Michael Moorcock, The Land Leviathan

1Of course I’ve read a moderate amount of Michael Moorcock, but I haven’t for some time and, as I finished the Jack Vance book and went to the library for the next volume I looked for a change of pace to take along with the Vance. Moorcock had been on my mind for a while now, because he, as much as anyone I can think of–save Octavia Butler–is the great example of an intellectually-rigorous, politically-Left sci-fi/fantasy/speculative fiction.

Genuinely excellent politically engaged literature is not easy to come by, but it’s fantastic when one does. I wouldn’t even say so much that both Moorcock and Butler are writers first and advocates of a political agenda second but that their politics is inseparable from their storytelling and their storytelling is that much more compelling because it does have political content.

Now, I had been very aware of Moorcock’s politics even before I’d read any of the Elric books, which threaded a critique of the type of Christian morality (and its political form) that presented itself, much more artfully to be sure than in C.S. Lewis‘ fantasies, in Tolkien. It is easy and not wrong to link Moorcock’s coherently anarchist sensibilities to his most famous hero, whose first act in the narrative was to dismantle a government.

I write this, but I will say that I was almost taken aback by precisely how front and center the politics are in The Land Leviathan, much more so than in at least the original Elric stories. Briefly, the book can be described as an “alternate history,” the first of its kind that I’ve read per se. Oswald Bastable, Victorian Englishman, has become, much like Vonnegut’s hero but admittedly less funny, unstuck in time. Bastable finds himself bouncing back and forth between alternate futures and pasts. In the one that occupies this book’s narrative, he finds himself in an alternate first decade of the twentieth century. Development of advanced technologies have given the human race extraordinary powers of destruction, and by the time Bastable arrives on the scene global war has been going on for years and the countries which had run the nineteenth century more or less have been reduced to rubble. Bastable uses the word “Apocalypse” more than once.

The healthiest society on the planet, pacifist and isolationist, is the former South Africa, named Bantustan, led by President Ghandi. Other African peoples are led by “The Black Attila,” a black American man who only appears if my memory is correct in the last third of the book. Prior to that, he exists only in reputation. The Europeans or those of European ancestry from whom Bastable hears rumor consider him to be simultaneously a genius and a savage. He has, it is said, declared genocidal war on the white race. Moorcock’s alternate past is, more or less, an inversion of the nineteenth century imperialist world order, which to be certain persisted in essential features through until 1974 when the book was published and indeed continues in broad strokes until today.

Moorcock caught me off-guard. It was very clear that Bastable, with whom I felt sympathy for the overwhelming reason that he was the protagonist of the narrative, had a clear distaste for what he imagined to be the Black Attila’s project, and he voiced his distaste in terms colored by the type of garden-variety racism of middle-class white people. Without doubt, Bastable wouldn’t attend a lynching, let alone participate in one, yet he certainly wouldn’t support a Federal lynching law. I wondered, indeed was concerned, that Bastable, in a book written as the 1960’s left coalitions, to the extent that they ever really operated as coalitions, had fragmented, largely through a concerted effort by the FBI to infiltrate and otherwise discredit radical organizations, particularly black radical organizations, the Black Panther Party above all. I wondered if Moorcock had bought the bull***t about the Panthers.

I was relieved, then, to find that as the book progressed that Moorcock revealed not only that the Black Attila’s reputation among the remaining white powers of the world was a reflection of racist ideology rather than reality, but that those white powers, particularly in the course of the narrative those in North America, were themselves the barbaric forces of the world. Moorcock deserves huge credit for using the technique of alternate history to expose the historical reality of the overwhelming virulence of classical white ideology. “Classical white ideology”: if the term doesn’t yet properly exist, I’m pleased to have coined it. In any event, Moorcock is correct to show the white power structure of the United States trying to reinstate racialized slavery. There continue to be lots of white people in the United States today who wish precisely that.

It’s interesting, though, that Moorcock uses the plot device of a race war. I’ve heard lots of people talk about the idea of a race war, or as they saw it the inevitability of a race war. I’ve heard people speak of it with fear, and a few with relish. Whatever the approach, every single one of these people has been white. I have never, not once, heard a person of color talk about a “race war” except to tell the white knucklehead that such a thing was a crazy idea and that in any event were such a thing to happen, given how the past 500 years have gone down, it wasn’t white people who needed to be scared. It should be stressed here that Nat Turner’s rebellion spared poor whites. “Race war” is simply not something any people of color I have ever known want to imagine. The reality of North America–I write of where I live–is a low-intensity race war to this day, if one we can qualify in any number of different ways.

So it’s interesting that Moorcock’s imagined revolutionary-apocalypse takes the form of an inverted white imagination. Without question Moorcock knows who the villains of history are: he really does. He breaks out of that trap of classical white ideology. But he does so not by escaping it, but by inverting it, which is no escape at all.

