Monthly Archives: August 2010

Tea With Chris: Neil Gaiman, Peepin’ You

Tea With Chris is a roundup of recommended links, posted every Friday. Here are a few of our favourite things from the Internet this week:

Carl: The Atlantic‘s tech writer Alexis Madrigal profiles, reviews and meditates on Gary Shteyngart’s new book of satirical anti-science-fiction, Super Sad True Love Story: “Shteyngart writes about technology with such ho-hum aplomb that I think he does for technology what magical realists did for the supernatural. With Garcia Marquez, you think, ‘Oh, the guy sprouted wings? It happens.’ With Shteyngart, it is, ‘Everyone communicates through 3D holographic devices that broadcast your Fuckability rating? Well, you know how it is. … Anyone want a beer?’ ”

I hope, for Shteyngart’s sake, that his book is as well-done as Madrigal’s article, which reveals its subject to be, in daily life, an utter serf to the technology his fiction criticizes – and rather than cry “gotcha,” refreshingly smiles and nods: well, of course he would be. “It is only in the bizarre world of technological analysis that we believe that people always do what is best for themselves. We are told consumers buy iPhones and Droids and Kindles for definable reasons that make sense. But maybe they don’t. What people love and do is not usually the personal, romantic or technological equivalent of kale for dinner and a high savings rate.”

… For example, apparently people used to have sex with Neanderthals. A lot.

Chris: My favourite thing period this week – Nicholson Baker’s bemused, humbled initiation into video games, from the August 9 New Yorker – is not online. I can make up for it. At Comics Comics Joe McCulloch dug up the unfinished “bad girl” miniseries Donna Mia, an entirely unremarkable fossil from the checkered mid-90s…except that it co-starred Neil Gaiman. To be fair, young British writers were barging into their own comics at the pace of a Fawlty Towers episode back then. I guess Mr. Utz, the cartoonist, just assumed that his muse had a blanket policy on metafiction. The panel with some girl’s ass reflected in Gaiman’s shades is magical.

This is a very pervy edition of Tea With Chris, huh? I’ll garnish it with a PopMatters article about one video game character’s massive, much-fetishized thighs.

Margaux: I can’t stop watching this reality TV show about ART on reality TV.

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Friday Pictures – Kerry James Marshall

 

Kerry James Marshall / Untitled

 

Kerry James Marshall / The Actor Hezekiah Washington as Julian Carlton Taliesen Murderer Frank Lloyd Wright Family

 

Kerry James Marshall / Untitled (Painter)

 

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On Computers, Profusely

by Chris Randle

#chardonnayswag

What’s a musician to do, now that “free” is not only a routine fact of cultural consumption but obnoxious tech-guru dogma too? You might try releasing your band’s next album online at a pay-what-thou-wilt price point, although that tactic has a high chance of failure if you’re not already famous. You could license and be sponsored. You should probably include digital download codes with your vinyl, nestling utility inside slabs of aura. Alternatively, you can bid to choke the insatiable maw: giving away so many songs, so much content, so much of yourself that the sheer size of your output attracts notoriety and obsession. The young rapper Lil B has achieved a strange, ultra-specific web renown with that marketing strategy, but he did so out of compulsion, not calculation. He’s one with his medium like James Woods in Videodrome.

I first stumbled across him a year or so ago at Cocaine Blunts, where blogger Noz has become a tireless though clear-sighted booster. In 2006, when he was 15, Lil B’s Berkeley rap group the Pack notched up a minor hit; their album later flopped and their label dropped them. Then the madness began. B, aka Brandon McCartney, created 100+ Myspace pages over a series of months (some of them “secrete,” like the Minus World), each featuring a handful of tracks and freestyles. His Youtube account is constantly updated with sort-of music videos, zero-budget clips he films around Berkeley.

B seems to spend more time tweeting than sleeping, perhaps because the former is a better outlet for his id. His fans, most of them young and fanatical, are encouraged to follow the Based Lifestyle – a philosophy stressing positivity and (relatively) clean living. Not yet an acolyte, I felt like Clement Attlee did about Christianity: “Believe in the ethics. Can’t accept the mumbo jumbo.”

