Kathy Acker: King of the Pirates

“What’s this gay shit?” my friend asked, spotting my copy of  I’m Very Into You (Semiotext(e), 2015) on the bar. Funny, I doubt either of its authors would be offended by his words, perhaps not even by their context. Whatever one calls it, the brief relationship between McKenzie Wark and Kathy Acker lingers on 20 years later.

Kathy Acker

Wark met Acker in July of 1995 when she was visiting Sydney, Australia. The next year, he visited her in San Francisco. Their brief relationship, which largely existed between those two meetings, is chronicled via their collected emails in I’m Very Into You: Correspondence 1995–1996. I'm Very Into YouLike everyone who came in contact with her, Wark was irrevocably inspired. “She would just read a book and re-write it,” he tells V. Vale (2014). “Sitting cross-legged on the floor, she would just read Treasure Island and re-write it. You don’t wait for inspiration, you just get going” (p. 21). Acker left no stone unthrown, no line uncrossed. Wark continues, “When I met her, she had three books… And she was writing Pussy, King of the Pirates (Grove, 1996). It’s one-third Treasure Island and two-thirds something else, and she would just read these three books and, almost at random, re-write them” (p. 22). It was her version of the Burroughs and Gysin cut-up method, filtered through an abject letting-go of the bullshit. Call it feminism, call it punk, call it postmodernism, call it piracy or plagiarism; it’s Acker’s own brand of creative destruction.

Reading her critics, one gets the sense that they haven’t actually read much of her work. I am intentionally hedging on much of what is discussed directly in I’m Very Into You here because it feels just that raw. Reading it is by turns heady and heartbreaking, revelatory and naughty. Watching two minds of such depth and creativity unfold to each other is a lot to take in. As authorized as it might be, I’m Very Into You is the most intimate email leak ever. However, there is much to be learned in its disclosures.

When all that’s known is sick, the unknown has to look better.
— from Empire of the Senseless by Kathy Acker

Kathy Acker: Homage to Leroi Jones and Other Early WritingsLost & Found: The City University of New York Poetics Document Initiative just released Homage to Leroi Jones & Other Early Works (Lost & Found, 2015), edited by Gabrielle Kappes. This chapbook collects the works of a 25-year-old Kathy Acker who lives in Manhattan with a cat named Lizard and strips in a Times Square sex shop. Written in the waning months of 1972, these writing exercises, journal entries, and clipped poems are the prototypes of the deconstructed style Acker came to be known for, queering everything in its path. Wark once wrote of her that “…she wrote as a woman, inventing what that might be as she went along” (quoted in Acker & Wark, 2015, p. 139). These writings are the beginnings of that process.

“If there’s going to be interesting fiction written in America, it’s probably going to be by women,” Ken Wark tells V. Vale (p. 33). Here’s hoping the unearthing of more Kathy Acker writings unleashes another wave of women writers.

References:

Acker, Kathy. (1988). Empire of the Senseless. New York: Grove Press, p. 33.

Acker, Kathy. (2015). Homage to Leroi Jones and Other Early Works. New York: Lost & Found.

Acker, Kathy & Wark, McKenzie. (2015). I’m Very Into You. New York: Semiotext(e).

Vale, V. (2014). A Visit from McKenzie Wark. San Francisco: RE/Search Publications.

Summer Reading List, 2015

The slim slice of the Zeitgeist we capture on the Summer Reading List every year sometimes reveals certain notable nodal points. There are the big releases this year, like Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves and Mark Z. Danielewski’s The Familiar, Volume 1, but Rita Raley’s review of the latter got as many mentions as the book did. This year’s book-to-read is McKenzie Wark’s Molecular Red from Verso, followed closely by Nicole Starosielski’s The Undersea Network from Duke University Press. The oddest recurrence was Paul Ford’s multimedia essay, “What is Code?” from Bloomburg Bussinessweek. Those odd ones are what make this thing interesting.

This year’s list boasts recommendations from newcomers Linda Stone, Benjamin Noys, Nick Ferreira, and Kristin Ross, and regular contributors Richard Kadrey, Lance Strate, Rick Moody, Zizi Papacharissi, Dominic Pettman, Howard Rheingold, Lily Brewer, Christopher Schaberg, Brad Vivian, Peter Lunenfeld, Steve Jones, Matthew Kirschenbaum, Paul Levinson, Alex Burns, Ashley Crawford, and myself.
Lily at Red House Books in Dothan, Alabama
As always unless otherwise noted, titles and covers link to the book at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon: the best bookstore on the planet. Read on!

Powell's Books

Benjamin Noys

I like to read a big non-fiction work over the summer. This summer it’s Anders Enberg-Pederse’s Empire of Chance (Harvard University Press, 2015), which is a study of Napoleon’s military campaigns and how military thinking tries to control the problem of contingency. This was recommended by Derek Gregory, at his excellent blog Geographical Imaginations, and it gives me an excuse to indulge my embarrassing military fetishism with a relatively clean conscience.

TorporMy dose of theory will be Sylvère Lotringer’s long-gestated book Mad Like Artaud (Univocal, 2015), which I hope will be a suitably mad work on the ‘mental dramas’ of Antonin Artaud. This should be read alongside the Chris Kraus’s novel Torpor (Semiotext(e), 2015). Kraus is Lotringer’s ex-wife, and this semi-autobiographical novel, originally published in 2006, tells of the painful gestation of Lotringer’s work on Artaud.

For a summer of poetry and revolution, or revolution and poetry: The Invisible Committee’s To Our Friends (Semiotext(e), 2015) is their first major work since the Glenn Beck baiting Coming Insurrection in 2007 and reflects on the tensions and problems of the wave of struggles since 2007. Verso have reissued The Dialectics of Liberation (Verso, 2015), the collection of papers from the 1967 conference held at the Roundhouse in Camden Town, London, which gathered all the figures of the counter-culture, from R. D. Laing to Stokely Carmichael to consider the question of violence. It’s worth looking at the footage to get a sense of the passionate and violent debates. After Joshua Clover’s excellent Red Epic (Commune Editions, 2015), I’m looking forward to reading the next two poetry books by the Commune Editions triumvirate: Jasper Bernes, We are Nothing and So Can You (Commune Editions, 2015) and Juliana Spahr, That Winter the Wolf Came (Commune Editions, 2015). Diane Di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters (Last Gasp, 2006), underground utopian anarchist poetry of the 1970s, has become a touchstone today.

To end the summer on a truly bleak note, Thomas Ligotti’s Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe (Penguin, 2015), which reissues two of his rare and expensive collections of harrowing horror fiction, is promised in October.

Kristin Ross

I’m generally reading 3-5 books at the same time, some for research and some for pleasure. My summer reading list is pretty demonstrative of that: It’s a mix of fiction and non-fiction, books and comics.

Warren Ellis just released Cunning Plans (Summon Books, 2015), a collection of his various talks that stretch over a wide range of themes from fiction and science fiction to magic and technology. (Spoiler: they’re really all the same thing.) Ellis is perhaps best known for his comic work, but reading these is a particular delight because his personal voice is even better. It’s a quick read—I burnt through it in two days—but packed with things that will make you think a long time after you finish it.

How to Write About MusicSometimes things sit on my Kindle, lurking, like Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (Vintage, 2015). Once I started it, though, I couldn’t stop. The screen soon told me I had “35 minutes left in this book,” and I had to set it down. I had gotten so emotionally attached to the characters and the world, I knew I would be crying as I finished it, and I had plans that night. Couldn’t be crying.

Comics are really exciting right now. The second volume of The Wicked + The Divine (Image Comics) written by Kieron Gillen and drawn by Jamie McKelvie comes out on July 14th, so it’s a good time to read Vol. 1: The Faust Act (Image, 2014). Rockstars as actual gods. I’m not going to say more. Need I, even? This is also the team that did Phonogram (Image, 2007) and if you haven’t read that, ignore all my other recommendations and read that first. The long-awaited third volume of that series comes out in August. I’m a fangirl, and this reads like a breathless recitation of my ardor, but I don’t apologize for it.

Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro’s Bitch Planet (Image, 2015) is only on Issue Four, so you should get on that now. The individual issues have essays in the back, a different prominent feminist each time, and those likely won’t be in the first collection. Those essays enhance the whole experience of the story; really, they’re giving a overview of the whole experience of women in these times. Also, the back cover is worth the entire price every time. Did I mention this is about “non-compliant” women being sent to a separate prison planet and they’re about to fight in a televised full-contact sport called Megaton and it’s drawn in 70s sexploitation style?

Then, there are my research books, which have honestly been just as enjoyable lately as my fiction. The 33 1/3 Books team recently released How to Write About Music, a textbook on exactly what it says it’s about. It’s great—educational while being wholly enjoyable and reading it is like taking a course by a great professor. I’m sure it will be used in classrooms, but for solo reading it functions beautifully. Bonus, awesome intro by Rick Moody, a veteran of this reading list.

This last one is very specialized, but if you have any interest in Britpop, it’s essential fun. Part oral history, part timeline of a genre, John Harris’ Britpop!: Cool Britannia and The Spectacular Demise of English Rock (Da Capo, 2004) is entertaining and as complete a history of the rise and fall of Britpop you can find. Plus, it’s just too great to listen to the musicians talk shit on each other.

Lance Strate

I have great admiration for poet and essayist Diane Ackerman, and this summer I plan to dive into her most recent book, The Human Age: The World Shaped by Us (Norton, 2014). I also want to catch up on one of her earlier volumes, Deep Play (Vintage, 1999). And this may seem like something out of left field, but my list includes Revolution for the Hell of It (Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1968) by Abbie Hoffman, partly out of sixties nostalgia, but mostly because I understand that Hoffman was under the influence of Marshall McLuhan, among other things, and I’m curious to see how much media ecology he incorporated into his own ideas about subversive activity.

The Human AgeI imagine it would be appropriate to include a book on reading in a reading list, and I’ve included Stanislas Dehaene’s Reading in the Brain: The New Science of How We Read (Penguin, 2009), which comes highly recommended. To balance out a book on literacy, I have also added a book on orality, Myth, Ritual and the Oral (Cambridge University Press, 2010) by the great anthropologist and media ecology scholar, Jack Goody. Of course, reading also includes rereading, and I plan to return to J. T. Fraser’s seminal volume on the study of time, Time: The Familiar Stranger (Tempus Books, 1987), in preparation for a research project I’ll be tackling in the fall.