Still, a fantastic read. Moorcock is tops, really tops.

Jack Vance, The Demon Princes, v. 1

51MqFWpDvmL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Recently, for the second time, the screen on my ebook reader crapped out on me. I may have been careless. The first time it crapped out was because I stepped on it, having absent-mindedly let my bag carrying it fall to my bedroom floor. I liked the thing, so I replaced it. Then, as time passed, I started to get tired of having to recharge my book. I disliked having to turn my book on and off. I regretted that I could actually break my book. So when it ended up breaking, I didn’t replace it, and I figured I’d just chalk up the relatively small number of books I’d purchased as a loss and, once again, make the library my major source of reading.

One of the things I’d bought, though, was an anthology of Jack Vance‘s short stories, The Jack Vance Treasury. I had originally approached Vance’s work because of his influence on Dungeons & Dragons. Sort of to my surprise, as I worked my was through the anthology, I found myself enjoying Vance’s science fiction more than his fantasy. In point of fact, one of more interesting and appealing things about his work as I found it was that it tended more often than not to straddle the two categories, entirely appropriate as categories generally are arbitrary constructs. His stuff straddles the two but definitely tends to lean in one direction or the other. The “Dying Earth” series is basically fantasy, with sci-fi elements, for example.

All this is a long way of explaining that when my ebook screen broke and I decided not to replace it, I went to the library to see if they had the anthology I’d read two-thirds of. They didn’t, of course, so I grabbed this collection of the first three Demon Princes novels off the shelf. Maybe at some point I’ll finish the anthology.

Briefly put, these three books, The Star King, The Killing Machine, and The Palace of Love, are as good as pulp sci-fi gets. It would be very possible to approach these books from, for lack of a better term, an art-fiction perspective and find them flawed but generally satisfying. On a level with any writer, Vance has real strengths. His prose is, as they always say of Pushkin‘s, terse in the best of senses. While on the one hand one could say that this is a cardinal virtue of any pulp fiction and, given the commercial aim of any such writing, it would do Vance a disservice. He is concise not simply to conform to an editorial requirement, but really because he is someone who is genuinely in command of his language.

Once I got fairly deep into the first of the three books–five in the series, the last two in a second volume which I’ve already checked out from the library–I bopped around the internet to examine the general take on the series. To be certain, anything Vance wrote gets high marks, but I was looking for what people tended to look at as the flaws in the series. I wanted to find relatively negative reviews. One sentiment that popped up in a few places was the critique that, for sci-fi, these books spent a fairly small amount of time on the scientific aspects of whatever world Vance described. The science is by no means absent, but what Vance does not give us are long, multi-page descriptions of imaginary future technology.

This lack of lengthy description of science–indeed, Vance is more likely, as more than one observer has noted, to spend more time describing architecture than technology–points to one of Vance’s chief virtues as a writer. Descriptions of the empirical conditions of the worlds in the books are plentiful, but not lengthy. What Vance does, as well any anyone I’ve ever read, is use quick detail to believably suggest unfathomable depth. Contrast this with a Tolkein or Frank Herbert. Tolkein and Herbert–either or both–are held up as exemplars of “world-building,” the term that gets tossed about on the various discussion threads in sci-fi/fantasy forums I browsed. I get the impression that, like there is a sizeable audience that measures the quality of rock guitarists through things like the speed and accuracy of hammer-ons, there is a sizeable audience that measures the quality of a sci-fi/fantasy writer by the number of words spent describing the “world” or “universe” in coherent detail. Quantitative measures are taken to be qualitative.

I’d propose another measure, which will get us to George R.R. Martin. The quality of a sci-fi/fantasy writer generally, or maybe we will go for the sake of argument just in terms of “world-building,” is how few words he or she uses in convincing that the “world” at hand is unfathomably detailed. Taken on this measure, qualitative posing as quantitative, Vance has few equals.

I will tangentially report, then, that I picked up at the library an anthology of stories set in Vance’s Dying Earth. I can’t remember the precise name of the book but George R.R. Martin edited it if I’m correct and to be certain he contributed both a story and, more to my point, an introductory essay. In it he, much to my surprise, pointed to Vance as his favorite writer of genre fiction and primary influence, to the point of having consciously attempted early on his career to write in Vance’s style.

