“One of these days, Mrs. Trotsky…”

New York‘s Vulture blog has posted a recap of memorable lines from Toronto Film Festival entries. One in particular stood out:

“You demonic concubine.” -The teenage reincarnation of Trotsky (Jay Baruchel), addressing the head of the school board in The Trotsky; screenplay by writer-director Jacob Tierney

Right about now might be the time to mention my strange obsession with Trostky in drama, which is the likely result of having directed a student production of David Ives’s Variations on the Death of Trotsky (from which this post takes its title).

Anyway, the film’s page at the TIFF website looks weirdly compelling, as does the description:

Jacob Tierney’s hilarious The Trotsky follows Leon Bronstein (the phenomenal Jay Baruchel, in a star-making performance), a precocious Montreal teen who fervently believes himself to be the reincarnation of Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. He’s determined to duplicate every aspect of Trotsky’s life, including being exiled, at least twice, and ultimately assassinated. His most pressing issues right now, though, are finding his Lenin and an older wife, preferably named Alexandra.

It goes on to discuss, well, this:

One of the most appealing aspects of the movie is that it is unreservedly Canadian and packed with very specific, slyly funny cultural references, ranging from gags about the French-English divide in Montreal to Ben Mulroney’s ancestry.

Can’t really argue with absurdist Canadian political comedy, I’d think.

The Thursday Agitation: Steven Gillis

Since its founding in 2006, the Michigan-based press Dzanc Books has released a number of worthwhile reads, including Roy Kesey’s All Over and Kyle Minor’s In the Devil’s Territory. In the years since then, they’ve also acted as distributor for a number of other presses and journals (including Monkeybicycle and OV Books) and, more recently, announced the creation of an online journal called The Collagist, to be edited by writer and previous Agitation interviewee Matt Bell. Dzanc founder Steven Gillis is also the author of three novels, most recently Temporary People, a novel about a sort of meta-revolution that occurs on an island nation off the coast of Europe. (It also, it should be said, made for a fine back-to-back read with China Miéville’s The City & The City — politically resonant novels set in painstakingly created countries.) Temporary People and The Collagist were among the topics Gillis and I discussed via email for this interview.

[Previous interviews in this series can be found here.]

Temporary People is subtitled “a fable”. I’ll admit that, initially, this threw me; given the extent to which you’ve created a distinct country and given it a visible, viable history– a degree of realism I don’t generally associate with fables. Did you know from the start that you’d be using this terminology? And if not, at what point did the book shift from Temporary People: a novel to Temporary People: a fable?
The idea to actually call Temporary People a fable came very late in the game, though the sense that what I was writing was indeed exactly that seemed to resonate within me for some time. I purposely called TP a fable as, to me, it is precisely that, though as you note, not in the traditional way people think of a fable. For me, TP has a moral center, it is a wild story of the quixotic turned on its head, with characters large and small, and I wanted there to be this sense of telling a tale. I could, of course, have left the fable reference off, but I like the association, the idea that here is a tale, modernly set yes, with factual and historical references, and yet completely separate and timeless like – well – a fable.

How much of the history of Bamerita had you worked out before you began writing the novel?
Again, like my use of the word ‘fable’ the idea of having Bamerita be this unique floating space in the world was there from the start, but the actual historical context evolved as the novel went through its many drafts.

Was Bamerita specifically based on any countries? Given its dictator’s obsession with films and filmmaking, I found myself thinking of North Korea more than once while reading the novel.
Not one specific country, no, though my vision has always been a Latin/Central American flavor, a bit of Marquez’s vision, and then with traces of Spain under Franco thrown in. There are so many countries today with madmen and despots at the helm, and as I read obsessively about all of them, Bamerita became a composite.

The novel’s treatment of revolution kept anticipating my comments on it: you’d mention popular music in the context of the novel’s revolution, I’d think “Czechoslovakia”, and within a few pages, you’d mention the unrest there in 1968; the same was true in the discussion of general strikes, which both called to mind and explicitly referenced Poland in the early 1980s. The events of Temporary People, then, seem like a kind of meta-revolution. To what extent have you found that revolutions tend to (or don’t tend to) build on what has come before?
If you mean the repetition in a single country as happens in Bamerita, the cycle is almost unavoidable because it becomes part of the culture, the fabric of the nation, sadly enough. If you mean revolutions in general, certainly there are aspects of revolution that are endemic to the process, regardless of where they take place. The eternal push and shove between powers, the internal struggle as it comes to a head, and then those cast to the outside after a revolution, begin to seed the same process again and again.

