Tuesday, May 24, 2011

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All the Young Dudes

Is it possible for a perfectly written book to be less than perfect? The answer, if you read much contemporary fiction, seems to be an emphatic yes. David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, for instance, is a finely-rendered tale of Dutch merchants in Japan at the opening of the 19th century. Mitchell's sentences are economical and elegant, stabbing at the reader with their insistent present tense. In a passage oft-quoted by critics, Mitchell describes his protagonist's actions after receiving a fruit from the woman he is forbidden to love:

"Before the evening muster, Jacob climbs the watchtower and takes out the persimmon from his jacket pocket. Hollows from the fingers of Aibagawa Orito are indented in her ripe gift, and he places his own fingers there, holds the fruit under his nostrils, inhales its gritty sweetness, and rolls its rotundity along his cracked lips."

Uncommon is the observer who would note a finger's imprint in a fruit; even rarer is the one who would transmute this into a vehicle for a beautiful description of longing. Longing is Jacob de Zoet's main preoccupation, one it ruminates over and sighs about as few novels have since The Great Gatsby. Yet something about Mitchell's book feels impermanent, lacking. It is a certain stateliness that comes from leading with the head rather than the heart. His novel never sheds its whiff of the virtuoso piece; one senses that Mitchell first executed the exhaustive historical research his book required, and then filled this in this framework with characters and emotions and plots. This is the point that James Wood made in his New Yorker review when he wrote that Mitchell's book lacks a certain moral pressure; the reader senses the author could have set a novel in any other historical period and the effect would have been much the same.

Zachary Mason's The Lost Books of the Odyssey would at first seem to be exempt from this historical apathy, for it is necessarily tied to Homer's great work. Consisting of 44 brief episodes that present alternate possibilities for The Odyssey, Mason's work is nothing if not clever. Mason's tales are always compelling and sometimes moving. But, as with Mitchell's work, The Lost Books of the Odyssey lacks marrow. For one thing, it is not as original as the critical praise would have it. A Borgesian fog hangs heavy over these pages; Mason shares the Argentinian master's fascination with mirrors and mazes, with chess and dreams.

But in Borges's stories, the ambiguity and koan-like inscrutability were the manifestations of genius, whereas in Mason's work they are first and foremost the work of a smart writer attempting a smart work. The singular, original vision is nowhere to be found. Mason's prose is impeccable and stifling. He writes with a lapidary solemnity that feels studied and stifles what would otherwise be a sharp wit. His obscurity, rather than provoking or haunting as it does in Borges (or, sometimes, in Kafka), often strikes the reader as willful. In the pseudo translator's introduction that prefaces the lost books, Mason writes: "I hope that this translation reflects the haunted light of Homer's older islands, where the familiar characters are arranged in a new tableaux, but soon become restless, mercurial—they turn their backs, forget their names, move on."

The chiaroscuro of Homer's work is indeed an undervalued aspect of the poem that doesn't lend itself to scholarly discourse. In this sense, Mason's re-imagining is valuable and interesting. But it sprouts in the shadow of one of the great oaks of western culture, and even its most absorbing tales are quickly forgotten upon completion, the dreams of a clever mind.

Monday, May 16, 2011

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Houston Has Problems

The final space shuttle flight launched today, marking the nadir of NASA's long, slow slide into irrelevance. I don't mean scientific irrelevance—NASA's scientists are still on the cutting edge of piecing together our cosmology.

Rather, for forty years, NASA has been slowly leaking a substance far more essential to the agency's brief dominance of the American popular imagination, when it loomed in the cultural window like a full moon: its sex appeal. Gone are the days of the Mercury 7, clad in silver suits that were both very cool and touchingly expectant of a future that never materialized, a future of flying cars and bases on the moon and solutions to all of our problems of overpopulation.

NASA has never been able to move out of the shadow of the Right Stuff days; worse, no one at NASA—even fighter jock astronauts—seems to realize it, a sad truth that I grappled with in my first piece of college journalism, which, despite a wrenching desire to rewrite, I'm still quite fond of.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

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It's Fiction, Folks

By the logic of late capitalism, it's probably a terrible idea for Traction to take a break just as it's enjoyed a whiff of cultural relevance. And I have to admit, I was really flattered by the guy who linked to that post in his Twitter, dropping my name so unhesitatingly, you'd think it was "John Updike." It was also great to find that even folks on the Iberian Peninsula were interested in my scribblings.

That said, it's been a long year at school, I just got home, and I'm struggling to do some serious fiction writing. So for the duration of May, posts will be at best sporadic, more likely nonexistent.

Speaking of fiction, I neglected to post a link to my fiction-contest winning story. I was pretty happy with it. The illustrations that accompanied it? Not so much. So, what photo should go with this story? Hell, why not a photo of yours truly, taken at a reading at UChicago last year. It's how we like to be imagined, far though it may be from the reality: bespectacled, besweatered, and besmiling. Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

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Chills the Body and the Soul

In March, The New York Review of Books ran a review of Keith Richards' memoir Life written by Dan Chiasson. The piece, as with just about everything the NYRB publishes, was excellent, but it was ruined for me when Chiasson made a claim of truly astounding boneheadedness near the end of his critique: he called "Tumbling Dice" "nobody's favorite Stones song."

Excuse me? It's difficult to pick a favorite Rolling Stones song, but if you really press me, Guantánamo-style, you may eventually get me to admit that it's "Tumbling Dice." When I first bought Exile On Main St. during my freshman year of high school, I loved the whole album; but after my first listen-through, I was hitting the repeat button on "Tumbling Dice" for about a week straight. That song, a three-and-a-half-minute wrestling match between jaunty indifference and real sorrow played out over one of the Stones' best tracks, is music at its best: a feeling, purely distilled. It's really hard to describe how all this works, so I can only point to the glistening backing vocals; the play between Mick's growl and Keith's whine; and Charlie Watts' judicious drum rolls, especially the ones at 2:47 that dig the song out of the powerful bridge, ushering us on down the road over Mick's ambivalent moans. (A live version from the legendary 1972 tour can be found above. The backup singers are absent, but I think the band nicely adapted the song to their live sound.)

But I'd forgotten exactly what it felt like to lean so heavily on a song until last week, when I got a free download of a live version of My Morning Jacket's "Smokin From Shootin" from the band's website; I've been living the song ever since. It's no secret that My Morning Jacket is one of our favorite bands here at Traction. But I pretty much ignored their last album, Evil Urges, turned off by the bathetic single "I'm Amazed." I figured I would sit that round out, forgiving MMJ for a minor hiccup in its stellar career.

I shouldn't have jumped ship so readily, because I was missing out on a hell of a song. My Morning Jacket tends to err on the side of obscurity in their lyrics, but "Smokin From Shootin" (see video below) is a wonderful account of difficult love. This works on the interpersonal level, as Jim James laments the futile wrangling, the irrational assaults, that often marslove:

"Do you see my smokin' guns?
They're smokin' from shooting at nothing dear."

But the song startlingly expands its scope to the metaphysical realm as well:

"Who makes my decisions? Who reads all your thoughts?
What makes us how we are? Faith can't prove what science won't resolve."

I love the way the song places the personal next to the religious, evoking the uncertainty we're apt to feel in the face of someone we love, and the ways that this uncertainty is often interwoven with anxieties about cosmic truths. The song's sense of scale is perfect, small concerns pointing to large ones, large ones laying easily alongside the small ones.

Philosophy never sounded so good.