Silence: Lectures and Writings

Saturday 7 January 2012, 1:00 pm   ////  

Radical Books of 2011, 7/10

John Cage, Silence

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.

Galerie de Difformité

Friday 6 January 2012, 1:00 pm   ////  

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.

Holocaust Museum

Thursday 5 January 2012, 3:36 pm   //////  

Radical Books of 2011, 5/10

Robert Fitterman, Holocaust Museum

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.

Found Poems

Wednesday 4 January 2012, 1:00 pm   //////  

Radical Books of 2011, 4/10

Bern Porter, Found Poems

Found Poems, Bern Porter, new edition of a 1972 Something Else Press book, 9780982264591

Perhaps this exquisite collection of punctuation, numbers, and occasional letters recalls to the modern reader the idea of “uncreative writing” as described by Kenneth Goldsmith. I see it more as an example of subtractive writing: Creating new texts by erasure, or by cutting out text from advertisements, tables of technical information, and other ordinary but rich veins that can be mined for fragments of language. Each page can also be seen as a degenerate collage, a single clipping of text juxtaposed with nothing else (except what’s on the facing page). Porter, who was a publisher of radical writing and hoarded paper, never owned a phone or a computer. The book is, one might say, a real find, worth re-reading by anyone who seriously turns to contemporary poetry and conceptual writing, or indeed anyone fascinated with ordinary words locked in ads, fliers, and other everyday texts. At least do check out the fine related resources on UbuWeb’s Bern Porter page.

Motes

Tuesday 3 January 2012, 1:00 pm   /////  

Radical Books of 2011, 3/10

Motes, Craig Dworkin, Roof Books, 9781931824446

Short titles (or none) followed by hardly longer texts – the form is due to Bob Grenier’s A Day at the Beach and his materially innovative Sentences. Dworkin does something new, showing this is no one-trick pony and has use beyond a single poet. Zak Smith was the first to do a picture for every page of a novel (Gravity’s Rainbow) only to be followed by Matt Kish’s 2011 demonstration that the conceit had legs. Similarly, Dworkin innovates in Motes by being the second to try his hand at an unusual way of writing, and to show that it can amplify his different voice:

BRICK

Buick

Or:

MARGIN

explanation of butter on the counter overnight

While playing on Grenier’s everyday experiences, Dworkin’s motes take another turn, entering language and ordinary experience more deeply at times, as in the oddly compelling:

FOR THE WIDER GOOD

I am tiger woods

I am tiger woods

Alas.

It Is Almost That: A Collection of Image+Text Work by Women Artists & Writers

Monday 2 January 2012, 12:21 pm   ////  

Radical Books of 2011, 2/10

It Is Almost That: A Collection of Image+Text Work by Women Artists & Writers, Lisa Pearson, Siglio Press, 9780979956263

The writing here ranges from conceptual and all-text (as in Fiona Banner’s The Nam, composed of impassively typed descriptions of everything that happens in six famous Vietnam War films) to the highly visual (as in Suzanne Treister’s transformation of daily newspaper headlines into alchemical diagrams). One of Hannah Weiner’s journals in excerpted in manuscript; another selection is of small pages with brief, seemingly quotidian image-and-phrase pairings: from Docking Competitions by Erica van Horn & Laurie Clark. Some selections are entire works; others are excerpted well. A particularly nice selection is from the early computer poem A House of Dust by Alison Knowles and James Tenney, which shows the material nature of late-1960s computer output along with the formal possibilities the computer holds for recombining language. The twenty-six selections cover considerable visual, verbal, and conceptual terrain and produce excellent combinations of word and image that provoke and compel.

Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page

Sunday 1 January 2012, 12:21 pm   ////  

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.

Eden

Sunday 29 August 2010, 8:41 pm   ///////  
The Secret History of Science Fiction, edited by James Ptrick Kelly & John Kessel, Tachyon Publications, 2010

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.

Code is Beauty, Beauty Code

Friday 20 August 2010, 12:07 am   //////////  

Beautiful CodeIn recent years, I’ve written a series of 1k (that is, exactly 1024 character) reviews on here. This ruse has helped me compose succinct (and possibly useful) notes about many things that I wouldn’t have otherwise written about. But some things that are worth reviewing, such as a documentary about interactive fiction, are really better treated in a bit more depth. Given my interest in the aesthetics of code, and in code that produces aesthetic output, a book entitled Beautiful Code: Leading Programmers Explain How They Think is certainly one of those things.

