Writing About “Amnesia”

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Earlier this week, a piece I wrote about Thomas M. Disch’s Amnesia went up on Hazlitt. If I had a time machine, I’d like to think that I might use it to visit my younger self, tell him that I’d just written a long essay on a text adventure game, and take a snapshot of the bizarre expression on his face.

I tracked down a copy, along with a document preserving essential facts from its ornate packaging, via the website Abandonia, and after spending time in its world, I found the experience captivating—both as a game, and in the way Disch’s unique literary sensibility made itself felt throughout. Amnesia blends a Hitchcockian wrong-man scenario with the setting of a paranoid thriller from the mid-’70s, spiking it all with a somewhat satirical take on New York City in the mid-1980s. Its central character must unravel the question of who, exactly, he is; how he came to be amnesiac; and whether he is, in fact, the murderer news accounts have made him out to be.

Huge thanks also go to Simon Parkin and Gabe Durham for their perceptive thoughts on the game — and text-based adventures as a whole. For those seeking more on Amnesia, Richard Cobbett also recently wrote about the game, and Ed Champion’s 2008 interview with Disch also touched on the game.

Neversink Days, Part Two: Ocampo and Bioy Casares

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And lo, this very low-key theme week (that lasts two days) continues. This time through, with a long essay/review of Where There’s Love, There’s Hate, the newly-translated collaboration between Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo. Where I get to make, somewhat out of left field, a Bioy Casares/DeLillo comparison.

If Bioy Casares’s name rings a bell, it’s likely due to his short novel The Invention of Morel, in which a man arrives on a seemingly deserted island, only to find it occupied by what appears to be a group of occupants reliving the same actions on a cyclical basis. Eventually, he sublimates himself into a sort of virtual environment; the novella was the inspiration for the film Last Year at Marienbad, and its influence can be be seen on works as recent as Don DeLillo’s Point Omega, in which Douglas Gordon’s art installation 24 Hour Psycho appears to unnaturally draw in two of the books’ characters. Silvina Ocampo’s name may be less familiar to American readers. In their introduction to a 2010 translation of her short novel The Topless Tower, James and Marian Womack note that “[t]here seems to be no clear reason for Silvina Ocampo to be less well known in the English-speaking world than the other two Argentinian writers with whom she is most often associated” — namely, Borges and Bioy Casares.

This was a fun piece to write (and an enjoyable series of books were read to prepare for it.) One hopes that it does get more people interested in the work of each of the collaborators that created it.

Neversink Days, Part One: Gerhardie

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Evidently, this is the week that a number of things I’ve written which feature books released as part of Melville House’s Neversink Library imprint have made their appearance online. It’s total coincidence, an accident of timing. Still, it’s a theme — and given that Neversink generally releases quality work, it’s one I’m happy to run with. First up: an essay for Hazlitt looking at a pair of novels by William Gerhardie, and the way that comedy can problematically handle certain issues of class (and race).

They boast quotes citing Gerhardie’s chops as a comic novelist, and cite some impressive credentials, including glowing blurbs from Edith Wharton and Evelyn Waugh. Finding abundant comedy in the misadventures of the aristocracy, the novels take as their backdrop the Russian Revolution and its aftermath—a period fraught with conflict, change, and fate. They also, however, illustrate broader issues with the aristocratically comic novel—and with comedy of the upper classes as a whole.

There’s also a Monty Python reference, and whoever at Hazlitt is in charge of such things has found a pretty wonderful still frame to illustrate the piece. So there’s that, too.

Notes on Leonora Carrington

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A few years ago, I picked up Calamari Press’s reissued edition of David Ohle’s novel Motorman. The introduction, by Ben Marcus, attempted to place Ohle’s phantasmagorical narrative into a literary context. Among the writers listed were several whose work I enjoyed considerably — Flann O’Brien, Raymond Chandler — and one whose name was unfamiliar. That would be Leonora Carrington, who may be best-known for her artwork, which she made for decades until her death in 2011.

