Some Thoughts on No Country for Old Men

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My old pal Cooper and I went to No Country for Old Men last night. He’s a big Cormac McCarthy fan, and I’m not, but I do love the Coen Brothers so I’ve been very curious to see what they do with the book as there aren’t many opportunities to really dissect their screenplays. Their version of No Country for Old Men is a much better expression of the book than McCarthy’s. I find McCarthy’s style torturous, and No Country for Old Men to be a hollow pedantic screed about how the world has gone to Hell which, if it had been written in 1980 (when the film takes place), it would have been more of a prophetic statement of where we were headed than the flaccid retread of thematic material that has been beaten to death in the last two decades. However, after seeing the film a second time, I think the Coen Brothers did a fantastic job of salvaging the material and delivering something that should be considered as a highlight of their oeuvre.

[Significant spoilers ahead. If you’ve not read the book or seen the film, this might be an entry to pass.]

The Barth Anderson PSA

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I know Barth. I’ve seen Barth laugh at nothing for longer than five minutes (well, it might have been something, but I don’t think any of us remember what it was now, and well, he went on). Barth writes fiction that I want to read (and sometimes I even want to sneak over and swipe his mail so that I can the switch the name on his outgoing manuscript submissions to mine). Even though his son is a more naturally gifted storyteller than he is, Barth manages to hold a room in pretty good thrall with his spoken wordy bits. Barth just had a birthday, and so this is my suck-up of a birthday present.

He has two books that deserve your attention. The first, The Patron Saint of Plagues, is out this week in paperback, which means you should be able to find it everywhere. And Barth would like you to buy it at the most obscure place that you can so the sales numbers are interesting. The Patron Saint of Plagues is, to quote another moment of suck-up, “an apocalyptic prophesy masquerading as a near-future pandemic revenge thriller.” (Further words in that vein can be seen here if you need more convincing.) When Hollywood fucks it up, you’ll want to be able to cogently discuss what they did wrong.

In the back of the paperback of PSP is the first chapter of The Magician and the Fool, Barth’s second book. Due in April. It is, and this is honest truth without a lick of asskissing, a book written just for the paranoid conspiracy theorist/occult fetishist in me. The Da Vinci Code of tarot quests (there, I said it first). I have seen bits of this book, and I cannot wait. Now, Barth isn’t just some random dude who likes cards; he’s been a tarot nut for most of his life, and Dreamhaven Books is running a pre-order contest where one lucky person will win a 20-page tarot reading from Barth. See? He’s that good. He doesn’t even need to be in the same state as you to make the cards tell him all your secrets.

Seriously though, independent bookstores have an uphill battle these days for your dollars, and a little extra incentive like this to shop independently is a very cool thing. Besides, if no one enters, Barth will have to do a reading for me, and I think he’d rather I didn’t have another reason to harass him about the cards.

Chemlab Show: Monday Night’s Entertainment

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I went to the Chemlab show Monday night at Studio Seven, out in the industrial zone of Harbor Island. It’s been about seven years since I saw Jared Louche stalk the stage, and of the interviews we did for Earpollution, the rolling day and a half of conversation we had with him when he was in town was (and still is) one of my favorites. While he lived and breathed being an artist (“rock and roll star” has the unfortunate connotation of being a trained monkey, which isn’t what Jared was about), he also really understood the other hat the artist has to wear: being accessible to your audience.

Anyway, the show. Studio Seven is a converted warehouse in a long block of warehouses and, if it hadn’t been for the six guys standing around outside smoking, I would have driven past it. (I had nearly once already, having to detour around a train that had stopped to load, the later cars blocking the Horton street intersection.) Inside, concrete flooring, walls done up in black and red, meat locker temperature, and a single disco ball way up high over the stage. Very Neo Industrial Spartan.

Skeleton Key is one of the opening bands, and their secondary percussionist is in an Einstürzende Neubauten phase. His job is to beat the shit out of an assortment of pots, beer kegs, helium containers, and fractured cymbals. He breaks at least four sticks during their set, and I’m surprised no one has caught a flying bit of drum stick in their eye yet. But, it’s a racket that fits the locale very well, and the band seems to roll with the whole industrial cacophony schtick. (The vocalist’s sound is just muddy enough that I can’t make out much of his lyrics, but the overall sound is engaging enough.)

USSA follows. The main attraction of this band is that it is Paul Barker’s post-Ministry band (well, Duane Denison plays guitar, but as I was never much of a Jesus Lizard fan, he’s not as much a draw for me). Barker’s bass is definitely muscular and more engaging than the relentless bludgeoning that has been the Ministry sound, and it gives the USSA sound a thick and heavy foundation. Gary Call, the vocalist, is a cyclonic howler–somewhere between the manic performance of Anthony Kiedis and Mike Patton–and the energy in the room is up about eighteen notches by the time they get done with their set.

