Category Archives: books

A New Canadian Myth for New Canadian Times (By Sheila Heti)

 

image thanks to thirdi blog

 

The Globe and Mail—the newspaper I saw my father reading every day when I was growing up—published a profile of me this past weekend. In it, a familiar Canadian story was told: Canadian artist, neglected in Canada, finds acclaim in the States, and only then at home. While there is certainly some truth to this, and a lot of what I said in the piece seemed to corroborate it, I made a point of telling the journalist that my story feels different to me, as does the story of my latest book’s publication, and that I think it’s time for a new story.

Of course, what one says in an interview is always used to support the myth the journalist has—or in this case, that Canada generally has of Canadian artistic success. But it’s not precisely the case that n+1, or the article in the Observer, or the piece in the Guardian, caused the success of the book. Especially in a place like Canada, the ones who facilitate success are primarily the other artists.

While it seems from the article like I have been neglected, the truth is I have had tons of support over the years, more support than any artist could hope for – from writers, painters, musicians and poets.

It isn’t (and I suspect it never has been) the presumed engines of Canadian culture—The Globe and Mail, the Giller Awards, the Governor General’s Awards, etc.—that make Canadian artistic culture. My book was tepidly reviewed in the Globe three years ago. I have never received a Canadian award.

Meanwhile, during the seven years I was working on this novel, Margaux Williamson, my artistic collaborator, spent hundreds of hours reading drafts and giving me notes. I received feedback on drafts from the theatre director Chris Abraham, the novelist Christine Pountney, the artists Shary Boyle and Leanne Shapton, Coach House editor Alana Wilcox, Vancouver novelists Lee Henderson and David Chariandy, former CBC producer and writer Kathryn Borel, the artist Sholem Krishtalka, Geist editor Stephen Osborne, I could go on and on (the poet Ryan Kamstra, the essayist Mark Greif…). Rawi Haage lent me his Montreal apartment so I could finish an edit there. I have never received so much support in my life. These were people with their own work to do. But they helped me. As we all help each other.

The real story about my book and its “success,” it seems to me, is how it was supported by people who relied on their own judgments, without external validation, who influenced its shape.

The years I spent on my book weren’t years spent alone in my apartment, but a time when I spent weeks touring through Europe with the Toronto- and Berlin-based band, The Hidden Cameras (even though I’m a crummy musician, they still put me on stage with an instrument). I worked long hours in Margaux’s painting studio, travelled to the States to meet fellow writers and artists, and participated in the activist projects of Dave Meslin and the Toronto Public Space Committee, all of whom I learned from, whose work and thoughts developed my art and changed its direction.

We live in a place where the official rewards aren’t so grand, but that means something else happens: Artists slide between mediums, they work on each others’ projects, and new forms emerge. I often think of how the ethos here makes it easy to even find someone to rip tickets at the door of your show. We put hours into each others’ art, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that the only rewards we can count on are the rewards of creating, the pleasures of doing it together, and the satisfaction of being in each other’s audience.

It’s a rich, complex, and intelligently critical world we inhabit: a world that produces great art, and that does not burn brightest when the CBC or the Globe take notice, or when the Americans or Brits do. It’s a world populated by writers and artists who give help and recognition without scoping the horizon for whether the arbiters are near. We are the arbiters. Whether the myth of Canadian achievement includes this world or not, this world exists. It’s true.

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Memories of Memories: Nine Cultural Favourites from 2012

by Chris Randle

As Carl noted last week month, we like our year-end lists untimely here. We also like them extremely long – scrolling backwards now, to the tune of thousands and thousands of words. I don’t mean to abandon that tradition, only to get a little pointillist, and focus on isolated textures, moods, moments. Why the conceit? It was a pleasantly messy 2012. There is no order.

Future, “Same Damn Time”

Motivational rapper and outer space enthusiast Future had such a surfeit of material last year that he was able to release an actually good bonus album, but my favourite song was this ode to multitasking, recorded in an idiosyncratic tone of frustrated triumph. And what’s more integral to hip-hop than polysemy? “I am fluid, mercurial.”

The Clock, by Christian Marclay (2010)

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I saw less than half of Christian Marclay’s celluloid stopwatch during its run at a local gallery, but completism would be missing the point. Spliced together from thousands of film clips that display or mention or unwittingly pun on the moment in time when you see them, The Clock is a mesmerizing totality, grandly incidental. There are countdowns from action movies – the kind of plot hinges that Barthes called a narrative’s “cardinal functions” – and clocks ticking away in the background, details captured accidentally, like fossils. There are ornate towers and eerie chimes and blearily regarded alarms. Marclay’s piece moves in overlapping polyrhythms: amidst the march towards some climactic stroke, one notices little repetitions, hourly patterns, images connected with a nimble cut. People get most excited about noon and midnight, because who doesn’t love a good reckoning?

I didn’t witness either. On Nuit Blanche, I lined up for The Clock well before 12:00 but only got in long minutes after that. In retrospect, though, I think missing the big culmination gave me a greater appreciation of what followed it. Beyond midnight, the film drifts ever further into unreality. Diners and bars grow desolate. Ominous things happen at parties. If people managed to fall asleep at all, they’re woken up by unpromising phone calls. The sex becomes increasingly desperate, and sometimes hotter. Vincent Price puts in multiple appearances. Around 3 or 4 am, harmonizing with its exhausted audience, The Clock turns luridly hallucinatory – I still remember a sequence of impalement via levitating ornamental pyramid. As dawn broke, I jerked my head up from the flicker-lit sofa and saw Margaux crossing the room to relax in front. I left soon afterwards, almost felt like I needed to, to complete the moment. It was as if Marclay’s meticulous, monumental reworking had begun to synchronize the very universe.

Jacob Lusk & The R. Kelly All-Stars at Pop Montreal

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I saw R. Kelly himself last year as well, and while if it was a screening rather than a performance, he did lead the audience in an a capella rendition of “I Believe I Can Fly,” after which we triumphantly ascended into paradise. Several months before that, however, Jacob Lusk left a more lingering mark on me by rescuing Kells from irony. Some subset of the fans who made Trapped in the Closet a mid-2000s Internet phenomenon gave the unsettling impression that they were laughing at its creator, as if a black R&B singer couldn’t possibly tell jokes he was in on. Eschewing that material for earlier cuts such as “Bump N’ Grind,” his pants evoking gaudy temple walls, Lusk paid Chicago’s horniest a giggly respect. The former American Idol contestant even got a very white, very Montreal crowd to two-step. It was fitting that he and his backing band (local indie types) dwelled on their inspiration’s gospel leanings, because the covers set was equally buoyant and reverent.