It seems that the term affordances comes up quite a bit in discussions of technology and media these days, and I think it will be worthwhile to go back to the source, James J. Gibson’s An Ecological Approach to Visual Perception (Psychology Press, 1986), as it also constitutes an important contribution to the media ecology literature. Additionally, I think I’m going to learn a great deal from Zhenbin Sun’s recently published Language, Discourse, and Praxis in Ancient China (Springer, 2015), and I think the time is right for me to tackle Bruce Kodish’s massive Korzybski: A Biography (Extensional Publishing, 2011).

One of the books I am most looking forward to reading is Where Seas and Fables Meet: Parables, Fragments, Lines, Thought (Guernica, 2015), by B. W. Powe, a leading Canadian poet, literary theorist, and media ecologist. Another is J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009). And for a science fiction fix, Paul of Dune by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson (Tor, 2008) should do nicely.

Rick Moody

I’ve just finished reading Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature (New Directions), edited by Martin Arias and Martin Hadis, which is in fact exactly what it seems to be, the transcripts of Borges’s classes in English literature delivered in Argentina in 1966. I was so excited to read this book and had to wait through the 14 weeks of my own class in American Experimental Writing to get to it! I was not disappointed! One thing that is wonderful about Borges’s class is how eccentric the topics are: Chaucer barely gets any mention at all, Shakespeare is mainly confined to “Coleridge’s feelings on,” Milton is mentioned a couple of times. On the other hand, the earliest English poems (Beowulf, etc.) come in for several lectures, and Samuel Johnson and Robert Browning get the extended treatment. The course ends with Stevenson, after a cursory nod at Dickens. And so it is apparent that Borges, despite voluminous knowledge about our literary history (which he never learned about at university, because he never attended university), had very idiosyncratic taste in English literature. The second great thing about the book is that Borges can’t really seem to confine himself to the literary subject entirely. So there’s a lot of attention given to what a miserable and foul-looking guy Johnson was, and even more to Coleridge’s abandonment of his wife and the effect of opium on his poetry, and there are ahistorical digressions now and then (In Cold Blood, of all things, makes a brief appearance). This is a gossipy, funny, enthusiastic treatment of the subject, produced by a guy, it’s worth saying, who was entirely blind and unable to read at the time he delivered the lectures, so that they are the record of his memory of these texts. Professor Borges, accordingly, is not really a book about English lit in the dull, good-for-you way, it’s a book about the love of reading, something Borges always stands for, to his credit, and as such it’s 100% delightful. Perfect for any book nerd’s beach reading.

Christopher Schaberg

I’ve just finished reading the philosopher Alphonso Lingis’s book Trust (University of Minnesota Press, 2004), which is a fascinating blend of travel writing and what the late David Foster Wallace might have identified as an experiment in “new sincerity.” It is the kind of book that makes me want to write, and also to observe—and how to balance these impulses becomes a dynamic puzzle, one the book both solves while also flinging all the pieces at the reader.

I was won over by Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness: The End of a Diary (Graywolf Press, 2015), a book that makes the reader question the very premises of the book while persevering and following through to is satisfying conclusion. It is a book that accepts a certain constraint, and stays true to it — and the result is at turns utterly galling and totally admirable. In the end, Manguso throws down a gauntlet for any would-be diarist or journal keeper (really, any ‘author’!): it is a standard of unsettledness, a zombie aspiration for real-time writing.

HotelIf you’ll forgive a bit of aslant self-promotion, Joanna Walsh’s forthcoming Hotel (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015) in the Object Lessons series is a daring act of textual lingering, a vivid mashup of object-oriented thinking and psychoanalytic inquiry. When I first read Walsh’s manuscript I was stunned by its intensity and attentiveness—her book opens up whole new fields of thought and imagination for how a seemingly non-discrete ‘object’ might be accounted for, assembled, and written into. I could go on and on about each of the six Object Lessons books coming out this November, but, moving on…

Finally, Margret Grebowicz’s excellent The National Park to Come (Stanford Briefs, 2015) blew me away. It is a deft articulation and extension of current eco-theory, breaking new ground, as it were, while recognizing the very fraught terms of ‘breaking’, ‘ground’, and other such naturalized metaphors. The book is framed by a personal narrative, which at once complicates and gives passionate nuance to Grebowicz’s project.

Read these!

Zizi Papacharissi

The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media by John Durham Peters (University of Chicago Press, 2015): Because only one person can talk about whales, dolphins, and Heidegger in the same paragraph, and in so doing, help one reimagine the future (and the past or present) of media studies.

How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built by Stewart Brand (Penguin, 1995): Because I am trying to figure out whether technologies learn, and if so, how.

Watch Me: A Memoir by Anjelica Huston (Scribner, 2015): Because she’s a cool cat. And because reading memoirs is the highbrow equivalent of reading gossip mags.

Nick Ferreira

I love the idea of summer reading but for me, summer reading is the same as my reading during the other three seasons: usually a mix of some non-fiction that I flip around, some fiction I hope captures my short attention span, and a bunch of magazines I’m constantly trying to catch up on.

Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water by Marc Reisner (Penguin, 1993): I’ve picked this book up multiple times but was never able to finish it. With California’s drought currently (finally?) making national headlines, I decided to pick it up again and am still slowly but surely making my way through. There’s a lot of information here and it’s hard for me to keep track of names, places, dams, rivers, etc. but so far it’s reminded me that places like Southern California wouldn’t exist as we know it without the rerouting/intervention of Western rivers. Side note: I also enjoy reading about these government projects that created some of the most awesome skateboarding and BMX spots in the country.

The Undersea Network by Nicole Starosielski (Duke University Press, 2015): This came into the library I work at recently, and I immediately checked it out. I’m looking forward to spending time learning more about the physical aspects of that seemingly abstract, but very physical thing we rely on everyday.

DaybookDaybook: The Journal of an Artist by Anne Truitt (Scribner, 2013): I’m not sure I really understand Truitt’s sculptures beyond how simple and poetic they are: The slight structures seem like quick flashes of color from a landscape, but only extremely brief slivers of time. I’ve heard from a lot of people that Daybook was one of the best artist’s journals. It’s nice to pickup and read a random entry, especially in the morning.

The Wind from Nowhere by J.G. Ballard (Berkeley Medallion, 1962): Even though J.G. Ballard’s books are quite depressing, I keep coming back to read them. Last sumer I read, High-Rise, a novel about an architect’s failed utopian vision. This summer I plan on reading The Wind From Nowhere. Like most of the Ballard stories I’ve read, this one is deceptively simple: a westward wind, from nowhere, is gaining power throughout the novel forcing people to live underground and completely change their lives. The whole story seems implausible but I’m sure it will be just as frightening as High-Rise and Concrete Island.

Magazines I’m trying to catch up on: The New Yorker, Apartamento, Thrasher, and, N+1.

Linda Stone

The Brain’s Way of Healing by Norman Doidge (Viking, 2015).
The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk (Viking, 2014).
The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer (Grand Central Publishing, 2014).

Paul Levinson

OutlanderMy prime reading plan for this summer is Outlander (Dell), the 1991 time-travel romance by Diana Gabaldon. Why? Well, I’ve been watching, reviewing on my blog, and mostly enjoying the Starz series based on the novel for the past year. I was drawn to the series as a sucker for most things time travel, and by the fact that Ron Moore, the rebooted Battlestar Galactica creator, is the Outlander show-runner on TV. Now, just about every time I criticized something in the TV show, someone would respond with, “You need to read the novel, it’s much better.” I make it a point not the read novels that TV series and movies are drawn from, if I haven’t read them already when the screen presentation begins, because I like to judge the screen story on its own terms. I also have a theory I call “the first love syndrome in media,” which holds that what we love most when a narrative is presented in different media is the one we first experienced — think about it. Anyway, I’m looking forward to reading Gabaldon’s novel this summer, and will be sure to report back to the world when I do.

Ashley Crawford

Brevity. Two astonishing books. Both published in 2015. Both, by eerie coincidence weighing in at 880 pages: Mark Z. Danielewski, The Familiar, Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May (Pantheon) and Neal Stephenson, Seveneves (William Morrow). Both Epic in Scale and in Concept. And, apart from that, they have next-to-nothing in common.

Apart from my ongoing admiration (even adoration) for Ballard, Dick, and Gibson (with the exception of his latest, The Peripheral) my tastes have tended to drift away from Science Fiction, and Seveneves is nothing if not pure Sc-Fi. But, it’s Stephenson, one of the most audacious and ambitious writers around. I have read all of his works and have never failed to be astonished by his knowledge and ability to articulate complex and nerdish concepts while developing remarkable characters and sub-plots, and Seveneves is no exception. An epic space opera in extremis, it begins with an almost Biblical Armageddon when the moon inexplicably explodes, leading to a Science-based form of Rapture for the Chosen.

Stephenson may have destroyed the moon, but according to some, Mark Z. Danielewski is out to destroy the Book, at least according to the NPR review of The Familiar which carries the headline: “Will ‘The Familiar’ Kill The Novel? No, But It Comes Close.” However if anything, judging by all too many whining Amazon reviews, he has succeeded in destroying the Kindle. The Familiar is a much-needed reminder of how beautiful the printed tome can be. It may be more accurate to suggest that Danielewski may well have helped save the printed book. The first volume of a much-ballyhooed 27 “episodes,” it features startling revelations both visually and in terms of ambitious narrative. Bristling with interconnecting voices, it encompasses domestic drama, cyberpunk, crime noir, and pop culture (to his credit Danielewski doesn’t even try to conceal his touchstones, indeed he revels in them). There is a tremendous and thorough analysis of The Familiar at the LA Review of Books worth checking out.

There’s 1,760 pages of Summer contentment.

Dominic Pettman

I hope to inhale as much Vilem Flusser as I can, during the break, since I can’t get enough of these new translations, curated by Siegfried Zielinski. Two titles I haven’t got to yet are through the always The Blondeswonderful Univocal: On Doubt (2014) and The History of the Devil (2014). Roberto Esposito’s Persons and Things (Polity, 2015) is flaring on my radar. Like many other people reading this list, I’m looking forward to McKenzie Wark’s Molecular Red (Verso, 2015) and the two sequels in Eugene Thacker‘s Horror of Philosophy series. Margret Grebowicz’s The National Park to Come (Stanford Briefs, 2015) is sitting on my desk, and I’m a fan of all her work. David Kishik’s The Manhattan Project (Stanford University Press, 2015) in which the author imagines a scenario where Walter Benjamin survived his attempt to escape Europe and spent a couple of decades laying low and writing in New York/- /seems like an intriguing experiment in theory-fiction: something I very much enjoy, when done well. In terms of fiction, I still haven’t read Peter Watt’s Blindsight (Tor Books, 2008), which is apparently required reading for SF people. I’ve heard great things about Mat Johnson’s Pym (Spiegel & Grau, 2012). If I manage to find a beach I’ll probably get to volume two of Elana Ferrante’s Napoli series. And, finally, how could I resist a book with the following premise: “The Blondes (Thomas Dunne Books, 2015) is a hilarious and whipsmart novel where an epidemic of a rabies-like disease is carried only by blonde women, all of whom must go to great lengths to conceal their blondness.”

