Acting on a tip from The Kelly Writers House at my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, I recently learned about, and then read, Alan Light’s book The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley & the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah.” This intrigued me as an admirer of this song in particular, Leonard Cohen’s songwriting and singing generally, and other aspects of his literary art (particularly the incredible novel Beautiful Losers). It also appealed to me as an entire book written about a single, short work. In this case, the work isn’t a Commodore 64 BASIC program – as in the book collaborators and I wrote, 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1));: GOTO 10 – but a popular song with many lines and many covers, one that has been used in a wide variety of contexts.
The author discusses those many contexts well, covering the original release, the famous Jeff Buckley cover, and many other versions. There’s discussion of Shrek, the VH1 9/11 memorial video, manifestations on Idol and X Factor TV shows, and uses in religious ceremonies. The book is not really a deep dive into the music or the lyrics, although the etymology of the world “Hallelujah” and the differences in how the term is used in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles are discussed. Cohen declined to be interviewed, so the book also doesn’t spend too much time on origin myths, just recounting a bit from previous interviews. The book works to tease out the many things the song has meant to people and how it has managed to have all of these meanings.
It’s quite a different book from 10 PRINT, both in methodology and because the BASIC program is quite a bit different, culturally, than the song. I found it a quite enjoyable read.
A Stray in the Woods, Alison Wilgus, 2013. (I was given a review copy of this book.)
Here’s an intriguing feline adventure, pleasingly illustrated and narrated. This brings a lot together: It’s the Kickstarter-funded book version of a Web comic in which readers were asked to provide interactive-fiction- or tabletop-RPG-style commands for each situation; the one readers voted up was then chosen and the story proceeded from there. Perhaps I’ve been primed for this, but I thought the book’s presenation of this rather elaborate process was effective. I thought at first that page numbers would help, but perhaps these might have suggested a CYOA-style book, which this is not. While decisionmaking by mob is not always best, and can rule out nuanced plans, it works well enough in this case. And while the freely-available Web version of the story is good, the print presentation also sets the illustrations well. The text narration is consistently set on the recto, with commands below. Other IF transcripts (or the like) could be treated this way, too …
Pad, Steven Zultanski, Make Now Press, 2010
Can God be a big enough dick that he cannot lift himself? This is one of the many questions suggested, though not posed explicitly, by Pad, in which Steven Zultanski catalogs every item in his apartment, indicating whether or not each can be lifted with his penis:
My dick can lift the third clove of garlic from the windowsill. My dick cannot lift the sink.
Some sentences read like interactive fiction error messages, indicating how items that are fixed in place, or are part of the apartment, cannot be taken (by Zultanski’s dick).
However remarkable a part of the book it is, the dick is a distraction, offered in the same way the burglar provides a bit of meat for the house-dog. Yes, masculinity in poetry is treated, etc. But what makes the exercise interesting is the pudendum’s gymnasium. The domenstic inventory reveals a personal history, a personal moment, through possessions — ones always in the shadow, or perhaps in some sort of grip, of authorial presence.
My dick couldn’t put this book down.
Soft Skull Press · 368 pages
William, congratulations to you – and Soft Skull Press – on the new, big publication of Keyhole Factory, which some might think is your first novel. Actually, your intensity of writing would humiliate Roberto Bolaño. You have at least eight books (some pseudonymous, some collaborative) available via your press Spineless Books, which publishes other people’s work as well. You share a quality with George Perec in that you are a graphophile, and you share another quality with him in that you are an incredible writer, imaginative on all levels, as you demonstrate in Keyhole Factory. It’s great that Jeff Clark designed the cover. I think I see why he used the picture of the monkeys. They’re voyeuristic subjects; we’re watching them as if through a keyhole. That one in the middle looks back, making us nervous. If they were people they’d be eating lunch or making love or watching TV or something, and we’d fixate on that. But they’re monkeys, so we just notice that one of them is watching us. You think?
