I Didn’t Like Joshua Cody’s Memoir [sic]

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Joshua Cody’s memoir [sic] showed up at Biblioklept World Headquarters a few weeks ago and despite my prejudices, I coasted through it over a few afternoons.

Those prejudices:

1) It’s a memoir.

2) There’s a Jonathan Franzen blurb on the cover.

3) The title [sic] is an unbearably too-clever pun (and this from a guy who loves puns).

The first thing I noticed about [sic] were the pictures : paintings, maps, charts, sketches, lists, collages, other texts, and so on interspersed throughout the text. I like pictures in books.

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The way that Cody uses these illustrations at first reminded me of  W.G. Sebald, who employed pictures in novels like Austerlitz and The Rings of Saturn in an oblique, documentary approach.

Cody is less oblique than Sebald, and perhaps flippant too. He doesn’t namecheck Sebald, at any rate, unlike David Byrne, who openly admitted to following Sebald’s path in his 2008 memoir Bicycle Diaries. (Cody does namecheck David Byrne though).

Then I edged my way into the plot, such as it is. I’ll lazily let publisher W.W. Norton summarize:

Joshua Cody, a brilliant young composer, was about to receive his PhD when he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. Facing a bone marrow transplant and full radiation, he charts his struggle: the fury, the tendency to self-destruction, and the ruthless grasping for life and sensation; the encounter with beautiful Ariel, who gives him cocaine and a blow job in a Manhattan restaurant following his first treatment; the detailed morphine fantasy complete with a bride called Valentina while, in reality, hospital staff are pinning him to his bed.

Moving effortlessly between references to Don Giovanni and the Rolling Stones, Ezra Pound and Buffalo Bill, and studded with pages from his own diaries and hospital notebooks, [sic] is a mesmerizing, hallucinatory glimpse into a young man’s battle against disease and a celebration of art, language, music, and life.

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As Norton’s summary suggests, Cody’s memoir is highly discursive and playful, loaded with references to art, music, and literature. Digressions on figures like David Foster Wallace, Orson Welles, or Alexander Theroux lard the book—indeed, they often seem to edge out the story Cody intends to tell, his cancer memoir. He seems reticent to fully engage his own feelings, instead layering reference upon reference. These references become insufferable at times—are we supposed to care that Cody met David Lynch and would like to be his friend, or that Cody briefly studied ancient Greek? Cody is so busy trying to impress the reader that he forgets to express meaning.

We see this reticence, this turning away from, here over two pages: Cody moves from a story about buying a facsimile copy of Pound’s original draft of The Waste Land to a lengthy footnote that manages to name drop James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Woody Allen, Anaïs Nin, and Henry Miller (in just two sentences!) and then into a facsimile reproduction of one of the stories his brother would write for him as a child:

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The big problem with Cody’s memoir is that it never feels particularly real. I enjoy discursive referential postmodernism as much as the next fella, but [sic] often fails to cohere around a central idea, let alone an emotion. When Cody describes dating a stripper/dominatrix, it feels like a party trick, an inflated anecdote—there’s no emotional core, no contemplative connection to his illness. Other sexual episodes read like a parody of Henry Miller.

As its title suggests, [sic] is a dodge, a bait-and-switch, an evasion. Cody is clearly very clever—but a dazzling display of cleverness can’t sustain a narrative.

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Bicycle Diaries – David Byrne

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David Byrne’s new book, Bicycle Diaries (new in hardback from Viking), is an engaging, discursive, and often meditative memoir about the Talking Heads founder’s strange experiences bicycling through some of the world’s most distinct cities. Byrne uses W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn (one of our favorite books) as an entry point for his book. Like Sebald, Byrne attempts to synthesize history, memory, art, architecture, philosophy, science, and a host of other subjects in his writings on cities like Berlin, London, Manila, Istanbul, and San Francisco. The result is a book that is profound and very readable; Byrne communicates complex ideas in ways that are both fun to read and also highly relevant to an age of changing attitudes about how we are to get where we are going.