At this point I will report that having begun Martin’s series enthusiastically, and having had that enthusiasm sustained thoroughly through the third of the books, that I began to feel somewhat bogged down in the fourth and that, to get to my point, I made it through a mere (!!!) 250 pages of A Dance With Dragons before putting the book down in disgust, swearing I would read no more, forever. More than a year has passed and I have had no serious brushes with a desire to finish either the book or the series, if Martin manages to finish it. I am done with it, absolutely. I can’t imagine that anything Martin could do in the next two books would make me want to read them. If he follows all the logical threads he’s pulled to their ends in a similar level of detail to what he’s done so far, it will continue to be a horrible slog of a read and run to ten volumes. If he cuts down the detail from the level he’s currently at, it will feel like he’s rushing to finish it for he sake of finishing it, even if it reads better. If he ditches plot threads and focuses on the main plot, he’s got a ton of loose ends. If he completely changes the trajectory to make it interesting again, he might as well start another series. In short, there is no hope for Martin’s series and little hope, it seems, for Martin as a writer generally. I am sure the sixth and seventh books of the series will be published at some point and in some form, and I am equally sure they will be too long and fairly predictable in the broad strokes.

If only Martin had a tiny measure of Vance’s concision, he would be in much better shape. There are two types of bad writing important here. One is writing which, lacking detail, is simply vague. The other is writing that gives an excess of detail and leaves nothing to the imagination. Vance, like any really capable writer, is of a third type–not a middle position–who provides a relatively small amount of compelling detail which encourages the reader to actively imagine something broader than explicitly on the page. That’s a beautiful thing, and that type of detail, concise and suggestive, is the cardinal virtue of great pulp fiction of any genre.

To be certain, Vance is not without flaws. Women, in his work as far as I’ve encountered it, are props. The autochthonous inhabitants of the various planets at times are thinly veiled colonialist fantasies of “the natives.” Really, the books, which–I realize I haven’t mentioned a single thing about any of the novels’ plots–follow Kirth Gersen’s quest for revenge against the five “Demon Princes” who presided over the enslavement and destruction of his people, feel, in the outlines of their plots somewhat like conventional, though interesting, murder mysteries, mutatis mutandis. A pulp writer cranks things out, to be sure, and the plots such as they are are familiar, at least.

The test of a pulp novel, though, is in the reading of it. How does the book read? Reading quick is not in and of itself the goal, but a good pulp novel will read smoothly and be hard to put down. The book should challenge but not tax the intellect. There should be pleasures, but not guilty ones. The plot should carry one along, but the the book should not be narrowly plot-driven. I could go on, and as Miles Davis famously suggested to John Coltrane, I should at this point take the horn out of my mouth. The point here is that writing great–not merely good–pulp fiction strikes me as an enormously skilled endeavor and a genuinely difficult balancing act, with a relatively small number of top-notch practitioners. Vance was one of those genuine greats.

J.R.R. Tolkein, The Return of the King

I just finished Tolkein, for crying out loud. Enjoyed it, no doubt, but I got to a point after reading the first two that I ran out of steam for a while. Returning to Moorcock’s famous “Epic Pooh” essay, this description of Tolkein’s prose bears quoting:

sentimental, slightly distanced, often wistful, a trifle retrospective; it contains little wit and much whimsy.

More than anything, I found that contrary to an assertion Moorcock alludes to from unnamed defenders of Tolkein’s prose, that the prose in The Return of the King was more grating than in the previous two books. Maybe I was moodier, maybe the gradual accruing of archaicisms just wore on me. But I put it down despite liking it and being generally interested in the story.  I picked it up a week ago, feeling strongly that I wanted to finish it and that Tolkein deserved better than George R.R. Martin, who in the fifth book of his series has seemingly lost me for good.

Briefly I should say a few potentially contentious things.

  1. Tolkein wrote a great read but by no means is he a Great Writer. Turgenev was a Great Writer. Ishmael Reed is a Great Writer. Octavia Butler was a Great Writer.
  2. Continuing, the entire Lord of The Rings is thoroughly flawed as a work of art, often poorly paced even when taken on its own terms, with, as I’ve written before, astonishingly shallow characterization.
  3. Tolkein’s political blind-spots are near killers for someone who does not share them. In this volume, the portrayal of the “wild men,” the Dunlendings, seemed straight out of Kipling at his worst.

All these, but I read the book, which is not something I always do. So, the pertinent question would be, now that I’ve finished it, “what does Tolkein do well?”

I don’t think the big attraction about the book is Tolkein’s “world-building,” though it’s something often pointed to even by critics as the chief virtue of the book. Certainly, having played Dungeons and Dragons as a kid I appreciated it and found the small allusions to long ago histories throughout completely engaging. But that said, it’s not like Tolkein drew all this up out of nothing. At some level while it’s not the inevitable outcome of an Oxford philologist, specializing in Old English, deciding to come up with a fantasy story and having the whole project snowball into an obsession, it seems certain to be one of the likely outcomes. But this isn’t good or bad, as people don’t generally invent something from nothing, and likely they never do.

