluate the breakdown in terms of its ultimate cause.

Josh Barkan's first novel Blind Speed, and his protagonist Paul Berger enter this slim shelf in literature. Paul is a drummer but his band didn't quite make it; is a teacher, but he couldn't get tenure at a community college; and is a writer, though he's never finished, let alone, published anything. He happens into a New Age retreat while researching gun-shows in the Midwest, and gets a portentous (and accurate) palm reading from a guru named "Buffalo Man." Paul flounders throughout the novel, yet he never really does anything wrong. He takes his fiance to a reenactment in Concord, MA and she is wounded in a freak accident. He does copious amounts of interesting research for a book (about the modern American response to failure), but never even gets the first chapter done. He solicits the help of a ghostwriter, who turns some of Paul's research into an article on Jackie O, that never gets published. He is kidnapped by group of fake eco-terrorists as a political ploy to bolster his brother's Congressional campaign, and his attempt to expose his corrupt brother is brushed off by the media as the wailings of an emotionally broken, jealous young man. He returns to Buffalo Man to exorcise the palm reading but does not complete the tests Buffalo Man sets for him.

In all of this Blind Speed raises another issue you don't see broached much in literature; one can be a good person, always try one's best, have good intentions, and still fail. For some reason, some people don't have what it takes to succeed and exploring this idea makes Blind Speed a challenging, often uncomfortable read. Barkan mitigates this challenge by making the book very funny, by making Paul charming (if a little pathetic), and by engaging intelligently with contemporary politics. However, he doesn't let readers get away from the fact that one can do everything right and still end up baffled by life and its consequences. Josh Barkan will be reading at Porter Square Books on July 17th at 7pm. You can read more about Josh at his blog Josh Barkan: Blind Speed.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The Unfortunates

I finished reading The Unfortunates, B. S. Johnson's unbound experimental novel, and in doing so, finished an amazing reading experience. The novel follows the narrator in a quasi-familiar city on a hack sports writing assignment. Soon after arriving in the city, he realizes it's familiar because he's been there before, only in the context of his friend Tony, who died of cancer. The primary action of the novel is the narrator's attempt to write the assigned article and to remember Tony.

The chapters in the novel are unbound and, with the exception of the first and the last, can be read in any order. This format looks radically experimental, but given that the primary action is memory, this format is far more accurate in terms of how memory is experienced than anything rigidly linear. Memory rarely maintains chronology. We compress multiple events into singular events, stretch singular events into multiple events, shuffle the order of events, and forget them completely. Traditional narrative is the least accurate representation of memory. So, not only does Johnson's unbound organization challenge the physical definition of a "book" or a "novel," it also mimics the fundamental action of the book. This problem of memory is reinforced as, over and over again, the narrator revises the events, questions his memory of the events, and deduces forgotten memories rationally from subsequent sequences.

Without a linear narrative, many traditional storytelling techniques aren't available. Johnson can't foreshadow anything. His narrator can't progress. There can be no chapter to chapter set ups and payoffs. There can be no mysteries in the plot and no accumulative thematic explorations. However, the random order that I read the chapters in still felt natural. At one point I thought to myself that a particular theme was set up very well, when that wasn't the case at all. The individual chapters are so well written and so thematically cohesive that details can function as both set-ups and pay-offs or as the introduction of a theme and the elaboration of a theme. The word-for-word writing skill necessary to pull off such hyper-cohesion is dazzling.

Along with that cohesion the novel displays a breathtaking universality. It's accurate to say that The Unfortunates is about memory or about cancer, but as the narrator remembers and observes, the story manages to be about everything else as well. When the narrator describes the state of the soccer stadium, he is also describing the destructive greed pervasive in professional sports. When the narrator grumbles about the popular newspaper reporters, he is also grumbling about media's willingness to pander to the public. When he struggles to write his article about the boring soccer match, he shows the struggle everyone goes through when doing a job they don't love. And in his hands cancer not only becomes the disease devouring his friend, but also the affliction that defines modern society; the slightly altered body, destroying itself.

This new edition presents as accurately as possible Johnson's vision for the novel, with epigraphs from Lawrence Sterne and Samuel Beckett on the inside of the box. The introduction by Jonathan Coe sets the book in its historical context, while providing the reader with a structure for interpretation. The box even includes a copy of the article that brought Johnson to the city in the first place. The Unfortunates is literature at its best with the experimentation driven by the author's attempt to more accurately portray the complexities of human life in words. Johnson has earned himself a place among the English language's great modern writers for creating it.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

A Legend at PSB

The staff of PSB is universally excited that legendary musician Al Kooper will be with us this evening at 7pm...He has worked in the music industry for FIFTY years starting when he was a mere lad of 14 in New York.  And, as many know, he has worked with giant talents such as Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Stephen Stills and The Rolling Stones.  Besides being a brilliant musician Al is a great storyteller and we look forward to hearing his insights, thoughts and experiences.

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