Sunday, December 30, 2012

Kashimada Maki: Meido meguri (2012)


Kashimada Maki 鹿島田真希.  Meido meguri 冥土めぐり.  2012.

Winner of the 147thA-Prize, for early 2012.

The title story is the winner:  a novella whose title could be translated “A Tour of Hell,” or maybe, “Running Around in the Afterlife.”  Or, in a more Gothic mode, “The Darkling Land and Its Rounds.”  The author has been writing since 1998;  this was her fourth time as a finalist for the A-Prize, and she won the Mishima Prize in 2004.  In other words, she’s hardly a newcomer, and on that score alone it’s a somewhat mystifying choice.   
 The story itself feels almost too perfect for the A-Prize.  It’s not first-person, but it is a typical A-Prize mix of semi-epiphanic present and endless, aimless reminiscence.  And the point of view character, Natsuko, is so laden down with misery and frustration, and so inarticulate and emotionally paralyzed in response, that the story reads almost as a parody of serious literature.  She’s mired in a low-paying part-time job, caring for a husband with a brain illness;  her father also died young of a brain injury, leaving her mother and brother and her in poverty;  her mother, a former stewardess, and her brother are irresponsible with money and leeches on Natsuko’s income and time.  Any one of these situations would be enough, but Kashimada throws them all in.  By the time we learn that Natsuko’s first job ended when sexual harrassment at work forced her to quit, the whole thing starts to feel a little Dickensian.  I guess that’s where the title comes in:  the story is kind of a tour of Hell, cira 2012.
Most of the story takes place on a Sentimental Journey.  One day Natsuko sees a notice advertising a special low rate at a hot-springs hotel that the ward uses as a public retreat.  They can afford it at that rate, so Natsuko takes her husband, Taiichi.  It so happens that this hotel once knew better days.  Natsuko’s mother had gone there as a child when it was a true luxury hotel, and then she once took Natsuko and her brother.  Yes, a dilapidated hot springs hotel by the sea – Atami isn’t named, but could it be anywhere else?  And this, too, is rather a cliché…
The family’s awfulness is well evoked.  The former-stewardess mother is obsessed with luxury, despite being poor – she tasted luxury as a stewardess, and as a child, and constantly puts on airs.  She explicitly expected Natsuko, who we gather is good-looking, to marry a rich man and support her mother in the style she’s not accustomed to but pretends she is.  Meanwhile the younger brother takes after his mother.  Wastes any money he gets his hands on.  No sooner gets his first job out of college than he gets into debt trouble drinking and carousing, and his mother has to sell their condo to pay it off;  the rest of the money they seem to spend entirley on expensive restaurants.  The payout from Natsuko’s sexual harrassment lawsuit likewise goes straight into their hands, and out again.  Neither of them work regularly.
Natsuko seems to have lived her life in rebellion against her mother and brother’s insatiable greed and laziness.  Rather than becoming a stewardess and/or marrying a doctor like her mother wanted, she gets a part-time job at the local community center and marries a kind, simple man she met there, Taiichi.  Her mother and brother behave abominably toward him – a local government worker’s salary isn’t going to buy them fancy French meals – but he doesn’t notice.  And then he has his strokes, and Natsuko spends all her time nursing him.  This seems to suit her, too, as being the utter opposite of her mother’s values.  Self-negating sacrifice seems to be what Natsuko craves.
Then again, she seems more emotionally dead for most of the story than emotionally fulfilled by her life of service.  At least that seems to be the point of the epiphany near the end of the story, when she realizes that her husband, despite all his debilities, has a clearer bead on what he wants and enjoys in life than she does…
The prose is clear but not particularly striking.  The protagonist’s travails, as described here, seem like they might offer interesting subtext – a critique of consumption-obsessed modern life, or something – but if so, Kashimada is content to suggest it, without particular emphasis.  Rather, the subtext she seems most interested in us picking up on is that of the title.  If this is a tour of Hell, then Hell is family.
Which makes this story a very strange and clever contrast with the other novella in the book, “99 no seppun 99の接吻,” or “99 Kisses.”  Which is by far the better story – that’s not rarely the case, I’m finding, with the bonus stories in Akutagawa-Prize books, but I’ve never seen a more drastic disparity than this. 
The story is narrated by Nanako, the youngest of four adult daughters who live with their mother near Yanaka in Tokyo.  A lot of the story turns on perceptions of Tokyo’s shitamachi – expectations that everybody will be earthy, laid-back, and (particularly the girls) loose, contrasted with Nanako’s insistence that their neighborhood’s residents, at least, have a kind of purity and nobility and pride that nobody knows.  As an exploration of a particular kind of Tokyo localism it’s a successful story, working in playful references to the literary traditions of that side of the city (she name-checks figures as disparate as Kawabata Yasunari and Hiratsuka Raichō). 
But the main literary antecedent for this story is Tanizaki Jun’ichirō.  This is evident first and foremost in the glowing descriptions of the older three sisters, reminiscent of several strong and intensely feminine characters in his ouevre.  But it’s also there in the strange sexuality at the heart of the story.  Simply put, Nanako loves her three older sisters with a love that verges on, and at times seems to actually be, sexual.  Yes, sisterly incest is contemplated here, and presented to the reader for erotic delectation.  But in true Tanizakian fashion it’s handled with such verve and passion that the reader buys it as more than perversion, as a beauty and a love that’s just too pure to be contained…wink wink, nudge nudge.
It’s amazing that both of these stories are products of the same pen, really.  And that, more than the Prize-winning story itself, makes me want to know more about this author.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Murakami Haruki: 1Q84 (revisited)

My earlier thoughts on the book are here.

Now, after having read the work again, I’m prepared to revise my earlier judgment on it somewhat.  The skinny is that I still didn’t enjoy the third part very much, but I do see how he was probably planning it to go in that direction from the start.



That is, reading the first two parts with knowledge of what’s in store in the third part, it was easy to see how he was laying the groundwork for the Aomame-Tengo love story right from the start.  Indeed, it was possible (I’m assured by my wife) to see that coming a mile away – what other reason would there be for paralleling a single man and a single woman of the same age like that?  Of course they’re going to get together.  To which my response is, well, Kafka and Nakata didn’t “get together” in Kafka on the Shore, and I and the Rat didn’t in Pinball, 1973, so I think (protecting my ego) that there was good reason, grounded in a careful reading of Murakami’s oeuvre, not to assume that this was going to end up as a love story.



But in fact it did, and hey:  rereading it, I can see him telegraphing it pretty clearly.  From the beginning, this was always going to be that kind of novel.  And this telegraphing comes on the subtextual level as well as in terms of the plot.  It was that kind of novel all along not just because structurally it had to end with the two storylines being united, the two would-be lovers consummating it, but because one of the deep themes of the book is solipsism and its discontents.  As the Homeric taxi driver warns Aomame at the outset, there’s only one reality, despite appearances – this isn’t a parallel worlds novel – but at the same time, we know that not everybody perceives the world the same.  For some people, it’s a world with two moons;  for others, it’s not.  Each of us lives in our own world, intentionally or not, and we can never know completely how much that world is “real,” that is, how much it overlaps with the individualized worlds those around us are living in.  There may only be one reality, but who can access it, and how can they know if they do?  The 9/Q business is setting this up for us:  but the movement of the novel is inexorably toward the merging of Tengo’s and Aomame’s separate worlds.  I can see that now.  The climax of the thing was always going to be two people (two separate worlds) agreeing to commit to each other (to merge their worlds into one).  I get that.  I can appreciate that he’s doing that.



And I can see how that fits in cleanly with the rest of his career.  Withdrawal into one’s own private world vs. getting out and engaging with everybody else’s world.  Solitude vs. commitment to a relationship.  Self vs. non-self.  This is his big theme, and he’s revisiting it here.  Okay. 