I Love Dick, by Chris Kraus (published 1997)

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So far I’ve told “our” story twice, late last night, as fully as I could, to Fred Dewey and Sabrina Ott. It’s the story of 250 letters, my “debasement”, jumping headlong off a cliff. Why does everybody think that women are debasing themselves when we expose the conditions of our own debasement? Why do women always have to come clean? The magnificence of Genet’s last great work, The Prisoner of Love, lies in his willingness to be wrong: a seedy old white guy jerking off on the rippling muscles of the Arabs and Black Panthers. Isn’t the greatest freedom in the world the freedom to be wrong? What hooks me on our story is our different readings of it. You think it’s personal and private; my neurosis. “The greatest secret in the world is, THERE IS NO SECRET.” Claire Parnet and Gilles Deleuze. I think our story is performative philosophy.

Not the world’s greatest, but a secret nonetheless: this book is, among other things, really fucking funny.

Shoshanna, woman of Girls

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I think my appreciation of Lena Dunham’s one-woman WPA for cultural writers is more complicated than Carl’s or Margaux’s, but the pinkish anxiety cluster played by Zosia Mamet is one part I do love without ambivalence. Over the course of 2013’s second season, she developed from an innocent-naif caricature into this emphatically self-possessed neurotic, a comic persona that felt entirely new. You could see it in embryo last year, though, when Mamet’s timing was briskest or her awkwardness extra-expressive. I always think of the early scene where she’s watching some shitty reality series called Baggage, and Dunham cheerfully asks what her baggage would be (for that is the conceit of the show), and Shosh replies: “That I’m a virgin…obviously…” So much nervy restiveness in a single adverb.

The Capsule, a film by Athina Rachel Tsangari, 2012

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For its high-fashion fantasy, its juxtaposition of Gothic cruelty and sudden dance sequences, but perhaps most of all for its pompadoured goats. (Hoofed animals are a B2TW year-end-list favourite.)

James Adomian at the Comedy Bar, Toronto

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The list of male standup comedians I can watch talking about gender/sexuality/etc without cringing every few minutes is a lot shorter than the number who’ve made me chuckle at some point, so it was nice to expand the former last year. That’s partly because James Adomian is gay, I’m sure – he has a hilarious bit about homophobic beer ads co-opting straight women for their watery purposes – but not as much as every single profile of the guy suggests. His focus on impressions seems integral, in that he considers famous or  memorable people not only as challenges of mechanical imitation but as cultural signifiers too. Mimicking Sam Elliott, Adomian captured both his laconic rumble and the pantomime of American masculinity it represents. (“He sounds like a dad who ate another dad.”) By the time he reached a virtuosic climax, channeling all the caricatured gay villains he loves – Kaa the python as reptilian Truman Capote, Vincent Price introducing his “curious associate” Raoul – I was laughing so often that it wasn’t really laughter at all, just an open-mouthed ache.

Carly Rae Jepsen, Kiss

The thing about getting involved with somebody from the Internet, as I did more than once last year, is that the situation foregrounds its own absurdities. (I don’t mean Internet dating, which is weird in its own way, just more standardized.) The thing about Carly Rae Jepsen’s album is, not to diminish indelible #1 2012 single “Call Me Maybe” or those sprinting strings, but it has nine other songs that are almost as good. The thing about those tracks was how their liminal relationships and uptempo uncertainty and omens of kisses all matched the cartoon emotions of romance filtered through social media, with its constant yet selective flow. And the thing about “This Kiss” is that it sounds like a marginally less horny “Little Red Corvette.” Before you came into my life I missed you so bad.

Building Stories, by Chris Ware

I mean, look at it:

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A graphic novel is of course much more than its physical dimensions – and less, too, because Building Stories collects a decade of comics into 14 different segments of varying formats and possible configurations. Whatever narrative you form with them, it follows the lives of residents in the titular Chicago edifice, the structure itself, and one neurotic, sexually bipolar boy-bee. The central character is vivid enough to make her wistfulness infectious: a failed artist but fulfilled mother, only occasionally delusional, whose dark humour dwells on her imperfect body. The story she ends up writing is her own, a memoir pieced together from haltingly remembered moments, and I found it so moving that I tried to produce a minor tribute. You’ve just finished reading it.

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Carl’s Baker’s Dozen of Things He Loved in 2012, Not Previously Discussed Here, in Alphabetical Order

By Carl Wilson

The slogan of B2TW is “Untimely Talk About Culture,” so while we like doing year-end best-of lists, we like to wait a while with them, like till after Chinese New Year so everyone’s more on the same page. Sorry that’s so inconvenient for Christmas shopping. Margaux posted hers last week, Carl’s is today, and Chris’s will be next week. Hope you enjoy.

1. BackStory podcast

I’m pleased this list begins with maybe the geekiest thing on it – what’s more, not produced in any conventional cultural capital but at the University of Virginia.

backstoryThe M.O. of the weekly podcast and public-radio show BackStory is simple: It seizes on a topic in the recent news (or an occasion such as Thanksgiving or the election) and squeezes it through the wringer of American history. The chatty and casual hosts are three UV history professors, the “American History Guys”: “18th-Century Guy,” “19th-Century Guy” and “20th-Century Guy.” The latter has the rawest deal because the other two are kinda automatically fascinating. Though they are all white men, they invite female historians most often as their guest experts and they are highly conscious of the racial dimension of American history, as how could you not be.

Drugs, gun control, voting, infectious disease, the postal service, attempts to control the weather, presidential inaugurations, courtship, public education – just start with whatever most gets your attention. You will find out that colonial Americans were basically drunk all the time and Christmas was illegal. You will fill up your store of “Did you know?” stories for any dull moment in conversation. And you will be trained painlessly in historical thinking: that it was never “ever thus,” that most stories have so many sides that they are smooth ungraspable spheres and that common knowledge is often neither. This should comfort you in the bleakest moments and vice-versa.

2. Borgen, Season 1 (TV series, Denmark, 2010)

 The glut of great Danish television is no secret by now; the country seems to be picking up from HBO’s 2000s in the 2010s. This drama about Birgitte Noyberg, who nearly by accident becomes the first Danish female prime minister (which proved prescient), is tense, enlightened, funny and human. The acting is as good as the furniture and the political analysis better than most journalism. (“Borgen” means “the Castle,” which is what Danes call the main government building.) The episode in which Noyberg has to deal with a scandal in Greenland – which is basically to Denmark what Nunavut is to Canada – treated aboriginal issues more perceptively than I could ever hope for on a Canadian series. It was wrenching.

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3. Dead Authors Podcast, Chapter 12, with Laraine Newman and Paul F. Tompkins

Character comedian Paul F. Tompkins is the single funniest person to hear on any of the endless flood of comedy podcasts that come from L.A. now. I was disappointed at first with this literary-history series, in which the conceit is that H.G. Wells (Tompkins) uses his time machine to kidnap writers from the past (played by other comedians) and interview them in the 21st century. It seemed flat and mumbly early on. But then I heard this episode, with a live audience, and with first-generation Saturday Night Live comedian Laraine Newman impersonating Mary Shelley, discussing feminism and Frankenstein and what pricks the Romantics were. And more recently, the latest one with Jen Kirkman gender-bending into the role of Abbie Hoffman going on endlessly about “pigs.” Again, with a live audience.

