Archive for January, 2009

Roberto Bolaño: 2666

Saturday, January 31st, 2009

Well, that was something.  The quick context is that Bolaño was a Chilean writer who died in 2003; this novel (basically finished at the time of his death) was published posthumously to great acclaim, and when the English translation appeared in 2008 it was immediately hailed as a masterpiece and made every critic’s top 10 list.

Which surprises me.  Not because it’s bad – it’s very good – but because it’s very unconventional and very uncompromising.  With a book like this I’d expect the responses to be one-third rapturous encomiums, one-third “I’m impressed but it’s not for me”, and one-third “the emperor has no clothes!”.

It’s 900 pages and consists of five sub-novels (Bolaño intended for them to be published separately, largely for financial reasons, it seems) that have frequent connections and illuminate each other, but generally don’t really go anywhere.  It’s also very dark, with hundreds of meaningless deaths and a constant tinge of gloom even in the happier parts.

Anyway, you can read all the details elsewhere.  My personal reaction was somewhere between the first two of the three categories I mentioned above.  It was undeniably a bit of a slog in places, even if obviously intentionally so, but after coming out the other side, I find that it’s really sticking with me, in a way that makes the whole more than the sum of its parts.  I said while I was in the middle of it that I would probably like it more in retrospect than while reading it, and that turned out to be the case.

Jack Vance: Ports of Call / Lurulu

Wednesday, January 28th, 2009

I’ve read most of the Jack Vance that’s in print in the US, and some that isn’t, which means that in order to read more I have to either track down out-of-print books or read his grade-B material. This is the latter. It’s published as two novels, but it’s really one novel ripped into two halves; Ports of Call ends abruptly, without even a cliffhanger, and Lurulu picks up where it left off.  (They were published six years apart, in 1998 and 2004, which makes for entertaining reading as one watches people at the time being irritated by the first book cutting off without warning.)

It’s the last thing that he wrote, except for supposedly an imminent autobiography – he’s over 90 and blind now – and it kind of shows.  Throughout most of it, a bunch of buddies planet-hop in their space-yacht without any real structure, having the usual Vancian adventures with the wacky cultures of each planet, which are distinguished from each other mostly through the color of their hats, the name of their local beer, and the relative ferocity of their haggling.

This may not sound like much fun, and most of the reviews I’ve read have been rather negative, but although not much happens from page to page, most of the individual pages are a lot of fun, just because Vance’s style is so awesome.  If you’re not already sold on Vance, this is not the place to start, but if you’re already a fan, you’ll probably get more pleasure out of it than a quick browsing of reviews would lead you to believe.

Another member of the Vance/Pollard group

Monday, January 26th, 2009

Can I call them the Spewers?  I seem to have a knack for coming up with derogatory names for groups I like.

Anyway, going to sleep last night I remembered a name that fits in that group perfectly – William Vollmann.  He passes every criterion, as far as I can tell.

Unfortunately I’m not actually a big fan, although I feel like I should be.  I adored his first book, You Bright and Risen Angels, a giant mess that I still consider the best marriage of literary and fantastical fiction to date, but apparently after that he decided that that sort of book was too easy.  (The book is literally overflowing – the actual novel only covers the first 40% of the table of contents.)

I enjoyed The Ice-Shirt, but only got around two-thirds through Fathers and Crows (I always feel pretty lame only getting two-thirds through a thousand-page book).  I do want to give Europe Central a shot.

Vance : books :: Pollard : music

Friday, January 23rd, 2009

I discovered Robert Pollard (the guy behind Guided By Voices) around 1996.  His music seemed boring at first, but after a few tries I recognized his genius and since then have acquired most of his recorded output (I own 67 CDs of his by a quick count).

I discovered SF author Jack Vance a few years ago.  His books seemed boring at first, but after a few tries I recognized his genius and since then have acquired most of his books that are in print in the US (a little over 20).

I realized recently that they have more in common than the fact that I love both of them.

  • incredibly prolific
  • awesome at their best
  • but with a nonexistent quality filter
  • largely intuitive in approach, as far as I can tell
  • even the best works are big messes (in a great way) rather than tightly constructed jewels
  • apparently wide-ranging in genre
  • but with enough tics that their work is instantly recognizable

I can’t think of anyone else (in any field) who is analogous.  If there is, I want to find them, since I bet I would love them too.

Shudder To Think, Get Your Goat

Tuesday, January 20th, 2009

In a comment to my last post Matthew Amster-Burton asked me what I thought of Shudder To Think. The only album I have of theirs is Get Your Goat from 1992 (Matthew has since informed me that he doesn’t think that’s their best, but it’s what I have), so I gave that a listen for the first time in ages.

I didn’t like it that much, which is pretty interesting. (I always think it’s interesting when I turn out to not like something that I should like based on my general tastes. Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale is a good example.)

I guess there are two questions here, why I don’t think it fits into this category and why I don’t like it much. In answer to the first, I think they’re too conscious of their artiness to qualify for the “naive” part. I’d put them in the same broad category as Deerhoof (who I do love) in this respect. Another thing making them seem like they’re explicitly trying to be artsy is that the singer seems to think he’s a real Singer rather than just some guy singing.

Secondly, why I don’t dig it? The dramatic singing bugs me some – that’s just personal taste (well, everything in this paragraph is personal taste). Also, the harmonic vocabulary rubs me the wrong way in a way that’s hard to verbalize. There are definitely stretches of music (and some whole songs) that I like, but overall it’s not my thing.

Naively complex music

Sunday, January 18th, 2009

My recent chronological voyage through the XTC back catalog, and excitement at hearing many early songs I hadn’t listened to in ages, got me thinking about some aspects that much of my favorite rock music has in common. I like to think of myself as having pretty varied tastes, but it’s true that a certain class of music is just about guaranteed to tickle my fancy.

I was going to call this Idiot Savant music, but that name is both not all that accurate and I guess kind of derogatory.

Here is my basic set of criteria for a band to belong to this category:

  1. A high level of musical inventiveness that appeals to me in a music-theory-nerd sort of way, such that I could explain to another theory-literate person what is interesting about it.
  2. A corresponding lack of ability of the artists to explain their methods theoretically.
  3. A high level of ROCK.

Point 2 is what prevents pretty much any prog rock from falling into this category (although some of my favorite rock music still scores high in points 1 and 3, like Led Zeppelin and Red-era King Crimson). But point 1 is important too, and is what prevents me from getting similarly excited by artists like Daniel Johnston or Jad Fair.

Artists who I love and who I’d more or less place in this group include:

  • Early XTC (you will see the word ‘early’ a lot)
  • Early Pixies
  • Early Throwing Muses
  • A lot of Guided By Voices / Robert Pollard
  • Captain Beefheart
  • The Minutemen, perhaps, but I feel like they understood what they were doing more

Generally the bands eventually start figuring out what they’re doing and slide out of this category.

The Fiery Furnaces are sort of on the line. I have the feeling that Matthew Friedberger is pretty aware of the techniques he is using, but he deploys a lot of them so charmingly ham-handedly that it has the same sort of effect.

When I read about these bands, often one of the members is quoted as saying something like “We thought we were making poppy dance music and would shoot up the charts!” Which is pretty much the point.