Two things really strike me as Tolkein’s interesting and at some level original, at least in the genre, achievements. First, he has an understanding of the working of political power, particularly as it applies to Mordor, that is rare in the genre and valid. Particularly, and I think I’ve made this point before, Sauron is not an all-powerful evil. Maybe it’s the rash of movies in the past few years in which some overwhelming galactic enemy is going to destroy everything everywhere, and which is all-powerful and invulnerable, only to be suddenly defeated five minutes before the film’s close. Tolkein spends much time, generally through Gandalf, pointing out the tenuousness of Sauron’s position. The good guys are not all but doomed nor is their victory inevitable, but rather there is a both formidable and vulnerable enemy. This is a genuinely interesting approach and one which retains some meaning in our actually-existing world.

Second, Tolkein, for all of his flaws, approaches his subject from a fundamentally humane perspective. I have plenty of people in my life with whom I have real political disagreements and whose politics I am certain has bad effects on the world, but who, in their dealings with people in everyday life are generous and humane. I feel like Tolkein was like that. Critical here is his treatment of the orcs. There is an element in the portrayal of the orcs wherein they are evil hordes simply to be slaughtered. Functionally, in the novel, that’s what they are. Yet, particularly in The Return of The King, which in some scenes looks in relatively close detail at orcs’ relationships with each other, we get some detail to support–was it Gandalf’s assertion at some point?–that the orcs weren’t flawed at conception but developed to be so. This is really important and likely undercuts the narrative structure of the book, which is “good triumphs over evil.” At some level I get the feeling that Tolkein the person was more humane than his book.

I’ll close by noting that I picked up Turgenev’s Sportsman’s Sketches, and his descriptions of the countryside absolutely demolish Tolkein. There really is no contest.

Sheng Yen, Shattering the Great Doubt

Shattering_the_great_doubtI have been practicing Chan Buddhism for over a decade, but diligently only in the last few years. I’d say rather that for a long time I had periods of diligence that over time grew shorter and shorter, until at one point I stopped practicing. It soon enough became clear to me that I needed the practice in my life, I started up again, and while I’m still far from a perfect practitioner I am diligent in a way I never have been in any endeavor over the whole course of my life thus far.

A few months ago I made the drive north to Riverside for the first time in a while to hear, in the flesh, a Dharma talk from my teacher, Gilbert Gutierrez. To make the connection to the book, Gilbert is one of Sheng Yen‘s Dharma heirs, one of, if I’m correct, only seventeen and the only one in the Americas. Gilbert was my introduction to the practice and while I abandoned him for a spell he never abandoned me. Gilbert, that night, taught the huatou method to his group and gave me a huatou on which to work. Fairly soon and in anticipation of a 7-day retreat at Dharma Drum Los Angeles, I bought Shifu’s book–Shifu means “teacher” or “master”–on the method.

Typical of Sheng Yen, the book is of the highest caliber. What I will say is that, like everything I’ve read of his, it is intended not so much as a treatise on a subject but as a means to encourage and develop practice. I don’t feel like I’d give someone one of Shifu’s books as a means to understand the ideas behind Chan, or Buddhism generally. But if one wants to get a sense of what one concretely does as a practioner or how the exchange between teacher and student goes, he’s ideal.

Shattering the Great Doubt consists of transcripts, edited, certainly but not so much that they lose the spontaneity and humor of Shifu’s actual talks. This book, more than others I’ve read from him, retains his humor. That alone is worth a ton. A book like his Faith in Mind is something of a classic, and it too was drawn from talks. This one, and a companion volume on the Silent Illumination method, retain at least in part students’ questions with Shifu’s responses. It reads at least in large parts more like a transcript, which of course it basically is, than a book. This is a good thing for me.

I should say something about the actual method, because while on the one hand I’m writing this simply as part of my larger project of documenting what books I read, on the other hand I would hope that some practitioner stumbles here looking for information on the practice. I’m no Dharma Teacher to be sure, but I’m happy to share experiences.

The huatou method basically consists of the meditator using a particular repeated question as the object of her or his meditation. One simply asks the question over and over in one’s mind. Like other methods, like, most commonly, awareness of breath, the mind inevitably, and generally quite quickly, wanders off from the method, in this case the question. The practice then, at least initially, is to bring he attention back to the method. With extended use the minds gradually settles on the question and rests there. The broader purpose of the method is to rest develop doubt, not a doubt of not believing but a doubt of not knowing but wanting to. The doubt builds and, ultimately, shatters. What’s left is the experience of one’s true nature, as it’s called in Chan.