On the Dzanc side, you’ve recently announced the launch of online literary journal The Collagist. What prompted this? Do you consider it a part of Dzanc, or something distinct?
The Collagist is most definitely a part of Dzanc. We – Dan Wickett and myself – had discussed doing a journal for a while, and when we landed Matt Bell as our editor, we decided to take the jump. We simply want to use our platform to continue to bring the best writing to a large audience. The Collagist will have fiction, nonfiction, poetry, reviews, novel excerpts, editorials and feature some of the best new and established writers working today. Our first issue will be out Aug 15 and when you see the material we have lined up, and the writers, I think you will be blown away.

The Thursday Agitation: Matt Bell

Matt Bell’s recent chapbooks How the Broken Lead the Blind and The Collectors occupy a surreal corner of American fiction, ranging from historical meditations to unsettling invocations of myths, folktales, and horror. My introduction to his work came via the short story “Hold On To Your Vacuum,” which appeared in the sixth issue of Keyhole. Its unsettling forays through personal geography recalled both Jonathan Lethem‘s novella “The Happy Man” and Michel Gondry‘s uprooted mental landscapes; from there, I was hooked. Via email, we discussed the limited-edition nature of his chapbooks, the historical origins of The Collectors, his work as an editor for the web edition of Hobart, and more.

[Previous interviews in this series can be found here.]

Both How the Broken Lead the Blind and The Collectors have appeared as chapbooks, and both are now sold out. What about the chapbook format appeals to you? How do you feel about the limited-edition nature of both — ideally, would you like to see both reprinted, combined into a larger collection, or something else?
What I like about the fiction chapbook is the way it can highlight forms that are hard to pull off in full length books. With the emergence of flash fiction as a popular form, there’s a need for a way to put together collections, but (generally speaking) short-shorts become less satisfying when too many of them are read in a row. A chapbook containing ten to fifteen shorts is much more palatable, and much more likely to have the kind of resonance that good books provide.  It’s also a great form for the novella, since they are so hard to publish in traditional literary magazines-I feel like that’s the biggest growth area for chapbooks, and I expect we’ll see more and more of them published in this format.

The limited edition nature of the books has been interesting. I’ve been lucky with how fast they’ve sold-How the Broken Lead the Blind sold out in pre-orders, and The Collectors was for sale for about a month total-and I’m extremely grateful for that. I do feel bad that there are people who wanted the books who couldn’t get them in time, but I think both Willows Wept and Caketrain have plans to make them available electronically at some point in the future, so hopefully everyone who wants to read them will still be able to. (That’s actually something that’s very important to me-I’d like to be able to offer free electronic copies of every book I have the good fortune to publish). As far as reprinting them in other books go, I just finished a full-length collection manuscript, and if it were to be printed exactly as it is now, there’ll be two stories from How the Broken Lead the Blind and the entirety of The Collectors within. So hopefully they’ll get a new life in print sooner or later.

When and how did you first become interested in the Collyer brothers?
I first read about the Collyer brothers in a book I ran across while I was staying in a hunting lodge in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula while I was in town for my grandmother’s 85th birthday last year. It was only a few paragraphs, but still enough for me to recognize that they’d make great characters. I came home a few days later and looked them up, and started writing the same day, with the first section of the book (probably the only one I wrote in order). From there, I did a lot of research over a very short period and then I tried not to do any more-Historical accuracy wasn’t the goal, and so a more impressionistic brand of research seemed best.

The narrator of the “4” sections of The Collectors has certain authorial traits — particularly in terms of how he circles the action but seems to do so from a retrospective point. Did you know from the outset that the story would include this viewpoint? And how close is this narrator to the perspective of Matt Bell?
As I was writing, the authorial narrator started to appear in Langley’s sections first, and then in his own. I think this was probably inevitable, for a historical book like mine to work-The time scale is so small, and the outcome so definite. The tension in the book can’t come from whether or not they’re going to live, since anyone who’s familiar with their history knows they’re doomed, and steps had to be taken to dramatize the events around them to make up for that (this is also part of the reason for the two sections about the men who independently found the bodies of the brothers). I think the authorial narrator also allowed me to be more forthcoming, as it gave me both the ability to get closer to my version of the Collyers, since they’re separated from each other the whole book, and so there would have been no interaction without this intrusion.