· → → ·
Book from the Ground
The dot of unconsciousness opens – and then winks out again. The book, one point in a project that Xu Bing has undertaken since 2003, is written entirely as a series of symbols, narrating a daily odyssey (or perhaps a Ulysses) that is read left-to-right and from top to bottom but almost entirely without the use of words or letters – they only appear as part of logos and the like. Symbols derived from Neurath’s Isotype system, which led to today’s airport signs, are used alongside emoticons and computer icons to describe the workplace experiences, fraternal beverage consumption, dating, and insomniac video game play of a rather harried, forgetful, busy, and not particularly productive generic man who lives in a city located on [globe icon]. By borrwing a bit from comic conventions within this typographical framework, not only actions but also thoughts and the topics of discussions are depcited (to me, at least) legibly.
Cutting Time with a Knife
Black Square Editions · 124 pages
When randomness is employed in poetics and succeeds, it is because of how it plays within regularity of different sorts. This book sutures the two very well. Concrete elemental sqaures sit at the top of each page, containing irregularly arranged phrases of regular syntax (“The [buttock] of the poet is the [geodesic dome] of [Rhodium].”) The text and sometimes symbols underneath read like a Google Books snippet view. Leong constructed this book “by etherizing T.S. Eliot’s classic essay,” “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” upon the periodic table. The cyborg text, animated with galvanic force, is made from cut-ups of this essay and the Wikipedia articles for the 118 elements. The periodic table has offered a rich lattice for poetic production, digital and otherwise; here, the unique twist was provided by the amalgamation of this tabular framework with an (ostensibly random) avant-garde writing technique, a classic essay on how individuality relates to commonality and a collaboratively-authored encyclopedia.
I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women
Edited by Caroline Bergvall, Laynie Browne, Teresa Carmody, and Vanessa Place
Les Figues · 455 pages
Community Reviews (showing 1-30 of 96) filter | sort: default (?) | rating details
Nov 19, 2012 Mark Noack rated it ***** review of another edition
a fantastic book. as an overview/introduction to current post-modern writing, the most interesting anthology i have read to date. while some of these writers might not have made the “cut” for the Goldsmith/Dworkin anthology, possibly due in part to their work being too “baroque” (in Vanessa Place’s terms); this is my preference. while i find conceptual/experimental writing interesting, much of what has been done suffers the danger of becoming automatic/generated/stenography. while the dadaist ar…more
like · see review
Oct 17, 2012 Sigrun Hodne marked it as to-read
A perfect gift from dear a friend! Looking forward to diving into it!
like · see review
Oct 26, 2012 Erin Lyndal added it
This wasn’t my cup of tea, so I didn’t finish. Bummer because I was really psyched about it.
like · see review
Dec 08, 2012 Janey Smith added it
My review of I’ll Drown My Book
Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: How Freaks, Normals, Amateurs, Artists, Dreamers, Drop-outs, Queers, Housewives, and People Like You Are Taking Back an Art Form
Seven Stories Press · 208 pages
The discussion of mainstream gaming in this book, while it isn’t exactly generous, covers both what is produced and the labor issues of how it is produced. The book’s DIY instructions point readers to tools and sketch the simplest sorts of development processes. (Such pointers may be what a book does best, as there is plenty of relevant information online.) What makes this book valuable and radical (other than the conceptual writing exercise cataloging game topics on pp. 137-139) is the amazing world it presupposes in which Halo and Bioshock can go unmentioned while there are pages about Anthropy’s Gay Sniper. Unofficial games made by individuals are shown to be part of culture and the politial and social discourse. Beyond newsgame and artgame, although not detached from some of their tactics, are many short experiments, games about “putting down your dog” that speak to everyday experience. Games that say what you want them to say and not games that say what someone else wants you to say.