None of that new appreciation fundamentally changes how I feel about the book, though.  The love story he chose to tell is still a retelling of the Hajime-Shimamoto story, only this time Hajime is right to be saving himself for his mostly-imaginary childhood crush.  And so is Aomame.  Granted that this works better on the fantasy level on which this story takes place, still it’s a retreat from the mature, realistic, even cynical take on adult relationships that has characterized his work so far.  Gone is the messiness of actually trying to make a relationship work (and usually failing), gone is the tension between real-life relationships and fantasy perfect lovers.  Here the triumphal commitment is to the ideal lover of memory and imagination.  In 1992 Murakami knew that this could not actually bring resolution or happiness.  Hajime was doomed the moment he embraced Shimamoto, because she wasn’t real.  Here we’re supposed to rejoice over Aomame and Tengo getting together after twenty years, never yet having had a real conversation, but already committing to starting a family together…  It just doesn’t work for me.  It’s a fantasy, and maybe if you can find it beautiful on a fantasy level it works for you, but that particular fantasy doesn’t really appeal to me.  So.  There.



There have been hints and rumors about a fourth book.  I’ll believe it when I see it.  I can imagine a fourth book that would redeem the series somewhat.  Volume 3 is still, aside from all of the above points, a dull read, and nothing can change that.  But a fourth book could return to the blithely-abandoned Little People/Sakigake storyline and wrap things up in a more satisfying manner.  After all, the end of Vol. 3 drops strong hints that Aomame and Tengo’s little one is more than just the signifier of their true love, it’s somehow the new Sakigake prophet, or more.  And Sakigake is after it.  Maybe in Vol. 4 Fukaeri and Komatsu and Buzzcut and the Little People all come back and it all builds to a rousing climax that follows through on the social critiques begun in the first two volumes.  Maybe.  But at the moment, that hasn’t happened in this reality.  We’re left with Vol. 3 as the final word on this fictional world.  And it feels pretty final, if not satisfying.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Anne Rice: Interview with the Vampire (1976)

"You don't even understand the meaning of your own story, what it means to a human being like me."  So says the unnamed interviewer at the end of the book, after Louis has finished telling his story.  Rice risks being too on-the-nose with this, but it's a risk worth taking, I think, because - especially after decades of sequels and fanhoods - the meaning of this story is always and forever in peril of being misunderstood.

What the interviewer thinks Louis's story means is this:  immortality, and with it immortal passions.  As he says on the previous page, "The love of Claudia, the feeling, even the feeling for Lestat! It didn't have to end, not in this, not in despair!"  All the desperate boy interlocutor can see in Louis's state is transcendence of mortal limitations.

But what Louis means him to understand - what Louis has learned - is that immortality (for the vampire) is just life without relief.  If life presents frustration, disappointment, unfulfilled desire, and finally the waning of desire, capped by the futility of death, immortality simply presents frustration, disappointment, unfulfilled desire, and finally the waning of desire, with no end.  The immortal is doomed to be bored, to achieve Olympian heights of ennui, because if life is meaningless, then eternal life is an eternity spent in contemplation of meaninglessness.

It is a romantic book.  The heightened sensitivities that Louis experiences upon first becoming a vampire are enough to recast the whole myth as a species of post-Aquarian opening of the doors of perception, but I think it's a different generation entirely that she's thinking of.  Louis is Prometheus, claiming for man what the gods have withheld, a full appreciation of the marvels of the physical world.  Rice has chosen her setting carefully to make Louis a product of the incipient Romantic Age and of the New World its most precious project and of New Orleans, the most romantic part of the New World - that's a lot of different kinds of romance tossed in, but it all works.  And at the end what she's achieved is another kind of Romanticism altogether, the Romantic despair of the great poets.

I read it knowing it was the first of a series, and fully intending to let myself get hooked.  But it's that rare first book that makes you not want to read any further.  Judging by how long it took her to get around to writing a sequel, one assumes that she never meant this to be a series:  indeed, it's hard to imagine how she could have.  If we take Louis at his word, this is inevitably the story of every vampire - immortality must do this to everybody.  The only way she could make a sequel is to make Louis a liar or a fool - someone who doesn't even understand the meaning of his own story.  And this book is so powerful, its final vision of despair is so majestic and persuasive, that I'm going to have a hard time believing anything she writes to contradict it.

(But I'm halfway through The Vampire Lestat now.  I'm ready to be proven wrong.)

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Grateful Dead: Dave's Picks Vol. 4

I'm a Deadhead.  The contours of my Deadheaddom are these.  I got on the bus in 1987-1988, but only figuratively:  I only saw three shows, and never followed the band.  Becoming a fan when I did, I'll forgive you for thinking I was turned on to the band by "Touch of Grey."  It's true, that song was everywhere in 1987, and I heard it and liked it as much as most rock radio listeners did.  But I think my getting turned on to the Dead when I did had more to do with the simple fact that I went away to college in the fall of '87.  And my college was full of Deadheads, and I was already a hippie wannabe, so:  it was gonna happen anyway.

As I say, I only saw three shows (I was in Japan for most of the time between my second show and my third).  And I never even got seriously into tape collecting.  Only when Everything went up on the Internet Archive did I start listening to unreleased Dead in a big way.  On the other hand, I've bought every vault release since they started releasing 'em with One From The Vault in 1991.  In case you're not counting, that's dozens and dozens of multidisc sets in the last twenty years.  At the moment there are only three I'm missing.  And I'll get around to them, too, don't worry. 

I'm obsessed with completism and with anthologizing, so I judge any new Dead vault release by slightly different criteria than most Deadheads do.  At least, that's the impression I've formed over the last dozen years or so of perusing Deadhead discussion fora.  I want to have nothing less than a representative canon of live Dead, one that touches on all significant performances from throughout their career.  I want this canon to exist, in some kind of definitive form, so that a hundred years from now, my great-grandnieces can explore the Dead in some kind of systematic fashion, rather than the haphazard, random way I've done it.

(Although, yes, it's true, I've enjoyed that haphazardness a great deal, and probably would have lost interest if the Dead had ever made it totally easy for me...  That's the nature of the trip, always has been, and perhaps it's for the best.  But, still.)

So I look at any new release with an eye to the gaps it fills, both in my collection and in the canon (as constituted by official releases).  Only after that do I think about things like show quality, sound quality, etc. 

I have here before me the most recent Dead release, Dave's Picks Volume 4.  It consists of the complete 9/24/76 show at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.  It's a subscription-only, limited-edition, sold-out set (my copy is no. 3835 of 12000), so if you don't have it, I guess you're SOL.  (I kind of hate the limited-edition concept - it seems unjust to people who haven't become Deadheads yet but one day will - but whatever.)

It's been clear for most of the last couple of decades that most 'heads who buy these things prefer '70s shows.  For a while I was keeping a running count of what proportion of releases were from that decade;  I lost count, can't be bothered to figure it out now, but it's pretty damn high.  Over 50%, surely.  A mere third of the band's career comprises the lion's share of the canonical output.  That bothers me, and not just because I'm a completist.  I'm one of those dodos (a rare and, perhaps, foolish bird) who likes '80s and '90s Dead, too.  There are gems in every year, even at the depth of Jerry's addictions.

On that score, DaP4 is more of the same.  In fact, the series so far has been four '70s shows, with a fifth promised as the first release of 2013.  So that's a little disappointing.  Still, there's '70s and there's '70s.  Within that decade, the lion's share of the lion's share come from just four years:  1972, 1973, 1974, and 1977.  '70, '71, '75, '76, '78, and '79 are not unrepresented, to be sure, but they've been a lot slower to reach something like representative coverage. 

I'm about at the point where I feel 1976 is done.  This is the fifth full show to be released so far from the autumn tour, in addition to a few scraps that have slipped out here.  I'm sure there are great moments left to be compiled (my personal Fall '76 anthology includes a couple of tracks from 9/30 and 10/15 that haven't been released yet), but as tours go, this one is now quite well represented.  Especially considering that there are entire years in the '80s and '90s with no releases at all.  Not to mention the gobsmacking fact that we have yet to get a '67 show.  Summer of Love and all that? 

So for canon-fleshing-out purposes, this is useful but perhaps at the limits of usefulness.  But what about the music?

