Radical Books of 2011, 1/10
Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page, Matt Kish, Tin House Books, 9781935639138
Combining his lack of formal artistic training, found paper from a used book store, and a 552-page paperback edition of Melville’s classic, Matt Kish – with the charm of an outsider artist but without the institutionalization or insanity – produces an utterly compelling visual journey through Ishmael’s adventures. There are striking colors and textures, odd forms – sometimes cranial, sometimes robotic. Unrolled image-by-image on Kish’s blog, the book-based drawings now make for a whale of a book; the original art is also, now, for sale (or sold). Unlike Tom Philips’s A Humament, the project doesn’t occlude text with image, rewriting a novel. Yet it is a forceful engagement with the page, with particular quotations, and with a encyclopedic story of obsession. The drawings are spare, powerful, and varied, in a flat illustrative style that doesn’t explain but does document one lengthy encounter with Moby-Dick.
Reader's Block, David Markson, Dalkey Archive, 1996
A pivotal point in this book – one that is reassuringly labeled “A Novel” – is the paragraph that reads, in its entirety, “Spent Adidas.” The other shoe drops. Imagination finally spills from one isolated paragraph to the next. This two-word paragraph does not stand out as unusually short among many that relating incidents or facts; literary, artistic, or philosophical deaths; and sometimes simply an author’s or some famous character’s name. How can we avoid being overwhelmed by the weight of what we know, what we have read about other lives? How can what we have learned about history frame, rather than imprison, what we seek to create as readers and writers? Why even attempt to imagine, when truth is stranger and so weighty? These questions raise themselves like ghosts in Hades scenting blood. As in Wittgenstein’s Mistress, a powerful image of a writer’s path of thought. Then, the poesies that succeeded in Borges’s “The Circular Ruins” takes a different turn in Reader’s Block, after a struggle.
Eden, by Pablo Holmberg, Drawn & Quarterly, 2010
Yes, these comics sometimes veer into the extremely sappy, but they’re metafictional and wonderfully fabular throughout. Eden collects more than 100 simple four-panel strips featuring a diminutive, somewhat rabbit-like king, or at least, someone who wears a crown, in a magical land. An extremely insightful naïvite, of the sort that one hears in the occasional oracular pronunciation of a child, comes through at times. But these comics do not overlook death or other serious subjects. Holmberg, who writes and draws in Buenos Aires, has Eden and more available on his website, in Spanish. Odd that to learn about a Web comic, I had to go into my local comic store and buying a book, but it goes to show that book-based institutions have more than a retail function. And, it seems unlikely that Holmberg’s work would have appeared in translation without a publisher such as Drawn & Quarterly. Through such everyday efforts, we sometimes find the extraordinary.
The Secret History of Science Fiction, edited by James Ptrick Kelly & John Kessel, Tachyon Publications, 2010
This book seeks to prove that science fiction cannot really be distinguished from mainstream literature, arguing this in the introduction and in quotes before each story. Whether it prevails or not, it offers stories by some of the usual suspects (powerful ones by Ursula K. LeGuin and Connie Willis) some liminal figures (Johnathan Letham, who presents a prison made of criminals) and others – e.g., Don DeLillo, in whose story two men orbit Earth during World War III. (In a beautiful scene, they begin saying whatever they feel like as they calibrate the lethal system to their voiceprints.) There are non-human primates: T. C. Boyle’s tale of a man whose primatologist wife leaves him and George Saunders’s “93990,” a deft critique of science. Carter Scholz’s “The Nine Billion Names of God” has its own take on that author Pierre Menard, created by Borges. (Was he a science fiction author?) Even the weakest stories in here are well-written and worthwhile; most go far beyond that, making for a truly great collection.
Utensils in a Landscape, Chris Edwards, Stray Dog Editions, Vagabond Press, 2001
Searching for something suitably disruptive in the landscape of Australia, where Jacket is rooted, I found this. The first poem is made from sometimes misquoted bits of The Book of Common Prayer and Burroughs’s “The Cut-Up Method …” With technical and abstract language, folklore, Mallarmé, and guy-on-guy action, the book offers all sorts of utensil viewing. And later, in “but me,” this reflection:
My project, which began in
one room of the abyss, soon spread toward a perimeter
you can imagine, should you be inclined to do so.
