Karaoke Culture

My most recent review is of Dubravka Ugresic’s essay collection, Karaoke Culture, which was published in The L Magazine.

I’ll forgo preamble for the book, but a quick side note: While preparing my review, I read one of Ugresic’s essays in a book called Writing Europe: What Is European About the Literatures of Europe?  Her entry in the collection, “European Literature as a Eurovision Song Contest,” is masterful: she discusses nationality, nationalism, identity, authorship, and more both imaginatively and incisively. It’s a short essay–if you have any interest in any of the topics above, I highly recommend you read it–and it also provides useful a context/parallel for many of themes she picks up in Karaoke Culture. One of my favorite excerpts from the piece:

“Some ten years ago I had an elegant Yugoslav passport with a soft, flexible, dark red cover. I was a Yugoslav writer. Then the war came and–without asking me–the Croats thrust into my hand a blue Croatian passport…The new Croatian authorities expected from their citizens a prompt transformation of identity, as though the passport itself was a magic pill…With my new Croatian passport I abandoned my newly acquired “homeland” and set off into the world. Out there, with the gaiety of Eurovision Song Contest fans, I was immediately identified as a Croatian writer. I became the literary representative of a milieu that did not want me any more and which I did not want any more either. But still the label Croatian writer remained with me, like a permanent tattoo.

At this moment I possess a passport with a red cover, Dutch. I continue to wear the label of the literary representative of a country to which I am not connected even by a passport. Will my new passport make me a Dutch writer? I doubt it. Will my Dutch passport ever make it possible for me to reintegrate in Croatian literary ranks? I doubt it.”

But without further ado: you’ll find my review of Karaoke Culture below. You can read the original piece on The L website here. (I can’t take credit for the witty title they gave me–that was all my esteemed book editor.)

***

For the uninitiated, Karaoke Culture, the forthcoming essay collection by Dubravka Ugresic, provides an emblematic, if occasionally disjointed, snapshot of the author’s notable body of work. Available now just a year after its initial publication (very unusual for a translated work), Karaoke Culture is a timely collection whose essays run the gamut from the rise of participatory culture and “the anonymous artist” (the title essay), the preferred nomenclature and adopted personas of third wave feminists (“Bitches”), the “psychopathology” of reflexively loving a homeland you didn’t choose (“No Country for Old Women”), and a personal reflection on the vicious media harassment which led Ugresic to emigrate from the newly-formed Croatian state to The Netherlands in 1993 (“A Question of Perspective”).

Reading Karaoke Culture is—in the best way possible—much like sitting with a highly caffeinated intellectual over tea. Ugresic is a conversational writer; the zig-zagging structure of her essays suggests a fluid writing process that hews close to the author’s thoughts as she works from each initial observation to a final, incisive epiphany. Her cultural touch-points are restricted neither by country nor time nor genre: within the collection she makes easy reference to everything from Gone with the Wind and IKEA, to Bulgarian Idol and Henry Darger. When these disparate references cohere within one essay, the effect is luminous. Only rarely within the dense collection does Ugresic’s eliptical logic-dart miss her mark, leaving a few of the essays feeling somewhat over-determined.

The 22 essays in Karaoke Culture read fast–several are only two or three pages–but the collection rewards rumination. On first reading, it might appear that Ugresic is herself ‘channel-surfing,’ hopping among divergent topics to simply cover as much ground as possible. But so much the better. Here she diagnoses contemporary culture in all its facets, underlying the parallels between ideologies and societies that have long understood themselves to be diametrically opposed.

Throughout the collection, Ugresic’s outspoken, absurdist humor paired with her genuinely global perspective, shines through. Karaoke Culture is a rarity: a thoughtful, personal, and informative work of socio-cultural critique that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Spontaneous Reads: Loitering with Intent

One of the benefits of working at a university is that you not only have access to the library, you also get to keep books out for a whole lot longer than you do from the public library. So perched on one of my bookshelves at home, I have a rather large stack of books that caught my eye at one time or another when browsing through the stacks at Bobst, which I am slowly but surely making my way through. Loitering with Intent is just such a title, and my second Muriel Spark novel this year.

