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Afro-lunacy in bloom




"Ticket to Heaven," the last of the series of Our Gang comedies, was produced by Oscar Micheaux in 1944, with music provided by Babs Gonzales and his band, Three Bips and a Bop, on a makeshift sound stage constructed inside of a Harlem tenement building. The plot summary is as follows: With the help of Farina, Pineapple, and Stymie, Buckwee runs amok after reading an early Nation of Islam pamphlet that promises a place in heaven to any Black Muslim who killed a white person for Allah. The throats of the entire gang are slashed with unsheathed straight razors. Alfalfa is forced to sing "Ole Man Ribber" before his throat is slit by a young Robert Blake in blackface. Directed by Spencer Williams, the script was written by Flournoy Miller, who dedicated this final episode to the memory of his late partner, Aubrey Lyles. Miller then moved on to penning scripts for Gosden and Correl’s. Amos ‘n’ Andy television show. The controversial episode aired last Nov. 22, 1963, much to the glee of the N.A.A.C.P.


You can’t eat with everybody. You got to have the right vibrations.

Vera Grosvenor, dancer-vocalist, Sun Ra Arkestra

Menstrual blood, in both the Hoodoo folk traditions of the American South and the Straga traditions of southern Italy, is used to bind one’s affection to another. In Sicily, for example, a few drops of blood pricked from a woman’s finger is stirred into a man’s coffee. In the southern states, a man might get Hoodoo’d with a few drops of menstrual blood mixed into his red beans and rice. This spell is also quite effective when worked in the reverse by men substituting menstrual blood for the obvious. The following is an excellent recipe a lady might serve a gentleman caller for lunch.

Tomato with Basil Dressing

diced tomatoes

1 bunch basil

4 Tbs. balsamic vinegar

5 Tbs. olive oil

2 cloves garlic

3 tsp. of menstrual blood

Salt and pepper

Let stand for 30 minutes. Serve with Toscanini bread, Parma ham, salami, and a carafe of red wine. Bon appetit!


"What fool coon nonsense is this?" the Devil asked. "You call this a sacrificial offerin’? These ain’t nothin’ but some greasy, chewed-up chicken bones! What happened to my sammich?"

"Ah’ done et’ it" R.J. replied. "Ah gots hongry on de way ober ‘cheer!"

"Well how in the hell do you expect to play the greatest blues guitar in the history of the world if all you got to show for it is some splintered chicken bones all spit up with some nasty ol’ nigger slobber? What’s wrong with your head, boy? I’m the devil! You gots to give me somethin’ … !"

In the moonlight, R.J. turned his empty lint-lined pockets inside out. He gave the Devil a helplessly pathetic half-smile. "You is ’bout the most pitiful colored boy I done ever laid these infernal eyes on," the Devil said. "But I’ll tell you what I’m gonna do …. "


A report released late last night from the Crab Corner sheriff’s department confirmed recent rumors concerning retired physical education instructor, D.T. Ward, 68, who alleged over the weekend that a spectral, feral-eyed black man passed through the walls of his newly-paneled basement Saturday morning, and greeted him with a strange but cheery salutation.

"At first, I thought he was askin’ for a plate of ‘green eggs ‘n’ ham,’" D.T. told a disbelieving deputy. "Like in them Dr. Seuss books. But now that I think on it, what he said sounded somethin’ more like what them magician fellas say ‘fore they pull a rabbit outta their hats — Wham! Bam! Alley Ka Zam! — only this nigra fella was more dicty an’ foreign soundin’, like he was addressin’ royalty or somethin’, lookin’ at me with them flint-fire eyes. Gave me the Willies!"

According to Ward, whom long-time neighbors suspect is rapidly degenerating into senility, the red-haired apparition floated into the upstairs kitchen, where he took a box of Cap’n Crunch from a kitchen cupboard and prepared a large bowl of the sugar-coated cereal, using close to a full quart of milk. The sepia-tinted spectre then returned to the basement, sat on the sofa, nestling the bowl on his lap, and watched cartoons on the family’s new big-screen television with the Wards’ three visiting grandchildren — Ralph, Edwina, and Skip. The children chirped that he enjoyed early-vintage Popeye cartoons best.

"Right neighborly fella," D.T. said. "Real nice to the kids. Didn’t drink, smoke, or cuss. Helped around the yard. Wore a bowtie".


The wretched inherited the earth. And the Man spurt a glorious rain. His underwear was left sticky with seed.

Witches taught naming was power. To name was to know and exert influence over the world of things. The ability to name determined the fuction of a thing. To name was to tame. But we learned otherwise. Real power lay in un-naming.

We refused names, numbers, and codes. We refused stamps, marks. We acted anonymously and moved beyond the Man’s mechanisms of global economic and social control. If the Man could not name us, he could not know or tame us. Once he declared us one thing, we become another. We were an invisible and ever changing alphabet. The Man found our meaning more difficult to grasp than a bead of mercury.

He lamented. The cornerstone of the corporate nation-state, the family, had crumbled.

"Errant fathers! Sluttish mothers! Bastard births! Negro music! What is the world to do?" he mourned. "Return to the power of prayer!" So when the robots rolled into the cities, chirping "Automaton Christian Solidiers," we became the robots. The Man did not and could not know. We was them.

Even at the end, in the euphoria of his avarious wet dreams, he thought the tumors raging within were of his own making. But how could he know?

We shifted gender, race, and class. And hopped from one species to the next. We were flora and fauna. We were never what we seemed to be. We were never what he expected. We were random, illogical, varied. He could not predict us.

Then he turned on himself. "To restore order," he said, "we must restore the family. We must attempt to rebuild our moral foundation with the assistance of God."

In his megalomania, the Man resurrected the biblical Abraham from the dust. The ancient patriarch stood before the people and lifted his simple robes. He turned and bent over and exposed the halves of his pimpled ass. His asshole puckered and spoke in gaseous bleats. Throngs of people shuddered in awe. The Savior had come at long last in the mask of Abraham’s encrusted asshole.

"The father is the spirtual leader of the househould," it said, "the model of God’s love. And he must wash his wife in the waters of that love. He must also instruct his children on matters God’s word with diligence. It is his moral obligation, a duty bestowed on him by heaven. It is the responsiblity of men to teach and reaffirm God’s word."

A rancid pungency wafted through the crowd in fog-like densities. The people swooned and were overtaken by uncontrollable nausea and diarrhea. Soon, the streets were flooded with the waters of God’s love. And the waters clogged the circuitry of the robots under the Man’s control.

It was then the Man expired, jacking off in pools of his own shit.

Darius James is the author of the novel Negrophobia and the film survey That’s Blaxploitation!: Roots of the Baadasssss ‘Tude (Rated X by an All-Whyte Jury).

Fill ‘er up



An anthology of poets who allegedly combine mainstream and avant-garde aesthetics, American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology of New Poetry (WW. Norton and Co., 512 pages, $25.95) — edited by Cole Swensen and David St. John — is an idea whose time hasn’t come. The word "hybrid" is suspect, its trendiness invented by the auto industry to delay real electric cars, hence the cover’s Prius-green font. Like a hybrid car, American Hybrid is half-bad by design, the mainstream filling the role of nonrenewable fossil fuel, the avant-garde serving as electricity. I want an anthology without gas.

Obviously I speak from one side of this divide, having much admiration for Swensen as poet and translator, and little knowledge of St. John. Nor do I care to know a poet whose intro claims "Contemporary American Poetry is thriving on every front" like a hedge-fund brochure. Swensen’s intro, however, is substantial, her account of the post-Victorian split between mainstream and avant-garde poetries — and their uneasy dialectic — both excellent and provocative.

However, her conclusion that the best new poetry has become a hybrid of the two isn’t convincing. The decision to trace a hybrid tradition among older practitioners instead of spotlighting the generation supposedly defined by it only foregrounds the dichotomy. You could make a case for, say, Jorie Graham as hybrid, but turning the page to Barbara Guest, you find no resemblance, despite Swensen’s assertion that Guest is "the quintessential hybrid poet." Guest worked in the tradition of high modernist abstraction. Why project a concept onto her that didn’t exist in her lifetime?

Even John Ashbery doesn’t fit. He hasn’t "moved into the mainstream"; the mainstream moved to him. But mainstream adherents are tiresome. Ralph Angel’s "Someone remembers something that happened a long time /ago. She forgot it, it changed everything" summarizes rather than achieves an Ashberian mode. Only two lines into the first Ashbery selection we find: "The laurel nudges the catalpa." The word "nudges" is comically inapplicable to trees, yet it gradually begins to seem viable — a quick breeze might whip the branches of one against another, like a jab of the elbow to silence an indiscreet remark. Yet this possibility fails to exhaust Ashbery’s indeterminate line, as much what Swensen calls "an event on the page" as the work of more obviously disjunctive poets.

Mainstream poetry is ephemeral. Ever hear of Stephen Phillips? William Watson? Austin Dobson? Some of the most popular mainstream poets in 1890s England, they’re forgotten today. We remember innovators like Yeats. At best mainstream poetry echoes what was avant-garde but is now condoned. It’s the poetry of bourgeois comfort, of received ideas wrapped in clichés. When Albert Goldbarth depicts a black woman "whose rump thumpthumped in walking /like a pair of bongos" he invokes a jungle stereotype as corny as it is offensive. His poems can’t disappear fast enough. At the same time, much avant-garde poetry will disappear. Techniques like constraint writing and manipulation of extant text have become pat workshop formulae, and the formulaic isn’t really avant-garde.

The younger poets I’ve read — in, say, Sara Larsen and David Brazil’s biweekly zine Try — aren’t sweating the hybrid question. They don’t express the assurance of previous generations on the political efficacy of postmodern investigation of language’s structures of power. They’ve seen its impotence in the post-9/11 world. But I don’t see a generational rupture; the avant-garde is the only place where such poets can breathe. New poetry is always avant-garde, and they’re trying something new, not repudiating their elders. Some of these elders are writing the best poetry today, for in art, the new isn’t simply the prerogative of youth. American Hybrid contains many great poems, but I refuse to concede that poets I admire — like Norma Cole, Andrew Joron, even Swensen herself — are related to the mainstream.

Electric gypsies



Tommy Weber ( Thomas Ejnar Arkner, 1938 — 2006) was a trickster, so I cannot help but love him.