Howard Rheingold

A a student at Reed in the 1960s, I hitch-hiked to San Francisco in the halcyon days of the hippie incursion and saw the collapse of innocence during the summer of love, moved there permanently in 1970, so I lived through the events — many of them traumatic — chronicled in David Talbot’s book The Season of the Witch (Free Press, 2013) — the horrible response of San Francisco’s City Hall, police and health departments to the hippie immigration, the flowering of the gay community in the days before AIDS and the horror of the epidemic (I’ve never  been fond of Dianne Feinstein as a senator, but Talbot shows how her response as mayor to the AIDS crisis — in light of the Reagan administrations criminal neglect (San Francisco contributed three times the money for social services for AIDS that the US government did for several years), the trauma of the Zebra serial murders, the assassination of George Moscone and Harvey Milk by Dan White, White’s acquittal (“the Twinkie defense”), the mass murder-suicide at Jonestown. Talbot was a reporter and editor at the San Francisco Examiner when it was a real newspaper, before he founded Salon (I was on the original founding team), and he did a great job digging up the stories behind the stories and weaving them into a compelling narrative history. If you want to know what San Francisco was like before the tech culture, read this.

The advent of inexpensive digital devices, including sophisticated environmental monitoring devices, and networked communications has heralded a new kind of science that melds crowdsourced amateurs with professionals. Michael Nielsen’s Reinventing Discovery (Princeton University Press, 2013) is a well-written, well-documented, must-read if you want to see one surprising new direction science and the discovery and validation of knowledge is going.

One of Stephen King’s best and one of the best time travel stories ever — including a meta-story about the potential effects of time-travel on time itself — is 11/22/63 (Gallery Books, 2012). It is a testament to King’s talent that although we know Lee Harvey Oswald succeeded, readers are suspended in scary, thrilling disbelief as the protagonist repeatedly goes back in time to prevent it. Wrapping it all up is a love story. Great great escape reading.

Steve Jones

As has become usual my summer reading is very much about music. First on the list is Alyn Shipton’s biography of Harry Nilson, Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter (Oxford University Press, 2013), because he was unique, and the one documentary I’ve seen was pretty unsatisfying (interesting, but Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boysunsatisfying). I’m not so much interested in connecting the dots from his life to his music as I am in learning about the milieu in which he found himself. Perhaps somewhat in that same vein I’m planning to read Harvey Kubernik’s Canyon of Dreams: The Magic and the Music of Laurel Canyon (Sterling, 2012), because that was a unique place, interestingly from about the same era. I’m not nostalgic by nature but I am continually fascinated by the conjuncture of people, place and time, and so the next book also fits the pattern, Viv Albertine’s Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys.: A Memoir (faber & faber, 2015). Rounding out the list I’ll be indulging my interest in technologies and techniques of sound engineering and synthesis with a work of non-fiction, Glyn Johns’ Sound Man: A Life Recording Hits with The Rolling Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin, The Eagles , Eric Clapton, The Faces (Blue Rider Press, 2014), and a work of historical (or so I presume) fiction, Seam Michaels’ Us Conductors: A Novel (Tin House Books, 2014).

Lily Brewer

In between paragraphs of thesis, traveling, and moving during my last summer as a pre-Phd student, I’m punctuating my writing and incessant unsettled-ness with the following reading. I’m going to start my list with the books I jump-started my summer with, the first of which was Chris Kraus’ Aliens and Anorexia (Semiotext(e), 2000). It’s idiomatically appropriate for my mid-twenties summer, and her prose once again concusses me and leaves me in a mute heap, incapable of writing ever again. I’m halfway through Roxanne Gay’s Bad Feminist: Essays (Harper Perennial, 2014), a collection of essays that cries sanctuary for my imperfect feminism and problematic faves. And continuously re-re-re-reading Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost (Penguin, 2006) will never, ever not be appropriate.

Magazine MovementsFor homework, Susan Sontag’s On Photography (Picador, 2001) again, Orit Halpern’s Beautiful Data (Duke University Press, 2015), and Laurel Forster’s Magazine Movements: Women’s Culture, Feminisms and Media Forms (Bloomsbury, 2015) are jostling for priority. (Along with these, I have a massive article and book reading list for the Fall, but I’ll spare you as if I were sparing myself.)

For fun, I’ve compiled Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah: A Novel (Knopf, 2013), Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams: Essays (Graywolf Press, 2014), Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (Granta Publications, 2013), Ali Smith’s The First Person and Other Stories (Penguin, 2008), and for re-reading, Zadie Smith’s anything-she-ever-wrote. Late-August bonus will be Sara Levine’s Treasure Island!!! (Europa, 2011), a Chicago author with whom I was a short-time office mate, (well, while getting my Art History M.A., I was the receptionist to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s writing department office where she was contemporaneously chair, sooo.).

I’m rushing the rest of this list in order to get back to Megan Abbott‘s The Fever (Reagan Arthur/Back Bay, 2015) and afterwords Dare Me (Reagan Arthur/Back Bay, 2013) and after that every novel/story/blog post/tweet Abbott’s written since 2012. The End of Everything (Reagan Arthur/Back Bay, 2011) completely ruined me. Hers are what teenage, girl-nightmares are made of, that make me simultaneously self-conscious and estranged from myself, in the terrifying way that can only accompany growing up.

Matthew Kirschenbaum

Much of my summer reading pile is accumulating in a corner created by media theory or media archaeology, critical discussion of the Anthropocene, and ongoing contributions to the conversation around speculative realism in its several guises. In other words, media, things, and the systems (or stuff) of the planet. These are not, of course, isolate categories but deeply and reciprocally constituted and blended. The Undersea NetworkThus Nicole Starosielski’s The Undersea Network from Duke (2015), which untangles the vast array of telecommunications cables we’ve strapped across the oceans’ floors (arguably the real world-wide web), not just from a technical but also an ethno-geological sensibility. It’s compellingly written and photographed, and my odds-on pick for media studies book of the year. Jussi Parikka’s The Geology of Media (University of Minnesota Press, 2015) opens the field explicitly, walking the reader through a variety of critical and aesthetic discourses that cluster around the deep mining of data mining or what he terms the “Anthrobscene,” a term which is meant to encompass the obscene spectacle of technological obsolescence and media waste. McKenzie Wark’s Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene from Verso (which appeared at almost exactly the same moment) very much demands to be in dialogue with Parikka (and vice versa), dismantling as it does the Romantic notion of a return to nature by way of Russian philosophy and Russian cybernetics and California science fiction (Wark gives us the Carbon Liberation Front as his nonhuman protagonist). For those looking for an introduction to the debates around speculative realism and nonhuman ontologies, Steven Shaviro’s The Universe of Things and Richard Grusin’s edited volume on The Nonhuman Turn (both, again, from the University of Minnesota Press) are essential; similarly, Shaviro (to whom we all seemingly owe a debt for resurrecting the primer as an animated writing genre) has a brief book containing Three Essays on Accelerationism from Minnesota’s Forerunners series. Shaviro’s is in fact one of two breezy Forerunners titles in the stack, the other being Shannon Mattern’s Deep Mapping the Media City, which treats urban environments as no less geo-tech than Starosielski’s oceans and beaches and Wark on the Aral Sea. Further demonstrative in this regard (and just-arrived) is Starosielski and Lisa Parks’s co-edited collection Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures (University of Illinois Press, 2015), containing essays from Mattern, Jonathan Sterne, and Paul Dourish, among others.

Media theory’s romance with drones also continues this season, notably in Adam Rothstein’s succinctly-named Drone (from Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series; 2015) and Grégoire Chamayou’s ambitious but reportedly overwritten A Theory of the Drone (New Press, 2015); of these, I suspect I will prefer the Rothstein. Jeff Scheible’s The Digital Shift: The Cultural Logic of Punctuation (University of Minnesota Press, 2015), is another small, neat-looking book (as befits its subject matter) which zeros-in on dots, parentheses, and hashmarks (but oddly, not the @-symbol). Jeremey Douglass, Mark C. Marino, and Jessica Pressman’s tripartite study of a single piece of electronic literature, Reading Project: A Collaborative Analysis of William Poundstone’s Project for Tachistoscope {Bottomless Pit}, is now available from the Univeristy of Iowa Press (2015). For the Kittler Kidz, meanwhile, worthy of mention is a special journal issue of Theory, Culture & Society on Kittler co-edited by Parikka and Paul Feigelfeld containing an astonishing variety of work (and it’s all currently open accessed—what are you waiting for?), and a new compilation of translated Kittler (with afterword by Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht) entitled The Truth of the Technological World (Stanford University Press, 2014). Finally, Richard Barbrook’s Class Wargames (Minor Compositions, 2014), which draws on the seemingly improbable genre of tabletop wargames for education in the street-level tactics of class struggle; the connection is perhaps less improbable when, as Barbrook details extensively, no less a personage than Guy Debord was an aficionado of the genre, designing his own juex d’guerre.

Deep Mapping the Media CityNot so much summer reading as something I’m reading right now (along with seemingly half my Twitter feed) is Paul Ford’s remarkable “What is Code?” published online in, yes, Businessweek. 38,000 words on not just code but coding culture. Ford is rapidly becoming my favorite technology writer, capable of tossing off lines like “A computer is a clock with benefits” or “You probably have a powerful SQL-driven database in your pocket right now” like it’s nothing.

I’ll leave fiction aside, except to mention Mark Z. Danielewski’s The Familiar (Pantheon, 2015), volume 1 of 27 as anyone who has been following the project knows. If you want a foretaste of what MZD is up to, Rita Raley and colleagues (Raley is perhaps his best current reader) give us a look over in the LA Review of Books.

Finally, military history, my other typical summer reading genre: the Waterloo bicentennial is upon us, and predictably there have been a slew of books on what is habitually termed history’s most iconic battle (a rather ghastly moniker). Timothy Clayton gives us a weighty new history in his Waterloo: Four Days that Changed Europe’s Destiny (Abacus, 2015), drawing on previously unpublished or undocumented sources; Paul O’Keeffe’s Waterloo: The Aftermath (Overlook Press, 2015) begins where the volleys and bayonets end, and treats both the burial of the dead and the residue of the campaign as well as the transformation of the Belgian countryside and subsequent memorialization of the battle. My favorite entry, however is a small little book by Brendan Simms entitled The Longest Afternoon (Basic Books, 2015), which details the King’s German Legion’s defense of the La Haye Sainte farmhouse in the center of the battlefield, a small-unit action embedded amidst the densest concentration of men and guns the Napoleonic Wars had ever seen. Simms gives us something not unlike the grit and detail of Blackhawk Down for the black powder era, while also exploring the significance of what exactly these Germanic troops were doing in the service of Great Britain (and the implications for subsequent German nationalism). If you read one Waterloo book, read this one.