(Last time I saw Barker (albeit from a seat probably about a half mile away) was the Ministry tour for Psalm 69 [was it that long ago?] at Mercer Arena, and it was a show filled with the noise and thunder and thrashing mosh pit that epitomized the height of the Ministry era. I remember a couple sitting a couple of rows in front of me, and the gal was pissed the whole time that this was the show her man had brought her to. They lasted about a half hour, and I’m sure he slept on the couch for a week or so after that. Barker, as part of USSA, was wandering around the venue prior to the show, laughing and talking with fans. How things change.)

Jared and the boys of Chemlab are working the well-dressed rock star vibe, Jared and Jason (the drummer, of SMP fame) are sporting ties (done by Cypberoptix) and jackets (the Chemlab screw logo on the back). Jared is wearing the gold lamé cowboy hat, the New York literati sunglasses, and my my my such pretty nail polish. The 21st Century Chemlab straddles Glam and Industrial Cyber Rock as Jared slithers, struts, preens, (there’s a Roger Daltrey impression in there as well) and hammers through a blistering set of old Chemlab favorites. And it takes the audience all of about twenty seconds to fall into the groove (the opening sample of “Exile on Mainline” actually–“move when I say move, you motherfucker!”). Jared, and this goes back to how much of a consummate entertainer he is, is consumed by the set, by the manic requirement of The Performance. The audience is, in a word, “sparse,” but he doesn’t care. It just means that everyone gets a personalized moment with the Rock Star (and, yes, at this point, this is the persona that he is inhabiting). Midway through the set, he’s off the stage, rolling around with the front row audience, singing to each of us as if yes, this lyric, I wrote this for you. The extended outro of the final song of the encore becomes Audience Participation Primal Scream Therapy.

When the show is over, he leaves the stage by jumping off the front, and walks right back to the merchandise table next to the door. Where he sits and talks with the fans as they leave. Everyone has a chance to shake the man’s hand and get an autograph. See? It really is about the fans, even though when he’s on stage playing to a partially empty house, he’s performing to the best of his ability. That part of the evening is doing what he loves and what’s the point if you don’t throw yourself completely into your art? (Which isn’t to say that he doesn’t enjoy meeting the fans, because I really think he enjoys that part of the experience as well, but that isn’t the whole reason he put the tour together or that Chemlab still exists.)

Yeah, it’s hard work doing what you love. And not just that hour a night when you get to abandon yourself to the work, but all the stuff that goes along with it (and you should check out the Detonation Days tour diary to get an idea of what it takes to get a band across the country on a shoestring). It’s that hour a night and that hour after that make it all worthwhile.

Rock on, my man. I’m glad I got to see you again, and doubly glad that you’re still doing it.

Cryptography

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I’m a big fan of cryptography. I’m not sure why, as I tend to glaze over quickly in the math and engineering parts of the discussion. BoingBoing has a nod today to the news that Colossus, the first electronic computer used at Bletchley Park during WWII, has been reconstructed and is going to be pitted against a virtualized Colossus (running on an off-the-shelf PC) to decode radio transmissions using a Lorenz SZ42 machine (the sort used by the German high command). Tony Sale’s Codes and Ciphers site has links and instructions if you’d like to play along at home with the transmissions going out this weekend. While it won’t be the same as hanging out in an attic somewhere, trying to find the right frequency on my tiny radio so that I can hear the transmission, it’s sort of close. Sort of.

Makes me want to go listen to The Conet Project recordings. Mmmm, scratchy numbers station transmissions. While reading selections from Cryptonomicon, of course.

Johannes Trithemius’ most famous work is Steganographia, written at the very end of the 15th century. I don’t recall exactly when it was revealed that the book, ostensibly about black magic, was actually written in code (after Dee’s time, I think?). The first two sections turned out to be an early treastise on cryptography and steganography. I wonder if we just haven’t figured out the key to the Codex Seraphinianus yet.

Not Enough Noise

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I’m reading Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century If you are a youngster like me, you forget that there’s a whole wealth of musical history lying out there prior to, oh, say when the Beatles stormed America. And, when I saw the title of this book, I thought it might actually be about noise, you know, like Converter-style noise.

Ah, no.

Ross is talking about classical music. While I will admit to a rather weak knowledge of classical music, I certainly am one to have my head turned by a good phrase. For example [about Richard Strauss’ Salome]: “An extraordinary sound emanates from the lower brass and winds: the opera’s introductory motif is telescoped–with one half-step chord–into a single glowering chord. Above it, the flutes and clarinets launch into an obsessively elongated trill. Salome’s love themes rise up again…The orchestra attempts to restore order with an ending in C minor, but succeeds only in adding to the tumult: the horns play fast figures that blur into a howl, the timpani pound away at a four-note chromatic pattern, the woodwinds shriek on high. In effect, the opera ends with eight bars of noise.”

It won’t sound like I imagine it should. I need a rhythmic noise opera. Complete with a couple hundred sopranos. It’ll take at least that many to drown out the pneumatic drill and the chainsaw on sheet metal.

Oh Hi, Wayback Machine. How Are You?