Comin’ from where I’m from — three tribal peoples: Pamunkey, Scottish, mystery African — I have always adored the Afro-Kelt über alles, and been at least inchoately hip to the centrality of the trickster, whether Eshú Elegbara, the Diné Coyote, or the Danes’ own Loki and his spawn Fenrir the apocalyptic Wolf. Such figures surf the spaces between the rational world we animals feel duty-bound to shore up for civilization’s sake, and the great vast unconscious world beyond the reach of imposed order.

The disenfranchised, rejected Dane and deracinated Anglo-African Tommy Weber — the fatally charming and irrepressible antihero of Robert Greenfield’s new A Day In the Life — One Family, the Beautiful People, & the End of the ’60s (Da Capo) — seems a trickster by default. He was left to his own devices by his estranged parents to play among the excreta of Empire well before any 11th-hour attempts by his roguish grandfather, R. E. Weber, to finish him off as a proper, upper-crust, English gentleman. The man famously dubbed "Tommy the Tumbling Dice" by his pop doppelgängers Keith Richards and Anita Pallenberg had an ingrained loathing for authority, yet the right accent to charm anyone in his relentlessly class-obsessed society.

I spent the 1980s back and forth between Africa, Europa (especially not-so fair Albion), and Ray-Gun Amerikkka, chased by those primordial Saharan tricksters Wepwawet and his altar-ego the Pale Fox Yurugu. One film my late Mamanne, sister, and I loved during that period was 1984’s Another Country, starring Rupert Everett as aristo U.K. spy-turned-Russian defector Guy Bennett (i.e., Guy Burgess). The character’s final line has stuck with me. Queried about whether or not he missed the Motherland, his response is, "I miss the cricket." This immortal bit of immortal dialogue is key for Tommy Weber, me, and anyone else brought up along the black Atlantic continuum. It sums up Tommy’s unconscious longing as a patchwork Englishman to rove to the British Empire’s far-flung, dusty, darker outposts. It applies to the cricket pitch desires of émigré "Indians" (from East and West). And I connect it to my early-1980s Anglophilia, stoked by Top of the Pops, Melody Maker, Smash Hits, and NME.

Having (perhaps foolishly) strived to find myself in those sonic fictions, I feel connected to a description of late-period Tommy by Spacemen 3’s Pete Bain: "He’d come staggering in, talk shit at you for an hour with garbled words like a radio that had to be tuned to a certain frequency, and then stagger out again like a drunk" We are all animals of the machine age, hoping to belong, struggling amid turbulent cultural waves. We navigate denatured empire (which yields ordered beauties like cricket, classical music, and the world-famous English gardens tended by such experts as Jake Weber’s aunt, Mary Keen) and the dirty, excreta-slathered murk of primordial tribal tradition (which yields transcendence).

Accompanied by a soul mate nicknamed Puss, Tommy the Tumbling Dice gambled on a folkway that would provide that transcendence — a Swinging London milieu of sex-drugs-rock ‘n’ roll wherein religious and social apostasy was de rigueur. When he crapped out, as a Trickster always does, what came next was relentless nihilism at the prick of a needle. Yet here’s the thing about tricksters: death often means rebirth for them — And Shine swam on, you dig?

Once upon a time, circa America’s bicentennial year, I chanced to view a strange, twisted, little film called Performance (1970) that was far too advanced for my innocence. Every summer in Virginia, my favorite pastime — even above slopping hogs and barn dancing — was handling the snakes. But lil’ ol’ me was yet unprepared for being ensnared in Anita Pallenberg’s chamber of smoke-and-mirrors.

My old soul arose like the fabled Kemetic Bennu bird of prehistory from that befuddling, dazzling screening, leaving me a lifelong devotee of the occultist, pirate triumvirate that is my beloved doom fox Pallenberg, interiors aesthete Christopher Gibbs, and the film’s auteur par excellence — the late, great Scot Donald Cammell. (Yes, Nicholas Roeg was essentially the technical director, but the film’s peculiar psychosexual tangle and audacious vision could come from no other brilliant cerebellum than Cammell’s.)

And so I was transfixed by the cover of Day In The Life. There stared a witch even more lovely and remote than my muse Anita. Looking inside, I discovered that she was Puss Weber, and that the young Fata Morgana boy from a Stones memorabilia photo that I’d long obsessed over was her eldest son, Jake. Alongside his bruh’ Charley, he had an inadvertent ringside seat to Mick and Keith’s maiden voyage into the rough black Atlantic. You can read all about it in this book, a great gift from the cosmos.

"Fantasy" by Earth, Wind, & Fire was the private, tacit anthem of my family’s feminine trio in the 1970s — which paralleled that of the Weber boys. Strange and beautiful it is that Jake, son of Tommy the Tumbling Dice, should find himself co-starring on a show called Medium, wherein his character, Joe DuBois, has a witchy-empowered wife he must support and nurture much as he once did his beloved mother Puss. As Marshall McLuhan proclaimed during the year of Jake’s birth (in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man): "The medium is the message." Although W.E.B. DuBois (no relation) famously said the problem of the 20th century of is that of the color line, it can now also be argued that the past century-plus has been marked more than almost anything else by the problems stemming from the interface of man and machine — spirituality vs. technology.

In this light, it seems no accident that Tommy Weber has become an antihero fit to rival his fellow Archer, Duane "Skyman" Allman, in my internal spiritual pantheon. I would hazard a guess that both of his sons are currently fulfilling what Tommy wrote to Jake in 1982: "There is a very important secret. Work is much more interesting than play and if you are lucky enough to be able to make your work your play and your play pay, well then you’re in clover."

One cannot claim "Tommy the Tumbling Dice" and his beautiful, free spirit wife Susan Ann Caroline "Puss" Coriat should not have had children, for their now grown sons are vital contributors to our black Atlantic culture and are fine human beings. Still, these rather tortured Swinging Londoners’ families rival the pathology often on display around the corners of my ‘hood in high Harlem.

I am far less enchanted by A Day in the Life‘s testimonials on Puss and Tommy’s pre-Stones circle in London than I am arrested by their families’ collective African history. Greenfield’s book aims to shoot an arrow straight into the heart of Boomerville, yet it also unwittingly works as a strong resource for the far opposite realm of postcolonial studies. In fact, with some tweaking, it could serve as one of that discipline’s core works — a testament to its riches.

One of my most cherished passages in Greenfield’s book deals with Tommy’s haphazard management of the pioneering Afro-rock band Osibisa. A crazy trip through northern Africa is bookended by him, Jake, and Charley enduring a harrowing stay in jail in Lagos. To a degree, Puss and Tommy were confined by being products of their class and times. Yet they cannot be judged now via the uptight lenses of today. On the strength of their private soul-gnosis and Herculean striving to escape the lot dealt them by the hands of cosmic fate, these extraordinary Webers are folk out of — no, beyond — time. We’ll still learn from them on the far side of 2012.

Speed Reading


The Tyranny Of Oil: The World’s Most Powerful Industry — And What We Must Do To Stop It

By Antonia Juhasz

William Morrow

480 pages


In responding to an attack on her book in the Washington Post, Antonia Juhasz explained, "My goal in writing The Tyranny of Oil was to offer an analysis that has been sorely missing in U.S. literature since the 1975 publication of Anthony Sampson’s classic book, The Seven Sisters: an unapologetically and vitally necessary in-depth and serious critique of the current state of the U.S. oil industry which also raises the voices of those not regularly heard on nightly news programs, television commercials, and in books."

Juhasz succeeds in that aim and then some. The Tyranny of Oil is a tightly-written overview of the rise of Big Oil, from its origins in the 19th century power grabs of John D. Rockefeller and his ilk, to the era of the petroleum megacorporations busily destroying what’s left of our biosphere via oil wars and Godzilla-sized carbon footprints.

The book opens with a section on pioneering investigative journalist Ida Tarbell and her early 20th century crusade against Standard Oil. Tarbell’s exposé generated public anger at the Standard trust and contributed to legislation which eventually led to Standard Oil’s breakup in 1911. The separate components of the trust were later reconstituted; nonetheless, Juhasz presents the successful grassroots campaign Tarbell helped spark as an instructive example for today’s activists.

His royal highness


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REVIEW Yinka Shonibare’s 1998 photographic essay Diary of a Victorian Dandy, Member of the Order of the British Empire runs like clockwork.

At 11 a.m., Shonibare the nobleman is shown waking and then donning a nightcap in his gilded bedroom; he’s surrounded by four ruddy-cheeked buxom maids and a pale, thin butler, who each cater to his every whim. At 2 p.m., dressed in a three-piece blue-gray suit, he tends to business in his private library. Busts of Greek and Roman conquerors sit atop mahogany bookshelves, observing while high-collared, porcine sycophants with handlebar mustaches congratulate Shonibare on squandering what’s left of his father’s fortune.

By 3 p.m., Shonibare’s nobleman has retired to another bedroom, where — sporting a salmon-pink velvet vest and matching satin tie — he reclines on a chaise lounge with a glass of red wine. An undressed brunette woman on his left caresses the vest, her eyes turned upward as if she’s entranced by his wealth and power. A red-haired girl to his right runs her fingers through his hair. In the background, a woman dressed in a hoop skirt fellates one of Shonibare’s sycophants, another woman lies at the foot of the bed, and still another looks bored as she’s buggered by one of Shonibare’s consorts.

Five p.m. brings a rousing game of billiards in the parlor. The day’s activities end at seven, with white ties, tails, and candelabras in a plush dining room replete with red velvet curtains and gilded framed oil portraits of aristocrats in powdered wigs.

Shonibare is a heavily bearded, 46-year-old Nigerian. This hairy black man, assuming the role of a dandy, places himself at the center of all his photos, reveling in absurd glory. "Historically, the dandy is usually an outsider whose only way through is his wit and style," Shonibare explains, in a text within the monograph Yinka Shonibare MBE (Prestel USA, 208 pages, $55), edited by Rachel Kent. "His apparent lack of seriousness of course belies an absolute seriousness, and that attracts me to the dandy as a figure of mobility who upsets the social order of things."