So, less of a book response than a response to the method itself as I practiced it. Have I gotten results? By all means. I have generally practiced Silent Illumination, or in the Japaneze shikantaze, “just sitting” and taking one’s sitting body as the object of awareness in the method. I worked with the huatou quite a bit. Where Silent Illumination produces in me a wide openness and stillness, the huatou seems, entirely predictably, more focused and with an intensity that Silent Illumination does not encourage. Master Sheng Yen, in the book, talked at points about wielding the huatou as if it were a vajra sword, cutting through delusion. This seems about right. Gilbert said that the danger in Silent Illumination is that precisely because it is such a gentle method one can drift off to all kinds of places relatively easily. The huatou is at some level easier to stay on, and it seems to really effectively clear the mind. Certainly it is a practice worth having in one’s toolbox.

Louis L’Amour, The Californios

{683035FE-823B-4BE9-9D11-82932C1AB5EC}Img100A very good friend and I, about a year ago, were hiking Torrey Pines Park and we were talking about good pulp writers, and not only that but how good pulp writing was really good writing. I consider myself a highbrow lowbrow man all the way. I have read and continue to read “serious” literature, though when I do it tends toward the satirical, but I like to read high-caliber crap. Crap in the best of senses.

So my friend told me, after discussion pulp sci-fi, Dashiell Hammett, and favorably comparing Fritz Leiber to Tolkein, I turned the conversation to Zane Grey, whom I have yet to read. My friend mentioned Louis L’Amour very favorably. I was somewhat shocked. I had in my mind associated L’Amour with both romance novels and the Reagan era, of which I know he wasn’t a part per se but which was the time in which I became aware of him. The romance novel association was because I remember seeing so many romance novels laid out in bookstores, end to end, and seeing a similar thing for Louis L’Amour novels. Or maybe the Western section was by the Romance section. I think it was, actually, in every bookstore there was. I say Reagan era because I remember developing a conscious antipathy to all cowboy mythology because Reagan was such a vicious ass in his faux cowboy gear. I have people from Montana, I know from cowboy, and Reagan wasn’t it.

So, having some time to kill, wanting a bite to eat, and not having a book handy, I stopped into the library and grabbed a L’Amour book. I had a feeling that they were all basically the same and I’ll bet $50 my feeling is correct. I chose The Californios because of the setting only. I figured I might as well root for the home team.

I blew through the book, which I think is the general appeal of L’Amour’s work. This is not simply a beach book, but a short day at the beach book. I don’t think that a brisk read inherently indicates a lack of substance, but I will say that the various critiques of L’Amour I spotted with a quick search–rote and predictable plotting, stereotypical characters–seem to apply. If you want a Western–so-called–that tweaks the genre, go elsewhere.

At the same time, I was surprised by the book. I had associated–Reagan–the genre with political conservatism, and a quick glance around the internet seems to indicate that I’m not the only one, though for some others a conservative bent is a good thing. L’Amour, though, seems like he was relatively good white people. While there’s a sense that indigenous people are of an older time, a typically white view that leads to horrific policy vis-a-vis actually-existing Indians today, native people in L’Amour’s book are real people, not just a vague threat worthy of genocide. The sympathetic white characters explicitly say, regarding native religion, that native people had lived on the land longer and so their religious practices should be taken seriously even if the white character in question didn’t fully understand. Imperfect, but complex. That’s about as good as white Americans get at this historical juncture. To boot, the female characters are as complex as the male characters. Not actually complex, but equally shallow you might say. The book was vastly less offensive than most Western movies, and that’s a good thing.

I can’t complain about the setting, in and around Los Angeles, Malibu most of all, just before the United States invaded Mexico on a flimsy pretext to up and take the land. It made me think about where I live, and at some basic level any book that makes me think is a good book, whatever critiques I might otherwise level.

Gyula Krudy, Sunflower

Krudy-SUNFLOWER-2007-001Every now and again I do a straight random pull off the stacks in the library and give a book a go that nothing in my experience would have led me to intentionally seek. To some extent, I fool myself, because it’s not entirely random. I tend to do this when I find myself in some section that I intended to go to and maybe I end up getting the book I came for and maybe I don’t. In this case, I had accidentally stepped on my Kobo and broke the screen, so I had gone to the library to get their copy of The Water Margin, which was on my Kobo. The library only had one volume of it, so I figured I’d just bite the bullet and replace my device. But my eyes wandered around the shelf where The Water Margin was, and I found Gyula Krudy. One book of his, my library has, but it is fantastic.

It’s a bad tendency of people from the United States to group together disparate societies into fictional wholes because they know next to nothing about them. Africa becomes a country, for example. So I feel somewhat hesitant in even mentioning that I went through a semi-significant phase of reading Czech literature, primarily Jaroslav Hasek and Karel Capek, in my 20’s. The impact was strong and there was a musical artifact of my own.

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I’m sort of embarrassed that having read a modest amount of Czech literature that I feel I have some background that primes me for a Hungarian writer. And yet, there it is.