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I just had one of my corporate users call me and and say, “Hey, those last three records you reviewed–you know, on your website?–they sound cool. Can I borrow them?” And I had to think: which site? where? And then I had to go digging around ye olde web site to find out what he was talking about, whereupon I realized the archive goes back to ’02. There’s some useful research material in there.

As well as the “Naked City Initiation”, a piece I wrote for MungBeing back in the day about John Zorn’s Naked City project. I breezed through it again and hit the last few lines.

They’re exactly what I’m thinking about fiction these days.

[And, yeah, the personal website. Going to overhaul some of it over the next few days, and bring back the links to the music and the archive material. I’ll let you know.]

Schuiten & Peeters

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File under things to get back to: the work of Schuiten and Peeters. The majority of their work is the graphic novels (er, “albums” as they’re called overseas) of the Obscure Cities, but they’ve also recently done one page brain blasts in Belgium newspapers where they consider the nature of the city in the future (no utopias, I read, just possible permutations). The website, Obskür, has a wealth of information. So much data in fact, I might not be back for the rest of the week. If you need me, I’ll be digging through the links.

Travel Books – the slim version

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I saw the Penguin Great Journeys books at lunch today. They are, essentially chapbook-esque. About a hundred pages long. Fit in your pocket. Thematically arranged. The designer of the series has a web page with all the books lined up. Now who wouldn’t want a stack like that one their shelf?

(Which sort of strays into a completely different topic of serial fiction, but I’m suppressing that one internally. Not going to open that can of worms.)

Chapbooks

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I came home with a copy of William Shunn’s “An Alternate History of the 21st Century,” a chapbook of six stories. Over the weekend at WFC, I had a chance to hang out with Bill and got to know him. On the way home, I got to know his writing. And, in the wake of a few days of wandering through the dealer’s room, swapping moo cards, and shuffling through the stacks of postcards left on the freebie table, I’m thinking about chapbooks.

I ran into Jacob McMurray (resident designer of Payseur & Schmidt) while I was picking up a copy of the Matthew Hughes’ story, “The Farouche Assemblage,” that P & S had turned into an art object, and we talked briefly about the whole secondary raison d’etre of little books. Sure, the impetus for their creation is a vehicle for getting stories out, but the secondary appeal is that they fun to hold. They are things you explore, that you treasure, that you trade with others. They are low-rent multi-media experiences, opportunities for experimentalism that has a market in the hundreds (or, maybe, tens).

[You really do need to look at the Hughes’ book if you get a chance. Especially the signature page. McMurray’s solution for a scheduling problem (late arrival of signature sheets and possible cock-ups with getting them back and forth across the Canada/US border) was to create a banner that was then glued and sealed on the page of the finished book. It’s a little strip of art hiding inside. It’s a brilliant solution that raises the bar for signature pages.]

Anyway, back to Bill and his chapbook. He wins the “favorite new writer I discovered at the con” game, because of the ease with which I became familiar with his work. I have a stack of postcards, URLs, and moo cards from other people to wade through over the next few weeks, and an even thicker stack of books to read. But, let’s be honest, going through all that is going to take months because there are other distractions. But, not for Bill and me. I had time to kill in the airport; I had his chapbook in the outer pocket of my bag. Hell, I mailed two boxes of books home because there was no way I could fit them in my suitcase.

[And, to be fair, I did also have the pirate issue of Shimmer and the latest Electric Velocipede with me, but I’m not considering those in this argument, because while I read most of them, they were many names and many stories, and by default (read exhaustion), I don’t have the same connections between stories and faces.]

Hell, ‘zines and chapbooks aren’t new. Nor is the idea of swapping them at conventions. But, in the wake of some discussions about the usefulness of short fiction to novelists (aspiring and otherwise), which is a better tool for finding new readers: a bookmark / postcard / moo card that will probably get lost / discarded / eaten by TSA or a small booklet of fiction that’s been put together with an eye toward making an artifact?

I know. I’m just advocating flooding the con floor with thousands of pieces of paper, but I think there’s a couple of built-in restrictors: 1) you don’t allow them to be sent ahead of time, or stuffed in the con bags–the authors have to hand them out, or sell them individually; (2) they will take time and money to put together–more than the cost of making bookmarks and postcards? I don’t know; (3) the shitty ones–the cheaply done stack of bad design with a staple through the middle–are going to drop off in a few years because design and quality standards will be set (like McMurray’s signature page in Hughes’ book).

If you have the budget for a 1000 bookmarks (which, realistically, only about 50 people are going to actually pick up and follow through on, if you are exceptionally lucky) or a 100 chapbooks that are marvelous little things that are fun to page through and that are going to immediately put your writing in front of people’s eyes (they could be read on the elevator, or in the cab, or in the lounge at the airport), I think the chapbooks are an easy choice. It’s better to run out of what you brought then to find yourself sneaking by the promo table and retrieving the thick stack of your unclaimed bookmarks because, damnit!, they were expensive.

Plus there is the whole collecting aspect. I’ve got a Shunn and a Hughes, as well as a Rosenbaum and a Reese from a previous con. They’re like trading cards for writers. What have you got?