Source of the Blue Loue — Mark Tansey

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Source of the Blue Loue, 1982 by Mark Tansey (b. 1949)

Tuesday — Peter Blake

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Tuesday, 1961 by Peter Blake (b. 1932)

Ishmael Reed’s Reckless Eyeballing (Book acquired 13 Jan. 2020)

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I got an email from an independent bookseller a few days ago confirming that I bought a copy of  Ishamel Reed’s 1986 novel Reckless Eyeballing. I had no recollection of purchasing the novel online, although this kind of thing has happened more than once. It was a Saturday night; I may or may not have had a few tumblers of scotch, and was probably jonesing for more Reed after having finished Flight to Canada. Anyway, it showed up today. Here is the back cover:

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And here is the first paragraph of Larry McCaffery’s contemporary review of the novel in The Los Angeles Times:

Early on in “Reckless Eyeballing,” one of the book’s many beleaguered black men observes that “throughout history when the brothers feel that they’re being pushed against the wall, they strike back and when they do strike back it’s like a tornado, uprooting, flinging about, and dashing to pieces everything in its path.” This passage provides a perfect entryway into Ishmael Reed’s latest novel, for like many other black men, Reed obviously feels that “the brothers” are catching it from all sides–and not just from the usual sources of racial bigotry, but from ‘60s liberals now turned neo-conservatives, from white feminists who propagate the specter of the black men as phallic oppressor, from other racial minorities anxious to wrest various monkeys off their own backs.

Painter’s Deathbed — Nigel Cooke

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Painter’s Deathbed, 2008 by Nigel Cooke (b. 1973)

Hunting — Xiao Guo Hui

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Hunting, 2017 by Xiao Guo Hui (b. 1969)

Varlam Shalamov’s Sketches of the Criminal World (Book acquired sometime in Dec. 2019)

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A collection of Varlam Shalamov’s work, called Sketches of the Criminal World, is new from NYRB this week (translated by Donald Rayfield). I finally had a chance to dip into some of Shalamov’s Gulag tales this afternoon, and it’s probably not the right comparison at all, but something about what I read reminded me of Roberto Bolaño’s fiction, or some of his fiction. NYRB’s blurb:

n 1936, Varlam Shalamov, a journalist and writer, was arrested for counterrevolutionary activities and sent to the Soviet Gulag. He survived fifteen years in the prison camps and returned from the Far North to write one of the masterpieces of twentieth-century literature, an epic array of short fictional tales reflecting the years he spent in the Gulag. Sketches of the Criminal World is the second of two volumes (the first, Kolyma Stories, was published by NYRB Classics in 2018) that together constitute the first complete English translation of Shalamov’s stories and the only one to be based on the authorized Russian text.

In this second volume, Shalamov sets out to answer the fundamental moral questions that plagued him in the camps where he encountered firsthand the criminal world as a real place, far more evil than Dostoyevsky’s underground: “How does someone stop being human?” and “How are criminals made?” By 1972, when he was writing his last stories, the camps were being demolished, the guard towers and barracks razed. “Did we exist?” Shalamov asks, then answers without hesitation, “I reply, ‘We did.’”

Hide Out — Toyin Ojih Odutola

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Hide Out, 2018 by Toyin Ojih Odutola (b. 1985)

Stay Friends — Falk Gernergross

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Stay Friends, 2018 by Falk Gernergross (b. 1973)

Mervyn Peake/Susan Sontag (Books acquired, 10 Jan. 2020)

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Last week, browsing yon olde booke shoppe, I came across a battered but beautiful copy of Mervyn Peake’s novel Gormenghast. I can’t remember how or where I heard of Peake’s trilogy of not-quite-fantasy novels, but when I spied the spine I pulled it, loved the cover, and asked Twitter if the novels were any good. The answer seemed to be a resounding, Yes.

 

I picked up a Penguin Modern Classics edition of the first part of the trilogy, Titus Groan, along with the beautiful Ballantine edition of Gormenghast today. I also couldn’t resist a first edition of Sontag’s Under the Sign of Saturn.

I started Titus Groan today, and after pushing through its thick opening paragraphs, started to really dig it. The opening sentences are a bit of a hurdle. Here’s the first paragraph, thick and even foreboding in its diction and syntax:

Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls. They sprawled over the sloping earth, each one half way over its neighbour until, held back by the castle ramparts, the innermost of these hovels laid hold on the great walls, clamping themselves thereto like limpets to a rock. These dwellings, by ancient law, were granted this chill intimacy with the stronghold that loomed above them. Over their irregular roofs would fall throughout the seasons, the shadows of time-eaten buttresses, of broken and lofty turrets, and, most enormous of all, the shadow of the Tower of Flints. This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven. At night the owls made of it an echoing throat; by day it stood voiceless and cast its long shadow.

