31 December, 2013

Touch and Go Records Make My Month

The Black Heart Procession are one of my favorite bands. I discovered them after a glowing review of their 1999 sophomore album, 2, was printed in an independent local paper, and fell in love with the recording’s haunting lo-fi sound, the band’s unique instrumentation (the third track on 2, “A Light So Dim,” lists drums, guitar, saw, SH-1000, waterphone, noises, piano, organ, and toy piano), and the sense of lovelorn desperation running through the lyrics:
There are no trains that leave from the maze
Your only chance was a ship to escape
You’ll be the lighthouse in the storm
I’ll be the ship with a thousand dead souls
But how long will they believe in a light so dim?
Down in the gallows the darkness glows
But it’s hard to see in the hearts of them
If you see a light, call down below
I’ll be moving and sorting out our fears
But how long will we believe in a light so dim?
Time is all we have, so take the time
Time is all we have, so take the time to make the time
Throw down the line, I’ll see to climb
If it’s held close it may just work
If you are the lighthouse in the storm
I’ll be the ship filled with a thousand dead souls
Time is all we have, so take the time
Time is all we have, so take the time
Time is all we have, so take the time to make the time
BHP released another album soon thereafter, which I relished at least as much. But that’s where my collecting stopped. When their fourth album dropped, I was locked away in a prison cell with no music but what came through a portable Panasonic tape player that got intermittent, fuzzy radio reception.

A friend hosted a weekly punk show on KKFI, an independent Kansas City public radio station, and sometimes she’d break up sets of Crass, the Misfits, and Nashville Pussy to dedicate a song to me, off one of the CDs from my at-home collection. Thanks to Madeline’s (now long gone) show and Sonic Spectrum, with Robert Moore, a much-respected local dejay, I got my occasional fix of Black Heart Procession music and was able to keep up with sporadic bits of their later work. Some I captured on cassette tapes, which I then played over and over and over again, heedless as always to the dangers of nostalgia, but genuinely happy.

The prison eventually allowed its inmate population to buy CD players and to mail order discs from approved vendors, which was nice, but by then I’d compiled a little bestiary of mix tapes I was loath to part with. A few things I’d recorded were irreplaceable — live in-studio or onstage sets — giving me at least one solid reason not to make the switch to digital. Quantity was another. The rules cap inmates’ collections at twenty cassettes or CDs, so switching meant ditching my ninety-minute recordings for a format that averaged just over half that playing time. However, new releases weren’t available on tape. As wave after wave of unfamiliar sounds washed over my bulwarks like the songs of sirens, my resolve crumbled. It was only a matter of time before I surrendered and dived in.

Compact discs were already on their way out by then, surpassed in popularity by compressed-bitrate convenience, and the few vendors that still did business with the incarcerated, via certified checks and postal delivery — Union Supply Direct, Music by Mail, Walkenhorst’s, Pack Central — carried only a smattering of CDs by the Billboard-uncharted bands and artists I most enjoy. My Deserted Island Collection is comprised of some great stuff today, all of it from the aforementioned companies, but there’s not much else they stock that I’m itching for. To get that, I had to change how I scratched.

“Dear Touch and Go Records,” I wrote a couple of months ago, explaining as concisely as I could, to whomever happened to check the company’s mailbox, how profoundly I love the Black Heart Procession’s music, how 2 was the band’s only album I’d been able to track down and order, and how my unfortunate circumstances made buying from an amply stocked online vendor, such as Amazon, impossible. “Can you help me?” I practically begged.

With an enclosed self-addressed, stamped envelope I suspected might never get used, I dropped my letter in the box. A reply came soon. It was handwritten on tan stationary with the Touch and Go logo in red at the top of the page. At the bottom, in the same red, was printed, “the nice label”:
Hi Byron,

Thanks for writing, and thanks for your interest in the Black Heart Procession! We haven’t had a mail order division in around five years, so we looked around for a store/vendor who could fulfill your request. Somewhat surprisingly, we couldn’t find one... The Internet has made ordering music by mail go the way of the dinosaur. So... we decided to make a one-time exception in this case and ship an order to you directly.
The writer went on to list all three albums I wanted that the Black Heart Procession put out through Touch and Go — Three, Amore del Tropico, and The Spell — with prices and shipping costs.

Here’s the thing: I realize that Touch and Go Records is a business, meaning their clear and obvious goal is to make money, and that, in the interest of money-making, collecting about forty dollars on the sale of some older merchandise that wasn’t moving makes good sense. But there were so many reasons for them to have ignored my letter — that its return address was a prison; that indulging my unorthodox request would be a hassle; that the payoff, even for a struggling indie label, would amount to chump change.... “The nice label,” indeed. It’s a gesture that makes me smile, just thinking about it.

My package of BHP CDs should be arriving any day now. A friend with his own copy of Three, when I mentioned this serendipitous tidbit to him, suggested we throw a listening party (“musically group our consciousness with a great album,” he elaborated) once my order gets here. At a prearranged date and time, we’ll cue it up simultaneously and revel in the melodies. Music like a talisman joining faraway friends. If it’s held close, it may just work.

25 December, 2013

Christmas Yet to Come

Today, after a morning of writing and coffee, after misleading reports of joy on earth by cable news, after a noontime serving of turkey, stuffing, gravy, and sub-par pie, after at least one phone call to a far-off place, after a mug of hot cocoa and some chocolate chocolate-chip cookies from my yearly treat bag when other prisoners ate all theirs last week, and after watching muted Yule Log footage for too long, I'll climb into my bunk with thoughts as heavy as chains but reminding myself, There's always next year.

13 December, 2013

Forty Favorite Fictions

Under the assumptions that everybody loves lists and that the holidays have set off a frenzy of gift-buying, I’m sharing this list of some of my favorite novels and short-story collections. Maybe it will help you pick a book or two for the fiction-lover in your life (although, I hope there’s more than just one). More likely, it will give you something to peruse at work, while you’re being paid to do other, presumably more important things.

* * * * *

 The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams, is easily the finest-ever blending of science fiction and humor. It’s also the first title in what became a galaxy-spanning five-, maybe six-part (depending on how you count) trilogy. Don’t bother with the math, just grab your towel and enjoy the ride.

Jesse Ball’s Samedi the Deafness reads like a Kubrick plot as channeled by Kafka — haunting and beautiful in its uncertainty.

There are many reasons Jorge Luis Borges is revered in literary circles. As translated by Andrew Hurley, his Collected Fictions make them all evident.

Kevin Brockmeier treats the fantastic with a light touch in The Illumination, a novel-in-stories about pain and the human condition.

If anyone has written about this material more plausibly and affectingly, I want to read it. Forget the movie, just read Max Brooks’s World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, the standard-bearer for mainstream zombie fiction.

Anthony Burgess reportedly disavowed A Clockwork Orange in his later years; however, its depiction of crime and revenge, plus a bit of the old in-out and ultraviolence, is real horrorshow.

The way Michael Chabon handles the story of two brothers making their way in post-World War Two New York, in his critically acclaimed and multiply-awarded The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay assure it a place among the great twenty-first-century novels.

White Noise, by Don De Lillo, is an incandescent comedy of horrors — an absolute must-read.

I’ve heard that The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was adapted into a graphic novel not long after its publication. This is fitting, given that Junot Díaz’s protagonist is a serious comic-book nerd, but the author’s vibrant language and literary verve are capable of bringing to life all the goings-on in this funny and heartbreaking work.

Philip K. Dick is the thinking man’s preferred sci-fi writer. His later books, in particular, grapple with big questions — about the subjectivity of reality, sanity, religion.... Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said is regarded by some as the quintessential PKD novel; it deals with all of these themes at once, against a backdrop as bleak as that of the movie Blade Runner.

Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love offers a sympathetic and endearingly outlandish tale of one circus family’s rise and fall. I’m a sucker for a good freak show; how can something so ugly be so beautiful?

