September 3, 2015

Book Review: "City of Brick and Shadow," by Tim Wirkus

(CCLaP is dedicated to reviewing as many contemporary books as possible, including self-published volumes; click here to learn how to submit your own book for possible review, although be warned that it needs to have been published within the last 12 months to be considered. For the complete list of all books reviewed here, as well as the next books scheduled to be read, click here.)

City of Brick and Shadow, by Tim Wirkus

Tim Wirkus
City of Brick and Shadow
Tyrus Books, 2014
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

Well, I can certainly say I got more than I paid for. I scooped this one up for a quarter at the Association of Writers and Publishers' 2015 conference, at Tyrus' "pay-whatever-you-want" table, figuring this variety of book gamble would be fun and low-stakes. Based on the results, I wouldn't be opposed to reading what Tim Wirkus publishes in the future. However, I can't say I'm stoked about the guy either. I'm not the biggest reader of genre fiction, and while there's a lot of subversion of genre fiction in here, it still fits squarely in the mystery/noir genre. Probably more noir than mystery, since it violates a few of the mystery's cardinal rules. Its subversive side has gotten the goat of a few Goodreads reviewers who enjoy more traditional mysteries, so if you're into the conventional mystery, approach with caution.

However, I'm coming at this as not a mystery reader but a literary fiction fan, albeit also an open-minded literary fiction fan who sometimes likes a book that rolls on an interesting premise. The blurbs all over the jacket praise this book for being unique, which is true to a degree. The main plot concerns two Mormon missionaries positioned in a rough Latin American neighborhood who investigate the disappearance of a man who they baptized, while the subplot is about a mysterious criminal responsible for making the neighborhood violent. I found the criminal's arc compelling - he evolves from a standard goon to a brutal philosopher/empiricist - but the main plot had its issues. Putting two missionaries at the forefront of this sort of story is an original idea, but the missionaries default to archetypes. Elder Toronto establishes himself as the cowboy cop while Elder Schwartz becomes his more conservative partner. The two are ironbound in their roles. So it becomes like a buddy cop movie but with buddy missionaries, and Wirkus could've done more with that dynamic. There's tension between the two, and if the conflict had been allowed to build, we might have seen more of the characters' personalities and motives. As of now, the conflict between the two stays in first gear, so you're pretty much at the mercy of the narrative's momentum, which is fairly slow but does reach a pretty good pitch as it winds toward an ambiguous conclusion.

Where Wirkus does succeed here, besides in the well-turned subplot, is his construction of the world. You really do feel the "City of Brick and Shadow," with its myriad activity and its hundreds of possible mysteries and its bizarre geography, topography and mythology. It's a great setting for anything noir. Plus Toronto and Schwartz's interactions, underutilized or not, still sometimes yield entertaining results. See the running gag of no one being able to understand Schwartz's Portuguese. Since this is only Wirkus' first book and since he does a lot well here, I'm certainly not about to count the guy out. But he has got to work on moving those characters outside of genre-stock. It's an entertaining debut that could see for more meat.

Out of 10: 7.5, though probably more in the 9 range for noir devotees.

Read even more about City of Brick and Shadow: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | Shelfari |

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 7:00 AM, September 3, 2015. Filed under:
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August 28, 2015

The CCLaP Weekender for August 28th is here!

CCLaP Weekender for August 28th, 2015

It's Friday, which means it's time for the newest issue of the Pushcart-Prize-nominated CCLaP Weekender! This week's issue features a new original piece of fiction by Denis Bell; a photography feature by Nev Nels; and a look at the next seven days of literary events happening all across the city. The PDF is completely free to download, using the links below, or can be viewed online in its "flippable" form at Issuu.com (or just use the embedded version above, if your particular device is able to display it).

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Filed by Jason Pettus at 1:16 PM, August 28, 2015. Filed under: CCLaP Publishing | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Photography | Profiles |
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August 24, 2015

Book Review: "Welcome To Your New Life With You Being Happy," by Rachel Bell

(CCLaP is dedicated to reviewing as many contemporary books as possible, including self-published volumes; click here to learn how to submit your own book for possible review, although be warned that it needs to have been published within the last 18 months to be considered. For the complete list of all books reviewed here, as well as the next books scheduled to be read, click here.)

Welcome To Your New Life With You Being Happy, by Rachel Bell

Welcome To Your New Life With You Being Happy
By Rachel Bell
Pioneers Press
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

Rachel Bell is a self-professed member of the "alt lit" community of writers I'm so fascinated with these days (including such other people featured at CCLaP as Heiko Julien, Sam Pink, Jordan Castro, Blake Butler and more), and I had high hopes when starting her brand-new latest story collection, in part because I had been told that my main complaint about alt lit writers (all style, no substance) is largely limited to the male writers of that community, and that female alt lit authors were doing things a lot more substantial and interesting. (UPDATE: Rachel wrote to let me know that she in fact does not associate herself with the "alt lit" term.) But alas, although Bell's actual writing style is indeed more narratively focused than, say, the endless shopping lists of someone like Tao Lin (easily the most famous of the alt lit writers, although God only knows why), this still turned out to be not so much a collection of actual short stories with beginnings, middles and ends, as it is a collection of just tiny random observations about Bell's life, literally as if you were a sneaky little brother and snatching half-page glances at her diary before getting caught and angrily chased out of her bedroom again.

This is not necessarily a bad thing unto itself, but it does neatly encapsulate exactly why I find this entire community so frustrating; because for being essentially the very first distinct American literary movement since the rise of slam poetry 25 years ago, there is quite literally nothing there when it comes to nearly every* alt lit writer I've now read, a genre that admittedly has all the fun of a drunken tweet but unfortunately all the lasting power of one too. Bell's heartfelt, occasionally insightful prose holds a lot of promise to be sure (although she definitely suffers from the same problem as a lot of young writers, that her random mundane observations about her new boyfriend are way more interesting to her than I think she realizes they are to the rest of us); but ultimately, I have to admit that I had an even more enjoyable experience simply visiting her profanity-and-alcohol-laced Facebook account, and while this is perfectly acceptable for a random Thursday when I'm trying to kill an afternoon, I simply want more when it comes to a bound full-length book that I am taking the time to sit down and deliberately read. I'm pretty sure that we're going to be seeing weightier and more impressive projects from Bell in the future, but this particular slim chapbook unfortunately misses the mark a bit.

Out of 10: 8.0

Read even more about Welcome To Your New Life With You Being Happy: Official site | GoodReads

*The sole exception so far has of course been Mason Johnson, which for disclosure's sake let me mention that I signed to our own publishing company several years ago, precisely because I strongly suspected that he had a little masterpiece like Sad Robot Stories in him, if someone would merely give him the excuse to actually write it. He certainly did not disappoint.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, August 24, 2015. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |
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August 21, 2015

Book Review: "Speak Now: Marriage Equality on Trial," by Kenji Yoshino

(CCLaP is dedicated to reviewing as many contemporary books as possible, including self-published volumes; click here to learn how to submit your own book for possible review, although be warned that it needs to have been published within the last 18 months to be considered. For the complete list of all books reviewed here, as well as the next books scheduled to be read, click here.)
 
Speak Now: Marriage Equality on Trial, by Kenji Yoshino
 
Speak Now: Marriage Equality on Trial
By Kenji Yoshino
Crown
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
 
Kenji Yoshino opens Speak Now: Marriage Equality on Trial with the mixed blessing of November 4, 2008. On that day, the people had spoken. Barack Obama would become the first African-American President of the United States, seen by many as the new face of politics. The same day in California, Proposition 8 was passed. Again, the people had spoken. With Prop 8, California effectively banned gay marriage. On May 22, 2009, Perry v. Schwarzenegger was filed. It planned to "assail a state's prohibition of same-sex marriage on federal constitutional grounds." Yoshino is the Chief Justice Earl Warren Professor of Constitutional Law at New York University School of Law. He is also gay, married, and lives with his husband and two children.

Because Yoshino is a legal scholar, he writes with both personal and intellectual knowledge of the law. As I said before in my review of Uncertain Justice by Laurence Tribe and Joshua Matz, the law effects everyone. Speak Now engages in a parallel narrative. One narrative reads as Yoshino's personal legal memoir, including his background in law and his re-reading the Perry transcript. The other narrative recounts the story of Perry, from California case all the way to the Supreme Court. Perry was the other case, more commonly known as Windsor, that helped pave the way for legalizing gay marriage in California.

The Perry operated as an educational opportunity for both sides to illuminate their arguments. The challenge of the proponents (those for Prop 8) involved them defending the law. They had to show evidence that the law was not written with animus towards the LGBT community. The defendants had to argue that they were deserving of equal treatment under the law.

Yoshino draws the reader in with reconstructions of testimony and depositions. He gives succinct background on all the major figures and traces the genealogy of gay rights advocacy in the courts. He discusses how California, unlike other states, has less stringent requirements for writing ballot initiatives. In addition, he stresses how Perry stood out from other LGBT cases. Unlike previous LGBT cases, Perry focused on love rather than sex. As the case proceeded the defendants became the ones talking about loving families. It put a human face on the issue of marriage. The proponents, meanwhile, spoke of marriage as reproductive engine and used data that didn't stand court scrutiny. If the facts can't be substantiated, they will be thrown out. The proponents discovered that defending "traditional marriage" was a lot harder than writing thirty-second scaremongering campaign ads and catchy bumper stickers.