There’s a great write-up of the novel at The Complete Review here. Benjamin Anastas also wrote a really nice piece for Bookforum about it in 2002, which doubles as a truly comprehensive take-down of Ian McEwan’s Antonement. His piece is called “Rejoice, Stupid: The Novels of Muriel Spark,” which I’ll quote briefly:

“Woe to the writer with only hundreds of words at his disposal to describe the wonders, the wit, the seriousness of purpose applied with feather-light touch to be savored in Spark’s finest work

Duly noted. My own, less comprehensive review is below.

***

Loitering with Intent is a delightful, effervescent sort of story, but hard to put your finger on. For one thing, (and here I’m generalizing on the basis of just two of her books) Spark is at once an extremely exacting author–with sharp observations about characters and situations and a really well-defined sense of narrative and prose rhythms–while also seeming to be a rather carefree one. She reuses phrases that catch her fancy to excess (the “English Rose” designation gets really tired out in Loitering) and seems to have no interest in maintaining narrative suspense, but rather drops in summary paragraphs mid-way through the book which reveal how everything is going to turn out in the end. (I actually rather like the latter quality, being a big skip-to-the-end-so-I-can-see-if-I-guessed-right sort of reader, myself, but it’s unusual for an author, to be sure.)

Loitering also flirts a little bit with po-mo narrative tropes without ever really following through on them (which I also appreciate). Fleur, the struggling but lighthearted author-heroine of the story, finds that after taking a job as a secretary of a private Autobiographical Association, the people she meets and the events of her life begin more and more to resemble things that she’s written in her novel. For much of the book, she maintains that any similarity between her life and her art is coincidental, until finally demurring,

“…even if I had invented the characters after, not before, I had gone to work at Sir Quentin’s–even if I had been moved to portray those poor people in fictional form, they would not have been recognizable, even to themselves…Such as I am, I’m an artist, not a reporter.”

Nevertheless, this overlap complicates things: Fleur’s book is stolen by her employer who begins quoting lines to her that her characters have said. He steals passages and writes them into the memoirs of his association members, as well as using her as a character in the invented sordid affairs that he includes in these “biographies” as well. In a late scene, Fleur’s employer tricks her in the same way that a character in her novel is tricked, and although she has an inkling of the connection, she doesn’t believe it: “It seemed quite unlikely that my own novel could be entering into my life to such an extent.”

Overall, however, what’s actually unusual about Loitering with Intent is how much fun it is. A lot happens–a lot of dramatic, heavy sorts of events and twists which in the hands of another author could have taken on an entirely different tone. Try out this summary: In the wake of World War II, a young, single, impoverished female author writes a promising novel, only to have it stolen by her devious employer who tries to use its very words and plot against her and ruin her chances at success.

It sounds grim, right? But it’s not. Spark makes this story an adventure, and even tells the reader intermittently that the bad guy is going to get what he deserves, that the heroine will triumph, and that above all, there will be joy. “What a wonderful thing it was to be a woman and an artist in the twentieth century,” Fleur notes several times, even in the midst of all her troubles. It’s all just so exciting to her: “I do dearly love a turn of events.”

But if there’s any one quote that will really give you the take-away of this book, it’s Fleur’s own catchphrase: “I go on my way rejoicing.” And so might we all.

Mr. Fox

My latest review is of twenty-six-year-old Helen Oyeyemi’s fourth novel (again: she’s 26 and this is her fourth published novel), Mr. Fox. Oyeyemi is Nigerian by birth, but was raised in London, and brings a variety of storytelling traditions to bear on her writing. Her first novel, The Icarus Girl incorporates Nigerian mythology; her second, The Opposite House, draws on Cuban folklore and Santaria. Her White is for Witching has been said to take inspiration from Gothic traditions–such as the work of Edgar Allen Poe–and now, with her latest work, she delves into the myriad legends, folktales, and fairy tales about the villainous Bluebeard. (There are actually a handful of other interesting literary references within the book, such as an oblique allusion to Wilkie Collins’ Armadale. These are delightful not simply because they reveal how widely-read Oyeyemi is, but also because they aren’t generally the first references that might come to mind. Armadale, for instance, is hardly the first Wilkie Collins novel that most people would think of, if they know of its existence at all. I certainly didn’t. But I digress…)

Oyeyemi is a consummate storyteller and so even though metafictional, post-modern literary experiments are often not my thing, I found myself steadily sucked into the complex, fantastical, and often eerily disturbing stories and fictional platforms that are created within Mr.Fox. This was my first Oyeyemi novel, but I’ll definitely be reading more of hers in the future.

