The Rum Diary by Hunter S. Thompson
reviewed by Courtney
Hunter S. Thompson made a name for himself at Rolling Stone, writing satirical and absurd political and social pieces into which he inserted his authorial persona as the focal point. His brand of "Gonzo" journalism, which, abandoning all pretense of objectivity, relied on his presence in the story and the unrepentant melding of fact and fiction to generate and hold interest, led to the kind of outrageous shenanigans chronicled in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, in which Thompson and his attorney reel through Las Vegas, covering first a motorcycle race and then a police convention under the influence of a variety of hallucinogenic drugs. Thompson is famous for his easily parodied, over the top persona (just look to Johnny Depp's performance in Terry Gilliam's version of Fear and Loathing, or the long running caricature Uncle Duke in Doonesbury). Given the force of his personality, and the uniqueness of his writing style, it surprising to encounter the more traditional construction of The Rum Diary, Thompson's early attempt at a novel, which was unpublished until 1998.
Like most of Thompson's work, The Rum Diary is largely autobiographical. Set in Puerto Rico in the late 1950's, the story follows Paul Kemp, a journalist who moves to San Juan to work on the failing English-language newspaper, and the lives of the predominantly alcoholic and unhappy people he works with. Unlike the majority of Thompson's work, however, The Rum Diary follows a more conventional plot and narrative structure. It is easy to see the influence of great American novelists like Fitzgerald on the young Thompson's writing. Written long before the evolution of Thompson's trademark outrageous Gonzo writing style, The Rum Diary sees him trying for a more naturalistic tone. The strength of his writing is easily apparent without the ego that dominated most of his later work, and it is striking to realize how unsupportable the personality-driven Gonzo-era writing would have been without that underlying talent.
Written when Thompson was in his early 20's, The Rum Diary focuses on themes of boredom and stasis. The fear of aging and irrelevance that motivated much of his later work is already apparent, and it is particularly poignant in light of his 2005 suicide. Thompson's suicide note, as published in a tribute in Rolling Stone and titled "Football Season Is Over," included: "…67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring... No Fun — for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax — This won't hurt." Thompson was a truly remarkable person, a vehement libertarian; he was as unrepentant and vocal about his love of drugs, alcohol, and firearms as his hatred of Richard Nixon. One of those rare, charismatic people who lives as outrageously as he talks, Thompson was infinitely quotable, and impossible to ignore. He came very close to being elected in 1970 as the sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado, running on the "Freak Power" ticket, and his funeral, planned years in advance and financed by his friend Johnny Depp, featured an enormous cannon, which blasted fireworks and his ashes into the sky to the sound of Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man," and was attended by as disparate a group of friends as John Kerry, Charlie Rose, Jack Nicholson, and Lyle Lovett.
You didn't have to agree with Thompson's politics or his lifestyle, but underneath the Gonzo persona he was a talented and beautiful writer. Thompson's vitriolic pessimism and his breathless optimism were both supported by his underlying idealism and patriotism, and it is interesting to watch the young writer struggle with many of the same issues that would dominate his writing throughout his career. The Rum Diary is important as the early output of a notable and inventive American writer, but it is also, in signature Thompson style, great fun to read. The myth of Thompson has long since eclipsed his actual self, but his take-no-prisoners writing style, and the impossibly high standards to which he held himself as well as the politicians he wrote about, as present in The Rum Diary as any of his later work, are as or more relevant today as ever. It is hard to pinpoint the lasting appeal of the Thompson myth, but as he wrote in Gonzo Papers, Vol. 1: The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales from a Strange Time: "Myths and legends die hard in America. We love them for the extra dimension they provide, the illusion of near-infinite possibility to erase the narrow confines of most men's reality. Weird heroes and mould-breaking champions exist as living proof to those who need it that the tyranny of 'the rat race' is not yet final."
Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh
reviewed by Courtney
"All that succession and repetition of massed humanity... Those vile bodies..." This comment, made by the protagonist of satirist Evelyn Waugh's 1930 novel, Vile Bodies, is the source of the title. A biblical reference, it is also an accurate description of the overall impression of the narrative. Following the success of Waugh's Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies follows in the same tone, poking vicious fun at the vacuous society of the time. Vile Bodies is most interesting, however, for it's extreme shift in tone near the end of the narrative, from lighthearted comedy to the tragedy of war, which shift Waugh attributed to his separation from his wife during the writing of the novel.
Vile Bodies takes as its subject the "Bright Young Things," (originally intended to be the title of the novel, Bright Young Things was the title given to the Stephen Fry film adaptation in 2003). Set in the period between World War I and World War II, the novel follows a group of privileged, party-driven London socialites as their decadent lifestyle is gleefully covered and ridiculed in the press. Focusing primarily on Adam Fenwick-Symes in his comically ineffectual attempts to secure the marriage of his lover Nina Blount, the book parodies both the traditional conventions of romantic comedy and the carefree hedonism of high society at the time.
The socialites whirl through absurd theme parties, drinking heavily and experimenting with drugs, their seemingly carefree thoughtlessness masking the uncertainty and pain of the recent war. Their refusal to engage with the world comes across as perpetual flight from it, the persistent, inescapable press coverage as courted, rather than resented. A poor young writer, Adam, as well as others of his companions, actually accepts employment as Mr. Chatterbox, a gossip columnist, secretly reporting on the decadent activities of his friends as well as those of imagined, fictional constructions. The characters are absurd, their trials and tribulations comic reflections of their inability to function in the world, but what would otherwise be seen as merely pathetic is made sympathetic by proximity to the horrors of the First World War. The instability of their lives reflects that of the world they live in, and the tragic reversal of circumstances that leads Adam from that high society to the desolation of war as the novel closes makes the relentless meaninglessness of his life seem almost justified. Though undeniably important, the death and war Waugh presents is ultimately no more meaningful than the society parties.
