Books Acquired (1.8.2015)

_20150108_212440

I am taking a class titled 21st-Century Fiction: What Is The Contemporary? and three of the books in this photograph are part of the reading list. Absent titles are by Dan Chaon, Kathryn Davis, Ben Marcus, Blake Butler, Sheila Heti. Some others. Wanted titles: Tao Lin’s Taipei (which I am reading now, which is surprisingly good).

I don’t know anything about Dodie Bellamy beyond the fact that she is often grouped with Kathy Acker, who are both often grouped with Dennis Cooper, who are all New Narrative people. New Narrators make the author present, her body and sexuality usually the prime subject. Letters of Mina Harker is a “sequel” to Dracula, except Mina Harker is a young woman who lives in 1980s San Francisco. On conceit alone, it reminds me of Kathy Acker’s Don Quixote: Which Was a Dream.

Richard Powers and Evan Dara are often grouped together, mainly because Powers blurbed his first book, The Lost Scrapbook, and that both of them write books that weave disparate discourses into their fiction. Also, there is speculation that Powers is Dara (Or Dara is Powers). Flee is, according to its publisher Aurora Books, about “in which a New England town does just that.” I’ve read the first chapter, titled “38,839,” and it reeks of Gaddis (in a good way). Disembodied voices colliding into each other, a cacophonous plot; the absurd & banal drama of everyday, throwaway conversation. An Australian book show on Triple R Radio, who have a good and very rare interview with Gerald Murnane (whose book Inland I was really, really jazzed on), also really loves Dara. I’m pretty excited to read this one.

Evan Dara and Richard Powers are often grouped together, mainly because Dara’s first book was blurbed by Richard Powers, and that both of them write books that weave disparate discourses into their fiction. Dara might be Powers (or Powers might be Dara?), but that doesn’t really matter. The Echo Maker is supposed to be one of those Big, Important American Books (as noted by the shallow, embossed seal on my used copy of the book). As I write this, I am listening to Powers read from The Echo Maker from an old Lannan Foundation talk (who also really love Gass) and I am really intrigued. I haven’t flipped through this, so I will reproduce the back copy.

On a winter night on a remote Nebraska road, twenty-seven-year-old Mark Schluter has a near-fatal car accident. His older sister, Karin, returns reluctantly to their hometown to nurse Mark back from a traumatic head injury. But when Mark emerges fro a coma, he believes that this woman–who looks, acts, and sounds just like his sister–is really an imposter. When Karin contacts the famous cognitive neurologist Gerald Weber for help, he diagnoses Mark as having Capgras syndrome. The mysterious nature of the disease, combined with the strange circumstances surrounding Mark’s accident, threaten to change all of their lives beyond recognition.

 

Can Xue (which roughly translates from Chinese, according to my mother, to “persistent & dirty snow”) is hailed by western critics to be the Chinese avant-garde heir to Kafka and Borges. Can Xue is a pen name for Deng Xiaohua. She is of my mother’s generation and her class, which means she grew up persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, which means she was sent to a “re-education camp” in the Chinese sticks and learned to farm. She taught herself English, has written criticism on Kafka and Borges. The strangeness of Kafka echoes in Xue. While the former’s strangeness arrives in the narrative with a kind of grim inevitability, the discovery of a debilitating truth lands like an obvious punchline that the reader stupidly forgets (or realizes too late, like the classic Seinfeld episode “The Comeback“), Xue’s arrives with a kind of startling innocence against the backdrop of dramatic irony. It is like watching, in Michael Haneke’s words in his great interview in The Paris Review,  a tragedy from the perspective of an idiot. The title story, “Vertical Motion,” can be read here.

Advertisements

I Review Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (On a Postcard)

Kimball final cover copy

“I never expected strangers to tell me so much about themselves, so many things they have never told anybody else, but I found an unexpected intimacy in the postcard life story project,” writes Michael Kimball in the introduction to his new book, the aptly titled Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (On a Postcard). Kimball continues: “It tapped into something human and humane. I was continually amazed by what people told me.”

Kimball’s respect for the people whose stories he is telling comes through in his spare but descriptive prose, an economical rhetoric undoubtedly necessitated by the confines of his small canvasses. When I interviewed Kimball about the project, he told me:

There are difficult things at different stages of the process. The first difficult thing is asking the right questions for the particular participant. The second difficult thing is being representative when condensing what I’ve been told. The third difficult thing is writing small enough to squeeze six hundred words or so onto a single postcard.