It seems difficult to do really good improvisation without an audience or at least more participants – it’s difficult to keep a two-person feedback loop going in a vacuum unless you are Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, or having sex (or both). In any case I love the tension between mockery and respect here. Kids would get more out of books in school if we told them their writers were not only great but also nuts, and had lives that were amazing and also ridiculous. Just like theirs.

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 4. James R. Gaines, Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment (published 2005)

I’m excited about the upcoming first book by my friend John Shaw in Seattle, which is about the intertwined histories and meanings of the songs This Land is Your Land and God Bless America. He told me many times that Evening in the Palace of Reason is the best book about music he ever read. This summer, I finally started it, on a stay at my friend Julia’s cottage. I read it all night and all day; I don’t think I even stopped to go swimming.

Like John’s book, it’s a double-threaded story: It weaves together the backgrounds of two Prussian dynasties, the Bach family and the Hohenzollern line of rulers, leading of course to J.S. and Frederick the Great, climaxing in the famous “Musical Offering” in which Bach composed a series of ever-more-complex fugues on a theme supplied by the hobbyist-musician king (which Frederick had assumed would be impossible).

You might see why I didn’t rush to read it when John suggested it.

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But it’s about so much more. For one thing Frederick’s father and grandfather were insane assholes – his grandfather, for instance, literally had a collection of “giants,” tall men whom he had abducted from their home villages and held captive so that he could fetishistically enjoy watching them walk up and down the courtyard. The Bachs were strange in a whole other set of ways. And James R. Gaines has the most compulsively readable prose on Earth. But along the way he also makes subtle arguments about the relationships between faith, art and the Enlightenment. I think the implication is that art is a bit like A.A.: It doesn’t have to be a god, but it helps to serve a power higher than the self. 

5. Title cards of Girls, designed by Howard Nourmand

There are many other things I could name to admire about Lena Dunham’s inexhaustibly discussable HBO show – Adam Driver’s performance and character arc is the first to come to mind for me; Margaux pointed out several others – but they all coalesce at the beginning of each episode when after some pungent set-up, the screen clears and we see, for a brief moment, the stark colour-on-colour card that says GIRLS.

It has so many simultaneous pleasures. I can think of one for each letter.

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G: It respects the way we often watch television now, in multi-episode saved-up or downloaded or streamed bunches of episodes, which means you don’t want to sit through some long credit sequence repeatedly. (When I rewatched all of The Sopranos in the early winter – it held up remarkably well by the way – I couldn’t fast-forward through the credits quickly enough, even though I love that theme song.)

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I: Instead it’s like a silent-film title card, a cheap solution, a low-tech necessity. It could be held up on a square of construction paper. Girls does have a silent-comedy feel, if a silent film were really, really talkative; Lena Dunham is a little like Charlie Chaplin, if Charlie Chaplin were naked all the time. It’s a rebuke to the expectation of realism, a tip of the bowler to the potential for farce.

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 R: Of course it’s also a hashtag-style punchline to whatever’s just happened or is about to happen: Hannah is eating a cupcake in the shower? #girls. Shoshana is describing a reality show where people reveal their “baggage” and saying hers would be “that I’m a virgin of course”? #girls. Or, best, Ray and Charlie, rehearsing their stupid indie band, ransack Hannah and Marnie’s apartment and steal Hannah’s diary? #girls. It’s self-deprecating and disarming but simultaneously sardonic, kissing the stereotype off blithely.

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L: It’s oddly soothing and utopian. The colour contrasts pulse like an orb from space or a Brian Eno iPhone app or a pricey sex toy. This goes nicely with the theme music, composed as far as I can figure out by Michael Penn (Sean’s brother btw), which is just slightly more elaborate than the sound your computer makes when it powers up. So it is like the show, like Girls as a technology, is powering up. (On Windows the startup sound was of course itself composed with Brian Eno.)

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S: Finally, there’s also a cumulative effect: The trivial-but-felt suspense of wondering what the colours will be this week. The instant-dopamine rush of familiarity and celebration: Yes, it’s here, it’s on, it’s that time again, the all-too-short season has not ended. And the anticipatory awareness that soon you will be echoing it in some conversation or another: “Did you watch this week’s G I R L S yet?”

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Here’s a nice set of pictures from the designers showing all the stages they went through to get there. I don’t like a single one of them better.

6. Aimee Mann, Charmer

In the past I’ve always liked but perhaps underrated Aimee Mann, former singer for 80s Boston synth-pop band ‘Til Tuesday, married to the aforementioned Michael Penn, and composer of the main music for Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia. I might have compared her unfavourably for instance to Sam Phillips, who makes equally pretty (you’ve likely heard her sighing la-la’s on Gilmore Girls or more recently Bunheads) but more obviously barbed and painful songs. But this album kept resurfacing and insisting on itself, at a time when I wasn’t even listening to that much music.

I liked the theme that runs through it, of either being or dealing with the charming person, who may or may not also be a functional or decent person. I’d become aware that Mann is friends with a lot of comedians I admire, and I could detect a comic knowingness in the voice of her writing, almost as if each piece were a sketch. But most of all, and this is odd because I never say this, it was the craftsmanship of it – the way that each proficient melody was fitted perfectly to the words, and rhyme to rhyme, and structure to theme. It’s like a meal of fresh ingredients perfectly cooked, though there’s nothing exotic about the dishes. Just exquisite care, to be savoured.

Yet you didn’t hear people talk about it the way they talked about, say, Grimes (whose video for Oblivion would be on this list if I hadn’t mentioned it on this site already – I hope it wins the new Prism Prize for Canadian videos next week). This is the curse of the mid-career artist these days and I think even more so the female mid-career artist. That’s the not-so-funny joke behind the Portlandia sketch in which Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein hire Mann as their cleaning lady, keep telling her what big fans they are, but then keep scolding her for how she does the laundry.

It’s good to see her comedy friends helping her out in real life though, as when Tom Scharpling directed the videos for Charmer, including the one for “Labrador,” which remakes shot-for-shot the minor-80s-iconic Til Tuesday video “Voices Carry,” featuring among others Mad Men’s Jon Hamm.

7. Kacey Musgraves, “Merry Go Round” (from the upcoming album Same Trailer, Different Park)

From a veteran singer-songwriter to a great newcomer: My friend Jody Rosen turned me on to the wordplay and emotional wallop of Nashville’s Kacey Musgraves last year – “Merry Go Round” was a minor radio hit this fall, and her first major-label album is just about to come out in March. I had hoped Taylor Swift might mature into this kind of voice as she grew up, which doesn’t really look to be happening. But Musgraves simply begins from there, doing with country music what it often seems only country music can – address white people who have much more to worry about than “white people problems.”

(Or so I say in the middle of this very damn white list. There are a couple of exceptions coming up, but just wanted you to know that, yeah, I see it.)

