January 30, 2009

Jeff Keen - Instant Cinema

I'm not going to pretend I knew too much about Jeff Keen (my bad...), but apparently he's been making his collaged, animated, weird and wonderful super-8 films for forty years, from early 60s beatnickery, through psychedelia on into punk and beyond. Anyway, the BFI are running a season of his films at the end of February, following that up with the release of a 4 DVD box set, GAZWRX. For a more personal insight, check his Prisoner of Art edition, being sold from his own site. Plus there's more film clips up there, too...

January 29, 2009

More on the "Big Books of the Decade"

I've come to realise that my theory of the "Big Book of the Decade" is utterly flawed, based as it is in my own personal taste and blindness to certain books by certain folk. So, considering it's won every Booker of the Booker going, I'm sure that there are some who would argue that Salman Rushdie's "Midnight's Children" (1981) was the Big Book of the 80s. Didn't do much for me, but there we are. Or how about Bolaño's Oedipal father-figure (or perhaps his Claudius), Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who would get the nod from some for both or either of "100 Years of Solitude" (Spanish in 1967, English in 1970, so I guess we could squeeze it into the 60s..) and/or "Love In The Time of Cholera" (1985/1989)? (Mind you, they're both relatively 'short' - more big books in the ground covered than in length). So, yes, I lose. Again. More big books to follow soon. Ooh, Don DeLillo, "Underworld," 1997, hmmm... Vollman, "You Bright And Rsien Angels," 1987, hooray..! etc etc

January 27, 2009

More on Fresan on Bolaño on... everything

I finally got around to buying the issue of "The Believer" with Rodrigo Fresan's piece on Bolaño in it. It cost almost nothing for the magazine and an absolutely unconscionable amount for the postage, which is odd as it took about 6 weeks to get to me. Do they pay an orphan to deliver it by hand? Anyway, now I've given "2666" a little time to go down I've started picking away at it. It's a big, broad piece of writing and I must admit that so far I've mainly filleted it for direct quotes from Mr Bolaño himself, as there is very little Eng-lang coverage of what he directly said about his writing (and as some of the quotes are taken directly from emails Bolaño sent to Fresan, you aren't going to be finding them anywhere else...).

"About my work, I don't know what to tell you. I suppose it's realist... But that isn't what matters in the end; what matters is the language and structure, the way of looking at things."

"The truth is that I don't really believe in writing. My own least of all... I use the word writing as an antonym of waiting. Instead of waiting, there's writing. Anyway, it's quite likely that I'm mistaken and that writing is another form of waiting, of putting things off. But I'd like to believe that's not the case."

"I don't know how there can still be writers who believe in literary immortality. I understand those who believe in the immortality of the soul, I can even understand those who believe in Heaven and Hell and the touching waystation Purgatory, but when I hear a writer talk about the immortality of certain literary works I want to slap him. I'm not talking about hitting him but just slapping him once and then probably hugging him and comforting him... a kind of slap for the person's own good, like the kind they give hysterical people in the movies so that they snap out of it and stop screaming and save their lives."

Considering the amount of second rate exposition and commentary there has been around the release of "2666" it's a shame no one has re-published this piece - preferably a newspaper or magazine with a web presence where it would be freely available for everyone to read... (Incidentally, I don't agree with the pull line that "the only protagonist of Roberto Bolano's work - the authentic heroine of his books - is literature itself" and I'm not convinced Fresan does, either....)

January 26, 2009

James Ellroy - Drugs, Corruption, Death, Mutilation, Perversion & All That Jazz

So I take it all back about James Ellroy. Finished "White Jazz" last week and while it still remains true that all his books are basically identical, you can't deny the sheer, adrenal energy and excitement of them. I don't know where "White Jazz" rates in his canon and wonder whether the fact that it was published just after the LA Riots meant that commentators ascribed more significance than it was capable of supporting. But if you want to spend a few days locked into a world where every cop and crook is as fucked up, grasping, perverted and evil as the next, then you could do a lot worse. Not sure if the plot matters in Ellroy but the sudden addition of EYEBALL MAN, while definitely a rather clunky "rabbit-in-the-hat" moment, makes for a fittingly gruesome, funny ending...