What happens to us after we die? Neurophysicist David Eagleman answers this question in forty marvelous ways, in Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives.

A lovely novel about the unlovely happenings in the lives of an Argentinian Jewish family, The Ministry of Special Cases, by Nathan Englander, occupies a unique place in literature, somewhere between Kafka’s The Trial and Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint.

Mixing typographical tricks, video stills, and black-and-white photography with moving prose, Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel about a precocious little boy coming to terms with his father’s death in the 2001 World Trade Center attacks, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, strikes a powerful emotional chord.

People, young boys in particular, are cruel, as William Golding knew. There is good reason that his Lord of the Flies appears on so many high school English classes’ reading lists.

An autistic boy witnesses the suspicious burial of a neighbor’s dog and is driven to solve the mystery of its death. His investigation, so vividly depicted, makes The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time an impressive debut by Mark Haddon, whose work with autistic youth inspired this novel.

Khaled Hosseini’s tale of a reluctant Afghani homecoming is by turns brutal and beautiful, exploring the many ways that places and people we leave behind remain an ineluctable part of us. The Kite Runner is a book to steal your breath away.

A friend once told me that classics are books that everyone talks about but no one ever reads. Victor Hugo’s masterpiece, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, may be one such novel, known best as a Disney-fied musical and discussed as though it’s nothing more than the story of a deformed bell-ringer, when it is, if anything, an ecstatic love letter to the immortal city of Paris.

Love and friendship made bittersweet by the certainty of early death are at the heart of this lyrical Kazuo Ishiguro novel, Never Let Me Go.

More know the film, starring Jack Nicholson as the incorrigible convict who enlivens life in Nurse Ratched’s mental ward, but the original, print version of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey, is more nuanced, more satisfying, for being told from within the mind of the mute observer, Big Chief.

I’ve often said that if there were a pill I could take to turn myself into an imbecile, unable to even remember my own name, I’d swallow it without a second thought. Being intelligent is vastly overrated; ignorance, true bliss. Daniel Keyes makes this point clear in Flowers for Algernon, a straightforward but compelling twentieth-century classic.

The eccentric doings of one Mr. Perkus Tooth, in Johnathan Lethem’s lightly surreal Chronic City, are as amusing as the rest of the book is affecting.

Zachary Mason retells portions of classic myth in The Lost Books of the Odyssey

Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann, may be the finest piece of post-September eleventh literature — a paean to the city of New York and the everyday magic that takes place there.

China Miéville departs from his usual realm, contemporary fantasy, to tell a noirish detective procedural that unfolds in two distinct cities that just happen to overlap one another in physical space, in The City & The City.

Sumptuous imagery brings to life Erin Morgenstern’s debut novel, The Night Circus — a lovely fantasy set in the nineteenth century.

Haruki Murakami is contemporary Japan’s answer to Franz Kafka. After the Quake, a collection of Murakami’s stories, puts the man’s uncanny brilliance on full display.

The New Yorker named Téa Obreht one of its favorite contemporary writers under forty years old. Obreht’s first novel, The Tiger’s Wife, spins two simultaneous yarns — one a travelogue, one a fable — and leaves no doubt of the young author’s talent.

The unforgettable dystopian novel that introduced the world to Big Brother, 1984. In it, George Orwell gave us the quote, “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.”

Ayn Rand may not have been an elegant writer, but the central idea of Anthem — that individualism must be cherished — makes it a work of speculative fiction that deserves a long future in circulation.

Salman Rushdie is best recognized for his incendiary Satanic Verses (or, since the release of a Midnight’s Children film, with that), but his deconstruction of the Orpheus-and-Eurydice myth, in The Ground Beneath Her Feet, is what I consider his best novel.

The one-time face of astronomy, Carl Sagan, dramatizes the conflict between scientific rigor and religious faith in Contact, a plausible sci-fi novel with sincere heart. (Do I even need to mention what an atrocity the film version is?)

Your life is missing something terribly important if you aren’t familiar with Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s gentle fable, The Little Prince.

Yet another classic of English literature, Mary Shelley’s gothic novel, Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus, the meanings of which are largely ignored by later reimaginings.

Loneliness meets opportunistic verve in Super Sad True Love Story, a bleeding-edge quasi-romance by Gary Shteyngart. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll consider the social value of your credit rating. (And, according to Wired, Bill Gates regards it as a valuable cautionary tale about invasive technology.)

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was imprisoned for eight years in a Soviet gulag after criticizing Stalin in a letter. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich distills that harrowing experience into a slim, yet potent, novel.

A very good film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men was released in the mid-’90s, but the novel is without compare.

What makes Ignatius such a likable protagonist, when he’s so gross, rude, and arrogant? Probably that there’s a little of him in each of us. John Kennedy Toole’s renowned A Confederacy of Dunces is grade-A satire.

Slaughterhouse-Five is the book that cemented Kurt Vonnegut’s reputation as a satirist par excellence. I reread it every five years or so.

10 December, 2013

Now Hear This: My Podcast Interview with Stephen House About the Pariah's Syntax Book, Why I Write, and, Maybe, the Meaning of Life

I'm pleased to let everyone know that I'll be appearing on Samuel House's podcast Thursday, 12 December 2013 — the first show of a three-part series he's doing on what I suppose can be described as the wider ramifications of injustice. You can listen to the show live, from 5:30 to 6:00 PM Central Standard Time, right here. If you miss it, Blog Talk Radio will have it ready to be played from the archives soon thereafter.

03 December, 2013

A Fable

The Wolf and the Mastiff
By Aesop

A Wolf, who was almost skin and bone — so well did the dogs of the neighborhood keep guard — met, one moonshiny night, a sleek Mastiff, who was, moreover, as strong as he was fat. Bidding the Dog good-night very humbly, he praised his good looks. “It would be easy for you,” replied the Mastiff, “to get as fat as I am if you liked.” “What shall I have to do?” asked the Wolf. “Almost nothing,” answered the Dog. They trotted off together, but, as they went along, the Wolf noticed a bare spot on the Dog’s neck. “What is that mark?” said he. “Oh, the merest trifle,” answered the Dog; “the collar which I wear when I am tied up is the cause of it.” “Tied up!” exclaimed the Wolf, with a sudden stop; “tied up? Can you not always then run where you please?” “Well, not quite always,” said the Mastiff; “but what can that matter?” “It matters much to me,” rejoined the Wolf, and, leaping away, he ran once more to his native forest.

Moral: Better to starve free, than be a fat slave.

* * * *

It’s been said more than once, by well-intentioned people, that my imprisonment may actually have some positive aspects: I don’t have to trouble myself with car repairs, utility bills, spam in my inbox, or anyone begging to stay the week on my couch. My basic needs for survival are met by the beneficent Department of Corrections, so that I never have to worry where my next meal is coming from, whether there will be a roof over my head tonight, or what to do if I get sick — all of which would be good and fine if I thought lazy contentment was the only thing that made a life worth living. The dogs don’t understand why this wolf paces in his cage.

18 November, 2013

Now Hear This: My Podcast Interview with John Darlington About the Pariah’s Syntax Book

September saw the publication of The Pariah’s Syntax: Notes from an Innocent Man, and now podcaster John Darlington has invited me to a second appearance on John Talk Radio. We’ll be doing the show from 5:00 to 6:00 PM Central Standard Time, Wednesday, 20 November 2013. Listeners are encouraged to phone in with questions and comments about the book while the show airs live. If you miss that chance, though, it’ll be indefinitely archived at the above URL.

08 November, 2013

Against Beards: An Uncalled-for Rant

A man of sincerity and occasional profundity, my father used to caution me, “Never trust a man with just a mustache.”