As I read this, I thought how Perry was similar to the movie Howl, about the Allen Ginsberg poem deemed obscene. In both cases, the courtroom became an educational arena. And while both Ginsberg's poem and Perry ended in victory, the struggle for marriage equality is not done. Decades after Brown v. Board of Education, racial segregation is hardly solved. But the battle has moved on to other territory as seen in the abortion debate. While abortion remains legal, access to abortion clinics is now the key battleground. Marriage equality advocates are victorious (at least for now), but the battleground has moved to another prickly topic: religious exemptions for individuals and businesses. Where do these boundaries lie for the individual and businesses? It is a valid and contentious issue.

Yoshino, in an unexpected turn, cheered the Supreme Court's decision involving The Westboro Baptist Church. He cheered the decision, not because he agreed with Westboro, but because he understood that First Amendment rights include protecting the rights of those espousing unpopular and unpleasant opinions. If one can't voice unpleasant ideas and opinions, the First Amendment means nothing.

Perry signified to the LGBT community that they were full members of American society and could partake in its benefits and privileges. In the final pages, Yoshino remarked how peculiar it was that the LGBT community has had more success in marriage equality than in LGBT workplace rights. History is odd that way. Things take unexpected turns and the good work is never done.

I'm giving Speak Now a perfect score not because I am an LGBT ally nor because I am fascinated by the Supreme Court. The high score occurred because Yoshino's book offers a riveting read and it serves an educational purpose. Even if you oppose marriage equality, on whatever grounds, this is a book worth reading.
 
Out of 10/10
 
Read even more about Speak Now: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Karl Wolff at 9:00 AM, August 21, 2015. Filed under:
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August 20, 2015

Book Review: "Between the World and Me," by Ta-Nehisi Coates

(CCLaP is dedicated to reviewing as many contemporary books as possible, including self-published volumes; click here to learn how to submit your own book for possible review, although be warned that it needs to have been published within the last 12 months to be considered. For the complete list of all books reviewed here, as well as the next books scheduled to be read, click here.)

Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Between the World and Me
By Ta-Nehisi Coates
Spiegel & Grau
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

I think it's safe to say this is the most talked-about book of 2015 so far. It's got thousands of Goodreads ratings (and it's just been out a month!), bestseller status, and an endorsement from Toni Morrison, and I don't know what other book released this year can claim that sort of attention. It's the Toni Morrison salute I'd like to dwell on for a moment, not just because I'm a big Toni Morrison fan. I myself was introduced to this book by a coworker, who told me Morrison had compared it to James Baldwin's the Fire Next Time. Which is, of course, quite a lot of pressure for this book. It's not just hot air around this one, though; Coates rises to the occasion and in many ways outstrips it. This is easily the best new book I've read all year.

It might be a little reductive to call Between the World and Me a book about race, although race is important to this book. Coates is definitely in the camp that would hold it as a social construct, but he talks about how powerful the construct's effect on the African-American community has been. However, this a biography as much as it is a book about race in America, so let's start there. Like the Fire Next Time, Coates' book takes the form of a letter, this time to his teenage son. The biography begins with Coates' time in the less fortunate neighborhoods of Baltimore, where he had to adapt his behavior to steer clear of gangs and do well in school; his time at Howard University, where he developed a complex relationship with his identity as African-American; and the death of his friend Prince Jones, a successful African-American from an upper-middle class background, at the hands of the police.

Now, it goes without saying that this is all super-pertinent, and that Coates weaves these personal stories in with some heavy analysis about race in America, because this is some heavy stuff. His analysis of how race functions as a construct is shattering and, to my way of seeing things, pretty accurate; to him, whiteness and blackness have become constructs to keep white people safe in their cloistered suburban existence. As a white person myself, one who has lived a fairly cloistered existence and one who's onboard with the social justice movement, I especially appreciated this book. I've been raised by and large to aspire toward that cloistered suburban existence, but reading books like this makes me wonder if the whole thing wasn't all a sham. Which means, besides the powerful rhetoric and the bracing intellectualism, besides the great emotional father-son moments, Between the World and Me is a reminder of why I read in the first place. Hard to ask for much more than that.

Out of 10: 10.0

Read even more about Between the World and Me: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 12:07 AM, August 20, 2015. Filed under:
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August 7, 2015

American Odd: "California Crazy and Beyond: Roadside Vernacular Architecture," by Jim Heimann


California Crazy and Beyond, by Jim Heimann

California Crazy and Beyond: Roadside Vernacular Architecture
By Jim Heimann
Chronicle Books (2001)
Review by Karl Wolff

As a kid I sat in the backseat of the Oldsmobile station wagon as our family took the annual trip "up north." Road trips could become boring affairs, the rolling hills of Wisconsin farm country not exactly riveting to someone raised on Transformers, dinosaur books, and Choose Your Own Adventure. "Another farm? Are we there yet?" Cue eye-roll and audible sigh. Luckily the road trip wasn't without the occasional flash of novelty and oddity. On the way up to Tomahawk, Wisconsin, the very long four hours (to Single-Digit Aged Me) I saw Delafield's Smiley Barn and the Mauston, Wisconsin gas station that has a semi-truck shishkebabed on the sign. In Greater Milwaukee there stands a lone dinosaur holding a large bone, the relic of Johnson's Park and Mini Golf. I remember seeing the kitschy assemblage of dinosaurs, monsters, and mythical creatures dotting the mini-golf course. I never golfed there, but I was driven past it countless times. During high school, one of my friends worked at the State Fair in the Root Beer Barrel. Guess what he sold?

Nostalgia aside, I've long been fascinated by roadside attractions. Unlike Beaux-Arts architecture or Roman ruins, it is a facet of American cultural and architectural history usually viewed with dismissive scorn from highbrow academia or an overly simplified view of the past. The challenge remains how to look at these roadside attractions without getting bogged down in kitsch or nostalgia. California Crazy and Beyond: Roadside Vernacular Architecture by Jim Heimann seeks to investigate this oddball strain of Americana. Included in this updated edition is an essay by architectural historian David Gebhard. He uses the term "programatic" (his spelling) to describe this cultural trend. Heimann narrows the focus of the book to eccentric buildings from California during the Great Depression. "California Crazy" thrived in the brief window of 1924 to 1934.

Heimann explains how "programmatic architecture" thrived in California. A unique confluence of events occurred. First, California existed as a beacon of individualism and eccentricity. Even before John Steinbeck made the state famous as a promised land for the Okies, California beckoned. Second, wide-open expanses of cheap land became available. This real estate had few legal restrictions about what could be built. Third, California in the Twenties supported a growing "car culture." Due to Henry Ford's innovations in mass production, the Model T became cheap and readily available. The Great Depression turned American entrepreneurial into a desperate rush to grab at a shrinking customer base. In their desperation, American businesses created cheap and inventive buildings to sell their wares. Gebhard explains how these buildings operated in two ways: direct and indirect associations. (This text would be a wonderful introduction into the concept of semantics.) If you're selling shoes, what better way to sell than out of a giant shoe? Or selling chili from a building shaped like a dog? (Those who have seen The Rocketeer should remember the dog building.)

At its most basic, these oddball vernacular buildings existed for one purpose: to sell. An eccentric structure is the best free advertisement. Memorable and the consumer immediately associates the building with the product. Heimann widens his survey to include architecture throughout the United States. He ends with a brief look at statuary (Muffler Man! Big Boy!) and vehicles (The Wienermobile!). The "art car" phenomenon is tangentially related here, but not included due to its non-commercial purpose.

It would be easy to dismiss these buildings as culprits of urban blight, bad taste, and crass commercialism. But Gebhard in his Introduction traces the genealogy of these structures back to the eighteenth and nineteenth century. The genealogy includes both highbrow and lowbrow strands. The highbrow comes from the various national and ethnic revivalisms that thrived throughout the centuries. Parliament in London is a famous example of Gothic Revival. The US Capitol is Greek Revival, giving visitors, lawmakers, and lobbyists mental associations with the grand tradition of Greek democracy. The Chrysler Building (see my essay on Matthew Barney's Cremaster Cycle) has gargoyles shaped like Chrysler hood ornaments and other architectural elements were lifted from car design. Yet the Chrysler Building epitomizes Art Deco elegance and cultural legitimacy. On the lowbrow end, World's Fairs had attractions and buildings in fantastical shapes.

Heimann traces the California Crazy architecture from its inception during the Roaring Twenties into the present. After suffering through the Second World War because of fuel and material rationing, oddball architecture bounced back with Googie Style. Increased building regulations put a damper on more brazen designs. In the end, oddball architecture lives on. Las Vegas sports gigantic Roman palaces, a faux-New York City skyline, and a medieval castle. But like Las Vegas, these remaining buildings across the nation face demolition, abandonment, and community neglect. Not all can be saved. Yet it should be instrumental that local community's re-assess these aging relics of a by-gone era. The best cityscapes mix the old and the new, kitsch and classical, commercial and non-commercial. Establishing the best mix is never an easy task. But Heimann presents a riveting summary of why these oddball architectural structures should be preserved.

Read even more about California Crazy and Beyond: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia
 
Coming next: Zippy the Pinhead by Bill Griffith

Filed by Karl Wolff at 7:00 AM, August 7, 2015. Filed under:
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August 6, 2015

Stalking the Behemoth: "Infinite Jest," by David Foster Wallace

Infinite Jest
By David Foster Wallace
Little, Brown, 1996
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace

It's hard to talk too much about David Foster Wallace without mentioning the huge cultural moment he's having right now, and it's hard to talk about that cultural moment without feeling dismayed that it's him and not his books that are having that moment. The path his reputation's on now, which to my way of seeing things ends with him reduced from a writer to an image of a writer (as has happened to Kerouac and Hemingway before him), began when his graduation speech for Kenyon University made the YouTube rounds. Then they turned it into a book, This is Water, which is probably what he's best known for now even though it wraps his writing up a little too neatly. Then D.T. Max put out the biography. Now that the End of the Tour, a filmed adaptation of the road trip he took with reporter David Lipsky, is in theaters and on track for rave reviews, the idea of David Foster Wallace as a writer is beginning to overtake his fiction. As an enormous fan of his, and as someone who thinks his own complexities play a role in what makes his writing so great, I'd be upset if he was boiled down to "well, I haven't read him, but he just seemed so nice" in the eyes of the general public. I guess that would be an improvement over an author people only pretended to read to boost up the old intellectual acumen, but not much of one.

