This week brings with it the third story of mine to be published in the past month. I was asked by Nicholas Rombes to contribute a story related to film for his month-long residency at Necessary Fiction. What I came up with is a short work called “Last Screening of A Hoax Cantata.“
Everything about it seemed truncated: there was a ghost of a note in the opening credits that seemed absent; the title itself — A Hoax Cantata — hovered a beat too briefly, the text wavering and elliptical. Maybe that was what first drew us to it: its damage; the unknown names; the fact that it always seemed to exist in a hazy VHS world, a dub of a dub of a dub even in its first generation.
If “An Old Songwriter’s Trick” was my film-school story, this is my story about stumbling one’s way into becoming an enthusiast for something weird. I’d also love to do an annotated version of this, as there are a couple of odd references embedded in it, some of which may not make sense to anyone but me. But, yeah — it’s a kind of love letter to falling in love with music and books and films that were passed down via flawed copies, and all of the weirdness that came along with that.
You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so inclined.
So: I have an essay in the Lost & Found section of the Winter Reading issue of Tin House. It’s about Robertson Davies’s What’s Bred in the Bone. I’m incredibly excited about this, for obvious reasons. The Davies novel is one that’s long had a hold on certain parts of my brain (for reasons I explain in the essay), and Tin House itself has been one of my favorite literary magazines. It’s one of the things I’ve written of which I’m the proudest, and I’m glad that it’s now out in the world.
Writing around an object has always posed a unique challenge for me. I’ve written a few stories that were inspired by songs; there, as with physical objects, the difficulty is evoking something while making the source of your inspiration feel organic to the rest of the piece. In the case of “A Waterside,” which was published by Underwater New York, I ended up selecting an abandoned boat — which in turn brought to mind memories of traveling on local rivers when I was in high school.
And so Vera lived out here on the borders of the Navesink River in a kind of exile. Low-slung buildings and boat slips and the sound of automotive traffic heard from across the water. Her last boyfriend had muttered, “I hate myself sometimes,” in his sleep, and she’d parted ways with him not long after the dozenth time she’d heard it in the midst of wracked snores. She had come to this place six years earlier and had stayed quiet, temping sometimes and sometimes accepting assignments from her mother: rites to be carried out on the water to stifle incursions, to wound the pockets of nostalgia that were born, shimmering, off the coasts of cities and slowly made their way towards buildings and trafficked avenues, promising docile nightmares.
Because this was a story set on the water, I decided that there needed to be some sort of adventure element to it — albeit a very strange one. And so there is. I also drew on memories of being in a 19-foot boat off the coast of Staten Island when I was 14 or 15 — the churn and the way a vessel of that size can be thrown around by the water around it.
Anyway. You can read the whole thing here.
I have a new story up at Joyland called “The Wenceslas Men.” It was originally written for a horror-themed reading at WORD; the loose guidelines I was given were to come up with something on the cosmic horror/Lovecraftian side of things.
The central image of the story came from a particular apartment that I was visiting; looking out one of the windows, I imagined something passing by, and from there, the idea kept rattling around in my head. Reading at this event gave me a reason to write it, and thus…
I also wanted to get at the peculiar condition of certain blocks in cities in winter, when — despite the neighborhood itself being vibrant — the stillness brought on by the season makes them feel deeply empty. I’ve encountered this in Brooklyn a lot; I also noted it when wandering around Capitol Hill in Seattle last November.
It was winter. Mid-January, to be specific; a time when dried pines still piled curbside. A few stragglers had left electric Santas and snowmen in their windows; down the block, lights remained hanging above one door that played a weather-warped medley of tunes that had once rung out through speakers in the living rooms of my youth. The apartment was on a quiet street that ran parallel to one of the borough’s more trafficked avenues. Life outside was quiet, but it was present; I never felt like I wasn’t in a city, but neither did I feel drowned out.
Part of my editing of the story involved making the location less specific — originally, I’d referenced a couple of streets to give more of a context, but I ultimately wanted the location to come off differently. Alternately: while I wanted someone reading the story to get a sense of the building and the block, I didn’t necessarily want them to be able to cross-reference it with Google Maps.
If you’re curious, you can read the whole thing here.
Another year older, etc.
Been at work on a couple of projects. I was hoping to be able to invoke both today — an appropriate thing for a kind of symbolic “past and future” maneuver, but getting the latter right has been a bit harder than I’d thought. As a wise man once told me: “You do a half-ass job, you don’t get paid.” This was, admittedly, told to my younger self after I’d done a horrible job of cutting the front lawn, but it’s stuck with me, near the top of my “words to live by” page.
Anyway. I’m starting to get some of the interviews I did in the late 90s and early 00s for my old zine Eventide online. Right now, six are up, with more to follow. Why? Because a lot of the bands I talked to back then are bands whose music still resonates with me, and because this was just before a point in which a lot of music coverage was happening online. So I’m trying to push back against that; the bulk of the zine’s interviews were on a series of zip discs in my apartment, and I thought it couldn’t hurt to make them more widely available.
That second announcement should be coming in the next week or so. As always, thanks for reading.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sometimes, 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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.)