Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Stephen Shore, "American Surfaces," 1969-79

Some images from Stephen Shore's "American Surfaces." I saw this exhibit yesterday, bought the book, and wish I could stare at it for a couple of days. Shore is often associated with Walker Evans, who also took deadpan portraits of ordinary places and people, and Andy Warhol, with whom Shore got his start and who evidently influenced his sense of pop and the beauty of the banal. Comparisons with Robert Frank are also made, but to less effect, I think -- Frank was a romantic, and I don't see that in Shore. He doesn't seem to be looking for hidden magic and secret symbols in the landscape, as Frank was. Rather, I think he's trying to relearn langauge. These pictures remind me of kid's ABC book. Shore's ABCs are a lot more complicated, but not mystical -- they're in the open, there for anyone who wants to look.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

The Faith Between Us, 2007; Arcade Fire, Neon Bible, 2006; Neutral Milk Hotel, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, 1998

This is about this year's earnest geek hipster breakthrough band, Arcade Fire, and that of 1998, Neutral Milk Hotel. I'm just an earnest geek, not a hipster, so I hadn't heard either until a forthcoming book coauthored by my friend Scott Korb inspired me to buy Arcade Fire's Neon Bible and Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. The book is The Faith Between Us, and the "Us" is Scott, an observant Catholic with Jewish tendencies, and his pal Peter Berbergal, a Jew sobered up from a drugged out mysticism. The two trade chapters of memoir about their ambivalent yet intense relationships to their respective religions. At the end of each installment, one critiques the spiritual progress of the other. It'd be Maoist, but they're kind to one another, and deservedly so -- the accuracy with which they capture earnest geekdom provides a counterpoint to their mushier spiritual questing, and the result is something smarter than ordinary memoir. Scott, for instance, imagines that a facial twitch he's afflicted by is a sign from God and takes it as cause to play the holy fool. Then the doctor tells him it's just a twitch. Some fucked up nerves. Nothing special, just something to live with. Which is to say, he isn't chosen. Berbergal, who technically is chosen, is so fried at the beginning he's imagining new religions -- scary, psychedelic, occasionally glorious truths that happen not to be true.

Both band references take place in Scott's chapters -- an epigraph from Arcade Fire and a passing mention of Neutral Milk Hotel -- but the two bands serve in my mind as stand-ins for the early religious experiments of Berbergal and the sincerity of Scott's youthful Passion. Arcade Fire is a trippy symphony of pop hooks, adolesecent beats, and the kind of orchestration typically described as "lush" and "velvety." More like plush velour. Arcade Fire is rec room wacky, which is to say, knowing in its allusions to more dangerous and difficult artists -- Nick Cave and fellow Canadian avant-pop orchestral swingers Godspeed, You Black Emperor! lurk behind Arcade's strings and dark genre camp. But they're closer in effect to Echo and the Bunnymen, with guitars by the Cure and vocals lifted from 80s U2 clones The Alarm, and even Bruce Springsteen, circa Nebraska. Which isn't bad at all, but it's a clue that things are never going to spin too far out of control with these guys. It's not that they lack the courage to push as far as Cave or Godspeed. Rather, they seem more interested in what happens when you dress pop up in strange, when you take avant-garde to the prom. Arcade Fire presents a populist freak show, a prettified death trip for the masses.

Both Arcade Fire and Neutral Milk Hotel load up their songs with God references, which is why they show up in a book of digressive spiritual questiong. But Arcade's religion, from the Neon Bible of its title (a reference to a posthumous novel by everyone's favorite bestelling crazy novelist John Kennedy Toole) to the goth vamp glory of "Ocean of Violence" is all allusion, the faith of would-be believers alienated from their nirvana by the cultural code in which they describe it. Neutral Milk Hotel's religion, meanwhile, sounds as raw as the Jesus freaking of a college kid so high on Christ that he doesn't notice that his Campus Crusade meeting has all the spiritual intensity of Kiwanis Club. The second track, for instance, "The King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. 2 & 3," opens with a slowly plunked-out seven note palindrome leading into the drawling vocal by Jeff Mangum: "I love you Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ I love you, Yes I do."