So then, how to talk about Infinite Jest? Let's start by divorcing ourselves from the image of the late Wallace as having stood atop Mt. Empathy and cast down easily digestible little gems of wisdom and good living to the rest of us. Instead, I'm going to suggest we look at this book as a book of traps. While it covers a lot of ground - parts are set in a rehab facility, a tennis academy, suburbia rural Canada and a canyon outside Tucson - the novel centers around a film entitled Infinite Jest that's so entertaining people who watch it won't want to do anything else and view the film in a state of catatonia. That's enough of a bind already, and the way Wallace shows the film creep through the lives of minor characters toward the story's start is nicely creepy. But then Wallace gets rolling with the people around the film. So we get the story of its director, James O. Incandenza, who committed suicide before most of the novel's events; his son Hal, a tennis prodigy ready to crack under the pressure to succeed; his frequent collaborator Joelle, so beautiful it becomes limiting for her; the group of Canadian terrorists who want to steal and weaponize the film; and honestly too many more characters to effectively name in a summary. To top all that off, Wallace's near-future setting is a dystopian merger of the United States and Canada ruled by a clean-freak former lounge singer which runs on "subsidized time," a system that allows corporations to buy and sponsor a year. So there's an overarching trap to go with the smaller, more personal ones.

That's a lot to take in, and in many ways Wallace traps the reader as well. He overwhelms you with facts, characters, a non-chronological presentation whose non-chronological condition isn't easy at first to place, and the infamous hundred pages of endnotes that come after the near-thousand pages of story. The author himself claimed he received "five hundred thousand bits of discrete information daily, of which maybe twenty-five are important," and that might strike you as his model for Infinite Jest until you realize that everything in this book, all five hundred thousand bits of discrete information, are key to understanding how it works. There's a lot to take in here, and as usual, the question is why take it in? Wallace, luckily, has all sorts of strategies to keep you reading. One thing fans tend to note about this book, which might've led to his rather problematic and reductive reframing that I've discussed above, is that Wallace is a very moving writer. Which is one of the Infinite Jest clichés, but it's hard not to react to big chunks of this; several of the mini-episodes to the end, such as the story of one Mrs. Waite's relationship to key character Don Gately and the sad tale of tennis prodigy Eric Clipperton (who has a great moment with Hal's brother Mario) might be throat-lump moments for you, and the famous bit that recites facts you pick up in rehab is so marvelous I don't think I could communicate it.

However, what interests me is how well Wallace draws you into his huge cast of characters, specifically how brilliantly he illustrates their traps. This is why I insist Infinite Jest is a book of traps, and why the fact that his characters are stuck is just as important to its method as his insistence that empathy is the way out. Toward the novel's start, Wallace gets in all sorts of depth about a heavy pot smoker's failed attempts to stop smoking, and with it his exhausting wait for a dealer to sell him what he swears is his last gram of weed. Wallace's sentences are famous, or maybe infamous, for being long and dense, and he uses those sentences to his full advantage in this passage. In intense and stifling detail, he wrings out the smoker's thought processes, surroundings, and raw fear. It's a physically uncomfortable passage to read, and it becomes even harder when he dives into other characters' paralyzing internal conflicts: Hal's increasing pressure to succeed, Joelle's overwhelming one to please those around her, and the fifty last pages where Don Gately is dragged through a hell I won't describe for fear of spoilers. I've seen Wallace's philosophical concerns dismissed as shallow occasionally, but his ability to put the reader into his characters' troubled minds makes any question of philosophical originality beside the point in my mind. This ability also elevates him to the height of twentieth century prose stylists. For as verbose and occasionally bizarre as his constructions are, he knows exactly how to use them. You want to talk writing for effect, read Infinite Jest.

Plus he's funny, and funny in a way that only a few writers can be, funny in a way that understands the intricacies of his characters. Most fans, me included, would count teenage drug dealer Michael Pemulis as one of the book's most memorable characters, and it's no wonder; the humor he grants that character, so smart and so manipulative and so potentially dangerous, allows Pemulis to walk the line between devoted prankster and small-time sociopath. Connected to his sense of humor is his eye for detail. For all the details that are in here, you'll find a lot of them memorable: the jowls on adolescent tennis player Ortho "the Darkness" Stice, the tunnels underneath the tennis academy that house gigantic rodents, and the mind-bending rules of Eschaton, a tennis variant so complicated it isn't fully described within the novel, are just a few examples of what this guy can do; I'd give you more (okay, so I can't resist the lopsided birthday cake in the Mrs. Waite-Don Gately story, and Pemulis' yachting cap, which he wears at a jaunty angle and which bounces up and down when he's angry), but it's better if you find them yourself. A lot to find in here, after all.

In fact, I'm going to propose to you that there's a problem with looking at great novels, or really any other great work of art, in terms of how much it'll change your life. Because you often do hear "life-changing" thrown around in discussion of Infinite Jest. This is fine in and of itself - art does strike the emotions like little else in this world, after all - but you can't lose sight of the smaller picture, either. A great novel is composed of plenty of non-life changers as well as life-changers. A few well-placed details, a joke here and there, a cast of characters that for whatever reason sticks out. Or maybe a well-realized setting or a striking formal device. Bottom line is, maybe you shouldn't come in expecting your life to change and expecting to learn how to become a perfectly empathetic person. Maybe you should come in looking for brilliantly crafted language, exquisite attention to detail, a great matchup of form and content, and characters that jump off the page and become entirely real. And humor, lots of humor to be found here. This is why it saddens me that Wallace has become reappropriated as a life coach almost wholesale; let's stop for a moment and think about Wallace the writer and the things that made his fiction powerful as, well, fiction. So it won't be a big deal to me if you love the End of the Tour. Just please promise me you'll read Infinite Jest afterward.

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 7:00 AM, August 6, 2015. Filed under:
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August 4, 2015

Book Review: "Go Set a Watchman" by Harper Lee

(CCLaP is dedicated to reviewing as many contemporary books as possible, including self-published volumes; click here to learn how to submit your own book for possible review, although be warned that it needs to have been published within the last 18 months to be considered. For the complete list of all books reviewed here, as well as the next books scheduled to be read, click here.)

Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee

Go Set a Watchman
By Harper Lee
HarperCollins
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

Look out! Harper Lee has finally written a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, and Atticus Finch is a dirty racist in it! That's been the rallying cry of the entire literary community for the last few months, and with good reason: one of the most highly regarded one-shot novelists in history, Lee's 1960 first novel (set in 1930s Alabama) has become a kind of revered liberal fairytale over the ensuing decades, a simplistic yet courageous story of one decent man's stand against racism in a racist-dominated Deep South (but for more, see CCLaP's 2011 review of Mockingbird), and it's been like a slap in the face to many of this book's fans for Lee to release a "sequel"* set twenty years later, in which our noble hero has become one of the notorious "Dixiecrat" racist liberals of the Mid-Century Modernist era who were responsible (among other horrible things) for the now ubiquitous flying of the Confederate flag over government buildings in the Deep South, and for the radical swing in that region into Nixonian conservatism in the 1960s, after Lyndon Johnson's "betrayal" in signing the Civil Rights Act. These fans simply don't want to accept a world in which their hero eventually becomes the kind of person that tens of millions just like him exactly became in real life in those years -- Atticus is the exception, damnit, the man who proves that there are always at least a few good people even in the middle of horrific evil -- and so these people have been protesting by giving uniformly bad reviews of this newest novel, dismissing it as "too talky" and "too simple" when what they really mean is, "I refuse to believe that Atticus Finch could become a racist, so I am choosing to reject the book that claims he did, despite it coming directly from the mouth of the person who created Atticus Finch in the first place."

*(Although of course "sequel" is a problematic term to apply to Go Set a Watchman, and it's instructive to today's write-up to talk just a bit about its history, for those who haven't heard it yet; for this is actually the first novel Harper Lee ever wrote, an autobiographical tale from when she was essentially in the same position as this book's main character [in her mid-twenties, now living as an urban sophisticate in New York City, with ambivalent feelings over how all her old childhood friends and relatives were reacting to such 1950s figures as Martin Luther King Jr]. That's the book she always wanted to write, a morality tale about a Kennedy intellectual disappointed with the way her Southern liberal friends reacted to the civil rights movement, especially when compared to the much more noble ways they used to behave during her Rooseveltian '30s youth, seen here in flashback form; but it was while shopping this manuscript around in the '50s that an editor in New York suggested that she write an entire novel just out of the flashback scenes, and that's how To Kill a Mockingbird was born.)

But after reading it myself now, I have to say that those who look at Go Set a Watchman as a story about racism are actually far off the mark; for this is instead a rather nuanced book about the subjects of aging and memory, with the "racism" on display (and more on those quotation marks in a bit) actually a McGuffin used to examine the ways that our main narrator views the world very differently between the ages of 6 and 26, while her father does the same between the ages of 52 and 72. In fact, this is laid out quite plainly in the central discussion of the book, between our feisty hero Jean Louise (aka "Scout") and her uncle Jack, a comedically eccentric Victoriana obsessive who serves as a neutral voice in the growing debate over the formation of a local citizens' council in their small town of Maycomb, Alabama. (For those who don't know, these were notorious groups set up by Southern towns during the civil rights era, technically devoted to "community issues" but in reality a quasi-legal KKK dedicated to the question "How Do We Stop The Coloreds?" It was these "citizens' councils" that largely pushed the state governments of the South to enact legislation requiring the flying of Confederate flags over government buildings, a hot-button issue to this day and I'm sure one of the big reasons Lee wanted this long-dormant novel to finally come out in these particular years.)