The Based God’s discography already stretches well into the quadruple digits, with its own attendant tropes. He yammers about swag and sex a lot; the latter oscillates between the hilariously surreal (“I’m so wet that a pussy get mad at me”) and the unsettling (gynecological porn-talk rasps over a lo-fi footwork track). One of his maxims is “hoes on my dick cause I look like ________,” filled in with intentional absurdities: Mel Gibson, Aretha Franklin, Jesus.

The peacocking blowjob-related material might obscure how experimental B can be. For each of his stunt samples, like the X-men TV show, there are many more where he raps over New Age loops, ambient synths or Antony and the Johnsons. (He once struck up a Twitter conversation with me about Momus.) On a lot of the trademark “based freestyles” he barely bothers to rap, favouring spoken word, syntactical ad-libs and stream-of-consciousness rambling.

He slips in and out of personae with the same ease. On the infamous “Pretty Bitch,” Lil B goes from profane swagmaster to something far more protean: “I used to be a goon, now I’m a pretty bitch.” (He claims he’s finer than Nicki Minaj, too: debatable.) Elsewhere, the MC describes himself as a princess and “a faggot.” It’s not surprising that he’s been the subject of gay rumours, nor that his demurrals are so unbothered (albeit characteristically weird). Code-switching? Sure, and a genius at it, but that term feels clumsily archaic in this context. Lil B and his friend Soulja Boy are making a radical and overlooked break from the traditional hip-hop project of repping one’s hood. B is very, very Berkeley, of course, but only implicitly; his many selves live on the internet.

It’s easy to stalk someone online, and yet it’s not much harder to explore a new personality. B embodies this. He doesn’t even try to reconcile his contradictions; he gleefully heightens them. That’s one explanation for his rabid fanbase – I know it’s why I’m fascinated by the guy – but aside from the music, the Based Lifestyle also has its perks. As Noz wrote, “I can think of worse things for kids to fall into than a cult dedicated to positivity and aggressive-but-safe sex.”

Creativity, too: just click on a #based hashtag to see the results. There is an entire Tumblr site devoted to “cooking,” the MC’s new dance fad/culinary education program. His mania is viral. A few months ago, when I was talking to a friend and fellow obsessive on Gchat, she suggested that I make a Lil B mix so we could try having sex to it. We both soon realized this was ridiculous, but I think he would still appreciate the sentiment.

My favourite Lil B song is “The Age of Information.” It’s kind of like “Sign O’ the Times” if Prince had been a teenager who smoked weed every single day. Atop a dreamy, watery beat, B stammers out generational anxiety:  “I’m on computers, profusely, searching on the internet for answers (give it to me).” I have a couple of years on him, but I can hardly remember what life was like before the internet. By high school I was already writing myself onto message boards and keeping my status updated, which might be ideal preparation for high school. And yet, I was unnerved to find myself agreeing with the critic Tom Ewing when he argued that “it’s really only a matter of time before some kind of bluetoothy broadcast-what-yr-consuming tool becomes popular.”

Lil B, who knows whereof he mumbles here, is one dubious hippie: “This age of information, all we do is judge…Everything that we watch, all we do is classify people.” The thrill of being fluid and mercurial demands less effort than ever now, but it’s still mortifying when a stranger watches you change.

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Composed: A Memoir, by Rosanne Cash (2010)

by Carl Wilson


Rosanne Cash with her father Johnny before his death in September of 2003, in a photo by Annie Leibovitz.

I’ve learned from books by, for example, Pete Townshend and Steve Earle that the qualities one loves in a songwriter often don’t survive the transition to prose. A line that would be pithy and perfect landing as the final rhyme in a verse or the hook of a chorus, for example, can die of dehydration on the arid page, leaving a trite, hollow corpse behind. The craft of a song such as Rosanne Cash’s “Rules of Travel” relies on the sly way she adapts an old folk-music “counting song” form to a more mature meditation. Books have other tricks. So I started reading her memoir with caution.

Also, there were all the Rosies to think of: My friend Gordon (brilliant, lovely, funny, gone) once titled the sides of a mixtape “The Girl Who Put the ‘Cunt’ Back in Country” (Cash as hard-edged 80s new-country hitmaker and cow-punk clotheshorse) and “The Queen of Greenwich Village” (Cash as 90s introspective singer-songwriter with a slight new-agey streak) – the Nashville Cash and the New York Cash, the Cash of the years when she was married to tight-jeaned country star Rodney Crowell and the Cash who is married to guitarist-producer John Leventhal.