Have started in on Ed McBain now, which is Wire-style good, although I'm not sure about his descriptions of people, particularly his way of comparing them (the women) to famous female movie stars. Although I guess it's the cops doing that, dunderhead...

January 23, 2009

Bolaño and "The Big Book of the Decade"

I'm slightly taken aback by the wave of Bolañomania sweeping the English-speaking world. Like the indie-elitist I am, I tend only to like books or records if they're unknown or unloved by everyone else. The misfittery is part of what makes them loveable. Now I find myself caught up in the giant shitstorm that is the international Bolaño bull market. Was he a heroin addict (who cares?)? How many more "lost" books did he have hidden on a campsite in Southern France (how many can the Jackal write?)? And so on... It's a "buy Bolano, sell DFW" situation. He's the only dead-author stock that's going up.

It's funny how once a decade we get a huge "totalising" book that everyone goes nuts about (even James Wood, who will then spend the next ten years slagging off every book that follows in its wake). There was "Gravity's Rainbow" in 1973, "Life A User's Manual" in 1987, "Infinite Jest" in 1996 and now "2666" in 2008/9. And the rest of the time this sort of writing (which Woods famously termed "hysterical realism," calling for a post-9/11 return to the smaller canvas of books about the sons of vicars writing books about sons of vicars just as his own first novel about a son of a vicar came out...) gets sneered at, mainly by the likes of Alfred Hickling at the Guardian (who said that "Savage Detectives" was masturbatory. Dunce). It's as if one exception is allowed every ten years or so, and everyone waxes lyrical about it before returning to write neat and tidy books with very little ambition at all. So, as the likes of Vollman have found out, if you're going to write "the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown" (Bolaño) you'd better make sure your timing is spot on. And if you're about to embark on such a work now, make sure you spend the best part of a decade on it...

Robert Frank - Come Again and on the Train

I've been crap at posting for the last couple of weeks due to tax returns, my daughter's birthday and the wheedling brutality of the publishing industry, hoho. But yesterday I received through the post my copy of Robert Frank's Come Again, which gives me an excuse for writing something. Apparently it's been out of print for a few years, until the publisher found some additional unsold stock, which they've now made available. The photos are polaroid collages (usually just 2 photos per collage) shot in Beirut in 1991. The book is produced as a facsimile of the notebook Frank stuck the pictures in, the photos spot-varnished against the blue-squared lines of the notebook pages. It's beautifully done and a bit of a bargain. The pictures themselves are of derelict (bombed, shot up) buildings, completely devoid of people - very post-apocalyptic and still raw, what with recent events in Gaza. Just to add a bit of moving picture I've posted a clip above of Frank talking about trains: "I'm sorry about the movements but... it's all symbolic. It's all how much you get beaten up while being on that train. And then you hope when you get older that you can really enjoy it, y'know, and not have to fight anymore..."

January 19, 2009

Crime and Rehabunishment

An update on my crime-writing reading progress (if you catch my drift). Quickly read Daniel Woodrell's "Give Us A Kiss" between finishing Simenon and starting "White Jazz" (which turned up in the post the next day). It was lying around the house so I thought I'd give it a go, but couldn't for the life of me figure out what was supposed to be noir about this "country noir". I found it full of hokey hillbilly sentimentality and if he'd mentioned the red cowboy boots of the 19 year sexpot love interest again I would have wrapped the thing in a plaid shirt and burnt it. Anyway, I'm now well into "White Jazz". It's a long time since I read Ellroy and though I'm enjoying it, I've also remembered why I stopped.

Instinct: they're all THE SAME.

Luckily, the Gurniad is currently doing one of those "1000 Books You Must Read Before We Come Round And Beat You To Death With a Newspaper" supplements and Sunday was Crime, so that should furnish me with a few hundred more ideas...

And while we're on the subject of "Crime & Rehabunishment," my second novel "The Heritage" is due out in (cheap) trade paperback on February 5th. I can't really tell you much more, as no one at Faber has told me anything (images of baby chicks nudged from nests and left to starve, cheeping pitifully...). I will try to make more of a fuss about it between then and now, so if you haven't bought it, just get on and purchase now to shut me up. If I get to number 1 on the Amazon pre-order charts I promise to stop.

(THAT INSTINCT big: lies. Just lies.)

Oh, to make it up to you,another unsurprisingly excellent Bolaño story courtesy of the New Yorker...