As Jack quite explicitly states -- which is all the more reason to suspect the motives of those who dismiss this book for its "Atticus Is A Racist" elements -- there were plenty of reasons for Southerners to get behind racist organizations like these back then besides just pure racism; take Scout's enlightened fiancee, for example, who joins the citizens' council for the same reason he might join the Rotary Club, because he's a rising young lawyer and to not do so would damage his career. Or take Atticus himself, who as we learn by the end of the book hasn't really changed his stance towards black people from how he felt twenty years ago -- his joining the citizens' council has almost nothing to do with hating a man for the color of his skin, and almost everything to do with his obsessive belief in state rights versus a big federal government, and with his personal identity as a Jeffersonian liberal who believes that people need to "earn" the privileges of a free democracy by being informed, conscientious citizens who contribute to the greater good, not to have those privileges ram-rodded down everyone's throats by a meddling organization like the NAACP. When Atticus complains about something like desegregated schools in Go Set a Watchman, what he's really complaining about is the intrusion of an outside foreign (i.e. "Yankee") group that doesn't understand the local situation, doesn't care what the long-term effects of their behavior will be on that local community, and who want to override all the parts of the Constitution about personal liberties, in the noble but misguided name of forcing "equality" on a situation that politically and economically can't handle it, complaints that even the urban liberal Scout sometimes agrees with over the course of the book. It still results in racist behavior, let's make no mistake; but as Lee goes to great pains to show in this book (and that has been promptly ignored by most people who have read it), even as an elderly Dixiecrat, Atticus would still be the first person to legally defend a black man who has been falsely accused of a crime, no differently than how he was during the events of the first book twenty years previous.

So why does Scout perceive her father in such radically different terms between then and now? Well, that's the flip side of that issue that Lee is exploring in this book; again, as best put by Jack's thesis-explaining monologue halfway through the novel (oh, thesis-explaining monologues buried in the middle of Mid-Century Modernist novels, where would we be without you?), Scout's view of her dad's surprisingly consistent behavior has changed so much because she has changed so much, first seeing this behavior through the barely comprehending eyes of a hero-worshipping six-year-old, and not understanding yet all the complexities and shades of grey that come with being a man like Atticus Finch in a place like the postbellum South. And this I'm convinced is the main reason that those who have had a bad reaction to this novel have had this bad reaction, and also another reason why Lee decided to release this book at such a point in her life, long after having anything more to prove to literary history or posterity; given how complex a treatment she gives racism in this first novel of hers, I bet it's been driving her crazy for half a century now that her lasting legacy is going to be for a novel that treats the people involved in race discussions like simplistic cartoon characters, and that boils down the entire messy history of the post-Civil-War South into a black-hat/white-hat morality tale that even a little child can understand. ("LYNCHINGS BAD! ATTICUS GOOD! LYNCHINGS BAD! ATTICUS GOOD!") As the 89-year-old Lee more and more approaches the end of her life, I bet it's become of increasing importance to her that the world understand her more complex view on race and Southern history; and I bet it's that very embrace of this simplistic, childlike view on the subject that most people have had because of Mockingbird, and the admonition by the author herself that they should dig further and understand the complexities better, that has inspired so many people to have a more critical reaction to this second novel than the novel itself deserves.

Now, don't get me wrong, Watchman is no masterpiece -- in fact, even at their most charitable, a fan of this book would be hard-pressed to call it anything more than a promising but flawed manuscript from a twentysomething newbie writer, with way too many talky dialogues and not nearly enough action (the aspect of Mockingbird saved by the actual court trial), and way too heavy a reliance on treacly nostalgic childhood reminiscences to establish its genteel Southern tone (which Lee fixed in Mockingbird by making the childhood experiences contemporary, and thus able to add a deliciously dark and violent element to it all). If she had published this in 1960 instead of Mockingbird, it would've had its small circle of Northern academic fans, a slightly larger number would've found it admirable but a bit boring, and most everyone else would've simply ignored it; and that makes it easy to see why publishing professionals would encourage her to write the much more gripping and simply better-done Mockingbird, and why a recently unearthed letter from one such publishing executive back then called the novel "the most worked-over book I've ever seen." Still, though, Watchman for all its flaws is still a fascinating historical document of a time that has partly passed us but sadly is partly still with us, and it deserves a lot better than a nation of Atticus-worshippers covering their ears and yelling, "I'M NOT LISTENING! I'M NOT LISTENING! I'M NOT LISTENING!" When entered into with the right attitude and a good sense of history, this is a worthy companion to the admittedly better Mockingbird, a book that sheds additional light on those characters and doesn't necessarily have to be seen as standing in direct conflict with them. I encourage you to approach it yourself with this attitude in mind.

Out of 10: 8.7

Read even more about Go Set a Watchman: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, August 4, 2015. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |
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July 30, 2015

Book Review: "Stone Mattress," by Margaret Atwood

(CCLaP is dedicated to reviewing as many contemporary books as possible, including self-published volumes; click here to learn how to submit your own book for possible review, although be warned that it needs to have been published within the last 12 months to be considered. For the complete list of all books reviewed here, as well as the next books scheduled to be read, click here.)

Stone Mattress, by Margaret Atwood

Stone Mattress
By Margaret Atwood

It's not always easy to quibble about a book you like. Of course, a stony-faced surgeon's objectivity toward a book, even a book I might've found a lot of fun, is part of my role as a reviewer. So let's start by saying that I had fun with Stone Mattress. Smashed-up fairy tales are always welcome at my doorstep. Besides, Atwood's eye for genre-blending (the noir-flavored title story) and her terrifically barbed sense of humor (this shines through most on "Dark Lady," where funerals become a joke and then get serious again) make for several great moments, and both "Alphinland" and "The Dead Hand Loves You" are excellent. Yet with all that in mind, I still feel there were a few things missing from this book, so before I get further into why I had fun with this book, I'd at first like to discuss what didn't work.

Initially I saw my issues with this book as issues with a couple of stories, namely "The Freeze-Dried Groom" and "I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth." The former has a great macabre premise that comes in too late to save the day and isn't worked enough with when it hits. It's used too purposefully to quite count as the literary equivalent of a jump scare, but it's at least in that neighborhood. Besides, the story before that is overstuffed with underdeveloped conflicts, rushing along to hit the big twist, which I'll admit you can infer from the title but which I won't spoil anyway to keep with Atwood's campfire-storyteller style. As for the second, I'm willing to admit "I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth" might be better if I'd read its prequel, the Robber Bride. However, I haven't, and "Zenia's" rather caricatured protagonists make me less interested in it.

The problem with these two stories, and with a few of the better ones here as well, is that they're missing the empathy that you get in so many great Atwood books. She's written a number of brutal antagonists, but she imbibed them with motives so strong that you at least understood where their brutality came from. To say nothing of what she does with her protagonists, who are often forced into antagonistic roles. See her terrific 1988 novel Cat's Eye, where the abused protagonist takes on a seriously harsh personality, for an example of this at work. This sense of empathy is in the better stories, but when it's not present, Atwood's characters in their bizarre environments don't come off as much more than bizarre themselves.

Of course, this could be a consequence of the genre; Atwood admits in the afterword that these nine stories aren't meant to be taken as conventional shorts, but rather ancestors of fairy tales. Still, the best stories have a great blend of fairy tale weirdness and acute character examination. "Alphinland" makes a story about a fantasy author who retreats from a brutal winter and dead husband into the world of her own making from potential satire to a sad and harrowing story about an unfulfilled life. On a similar note, the popular but trapped horror author "The Dead Hand Loves You" centers around is endlessly compelling; hard not to love a story where the horror writer finds himself in a horror story closely related to the horror story he wrote. Still, I wish she'd put a little more emphasis on the characters behind these stories.

Out of 10: 8.2

Read even more about Stone Mattress: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 12:07 AM, July 30, 2015. Filed under:
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July 24, 2015

Book Review: Dog Whistles, Walk-Backs, and Washington Handshakes: Decoding the Jargon, Slang, and Bluster of American Political Speech, by Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark

(CCLaP is dedicated to reviewing as many contemporary books as possible, including self-published volumes; click here to learn how to submit your own book for possible review, although be warned that it needs to have been published within the last 18 months to be considered. For the complete list of all books reviewed here, as well as the next books scheduled to be read, click here.)
 
Dog Whistles, Walk-Backs, and Washington Handshakes, by Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark
 
Dog Whistles, Walk-Backs, and Washington Handshakes: Decoding the Jargon, Slang, and Bluster of American Political Speech
By Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark
ForeEdge / University Press of New England
Reviewed by Karl Wolff

The eighteenth century satirist and moralist the Marquis de Sade began The 120 Days of Sodom with these words, "The extensive wars wherewith Louis XIV was burdened during his reign, while draining the State's treasury and exhausting the substance of the people, none the less contained the secret that led to the prosperity of a swarm of those bloodsuckers who are always on the watch for public calamities, which, instead of appeasing, they promote or invent so as, precisely, to be able to profit from them the more advantageously." If this hadn't come from French fiction, one could see it as an accurate description of the United States Congress, K Street lobbyists, and the Beltway media punditocracy. (Pundit being Greek for "dingbat.")

