Category Archives: Books

On The Road, With Maps and Directions

Screenshot 2014-02-10 12.39.05When I was a high schooler I was obsessed with Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. I read the novel multiple times and I read all of Kerouac’s other novels, there are many, some of them multiple times, the better to understand it and him.

I exulted when Visions of Cody, something of a companion piece to On The Road, was released, full of diary fragments and transcribed recordings of conversations between Kerouac and Neal Cassidy (Dean Moriarity in the novel), and my friend Peter and I went to a seminar at Hofstra University where a professor played recordings of some of those very conversations. At the time, just a few years after Kerouac’s death, much of his output was still hidden in the cardboard boxes of his papers and other items he left behind.

It was enough to keep a pipe of ephemera and data flowing for the forty years since, which is why I ate up the original scroll version of On The Road a few years back (truly exciting) and the “lost” collaboration between Kerouac and William Burroughs, which was released some few years ago, The Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks (surprising lively and moving), even though I no longer obsess over him, or the book.

My buddy Russell and I even planned on hitchhiking to Colorado for the summer following 11th grade, though our moms talked us into taking the Greyhound instead. Which was fine, because Jack often rode the Greyhound in the fellahin night of red brick sunrises, too. But once we landed in Evergreen we headed out to the Grand Canyon by thumb, dodging the highway patrol and the crazed, finding the heart of America inside the cabins of the cars and their drivers that carried us safely there and back. Just like Jack did, haunted along the banks of the Susquehanna by a shade or a memory or a portent, we found magic on the road, in whatever guise it came.

What I never thought to do was to map the actual roads Jack and Neal traversed, but it turns out just about everybody else has. Some examples.

In Kerouac’s journal is a hand-drawn map of his cross country trek.

A guy named Dennis Mansker has made interactive Google maps of all the trips in On The Road, full of odd and arresting details.

Screenshot 2014-02-10 12.47.08A guy named Gregor Weichbrodt input all the hard destinations listed in the book into Google Maps and asked for directions. The step by step routes are spontaneous prose of a distinctly mechanical perspective, but wonderful (to me) for the mere idea of it.

Novel: Tao Lin, “Taipei”

Taipei_510x510 A lot of people think that in his 2013 novel, Taipei, Tao Lin has written a great novel about contemporary life and love.

I read his earlier short novel, Richard Yates, last summer, and enjoyed it. He has a style that is hyperselfconscious. His narrator in Taipei, Paul, is a novelist, and is continually aware of what is said, the context in which it was said, what was heard and the context in which it was heard. He evaluates each said thing and every expression and act based on all of it. Paul can be as tiresome as you might imagine.

Paul grew up in the US, but his parents were from Taiwan and have moved back there. They like it when he visits, which he does a couple of times in the novel. But mostly he lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in 2010 or so. He’s interested in meeting girls, he’s recently broken up painfully, and his next few months will be spent on a book tour across America to support his most recent work (not clear whether it is poetry or a novel), and obliterating all sense of memory, so that all he has left is the memory of what happened in the last few moments. A quote from page 75:

Having repeatedly learned from literature, poetry, philosophy, popular culture, his own experiences, most movies he’d seen, especially ones he’d liked, that it was desirable to “live in the present,” “not dwell in the past,” etc., he mostly viewed these new obstacles (note: the long list of drugs he takes regularly) to his memory as friendly and, sometimes, momentarily believing in their viability as a form of Zen, exciting or at least interesting. Whenever he wanted to access his memory (usually to analyze or calmly replay a troubling or pleasant social interaction) and sensed the impasse, which he almost always did, to some degree, or that his memory was currently missing, as was increasingly the case, he would allow himself to stop wanting, with an ease, not unlike dropping a leaf or a stick while outdoors, he hadn’t felt before—and, partly because he’d quickly forget what he’d wanted, with a sensation of loss or worry, only an acknowledgment of a different distribution of consciousness than if he’d focused on assembling and sustaining memory—and passively continue with his ongoing sensory perception of concrete reality.

