Posts Tagged ‘noir’
On his way to his niece’s wedding in Arizona, Hugh Densmore, a medical intern at UCLA, picked up a young female hitchhiker, took her as far as the California side of the border, and continued on his way. The next day she’s found dead in a canal near his family’s home in Phoenix. She’d had an illegal abortion, which was botched, but the cause of death was a blow to the head.
Not until a few dozen pages into the story do we learn that Densmore is black. The girl, being white, and it being that time and place, he becomes the prime suspect. At first he tries to prove his innocence on his own but, after getting nowhere, a friend convinces him to accept the help of Skye Houston, one of the country’s top lawyers—and a white man.
Published in 1963, The Expendable Man, a crime novel written from the point of view of the accused, echos the race relations of its day.
Any rational reader will get chills not from the description of the murder, or the menacing, suspense-filled cloud that hangs over Densmore’s head, but from the state of the justice system in which this case operates. Christine Smallwood, writing in The New Yorker, says of the book’s author, Dorothy B. Hughes, “It is not whodunit, but who-ness itself, that she’s after.”
To Hughes it’s not the criminal procedure that’s interesting, it’s the relationships that guide the procedure. The Expendable Man is not so much hardboiled fiction as it is an exploration of social issues.
He had wound through the small canyon outside of town, and was moving on to the long desert plain, when he noted ahead an extra shadow in the tree shadow marking a culvert. It looked as if there were someone resting under the tree. It couldn’t be possible, here, close to fifteen miles out of town. There wasn’t a car in sight in either direction, and there was no habitation of any sort in any direction. Yet it looked like a person’s shadow.
It was just that. The shadow, raised up from its haunches, waited for his car to approach. He knew better than to pick up a hitchhiker on the road; he’d known it long before newspapers and script writers had implanted the danger in the public mind. But he reduced speed when he approached the shadow, the automatic anxiety reaction that a person might step in front of the oncoming car. He passed the hitchhiker before he was actually aware of the shape and form; only after he had passed did he realize that this was a young girl. From the glimpse, a teen-age girl. Even as he slowed his car, he was against doing it. But her possible peril if left here alone forced his hand. He simply could not in conscience go on, leaving her abandoned, with twilight fallen and night quick to come. He had sisters as young as this. It chilled him to think what might happen if one of them were abandoned on the lonesome highway, the type of man with whom, in desperation, she might accept a lift. The car was stopped. He shifted to reverse and began backing up.
Derek Raymond’s Factory Series is a special blend of noir. As James Sallis in his introduction to the first book, He Died with His Eyes Open, says, the five novels are “In between books—not quite what you’d call literary perhaps, but then, not quite crime novels either.” Or, as author A.L. Kennedy puts in a recent review for NPR, “Raymond’s narratives press against somewhere unusual in your brain; they penetrate and interfere, putting you in touch with levels of intensity and disintegration that seem to combine literary achievement with medical intervention.”
He Died with His Eyes Open is noir for today’s reader: void of over-the-top female sensuality and duplicity and the brassy language that begs mockery. Instead, Raymond’s prose is dark, elegant, and suited to the sensibilities of the times in which he wrote, the 1980s. If he had followed his predecessors and adopted the 1950s model it would have felt like a caricature of a genre already prone to exaggeration. Instead, Raymond creates something subtle, unique—something that still feels fresh in 2013.
He Died with His Eyes Open begins—as do most noir novels—with a gruesome murder. A man is found dead in a shrub outside of the Word of God House. When it becomes clear that the victim is just one of the many dregs of society currently polluting the city, the detective from the Serious Crime Unit is quick to call it an open-and-shut case. Who cares about the downtrodden, especially in Thatcherite England? However, our protagonist, Detective Sergeant from the Department of Unexplained Deaths, “by far the most unpopular and shunned branch of the service,” is not as quick to dismiss the crime.
This is what makes the unnamed detective of Raymond’s books different from other noir detectives. While a familiar characteristic of his sleuthing counterparts is cool detachment, this detective cares about those whom others would throw into a 6-foot hole without a second thought. He’s a champion of the poor, of Democracy, of a better society. He takes on “obscure, unimportant, apparently irrelevant deaths of people who don’t matter and who never did” and comes out more sympathetic for it.