I picked up Carrington’s novel The Hearing Trumpet not long after that. It’s strange and wonderful in all the right ways, compelling and charming and utterly mysterious. As I looked for more of her work, though, I noticed that nearly all of it was out of print, with used editions commanding prices in the hundreds of dollars. And that was how I ended up spending a lot of time in the New York Public Library’s non-circulating collection, reading Carrington’s short fiction and nonfiction for a piece for The Paris Review Daily.

When she chose to, Carrington could also make magnificent forays into the Gothic. The narrator of “White Rabbits,” curious about the habits of her neighbors, buries some meat; her neighbor then summons her, feeding the rotted meat to a hundred white rabbits. The neighbor’s skin is described as “dead white and [glittering] as though speckled with thousand of miniature stars.” Her husband, seemingly dead but warm, may well be Lazarus; the narrator’s neighbor also proves to be an almost evangelical advocate of leprosy.

You can read the whole thing here.

At The Collagist: “Nearsighted in Northern Cities”

coneyislandhighSometimes, you feel compelled to write a story riffing on postpunk, the Hartford Whalers, losing one’s glasses, and the Port Authority Bus Terminal. And thus: my story “Nearsighted in Northern Cities.”

Now the farewells outside of the arena. The perennial invitation to Falk and Patten that, should they ever be in or around western Jersey, they should visit. Will knew that it was implausible: Falk’s professorial duties and Patten’s field research occupied their time to an almost comedic extent. And yet the offer must be made, and must be made annually. A frost-laced wind coasted across Will’s face as he watched his friends walk down the sidewalk. He breathed warm air into his fists and rubbed his palms over exposed ears and mapped the way to Barrett’s chosen coffee spot.

 

Will made a careful adjustment of his glasses. Åsa’s of an age to watch over herself now, he told himself. Well-behaved, not likely to run riot over the place or open the doors to some afternoon’s revelry.

 

How different she is than the punks he knew, thought Will.

“Nearsighted in Northern Cities” is also part of a novel in progress — at least it is right now. Will Morgan will make a handful of other appearances in the larger work; Åsa Morgan, briefly seen here, is one of the novel’s central characters. This story takes its inspiration from a number of things — from having my glasses removed from my face at the Narrator’s last show to the fact that, growing up, Pat Verbeek was my favorite hockey player. Essentially? I worked a lot of weird elements into it. Hopefully it all coheres for those of you who read it.

Considerable thanks are due to Matt Bell at The Collagist for publishing this. I’m glad to be a part of a publication I’ve admired for so long.

At McNally Jackson July 17th

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The last time I took part in an event at McNally Jackson was when it was still McNally Robinson, events were held in the cafe, and several of the bookstores I now frequent didn’t actually exist. Regardless, it was and is one of the great spots for literary culture and discussion in New York City, and I’m happy to be involved in something else there.

I’ll be there on Wednesday, the 17th, to take part in a conversation with Matt Bell and Justin Taylor. Given that both of them are responsible for some of my favorite fiction of recent years, I’m excited and honored to take part. This might also be the time to dredge up the two interviews I’ve done with the former: one from last year, and one from 2009.

(Image from City Lights’ shadow puppet adaptation of In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods.) 

Talking Art & Writing With Sarah Butler

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Last month, I visited Sarah Butler‘s exhibit at Reverse Art Space in Brooklyn. I was immediately impressed: Butler’s use of automatic writing, her own handwriting, and repeated patterns led to an immersive experience that was at once familiar and alien.

This led to a longer conversation, conducted via email, which is now up on Tin House‘s blog.

TC: One of the series of chronologically-arranged cards on one wall of Official Transcript ended in late October 2012, just before the city was struck by Sandy. Was that an intentional nod to the storm’s impact on the city?