8. The Music Box: A Shantytown Sound Laboratory, New Orleans

This I mentioned quickly on B2TW in the summer but it deserves note again. You know the old line that writing about music is like dancing about architecture? Here’s the architecture you can dance to. A collective led by street artist Swoon and others turned a set of dilapidated structures (not exactly hard to come by in New Orleans) into a playable, amplified, megaphoned, wind-driven, synthesized, climbable, jammable, avant-gardable, neighbour-kid-interactable structure called the Music Box, on a none-too-affluent NOLA block. It was full of horns you could blow into and weather vanes that played chimes and organs and drums and looping devices embedded in all kinds of crannies. I visited it the last day it was open and wished I could spend many more days there with the local children and teens who were enchanted with it and the vital spirits who built it. Luckily, though it’s over, it’s not over: The Dithyramblina , like the Hacienda, must yet be built.

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9. Eddie Pepitone at the Dark Comedy Festival, Toronto

I could name instead Maria Bamford’s set at the same festival, which was a lot like her amazing special that she performs for just her parents; or Kathleen Phillips volunteering as a foul-mouthed sacrificial “virgin” in a lame Satanic ritual in a Halloween comedy show at Double Double Land, but I have talked a lot about those two hilarious women. Eddie Pepitone was new to me this year. Not sure how that happened, it just did.

And I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so cripplingly continuously – while being moved and politically challenged and thinking about psychoanalysis and the entertainment-industrial complex, and slightly frightened because he would bomb out into the crowd to sit in any empty seat and heckle himself (because who else could heckle him so effectively?) and I had an empty seat beside me – in my life. I could try to repeat jokes to you but that never works. Pepitone also had a very affecting interview on the Marc Maron podcast, talking about his mother’s mental illness and his father’s frustrated ambition and growing up on Staten Island. I’d like to see the documentary about him, The Bitter Buddha.

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10. Jerzy Pilch, My First Suicide, translated by David Frick (Polish 2006, English 2012)

A stroke of serendipity: John Darnielle (aka the Mountain Goats) mentioned Polish novelist Jerzy Pilch on Facebook one day last spring, and I asked him which book he’d recommend. He told me a different one, but literally a day or two later there was a charity book sale at work and this was there for $5. I read it the next weekend on a beach.

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This is basically the biography of the viewpoint character – apparently autobiographical though the deviations are difficult to plot – in linked short stories, in what turns out to be the distinct counterculture of Calvinist Poland – like Garcia Marquez, but with Eastern European dour humour, he creates an entire world.

And then he tears it down, with a crash of vodka bottles, deactivated cellphones and dubious liaisons. The only lesson one could take from it is never grow up.

But it is fiction that is indelibly itself, with a voice that gets right into your duodenum and I will read anything he writes that I can find. The lesson I take from that is, sometimes you get lucky.

11. Three dances on the This American Life live special, The Invisible Made Visible

 Last May the Chicago radio show did a live concert that was simulcast into theatres all over the continent. I couldn’t make it to any of the screenings but I downloaded the show later. There are lots of nice things in it but three great ones, all dances: Ira Glass was inspired to do the show because he sensed his audience would love the blend of virtuosity and clumsy dailiness in the work of choreographer Monica Bill Barnes, but of course he couldn’t put a dance company on the radio. This turns out to have been a very smart instinct: I’m no dance expert but I’ve seldom seen anything (though Toronto choreographer Ame Henderson’s work with Public Recordings comes close) that posed such effective solutions to the issues of the form’s artificiality – an artificiality that we desire because it’s beautiful, but might also find irrelevant because it is rareified. One Barnes dance here was based on audience behaviour at a James Brown concert; the other involved having a lot of cardboard suitcases being stacked by and then thrown at a dancer. (I took it to be about moving house.) They were gorgeous and funny and breathed a recognizable flavour of air. I told a friend they felt like a Trampoline Hall lecture in dance form. I couldn’t take my eyes off them.

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The other dance was by David Rakoff (who was from Toronto by the way) talking about the cancer that cost him the ability to dance, and then doing it anyway. This performance is already kind of famous. He died not long later and a lot of people who didn’t know him are still heartbroken about that, including me.

12. Reggie Watts at the Mod Club, JFL42 festival, Toronto, Sept. 21, 2012

 A continuing theme of the comedy-related items here is that I am not quite sure how to write about them. I can do it in the immediate wake of those experiences, but retrospectively they have an elusive quality. That’s both more and less true of Reggie Watts. In a sense I am on firmer ground with him because he’s also a musician, but what happened in his show was hard to keep track of even while it was happening – he would begin speaking about soda or about some street name he saw that day, and it would become this involuted R&B riff and a keyboard solo and then a falsetto rap about the constellations. He is a virtuoso in a form that doesn’t exist until he creates it, and then demolishes it. Like the best comedy and in a way the best music, it is at once profoundly intellectual and boldly stupid. The best way I can communicate it I think is to let you watch his TED Talk, which also operates very gratifyingly as a demolition job on the whole once-promising and now-bloated phenomenon of the TED Talk.

13. Your Sister’s Sister, a movie by Lynn Shelton, 2012

I guess I didn’t see that many movies in 2012, considering that I have only seen one of the nominees for Best Picture in the Oscars next week. But one that stuck with me is this film written and directed by Lynn Shelton, who made the quizzical but compelling Humpday, also starring Mark Duplass, in 2009. Her ken for sexual farce is carried forward here but into a much darker, sadder place. The funny thing is that there are things terribly wrong with this movie, including at least one chokingly bad and unbelievable twist on which the whole story hinges and a resolution that seems completely pat and again hard to swallow considering the ordeal the film’s just put you through. But the acting and the dialogue in the rest of the film make that completely unimportant. Duplass, Emily Blunt and my current favourite actor in the world, Rosemarie DeWitt, are completely present and incarnate in every frame and every second of their inappropriate triangulation, such that I felt like I was breathing and aching right in rhythm with them. The story is minute and intimate and dwells on the completely central but not-often-enough-grappled-sincerely-with subject of how people can be remotely decent to each other when they need so much and are so basically fucked up from the first dice toss. I almost wonder if the hard-to-credit happy ending is simply a vote on the side of, “Let’s say we can, even if that’s probably a lie, because otherwise, ouch.” Which is a violation of logic and form and honesty that I will take from a movie, if it’s already convinced me we are copacetic. How are you supposed to end a story, anyway? It’s always a feint. True stories don’t really end so much as stop. Like this.

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Filed under books, carl wilson, comedy, dance, lectures, literature, movies, music, other, TV/video

List of Cultural Remembrances from the Year of The Dragon

by Margaux Williamson

1. Trickster Makes This World (2010) – book by Lewis Hyde

TricksterMakesWorld - Copy

Best book ever, man. Lewis Hyde examines the origin stories of hunger, rule breaking and loopholes from different cultures all over the world. I would call it invaluable – and dense. For some reason I didn’t think I would like it, so I read the chapters that seemed most interesting, then I started from the beginning and read the whole thing again, losing it twice along the way. I could say a lot about it, but mainly, if I knew you, I would buy it for you. The subject matter of “tricksters” might seem specific, but this book is far-reaching and deep. And rigorous.