To find out who might have murdered the man, Charles Staniland, a fifty-one year-old alcoholic, the detective spends hours listening to tapes the victim left behind and investigates the grimiest of dive bars 80s London has to offer—always a cut above the patrons but never out of place. It’s not long before he learns of an ex-wife, a junkie son, and a tough girlfriend named Babsie—all whom need to be handled with care. Soon one starts to wonder if the detective has gotten too close to the case; lines and judgment blur—but what noir novel would be complete without moral ambiguity?
To get to the end of this review without mentioning the brilliant designs for all five of Derek Raymond’s novels would be a gross oversight. The bright orange covers with a single image—an everyday object made suggestively gruesome—make the US editions from Melville House dare you to ignore them. Even if the novels weren’t so damn good, you’d want them around as art pieces. Luckily, they’re quality from cover to cover. If you’ve never read a crime novel in your life, The Factory Series is the place to start.
He was found in the shrubbery in front of of the Word of God House in Albatross Road, West Five. It was the thirtieth of March, during the evening rush-hour. It was bloody cold; and an office worker had tripped over the body when he was caught short going home. I don’t know if you know Albatross Road where it runs into Hanger Lane, but if you do you’ll appreciate what a ghastly lonely area it is, with the surface-level tube-station on one side of the street, and dank, blind buildings, weeping with damp, on the other. That evening there was yet another go-slow on, and when I arrived at seven there were people still massing to get down the tube stairs to the trains, which were running very rare.
It was pelting with rain on an east wind when I got there. I found Bowman from Serious Crimes standing over the corpse with a torch, talking to the two coppers off the beat who had been called by the man who had stumbled on him. Water ran off the brim of Bowman’s trilby and dribbled down the helmets of the wooden-tops to end up in their collars.
Bowman handed me the torch without a word and I bent over the dead man. His eyes were open—one only just—the surfaces peppered with the grit that an east wind hurls at you off London streets. He was wearing a cheap grey suit with cigarette burns down the front and a tatty raincoat. He was medium height, with thin hair turning grey and a boozer’s nose, aged between fifty and sixty. Both his arms were broken, and one leg; the bone poked out blue through the trouser cloth. His head had been battered in below the hairline and brains had slopped down his left cheek into the mud. I got the impression, though, despite his injuries he hadn’t died at once. In the dull eyes there was still a flicker of some memory that he meant to take with him wherever he was going.
Here are just some of the paperbacks coming out in March that I can’t wait to read.
Crapalachia: A Biography of Place by Scott McClanahan
A colorful and elegiac coming-of-age story that announces Scott McClanahan as a resounding, lasting talent.
We Have Only This Life to Live: Selected Essays, 1939–1975 by Jean-Paul Sartre, edited by Ronald Aronson and Adrian van den Hoven
Philosopher, novelist, playwright, biographer, journalist, and activist, Jean-Paul Sartre was also—and perhaps above all—a great essayist. The essay was uniquely suited to Sartre because of its intrinsically provisional and open-ended character. It is the perfect form in which to dramatize the existential character of our deepest intellectual, artistic, and political commitments. This new selection of Sartre’s essays, the first in English to draw on the entire ten volumes of his collected essays as well as previously unpublished work, includes extraordinarily searching appreciations of such writers and artists as Faulkner, Bataille, and Giacometti; Sartre’s great address to the French people at the end of the occupation, “The Republic of Silence”; sketches of the United States from his visit in the 1940s; reflections on politics that are both incisive and incendiary; portraits of Camus and Merleau-Ponty; and a candid reckoning with his own career from one of the interviews that ill-health made his prime mode of communication late in life.
The Bone Man by Wolf Haas
At a wildly popular chicken shack in the Austrian countryside, where snooty Viennese gourmands go to indulge their secret passion for fried chicken, a gruesome discovery is made in the pile of chicken bones waiting to be fed into the basement grinder: human bones.
But when private eye Simon Brenner shows up to investigate, the manager of the restaurant, who hired him, has disappeared … while the owner of the place urges him to stay on and eat chicken.