His theory was that men whose cultivation of facial hair is relegated to the upper-lip region had something to hide. No satisfying answer was provided when I asked why the warning shouldn’t extend to him, who by then sported an impeccable, full goatee but had worn a dense Darryl Hall-style mustache all through my childhood. Ever skeptical, I put his mustaches-as-existential-concealment-tactic idea on par with the time Pops stressed to me the time-saving benefit of never driving behind any man wearing a hat. (Men in caps, however — trucker caps, baseball caps, skullcaps, beanies — supposedly stayed at, or exceeded, posted speed limits and were okay to pilot a vehicle behind. I neglected to ask about drivers in novelty wigs.) The brand of fatherly wisdom Pops provided was, in the way of most slanted advice, at times helpful but generally not.

I’ve since read about studies showing that people are prone to find bearded men less trustworthy. This effect may be due to the layer of hair limiting visibility of their facial expressions, inclining others, uncomfortable with the unknown, to be wary. Mustaches went unmentioned in the studies, but Pops’s theory won a smidgen of posthumous legitimacy in my eyes — if only as a window into the average person’s thoughts vis-à-vis face fuzz. He himself eventually confessed that his reason for shunning shaving was a “funny-looking” upper lip. (If you say so, Pops. The only thing I thought was funny about the fifth-grade school photo your mother showed me was your crew cut.) Still, my father was hip to facial hair being a signifier of concealment.

For reasons I like to think stem from my keen observations of human behavior and not to Pops’s iffy advice, I have a severe aversion to facial hair now, whether it be in the form of pencil mustaches, Vandyke beards, Fu Manchus, muttonchops, pudding stabbers, you name it. (And while I’m denouncing stylistic atrocities, allow me to veer momentarily off topic to also mention: tank tops on women, skinny jeans on men, and shorts on anyone.)

Hipsters deserve much of the blame. Their ironic appropriation of some of the most abominable mustaches and beards somehow crossed into the mainstream by mistake, proof that irony is too powerful a tool to be entrusted to just anyone. All it probably took was a couple of red-carpet appearances by meticulously unshaven A-listers, then John Q. Public tossed his Mach 3 in the trash. Now I can’t open a magazine or turn on the TV without being assailed by shameless full-frontal whisker imagery.

A minority of men of advancing years, as well as some very special ladies get a pass. Others, young men with perfectly presentable cheeks and chins, in particular, don’t. Since when is the hobo/caveman aesthetic one worth striving for? It doesn’t make you look cool, it doesn’t make you look more masculine, it only makes you look like you were too cheap to buy replacement blades the last time you were at the supermarket.

Consider this a formal complaint. Have some self-respect, guys; cut down that thicket.

And pull up your pants.

28 October, 2013

Thirteen Halloween Haiku

Spiced apple cider
Moonlit hayride, bonfire
The perfect fall night 

A cold snap brings rain
We rush through its icy sting
Kids trick-or-treating 

Eve of All Hallows
Spirits gambol in the streets
Loosed from within us 

Knife squeaks stabbing eyes
Scent of flesh and rent innards
Your jack-o’-lantern

Small sweet waxy cones
Scarcely anyone eats them
I love candy corn

Spider guards the porch
She frightens all the children
But she’s just rubber

In the moon’s blue glow
I kiss a girl with black lips
That come away red

My deathly pallor
Colored costumes clash with mine
I crashed this party

Fallen leaves molder
They give the breeze all it needs
To cense our season

White streamers billow
Poor pumpkin heads lay there, smashed
Pranksters in the dark

Cuddle up close, dear
The undead hordes are coming
Horror-movie date

Hear the fearful shrieks
Boys and girls queue up for Hell
It’s a haunted house

Snickers bars are good
So are mini Tootsie Pops
But, please, no wax lips

* * * * *

Haiku is descended from a form of Japanese poetry called renga. Traditionally, haiku are untitled, deal with the subject of nature, and consist of seventeen syllables divided into three lines — five, seven, then five again. The last time I wrote one was as a middle-school class assignment, so I thought it might be fun to trot the form back out today, on a lark.

Using the comments box at the bottom of this page, feel free to share your own Halloween haiku. I’d love to see what someone else does with this theme.

24 October, 2013

My Concrete Constellations

The canvas overlaying the nighttime world has been fixed for all of recorded history. Each culture has looked up and seen it adorned with a different set of jeweled images, which speaks to that particular culture’s customs and values. The ones we in the modern world know best — Orion, Ursa Major, the Big Dipper, and the rest — are hand-me-downs from the ancient Greeks, whose myths were made up of such great stories that, even these thousands of years later, humanity just can’t forget them. 

Having an agreed-upon standard is useful for astronomers and hobbyist stargazers. But, as with the shapes we see in clouds, the dot-to-dots we play are arbitrary: anyone can look up there and, with a bit of imagination, make a good case for whatever they think they see.

I went through a starry-eyed phase when I was a boy. Despite having never owned a powerful telescope, I read a lot of books and magazines on astronomy — too many to stare into a star-studded sky now and not see the standard-issue constellations. There are, of course, worse cultural biases a person can be brainwashed into. Except I haven’t been able to look up at a night sky in a long time. 

Mine is the topmost of two bunks in my current prison cell. When I’m sitting upright on the bed, as I am now, handwriting the draft of this post, late on a Saturday night, about one foot of space exists between the top of my head and the ceiling, the highest point I’ve been able to reach and touch in more than a decade. There are times, sour times, when I think of it as the lid of my sarcophagus. But when I lie down there’s a perspectival change: clusters of small divots, bubbles in the painted concrete slab, transform my upper limit into an expanse of pale gray sky scattered with black stars — a negative of the true heavens rearranged. They aren’t the stars I grew up learning. Some of them I’ve cataloged and named.

I’ve had ample time to study these tiny holes paint couldn’t fill. Long enough. I feel a sense of ownership over them, but no sentimental attachment. I’d trade them for the old ones in a heartbeat.

20 October, 2013

The List: Reading July Through September 2013

This may be my shortest reading list yet. If I counted unpublished manuscripts as books (for these quarterly reviews, I mean), then the list below would include two additional titles, each of which I read more than once as I combed through, searching for typos, stylistic inconsistencies, questionable particulars, and other minutiae for which one scours text while line editing. The first manuscript I pored over was a friend’s novel, about which I’m sworn to secrecy and won’t mention again until it’s been published. The second manuscript was my own, and, for obvious reasons, I’m only happy for any chance to talk up its publication, a few weeks ago, by redbat books. (Plug alert!) If you didn’t already know, The Pariah’s Syntax: Notes from an Innocent Man is now available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, select bookstores, and the publisher. But I digress.

When I haven’t been using my red pen to make bloody messes of neatly printed pages, I’ve been spending my mornings composing literal bloody messes for the zombie novel I continue to lumber forward with. Progress there is slow, considering how much thought goes into it when I’m not sitting here at the keyboard, but I’m immensely pleased with the relatively polished chapters/stories I’ve completed so far. When I do make time to read, catching up with weeks-old magazines is often the best I’ve managed. Often, but not always. 

* * * * *

Samuel Rosenberg, Naked Is the Best Disguise: The Death and Resurrection of Sherlock Holmes
Research of a sort, but more of a curio, this deconstruction and analysis of what its author claims are the allegorical elements of Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective stories is alternately enlightening and over the top. For instance, Rosenberg claims that the character of Holmes’s arch-nemesis, Professor James Moriarty, was based on real-life philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. That allegation seems perfectly reasonable, especially after reading Rosenberg’s enumeration of the many similarities between the two brainy men. What about the likelihood of the biblical resurrection inspiring parts of several different Holmesian story lines? Also plausible. But The Red-Headed League as tortuous Sodom-and-Gomorrah allegory that reveals Sir Conan Doyle’s repressed urges to commit pederasty? Um, not so much. 

Searching mightily for the secret influences of a given work is one thing, but even Freud, all-time champion of nonexistent connection-drawing, acknowledged that a cigar is sometimes just a cigar. Or, in the case of Sherlock Holmes, it’s actually a meerschaum pipe.