Because the book looks to so many different cultures, it inevitably seems to create a new one – but because the subject matter is about corrupting what becomes too immovable, this new world culture doesn’t feel oppressive, it just feels older and wiser and full of troublemakers who are here to help.

2. The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts (1975) – a memoir by Maxine Hong Kingston 

Trickster Makes This World cited the work of a lot of people I love and am familiar with, like Marcel Duchamp, Allen Ginsberg and Frederick Douglass, but also one I didn’t know – Maxine Hong Kingston. I ended up picking up her book  The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts shortly after reading Trickster Makes This World. The voice of the book is angry and uncertain, the heroine trying to figure out what is real from the old world or the new world, from inside her house or outside. It’s like she is throwing her arms and legs around to figure out what the actual boundaries are, and in doing so, finds the new framework of her specific world. It is epic and intimate.

According to Wikipedia, the book:

…has maintained a “vexed reception history that both attests to its popularity and questions it.” Much of the debate concerns issues dealing with “autobiographical accuracy, cultural authenticity, and ethnic representativeness,”  while the critical center of the battle is whether or not Kingston offers a faithful representation of Chinese culture and of Chinese-Americans.

The book was criticized by the American writer Frank Chin for being “unChinese” and “a fake” and by the Chinese American writer Jeffery Paul Chan for being called non-fiction and for belittling Chinese-American experiences.

Both criticisms brought to mind another captivating and subversive book I read this year: I Love Dick (1997) by Chris Krausa book that attracted similar criticisms from male colleagues but did well to wait for the younger critics, as seen in this really good essay on the author by Elizabeth Gumport. Here’s a passage from I Love Dick that Gumport quotes in her piece:

Because most “serious” fiction, still, involves the fullest possible expression of a single person’s subjectivity, it’s considered crass and amateurish not to “fictionalize” the supporting cast of characters, changing names and insignificant features of their identities. The “serious contemporary hetero-male novel” is a thinly veiled Story of Me, as voraciously consumptive as all of patriarchy. While the hero/anti-hero explicitly is the author, everybody else is reduced to “characters.” . . .

When women try to pierce this false conceit by naming names because our “I”s are changing as we meet other “I”s, we’re called bitches, libelers, pornographers, and
 amateurs.

Well said, Chris Kraus.

3. The animated movies of Studio Ghibli at Toronto’s TIFF Lightbox

Studio-Ghibli-Totoro-940x564

Greatest art pleasure of the year:  a month-long program of Studio Ghibli animated movies at the TIFF cinemas during the spring.  For movies that continuously touch on the battle between nature living and dead, there is no better venue than a warm theatre in a cold Toronto March.

4.  Idle No More 

It’s been amazing to see the different Canadian Aboriginal communities move together for the  Idle No More protests across the country. It made me think of the smallest and the biggest gestures of trying to right wrongs and change your neighbourhood or the world. Small things like – I took a Canadian art history course once with a professor named Lynda Jessup. Maybe assuming we had already had our fill of the Group of 7 and their nature, Lynda Jessup taught us about the dead Catholic nun paintings (doesn’t count as vanity if you get your portrait done after death) from the early white colonialists, and then went straight to contemporary First Nations, Inuit and Métis art. Her course program gave me a sense that Canada was more exciting than it would lead you to believe. I felt grateful for it, and to other small and big gestures from friends and groups like the ImagineNATIVE Film Festival  where I’ve seen great and surprising things including, this past year, Alanis Obomsawin’s movie The People of the Kattawapiskak River, about the Attawapiskat housing crisis, which I wrote about here.

5. All the wrong people telling all the right stories

I started the year off reading Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) on my Kindle – about a poor young white boy and an escaped slave’s adventures around the Mississippi river in the mid-19th-century . Somehow, Ernest Hemingway’s critique of the book had always stuck in my head. Hemingway said it was the greatest American novel, the novel that all other American novels come from, except for the horrible few last chapters , which no one should read. Though I hadn’t read Huckleberry Finn, I assumed Hemingway was wrong – maybe out of a random but sturdy loyalty to Mark Twain that must have ignited when I put on a Mark Twain wig and mustache at age ten for a school play.

Hemingway wasn’t wrong. Huckleberry Finn is a remarkable book and I wanted very much to cut out the last chapters and grind them down in my compost and let the worms eat them.

Suddenly feeling closer to Ernest Hemingway, I finally read his beautiful The Sun Also Rises about an American in Spain saying something about America. A book that made me feel that my alcohol consumption is totally moderate. Which echoed in my mind as I later read Ben Lerner’s beautiful novel Leaving the Atocha Station (2011) about a more contemporary man in Spain who is there to write something about Spain but then says something about America. A book that made me feel that my drug consumption was totally moderate.

But back to Huckleberry Finn; those terrible last chapters of Huckelberry Finn, and the great majority of chapters, kept thoughts of appropriation, political engagement and entertainment in my mind all year – thoughts heightened by good movies like Beasts of the Southern Wild (made by Benh Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar),  Django Unchained (made by Quentin Tarantino)  and The Paperboy (made by Lee Daniels). What those movies have in common with each other and with Huckleberry Finn is the Deep South, complicated appropriation of voice, and a desire to go towards pleasure, beauty, fantasy and heroes within stories that are fundamentally painful.

Appropriation is always a complicated issue. For me personally for instance, I always wish more men wrote in women’s voices. Though of course people are bound to get things terribly wrong, it’s hard not to see an empathy or loyalty develop to characters you work hard to identify with. Which suddenly makes me remember some interesting articles by Sarah Bakewell on Montaigne that ran in the Guardian last year (oh! now I see it’s a book). To sum up her summing up Montaigne: “Once you have seen the world from someone else’s perspective, it becomes harder to torture, hunt, or kill them.”

I heard Kevin Hegge, who made the movie She Said Boom: The Story of Fifth Column about the all-woman Toronto rock band, be asked on the radio this past year if he had been hesitant about directing  a movie that was so much about women’s voices. He said he tries very hard not to take offense at the assumption that a woman directing would have been uncomplicated. There are women who are not feminists, he said, continuing: I am a feminist – a feminist needed to direct this movie.

video still of artist and musician G.B. Jones from "She Said Boom: The Story of Fifth Column"

video still of artist and musician G.B. Jones from “She Said Boom: The Story of Fifth Column”

I think that’s what he said. I didn’t write it down.