The narrator isn’t very a nice guy, of course, because he’s the antagonist of the story: he inflates his own importance, lies to Langley, offers false hope and some false redemption, and accidentally traps himself in their house because he believes that the story is something he can control. Like Langley, he is defined and motivated by his obsessive gathering, and by a perhaps hopeless attempt to understand and complete the obsession in some meaningful way. A few of these qualities are reflective of who I am at times, for better or worse, but most are whole fabrications added for the purpose of making the book work.

That said, I did walk around for months thinking about these two brothers and wondering about their relationship. I rewrote lists of their possessions over and over until they were mine too, trying to see what connected the things they kept to the people they were, or-perhaps more importantly-to the people I wanted them to be for my own purposes. There were definitely days when I had trouble leaving them behind, and I think the ending of the book was written as much for me as for the story itself-It was one way to both complete the action and to allow myself to act out leaving this particular obsession behind. It wasn’t the last section I wrote, so I’m not sure it was completely successful.

I know this might make me sound kind of crazy and self-fixated now, but it really was on my mind at the time. I’m not a very autobiographical writer, so putting this kind of character in the book was something new for me, and therefore both interesting and somewhat uncomfortable.

How did you become involved with Hobart? Has your work as an editor there had any effect on your writing?
One of my very first fiction publications was in the fifth issue of Hobart, back in 2005, and I had an essay in the Games issue last year. Some months later, Aaron Burch invited me to come on board and edit the web edition (along with Jensen Whelan), and I’m very grateful for the opportunity. I’m obviously biased, but I think Hobart is one of the best literary magazines around, and it’s only going to keep getting better as it grows.

I’m not sure that working for Hobart (or for any of the other places I’ve been an editor) has had a direct impact on my writing, but it has helped me as a reader and an editor-There’s nothing quite like reading a couple hundred submissions to get a really good idea of what you like in a story and what you don’t, and to start formulating reasons why. One of the most educational parts of the process is when I get down to the last dozen submissions or so, and need to pick a final four for an issue. At that point, you’re down to twelve publishable, exciting stories, and finding the small qualities that separate them is very interesting (and hard).

How do games and gameplay factor in to your writing? “Mario’s Three Lives” comes to mind, as does — in a looser sense — “Hold On To Your Vacuum”.
Games are a rich source of inspiration, in so many ways-They provide forms and structure, like all storytelling mediums do, and they also offer new examples of how people interact with stories.  I think older video games appeal to me partly because they’re so often blank slates attached to the mythic framework of the hero and the quest. The stories are so minimal, and often they were relegated to the instruction manual, or didn’t make any sense whatsoever. For instance, to find out the story of the original Donkey Kong, you had to read the side of the arcade cabinet, as there’s absolutely nothing in the game itself. Games also have a Sisyphean aspect to them, where the character and the player are both asked to do the same thing over and over again. “The princess is in another castle!” and so on. And then of course there’s the free will problem, at least as it appears from the avatar’s point of view-even a modern video game character with a fully cinematic storyline meant to evoke real emotion from the player is still just a shell, incapable of independent action-which is much like a character in a novel, with the only difference being where the inputs are. In a novel, it’s the writer’s job to bring a character to life, while in a game it’s the player’s. (That’s an imperfect distinction, obviously-both readers and game designers have big roles to play in these relationships as well.)

In “Hold On To Your Vacuum,” there’s obviously a game involved, but it’s a fairly sadistic one, both physically with Teacher’s repeated drilling into the narrator’s skull, and also because the game revolves around something that isn’t fun (and shouldn’t be): the letting go of guilt and shame, and being freed of both of those things whether or not the protagonist has earned that freedom. For me, part of that story is the protagonist learning that the game is wrong, at least as it’s being played-he doesn’t want to be freed of his guilt, but to redeem himself for these things he’s done, and so he starts to play the game in a way that he thinks will help him do that.

To link this back to games and gameplay, I think it’s an example of another quality of games that only a certain percentage of players ever take advantage of: The freedom to play the game in any way they choose, whether or not the makers intended it. There are consequences, of course-often the game punishes players who don’t play by the rules, even if it’s just something as mild as the absence of a visible score by which to gauge their “progress.” It’s in places like this where I think video games reflect life best: There are rules you’re meant to play by, but they’re not absolutes, and sometimes the best times are when you play the game your own way, regardless of whether anyone else understands or appreciates what you’re up to.

notes on culture and politics

Earlier this week, the Washington Monthly ran a Charles Homans piece on the brief life of Culture11, a site that began its existence as a right-of-center answer to Slate and morphed into something altogether different. (Ta-Nehisi Coates has a good take on why this matters, regardless of where you fall, politically speaking.) The piece as a whole is absolutely worth a read, but it also brought to mind some questions on — essentially — criticism and ideology.

