Saturday, June 22, 2019

197. After my eldest } left with a dog.

Arrived in Allentown during a thunderstorm. Crossed the 8th Street Bridge (a bike rider in green claimed the right lane), drove past residences built in a style I’ve come to associate with what little of eastern Pennsylvania I’ve seen (Federal style?), along St. John St. between Zandy’s Steak House (housed in a peach-stucco “small, depression-era theater” and Double Decker Records, to the Allentown Art Museum (AAM).

The AAM is full of little surprises. Anton Woensom von Worms’ “Suitors of Mary” (1541), based on a story from the apocryphal Book of James; Hans Moller’s Matisse-like “Lemons” (1949); Maurice Richard Grosser’s “Red Cabbages” (1939); and Sidney Ed Dickinson’s “Mary and the Studio” (1924). A security guard played (at my request) four of Harry Bertoia’s sound sculptures—“expensive wind chimes,” he said—though he did not completely dismiss them; he was keen for me to hear how the sound came from the base and played the sculptures in a sequence meant to impress (the final sculpture clanged like church bells). I liked Jesus Rafael Soto’s “Multiple V” (1969) sculpture, which appeared to vibrate and Nelson Shanks’ portrait of “Nancy” (1974).

An exuberantly painted landscape by Franz Kline, a mural painted for the American Legion Post 314 hall and removed to the museum in 2016. I like Kline’s magnified black brush stroke paintings from the 50s; I didn’t like this, though I gather it’s a characteristic example of his work from the 30s – 40s. He’s from Allentown. The video about moving the mural is fantastic.

Upstairs, is Carl Joe Williams’ “Waiting” (2016); I wasn’t initially drawn to it—though colorful, it seemed flat. But: the scene, a man wearing a Nike sweatshirt and a woman seated with her baby, the sign “checks cashed” above her is full of radiating circles—halo-like around the subjects’ heads—and like ripples in water. AND, it’s painted on a twin mattress, the sort you find as detritus in economically depressed cities (Hartford, CT, where I lived for 7 years, for instance—maybe Allentown?). From Williams’ site I see he paints on doors, palates, fencing, and, television sets—but the mattress, that’s brilliant. Grossly intimate, awkward. Next to the Williams’ was Romare Bearden’s “Circe” (1978), which looked to me like wall-to-wall carpet. The image echoes Manet’s “Olympia.”

I was curious about Didier William’s “La Croix a Samedi” (2016)—it appears to be damaged. I asked a guard—he didn’t know. A spot where the wood look worn through. Compare it with “Mawon”—which is clearly not damaged.

When I left AAM, the sun was out, the sky blue, clouds cumulus and massive, and North 5th Street was brilliant. Sorry to go.

My consolation: I caught a fantastic broadcast on WFMU—Vladamir Tarasov’s “Atto III: Drumtheater” from Experimental Sounds Behind the Iron Curtain. I put up the volume, rolled down the window, and basked in highway traffic, humidity, and Russian noise. 

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

196. Dead first sentences } re. Elif Batuman.

Elif Batuman claims the “American short story is a dead form” (“Short Story & Novel”). She defines the American short story as… what? Her dipstick is the Best American Short Stories series, specifically from 2004 and 2005. She evokes science—“In the name of…”—but does so idiomatically only. There’s no method to her argument. She feels that the American short story is a dead form because she’s annoyed by the majority of short stories she’s encountered; her essay is not an argument but an airing of pet peeves.

For example: “Nowhere is the Best American Barrage of names so relentless as in the first sentences, which are specific to the point of arbitrariness….” To clarify, she cites the first sentences of two stories, the first by Trudy Lewis, the second by Tom Bissell; here’s Lewis’s: “The morning after her granddaughter’s frantic phone call, Lorraine skipped her usual coffee session at the Limestone Diner and drove out to the accident scene instead.”

Most of Batuman’s pet peeves are elements of style subject to fashion. Lewis writes that first sentence because she’s seen others like it. Maybe she’s thought about it and decided she likes it, or maybe she hasn’t thought about it, but instead absorbed it. Either way, she identified a template. Batuman assumes Lewis (and other American short story writers) learned the template in an MFA program or by reading the Best American.

That a majority of American short story writers are bad at short story writing—or worse, are dull—is not evidence that the form is dead. If it’s evidence of anything at all, it’s that many people who write short stories don’t read enough of them and that it’s hard to write a good short story. But it’s much more cocktail-party exciting to declare something as “dead.”