6. Behavioral science: B.F. Skinner wasn’t totally wrong

Speaking of Montaigne trying to see things from other cultural perspectives (but mainly trying to imagine what his cat was thinking), behavioral science came back in fashion this year, or at least it seemed so to me after reading David H. Freedman’s article The Perfected Self, which lingered in my mind long after reading it. I always kind of liked B.F. Skinner, having picked up his book Beyond Freedom and Dignity because I thought the title was funny, but ending up really appreciating it and B.F. Skinner along the way.  This was all in my mind as I read Jane McGonigal’s book  Reality is Broken about how gamers have this sense that reality is broken because reality feels so much less meaningful and rewarding than video games. Though the book contains matter-of-fact lines like “we know regular life is meaningless, so …”,  it’s a somewhat hilariously practical approach to thinking about how humans can change their behavior.

7. Dante’s Inferno (around 1320)

I had no idea how gentle and completely captivating this book was.  I loved especially the first realm of hell, Limbo. It felt like a best-of, having all the people in history unlucky to be born just before Jesus. Even apart from finding Homer, Penthesilea, Orpheus, Plato and Euclid there, it felt so familiar. Dante’s empathy with the sufferers he came upon as he carried on through the realms of hell made you really feel sad that the work isn’t part of the  bible.

Loved this painting this year: 

St. Anthony Beaten by Devils, panel from the Altarpiece of the Eucharist, 1423-26 (oil on panel) / by  Sassetta (Stefano di Giovanni di Consolo) (c.1392-1450)

St. Anthony Beaten by Devils, panel from the Altarpiece of the Eucharist, 1423-26 (oil on panel) / by Sassetta (Stefano di Giovanni di Consolo) (c.1392-1450)

Also loved this one by Chris Ofili that stayed in my head all year:

Chris Ofili / Lover’s rock – guilt

Chris Ofili / Lover’s rock – guilt

8. We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011) – movie by Lynne Ramsay

With some of the movies I mentioned above, I thought about the function of fantasy and entertainment in regards to painful political situations.  For instance, Mark Twain’s attempt at a happy ending for a story that is contained firmly within the time of slavery.  Or Quentin Tarantino with Django Unchained, staging a story two years before slavery ends, adding to the story a triumphant ending no less – Tarantino getting as close to hope and a hero as one could possibly fantasize about. I couldn’t help but imagine the opposite movie, a movie not about the near end of American slavery but about the beginning, a story that would feel centuries away from hope – how impossible it would be. How it hurts to even imagine. How not like the movies it would feel. I thought about these things in positive terms, not just as though it’s dumb or dangerous to find delicious and pleasurable stories to tell within the worst stories that we have, but also that it serves a purpose.

The movie that stayed with me most in this way this year was Lynne Ramsay‘s We Need to Talk About Kevin.  I had never thought of the genre of reckless-feminist-fantasy movie (in this case, a shifting-of-perspectives fantasy contained within a nightmare situation). But this seemingly effortless masterpiece is now my favourite of the genre. I’ll write more about it soon.

9. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (2011) – book by Stephen Greenblatt

Speaking of happy endings to the worst stories we have, Stephen Greenblatt wrote a brilliant book that I somehow couldn’t put down, about a book hunter and a book that may have greatly contributed to the undoing the spell of the centuries-long dark ages. He tells the story of Poggio Bracciolini, a book hunter and papal secretary from the 15th century who found the poet Lucretius’  On the Nature of Things, a work written in the first century BC in service of Epicurean ideas. Lucretius’ work includes explanations of atoms, evolution and returning to the ground when you die. The Swerve flies from the 15th century back to the collapse of the Roman Empire, forward to the Renaissance, back to the dark ages and forward again to *spoiler* Thomas Jefferson. Within all the most painful stories about where humans can go and how long they can stay there, it tells the best story – the one about how one beautiful book saved the world.

10. Lena Dunham’s television show Girls

Lena Dunham’s television series Girls is great – as many people have said and many have disagreed with. I love that virgin character and her virgin-lover.

All the criticism about the lack of people of colour on the show was true, but so strange in comparison with all the other popular shows by white men that leave everyone out. It made me think that maybe white men are still universal and white women are still just white women.

Or maybe the creators’ casually audacious attempt to be universal with the title “Girls” but be so so specific in content is what brought on the attention. But maybe that’s good. Maybe we can add it to the pile of universal specifics that is getting more interesting by the day. We can know it as Lena Dunham’s Girls, right there next to Rye Rye’s Hardcore Girls, next to these true crime hardcore girls, next to my sweet little nieces (who are girls).

Since I’m suddenly lost in the subject of girls, let’s go to Honey Boo Boo child and recognize that she, Alana, is a powerful child-pageant contestant who is destroying the perverse realm of learned femininity and child sexuality from within. On television, she gets to use her own words rather than speaking the words that someone in an office far away wrote for her.  She might not be writing her own scenes yet, but she’s in control of the dialogue and she’s pretty great at dialogue.

Also – thank you Tina Fey, and good job The Mindy Project. The thing you notice about women making their own television shows is that the men on television get a lot more interesting.

Back to Lena Dunham’s Girls. The most criticism I saw for the show seemed to initially come out of New York. It’s hard to do something in your hometown I guess. And maybe the story of second-generation artists and trust-fund kids running around in the city without looking out at the world is a more embarrassing story than the one New York used to be able to tell. But you got to use what you’ve got. When the neighbourhood changes, the story changes.

11. Speaking of using what you’ve got: Friends in my Toronto neighbourhood

Darren O’Donnell continues to be one of the most interesting artists around, with his and others’ Mammalian Diving Reflex (“Ideal Entertainment for the End of the World”) and the band of teenagers The Torontonians growing in art and skill.

Lynn Crosbie, who wrote one of my favourite essays this year about violence in movies, continued to devastate and bring the sun in with her beautiful book Life is About Losing Everything.

And Sheila Heti, whose latest book I acted in, continues to get much-deserved rave reviews like this really smart one from Joanna Biggs of the London Review of Books.

Etc. Etc.

* Honourable mentions: Los Angeles – you are so beautiful in January. Attack the Block – you were as good as E.T.

2012-01-18 16.20

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Filed under books, comedy, literature, margaux williamson, movies, TV/video, visual art

On the Subject of Artists Talking About Art (By Sheila Heti)

Margaux Williamson: A few days ago, I took a walk with the writer Sheila Heti. We got onto the subject of artists talking about art. She had a lot to say about this and I was curious to hear more. I asked her if she would write about it for Back to the World. I’m really glad I asked – my friend sent me this incredibly smart and dead-on post this morning:

vonnegut-asshole

By Sheila Heti

I am not sure how to set down my anger in a way that is coherent – this anger that suddenly hit me a month ago, or maybe a few weeks ago. I spent most of 2012 publicizing my novel, How Should a Person Be? – touring and doing interviews and whatnot. (If you had asked me, a few years ago, what a year spent promoting a book might look like, I would have said it was impossible to do. But I have spent the better part of a year doing just that – and my friends, oy vey.) Anyway, I just looked up a month ago from all this and heard some complaint that I had been deaf to – a common thread of criticism about my book which wasn’t so much about the book (I think) as a proposition the book was making: that a legitimate thing to think and talk about (especially among people who make art) is the making of art. Suddenly, all sorts of words flooded into my mind that had been repeated all year, but which I had not yet put together as the chorus that it was: that this activity is privileged, narcissistic and childish; something permitted to those at university, maybe, but even then, a bit far-fetched as an activity of real importance. Certainly to be put away – along with the other “childish things” – once one becomes a man.

