I was haunted by a musical phrase this last couple of weeks, having heard it every night I went dancing. Maybe like M. Swann I should wonder, did the song play into my melancholy, my imaginary soundtrack, in the way that memory is the corniest of poets, or was it all in the song all along. And then I would think, but isn’t music the apotheosis of abstraction—micro-tonal melodies with their slippery feelingless-ness, variegated from po-mo ambivalence or over-stimulated paralysis to horror movie threnodies. But in my case there were words to the melody, the power chorus to the power ballad worthy of repeat playing every night for weeks on end, even if you also heard it every day at the gym: “Why does love always seem like a dollar bill, a dollar bill, a dollar bill” The two last words repeated thrice in a descending scale of regret and resolution that could have easily lead into the Dies Irae (“Don’t worry mom, I know all about cannibalism. I saw it on TV”).

But then I found out I had misheard. The song is “Battlefield” by Jordan Sparks, tragic beyond her years. The correct lyrics—now I can’t see how I misheard this— why does love always feel like a BATTLEFIELD, a battlefield, a battlefield— not like a dollar bill. Which makes much more sense, because we are strong, but no one can tell us we’re wrong.

I think I like dollar bill better, so much more intimate, Sookie tawdry, dialectically materialist. Pop music needs more Glossolalia, like that 4AD siren Elizabeth Fraser, so that we can all hear things exactly right.

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Boy meets girl. Boy (really a man-boy) negotiates the messy convolutions of his own desire (or more often his New Yorker Dyspepsia) by engaging in that writer-ly occupation of supplanting his psyche into the imagined psyche of an other, namely famed comedian, humorist, white-haired model of amiability Steve Martin. Boy by way of Steve Martin charms girl. Boy eventually becomes disillusioned with role playing and loses girl. Along the way Boy has kinky escapades, eat lots of lengua tacos, gets to know LA from the sidewalk up, engages in tidy and tiny moments of cinephilia, eventually attains a state of grace, a second-sight, having broken into new forays of time-space via the black hole of his own navel. If Camus tried to write broad comedy maybe it would be nothing like this.

I’ve been on a southern-gothic kick; don’t ask me why (like in high school when I found myself listening to a lot of Nick Cave and all those Austin, Texas psycho-billy/punk-brute bands). Maybe it’s always been my own idea of inverted minstrelsy, fantasizing about white decay/white pathology, gothic kitsch. I’ve been plodding through William Faulkner’s Absalom Absalom (from a list of 1000 must-reads). True to Faulkner’s prowess as the master of the run-on sentence this novel (according to the Guinness book of World’s Records) purportedly has the longest sentence in literature at 1300 words. I haven’t hit this mother lode yet—and I don’t think I could have missed it—but the story and syntax so far is so dense, that I feel like I have to hit every sentence with a running start in order to reign in some semblance of meaning, the text threatening to over run every through-line like tangles of kudzu on power lines.

So I also picked up Knockemstiff, the debut book by Donald Ray Pollock, which was much more easily digestible—at least syntax-wise (like Chungking Express v. The Ashes of Time), a page-turner even. Knockemstiff is a loosely connected series of short stories all set in the town of Knockemstiff, southern Ohio—more valley and ridge Appalachia than piedmont and coastal plain, but very much southern gothic, with it’s forays into the vernacularly grotesque. In interviews Pollock has cited Flannery O’Connor among others as big influences (In an interview with Michael Silverblatt he talked about how he taught himself how to write by typing out published novels he admired). One of the back-cover author quotes has Katherine Dunne (Geek Love) calling Pollock a godless Flannery O’Connor. But I would claim the opposite, what I remember of Flannery O’Connor was the way her characters would fall to rack and ruin as if from some general entropy of the world, and the tone of her stories always so coolly detached, unwilling to let on to relishing some cruel irony or lapses of empathy verging on sentimentality. The short stories that comprise Knockemstiff are mostly told in first person, the swirling cast of characters no matter how debased somehow vindicated, dignified in the telling, whether it is the ineluctable grace of center stage or the poetic turns, the haunting gestures that seem to close each story like trailing codas to a requiem.

The stories follow a rough chronology, only indicated by pop culture cues: songs on the radio, broadcasts of successive wars, 70s and 80s sitcoms, the drugs of the day, even though the setting seems to change little from outhouses and shacks to trailer parks. The literary Knockemstiff is a holler with it’s own gravity, a sinkhole from which no one escapes, every yokel just another reference point to track the rate of collapse. Few of the characters leave the state no less the town, and the few glimpses of escape end badly. The stories though tightly constructed, verging on minimalist, are somehow more generous; it’s as addictive as true crime, ugly as anything Joyce Carol Oates could spin, but somehow left me less wretched and sickened from the reading. To butcher an Oscar Wilde quote and collude it with Thomas Hardy: All of us are in the holler, but some of us are still wondering at the stars—still wondering why they blighted us so.