My God, but I love the Grateful Dead.  I go through months at a time where I don't listen to them, but then I'll put on a disc and I'm right back in that Deadhead space, and I don't want to listen to anything else.  At this point it's safe to say that there's no artist, no body of work (not even Dylan or Yes, who I've loved longer and deeper than the Dead), that does it for me like the Dead do. 

And Fall '76 is good Dead.  I am glad that they've reached such a good level of coverage for this tour, because I love it.  Yes, they're still figuring out what they can and can't do with two drummers, and yes, they're still working out the kinks in the new repertoire they invented for themselves with their return to touring in summer '76 (after a nearly two year hiatus).  And yes, things would only get better from here - smoother, more inventive.  But I do like the sense of discovery and risk you get with these fall '76 shows.  By spring of '77 (which is far more extensively covered than this tour, and with good reason), they'd once again be playing like gods;  here they're just beginning to feel that they could get there again. 

At the moment I think my favorite passage from this show is the extended, drum-bifurcated "Slipknot!" deep in the second set.  Keith is the one leading the band here, playing off the drummers without using Jerry as a mediator - as tasty as his licks are in this segment, he's basically irrelevant.  There were lots of gnarlier "Slipknot!"s to come, but few this supple, this close to actual jazz.  It's the Dead at the limits of their style, ready to become something else.

And to balance that, I would direct your attention to "Big River," which also sees Keith and the Mickey/Billy team running the show.  This version prances, skips, marches, and frogsteps its way down the big muddy - all on water, of course.

This band could do anything.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Dave Brubeck RIP

Here's one of many little things that turned me on to jazz.  It's a Saturday afternoon, late summer, 1994, and I'm walking down Omotesandō, meandering through crowds, promenading in and out of alleys, checking out sidewalk vendors with old books or chic junk on velvet blankets, enjoying feeling surrounded by fashionable people although I myself am just a poor college student.  There are the Dojunkai apartments, before they got boutiqued:  ivy and old concrete in a district of glass and steel.  There's the Marlboro guy towering over the end of the street.  I'm 24 and alone in Tokyo, but I have a date for that evening.  It turned out that the date would go badly - rejection of a months-long crush - but at the moment, that afternoon, life is sweet.

I stop in front of a music store.  They have real good speakers set up on the sidewalk, and they're playing Dave Brubeck's Take Five album at high volume.  I know just enough to recognize it, but I never got it until then.  The title track:  that coolly purposeful piano, that light lyrical sax, that deep bass like a whisper of solemnity underwriting the festivity.  And then that drum solo.  Played loud.  Recorded loud.  Played back loud.  It's visceral playing.  I felt it in my gut.  There was drama, expression, feeling in that drum solo.  I just stood there on the sidewalk, no doubt with some goofy look of near ecstasy on my face, because the music was just so damn rich and full and real and right. 

The good shit lasts.  It reaches who it needs to reach.  Thank you Dave Brubeck.

Monday, December 3, 2012

He ain't dead, he's just asleep

Not long after my last post, Obama was reelected.  I try not to write much about politics here, at least outside of the cultural topics I started this blog as a place to write about.  But anybody who reads this has noticed by now that I'm an unabashed liberal, and that I've been growing more and more depressed with the state of my country for the last few years.  My whole adult life, really, things have been getting worse.  Anyway.  I honestly didn't think Obama would get reelected.  But he did.  And for a while the gravity of that, the grace of it, made my various little blogging ideas seem pretty paltry in comparison.  So I just shut up.  Not a bad thing to do now and then.

Then the busy time of the term hit me, and it was just too exhausting to think about posting.  And now it's been an even month since I posted.  Which is a couple of blog-lifetimes in Internet time.  I'm aware I may have killed it.

But whatever.  I don't feel like pulling the plug yet.  I started this blog so I'd have a place to write about the things I don't write about in my day job, because I enjoy writing.  Nothing more.  And I still feel that way, so here goes.

*

Probably not a good idea to let the first post back be so negative, but.  I'm a loyal reader of Andrew Sullivan.  But, like most liberals who read him (and really:  mostly only liberals read him), he annoys me about as often as he enlightens me.  And lately one of the things that's been annoying me most is the crap he posts about literature on weekends.  (Actually, of course, it's his blogserfs who post it, not him.  But it's his sensibility, he assures us, so it's him I call senseless.)

Like this.  I mean, the idea is iffy to begin with - a kind of pretentious that only The New Yorker can really aspire to - I find it snarky at worst and unhelpful at best to assert, with no hint of uncertainty, that the endings of all these great novels are "inartistic."  (And what about the uninterrogated assumptions behind that insidious em-dash separating "inartistic" from "a betrayal" - is the equivalence there so self-evident?)  There's the germ of an interesting theme there, the question of endings, but what's interesting about it can't be gotten at through self-satisfied judgments like "lame" or "shockingly bad."  It might be get-at-able through actual literary analysis - what was the author trying to do?  What did her audiences/editors/critics expect?  What assumptions do my reactions proceed from, and might they not be faulty?

Like I say, the article Sullivan is linking to is bad enough.  But there's something naggingly annoying in how Sullivan ('s gnomes) blithely link to it, nutting the pithiest grafs, with no comment, no reaction.  I mean, I guess that's the aggregator principle:  like the Daily Beast's brain-dead motto has it, "read this skip that," just sluice the words through your brain with "no attempt," as Dylan put it, "to shovel the glimpse into the ditch of what each one means."

Arrgghh. 

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Yardbirds: "Honey In Your Hips"

Or, Notes for a Skeptical Deiography of Eric Clapton (i.e., We Don't Believe He's God, but His Story Is Worth Telling Anyway), #1.3.

The other notable track laid down at that first demo session was "Honey In Your Hips," a Keith Relf original.  It was the b-side of that 1966 single, but I think it should have been the a-side.  I understand why it wasn't, though:  in 1964 the Yardbirds, like their contemporaries in the British rhythm and blues underground, were trying to sell themselves as blues musicians, not pop stars.  A hit would have been nice - and they'd try harder for one as time went on - but it was, one suspects, more important to them at first to be taken seriously with "Boom Boom" than with "Honey In Your Hips."  But the latter is a much better record.

"When I get out on the dancing floor," intones Relf in that plummy young English tenor voice of his.  It's a record about dancing - not shooting your lover down, not grown-up concerns.  Yeah, it's about sex, but sex on the brain, sex conjured up in the imagination of a horny teenage boy on the dancing floor - sex as an unknown, sex as what might happen next once you've kissed him and you head on out that door.

Hooker's lyrics on the belated a-side were about the violence inherent in the adult male's sexual drive, and/or maybe the things that happen in grown-up lives when love goes wrong;  it's a street-wise menace that Hooker could deliver with a growl that was pure grizzly bear:  something cuddly with sharp claws.  Relf and the 'birds try to possess it, but they can't, quite.  They're too wet behind the ears.  The only choices for Brit blues-boom boys with this song were to fail to own it, or to convert that menace to snot-nosed malice, like the Animals did.  The latter insight, incidentally, was what made the Animals such an awesome punk band.  The Yardbirds weren't that;  and so they failed.  But on the belated b-side they delivered something that was much more authentically them, and taken together the two tracks capture the the British blues boom as well as any five minutes of music it produced.  You come to the club thinking to pay homage to the American blues giants of your imagination;  you fail;  but you succeed at what really brought you there, which was the age-old desire to dance with some cute birds, and maybe more.  Failure isn't always abject;  sometimes it's a near-miss that produces something new instead.

The musical bed for Relf's dance floor (excuse me, "dancing floor") fantasy is perfect.  Clapton, Dreja, Samwell-Smith, and McCarty are unbelievably tight here.  Tight in two senses:  they're playing in perfect calibration, each instrumental line interlocking smoothly with the others, but they're also playing as one tightly-wound adolescent spring, evoking a sense of abandon fueled by hormones, speed, and beat music.  Drums, bass, and handclaps in insistent syncopation, and those guitars, playing that nifty spiraling riff.  Even the production contributes, such as it is - the indistinction of the low end makes the drum/bass parts thunder (especially that ominous, pounding break behind the title phrase).