Rivka Galchen, Atmospheric Disturbances
I struggled after reading this, Rivka Galchen’s debut novel. So tender, so funny, so sad, so lovely, so like life, with its sheen of unreality, Atmospheric Disturbances is a book by which I’m so smitten that I want to keep it to myself, possessively as a jealous lover, and hold it like a secret treasure until I’m not around anymore to hoard it, at which point the tomb doors can be unsealed and everyone peering in can wonder how this book, this strange and even awkward book, in particular, happened to be locked inside.

David Rakoff, Don’t Get Too Comfortable
Alas, David Rakoff, we hardly knew ye! Well, I didn’t, anyway. Mere months after I got such pleasure from discovering Rakoff’s acerbic wit, through his essay collection Half Empty (reviewed here last year), he shuffled off this mortal coil. Some kind of cancer — fitting, when you consider how often he invoked the Big C.

In Don’t Get Too Comfortable, which reprints essays Rakoff wrote for GQ, Harper’s, Details, and other magazines of note, he focuses on decadence, overabundance, and debauchery. The cancer is societal, he implies, and verges on inoperability: high fashion, cryonics, plastic surgery, Hooters Air, penis puppet-shows, and the ever-increasing prevalence of the phenomenon known to the French as nostalgie de la boue (literally, “fond yearning for the mud”; it’s luxury associated with artisanal cheeses, designer faux-slum furniture made from repurposed industrial waste, and similar highbrow appropriations of lowbrow stuff). My appreciation for Rakoff’s cantankerous old-mannish commentary might unduly color my impression of his overall writerly talent. Essays like “Faster,” included in this collection, show how this could be:
My fasting program warns me to stay vigilant against unhealthy ego investment and unjustified feelings of superiority. Just because I am an ethereal creature of light and air I should take care not to pass by the falafel stand, for example, and look down disdainfully from my slender, Olympian perch at the weak-willed humans who feel the need to stuff their gullets with something as earthbound and disgusting as solid nourishment. I know what it’s like to groove on avoiding food. I derive some of my deepest pleasure in life from forgoing pleasure. I get off on self-flagellation and various little acts of bourgeois pennance, like doing my laundry or skipping meals. But that’s not about feeling superior to others so much as asserting a steely personal control. It’s a white-hot fire of self-abnegating virtue which, when it overtakes me, is one of the great joys of my life.
It saddens me to know that there’s now one less kindred spirit in the world, but Rakoff’s writing, at least, will be floating around for a while yet.

Michel Houellebecq (Gavin Bowd, translator), The Map and the Territory
Although this novel’s epigraph — “The world is weary of me, / And I am weary of it” — by Charles d’Orleans does a fine job of prefacing the superlatively French cynicism to which the reader is about to be subjected, I think the following passage, from midway through the book, better captures the tone of Houellebecq’s 2010 misanthropic meditation:
I’ve got athlete’s foot, a bacterial infection, a generalized atopic eczema. I’m rotting on the spot and no one gives a damn, no one can do anything to help me. I’ve been shamefully abandoned by science, so what’s left for me to do? Just scratch myself endlessly, that’s what my life’s now become, one endless scratching session...
No young man could, or should, write a book like The Map and the Territory. Nor should anyone young in spirit attempt to read it. The cover declares the book’s author the “most celebrated and controversial French novelist of our time.” Many questions arose during my reading, including, What makes Houellebecq so controversial? What’s with these French people, anyway? and Will this book ever end? [Spoiler: it does, quietly and bit by bit, like succumbing at last to a lengthy illness.

Mary Ruefle, Selected Poems
In her book Madness, Rack and Honey, Ruefle writes that “the poem, once begun, is so physical that it cannot realize itself: like an actual physical event (not like a poem at all) it must die, finish, or end without completion.” And there are plenty of instances of this corporeal indeterminacy among the pieces making up Selected Poems, a volume that gathers Ruefle’s work from 1989 through 2007. Most are equally befuddling.

In her earlier work, it seems as though Ruefle is trying hard to get at some universal message, the most terminal way I know to finish a poem. Here, for example, is “From Memory” in its entirety:
The old poet riding on horseback in winter
came face-to-face with a thief who had
beaten his horse to a pulp. Once and for
all, they recognized each other without
speaking; one held a bright knife to the
other’s throat while the other offered the
bleeding velvet of his animal to show that
he, too, had smuggled his life through
every conceivable hour.
Selected Poems is ordered chronologically, and in the later work there’s a greater willingness to embrace not only ambiguous endings but ambiguous meanings, too. The results of such a mindset seem far more…let’s say realized. One of my favorites from this collection (my first experience with a body of Ruefle’s writing) happens to be one of her most recent, “Quick Note about the Think Source,” taken from her book Indeed I Was Pleased with the World:
My dreams are not worth a halfpenny:
a battery cut in two, eighty orange roses,
an old boyfriend in a new car of the kind
he would never drive. Fortunately for us,
the universe is not that complicated:
eventually, words like torpor and muddle
came into being, and then torpid, muddled
accounts of the universe took over the populace,
many of whom died while it was snowing.
There is always someone willing to tell you
who they were, though it takes a little time
to find the professional, but much less than if
you had to do the reading yourself. If you are
planning on being born, you should know there was
a primordial abundance of helium, if something remains
in the same position for nine consecutive days
it is safe to assume it has passed, and that
oleanders really do grow along the Oxus,
which is a river. After that you are free to pursue
the violent activity of happiness. But for the universe,
after the first three minutes nothing of interest
occurred for 700,000 years: it just went on cooling
and expanding, as if it were asleep on a premium mattress,
until it felt cold enough to wake up and make stars.
The rest is almost history: volcanic holes, small
French paintings, one-eyed bats, a handwritten note
wedged between the doors of a church. And oh, one
more thing: when asked, if you say “I do not dance,”
the next day an infant is born without feet.
For all its wit and wordplay, its surreal and stimulating, counterintuitive turns, I found Ruefle’s work to be the poetic equivalent of a cocktail-party joke — clever and amusing, and a hazy memory by morning.

Bennett Sims, A Questionable Shape
Memory, sight, loss, and the varieties of filial devotion are the main subjects of this debut novel by Sims, but for convenience’s sake I told everyone who asked that it was just “a zombie novel.” I hope such slanderous diminishment is a forgivable offense. In truth, A Questionable Shape is one of the most original, intellectually curious, and engrossing books I’ve read in years — in any genre, fiction or non-. The first night I picked it up, I lost interest in sleep and stayed awake, reading, for several hours past my habitual bedtime.

Books that deviate from readers’ expectations are risky ventures for their authors and publishers. Sims and the increasingly noteworthy Two Dollar Radio deserve congratulations for this one, which dispenses with horrific zombie bloodbaths and embarks on an ontological exploration of undeath (“A limit condition, irreducable to the usual dichotomies. For this reason the designation ‘living dead’ — in its oxymoronic self-negation — seems to sum up best the fundamental in-between-ness of the creatures. In any given dichotomy, they will constitute neither the positive nor the negative pole — neither living nor dead, neither psychopath nor psychopomp — but everything that circulates between them.”) and of life. Along the way, Sims’s engaging, inquisitive narrator, Mike Vermaelen, invokes Martin Heidegger, video games, Wallace Stevens, The Twilight Zone, swap meets, and Friedrich Nietzsche in his observations of a world turned upside-down by a cannibalistic plague, all amid a six-day search for a friend’s missing father — evincing that age-old truism that it’s not necessarily the destination but the journey that matters most.