As someone who works in the music business (on some level, anyway) I'm not sure I should be recommending Spotify, but there you are. It's one of these new music streaming services, there's no buffering, it's free in return for listening to a crappy advert every half hour or so and the catalogue on there is pretty remarkable. Not perfect, but not bad at all. Was talking to a computer-literate friend and he says it's The Cloud. I say it's the shit. Anyway, don't take my word for it: click. Apparently it won't work if you're in the US. Sorry. Least you got Baz...

January 13, 2009

Roberto Bolaño - "Meeting With Enrique Lihn"

"I found two books, one a classic, like a smooth stone, the other modern, timeless, like shit".

An apparently previously unpublished Bolaño story (or previously unpublished in English) is in the New Yorker this month. Either a dream or a fictionalised dream (if that distinction holds), it's classic short Bolaño - a litany of Chilean poets you've never heard of (and who may not even exist), the fractured logic of exile and the onward march of the dead, terrifying and beautiful all at once. (Thanks, once again to Las Obras... for the link...)

January 09, 2009

Detect & Survive

I've declared 2009 the Year of the Detective. Or of the Murder-Mystery. Or the Police Procedural. Or something. It all goes back to my late night (and half cut) Bolaño revelation: if all novelists are like homicide detectives, then all novels are like murder-mysteries. Yeah, I know, it doesn't really make any sense, even on its own terms. But there seems to be something like a sliver of insight in there and it gives me a great excuse to buy a pile of new books. I'm currently nearing the end of "Dirty Snow" by Georges Simenon, which is a complete revelation. I'd always had Inspector Maigret down as a Hercule Poirot figure and, by extension, I'd assumed that Simenon was a cosy detective novelist. But "Dirty Snow" (not a Maigret book anyway) is something else - perfectly written, very dark and very bleak. It's a real find. Plus, the brief bio of Simenon reveals that he had a long term affair with Josephine Baker which he eventually ended because she was interfering with his productivity - he'd only written 12 novels that year. That, my friend, is style. Next on my list are "White Jazz" by James Ellroy (I've read other books by him, but someone once told me this was his "Ulysses," by which they may have meant it was incomprehensible) and Ed McBain (a compilation of three 97th Precinct novels). And last night I was recommended "The Black Dahlia" as the definitive Ellroy plus Derek Raymond's "I Was Dora Suarez" (and there's another writer I've been meaning to read for years). At some point I think I should throw in some Wilkie Collins, for history's sake, but am open to all additional suggestions...

January 06, 2009

"Two Serious Ladies" - Jane Bowles

I read this marvellous little book in a rush after finishing "2666". The impetus was an old interview with Harry Mathews I came across about his (at the time) new book, "Cigarettes" (incidentally the first book I read to use Oulipian techniques of creative contstraint). Sadly, having read it I still can't think of a better way to summarise it than using Mathews' words from that interview: "She achieves miracles by just putting one ordinary sentence after the other and she never indicates the way you’re supposed to feel about it." A good example of what he means is offered by the introduction to the edition I read, which was from Virago. It made a very strong case for the book as a feminist classic, whereas to me it seemed to be a book about rich eccentrics. Anyway, it's very funny. I think. Though it may not be to you. Either way, highly recommended...

(Please note, also, that I've finally sussed out using Blogger's labels, which means if you click on the categories listed at the bottom of each post, you can read all related posts. Hurrah! Haven't yet managed to go back and add them to the whole archive of nonsense what I wrote, but I will, I will...)

January 03, 2009

Roberto Bolaño - "2666," "Part 5 - The Part About Archimboldi"

The last part of "2666" concerns the life story of the author who the critics were chasing in "Part 1". We follow Hans Reiter (who will later take the pen name Benno Von Archimboldi) from his birth on the North Prussian coast, through a childhood diving down to the seabed, his first job in the local aristocrats' semi-deserted home, his time in Berlin and then, for what feels like the bulk of the book, his conscription into the German army for the Second World War. Reiter fights on the Eastern front, pushing forward and then being forced into retreat, finally being interned by the Americans. Here, in perhaps the central action of this book (SPOILER ALERT!) he strangles a Nazi bureaucrat who confides that he has killed 500 Jews who were accidentally sent to the town he was running. Having left the camp, he begins writing, meets Ingeborg, his lover, who dies a little later and then lives in exile in the mediterranean whilst pumping out a succession of increasingly well-received books. Only during the final pages of the book do we find out that Klaus Haas - the German-American imprisoned in Santa Teresa as a serial killer - is his nephew. The book, the whole book, finishes with Archimboldi setting off for Mexico to try to help Haas.