Through that asking, condensing, and squeezing, Kimball distills his subject’s lives into compact but moving stories.

Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (On a Postcard) began as a performance piece at the Transmodern Performance Festival and then continued as a blog. Kimball eventually wrote over three hundred postcards; over fifty of these are collected in the new book. A not-insubstantial number of these are devoted to the biographies of contemporary writers, including folks like Tao Lin, Matt Bell, and Blake Butler:

By 4 years old, Blake was performing considered monologues, crazy dances, music videos, and both sides of talk shows. It’s all on video (his mother will show you, if you want). Despite these performances, Blake was a fat child by the 4th grade. He liked comic books and video games. By 10th grade, he weighed 250 pounds and felt disregarded. His bedroom walls were covered with pictures of women that he tore out of magazines at the grocery store and took home.

There’s also a first-person POV bio of Edgar Allan Poe, the last few paragraphs of which I can’t help sharing:

In 1831, my foster father and I had a terrible disagreement, after which I was court-martialed and kicked out of West Point. In 1834, my foster father died and did not leave me any of his money. To console myself, I married my 14-year-old cousin, Virginia Clemm.

For years, I published poems and stories and criticism, but it did not make me happy or money. In 1837, I was fired from a newspaper job for drinking. After that, I published a novel, but that didn’t help much either. Readers are sick. That’s why Virginia got tuberculosis and died in 1847. I was so lonely and so cold. I could not stop drinking.

It was 1849 when I stopped in Baltimore. I remember going down in the street, and, later, two hazy men taking me someplace white. I don’t remember dying, but I was glad I didn’t have to keep trying.

The mix of empathy and humor we see here resonates throughout the collection, whether Kimball is telling the life story of a U.S. President, or an ex-crack addict who met his wife at an all-you-can-eat buffet, or a rooster. Kimball handles his subjects with an intense honesty appropriate to the often tragic trajectory these tales take—even a piece like “Red Delicious Apple,” which takes metaphysical license of a sort, leads to a sad end:

The first thing Red Delicious Apple remembered was being a flower and the way the birds sounded in the trees. Later, Apple remembered the wind and losing his petals. Apple wanted to jump down after them, but stayed on the branch, in the tree. … Not long after that, Hand delivered Apple to the teeth. Apple could feel the teeth cutting through his skin and into his meat, what was left of his insides turning brown. Afterward, he sickened, softened. The last thing Apple remembered was the trashcan, the lid, the rotting darkness.

Or the fate of “Chair”:Chair thought, Wood and glue.

Chair thought, Next time, I’m letting go.
Chair cracked. He broke one of his legs and then his back.
Chair thought, That didn’t even hurt.

Update : Chair was thrown into a dumpster.

But perhaps I bring up “Chair” and “Red Delicious Apple” because their tragic contours are easier to allude to quickly than many of the biographies here, which often involve missing parents,  mental illness, and suicidal thoughts, all delivered in the spare, striking prose that the confines of Kimball’s project necessitate. The stories are sometimes shocking and sometimes sad and usually very moving. As the titular anonym of “G” suggests, “tragedy can be beautiful.”

Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (On a Postcard) is new from Mud Luscious Press.

“Tao Lin” — Michael Kimball

Tao Lin was born in Flagstaff, AZ. He had a very busy childhood that involved practicing the piano a lot. When he was 5, Tao remembers writing little books and selling them to his mother for 50¢. When Tao was small, his neighbor had a rabbit farm and sold them for money. Being near that changed Tao, and, because of it, he talks less shit about people publicly and makes fewer grand pronouncements.

Growing up, Tao played kickball and baseball and basketball in the neighborhood, but not at school. When he was 10, he was playing poker with his neighbor and bet his entire coin collection. The neighbor won and Tao picked up his coin collection and ran back to his house and locked the door. The neighbor knocked a lot and said things like this: “Just give me half. I won’t be angry.”

Tao kept practicing the piano until he no longer owned a piano that worked. Then, at New York University, he studied journalism, but he would have studied creative writing if there had been a program. His sophomore year, he broke up with his girlfriend and then decided to focus really hard on writing. After that, Tao wrote and published a few books. As Tao has noted in interviews, his writing expresses crippling loneliness, severe depression, and the arbitrary nature of the universe. Also, Tao enjoys repeatedly looking at Statcounter, Sales Rank Express, Facebook, Gmail, Twitter, and Tumblr. When a number changes, he feels like something has happened. His job is to promote himself to ensure money will come to him 2-3 years from now, and then even after that.

