Tag Archives: William Burroughs

Tea With Chris: 19th Century Nerds

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: Good times before we were born, part 1: Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen posted a remarkably charming reminiscence on his website of what 1950s science-fiction meant to him as an unsuccessfully assimilated Jewish suburban child, “The Cortico-Thalamic Pause” – which along the way revives the memory of a semi-Situationist Polish Count in exile whose premature transhumanist ideas inspired idiots, con men and geniuses (the one whose writings gave Steely Dan its name, for instance).

Good times before we were born, part 2: Meanwhile over on Slate, my music-critic friends Jody Rosen and Ann Powers conducted a conversation about the new Frank Sinatra biography that starts out interesting and then gets fascinating. I think many people of my generation have a two-dimensional image of Sinatra. People of the generation younger may have no sense of Sinatra at all. With Jody’s deep feel for pre-rock popular American music (follow his links!) and Ann’s unerring ability to tease out larger social meanings, especially about sex and gender, wherever she looks and listens, no one could come away from their dialogue without an enlarged understanding (the kind that makes you need special underwear.) And they do it so breezily.

Margaux: David Hoffos’ exhibition “Scenes from the House Dream” (curated by Shirley Madill) is really worth seeing, especially if you don’t know his work. The show is traveling between different museums and will be in Toronto at the MOCCA till December 31. When I saw it with a friend, we had to wait in a line-up in the daylight of the museum’s foyer. When our turn came, we were ushered under a black cloth into the show. It was nearly as exciting as attending my first garage-venue haunted house – complete with the obvious joy involved in making things and, then, in showing them.

On display on the other side of the curtain were dioramas and projections and all of their backstage mechanisms presented in the dark. Looking at everyday (and no so everyday) scenes with such an altered perspective inevitably offers sheer physical pleasure – here as though there is suddenly a mountain in Toronto, but that mountain is being played by the audience. Most of the scenes are as dark and contemplative as the museum space.

The inventive, functional and painterly backstage mechanisms are the other side of a mirror to the high craft and stability of the dioramas’ illusions. This is where the real pleasure is. It is a pretty good day when you leave an art museum trying to remember how again it is that your eyes work.

Waterfront activity for this coming Sunday – Field Trip: Walking with Shawn Micallef! (exclamation point mine). From the Facebook event page: Following The Power Plant gallery’s Sunday Scene tour by Professor Robert Wright, join Shawn Micallef, author of the recently published “Stroll: Psychogeographic Walking Tours of Toronto” for a walking wander of the Harbourfront area. $4 Members, $6 Non-Members (at the door), Free entry with book purchase at the door.

Chris: Nerds, c. 1890:

Speaking of which: I guess Sega decided to promote awareness of hedgehog depopulation (but mostly its new video game) with a staged race? There’s a photo of one critter wearing little red booties at the link, just like everyone’s favourite spiny blue sprinter. That image is uncanny when you began playing Sonic the Hedgehog around kindergarten.

The Paris Review posted a long new interview with Michel Houellebecq. Celine Dion comes up. Even the introduction is bleakly funny: “At the age of thirty-six, he published his first novel, Whatever (1994), about the crushingly boring lives of two computer programmers. The novel attracted a cult following and inspired a group of fans to start Perpendiculaire, a magazine based on a movement they called ‘depressionism.’ (Houellebecq, who accepted an honorary place on the masthead, says he ‘didn’t really understand their theory and, frankly, didn’t care.’)”

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Filed under carl wilson, chris randle, linkblogging, margaux williamson

Tintin in Tangier

by Chris Randle

It’s often said that Tintin is the world’s most famous Belgian, perhaps because it sounds like a syllogism: a fictional character from a notional country. And the intrepid boy reporter has been appropriated far beyond Wallonia, for purposes alternately pornographic, postmodern and Spielbergian. My favourite of these detournements is predictably Breaking Free, which recasts Hergé’s characters as working-class radicals in a didactic struggle against Thatcherism. That almost seems pious next to X’ed Out.

Charles Burns’ new book is the first of a trilogy, oversized and full-colour in the Franco-Belgian tradition.  Most people reading this probably know Burns best from the portraits he’s drawn for every cover of The Believer, but his major work up until now was Black Hole, a serial-turned-graphic-novel about teenage stoners giving each other sexually transmitted mutations. The horror in X’ed Out is more implicit; it unnerves by infecting Hergé’s bright, clean world with images from ’70s punk culture. You could call it Tintin and the Lower East Side.

Bandaged and bedridden for unexplained reasons, a kid named Doug slides through time and space whenever he swallows enough medication or stares at the wrong Polaroid. Burns’ alienated performance artist bounces from a no-future Pacific Northwest into some city out of the dystopian adventure Tintin never had. William Burroughs is a big, clammy touchstone here – the grumpy lizard-men, rivers of industrial sludge and North-African-ish setting all feel like his kinks. The two worlds eventually bleed into each other: Nitnit is Doug’s alter ego both in the realm of “the Hive” and on stage in Seattle, where he reads cut-ups over feedback before the main act runs out of patience. (“I mean, what do you call that, anyway? I guess it was art.”)

So far Burns is only gesturing at a plot. (Doug’s dying father and the self-destructive photographer he’s fixated on appear only briefly in the parasite landscape, the latter as a cliffhanger.) The primary attraction is watching a great cartoonist experiment. This one has never worked in colour before, and his deep, dark inks diverge sharply from Hergé’s ligne claire. Following his pastiche’s adaptation to those rounder, cartoonish lines, I saw new resonances between the two artists: Burns’ usual style is far more elaborate than his model’s was, but their techniques both feel methodical, controlled.

Not all of the riffs are so intriguing. While Tintin always chased after that little white dog, Nitnit searches for a cat named Inky, and the critter might as well bat readers on the nose. But I loved how Burns recycles one familiar image to fill Burroughsworld with mottled red-and-white eggs, culminating in the creepiest-looking omelette you’ll ever see. There’s a single notable female character in Hergé’s strips, matronly diva Bianca Castiafiore, and our hero’s intentions towards her or his bawdy sailor friend remain pure as Snowy.

Chris Ware once said: “Tintin was fundamentally too sexless to really catch on in America.” Yet Tom McCarthy’s poststructuralist romp Tintin and the Secret of Literature argues that “Hergé, like all good Catholic boys, has a filthy mind…[Castafiore’s titular emerald] is a clitoris, duh.” Burns’ pregnant allusions to “breeding” imply where his X is marked. Like fellow cartoonist Joost Swarte, who coined the phrase ligne claire, he draws out the fucking repressed by that flatness.

A smooth surface can intimate freakiness of its own, though. The hybrid sections of X’ed Out are filled with suggestive abstractions: Doug’s scar becomes Nitnit’s cartoon plaster, his hair spikes out into a punkish variation on Tintin’s trademark quiff, and entire panels are taken up by blocks of colour or symbols. It reminded me of TNT en Amerique, the most radical Hergé revision of all. Jochen Gerner’s comic, which sprang from the cartooning equivalent of Oulipo, reduces Tintin in America to a blacked-out series of broken phrases and neon signs.

Gerner later said: “I dismantle a given material to make something else of it…I did not see this book as a ‘technical feat’ but as the discovery of a secret passage, of a dark track followed to the end.” When William Burroughs and Brion Gysin joined forces to spread their gospel of divine deformity, they gave the cut-up technique a slogan: “Rub Out the Word.” You know what Tintin means in French? “Nothing.”

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Filed under chris randle, comics, literature