And then there’s the recent Rosanne in Mourning, who has reflected powerfully on the deaths of her parents – the famous one and the not-famous one, plus her semi-famous stepmother (now iconic herself after being played in Walk the Line by Reese Witherspoon – Cash is withering about the movie in the book, as I guess anyone would be seeing their childhood traumas turned to entertainment).

How would all those Rosies fit between the covers of a slim memoir and not be done wrong in one way or another by the summing up of life lessons? And was the book going to be somehow part of the Johnny Cash memorial industry?

The nice surprise about Cash’s book is that, like Bob Dylan before her, she doesn’t worry about telling her tale in order, but writes a series of loose vignettes and tangents – less eccentrically than her dad’s friend Bob, of course, but still more island chain than road movie, the gaps letting air in. The tangents are often the best part – for example when she starts talking about how country songs today have narrowed to songs about romance and love and largely neglected other traditions such as family songs: “Mostly hidden from view are the other potent relationships, forged of blood and shared history, rich with emotional content, ripe for exploration.”

The 80s fashion vixen (as well as the songwriter’s ear for detail) shows up when she one by one, with a crisp tone of disconnection, names what expensive designers’ outfits and handbags she was wearing when she delivered the eulogies at her father’s, mother’s and stepmother’s funerals (extraordinary addresses reprinted here in full), and how her Prada shoes gradually stained deeper with mud from funeral to funeral, never cleaned. Some younger country songwriter should set that vignette to music. (Taylor Swift, here’s your homework for the next two years.)

As with any well-written famous person’s autobiography – unless they’re just wonderfully unhinged like Katherine Hepburn’s – the overall effect is humanizing: We follow Cash’s struggles with major health problems and family issues.

But I like it most when Cash is well aware of her rarefied position (as in those funeral-fashion moments)  and  dares to ask us to sympathize with, for instance, the fact that she’ll always regret that she was too little to remember meeting Patsy Cline at a family party, or that she was pissed off at her dad for ordering her home from an early youthful adventure working in the record business in London. Or her insecurity when she found herself surrounded by assertive male musicians making her early albums, which of course was partly because she was a young woman but mainly because she was so well-connected that rather than pay what folks call dues, she was almost immediately working with the hottest session players in Music City.

Cash can’t be expected to account for the extraordinary level of privilege at which her career and personal experiences have transpired – all those “what’s it like to…” questions no one can answer because they are the given conditions of your life. “What’s it like to have been born in the 20th century?” some teenager might ask you a few years from now. They won’t actually know what they mean and neither will you.

Some reviewers have complained about how nice, unwild, polite, unscandalous Cash’s book is, as if she’s holding back. But I got the sense that the limit she was observing was not so much protective as respectful – that she was well-raised enough not to write like a whiny spoiled bitch, but also badly raised just the right way to have been forced as an adult to learn to forgive or even be grateful to the world for what it didn’t see fit to provide.

That’s the pleasure of spending time with her and her memories, and letting pass the little bits about “bringing her sorrow to the ocean” for rich-lady-style rituals, etc.

Well, that and the fact that every time Johnny Cash shows up to say something it comes with this extraordinary elemental presence that (a) makes one a little tempted to believe that angels sometimes walk among us; and (b) grabs the breath out of your throat to think this woman dared to take up the same career.

She presents the hinge between the Cunt-in-Country phase and the Greenwich Village Queen as a dream she had in which Linda Ronstadt was having an animated conversation on a couch at a party with an old man (of course: was he wearing black, Rosanne?) named Art – who looked her up and down and spat, “We don’t respect dilettantes.” The dream haunted her, she says, and changed her life.

Of course, fans like me would argue that the person who wrote and sang a song like Seven Year Ache was no dilettante, and she didn’t have to get self-consciously Artier to prove anything to withholding subconscious patriarchs. (Much less to Linda Ronstadt!)

But most people who come up the way Rosanne Cash did are dilettantes.