How It Is in Common Tongues
Cited from the Commons of digitally inscribed writing by John Cayley & Daniel C. Howe
NLLF [Natural Language Liberation Front] · 296 pages
Some seek diamonds in the rough on the Web; others mine from this lode of language mud and darkness. This profound document was fashioned with snippets of pages, with the search engine, and with the novel first publised as Comment c’est – using all of them quite perversely. Samuel Beckett’s 1964 How It Is describes a person moving and not moving through the mud, alone, not alone, and then once more alone. Cayley and Howe, bending the service known as Google to their literary purposes, have located every phrase of the novel on Web pages where no reference to Beckett is made. For instance, the first words, “how it was I quote,” are found in a New York Times excerpt from Elie Wiesel’s And The Sea is Never Full. The phrase is provided, the URL is given in a footnote … and the same is done for every other phrase in How It Is. The result is an edition of Beckett’s book made of text that was literally found on the Web. The only thing funnier will be the Beckett Estate’s response.
The Oregon Trail is the Oregon Trail
Mud Lucious Press · 65 pages
Consciousness wobbles between the “real world” of Barry Manilow concerts, streetscapes that look like Frogger, and private Facebook messages on the one hand and a fabled simulation bleeding beyond the phosphors of the computer-connected CRT television on the other. Amid tender moments featuring the wife, child #1, and child #2, these poems also offer reminders of the political context in which Westward expansion was undertaken. “The Oregon Trail 2 Starring Mel Gibson Directed by Mel Gibson” notes, for instance, “We have Manifest Destiny in our cocks.” This book about the American journey, not the destination, may appear to be a nostalgic romp. (Perhaps the book’s dedication, “FOR YOUTH,” and the theme of adult responsibilities invites such an attitude.) There is no home to ache over, though, in these 39 poems that join intimate imagination to a famous if floppy American document, showing that however personal or national memory flows past, in whatsoever form, you can’t ford the same river twice.
In February 2011 Tim Schafer’s Doublefine Productions released a game, Stacking, in which the anthropomorphic figures are Russian nesting dolls. Set in a nicely developed Victorian world of social ills and technological marvels and making use of a toy-like mechanic, Stacking is somewhat like Lego Star Wars without either the Lego or the Star Wars brand. It combines charming play with plenty of cutscenes.
Some aspects of the game don’t seem to have been mentioned online in the past year and a half, so I’m compelled to mention them now: You play by controlling a young boy and nesting this character, and then others, inside one another to gain access to different areas and accomplish tasks. Your current stack of dolls can grow only by entering another doll. It’s not possible to stack another doll if it’s facing you and looking at you, only if you sneak up on it. That is, it’s necessary to enter dolls from behind. When you do pop yourself inside, onlookers gasp in shock.
Radical Books of 2011, 10/10
Big Questions, Anders Nilsen, Drawn & Quarterly, 9781770460478
Anders Nilsen has done exquisite sequential art, a.k.a. comix. I’m particularly fond of the trembling outlines and barely-representational figures in The End. The trade book of Big Questions is more conventional in style, but it binds 658 pages and 15 volumes of Nilsen’s work together in an extended, amazing story. In it, birds speak, but aren’t very smart. They devise their own ideas about a piece of unexploded ordnance, for instance, imagining it as an egg. An elderly woman dies in a plane crash; the idiot man-boy she has been caring for survives, as does the pilot. He also doesn’t seem too smart. The drawing style, which passes for simple at times but is nicely composed and filled with rich details, keys into the story, an animal tale that passes beyond childish simplicity. There are none of the mainstream superheros and no hint of the indie comics memoir in these ten years of work by a master of this art. Comic readers should love it; radical readers who wish to try out comics should try it.
Radical Books of 2011, 9/10
Pale Fire: A Poem in four Cantos by John Shade, Vladimir Nabokov, Ginkgo Press, 9781584234319
Extracting the poem (which only exists as a sort of in-joke in the radical novel Pale Fire) from what is perhaps (according, e.g., to Larry McCaffrey) the major English-language novel of the 20th Century? It’s at least a very extreme move. This edition drops the prose like a bad habit, makes like a banana and splits it off, makes like a tree and abandons House of Leaves prose for Leaves of Grass verse. Does it work in the sense of presenting a beautiful poem freed from its chrysalis? No. Much of it is still most notable for building up, and then comically deflating, the explicitly implied author, John Shade. It’s better as part of a narrative than as language trembling between sound and sense. But John Shade’s “Pale Fire” is not too bad of a poem qua poem, and reading it alone can certainly enhance one’s appreciation of the truly incredible novel that has been shucked off here. I haven’t read the included commentary, but must note that including commentary is an absolutely hilarious idea.