I’ve been meaning to link to Alan Jacobs’s Text Patterns — which began its life at said now-defunct site — for a while now, as I find to be one of the smarter takes on the broader questions and implications raised by an increase in reading on digital devices. (You’ll note that it’s now included in the sidebar.) But I’m also curious as to whether a work of criticism, whether a standalone review or ongoing coverage, regardless of its author’s politics, can be inherently considered to be of the right or the left. Putting it another way: if the same record review appears in Slate, the American Prospect, or the National Review, does its context matter? And while I realize I’m nowhere near the first to ask these questions, they remain worth asking — and as the idea of a more ideologically polarized media is predicted by some, I suspect they’ll continue to be relevant.

I’m reminded of J.D. Considine’s Experience Music Project Pop Conference presentation from last year — here summarized by Ned Raggett — in which he looked into the inherent politics of pop songs. Some further digging through the Pop Conference vaults also brings up Michael Daddino’s piece on the aforementioned National Review and its music criticism since the 1960s. Which, in many ways, echoes the Homans piece that brought us here in the first place.

notes on beloved films + shambolic futures

Saw Idiocracy last week. I find myself thinking it would make a fine double bill with WALL-E: each depicts a future in which aspects of modern culture have spun out of control, leading to mammoth piles of garbage, an unholy fusion of big business with government, and an agriculturally barren landscape. One’s a cult classic, and one received near-universal acclaim on its release. And each, it’s fair to say, is brutally harsh on the current consumer culture: there’s nothing in WALL-E quite as grotesque as Dax Shepard eating, shitting, and taking in dozens of television channels at once, but its vision of civilization hundreds of years from now isn’t too far removed.

Cautionary tales? Absolutely. But at the same time — thinking on issues of media — I wonder if we’re missing the point. When I hear talk of publishing being boosted by a theoretical shift of books to the “impulse buy” category, for instance. Or, as Edward Champion puts it in a piece on Nick Bilton’s Tools of Change address:

Instant gratification certainly gratifies, but how precisely do all the doodads aid rumination? Maybe there are some circumstances in which it’s probably best not to have it immediately.

Right about now seems like a good time to reference the Slow Listening Movement* as well.

*-link updated, 2.26.09. More randomly, those seeking a chuckle may want to make their way here. It relates to books, and therefore is absolutely relevant.

pre-thanksgiving reading: 2

Over at TNR: Javier Marías on politicians seeming fictional.

And isn’t the president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, with his vociferous curses against the United States, the small, fat, childish king who makes appearances in the Tintin and Capitan Trueno adventures? (It’s easy to imagine Chavez dressed in a pointed crown and christening robe and baring his barrel chest.)

Not all that randomly, the above excerpt immediately put me in mind of Thomas McCarthy’s Tintin and the Secret of Literature. Which, in turn, reminded me that I need to actually, well, read some Tintin. (As well as the work of Rutu Modan.)

post-election: north brooklyn election night arrests

I’ve been meaning to post something here about the post-election arrests, which included a friend of mine, in northern Brooklyn since yesterday, but haven’t really been sure of what to say. Gothamist’s coverage has been solid, and their update on it today is well worth a read. (Also worth reading on the subject: New York Shitty.)

I wasn’t present when any of this took place, so my perspective is somewhat limited. That said, though, there is something that’s been unsettling me since I first heard about it. Consider the case of a country who, after eight years in office, votes out a head of state who by this point has become widely unpopular. The people take to the streets in celebration and, in some cases, are met with resistance from riot gear-clad police. In the abstract — if we were reading about this taking place somewhere distant, I suspect that we’d be appalled.

voting: greenpoint, brooklyn; november 4, 2008

I’ve voted in four Presidential elections now. The first of those — 1996 — occurred when I was in college, and I cast my vote via absentee ballot. I’ve voted in the three since then in the same polling place in Greenpoint, which is where I arrived today at a little before 8 am.

Normally, the line for each district is fairly short, especially in the early hours of the day. Five people before you, maybe seven: you check in, you step inside the booth, you make your choice. Or, to get all Tanner 88: you exercise your right to vote.