Brenner likes chicken, so he stays, but as he waits for the manager, he discovers that the bucolic countryside is full of suspicious types: prostitutes, war profiteers, unsavory art dealers, Slavic soccer champs with dubious pasts — and at least one rather grisly murderer. And the more Brenner looks into things, the more it dawns on him that there’s a cleaver somewhere with his name on it.
Donnybrook by Frank Bill*
The Donnybrook is a three-day bare-knuckle tournament held on a thousand-acre plot out in the sticks of southern Indiana. Twenty fighters. One wire-fence ring. Fight until only one man is left standing while a rowdy festival of onlookers—drunk and high on whatever’s on offer—bet on the fighters.
As we travel through the backwoods to get to the Donnybrook, we meet a cast of nasty, ruined characters driven to all sorts of evil, all in the name of getting their fix—drugs, violence, sex, money, honor. Donnybrook is exactly the fearless, explosive, amphetamine-fueled journey you’d expect from Frank Bill’s first novel . . . and then some.
Speedboat by Renata Adler, afterword by Guy Trebay
When Speedboat burst on the scene in the late ’70s it was like nothing readers had encountered before. It seemed to disregard the rules of the novel, but it wore its unconventionality with ease. Reading it was a pleasure of a new, unexpected kind. Above all, there was its voice, ambivalent, curious, wry, the voice of Jen Fain, a journalist negotiating the fraught landscape of contemporary urban America. Party guests, taxi drivers, brownstone dwellers, professors, journalists, presidents, and debutantes fill these dispatches from the world as Jen finds it.
A touchstone over the years for writers as different as David Foster Wallace and Elizabeth Hardwick, Speedboat returns to enthrall a new generation of readers.
The Comics Journal #302 edited by Gary Groth
In his longest published interview, Sendak looks back over a career spanning over 60 years and talks to Gary Groth about art, life, and death (especially death), how his childhood, his parents, and his siblings affected his art and outlook, his search for meaning — and also, on the lighter side, about his love (and hate) of movies. Kim Thompson conducts a career-spanning interview with French graphic novel pioneer Jacques Tardi. Art Spiegelman conducts a wide-ranging aesthetic colloquy on classic kids’ comics with a group of comics critics and historians. Michael Dooley moderates a roundtable discussion with Robert Williams, Joe Coleman, Marc Bell, and Esther Pearl Watson about the relationship between fine art and comics. Bob Levin provides a revelatory investigation of the twisted history of the Keep on Truckin’ litigation and a fascinating biographical portrait of R. Crumb’s lawyer, Albert Morse. The Comics Journal has been for 37 years the world’s foremost critical magazine about comics.
Solo Pass by Ronald De Feo
A dark yet often funny novel narrated by a man who, for the past two months, has been a patient at a New York City mental ward. Having suffered a breakdown—due to his shattered marriage and an irrational fear of fading away as a human—he now finds himself caught between two worlds, neither of which is a place of comfort or fulfillment: the world of the ward, where abnormality and an odd sort of freedom reign, and the outside world, where convention and restrictive behavior rule. Finally on his way to becoming reasonably “normal” again, he requests and is granted a “solo pass,” which allows him to leave the (locked) ward for several hours and visit the city, with the promise that he will return to the hospital by evening.
As he prepares for his excursion, we get a picture of the ward he will temporarily leave behind—the staff and the patients, notably Mandy Reid, a schizophrenic and nymphomaniac who has become his closest friend there. Solo Pass is an unsettling satire that depicts, with inverted logic, the difficulties of madness and normalcy.
Messages in a Bottle: Comic Book Stories by B. (Bernard) Krigstein; Greg Sadowski (Editor); Marie Severin (IK)
Bernard Krigstein began his career as an unremarkable journeyman cartoonist during the 1940s and finished it as a respected fine artist and illustrator Krigstein’s legend rests mostly on the 30 or so stories he created for the EC Comics, but dozens of stories drawn for other, lesser publishers such as Rae Herman, Hillman, and Atlas (which would become Marvel) showcase his skills and radical reinterpretation of the comics page, in particular his groundbreaking slicing and dicing of time lapses through a series of narrow, nearly animated panels. This edition reprints the out-of-print 2004 hardcover B. Krigstein Comics, with a number of stories re-tooled and improved in terms of reproduction, and several new stories added.