Shonibare has upset the British social order and gained mobility — including an exquisitely absurd and very real royal appointment — by creating Victorian costumes from Dutch wax print fabrics, then placing them on headless mannequins that strike leisurely poses. Much like the dandified role that he often assumes, his art seems excessive and frivolous at first glance — high fashion in extremis. But it takes on greater dimensions with consideration. The Dutch wax prints that play a prominent role in Shonibare’s work, for example, are usually associated with Africa, though they were first designed in Indonesia, then imported by the Dutch, who brought them to West Africa during the slave trade, making them a symbol of the height of colonization and imperialism.

The actions of Shonibare’s figures: skating (in 2005’s Reverend On Ice), seducing (in 2007’s The Confession) and swinging, both literally (in 2001’s The Swing — after Fragonard) and figuratively (in 2002’s Gallantry and Criminal Conversation), contain surreal, violent, erotic, and decadent connotations. Like his contemporary Kehinde Wiley, or like Ghostface and Prince in the realm of music, Shonibare uses the rococo movement of pre-revolutionary France as a point of departure. Figures of excess and tools of subversion, his headless mannequins take on references to the guillotine.

"Excess is the only legitimate means of subversion, " Shonibare has said. "Hybridization is a form of disobedience … an excessive form of libido, it is joyful sex." An illustration of such ideas, this monograph retrospective of Shonibare’s painting, sculpture, photography, and film work is a must-have piece of Afro-surreal ephemera.

Vanishing points


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ESSAY/REVIEW There is a wry but hilarious scene near the very end of Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 912 pages; $30), in which a French literary critic finds a German writer, Archimboldi, lodging at what the critic calls "a home for vanished writers." After checking into a room at the large estate, the elderly vanished writer wanders the grounds, meeting with the other vanished authors, residents whom Archimboldi finds friendly but increasingly eccentric. Gradually it dawns on Archimboldi that all is not as it seems. Walking back to the entrance gate, he sees, without surprise, a sign announcing that the estate is the "Mercier Clinic and Rest Home — Neurological Center." The home for vanished writers is an insane asylum.

As we enter the Obama era, with all its promise of "change," I’ve found it impossible to read 2666 without being haunted by the memory of those who vanished into the lunatic asylum of the long George W. Bush years — not just the nameless and unlucky left to rot in the Bush administration’s secret torture cells throughout the world, but also those who disappeared right here at home. For instance, a guy I worked with a couple of years ago. One day he was training me on the job, and a week or so later he was in a federal prison, labeled a "terrorist" — which in his case meant that he edited a Web site called Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty.

There were other ghosts, those who vanished after refusing to speak to grand juries. They were rumored to have gone over the border, or back to the land, or who knows where, their very names now superstitiously verboten to speak out loud, lest we bring the heat down on ourselves. Now that Obama is here and everybody is eager for "change," who will remember the once-bright hopes and dreams of the generation that beat the World Trade Organization in Seattle at the dawn of this decade — the hopes that would later be chased down and gassed and beaten by riot police under cover of media blackout in the streets of Miami, St. Paul, or countless other cities? Of course, there were the suicides and overdoses, and other kinds of disappearances, different but related, too: the abandoned novels, or the guitars taken to the pawnshop. Three people in my community jumped off bridges. Only one survived. The human toll of the Bush years in my life has been enormous.

Watching the celebrations in the streets of the Mission District on election night in November, I could tell all of this was soon to be trivia. I saw a virtually all-white crowd of completely wasted people take over the intersection at 19th and Valencia, shouting "Obama!" and dancing in the street. In one way, this scene was touching: the spontaneous gathering was a product of the true feelings of human hope that people have for a better world. Yet the moment already had the scripted feel of something self-conscious or mediated, like the Pepsi ad campaign it would soon become. I had a sinking realization: those of us who have spent eight years battling the post-9/11 mantra of Everything Is Different Now were now going to soon be up against a new era of, well, Everything Is Different Now.

The narratives we tell ourselves about our country are important. Just when a Truth and Reconciliation Committee is most needed to write a detailed narrative of the Bush era’s torture, spying, illegal war, and swindling, I could already see the opportunity for that kind of change slipping away into the blackout amnesia aftermaths of the street parties taking place all across the nation. The election of a president of the United States from among the ranks of the nation’s most oppressed minorities has offered the country a new triumphant storyline. We have symbolically redeemed our sins against civilian casualties and third world workers, without too much painful self-examination. I could see that Obama’s brand of change was really so seductive because it offered a chance to change the subject.

Like Ronald Reagan, elected while the U.S. was mired in recession and post-Vietnam soul-searching, Barack Obama developed campaign narratives that made the U.S. feel good about itself again. Obama guessed correctly that national morale is low partially because we don’t want to deal with the nameless guilt we feel from the atrocities Bush and company committed in our names. Accordingly, he stated during his campaign that he would not pursue criminal prosecution of members of the Bush administration. Nor has Obama questioned the preposterous idea that we can win either a War on Terror or the war in Afghanistan. If you think about it, "Yes We Can" — his campaign’s appeal to good old American can-do spirit — isn’t far off in substance from Bush’s faith-based convictions about U.S. power. Both Bush’s crusade to make democracy flower in the desert of Iraq and Obama’s notion that the auto industry could save itself — and the planet! — with electric cars are fantasies that appeal to our sense of pride about being the richest and most powerful.

When a country that is owned by China and is getting its ass kicked simultaneously by ragged guerilla armies in two of the most impoverished and backward parts of the world keeps finding new ways to tell itself that it’s the richest and most powerful country, it is in deep trouble.

When political leaders and journalists seek to generate false narratives for our consumption and comfort, the difficult task of remembering the truth falls to literature.

Roberto Bolaño completed 2666 in 2003, shortly before he died, too poor to receive a liver transplant, at the age of 50. Born in Chile, Bolaño counted himself a member of "the generation who believed in a Latin American paradise and died in a Latin American hell," and was himself something of a vanished writer. Briefly jailed during the 1973 coup in which Gen. Augusto Pinochet overthrew the popularly elected socialist government of Salvador Allende, Bolaño wandered in exile from Mexico City to Spain, working variously as a janitor and a dishwasher, entering obscure literary competitions advertised on the backs of magazines, while his generation was consumed by Pinochet’s secret prisons and torture cells.

Fittingly, disappearance is perhaps the main action of characters in Bolaño’s works, from the vanished fascist poet and skywriter in 1996’s Distant Star (published in English by New Directions in 2004) to the entire romantic generation of doomed Mexican poets and radicals followed across the span of decades and continents to its vanishing point in a desert of crushed hopes in 1998’s The Savage Detectives (published in English by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2007). In 2666, the terminally ill Bolaño wrote as if in an urgent race against the moment of his own departure, unwilling to leave anything out, as if he wanted to save an entire lost underworld from banishment. Taking on every genre from detective noir to the war novel to romantic comedy in an exhilarating, nearly 1,000-page race to the finish, the book is Bolaño’s epic of the disappeared.

The periphery of 2666 teems with Bolaño’s archetypal lost and doomed, a host of minor characters including a former Black Panther leader turned barbecue cook, various Russian writers purged by Stalin during World War II, a Spanish poet living out his days in an asylum, and an acclaimed British painter who cuts off his own hand. There are the usual obscure literary critics and lost novelists, and we even briefly meet an elderly African American man who calls himself "the last Communist in Brooklyn." This last communist could speak for all of Bolaño’s lost and departed when he explains why he presses on: "Someone has to keep the cell alive."

The book’s action, however, centers upon the unsolved serial killings of hundreds of women in the fictional Mexican border city of Santa Teresa during the late 1990s, events based on real-life unsolved killings in Juarez, Mexico. The majority of the women murdered in Juarez were workers at the new factories along the border with the United States, the unregulated maquiladoras that have sprung up in the wake of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

In the book’s longest section, "The Part about the Crimes," we learn the names, one by one, of 111 of these murdered women. In terse, police-blotter language, Bolaño describes the crime scenes — the girls’ clothing, their disappearances, and the police investigators’ attempts to construct the last hours of their lives. Their bodies are discovered slashed, stabbed, bound, gagged, and always raped, in ditches, landfills, alleys, or along the side of the highway. Seen from these vantage points, Bolaño’s Santa Teresa is a disjointed place, seemingly patched together from snatches of barely remembered nightmares. Shantytowns and illegal toxic dumps spring up everywhere in "the shadow of the horizon of the maquiladoras." It is a city that is "endless," "growing by the second," a new type of urban zone in a Latin America that has become a laboratory for free trade policy experiments. It is a city made unmappable by globalization.

Bolaño clearly intends the reader to see the disappearances as the inevitable byproduct of the cheapness of life in the maquiladora economy, yet the killings also eerily evoke the disappearances in fascist 1970s Chile and Argentina. These murders are an open secret, virtually ignored by the media. Residents almost superstitiously refer to them only as "the crimes." The Santa Teresa police respond to the killings with a staggering indifference and ineptitude that might suggest complicity. The maquiladoras are ominous, hulking windowless buildings often in the center of town, not unlike the torture cells once hidden in plain sight in Buenos Aires (Bolaño even names one of them EMSA, an obvious play on Argentina’s most notorious concentration camp, ESMA), and many of the women’s bodies are discovered in an illegal garbage dump called El Chile. 2666 suggests that the unrestrained capitalism of the free-trade era is the ideological descendent of the 1970s South America state repression from which Bolaño fled, and that the killings in Santa Teresa are in part a recreation of the Pinochet-era disappearances.

While the scenes Bolaño describes are grisly, his language is clinical, the cold camera eye of the lone detective gathering evidence. The collective impact of story after story starts to accrue into its own profoundly moral force. By giving name and face to hundreds of disappeared women, Bolaño suggests that literature is a political response, a way to make wrongs right by bearing witness. While it would certainly be a mistake to read 2666 strictly as a political tract, Bolaño explicitly ties writing to justice in a rambling digression about the African slave trade. A Mexican investigator of the killings points out that it was not recorded into history if a slave ship’s human cargo perished on the way to Virginia, but that it would be huge news in colonial America if there was even a single killing in white society: "What happened to (the whites) was legible, you could say. It could be written." For Bolaño, the search for justice is partially about who can be seen in print.