So instead of the artist’s standard challenges of pounding on windows and doors to get attention, she had the struggle of living up to the vocation she’d been handed, which is hard to see properly through gold-tinted glasses.

Maybe that’s the story those who “arrived” a little too easily have to tell the rest of us, to keep wary of what’s easy: I jokingly call myself a dilettante pretty often, and maybe I should admit the coverup going on in that laugh.

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Mind Game (2004) – written and directed by Masaaki Yuasa, based on the comic by Robin Nishi

By Margaux Williamson

(I watched this animated movie at home with my boyfriend. We were going to go to the movies, but decided to stay home and watch a DVD and make popcorn. I didn’t know anything about it other than a probability website estimated that we would both like it 90% and that it played at the MOMA. Also, I liked the title “Mind Game”. I liked that it wasn’t pluralized, that it promised just one game.)


A young man, who doesn’t have enough courage to try to win the heart of his childhood sweetheart or to become a great comic book artist, gets shot in the anus by an angry gangster.

It happens at his childhood sweetheart’s family restaurant. He’s there with her by chance (she is now a beautiful young woman). The young woman’s new fiancé (stronger and more handsome than our man), her father (a no-good womanizing drunk), and her older sister (who runs the restaurant) are also there when a tired gangster and an angry gangster walk into the restaurant looking for the drunk father. The father quickly slips under the bar to hide. The beautiful young woman stands up to the angry gangster, and is then knocked down by him. The strong fiancé goes after the angry gangster but gets knocked unconscious. Our young man cowers in the corner on all fours. The angry gangster returns to the beautiful young woman, suddenly interested in raping her. Our young man makes a fearful noise from the corner. The sound distracts the angry gangster and he moves towards our whimpering man. He rests his gun against the young man’s anus. As the young man tries to get out a sentence, the angry gangster pulls the trigger.

As the bullet leaves our young man’s head, he goes to heaven. God (a radically shifting form) is getting ready for a date and explains to our man, with a great deal of distraction and irritation, what is happening and tells the young man to walk over there (God points somewhere to the right), towards his disappearance. The man begins walking to the right, but then he suddenly turns and runs the other way – back towards the world. God, now a tiger, tries to catch him, but can’t keep up with the young man’s sudden burst of courage. As the young man falls to earth, God watches from above, now admiring, and says quietly, I’m on your side. The young man arrives back in the world in the moments before he is shot. This time, things will be different.

This time, he saves the day and himself, killing the angry gangster. He flees the bar with the two women and leaves the drunk father and the tired gangster to each other. More heroics and panics ensue until the three young people end up in the belly of a whale with an old man. There, they have no other choice but to love, live, laugh and pursue the culinary, comic book and performing arts. Eventually, they attempt an escape through the whale’s mouth.

Before all this, the movie begins with a sequence of brief scenes. Some of it is familiar, but most is not. We can make out some “old footage” of westerners arriving from the sky with Astro Boy there to confront them. There is also a familiar 70 disco scene, a little boy getting a watch for a present, a beautiful young woman racing for the subway. Watching these scenes move by so quickly makes you feel a little bit like a confused and passive observer – observing things you don’t yet understand.

After the main story, we see this sequence again. Now we are familiar with most of the footage, the unfamiliar parts were from the story, some representing the characters’ earlier choices. There is also some new footage of the many possible futures for the characters.

I think the movie can be understood in lots of different ways. But for me, it told one of my favourite stories: The story about how maybe a person can slip back into the recent past and stop a terrible thing from happening – only to then learn that time is real and the past can’t be changed.

I’m not sure if this is an old story (told repeatedly by humans to themselves as they see some terrible event of their present turn into unchangeable history) or one that grows specifically out of the meaningless tragedies, missing gods and the puzzling physics of the (mostly) 20th century.

Here, in the beautiful “Mind Game”, it’s a video game fantasy of trying to stop something terrible from happening that has already happened. The movie contains literally shifting perspectives, subjective confusion, jokes about perceptual misunderstandings, a character wondering aloud if video games can be real – if this mind game can be real. It explores the path of being as heroic as you want to be, of saving the day (even a day that has already been written), of winning your love with patience and courage, and even of learning how to be an artist while killing time in the belly of a whale.

The heartbreaking thing about this movie is that it almost seems true.

