M Train is a self-portrait of the artist in late middle age, and it’s to her credit that she includes most of the everyday stuff other rock stars are usually afraid to mention. She potters, stares out of the window, does the laundry, reads; she buys, makes and thinks about coffee. (There’s a lot of death and coffee, but no sex or taxes.) This is not the ageing rock star à la Keith Richards or Lemmy, maintaining the gnarly crocodile-skinned persona to the bitter end. But though she gives the impression of spilling the (Arabica) beans, there are also signs of something more ambiguous—details that make you distrust the performance of homeyness, or least take it with a pinch of artisanal honeycomb. There is, for instance, her membership of something called the CDC or Continental Drift Club, which (allegedly) holds semi-annual conventions in places such as Bremen, Reykjavik, Jena and Berlin. “Formed in the early 1980s by a Danish meteorologist,” she explains, “the CDC is an obscure society serving an independent branch of the earth science community. Twenty-seven members, scattered around the hemispheres, have pledged their dedication to the perpetuation of remembrance specifically in regard to Alfred Wegener, who pioneered the theory of continental drift.” Reviewers seem to have taken this at face value, but even if such a strange little cloistered society did exist, why exactly would Patti Smith be asked to join? Note the “dedication to the perpetuation of remembrance”: is our allegorical leg being pulled here just a bit? And is it just coincidence that nestling in her book bag are authors such as W.G. Sebald, César Aira, Haruki Murakami, Roberto Bolaño, Enrique Vila-Matas and others, writers who purposively smudge the line between memoir and fiction? M Train, with its dot-dash series of woozy photographs, even looks like a Sebald text, and I got the same queasy feeling from it that I’ve often had reading him: half-admiring, half-sceptical; almost seduced, but finally left cold. As with a flawless magician, you know there’s some form of misdirection going on, and it chips away at your pleasure in the performance. (I was annoyed at myself for assuming her visit to a “place called Café Bohemia” was some kind of wink-wink sign, when it’s also a fairly common name in Mexico, where she happened to be.)
—posted 27 days ago
In his lectures, Teller explained that the trick did not originate with him. It is based on techniques developed by a largely forgotten man named David P. Abbott, a loan shark who lived in Omaha and did magic in front of invitation-only audiences in his specially built parlor. Houdini, Kellar, Ching Ling Foo, Thurston—all the great magicians of the era made the pilgrimage to Omaha and left baffled. One of Abbott’s tricks involved a golden ball that floated in the air around him. But rather than use a thread suspended from the ceiling, Abbott revealed posthumously in his Book of Mysteries, he ran the thread horizontally from his ear to the wall. By manipulating that thread with his careful hands, he could make that golden ball seem as though it were defying reality. Best of all, he could pass a hoop over it—what magicians call a prover—and eliminate a piece of thread from his audience’s range of possibility, because a horizontal thread had never entered their imagination. They were looking only for the vertical.
The real point of magic, Teller said during those lectures, is “telling a beautiful lie. It lets you see what the world would be like if cause and effect weren’t bound by physics.” It’s the collision between what you know and what you see that provides magic’s greatest spark.
So Teller rigged a thread in his home library, and he put Abbott’s ancient instructions on a music stand—pages that had been miraculously saved from a trash fire years before—and he went to work on making the impossible seem real. Eventually, he decided that the ball shouldn’t float but roll. That would look simpler, but it would be harder. He practiced some more at a mirrored dance studio in Toronto, and at a cabin deep in the woods, and on the empty stage in Penn & Teller’s theater. After every show for eighteen months, he would spend at least an hour, by himself, trying to make the Red Ball obey. (“Sometimes magic is just someone spending more time on something than anyone else might reasonably expect,” Teller says.)
—posted 35 days ago
If you listen to what people are actually saying, and reproduce it faithfully, that material will find a useful place whatever you are writing. I like to isolate found material so that it becomes a kind of absurd commentary on the story’s events, especially in fiction set in the present day; but I also like to take found material out of its present-day context and use it to point up the oddness of an imagined future, or country, or character. If you want the unheimlich, you must have dissonance, although you have to be careful not to overdo it. Establish a context, then violate it quite sparingly. In weird fiction the strange is made to intrude on and threaten briefly the normal; but it’s equally important to threaten the strange with the normal. I get many of my effects by making sure of that two-way process. (If we’re to talk about more immersive fiction, i.e. fantasy or space opera, another benefit of this device is to create discontinuities, glitches in the so-called “logic” of the so-called “secondary world” which make it harder for the reader to suspend disbelief and escape into the fiction.)