All overriding themes aside, Vile Bodies is as fun to read as any of Waugh's satire. His quick wit and vicious observations allow him to alternate between hilariously absurd exaggeration and bitingly accurate societal commentary. Though openly ridiculing of the society he portrays, Waugh dedicates the novel to Bryan and Diana Guinness, the leading high society couple at the time (the two later divorced and Diana went on to marry Fascist party leader Oswald Mosley in a ceremony attended by Adolf Hitler). Published in 1930, the book was written in a time of great flux, and though the reversal in narrative tone may be attributed to the dissolution of Waugh's marriage at the time, as was proved not many years later later, it is not an unrealistic turn of events. Vile Bodies is an engaging, hilarious representation of London society in the 1920's, but it is also itself a product of that time.
Just Kids by Patti Smith
reviewed by Courtney
Just Kids by Patti Smith is the current selection for the Friends of the Takoma Park Maryland Library Reading Group.
Legendary musician and poet, Patti Smith is called the "Godmother of Punk" for her involvement in the birth of the New York City punk music scene, and her 1975 debut album Horses, which employed her unique combination of music and spoken word poetry, is one of the most influential of that decade, listed at number 44 on Rolling Stone's 2003 list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. Her career has included collaborations with the likes of Bruce Springsteen, and a rock 'n' roll marriage to Fred "Sonic" Smith of the MC5 that lasted until his death in 1994. In her memoir, Just Kids, however, Smith chooses to focus on an earlier period of her life, detailing her long and profound relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, fulfilling a promise made to the artist to share their story.
Just Kids focuses primarily on Smith's 20's, spent living and making art with Mapplethorpe in New York City. She is a beautiful writer, and the New York she describes is as compelling and romantic as the Paris of Rimbaud she so idolized. Smith describes how she and Mapplethorpe worked menial jobs and lived in squalor, spending what money they had on art supplies and food. The early narrative traces Mapplethorpe's obsessive attention to medium and detail, turning their meager apartments into life-size art installations around her as Smith wrote poetry and drew. The two friends were far from the famous artists they would become, but they never wavered in their confidence in their talent, dedicating themselves entirely to the pursuit of art.
Mapplethorpe's struggle with his sexuality created conflict with his deeply religious background; Smith and Mapplethorpe had once gone so far as to fake a marriage to explain their cohabitation when visiting his Catholic family. Smith and Mapplethorpe continued to live and work together even after Mapplethorpe's realization of his homosexuality, supporting each other both materially and in their navigation of and entrance into the Manhattan artistic scene. Their time spent living at the famous Chelsea Hotel provides the context for interactions and friendships with figures like Janis Joplin, Johnny Winter, Allen Ginsberg, Jim Carroll, William S. Burroughs, and Gregory Corso. Smith's account of their lives in the early 1970's reads like a Guess Who? game of significant literary and artistic figures, including her brief and intense affair with Sam Sheppard, a relationship with Blue Öyster Cult's Allen Lanier, her presence at the earliest Television performances at CBGB, and encounters with Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol, Jimi Hendrix, and Salvador Dalí.
Despite the prevalence of drug use and addiction in the New York art scene at the time, Smith was never tempted by narcotics, even as she and Mapplethorpe surrounded themselves with the speed-fueled inhabitants of Andy Warhol's factory and famously heroin-dependent writers like Burroughs and Carroll. As Mapplethorpe embraced photography he also moved towards controversial material. His work began to gain notoriety, and his success allowed him to focus on the previously prohibitively expensive medium of film photography. Meanwhile Smith worked with Lenny Kaye to combine her poetry with music, and she and Mapplethorpe grew apart, though they remained close friends; Mapplethorpe is responsible for the iconic cover shot of Horses.
Smith continues the narrative through Mapplethorpe's premature death of AIDS-related complications in 1989, though the majority of the book focuses on their time spent together in New York. The deep love and respect the two friends had for each other is clear, and it is fascinating to experience the vibrant artistic scene of New York in the 1960's and 70's through Smith's eyes. Her avoidance of the narcotic dependence that claimed so many of her contemporaries allows for clear and precise narration of her experiences, and the strength of her artistic motivation allows the reader to appreciate the significance of the world she relates. Just Kids is a celebration and memoir of a friendship, not a person, and the lasting and profound impact that relationship had on the lives and careers of both Smith and Mapplethorpe. The lyricism of her prose compliments the subject matter and evokes her musical and poetic style. The deserving recipient of the 2010 National Book Award for nonfiction, Just Kids' major flaw is its unsatisfying premature ending, and it leaves readers hoping for a continuation, detailing Smith's life after she became famous.
Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem
reviewed by Courtney
Like his previous work, Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City is in large part a love letter to New York City. In this latest novel, however, Lethem has abandoned the Brooklyn of Fortress of Solitude and Motherless Brooklyn to focus on upper Manhattan. As the narrative follows Chase Insteadman, a retired child actor and his peculiar group of friends through their daily lives, Lethem seamlessly incorporates elements of magical realism into the New York setting, creating a vision of an alternate city that is compelling and uncomfortably familiar.
Chronic City is mostly narrated in the first person by Chase, the former child star of a popular sitcom, now most famous for his social life and ongoing engagement to Janice Trumbull, a beautiful astronaut tragically stranded in space. The grandiosity of his romance, catalogued exhaustively by the press, is at odds with his largely uneventful day-to-day life, and as Chase details his growing friendship with Perkus Tooth, an eccentric cultural critic, his former priorities begin to fade into the background.
The narrative is entirely character driven, and much of the first part of the novel details the rambling, obsessive, and occasionally paranoid monologues that Perkus delivers on popular culture and politics as the two characters consume copious amounts of caffeine, hamburgers, and marijuana. As Chase encounters the bizarre array of characters that make up Perkus' social circle, Perkus' obsessions become his own, their theories supported by an inexplicable series of seemingly unrelated events. An escaped tiger is terrorizing the upper east side, nesting eagles have driven friend and city official Richard Abneg from his apartment, lower Manhattan is entirely engulfed in a heavy grey fog, there is a great deal of confusion as to whether Marlon Brando is alive or dead, everyone is inexplicably obsessed with a mysterious and beautiful type of pottery called chaldrons, and Chase has no memory of his fiancé outside of tragic letters he receives from space.