It was “the owls made of it an echoing throat” that made me want to keep going. Peake, like Faulkner or Cormac McCarthy, is a wordslinger. A few pages in he made me look up the word “recrudescent.” I was proud of myself a few pages later when Peake busted out “catalpytic,” which I guess I sort of knew (“a catalyptic mass of wine-drenched blubber” was the phrase). Describing some castle drudges getting drunks, he notes that they “attacked the bungs as though unweaned” which cracked me up. By the time little Titus is born, the book seems to make more sense to me: funny, thick, imaginative, but also abject, a bit gross, grotesque even, drunk on its own thick language.

 

The Arrival of Late Lucys — Helen Verhoeven 

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The Arrival of Late Lucys, 2011 by Helen Verhoeven (b. 1974)

The Magpie on the Gallows — Pieter Bruegel the Elder

The Magpie on the Gallows, by Pieter Brueghel the Elder

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The Magpie on the Gallows, 1568 by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525-1569)

The Journal of David Foster Wallace Studies, Vol. 1, Issue 2 (Book acquired, 9 Dec. 2019)

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I finally had a bit of time to properly dip into the second issue of The Journal of David Foster Wallace Studies this afternoon. (I brought it to work with me and read from it between classes.)

This issue essentially came out of a 2015 conference at the University of Bristol called David Foster Wallace and the Short Things. Issue 2 contains six essays on Wallace’s “short things” — short stories, sure, but also the vignettes and bits and pieces and fragments that make up The Pale King (and Infinite Jest).

After skimming around a bit, I read the last one, Jeffrey Severs’ “‘Listen’: Wallace’s Short Story Endings and the Art of Falling Silent.” Severs explores Wallace’s endings as a kind of series of revisions to the conclusion of Wallace’s first novel, The Broom of the System (Wallace later called the ending “shitty and dissatisfying”). Severs discusses Girl with Curious Hair extensively, but also touches on The Pale King and Infinite Jest. (And Wittgenstein, silence, and meditative listening.)

There are also two reviews of recent books on Wallace in this issue, just as in the previous issue, one for Marshall Boswell’s The Wallace Effect: David Foster Wallace and the Contemporary Literary Imagination, and one for Ralph Clare’s The Cambridge Companion to David Foster Wallace.

A few of the other essays piqued my interest; Tim Groenland has a thing on fragments, The Pale King, and ancient Rome, and Pia Masiero has a thing on Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, which is maybe my favorite Wallace book.

 

Float — David Bailin

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Float, 2015 by David Bailin

The Land of Extreme Happiness in The West — Mu Pan

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The Land of Extreme Happiness in The West, 2019 by Mu Pan (b. 1976)

Lars Iyer’s Nietzsche and the Burbs (Book acquired, sometime in Dec. 2019)

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Lars Iyer’s latest is Nietzsche and the Burbs, out now from Melville House. Their blurb:

In a work of blistering dark hilarity, a young Nietzsche experiences life in a metal band & the tribulations of finals season in a modern secondary school

When a new student transfers in from a posh private school, he falls in with a group of like-minded suburban stoners, artists, and outcasts—too smart and creative for their own good. His classmates nickname their new friend Nietzsche (for his braininess and bleak outlook on life), and decide he must be the front man of their metal band, now christened Nietzsche and the Burbs.

With the abyss of graduation—not to mention their first gig—looming ahead, the group ramps up their experimentations with sex, drugs, and…nihilist philosophy. Are they as doomed as their intellectual heroes? And why does the end of youth feel like such a universal tragedy?

And as they ponder life’s biggies, this sly, elegant, and often laugh-out-loud funny story of would-be rebels becomes something special: an absorbing and stirring reminder of a particular, exciting yet bittersweet moment in life…and a reminder that all adolescents are philosophers, and all philosophers are adolescents at heart.

 

Ratner’s Star | On Uncut Gems

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Frenetic, chaotic, and unceasingly energetic, the Safdie brothers’ 2019 film Uncut Gems plays out like a two-hour panic attack. Uncut Gems opens in the turbulent aftermath of a mining accident. An Ethiopian mine worker is borne up by his frenzied fellows, his leg a raw mangled bloody mess. The Ethiopian workers’ voices mix into the Chinese mine operators’ attempts to calm the situation. This initial cacophony signals the babble and buzz that will continue through the rest of the film, and the camera’s lingering on the destroyed leg signals the violent cost that underwrites the material splendor at the heart of Uncut Gems.

Two Ethiopian miners take a gamble and use the chaos as an opportunity to sneak away, back into the mine to make off with a rare black opal, the titular uncut gem. One of the miners peers into the gem, and the camera follows his gaze. We are taken into a kaleidoscope of shifting colors as Daniel Lopatin’s beautiful synth score kicks in. The camera swirls through the gem and, in an opening sequence that rivals Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void, eventually enters the colon of our hero, Howard Ratner.

A title card informs us it is two years later. It is 2012 in New York City and Howard Ratner is getting a colonoscopy. There is probably some metaphor here—the aesthetic journey from the gem’s dazzle of color to the interior glistening-chewing-gum-pink flesh of Howard’s colon—but I’ll avoid remarking further upon it.