Mr. Fox has received quite a few rave reviews. See author Aimee Bender’s piece in The New York Times Book Review here; Liz Coville wrote about the book for NPR Books here.

My own review of Mr. Fox was published on The Second Pass. Read it on that website here, or see the full text below.

***

“You have to change. . . . You kill women. You’re a serial killer. Can you grasp that?” So says Mary Foxe, the fictional creation and erstwhile muse of St. John (S.J.) Fox, a 1930s-era author with a penchant for subjecting his female characters to grisly (he says “meaningful”) deaths and dismemberments. A quick survey: a bride saws off her limbs and bleeds to death at the altar; a housewife hangs herself over a ruined dinner; a husband beheads his wife, thinking he would “replace her head when he wished for her to speak.” Tired of being subjected to such fates herself, Mary Foxe — apparently unbound by the pages of the books in which she has existed — casually appears in S.J.’s study and challenges her progenitor to enter a fictional world of her own making, one where he just might find himself the victim for a change.

As those who are well-versed in European folkloric traditions will have guessed, Mr. Fox, the fourth novel by 26-year-old Helen Oyeyemi, takes its inspiration from the myriad fairy tales and traditional narratives about murderous men luring attractive young women to their deaths. Oyeyemi’s novel references Bluebeard and the famous French character based on the 15th century soldier/serial killer Gilles de Rais, and also draws from the Grimm Brothers’ tale “Fitcher’s Bird,” a Victorian ballad about a werefox named Reynardine, the German folk character of the Robber Bridegroom, and, of course, the English fairy tale “Mister Fox.”

The heroine of “Mister Fox” (which coined the refrain “Be bold, be bold, but not too bold”) is Lady Mary, who witnesses her dashing suitor, Mr. Fox, chopping off the hand of a young woman before dragging her to certain death in his castle’s “bloody chamber.” The stalwart Mary escapes with the young woman’s hand, and later reveals Mr. Fox as the villain he is by telling the “dream” she had of the young woman’s murder and furnishing the hand as evidence. Bluebeard mythology includes several tales in which the female characters safely escape in the end, but in the context of Oyeyemi’s novel, “Mister Fox” is all the more noteworthy because the heroine bests her would-be murderer with her storytelling.

While this framework provides a rich context (most of the aforementioned murderers and heroines make appearances within the book), Oyeyemi’s novel is not a simple retelling of the Bluebeard legend or a bland metafictional exercise in which author becomes character and vice versa. There are no exact parallels or allegorical stand-ins. Through S.J. and Mary’s dueling narratives, Mr. Fox submerses us in a series of inventive, complex worlds, each uniquely voiced and easily standing on its own. Within one story, a young governess and writer enters into a troubling correspondence with a famous author; in another, a Yoruba woman barters with a mysterious man named Reynardine to recover her dead lover. “Hide, Seek” is about an Egyptian boy and his adoptive mother, who are building a woman piece by piece with art works they find all over the world. “Some Foxes” tells of a fox and a young woman who fall in love. The result is nothing short of pyrotechnic: this is classical, magical storytelling at its finest.

S.J. and Mary’s fantastical tales are juxtaposed with real-life scenes from the marriage of S.J. and his wife Daphne, blurring fiction and reality until it’s difficult to distinguish one from the other. The often dangerous fusion of fact and fiction, reality and text, is a recurrent concern in the novel. For S.J., there is no harm in routinely victimizing women in his stories because “[i]t’s not real . . . It’s all just a lot of games.” For Mary, this sets a dangerous precedent. “What you’re doing is building a horrible kind of logic,” she says.

People read what you write and they say, “Yes, he is talking about things that really happen,” and they keep reading, and it makes sense to them. You’re explaining things that can’t be defended, and the explanations themselves are mad, just bizarre — but you offer them with such confidence. It was because she kept the chain on the door; it was because he needed to let off steam after a hard day’s scraping and bowing at work; it was because she was irritating and stupid; it was because she lied to him, made a fool of him; it was because she had to die, she just had to, it makes dramatic sense; it was because “nothing is more poetic than the death of a beautiful woman”; it was because of this, it was because of that. It’s obscene to make such things reasonable.