It should come as a surprise to exactly no one that politics anger people. It leaves people exasperated, bored, and frustrated. Part of this stems from the behavior of our elected representatives. Another part of this frustration has to do with the language they use. Dog Whistles, Walk-Backs, and Washington Handshakes: Decoding the Jargon, Slang, and Bluster of American Political Speech by Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark seeks to make plain what usually is not. And like related slang dictionaries, it becomes necessary to write new ones every few years, simply to catch up. Language changes over time, but slang and jargon change at a much faster rate. In the ensuing years, we have the seen the explosion of the Internet, YouTube, and social media. This has made incumbents and aspiring candidates hyper-conscious of gaffes. It has also made people more aware of where the money is coming from to fund these cash-bloated acts of public glad-handing.

McCutcheon and Mark, both veteran political reporters, have divided the book up into six sections: personality types, only-in-politics expressions, people, places, and things, the legislative process, campaigns and elections, and the media and scandals. The comprehensive overview gives the reader a wide range of words and expressions. The authors sought to limit the scope, throwing out words either too common or too jargony. There isn't a definition for cloture in here and the majority of terms are of recent vintage, although a few trace back to the nineteenth century. Despite my abhorrence of modern political reporting, I'm currently watching The West Wing on Netflix. Dog Whistles was useful on those occasions when the dialogue or plot mystified me. Making the legislative process entertaining presents a challenge to both fiction and non-fiction writers. Aaron Sorkin and Robert Caro can spin the everyday monotony of bill passage into high drama.

As a reader, Dog Whistles leaves me conflicted. I'm no fan of politics, especially the social media variety. Nothing is more insufferable than having your Facebook page smeared with an endless stream of daily outrages, endless scandals, and commonplace corruption. This is set against my love for language, languages, and the English language. Politics, like Hollywood and many other industries, has systemically degraded the English language. But unlike the perpetually outraged on social media, I understand the simple fact that language is not static. It reflects the times. What characterizes our particular time is a hyper-mediated, information-addicted, prurient-leaning but easily offended, social media aficionados who can't seem to get our eyes unglued from our smartphones. Every scandal is amplified, every microscopic gaffe is turned into a scandal, and the political class tries its hardest to stay relevant and hip.

I'm giving this a lower score, not for lack of craft, but due to its status as a dictionary for specialists. While I would recommend this highly to anyone purporting to be an "informed voter," it remains a challenge to actually derive pleasure from a book about political speech.

Out of 10/8.0, higher for political junkies, journalists, and voters.
 
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Filed by Karl Wolff at 8:00 AM, July 24, 2015. Filed under:
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July 10, 2015

The CCLaP Weekender for July 10th is here!

CCLaP Weekender for July 10, 2015

It's Friday, which means it's time for the newest issue of the Pushcart-Prize-nominated CCLaP Weekender! This week's issue features a new original piece of fiction by Kevin Munley; a photography feature by Isabella Cruz Chong; and a look at the next seven days of literary events happening all across the city. The PDF is completely free to download, using the links below, or can be viewed online in its "flippable" form at Issuu.com (or just use the embedded version above, if your particular device is able to display it).

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Filed by Jason Pettus at 11:54 AM, July 10, 2015. Filed under: CCLaP Publishing | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Photography | Profiles |
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American Odd: "The Manson File," edited by Nikolas Schreck


The Manson File, edited by Nikolas Schreck

The Manson File
By Nikolas Schreck
Amok Press (1988)
Review by Karl Wolff

The era commonly known as The Sixties ended with three notorious events: the My Lai Massacre, Altamont, and the Tate/LaBianca murders. The Age of Aquarius ended in spattered blood, a concert gone awry, grisly murders, and a military atrocity. Lieutenant Calley participated in a war crime but was later pardoned, transfigured into a hero for the Silent Majority. Charles Manson, another icon, became a symbol of a Counter-culture now slavishly devoted to murder and evil. The literature and pop culture ephemera centered around Charles Manson is voluminous. It's no secret America possesses an endless capacity to co-opt and repackage any atrocity, natural disaster, or personal calamity. Another phenomenon also occurred with Manson, he became a punch-line. The cult sketch comedy show, Mr. Show ran a sketch called "Manson." It parodied "Lassie," starring Bob Odenkirk as Charles Manson. This time Manson became the faithful family pet, always helpful to his family. (Mr. Show also had a sketch about downtrodden Hitler clones.)

Of all the various books about Charles Manson, very few actually plumb the depths of the man himself. The Manson File, edited by Nikolas Schreck, seeks to explain the man by giving the reader a look into his work. The book, published by Amok Press, collects his court-room testimony, poetry, music, a novella, and art work. (This essay will focus on the Amok Press edition, not Schreck's more recent expanded re-issue.) Unlike killers in American culture, Charles Manson did not kill anyone. His charge was "conspiracy to commit murder." Schreck, a musician, artist, and author with Satanist street cred, asserts Manson was railroaded. He regards Manson as a martyr of a botched justice system and as a modern gnostic philosopher. If only. The intent of this essay is to neither praise nor bury Manson. It's less about Manson, the figure, than about The Manson File, an oddity of American literature.

Manson, like Gary Gilmore, spent most of his life in and out of prisons. Unlike Gilmore, Manson possesses a dark charisma. Comparisons to Hitler aren't out of place. There's something about him that draws us to him, whether in awe or disgust (or a combination of the two).

The Manson File is a fascinating collection, frightening and comical, sometimes on the same page. During the trial Manson became a rallying point for both the Right and the Left. The Left abandoned Manson when it became apparent he was a racist and Anti-Semite. The book traces his connections with the Process Church, a pagan cult worshiping both Christ and Satan. We learn about Manson's connections with Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. Included in the book are several songs Manson wrote. While Manson's musical tastes centered around bluegrass and country, there exists a yawning abyss in his words:

This town is killing me
Got to put an end to this restless misery
I'm just one of those restless people
Can never seem to be satisfied
With living in this sick old sick old
Sick city

(from "Sick City")

On occasion, Manson has flashes of gnostic brilliance. Collected under "Philosophy," Manson comes across like a psychopathic William Blake or a cheapened Friedrich Nietzsche:

"Paycheck whore wears a dollar bill gown to the funeral of hope and love."

"The truth is a knife and cuts sharp."

"The government of the U.S. is at war with their children and the powers of nature and God, and have grown so far above their own judgments that the Waffen SS are coming back from space left over in dreams."

"All the churches of all the religions of the world are NOT thoughts in God's mind. I use the word "God." Hitler was Christ. A coming and a going. Humans need gods, gods don't need humans."

Manson's justifications for his acts involve the acronym ATWA: air, trees, water, and animals. His philosophies converge with environmental fascists. The war to save the Earth's ecology will also be a holy race war. Schreck includes two letters from James N. Mason, member of the Universal Order, an American Neo-Nazi group. Mason's tag line was "Where Rockwell stops, Manson begins." George Lincoln Rockwell was the head of the American Nazi Party and later assassinated in 1967.

While Charles Manson has become a cliche, The Manson File remains an odd little book. But it serves an important educational purpose, allowing readers access into the mind and zeitgeist surrounding Manson. The book brings together disparate strains of American culture, from Nazis to the occult to pop culture. For any interested in Manson as pop culture phenomenon, the final section on "The Merchandising of Manson" is informative. When it comes to murderers, terrorists, gun-toting racists, and violent cults, the best thing we can do is let them talk! By talking, they incriminate themselves, but they also reveal motivations, philosophies, and the underlying systems of thought.

Read even more about The Manson File: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia
 
Coming next: California Crazy and Beyond: Roadside Vernacular Architecture, by Jim Heimann

Filed by Karl Wolff at 8:00 AM, July 10, 2015. Filed under:
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July 9, 2015

Stalking the Behemoth: "Women and Men," by Joseph McElroy

Women and Men, By Joseph McElroy

Women and Men
By Joseph McElroy, 1987
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

It's funny how things work - the deeper into the twentieth century I stalk the behemoth, the more it changes. The first few entries in my series are, it's safe to say, widely known books. Not everyone's read Don Quixote, Moby-Dick, the Brothers Karamazov or Ulysses, but at minimum, most people are aware of the books and their reputations. Even if you're not, you've at least heard white whales or tilting at windmills used as idioms. But then around the middle of the century, something happened, and now what we see are less cultural touchstones and more cult classics. Sure, books like Gravity's Rainbow and the Sot-Weed Factor and Dhalgren - not to mention my future entries, which I won't spoil for you - have influenced future authors and have earned their place at the table of academia, but they don't have anywhere near the same public presence as that first set of books. Plenty of them don't have public presence at all.

Still, here's the thing: while the more modern books in my series aren't as widely known as the earlier ones, they're still widely known in the right circles. Gravity's Rainbow is considered a cornerstone of twentieth century literary development, Dhalgren was a bestseller that sent shock waves all up and down the sci-fi community, and a Sot-Weed Factor miniseries has been caught in development hell for the last few years. Women and Men, however? Women and Men's been out of print for years. Even the Dalkey Archive, which reprinted it in the '90s and which generally doesn't let books fall out of print, pulled this one from circulation when its first print run ended. Which makes sense when you think about it - even for a business on a mission, you have to wonder what you stand to gain if you leave a twelve hundred page book no one's buying in print for too long. I guess it was too expensive to keep up. Its author, Joseph McElroy, is revered among certain circles of the internet and referred to as "the lost postmodernist" elsewhere. I myself had to turn contortions to get my hands on this beast, eventually participating in a book swap because it sure beat shelling out the hundred-plus dollars required to find a copy.