Lethem's New York is convincingly constructed, and as the reader is drawn in to the narrative, it is hard not to be as seduced by conspiracy theories as the characters themselves. Lethem has captured that elusive feeling of being perched on the verge of a momentous discovery only to watch it slip away, revealed as not only insignificant, but actually nonexistent. It is easy to get swept up in Lethem's world, and the hyper-realism of Chase's daily experiences and encounters acts to accentuate the elements of surrealism in the text. Through the eyes of Perkus even these inexplicable events are rooted in the familiar mechanisms of modernity and corruption, and it is tempting to draw similar connections between Lethem's world and our own.
Like Motherless Brooklyn, Chronic City's narrative suggests a plot revelation more significant that it contains, but this let down mirrors the trajectory of the countless conspiracy theories the characters pursue through the text, and ultimately the experience of the search for a unifying answer is shown to be far more significant than any larger truth that may or may not exist. Lethem is a talented and uniquely obsessive writer, and his prose is both beautiful and witty. Though Chronic City is quite long (480 pages), it is a surprisingly fast, and extremely fun read.
The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk
reviewed by Courtney
Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish novelist, is largely known for the controversy surrounding remarks he made acknowledging the Turkish Armenian genocide, which led to an extended trial by Turkish nationalists and stirred international outrage and support. Though the charges were later dropped, Pamuk is still a controversial literary figure, and his work often reflects his political and cultural considerations. Pamuk's 2009 novel, The Museum of Innocence is less politically oriented than some of his others, focusing on the 30-year long love affair of Kemal, a successful businessman and Füsun, a lower class shop girl and aspiring actress.
Kemal and Füsun's relationship is restricted by their cultural situations; Kemal is engaged to a woman of his own social class and is unwilling to give up that connection. As their affair continues, Kemal's unrequited love and obsession with Füsun becomes outright objectification. He collects the various small objects and artifacts of their relationship, constructing a kind of museum of their time together.
The Museum of Innocence is interesting in its presentation of Kemal's objectification of Füsun, and the overwhelming societal rejection of Füsun's agency as a subject. Much of Pamuk's earlier work also uses its female characters as pure objects; they almost impressionistically embody the conflicting ideals and desires of male protagonists. Pamuk's clear exploration of the societal objectification of Füsun echoes this theme of romantic objectification.
As with Pamuk's other work, the novel is complicated by extensive layering of inter-textual references and metafictional technique. As Kemal builds his museum of Füsun, Pamuk interweaves information about the culture of collecting and museums more generally, and the endurance of the human urge to collect and hoard objects as a physical manifestation of greater non-physical concepts like love, history, and artistic creation. The value of objects like those Kemal collects, those in museums like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, or the preserved sites of historical events comes from this intangible signification of a subject by a related object, and The Museum of Innocence is a fascinating exploration of the way that for a collector the object can come to eclipse its related subject.
The novel is constructed almost like a museum itself, and includes a ticket to an actual museum Pamuk intends to open to accompany the book. The idea is that the physical exhibit would mirror that presented in the novel. The Museum of Innocence is impressively ambitious, and the physicality of the intended museum is reminiscent of Pamuk's previous genre-bending works, such as the miniature painting and visual art of My Name Is Red or the book within a book of The New Life. Ultimately The Museum of Innocence is not Pamuk's best work, but it may be his most ambitious. The length and repetitiveness of the narrative may be off-putting for those unfamiliar with his work, who would be better off starting with the more approachable historical fiction of The White Castle or my personal favorite, The Black Book. For fans of Pamuk, however, The Museum of Innocence indicates his continuing importance and growth as a modern writer.
À rebours by Joris-Karl Huysmans
reviewed by Courtney
À rebours, the classic French decadent novel published in 1884 by Joris-Karl Huysmans, is the epitome of fin de siècle literature, influencing its contemporary symbolist and decadent poets and novelists as well as the artistic, literary, and musical movements that followed. Widely believed to be the unnamed "poisonous book" that contributes to the ruin of Dorian Gray's character in Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, Huysmans' novel had immediate and significant effects on the literary landscape of the time, and is still relevant, cited as a favorite among musicians like Patti Smith and Richard Hell of the early New York Punk scene, and even referenced by name in the title of a 2005 song by British band Babyshambles.
Huysmans had been an unremarkable writer in the naturalist school of literature until the publication of À rebours, and his move towards decadence and embrace of symbolism was controversial among his contemporaries. The novel has no real plot and only one significant character, Jean Des Esseintes, the aging and disillusioned final surviving member of a declining aristocratic French family. With failing health, growing dissatisfaction with his decadent lifestyle in Paris, and disgust for society and the people he interacts with, Des Esseintes purchases a mansion in the countryside and endeavors to create for himself an entirely artificial and solitary existence.
À rebours has been translated as both "Against the Grain," and "Against Nature," and in his careful construction of his environment, Des Esseintes attempts entirely to reject the natural and societal constraints he finds so oppressive. He reverses his sleep schedule and arranges his surroundings in such a way that he is never forced to interact with anyone, living an entirely artificial existence in which he is free to conduct lengthy and opinionated surveys of poetry, art, literature and philosophy. These surveys are injected into the narrative itself, and Huysmans frequently interrupts the story to give detailed arguments in praise of Baudelaire and Schopenhauer, or against the romantic poets. This technique of interspersed literary criticism with more humorous or distressing passages concerning Des Esseintes' memories and circumstances has been echoed by modern authors (see for example the comically amateur music criticism of Patrick Bateman in American Psycho that offsets his most gruesome murders).
Des Esseintes' attempts to create and maintain his artificial paradise vary from the absurd (one chapter details his attempt to replace a pet tortoise's shell with gold and jewels to match the carpet, another sees him, having tired of fake flowers that appear real, selecting real flowers that appear fake), to the comical (one episode concerns an elaborately failed trip to the city), to the upsetting (one long memory tells of an attempt to corrupt a young boy through psychological manipulation). Huysmans takes decadence to its logical conclusion, presenting a kind of absolute solipsism, exaggerated to a comic extent that is disturbing in its appeal. It is easy to see how À rebours could have served as inspiration for novels like The Picture of Dorian Gray, and it is equally unsurprising that Huysmans later experienced a religious conversion that led him to reject À rebours and much of his other earlier work; the pessimism of the novel is overwhelming.