I do know enough to know that I know very little about what we in the United States call Eastern Europe to know that nobody ever taught me very much about Hungary except that Magyar is not a Slavic language. This strikes me as really important in terms of why I had never heard of Krudy, who strikes me, at least from this preliminary example, as one of the finest novelists I’ve come across. The back cover uses descriptive words like “satirical” and “surreal,” or at least words along those lines, and there’s talk in the introduction of Krudy as a “modern” novelist. I’ve since returned the book so I can’t check for precision here. The point here is that upon reading the book it’s clear why someone would call much of what happens in the book “surreal,” or “satirical,” but when one says “surreal” one immediately calls to mind someone like Andre Breton, and the comparison is misleading. There is an outsized absurdity to the characterization–in an entirely satisfying way–that at times made me think of Gogol, but I like Gogol so much that I compare basically anything satirical to him and, in fact, Krudy’s satire, if we want to call it that, is not really Gogolian. And it’s a mistake to try to lump him in with literary modernism in the sense most people in this country understand it–Joyce, Stein, etc. He’s not really operating with the same parameters as that crowd. I got the feeling, reading him, that much as Magyar sustained an endogamous development, that I imagine its literature did as well. I could be horribly wrong, but Krudy’s work is, among what I’ve read, totally unique, and it’s for that reason that I make these suppositions.

Get the book. Krudy should be read much more widely in this country.

Graham Lock, Blutopia

978-0-8223-2440-9_prBlutopia is not the first of Graham Lock’s books I’ve read. I’d gone to the library, having started a Sun Ra kick (transformed, over the read, to an Ellington kick, to Braxton), and found this on the shelf in the section, which unfortunately doesn’t actually have a straight biography on Ra. This worked.

Put briefly, the book relates–out of chronological order, significantly–the work of Sun Ra, Duke Ellington, and Anthony Braxton through their relationships to ideas of the Black past and future. While Ellington might superficially seem the odd man out, I was aware enough of his agenda (“agenda” sounds pejorative, but it’s not) to know that while he comes from a different era he fits with the other two in the sense of taking an approach to music as not only making a bunch of records but making, as do Ra and Braxton, philosophical, ethical, and historical arguments.

An undercurrent in the book involves the general inadequacy of actually-existing critical writing on Black music generally and what we call “jazz” in particular. Critics are generally white and the best-intentioned carry with them a cultural baggage that leaves them prone to misinterpret the music and musicians. Lock as much as any white critic I’ve read successfully self-corrects for his own baggage and given this alone is worth the read. There is a type of anti-racist white person who displays his or her understanding of race, which may be very solid on its own merits, in an attempt, impossible at this moment, to extricate himself or herself from white privilege, or at least from the subjective feelings of guilt it brings. It’s a clever form of the classically white privileged sense of personal purity. Anyway, this really doesn’t seem to be Lock’s motive. Above all, he is moved by the experience of the music and by a sense that his role is to learn from the musicians, for whom he clearly has a deep, genuine respect and, in the case of Braxton with whom he has worked closely over decades, real friendship.

In a nutshell, then, Lock’s point is that none of the three musicians here understood their own music by correlating their work to some European aesthetic, despite the fact that the white critical establishment viewed and continues to view all three precisely through that European aesthetic lens. Sun Ra, then, becomes a kook, if a talented one. Ellington and Braxton both somehow become “less black” in their aesthetic. Ellington’s lengthier work, “Black, Brown, and Beige,” to take an example, becomes an attempt to adopt European symphonic norms in a jazz band setting, while the influence of Stockhausen and Cage on Braxton is overemphasized to the extent that it obscures all other discussion of how his music developed. Lock takes the radical step of suggesting that what these people said about their own work and selves should be taken seriously. “Black, Brown, and Beige,” far from looking to European symphonic models, was to Ellington of greater length than his previous work and more complex in its structure for the simple reason that he was telling a longer and more complex story, that of black people in America. Braxton for his part stresses that his is not an intellectual music but a spiritually functional one, and that his drawing from cosmopolitan sources is an entirely African approach.

I treat myself by getting a book out of the jazz section of the library to read. It’s rare that I don’t plow through it quickly–only when I find the basic argument offensive will I not bother finishing it, and while I will at times disagree with an author it’s rare that I find one genuinely offensive. Lock, though, I knew from past experience and I trusted him. Blutopia did not betray that trust. Truthfully, given the paucity of writers on his particular subjects (save Ellington, and particularly with Braxton), he’s essential reading.