My initial feeling is that this is the weakest section of "2666" (which, considering the general standard, is fairly mild criticism). In amongst the superb story telling (and once again, a succession of marvellous stories are folded into and pegged onto the basic narrative) there's something like wish fulfilment in the character of Archimboldi, the perfect outsider writer, who Bolaño presents as a kind of idiot savant, unaware or uninterested in the war he has been caught up in. He has to have Archimboldi kill the German bureaucrat almost to exculpate the character from his acquiescence up to this point. As for Archimboldi's publisher, Mr Bubis, he is so perfect, so supportive, so sure of his author's genius that for decades to come authors will be asking their agents to "find me a Bubis". I've already made the call.

But I can't help thinking that there must be more going on here than finishing with a panegyric to the writer as outsider and the publisher as loving parent. If the "Part About The Crimes" is the centre of the book - what the book is about - then is "The Part About Archimboldi" an epilogue of some sort? Because it seems a little strange to draw back from the brutality of the murders to this more bookish section, seeming, as it does, to undermine the feeling that when the critics come to Santa Teresa they've got it all wrong.

The connection can be drawn, I suppose, through a comparison Bolaño makes between Archimboldi and a detective: "he derived pleasure from writing, a pleasure similar to that of the detective on the heels of the killer" (p817). The detective appears to be a key idea in Bolaño's work, from the various poems in "The Romantic Dogs" named for or about them and, of course, "The Savage Detectives," his other 'big' novel. So writers are detectives and novels are murder-mysteries. This certainly holds true for "2666" and "The Savage Detectives," which are both murder-mysteries seen from another angle.

I can't really draw any conclusion, which seems partly the aim of a book which ends with an anecdote about a great German botanist who ends up being remembered only as the name of a particular type of ice cream. But I think a further clue as to how to look at "2666" is provided in an afterword from Ignacio Echeverría in which he offers Bolaño's explanation for the absence of Arturo Belano from the book: "The narrator of 2666 is Arturo Belano." Or to put it another way, "2666" is the great book that Belano has been writing during his own exile in Europe - an exile that, we have learnt in "The Savage Detectives," has been brought about by Belano's own involvement in a killing in Sonora. If we think of Belano as the hidden character in the book, then we have to reconsider how we've viewed everything in it. It's not Bolaño's background story which we should expect to illuminate "2666," but the subtly different one of Belano. It's not Bolaño's wish-fulfilment but Belano's.

"Behind every indisputable answer lies an even more complex question. Complexity, however, makes him laugh, and sometimes his mother hears him laugh in the attic, like the ten year old boy he once was." (p736)

January 02, 2009

Anne Hardy - 2008

Two of the exhibitions I enjoyed the most this year were at the Whitney Museum in New York. Buckminster Fuller, ‘Starting with the Universe’, presented Fuller's visionary approach to an integrated practice of architecture, engineering, visual arts and sustainability, much of which seems both as relevant and as futuristic today as it must have been at the time. Also on show was Paul McCarthy: Central Symmetrical Rotation Movement Three Installations, Two films; this spare and minimal show powerfully articulated complex relationships between physical and psychological space surrounding the body, and engaged me with his practice in a completely new way. I also truly enjoyed John Bock's film ‘Palms’, which was included in ‘Laughing in a foreign language’ at the Hayward Gallery in London. JG Ballard's ‘Miracles of Life’ was another high point for me as it gave such great insight into the source and root of so much of his fiction writing, which is fascinating for an avid reader of his fiction writing, as I am, and was also incredibly moving, making me want to write to him immediately upon finishing. Another great discovery for me this year was Ryu Murakami, whose ‘Coin Locker Babies’ I found accidentally whilst looking for something else, and loved.

Anne Hardy is a visual artist. Her most recent exhibition was at the Bellwether Gallery in New York and she will be exhibiting at Maureen Paley in London in 2009.