Clapton's contribution would be notable even if it was limited to that riff - and during the instrumental break it appears as if it might be, as Relf takes off on another harmonica solo.  But it's really a duet between Clapton and Relf, and then Clapton continues to dominate the record during the final verse, adding another standout lick every time the singer pauses, like a cute bird winking every time her partner's conversation starts to flag.

Friday, November 2, 2012

The Yardbirds: "Boom Boom"

Or, Notes for a Skeptical Deiography of Eric Clapton (i.e., We Don't Believe He's God, but His Story Is Worth Telling Anyway), #1.2.

We tend to think of Eric Clapton as the original guitar hero, and his first band, the Yardbirds, as the guitar hero band par excellence, unleashing not just EC but Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page on all the foes of guitar heroism.

But that wasn't Clapton's role in the Yardbirds, at least not at first.  For most of Clapton's tenure in the band you can make the case that it was vocalist Keith Relf's outfit, and that Clapton was playing a supporting role.  Not that it was a vocal band:  it was that Relf's harmonica was the featured instrument.

It was that way on their first studio recordings, which come from a demo session at R.G. Jones Studio in 1963 - the date I've seen is December 10, just a couple of days after the show backing Sonny Boy that was later released as an lp.  At first they don't seem to have been deemed worthy of release, but eventually time proved otherwise.  In 1966, two songs from this session, "Boom Boom" and "Honey In Your Hips," were released as a single in Europe, and now they show up on many Yardbirds compilations.  They make perfect sense if heard as an imaginary Yardbirds first single.

"Boom Boom" is, of course, a John Lee Hooker classic.  It was also a favorite among the British r&b groups - it was the Animals who had the hit with it, in 1965.  And, perhaps ironically, the Animals' version has more of a guitar-heavy feel than the Yardbirds'.  The Yardbirds' version is largely a feature for Relf's harmonica.  Like Sonny Boy's on the live set a couple of days prior, Relf's harp is loud and clear, a contrast to the somewhat muffled sound of the guitars.  But it's not just an issue with the recording:  as the Five Live Yardbirds performances attest, Relf's harp work was the focus of the early Yardbirds.  He gets the first solo (although Clapton takes over halfway through the first instrumental break).  And the same thing happens on the second instrumental break, the one that ends the song.  Relf starts it out, and then he tries to step back to let Clapton take over, but Clapton doesn't really step up.

In both cases what Clapton plays is nice enough blues - he's got the chops and the taste - but in a mood and tone that's a bit at odds with what Relf's doing.  Relf's harp work lacks the teeth of Sonny Boy's, so what he plays ends up sounding a little skiffley, but at least he's trying to be loud and aggressive, which of course are the qualities the song demands.  Clapton's tone, meanwhile, is subdued and even a bit jazzy. Nice licks, but cooler than the song leads you to expect.  A bit underwhelming.

It's not a bad record, however.  Overall the impression it gives is a bit tentative, but it shows off the band's capabilities much better than "Take It Easy, Baby" does.  In fact the band is what's remarkable about this:  the two solo voices don't steal the show, but the whole record hangs together nicely because the drumming, the bass, the rhythm guitar all create such a confident (if typically Brit-tight) groove.  The solos work fine as part of a short, snappy pop-blues record.

That may not have been what Clapton aspired too, but it would turn out to be what he was best at.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Sonny Boy Williamson with the Yardbirds: "Take It Easy, Baby"

Or, Notes for a Skeptical Deiography of Eric Clapton (i.e., We Don't Believe He's God, but His Story Is Worth Telling Anyway), #1.1.

Clapton started out with the Yardbirds, and for the longest time, your Yardbirds collection started out with Sonny Boy Williamson.

There were a surprising number of real live American bluesmen kicking around Europe in the mid-'60s, brought over to reward the British blues boom for its devotion.  Sonny Boy was the most important of them.

The standard thing seems to have been to pair the visiting blues god with some of his local acolytes as a backing band.  Thus did Sonny Boy play the Crawdaddy Club in Richmond Surrey, backed by the Yardbirds, on December 8, 1963.  All the songs they did that night, plus a few from the night before and a couple months later, have been released;  the first shot was in 1965 on the lp Sonny Boy Williamson & The Yardbirds.  The Yardbirds' Sonny Boyless six-song warm-up set has also been released, but it's not that great.  This is a better starting point for the story.

Sonny Boy was one of the four or five most important Chess blues guys, but for the record he's nowhere near my favorite:  his songs tend to all sound the same.  He's essential - for any given three minutes of listening he can make you sound like he is the blues, not nobody else - but a little goes a long way.

Still, on these recordings you can hear what must have impressed British listeners, and players, so much.  In unfamiliar and not necessarily comfortable circumstances he still manages to utterly dominate the proceedings, projecting his personality and his musical vision into nearly every corner of the music.  It helps that he's much more heavily amped than the rest of the band.  His voice is huge, and his harmonica gargantuan, and the pale skinny boys in the background are...unobtrusive.

Which is great if you're listening for Sonny Boy, as you probably should be;  not so great if you're interested in what Clapton was doing at the very beginning of his career.  He only gets to solo on a couple of tracks, and even then it's only a few bars.  "Take It Easy, Baby," a long slow blues, is his longest moment in the spotlight, and so it's where we begin.

For most of the song he comps along in a fairly unobtrusive manner, and that's the first thing we might want to notice.  It's not easy, as I say, because Sonny Boy almost immediately swoops in with his vulture-breath harp and Chicago-tough exhortation to "take it easy baby" (and how exotic must that locution have sounded to British boys in 1963?).  But the first lick of the song is Clapton's, and even though he immediately recedes (in the mix, as well as the arrangement), he can still be heard playing nice chords and fills at appropriate moments everywhere.  It's standard-issue blues guitar accompaniment, nothing to steal the spotlight from the main guy, everything to make a bed for what he's laying down.  And that's the point:  EC could do this, from the very beginning, and sound natural.  The rest of the band, essentially drummer Jim McCarty and bassist Paul Samwell-Smith, sound understandably nervous and tight - they manage to keep the tempo, and add a few nice rolls here and there, but basically they're stiff.  They don't swing.  But Clapton does.

Sonny Boy takes a solo, half moaning it, and then Eric gets his big moment in the spotlight.  So what does he do?  Plays it like any young man his first time around:  too much, too soon.  It's a 12-bar solo, and for the first six bars he tries to show us everything he can do.  He rushes the beat, he drags the beat, he plays on the off-off-beat, he subdivides the beat, he throws out a blinding series of bends and chirps.  It makes sense if you listen closely, a number of times - it's not chaos - but it's way too fast and energetic for the song.  This goes on for six bars and then, oh yeah, we got six bars to go, and suddenly he slows down, slips into the groove, picks his licks a little more carefully, does a little low trill, and then a quick slicing chord to hand it back to Sonny Boy.  'Cause pale skinny EC is spent.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Wachowskis' Cloud Atlas (2012)

I haven't read the book.  I would like to read the book, and I think I even intend to, now.  But this review is based on not having read the book.  All the same, it sounds like what bugs me about this film is an artifact of the film, not the book.

Stop.  Go read David Edelstein and Kathryn Schulz's taidan on the film.  I agree with most of it.

Okay, here's where I disagree.  I had a lot more fun with the movie than it sounds like Edelstein did.  In fact, I only got disgusted with it in the last ten minutes or so.  Up to that point I had a great time watching Tom Hanks and Halle Berry have a great time playing goofy genre roles, and also trying to figure out how all the pieces fit together.  So I recommend seeing the movie:  you won't be bored, and there's a lot of wonder in there to savor.

That said, when all the pieces do fit together, you realize that they don't fit together well.  And the overall picture they're creating is much less impressive than the various pieces were promising it would be.  Like, you get to Sonmi's final speech and you're thinking, that's it?  That's all they're trying to say?  Pfft.

So, dig.  This movie is positing reincarnation of a sort (with a birthmark identifier that's, um, imported from Mishima).  And it's preaching some kind of what-goes-around-comes-around morality at the end.  If you've taken Asian Religions 101 this puts you in mind of Buddhism, samsara, and karma. 