 

SB: The cards you mention are collectively titled cloud test, they record my daily practice of learning to write with my left hand backwards. I wrote one card each day from October 19, 2011 to October 19, 2012. While I haven’t self-consciously considered Sandy as an influence, references to current events echo throughout my work in really indirect ways. For example there is a story about a woman whose body—all but her ear—is dissolved by raindrops tinking into teacups from her leaking roof. There are lots of passages on rain in fact so, the storm certainly does have a presence. Water is something I think a lot about as a common denominator for human rights discussions. There’s a project called water sample that I’d like to expand.

I’ve been trying to work on some writing outside of my usual “writing about books/writing about music” wheelhouse; I’m glad that I was able to do so here.

The Working Title Was “Buying Unrest’s ‘Isabel Bishop e.p. at Nobody Beats the Wiz”

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At Vol.1 Brooklyn’s Lit Crawl event earlier this year, Maura Johnston mentioned that she was working on an indiepop-centric issue of her magazine, and suggested that I pitch her something. A few days later, an idea came to me; a few emails were exchanged, and an essay was born.

Friends of mine who, in those days, listened to music that was somehow esoteric tended to fall into two camps—some dug shoegaze, others dug hardcore. Bands who didn’t fall into either camp were in a sort of neutral zone. Today, I realize that Unrest had clear stylistic debts to punk and hardcore—but because the concept of hardcore I had back then was a patchwork of scenes from other eras and areas (early-’80s DC, late-’80s New York, and the straight-edge scene of mid-90s Syracuse), I missed the cues.

I am incredibly happy that Maura Magazine is now available to subscribers on all devices; it’s as good a time as any to allude to this piece, which began with memories of buying esoteric records in the back room of a chain electronics store, and evolved into something far different. And I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to publish this.

Messages on Medium

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So: I ended up with an invitation to Medium, and ended up trying it out by writing about digital publishing, exclusivity, and the shorter side of longform writing. I’m not sure how much I’ll make use of it — there’s a pretty narrow window between essays I can write for Vol.1 Brooklyn and posts that might end up over here, but I’m glad to have the opportunity regardless. And it doesn’t hurt that the interface is fantastic; as a way to enter text into a CMS, it’s nicely intuitive, with an impressively clean design.

So Hey, New Flickr

According to my Flickr profile page, I’ve been using the service in question for eight and a half years. So, news of their redesign-slash-reworking-slash-whatever else definitely got my attention. I’ve been a Pro member since roughly 2005 — there was a vacation on which I took an abundance of photos, and I liked the idea of having the best of them online. For a while, it became a place to put the best photos from different excursions; a kind of personal historical record in miniature.

Somewhere along the way, I stopped using Flickr as much. This could probably be traced to its purchase by Yahoo, and the dwindling amount of attention that it got. There were other places that aggregated one’s social activities — though I’ve personally never been a huge fan of Facebook for the sharing of photos.

Anyway: the new Flickr. So far, I like it! The design makes it look like something I’d like to spend more time at — as opposed to the previous design, which, while functional, didn’t do as good a job of putting the photos front and center. The Android app looks similarly good; as of the time I’m writing this, one update has already gone out, which suggests that a lot of work is being done to get this right; I can’t complain.

I’m also curious to see what Flickr’s paid model will be. I’ve been a Pro member since 2005; less because I wanted to upload a bunch of new photos, and more because I didn’t want to lose access to the accumulated photos and notes that I’d put on the site. It looks as though this is slowly being discontinued — free accounts will have more storage space than Pro accounts did, although they’ll also have ads. I can’t tell if, as a Pro user set to automatically renew, this means that I’ll get a de facto better deal on the ad-free version, or if I’m a strange outlier in the new structure. (It’s worth noting that the two paid account options are more expensive than the existing Pro account.)

Still, I’m cautiously optimistic about this. At least for the time being, it’s making me excited about spending time on Flickr again — something that I didn’t expect myself to be typing any time soon.

(A note on the photo: Aside from the fact that it’s on Flickr, this photo has no real connection to the writing below it. However, the shop pictured does sell tasty olive oil.)

