Thursday, April 28, 2011

Blacklisted, Full-Blooded: William T. Vollmann

"'Cause our joy is fleeting while oppression never goes away.
You look them right in the eye,
yeah you shout and sing them down,
but joy, our joy, don't really care for fighting
while oppression will just wait around-- for you to blink.
Joy beats oppression, but oppression will make you pay.

Speak up, black out, black-listed, full-blooded, red."
--The World/Inferno Friendship Society, "Paul Robeson"

He has, on at least one occasion, been saved by a bulletproof vest.
Vollmann's popped up here before, as the #1 spot on my list of Badass Modern Writers. As a result of that publicity, I'll try and keep the spotlight off his adventures (when I can), and focus more on his endeavors.

Vollmann is the America's most talented living writer. I'm gonna throw that out there so you know where I stand-- like most members of his decidedly cultish fanclub, I'm not one to speak moderately of the man's work. It is a great body of work-- the sheer beauty of the man's prose is astonishing --it is an important body of work, and it is a huge body of work: since his literary debut in 1986, Vollmann has averaged somewhere around 500 pages a year. That's in books alone, not counting his articles for magazines and occasional book reviews. I can't even pretend to have read all of them.

In 1990, Vollmann wrote a fairly brash piece in which he diagnosed, and offered treatment for, the "disease" of contemporary American literature. Also, he promises to "set right all the woes of the world." I think he was kidding, but...the guy's been working hard in the 20 years since that promise at doing just that. It's a great read, and short enough that I suggest you go ahead and do so. I'll wait.

Monday, April 25, 2011

REVIEW: Merce Rodoreda's Death In Spring

"On this journey into death, 
I am beside myself in tremendous bliss,
For this allegiance has been made:

Shall my sins be absolved,
Washed away by the blood of the sacred lambs, 

yet I am not amongst the flock."
 --Hate Eternal, "Path to the Eternal Gods"

Upon reading my last post, I realized that I'd made three different shout-outs to John Darnielle. This is understandable-- the man's art is incredibly important to me --but, well, makes the set-up for this review kind of awkward. Here's the story:

I was at a Mountain Goats concert a couple weeks back with my girlfriend and a friend from school (They did like 90% of All Eternals Deck and "Maize Stalk Drinking Blood." It was awesome), and, a while after the show ended, John Darnielle came out to give out hugs and chat with fans and such, and, while we were talking about books, he exclaimed "Have you read Merce Rodoreda?! Death in Spring! It's amazing, she's Catalan, you'll love her." So I got a copy, and, well, dude was on the money.
He so often is.
This is an absolutely brutal and haunting book. There's a blurb on the back by Marquez about how much of an inspiration Rodoreda's writing and language was to him, and while that's high praise, this goes to places that Marquez fears to tread. One of the most frustrating things about Magical Realism, for me, is the way that it's often very whimsical and tongue-in-cheek. Even Chronicle of a Death Foretold, which is slim and bloody dagger of a book, doesn't really leave lasting wounds. Death in Spring  does. The "magic" part of its Magical Realism is less charming enchantments and more dark sorcery and blood sacrifice. Literally.

Death in Spring is about a small village (presumably in Spain), who practice constant, incredibly ritualistic violence towards each other. When a citizen is dying, their throat is filled with cement so that their soul will remain inside the dead body and they are sealed inside a living tree. Once a year, a man of the village must swim through the dark river that runs beneath the town, usually to be torn and bloodied by the rocks. And so on-- it's the story of a community whose only rules are rituals, sacrifices, and punishments.
"We will make literature Metal. Blacker than the blackest black, times infinity."
These rituals also give us one of my favorite things in the world: horrifying violence, described beautifully.
"They shouted at my father who had little remaining breath and was clearly near his end. He was still alive, but only his own death kept him alive. They dragged him from the tree, laid him on the ground, and began beating him. The last blows made no sound. Don't kill him, shouted the cement man. The mortar trough, filled with rose-colored cement, lay at his feet. Don't kill him before he has been filled."
The novel is told from the point of view of a young man and chronicles his attempts to understand this world, to come to grips with the rituals. There's something of a striving for truth there-- he never specifically sets out to understand what they do, but as he explores the town the reader starts to make connections and try to figure out the causes and purposes behind the horror. As the pain builds upon itself you come to yearn for a moment of reconciliation, for some-- any --justification, but I'd caution you to remember how little madness in the real world is based on reason.
Seriously Spain, give us like one good reason.
It's tempting to read politics into Death in Spring, as Rodoreda was an exile from Franco's Spain. But it's not just a Fascist allegory-- the Senyor of the village, who we expect to be the powerful dictator who will tell us the reasons behind the blood, is just as powerless and blind as everyone else --it's a book about power. It's a book about how we take the evil parts and the mad parts of our society for granted and how brutality can become a tolerated part of life. Deeper than that, it's about ritual: the cleansing power of violence, the ablution of guilt that tradition can give to evil acts.