Beautiful Code is an edited collection of 33 articles by a well-known publisher of technical books. The articles deal with how programmers solved a variety of problems, some of them very general computational problems, others quite specific to particular systems and applications. Several of the authors discuss their own code. The book is part of the Theory in Practice series with Beautiful Data, Beautiful Architecture, and Beautiful Security.

Beautiful Code: Leading Programmers Explain How They Think. Edited By Andy Oram & Greg Wilson. O’Reilly Media, 2007.

Beautiful Code is a success in several ways. It widens the conversation about code and the innovative development of it beyond particular programming languages, which have often been silos for such discussion has taken place in the past. At least, book-length discussion of programming – in textbooks, in introductory and reference books, and in “tips and tricks” books – has often been language-specific. While encompassing many systems and code in many languages, the book doesn’t take the position that the programming language can be abstracted away, that knowing about data structures, algorithms and an arbitrary programming language allows on to say all that can be said about how to program.

The first article is a particularly excellent one. In it, Brian Kernighan discusses 30 lines of regular expression matching C code which Rob Pike wrote as an example in an hour or two. This concise article deals with how to solve the core of the regular expression problem elegantly and correctly, but it also touches on many other important aspects of code and programming. By suggesting a series of modifications, Kernighan shows that code is an element of future programs rather than simply a fixed solution. Kernighan mentions how the code takes advantage of C pointers and suggests converting it to Java to see how the result would be slower and would require a lengthier program. If you can only read one essay in Beautiful Code, be glad that the editors have placed this one in the front, allowing you to retrieve it in a constant-time operation.

I was also interested in how several of the essays dealt with the need to consider hardware specifics, something one might expect pure, beautiful code to avoid touching. There’s some hint of this specter in chapter 7, which discusses how Jon Bently’s official, “proven” algorithm for binary search has a bug when it’s implemented on most real systems. When the code finds a midpoint within the array by computing (low + high) / 2, the sum of low and high can, in very extreme cases, exceed the maximum integer value, giving a negative (and obviously wrong) result. Later chapters deal with more productive connections between hardware and code. In chapter 10, Henry S. Warren, Jr. delves into the amazing intricacies involved in efficiently computing the population count or sideways sum: the number of bits in a word, or an array of words, that are 1. The current best way of doing this for an array involves using a special circuit called a carry-save adder. Chapter 14, “How Elegant Code Evolves with Hardware: The Case of Gaussian Elimination,” explores the relationship of leading matrix algorithms to changing hardware architectures.

Several other articles interested me; I suspect that programming language researchers, professional programmers, and others will find that a good number of the selections are worthwhile.

But despite the title and some compelling discussion inside, this is really isn’t a book about “beautiful code.” There is almost nothing in it about beauty or what that concept means when applied to code. “Aesthetics” isn’t in the index. When beauty is mentioned, it seems obligatory and stands for whatever the author of a particular chapter values. This, for instance, by Travis E. Oliphant:

“Iterators are a beautiful abstraction because they save valuable programmer attention in the implementation of a complicated algorithm.” (p. 318)

Could one say anything similar about paintings? Sunsets? Or even something that has an important functional aspect, like a building? “Frank Ghery’s Stata Center is a beautiful building because the layout of its hallways saves valuable programmer time.” That doesn’t sound quite right, does it? There are more reasonable-sounding, if not very elaborated, statements about code and beauty in the book, but some of those seem to express a very narrow perspective. For instance, Adam Kolawa writes:

“In sum, I believe that beautiful code must be short, explicit, frugal, and written with consideration for reality.” (p. 266)

Michael Mateas and I have written about obfuscated code, a topic that isn’t mentioned at all in this book. While obfuscated programs are usually short, they are also the opposite of explicit, gratuitous rather than frugal, and written without any concern for “realities” like re-use, practicality, and legibility. An obfuscated program isn’t good programming practice – that’s part of the point. For reasons that Michael and I have written about, we consider the best examples of obfuscated code to be beautiful, and I suspect we’re not the only ones. They simply display a different kind of beauty, an aesthetic of complexity and extravagance that shows us things about programming and about the language in which the obfuscated code is written – things that technical essays don’t reveal. You may share this aesthetic and be willing to consider obfuscated code beautiful, if, for instance, you saw beauty in the exorbitant Ok Go video “This Too Shall Pass.”