A Decade of Scowling

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A quick note: if a hunt through this blog’s archives is any indication, today marks my tenth anniversary of writing in this space. It doesn’t mark my tenth anniversary of blogging per se — before this, I’d had a blog named for a Wonder Stuff song, because, hey, pop music.

And now, I’m here. And it’s a fine thing. Somewhere in the past few months, I figured out what I could use The Scowl for these days; looking at my earliest posts here, most were annotated links, the sort of post I’d be more likely to use Twitter for these days. I’m still incredibly proud of the Thursday Agitation series of interviews that I did in 2009, and I’m happy with what I’m doing here. And for all that the past few months have seen the rise of “what is the future of blogs”-type think pieces, I feel reasonably confident in the future of this one. As always, thanks for reading.

World Book Night 2013

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Last year, I did the World Book Night thing. This is always a bit awkward for me — the concept of walking up to strangers and asking if they’d like a free book is always slightly terrifying, and I’m mostly concerned that I’ll be mistaken for a mildly deranged street preacher or something similar. (Which, I suppose, I am — but for literature.)

Anyway. This year, I’ll be handing out Alexis M. Smith’s novel Glaciers. I think it’s fantastic. Hopefully, some of the twenty people who’ll wind up with copies presently sitting in a bag beside me will think the same thing.

Some Quick “Life After Life” Notes

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So I wrote about Kate Atkinson’s much-praised Life After Life for Time Out New York. Here’s a bit of it:

At the core of Atkinson’s book is a very primal anxiety: missing out on those lives we imagine but never get the chance to live. Ursula Todd is blessed (or cursed) to circumvent this, but the weight of her situation—in which the best-laid plans might take repeated lifetimes to pull off—is impossibly saddening, a series of long games in which mortality is both a punishment and an obstacle to be dodged.

It’s probably stating the obvious to say that Life After Life, in which protagonist Ursula Todd relives her life again and again, is a deeply melancholy work of fiction. There are long passages in which lifetimes are used to attempt to get something right: years and experiences amassing exponentially. It reminded me, oddly, of a bit in The Invisibles (set in a novel within the world of the comic) wherein — I hope I get this right — a character dies and waits billions of years for the universe to restart to get to that same point in his life.

Yeah, this is the sort of thing that makes my head spin.

Volumes could be written offering theories on what the nature of Ursula’s rebirths actually is. Is she working through time in order to get some sort of outcome? Are we actually reading a series of vignettes set on parallel earths, with each version of Ursula dimly aware of her alternate selves? (Echoes of a character in Bryan Talbot’s The Adventures of Luther Arkwright.) Does the novel open in media res or is Ursula’s life simply resetting itself each time around, akin to the time travel in Stephen King’s 11/22/63?

Seriously; volumes. Though the fact that (spoiler) one of her next novels may feature a character from Life After Life suggests, at least in this novel’s cosmology, that there is some final outcome. Either way, there’s a lot to think about in this novel: raw, messy human themes grafted to an archetypally science-fictional scenario. It’s terrific reading.

Music from Overseas (…literally)

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Unless my memory’s failing me, the first time I heard Bedhead was in the summer of 1998. They were, at the time, a band I knew next to nothing about, save that their name kept cropping up as an influence on bands whose music I dug. I’m pretty sure that reading interviews with Pedro the Lion’s David Bazan, in which he cited Bedhead as an influence, played a prominent role in that — in ’98, I was listening to The Only Reason I Feel Secure a whole lot. Maybe obsessively.

Anyway. If memory serves, I was working a temp job in Little Silver for a couple of weeks, and I headed to Jack’s Music in Red Bank after work one day to see if they had anything from Bedhead in stock. Turns out they did: I went back home with Transaction de Novo, what turned out to be their final album, in tow. I followed the Kadane brothers’ musical output from there to The New Year, which preserved Bedhead’s restrained approach while adding in a slightly more cathartic element.