At a literary conference in Seville six months before his death, Bolaño joked that his literary stock might rise posthumously. Sure enough, Bolaño the man has, ironically, vanished after his untimely death, lost in the fog of fame in the English-speaking world. Mainstream critics call his work "labyrinthine" — perhaps English-language critics’ stock adjective for Latin American writers — in a rush to "discover" a new Borges. Bolaño was a high-school dropout who bragged of discovering literature by shoplifting books. He claimed to be a former heroin addict who hung out with the FMLN in El Salvador. His genius deserves comparison to the great Borges, but it’s safe to say that, unlike Borges, a literary lapdog of Argentina’s generals, Bolaño would never have addressed the military leaders of the fascist Argentine coup as "gentlemen." Bolaño wrote without a net, over the abyss of atrocity into which his generation vanished. He did so in an effort to make a literature that recorded for all time where the bodies were buried. As a female reporter in 2666 says, "No one pays attention to these killings, but the secret of the world is hidden in them."

The dangers of believing false narratives should be evident by now. In the wake of our current financial collapse, it is now widely understood that the U.S.’s sense of itself as the richest and most powerful nation in the world has been kept artificially afloat in the recent past by the import of cheap goods and credit from China. These cheap goods are manufactured under labor and environmental conditions much like those of Bolaño’s maquiladoras — conditions we tell ourselves we would never allow here at home, yet which are vital to our economic survival. Dealings with China have, instead, spread repressive tactics in reverse back to corporations from the United States, such as when Google memorably agreed to remove all reference to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre from its Google China site.

There is a crucial difference between hope and self-delusion. In its dogged search for uncomfortable truth, 2666 creates a hard-won hope that is different from the way in which that word manifests on the campaign trail. It respects the hope that truth matters, that staring it down can provide the shock of self-awareness that makes real change possible.

In the meantime, there is the hope of literature itself. In 2666, Bolaño devotes a scene to one of his disappeared characters, a Spanish poet who lives out his days in an insane asylum in the countryside. The poet’s doctor — who in a classically deadpan Bolaño twist tells us he is also the poet’s biographer — reflects on the asylum the poet has vanished into. "Someday we will all finally leave (the asylum) and this noble institution will stand abandoned," he says. "But in the meantime, it is my duty to collect information, dates, names. To confirm stories." *

Erick Lyle is the author of On The Lower Frequencies: A Secret History of The City, out now on Soft Skull Press.

Speed Reading



By Robert Flynn Johnson

University of California Press

208 pages


A shop in the Tenderloin sells anonymous photos. The pictures are messily packed in boxes and labeled according to whether the subject, sometimes but not always graphic (there are plenty of head shots of failed actors, for example), is heterosexual or homosexual. As digital images fly and float through the Internet, I’ve thought about those boxes of snapshots, their mix of allure, mystery, and depressing banality. With The Face in the Lens: Anonymous Photographs, a sequel to his acclaimed monograph Anonymous (Thames and Hudson, 2005), Robert Flynn Johnson both expands and refines the type of gathering and organization I discovered in that store.

Alexander McCall Smith’s brief intro, which imagines stories around some of the book’s images, isn’t as effective as Johnson’s essay, which connects obvious critical sources such as Susan Sontag with aphorisms on sight and photography from W.H. Auden and Jean Cocteau. Johnson is out to find the many spaces between the sentimentality of humanistic projects such as the 1955 book and exhibition, The Family of Man, and the morbid focus of monographs such as 1973’s Wisconsin Death Trip. He does so with 1880s daguerreotypes and late-1980s color snapshots. We see Robert F. Kennedy on the day of his death, mass hangings in the Soviet Union, flying leaps from flaming buildings, storm troopers in suburban backyards, kids smoking, infants in dresses holding rifles, men in drag or kissing by Christmas trees, and naked women soldering. Few images are obvious or dull. Some are worthy of a Ralph Eugene Meatyard or Weegee. The power of others resides in the relationship between clueless photographer and defiant or sad subject. (Johnny Ray Huston)


By Trevor Paglen


324 pages


In 2006’s Torture Taxi: On the Trail of the CIA’s Rendition Flights (Melville House), Trevor Paglen worked with former Guardian writer A.C. Thompson to reveal the subculture of "planespotting" and the realities behind terms such as "rendition" as practiced by clandestine U.S. forces. The book also provided an interesting entryway into, or extension from, Paglen’s work as a visual artist, with Thompson’s journalistic voice seemingly braided in and out of Paglen’s more academic tone.

Blank Spots on the Map is a more mainstream book, as evidenced by its publisher. This aspect has its assets and drawbacks. One asset is that Paglen’s writerly voice has improved greatly, growing more versatile and characterful as it shifts to first-person. A look at the rendition programs of the CIA is just one element of his overall effort here, which involves revealing hidden spots used by the U.S. for covert activities throughout the globe — and in the skies above it. Early on, he cites facts showing that the number of federal government employees working on classified projects far outnumbers those working aboveground. At times, Paglen relates discoveries in a manner that suggests that he alone has made them. But for the most part, Black Spots is a bracing, real-life through-the-looking-glass antidote to Tom Clancy–style escapism. (Huston)

Speed reading



By Eric G. Wilson

Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

166 pages


Contemporary perkiness has an enemy and timeless melancholia has a defender in Eric G. Wilson, whose Against Happiness is a largely poetic and occasionally prosaic screed. Wilson is quite clear that he doesn’t want to romanticize clinical depression — if anything, his characterization of those who might genuinely need prescribed pharmaceuticals as "lost souls" oversimplifies in the other direction. His book isn’t an expansive survey so much as a personal rumination. That said, it wastes no time identifying and successfully critiquing the Protestant Pilgrim (via William Bradford) and capitalist (via Benjamin Franklin) roots of the inhumane and all-American smiley face. For Wilson, such perkiness reveals definite undertones of necrophilia.

Wilson has a flair for the alliterative binary opposition. He pithily notes the contemporary tendency to confuse pixels with people, observing that "We carry with us the world wherever we go; we don’t need to go anywhere." Though he doesn’t present the argument in a flagrant manner, it isn’t hard for a reader to infer that this sort of passive colonizing of experience characterized George W. Bush–era brainwashing. Against Happiness might have been more provocative if Wilson charted or demonstrated the political aspects and post-human fallout of American contentment at greater length, and spent less time celebrating the already well-established dolor of William Blake and John Keats, or pop culture corollaries such as Joni Mitchell in her Blue period and Bruce Springsteen in Nebraska. But this is his book, not mine, and for the most part it is zestful in its love of sadness.


By Jacky Bowring

Oldcastle Books

240 pages


Early in A Field Guide to Melancholy, author Jacky Bowring makes the first of a few references to Robert Burton’s 1621 tome The Anatomy of Melancholy, stating that "rather than achieving any kind of precision," the 783 pages of its first edition only "served to further emphasize the complexity of melancholy." As it’s title makes clear, Bowring’s carefully structured book is more modest in aim and more sympathetic to its subject — it aims to "extol the benefits of the pursuit of sadness, and question the obsession with happiness in contemporary society."

In doing so, Bowring avoids the biliousness that dates back to ninth-century characterizations of melancholy, instead favoring a gentle instructive tone that, while academic in basis, is never sterile. Her field guide is a particular one, by no means definitive — in the realm of contemporary music, for example, she calls upon the Cure, Smashing Pumpkins, and especially Nick Cave as exemplars and never mentions a perhaps more famous Pope of Mope. In the realm of cinema, she foregrounds Ingmar Bergman, but still has time for less obvious and perhaps more compelling figures such as Tacita Dean. Though he enters and exits the text seemingly at whim, in some ways the most resplendent melancholic species is the Romanian philosopher E. M. Cioran, who might very well be the true Oscar Wilde of misery thanks to a Bible-size collection of primary aphorisms. Bowring’s book is a worthy introduction to Cioran, and that is but one of its merits.

Speed Reading



Edited by Peter Maravelis

Akashic Books

300 pages


San Francisco has many legacies, including the social movements of the 1960s and ’70s. But before more recent utopian impulses, SF was the Barbary Coast — and Chinatown, North Beach, and the Financial District were havens for gambling, prostitution, and crime. This gritty, nefarious reputation was enhanced in the ’30s by Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Maltese Falcon, and in the ’40s by John Huston’s film version, among other SF-set stories. SF was a noir city, defined by hard drinking and hard living. This is a legacy that the current city perhaps would prefer to forget, much like a blackout during a drunken binge.

In his excellent introduction to the first San Francisco Noir anthology in 2005, editor Peter Maravelis writes, "Crime fiction is the scalpel used to reveal San Francisco’s pathological character." With San Francisco Noir 2: The Classics, Maravelis does more than pick up the scalpel once again. Using a timeline, he reprints some of the grainiest SF snapshots by Barbary Coast writers. He starts with Mark Twain’s hard-boiled description of the infernal Hall of Justice in the late 19th century — a rogues gallery of vermin, where judges drop like flies from stress-induced heart-attacks. He then traces these noir elements to a doppelganger tale by Jack London, on to Hammett, and to contemporary authors such as William T. Vollmann, who writes what Maravelis calls "splatter-noir, where plutocracy has won and the dispossessed give graphic descriptions of the tears in the social fabric." Through recent stories by Janet Dawson, Oscar Penaranda, and others, Maravelis ups the ante, as if to say: this is the real San Francisco. Always has been, always will be. (D. Scot Miller)


Sat/14, 8 p.m.

Ha Ra Club

875 Geary, SF

(415) 362-8193




Edited by Stéphane Aquin


272 pages


Roger Copeland has his claws out at the very beginning of "Seeing Without Participating," an essay in Warhol Live, the LP-size silver-covered brick of a monograph accompanying an exhibition of the same name devoted to music and dance within Warhol’s gargantuan oeuvre. The target of his attack isn’t as noteworthy as the argument that follows, which is in sync with Peter Gidal’s recent writing on Warhol’s distinct repositioning of traditional forms of participation and spectatorship. From there, Copeland reveals filmmaker and choreographer Yvonne Rainer’s influence on Warhol. Some other musings within Warhol Live spotlight obvious or over-familiar aspects of Pop or rock history. But John Hunisak convincingly argues that Warhol shared Ondine’s love of Maria Callas and recognized her as a punk pioneer; Branden W. Joseph digs up uncommon information about Warhol’s brief stint as a member of a band called the Druds; and Melissa Ragona perceptively taps into Warhol’s (by way of Brigid Berlin’s) recordings.