—posted 43 days ago
Novelization Style combines strict, unvaried close third person point of view with transparent prose. It feels like an attempt to render in prose the feeling of a scene filmed by a camera, creating an illusion of objectivity. The result is a standardized generic narrative voice, and what feels like a denial that the story is being narrated at all. Novelization Style is mostly paced moment-to-moment, again like a scene playing out on video; in some books section breaks echo the way a movie or TV show cuts between scenes. Novelization Style prioritizes action over interiority. Descriptions are brief and concrete instead of evocative; dialogue is plot-relevant; function trumps form. When it comes to plotting, bigger is better; generally at some point we learn about a conspiracy or pending disaster that will cost lives. Raising the stakes means making the threat bigger, not the emotional arc more intense or the intellectual and philosophical questions more urgent. Novelization Style sometimes uses recognizable Hollywood storytelling patterns, like the prologues and wrap-ups I described in the last post, or an apparent divide between “speaking roles” and “extras.”
—posted 51 days ago
So the first pass at no. 27, “ – tends to crumble – ”, weighs in at 19,148 words; bloated, even for a first draft, but that’s not why it took so long, I don’t think? Why I think it took so long is maybe because there are a couple of thornily difficult scenes, not so much because of what it is they’re about, as how they go about it, the disjunct I kinda shoulda known I was vulnerable to, what with on the one hand the o’erweening desire to tell it slant, to write the negative space, to play (to be) the fool, while on the sternly insistent other hand, the one that would touch on, deal with, handle, incorporate, come to grips with—topics?—subjects?—themes?—that demand a more direct, or rather less coy, approach. —Despite the conventional wisdom of the error in serving two masters, I think I’ve done justice to both—but I am but one reader, at this point. Each of everyone else will be left to determine my success on their own.
So that, or most of that, I wrote a couple of weeks ago. But then I set it aside, and set to trimming and revisions instead (it’s down to 16,205 words now, which is just about final), and spent some time structuring no. 28, and laying out some of the stepping stones I’ll maybe need to get to 33. I had an odd conversation with someone who doesn’t know anything about City of Roses about trying to speak plainly in negative space, and fell to stammering when I realized I was quoting myself. I looked back at some of the earlier versions of this sort of post (one, and two, and three and four), and blanched at the blithe hope that I might have finished no. 27 by June—having meant, you see, at the time, by June one year ago. —Ah, well. The story continues.
No. 27 will be going out to Patreons in a week or so, and then will have its online première here in August—let’s say Monday the fifteenth, to make no. 27 the first installment of the second decade of City of Roses. —While we’re on the subject of Patreons, I should mention I’m looking to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the launch of this enterprise with a (slightly) redesigned volume one, to be made available through channels other than Amazon’s narrowing straits; the more attentive among you might’ve noted this is part of the $100 Patreon goal, and we’re a few dollars short yet of that mark. I’ll put out the new edition whether or not we cross the goal, but do feel free to help push things along with your own contribution: there’s volume two, and the website itself, to redesign as well. (I could sweeten the pot by noting that Patreons have already seen the covers for the eleven chapbooks of volume three, and some raw possibilities for volume four, among other glimpses behind the scenes.)
But enough rude commerce. Gordon’s checking his birds. The story continues; ah, well.
—posted 51 days ago
Deep acting, like embodied witnessing, involves “loving care.” Hochschild quotes a recent graduate of Delta’s training program, which asked flight attendants to imagine each passenger as a “personal guest in your living room”:You think how the new person resembles someone you know. You see your sister’s eyes in someone sitting at that seat. That makes you want to put out for them.