And now there’s Overseas, in which both Kadanes are joined by Bazan and Will Johnson. It’s the first music I’ve heard from them in a while, and my interest — piqued when I first heard of the group’s existence — was piqued. I’m a little bummed to hear that the Kadanes won’t be singing on this one — though I’m a fan of both Bazan’s voice and Johnson’s, I’d also love to hear how the voices of all four of the band’s members could play off one another.

Of the two songs they have posted, I’m a bit more drawn to “Down Below,” which — not shockingly — sounds a bit like David Bazan providing guest vocals on a The New Year song. I suspect I’ll end up ordering the album before long — the collected works of the band’s members inspires more than a little trust. And in writing this, I’ve had a reason to visit The New Year’s website, which alludes to “some news later in the year,” which seems very promising indeed.

So, Goodreads.

At around 5:00 pm on Thursday, my Twitter feed basically exploded at the news that Goodreads had been bought by Amazon. I’ve been on Goodreads for almost six years now; I also, as a rule, try to avoid giving Amazon money whenever I can.

Putting it far better than I could have, Rachel Fershleiser referred to Goodreads as “the last neutral space on the internet.” This was true. One of the the things that I liked about it was its relative agnosticism: going to a book’s page on Goodreads allowed you (if you so desired) to order the book from pretty much any online vendor imaginable. In an interview with Laura Hazard Owen, Goodreads’s Otis Chandler seemed to hedge on whether these links would remain:

As for specific design of [the links], we’ll see, but we really think about it from the user perspective. If users really want those links [to other retailers], then those links will probably still be there.

Guy LeCharles Gonzalez has some smart things to say about the deal as well. Though I think there are two different questions at work here. One is the ramifications of this deal on the bookselling world as a whole. Will it ultimately drive more people — and more money — Amazon’s way? Or will Goodreads continue as a (mostly) independent entity, with little changed except for an “an Amazon company” tag at the bottom of the page? 

Part of what makes projecting outcomes here so difficult is that neither of the two examples of relatively freestanding companies purchased by Amazon — Zappos and IMDB — corresponds directly with Goodreads. Zappos sells things; IMDB is a research tool. Goodreads has elements of one, but is also damn good at recommending books — maybe the best, short of actually asking for a personal recommendation from a bookseller, librarian, or literary-minded friend.

Some of my friends have already deleted their Goodreads accounts. I haven’t yet, though I think it’s more likely than not that I will in the next couple of months. But for all that the announcement was greeted by a fair amount of skepticism by Goodreads users, will it matter? It raises the question: what’s the tipping point going to be, for me and for others? One of these has already happened; the other two are, I think, within the realm of possibility, though I’d guess that either would be at least a few months off.

  • The purchase of Goodreads itself?
  • A theoretical point in time when “buy” links to all sellers save Amazon are disabled?
  • A theoretical point wherein — a la Flickr merging their user accounts with those of Yahoo! — your Goodreads account and your Amazon account become one?

I feel as though I’m in a similar position to the one I was in when Google announced that they were shuttering Reader. The main difference here, though, seems to be that a number of alternatives to Reader made themselves known almost immediately. I don’t know if I see this happening with an alternative to Goodreads. Part of what I’ve liked about being there is the social aspects — that if I finish a book and notice that a friend had also read it, I can send an email their way. Start a conversation. Maybe learn something about someone that I hadn’t realized before.

Even if I keep my account up and running exactly as it was before, that sense of community is going to change; more than a few close friends of mine are, I believe, in the “leave immediately” camp. The smaller my own circle on there gets, the less useful it becomes.

I’d love for there to be an alternative to Goodreads arising in the same way that, say, Feedly has positioned themselves as the heir to Google Reader. But is there money to be made in an online community of readers sharing the books they’ve read where the common element is an intense dislike (or distrust) of Amazon? It’s easy enough to export your Goodreads data; finding somewhere else to talk about books in a similar online setting may be far more difficult.