The book’s vibrant and powerful visual presentation hints that the exhibition — which opens this week at the De Young Museum— might be more rewarding in terms of organization than content. Fluorescent 1980s portraits and Interview covers don’t flatter Warhol, who had fallen into embracing the past-prime Cars and talent-less groups such as Curiosity Killed the Cat by the time of his death. Still, it’s refreshing to see a gathering of sleeve art for his albums, and here and there there’s a surprise pleasure, such as the potent pages devoted to the color slides used at Exploding Plastic Inevitable events. (Johnny Ray Huston)


Sat/14 through May 17

De Young Museum

50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive

Golden Gate Park, SF

(415) 750-3600



By Peter Gidal

Afterall Books

86 pages


It’s too easy, really, to say that an 86-page appreciation of Andy Warhol’s Blow Job is the critical equivalent of the film’s title. One potentially funny — though also provocative — aspect of Blow Job is its 36-minute length, a span of time that would make any jawbone, even a purely imaginary one, ache. As filmmaker and writer Peter Gidal points out, that time span is partially achieved through projection — like Warhol’s screen tests, Blow Job is presented at the silent-film speed of 18 frames per second, though it was shot at 24 or 25 frames per second.

The temporal is one main focus of Gidal’s heady interpretation of Blow Job, which comes and goes much like the many-reeled subject, and which is art historical and philosophical more often than theoretical, and never vogue-ish when it tends toward the latter. One of the unexpected rewards of this book is Gidal’s discussion of paintings in relation to Warhol’s films, in particular Diego Velázquez’s sinister Luncheon or Three Men at a Table and Marcel Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass). His passage about Warhol’s Shadow series of silkscreens is revelatory. Gidal persuasively removes Warhol from mere camp interpretation, even if his recognition of or devotion to the sensual aspects of Blow Job and Sleep (1963) is fleeting at best. At times, one wishes he could mirror rather than admire and explicate Warhol’s knack for expressing complex ideas in simple, monosyllabic terms. Like Roger Copeland in the new monograph Warhol Live, Gidal is most insightful when addressing the mortal themes and pull of Warhol’s art, and the challenging — and not merely transgressive — manner in which he reframes notions of acting and watching. (Huston)

Speed Reading



Edited by Peter Normanton

Running Press

448 pages


It probably comes as no surprise that post–World War II Americans decided Hitler was a lot scarier than the Boogeyman. It’s a little more shocking to see that fear realized in their comic books. The Mammoth Book of Best Horror Comics contains its fair share of vampires, werewolves, and zombies, but those early years are dominated by ghostly stormtroopers, Nazi clones and — more often than not — the reanimated fuhrer himself. I’m particularly fond of "Terror of the Stolen Legs," which, I assure you, is creepier than the title suggests.

For this collection, editor Peter Normanton has culled prime examples from more than six decades of horror comics. The results are often fascinating: how else to see Nazi anxiety so aptly literalized? And, of course, they’re fun. Don’t forget these are comics, so for all of their time capsule–esque appeal, they retain that guilty pleasure quality. Imagine you’re a kid in the pre-"graphic novel" ’50s while reading the collection— it enhances the thrill.

For the most part, it’s these early offerings that prove the most delightful, if only for the camptastic writing. The best example comes from "The Game Keeper," which begins, "Run Avis Drood! Run as fast as your lovely legs can carry you, for the full moon burgeons beyond Drood Castle and the game is afoot!"

The only real downside to the collection is Normanton’s purple prose. He tends to ham it up in his introductions to each story, promising a life-changing experience on every page. But hey, feel free to skip those parts they don’t have pictures, anyway.

All mod cons


› johnny@sfbg.com

How can any of us forget 1835, and the heady discovery of spherical amphibians, blue goats, and petite three-foot zebras frolicking on the moon? In Fakers: Hoaxers, Con Artists, Counterfeiters, and Other Great Pretenders (New Press, 245 pages, $24.95), Paul Maliszewski relates that time, when the New York Sun brought news of lunar life to an increasingly large readership that craved delightful information during an economic drought. Maliszewski doesn’t have to work to make the story funny — he merely has to relate how the paper’s moon-discovery serial likened a typical blue goat to "a young lamb or kitten," and presented scientists pretending to tickle the creature’s beard as seen through a telescope, only to witness it "bound away into oblivion, as if conscious of earthly impertinence."

Within the context of Maliszewski’s sprawling look at fakery, the Sun saga is a light vacation, because of its relative datedness and good-natured imagination. Before and after, Fakers largely avoids such Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds–style nostalgia for more contemporary tales: the stories of Stephen Glass, James Frey, and JT Leroy, for example. It places Glass’s accounts under a microscope that highlights their pandering corniness. It relates the life and times of Leroy — and his feverish endorsement by the likes of Dave Eggers and Michael Chabon (more on him later), as well as his editorship of an installment in Da Capo’s Best Music Writing series — without losing sight of the fact that Leroy’s much-celebrated writing is mawkish.

Such targets and views might suggest that Maliszewski likes to wag his finger and tut-tut, but his viewpoint is much more variable — he isn’t out to condemn various literary liars, for example, so much as critique them. Early in the book, he relates one of his own adventures in the creation of phony identities, a Walter Mitty–scale satire somewhat akin to the letters that Joe Orton used to write to newspapers as "Edna Welthorpe," a make-believe housewife outraged by Orton’s plays. Here, and in other instances, such as a discussion of George W. Bush’s use of the word "confidence" when discussing economics, Fakers suggests that the Bush years have not just eroded but demolished the value of truth.

In a seeming act of first-person tit-for-tat, Maliszewski shares an example of an instance when he fell for a hoax, though the chosen subject — a tall tale that might qualify as an urban legend if it weren’t set in the wilderness — cops out in terms of allowing a truly personal and thus uncomfortable examination of the various aspects of being duped. The most curious of Maliszewski’s practices is the frequent weaving of e-mail interviews — a format that would seem to allow for flights of fancy — into his investigative text. A correspondence with former New York Times journalist Michael Finkel, for example, stays soft-focus when it could have questioned the presumptuous audacity of a middle-aged white man assuming the voice of a West African boy.

In a recent Bookforum review, Hua Hsu describes Fakers as vaguely paranoia-inducing, and indeed, at the very least, this reader — a journalist who has been duped — wonders if any of the facts or stories that the author relates might contain creative twists. In an extended conclusion about a fraudulent Michael Chabon essay, Maliszewski essentially asserts that to lie for the sake of lying is a cynical, selfish act. True. But Fakers is more interesting when it is ambivalent and discomfiting, or when Maliszewski’s examples and anecdotes prompt ideas about various permutations of truth and falsehood in the media landscape. (Take CNN’s Nancy Drew, I mean Nancy Grace, and the way she is currently using a compulsive liar — Caylee Anthony — to co-author cable news television’s version of a radio serial.) Blue goats are cute, but — as Fakers makes clear — white lies have many facets.

A scar is born


› johnny@sfbg.com

What does Gary Indiana think of Obamamania? I have to ask, because Indiana is a peerless dissector of contemporary American political symptoms. The evidence includes his blistering appraisal of Jerry Brown’s blank gaze and sun-scorched face and other facets of the 1992 presidential campaign in Let it Bleed: Essays 1985-1995. Or more recently, the combination of laugh-out-loud descriptive power and pointed investigative fact (as opposed to typical journalistic trivia) in 2005’s The Schwarzenegger Syndrome: Politics and Celebrity in the Age of Contempt, a petite volume that somehow manages to depict the 2004 Republican National Convention, for the record, in words that do full justice to that historical event’s baleful hilarity and bottomless horror.

Indiana might be best known today as a novelist whose inspirations have ranged from pre-Disney Manhattan junkies and hustlers to jaundiced, post-In Cold Blood original fakes such as Andrew Cunanan and homicidal con artist and subconscious Liz Taylor impersonator Sante Kimes. Clearly this is a man who has something to say about American delusion, and the new Utopia’s Debris: Selected Essays (Basic Books, 320 pages, $28.95) includes a few brief but scathing riffs on the theme. "Kindergarten Governor" renders the 2003 California gubernatorial recall with great flair — the "aptly named" Gray Davis is likened to an "an especially depressive funeral director"; Arianna Huffington is tagged "inestimable" — while tracing the effort’s birth back to criminal business dealings in an office behind a Krispy Kreme in Sacramento. "The Excremental Republic" provides a sensible, revealing, and thus utterly unique reading of Bush vs. Gore and its impact.

Organized into five parts, beginning with the Nico-quoting "Desertshore" and ending with the title section, Utopia’s Debris collects Indiana’s journalistic writings, which are reliably several flights above almost all prose found in newspapers and magazines today, while never once stiff or pretentious. Quite the contrary: Indiana’s ever-active bullshit detector makes for the opposite of PR pablum, even when he flirts with the sin of log-rolling by sending a little textual love his to his frequent book jacket contributor Barbara Kruger (a better writer than artist, in my opinion), paying tribute to actress (and friend) Bulle Ogier, or eulogizing another close ally, Susan Sontag. To say Indiana is a writer who welcomes argument is an understatement. When he refers to one published eulogy as a "fulminating, hateful dismissal of Sontag’s entire lifework," his own hateful dismissal of the late Pauline Kael in Artforum — complete with a memory of himself and Sontag raiding a newsstand for a fresh opportunity to mock Kael’s writing does spring to mind.

As its name suggests, the pleasures and the value of Utopia’s Debris stem partly from the manner in which Indiana organizes these short examples of writing for a paycheck. In a one-two punch, an assessment of presidential election thievery ("The Excremental Republic") is followed by a look at the cultural relevance and role of Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls ("Uberdolls"). A posthumous look at Leni Riefenstahl and her last years (checkout this whiplash truth: "[She’s] relaxed, genial, reflective in an undefensive way, and genuinely likable. Rather like the giant toad who has, at last, eaten its fill of flies and can’t see any buzzing in her immediate vicinity") arrives shortly before his tribute to Sontag, who famously attacked Riefenstahl’s fascist aesthetics. The book’s final roll call of subjects — Robert Bresson, Georges Simenon, Brecht, and Weill as filtered through Harry Smith — is vital and dramatically potent.