Of the stories Batuman read in the two volumes of the Best American she perused for the sake of science, she found only one of interest. What stood out to me—and is unremarked upon by Batuman—is that story is a fantasy story, bordering on horror, and it’s written by an author who exclusively writes short stories (not a novelist promoting a novel by dashing off a short story; not a budding novelist writing short stories in workshop as some kind of practice). Fantasy isn’t bound by the strictures of realism and thus may, by accident or by design, avoid the clichés of realistic (AKA “literary”) short fiction. (Fantasy has its own clichés.) An author committed to the short story form is (hopefully) reading a lot of short stories. More, perhaps, than the novelist who dabbles.

(Please note, I do not mean to suggest that great short stories and great novels can’t come from the same author.)

The way Batuman dismisses that one interesting short story is to claim it’s not actually a short story, but “really novelistic plots crammed into twenty pages.” It’s bad science (and sloppy essay writing) to take data that doesn’t fit your claim and call it something else; her claim needs to be adjusted. The American short story isn’t dead. The American short story just isn’t obligated to read like Chekov anymore.

Batuman’s observations are funny. I only wish she didn’t insist they mean more than they do. But her observations are funny and maybe even sharp.

She ends her essay with a mini-manifesto, that will no doubt dog her forever: “Write long novels, pointless novels. Do not be ashamed to grieve about personal things.” (Setting up her declaration, she writes, “American novelists are ashamed to find their own lives interesting….”) She’s giving herself permission to shoegaze, and I dig it. Sure!

(Last night I opened up the March 4th issue of The New Yorker [for which Batuman is a staff writer] and read the first sentence of Jonathan Lethem’s short story “The Starlet Apartment” and lo: “When Peter Todbaum and I were twenty-five, and three years clear of Yale, I lost track of him for a short while.” It’s a model of the Who What Where Why When & How first sentence Batuman finds so irritating—going strong, thirteen years after she published her American short story post-mortem.)

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

194. "...he was a man } marked down."

Why is Compulsory Games, selected stories by Robert Aickman, as it is?

During his lifetime, Aickman published seven story collections (seven, if we include We Are for the Dark). After his death in 1981, Night Voices added five tales to the roster of originals; in 2015, Tartarus Press published The Strangers and Other Writings, a miscellany with a few excellent, previously uncollected (but not unpublished) stories.

When I first noted Aickman’s stories, sometime during the mid-nineties, it was difficult to find copies of his books (at least in the States). Book Club editions of Cold Hand in Mine were easy to get, the occasional Painted Devils (the only selected to be published during Aickman’s lifetime), and Peter Straub’s nicely complimentary selected, The Wine Dark Sea. Aickman’s novels and memoirs were the stuff of legend, especially The Late Breakfasters (1964).

Tartarus published the two-volume The Collected Stories of Robert Aickman in 2001. Not a compendium I could recommend—it was fabulously expensive, somewhere in the vicinity of a hundred bucks. I sure as heck wasn’t going to lend anyone my copy. I was a little afraid to read it myself. (Copies now fetch between $300 and $1000.) Tartarus also published The Attempted Rescue, the first of his two memoirs. Still pricey. (They’ve reprinted it—it’s about $40, totally worth it.)

Beginning in 2011, Tartarus has beautifully reprinted all his collections (about $40 a pop—not at all easy on the completist’s wallet). There’re a couple titles from Faber & Faber that’re more reasonable.

The point of all this is to say that while it’s easier to obtain Aickman’s work that it was circa 1996, it’s still costly, so whenever a paperback appears I’m pleased, and I was more than pleased to see NYRB add Aickman to their roster. And Compulsory Games, edited for NYRB by Victoria Nelson, is excellent—as far as the stories are concerned. But, so would be any handful of Aickman stories. Imagine you had a pile of Aickman collections in your basement, and they all got mildewed, so you could only read a couple stories from each collection—the mildew would have thus edited a selection, and all the stories would be excellent.

Compulsory Games is a selected, but selected from just four Aickman collections: Tales of Love and Death (1977), Intrusions (1980), Night Voices (1985) and The Strangers and Other Writings. That is, from the last four collections, two of them posthumous. Furthermore, Compulsory Games includes every story from Tales of Love and Death except one (“Growing Boys”—a story I love, thank you very much). I think that’s weird.

Maybe it’s something to do with Aickman’s estate, I dunno. I wish NYRB would simply have reprinted Tales of Love and Death. Aickman as Aickman assembled himself.

Nelson’s introduction generally describes what Aickman does, drawing on Aickman’s own notes about ghost stories (gleaned from his Fontana ghost story anthologies); I most appreciate the way she highlights his women characters: “He seems to like them better than men, actually”—certainly true. There’s a little biography in there too. Fortunately, she doesn’t look for his influence in contemporary authors (I’ve yet to encounter an author I’d call his “heir”).