À rebours is considered to be a classic because of its role in the literature of the Belle Époque, the artistic movement that arose at the end of the 19th century in France, but it is also a remarkably engaging novel. Huysmans writes beautifully about the world that Des Esseintes creates. One gorgeous passage describes his transcription of musical symphonies into taste through the careful combination of expensive liquors: "Once these principles had been established, and thanks to a series of erudite experiments, he had been able to perform upon his tongue silent melodies and mute funeral marches; to hear inside his mouth crème de menthe solos and rum-and-vespetro duets… But tonight Des Esseintes had no wish to listen to the taste of music…". Its influence alone ensures À rebours a lasting readership, but it would be a mistake to relegate the novel to a purely academic interest. The musicality of Huysmans' writing, and the seductiveness of the decadent solipsism he embraces make À rebours a fascinating and compelling read even for those with no interest in historical French literary movements.
Spoiled by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan
reviewed by Courtney
Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan, together the Fug Girls, are the authors of the popular snarky fashion blog Go Fug Yourself (gofugyourself.com). Spoiled is their first attempt at young adult fiction, and, despite a somewhat sloppy plot, it is an engaging read.
As her mother is dying of cancer, Molly Dix, a 16-year-old cross-country star from Indiana, discovers that her father is the internationally famous action movie star, Brick Berlin. Molly accepts his offer of a home in Los Angeles, and moves to California to bond with her remaining parent. Unfortunately this also means getting to know her far less welcoming half-sister, Brooke Berlin, the spoiled, intimidating queen bee of her new high school. Brooke is not happy to share her father's attentions, especially as the revelation of Brick's long lost daughter eclipses her long-anticipated sweet sixteen birthday party.
As the two girls are forced to come to get to know each other, Molly is torn between the superficial paradise of celebrity Los Angeles and the comfortingly normal life of her Indiana childhood. The rivalry between the two sisters grows comically heated, intensified by the ineffectual absentee fathering of Brick, and the unforgiving nature of tabloid and high school gossip. The plot isn't particularly original, and the strength of Spoiled is in the characters of Molly and Brooke. Though they echo other frienemies like Gossip Girl's Blair and Serena, they come across as believable and sympathetic in their reactions to the sudden family upheaval.
Molly in particular is an engaging character, in her struggles to adjust to the Hollywood lifestyle, her tourist glee at celebrity sightings, and her slow recovery from her mother's death. Brooke's spoiled petulance is somewhat more grating, but the long absences of her movie star father, and her absentee hand-model mother make it clear that her life, too, is far from perfect. The two girls are complemented by a hilarious parade of secondary characters, from Brick, a parody of a well meaning but entirely self-absorbed movie star father, forever interrupting conversations to take calls from his agent or note down witticisms on his blackberry, to Shelby Kendall, daughter of a tabloid-mogul and Brooke's primary social rival.
Plot and characters aside, Spoiled owes most of its appeal to the snarky fashion commentary and witty irreverence that defines the Go Fug Yourself blog. The book is full of the satire and opinions that make the blog so enjoyable (leggings are not pants; hot pants don’t look good on anyone but models; why is Rosario Dawson famous again?). It is easy to overlook plot holes and problems when Spoiled is so much fun to read, and the absurd celebrity world it sets up is practically begging for a sequel.
The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis
reviewed by Courtney
Martin Amis has had the kind of long and significant writing career that young writers hope for, gaining a reputation with notable novels like Money and London Fields, which dealt with the corruption and problems of modern life through a combination of quick humor and acutely articulate prose. He began work on his most recent novel, The Pregnant Widow in 2003, speaking publicly about its autobiographical nature and his struggles to complete the narrative. The long wait, and pre-release hype made The Pregnant Widow highly anticipated, which buildup only highlighted the unimpressive reality of the final product.
Far from his best effort, The Pregnant Widow comes across as self-indulgent and unedited, an unfortunate result from such a talented writer. The beauty of his prose is undiminished, and parts of the novel are as flawlessly constructed as the passages that defined Amis' earlier work, but without a well-constructed plot, these moments of brilliance fail to sustain the 480-page narrative. The novel deals with the feminist revolution, detailing a 1970 vacation in Italy taken by the narrator, Keith Nearing and a group of friends.
Keith and his girlfriend, Lily, are guests in a castle in the Italian country owned by a wealthy cheese-baron. In the castle, Keith finds himself drawn into an elaborate social game as the group of friends attempts to navigate the changing standards and expectations of the sexual revolution. The novel's setting is interesting, the elegant and old-fashioned castle accentuating the characters attempts' to embrace modernity. A much older Keith narrates from 2009, allowing for a retrospective evaluation of the actions of his younger self.
The main problem with the novel is that there is no real established conflict. The framing structure of Keith's narration effectively sets up the plot, but the promised devastating event seems largely unremarkable. Amis' moralizing on the confusion and misdirection of the feminist revolution, though clearly well intentioned, comes across as condescending and unsupported. It is difficult to blame conflicting standards of female sexuality for the events of the novel when the clearer culprit is the morally unsupportable actions of the somewhat unlikable characters. What is intended as a sweeping statement about coming of age in the midst of a sexual and cultural revolution is instead a lagging and somewhat judgmental narrative about the trials and follies of youth written by a clearly aging writer. His characters are not just unlikable, but unconvincing.
Amis admits to extensive struggles with the formation of The Pregnant Widow, even claiming to have essentially scrapped his initial draft and begun again entirely, repeatedly pushing back the intended release date. This struggle comes out clearly in the novel itself, it is easy to see how he had to fight to build a novel out of what is sufficient basis for a short story or novella at most. There is simply not a strong enough plot or compelling enough characters to maintain a novel of this length, and the didactic nature of much of the narrative serves to emphasize, rather than disguise this lack.
Booky Wook 2: This Time It's Personal by Russell Brand
reviewed by Courtney
Russell Brand, the British comedian, is probably most famous in the U.S.A. for roles in movies like Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him To The Greek, as well as his highly public marriage to pop star Katy Perry. His first memoir, My Booky Wook: A Memoir of Sex, Drugs, and Stand-Up, published in 2007, recounts Brand's struggles with addictions to crack and heroin as he pursues fame as a comedian in Britain. This follow-up to the highly successful first book picks up almost exactly where the first left off, as a now sober Brand faces the ramifications of the fame he'd sought and indulges his extensive and explicitly detailed sex addiction.