A lifetime of sharpening sentences like so many knives means that Indiana knows how to write an intro: "You could infer from the production notes that Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain would be useful if it came in a spray can. Spritz a little on a fundamentalist and change him into a liberal, or neutralize a whole church of basement of rednecks with a full-strength tolerance bomb." When he detonates explosives by pious pop culture it makes for entertaining reading. But the peak stretches of Utopia’s Debris occur within assessments of a wide variety — Gavin Lambert, Mary Wornov, Caroline Blackwood, Rudolph Wurlitzer, Witold Gombrowicz, Thomas Bernhard, Curzio Malaparte, Jean Echenoz, Emmanul Carrère — of anti-canonical novelists. Through them, Indiana wrestles with his own ideas about life and chosen calling in a manner that is revelatory.

Just dandy


› a&eletters@sfbg.com

Men dress up. Yes, we do. We dress like animals: peacocks, roosters, cats. We dress like weapons: blades, pistols, and straps. Men dress up. Always have. Always will.

Something has been happening in men’s fashion lately, an evolution that’s taken place underneath just about everyone’s noses. For the longest time it was assumed that men’s fashion was about function over style, resulting in an array of boring, drab clothing. Sexy, exotic, or provocative was taboo.

Hywel Davies’ Modern Menswear (Laurence King Publishers, 208 pages, $40) is a beautifully illustrated book that challenges this stereotype, introducing the new dandy or aesthete in the process. It also covers a lot of territory — geographically and intellectually — through interviews with the designers. "Menswear is no longer status-led or solely rooted in tradition," Davies writes in the book’s introduction. "It is driven by the personality of the consumer. Men will take elements from a range of designers and create a distinct personal style." And that is precisely what Modern Menswear inspires a reader to do.

I would like to take Aitor Throup’s military-inspired pants, please, along with his skull accessories and his tagline, "When Football Hooligans Become Hindu Gods." Let’s top the ensemble off with one of those baseball-cap masks.

Sadly, Alexander McQueen’s men’s collection hits at least one disappointing note. Apparently the bad boy can’t dress himself with as much verve as he does his models.

I will take the Blaak double-breasted suit. That label’s mix of western, eastern and African influences, its use of natural fabrics, and its fusion of hedonistic street style and subdued anarchy is new. Blaak believes in "The working class hero, The Poet, The Outsider, and Edwardian Pomp and Ceremony with a whispered subversive punch." The label’s ideal customer "is a person who understands the riot of anarchy, the need for the whimsical, and the hidden fine lines bound in society." Damn, these boys speak my Afro-surreal language.

So does John Galliano, whose eclectic mix of nearly every fashion innovation since the fig leaf makes him a patron of the new aesthete. A derby hat and a kimono can be fly, especially with a sturdy pair of boots. "It’s like giving men a bit of what they’ve seen on women without taking away their masculinity," he says, "allowing them to dream more." Savage refinery — ah, nothing like reconciliation!

The book draws to a close with the rich, opulent colors and decadent accessories of Vivienne Westwood’s MAN label, and Yohji Yamamoto’s sublime understanding of the silhouette. There are some outrageous pieces, but Davies’ book isn’t geared toward gawkers.

Fashion is an opportunity to expand possibilities — to dream, as Galliano puts it. Do I have $5000 to spend on a Yohji coat? No. But I may be inspired to modify a pea coat or mourning jacket from a secondhand store after seeing one. Will Vivienne Westwood ever see a dollar of my money? Probably not, but I can borrow her sense of adventure and create a little magic of my own. "If you dress up," says Westwood, "it helps your personality emerge — if you choose well." Modern Menswear makes that process a bit more exciting.

Speed Reading



By Ishmael Reed

Da Capo Press

320 pages


Ishmael Reed is one of the most prolific writers, seers, and pundits of the 20th and 21st centuries. The author of nine novels, six books of poetry, six plays, and four books of political essays has been a constant presence and persistent thorn in the sides of various official experts. What I love about Reed is his refusal to be classified, stereotyped, or labeled. From his first book, 1967’s wildly experimental Freelance Pallbearers, through a turbulent and often silly surge of academic quarrels, he has shared his vision with bravado and courage.

His latest book of political essays continues his crusade for mother-wit in the face of a consistently homogenized culture, whether through an insightful interview with saxophonist Sonny Rollins, or writing that tackles America’s anti-black lending practices. Reed’s take is plainspoken and no-nonsense, yet an element of whimsy seems to permeate even the most uncomfortable subjects. In an essay about the Michael Jackson and Kobe Bryant trials, for example, his observation about hip-hop "pimp-culture" is that "Blacks are just as incompetent in this area of crime as they are in all others. Nearly four hundred years on this continent and not a single Martha Stewart or Ken Lay."

The only drawback of this book is that I get the impression that Reed is spending too much time in front of the television. It’s rumored that he has several sets stacked one on top of another so he can watch them simultaneously.


With Justin Desmangles

Sat/17, 2 p.m.; free

Koret Auditorium

San Francisco Public Library

100 Larkin, SF

(415) 557-4400


Shock and awe


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After 15 years of a labor of printmaking love in what has become the artistic heart of SoMa, Aurobora Press has to be out of its home at 147 Natoma Street by the end of the month. When the landlord came forward with a tenant able to pay three times what the press was shelling out for the historic back-alley building, built in 1907 with bricks from the rubble of the earthquake, Aurobora — no stranger to our languishing economy — was forced to pack its bags. Standing before a radiantly colored Jay Davis monotype in the press’s small office, director Michael Liener said that he was trying to stay positive and accept that "change is good." But he was clearly in shock, sounding somewhat otherworldly in his soothsaying. "We’re still figuring out where we’re going to land — maybe in a space, maybe not."

In order to lessen its moving load, the press is currently selling framed work at unframed prices, though Aurobora Projects, the press’s showroom in Menlo Park, will continue to operate. Sadly, Aurobora’s coveted residencies, which allow artists who don’t normally work in the medium to come in and make monotypes — paintings on paper, created by inking a flat surface and then pressing it in an intaglio press — are up in the air. In the tradition of early 20th-century artistic crossovers such as French Catalan sculptor Aristide Maillol’s exquisite woodblock illustrations, the residencies have helped artists discover hidden resonance within their own symbolic systems. For example, working in monotype without preconceived notions, painter Angela Dufrense captured the essence of Ivan the Terrible. Local sculptor Stephen DeStaebler saw his signature angel wings and rock-forms expand on paper.

Caught between dimensions and subject to the idiosyncrasies of a big, heavy press, the monotype medium is an ongoing experiment in temporality. Thus Liener is familiar with the unexpected. He stressed that he doesn’t harbor hard feelings toward the landlord, who helped Aurobora get the space in the first place. Liener had been on a month-to-month lease, but that doesn’t make it any easier to leave a space that he created from the ground up. "The question now is, do I have the will, the stomach, the bank account, to do this all over again?" he says. "It’s kind of the end of an era. When we first moved here, we spent four months ripping this place apart, exposing the bare bones, shaping a beautiful gallery." During Aurobora’s time at 147 Natoma, Liener and friends pulled down six rooms, took out the "cheesy carpet," and exposed and patched the site’s original floorboards.

"We were here before the [San Francisco Museum of Modern Art] opened, before the W [hotel], before all the development," Liener observes. "We were out here pioneering. This is just another example of what happens when an area becomes ‘discovered,’ ‘found,’ ‘populated’: the ‘pioneers’ can no longer afford their good work. I’m not unique. This happens everywhere in every city. When you create a really lovely space and you’re here for a period of time, it becomes a selling point for the next person to come in and kick you out." The tragedy is that it’s the quiet little places, the hidden spaces for meditation and contemplation, that always seem to disappear first. And what do we need most right now?


The wayward west


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The world falls away again and again in Jon Raymond’s short stories. The 10 pieces comprising Livability (Bloomsbury, 272 pages, $15), the Portland, Ore., author’s first such collection, are introspective ellipses enshrouded in the march of everyday life. We may hear about a job or spouse in passing, but Raymond submerges his characters into stunned states of contingency. Kelly Reichardt’s film adaptations of Raymond’s tales (2006’s Old Joy, 2008’s Wendy and Lucy) surely expand upon their source material, but his third person limited point of view skims existential drift with delicate precision. Whether it’s the dissipation of a Fight Club–inspired adolescent initiation ("The Wind"), a furtive after-hours blow job in the mall ("Young Bodies"), or a search for a missing friend amid the unfamiliar streets of a gentrifying city ("Benny"), Livability‘s plots are liminal hooks, awash in the overcast Oregon sky.

Though not an overwhelming prose stylist, Raymond sutures our reading with familiar ruminations. We have all known "almost lovers" and "might as well have been brothers." Most of us have friends who can "turn everything inside out in two breaths," too. Raymond’s characters have sharp eyes for sadness, spotting regret in everything from the diminishing opportunities for a bargain ("With the Internet, everyone knew exactly what everything was worth") to the misdirected vigor of young fathers ("Only after they’d been beaten up by the world for a good, long time were they ready").

The dearest passages in Livability linger over the unexpected amnesty of solitude. In "The Coast," a becalmed widow admits his guilty relish in being alone: "I enjoyed making the small decisions about which way to turn on the beach … I liked the slight puzzle a single man my age seemed to pose." In "Words and Things," a newly single woman observes the warmth of a cup of tea pressed to her hand, the light of passing headlights, and a silence that "crackled on her eardrums." These snatches pull up short of ecstasy, instead taking measure of the quiet remainder of perseverance.

The culminating story, "Train Choir," stands out for its inexorable chain of events, a heartbreaking progression with the unerring momentum of a ballad. In it, a young woman (Verna here, Wendy in Reichardt’s adaptation) breaks down in Oregon on her way to work the Alaskan canneries with her dog Lucy (who first appeared in the film version of Old Joy). Verna is literally at a loss, but it’s not so much what happens to the character as it is the steady undoing of options that makes "Train Choir" so moving. Even when a menacing turn is diffused, helplessness is still "only a few steps in either direction."