09 October, 2013

A Poem for Homeless Bruce

The Slug

“Obese beast that you are,” they shout,
”Plump with rolls and folds and colonies galore,
Why not rise up and undulate
Elsewhere — go find another garden
Where your lolling is less seen?” But you
And I know the truth:

You do funny seated sidewalk-dances
In lieu of hefting the weight you carry, those years
Of admonition, scorn, and, let us not deny it,
Mockery, which comes without end from pedestrians
As you sit surrounded by wilting flowers
($5 each, reads your cardboard sign)
On the cracks of street corners from here to
Wherever; and that,

Wearing those bursting-at-the-buttons fireman’s pants
And that stretched-translucent T-shirt, you’ll never find,
In this secular world, a sympathetic Eden
Where you might fully escape God’s
Crass laws of gravity and time. Nor those of grief.

So fill your layabout days with roses
As literally as you care.
May their satin-red petals, soft and cool,
Be the necessary buffer against life’s salinity,
Heaping, heaping at everyone’s feet.

* * * * *

A Kansas City fixture, in the latter half of the ’90s, Homeless Bruce settled outside nightclubs, bookstores, coffeeshops, and anywhere else he might sell a few long-stemmed roses to well-heeled passersby. His signature pitch: “’Scuse me, sir. Buy a rose for the pretty lady?” Bruce did brisk business on Saturday nights, propped up against the wall of Harry’s Bar & Tables, but the attention he attracted from drunken partiers was a high price. Shamefully, a friend of mine once offered him a glazed donut if he could stand and do ten jumping jacks — a horrible piece of mockery that, a decade later, still weighed on me enough to write this poem.

17 September, 2013

The Pariah’s Syntax Book Now Available

Those of you who’ve been wondering “Why isn’t Byron posting as much these days?” now have your answer. My resources have been otherwise engaged with last-minute preparations, and today I can proudly announce that redbat books has published my very first book, The Pariah’s Syntax: Notes from an Innocent Man. The book is a meticulously assembled collection of some of the very best essays and poems I’ve composed during the past six years of my imprisonment. I’m eager to see what kind of reception it gets from readers. You can order your copy directly from the publisher by clicking here. It is also available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or you can receive one as a gift by making a donation of twenty dollars or more to the Free Byron Case campaign. No matter where purchased, all royalties the book earns go to the legal fund set up by my supporters to free me from my wrongful conviction.

18 August, 2013

My Prison Possessions

Everything I own has to fit inside a metal footlocker that sits along one wall of my small two-man cell, so stuff is kept to a minimum. But what stuff does this refer to, exactly? Aside from an inordinate amount of paperwork, impeccably organized in folders and a huge accordion file, and without the assorted hygeine items and foodstuffs from the Crossroads canteen I keep on hand, the list that follows encompasses everything that Byron C. Case has to his name. May your voyeuristic curiosities be sated at last.

* * * * *
This is my Old Faithful — the machine on which I've written everything for the past six years, from blog posts to book manuscripts. It's my life support system. That said, I'd prefer a laptop in my cell (even an Apple product, at this point).

The aging TV that sits on the shelf in my cell is missing a button, shows reds as magentas on one area of the screen, and, on the average day, gets an hour and a half of use. The canteen sells flat screen TVs now, but The Walking Dead, The Americans, American Horror Story, and an occasional movie don't justify the exorbitant upgrade cost.  

The canteen stopped selling boomboxes in 2004. Mine was one of the last few. Its analog tuner isn't great, but the external antenna means I get good enough reception within my concrete-and-steel box to listen to the two radio stations that, for a few hours a week, play music I like.

Oh, the Precioussssss! We loves the Precious, yes we does. We needs its singing in our headses, to get away from the nasty sounds. We hates the sounds. CDs makes us happy, makes us happy, makes us happy. Musics makes us forget the walls and the evil sounds.

Historically I've hated how best-of compilations are put together. Crackle, by Bauhaus, is an exception, featuring the heartbeat-quickening drums of "In The Flat Field", the morose bat-cave hit "Bela Lugosi's Dead", and the twinkling, uplifting "Spirit". This album is the perfect cure for days when ennui starts creeping on: a "Kick in the Eye" usually does the trick.

This is beautiful, melancholy lo-fi rock from one of the best bands to debut in the '90s. 2 is the Black Heart Procession's second album, and makes the ideal soundtrack to solo wintertime walks around the snowy prison yard.

I like to put this album of Black Tape for a Blue Girl's atmospheric synths, swooning strings, and dramatic vocals on whenever I need to transport myself elsewhere, far away from my harsh confines.

One of my friends, a fellow Depeche Mode fan, has a hard time understanding why I like the grunge- and gospel-kissed Songs of Faith and Devotion as much as the synth-pop pioneers' prior hit album (the dark masterpiece Violator). I guess it's the exultant vocals and full sonic palette that have made this record so personally relevant, all these years.

Captivating vocals by Dave Gahan, strong songwriting by Martin Gore, and a studio crammed with vintage synths and drum machines make Depeche Mode's 2009 release, Sounds of the Universe, an invigorating, inspiring listen.

On these cabaret punks' first single, Amanda Palmer sings, "This bridge was written / to make you feel smitten / with my sad picture of girl getting bitter". And it worked. I've been in love with the quirky music of the Dresden Dolls ever since this 2003 debut album.

No, Virginia... is easily the best collection of outtakes I've heard by any band or artist. True to form, this final (?) album from the duo of Amanda Palmer and Brian Viglione (together, the Dresden Dolls) alternately tugs and tears listeners' heart strings: "Night Reconnaisance" is a song about stealing lawn ornaments; a double amputee finds love online, in "Ultima Espiranza"; and the smoldering "Boston" pins down the terrible, temporary transcendence of romantic love.

From the liner notes that accompany The Best of Joy Division: "because we all live in dream worlds // because we remember when we were young // because the helpless dead tend to be visited by the sentimental, and not necessarily profitless, exertions of the living".

I remember nicking Pretty Hate Machine from my father's massive music collection when I was twelve, then skulking off to listen to it in my room, heavy curtains drawn. Even back then, I recognized the dark dance-floor magic at work on Trent Reznor's first Nine Inch Nails recording.

I wasn't even two years old when Telekon  — the last good Gary Numan album until the '90s — came out. Still, its themes of alienation and emotional confusion, set to Numan's synthesizer-driven arrangements, became the soundtrack to my young adult life. The single "We Are Glass" gives me chills every time I hear it.

With production by a small army of big names in synth-pop, EBM, and industrial music, Gary Numan's two-disc Hybrid Sessions features newly recorded favorites, both recent and vintage, by the godfather of electronic music. These fresh variations of "Cars", "Down in the Park", and "Are 'Friends' Electric?" make me wish I could take a compact sports-tuned import out for a midday zoom. For me, this is feel-good music.

Amanda Palmer's first solo album, recorded after the Dresden Dolls were mothballed. Ben Folds produced, and among the guest artists to appear are St. Vincent and former Dead Kennedys guitarist, East Bay Ray. It's piano rock to make Elton John blush, Billy Joel flee in terror, and Regina Spektor break into tears.

Once upon a time, in the magical land of Brooklyn, a young cellist formed a band with two other fetching cello-players. They called this band Rasputina. The music they played together was very loud indeed, and it was often full of snark and obscure historial references to make the townspeople smirk and titter into their cuffs and nosegays. And so did the traveling minstrels bring much joy to the land, and, in particular, to one pale lad locked deep in a dungeon in a distant kingdom....

The first Siouxsie & the Banshees album I ever owned was the ornate, poppy Superstition, but the deeper I delved into their post-punk back catalog, the more I found to like. When the jagged sound of Juju was being set down at Surrey Sound, in England, I was just two years old, but the recording's smart, irreverent, drum-heavy tracks (such as "Into the Light" and "Arabian Nights") make that chronological tidbit meaningless.

Peepshow marked what I consider the band's full embrace of the dark pop sound that brought Siouxsie & the Banshees their almost-mainstream status, here in the US. The album's big single, "Peek-a-Boo", still gets radio play today, but the track I'm most enamored with here is "Ornaments of Gold".