So, he’s kind of like the hero of Memento, except the obliteration of memory is self-inflicted, a way to escape the self consciousness he’s always felt and which he feels has robbed him in his life experiences.

At the same time, he’s brutally relentless in his self-examination of the moment, something his young girlfriend Erin feels from his ongoing descriptions of what is going on between them, from the perspective of most of the other players, and from himself. Paul is a proxy for Tao Lin, and he’s sometimes charmingly clever and often irritatingly self-involved. He is also very plain spoken and engaging, and the Russian dolls he unboxes page after page are sometimes comic, other times tedious, but his is a third person voice that is as immediate as the first person.

There is also quite a bit of apparent social content in Taipei. The characters are modern consumers of video, internet bandwidth and healthy foods (and guilt-out when they have to eat something that doesn’t meet their standards). Lin seems to be something of a critic of the consumer culture, or the way modern communications have fragmented us, but just as often the electronics are something more positive. The subtle satire is more the reader’s voice using Lin’s observations as evidence. Lin seems more a psychorealist in his intentions than a social critic.

Paul, Erin and their friends take Thompsonian (or Burroughsian) amounts of drugs, all the time, with very little worry about the mechanics of this desire. They call, the drugs arrive, for the most part, or are just there. There is hardly any concern about money, they never wait for the man, the context is not realistic but more like an extended dream of living a quasi-adult life with the emotional immediacy of a third grader. Paul also never talks about the history of writers who preceded him who have built personas or books off of drug use. Given the richness of reference, it is an odd omission.

Taipei is something of a schematic, a drawing board philosophical inquiry into the manner of memory obliteration, existential drug-fueled YouTube creation and love without the ability to express anything soft. Perhaps most curious is a passage in which Paul declares that his favorite novelist is Ann Beattie, and also Tao Lin’s (I subsequently read in an interview with Lin, who also listed Bret Easton Ellis among his favorite favorite writers). Paul’s favorite novel, he says, is Chilly Scenes of Winter. Remembering Beattie’s plainly declarative writing, I return to the Chilly Winter of those young lives trying to connect in another time of social upheaval, which doesn’t feel at all like Taipei on a superficial level, but once you get past the writer’s style makes them feel quite similar indeed.

Taipei is far from a great novel, but it is ambitious and idiosyncratic and often good fun. I like that sort of thing.


Read: Alissa Nutting, “Tampa”

tampa us-4.jpgI came across the rather brilliant UK edition cover art, with the button hole, after picking up the far less vivid US version with the chalk writing.

Celeste is a beautiful and wealthy young woman married to an heir to a great fortune who takes a job as an eighth grade English teacher because she has an unholy fetish for 14 year old boys. Needless to say, I hope, this is a story of Florida.

Nutting tells this story with velocity and with a fairly pornographic attention to detail, body parts and various fluids at least (oh, and the odors), but it is not at all realistic. Celeste is our narrator, tells her story with a psychopathic attention to her needs and motivations, and while she is aware of the difference between right and wrong, she filters that through her incessant need to stoke her sexual desire. Even though it’s wrong, and she knows that, she also knows that she can’t stop. Her needs are a part of her, and impossible not to pursue.

There are models for this sort of story. Celeste’s planning, her grooming and her seduction of her first boy, Jack, is told with florid, meticulous detail. Like Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita’s narrator Humbert Humbert, Celeste’s narration of the story is a sales pitch and justification for her actions. Like JG Ballard’s Crash, Celeste’s desire is perverse and obsessive and relentless. Like Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, the first person narrator’s lack of moral objectivity is kind of thrilling. But there are differences, too.