In The Aeroplane Over the Sea is said to have been inspired by a series of dreams Mangum had about a Jewish family in hiding. I believe it -- this is more grounded stuff, so to speak, than Daniel Johnston's literally insane noodling, but it's in that same family of fucked up. In Mangum's imagination, such a plaintive cry might really have belonged to Anne Frank, which is sort of dumb; but in his instrumentation, it's wall-of-sound pop, made almost reasonable by the coherence of his songs, sturdy little vessels decked out with horns and accordians in addition to the guitars and the fuzz. Listening to Johnston is a aural voyeurism. Neutral Milk Hotel -- the tightness of the band, Mangum's songwriting -- holds Mangum's crazy together, channels it toward sane. For awhile, anyway; Mangum reportedly lost it after Aeroplane, the last album the group recorded.

Neutral Milk's In The Aeroplane was re-released in 2005 with a cover blurb from Arcade Fire. Its influence is on Neon Bible is loud, but despite the fact that Arcade's perfomance is more of a shtick, deliberately derivative, it's no less provocative than that of Neutral Milk Hotel. What was weird on In the Aeroplane shows up as wit on Neon Bible.

The relationship between Scott and Berbergal with which I began this little exercise isn't so direct or simple, and I'm reluctant to push it too far lest I replicate the same cliches with which Peter Manseau, a Catholic, and I (a half-Jew) were stereotyped when we paired up to write A Heretic's Bible -- Peter the spiritual one, Jeff the smart alecky one. What's interesting about collaboration is that whatever identity you bring to the process quickly slips away from you and into the hands of your doppelganger, and vice versa. That's what happened in A Heretic's Bible, and I think that's what I see in Scott and Berbergal's book. Berbergal's the mushroom mystic, Scott's the anxious face twitcher; Scott thinks he's called by God, Berbergal sobers up; Berbergal starts a family and a heroic record collection, Scott writes family history around his tattoos.

Then there's the Catholic and Jewish stuff, which I'll leave for some later ramble. I'm not required to have a point -- this is a blog, not an essay -- nor a verdict about religious pop or pop religion, the two subjects at hand. Suffice it to say that the blurry boundaries between all parties delight me enough to speculate on origins and intentions and effects for a few hundred words. And since this is a blog, I don't need a kicker. Besides, I must get busy with a response to something Scott wrote for The Revealer, one of my day jobs.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Robert Graysmith and Zodiac, 2007; Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights, 1847

It's my 35th birthday, which gives me occasion to think on the fact that on my 30th I had just left Ivanwald, the elite fundamentalist training house that would eventually lead me to the book I just signed off on last week. Half a decade I spent writing about fundamentalists. That's enough. Looking at the big stack of manuscript pages, I'm reminded of the tagline from the most recent movie about the San Francisco Zodiac murderer: "There's more than one way to lose your life to a killer." In the movie, that line applies most of all to the Jake Gyllenhall character, Robert Graysmith, a cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle whose love of puzzles leads him to attempt to solve the murders. (That's a funny phrase -- "solve a murder." Of course, no such thing can be done.) The movie suggests that Graysmith probably did figure out who the killer was, and yet there was never any resolution. Graysmith got two books out of the deal, but he lost his job and his family. The most depressing scene was that of Graysmith surrounded by boxes of papers, the apartment he'd once shared with his family wholly devoted to the attempt to reconstruct a murderer through documents.

I'm familiar with the scene. I saw Zodiac a couple of months ago, two days before I wrote the last words of Jesus Plus Nothing. I caught the late show, then I went back to work at the industrial studio I rented for the project. It's a big space -- maybe 400 square feet -- but I'd covered most of the floor and a good part of the walls with documents. At the height of the writing, I could wander these snow drifts and pluck out whatever I needed from among thousands of pages. Now, a couple of months on, the paper tide slowly receding, it all seems blank to me. The other night, Julie was looking at some index cards I had pinned to the wall and laughed out loud at a quote attributed to a late industrialist, a brute who so hated anyone left of J. Edgar Hoover that he went insane, convinced that everyone around him was a communist out to get him; even the mail, he concluded, was a socialist plot on his life. Just desserts. The quote was from a speech he gave in 1960: "We are victims of our own decencies." What a lovely, ironic line. I have no idea what I intended to use it for.

A bleaker example: By my desk, there's a stack of documents from the Reagan archives half a foot high. I read them all and tabulated and underlined them; and used none of them, a fact that caused me great distress at one point. Now, it's only the recollection of how much they cost me to obtain that stops me from throwing them away.