Various Failures. The title alone makes it easy for me to overlook my usual dislike of compilation albums. This two-disc set includes almost all of my favorite Swans songs from the 1988-1992 period, including "The Other Side of the World", "Love Will Save You", "Blind", and "Please Remember Me". Melancholy? Sure, sometimes. Misanthropic? Almost comically so. Masterful? Without a doubt.

If I were only allowed to listen to one album for the rest of my life, it would be Replicas. The lonely-android rock that typified Gary Numan's early songwriting was never better than it was on songs like "Me! I Disconnect from You" and "We Have a Technical". And the futuristic angst of "Down in the Park" will probably haunt modern synth-pop acts for decades still to come.

I discovered the neo-goth dance music of Nika Roza Danilova (who records as Zola Jesus) through a magazine review, which led me to her delectable 2010 Valusia EP. She immediately leapt to the top of my list of  noteworthy recent artists after I listened to the retro-tinged "Hikikomori" and the simple lamentations of piano and her soulful voice on "Skin", both from this debut LP, Conatus.

I prefer my New Oxford American Dictionary because of its Oxford pedigree and because it's not fusty, like American Heritage, or seemingly dumbed down, like Merriam Webster. This third edition gets referenced many times a day, in my writing hours, and almost never leaves me without a sold answer to my queries.

For when that perfect word eludes me. A thesaurus will just as easily lead a writer astray as point her to a worthy synonym, but the organization of this particular Roget's by category, rather than by alphabetical word listings, comes in handy when I want to find, say, a list of phobias by subject (fear of worms = vermiphobia), or of the events in a triathlon (100-meter dash, high jump, shot put). 

A fan. Because otherwise summers would mean slow-roasting in my allegedly climate-controlled cell. Why is the housing clear? Presumably so prisoners with more furtive intentions than I do can't stash contraband inside.

I really do wish my Casio wristwatch had an alarm, but it's better than nothing. You're probably asking yourself, "Why does someone in prison need to know what time it is?" If you have to ask, you'll never know.

30 July, 2013

A Poem About a Semi-Obscure Musical Instrument


Black and white and ill-defined
Against the holey backdrop of night,
Something wicked this way comes, heralded by
Ethereal, bone-chilling whine:
Fangs, tentacles of rubber,
Sparking papier-mâché rockets,
Pie tins teetering through space,
Wires visible against the cardboard cosmos.
For each, that uncanny woooo.
Filmmakers of the Ed Wood school knew full well
That sax and violins would never do
For invoking moon-men, plants with teeth,
The loup-garou, salivating for human prey. Oh
No. Only a stringless electronic marvel
This weird and difficult to master, played
Loose by hands strumming the ether
Could unsettle us thus, pierce
The protoplasmic wall and bridge
The grainy unreal grayscale rift.
Relegated to midnight screenings and
General obscurity now, in this digital
HD age, and all but unheard:
The theremin, sonic planchette. 

 * * * * * 

For those of you not in the know, the theremin (named for its Russian inventor, Lev Theremin) is an electronic musical instrument on which the tone is generated by two high-frequency oscillators and the pitch is controlled by the movement of one’s hand, through the air, toward and away from the circuit. Anyone who’s watched black-and-white sci-fi movies from the 1950s will instantly recognize its sound. 

I wrote the above poem, “Theremin,” for a publication seeking science fiction poetry, but the piece turned out not to be quite science fiction-y enough for the editor’s tastes. Still, I think it’s worth sharing. There have got to be theremin fans out there who’ll appreciate this simple paean to a largely forgotten instrument, and vintage sci-fi nuts who wish the theremin would hurry up and make its comeback.

09 July, 2013

The List: Reading April Through June 2013

The time I’ve had for reading, these past months, has been less than what I’ve managed in the previous three years, due to my return to the prison workforce, and yet the number of books I read this quarter is basically the same as it always is. Strange. I guess this means I have to stop complaining about how little free time I get. 

A few of the books below were ones I wanted to read for years. I was able to place a largish order with Amazon, thanks to a long-overdue refund from a certain well-known literary quarterly that somehow never figured out how to fulfill my subscription beyond a single issue. The (pricy) subscription had been a gift, so I figured the money returned by said quarterly would be most fittingly spent on other reading material. My wish list is now a little shorter. My literary life is now a little richer.

Here are the titles that have occupied me since April. 

* * * * *

Rob Ziegler, Seed
I wish it were possible to blame my disappointment with this book, Ziegler’s debut novel, on high expectations. After reading several positive reviews in Locus, then, for two years, anticipating how good it was going to be, only a phenomenal book would’ve held up, and Seed is, at best, mediocre.

Even without my overinflated sense of its literary merit, however, I’d have been sorely let down. To read the summary on its (well-designed) cover is to mistake Seed for an “idea” book about ecological disaster in a future in which extreme genetic modification — of foods and higher forms of life alike — is commonplace. The story does start out promisingly well, with shades of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, but somewhere around the point where the reader is introduced to Satori, the living, breathing city that manufactures the titular seed for a starving nation, everything wanders off into cheesy sci-fi action as various parties converge, some in rebellion, some for communion, each wreaking its own brand of havoc on the deaf, dumb, blind Satori, about which it’s impossible to care.

Add to this farrago a slew of weird quasi-homophonic typos (such as pour where it should read pore, peaked instead of peeked, and upbraided rather than abraded) that make me wonder if the manuscript was dictated and the book’s credited editor, Russ E. Lockhart, literally phoned it in. Seed germinates no small resentment in the fertile soil of this reader’s mind. 

Kevin Brockmeier, The Illumination
A defining characteristic of literature is its subtlety — deft introduction of ideas where lesser works would just bludgeon their readers heads, a modicum of ambiguity over which the readers can muse to arrive at conclusions about the text that are personal and, in this way, far more special than if the author had, as happens in most genre fiction, simply shoved it all at you, shouting, “Here, here’s my story!”

The Illumination imagined by Brockmeier in this group of interconnecting but, in a way, solitary chapters is an unexplained phenomenon: the sudden radiance of light from every cut, bruise, broken bone, and sickness the world over. Ulcers glow silver in people’s mouths, torn ligaments sparkle like a red-carpet burst of paparazzi camera flashes, leukemia casts luminous auras around its sufferers, self-inflicted cigarette burns shimmer like nighttime stars on the forearms of troubled souls. But the light and its causes are incidental to Brockmeier’s purposes here, a mere backdrop on which to project his beautiful exposition on the ways our pain defines us and our relationships.

Kenneth Goldsmith, Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age
In the face of unprecedented amount of digital text, writing needs to redefine itself in order to adapt to the new environment of textual abundance. If we think of words as both carriers of semantic meaning and as material objects, it becomes clear that we need a way to manage it all, an ecosystem that can encompass language in its myriad forms. No matter what we do with language, it will be expressive. Uncreative writing is a postidentity literature.

The poetry world has yet to experience its version of Pop Art — and Pop Art happened over fifty years ago In spite of the many proposed alternative uses of language (concrete poetry, language poetry, FC2-style innovative fiction, etc.), writing in the popular imagination has by and large stuck to traditional, narrative, and transparent uses, which have prevented it from experiencing a kind of Pop Art-like watershed. But then the real question emerges: why? Things get tricky when we try to nail down exactly what literary appropriation is. Once those formal decision are made, there are ethical issues to consider. Does it matter if poets write their own poems anymore or is it good enough for a computer to pen them for them?

In a time when the amount of language is rising exponentially, combined with greater access to the tools with which to manage, manipulate, and massage those words, appropriation is bound to become just another tool in the writers’ toolbox, an acceptable — and accepted — way of constructing a work of literature, even for more traditionally oriented writers. The Web functions both as a site for reading and writing: for writers it’s a vast supply text from which to construct literature; readers function in the same way, hacking a path through the morass of information, ultimately working as much at filtering as reading.

Sculpting with text.

Data mining.