Richard Kadrey

I was lucky enough to get an advanced copy of Charles Stross’s new Laundry novel, The Annihilation Score (Ace, 2015). If you don’t know the Laundry books, they follow the adventures of a secret British government organization that protects humanity from all sorts of sinister supernatural forces. The books are funny,action-packed, and smart. The Annihilation Score is hard to talk about without a lot of spoilers, but I can say this: If you like your secret agent stories peppered with dark humor, twisted science, and eldritch horror, you’ll probably enjoy Stross’s newest (and the rest of the Laundry series too).

With Zer0es (Harper Voyager, 2015), Chuck Wendig, most famous for his Miriam Black books, tries his hand at the techno-thriller and does pulls it off nicely. After they’ve all been busted, a group of misfit hackers are brought together in the wilderness to work for the government. However, even though they’re supposed to be working for the good guys, something seems…wrong. And it gets darker and more frightened as the novel goes on. Mixing elements of high-tech thriller and horror, Zer0es is Wendig at his best.

The Bloody ChamberAngela Carter is the best fantasy author you’ve probably never heard of. In The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories: 75th Anniversary Edition (Penguin Classics, 2015), she rewrites old fairy tales, bringing out hidden depths of feminist power, violence, and sexuality. These days, there are dozens of books that rewrite classic folk tales, but Carter was one of the first to do it, and no one out there has matched her combination of intelligence, great writing, and dark sensuality. Some books I’m looking forward to that I haven’t had a chance to read yet include the first collection of Bitch Planet (Image Comics, 2015) by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro. The series is a science-fiction take on the women in prison scenario. Frankly, I would probably skip a book with that premise if it had been written by anyone less savvy than DeConnick, whose Pretty Deadly series (Image, 2014) is also worth reading. I’ve been waiting for Fight Club 2 (Dark Horse, 2015) for months now. Written by Chuck Palahniuk and set ten years after the original novel, it tells the story of a suburban dream home as it comes crumbling down with the reemergence of everyone’s favorite psychotic alter-ego, Tyler Durden.

There are two music books are also on my list. The first is Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll (Tarcher, 2014) and Future Days: Krautrock and the Birth of a Revolutionary New Music (Melville House, 2015). I’m sucker for stories of how modern pop culture has been influenced by and influenced supernatural beliefs, so Season of the Witch is a no-brainer. Future Days covers the emergence of influential post-war bands such as Can, Neu!, Amon Düül II, and Kraftwerk.

I’ve been holding off reading Nick Cave’s The Sick Bag Song (thesickbagsong.com) until I finished writing my new book. Sick Bag is a collection of Cave’s poetic scrawls on airline vomit bags while on tour. Not only do you get the neatly printed finished version of each story/poem, but you get an image of the bags themselves, covered in Cave’s quick and surprisingly controlled handwriting, complete with cross-outs and doodles. LAPD ’53 (Harry N. Abrams, 2015) is a collaboration between James Ellroy and the LA Police Museum. The book is a collection of 50s-era crime scene photos accompanied by Ellroy’s text telling the stories of both the crimes and the cops who worked on them.

Brad Vivian

I plan to read on the theme of indifference throughout the summer in preparation for a collaborative symposium in the fall. The theme also relates to my ongoing research on the topic of witnessing (bearing witness to historical injustice, atrocity, or tragedy). One aspect of my research concerns the degree to which witnesses seek to address and counteract indifference (and larger ethical questions that follow from doing so).

Living with Indifference by Charles E. Scott (Indiana University Press, 2007) is first on my list. Scott (a Continental philosopher who specializes in phenomenological and post-structuralist traditions) provides a deep meditation on the catalysts for and uses of indifference in human experience as it manifests across a number of phenomena. The book emphasizes two features typical of this writer’s work: a careful attention to the etymological origins, as well as semantic elusiveness, of the very term “indifference”; and a balanced but rigorous questioning of conventional moral paradigms as they apply to the notion of indifference—socially, politically, ethically, and existentially. Scott pursues these tendencies across diverse forms of textuality and embodied experience.

I also plan to study Jacques Derrida’s The Gift of Death (University of Chicago Press, 2007). This volume is regarded as some of Derrida’s most thoroughgoing thinking about religion. In comparison with Scott, Derrida focuses on arguably one of the ultimate topics related to indifference in the Western lineage—that of death, in various forms. Derrida concentrates on normative perceptions of responsibility and rationality for the occurrence, response to, and acceptance of death, largely derived from dominant religious traditions. The book has become an essential resource in discussions of indifference—a reflection on the very moral commitments to which something like indifference forms an ostensible antipode—as well as on relevant ethical questions more generally. Derrida characteristically traces the aforementioned issues as they develop across a number of classical and modern philosophical and literary corpuses.

Agamben and Indifference by William Watkin (Rowan and Littlefield, 2014) might also occupy my time during the summer. Watkin’s work approaches the concept of indifference by interpreting it as a consistent thematic that animates much of philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s work. His treatise would thereby provide another distinct vantage on the topic, examining indifference as both a methodological principle of Agamben’s philosophy (allowing ontological, political, judicial, or institutional systems to exist as they are) and a defining characteristic of its analytic objects (a feature of those very systems, in other words). Consistent with Agamben’s work in general, this approach suggests insights regarding the relationship of indifference to human rights, state power, and violence.

Finally, I plan to return (after a previous reading) to philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s Spinoza: Practical Philosophy (City Lights, 2001). The early modern philosopher Spinoza is a crucial reference for much of late twentieth-century Continental thought, especially its post-structuralist iterations. Spinoza’s linkage of ethics and ontology provides a critical precursor for modern strains of Continental thought that question conventional moral paradigms (especially in their most didactic modern forms) and examine questions of self, action, responsibility, and ethics beyond good and evil, as it were. I’m also intrigued, in this case and in general, to the idea of re-reading works that one has previously read—especially challenging philosophical books, which merit periodic or repeated study. Deleuze’s dense prose applied to Spinoza’s highly demanding philosophy combines, in this case, to reward careful re-reading.

Peter Lunenfeld

“The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason.” This gets my nomination for the best opening line of the summer. It’s from Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves (William Morrow, 2015), and it and The Peripheral (Putnam, 2014), the new one from William Gibson, are both on my list. Bruce Sterling, also of that generation of SF novelists, once told me that among the odder attributes of his genre was that to be successful, you had to be very good at imaging a world in which not only you but everyone you know and love was either obliterated or had never existed in the first place. Both Stephenson’s apocalypse and the alternate realities scenario that Gibson paints reinforce Sterling’s point.

suburban-warriorsI’m enmeshed in writing a post-WWII narrative history of Los Angeles, so the existence of others is very much with me. On the shelf are Earthquakes, Mudslides, Fires & Riots: California and Graphic Design, 1936-1986 (Metropolis Books, 2014), the brilliant and brilliantly designed new history by Cal Art’s Louise Sandhouse; Davide Fine’s Imagining Los Angeles: A City in Fiction (University of New Mexico Press, 2000); LA native Charles Mingus’s autobiography Beneath the Underdog (Vintage, 1991); Gaye Theresa Johnson’s Spaces of Conflict, Sounds of Solidarity: Music, Race, and Spatial Entitlement in Los Angeles (University of California Press, 2013); Lisa McGirr’s classic analysis of Orange County and the John Birch Society, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right (Princeton University Press, 2002); and Whitewashed Adobe: The Rise of Los Angeles and the Remaking of Its Mexican Past, by William Deverell (University of California Press, 2005), probably the premiere historian of the Southland working today, and also Director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West.

The 20th Century still has the gravitational attraction of a neutron star on our imaginations, so to break away, I’m planning to read The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century (Princeton University Press, 2014) by the German polymath Jürgen Osterhammel. Advance word is that the book is sprawling and panoptic, less a universal history than a multivalent perspective.

To return to the 21st century I’ve been rethinking the relationships between art and technology and have gone back to two foundational texts, both available on-line as pdfs. The first is Maurice Tuchman, Art & Technology; A Report on the Art & Technology Program of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1967-1971 (Los Angeles, CA: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1971), which was the first catalogue that Michael Govan had uploaded after he became LACMA’s director. Bookending LACMA’s project is Jack Burnham’s catalogue, Software: Information Technology: Its New Meaning for Art, from his seminal show at the Jewish Museum in 1970.

Finally, even though it’s not a book yet, it soon will be, so I’ll recommend programmer Paul Ford’s multimedia essay, “What is Code?” At 31,375 words, there’s a whole lot to argue with here, but as a whole it’s impressive and I’m willing to bet that it’ll be your best (and probably only) download from Bloomberg Businessweek this summer.

Alex Burns

David Graeber The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy (Melville House, 2015): David Graeber is Professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics who coined the Occupy Wall Street slogan “We are the 99%.” I read Graeber’s essay “Dead Zones of the Imagination: An Essay on Structural Stupidity” as a revelation on how bureaucracies rely on asymmetric knowledge to function. The essay “Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit” is both a critique of Western futures studies, and is also an explanation for why research and development ventures often do not lead to actionable social change. Graeber’s Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology (Prickly Paradigm Press, 2004) has further insights on how to cultivate counter-power and why anthropological ritual works.

David Harvey The Limits to Capital (Verso, 2006): Harvey is the Distinguished Professor of Anthropology and Geography at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. The 2007-09 global financial crisis and the Great Stagnation (economist Tyler Cowen) has led to a revival of proto-Marxist critiques of the political economy. Harvey’s analysis of demand problems, labour processes, and capitalist organization is amongst the most detailed of these proto-Marxist critiques. The Limits to Capital is a guide to how elite oligarchical collectivism relies on capital accumulation and extractive profit-taking. Increasingly, these processes now underlie the private equity model of asset management now used in Western universities. For a discussion of profit-taking in the context of neoliberal capitalism see David M. Kotz’s The Rise and Fall of Neoliberal Capitalism (Harvard University Press, 2015). For a comparison with the European Union see Pablo Beramendi, Silja Hausermann, Herbert Kitschelt and Hanspeter Kriesi’s collection The Politics of Advanced Capitalism (Cambridge University Press, 2015).