Everything is just something Tao does. It can be either good or bad depending on the way he thinks about it. Once, Tao thought about peeing in an empty FYXX energy drink bottle and selling it on eBay. Another time, after he ran out of money, Tao sold 10% shares of his second novel to six different people for $2,000 per share. He will never get another real job for the rest of his life. Tomorrow, Tao would like to eat only raw vegan foods.

Update : Tao published some more books. He also married Megan Boyle and they later separated.

“Tao Lin” is part of Michael Kimball’s new book Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (On a Postcard), which is new from Mud Luscious Press. Interview and review forthcoming. This piece is republished with the kind permission of the author.

 

What Does the Internet Think About DFW, Franzen, Lydia Davis, Bolaño, Atwood, and Some Other Contemporaryish Writers?

What Does the Internet Think? is a somewhat addictive site that aggregates and analyzes opinions on the internet — I’m not sure exactly how it does this, but it’s fun. I plugged in a few writers this morning (when I should have been working) and here share the results (and, yes, I know that this means almost nothing. Just for fun).

 

Watch Happily Drowning, A Short Film by Sebastian Sommer Based on Two Tao Lin Stories

Happily Drowning  a short film by Sebastian Sommer, based on the Tao Lin stories “Cancer” and “Robbers.” More on the film. Read the stories. I liked the short film more than the stories, but apples and oranges.

Jonathan Franzen Is the Worst, Monkey Sex, and Other Highlights from the 2011 Moby Awards

Book folks gathered last night in Brooklyn to celebrate the best in worst in book trailers, as indie publisher Melville House handed out their second annual round of Moby Awards.  Gary Shteyngart and Tao Lin were on hand to sanctify the ceremony, along with a who’s-who of internet literati, including Laura Miller (Salon), Blake Butler (HTML Giant), Jason Boog (GalleyCat), Patrick Brown (GoodReads), Andy Hunter (Electric Literature), C. Max Magee (The Millions), Troy Patterson (Slate), and Dennis Johnson, founder of Melville House. From the press release—

The full list of recipients for this year’s award—a golden whale—is as follows:

 

Lifetime Achievement Award:

Ron Charles – Acceptance Speech

 

Grand Jury/We’re Giving You This Award Because Otherwise You’d Win Too Many Other Awards:
Super Sad True Love Story – Gary Shteyngart

 

Book Trailer As Stand Alone Art Object:

How Did You Get This Number? – Sloane Crosley

 

Best Big House:

Packing for Mars – Mary Roach

 

Worst Big House:

Savages – Don Winslow

 

Best Small House:

Tree of Codes – Jonathan Safran Foer

 

Worst Small / No House:

Pirates: The Midnight Passage – James R. Hannibal

 

Worst Performance by an Author:

Jonathan Franzen – Freedom

 

Most Celebtastic Performance

James Franco – Super Sad True Love Story

 

What Are We Doing To Our Children?

It’s A Book – Lane Smith

 

General Technical Excellence and Courageous Pursuit of Gloriousness:

Electric Literature

 

Most Monkey Sex:
Bonobo Handshake – Vanessa Woods

 

Worst Soundtrack:

GhostGirl

 

Most Angelic Angel Falling to Earth:
Torment – Lauren Kate

 

Most Conflicted

TCooper – Beaufort Diaries

 

“An Account of Sharing an Ambien with a Girl I Met One Week Prior at a Party” — Tao Lin

“An Account of Sharing an Ambien with a Girl I Met One Week Prior at a Party” is a short short story (?) by Tao Lin published this week at Thought Catalog. An excerpt–

We went into her room ~6:55PM. She asked if I wanted wine and I said no. She asked again and I said no. I said “I brought the Ambien.” She said something about Tiger Woods and I felt confused and said “we should see if it’s okay with alcohol.” She typed “ambient” into Google. I said “no, that’s the music, delete the t, ambient music.” She laughed and typed “ambien and alcohol and klonopin and” and grinned and said “just kidding.” She deleted all but “ambien and alcohol.” The first result said not to combine Ambien and alcohol. Every result seemed to say that. She clicked the first result. It said not to combine Ambien and alcohol. She said she drank a lot so it was okay.