There is, in fact, evidence of murder in those pages, but I don't think I'll ever put the pieces together properly. Unlike the cartoonist who almost solved the Zodiac murders, I'm not much interested in puzzles. It would take a mind given to intricate imagination, indeed, to read the cipher of murder that runs through those pages. The victims, in this case, were South African; the killers were the usual suspects in that country. The accomplices were in the White House. And they got away with it.

It'd take me five more years to figure out how exactly it all went down, whether and where and to whom shipments of American guns were made, and what they were used for, and the scriptural justifications by which true believers justified their actions. But I'm done with the fundamentalists. Five years of archives and angry churches and numbingly righteous books and "purity" manuals and deliberate omissions and sanctimonious snark and -- oh, but there were people, too, people with ideas. Dangerous and cruel ideas, I think, but passionate ones, at least. It wasn't so bad to listen to them for awhile.

But I'm done. If I went on any longer with the fundamentalists, I'd end up like Robert Graysmith -- with two overlong books instead of one and an apartment full of documents and empty of life.

So I'm getting back on the Brooklyn yuppie path I veered off of five years ago. Going to some parties. Sitting on my stoop on a mellow evening. And exercising -- what I lost in sanity during the five years of making this book I gained in girth. So I'm going to the gym, and to get myself through the first painful and boring days, I decided to buy an audio book to listen to on my IPod. I went for Wuthering Heights. I've always wanted to read it, if for no other reason than that my wife loves it, as do a lot of women whose literary tastes I follow. I thought it would be like a Jane Austen book -- a little dull, to my mind, but full of finely observed details.

But what a treat Wuthering Heights is! I'm only five chapters in, but I'm much skinnier for my choice -- I ran an extra mile on the treadmill, unwilling to stop listening and shower. And already there are nightmares and devil dogs and witches and dark glances and dangerous weather and the mysterious gypsy boy who'll become Heathcliff. That is to say, Wuthering Heights contains all the melodrama I love in comic books, only more artfully rendered. Bronte's attention to landscape and architecture and furnishings easily surpasses that of the best comic book artists (I think comic books are home to some of the best landscape and cityscape writing going these days), and the narrator, Lockwood, is a figure of comic complexity, frequently declaring himself a mirror of Heathcliff's apparent misanthropy and yet hungering all the while for gossip and company. He is the writer as she wants to be and is.

Yes, he is a she, very clearly I think. Wuthering Heights is from that literary school that disdained omniscient narrators. Stories had to come from some place, and so an observer had to be positioned accordingly, and granted an almost supernatural curiousity. Thus, the vanity of Lockwood, expressed through fascination with Heathcliff in his older years. One needn't resort to queer theory to determine that the gravity between the two -- or, at least, that attraction exerted by Heathcliff upon Lockwood -- is homoerotic in the most literal sense. That is, Lockwood has no sexual desire for Heathcliff, but his obsession with the man transcends ordinary interest, and the details he is drawn to and, often as not, infuriated by, are those that might compel a woman in love with Heathcliff.

So Bronte must have been with her creation. Her love for Heathcliff is not what makes Lockwood a woman writer in drag, however, but rather the way it's expressed. I think it's brilliant -- I wish I could learn to love my subjects like Bronte loves hers.

That's why male writers not naturally gifted enough to rise above cultural conditioning on their own must make sure to read lots of women writers (and vice versa, I suppose, though that's hardly a challenge given the testosterone-drenched canon). Years ago, many of my favorite writers were women -- Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, Louise Erdrich, Joan Didion, Marilyn Robinson, Kate Chopin. But my half decade of fundamentalist research drew me into a masculine universe -- dry historians of religion, angry fundamentalist texts, and thousands, hundreds of thousands of documents by and about industrialists and political hacks and military hustlers. The form my obsession with my subjects took therefore adapted. I lost the nimbleness of Bronte's Lockwood alter-ego and probably became some kind of monstrous cross between Heathcliff himself, absent the romance and good looks, and his ridiculous servant, fearful sputtering Joseph. Such a persona may have served a purpose -- with no romantic heroes to be found in my story, I had to develop a determination to push some ultimately very bad men along through the historical narrative -- but I wonder how the story would have changed had I come to Wuthering Heights sooner, had I been reminded of the way some writers love their characters.

Maybe not at all -- Wuthering Heights is, in a sense, about people who've lost their lives to obsession. Heathcliff is Robert Graysmith, only he had the good sense to brood in the moors instead of producing true crime books without resolution.