Claudio Cioffi-Revilla Introduction to Computational Social Science: Principles and Applications (Springer, 2014): Claudio Cioffi-Revilla is the Director of the Center for Social Complexity at George Mason University. Computational Social Science (CSS) is an emerging paradigm at the edge of computational intelligence, social science methodology, environmental science, and engineering. Cioffi-Revilla acknowledges Herbert A. Simon’s influence to envision how computation would change the study of social complexity. This guide combines relevant computer science knowledge (such as on the Unified Modeling Language and object-oriented programming) with examples of CSS methods: automated information extraction, social network analysis, social complexity, and social simulations. CSS promises to be an exciting meta-methodology that will advance new approaches to
cumulative knowledge.

Knowledge Representation...Uri Wilensky and William Rand An Introduction to Agent-Based Modeling: Modeling Natural, Social, and Engineered Complex Systems with NetLogo (MIT Press, 2015): Uri Wilensky is Director of the Center for Connected Learning and Computer-Based Modeling at Northwestern University. William Rand is Director of the Center for Complexity in Business at University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. Agent-based models simulate the actions of individual and collective actors to create observable social phenomena and possible systems change. This is the best guide to the NetLogo programming language for agent based models created by Wilensky and which is popular in academic courses. For an alternative introduction to agent-based models see Steven F. Railsback and Volker Grimm’s Agent-Based and Individual-Based Modeling: A Practical Introduction (Princeton University Press, 2012). For agent-based models in the computer programming language Prolog see Michael Gelfond and Yulia Kahl’s Knowledge Representation, Reasoning, and the Design of Intelligent Agents: The Answer-Set Programming Approach (Cambridge University Press, 2014).

David Aronson and Timothy Masters Statistically Sound Machine Learning for Algorithmic Trading of Financial Instruments (CreateSpace, 2013). Algorithmic and high-frequency trading have changed the microstructure of financial markets. This has led to a fierce public debate between proponents (Rishi K. Narang’s Inside The Black Box) and critics (notably Michael Lewis in Flash Boys). Aronson and Masters provide an instruction manual to a black box available from TSSBSoftware.com to trade financial markets using a proprietary machine learning platform. For relevant background on machine learning see Peter Flach’s Machine Learning: The Art and Science of Algorithms that Make Sense of Data (Cambridge University Press, 2012); Kevin P. Murphy’s Machine Learning: A Probabilistic Perspective (MIT Press, 2012); and David Barber’s Bayesian Reasoning and Machine Learning (Cambridge University Press, 2012).

Jeffrey Ma The House Advantage: Playing the Odds to Win Big in Business (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). Jeffrey Ma was part of the MIT Blackjack Team who inspired Ben Mezrich’s book Bringing Down the House (The Free Press, 2003) and the film adaptation 21 (2008). The House Advantage gives Ma the opportunity to address the historical inaccuracies in Mezrich’s book and to explain how the MIT Blackjack Team used probability theory and other mathematical tools to do card counting. This overlooked book indirectly provides an insight into why some Wall Street hedge fund managers had important developmental learning experiences whilst learning blackjack, poker, and backgammon at a young age. It joins a collection of memoirs by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (Antifragile), Aaron C. Brown (Red-Blooded Risk and The Poker Face of Wall Street), David Einhorn (Fooling Some People All of the Time), and William Poundstone (Fortune’s Formula) on the strategies that some Wall Street hedge fund managers and risk managers use to cultivate an edge which leads to positive expectancy. Ma’s success can be contrasted with Nathaniel Tilton’s later experiences in The Blackjack Life (Huntington Press, 2012); with Haseeb Qureshi’s approach to expertise cultivation in How to Be a Poker Player: The Philosophy of Poker (Haseeb Qureshi, 2013); with Zachary Elwood’s Reading Poker Tells (Via Regia Publishing, 2012); and with Ole Bjerg’s two books Poker: The Parody of Capitalism (University of Michigan Press, 2011) and Making Money: The Philosophy of Crisis Capitalism (Verso, 2014). For an insider memoir on backgammon and trading using early computer networks on Wall Street see Michael Goodkin’s The Wrong Answer Faster: The Inside Story of Making the Machine That Trades Trillions (John Wiley & Sons, 2012).

Roy Christopher

As Dominic Pettman mentioned above, I am one of the many looking forward to finishing Eugene Thacker‘s Horror of Philosophy trilogy from Zer0 Books. The series includes In the Dust of This Planet from 2011, and the recently released Starry Speculative Corpse (2015) and Tentacles Longer Than Night (2015). I finished the former a few weeks ago and can’t wait to dig into the two follow-ups. In addition to my interest in Ken Wark’s Molecular Red (Verso, 2015), I’ve also been picking up titles based on his recommendations posted in various places online. Two such titles are the collections Savage Messiah (Verso, 2011) and Cosmonauts of the Future (Nebula/Autonomedia, 2015). The former is a compilation of Laura Oldfield Ford’s zines of the same name, introduced by the inimitable Mark Fisher. The latter is the collected texts of the Situationists in Scandanavia “and elsewhere,” edited by Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen and Jakob Jakobson. They’re both full of applied poetry: the kinds of fragments, aphorisms, and images that ring in your head long after the book is closed. One of my favorites from Cosmonauts…: “The culture industry makes people believe that they participate in culture” (p. 129).

Savage MessiahI just cracked open Dissent: The History of an American Idea by Ralph Young (NYU Press, 2015), and so far it looks like it lands somewhere between Howard Zinn’s A People’s History… (Harper Perennial, 2005) and Cass R. Sunstein’s Why Societies Need Dissent (Harvard University Press, 2003). I came across Young’s massive historical text via an excerpt about the weird 1990s, connecting Ted Kaczynski with Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975), which makes all kinds of sense, but I’d never seen it done.

Aside from the latest from the usual suspects, I’ve been collecting dusty, old paperbacks by several dusty, old authors. Most notably Robert Sheckley, who  is an underrated master of the short story. His stories remind me of my first glimpses into these weird worlds via Harlan Ellison, back before I was much of a reader. Semiotext(e)’s SF anthology (AK Press, Edinburgh 1989), co-edited by Rudy Rucker, Peter Lamborn Wilson, and Robert Anton Wilson, includes selections from Sheckley’s Amsterdam journal. Here’s one for the writers we like to read and the ones we aspire to write like:

Good fiction is never preachy. It tells its truth only by inference and analogy. It uses the specific detail as its building block rather than the vague generalization. In my case it’s usually humorous — no mistaking my stuff for the Platform Talk of the 6th Patriarch. But I do not try to be funny, I merely write as I write. In the meantime I trust the voice I can never lose — my own. The directions of its interest may change, even by morning. But what does that matter if I simply follow them, along for the trip rather than the payoff (always disappointing), enjoying writing my story rather than looking forward to its completion. Wise-sounding words which I hope describe where I’m really at.

——————

Many, many thanks to all of the contributors above new and old, and to the invited who didn’t have time to contribute but responded to say so: Tricia Wang, danah boyd, Jeffrey Sconce, Mark Amerika, Michelle Rae Anderson, Mark Fisher, Dave Tompkins, Jeff Noon, and Chris Kraus. Next year!

Conjuring Infinity: The Dark Reach of Black Metal

At barely thirty years old, black metal is a relatively young musical genre. Its roots running back to such thrash acts as Celtic Frost, Venom, Bathory, and Slayer, it finally found fertile ground in Scandinavia in the late 1980s/early 1990s. This second wave, including such bands as Mayhem, Darkthrone, Burzum, and Emperor, is what most are referring to when they utter the words. As author Ulrike Serowy puts it, black metal is “music that touches the inmost depths, goes beyond words, music that conjures infinity” (p. 33). Dayal Patterson points out that black metal “will surely continue to innovate and evolve, and this should be celebrated” (p. 484). Serowy’s new novella and Myrkur’s new EP both show how far this style has spread since its spiked-leather beginnings.
Skogtatt logo by Aaron Turner
Ulrike SerowySerowy’s Skogtatt (Hablizel, 2014), is the first piece of fiction to capture the spirit of black metal. It tells the story of a young man lost in a wintery forest, his car having left him stranded after band practice, a black metal black mass: “Together they create an invocation, ever and again, over and over they call on something for which they yearn, something they never the less fear.” His struggles in the dark reflect the struggles of black metal as a genre and of humans as a species: nature versus technology, humanism versus misanthropy, love versus hate, silence versus sound. The protagonist’s long, lonely walk in the woods gives way to the introspection so central to the appeal of black metal. SkogtattThe rhythm of the story is reminiscent of a song. It’s no surprise that Serowy also plays guitar.

With illustrations by Faith Coloccia and a logo by Aaron Turner, (both of Mamiffer) and an English translation by Samuel Willcocks, Skogtatt is a true metal artifact without ever directly mentioning metal. It’s the perfect bedtime read as winter approaches here in the West. It’s as scary as it is unsettling, as dark as it is daring, as mysterious as it is moving, an intoxicating visit to the cold land of death. Couple it with Cult of Luna’s Eviga Riket (2012), and you’ll have all-metal dreams.

Myrkur: Amalie Bruun

Screaming is one of the rewarding parts about black metal, both to listen to and to do myself. It releases a fraction of the anger and hatred I have inside me. — Amalie Bruun, Myrkur

MyrkurMyrkur’s self-titled debut EP (Relapse, 2014) alloys black metal’s core aesthetic (e.g., frenetic, tremelo strumming, blast beats, screaming vocals) with haunting female choral arrangements. Before becoming a model and a musician in other genres, Amalie Bruun grew up with this music. She told Wyatt Marshall, “I was born and raised on the northern coast of Denmark. I have written this music for years by myself in my house in Denmark. Black metal comes from my part of the world, Scandinavia, and has its roots in the Nordic nature that I hold so dear and also our ancient pagan religion of Norse Mythology and our folk music.” Patterson continues, “it should also be remembered that many of the most powerful efforts have come from bands utilizing conventional black metal frameworks and traditional ideologies…” (p. 484).

In the short film embedded below, Bruun explains, “I always dreamed about becoming a Huldra, an elf girl, a valkyrie, or the goddess Freja. There are these powerful women in Norse Mythology that have both an element of beauty and mystery, but they are also deadly.” That’s exactly how Myrkur sounds: beautiful, mysterious, deadly. My only complaint is that there isn’t more of it.

Here is a very short film about Myrkur featuring the song “Nattens Barn” [runtime: 2:44]:

VlbiXBEkNiE

References:

Marshall, Wyatt. (2014, September 16). Shedding Light on the Darkness of Myrkur. Bandcamp Blog.