Like My Booky Wook, Booky Wook 2: This Time It's Personal is both painfully honest and unfailingly lighthearted in its presentation of Brand's lifestyle and personal issues. His absurd sexual exploits rival those of his drug-fueled past in their depravity and the hilarity of their presentation, and in many ways the memoir reads like an extended stand-up routine. Fans of Brand's extremely personal, self-centered comedy will appreciate the tone, and likely recognize some of the content as material from his stand-up.
Now that Brand is famous, his anecdotes are more likely to concern other celebrities, and the book provides an interesting insight to situations like navigating a brief affair with Kate Moss, or cultivating friendships with musical icons like Morrissey and Noel Gallagher. Brand is as unflinching in his recounting of his career mistakes as his successes, most notably the 2008 prank telephone calls to Andrew Sachs made on-air with Jonathon Ross on The Russell Brand Show that led to his resignation from the BBC. These more serious anecdotes, however, are largely outnumbered by his raunchy accounts of outrageous sexual encounters.
The first book, in addressing his quest for fame, personal history, and problems with drugs and alcohol, had a greater depth of material and conflict than this follow-up, and occasionally Brand's account of his struggles with his sudden fame and sex addiction can grow irritatingly repetitive. This second memoir is sustained largely by the strength of Brand's personality, his charisma, and the sheer kinetic energy of his rambling, quick-witted narration, rather than the content itself.
Brand has perfected this narcissistic, uncensored, and dizzyingly verbose persona to a point that occasionally almost verges on mental illness, so it is refreshing to see flashes of a more personal, self-aware side in his account of his relationship with Katy Perry. As Brand constructed his comic identity almost entirely around the unflinching examination of his outrageous exploits and missteps, it will be interesting to see if it can hold up now that he has cut not only drugs and alcohol but also promiscuous sex from his lifestyle.
Strong Motion by Jonathan Franzen
reviewed by Courtney
With all of the media attention Jonathan Franzen received surrounding the Oprah controversy and awards for The Corrections, and the subsequent reconciliation and acclaim for his most recent Freedom, it is all to easy for the actual writing to get pushed to the side. The author's second novel, Strong Motion, published in 1992, though perhaps overly ambitious, is an excellent testament to the strength and creativity at the core of Franzen's prose.
Most of the story takes place in Boston during a wave of inexplicable seismic activity, and focuses on Louis Holland and his highly dysfunctional family as they become embroiled in a complex and morally ambiguous struggle over inheritance following the death of his grandmother in the first major earthquake. As Louis falls in love with Renee Seitchek, a Harvard seismologist investigating the cause of the earthquakes, Franzen interweaves their relationship with family and character history, as well as other seemingly irrelevant threads concerning as disparate subjects as abortion, environmental history, and even one notable passage from the perspective of a local raccoon.
Despite the largely uncomplicated plot, the many character threads can be difficult to follow, and much of the first half of the novel is spent in introducing and reintroducing the central characters and themes. Though Strong Motion could easily have descended into an impenetrable, convoluted mess, Franzen does an admirable job of pulling together the various disparate narrative threads in the final portion of the narrative. Where the first half of the book is at times frustratingly slow and wandering, the second half gains enough momentum to eclipse these earlier lapses.
Strong Motion has all the conventions of a traditional mystery novel: a somewhat unlikable but morally unshakable protagonist, his mysterious, emotionally damaged but brilliant older girlfriend, debated inheritance, a corporate conspiracy and cover-up, ineffectual government regulators, stolen evidence. That Franzen chose to focus on character rather than plot has an interesting muting effect; the characters are real and relatable, but their realism makes their lives fantastical by comparison. The plot seems almost too neat (one scene in particular in which Louis' father provides missing information comes across as unrealistic) because the characters are otherwise realistically complex. The relationships Franzen presents are so relatable and multifaceted that what would otherwise be a workable mystery plot seems trite by comparison; the reader is in the interesting position of watching characters react believably to unbelievable situations.
Which is not to say that Strong Motion is ultimately a failed novel. Its strength is merely to be found in its characters rather than its plot. In the novel Franzen explores the way that discontent can become habitual, love can breed resentment and even hatred, events and ruptures can have their root in decisions and actions decades previous. Franzen's vision of the world is somewhat fatalistic, but his fatalism creates an overwhelming sense of human responsibility, and even when we don't like his characters we relate to them. Strong Motion is not Franzen's best book, but it does provide an interesting preview of the kind of character depth and themes that led to achievements like The Corrections.
Imperial Bedrooms by Bret Easton Ellis
reviewed by Courtney
Bret Easton Ellis' first novel Less Than Zero has become synonymous with a specific view of the 1980s. His youth, as well as its detached, disturbingly emotionless portrayal of sex, drugs, and violence made it immediately controversial and significant, and led to the film starring Robert Downey Jr. Imperial Bedrooms is a sequel to Less Than Zero, resuming the story of those characters, now middle aged.
Since Less Than Zero, Ellis has been no stranger to controversial fiction, venturing further into extreme stylized violence and sex (most famously with the often challenged American Psycho) as well as metafiction, and Imperial Bedrooms is a continuation of this trend. The novel is not an exact sequel, taking place in a similar but not identical world to Less Than Zero. The main character and narrator, Clay, is aware of the previous novel and the film adaptation, attributing them to a former friend. This metafictional device allows Ellis to distance this older Clay from his younger counterpart, and to comment on the earlier novel.
The structural and stylistic accomplishment of the novel is significant, and Ellis is unquestionably a talented writer, but Imperial Bedrooms comes across as more self-indulgent than monumental. It is disturbing that despite the excessive and gratuitous violence and Clay's pathological narration, the overall impression of the text is not only not shocking, but borderline tedious. Ellis has made a career out of his ability to upset and appall, but the impact of even horrific violence is lessened with repetition.