*Disclaimer: Donnybrook is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, an imprint of Macmillan. I’m a publicist with Picador, also an imprint of Macmillan. I included Donnybrook for no other reason other than it looks awesome.
Noir, also known as hardboiled, is the gritty, world-weary subcategory of crime fiction, recognizable by its unsentimental protagonist, the rogue private detective; an early and gruesome murder; and a pretty girl who is most likely not telling the truth. The dialogue is often hyperbolic and the characters cartoonish, but that’s what makes the genre so good–and why so many of its forebears are still celebrated and imitated today.
Dashiell Hammett is one such writer. Even those who don’t read detective fiction know his name and still more know of his influential work, The Maltese Falcon.
The Maltese Falcon, to summarize, is the multi-layered detective story that begins with a woman, Miss Wonderly from New York, visiting Private Detective Samuel Spade’s office in San Francisco. She’s come to find her sister who has allegedly run away with a man she assumes to be dangerous and hires Spade to find him.
Spade assigns the case to his naive partner, Miles Archer, only to receive a phone call about his murder a few hours later: “Hello. … Yes, speaking. … Dead? … Yes … Fifteen minutes. Thanks” is all we hear.
Although set in California readers see very little sun. The mood is dark, gloomy, almost claustrophobic.
Cold steamy air blew in through two open windows, bringing with it half a dozen times a minute the Alcatraz foghorn’s dull moaning. A tinny alarm-clock, insecurely mounted on a corner of Duke’s Celebrated Criminal Cases of America–face down on the table–held its hands at five minutes past two.
It’s this vivid imagery that stands out while reading Hammett. In fact, the more I read noir, the more I realize there is a manner in which people and events are described that is unique to the genre.
Hammett’s Sam Spade is an archetype, the ideal noir detective: he’s not swayed by emotion or a woman’s looks; he operates outside of the law, but only to bring about truth and justice; and most important, possibly the crux of his appeal, is that if he’s not already one step ahead of his enemies, he eventually gets there.
Hammett opens with this image of Spade:
Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down—from high flat temples—in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.
Another core character, as alluded to above, is the femme fatale, French for “deadly woman.” In contemporary noir, I’ve found the descriptions of these women tailored to fit today’s more enlightened view of the sexes but in Hammett’s time there were no such conventions. Here is the description of Miss Wonderly, the first glimpse of what she looks like:
She was tall and pliantly slender, without angularity anywhere. Her body was erect and high-breasted, her legs long, her hands and feet narrow. She wore two shades of blue that had been selected because of her eyes. The hair curling from under her blue hat was darkly red, her full lips more brightly red. White teeth glistened in the crescent her timid smile made.
It’s not just the lengthy paragraphs of description that grab you, there are many one-liners as well: “Her boyish face was pale under its sunburn” and “His eyes burned yellowly” for example. Then there are the snappy retorts begging to be committed to memory: “I distrust a man that says when. If he’s got to be careful not to drink too much it’s because he’s not to be trusted when he does.” Or, the less useful but equally compelling, “I hope to Christ they don’t hang you, precious, by that sweet neck.”
Hammett wrote detective fiction with an advantage. He had real life experience. Before picking up the pen he’d spent years as a detective for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, a private organization that also employed security guards and military contractors. Hammett knew how investigations worked, what stakeouts were like, and how the different players might react. This realism adds to the story’s brutishness.
Fellow classic noir author Raymond Chandler once credited Hammett with making “the detective story fun to write, not an exhausting concatenation of insignificant clues.” The same can be said for the reading experience he inspires. However, The Maltese Falcon is more than a fast-paced, gritty crime novel, it’s also a lesson in seeing.
Buy The Maltese Falcon at your local bookstore
I’ve been reading so many great books lately that after finishing each one I’m tempted to call it The Best Thing Ever. I’ve also seen some incredible movies, gotten hooked on TV shows, and listened to music that I think everyone needs to hear. Not to mention the podcasts … and the essays. Well, you get the idea.