The “putting out” expected of flight attendants is different from that required of exotic dancers, but the acting methods are similar. You try to imagine what it would be like to care about the man seated in front of you, pretend a sense of intimacy, and over time you feel as though you feel care and intimacy. In her study of Madison, Wisconsin, escorts, Kirsten Pullen notes that “Deep acting allows sex workers to reframe the sometimes degrading and often discomforting commercial exchange as pleasant or even ennobling.” While this strategy may have helped me reconcile my ambivalent feelings about performing erotic labor and rewrite some of the more uncomfortable aspects of my experience, it has somewhat destabilizing effects on my ability to reflect upon those feelings and experiences as a “researcher.” What does it mean that I felt loving care toward customers if that care was a tactic for increasing profit? Given who I am now—a stodgy, minivan-driving mother of two young boys—how can I recall experiences perceived when I was someone else entirely? If everyone was acting—my customers, my managers, my coworkers, myself—how can I trust my own voice?
—posted 125 days ago
At first, I didn’t want to be a novelist—I wanted to be a poet. And I was a poet: I had already published poetry, and I had respect as a poet. I had readers, reviewers, and people liked me as a poet. I was considered a first-class poet. And I knew that if I was also a novelist, I was going to lose my glamour. But it’s also more than that, because there’s something sacred in the figure of a poet: The poet doesn’t get stained by the kind of labor that a novel implies. Being a poet is another thing.
I hid my first novel, a very violent novel about children; I hid it in the deepest corner of a drawer. And then I wrote a second one, on children too. Then I knew I was doomed. I was a novelist, and I had to publish the first one. After writing my second novel, I wrote a third novel, also about children. I wanted to do another one, but it was no longer need but desire. I needed to write the first ones; with the fourth and fifth ones, it was more the joy of telling a story. And I did not want to repeat the same book, out of respect for what a novel is and out of love for my profession. The idea of making one book similar to the other one seemed dishonest. So I needed a different space. I started looking for a different setting, because that would force me to write a different book. And I was right: The setting forced me to another form, another attitude toward language, another treatment of the characters. But with my same obsessions.
I have these obsessions that I don’t know how to name. But they gnaw at me. And they eat me alive if I’m not writing. So I write.
—posted 133 days ago
They tell you you’re supposed to do that; that’s what you should do. I think what music can offer is the feeling of forward motion, also the feeling of accumulation of information, of sensations, of feelings, like we’re going somewhere. When I say “feel like,” I don’t mean to suggest that it’s not real, but that it’s the work of the imagination, which is what narrative is.
We can create the sensation of community through the accrual of actions, and that’s often the clichéd way that it’s talked about, as someone taking a solo—Sonny Rollins taking a solo, having his motific development as formal logic—and that’s great for lots of reasons. But I don’t really like to feel like I’m forced to listen to it in a certain way, or that there is one master reading of performance. I think what we want from performance is multiplicity, which is lots of ways in and through it, because it’s for lots of people, and it was created by lots of people, often.
I find myself skeptical of music that forces you to have a certain experience, emotional reaction, or specific constructive arc of experience. But performers should still take care of that, to a certain extent—how does it add up?
What you want from performance, because we’re all in a room together, is that somehow we’ve gotten somewhere at the end, together. You could call that a sense of narrative, but it’s not so obvious how that happens. One way it happens is by everyone caring about it happening.
—posted 141 days ago
Here is an audience sensitive to the sheer elements of the English language… Translate their playfulness and serious use of the sheer elements of language into the terms and understandings of a five-year-old and you have as intelligent an audience in rhythm and sound as the maddest poet’s heart could desire.
—posted 149 days ago
But now she is conspicuous among Lydian women
as sometimes at sunset
the rosyfingered moon
surpasses all the stars. And her light
stretches over salt sea
equally and flowerdeep fields.
And the beautiful dew is poured out
and roses bloom and frail
chervil and flowering sweetclover.
96.7 “rosyfingered”: an adjective used habitually by Homer to designate the red look of Dawn. I think Sappho means to be startling, but I don’t know how startling, when she moves the epithet to a nocturnal sky. Also startling is the fecundity of sea, field and memory which appears to flow from this uncanny moon and fill the nightworld of the poem—swung from a thread of “as sometimes” in verse 7. Homer too liked to extend a simile this way, creating a parallel surface of such tangibility it rivals the main story for a minute. Homer is more concerned than Sappho to keep the borders of the two surfaces intact; epic arguably differs from lyric precisely in the way it manages such rivalry.
—posted 158 days ago