A final disappointment: There are no articles on the creative, artistic use of code, on programming projects that are meant to create beautiful output – no music, poetry, story, or terrain generators, lightsynths, demos, intros, or Processing sketches. Certainly a book about beautiful code, even if it is targeted at the professional programmer, would benefit from investigating a program or two of this sort?

This isn’t to say that valuing conciseness and clarity is a bad idea, or that having a book about utilitarian programming practice, particularly a wide-ranging one with many interesting articles of great technical depth, is a problem. It just means that much work remains to be done on matters of beauty and code. Perhaps we’ll soon see a book that brings together the diversity and depth of technical discussion that’s displayed here with consideration of the nature of beauty, of what it means for code to be beautiful, and of how the workings, conception, code expression, and wider contexts of a program are all involved in its beauty.

Get Lamp and Watch

Get Lamp DVD package coverYou may have noticed a slew of posts on the Get Lamp blog, Taking Inventory, or seen the writeups on Boing Boing, PC Gamer, CNET, or other sites. But I’ll say it here too: Jason Scott’s documentary about text adventures, years in the making, is completed, has been pressed and assembled, and is now for sale and shipping. The movie is Get Lamp, and there is a trailer for it online.

Tipped off by my book Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction, Jason Scott got in touch with me way back in 2005, before he had started filming interviews for Get Lamp. He came to Philadelphia, where I was working on my Ph.D. at Penn. I ended up doing one of several interviews with him there and bringing him to Autostart, a digital literature festival I helped organize at the Kelly Writers House, where he interviewed a few of the participants – just a handful of the many dozens of interviews Scott did for the documentary. I’ve gotten to see the documentary develop. I listened to audio files of the interviews, discussed the project on ifMUD, and got to see screenings of early versions with audiences at the Penny Arcade Expo East and @party.

Get Lamp is an essential film for the interactive fiction enthusiast – as I think more or less all of us know already. It’s also going to be an important film for students of electronic literature or computing history. There are some good short YouTube videos explaining interactive fiction, such as Exploring Interactive Fiction, which I did with Talieh Rohani, and Jason McIntosh’s The Gameshelf #8: Modern Interactive Fiction. These are great for people whose interest has been piqued already and who want to know a bit more about IF history and how to play. But it’s really difficult to get contemporary, non-IF playing students to understand why they should give interactive fiction a chance. Those who put a few short games on a syllabus often return to classrooms of perplexed or disgruntled people who have made no progress. Screening at least the “non-interactive” cut of Get Lamp will be time well spent. It will provide ideas for discussion and will give students permission to appreciate interactive fiction in several new ways, allowing them to better engage with assigned games.

It’s people and their stories that are always the focus of a documentary, and that’s certainly the case with Get Lamp, which assembles quips, and the occasional longer argument or rant, from players and authors of different eras. The statements from people in the film give a great sense of the many ways in which interactive fiction was and is important. This is something you don’t get in Twisty Little Passages, because my method wasn’t to interview people about their experiences; I focused more on the printed and digital record, on describing how interactive fiction works, and on scholarly questions about the status and history of the form, for instance, as it relates to the literary riddle. While people are central to the documentary, Scott certainly doesn’t shy away from archival materials such as printouts, maps, and notes or from original early packages in the documentary, though. He uses those worth-a-thousand-words pictures to give a sense of the contexts in which interactive fiction has been played from the early days of Adventure through today. Which I guess means, as everyone’s favorite retail site says, “Buy these items together!” (Actually, though, you should go to the Get Lamp order page to buy the documentary.)

Scott has done a great deal to provide coverage of today’s “modern era” of interactive fiction development while also covering its origins in Adventure, the ties that game has to caving, and the commercial heyday from Adventure International through Infocom. The history of the IF Comp is explained by current organizer Stephen Granade and others, and the emergence of short-form IF (and its relationship to the comp) is discussed as well. But the documentary’s perspective on interactive fiction clearly gazes longingly over the “golden age” of commercial IF, when Infocom was king. There’s the sense – which several people share – that interactive fiction has managed to continue in some ways from that time, which was its finest hour.