Speaking of downward spirals, I followed Knockemstiff with Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road. A father and son at the end of civilization head south for the winter (nuclear winter?). Maybe no other account has as many occurrences of the word “ashes” maybe only the Last Days of Pompeii. Oh the Promethean project of humanity, when our Chimpanzee lineage becomes all too apparent. To eat or be eaten, quoth pacman, pacman alluding to the Donner party. Darwin’s nightmare, the tyranny of moral imperatives. I didn’t catch the Oprah interview (Along with a Pulitzer, this novel got the big O, and will be made into a movie with Vigo Mortinsen). There were no reading group discussion questions appended like I saw in Toni Morrison’s Paradise. What did she make of all this toil and trouble? Surely something hopeful and testimonial, that wholly American sublime. At the dark at the end of the world, what is this torch that we must carry, pass along? Is it just William Bradford all over again, coming in, out of the rain? Should we read this as a parable for the vanity of American do-good-ism? Compare this to Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, her fantasy of Western cultural extinction (Who will read Shakespeare when the new Race is instinctively peaceful, macrobiotic, polyamorous and cooperative). Did Oprah make The Road out to be something less bleak? Cormac McCarthy, a curmudgeon among pessimists, his penchant for extolling the dramatic gestures of the Big Bad? The white man’s burden done up as film noir? I’m going to read Blood Merridean and get back to you on this.

Dude, I want to read this book: Tom Vanderbilt’s Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) I’ve heard him pushing his book on NPR: A civil engineer waxing socialogical over our automobile ontology.

This book makes me think of my most recent travels. When I was in Manila a year ago, stuck in evening traffic in Ermita as we were trying to get home to Quezon City, I wondered how it was that I never saw any traffic accidents, when every driver seemed to be driving in a passive aggressive haze, courting a fender bender, or clipping the hair off blind street urchins panhandling in the middle of the lane-less thoroughfares “Are you gonna hit me,” the jeepney driver yells at the SUV driver behind his tinted windows, “go ahead hit me! see what it gets you!” No Right of Way, everybody stuck in some kind of 70s experimental chance-based choreography. John Cage Autotopia.

In Bangkok I rode on the back of motorcycle taxis, without a helmet, weaving through traffic. Punctuality trumps safety. All praise Buddha.

In Paris they get their kicks riding roundabouts (according to Vanderbilt, traffic circles are far less deadly than orthogonal intersections.)

In LA every freeway lane is a passing lane, even the off ramps, because every second saved adds up to a longer weekend, a weekend spent on the road.

Nobody drives in NY, they all write ambulatory poetry.

I am a sucker for books with cool covers. McSweeney’s books look to me like cupcakes, they make my mouth water with their antiquarian typesetting and indie-comic graphics.

I am a sucker for books whose synopses read either like an entry from someones dream diary, someone who falls asleep with the tv on or like a list of exhibitions from the Museum of Jurassic Technology.

I am a sucker for darkly comic picaresques told by narrators with the same warmly conspiratorial, erudite and conflicted tone as a Humbert Humbert, even if the narrator isn’t a middle-aged emigre but a barely legal, precocious, and fatherless American boy.

I am a sucker for debut novels written by nonagenarians who remind me of all the WWII vets that were in my novel-writing class, who made me hopeful that when I too am wrinkled and stooped, I will also be a pastiche of all the wonderful books of questionable merit that I may have wasted my youth on.

I am a sucker for books built on aphorisms like, “life is shit”, and “you can’t polish a turd” and “If the shit fits…” But maybe most tragic of all I am a sucker for books that seem so promising, like a cupcake or a bowl of really ripe cherries that only end up giving me the shits.

So, I think a lot of my posts are going to be about books I started but barely kept going–like driving a hoopty, like an unusually challenging New York Times crossword puzzle, like the third dessert that you’re trying to eat for the sake of not wasting it. I’m trying to discern if my inability to finish books that I’ve started is a reflection of bad writing, attention deficit disorder, or there really was a reason I was sent to speech in first grade other than that I was shy and debilitating-ly socially inept. I’ll even give them a tag on this blog, “ADD”. Coming up in my next post, “Angry Black White Boy” by Adam Mansbach.

I’m not flat and sly
Like a spatula creeping up from below.
At most I am a heavy and clumsy pestle
Mashing good and bad together
For a little taste
And a little fragrance.

—Yehuda Amichai

I just read the Israeli writer Etgar Keret’s The Girl On The Fridge, which features reprints from his first short stories. This is the first Keret book I’ve read, but I’ve heard him interviewed on the Wisconsin public radio show To The Best of Our Knowledge; one of his short stories I heard on This American Life; And I saw the film Jellyfish he co-directed with his wife who wrote the script. All contributing to my idea of Etgar Keret as the improbably well-adjusted, inventive, and sagely humanist soul raised in a tempest. So I wasn’t prepared for the brutally ambivalent and cynical voice that overrides the 46 gestures of this compact volume. Are these characterizations of jingoism and misogyny, could it be that the words are so spare that the overall tone of the collection becomes muddled or tenuous?

His stories are minimalist exercises, a writerly quest for that turning point where concision becomes fantasia. Maybe the term surrealism has long been an empty label, too easily applied to any dreamlike passage, every fantastic story told along unfamiliar lines. But unlike the surrealists that wanted to imbue the fascio-rationalist world with the anarchy of dream time, and thereby explode the possibilities, Keret seems to do the opposite, or maybe the unspoken corollary: to reveal the dark substratum, the savage rationalism that dictates dream time, a space of banal violence, the reductio ad absurdum of all ideology.

For me the strongest pieces were the two that bookend the collection, the two that seemed the most optimistic, like the wings of some makeshift deus ex machina barely hovering above all the bloodshed and anger.