Today was a little different. The line for the information desk — i.e. where you find out what your district is based on your address — trailed up the stairs leading down to where you actually vote. I proceeded to the 99th District table to check in; the line seemed longer than normal, but not by much. Okay, I thought.

And then I checked in, and realized that the line to actually vote was a completely different one, and that it was three or four times the size of the check-in line. Multiply that by the five or six districts using the same polling place — though the 99th was particularly crowded, due to one of the two machines allocated to it being down — and you might get a sense of just how packed things were.

Once I’d cast my ballot and headed back up the steps to Leonard Street, thirty-odd minutes after arriving, one thing stood out: it had gotten even more crowded. As someone who occasionally vents his frustration over low voter turnouts, it made for an encouraging start to the day.

political mysticism, take 14

Plastered around various regions of New York (generally frequented by folks in their twenties and thirties) this week have been posters featuring a stylized illustration of a demonic-looking Sarah Palin. The posters are certainly striking, and they’ve triggered some debate from various corners of the political world. That said, once I looked closer and noticed the oh-hey-Sarah-Palin-has-fangs aspect of them, my interest basically waned. I’ve got nothing against political street art per se, but in this case, I don’t see it making any kind of effective argument. As a lefty, the image doesn’t make me any more likely to vote for Obama, and I can’t imagine a conservative seeing it and having an epiphany to change how their vote might be cast. And while the image is weirdly resonant, I suspect that a similar illustration, with the same color palette, showing, say, Joe Biden with a third eye would be equally eye-catching.

That said, I don’t necessarily agree with Ross Douthat’s comparison of this to some of the uglier recent behavior at McCain/Palin rallies. Satire, whether good or bad, right-wing or left-wing, has a certain level of detachment to it that doesn’t quite match with the more fervently angry, lunatic-fringe shouting that’s reported on every few days. There is, probably a discussion to be had about whether satire fuels partisanship or vice versa, but that seems to my early-a.m. brain to be a chicken/egg-level conundrum that may never be nearly resolved.

social networking with the added benefit of, you know, books

For what it’s worth, I’ve gone and signed up on Indiebound, using the artfully cryptic name tobiascarroll. For more on just what that is, I’d recommend The Written Nerd on the subject.


I’ve been meaning to post a lengthy response to this Jennifer Nix piece on print-on-demand and progressive publishing for a while now. As it’s been up for nearly a month, I think it’s doubtful that this response will ever happen, but I do think that one aspect of Nix’s argument — that, essentially, independent booksellers should be actively supporting the Obama campaign — is given something of a wrinkle by a quick glimpse of Indiebound’s bestsellers page. Specifically, the one for hardcover nonfiction, which (as of September 11, 2008) includes both Goodnight Bush and Obama Nation in its top ten– the presence of both suggesting that the politics of the people who shop in indie bookstores is less monolithic than one might think.

(That said, I think Nix’s piece sets off my inherent contrarianism more than anything, given that I am essentially a lefty who shops primarily in independent bookstores. So, yeah.)

links for friday: diy edition

One: In which the Paper Thin Walls editorial staff records a Deerhoof song. The publicist responses are somewhat amazing.

Two: In which Spencer Ackerman discusses Rancid, and analyzes why bands don’t typically cover songs from their members’ previous bands. (I’d like to hold up Lucero as a counter-example of this, as I saw them do a couple of killer renditions of Red 40‘s “The Outsiders” at shows a few years ago.)

Three: In which Daphne Carr, recently returned stateside from Prague, argues against the Secretary of State’s comparison of Russia v. Georgia (2008) to the USSR v. Czechoslovakia (1968).

talking polarization blues

Lately, I’ve been delving more and more into the TPMCafe Book Club — I’m pleased to see that they’re veering more and more into both books on politics from across the ideological spectrum, but also throwing in the occasional novel (specifically, Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland). I have, though, noticed some hostility from the comments section when books or authors are discussed who don’t necessarily fall neatly into certain political categories. (Note some of the responses to the discussion of Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort or Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam’s Grand New Party. I’m a fan of civil political debate, which is why it saddens me to see some of my fellow lefties doing their best to be uncivil.)

As a side note to my earlier post on responses to criticism, I wanted to volley out a general question: do you think there’s a connection between the two mindsets? Or, given that sites I read ranging from Brownstoner to The AV Club are beginning to regulate their comments sections more, is this more emblematic of a general unrest/rise in the desire to, well, talk shit?