While hardly a political screed, Bicycle Diaries does contain a central argument: plainly put, Byrne suggests that cities that are bicycle-friendly tend to be more human-friendly, and that the modern/industrial reliance on cars and trucks has resulted in fundamental disconnects between people and their communities. In the first chapter, “American Cities,” Byrne surveys a number of decidedly unglamorous American cities like Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Columbus, as well as smaller towns like Sweetwater, Texas. Byrne’s discussion of Detroit is particularly affecting. From the vantage of his bicycle, Byrne sees a Detroit most will miss, a place of modern ruins and decay. “In a car, one would have sought out a freeway, one of the notorious concrete arteries, and would never have seen any of this stuff,” Byrne writes. “Riding for hours right next to it was visceral and heartbreaking–in ways that looking at ancient ruins aren’t. I recommend it.”

Byrne repeatedly communicates this will to immediacy, for unmediated experiences in Bicycle Diaries. He’s the explorer of the real, trying to understand why folks don’t ride bikes in Buenos Aires, or trying to figure out the cultural significance of Imelda Marcos to the people of the Philippines, or pondering the brutal fauna of Australia. Byrne’s bike rides, as well as his music and art careers, give the book something like a center, but Bicycle Diaries thrives on digressions, asides on ring tones or the Stasi or amateur backyard wrestling or the history of PowerPoint. We loved these moments: it’s when Byrne relates the sad history of George Eastman, founder of Kodak, or when he tells the story of Australian outlaw legend Ned Kelly that Byrne best communicates the thrill of exploration.

Byrne’s voice is ever-earnest and never didactic. There’s a plainness and honesty to his delivery that often seems in direct contrast with the content of his message. And this is the key to the book’s success–and perhaps, more generally speaking, Byrne’s career–this ability to see, to suspend the biases and blocks and filters that too often mediate our perception, and to actually see what is actually around us. From his earliest days in the Talking Heads, Byrne displayed an uncanny knack for turning his eyes on his own culture like an alien ethnographer, yet he always did it with empathy and engagement, and never with smack of clinical remove that might otherwise characterize such a project. In Bicycle Diaries, Byrne approaches America’s reliance on roads and oil and cars with an admirable pragmatism. Where some might scold (and, implicitly, ride a high horse), Byrne is always positive, pointing out the numerous advantages of returning to a community-oriented way of life, with bicycling as a simple and efficient means of getting around in lieu of the cars–and attendant urban/suburban/exurban sprawl–that keep us separated. Byrne also suggests a number of ways that communities and cities can work toward making bicycling a more viable option for their citizens. He even provides a few fun bicycle rack designs for his hometown New York (and yes, they got made).

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Finally, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that the book itself is a beautiful aesthetic object. Why don’t more publishers skip those annoying, flimsy dust jackets, and opt instead for something like Bicycle Diaries lovely embossed cloth deal? Just a thought. There are lots and lots of black and white photographs, many by Byrne himself, that genuinely shed light on Byrne’s narrative (the design here is of course reminiscent of Sebald’s use of photographs, only Byrne’s aren’t cryptic and actually make sense in the text). It’s great to love both the content and the design of a book, but we’d really expect nothing less from Byrne. It’s also great when a hero of ours lives up to and then surpasses our expectations–we’ve always loved Byrne’s music and his ideas, so it’s great that we can add books to that list. Highly recommended.

A Modern Symphony of Music that Is Not Music but Asks that You Remember Music

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We are just loving the advance reading copy of David Byrne’s Bicycle Diaries that we got in the mail today. Plenty of quotable material from Byrne’s discursive journeys, but why not share one of our favorite musician’s thoughts on ring tones?

I hear the faint cacophony of many distant cell-phone rings in the train car–snippets of Mozart and hip-hop, old-school ring tones, and pop-song fragments–all emanating out of minuscule phone speakers. All tinkling away here and there. All incredibly poor reproductions of other music. These ring tones are “signs” for “real” music. This is music not meant to be actually listened to as music, but to remind you of and refer to other, real, music. These are audio road signs that proclaim “I am a Mozart person” or, more often, “I can’t even be bothered to select a ring tone.” A modern symphony of music that is not music but asks that you remember music.