Our task is simply to mind the machines. Ironies abound. The future doesn’t look promising for us as creative entities.

[Note: I composed this entirely by cribbing text from the book, typos and all. It seemed the only fitting thing to do, given the subject matter.]

Jesse Ball, The Curfew
With his surreal debut novel, Samedi the Deafness, Ball mesmerized me using a spell of simple yet evocative prose. With his second, The Way Through Doors, he led me through a waking dream. Now, with The Curfew, he has given me a puppet show.

Of course the book is not only that. The story begins as an intimate portrait of a man and his eight-year-old daughter, who eke out their happiness despite the murders and disappearances being carried out by secret police in the city of C. The father is an epitaphorist (Ball’s characters often have interesting, unheard-of professions), composing messages for the graves of the departed — fitting, for a man whose mastery of the violin is mooted by the government’s ban on music. Once he dares to venture out after dark, when “GOOD CITIZENS PASS THEIR NIGHTS ABED,” the daughter copes with her concerns by performing a puppet show with the neighbors in whose care she is left, a puppet show of such intricacy that its characters’ very thoughts are made visible and “mice” — ants to which tufts of fur have been glued — scurry at their feet.

This glancing attention to marvelous details is one of my favorite things about Ball’s writing. Another is that he doesn’t trouble himself with cohesive narratives, those meddlesome trivialities that are definitive beginnings, middles, and endings. He admits as much on page four, in the voice of an anonymous narrator:
I shall introduce this city and its occupants as a series of objects whose relationship cannot be told with any certainty. Though violence may connect them, though pity, compassion, hope may marry one thing to another, still all that is in process cannot be judged, and that which has passed has gone beyond judgment, which leaves us again, with lives and belongings, places, shuttling here and there, hapless, benighted, discordant.
Replete with quiet tragedy, love, and simple beauty, The Curfew may not quite match the success of Ball’s previous fictions; though, his alert prose and talent for… not necessarily storytelling but rendering moments made this book a pleasure to read.

Nikolay Gogol (Ronald Wilks, translator), The Diary of a Madman, The Government Inspector and Selected Stories
I was surprised, upon finally reading this collection by the Russian literary great, to find a quality that doesn’t generally spring to mind when thinking about nineteenth-century Ukraine-born authors: humor. Gogol had a firm grasp of the absurd, and, even while his writing verged on Realism, with lavish attention paid to what were often the minutest details of affect or place, he saw the ridiculousness of so may situations around him, the scaffolding on which he built all of his tales.

In his story “The Nose,” a mid-ranking civil servant awakens one morning to find his nose missing from his face, naturally assigning blame to his drunkard barber, and bounds through the city, searching for the absent appendage, only to encounter it, personified and dressed in a government uniform that signifies an even higher rank than his own, praying in a church. The nose later appears inside the hot roll being eaten for breakfast by the aforementioned barber, who, horrified, throws it in a river only for it to later reappear, without explanation, on the face of the civil servant to whom it belonged.

In “The Overcoat,” a man saves and scrimps to buy himself a coat to replace the one he’s worn nightgown-sheer, only to have the luxuriously tailored garment torn from his shoulders by a couple of muggers. The man falls ill from stress and grief, then dies. An urban legend soon arises, telling of a ghost going around Saint Petersburg, ripping off gentlemen’s coats.

It could be that I’m an unlearned simp for failing to see how “The Overcoat” deserves critics’ designation as the finest short fiction in all of Russian literature. I thought “The Nose” was a good deal more artful, also more entertaining. But for what unevenness I found in this selection of Gogol’s short works (the content is mainly stories; “The Government Inspector” is a clever play), each piece does stand on its own as a fine glimpse at what brought the author his reputation for greatness.

M. John Harrison, Viriconium
From satiric nineteenth-century Russian lit, I dived right into this contemporary British sci-fi/fantasy, craving escape of a drastic sort. China Miéville, another author who deals in genre-bending fantastical novels (and whom I quite admire), calls M. John Harrison an “anti-science fiction writer” — an ambiguous designation that nevertheless fits to a tee. The only other book of Harrison’s I’d read before this was his stunning, complex quantum masterpiece, Light, that rarest of books that inspires a reader to think of its author in terms of favorites, before ever reading anything else from the writer’s oeuvre. Viriconium, a collection of novellas and short stories, displays all of the qualities that I so loved about Light, while taking an entirely different tack with them. Continuity throughout is faint to nonexistent, and each of the tales offers a different take, sometimes meditative, often adventuresome, on the fluid existence of the endless city, Viriconium, in “a world trying to remember itself.” There’s escape here aplenty. Where Light was pure sci-fi, Viriconium swathes its science-fictional elements in the baroque garb of much fantasy, rich and thick, and sets the stories in a fluctuating future so far distant from now as to make myth of the lost sciences of a long-dead age.

J.G. Ballard, Crash
Sexual fetishists who get off on car crashes. To say this is what Crash is about would be accurate, in the crudest possible way, just as would be describing Orwell’s 1984 as being about a guy who’s just after some privacy. Okay, so the 1996 screen adaptation of Crash, moodily directed by James Cronenberg and starring the period’s go-to guy for sexual deviance, James Spader, overran with auto(mobile)eroticism. The book’s an altogether different story. Although sex suffuses nearly every page of this novel, none of it’s sexy.

Ballard is apparently known for being critical of modern technology’s increasing prominence as a bridge to human relations, so, in Crash, affairs abound without a single deep connection being forged. The style of his writing matches this clinical attitude, not least when the first-person narration provided (conveniently enough) by a character named James Ballard turns to musing about a life-changing automobile accident:
I was surprised by how much, in my eyes, the image of the car had changed, almost as if its true nature had been exposed by my accident. Leaning against the rear window of the taxi, I found myself flinching with excitement toward the traffic streams on the Western Avenue interchanges. The flashing lances of afternoon light deflected from the chromium panel trim tore at my skin. The hard jazz of radiator grilles, the motion of cars moving towards London Airport along the sunlit oncoming lanes, the street furniture and route indicators — all these seemed threatening and super-real, as exciting as the accelerating pintables of a sinister amusement arcade released on to these highways.
and climaxing coolly in this later scene with his wife, when the couple stops on a deserted service road:
When I put my arm around her shoulders she smiled briefly to herself, a nervous rictus of the upper lip which exposed her gold-tipped right incisor. I touched her mouth with my own, denting the waxy carapace of pastel lipcoat, watching her hand reach out to the chromium pillar of the quarter window. I pressed my lips against the bared and unmarked dentine of her upper teeth, fascinated by the movement of her fingers across the smooth chrome of the window pillar. Its surface was marked along its forward edge by a smear of blue paint left by some disaffected production-line worker. The nail of her forefinger scratched at this fretline, which rose diagonally from the window-sill at the same angle as the concrete ledge of the irrigation ditch ten feet from the car. In my eyes this parallax fused with the image of an abandoned car lying in the rust-stained grass on the lower slopes of the reservoir embankment. The brief avalanche of dissolving talc that fell across her eyes as I moved my lips across their lids contained all the melancholy of this derelict vehicle, its leaking engine oil and radiator coolant.
Ballard’s portrait of emotionally stunted people turning to more and more extreme proxies for meaningful connections is scathing and adroit, and as cold as shattered glass.

William Gibson, Zero History
The last title in the Blue Ant trilogy — three novels like tech-geek catnip, involving the covert bleeding-edge endeavors of intrepid multiplatform mogul Hubertus Bigend (you’ve got to love Gibson’s names). It’s as satisfying a summer read as its predecessors, Pattern Recognition and Spook Country, and perhaps more so for wrapping up with almost-forgotten characters and subplot points from the previous books in that glib manner Gibson geeks like myself revere him for.