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Little Boxes #8

(from “The Hasty Smear of My Smile,” by Alan Moore (script) and Peter Bagge (art), 1998)

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Tea With Chris: The Ostrich and the Frat Party

Tea With Chris is a roundup of recommended links, posted every Friday. Here are a few of our favourite things from the Internet this week:

Chris: The Incongruous Quarterly is a new online magazine devoted to writing that couldn’t fit anywhere else: the rejected, the drawer-consigned, the inaccessible, the distantly possible. For its first issue Sheila Heti guest-edited a section featuring our own Margaux. That determination to leave nothing unsaid might be irrational, but it’s nobly quixotic too.

Margaux: This was the most weirdly pleasurable thing that I read this week. I’m not sure why it was so good, but I found Gideon Lewis-Kraus’ other article on attending the Frankfurt Book Fair just as subtle and strange and kind of as hilarious as this one. I read it while sitting under a tree in the woods drinking. It starts out thinking vaguely of the Iraq war and then ends up with Tiedye Bob somewhere in California with a few small-scale marijuana growers and a restaurant that isn’t open on Tuesdays.

I kept thinking: what are Gideon Lewis-Kraus, Tiedye Bob and I doing in Harper’s Magazine?, and also: It’s kind of fun to be in Harpers Magazine with Gideon Lewis-Kraus and Tiedye Bob. I think Gideon Lewis-Kraus likes to pretend that he can, with just a little bit of magical nonchalance, blend into hard-to-blend-into groups of people – like an ostrich at a frat party.

Carl: Michael Lind’s Salon piece on “The fantasy of a vast upper-middle class” is the straight shit-talking the American dream’s been begging for. As Lind points out, North American elites are very prone to deluding themselves into believing most other people are like them, and/or ought to be. I don’t entirely agree with Lind (an ex-neocon) on education (the fact is we need a more educated work force than in the past just to keep up; but yeah, that doesn’t mean those workers will be better compensated for it, which is a problem), but his brutal frankness is refreshing and rather relaxing.

To hang on to that feeling, next go listen to Toronto songwriter Alex Lukashevsky on NPR and on WNYC. Despite its sumptuous arrangements, with two Dirty Projectorsish accompanying singers, Alex’s stuff is the musical equivalent of Lind’s article – free of cant (tho not of canticle), unseduced by the day’s bouquet of horse manure. Because he’s the furthest thing from a careerist, it’s a great pleasure whenever someone makes an effort at bringing Alex’s music to a broader audience. So thanks, American elites – you’re not all bad after all.

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Towering Tongue

by Chris Randle

Last month in this space, Carl wondered what it means to be avant-garde, still. One idea of it hinges on identifiable harshness, dissonance, “difficulty,” even alienation: a dance to metal machine music. Must the new always shock? Maybe it can be gently instructional instead. Misha Glouberman (best known as the cleverly flustered host of local lecture series Trampoline Hall) has been testing just that with a loose, long-running series called Terrible Noises for Beautiful People. These events typically involve amateur non-musicians improvising vocal sounds together, in structures that range from John Zorn’s Cobra game to ones of Misha’s own design. This week’s noisemaking was a rehearsal of sorts for upcoming performances at a vertiginous art-edifice called the Sound Tower. (“If you’re afraid of heights, as I am, 80 feet is tall.”) Whether straight jazz or the uncategorizable, I’d listened to a lot of music employing improvisation without knowing much about the theory of it. I still don’t. My first time as a non-spectator was all practice, mortifying and then finally elating.

Misha is bearish yet friendly, in the manner of a slightly absentminded professor. His introduction sounded a bit like the opening of an old-school role-playing game: “Imagine you’ve come to a tower.” It worked a bit like one, too. Again and again he sketched out the course of an exercise before gradually removing its guide rails. Our initial task was to wander around the room improvising “angry” sounds and motions – fine by me for several reasons, like how I’d woken up that morning to find my bathroom door nailed shut. At first Misha rang a bell to pause and restart our gesticulations, but his influence slowly faded until we were improvising moments of stasis by mass consensus too. Once he raised the instrument, froze, and lowered it with a stage scowl.