Even though I’m perplexed by the nature of Compulsory Games, and would direct the curious first to the inexpensive Faber & Faber reprints of the original collections—Dark Entries (1964) and Cold Hand in Mine (1975)—I’m happy NYRB has taken an interest in Aickman.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

193. Pitch & } needle.

June 30, 2017, 8:48am, I sent the following pitch to M. at The Smart Set:

“Dear M., …I'm delighted and curious about the phenomenon of posting YouTube videos of an LP played on a record player…. I'd like to write a short essay about how weird it is—the way it blends hi-fi and lo-fi, analog and digital, while also creating a pleasing visual.”

M. liked the idea. She wrote, “At one point, I could only find Elton John’s Sick City in that YouTube format… it’s definitely a weird phenomenon….”

I began to look into that “weird phenomenon,” i.e., the “full vinyl rip” of, specifically, horror movie soundtracks. Consider Alan Miller’s typical (of the genre) post of Waxwork’s Creepshow soundtrack (by composer John Harrison): A shot of a Technics SL-D1 turntable, the Creepshow LP on the turntable, a corner of the LP sleeve visible to the left, and a little of (presumably) Miller’s apartment in the background; the record begins to spin and a hand (presumably Miller’s) moves the tone arm and lowers the needle—we’re about 20 seconds into the video when the music begins. Presentation varies a little. The record, shot from above, fills the frame. Decorations are assembled around the turntable. The LP is removed from its sleeve (often to show off clever packaging) and placed on the turntable. We see the LP as it’s flipped from side-a to side-b. Etcetera.

Generally, the people who publish these videos keep themselves anonymous, but the aforementioned Alan Miller included in his “about” page the name of the record store where he worked (this information has since been removed)—I wrote to his employer and shortly thereafter Miller replied.

I told Miller about the article-to-be-written and added, “There's something peculiar about these videos—watching someone's record on the turntable, watching the record run out and get turned over—It's wonderful.” And I asked a few questions. Eagerly, he answered.

He posts his videos because he “got tired of listening to 128k or less audio streams of some of my favorite [movie] scores” but finds “pointless” the debates from “the old audiophile gatekeepers” about “vinyl vs. CD vs. SACD vs insert format.” He simply wants “everyone to be able to hear how awesome these scores and soundtracks are!” I asked how he chooses what albums to post:

I try to pick albums that are rarer than others. If something has already been posted to YT [You Tube] in high quality audio, it seems a bit redundant for me to do the same. Copyright is a huge factor as well, with some rights holders being more aggressive than others. One of my more popular videos a few years back was the Mondo release of John Carpenter's Halloween on orange vinyl, a beautiful record but ultimately pulled (and a copyright strike taken against me) for using the audio.

A copyright strike, he explains, “are the bane of YT.” He says, “Google has software to monitor the audio/video content of everything posted to YT, so if it detects a pattern that is known to be copyright [sic] they will send you a notification….” According to Miller, a first strike prevents the uploading of videos longer than ten minutes for six months; the second takes away uploading abilities for ninety days; the third terminates the account. Google support states that the first two warnings “may affect your ability to monetize”—Miller made it clear that “there’s no monetary incentive here. I can’t make money off of copyrighted material (nor would I want to)….”

Aside from the pleasure of sharing music, Miller agrees that “we all like showing off our turntables, yes.” Because he worked at a record store, he was able to “trade often”—and thus show off a wide variety of equipment. (A favorite of mine is the Mitsubishi X-10—its turntable is vertical.)

I wrote to music critic Anthony Fantano for a little outside perspective—I saw a kinship between the album reviews he posts on You Tube and the enthusiasm for LPs Miller, et al, exhibit. Maybe my questions were lame—Fantano's answers certainly were. I asked, “In the face of a possible DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) takedown, why do you think people [post full vinyl rips]? He replied, “cuz they want to and don’t care cuz they’re not trying to do YT professionally.” As Fantano once tweeted, “well, yeah, but i’m a youtuber, so i’m going to respond to it in a video.” The written word is not his bailiwick.

I don’t know if these rips are good for the companies that specialize in collectible vinyl soundtracks. I don’t own any records from Mondo or Waxwork—I can’t afford them. Or, rather, I can’t justify paying $28 for Re-Animator, or $36 for Friday the 13th The Final Chapter, or $250 for the Nightmare on Elm Street 8LP box set—much though I wish I could. But I imagine that those who can do, because these records are not just about listening.

Watching an LP revolve on a turntable is a significant part of the pleasure of vinyl. Forget the arguments about audio fidelity. Vinyl is tactile first, audible second. The equipment required to listen to it, cheap or high-end, is simple. Ideally, you’re in the room with it, but the video posts please.

I never wrote the essay for The Smart Set.

[ Photo: the inner sleeve art for Waxwork Records' Friday the Thirteenth pt. 3. ]