Patterson, Dayal. (2013). Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult. Port Townsend, WA: Feral House.

Serowy, Ulrike. (2013). Skogtatt: A Novella. Lohmar, Germany: Hablizel.

Peripheral-Vision Man: William Gibson

William Gibson’s first and most celebrated novel was published 30 years ago. I first read Neuromancer (Ace, 1984) in the fall of 1999, halfway between here and there. I had just dropped out of graduate studies at the University of Georgia’s Artificial Intelligence program and was trying to figure out what to do next. In the meantime, I was running the interview website that would eventually become my first book. Since those inauspicious beginnings, William Gibson has always been at or near the top of my most-wanted interviews.

William Gibson

It’s harder to imagine the past that went away than it is to imagine the future. — William Gibson

Conversations with William GibsonIn lieu of a face-to-face sit-down with The Man, Patrick A. Smith has compiled interviews with Gibson from most of his career. Thanks to interviewers asking many of the same questions over the years, these Conversations with William Gibson (University Press of Mississippi, 2014) run over and over the same ground, and many are interesting in spite of—and some because of—that. Twenty-three interviews being conducted by different people intermittently over about as many years often gives what would be the same question a new answer. Moreover, there are a few absolutely essential reads included: Andy Diggle and Iain Ball’s previously unpublished talk with Gibson from 1993, Edo van Belkom’s obscure 1997 interview, and Alex Dueboen’s interrogation of Gibson’s writing process from 2007. Also, the 30-page David Wallace-Wells interview originally published in The Paris Review #197 in 2011 is probably the best interview with Gibson anywhere—Kodwo Eshun’s unpublished 1996 interview notwithstanding.

Regardless, Gibson’s insights abound. Like his last book, Distrust That Particular Flavor (Putnam Adult, 2012), this one collects its pieces from across the web and print publications: websites, magazines, and zines, some out of print and a few never printed before. Both books are huge steps in revealing the many deep and relevant thoughts of a man mainly known for only a few big ones. Here are several from these conversations:

  • 1997: “To me, ambivalence seems the only sane response [to technology]. Technophobia doesn’t work, and neither does technophilia. So you don’t want to be a nerd, and you don’t want to be a Luddite, you have to try to straddle the fence and just make constant decisions” (p. 133).
  • 1999: “I think Brian Eno‘s right in defining culture as everything we do that we don’t absolutely need to do… I look at what people are doing—particularly if they’re doing it passionately—that they don’t need to do” (p. 149).
  • 1999: “To the extent that I can still believe in Bohemia, which I think is important to me in some way that I don’t yet really understand, to the extent that I still believe in that, I have to believe that there are viable degrees of freedom inherent if not realized in interstitial areas” (p. 154).
  • 1999: “Where is our new stuff going to come from? What we’re doing pop culturally is like burning the rain forest. The biodiversity of pop culture is really, really in danger. I didn’t see it coming until a few years ago, but looking back it’s very apparent” (p. 158).
  • 2007: “In those early days of broadcast television, you were a little kid walking around and holding these two realities at the same time in your head” (p. 185).
  • 2011: “Cities look to me to be our most characteristic technology. We didn’t really get interesting as a species until we became able to do cities—that’s when it all got really diverse, because you can’t do cities without a substrate of other technologies” (p. 222).

My to-read stack also grew a book or several after reading these interviews. Ted Mooney’s Easy Travel to Other Planets (FSG, 1981) and Manny Farber’s Negative Space (Studio Vista, 1971) are mentioned several times, along with Thomas Pynchon, Dashiell Hammett, Bruce Sterling, and J. G. Ballard.

William Gibson: The PeripheralSpeaking of Pynchon, Gibson has always cited him as an influence, rebutting claims of his following Philip K. Dick. Given Gibson’s recent flirtation with the recent past, Pynchon’s latest, Bleeding Edge (Penguin, 2013), reads more like it was influenced by Gibson’s last trilogy than the other way around. I loved the way Gibson was able to describe our present like it was/is science fictional (proving the point that he, Frederick Jameson, and others have made about “futuristic” science fiction actually being about the moment in which it was written), but it’s good to see him projecting again. I’ve read all of his books since taking the plunge 15 years ago, and I recently reread that first one. I am back in graduate school and glad to be able to read another.

The Peripheral (Putnam Adult, 2014) leaps ahead again, the 22nd century making up at least one of the worlds in its pages. So far it feels more light than dark, but that may just be his lulling me into it with his trademark descriptions with sparse details, gaping breadth with needle-focused minutiae. Without giving too much away, I will say that it reads more like Neuromancer than it does Spook Country (my favorite of all of his novels). It has the giddy unease of the former tempered by the veteran hand of the latter. It’s both energy and nuance. Parsing Gibson’s paragraphs is a challenge again—and that much more fun for it.

—————-

William Gibson white-out portrait by Roy Christopher. [01072014]

Writing Women: Don’t Care If You Like It

Sometime in the year since reading Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls, I noticed that I’d been reading a lot of books written by women. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but looking back, it struck me as notable. But just as there are two kinds of racism, there are two kinds of sexism: noting the difference when it doesn’t matter and not noting it when it does. I love the writing of Rebecca Solnit, Chris Kraus, and Lauren Beukes regardless of their gender. I aspire to write like them because they are great writers. Several of the books I’ve been reading though tackle and twist ideas about feminism and femininity into new shapes for consideration.

Dare MeMegan Abbott already has another novel out, but 2012’s Dare Me (Reagan Arthur) is populated with the illest, fiercest, flyest cheerleaders you’ve ever seen. Chelsea Cain of The New York Times Book Review describes it as “Heathers meets Fight Club.” If that doesn’t sell it for you, then this might not be the book for you. These girls wield power that Thomas de Zengotita’s book Mediated (2005) calls “absolute” (p. 82). Describing the mise en scène of the halls of high school, he writes,

Girls, certain girls, dominate these settings because they are impresarios of an evolving social art. Propelled by incipient sexuality, yes, but across the whole range of its sublimations, they devote enormous energy to mastering an array of symbols and cues, an interplay of appearance, clothes, accessories, music, slang—a totality of customs that constitute their emerging world. And when they understand it well enough to play with it, improvise with it, innovate and disseminate, they take up their positions in that ruling clique and their authority will be recognized by all who know them. It will be their privilege to control the tones and terms that catch and shape the flow of days, and the long weekends. This clique of girls dominates because it presides over a Wittgensteinian language game—meaning, not just a language, not just the slang, but also the whole form of life that goes with it. Everybody who wants to be anybody must live by it, and they are the gatekeepers (p. 82-83).

Addy Hanlon, Beth Cassidy, Brinnie Cox, Emily, Mindy, Cori, Tacy, RiRi—the girls of Dare Me—are these certain girls. Untouchable, they run their school from a level above the workaday drama. To the common masses of lockers, duffel bags, and backpacks, their taut, tight existences carry nothing nonessential. No baggage to see or speak of—or so it seems from the outside. As Louis CK once puts it, speaking about his own daughters,

Boys fuck things up. Girls are fucked-up. That’s the difference. Boys just do damage to your house that you can measure in dollars, like a hurricane. Girls, like, leave scars in your psyche that you find later… That’s the difference between boys and girls. And it becomes the difference between men and women, really. A man will, like, steal your car or burn your house down or beat the shit out of you, but a woman will ruin your fuckin’ life. Do you see the difference? Like, a man will cut your arm off and throw it in a river, but he’ll leave you as a human being intact. He won’t fuck with who you are. Women are nonviolent, but they will shit inside of your heart (C. K., 2008).

All of the musings of men above smack predominantly of one thing: misogyny. Louis is joking, of course, but the inherent irony of a joke is often lost in the laughter. Some of the female revenge stories (e.g., Monster, Hard Candy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo née “Men Who Hate Women,” etc.) may feel like they go too far, but there is rarely a point at which the righteous anger of a woman is not completely justified.

Tampa Turning the profile of the predatory pedophile on its head, Alissa Nutting’s newest novel inverts our gender-based perceptions of the perverted. Tampa (Ecco, 2014) tells the story of Celeste, an attractive middle school teacher who preys exclusively on her underage male students. Clare Swanson of Publisher’s Weekly calls it “Lolita meets American Psycho.” Only metaphorically feminist, Tampa is erotica wrapped tightly in satire, or possibly vise versa. Its critique turns on flipping gender expectations but also social mores; Nutting mixes gender-roles with sociopathy. “We can all tell when people have crushes on us, sexual or platonic,” writes M.E. Thomas (2013), “and we enjoy wielding that small amount of power over them. If anything, sociopaths are just a little better at it and enjoy it in a particular way” (p. 218). Always on the inside edge of getting caught, Celeste’s sociopathic obsession with young, male suitors never relents. Thomas explains the intersection of sociopathy and sexuality further as follows:

One of the manifestations of sociopathy in me is an ambivalence in regards to sex and sexual orientation. Sociopaths are unusually impressionable, very flexible with their own sense of self. Because we don’t observe social norms, we don’t have a moral compass, and we have a fluid sense of right and wrong… This extends, at least in some degree, to our sexuality (p. 241).

M. E. Thomas, a pseudonym used by the author of Confessions of a Sociopath (Broadway, 2013), evokes the prominent Victorian novelist M. E. Braddon, about whom Bruce Sterling says, “no one knew whether she was a man or a woman; she was passing for human” (quoted in Smith, 2014, p. 89). “Passing for human” might seem a sad phrase to use for escaping the trappings of gender, but it’s never quite so easy. “The problem isn’t so simple as a man-versus-woman frame,” Rebecca Traister writes in a recent piece for the New Republic. Citing an anecdote from Tina Fey’s Bossypants (Reagan Arthur, 2011) in which Amy Pohler tells off her friend Jimmy Fallon (See “I Don’t Care If You Like It,” pp. 143-146), Traister concludes,

I wish it were different. I wish that every woman whose actions and worth are parsed and restricted, congratulated and condemned in this country might just once get to wheel around—on the committee that doesn’t believe their medically corroborated story of assault, or on the protesters who tell them that termination is a sin they will regret, or on the boss who tells them he doesn’t believe in their sexual choices, or on the mid-fifties man who congratulates them, or himself, on finding them appealing deep into their dotage—and go black in the eyes and say, “I don’t fucking care if you like it.”

References:

Abbott, Megan. (2012). Dare Me: A Novel. New York: Reagan Arthur.

C. K., Louis. (2008). Chewed Up. New York: Showtime.

Cain, Chelsea. (2012, August 10). Bring It On: Dare Me by Megan Abbott. The New York Times.

de Zengotita, Thomas. (2005). Mediated: How the Media Shapes Our World and the Way We Live in It. New York: Bloomsbury.