The structure of the novel is far more interesting than its content, and even the novelty appeal of returning to Clay and his friends in middle age is not adequate to maintain interest. This is intriguing, because Imperial Bedrooms, unlike most of Ellis' fiction, is built around a clear and fast-moving plot. Part of the problem is that much of the success of Less Than Zero was grounded in its complete lack of emotion. The characters were emotional zombies, and though that worked to great effect in the context of the narrative, they were simply not sufficiently deep to sustain a sequel. Ellis' metafictional acrobatics are a tacit acknowledgement of this lack, as well as an attempt to address it, but because Clay's newfound depth is concentrated in the same disturbing areas, he comes across as ultimately even more constructed and incapable of growth than he had originally. This inability to change or mature is itself a far more terrifying concept than the plot of the novel; the fact that these characters are raising families and succeeding in the modern world despite a pathological lack of empathy is itself a disturbing idea.
In attempting to present Less Than Zero as a false or inadequate representation of the characters, Imperial Bedrooms actually does the opposite. The sequel comes across almost as a parody of Ellis' style and characters, and as a continuation it is disappointing. However, as an indication of Ellis' own authorial trajectory it is more interesting, with its convoluted structure and traditional plot. His dependence on established tropes of extreme sex and violence and emotional detachment, however, has become a cliché, and Imperial Bedrooms is, at best, a reminder of his previous successes.
Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story by Chuck Klosterman
reviewed by Courtney
The book long version of his 2003 Spin Magazine cover story on the same topic, Chuck Klosterman's Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story recounts a road trip he took to the death sites of various famous musicians. Ostensibly addressing the intriguing relation of death to rock and roll stardom, and the way that death often contributes to a musician's credibility, the book actually spends relatively little time on the circumstances of those deaths, instead focusing on the personal, existential, and romantic conflicts of the author, and the people he encounters on his journey.
Klosterman's humorous, self-aware voice makes him an engaging cultural critic, and the convoluted, often-comedic interpretations and theories that frame his articles translate well to a book format. Automobiles and the myth of "The Road" have been the inspiration for much of American rock music and popular culture, and so provide the perfect venue for Klosterman's consideration of that inspiration and of the role of transience and finality in both music and life. His rambling narration, and circular, obsessive analysis of past relationships and existential ideas reflect the inherently repetitive and hypnotic nature of solo long-distance car travel. The soundtrack to his road trip becomes the soundtrack to his thoughts, the narrative interweaving with his musical commentary until even his past romances are expressed in terms of the members of the band KISS.
Despite extensive passages on the impact of death on a musician's legacy, and detailed discussions of morbid ideas like the perfect death song, or how long it would take for news of his own death to travel to his friends and family, much of Killing Yourself to Live ends up being an examination of modern American life. On his road trip, Klosterman encounters a variety of strange, interesting people, from a Cracker Barrel waitress who engages him about Kafka to a teenage girl in his hotel who asks him for marijuana to the relatives of those who died in a fire at a Great White concert Rhode Island who pay tribute to the deceased by playing music and sharing cocaine.
The book is full of the bizarre facts (Both Duane Allman and Allman Brothers Band bassist Berry Oakley died in motorcycle accidents on the same road, nearly one year apart; Marc Bolan of T.Rex was obsessed with cars and died in a car accident without ever learning to drive, apparently because of his fear of dying in a car accident; more than a logical percent of rock stars die in plane crashes) and interesting encounters that accompany this kind of morbid, death-tourism. The life and death of rock stars has always fascinated us, just consider the persistence of the "Paul is dead" or "Elvis is alive" conspiracy theories. Killing Yourself to Live is more than just a recapitulation of famous deaths because Klosterman attempts to dissect that fascination itself. While his success is questionable given the ambition of the goal, the book does morph into a highly personal examination of his own romantic past, presented in his unique, often hilarious, and occasionally meaningful style.
Life by Keith Richards
reviewed by Courtney
It seems like recently celebrity autobiographies have become as common as reunion tours. Everyone from Russell Brand to Steven Tyler to Patti Smith has published memoirs, some better written than others. It is easy to become cynical about the formulaic, ghostwritten nature of most of these books, particularly those detailing the excesses and abuses of former addicts in braggingly vivid detail, as background for their subsequent recovery. It can almost seem like a competition between hard-partying celebrities for the deepest drug-fueled depravities, and most miraculous recovery. For someone as legendary as Keith Richards, however, there is no need to compete, and this attitude serves both to reinforce his reputation and make Life a refreshing and surprisingly enjoyable read.
Richards is aware of his reputation, and though he spends enough time on his rock and roll exploits and heroin addiction to satisfy the most voyeuristic of fans (pretty much every story you've heard about him turns out to be true, including the infamous snorting of his father's ashes), he spends as much time waxing rapturous on his favorite blues musicians and the origins of the Rolling Stones. Readers may be drawn to the first-hand confirmation of the outrageous stories, but what prove more interesting are the unexpectedly emotional passages on the musicians that inspired him.
With a reputation as enormous as his (even inspiring Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow) it is too easy to overlook the music, but the anecdotes about the inspiration behind famous songs, or the recording process for Exile on Mainstreet are as fascinating as any of his exploits. That said, Richards' acknowledges the extent of his mythic persona, gratifying fans with outrageous accounts of property damage at Hugh Hefner's mansion, a particular week-long road trip with John Lennon of which neither musician had any memory, his tumultuous, drug-fueled relationship with Anita Pallenberg, the drug busts and legal tribulations, the explosive fights and creative rivalry with Mick Jagger.
None of these stories are surprising, but together they support the persona we have come to expect from Richards, who, unlike other hard-partying musicians, never embraced a 12-step program, choosing instead to kick heroin, and later cocaine, on his own terms. The rock and roll excesses are what we look for in our rock stars; we live vicariously through their exploits, and look to their eventual downfall and recovery as proof of their humanity and the ultimate superiority of our own, less outrageous life choices. Keith Richards single handedly defines the common conception of rock star behavior, and his seeming immunity to the consequences can make him seem inhuman.
The endurance of Richards' legacy, and his unrepentant attitude towards his former abuses has made him the ultimate rock star, so the humanizing effect of his fanboy enthusiasm and excitement come as a pleasant surprise. More troubling is the sheer number of former friends and acquaintances who have not had Richards' luck. Brian Jones, Gram Parsons, Jimi Hendrix, John Phillips, and many others of Richards' contemporaries did not fare as well as he did, and in his account of their loss it becomes clear that despite his cavalier attitude, Richards has not been unaffected by the consequences and casualties of addiction. So the success of Life is not, as expected, in the rock and roll battle stories, fun as they are, but in the surprisingly relatable character of Richards' voice and story. As it turns out, the prototypical rock star is actually also a human being.
Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung: The Work of a Legendary Critic: Rock 'n' Roll as Literature and Literature as Rock 'n' Roll by Lester Bangs
reviewed by Courtney
Best known from the over-the-top cameo portrayal by Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Almost Famous, Lester Bangs made an indelible mark on music writing in the 1970s with his work for Rolling Stone and Creem Magazine. Bangs wrote in the tradition of Gonzo journalists like Hunter S. Thompson, eschewing the tropes and conventions of rock and roll journalism, which often pandered to the artists and industry, in favor of brutally honest, rambling prose. Bangs' articles were often works of literature in their own right, occasionally surpassing the artistry of their musical subjects.
This collection's title article, written in 1971, which contains one of the first applications of the label "punk" as a reference to a kind of music, details the extended and entirely fictional career of the rock band the Count Five, who in reality dissolved after their debut album. Most of the other articles are more grounded in the reality of the music they discuss, including excellent pieces on The Clash, Van Morrison ("Astral Weeks"), John Lennon ("Thinking the Unthinkable About John Lennon") and Iggy Pop ("Of Pop and Pies and Fun: A Program for Mass Liberation in the Form of a Stooges Review, or, Who's the Fool? " and "Iggy Pop: Blowtorch in Bondage"), among others. Bangs was obsessive about his heroes (especially Lou Reed, who gets an entire section, titled "Slaying the Father") but he did not hesitate to hold them accountable. His drunken, antagonistic interviews with Lou Reed are the stuff of legend, particularly "Let Us Now Praise Famous Death Dwarves (or how I slugged it out with Lou Reed and stayed awake), " published in 1975.
His honest portrayal of the punk rock scene includes a forthright depiction of the negativity, drug addiction, and violence prevalent in his own life as well as those of the musicians he idolized. His writing was explicitly fueled by amphetamines and barbiturates, even as he wrote passionately about his disgust for the death-wish he observed among his contemporaries. He made no attempt to justify or disguise this contradiction, and articles like "I Saw God and/or Tangerine Dream," which catalogues his experience of cough syrup-induced hallucinations during a Tangerine Dream concert, are found in the same section as others like "Peter Laughner," in which he writes passionately against the self-destruction he saw as rampant within the music scene. Bangs never conquered his chemical dependence, and his tragically premature death in 1982 was the result of a combined overdose on Darvon, Valium and Nyquil.
The volatility of his writing, and his clear passion for the music he discussed made his work stand out among his music journalist contemporaries, and his pieces seem even more relevant given the prevalence of homogenized, industry driven reviews in music magazines today. This book is a classic for lovers of rock and roll music, who will be drawn to the exciting portrayal of legendary musicians in their prime, but is distinguished from other collections of music journalism by the strength and originality of his writing, which captured the spirit and passion of that music in literary form.
As Bangs explains in a profile on The Clash, "The politics of rock 'n' roll, in England or America or anywhere else, is that a whole lot of kids want to be fried out of their skins by the most scalding propulsion they can find, for a night they can pretend is the rest of their lives, and whether the next day they go back to work in shops or boredom on the dole or American TV doldrums in Mom 'n' Daddy's living room nothing can cancel the reality of that night in the revivifying flames when for once if only then in your life you were blasted out of yourself and the monotony which defines most life anywhere at any time, when you supped on lightning and nothing else in the realms of the living or dead mattered at all." That visceral quality is as or more present in Bangs' writing as in any of the music he discussed, and it is difficult to think of a better explanation for the appeal of his best work.
A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
reviewed by Courtney
As the recipient of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction as well as a myriad of other awards, Jennifer Egan's A Visit From The Goon Squad was one of the most hyped novels of the past year. The marketing and presentation, which focused heavily on the rock and roll elements of the story, were not entirely misleading, but Egan's work is far more than a nostalgic glorification of bygone American popular music.
The novel lacks a strictly linear construction, presenting the interwoven experiences and lives of many different characters from the 1960's through the present and into Egan's mildly cautionary vision of a near future. The disjointed, layered narrative emphasizes the novel's exploration of the effects of passing time and aging on its characters, a theme also reinforced by the mentions of the swift fluctuations and reinventions of popular music.
This fragmentation of the novel's format places the emphasis on the characters, whose lives are presented in a series of apparently unconnected sketches; the novel initially seems more like a collection of short stories. As the narrative continues, the connections between the different characters becomes clear, and the underlying temporal themes are revealed. This character-driven construction allows the reader to come to these larger conclusions almost independently of the narration, which lends a sense of gravity to what could easily have been an unoriginal concept.
Regardless of larger thematic considerations, the reader is left primarily with an impression of Egan's characters, some of whom are quite memorable. An autistic boy catalogs recorded pauses in popular music in a section narrated by his sister in the form of a PowerPoint slide-show printout; a teenage punk girl watches the seduction of her friend by a much older man in the music business in Los Angeles; a successful young woman steals a wallet from an open purse in the restroom on a first date; an aging music producer sprinkles pure gold flakes in his coffee; an unhappy college student takes an ill-advised swim in the Hudson River.
Her characters are touching, and her snapshot depictions of past musical eras are strikingly compelling, but Egan's vision of the near future is slightly more problematic. As the story moves through the present day into a potential future, the specificity and experiential nature of the narrative becomes somewhat lost in her need to establish this future as a likely and necessary result of the present. Egan's future New York is a world entirely dictated by her characters' relation to technology; conversations are conducted via text message, even in the case of face to face meetings, and children's music is the dominant genre, spurred by the massive consumption of one-touch song purchases by that newly dominant demographic. Though Egan is careful to avoid overt moralizing, her future seems clearly cautionary, a stance which is at odds with her earlier depictions of time and change as inescapable but ultimately value-independent forces.