So why review a book no one's reading? For one, it's on its way back into print. Dzanc Books has been kind enough to bring this and several other McElroy titles back to life in ebook form. So keep an eye on McElroy - with his internet following in full swing (search for this on Goodreads and you'll find more glowing reviews than you ever saw in one spot for a book you might never have heard of), I wonder if he won't slide his way into the peripheral of our literary consciousness yet. My other, more personal reason is that I loved this book to death, even though there were moments where I swore it hated me. There's no way around it: Women and Men is a hard book. Part of this is for the same reason a lot of the other big postmodern books are hard: serious length, frequent digressions, enormous cast of characters, abstract prose, events that might not take place in a recognizable reality. On top of all that, McElroy sprinkles his own special McElroy difficulties - sentences that wind into multi-page paragraphs and jump from perspective to perspective with an alarming speed. He's an utter natural at the movement, only shifting when it makes narrative sense to shift, but the whole thing can be hard to keep track of.

The difficult sentences reflect on the novel's most noteworthy structural aspect, which in turn reflects on the novel's most noteworthy philosophical aspect. Its plot ostensibly concerns the lives of feminist Grace Kimball, who runs sex-positive "body-self" workshops and reporter James Mayn, who reports on economic trends and finds himself wrapped up in an ancient cycle of reincarnation. These two live in the same apartment, know many of the same people, and have been affected by many of the same events but never manage to meet at any point in the novel, and much of their lives are played through - emphasis is placed on James' mother's suicide, he and his brother's efforts to recover from it, and what comes out about the family after her death. Kimball's workshops are also described in intensive detail, and we get a sense of who the participants are, what brings them there, and what they make of their singular leader. Naturally, quite a few of the participants are connected to Mayn, and quite a few of Mayn's friends know Kimball.

However, McElroy's real concern throughout this massive book is to chronicle what we might call the American age: his vision spans from the 19th century to a vaguely defined "future" that doesn't seem too far removed from the book's 1977 setting. While moving through this huge timeline, McElroy makes stops pretty much everywhere, lending the mythology around Arizona's landmark Ship Rock and a conversation between two friends at a café the same levels of detail and significance. McElroy's switches between the enormous social-historical view and the minute details of day-to-day life with astonishing ease, and he tends to do so at a speed that set my brain swimming.

So why put the reader through such an ordeal? It's all part of McElroy's broader program. Like many postmodern novels, Women and Men is less organized around a classic plot structure and more built around the development of a central idea. Here, the idea is the conflict between two different statements: that people are matter, and that people matter. McElroy admits that people are small on any sort of cosmic scale, little more than parts of a broader whole, and that their lives are short and the systems they are part of continue without them. Yet, argues McElroy, no one lives their life that way. While the mundane occurrences of daily life might not look like much on a cosmic scale, the cosmic scale of humanity is made up of several billion individuals living through mundane events, which confers an enormous amount of significance onto those events. Since anything as large as human society and human history is made up of small events, the small events have to be looked at with historical significance, since they are significant as part of McElroy's broader view.

You might've picked up on a duality here: large-scale history vs. small-scale life. It's not the only one McElroy invites us to consider. Doubling has been a key point of literature since Achilles first duked it out with Hector, but McElroy takes it to extremes unseen by even Dostoevsky, the widely acknowledged master of characters in opposition with each other. As befits the novel's broad view, McElroy looks at his doubles on a large scale: not only women and men, but also communists and capitalists, colonizers and colonized, infinite and infinitesimal, natural and artificial, traditional and modern. Even the neutron bomb, which destroyed people but left property intact, is given a fascinating mirror-image in a terrific passage toward the end.

Yet he also takes a more personal look at it, as evidenced by the friendships of two mythic figures whose stories are traced among the others: an Anasazi medicine man and a hermit-inventor of New York. Further evidence is given through speculation about Mayn's future children, a boy and a girl who serve as foils to each other during a chapter that offers a look at his marriage. And, lending the novel some high-intellectual paranoid-thriller points, communism and capitalism are portrayed through a vicious and eventually violent intrigue between a pro-Castro Cuban exile and an anti-Castro Cuban exile.

A word also has to be made about McElroy's prose, which is not only incredible but also unique. His long multi-clausal sentences shouldn't be anything new to a reader schooled in postmodernism, and it's hard to imagine someone who isn't schooled in postmodernism coming to Women & Men. McElroy sets himself apart not just through the perspective switches I discussed earlier, but through all matters of self-interruption. Punning interpolations, abrupt switches into and out of dialect, moments of intense self-reflexivity and even direct interrogation of the previous sentence via an unseen set of characters who may be supernatural occur throughout this book, creating an endless flow of dialog within dialog and allowing McElroy to nest whole hosts of ideas, contradictions and complications within his prose. It's often overwhelming, but it's too well-suited for the novel's broader goals and too well-done for me to complain about at all.

That's all just the outer shell of a work with layers I'm sure I don't understand yet. Sex is had and deconstructed, whole lives play out with the detail and sympathy of biographies, an opera based on Hamlet is chased after and eventually performed, tapeworms and angels and interrogators and Mayn's friends in the prison all drop by to have a few words. McElroy projects an entire universe into this novel, one like ours but with an almost supernatural feel to it. It's a wonder that he pulled this monster off at all; that he did so in such a coherent and unified and gorgeous style makes it worth the tremendous effort it took me to read. So while I could say more, this is the eighth-longest novel in the English language, which means it has all sorts of secrets buried in it. Why not try to uncover a few?

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 7:00 AM, July 9, 2015. Filed under:
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July 3, 2015

The CCLaP Weekender for July 3rd is here!

CCLaP Weekender for July 3, 2015

It's Friday, which means it's time for the newest issue of the Pushcart-Prize-nominated CCLaP Weekender! This week's issue features a new original piece of fiction by Jim Wrona; a photography feature by Gioia Zloczower; and a look at the next seven days of literary events happening all across the city. The PDF is completely free to download, using the links below, or can be viewed online in its "flippable" form at Issuu.com (or just use the embedded version above, if your particular device is able to display it).

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Filed by Jason Pettus at 8:11 AM, July 3, 2015. Filed under: CCLaP Publishing | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Photography | Profiles |
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July 2, 2015

Book Review: "On Immunity: an Innoculation," by Eula Biss

(CCLaP is dedicated to reviewing as many contemporary books as possible, including self-published volumes; click here to learn how to submit your own book for possible review, although be warned that it needs to have been published within the last 12 months to be considered. For the complete list of all books reviewed here, as well as the next books scheduled to be read, click here.)

On Immunity, by Eula Biss

You might expect a book called On Immunity to be a little dry, or else too esoteric for its own good. I know that was what I thought when I first heard about it - the sort of book that's great for someone with a vested interest in immunology and impenetrable for everyone else. This didn't end up as the case at all. Sure, Biss did a mountain of research into the history of immunity - she discusses the rise of and reactions to germ theory, outdated and frankly disgusting vaccination methods, and the current debate about vaccines and autism - but with one eye on the larger cultural conversation and another on her personal experience.

Like Sontag, frequently referenced in this book, Biss digs for the root of our metaphors of the diseased body at war, offering alternative discourse and discussing instances in which the analysis holds up. Vampires also come into play, on similar terms - Dracula is read as a bringer of disease and an out-of-control capitalist in addition to the standard handsome seducer. She's interested in how fear of disease fits in with our general culture of panic. On Immunity therefore analyzes a frightening dilemma: that both vaccines and the anti-vaccine movement are rooted in a broader culture of fear.

However, On Immunity also shines in when Biss turns the conversation to herself. The birth of her child is especially important to this book; she tells stories about his early childhood shots and wonders how his birth might've made her more inclined toward fears she otherwise wouldn't have had, thus pulling herself in and looking at herself with the same honesty as she looks at anyone else. She, in short, recognizes herself as part of a fearful culture and uses this position to better and more empathetically analyze it. In short, not exactly your standard history book: it's honest and even-handed and gets the brain working.

Out of 10: 9.0

Read even more about On Immunity: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 7:00 AM, July 2, 2015. Filed under:
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June 26, 2015

Book Review: "Uncertain Justice: The Roberts Court and the Constitution," by Laurence Tribe and Joshua Matz

(CCLaP is dedicated to reviewing as many contemporary books as possible, including self-published volumes; click here to learn how to submit your own book for possible review, although be warned that it needs to have been published within the last 18 months to be considered. For the complete list of all books reviewed here, as well as the next books scheduled to be read, click here.)
 
Uncertain Justice, by Laurence Tribe and Joshua Matz
 
Uncertain Justice: The Roberts Court and the Constitution
By Laurence Tribe and Joshua Matz
Picador
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
 
The Supreme Court of the United States is the least understood branch of the government. Like the Federal Reserve, it is an elusive institution the general public either knows nothing about or knows only what could charitably be described as misinformation. If people knew more about how the Supreme Court works (and the Federal Reserve, for that matter), it would be less likely to pop up in conspiracy theories or partisan bloviations.

Uncertain Justice: The Roberts Court and the Constitution, by Laurence Tribe and Joshua Matz helps illuminate the inner workings of the Court. Tribe and Matz also give succinct portraits of all nine justices, their histories, personalities, and individual interpretation of how justice works. Tribe, a constitutional law professor at Harvard, and Matz, a Harvard Law School graduate and SCOTUSblog writer, team up to offer a sober assessment of the Roberts Court and its major rulings. (It should be noted that Uncertain Justice came out in July 2014. Certain cases, including Sibelius, popularly known as "The Hobby Lobby case" had yet to be decided. This does nothing to detract from the material in the book though.)* The great thing about this book is one doesn't have to be a legal scholar, attorney, or political junkie to appreciate it. The law effects all of us.