A funny thing is that much of this criticism came from very smart people in populous American cities, where (it is implied) the more mature, less narcissistic, and less privileged thing to talk about is money. Money is a conversation for adults. Art, for undergrads.

I’m pretty sure the majority of people who complained about all the conversations about art in my book are the same people who bemoan the lack of reading in our culture, who bewail the death of the novel, and who wish America was smarter and greater. Yet how can one claim, on the one hand, to wish to protect the cherished art of novel-reading, and on the other, to denounce as childish, privileged and narcissistic a healthy and normal conversation about art’s importance and the best way to make it – especially when that conversation is happening among, of all people, artists!

I think it’s the wholesale infiltration of concerns about money and commerce into art that leads to art’s withering on the vine, not direct and serious conversation about how to make art now. Stop talking about Amazon, for godssakes! For one minute!

I have spent a lot of time among fellow writers in New York, and although I count many of these people as my beloved friends, I rarely have a conversation in that city about art that does not either begin, end, or quickly turn into a conversation about the writing business – about agents and advances and gossip about other peoples’ advances and complaints about not getting reviewed here or there. In Toronto (that childish, infantile place) – or the Toronto that I depict, and that I am and have long been a part of – to turn a conversation in that direction would feel embarrassing. Not because we have so much money or do not need money as much (I don’t know anyone with a trust fund here), but because it would mean taking time away from what is more important and more vital, and which should be at the core of what we’re doing, and which we want to be doing better.

Perhaps this is “uncool.” As Dave Hickey once said of Richard Serra: “He says, ‘Let’s go look at art,’ so that’s what he does. He’s kinda corny because he’s not hip at all. He doesn’t know anybody. He doesn’t know who got AIDS, he doesn’t know who got fired. But he’s a real artist to me anyway.” Richard Serra is one of the artists I was thinking about most intently while I was writing my book – so to learn this from Hickey (a few years later) made sense. Probably that’s why Serra’s art provides so much to think about. What place does cool or hip have in any of this? Looking over my bookshelf at my most beloved writers – Kierkegaard, Franz Kafka, C.S. Lewis, Flannery O’Connor, Vonnegut – this is not a club of cool people, but a club (if it is a club) of those who could never be considered cool. A person can only be cool about what they do not care about. And these people cared more than anyone.

I am not saying that my New York friends or certain reviewers don’t actually care about art. They must. What I am picking up on is the distaste for bringing that caring into public. Caring about art is almost illicit, something one does in the privacy of one’s home, like masturbation. Well, sex and orgies are much more pleasurable than masturbation, and talking about art with other people is much more pleasurable than thinking about it alone. In any case, one can and should have both.

Artists should think about art, and should talk about it together, the same way people agitating for social change should talk about social change together. Would Occupy Wall Street have happened if people didn’t finally decide to put their collective grievances into a public space and talk about them? Art is not frivolous. Art is not a luxury. It moves the world forward. Like Occupy, it speaks for the pockets of our culture and our hearts that the mainstream, commercialized world does not want to hear about; art elbows its way in. It’s about balancing – about justice. It allows our deepest grievances and sorrows to take centre stage. Art is an example of human freedom and striving. It defines and stretches our humanity, it clears the world of convenient lies, it touches the loneliness that plagues us all and replaces it with fellow-feeling. It creates models of possible worlds in opposition to the worlds we live in, which we cannot imagine our way out of without art.

If my book can be placed among those that create possible worlds, I suppose  it’s a world in which artists can talk about art with dignity, because there is nothing to ridicule there.

If conversations about art are “privileged,” then it is also a privilege to talk about injustice. And maybe it is! Yes, I suppose it is a great privilege to be able to speak about art and justice. It is a great privilege, also, to be alive. And yet we do not all stab knives into our chests. It is a great privilege to be so far advanced in human history that writing and reading exist for so many. Yet that these things don’t exist for all, does not mean that those who read should poke out their eyes with sticks. All these privileges are meant to be taken. And used.

Finally, narcissism is something that begins and ends with itself. The artist is not narcissistic; she looks at her self in order to talk about other selves. She then creates something and gives it to the world. Someone who does this could be considered narcissistic in her personal life; only her friends and family know for sure. Yet people who look at themselves in order to better look at the world – that is not narcissism. It is, and has always been, what people who make art do, and must do. You cannot do it blind. You cannot do it by looking at a toaster. We do not look at ourselves in order to bask in our vanity (do you think anyone writes in furs?) but to understand ourselves as human beings – so as to understand other human beings – the human: fiction’s greatest subject. If we as a culture hate art, and this past year has made me suspect we do, I can only think it is because we are afraid to look at ourselves. And we hate the artist because she can look, and does.

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Filed under books, guest post, literature, margaux williamson, visual art

On the Genre of “In Conversation”: David Byrne and Cory Doctorow, Authors at Harbourfront Centre, Toronto, Sept. 19, 2012

(Picture swiped from Hazlitt.)

by Carl Wilson

There were some high points to the staged discussion this week in Toronto between musician/much-else David Byrne and author/Internet activist Cory Doctorow, on the occasion of Byrne’s tour for his terrific-sounding book How Music Works. But they didn’t stop the feeling that this conversation shouldn’t have taken place in this form  at all.

For example, Byrne recounted a conversation with his 22-year-old daughter about copyright, in which he said that under current rules his work would go on supporting her financially long after he was ­dead, and that he thought this was kind of a bad thing, both for the art (which would not join the public domain as it should) and (he implied) for her own autonomy. Sorry, honey!

For his part, Doctorow passionately made a case that the business model that evolved in the 20th century for musical cover versions – the original creators can’t prevent anyone from covering their songs as long as they’re paid a royalty – should in fact be a model for how all copyright, especially online, works. He elegantly argued that music as a human practice long predates the existence of commercial markets for it, and that the only sane way to develop systems of regulation is to make them true to the spirit of the historical norms that surround it, such as that anyone ought to be able to sing any song, in public, and that any reasonable definition of public in the 21st century includes, for example, YouTube.

But there were assymetries in their conversational style that made for an uncomfortable evening, and not in a particularly enlightening way. Byrne is an artist whose social awkwardness (although much mellowed by age) is part of his essential makeup, as is his logical but lateral thinking, and his kind of savant-ish gift for deriving abstract proposition from experience via free-associative rumination. (It’s how he finds himself a city, picks a building that he wants to live in – it’s over there – water flowing underground, into the blue again.) And while he’s a very savvy user of technology for someone of his generation, I don’t think he has immensely much to tell us about the Internet that any intelligent person who’s been paying attention doesn’t also know.