Jaime Hernandez, The Love Bunglers

bookcover_lovbunI haven’t actually read the entirety of Love and Rockets, start to finish, but I have read the bulk of Los Bros Hernandez‘ work. I began my relationship with their work–and at some level I think the work becomes richer when I see Love and Rockets as a collaboration among individuals rather than the work of separate people who happen to be brothers–with a collection of Gilbert’s Palomar stories. My first exposure to Jaime’s work was in hist very first stories, which, though fun and interesting, feel as if he was chasing something he had not yet quite found. It’s a natural process: Ornette Coleman‘s first couple records are great, but nowhere near The Shape of Jazz to Come.

So, I had pegged myself, internally, as a Gilbert man, with great respect for Jaime, and I made this explicit in my piece on Chelo’s Burden. Maybe it’s the passing of time, and my own development–getting older, to me a good process–that has refined my opinion, but I’ve been drawing a lot from Jaime’s work over the past couple years. I’ve allowed myself to connect more openly and closely to people, and to myself. I think that in some sense Jaime’s relatively close focus over three decades of work on a small number of characters, particularly Maggie Chascarillo, fits comfortably with changes in how I try to be in the world, and how I am.

So I’ll echo any number of reviews of The Love Bunglers and say that I’ve read no better work in the medium. I struggled to find a negative review of the book, but found one piece–link lost, actually–in which the review, on obvious grad student in the most pejorative sense, kept going on about Lacan while insisting that Jaime, who uses such techniques as “narrative” and “characterization” was not worth all the hoopla and was something on a drag on the forward formal momentum of the medium. Let me point out that Joyce‘s innovations were all–all of them–a function of characterization. More to the point here, the common thread among responses not only praise the work but report the reader breaking out into tears, sometimes at the denouement alone and sometimes at various points throughout. I myself am no exception and fall into the second group.

No real sense in rehearsing the plot of a book that anyone with any sense ought simply to read, or read twice in rapid succession as I did. The second time I was more overwhelmed than the first. Despite the suggestions of the Lacan-name-dropping reviewer, the emotional weight of the work is not at all melodramatic. My sense is that for really uptight people any type of emotional response is evidence of passe literary technique or willful manipulation. It can be. In the case of The Love Bunglers, though, it’s the evidence both, as any number of reviewers have correctly commented, of thirty years’ accumulated experience with the characters, and an exceptionally well-executed storyline in the particular.

This last is something that I haven’t seen emphasized enough. It is true, as I have said elsewhere, that I like comics as a medium precisely because of its serial, open-ended form. As such, always building on prior, if rarely complete, knowledge of characters and milieu, the work provokes a different type of response from a reader than a self-contained novel would or can. Neither better nor worse, but certainly different. I can’t say what it would be like for a reader with no prior experience with Love and Rockets to read The Love Bunglers, but my strong sense is that it would be powerful. If you haven’t read Love and Rockets before, my sense is that, while this one does indeed tie together a long development, if you started here you’d make it a point to read the entire thirty years-plus of the project.

As an aside–possibly–while Jaime’s work is justifiably praised for the deep characterization of its people, the importance of the greater Los Angeles area in the work struck me in this read. It’s true that the particular town names are fictional, but the place of everything is in the very real Los Angeles. Much has been made of Los Bros as chroniclers of Latino life, particularly Jaime, and without question this is the case, though putting it that way almost seems to diminish the achievement. More accurately, there is no universal outside of a particular, and it is a mark of Jaime’s real achievement that he documents not only the people he does, but the time and place. The levels of specificity are profound: cultural, temporal, spatial, individual and ultimately within each individual character.

A last note. It is incredibly heartening for me that work of this quality continues to be produced and, against odds, make its way to an audience. To be sure, Love and Rockets began at a time when Love and Rockets could begin. There was a lot of posing and silliness in early punk, but the sense of DIY, that was real and Love and Rockets more than anything else is its finest exemplar at least as far as the heritage of the L.A. punk scene is concerned. I’m reading another book about Anthony Braxton (et al.):

In T-a W 2 Braxton considers the relationship between creative music and what he names “the spectacle diversion syndrome,” or “what America has rather than culture.” (Graham Lock, Blutopia, p. 174)

This is right. What we’re dealing with is the spectacle diversion syndrome rather than culture. It’s not that there’s no culture at all, but rather that real culture, which is what people do to process life emotionally, intellectually and spiritually, is very often suffocated or supplanted by diversionary spectacle. Love and Rockets generally and The Love Bunglers particularly is culture, not diversion. It points to who and where we are, now, as people.

I can’t praise the book more highly, except possibly to point out that, without making any conscious, explicit connection, within a week of finishing the book I recommenced work, dormant for months, on my own long-term recording project. In hindsight, I can’t see it as coincidence.

Harvey Pekar, The Quitter

quitterBriefly, a procedural note. No more Amazon linking. I’m done with them. Go to a comic book store. Or if you want your books cheap–I mean really cheap–go to the Library.