Laurence Tribe's students included Barack Obama, John Roberts, Elena Kagan. This adds a fascinating relevancy to the book. Tribe has also argued in front of the Supreme Court, avoiding the caricature of a professor sequestered in the Ivory Tower, isolated from society-at-large. As a Harvard Law Professor, Tribe offers the reader not only the historical background of major cases, but the specific legal, ideological, and cultural baggage each case carries. All the greatest hits are here: gun control, abortion, free speech, healthcare, privacy, and presidential power.

Uncertain Justice is an early assessment of the Roberts Court. Chief Justice John Roberts is the 17th Chief Justice of the United States, nominated by President George W. Bush in 2005. He took over as Chief Justice after the death of Chief Justice William Rehnquist. Like Rehnquist, Roberts is a conservative jurist. While the general public's attitude towards the law has moved slowly to the left, the Supreme Court remains a conservative bulwark.

President Obama has nominated two justices to the Court, but Republican presidents have had the opportunity to nominate four Chief Justices (Earl Warren, Warren Burger, William Rehnquist, and John Roberts). I bring this up not to provoke partisan squabbling, but for readers to take the long view. Despite the imperious title, the Chief Justice is more of an administrative role in the Court. He - until history proves otherwise - assigns cases to specific justices. Although the Chief Justice lacks the authority to write decisions, unless he assigns the case to himself, it is his name in the history books. The Warren Court is now known as a time of liberal change and increased rights. The Taney Court (of Dred Scott v. Stanford) is remembered as the most detested in United States history. Ten years in, where does the Roberts Court stack up?

While characterized as a liberal law professor, Tribe doesn't let his personal ideology overshadow the proceedings. One of the wonderful things about reading Uncertain Justice was how Tribe and Matz articulated arguments from both sides. In some cases it was a challenge to bring myself to make a judgment call. Not because of personal ambivalence, but because each side presented valid arguments. And unlike trial law, an arena of emotions and lurid details, when one argues in front of the Supreme Court, one is intellectually parsing language and wrestling with abstract concepts. Then one applies these to the case at hand. The stakes are huge and the consequences are either revolutionary or devastating, depending what side you are on. Luckily law operates in a more complex yet simple fashion than basic partisan divisiveness. Upon reaching this plateau of jurisprudence, at least ideally, one hopes it doesn't get reduced to "the Republican side" versus "the Democratic side." The questions argued before the Court shouldn't boil down to knee-jerk party tribalism. Leave that for the campaign trail.

In the book, Tribe and Matz discuss a test used by elite law firms: "if you had to eliminate half of the amendments in the Constitution, would you eliminate the odd- or even-numbered rights?" A knee-jerk response would include saying odd, because of the First Amendment, or even, because of the Second Amendment. The authors go on to explain how this is actually a trick question, but use it as a thought experiment. While each amendment is important, the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and additional amendments is a living "machine" with interrelated parts. Amendments are dependent on each other and cannot function alone. While freedom of expression is very important, so is equal protection. But how they interrelate becomes dependent on the individual justice's interpretation of the Constitution itself as it applies to the case at hand.

Tribe and Matz examine each case through two perspectives. The first is the narrative. The story of the individual and their claim. The second perspective is case genealogy. Supreme Court cases, like constitutional amendments, are interrelated. Brown v. Board can be traced back to Plessy v. Ferguson and Dred Scott v. Sanford. Though not immediately apparent, Brown also has roots in Korematsu v. United States, a case involving the wartime internment of Japanese-Americans. The Court upheld the racial segregation of Korematsu in 1944 on the grounds of "national security." Since racial segregation of "separate but equal" had no national security component, it weakened the justifications for the practice. When it comes to matters of free expression, privacy, gun control, and abortion, a working knowledge of case genealogy is very important. Both to understand what is being argued and to observe the trends occurring in American jurisprudence. In the case of abortion, the Right has abandoned the fight for the wholesale repeal of Roe v. Wade. Instead the fight has evolved into creating legislation that limits access.

Nine people make up the Supreme Court, but unlike the other branches, the arguments are ideological not partisan, a crucial distinction. The Court is very small and its important decisions are not televised. In today's hyper-mediated, image-saturated culture, one would think this means they are secretive. Tribe argues to the contrary, noting that there are no cameras because of what the justices write, not what they say. While some justices have been notorious for their public appearances (Justice Scalia most notably), during their session on the Court, they keep away from the public eye. It would be devastating to the process of American democracy if we had Supreme Court justices show-boating to the camera. Some cases involve incredibly pivotal decision-making. This would be ruined if they had to act like a lowly member of Congress or the President.

The "balance of powers" works because each branch has different strengths and weaknesses. The Supreme Court, unlike the President and Congress, is notable as a deliberative body and issuing decisions based on interpretation. Ideally, Congress and the President represent the nation's popular opinion, the Supreme Court should not. The challenge becomes issuing decisions whose time have come, but not making rash decisions based on the whims of public opinion. In the end, Supreme Court is about rendering a judgment, making a decision that will effect everyone.

Right now the Court is challenged by "political gridlock, cultural change, and technological progress." Just as the Federal Reserve is the lender of last resort, the Supreme Court is final arbiter of justice. The Roberts Court continues the conservative interpretation of jurisprudence, but making that interpretation effective relies on a majority of justices. Unfortunately the present Court, like our other branches, is divided. Supreme Court reporting has devolved into answering one question, "What will Justice Anthony Kennedy say?" Kennedy has become the reliable centrist between the Court's conservative and liberal wings. Hence the abundance of 5-4 rulings.

What has typified this Court is its disdain for "judicial overreach" and its preference for "legislative redress." If the Court has ruled against you, talk to your Senator or Representative about drafting a law to counter it. (Cue hysterical outbreak of words like inequality, oligarchy, and Citizens United references.) This is a cautious Court, one that doesn't seek to create new sweeping new law. It is the antithesis of the Warren Court. With that in mind, there are other ways to seek redress besides the Supreme Court. Protests, boycotts, awareness campaigns, lobbying, and elections are all means to an end. The end being: a law that changes things. Whether that law is constitutional? Well ...

Why am I including a Supreme Court book on a literary website? Because judicial decisions are like book reviews, judgment is rendered through interpretation and this can be controversial and divisive. Unlike book reviews, Supreme Court decisions should not be about "personal taste." Deeming a statute constitutional or not depends on the interpretive framework of the nine justices. Things get more tricky when ideology enters the fray.

For those interested in the Supreme Court (its history, personalities, major decisions, etc.) I would highly recommend Jeffrey Toobin's The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court, Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR's Great Supreme Court Justices by Noah Feldman, and The Brethren: Inside the Supreme Court by Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong.

*While Uncertain Justice could easily fall into the category of Current Affairs, it possesses the academic rigor and easy readability that pushes it above the Current Affairs category. Current Affairs is a motley mongrel category, embracing everything from cogent analyses of topical subject matter to the latest ghostwritten swill written by a morning political talk show host. Current Affairs usually means Immediately Obsolete. In the case of Uncertain Justice, it is legal commentary aimed for a popular, non-specialist audience.

Read even more about Uncertain Justice: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Karl Wolff at 9:00 AM, June 26, 2015. Filed under:
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The CCLaP Weekender for June 26th is here!

CCLaP Weekender for June 26, 2015

It's Friday, which means it's time for the newest issue of the Pushcart-Prize-nominated CCLaP Weekender! This week's issue features a new original piece of fiction by Joseph G. Peterson; a photography feature by Andreas Till; and a look at the next seven days of literary events happening all across the city. The PDF is completely free to download, using the links below, or can be viewed online in its "flippable" form at Issuu.com (or just use the embedded version above, if your particular device is able to display it).

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Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:25 AM, June 26, 2015. Filed under: CCLaP Publishing | CCLaP news | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Photography | Profiles |
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June 18, 2015

Book Review: "Women" by Chloe Caldwell

(CCLaP is dedicated to reviewing as many contemporary books as possible, including self-published volumes; click here to learn how to submit your own book for possible review, although be warned that it needs to have been published within the last 12 months to be considered. For the complete list of all books reviewed here, as well as the next books scheduled to be read, click here.)

Women, by Chloe Caldwell

Women
By Chloe Caldwell
Short Flight/Long Drive Books
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

When is it a romance novel and when is it a novel about romance? You've got your Nicholas Sparks and your Danielle Steeles, whose work most would agree isn't great literature, on one side of the equation. But then, you've got everyone from Ernest Hemingway to Lorrie Moore using romance as a center of widely lauded works on the other. So where's the dividing line? How do we distinguish between high art and harlequin romance?

If you ask me, it's all about interiority, which is the whole center of Women. It's built around what might look like a fairly standard romance-novel setup: two characters meet, attraction develops, they fall in love, and complications ensue. Yadda, yadda, yadda. Ah, except there are a couple of key points here that make Women well worth your time. First of all, it's narrated by a writer and presented as an account of the relationship's breakdown, which allows Caldwell to ask about boundaries. With so much talk these days around how writers portray their subjects, this couldn't have come at a better time.

"But wait a minute," you may ask, "Is this a novel or a how-to manual?" Fair enough, so let me sweeten the pot. Not only does the writing-about-writing aspect raise those questions, it also contributes to this novel's remarkable characters. Finn and the narrator, who is never named specifically, are imbibed with an uncommon amount of life. The effect is one of being told a story of a failed romance by a close friend, so much do you come to believe these characters. Not just as two women in love, but as two people who lived before they met and would continue to live afterward. So you could call it a romance novel, but I prefer to think of it as an intensive character study that happens to feature a romance.

Out of 10: 9.0

Read even more about Women: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 7:00 AM, June 18, 2015. Filed under:
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June 17, 2015

Rejoice! Ben Tanzer's collected "The New York Stories" is finally here!