Our Favorite Book Covers of 2010

We know you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover and blah blah blah, but really, c’mon, aesthetic sensibilities go a long way. Here are a some of our favorite covers for books published in 2010.

Has Melville House made a book that’s not really really good looking? This NY indie not only put out some of our favorite reading of 2010, they also put out some of the best designed books of the year. Books like Jean-Christophe Valtat’s Aurorarama and Mahendra Singh and Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting Carroll evince a diverse aesthetic range unified by simple and attractive designs. We absolutely love the cover for Tao Lin’s Richard Yates; the visual non sequitur dovetails nicely with the book’s arbitrary name.

In fact, it’s a trio of forthcoming books from Melville House that prompted this post. In January, they’ll release the first in a series of books by Nobel winning German author Heinrich Böll. The first three books, which arrived at Biblioklept World Headquarters yesterday, are beautiful, simple, and elegant.

We’ve started The Clown; a review of the book’s guts forthcoming. Another book with a cool cover that we haven’t read yet is Adam Ross’s Mr. Peanut. We know someone on Twitter pointed out that skulls are the smiley faces of this decade but we can’t remember who gets credit, so let’s just pretend you heard that witticism here first.


We haven’t read Adam Levin’s mammoth début The Instructions yet, but a copy arrived today, and man is it beautiful. McSweeney’s knows how to do a hardback right–why encumber a book with a dusty dust jacket that’s going to get in the reader’s way when some gold embossing will do much nicer? Our copy is white but we couldn’t find an image of a white one on the internet, so here’s a blue one because Jesus Christ we’re not about to start photographing books now, are we?

We like both covers for Tom McCarthy’s C, but maybe we’re biased here because we loved the book so much.

We also love the cover of Charles Burns’s X’ed Out.

Picador’s British edition of Roberto Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas is somehow playful and deadly serious at the same time (just like the book).

Another one on the posthumous tip: We’re not big into tattoos but we can’t help digging this cover for David Foster Wallace’s The Broom of the System.

Tao Lin Makes a Salad

Read our review of Tao Lin’s new novel Richard Yates.

The Rumpus Interviews Tao Lin about Stealing Books (and Other Issues)

The Rumpus interviews Tao Lin. Topics include social media in literature, suicide, Jonathan Franzen (not really (but sort of)), as well as his new novel Richard Yates (read our review here). Lin answers plenty of questions about Richard Yates, including why he put an index in the book, why and how he named his protagonists, and why he named the book Richard Yates. Here’s Lin on book theft as a marketing tool–

Stephen Elliott: What if your books were shoplifted?

Tao Lin: I’m okay with that.

I think giving away free books and having more readers will benefit the publisher, because 1 free book will cause like 10 people discussing it, which over time will change into like 50 or something. Some of those will buy it. Eventually the 1 free book’s like $1.50 cost will be offset, gradually more and more, by the effects of that 1 free book on people buying it.

Richard Yates — Tao Lin

Tao Lin has made the choice to be a very visible, very public author, one whose antics might lead audiences to form opinions on the 27 year old’s work before even reading it. I mention his age because he’s young, and not only is he young, he seems to be gunning to speak for his generation–always a precarious position.

Lin’s new novel Richard Yates is about young people. Specifically, it’s about a 22-year-old slacker named Haley Joel Osment and his 16-year-old girlfriend Dakota Fanning (I’ll address those names in a moment). Haley Joel Osment lives in Manhattan where he apparently is trying to make it as a writer–something that the book rarely delves into. Haley Joel Osment (Lin always writes the entire name out, part of the book’s numbing, trance-inducing program) meets fellow weirdo Dakota Fanning, and soon begins paying furtive visits to her New Jersey home, hiding in closets and under covers to avoid Dakota Fanning’s mother–who nevertheless soon discovers their illicit romance.

This is the primary conflict in the book–the age-of-consent gap between the young lovers–but the real trauma of the book lies in the couple’s urge toward self-annihilation. In conversations with each other–in person or in email, but primarily in Gmail chat–Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning frequently promise to kill themselves, usually in a casual, detached tone. If “I will probably kill myself later this week” is one of their mantras, the other is “I’m fucked” or “We’re so fucked.” These are not happy people. Here’s Haley Joel Osment writing an email to Dakota Fanning, summarizing his philosophical position: “At each moment you can either kill yourself, try harder to detach yourself from people and reality, or be thinking of and doing what you can for the people you like.”