Raymond invokes the domestic dissolution of the George W. Bush era by giving Verna’s journey the telling backdrop of a flood. Given the current headlines, it’s hard to miss the story’s basic yet perspicacious point that the road from Bush’s America is not a freeway. Verna’s careful tally of expenses registers a different picture of money than the one lodged in discussions of "the economy." When a steep repair estimate pushes her over the edge of solubility, the sense of dispossession is sharp, like grief. Verna comes unyoked from society, but "Train Choir" is a frieze of vulnerability rather than disengagement. Verna’s condition illustrates the ease with which one can slip between the cracks in today’s United States — Bush’s rhetoric about the "ownership" society is meaningless to the individuals and entire communities who feel disowned by their country.

And yet, desolation offers its own illumination: "Overhead, the lights seemed to flutter, and for a moment she worried the whole world might disappear. But in fact nothing happened; the world remained as it was. There was no thunder. No lightning." We can read either hope or despair into these lines, but it would be folly to think the two are more than a few inches (or votes) apart.

This land was your land


Anyone paying any kind of attention has a deep-gut feeling that things aren’t going well for Earth. No matter how fancy or technologically advanced we get, everything humans make and break is fashioned from the resources at hand — water, air, petroleum, minerals, soil and its nutrients, and plants and trees and their fruit. Your MacBook may look space age, but it didn’t fall from the sky. "Nearly everything you use every day is based on minerals mined somewhere, often leaving behind disfigured land and a toxic mess," Howard G. Wilshire, Jane E. Nielson, and Richard W. Hazlett write in The American West at Risk: Science, Myths, and Politics of Land Abuse and Recovery (Oxford University Press, 619 pages, $35)

"Mining is the prow of America’s consumer-propelled ship. Its whole purpose is to dig up resources for transformation to consumer goods," the authors go on to note, with the kicker that such resources are nonrenewable. "A three-bedroom, two-and-a-half bathroom house of about 2,000 square feet, with a two-car garage, central air conditioning, and a fireplace, contains more than a quarter-million pounds of mined metals and other minerals."

The American West at Risk explains the exact effects mining has on Western ecosystems — in other words, the other living things trying to survive alongside humans. Beginning with forests, the authors outline the history of logging and how the right to do it on public lands was weasled from a weak Environmental Protection Agency made even weaker over the last eight years. All professional geologists, the three authors draw upon science in their argument for preservation.

An EPA library in condensed form, The American West at Risk presents a coherent survey of forestry, agriculture, water use, outdoor recreation, road building, military operations, garbage disposal, and nuclear power. "Western US public lands, about 47 percent of the region, are this nation’s patrimony — the bulk of its remaining natural capital," the authors observe. In each of the book’s 13 chapters, they study a single major resource and its uses. The chapters are tidy and stand on their own, but read together, they reveal an abuse of public lands and resources for the benefit of a very few. They also reveal how government science has been warped to perpetuate myths — for example, the idea that grazing on rangelands doesn’t harm the soil, or that military testing shouldn’t have bothersome effects on downwind populations.

The conclusions reached by Wilshire, Nielson, and Hazlett aren’t all doom and gloom — solutions are included — but amid climate change, the authors deserve great credit for not mincing words. The American West at Risk is being marketed as a textbook, and although schools are one ideal realm for its ideas, they aren’t the only one. This book appeals to anyone with an interest in environmental issues, and is essential bedside reading for any environmentalist or activist. It should be read by all Westerners — and by anyone who cares about this great, vast, once bountiful planet, now on the brink of death.

HOWARD G. WILSHIRE, JANE E. NIELSON, AND RICHARD W. HAZLETT read from The American West at Risk. Thurs/8, 7 p.m. at Books Inc. Opera Plaza, 601 Van Ness, SF. (415) 776-1111, www.losingthewest.com

>>Read Amanda Witherell’s interview with the authors here

Speed Reading



By NHK-TV "Tokaimura Criticality Accident Crew"


160 pages


It’s tacky to begin a review of a book about death by radiation poisoning by praising the design of its jacket. But I’m afraid I have to — John Gall’s art for A Slow Death: 83 Days of Radiation Sickness is unique in a gaze-snatching fashion. It combines hues of yellow and green, block patterns, and a news photo backdrop into an attractive, enigmatic, and faintly disturbing image that makes a browser wonder, "What exactly is inside this book?"

The answer is an account of a nuclear plant worker’s gradual demise after he was accidentally exposed to 20,000 times the maximum tolerable amount of neutron beam radiation. As some alleged environmentalists (including figureheads such as Al Gore) have begun touting the benefits of "non-carbon sources" of energy — an evasive way of saying "atomic power" — Hisashi Ouchi’s death comes across as an extreme cautionary tale.

Built from a television documentary about the nuclear accident, A Slow Death bluntly but compassionately renders Ouchi’s physical symptoms — which included massive skin loss — and the emotional impact his plight had on the doctors and nurses who treated him. The last extraordinary aspect of Ouchi’s story involves his heart, which persevered and remained relatively healthy while the rest of him demonstrated the impact of radiation — as the book puts it, "it continued living amidst the destruction of virtually every other cell in his body." (Johnny Ray Huston)


Photo selection by Allison V. Smith

Cairn Press

192 pages


Sale signs at Macy’s and other businesses tend to suggest that the department store is a 20th-century phenomenon on its way down. But the department store had a great curator of sorts in Stanley Marcus, the Marcus in Neiman Marcus. An over-the-top extravagant collection of the businessman’s photography, Reflections of a Man might seem like a vanity project, but in fact it reveals a talented cameraman and, somewhat enticingly, the aesthetic point-of-view that might have gone into creating a popular chain of stores.

Dallas was Marcus’ home, and his version of the city wasn’t characterized by ugly American cowboy mentality so much as a love of beauty, parties, and profitable combinations thereof — he invented an annual Fortnight celebration as a way to boost sales during the slack period between back-to-school and the holidays. Oscar de la Renta’s brief forward to this monograph is a semi-flattering if fully affectionate account of Marcus’ unflagging success at making a sale. An old press pass reveals he wanted to be a photojournalist, but his public profession proved far more lucrative.

As for the photos, they are gorgeous, Popsicle-bright Kodachrome images of life in the South and abroad in Europe. Marcus had a terrific eye for patterns and repetitions, whether they came from cubic carpeting on the floor of a Paris fashion show or funny visual rhyming between Stetson hats and hanging lamps in a Houston restaurant. Christian Dior and Pucci pose with personality for Marcus, but his skill isn’t so much for portraiture as it is for the art of commerce, capturing the flair of couturiers as well as balloon and sponge vendors on the street. (Huston)


By Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka)

Akashic Books

282 pages



By Ed Bullins

Akashic Books

192 pages


I didn’t ask, so don’t tell me why queers have come to be the fashionable sacrificial stooges for pandering new Democratic presidents. For some overstanding on the matter, read Amiri Baraka’s intro to the most recent edition of Home: Social Essays, a collection he wrote between 1961 and 1966 as Leroi Jones. Anyone familiar with reprints of Jones’s autobiographical works knows that they afford Baraka with a chance to engage in scathing (and sometimes funny) multileveled assessments of his past writings and views. Here, he leaps right into a critique of his past use of the word "fag" that insinuates tribute (without naming names) to some of the strong, influential queers he’s worked with over the years. It’s a prescient genuine act, but characteristic — Baraka was calling Obama "slick" years ago at a City Lights reading.

Baraka also writes a preface for a reprint of Ed Bullins’ story collection The Hungered One, but it’s Bullins’ introduction that makes an impression, because of its open-ended refusal of readings that interpret (and thus restrict) the title tale as an allegory. The Hungered One is filled with pieces that do exactly what they set out to do — "An Ancient One," for example, perfectly renders a city scene that happens in front of my building every day of the year. But it’s that title story — more horrifying than anything a genre writer like Stephen King has imagined — that lingers. It’s as uncanny as a nightmare, and as real as human nature. (Huston)

Herself redefined


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although I don’t enjoy real lakes

Barbara Guest, Biography

Barbara Guest (1920-2006) once told me she shared a taxi in Manhattan with Marianne Moore. Seeing Guest unsuccessfully hail a cab, Moore impulsively instructed the driver of the one she was in to pull over and pick up the young poet. Moore didn’t know Guest was a poet, and Guest was too intimidated to confess it, though they had a pleasant chat before Moore dropped her off at her destination.

There’s something fitting about this encounter. Although she most strongly identified with H.D. among modernist poets — even writing 1984’s still-standard H.D. biography Herself Defined — Guest is perhaps more like Moore in terms of her relative position within the New York School. Of the original members — including John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, and Kenneth Koch — she is the most obviously difficult. Unlike her relatively postmodern colleagues, she primarily engaged with a high modernist aesthetic attuned to both the arch formalism of The Waste Land-era T.S. Eliot and the strident irrationality of surrealism. The result was a truly singular aesthetic, yielding, as The Collected Poems of Barbara Guest (Wesleyan University Press, $40) demonstrates, one of the most radical bodies of work in 20th century literature.

Difficulty is, of course, a vexed question; poetry’s perceived difficulty frightens off even readers of the most abstruse fiction. Some of Guest’s poetry is admittedly taxing — a book like Rocks on a Platter (1999) is nearly impenetrable to me, despite my appetite for such work. But the bulk of Guest’s writing is difficult only if you assume the goal of poetry is to make sense, which it isn’t. The greatest poetry exceeds meaning, suggesting more than it says, suspending language’s sense-making capacity in favor of the word as thing. If you forego the demand that poetry deliver a coherent picture or scenario, Guest becomes much less difficult. You simply follow, without worrying where you’re headed.

In Symbiosis (2000), for example, one of Guest’s increasingly abstract later works, we find these three lines: "In no climate whatsoever / noise traveling up the tower<0x2009>/ bronze green in the tournament … " Quotation out of context hardly distorts the passage because it’s never clear what the context is, the lines appearing apropos of nothing before or after. They remain stubbornly themselves, resisting meaning. You can propose a tower "in no climate," but the very definition of "climate" presupposes its ubiquity; everywhere has a climate. More pertinent to Guest’s concerns are the subtle musical echoes between "noise traveling" and "bronze green," or the disposition of the word "tower," scrambled throughout "whatsoever" and translated into French as the "tour" of "tournament." These are hardly Guest’s greatest lines, but they indicate some of her procedures. The poems are generated less by "the real" than by words themselves, their use as material objects, which is what I mean by "the word as thing."