It's also about just beautiful, beautiful prose. Seriously, this is one of the most gorgeous books, purely on the basis of language, that I've ever read. Let me close with a passage that's not even my favorite, just par for the course for Rodoreda:
"And we ran back and forth, our hearts filled with fearful blood because we didn't know who was coming, from what direction, if there were many of them, or if it was just the one conjured up by the fear our voices awakened in us. They're coming, they're coming. ...each of us represented 'they' for the other, we never knew who they were-- they never arrived. When we emerged from behind the trunk and listened, there was nothing to be heard: only the breath of light and earth, and the air that dwelt on high."
 And then, like, immediately afterward there's an encounter with a corpse. It's a wonderful, wonderful book.
"Gracias,Jasper. If I weren't dead that would mean a lot."
Oh shucks, it ain't no thing, Merce.

Friday, April 22, 2011

6 Books in the Life of the Author

In 2 weeks I get my bachelor's degree in Literature. I've been reading books for 18 years of my life. Soon I'll have the piece of paper that says I can do it (and I'll use that piece of paper to apply for barely-above-minimum-wage jobs! America, Fuck Yeah!)

Over the past couple of weeks I've been reading both the first book in this list (for fun) and the last book on this list (for class). And that inspired me-- to look back at where I've come from, to look at the six most important books in my life up until I went to college. From early early childhood to adolescence, these are the six that most impacted how I connect to literature. Six books that pushed me to where I am today. The six  that made me the hip, cool guy that everyone wants to be like.
The Triumph is a pretty cool guy, eh fights popular views of literature and doesn't afraid of anything.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Guest Post: Theodore Roosevelt, The Writer

[Guest post today from my friend/collaborator/partner-in-crime/technical husband in MA, Solomon. Let's see what mad knowledge bombs he's gonna be droppin' on us].

Theodore Roosevelt, the Writer

There exists a fairly well-defined caricature of our nation's 26th President -- with good reason.  The life of Theodore Roosevelt was crafted by his own design into something truly extraordinary.  And there's often very little need for hyperbole.  He did climb a mountain with his wife for their honeymoon.  He was a true-blue cowboy in South Dakota.  He really was the Harvard boxing champion and he really did lose sight in his left eye twenty years later sparring in the White House.  He almost fucking died in the fucking rainforest.

That shit happened.

He was also, without a doubt, the most well-read President in our nation's history.  With ease, the point could be made that while there were men who were more learned but of all of our leaders, Roosevelt had the purest affinity for the written word.  He could speed read and was known to devour entire books before leaving the house each morning.  He could read, at this pace, in French, Greek, Latin and German (though he very much disliked Greek and Latin).

[Side note from your editor: Candice Millard's incredible The River of Doubt, which recounts the journey through the Amazon, gives us the following story: Teddy his traveling with his son Kermit (a major-league asshole who really screwed up the Middle East, incidentally), and, at one point, re-injures his gimp leg and gets malaria. Also, they're in the territory of a native tribe that, unbeknownst to them, practices cannibalism towards intruders. Having read every book he brought with him, he borrows Kermit's library. And proceeds to not only read The Iliad in Greek, in the middle of the Amazon, surrounded by cannibals, but also to continuously mock Kermit's collection of French poets and complain about their Frenchy-Frenchness.
A metaphorical representation of T.R. vs. Baudelaire

In his life, he published eighteen full works.  His first, The Naval War of 1812 was to be considered the definitive work on the subject for the rest of his life and upon publication, it was ordered by the United States Navy that a copy was to be put aboard every American vessel.  Roosevelt wrote it while at Harvard and finished it before graduation.  Some historians aren't convinced that John F. Kennedy even actually wrote his book.  But that's probably just because the consensus is he must have been too busy sexing.
"He was a hyper-charismatic telephathical knight."

1812 (which is in the public domain and can be downloaded for free here) is an incredibly thorough piece of work for anyone, let alone a student, to have undertaken.  The book establishes, at once, the impossibly dense traits of Roosevelt's writing as well as the inherently lucid way in which the man strung his words together.  It is a dichotomy that can be found, at varying levels, in everything TR wrote thereafter: the heavily analytical mind operating with and/or against a remarkably lyrical soul.
"He was our kind. He quoted poetry to me. He knew poetry." - Robert Frost
But The Naval War of 1812 was just the beginning.  The high-water mark of Theodore Roosevelt's literary career came in 1894 with the remarkably ambitious, four volume treatment of the American conciousness, The Winning of the West (again, public domain - pick up volume one here).  Roosevelt defines his own Frontier Thesis.  Heavily abbreviated: that the inevitable westward expansions of American-born settlers and citizens, being hard-fought and punctuated by an atmosphere of danger and death, came to inform the types of gritty, noble, quintessentially American people he felt populated his country on the edge of the twentieth century.