I usually prefer projects in which sources are altered sparingly and systematically – Craig Dworkin’s “Legion” is a brilliant example. These approximate centos work, though. The invented language weaves with the appropriated, making it seem that Edwards could have done it all with his pen – or all with his scissors.
Gatz, Elevator Repair Service, directed by John Collins, at American Repertory Theater, Cambridge, MA, Jan 7-Feb 7 2010
This play answers the question “what’s six and a half hours long, uses every word of The Great Gatsby as its text, and cannot be staged in New York?” Gatz is an admirable, extreme adaptation. Most of the words are spoken by Scott Shepherd, who reads Nick’s dialogue and his narration. A large cast voices other parts and also puts on effective dumbshows. On the empty space of the stage, a low-rent, aging office makes a second space which then is wittily made into a third, one which includes West Egg and Gatsby’s mansion. The set initially harbors a (broken) computer but is made to connect to the 1920s via windows, a swivel chair, and other elements. Actions are carried out before they are verbally narrated, so that the words sometimes become a sort of comical rimshot, anticipated by the actors; both actions and words get space of their own this way, too. The result, odd as it may seem, is both playful and faithful, capable of satisfying avant-garde theatergoers as well as great books enthusiasts.
A Casual Revolution: Reinventing Video Games and Their Players, Jesper Juul, The MIT Press, 2010
Juul’s latest, like his Half-Real, offers many insights, particular and general, while being succinct and clear stylistically. The book is not just about matching tile games, although there’s a good chapter on them and their genealogy. It’s about the moment in the history of videogaming where games overflow their “hardcore” niche and begin to appeal to everyone. Juul describes the stereotypes of casual and hardcore games and players; then he demonstrates, using data from many interviews, exactly how they’re wrong. An important, high-level innovation involves figuring out how to study both games and players – in this case, to understand what exactly is meant by “casual games” and how much of what we associate with that has to do with “causal” modes of play. There’s also an excellent analysis of the social space of play in front of the screen, in Guitar Hero and Wii games. A Casual Revolution will be valuable for academics and those in industry, and will help keep the sun shining on games.
Babyfucker, Urs Allemann, trans. Peter Smith, biligual edition, Les Figues Press, 2010
“… mirrors and copulation are abominable because they increase the number of men.” —Borges
Babyfucker is far more disturbing than the title suggests. The book, written by a Swiss author, spawned a controversy in Germany in 1991. It begins unabashedly with the sentence “I fuck babies,” which the narrator declares to be his sentence. It is the reader’s sentence, too. However, there are no detailed representations of infant pedophilia. There is terse, detached description of an impossible garret, filled with baskets of babies, supplied with a spigot and drain for morphine-laced milk; trepidation at humanity and new life; a man who sees himself in the mirror as a baby — then as made up, limb by limb, of babies. If there are specific sexual visions here, they must belong mainly to the reader, not the text. Among other unsettling things, the volume (which is yellow and pink, tiny, and cute) shows the reader’s involvement in literary atrocities, in any violation committed by shared imagination.
The Moon Fell on Me is an infrequent, gemlike Web comic by the itinerant Franklin Einspruch, who happened to come to my recent interactive fiction talk at AXIOM. He told me he was trying to do something different with this Web project. Visit his site even briefly and you’ll see that he has done it. No pen was used in the creation of this Web comic. The panels are not organized to lead toward jokes. The lines of images are clearly based on personal experience, but they reach out beyond an individual or subculture. Instead of the occasionally hilarious, forward-a-link, forget-in-moment frames of the typical Web comic – however incisive that comic might be about geeks or life or both – The Moon Fell on Me offers sequential art that is worth looking at again and again, that resonates with its moment and seems worth contemplating beyond it.