The New York Stories, by Ben Tanzer

I'm happy to say that CCLaP's newest book for 2015 is finally out today; and it just so happens to be a book a lot of us have been waiting for a whopping nine years now. That's right, it's the triumphant release of Ben Tanzer's The New York Stories: Three Volumes in One Edition! Don't know what I'm talking about? Check out the book's dust jacket synopsis for more...

In 2006, celebrated author Ben Tanzer began working on a series of short stories all set in the fictional upstate New York town of Two Rivers, most of them published in various literary journals over the years and eventually collected into the three small volumes Repetition Patterns (2008), So Different Now (2011), and After the Flood (2014). Now for the first time, all 33 of these stories have been put together into one paperback edition, highlighting the long-term planning of themes and motifs that Tanzer has been building into these pieces the entire time. Featuring dark character studies of childhood, middle age, and (lack of) grace under pressure, these stories are considered by many to be among the best work of Tanzer's career, and voracious fans of his short work will surely be pleased and satisfied to have these small masterpieces collected together into one easy-to-read volume. So take a stool at Thirsty's, order another Yuengling, and be prepared to be transported into the black heart of the American small-town soul, as one of our nation's best contemporary authors takes us on a journey across space and time that will not be soon forgotten.

Whoa nelly! I'm proud to say that this particular book holds a special personal importance for me -- Repetition Patterns was the very first book CCLaP published, in fact, so I'm grateful and relieved to finally see this process come full circle here seven years later, and all these small books finally gathered up into one bookstore-friendly trade paperback for the first time ever. As always, you can go by the book's online headquarters to download a free ebook version, or purchase it at Amazon if you want it directly delivered to your Kindle; or for those who prefer a more traditional reading experience, you can order the paperback edition for $14.99 by using the button below...

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And of course don't forget that The New York Stories has its own listing over at Goodreads.com, so I hope my fellow GRers will have a chance to add it to their library over there, and especially to post a few thoughts about it after you're done reading the book. Word of mouth is the number-one way a small press like ours gains new fans, so your mention of our titles online can and does have a legitimately huge impact on the total number of copies we sell.

That's it for awhile with CCLaP and new books -- our next new title, the "city all-star" student anthology The View From Here, won't be out until September 15th, although at that point we'll be back to once-a-month releases from then until Christmas -- but don't forget that our authors will be out and about all summer long, doing plenty of live events, the next of which will be the release party for The New York Stories, taking place this coming Friday evening at City Lit Books in the Logan Square neighborhood, 2523 N. Kedzie. (And speaking of upcoming Tanzer appearances, he'll also be reading from this book over at Quimby's Bookstore in Wicker Park [1854 W. North Ave], on Tuesday, July 7th. It's a Tanzer Summer and we're all invited!) For now, though, I hope you'll have a chance to stop by the book's online headquarters right this moment, and see why this has already become one of Chicago's most talked-about books of 2015. I'm extremely proud of and happy about this book, and I hope you'll grow to become a fan as well.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, June 17, 2015. Filed under: CCLaP Publishing | CCLaP news | Chicago news | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Profiles |
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June 12, 2015

American Odd: "Matthew Barney's Cremaster Cycle," by Nancy Spector


Matthew Barney's Cremaster Cycle, by Nancy Spector

Matthew Barney's Cremaster Cycle
By Nancy Spector
Guggenheim Museum Publications
Review by Karl Wolff

Over a decade ago I had the rare opportunity to see The Cremaster Cycle, a series of five interrelated films by Matthew Barney. The Cremaster Cycle included other material, everything from sketches, photographs, music, and sculpture. When I first saw the films, I marveled at their visionary power, epic scope, and esoteric symbolism. The Cremaster Cycle takes it name from the cremaster muscle, a muscle that regulates the temperature of the testicles. The five films chart, among many other things, the progression from an undifferentiated state to a differentiated state. From the pre-natal and pre-genital to that of a gendered being. It was rewarding to reread Nancy Spector's introductory essay, "Only the Perverse Fantasy Can Still Save Us," as the United States grapples with the issue of trans awareness (and its legal, cultural, and political ramifications). To be clear, The Cremaster Cycle isn't about trans issues per se, but it would make an excellent vehicle for intelligent discussions about gender and trans awareness. This will become clearer when I examine more specific aspects of Barney's epic undertaking.

The Cremaster Cycle includes five films, of varying lengths, filmed out of order. They are:

Cremaster 1 (1995, 41 minutes)
Cremaster 2 (1999, 79 minutes)
Cremaster 3 (2002, 179 minutes)
Cremaster 4 (1994, 42 minutes)
Cremaster 5 (1997, 55 minutes)

Unlike The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, these films trace their cinematic genealogy back to avant-garde cinema. Films like Un chien andalou by Luis Bunuel and Chelsea Girls by Andy Warhol cater to a specific audience and bring along a certain set of aesthetic expectations. The Cremaster Cycle is also really odd, hence my inclusion of it in this essay series. The oddness comes from its outre subject matter, glamourous-yet-creepy visuals, and massive scale.

While it would take much longer to elaborate the intricacies of plot, symbolism, and interpretation, I'm going to provide a brief overview of each film. (But for those genuinely interested in Barney's work, I would highly suggest checking out The Cremaster Cycle book put out by the Guggenheim Foundation. Even if you aren't one to read the occasionally impenetrable introductory essay, the book is worth pursuing simply to gaze at the lavish visuals.)

The Cycle's five films are:

Cremaster 1: A spectacle reminiscent of Busy Berkeley dance numbers, the film has highly choreographed dancing girls while two Goodyear blimps hover around a football stadium. The imagery recalls testes or ovaries. Overall, the ambiance of the film is one of cold, calculated precision, and a hermetic utopia.

Cremaster 2: The film traces the 1977 execution of Gary Gilmore, supposed descendant of Harry Houdini. It brings together Mormon symbolism, a Victorian seance, desert and glacier imagery, and Norman Mailer as Harry Houdini. (Mailer wrote The Executioner's Song about the execution of Gilmore.) In the film, Gilmore is ritually sacrificed in a stadium made of salt sculpted on the Bonneville Salt Flats.

Cremaster 3: The longest film of the series is a Masonic gangster picture. The Entered Apprentice seeks to gain entry into the Lodge, but does so through devious means. The Syndicate, an Irish organized crime group, take on the trappings of a Masonic lodge set amid the construction of the Chrysler Building in 1930. Below the building, Seventies-era Chrysler Imperials play demolition derby with a Thirties-era Chrysler Imperial. In the Thirties-era car is the gender-switched reincarnation of Gary Gilmore, seen as a zombified corpse. The Apprentice competes in The Order, a kind of Masonic game show/sports competition set in the Guggenheim Museum. The Apprentice vies for power against The Architect Hiram Abiff (played by sculptor Richard Serra). At the conclusion of the film, the Apprentice succeeds the Architect, but only through a double-murder/double-sacrifice as the Chrysler Building becomes complete. (Paralympic athlete Aimee Mullins plays multiple roles in the film.)

Cremaster 4: The first film shot, Cremaster 4 can best be summarized as a fairy tale road movie. Set on the Isle of Man, the Ascending and Descending Hacks race in opposite directions to complete the race. Symbolizing the ascending or descending sex organs, the race also involves a dandified satyr attempting to burrow through the island and three muscular androgynous "fairies" (Barney borrowing Manx folkloric terminology) acting as a Greek chorus. The race is never completed.

Cremaster 5: The film stars Ursula Andress as the Queen of Chain and it is set in Budapest. Staged as a seven-act opera, the lavish neorenaissance Budapest Opera House and the Chain Bridge follow a tragic narrative. The Queen of Chain pines after The Diva (played by Barney). Amid the operatics, Barney also recreates a Houdini-like escape from the bridge. The tragic end was either a dream or a fairy tale, although it is hard to figure out which.

While watching the films or looking at the pictures, it would be easy to get frustrated or bored. Part of the challenge with Barney's work is following the intricate associative connections. It is best to simply absorb the work, taking in the visuals and the soundtrack. Sometimes "not getting it" is beside the point.

In terms of trans awareness, I'm not going to turn this work into a piece of ideology. But at a more abstract and intellectual level, The Cremaster Cycle engages the viewer to contemplate gender, transformation, and resistance. Is gender about "being" or "becoming"?* Nancy Spector asserts that Barney's main obsession is artistic creation through resistance. His work seeks to exist in a constant conflict between two zones: the first is a zone of pure desire (undifferentiated, chaotic) and the second is the zone of production. But he also seeks to short-circuit the zone of production, because when something is produced, the resistance ends. The interplay (both literally and metaphorically) between chaotic desire and productive resistance drive his work.

How is this an example of the American Odd? Where to begin? While Barney is the product of the American arts scene, he brings to this piece a wild melange of influences, obsessions, and subject matter. His artistic use of resistance and spectacle harken back to his days as a high school football player in Idaho. He also brings together biology, geography, history, geology, religion, and sexuality to create a massive personal artistic monument.

*As a side-note, gender plays an important role in Mormon dogma. According to Mormons, one has a gender even before birth. Gender was determined when one as a pre-mortal spirit and one will have gender as a post-mortal spirit. The rigid concept of gender offers another reading into Cremaster 2 with Gary Gilmore's desire to escape. Like Angels in America by Tony Kushner, Cremaster 2 uses Mormonism as raw material to create an epic pantheistic theatrical experience.

Read even more about The Cremaster Cycle: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia
 
Coming next: The Manson File by Nikolas Schreck

Filed by Karl Wolff at 9:00 AM, June 12, 2015. Filed under:
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