Simply put, the thing is an epic.  It's like William Vollman trying to encapsulate the idea of violence in Rising Up and Rising Down.  Or Francis Ford Coppola trying to articulate the surreality of war with Apocalypse Now.  Some find even the first volume very difficult to get through.  Because it's the same sort of cerebral exploration... but your guide is Teddy Roosevelt.  And he wants to talk America with you.  For four volumes.

"Yer gonna wanna sit down."
But if you have the patience, it's the best example of what Roosevelt's writing could be.  It's that balancing act between high literature and meticulous detail, all framed against a zeal that's coming from such an honest place as to be immediately endearing.

With that in mind, turn to the fact that Roosevelt didn't have a speech-writer.  The exuberance for the act of living which is such a large part of his legacy translates so well into oratory.  A century after the fact, many of his speeches have maintained their relevancy and are still inspiring as hell.  Here's an excerpt from one such address, his famous "Man in the Arena" quote:
"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat." - TR
Again, he didn't have a guy on staff who wrote this kind of thing when he needed to speak to the common man. That's just him, talking to all of us.  The proclamation services two points - first, as a giant "Fuck You" to the man's many, many detractors -

"Kiss my ass and suck my dick - everyone."
- and as a call to arms.  Roosevelt is imploring every one to stand up, bravely enter the Arena and realize their full potential.  There's a conviction to these words.  The deliberate pacing the wording demands - indeed, the snytax itself -it's evident how entirely he believes in what he is saying.  It's the kind of sentiment that makes the blood in your veins pump a little bit harder and, criticially speaking, is just a goddamn beautiful piece of prose.

[Your editor again: Just wanted to remind us that, in addition to being metaphorically powerful, Teddy's speeches were pretty goddamn literally strong as well.
That's a god. damn. bullet hole.
He did, of course, finish the speech.]

For more, the Library of America has published beautiful volumes of TR's collected speeches and letters and Edmund Morris is writing the finest biographies of Theodore Roosevelt available.  Presently a trilogy, it is in your interest to simply start at the beginning with The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt - which covers the man's first forty-two years. 

Sunday, April 17, 2011

REVIEW: Frederic Tuten's The Adventures of Mao on the Long March

"Mixing Pop and Politics, he asks me what the use is
I offer him embarrassment and my usual excuses
While looking down the corridor
Out to where the van is waiting
I'm looking for the Great Leap Forwards."

--Billy Bragg, "Waiting for the Great Leap Forward

A while back, I saw, in a magazine whose name I can't remember, a retrospective on Frederic Tuten's career. As of this year, he's been a published writer for 40 years, and Mao was his first book, so of course, they reprinted an excerpt from it to demonstrate the man's artistry.

In said excerpt, Greta Garbo drives up in a tank, tells Mao that his communist passions have inflamed her, and begs him to take her on the hood of her Panzer.

Friday, April 15, 2011

5 Most Badass Modern Writers

Look, a lot of us writers are--how do I put this--limp-wristed nancy boys. Simply no getting around that. There's a reason that when most people imagine a sterotypical poet they flash to some pale, Keatsian dandy, half in love with easeful death and all that.

But not all of us (I still am though. Oh god, am I a limp-wristed nancy boy). Here are five 20th-century poets and fiction writers who should make us all ashamed of our testicles and how little we have proven ourselves worthy of them.
These are the men who would have written Roosevelt's odes.
(Also, Col. Rondon, to the right there? Pretty much a Native American version of Roosevelt)

Monday, April 11, 2011

Top 5 Beckett Works

Recently picked up a copy of the complete plays of Beckett. Slightly less recently, went to a Beckett party where we watched  hours of the Beckett on Film box set the BBC put out and also drank a lot of absinthe. Damn good times.
I think he's mostly laughing at us.
Anyway, as a result of these events I've been reading a lot of Beckett lately. I'll probably be putting up a full profile on him soon and why you need--need--to familiarize yourself with the man's worldview. But since sitting down with Worstward Ho earlier this year I've come to respect the man as a hero and to tear through a huge amount of his back catalog. So, if you're interested in tackling one of the greatest writers of the modern age, these are the five I'd suggest starting with.