January 01, 2009

Tim Etchells - 2008

Looking back, 2008 seems somehow completely tangled up with dance - weird to admit for a bloke like me whose starting position used to be pretty much "I don't like dance". In Vienna I saw Fumiyo Ikeda (with whom I'm working with at the moment) in Zeitung, the new piece of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and loved it - went back a second night just to try to get a fix on what it was exactly. Still don't know if I grasped it, a fact I'm really happy to report. I kind of lost touch with De Keersmaeker some years back at the point when the work seemed overly in thrall to the ethereal and the beautiful but this new work had a disjuncture, a sense of trouble and darkness to its fragmentation, formal restraints and twisted bodies that spoke much better to me. Music starting in the middle of movements, lighting that shifted drastically and apparently at random mid-sequence and a fragile slow burn dramaturgy really made their mark on me too. Later in the year I got to see an old work of Anne Teresa for the first time too, the incredible Phase, in which two dancers mirror each other in a brutally beautiful restrictive and delicate choreography that creates a third shadow body hovering, gliding and spinning between them - sustained trick of light and bodies danced under the tight rules of Steve Reich's Piano Phase. Breathtaking. You can find it on YouTube, in pixelated form.

Before those treats even it was Jerome Bel's highly self-conscious / reflexive masterpiece The Show Must Go On (I have seen it so many times in the last six or seven years that the cast take the piss out of me), Jerome's film of Vèronique Doisneau which I saw for the first time (another really good work) and a real blast from the past in Pina Bausch's Rite of Spring. Weird to watch something (in the latter) where you feel so distant from the aesthetic, so aware of its date, so aware of the other-time and place from which it sprang and yet - almost at the same time - to feel it vault into the present and grip you, a knife to your face, and a hammering heart pressed to yours.

Later (and much more now, aesthetically speaking) I saw the duets of Jonathan Burrows and Matteo Fargion (at Saddlers Wells in London, like much of the above) and a revival of Jonathan's Stop Quartet (at Kaai in Brussels) which I'd never seen before. I loved all of these, esp. the sense, in each, of narrative emerging from task and system, of the borders between moving and dancing, gesture and abstraction, of the blankness, comedy and delight in being and doing, moving and stopping - in the simple human acts of negotiation, counting, joining, leaving, watching thinking.

What it may be (searching to explain all this dance!), is that for a person so entirely wrapped up in words (reading them, hearing them, writing them, banging them into the internet, into email, into the keyboard 24/7 it seems sometimes) I found a lot of space in the 'silence' of these pieces, which of course, is not really a silence at all. I felt the same thing, or something like it watching Guido van der Werve's film Nummer Acht. Everything is Going to be Alright, in Manifesta 7 - the whole work a long single shot of him, walking on the ice about ten metres in front of an icebreaker, the ship following behind him, breaking the ground over which he has just walked, his progress slow, metronomic, constantly shadowed by the dark ship, the whole piece a kind of dream-made-concrete and his walk in it an index of the cold, human frailty, simple resolve.

Reading- wise for me it was the year of Denis Johnson - I got myself well and truly immersed in Already Dead and Tree of Smoke, both vivid, scary, super intense. I re-read Russell Hoban's Mouse & His Child and Philip Pullman's Dark Materials books with my son S. who's ten and we just totally fucking delighted in them - strong worlds, emotional highs and lows, playful language, full of ideas. There were times in the last week or two - tag-team passing Pullman's The Subtle Knife to S's mum and back as we took turns to read, S. curled up on the bed, staring at the ceiling and watching the world go by in his head - when I really re-connected to language and narrative and what they do or can do in us, what a strange force these things have - in us and outside of us at the same time.

In the end though for me it was probably more than anything else, the year of David Simon's The Wire which produced a related feeling of re-revelation concerning TV drama. Thanks to P2P I finally got round to watching the whole thing and then spread the files around amongst friends like a virus run out of control. My friend H. watched all 5 series in just over three weeks (that's 65 hours worth of laptop TV). Great characters, Dickensian storylines and layers, real politics, and great great great great language. That's how we do.

Tim Etchells does too much stuff too well for me to explain (including fiction, his work for theatre company Forced Entertainment and visual art). Go to his site to get the proper deal... His novel, The Broken World, was published in 2008.