That’s not the perspective some contemporary IF authors have, though. For some, Infocom is a happy but dim memory rather than the holy city of Byzantium. Others never even played an Infocom game before playing modern IF and writing their own IF. And of course, games are not just shorter now; they are written in a wider variety of styles on a wider variety of topics. It won’t be tough for enthusiasts to find other favorite aspects of IF which didn’t manage to fit into this full and rich documentary: the relationship to MUDs or the graphical adventure, commercial games in English outside the US, or global communities working on IF in recent years. Which is just to note that while Get Lamp relates an important and untold story, it’s not the only story of interactive fiction. It’s the kind of movie that leaves me listening to my fellow IF authors and aficionados and being constantly surprised about how much I share certain people’s perspectives and how different, at other times, my view of IF is. That’s not just informative; it’s also thought-provoking.

Yes, despite the breadth and unusual textures of the topic, the film goes beyond being a great introduction to IF and the people who play and write it. There are many surprising discussions outside the main line of IF history. The academic study of IF is discussed by Mary Ann Buckles, whose 1985 dissertation on Adventure is the first study of IF and probably the first long example of work in game studies. John Romero explains the debt that computer games in general owe to text adventures. Robert Pinsky, who has served as poet laureate in addition to writing the IF Mindwheel, discusses puzzles and the pleasures of literature. Other less-than-usual suspects chime in, including fellow academics and collaborators of mine Jeremy Douglass, Ian Bogost, and Stuart Moulthrop.

One of my favorite points in the movie is when Brian Moriarty says empathetically of the Infocom catalog, “It was for literate people – it was for people who like to read!” Get Lamp is also for people who like to read, explore, and see from different perspectives. It’s not only for those who have already discovered interactive fiction, but it will delight most those who are enthusiastic about computing and what the computer can do with storytelling, language, and the modeling of words.

Jason Scott is now preparing for a “Jet Lamp” tour in September, in which he’ll show the film around the country. Perhaps you’ll get to catch it at a theater near you.

The Secret History of Science Fiction

Wednesday 4 August 2010, 7:00 pm   /////  
The Secret History of Science Fiction, edited by James Ptrick Kelly & John Kessel, Tachyon Publications, 2010

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

Monday 8 February 2010, 2:34 pm   //////  
Utensils in a Landscape, Chris Edwards, Stray Dog Editions, Vagabond Press, 2001

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

Saturday 9 January 2010, 11:46 pm   //////  
Gatz, Elevator Repair Service, directed by John Collins, at American Repertory Theater, Cambridge, MA, Jan 7-Feb 7 2010

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.

Two Novels

Thursday 31 December 2009, 11:09 pm   ////  

This year I read, years after their publication in English, two truly awesome novels.

The Great Fire of LondonThe Great Fire of London: A Story with Interpolations and Bifurcations, by Jacques Roubaud (trans. Dominic Di Bernardi) is an incredible project. The interesting formal structure contributed less to the profound effect of the book than I had expected, perhaps because so much else is accomplished in so many other ways. Roubaud describes writing as destructive of memory, not in the sense that Plato’s Thales sees writing as leading to an atrophy of one’s capability to remember. Rather, writing about something we remember is an act that burns away our memory, leaving us only the text and the memory of writing. The project of the book was occasioned by a dream in which Roubaud realized that he had to write a novel called The Great Fire of London. He waited seventeen years, turning over the memory of this dream, before beginning to write this book, which, among other things, describes his inability to write that novel; states the author’s preferences for walking over running and his conception of himself as a walker and swimmer; describes some of his life with and his dealing with the death of his wife, Alix; and affirms that one can write in order to live. The book is transfixing, and unlike anything I have read up to the point. Roubaud, since he completed this book (it was published in 1989), has gone on to write five more volumes. The second of these is now available in English as The Loop.

The Savage Detectives The Savage Detectives, by Roberto Bolaño (trans. Natasha Wimmer) is quite different: about literary dynamics on a country-wide scale and beyond, and more about social interactions than memory, individual loss, and identity. The book traces the lives of some poets associated with the fictional literary movement “visceral realism.” The fairly short first and last sections of the book are narrated (and purportedly written, as diary entries) by an often surprised, often pedantic, often very sexually occupied poet, García Madero. The middle section provides a kaleidoscope of perspectives on literary and ordinary moments in life throughout the world, in an amazing change ringing of voices. The breadth of the book is incredible, as are the different experiences and viewpoints it offers:

Luis Sebastián Rosado, Mexico City DF, July 1976: The question burst from me as if of its own accord: have you slept with María? His reply (my god, what a sad, beautiful profile Luscious Skin had) was devastating. He said: I’ve slept with every poet in Mexico.
Amadeo Salvatierra, Mexico City DF, January 1976: And then one of them opened the bottle and poured forth some of the nectar of the gods into our respective glasses, the same ones we’d been drinking before, which some consider a sign of slovenliness and others the ultimate refinement, since when the glass is, shall we say, glazed with mezcal, the tequila is more at ease, like a naked woman in a fur coat.
Barbara Patterson, San Diego, California, October 1982: Then we would be quiet with the TV on, each of us absorbed in our own scrambled eggs, our pieces of lettuce, our tomato slices, and I would think what life lessons are you talking about, you poor bastard, you poor jerk, what poor lessons did you ever learn, you pathetic leech, you pathetic loser, you fucking asshole, if it weren’t for me you’d be sleeping under a bridge. But I didn’t say anything, I just looked at him, and that was all.

The final part reveals what happened immediately after the first, in which some characters flee north into the desert of Sonora. It is even more horrible that I had imagined, and is a suitable finish for a book that, as its title declares, is about scrutinizing the worst that the world has to offer.

Babyfucker

Tuesday 20 October 2009, 8:36 pm   /////  
Babyfucker, Urs Allemann, trans. Peter Smith, biligual edition, Les Figues Press, 2010

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.

Comics Are Great when Your Life Sucks

Tuesday 8 September 2009, 12:55 am   ///  

Comics are written by people whose lives suck, for people whose lives suck. Obviously, that’s not entirely true. Alternative comics do seem to be highly in touch with the lameness of life, though, whether they’re chronicling lynchings in the American South, exploring the emotional suffering of outcasts, or taking us through people’s decisions and indecision.

Since this blog is about digital media sorts of things as well as “other stuff [I] like,” I thought I’d note and briefly comment on a few graphic novels that I’ve read recently, even if nothing here feeds directly into computer conversations.

At Henry Jenkins’s recommendation, I read volume one of Jeremy Love’s Bayou, a comic about a girl whose father is a sharecropper and who faces a series of violent and historically apt horrors. This comic, in color, blends in a dreamworld of fabular elements to interesting effect, although the “truth” side of the story ends up being more terrifying and compelling than the “fiction.” For this reason, I think I enjoyed and learned from Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece’s Incognegro even more. This black-and-white comic tells of a black reporter who can pass as white and who goes to the South to document lynchings. Both comics show the strength of family ties and feature a sheriff who is, compared to the lynch mob, a somewhat good guy. Bayou‘s play with fantasy and folklore is nice, but I think Incognegro does even better, incorporating an incredible plot twist and keeping the action within a historical world.

The most dark, bitter, depressing, and hopeless sequential thing I’ve seen recently was Josh Simmons’s House. Three people meet up and explore a huge dilapidated ruin of a house. Guess what happens. Yep, except it’s even worse than you imagine.

I liked Night Fisher by R. Kikuo Johnson a lot. It’s the story of a high school student in Hawaii, a good student who ends up getting involved with drugs and then with despairing criminals for what seems like no particular reason – there’s not much else to do, though. Miss Lasko-Gross has a more amusing tale of school days in Escape from “Special,” which chronicles a younger student’s educational, social, and religious difficulties.

I really liked Dupuy and Berberian’s Maybe Later, a collaboratively written and drawn journal of the duo’s experiences writing and drawing Mr. Jean comics. I’m now reading some of those comics, translated and collected as Get a Life. Dupuy and Berberian don’t divide up the writing and drawing, but actually collaborate at each stage of the comic-creation process, from conception through to execution, much as I’ve collaborated as a writer with Scott Rettberg (Implementation) and William Gillespie (2002, The Ed Report).

Finally, David Mazzucchello’s Asterios Polyp is brilliant, with incredible writing and art. It’s well worth the price and the effort of carrying the hefty book home. The book’s form recalls that of an architecture book and is perfectly apt for this tale of a architecture professor who is a jerk, flawed, and incomplete – who loses the most important thing in his life, loses everything else, and decides to live, to listen and watch life, and to keep searching.

Web Comics Touched by the Brush

Tuesday 28 July 2009, 12:46 am   /////  

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.

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