Poemland, Chelsey Minnis, Wave Books, 2009
Minnis, confronting poetry, hurls a fruit salad. The pages of the eleven sections of this book have only a few lines each, most ending in ellipses. The images (“getting hit with a folding chair / And being held by your braids…”) accumulate and converse (“I’ll chop your head off! / And I’ll carry it around by the hair…”), commenting on various vague situations and on poetry (“It’s like trying to drink a bottle of champagne in a roadside bathroom…”) You might imagine that it’s boring to hear poets yammer about writing poems and being poets (“If you open your mouth to start to complain I will fill it with whipped cream…”). Not so. Via references to fashion and offbeat interpersonal statements, the lines of Poemland connect the concerns of our poetry subculture (poverty, recognition, originality, connection to the past, authenticity) to culture more broadly. The book is fun to read from line to line, too (“With this book I have made a very expensive joke…”) and is beautifully and aptly designed.
New Media Art, Mark Tribe and Reena Jana, Taschen, 2006
Here’s a nice slice of recent digital art – online, in performance, and installed – expertly introduced. The book is well-illustrated (no surprise from this publisher) and has a welcome emphasis on the computational. Sure, some of the purest pieces of software art (Galloway’s fork bomb, obfuscated code, and the like) aren’t mentioned, but port scanning, packet sniffing, and the glitchy transformation of HTML are all represented. As with all Basic Genre Series books, there’s an introduction followed by page spreads, each on a single work. The format has its pros and cons, but the results, in this case, certainly offer a nice adjunct to Christiane Paul’s similarly introductory book, Digital Art. The engagement of artists with social issues, the critique of technology, video gaming, and free software are particularly evident in New Media Art. And, how great that Super Mario Clouds and the work of Jodi now sit on the shelf beside books on abstract expressionism, Greek art, and the still life.
Miss America, Catherine Wagner, Fence Books, 2001.
If I was President,
I’m afraid I can’t think without licky
White man wrote almost every book in that shelf.
Wagner takes an exquisite sledgehammer to language and America in this book. The Magazine Poems (for Nature, Time, Social Text, etc.) and the White Man Poems (the second of which supplies the lines above) are particularly effective projects, often scatologically smeared, with phrases turned until they are permanently damaged or become protolinguistic babble. The voices nevertheless seem spot-on as they speak to intimate as well as cultural matters. The five-line poem for Cosmo ends “Horrif, horrif, she howled – Horrif.” Seems like Mistah Kurtz – he is so dead. “A Poem for Good Housekeeping (after Wittgenstein)” is in a rather different vein, rising into a biting, cool abstraction and living up to the outrageousness of its title. The concluding Fraction Anthems, procedurally pulverized further in notes to each, have fine moments as well.
Cheating: Gaining Advantage in Videogames, Mia Consalvo, The MIT Press, 2007.
Two main methodologies are used in Cheating to understand how and why people cheat at video games. The first is the analysis of how print publications and devices surrounding games (Nintendo Power, strategy guides, the Game Genie, and the like) help to shape our concept of these games, providing the axes along which they can be evaluated and how they should be played. Next, Consalvo interviews gamers and explores an MMO to find out what players consider cheating and what boundaries they draw as they play. What results is some real insight into single-player and multiplayer cheating and into various corporate, industrial, and legal perspectives as well as those of individual players. The book does not work toward a single definition of cheating; rather, it shows how players and game-makers are actively negotiating what’s fair and what isn’t, working to allow the enjoyment of the game, to map or adapt “real-life” ethics into the magic circle, and to build the gaming equivalent of cultural capital.
Children of Arcadia, Mark Skwarek and Joseph Hocking, CAC Gallery, April 24-May 15 2009. Part of the Boston Cyberarts Festival.
In Cambridge’s City Hall Annex, Children of Arcadia provides a wide vista onto a virtual world as well as a station for interacting. A visitor can guide a female character to different parts of the landscape. The pastoral scene, with the ruins of Wall Street buildings scattered about, features weather and other atmospheric effects that are keyed to current financial conditions. Plummeting stock prices seem to manifest themselves in darkness, rain, and billowing columns of smoke. Bullish markets would lead to sun and clear skies. Steering an avatar through this world could be more enjoyable. It seems that the character can’t affect anything or interact with other wanderers. Still, the view of the landscape and the connection to real-time data makes for a powerful, relevant image and works well in the installation context. The economic crisis is found “in arcadia” here, where the helplessness of the steerable characters is at least appropriate.