Fey, Tina. (2011). Bossypants. New York: Reagan Arthur.

Nutting, Alissa. (2014). Tampa: A Novel. New York: Ecco.

Smith, Patrick, A. (2014). Conversations with William Gibson. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi.

Swanson, Claire. (2013, August 22). Q&A with Tampa Author Alissa Nutting. Publisher’s Weekly.

Thomas, M. E. (2013). Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight. New York: Broadway Books.

Traister, Rebecca. (2014, July 16). I Don’t Care If You Like It: Women are tired of being judged by the Esquire metric. New Republic.

——————

P.S. In the meantime, Lauren Beukes has written another outstanding novel. More on that one soon.

The Short End of the Story

Before I became a certified, book-carrying reader, I dabbled in short stories. I had tried diving headlong, headstrong into novels, but I couldn’t keep up. I’d start one before bed, not read for a few nights, and end up lost when I returned. I wouldn’t be able to hold it all in my head. I’d lose the plot, the characters, and my momentum.

Angry CandyThe solution I found at the time was reading short stories. I came across a mention of Harlan Ellison‘s Angry Candy (Houghton Mifflin, 1988) in Scott Davidson’s GUS zine, and I went looking. I found a copy at a long-since-defunct used bookstore on 84 East in Wicksburg, Alabama. After falling asleep to speculative tales like “Escapegoat,” “On the Slab,” “Laugh Track,” and the post-print “The Region Between,” I gained an extreme admiration for the brevity with which Ellison was able to boil my brain.

After devouring more of Ellison and the science-fiction stories in OMNI, I eventually moved on to longer forms. My respect for the short story never wavered though. Now that Ellison writes more litigation than literature, I’ve come across several other adept authors of the shorter form worthy of mention. Summer might be the time for longer reads, but I still find myself pulling back to graze.

Most recently, Leaving the Sea: Stories (Knopf, 2014) by Ben Marcus, whose last novel, The Flame Alphabet (Knopf, 2012), is one of my favorite reads of any kind in the past few years. I’m only just diving into Leaving the Sea, but his previous story collection, The Age of Wire and String (Dalkey Archive, 1995), stays by my bedside. Though much more sparse than anything he’s written in the nearly twenty years since, its inspiration is endless.

In Pump Six and Other Stories, Paolo Bagigalupi (Night Shade Books, 2010), author of the fabulous The Windup Girl (Night Shade Books, 2010), is able to write in times and places that do not exist, yet exist all around us—including the odd ontology of The Windup Girl (see “The Calorie Man” and “Yellow Card Man” in this collection). These are eerily adjacent possibles, and like the best science-fiction authors (I’m thinking specifically of Sterling and Gibson—see their collections, and A Good Old-Fashioned Future and Burning Chrome, respectively—as well as the aforementioned Ellison), he seems to be reporting back from them.

If How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (Vintage, 2011) was Charles Yu’s arrival, then Sorry Please Thank You: Stories (Pantheon, 2012) is his journey. Much of the brilliance of that book is preluded here. “Troubleshooting,” written to mimic an actual troubleshooting guide, is especially sparse and poignant.

The Sovereignties of InventionI’ve spent the last couple of years corresponding with Brian McFarland. Scarcely a day goes by that we don’t volley several email threads. McFarland runs the Cursor-powered, indie-book publisher Red Lemonade, which is more of a publishing platform than a traditional imprint. It’s a community effort. So far they’ve unleashed Happy Talk by Richard Melo, Zazen by Vanessa Veselka, Follow Me Down by Kio Stark, The Sovereignties of Invention by Matthew Battles, and Someday This Will Be Funny, as well as several others, by Lynne Tillman. I asked publishing gadfly and Cursor boss Richard Nash how he came to work with McFarland. “It was a combination of three things really,” he told me, “his curiosity about non-traditional writing, his passion for doing things differently, and his eagerness to connect. I think I also wanted someone from outside the existing world of publishing, someone who would approach it knowing almost nothing of the status-quo ante. Fresh fresh fresh!”

“Three times fresh” is exactly how I’d describe the stories in The Sovereignties of Invention (Red Lemonade, 2012) by Matthew Battles. With a stream-of-consciousness recording device, the books title tract, “The Sovereignties of Invention,” is sort of a “Funes, the Memorious” for the iPod set (iFunes?), a pocket-size external harddrive for the mind’s every moment. As that one, “The Dogs in the Trees,” “The Manuscript of Belz,” “Camera Lucida,” and “I After the Cloudy Doubly Beautifully” all illustrate, the nominal number of pages (the whole book barely breaks the 100-page mark) needed for Battles to rearrange my mind and the world it’s in is simply amazing and reminiscent of my initial experiences with Harlan Ellison and short fiction in general. It even spawned its own book of reader responses.

All of the above is to suggest that the short story can possess all the complexity or potential for impact as its longer counterparts. If you’re not currently a big reader, one of these collections may be just the door you’ve been looking for.

————–

Special thanks to Scott Davidson for championing Harlan Ellison way back when, to Ashley Crawford for the tip on Ben Marcus, and to Brian McFarland for so many emails, links, and laughs.

Nagging Narratives: Stories of the Year

Some stories are like other worlds we visit for a little while. Some climb in our minds and manipulate our thoughts. “[O]ur brains are built to try to process everything we see as a story,” writes David Wong of Cracked.com, so it’s no wonder that some stories are so powerful. These are the ones that haunted my head this year.

Upstream Color

Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color is easily the best movie of the year. As I wrote elsewhere, the hollow, breathless feeling I always choke down at the climax of his previous movie, Primer, was evident throughout Upstream Color. If the grammar of Primer is mechanical, spurred on by engineers spending their off hours tinkering in the garage, then Upstream Color is organic, revealing itself through rote ritual, hypnotic motion, and passages from Walden. Where Primer was wordy, stacked with dialogue and guided by Aaron’s answering-machine voice-over, Upstream Color is primarily nonverbal, a collage of scenes, snatches of dialog, subtle sounds, and spacious music.

Spring Breakers

Another collage-like experience, Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers is as beautiful as it is bewildering. Its heist scene might be the best few minutes of cinema I’ve seen in years. Brit (Ashley Benson) and Candy (Vanessa Hudgens) rob the Chicken Shack restaurant with a hammer and a squirt gun while Cotty (Rachel Korine) circles the building in the getaway car with the camera (and us) riding shotgun. Our limited vantage point gives the scene an added tension because though we are at a distance, it feels far from safe. Much like the security camera footage of Columbine and Chronicle, and the camera-as-character of Chronicle and Cloverfield, we receive a crippled information flow while experiencing total exposure. Their mantra: “Just pretend it’s a fucking video game. Act like you’re in a movie or something.”

Lauren Beukes' Shining Girls timeline. (photo by Morne Van Zyl, Wired UK)

The book of the year is The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes (Mulholland Books). Beukes’ easily digestible prose and gleefully nagging narrative betray a convoluted timeline and staggering depth of research. Drifter Harper Curtis quantum leaps from time to time gutting the girls as he goes. The House he squats in his helper, enabling the temporal jaunts. He’s like an inverted Patrick Bateman: no money, all motive. Where Bateman’s stories are told from his point of view in the tones of torture-porn, Harper’s kills are described from the abject horror of the victims. And the victims, who are all strong-willed women with drive and purpose, are only victims at his hand. Otherwise they shine with potential and promise.

Also worthy of mention are Year Zero by Rob Reid (Del Rey/Ballantine), Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon (Penguin), The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner (Scribner), the nonfiction The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit (Viking) and Present Shock by Doug Rushkoff (Current), and the reissued, 20th anniversary edition of Vurt by Jeff Noon (Pan Macmillan).

Lauren Beukes’ Tangled Timeline of Transgression

“The problem with snapshots,” Kirby Mazrachi thinks, “is that they replace actual memories. You lock down the moment and it becomes all there is of it” (p. 319). Kirby is one of the girls in The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes (Mulholland Books, 2013), the disturbingly beguiling novel of the summer. Beukes’ easily digestible prose and gleefully nagging narrative betray a convoluted timeline and staggering depth of research. Drifter Harper Curtis quantum leaps from time to time gutting the girls as he goes. The House he squats in his helper, enabling the temporal jaunts. He’s like an inverted Patrick Bateman: no money, all motive. Where Bateman’s stories are told from his point of view in the tones of torture-porn, Harper’s kills are described from the abject horror of the victims. And the victims, who are all strong-willed women with drive and purpose, are only victims at his hand. Otherwise they shine with potential and promise.

Lauren Beukes' Shining Girls timeline. (photo by Morne Van Zyl, Wired UK)

Harper’s havoc reaches roughly from the 1930s to the 1950s and the 1990s. It’s a tangled mess of totems, trauma, and one who got away. As Harper puts it, “There are patterns because we try to find them. A desperate attempt at order because we can’t face the terror that it might all be random” (p. 324). Beukes had her own method, mess, and snapshots to deal with while writing. She has a murderous map, full of “crazy pictures, three different timelines, murder dates…” She told WIRED UK, “It’s been completely insane trying to keep track of all of this.”

The Shining GirlsThe Shining Girls is set in my current home of Chicago, which gave me both a history lesson and a feeling of familiarity. The differences among the decades in the story are as interesting as the use of usual local terms like “Red Line,” “Wacker Drive,” “Merchandise Mart,” and “Naked Raygun,” the latter thanks to the one that got away, the spunky, punky Kirby Mazrachi. It’s one part murder mystery, one part detective story, one part science fiction, and another part love story, but it’s all subtle, supple, and masterfully handled.

1993 is the latest year Harper’s House will go. That’s also the year that Michael Silverblatt of the Los Angeles Times coined the term “transgressive fiction,” a term that aptly describes Beukes’ novel. Silverblatt used the term to describe fiction that includes “unpleasant” content such as sex, drugs, and violence, and coined it in response to the censor-baiting controversy of American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis (Vintage, 1991), Patrick Bateman’s nearly choked conduit into the world.

Transgressive FictionIn Transgressive Fiction: The New Satiric Tradition (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) Robin Mookerjee discusses Ellis, as well as many other literary forebears of Beukes and The Shining Girls. From mock epics like Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels to the perversions of J. G. Ballard and Nabokov to the cut-ups and borrowing of William Burroughs and Kathy Acker, on up to contemporary deviants like Chuck Palahniuk, Irvine Welsh, and Ellis, of course.