Doctorow, meanwhile, is a professional opinion-giver, a whip-smart advocate for strong positions on contemporary technology and society. Where Byrne conversates a bit like a chickadee lighting from twig to palm with a beakful of seed, Doctorow expounds like an eloquent atheist preacher at the digital pulpit.

Guess which one took up most of the verbal space? Not the person most of the audience was there to hear. As I joked afterwards, when a lot of the audience heard the publicity for a conversation between David Byrne and Cory Doctorow, they heard, “David Byrne and Mwah-mwah-blah-blah-blah.” (Insert Peanuts teacher voice/Far Side “Ginger” cartoon here.)

That’s no slight against Doctorow. The situation did him the greater disservice, making much of the audience turn against him, frustrated they weren’t hearing more from the better-known personality (at least in the demographic that is likely to attend a $25-ticketed literary conversation). No one was going to hold it against David Byrne.

Much beyond the specific miscasting of these two as conversational partners for an audience (I’m sure as conversational partners on their own they’d have a great time), there are general lessons here.

A while ago, I was very kindly brought out to Portland to do a presentation about my work to a university audience. Even more kindly, the organizers thought that since I’d come all that way, we should put on another public event in town. Who else should be on the bill? Portland has a lot of interesting personalities, and to my surprise after some casting about, Frank Black (aka Charles Thompson, aka Black Francis of the Pixies) agreed to participate.

Come that night, even though the themes of our conversation were organized around my book, of course most people who came to the show were there to see Frank Black (in the Q&A they kept trying to get him to sing songs). I was the “Mwah-mwah-blah-blah-blah” on that bill. The only real option for the relatively obscure critic-author on stage with the famous musician was to fall into the role of his interviewer. Charles was extremely gracious and I really enjoyed the experience on many levels, but ultimately, as an event purportedly about my book, it didn’t make much sense.

Let’s derive a few rules of thumb from these stories. (I’m indebted to post-show conversation partners, Misha Glouberman, Chris Frey, Rebecca Payne, Emily Keeler and Charles Yao.) They may even apply to life beyond staged events.

a) When two people are going to be “in conversation,” in public, they ideally should be about equally familiar to the audience. Or something about the situation might mean that they each attract half a crowd, to whom one is familiar and the other is obscure and vice-versa, and your goal might be to introduce these two publics to one another.

b) The subject matter should be something in which they’re both fluent, though hopefully from different angles. (It also should be neither unhelpfully general nor smotheringly specific. A pointed question is a good starting point. The Harbourfront event’s question was “Wassup Internet?” Enough said.)

c) When that’s not possible or desirable for some reason, don’t play the less-well-known person for a patsy. The simplest thing might be to say upfront that they’re interviewing the better-known person. Bonus points: A very good trick can be to have the better-known person be billed as interviewing the less-known person. This can bestow a glow of generosity to the whole proceeding.

d) If that’s not what you want, there is a solution: a moderator, who relieves the speakers of visible responsibility (and blame) for guiding the conversation. A good moderator will help keep the share of time in balance. A really good moderator can also lend shape to a conversation that might otherwise ramble on endless tangents. A great moderator can do all that while seeming invisible.

e) If all else fails, you can alleviate a great many sins by bringing the audience into the conversation. At heart why should a question-and-answer period be so much shorter than the period speakers spend deciding the subject matter? The crowd is often much more dynamic. Obviously, again, a moderator needs to keep the Q&A on track, but I’d be as happy to go to a show that was all Q&A and zero meandering speaker as vice-versa.

In fact, the nicest moment the whole night was when a very young man came up and asked Byrne if he could repeat the name of the song he’d said he heard as a young man himself, whose sound “let him know there was something else out there.” Byrne paused for a moment, confused, and then answered, “Oh, you mean by the Byrds?” I think so, the young man said. And then very carefully copied in pen on his notepad, syllable by syllable, echoing Byrne’s answer out loud: “Mis-ter… Tam … bour… ine… Man?” In case we needed reminding that you can never assume worlds overlap. (People laughed, but it was just amazingly sweet.)

Ultimately, any form of entertainment that solely consists of somebody or somebodies speaking, if they are not just telling jokes, is dicey. It is only so much fun to listen to people talk and not to talk back, unless it’s very lively and engaging. There are a million ways for it to go wrong and the only way for it to go right is for someone to think through, carefully and conscientiously, “Just what is this going to be like?” Otherwise it is dubious that it should be done at all.

And this is worth talking about right now because these kinds of staged conversations and lectures and such have retaken a central place in our culture – the decline of print and rise of the digital-virtual somehow combining to generate a keener hunger for physical presence and non-fiction discourse than previously in my lifetime, like a return to the days of the chalk talk and Mark Twain. And, as it was then, it’s becoming one of the few ways writers can make a living. If that’s how it’s going to be, it should itself be a kind of art, not an afterthought.

PS: If you’re interested in this general subject, this series of video chats between Misha Glouberman and speakers’ agent David Lavin might be worth watching.

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Filed under books, carl wilson, events, lectures, music

Tuesday Musics: “Little Birds” by Neutral Milk Hotel (Jeff Mangum)

by Carl Wilson

I finally read Kim Cooper’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea book this week – the bestselling volume in the 33 1/3 series, and therefore in a dumb way a bit of a rival to mine (at least till Lethem knocks us both out?), which embarrassingly may be a subconscious reason I took so long to read it, along with my discomfort with the cultishness around that album.

But the book is an excellent work of oral history that dispels myths rather than feeding them – except perhaps in a couple of hard-to-avoid places, like this one: Kim describes the premiere of this song a while after the final Neutral Milk Hotel song tour and quotes one of the band’s circle of friends (who filmed a lot of their gigs), Lance Bangs, having trouble imagining the band playing it – “What you’re hearing is so much more direct and fucked up, that there’s not really room to take a step back and hear that. To me it was this weird delineation.” And the band never played together officially again.

That made me want to listen to it today – I’m not sure when this recording was made, but it doesn’t strike me as that unadaptable to the band, relative to the music they’d made before. It must have been the moment more than the song itself, I think.  People are very resistant to the argument that music is unstoppably social, that what we hear in a song is always made as much out of contexts as of rhythms and chords and timbres. The story of “Little Birds” seems like a good illustration. It’s certainly charged by being the last of its late-1990s NMH era, and no admirer can help being sad there were no more. But Kim’s book demystifies (perhaps even to a fault) the “mad dropout” story of Mangum’s withdrawal from music, which was also relieved in the past couple of years with limited tours, including a Toronto show I was very lucky to see last summer.

Part of what made those concerts such happy events is that fans had gotten over that petty notion that an artist who’d given them something great somehow owed them more. Instead they could take the shows as acts of generosity, which is surely what the songs had always been, for the community of musicians and audiences alike, and what songs always are – along with being bracingly selfish things, which this song surely is too. There’s no contradiction there. And no contract.

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Filed under books, carl wilson, music, Tuesday Musics