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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
RIP film critic Andrew Sarris, 1928-2012.
Sarris wrote film criticism—meaningful, real writing, not just film “reviews”—for half a century, publishing several books, and writing regularly for first The Village Voice and then The New York Observer. Sarris was one of the earliest proponents in the US of the auteur theory of film (he’s credited with coining the word in his essay “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962“), first put forward by Truffaut and other persons active in the French New Wave. In 1971, Sarris got into a good ole fashioned fight with fellow film critic Pauline Kael over the auteur issue when he responded to her Citizen Kane essay “Raising Kane,” contending that, yes, the film was guided by the unique vision of Orson Welles (even if others helped). His response essay is still worth reading.
In his 1968 book The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968, Sarris famously named a “pantheon” of 14 top-tier directors: here’s that list:
Joseph Von Sternberg
Sarris later added Billy Wilder to this pantheon.
If you like lists, check out this archive of Sarris’s favorite films by year—from 1958 to 2006.
Like any great critic, whether or not one ultimately agreed with Sarris was beside the point—his scholarship and criticism was insightful and enlightening the kind of writing that frankly makes for better film audiences.
For a more detailed obit, check out Scott Tobias’s piece at AV Club.
“I Think I Could Make a Picture Better Than That, But I Haven’t Been Given a Second Chance” — Orson Welles Talks About Making Citizen Kane
Orson Welles talks about acting and directing in a 1960 interview in Paris. The interviewer steers the conversation to Charlie Chaplin, who bought Orson Welles’s idea for the film Monsieur Verdoux—and then cut Welles out of the creative process.
Got a great little gang of new noir (or at least noirish) novels from Picador last week. These handsome trade paperbacks are all available April 27, 2010. Full reviews all around forthcoming, but until then–
Denis Johnson’s Nobody Move is a tight snare drum of a comedy crime novel. Jimmy Luntz, still decked out in his white barbershop chorus tux (don’t ask) gets into trouble with a big gorilla he owns money too. On the run, he meets smoldering bombshell Anita. More trouble ensues. Nobody Move, originally serialized in Playboy, is a dark, funny genre exercise propelled by Johnson’s sharp dialogue and keen eye for detail. Johnson’s restraint and economy demonstrate writerly chops, but its his story and his characters that made me stay up too late reading last night.
I’m kind of embarrassed that I’d never heard of George V. Higgins’s seminal crime novel, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, the story of a down-on-his luck gunrunner trying to get a break on a three-year sentence. Picador’s new edition celebrates the book’s 40th anniversary. Higgins’s electric dialogue thrusts the reader right into the action, trading narrative clarity for a smoky milieu of backroom deals and gritty alleys. But my phrasing here sounds way too corny and trite. Forgive me, I don’t really know how to write about good crime fiction because I’m so unused to it. I’ll lazily favorably compare The Friends of Eddie Coyle to David Simon’s Baltimore crime epic The Wire.
I’ve been too engrossed with Coyle and Nobody Move the past few days to do more than skim over Clancy Martin’s How to Sell, a novel about grifters and scam artists in the jewelery world, but I did read and very much enjoy its first chapter, where the protagonist pawns his mother’s wedding ring (“the only precious thing she had left”) and yet still manages to keep reader sympathy (mine, at least). Martin worked for years in the fine jewelery business. He also translates Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. Zadie Smith says of How to Sell: “It’s a little like Dennis Cooper with a philosophical intelligence, or Raymond Carver without hope. But mostly it’s like itself.” I like that.
If you’re still not in a noirish mood, I’ll make one more attempt to piqué your interest. In what has to be one of the greatest opening shots in the history of cinema, Orson Welles begins his dark crime thriller Touch of Evil with a continuous tracking shot of a car that . . . hang on, I shouldn’t tell you what happens if you don’t know yet. Just watch the scene. It mines the same border-horror that those other noir-masters Roberto Bolaño and David Lynch also evoke so well.