The Library. Use it.

So, that’s what I did when I got “The Quitter.” I’ve long loved Harvey Pekar‘s work, though I will say that indeed I was first exposed to it through the film. I feel like I was sort of late to the party with Pekar, like he was a major household name by the time I’d gotten to his stuff. He had, after all, been on Letterman. But I still find myself in conversations where my interlocutor has never heard of him.

Briefly, then, Pekar made his name by self-publishing the comic, American Splendor, which chronicled his own life in Cleveland. Pekar explicitly conceived the work as a counter-point to superhero comics. The medium, he suggested, could handle more than the product he’d read as a kid suggested. This wasn’t a unique observation and Pekar gave much credit to Robert Crumb, but Pekar seems to have ran, as much as anyone and definitely more to my liking than Crumb, with his argument.

The Quitter, as more than one review I spot-checked while looking for an image of the cover noted, isn’t explicitly labeled “American Splendor” but in substance it’s part of that larger project. Much is made of Pekar’s unflinching, to use the word everyone else seems to, self-examination, and that’s definitely what we have here. The book follows young Pekar as he tries various things out only to quit when they become difficult or uncomfortable. Surely Pekar overstates the case in his title, but he is examining something I’m familiar with myself.

One brief episode illustrates for me the essence of Pekar’s art. Harvey gets in an intense violent fight with his father. No Freudian cliches whatsoever, but as important as that is it’s not my point. My point is that on the very next page, life continues in comparatively banal fashion, almost as if the fight never happened. “Almost” is the key word. This strikes me as Pekar the observer at his finest. That is how things work in life. There is a terrible, huge thing that takes place, but you still have to go to the store to get groceries, or put gas in your car, or whatever. Life works that way, and it’s something lesser artists, who imagine that the job is to deal with the apparently big things alone. But–the example is just from my head, not from the book–going to the supermarket after a tragedy is, in fact, a big thing. It’s a very big thing, and entirely necessary to portray in art.

My stolen glances at a couple reviews indicate that a number of people called this Pekar’s finest work, and certainly that is a reasonable argument. People are saying the same thing about Jaime Hernandez’ The Love Bunglers, and that’s an argument I can accept, too. My point here–more true for Pekar who was of comparatively advanced age when he wrote The Quitter–is that I have always felt that any artist, all things being equal, ought to produce better work as they get older. Problem is, music buff that I am, a lot of popular musicians don’t seem to do that. Comics seems to be more friendly to older artists. I haven’t fleshed out why yet, but I’m wondering about it.

The Zen Teachings of Huang Po, trans. John Blofeld

400000000000000528334_s4I recently did a short retreat, and the immediate result of it was that I want to go on a long retreat. That to me seems a great thing.

I have in the past approached Buddhist texts–in this case the word scripture is appropriate–as I approached other books, or at least other expository texts. I read them to understand some thing, or even more basically to know what some thing is. Huang Po, the text, is nothing if not expository, and the book can suit this purpose.

At this point, though, I don’t find myself reading a book like this to find out what it says as much as I look to it for encouragement and direction in my practice. I have been told by more than one qualified teacher that this is the proper role of scripture in practice: guidance and encouragement. I am all for intellectual understanding but that’s not where I am right now. It makes me feel good. I feel like I am at a point where I am dedicated to practice more than I have ever been, and moreover that I am so based on the firm foundation of results.

But to the book. What struck me immediately upon rereading Huang Po was the clarity of the text. Many Zen texts have a reputation, deserved in a way, as being difficult to understand, or cryptic. It seems to me that much of this problem is that we read these texts as we would a modern expository text when in fact the text such as it is was not written as such. Think The Blue Cliff Record or Linji. The first is a series of teaching tools to be used by a teacher with a dedicated student, historically with monastics. The Blue Cliff Record is used to provoke, not explain, and so we will be confused if we approach it as an explanation. The record of Linji’s teaching, illuminating as it is, is a record of a few talks and many more anecdotal interactions between teacher and student, punctuated with shouts and blows. Outside of the context of dedicated practice, the interactions are nonsensical. If we see Linji working to provoke realization in students, it’s more comprehensible.

The record of Huang Po’s teaching, as it stands in this book, works vastly better as expository text. Without doubt, it wasn’t precisely intended as such. Yet I have not come across a more useful and clear exploration of the use of the term “Mind” as we find it in Zen/Ch’an that Huang Po. Were one to use it academically, the book would be enormously useful.

But for me, the academic use of the book is beside the point. What I will say is that as I read it I found it very comforting and encouraging. Comforting because reading it felt like it was giving a name to experience I’ve had in practice. Aha, I thought, this is familiar. Encouraging because it tells me I’ve hit on something practical that works and that I should keep going.