It’s possible to read in Mary’s impassioned speech the sort of logic that guides Parental Advisory labels, but it becomes clear that Oyeyemi is making the case that the very act of creation, of storytelling and writing, has the potential to be violent and dangerous. The storyteller must understand the gravity of this process, because in creating a story, one is, in a sense, creating him- or herself. We see this repeated several times in Mr. Fox: an abusive father forcibly writes text all over the body of his wife until she leaps about chirping, “Am I in the poem? Or is the poem in me?” In one chilling scene, Mr. Fox himself “remembers” deliberately killing Mary Foxe, only to figure out that he’s recalling a story he once wrote about a jilted lover.

Oyeyemi raises this theme of authorial responsibility without offering any well-defined conclusions. But she is a masterful storyteller, and fearless in creating tales whose conclusions are never as straightforward as “The End.”

St. Mark’s Bookshop to Receive Temporary Rent Reduction

I recently wrote about the difficulties that St. Mark’s Bookshop in the East Village was having in staying afloat, given their current rent. The bookstore’s owners had laid off employees and cut their own salaries in half to help defray a steep decline in sales, which has been attributed to “the poor economy and the rise in sales of electronic books.” Well, good news! For now, at least:

At a meeting in Mr. Stringer’s office [the Manhattan Borough President], the college agreed to reduce the store’s rent to about $17,500 a month from about $20,000 for one year, and to forgive $7,000 in debt. The school will also provide student help with revising the store’s business plan.

This is interesting, of course, in that if significant changes aren’t made, the bookshop might be back in the same place next year. The owners themselves admit as much. And I wonder whether they were glad or a little offended that Cooper Union will be sending students to help with their business model. I’ll admit that I have often thought that St. Mark’s website could make it a little easier to buy books online–they do have some books for sale (a good selection of remainders, autographed copies, and even some DVDs), but the general stock isn’t browseable, which seems to be a misstep to me. Also, although St. Mark’s has partnered with Google Books to sell ebooks on their website, they have not necessarily done much to promote or grow this aspect of their business.

In the face of their temporary respite, I hope that St. Mark’s takes the initiative to explore more successful business models so that their store cannot only stay open, but actually flourish. I think that a great model to follow would be Greenlight Books in Ft. Greene. Greenlight opened a few years ago (brave souls!) and has really impressed with their ability to provide a locally-relevant stock, host exciting (often local, again) author events and readings, and create a website which makes online ordering and the purchasing of ebooks really easy. Greenlight has quickly become a neighborhood institution in Ft. Greene, much like St. Mark’s has been (and will hopefully continue to be) in the East Village. There are, of course, other bookstores in the city which have also been successful at creatively working with their communities and broadening their scopes without ever losing the feel of a comfortable neighborhood bookstore. So hopefully, St. Mark’s will take note. I look forward to seeing what the next year has in store for them.

 

 

Upcoming November Translation Events

For those of you in the New York area with an interest in translation, there are a few upcoming events which might catch your fancy:

Friday, November 4 (Tomorrow)
“The Art of Translation”
7 PM
RSVP Here

The Bridge, an “independent reading and discussion series in New York City devoted to literary translation” will be hosting this talk with three “Distinguished Editors of Translations” at The Center for Fiction.  The editors, Drenka Willen, Barbara Epler and John Siciliano all have impressive credentials, having among them edited/published works by Roberto Bolaño, Danilo Kiš, Tomas Tranströmer, and Arto Paasilinna among others. From the event description:

The Bridge Series founded by Sal Robinson and Bill Martin shines the spotlight on the art of translation. This event in partnership with the series features a panel of editors and publishers of translation discussing the special issues that come along with bringing foreign language literature to American audiences.

Friday, November 11
“Contemporary Poetry and Translation”
La Maison Française, NYU
4:30 PM

A reading and discussion with:

JULIEN MARCLAND
Poet; actor; director; author of Neiges; Parole et musique; Amitiés à Perec

MOLLY LOU FREEMAN
Poet, author of In Wind: A Paper; translator; editor, Carnet de route

Marcland and Freeman have translated American poets Barbara Guest, Jorie Graham, Geoffrey Nutter, and James Tate, among others, and French poets Suzanne Doppelt, Dominique Fourcade, and Jean-Christophe Bailly.

This is a free event and does not require RSVP.