Unlike Ellis, Nutting doesn’t seem to have a taste for grandiose satire. Her grotesques are small and acutely drawn, but don’t resonate across a bigger stage. Similarly, her ambitions are not nearly as large as Nabokov’s. This is a small story, grander because it doesn’t try to present any psychological rationale for our narrator’s obsession, but in the end it is a story that takes place in a nondescript American suburb that just happens to be in west Florida. (Based on a true story, at least in part, too.) And while Nutting’s sex scenes are very specific, they don’t approach Ballard’s obsessive attention to the most every detail in Crash. They are not about the larger machinery, the way the body melds into the modern technological world, but rather about the specific claims the body has on us as we dream, sometimes, of a larger world than ourselves. And one woman’s insistence none of that matters.

Celeste is an English teacher, and her class reads four books during the course of the novel. Romeo and Juliet, The Scarlet Letter, Lord of the Flies, and To Kill a Mockingbird. Each connects to the plot in some way, especially as a device for Celeste to talk to her young (14 years old) students in a mature way, about relationships and the possibility of sex, which excites them. But the novel undercuts these scenes by continually reminding us that Celeste has no vocation for teaching. What passion she brings is in pursuit of young, taut flesh that won’t tell. She really doesn’t otherwise care.

So this is a small, well told story about an explosive topic told in an explosive way. If you were to read it just for the sex scenes you’d cover most of the book, quickly and without regret. If you were to read it for the relentless horror, the way you might watch an episode of the Walking Dead, you won’t be disappointed either, though the amount of blood spilled is considerably less. But if you were to read it as a social satire I’m not sure you would wind up where you want to be. The elements are all there, some of the set pieces (one toward the end, especially, which is spectacularly pungent and hugely underplayed), end up being so low key it’s hard to tell what Nutting’s motivation is. Is this To Die For? Or something more.

My sense is she knows the story plays more sympathetically with the slighter scope. Her target isn’t as big as Ellis’s, the heart and loins are beggared by financial greed, and so she keeps is simpler. But she hits enough of the sweet spots, with enough gusto, that this small story starts to feel larger and larger as you think it through. Certainly a book that must be read by all Floridians.

Read: Marisha Pessl’s “Night Film”

Last year I read Marisha Pessl’s “Special Topics in Calamity Physics,” which was an extremely weird story of special high school students (they made me think of Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History,” only younger) and a dark political conspiracy that binds them before it sends them asunder.

What was great about Calamity Physics and the reason I read to the end was Pessl’s aggressive and energetic use of language and metaphor, which were far more powerful than any characterization or storytelling. But they were enough.

“Night Film” is a similar story of paranoid secrets and clandestine uncovering, and suffers from similar astoundingly large lapses in credibility and continuity. But it is in large part saved again by Pessl’s abundantly generous prose.

It doesn’t hurt that the setup, an investigation into the secret life of a film director of dark intentions and hugely successful evocations of the dark arts, is colorfully rendered. In the course of the novel we get tantalizing plot summaries of most if not all of Stanislav Cordova’s 10 films, which are rather implausibly so successful that the latter of them can only be shown in clandestine exhibitions known only to aficionados in such venues as abandoned subway stations. Surprisingly, all of that works.

Less successful are the voices and motivations of the three main characters, who are implausibly thrown together, and then end up bound (at least as long as it is convenient) through thick and thin (though each conveniently exits when the story cannot sustain them). Certainly not enough happens between them to warrant much conversation, except exposition, and the de rigueur banter of any detective novel worth it’s stripes. And as such, their’s isn’t special.

So, this detective novel does not transcend. Instead of being tightly focussed, Pessl’s awesome writing overwhelms. Where the story might call for a sentence or two she piles on the observation and metaphor, all of it gloriously entertaining (that’s why I kept reading) but at some point even my energy was sapped by the lack of focus.

Night Film, like Calamity Physics, is filled with erudition and sharp writing and extended displays of metaphoric exhibitionism. But they both lack focused storytelling. I would recommend both for the fun they offer with words, but hope that she marries that with a resonant plot and compelling characters.