A string of “fighting forms,” formal outlines for free-flowing arguments, grew increasingly complex as we barked at each other. (“Everybody’s a genius improviser when they’re fighting.”) We paired off at random, one person “conducting” their partner’s sounds with motions that no professional would ever use. The experimentation culminated in an unorthodox orchestra. Everyone arranged themselves into a descending spiral (or an ascending one, depending on your vantage point); Misha sent various noises rippling through it, but on the way they were modulated in pitch, loudness and length until they became unrecognizable. I heard an unusually intense variation on those fake “forest soundscapes” dominated by hisses and shushes. I listened with eyes shut while participants strained to make the fastest and briefest sounds possible, as if they were demented beboppers. I balanced on a chair and joined the concentric choir in mutilating vowels, droning “I-I-I-I” and “U-U-U-U” like a skipping John Ashbery audiobook.

Was this avant-garde? It certainly felt uncomfortable at first, which is one way of answering “yes.” Compulsively slapping yourself or babbling wordless nonsense is what movie lunatics do. As the evening wound on, though, the universal humiliation had an ice-smashing effect. It was a mixed crowd, which fit the neighbourhood, and the bulk of that crowd was affable middle-aged people in sandals who looked like they might have signed up on a whim. Describing the event to our overseer, one lady said “you’re in both places at once,” simultaneously spectator and performer. I think that’s more radical than any of us realized at the time. The mercurial cacophony reminds me of what one character says about glossolalia in The Invisibles: “Everyone hears what they need to hear. The unconscious speaking directly to the unconscious. What kind of world might we make where such a language would be the common tongue?” But we never climbed very far up that tower and away from more practical matters. When I left an hour early, Misha was fielding ideas for a quieter “VOWEL” sign.

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Friday Pictures – Jockum Nordström

 

Jockum Nordström / The Piano Factory

 

Jockum Nordström / The Readers

 

Jockum Nordström / Five Long Years

 

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Jennifer Egan, “Great Rock and Roll Pauses,” in A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010)

by Carl Wilson


Elvis Costello, “Goon Squad,” 1979. Number of pauses: 6. Pause length: 1 second (each).

Jennifer Egan’s recent A Visit from the Goon Squad is on one level a conventional novel, with (it becomes clear) a central character and an interrelated ensemble whose lives, inner and outer, are explored over time – time itself being the “goon squad” of the title, the random merciless attacker that leaves everyone ravaged.

But on another it’s an answer to the dilemma of the experimental or the postmodern, taking for granted the breakdown of linear narrative, and the freedoms previous generations of artists have established for her. Since obviously you can do anything you want, the question becomes what’s worth doing.

Formally the book is more like a set of linked stories; every story is from a different character’s point of view, and each story is (not just for that reason) in its own style, to varying degrees. This risks a showoffy writing-workshop effect that could be irritating. It’s not, because what Egan values is emotional truth and all the technique is just a way of getting there. (As she discusses, graphically, with The Rumpus.)

The most bravura moment is Chapter 12, which takes place in the near future, in the desert, and is narrated by a 12-year-old girl in PowerPoint slides. You can read/watch the story (with audio enhancement) on Egan’s website. (Though it’s much better if you read it in context.) She was inspired by reading in the NY Times that the Obama campaign had been turned around when someone on staff made a PowerPoint presentation explaining where they were going wrong. She realized “a PowerPoint” had become a genre, a recognizable mode of thought and representation. So just as she might write a chapter in the form of a magazine article, why not as a PowerPoint? (She didn’t have the program and at first tried to make her graphics by hand; now she makes fun of herself for this.) (Egan talks about the process.)

Many of the characters get involved in various ways in the music industry in the 1990s, so one way the goon squad catches up with them is technologically. By switching into PowerPoint, Egan teases at the parallel threat of obsolescence to her own medium – print, or more broadly the book, story, sentence, paragraph. The web (and, I’d imagine, e-book) version operates like real PowerPoint, but it’s funnier to have a kind of dead PowerPoint show in a book, manually turning pages instead of watching slides slip smoothly by. The chapter makes me think of how many of the non-fiction writers I know have had to learn to make such visual presentations, to be public speakers, or make video trailers for our books, and so on.