Radical Books of 2011, 8/10
You Can’t Have Everything… Where Would You Put It!, Bruce Andrews, Veer Books
There is no way this book will get past your spam filter:
facework cootie itsier-off
we are the dream sequences in your conventional cultural life -
Indeed we are. Here’s verbal salad (French dressing? Russian dressing?) shot through at times with lines of split and reassembled words:
It’s a delight to apprehend such text, passing words beneath one’s eyes, thinking about what it all might mean and sound like. Looking back now, I wonder if I should have flipped this open and read at random when I encountered it originally. Instead of plodding through, I might have thought for days about a line such as “tractor the Real.” But, as it happens, I can still do that. Although I have everything, I had nowhere to put it. I have to delve in again for specific examples of juxtapositions that Bruce Andrews fashions. The book is no doubt worth reading, scanning, or hashing into – however you want to have it all.
Radical Books of 2011, 7/10
Silence: Lectures and Writings, John Cage, 50th anniversary edition, Wesleyan University Press, 9780819571762
Stefan Helmreich and I were at dinner with a group and started talking about John Cage. The anechoic chamber Cage visited at Harvard is no longer there. MIT doesn’t have one, either. The best you can do (as a visiting sound artist found out) is arrange to visit Bose headquarters in Framingham, where they have a scruffy, industrial room – completely unlike the pure, science-fictional, sound-proof capsule a visitor would no doubt imagine. The point of Cage’s anechoic chamber story is that he heard a low-frequency and a high-frequency sound when he was in it; this was the circulation of his blood and the sound of his nervous system. This experience suggests we cannot truly hear silence, since we always produce sounds. Stefan suggested that perhaps profoundly deaf people can hear silence. I said that since the deaf can’t hear sounds, and since silence only exists as the complement of sound, perhaps they couldn’t really hear silence. Later, I realized that this would only be true of those who were deaf from birth.
Radical Books of 2011, 6/10
Galerie de Difformité, Gretchen E. Henderson, &NOW Books, 9780982315637
Cross the form of a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book with fragmented, cut-up, torn-up, stretched, and unconventionally printed text. Skip the “of” of an English title and give it a French name, using the “de” form. Bend book into blog. Deformity here includes transgressing the boundaries of authorship and inviting “user-generated” fascicles. Work the book’s text into something despicable or respectable: Fill out the form. Click to put Ye Ugly Face on Facebook. The story’s play of conspiracies and resurrections resonate with the transformations of the reading process that book and reader enact. Further, the exercises in textual topology – and lettered exhibits calling for further deformation – show that remixing is not just for one-note works such as Dramatic Chipmunk. The book, and indeed this thoughtfully developed artist’s book, can also serve as seed for elaborate transformation and convolution.
Radical Books of 2011, 5/10
Holocaust Museum, Robert Fitterman, Veer Books, 9781907088346
Here is an extraordinary list, a simple and straightforwardly organized book of metadata (in this case, photo captions) that gives a very detached view of the 20th Century’s most unthinkable occurrence. What is fascinating is that while the book comments on some of the tropes of memorials, Holocaust museums, and records of trauma in general – enumeration, detachment, clear identification and humanization of individuals – it nevertheless becomes an effective testimony of the Holocaust and of how it was inextricably involved with ordinary life and events and histories, beyond the horrors that were ordered and organized:
A German-Jewish family poses outdoors for a family portrait with their dog. [Photograph #69297]
The book is conceptual, but seems to be as far from a conceptual joke as is possible. Unlike much conceptual writing that begins with appropriation, it demands to be read entire. This is in many ways a simple book, and in many ways an extremely complex engagement with history, memory, and writing.