The problem is, the filmmakers seem to have skipped most of the lectures in Asian Religions 101 and forgotten to do the reading, because they don't seem to have worked out the karmic cause-and-effect relationships between the various incarnations.  Like, it's fun and instructive and thought-provoking to see Tom Hanks doing this thing in the one storyline and this other thing in the other storyline, and see the birthmark pop up on this person here and that person there, but I don't see any consistent application of karmic logic behind why Tom Hanks (or the reincarnating soul that Tom Hanks represents?) has it good in this incarnation and bad in that one, or why the comet-birthmarked One (yes) is in this situation here and that situation there. 

Folks, Buddhism works because of karma.  You take samsara as a given, then bring in karma to explain how it all fits together, and finally bring in dharma to explain how to cure your karma and escape your samsara.  Take out karma and the dharma makes no sense. 

Without that kind of rigorous working-out of karmic cause and effect, Sonmi's final speech adds up to little more than, "Be nice to each other.  Because it's better that way."

Which isn't to say that the eternal recurrence implications of the body-switching don't have their resonances.  I'm just not sure they're the intended resonances.  Watching Hugo Weaving always end up as the heavy, watching pair of lovers after pair of lovers and master-slave relationship after master-slave relationship, you come away feeling that human beings are doomed to always interact with each other according to a few basic archetypal relationships.  And maybe we are - but "Be nice to each other. Because it's better that way" isn't really going to get us out of that. 

So maybe that is all they intended to say with this film.  We're all doomed to be lovers, or masters and slaves, or exploiters and exploited, and the only real way out is to just try to be nicer to each other.  I certainly can't argue with that as a piece of truth.  But in that case, why do we need the reincarnation business?  Why do we need the madly fractured puzzle structure for the narratives?  I mean, Planet of the Apes did all that with one scene at the end. 

So what I think we're left with here is either a film that's about reincarnation and karma but gets it wrong, or a film that's not about karma that just throws reincarnation in there to fuck with our heads.  Either way, it's a film that gets less satisfying the more you think about it.

And, okay, let's talk about the yellowface.  I actually liked the idea of having the main actors and actresses show up in different "bodies" in the different stories - switching races and genders.  If you're going to talk about reincarnation, this is a pretty good way to do it.  But it's pretty clear that the filmmakers lacked the courage of their convictions. And that's a good thing:  one wishes they'd been a little more cowardly and scrapped the whole idea, because in practice it's lousy.  I mean, you can have Halle Berry play in whiteface and yellowface and maleface, but you can't have anybody playing in blackface - because blackface is offensive.  But actually yellowface is offensive too!  Letting Bae Doona play one scene in whiteface doesn't make up for having Sturgess play a sixth of the movie in yellowface, bro.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Stephen King: Carrie (1974)

I don't know that I really believe in archetypes in any deep sense.  Peruse Dr. Wikipedia's description:  I think that in any semiformal setting (a class, for instance), the farthest I'd go is the literary archetype that's essentially just a stock character.  I wouldn't argue that these are rooted in much more than convention, and certainly not in a collective unconscious or species memory.

I wouldn't argue that because I'm not intellectually persuaded.  But I'll admit that I'm sometimes emotionally persuaded.  Sometimes I'll encounter a character or a situation in a book or a film that seems so deeply rooted in common human experience as to make me believe that there is such a thing as common human experience, that seems like it's tapping into such a deep and strong vein of feeling that I feel, at least while I'm feeling it, that this feeling must be flowing from some place beyond my own autonomous and cellular self

Carrie is one of those characters, and King's success here far outshadows whatever he accomplished with the other two books of his that I've read entirely because Carrie is archetypal.  The menstrual blood, the uncheckable rage, the confidential high-school torment, the religious repression - all the factors that go into making Carrie what she is in this book speak to such primal fears and desires, such essential passions, that she seems to have always been there as a character.  She transcends the page.

She is an archetype.  I already loved her before I met her:  I loved her as Willow in Season 6 of Buffy, I loved her as Phoenix in the third X-Men movie.  And, as in both of those cases, I rooted for her.  How can you not?  How can you not root for her when she's finally making the world pay for everything it's done to all women for all time?  It's incredibly cathartic. 

Carrie rules.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Wes Anderson's Bottle Rocket (1996)

Bottle Rocket, in retrospect, feels like almost a parody of a Tarantino film.  Or if not a Tarantino film, then one of the plethora of Tarantinoesque films that popped up in the mid-'90s in his wake.  There's no way for anybody who wasn't there to imagine how many films about gabby hitmen and quirky small-time crooks came out in the '90s. 

Had it been written fresh in '95 or '96, I'd conclude that's what Bottle Rocket was (among other things).  Check the poster - that's how it was marketed.  But the small-time crook kernel of the film can be found, intact, in the 1992 short that the feature grew out of, and I think '92 was a little early for a Tarantino parody.  Which means that there really must have been something in the water in the early '90s.  Why the sudden renaissance in the heist flick, however loosely defined?  Was it a grunge thing?  A post-Cold War thing?  I was there - Anderson's my age - but I confess I never understood it.

Yes, I missed this at the time, too.  I saw it now in an effort to catch up on the Wes Anderson I missed - I came in at Royal Tenenbaums.  This one, maybe you had to be there for.  The acting is fine, the writing fine, the characters reasonably subtle and pleasantly offbeat, but the small-time crooks motif feels so dated now that I found it off-putting.  I definitely think Anderson only came into his own when he surrendered to his inner Salinger and started making every film a secret adaptation of part of the Glass family saga. 

The best parts of this, after all, are Anthony's very Holden Caulfield-like scene with his little sister Grace and his early scenes with Ines:  like Seymour in "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," with the water, the innocent girls, and the shell-shocked young man.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Stephen King: The Dead Zone (1979)

This, too, is less horror novel than meditation on questions of character, it turns out.  Not that it doesn't have its creepy moments - the evocation of a seedy county-fair midway at closing time is, well, just like I remember it from childhood. 

But really what this book is, is a fictional working-out of every high-school kid's favorite alternate-universe scenario or ethical poser:  if you could go back in time to one of Hitler's rallies, knowing what you know now, would you or could you kill him? 

Okay, okay, just because you had heated debates about this over the cafeteria tables at lunch time in 9th grade with the kid in the Iron Maiden t-shirt doesn't mean it's not a serious question, right?  And I think part of King's value is how he, at least in the few things I've read, manages to engage serious questions that every ninth-grader can relate to.  Like, lots of people write good genre fiction that appeals to the masses.  Some people write good genre fiction that appeals to the masses, that also has some kind of hidden intellectual thing going on to appeal to eggheads.  How many people write good genre fiction that appeals to the masses, that also has some kind of hidden intellectual thing going on that also appeals to the masses?  King doesn't (at least in the few things I've read) talk down to his mass readership:  he talks up to them.  He assumes that they, like eggheads, can and will respond to a well-told story that also makes ya think.

And feel.  Because, yeah, the real horror in this, if there's horror, is not in the things Johnny sees, but in the responsibilities they give him.  It's a story in which we're asked, essentially, to root for and to pity a political assassin.  A guy who knows what history is going to say about him, and who cares a lot about that, but who feels like he has to do it anyway.  What's key is how King tips the scales in Johnny's favor (if that's the word).  King could have kept it ambiguous - a lot of writers would have challenged us to trust Johnny's word, to decide for ourselves whether or not he's right.  But we know the objective truth about the things Johnny knows subjectively, and we know he's right.  In other words, King is choosing to locate the suspense, and thus the horror, not in the question of whether or not Johnny's visions are real, but in what he's going to do about them.  The moral question. 

Skeery.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Tim Burton's Frankenweenie (2012)

I suspect the proper thing to do would be to hate this big-budget, middle-aged, full-length remake of a once-so-underground-it-was-almost-punk short.  But hating it wouldn't be fun.  So we love it.

Plus, it's stop-motion, and Tim Burton is the redeeming genius of stop-motion animation.  And this, complete with tres meta stopmotion-within-a-stopmotion (not to mention live-action within the stopmotion), is a work of genius.  And he had the balls to make it black and white, and make the mouse go along with it.