The bulk of the book consists of such conversations, mopey or mordant or mean. Haley Joel Osment accuses Dakota Fanning of being the type of person who wants to detach from others and reality, yet he’s just as guilty. Lin allows the audience into Haley Joel Osment’s interior, where we find a deeply troubled young man, alienated by his own inability to stop over-processing everything he sees. The problem is that Haley Joel Osment is the core referent of all of Haley Joel Osment’s observations; his solipsism prevents him from actually really knowing anyone else. Mulling over Dakota Fanning’s minutest movements, he repeatedly reads in them signs about her own regard for him. Even when he attempts to be the type of person who is “thinking of and doing what [he] can for the people” he likes, he’s not. He’s selfish and cannot see his own selfishness. The kernel of self-destruction at the heart of Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning’s relationship doesn’t emerge from their age difference but rather his slow, cruel manipulation of her self-image. As the book progresses, Haley Joel Osment’s “advice” cripples Dakota Fanning, leading her down a path of bulimia and self-mutilation.

Lin’s style is flat, dry, and utterly concrete. The only metaphors or similes he employs come (quite artlessly) from his characters. Furthermore, these figures of speech seem incidental; even the couple’s code word “cheese beast” feels like a metaphor with no referent (or perhaps too many referents). There are no symbols (or perhaps the book is all symbols). In many ways, Richard Yates recalls Bret Easton Ellis’s early work, although Lin’s observations and comments on twenty-first century materialism are even more oblique and ambiguous than the moralism of Less Than Zero. The most immediate rhetorical technique, of course, is the book’s title. Although the text refers to the writer Richard Yates several times, his name seems utterly arbitrary, perhaps an obscure joke meant to purposefully confuse. And those character names. For the first few pages, Lin’s choice to name his protagonists after famous child stars seems gimmicky or overdetermined, but in time these names displace their original referents, as well as any other associations. They become like placeholders; Lin might as well have named them X and Y. As if to flatten out his characters even more, Lin also transliterates all of their speech. Much of the novel takes place in conversations over Gmail chat, email, and text messages, but Lin turns these truncated forms into full, affectless sentences. He even removes most contractions. His characters often speak like androids, albeit androids prone to spouting non sequiturs.


 

Lin also makes the odd decision to include an index to the book, part of which you can see above. In a sense, reading the index is like reading a condensed version of the book. It’s a lump sum of nouns that the book treats with more or less equal weight. The long list under the entry “facial expression” perhaps reveals the most about the book’s program, about its refusal to yield insights or give away anything beyond surfaces–it reads almost like a cheat sheet for someone with Asperger syndrome. The index seems like a postmodern gesture but it’s something else–I’m not sure exactly what else–but there’s nothing sly or even self-referential about it: it’s literal, it’s surface, it’s referential. In turn, Lin resists commenting on or satirizing the sundry brand names and corporate locations that populate his index (and, of course, his novel)–a marked contrast to the postmodern tradition.

This is all perhaps a way of saying that Lin is clearly attempting something new with his fiction, a kind of writing that abandons most conceits of post-modern cleverness and self-commentary, yet also compartmentalizes the pathos that characterizes social realist novels. This latter comparison might seem odd unless one considers the concreteness of social realist works, their emphasis on the body, on food, on places. Richard Yates shares all of these emphases, yet it divorces them from ideology; or, more accurately perhaps, it documents an as-yet-unnamed ideology, a 21st century power at work on body and soul. If Lin’s goal then is to document these forces, he succeeds admirably–but I want more; more soul, more insight, more, yes, abstraction. Richard Yates gives us the who and the what, replicates the when and where with uncanny ease; it even tells us how. But many readers, like me, will want to know the why, even if it is just a guess. And I’d love to hear Lin’s guess.

Richard Yates is new this week from Melville House.

Tao Lin’s Eeeee Eee Eeee: The Movie Trailer

Tao Lin’s novel Eeeee Eee Eeee, adapted by librarian Kacper Jarecki and friends. More info here and here. The trailer is sort of like a sweded version of a nonexistent studio version of Eeeee Eee Eeee.

The New York Observer Profiles Tao Lin (in the Style of Tao Lin)

“Tao Lin Will Have the Scallops” by Christian Lorentzen. I’m about halfway through Lin’s forthcoming novel, Richard Yates, which is somehow both far out and totally banal at the same time. Its cover is pretty awesome–