To see early work like The Location of Things (1960-62) and The Blue Stairs (1968) back in print is thrilling, while the bird’s eye view of Guest’s career is revealing: nearly half the collection was written in the last 10 years of her life, indicating the mastery she attained. The array of forms is remarkable — just when she seems to embark permanently into a Mallarméan scattering of phrases across the page, she shifts to the microfictional prose poems of 1999’s The Confetti Trees. A short section of new work at the end suggests yet more possibilities. But as the Collected Poems shows, Guest had done enough.

Vive l’amour


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REVIEW Stephanie Young edited the anthology Bay Poetics (Faux Press, 432 pages, $29), which attempted to take a snapshot of the Bay Area’s poetry scene while acknowledging the failure built into such a task. Her second book of poetry, Picture Palace (in girum imus nocte et consumimur igni, 120 pages, $15), is not particularly concerned with choosing between various poetic modes and traditions. Picture Palace draws as heavily on pop culture as it does on theory to find its form and to subsequently understand form’s impact on content. In the process, Young escapes the lyric poetry/language poetry binary. (Or, to use a less geography-bound but equally contemporary axis, the flarf/conceptual poetry binary.)

As its title suggests, Picture Palace is heavily invested in movies. Young makes and unmakes icons as well as the minutiae of daily life. On the theoretical tip, she applies Gaston Bachelard’s thought in books like 1994’s Poetics of Space and 1987’s The Psychoanalysis of Fire to the act of walking around Lake Merritt. In terms of ideas and visual imagination, Picture Palace is best described as dense. Images and their aftereffects are at play, but the reader has to dig for the gratifying thrill of recognition; even when a pop-culture reference is spotted, it has a strange murky glimmer. Young is both recovering a shared experience and implanting a new one when she writes lines like "Tim Robbins with Tupac<0x2009>/ the one where they stabbed each other<0x2009>/ for treatment," in "Betty Page We Love You Get Up."

There are other funny moments (the most intense flashes of Sylvia Plath’s "Lady Lazarus" are condensed into the formula "Rising, ash, eat, air, etc."), yet the real thrill of Picture Palace comes from the way it jumps between different levels of knowledge, in the kind of epistemological recreation that brings us back to Bachelard. Young’s ability to portray, in tandem, the way her speakers routinely perceive the world and the way they are able to break with those perceptions, and the ways of knowing the world that those perceptions embody, reminds me of the libretti of Robert Ashley’s operas more than it does the work of other contemporary poets. Much like the titular protagonist of Ashley’s Now Eleanor’s Idea (2007), her poetry is haunted by an "end of the world feeling," but where that feeling prodded Now Eleanor to pursue investigative journalism focusing on New Mexico’s lowrider culture, the same feeling pushes Young’s speakers to ponder and deform images projected onto, or from, screens: "There was a superimposed face on my face and I gradually came to see my own belief that it could never change. In this way my face functioned as an image on film."

The overall effect — and this seems like an inaccurate phrase, given how much Young’s poetics depends on micro-effects, small calibrations, and reversals of thought — is similar to Lynne Tillman’s 2006 novel American Genius. By this I mean that both writers’ driving concern is finding new forms to convey new experiences; they each establish a voice that, in its neurotic precision, contains multitudes.

Blessed be


What the hell is the Necronomicon? A figment of H.P. Lovecraft’s imagination? A demon-awakening tool foolishly deployed in the Evil Dead movies? A manifestation of Aleister Crowley’s magical powers? Or simply a good old-fashioned hoax?

For purposes of this review, Necronomicon (Ibis, 220 pages, $125) is none of the above. Assume, if you will, that it’s a tome based on Sumerian mythology, filled with line drawings and incantations. It’s bound in ominous black with silver lettering and a built-in ribbon bookmark — all the better to keep important verses ("The Exorcism of the Crown of Anu," perhaps) at your fingertips. It’s edited by the single-named "Simon," who has been on the Necronomicon beat since 1977. According to Wikipedia, Simon’s interpretation has sold nearly 1 million copies. According to his author bio, his best-selling whereabouts "have been unknown since 1984" — until this 2008 re-release, anyway.

The Necronomicon is a fearsome-looking addition to any bookshelf. It’ll definitely enhance any library lacking in new age creepiness. But, uh, one more time: what is it exactly? Fortunately, Simon doesn’t leave you dangling. This edition comes complete with a new preface (helpfully explaining the significance of a deluxe 31st anniversary volume, lest you think someone dropped the ball during an even-numbered year), as well as earlier prefaces and an introduction that discusses Lovecraft, Crowley, and occult history. There’s also a pronunciation guide (since when uttering the incantations, "a mistake may prove fatal"); and a solemn page-and-a-half warning that dicking around with the Necronomicon can have serious consequences. There’s no mention of having to cut off one’s hand and strap on a chainsaw in its place, but readers who are also movie buffs will nod knowingly.

OK, then the good stuff (purportedly ancient curses, rituals, spells, etc.) begins, kicking off with "The Testimony of the Mad Arab" and continuing into chapters like "The Incantations of the Gates" and "The Conjuration of the Fire God." Names dropped include Pazuzu, of Exorcist fame. Not everything’s gloomy though; instructions on how to "win the love of a woman" and "restore potency" are included, along with poetry that could pass for death-metal lyrics: "I will cause the Dead to rise and devour the living!" Cookie Monster that!

All right. I’m pretty close to mocking the Ancient Ones here. If you happen to see me coming down the street (you’ll know it’s me — just listen for the "fearful howlings of a hundred wolves"), you might want to scrape together the dough for your own Necronomicon, just for protection purposes. The price tag on Simon’s brand-new version suggests to me that demons might really be pulling the strings somewhere along the way.

Reel time travel


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How often do you encounter a living artist whose radical and prolific body of work is criminally obscure? I can’t evangelize enough about the German filmmaker Ulrike Ottinger, whose work is the subject of Laurence A. Rickels’ Ulrike Ottinger: The Autobiography of Art Cinema (University of Minnesota Press, 288 pages, $22).

Some glimpses into Ottinger’s dazzling and genre-defying oeuvre: baroque lesbian pirate adventure (1977’s Madame X: An Absolute Ruler); an aristocratic alcoholic tourist drinking herself to death in a post-apocalyptic West Berlin (1979’s Ticket of No Return); and a trans-Siberian train journey that makes an unexpected pit stop in Mongolia, where a two-hour ethnography of an all-female tribe unfolds (1989’s Johanna d’Arc of Mongolia).

There are hardly words to describe these striking and innovative films, but Rickels’ ambitious new book — drawing upon extensive interviews with the filmmaker — provides compelling interpretations. I recently interviewed him via e-mail.

SFBG It puzzles me how Derek Jarman’s queer-punk classic Jubilee (1978) is available as a Criterion DVD and Ulrike Ottinger’s contemporaneous and similarly groundbreaking Madame X is virtually inaccessible. Why do you think Ottinger isn’t better known in the states?

LAURENCE A. RICKELS Ottinger was very well known throughout the art cinema network in the 1980s. Though [her] fiction films were "long" in density and attention-surfeit, they in fact observed the time limits of features made for theatrical release. With the turn to documentary, she engaged in what I once referred to as "real time travel" — involving durations of viewing time up to nine hours in length. But once she began again to show her photography in acknowledged art venues, her current film work was rediscovered at least for that world.

Just as important, no doubt, is her refusal to release her films as readily available videos or DVDs. But this brings us back to the point that she operates, even when she identifies herself as filmmaker, as an artist who tries to oversee her reception.

SFBG Many of Ottinger’s films — both the documentaries and narrative films — deal with the exotic and otherness. She persistently crosses genres, cultures, and genders.

LAR What is so radical about her film art is an insistence on encountering the other, on meeting the other "halfway." For the other’s arrival, Ottinger constructs out of her own (formal) language a sort of terminal, which anticipates or fantasizes about what the other will bring to their "first" contact and exchange.

SFBG Which film from Ottinger’s oeuvre is essential viewing for those who haven’t seen her work? What about this film should a new viewer expect?

LAR If I had to choose one, it would be Ticket of No Return. It introduces the viewer to the distance Ottinger observes with regard to the very conditions of trauma. By drinking herself to death, the protagonist seeks, as Nietzsche counseled, to become who she is.

SFBG In your book you describe Ottinger’s next narrative work, Diamond Dance, about Jewish gangsters in Brighton Beach, the diamond business in New York, a gay psychoanalyst, and more. The film sounds incredible. What’s happening with the project?

LAR Diamond Dance was a new fictional film project at the start of the 1990s. There have been more near-miss attempts to find suitable conditions for its realization, even according to a more modest plan. However, Ottinger has not given up, and has been revising some of the pressure plot points in the original screenplay to reflect and invite another time period in which the film will be made and set. But the original film is in a sense lost — together with the era of art cinema to which it belonged.

Along the y-axis



By Lily Hoang


336 pages


Lily Hoang’s Parabola is the kind of text that solicits a rereading, but you aren’t dutifully bound to return to its beginning. Instead, you can rewind to the middle and branch out both forward and backward, deciphering chapters that match up along the Y-axis of the titular structure.

This novel — or un-novel, since it’s the winner of Chiasmus Press’ Un-Doing the Novel Contest — stops at disparate intersections to tell its stories. Hoang has created an experimental work that communicates with the reader through fragmentary exchange. Whereas some postmodern narratives feel stale due to their headiness, Parabola manages to include heart and humor within an innovative, interactive storytelling style. It chronicles the inner life of a first-generation American daughter of Vietnamese immigrants. The resulting so-called coming-of-age story explores the gap between expectations vs. reality, incorporating numerology, myth, astronomy, and other mystical wonders in the process.

Reminiscent of Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Parabola features similarly beautiful and elaborate word games, such as an entire paragraph alliterated with the letter B that corresponds to quadratic form. Hoang’s novel has a similarly dizzying effect, frequently compelling you to flip from one chapter to a parallel one 100 pages prior. But it stands alone, challenging categorization by presenting holes filled with words (surrounded by black matter) and playful collaborative components like personality tests and even a Word Find. (Michelle Broder Van Dyke)