This is good Tim Burton:  the Tim Burton that, unlike the one that made Alice and Planet of the Apes, follows through on the true moral anarchy of his vision.  I was wondering, as it drew to an end, if he would relent this time and decide that young Victor needed to learn a Life Lesson about accepting death - but no way.  Frankenweenie is all about saying that Shelley (whether as Gamera or not) had it wrong.  When humans learn how to bring back the dead, we will, and we'll find we're pretty damn happy about it after all.  And maybe it won't be wrong.  ...Maybe.  I mean, I don't deny the moral power of Shelley's book.  I just like the way this film pokes it in the eye, too.

About that Gamera - you'll know what I mean when you see it, and I don't want to spoil it.  Let me just say it was one of my favorite things about this movie.  Burton set the joke up a good hour ahead of time, and in a fairly tasteless way - but when he springs it, all is forgiven.  (And there's something pretty emblematic of Burton's method in how he turns Mary W. into that.)

And the Sea Monkeys.  I'm old enough to remember ads for them in the back of comics. 

And Goodbye Kitty.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Stephen King: The Shining (1977)

Here's a post I never thought I'd write.  Stephen King ain't half bad, and The Shining ought to be part of the Canon. 

Me and Stephen King go way back.  When I was in high school in the '80s he was all the shit - he was what most of my friends who read books read, when they weren't reading Tolkien.  He was also the one popular writer that educators - like my senior year AP English teacher (the same one who gave me a reader's guide to Ulysses as a graduation present) - would recommend to kids to get them "hooked on reading."  The thinking seemed to be that he was a good enough storyteller to entice even the most illiterate teen through the arduous task of turning pages and sounding out words, but that he was also - somehow, someway - "literary" enough that teachers didn't feel like they were utterly turning their backs on the Grand Tradition of Western Humanism by recommending him.

I never read him at all until this last spring.  Two reasons, I guess.  One is that Stephen King at the time always struck me as the literary equivalent of, I dunno, Foreigner?  Kiss?  Bon Jovi?  I mean, name a big dumb hard rock band of the '80s.  But the second and real reason, which I would in fact admit to if pressed, was that horror as a genre scared the shit out of me.  I once made the mistake of watching a Freddy Krueger movie and had to leave the theater;  even a few years after high school when I saw Silence of the Lambs, I had nightmares for months.  So, Stephen King?  No thanks.

My horror aversion kind of slipped away as I grew older and more phlegmatic.  After 30, anyway, I no longer got spooked by stuff like that.  But still, I never got around to reading King until this past spring, when I was teaching Yoshimoto Banana's Amrita.  I kept reading that King was one of her favorite authors, and it bothered me that I'd never read him.  I picked up this and a couple of others, and wow:  not bad.

I knew, by this time, the Kubrick film, but (like, my sense is, most Kubrick fans) I expected this to be a case of a nontranscendent genre novel getting turned into Something More.  But in fact the book is already Something More.  The horror is there - the genre requirements get satisfied, and then some - but it's also a surprisingly detailed and sensitive character sketch.  You get to know Jack and his problems well enough to understand quite easily why the Overlook Hotel found him a good target.  Which is to say, you come to believe Jack capable of great cruelty and violence without any help from supernatural forces.  And (what helps make it satisfying for those who read for depth rather than just thrills) you also come to pity him - to understand him well enough to feel sorrow as well as horror at his character.

What's more, ever since reading it I'm seeing Shining references in the most surprising places.  The one that really got me was when I realized that the last part of Murakami Haruki's Wild Sheep Chase is an obvious gloss on the ending of The Shining.  (The book version, not the film.)

Part of the value of a canon for me - why despite having come of age during the Canon Wars and despite devoting my career to the study of books that would never have been admitted to the Canon in the West when it was at its strongest - is its utility.  I like being able to get the joke.  I like being able to know what Murakami's doing when he blows up that house at the end of the book.  I like what he's doing:  I like how he's using his work as a commentary on King's, and King's work as a commentary on his own, and I like the mental exercise of comparing the two, and the aesthetic payoff that comes with appreciating the two in juxtaposition.  A canon gives writers and readers the tools to do this.  Of course writers will always make references, and will and should never be limited in those references to a predetermined set of works - that's not what I'm saying at all - and I would never advocate for a canon as a thing written in stone reflecting some sort of eternal principles.  I'm just saying that if a citizen, in the process of becoming educated, is exposed to some kind of body of works that have helped shape the culture around her, then she's that much more equipped to understand that culture - where it's coming from, what it's actually trying to say (and do) to her.  ...In the end, of course, what I'm talking about is social cohesion, right?  I believe there ought to be a way for us to learn how to talk to one another, get at least some of each other's jokes, without it necessarily meaning that we're all homogenized.

On the other hand, I still haven't read Ulysses.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Stan Getz: "Dynasty" (1971)

Some rather late Stan Getz, and a very late release for Verve - they'd be absorbed into the Polygram conglomerate the following year.  Not quite the end of the line for Getz;  he'd continue recording pretty much up to his death in 1991. 

The tune is "Dynasty," and it's part of a double-elpee recorded at Ronnie Scott's jazz club in London in March 1971 and released as Dynasty the same year.  The backing musicians are all Europeans, and they're pretty good - Eddie Louiss on the organ is the one to pay attention to.  Unfortunately the recording isn't the best, and his quieter moments get kinda lost in the ether.  But he's a monster on this track (the only one I've heard from the album, actually - I have it on a Getz comp), one minute vamping like a seedier Booker T, the next sounding like Keith Emerson in a poker game against Gregg Allman.  A whole different bag than Getz's labelmate Jimmy Smith.

And Getz himself - well, if you still think of him as Mr. Bossa Nova and little else, then you really owe it to yourself to listen to this track.  He's clearly been listening to Coltrane, and brings both the soulful-wailing and polymathematical-abstraction aspects of Saint John into his soloing here, but he does it without losing the essential personability, the accessible emotion, the heartbreaking gentility of tone, that always marked Stan's own playing. 

In other words, this is a cool nine minutes.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Lady, Be Good! (Shedd Institute)

Only once in a blue moon do Mrs. Sgt. T and I go out for live entertainment.  Almost never.  This is one of the reasons it didn't bother us to move from a metro area of a millionish to one a tenth that size:  even with world-class music and theater venues all around us we hardly ever went out. 

But last night we did.  Saw a poster in a coffee shop and needed a night out and so we found ourselves at the Shedd Institute in downtown Eugene seeing a performance of Lady, Be Good.

Lady, Be Good!  It came at a good time.  In the last year, unbeknownst to my blogging self, I've been gradually (okay, maybe a little half-heartedly) exploring the Great American Songbook via jazz interpretations of it (there's a great series of Verve discs...).  And it got me intrigued by things I never would have approached willingly a couple of years ago - musicals, namely, and especially of the archaic Broadway variety.  I found myself excited about the prospect of hearing some of these songs (I only knew "Fascinating Rhythm" and "Oh, Lady Be Good") in their original context, sung straight.

I wasn't disappointed.  It's local theater, okay, so it wasn't perfect.  The orchestra took a while to get warmed up - they played the overture and everything, which was nice (it quotes from "Rhapsody In Blue," which had premiered not long before this shows did in 1924), but they didn't really hit their groove musically until near the end of the first act.  Same went for the actor/singer/dancers.  Their comic timing didn't really click until the second act.  It was a half-staged production - full costumes, minimal props, singing and dancing at the front of the stage, but dialogue delivered in read-through fashion with a narrator.  It might have been better if they'd gone ahead and acted the thing;  it might have helped with their timing.

But at its worst it was still entertaining.  And for most of the second half they managed to bring the farce alive, so that you could see how it was supposed to work.  They even pulled off the Charleston number in quite nifty fashion - nobody can match Fred and Adele, especially the Fred and Adele in my imagination, but these dancers at least made me feel like I could imagine Fred and Adele. 