Here is the film’s premise: Howard owns and runs a jewelry store in the Diamond District. His associate Demany brings rappers and athletes to him to buy unique, high-end pieces. He is flush with cash all the time, but is also severely indebted to a loan shark named Arno (among other folks). However, his debts don’t stop him from continuing to place bets. He is also in the middle of an affair with one of his employees, Julia, whom he keeps in his Manhattan apartment, barely-concealed from his wife and children in Long Island.

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Three things happen on the day we meet Howard: Arno’s henchmen come to prove good on their threats of violence towards him if he does not pay back his loans; Demany brings Boston Celtics power forward Kevin Garnett to Howard’s shop; and Howard receives the titular uncut black opal, which he plans to sell at auction for at least a million dollars. Seeking to impress Kevin Garnett (“KG!”), the jeweler shows off his opal, Ratner’s star. In one of the film’s most extraordinary visual sequences, KG gazes into the opal and undergoes a seismic epiphany. He demands to buy the gem, but Howard refuses—he needs the money from the auction to get clean of debt. However, Howard allows KG to borrow the gem for the night, taking Garnett’s 2008 NBA Championship ring as collateral for its return. KG is convinced that the gem will lead to his success in that night’s Eastern Conference Semifinals game against the Philadelphia ’76ers (it does).

From this early point in the film Howard goes on to make a series of increasingly-nerve-wracking decisions against the backdrop of his loan shark’s enforcers’ increasingly-violent promises of retribution. I will not spoil any more of the plot—my “premise” paragraph seems too long as it is—I’ll simply say that there were moments that I (and other audience members) audibly gasped (in shock, in exasperation, in frustrated disbelief) at Howard’s choices.

Uncut Gems never really lets up. There are a few moments of respite as well as moments of comedy, but they mostly serve to suspend the anxiety the film creates, not release it. Uncut Gems is a horror film posing as a crime thriller, an anxiety film equal to Aronofsky’s mother! or Polanski’s Repulsion. The Safdies conjure a hectic, bustling world in Uncut Gems, a world of babble and noise and beauty and ugliness. Characters crowd the frames, their voices colliding in a way reminiscent of the films of Altman, Cassavetes, or early Scorsese.

Under and through the noise of voices in Uncut Gems floats Daniel Lopatin’s wonderful score. Waves of synths swing between between evocations of romance and horror; menacing swells and whimsical melodies, simultaneously busy and calming, cascade over the film. Lopatin, better known as the electronic artist Oneohtrix Point Never, is a highlight of this film.

Another highlight of Uncut Gems is Darius Khondji’s cinematography of Uncut Gems. The not-overly-saturated shots are reminiscent of his work on Wong Kar-Wai’s under-rated 2007 film My Blueberry Nights (as well as his work the same year on Haneke’s equally-anxiety-producing black comedy/horror Funny Games). Khondji conjures a candy-colored Manhattan, lush and opulent. The painterly frames are seductive but also dangerous, recalling the neon-noir of films by Gaspar Noé and Nicolas Winding Refn.

And of course the acting. I have spent close to 800 words not pointing out that this is an Adam Sandler film. Sandler inhabits his role as Howard Ratner with a vibrating energy that is hard to capture in words. It’s hard to imagine any one else playing the part. Sandler’s Howard is a degenerate gambler, addicted to the thrills of his own confidence games, a trickster blowing up his life in real time. He’s in love with his own chaos, and it’s hard not to root for him, even as he destroys everything around him.

Kevin Garnett is fantastic as himself. His eyes are especially expressive, and his screen presence is utterly natural. His final scene with Sandler’s Howard is a highlight of the film, as he seems to deliver any sane person’s remarks to the gambling addict. Lakieth Stanfield is also excellent in the film as Demany, Howard’s procurer. He both balances and matches Howard’s energetic chaos, even if he can’t ground his erstwhile partner. Eric Bogosian brings ballast to the role of Arno, Howard’s loan shark, as does Judd Hirsch, playing his father-in-law. Idina Menzel plays Howard’s (soon-to-be-ex-) wife with an unflinching meanness that the character deserves. Newcomer Julia Fox is a standout as Julia, Howard’s mistress. She enables Howard, but in some ways she’s also the hero of the film.

Uncut Gems is a very good film and I was very relieved when it was over. The Safdie brothers have created something that sustains a feeling that many of us take SSRIs to avoid. “Wow, I really hated that,” the young woman next to me remarked to her date as the closing credits began. I can understand that reaction. Uncut Gems will not be entertaining for most folks, but I thought it was great. Its initial evocations of worldly violence as the cost of worldly pleasures are answered in its final moments. Catch it in the theater if you can.

Untitled (Stage) — Kerry James Marshall

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Untitled (Stage), 2018 by Kerry James Marshall (b. 1955)