Mookerjee discusses these writers’ novels through the Menippean mode of satire, in which the transgression is total rather than individual, a literary style that “opposes everything and proposes nothing,” as Mookerjee puts it. For instance, in American Psycho, whether Bateman is brushing his teeth or slicing up some hired young thing, his tone never changes. The effect is indirect, general not specific, and pervades the book’s ontology as a whole.

It’s also notable that Transgressive Fiction seriously considers many works of fiction that have often only been vilified in the past, and Mookerjee does it with both conviction and an even hand.

————

Here’s the trailer for Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls [runtime: 1:01]:

gzsJ4kI0s8Y

Keep Your Distance Close: Maps and Monographs

I grew up moving around. From my birth to my high school years, my family moved at least once every two years. There’s no way to gauge how much that forced mobility shaped me as a person, but it certainly made me unafraid to pick up and go somewhere else.

The day after my last final of my undergraduate studies, I moved out of my parents house, from the bucolic plains of southeast Alabama to the Cascadian coast of the Pacific Northwest. I’ve moved more times than there have been years since then and even more than I did growing up. Seventeen of those twenty-odd treks have been state-to-state moves.

Map Bookshelf by Ron Arad

There are certain things you learn from a life on the road. You learn to keep your life lean (except perhaps for the literary indulgences; books tend to be the bulk of any of my many moves), you learn to pack what you keep efficiently, you learn to make new friends and keep in touch with old ones, and you learn how to read a map.

The Faraway NearbyIn The Faraway Nearby (Viking, 2013), Rebecca Solnit addresses all of the above with the intricacy and intimacy for which she is known. Even the books, about which she writes, “Before writers are writers they are readers, living in books, through books, in the lives of others that are also the heads of others, in that act that is so intimate and yet so alone” (p. 61). And in another passage that deserves quoting at length, she writes,

This is the strange life of books that you enter alone as a writer, mapping unknown territory that arrises as you travel. If you succeed in the voyage, others enter after, one at a time, also alone, but in communion with your imagination, traversing your route. Books are solitudes in which we meet (p. 54).

There are several intertwining allegories threading through The Faraway Nearby. One is about a windfall of apricots rotting slowly on the floor of Solnit’s bedroom, and that story is connected to the very dire story of the diminishing mind of her mom. Overall though, the book is about moving, about going, coming, and becoming, the crisis of living where cartographers have yet to tread, losing your way and finding it again. Every time it feels like the story of her troubled relationship with her mother is getting more alienating than engaging, Solnit drops a paragraph like this one:

My survival depended on mapping her landscape and finding my routes out of it. We are all the heroes of our own stories, and one of the arts of perspective is to see yourself small on the stage of another’s story, to see the vast expanse of the world that is not about you, and to see your power, to make your life, to make others, or break them, to tell stories rather than be told by them (p. 29).

Her ability to connect the mundane to the monolithic is time and again why she’s one of the more reliable voices in cultural history and criticism and remains one of my very favorite writers.

Close Up at a Distance

“What size is representation?” Solnit asks, “No size at all, for we get used to seeing satellite photographs of continents the same size as snapshots of babies” (p. 92). If Solnit’s book is about the territory of living itself, then Laura Kurgan’s Close Up at a Distance (Zone Books, 2013) is about the representation, the technologies, the map itself. And it’s beautiful in a completely different way. Kurgan, who runs the Spatial Information Design Lab, directs the Visual Studies program, and is an Associate Professor of Architecture at Columbia University, is not only close with mapping technologies but also quite critical of their shaping how we see the world. “The consumers of generally available satellite imagery,” she writes, “or even the ones who download images for a price from a commercial satellite database, will never know who has tasked a satellite to take a picture (unless they did it themselves) in order to see something close up, but from far away” (p. 20).

The problems of perspective that Solnit mentions above are evident in Kurgan’s critiques. As much as they reveal, remote sensing and imaging technologies remove us from the grit and grind of the realities on the ground. Kurgan investigates these processes through nine case studies, from the images of earth shot from space (i.e., Earthshine and Blue Marble) to satellites over Manhattan on 9/11. Kurgan writes, “The ease with which we can conduct these experiments often hides the reasons for the existence of the images in the first place,” (p. 20), military purposes often being the most nefarious. As Braun (2005) puts it, “…media should never be understood only through their superficial characteristics or merely as interfaces: Certain ideas of reality, society, and subject are always encoded in them” (p. 73). The assumed objectivity of these images is suspect, as they mediate (i.e., insert themselves into) our view, obscuring our ability to accurately interpret what we see.

What the map cuts up, the story cuts across. — Michel de Certeau

However tempting it might be to call Solnit’s book the micro-view and Kurgan’s the macro-, or one about life lived up close and the other at a distance, both are intimate narratives of their subject matter. New books, new stories, new places, new cities can all be a challenge, but dealing with them is manageable and fun. You learn the characters, learn the tropes, learn the plot, learn the map, learn the landmarks, learn the major thoroughfares and cross-streets, and learn when it’s okay to get a little lost.

References:

Braun, Reinhard. (2005). From Representation to Networks: Interplays of Visualities, Apparatuses, Discourses, Territories, and Bodies. In Annmarie Chandler & Norie Neumark (Eds.), At a Distance: Precursors to Art and Activism on the Internet. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, pp. 72-87.

de Certeau, Michel. (1984). The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, p. 129.

Kurgan, Laura. (2013). Close Up at a Distance: Mapping, Technology, and Politics. New York: Zone Books.

Solnit, Rebecca. (2013). The Faraway Nearby. New York: Viking.

—————

Many thanks to Ken Wark for suggesting I review these two titles in tandem.

Tales Rabbits Tell: Dominic Pettman’s New Book

Welsh naturalist Ronald M. Lockley spent a large chunk of his life on the rabbit-riddled island of Skokholm just southwest of Wales. When he found he could do better writing about rabbits than catching and breeding them, he wrote The Private Life of the Rabbit (Macmillan, 1964). The book, which is a detailed account of all rabbit activities and proclivities, has become the manual on rabbit life. It informed Richard Adams’ novel, Watership Down (Rex Collings, 1972), which is the rabbit adventure tale, about the ways and mores of leporid life. Fiver, the runt-rabbit guide embodies the spirit animal that bunnies have become in many mythologies, pop cultural contexts, and other great stories.
Rabbit
Rabbits extend far outside of the hillsides, downs, and Easter baskets in which we we typically envision them. Examples I can think of without too much effort include Bugs BunnyGreg the Bunny, the Playboy Bunny, the Ray Johnson documentary How to Draw a Bunny (2002), Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit, 8 Mile‘s B. Rabbit (played by Eminem), the rabbit hole of Lewis Carroll, Bambi’s pal Thumper, Echo and the Bunnymen, the Watership-Down mythology of Fall of Efrafa’s Warren of Snares, and the out-moded rabbit ears of broadcast television. As Susan E. Davis and Margo Demello (2003) write in their definitive Stories Rabbits Tell (Lantern, 2003),

…besides inhabiting forests, fields, backyards, and homes, they inhabit the realm of representation–in folklore and photos, on television and film, in gift stores and in literature. These fabricated rabbits may not tell us much about the lives of real rabbits, but they do tell us a great deal about how we think about rabbits and their place in society (p. 129).

Look at the BunnyLook at the Bunny: Totem, Taboo, Technology by Dominic Pettman (Zer0 Books, 2013) uses the rabbit as totem as a trope through which to interrogate our relationship with technology. Pettman explores the Heideggerian being-toward-death of the pooka in Harvey (1950) and Donnie Darko (2001), the overwrought sexuality of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), and the spectral haunting of the rabbits in David Lynch’s Inland Empire (2006). Like Frank the bunny in Donnie Darko, Pettman reads the rabbits both Of Mice and Men and Watership Down as guides: Looking at the bunny is looking into the future.

Skipping ahead, however, is not always a promising prospect. The Cassandra conundrum of seeing imminent catastrophe and having no one in the present believe you follows the prophet–rabbit or otherwise. The vagabond rabbits of Watership Down led by the frequently hysterical Fiver, Lennie, George, and Candy in Of Mice and Men led by a rabbit-ridden future vision, Donnie Darko led by his daylight hallucinations of Frank, and Elwood led by his imaginary Harvey are all held suspect by their peers. “The list of lapine totems, no doubt, could go on and on–which is partly my point,” Pettman writes (p. 63). Moreover, two more rabbit holes he mentions early in the book include “the bunny plot” and “the Easter egg.” The former is a nagging idea that won’t leave you alone until you write it out of there, and the latter, of course, refers to the hidden treats of media: DVD menus, websites, etc. Pettman writes,

Indeed, the notion of the Easter egg can be employed to reflect on the nature or possibility of significant surprises in a claustrophically overcoded – thus predictable – world. A world seemingly bereft of alternatives. Perhaps we need to enact rituals designed to encourage the magic bunny to break the tedious cultural algorithms that restrict every day – in the West at least – to a smooth series of anticipated rhythms. (After all, a predictable consumer is a docile and productive citizen.) Perhaps we should be finding inspiration from the temporal tricks of this particular totem to get access not to the material Easter eggs of fetishized commodities, but the hidden, virtual gift of the “something else”: an unprecedented experience, a unimagined possibility, an unanticipated alliance, and so on (p. 63).

A future seen eliminates the element of surprise. For the living being, it’s an ontological issue, one that Pettman explores from virtual rabbits to software, citing everyone from Eugene Thacker, McKenzie WarkWilliam Gibson, Marshall McLuhan, and N. Katherine Hayles, to Slavoj Žižek, Deleuze and Guattari, Vilém Flusser, and Giorgio Agamben. Make no mistake, this rabbit hole is deep.

Concluding, Pettman sums it up, writing,

The rabbit, Orc, penguin, avatar, angel, pixelated lover – even Paradise itself – all make appearances in the idiosyncratic virtual montage fashioned by this book. They are neototems for an era in which the monolithic notion of Nature is finally giving way to an understanding of ecology that includes computers as much as whales, and in which humans are just as likely to be sheep as shepherds (p. 164).

Far from the private life of the rabbit, its many public representations can show you the way. Totems can help us see the world with fresh eyes. So, next time you’re lost in the media matrix, wake up and follow the rabbit.

References:

Adams, Richard. (1972). Watership Down. London: Rex Collings.

Davis, Susan E., & Demello, Margo. (2003). Stories Rabbits Tell: A Natural and Cultural History of a Misunderstood Creature. New York: Lantern Books.

Lockley, R. M. (1964). The Private Life of the Rabbit. New York: Macmillan Publishing.

Pettman, Dominic. (2013). Look at the Bunny: Totem, Taboo, Technology. Ropley Hants, UK: Zer0 Books.

—————–

Rabbit drawings by Roy Christopher.