Yeah.  So now I've seen a Gershwin musical, I've floated on the gentle swing of "Lady, Be Good" and "So Am I," I've had "Fascinating Rhythm" stuck in my head for twenty-four hours, I've, you know, figured out why all that fringe is there on flapper dresses.  And for the hundredth time, in the hundredth different way, I'm thinking what a surprisingly cool town the Euge is.  Only a hundred thousand people, in the middle of nowhere, Oregon, and yet I can go downtown and see a revival of a 1924 Gershwin musical.  And it's pretty okay.

That's all.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

John Le Carré's The Little Drummer Girl (1983)

Obligatory first reaction, which I'm probably undercutting more than I mean to with this self-ironizing remark:  this book could have been written today, almost thirty years later, and not many of the details would need changing, and that's a disgrace.  Well, all of the details would need changing:  but not the overall arc.  And since Le Carré's genius is in the details, I guess it's better to retract that first claim entirely.  This book is not just about the heartbreaking intractability of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  It's about the details of where that conflict stood in the early '80s, and how it was thought about by certain Western Europeans.  And for that, when you read it today, it's an education.

But like everything else I've read by Le Carré so far, this so far transcends the political and historical specifics of its subject matter as to make me all but forget that, oh yes, it's also about a young woman who gets caught up in the post-Munich '72 cycle of attacks and reprisals.  Because what resonates most about it is its portrait of a young woman who is so disenchanted with her home country, so disillusioned about her own background, so sick of her self, that she's all too eager to allow herself to be enchanted, illusioned, and healed by the Other.  Whatever Other presents itself, apparently.

In that, this book struck me almost as a modern retelling of Waverley - one of my favorite books, although I seem to have never blogged it yet.  That, too, is about innocent idealism and those who would take advantage of it;  but if anything, Le Carré is more evenhanded than Scott.  He doesn't have Scott's conservative faith that it would be an unqualified good for the girl to grow up and out of it.  Indeed, this book rivals Darkness at Noon in the rigor with which it makes us see the logic of both sides' positions.

The spymaster - or rather, one of them, the one known alternately as Becker and Joseph - also turns out to be a fascinating psychological study.  In Smiley we got a portrait of the spymaster as inertial force, somebody who, in the end, is struggling because he's always struggled, and because he's being struggled against, but whose ideological foundation has long since crumbled away;  in Joseph we get spymaster as psychologist.  Not as analyst, but as someone whose job it is to help the patient into and through transference - to be for the patient (the agent) whatever the patient (the agent) needs him to be, in order to create the patient as true agent.  To get Charlie to do what he needs her to do, Joseph has to let her fall in love with him.  In the hands of a lesser spy novelist this would be James Bond territory - sleep with a woman and she'll do whatever you tell her - but here we get glimpses of just how much it's taking out of Joseph to treat another human being like this. 

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Walter Mosley: Blonde Faith (2007)

Fall term started up last week and I'm in a perpetual state of near-panic about my classes.  That explains the drastic downshift in posting frequency.  It'll probably be like that for a while, for what it's worth.

I read this knowing it was The End.  The jacket blurbage, the online reviews, everything was telegraphing that.  And, indeed, Easy dies at the end of the book.  That's no spoiler.

So I was all set to meditate on what it meant for the cause of black liberation that Easy couldn't make it out of the '60s alive.  But then I discovered that, oh, hey, looks like that wasn't the end after all.

And you know, that's fine.  Because of a number of things.  Most obviously, because the way Mosley wrote the end of this one it was clear he was leaving some wiggle room on the question of Easy's death (of course, it's always tough to have your main character die if he's also the one narrating the books - unless this is that fantasy story about pirates that I was trying to write in eighth grade where we get to the end and find out that the guy who's been telling us the story is a ghost!  cool, huh!  I bet it'll sell a million copies!  I bet it'll be featured in the Otherworlds club!)

Ahem.  But mostly because I didn't see any thematic necessity for Easy to die here.  The problems Easy was facing were tough, but tougher than '48 or '65?  I'm not sure Mosley made that case here.  In fact a lot of the tough issues he brought up in this one - Vietnam foremost among them - he didn't really resolve.  That is, the book didn't really leave me, at least, with a sense that we've gotten, through Easy Rawlins, a definitive statement from Mosley on how Vietnam affected the black LA underclass - that's what I mean by "resolve," since no real resolution is possible.  ...All of this is another way of saying that by this point in the series the milieu and Easy's negotiations with it are much more important than the individual stories.

So I'm interested to see where Mosley takes Rawlins next.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Walter Mosley: Cinnamon Kiss (2005)

It's 1966.  Easy's a licensed PI now.  He's got uneasy but real relationships with members of the LAPD, and with a white PI.  California's got hippies now.  Easy goes to San Francisco, to Berkeley, and meets some. 

Easy Rawlins is getting old now.  We're getting into times that his creator (b. 1952) would remember for himself, and meeting characters - including the book's eponymous femme fatale - who are almost young enough to have been people Mosley knew.  But Mosley stays true to his protagonist's perspective.

Take this encounter (p. 86 of my copy).  Easy's in a Haight legal-aid center, and in the waiting room with him is a woman who speaks "in a white Texan drawl I knew and feared."  But he helps her with her unruly child.
"Thank you, mister.  Thank you," the mother was saying.  She had lifted her bulk from the lawyer's folding chair and was now taking the grinning boy from my arms.  I could see in his face that he wasn't what other Texans would call a white child.

The woman smiled at me and patted my forearm.

"Thank you, she said again.

Her looking into my eyes with such deep gratitude was to be the defining moment in my hippie experience.  Her gaze held no fear or condescension, even though her accent meant that she had to have been raised among a people who held themselves apart from mine.  She didn't want to give me a tip but only to touch me.

I knew that if I had been twenty years younger, I would have been a hippie too.
Easy never lets us forget that prior to being an Angeleno he was and is a Texan, and his understanding of the world and his place in it is conditioned by his Houston experiences as much as his Californian.  So there's a special familiarity whenever he encounters a fellow transplanted black Texan, and a heightened tension whenever he encounters a transplanted white Texan.  It's happened before in the series.  Texans, Louisianans - Easy's LA is full of them.

That's what lends this encounter with a nonprejudiced white Texan woman such power - he's steeled himself for hostility, but encounters only acceptance.  These later books are full of encounters with white people that don't go as Easy had expected - some go worse, but some go better, like this one. 

But here's what I mean by Mosley being true to Easy's perspective.  The book's eponymous femme fatale is young, black, and well educated, and seems to have more confidence in the white world's acceptance of her than Easy does.  And so, perhaps, she appreciates it less - and I don't mean "appreciate" in the sense of feeling gratitude, but in the sense of understanding its significance.  Easy fully appreciates how revolutionary it is that this young white Texan mother - of a mixed-race child (like, we know, Easy's own daughter) - greets him with simple human warmth.  And it's that, rather than the romance of rebellion or spiritual abstractions or the pleasures of turning on, that he sees as the hippie movement's main promise. 

And notice the reticence that comes with age.  He would have been a hippie if he was younger.  Meaning, because he's older, he won't be.  Partly because, obviously, he's got a family and responsibilities he can't just drop out on (everything in this book, in fact, is driven by his urgent family responsibilities - he's got a sick daughter and has to raise money for her treatment). 

But also, one suspects, because he's wary enough not to jump into anything.  A young man might take this one encounter as indicative of a whole scene, but he can't.  And, indeed, in the following book Easy encounters a guy who to all outward appearances is a hippie but who treats him with all the surliness and violence of any redneck ever.  People change, but not all of them, and not all at once, in these books.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Walter Mosley: Little Scarlet (2004)

This one takes place as the 1965 Watts riots are winding down, and of course Easy's in the thick of them. His office - which he'd just obtained at the end of the last book - is nearly burned out from under him, and everywhere he goes he sees the traces of the violence, or feels them.