This unsatisfactorily moralistic portrayal of the future likely comes in part from the difficultly in ending a novel that is built around a lack of traditional narrative structure. The emergence of theme comes partly from this unconventional construction, and therefore becomes somewhat trite when it is more explicitly stated. The futuristic ending, however, is a small portion of the novel, significant only in comparison to the strength of the rest of the narrative. Egan's experimentation with narrative structure is nicely offset with her textual experimentation. Sections like the aforementioned PowerPoint printout call to mind the formal innovation of her metafictional and postmodern predecessors, but where classic metafiction like John Barths' Lost In The Funhouse acts to intentionally confuse and distance the reader, Egan's experimentation does the opposite; her formal experimentation compliments her narrative content, and her strength lies in her realism. A Visit From The Goon Squad is structurally interesting, but in a way that doesn't distract from the story itself. Egan's writing is compelling, witty, and, independent of thematic and structural innovations, strikingly engaging and fun to read.
The Petting Zoo by Jim Carroll
reviewed by Courtney
Jim Carroll is best known for his collected journal entries, The Basketball Diaries, published in 1978, which recount his teenage addiction to heroin, and its impact on his life as a gifted basketball player growing up in New York. The memoir was the basis for the 1995 film of the same name starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Carroll was also known for his poetry and his flirtation with the New York music scene, most notably culminating in a single, "People Who Died," which was used on the soundtrack for E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, among other films. Carroll died in 2009 of a heart attack at the age of 60, before the publication of his first novel, The Petting Zoo.
The Petting Zoo, despite moments of brilliance, is a deeply flawed novel. The book follows the character of Billy Wolfram, a famous New York painter, as he attempts to gather the threads of his life following an aesthetically induced emotional breakdown at an exhibition of Velazquez paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As Billy isolates himself from his friends and his work in the time after his release from a psychiatric ward, Carroll interweaves character history from Billy's childhood in New York through the present with his attempts to find meaning in life and art after his breakdown. The book draws on Carroll's own experience of New York in the 1970s and 1980s, and it is these often humorous depictions of art world pretensions as Billy struggles to gain recognition for his work, as well as his relationship with his art dealer Max Beerbaum and best friend, musician Denny MacAbee, that are the novel's highlights.
As a musician and drug abuser, the character Denny draws most heavily on Carroll's past experiences, and as such often comes across as far more believable than the protagonist, Billy. Billy's deep aesthetic admiration and artistic temperament seem genuine, but his puritanical work ethic and the repeated emphasis on his ascetic lifestyle come across as contrived. Carroll's insistence on Billy's absolute refusal of drugs and other distractions is a somewhat clumsy attempt to distance himself from his character, despite the fact that most of his best work is autobiographical. The novel's posthumous publication may be partially to blame for the problematic pacing, and the heavy-handed aspects are balanced with the often-beautiful lyricism of the narration. Ultimately the poetic aspects of the novel are its high points, and the reader is reminded that Carroll's strength lies in his poetry, rather than his fiction. The Petting Zoo is not embarrassingly bad, but its strength is in recalling Carroll's other work, when judged independently it is unremarkable. Fans of his poetry and memoirs will be glad for the opportunity to watch Carroll try his hand at fiction, but newcomers would be advised to stick to the books and poetry that made him famous.
The Pale King by David Foster Wallace
reviewed by Courtney
David Foster Wallace, though also the author of notable short fiction and essays, was most famous for his ambitious 1,000-plus-page opus, Infinite Jest. The novel was included on Time Magazine's 2005 list of the 100 Best English Language Novels since 1923, and sparked comparisons with James Joyce and Thomas Pynchon, but was almost immediately branded as a "difficult book," in part due to its hefty length, and as a result has unfortunately joined the ranks of many classic novels whose readership is almost entirely academics. With a background in metafiction, mathematics, and philosophy, Wallace emerged in 1987 with his debut novel, The Broom of the System, as a part of the postmodernist movement, but was always interested in a kind of moralistic fiction that combined accessibility with technical expertise. His writing got inside the characters, peeling back their neuroses and life stories in intricate, non-linear narratives that evoked the chaotic nature of modern American life.
Fans of Wallace's writing have been waiting for his next novel since the 1996 publication of Infinite Jest, reading the several short story and essay collections published in the interim with mixed feelings; where was the promised novel, the "long thing," as he called it, that would surpass even the accomplishment of Infinite Jest? The unfortunate event of his 2008 suicide brought a shockingly intense reaction. We felt that he knew us, that he understood something about what it means to be alive in the modern world; what could it mean that he had given up? Like many somewhat deified figures who have died prematurely, in the past three years Wallace has had his share of borderline-exploitative posthumous publications, from David Lipsky's interview transcript Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace, to This Is Water, a transcript of a 2005 commencement address Wallace gave at Kenyon College. Regardless of the unavoidable element of cynicism implicit in posthumous publication, I, like many Wallace fans, found it impossible not to anticipate The Pale King, his long awaited, and now tragically permanently unfinished novel.
Anyone reading The Pale King as an answer to Infinite Jest or looking for a traditionally complete novel will inevitably be disappointed. The Pale King is an unfinished book by any standards. But it is also strikingly complete. The novel has no conventional plot structure; set in an IRS center in the Midwest in 1985, it hints at a possible revolt or revolution that never actually occurs, and it is unclear whether this is intentional or not. As with any unfinished novel, it is impossible not to wonder how different the published book is from the novel the author intended. Unfortunately we will never know, but Wallace's writing style makes such questions almost irrelevant. After all, Infinite Jest didn't have a neat plot structure or ending either, its strength was the characters, and on this count The Pale King does not disappoint. Like Infinite Jest, the novel switches between seemingly unrelated character back-stories, from which the underlying narrative context emerges only gradually. The breathtaking lyricism and sincerity of some of the prose is interwoven with various instances of metafictional tongue-in-cheek humor (see for example the insertion into the narrative of a fictionalized version of Wallace himself in a hilarious author's foreword several chapters in, in which the character claims the novel as entirely non-fiction, a confusion that is further compounded by the similarity of the character's back-story to Wallace's own, as well as repeated references to another, unseen character also named David Wallace).
All of which is to say that, what ifs aside, this novel is uniquely, reassuringly, heartbreakingly David Foster Wallace. As an unfinished novel it could never have lived up to reader's hopes, or the expectations set by Infinite Jest, but it is an opportunity to experience once more Wallace's distinctive and impossibly ambitious take on modern life, written in his unmistakable, perfectly imperfect style. He will be missed.