I missed my Wednesday post here last week because I was (a) moving; and (b) writing a profile for The Globe and Mail about the Montreal band Arcade Fire. People sometimes think the members of Arcade Fire are trying to be reclusive or guarded because they don’t do interviews whenever asked or update their Facebook status or send out a lot of tweets about what they’re doing. They’ve tried to explain that they’d like to be more accessible and meet fans’ expectations (expectations that didn’t exist five years ago ) but are simply too busy actually working on music, which, the way they want to do it, takes enormous energy all day, every day.

Something in the air right now makes this sound like an alibi. Part of me wants to complain on my own behalf – that it makes no sense to ask writers to be public speakers when the two activities demand almost directly contradictory sets of skills. But no one’s forcing you, as long as you’re content not to make any money. And as Egan’s PowerPoint chapter shows, learning new tools doesn’t have to undermine the essence of your activity, as long as you don’t let the marketing department tell you how to use them.

A few years ago I felt pretty persuaded by writers such as Edward Tufte and Ian Parker that PowerPoint nurtures an impoverished cognitive style. (In Egan’s story, the 12-year-old’s mother, Sasha, whom we know and care about from previous stories in the book, seems to believe this, or is at least wary that her daughter keeps her diary in slides rather than in a little notebook, maybe with a golden lock.) But then I began to see people using it less obviously, in manners not dictated by Microsoft’s presets. David Byrne started using it for parody and then found himself rather enchanted. As in any new genre, primitive firsts give way to a more sophisticated, self-reflexive array.

New genres are called for when there are new kinds of people. Twentieth-century urbanism summoned up noir, and jazz. The Internet is arguably rearranging the boundaries of selves. So artists need to notice and respond (not necessarily enthusiastically but somehow effectively), not whine, “But I only wanted to be a writer.”

Egan builds all kinds of mini-auto-critique machines into her PowerPoint – its centre is the whole family’s relationship to the narrator’s autism-spectrum brother, so affective disconnection is highlighted (though the empathic narrator uses PowerPoint because everybody at school does, so it is actually evidence of being right in the human tide, not of isolation by technology); the brother is fixated on pauses (gaps, disconnects) within mostly old-fashioned, 20th-century pop music, though it’s vital that these gaps also become joins – a pause, by definition, resumes. And of course the slides of the PowerPoint contain built-in pauses.

The reading process is broken up as well, because the eye has to decide where to go, in what order to put the cells of meaning in each slide, because it’s no longer a given of the old left-right, top-bottom grid. And in this the chapter is a microcosm of the whole book, which is a Rubik’s Cube of jumbled characters and chronologies and settings (though their particular sequence is important), within which much of the deepest feeling is found in seams and spaces between the narratives, so the reader has to infer how these people have been broken, rescued, grown, or sundered, in interludes and meanwhiles we’re not directly shown.

One last little irony: Because I was moving, and was spending days and days packing and unpacking boxes (more pauses, more gaps, more cells of meaning), I downloaded and listened to Visit from the Goon Squad as an audiobook. (Audiobooks = sanity savers for the solitary mover, by the way.) I haven’t read it – it was read to me. So when it came to “Great Rock and Roll Pauses,” I didn’t immediately get what was going on. There was a slide-projector sound effect between units, but the conscientious and excellent actor had figured out how to read each slide so that it seemed more conversational or interior-monologue-like than like a set of arrows or graphs or charts. So I didn’t really experience the “difficult” aspect of reading this chapter. It was more like a smart format for a radio monologue, a different experiment than the one Egan spent all those hours learning to do.

The story also made me cry a little, a quick moment of helpless, stinging salt. Nicholson Baker has claimed that some literary passages are funny on the page, but not on a Kindle – and then funny again on an iPad. I wonder if I would have wept over “Great Rock and Roll Pauses” in all its different possible media, which perhaps each comes with a structure of feeling or engenders one.

Maybe what worries me about every artist, no matter what their discipline, having to be a kind of multi-media artist is really whether there’s enough time to do all the rethinking and reinvention that should go into the translation between forms. Do you risk having much of the audience encounter the work in some kind of compromised state and never at its best? Perhaps we’ll just have to learn how to leave things unfinished in a way that’s more adaptable, and rely on groups of technicians (editors, remixers, post-production), as most film directors must?

We’ll see, if the goon squad doesn’t get us first.

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