And it's how he feels about this, how he experiences it, that's so interesting about this book.  The case itself is suspenseful enough...and now I realize how little I've said about the actual cases Easy Rawlins solves.  Which is not because they're not enjoyable.  They are.  There's suspense, there's atmosphere, there's action, there's memorable character after memorable character - a panoply of black Los Angeleno life that never ceases to amaze in its variety and specificity.  But it's true that the real joy of the series for me isn't in the mysteries but in the worldview that those mysteries are there to help develop.  At their best, the Easy Rawlins books display a careful synergy between story and theme, where the details of the cases serve to advance or embody the larger ideas at work.

This is one of the best, and this case does that.  Easy is enlisted by the (white) LA police force to catch the white man who they think killed a black woman in Watts during the riots.  They put Easy on the case rather than sending in police detectives because they want to keep the whole crime covered up for fear that it might reignite the riots.  So Easy's investigative work brings him face to face with the causes and effects of the riots, and the fact that the white cops are asking him to track down a white killer of a black woman puts him at the heart of the race relations that the riots were all about.  And if you suspect, even from this meager description, that there's a cruel irony waiting at the end of this investigation, you'd be right.

Because for Easy, the central truth of the riots is that they turn the normal order upside down.  They contained violence, and Easy already suspects that materially they're not going to make things any better for the black citizens of Watts, but they represent for him, in the moment, the forceful claiming of a space for black self-expression.  Easy didn't riot - he says he sat at home "holding myself in check."  But now that he has to go out and function in the world created by the riots he finds that he's able to - he has to - go places he's never been able to go before, say things he's never said before to people he's never said them to before.  It's a brave new world, full of new perils but also promise.  And that's not something you'd get from most noirs.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Walter Mosley: Six Easy Pieces (2003)

This actually contains seven stories, not six, so the title is a misnomer...or is it?  Actually, I'm going to say it is, and I don't understand quite why it's there.  Yeah, I know that six is the next number after five, and the title is a reference to the film Five Easy Pieces (with Easy taking on a double meaning here, of course).  And the first six stories in the volume were excerpted in simultaneous reprints of the first six Easy Rawlins books.  So was Mosley actually only planning to write six, but then added a seventh for the book, but it was too late to change the title?  I dunno.

So these middle books - A Little Yellow Dog through Six Easy Pieces - in the Easy Rawlins series form an interesting cluster.  In Dog, Easy has settled into a job as a junior high custodian.  That it's beneath a man of his talents and accomplishments goes without saying, but he turns out to be good at it - this is his Candide period, when doing what he can to protect and cultivate young minds is its own reward.  And it provides good stable cover for his unofficial private eyeing, not to mention his under-the-table landlording.  He's got two adopted kids now, and by the end of the book he's in a committed relationship, a common-law marriage, with a sexy Caribbean stewardess named Bonnie.

Domestic bliss is what Easy has now.  Security.  Even a certain measure of prosperity.  But is it a false sense of security?  After all, Easy's still black in a racist city, and he's still an unlicensed p.i., constantly in danger of being sucked into the criminal shadows.  Plus, he's been here before.  Earlier in the series we saw him married, we saw him owning a house, we saw him playing stand-up citizen, and it didn't last.  We can't help but wonder, all through these middle books, if this is a false sense of security, if problems universal or particular are going to take it all away.  It's bliss, but it's precarious.  That's in the background of these middle books.

In the foreground is Easy's relationship to Mouse.  As we've realized by now, Mouse is Mosley's take on the Staggerlee archetype:  he's a badass motherfucker who'll shoot a man over a Stetson hat easy.  In the early books of the series, Mouse isn't much more than Easy's ace in the hole, or his chickens come home to roost.  But in these middle books Mosley explores Mouse's more mythical dimensions, and more importantly what he means to Easy.  What it means for Easy to have a man like Mouse on his side, and then not to have him on his side.

Mouse is, of course, a great destabilizing factor in Easy's life.  "Just when I think I'm out, they pull me back in" - and here, as often as not, they's Mouse.  And so as we see Easy blissing out with Bonnie and the kids, puttering around Sojourner Truth Junior High, we like he come to dread Mouse showing up.  So it's kind of a relief when Mouse dies. 

But in his absence, as we discover in Bad Boy Brawly Brown, Easy is forced to confront the fact that it's only been Mouse's shadow over his shoulder that has kept him alive all these years.  That continues in the first stories in Six Easy Pieces.  The idea is that a man like Easy - a black Everyman - couldn't possibly have survived the Jim Crow years without someone like Mouse.  Staggerlee was necessary.  And so in Brawly, Easy finds himself hearing Mouse's voice - he finds that he's internalized Staggerlee.  And that of course forces him to realize that he's conscioned Mouse's violence far more than he'd ever intended.  It's a powerful idea.

Six Easy Pieces was mostly, I think, written concurrently with Brawly - it had to have been, judging by the publication dates.  That might explain why, although it mostly seems to take place after that book, Easy's relationship with the Mouse in his head doesn't have quite the intensity it does in that book.  Gone are the internal debates.  Mouse is no longer the devil sitting on Easy's shoulder.  Instead he's the ghost that haunts black LA - rumors are spreading that Mouse is still alive, and Easy finds he can use those rumors almost as effectively as he could use the real live Mouse. 

All of this plus the serious, non-mystery mythmaking of Gone Fishin', contributes mightily to investing Mouse with some serious subtextual mojo.  And so when he reappears late in this volume, it's almost inevitable that it's going to be anticlimactic.  In fact, his reintroduction is so low-key that you half suspect it's an extended dream of Easy's.  But it's not:  Mouse is back.  And the very anticlimax of his reappearance becomes eery by the time you finish the book.  He's like a bomb that lands but doesn't explode.  You know he's got it in him to wreck Easy's life like never before.  But when?

Monday, September 3, 2012

Daniel Mendelsohn on criticism

I don't have much to say about this article, except that you should read it:  Daniel Mendelsohn's spirited defense of the professional critic.  He has some nice thumbnail ideas on what makes a good critic, and what critics should do, and the place of critics in the current media environment.

For example.  Writing about the critics he read as a boy, he says:
I thought of these writers above all as teachers, and like all good teachers they taught by example; the example that they set, week after week, was to recreate on the page the drama of how they had arrived at their judgments.
Yeah.  That's it.  I felt that too, as a young reader.  And that's what I aim for now, as a blogger.  (Don't bother telling me that I seldom achieve it!)  Later he says:
What I was really learning from those critics each week was how to think. How to think (we use the term so often that we barely realize what we’re saying) critically—which is to say, how to think like a critic, how to judge things for myself. To think is to make judgments based on knowledge: period. 
Yeah.  That's it.  The best criticism is an exercise in thinking, and therefore a lesson in thinking.

Unfortunately he ends his meditations with a couple of overly-facile statements.  Like so many people writing for pay, he Mendelsohn seems to harbor disdain for those who haven't Made It like him.  Apropos of some current contretemps about criticism, he concludes that
...I wonder whether the recent storm of discussion about criticism, the flurry of anxiety and debate about the proper place of positive and negative reviewing in the literary world, isn’t a by-product of the fact that criticism, in a way unimaginable even twenty years ago, has been taken out of the hands of the people who should be practicing it: true critics, people who, on the whole, know precisely how to wield a deadly zinger, and to what uses it is properly put...  Yes, we’re all a bit sensitive to negative reviewing these days; but if you’re going to sit in judgment on anyone, it shouldn’t be the critics.

Yeah, but.  First of all there's a "no true Scotsman" kind of thing going on here.  Even before the advent of the Internet, a lot of the people practicing criticism would have failed to live up to his "true critic" standards, right?  Obviously it's not amateur vs. professional (i.e., do you get paid to do it) that determines the "true critic."  It's all the things he's detailed over the course of his article (passion, knowledge, taste, etc.).  Print-based professional journalistic critics have no monopoly on those things.  Certainly the internet has loosed a lot of idiots to drool on the keys, but it has also given voice to a lot of people who have passions, knowledge, tastes that could never have qualified for mainstream media patronage.  If criticism is a thing worth doing (as he's convinced us it is), then surely it's worth doing well - it's possible to do it well, and therefore it's possible to do it badly.  And when it's done badly, why shouldn't we sit in judgment?  Why should critics be immune to criticism?  And yet he says they should be.  Hmm.