But. The world is forever changing. Yesterday’s futures, all but the most prescient ones imagined, become nothing more than curios, quaint relics of the naive periods that birthed them. The cyberpunk masterpieces that began Gibson’s career in the 1980s, full of wetware data ports, brand-name bionic implants, and Yakuza enforcers hot on everybody’s trail, were very much of their time. The tomorrow depicted in the Blue Ant books could literally be tomorrow, when the gee-whiz gadgetry is a kludged line of Java or a stolen DARPA project. There is an iPhone in almost every hand. Am I the only fan who wishes Gibson would turn his attention back to a future more faraway? SF is risky business — predicting the future always is — but that risk is what makes it more fun. Bill, please give your readers back their distant dystopias full of exotic tech. If we want to see what tomorrow’s London, Los Angeles, or Vancouver will be like, there’s this wondrous machine called an airplane….

Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane
A man returns to his childhood hometown, in rural England, to attend a funeral, and makes startling discoveries about an unremembered past. It’s an old trope, sure, but Neil Gaiman, masterful storyteller that he is, makes it new with the elements of fantasy for which he’s so renowned.

Just as the neighbors’ duck pond, described by The Ocean’s nameless narrator, is a good deal larger than it seems, and the trio of weird women on whose land it sits are actually much, much, much older than they look, this slim book contains quite a bit more than it at first seems. A deft exploration of a meek young boy’s existential frustrations, and a tale of fell childhood adventure that isn’t for children at all, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is easily my favorite Gaiman title since his excellent American Gods. No mean feat, that.

24 June, 2013

A Writing Group for Prisoners: Yet Another Item on My Too-Long To-Do List

Some great contributions to the literary world were birthed behind the walls and iron bars of prisons. Works by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, John Bunyan, Oscar Wilde, the biblical apostle Paul, and Fyodor Dostoevsky spring most readily to mind. There are many others. Whether their writings possess merit equal to that of those just mentioned isn’t my point, but my time in this penitentiary has put me in contact with several writers who are also prisoners. I shouldn’t be surprised when I meet others here who are deeply engaged with the written word — some people think there’s no undertaking more suited to prison life — yet our meetings always catch me off guard.

We don’t always agree, these other writers and I. One prolific and widely published inmate by the name of Jon Marc Taylor used to be persistent in his efforts to induct me into the ranks of those who, like him, shouted into the void, so to speak, penning article after article about the desperate need for penological reform in the US. Every time I saw him in the library, Jon Marc showed me another photocopied magazine piece he’d just published somewhere prestigious. Didn’t I want to see my name in a well-regarded publication like The Economist, too, he asked, and maybe one day have a profile piece about me appear in Maxim? Well, I’ve dipped my toe in the journalism pool before and found it too tepid for my taste, so no. But thanks just the same, Jon Marc; keep fighting the good fight.

Then there was Rob Allen, who offered all sorts of theoretically useful advice on novel-writing, culled from how-to books he’d closely studied. Rob insisted that I didn’t want to keep squandering my talents with trifling short stories when the next great American novel needed to be written, and we practically wore a trench into the outskirts of the prison yard, during our recreation periods, debating such a book’s potential plots, characters, and symbolisms. Endless evocations of his beloved Mark Twain, for whom I have minimal enthusiasm (if substantial respect), fell on deaf ears, and Rob’s failure to share any of his own writing made me wonder if he was trying to convince me to author the book he himself couldn’t, thereby living his dream through me, vicariously. If our conversations had any effect at all on my writing, it was in convincing me that personal essays, poems, and short fiction were exactly what I was supposed to be working on. I didn’t have a book in me yet, and I wasn’t going to attempt to push one out.

Two questionable would-be mentors notwithstanding, I’ve found that the number of individuals scratching and clacking out their stories, screenplays, poems, and books in a literary vacuum, as I have — without an iota of peer advice or criticism, save from the occasional editor’s jotted remark on a form-letter rejection — is striking. These prisoners have, on their own, found the motivation to embrace that most crucial element in the process: actually writing.

They find me. As if I were some mountaintop guru, some go to lengths in seeking me out. Because I like to think I keep a low profile, this often crosses me up. But it’s a pleasant validation to be met with the question “Are you Byron? I hear you’re a writer.” Why, yes, as a matter of fact I am a writer.

The exchanges I have with these fellow devotees of the craft tend to be more informative, more interesting, and more mutually beneficial than anything on which the self-proclaimed experts held forth. Conversation versus lecture; the inherent value of shared experiences. In no time, we descend into subjects that I suspect are more common to writers conference after-parties and the hallways outside university classrooms than to the sally ports and walkways of penitentiary housing units. Shop talk, you could call it. The minutiae eclipse stark differences of genre, leaving us with metaphor, dialog, narrative pacing, the e-book market, author platforms, query letters, and other nuts-and-bolts matters universal to writers, whether their forte happens to be sword-and-sorcery fantasy, urban romance, or creative nonfiction. Being able to talk in depth about one of my passions, with someone who understands the ups and downs, ins and outs of this weird lifestyle, is a treat. Naturally, I’d love to indulge more often.

So, one of the many projects I undertook this year is to start an officially sanctioned writers club, here at Crossroads Correctional Center. The bureaucratic red tape involved in founding what are termed “offender organizations” is thick. One of the first hurdles to surmount was securing a sponsor — an individual or organization under whose auspices the envisioned Crossroads Writers Club could meet every fortnight, or maybe once a week. Can you fathom how difficult it is to find someone so passionate committed to the written word and humanitarian good deeds that he or she would undertake an obligation to drive an hour, one way, to spend ninety further minutes inside the perimeter of a maximum-security prison, mingling with a group of convicted men hungry for intellectual succor — then do it again seven days later? To give you an idea, I reached out to faculty and students at three area universities, staff at three nonprofits that exist solely to benefit writers (i.e, organizing workshops, offering financial aid, sponsoring conferences, et cetera) — and a facilitator of an active prison writing group near the East Coast, only to receive one response. Granted, it was an enthusiastic one.

I’m a dyed-in-the-wool skeptic. I don’t like to arrive at conclusions until ample information has come in, and, having been disappointed far too many times, I’m also unwilling to take people’s word as any kind of covenant. Early indicators lead me to believe, however, that the Crossroads Writers Club may have found itself a sponsor and at least one volunteer facilitator. The Department of Corrections has a vetting and orientation process that’ll have to be navigated by those interested in helping us. I don’t know what this process entails, how likely it is to frighten the nice people away, so I wait with bated breath to learn whether they pass the DOC’s tests, our second hurdle.

For a writer, the third is scarcely a hurdle at all, and that’s paperwork. I’ll have to compose the organization’s bylines, which will detail its structure, membership requirements, officer selection process, specific objectives, and other bland technicalities, for inclusion in the proposal packet that will be sent for approval by the Crossroads administration. I have several points that will make the group appealing to staff and inmates alike: fundraising drives to purchase classic books for the prison’s library; invitations to free-world writers to speak or do readings here; publication of a prisoner-written anthology, royalties to be donated to charity; adding this facility’s name to those recognized publicly as being where rehabilitation (through writing’s necessary practice of self-examination, observation, and empathy) is making a much-needed comeback. With the help of my fellow writers, I’ll probably come up with many more to add.

The benefits of prison writing groups, for inmates and society at large alike, have been repeatedly shown to be manifold and wide-ranging. Still, I know there’s a fair chance that the warden and his staff will quash our request without a second thought. But I haven’t survived twelve years, locked away, without possessing some measure of hopefulness. I think we’ve got a shot.

Even if it’s all for naught, if our nascent group is aborted by the powers that be, we imprisoned writers will go on walking our solitary paths, sharing ideas and experiences whenever those paths chance to cross, and doggedly working our craft, just as our predecessors did in years and centuries past, compelled by unknowable individual impetus. To look at history’s example and take a rosy view is to note that creating under a measure of oppression can better the literature that is a creator’s end product. Our writing will almost certainly improve with time, and time happens to be something we’ve got a lot of.