This week, I’ve decided to round up some of The Best Things Ever. Feel free to share yours in the comments.
I just finished the essay collection Karaoke Culture by Dubravka Ugresic. After reading that the book had won an award, and being a fan of Open Letter, I went out and bought it that day. At first I was nervous that a majority of it would be devoted to karaoke–the title esay is about a third of the book–but Ugresic makes it known early on that karaoke is just a metaphor for explaining larger cultural and political events. A longer, more thoughtful review of Karaoke Culture is to come but in the meantime, imagine if Chuck Klosterman wrote a column for The Nation and you’ll have a pretty good idea of Urgresic’s style.
As we’ve all heard by now, some of us ad nauseum, the literary community is concerned, one way or another, with niceness in their book reviews. We’ve heard it, read it, and discussed it all–however, here are two points I’d like to make. First, there were a few great articles that came out of the debate that dove deeper into the role of criticism and the critic. One article that found its way to my printer for a closer read was Daniel Mendelsohn’s essay A Critic’s Manifesto that ran on the New Yorker’s Page-Turner.
In the essay, Mendelsohn begins by telling us that he dreamt not only of becoming a writer but more specifically, a critic. He found criticism “exciting” and thought the critics he’d studied “admirable.” While still a young kid, he went further than reading their work … he studied it.
By dramatizing their own thinking on the page, by revealing the basis of their judgments and letting you glimpse the mechanisms by which they exercised their (individual, personal, quirky) taste, all these critics were, necessarily, implying that you could arrive at your own, quite different judgments—that a given work could operate on your own sensibility in a different way. What I was really learning from those critics each week was how to think. How to think (we use the term so often that we barely realize what we’re saying) critically—which is to say, how to think like a critic, how to judge things for myself. To think is to make judgments based on knowledge: period.
He continues, “For all criticism is based on that equation: KNOWLEDGE + TASTE = MEANINGFUL JUDGMENT. The key word here is meaningful. People who have strong reactions to a work—and most of us do—but don’t possess the wider erudition that can give an opinion heft, are not critics.”
The other point I’d like to make is, as Jacob Silverman, the author of the Slate article which caused this mighty uproar, mentions on the Three Percent Podcast, we have a tendency to move on from these discussions quickly, thinking that we’ve exhausted the conversation, when in reality, discussions like these should be on-going. As someone who can’t read or hear enough about the process of criticism, maybe this is a selfish request.
John Freeman, editor of Granta magazine was on Radio National’s Book Plus program to discuss his essay collection, How to Read a Novelist. In the interview he graciously shared a few personal stories about interviewing authors. For anyone interested in journalism, these few minutes will save you agony later. After an incident with a writer early in his career, a mistake anyone of us could make, John came to this conclusion: “While we have access to writers and their books, and as journalists we have to them in person, there is a limit to it”.
If there’s one word that comes to mind when I think of Teju Cole, it’s “mesmerizing.” His writing envelops you; one second you’re in your kitchen reading, the next you’re walking down a London street. Recently, he told of a dinner he was invited to for the writer V.S. Naipaul, “Natives on the Boat,” for New Yorker‘s Page-Turner. This week he spoke with The Guardian about it. After the quick Q&A he reads the piece in full, which is, as it turns out, also mesmerizing.
For some reason I love listening to trip hop in the fall–maybe it’s the darker nights that put me in a brooding mood. This fall, just like last, I’m again amazed that I can go back to the music I listened to in the late 90s, early 2000s, and not be embarrassed. Three artists that always make an appearance are the Sneaker Pimps, DJ Shadow, and Tricky.
Modeselektor has been in heavy rotation for a few months now and neither of their albums, Monkeytown from 2011, nor the mix they put out on their label in July of this year, Modeselektions Vol. 2, are getting old. A review of the band and their music is to come but what makes Modeselektor difficult to write about succinctly, or even talk about with friends, is that they are hard to define. If you like tweaky electronic music–some electro with your dubstep–these guys are a must. Check out Berlin and Evil Twin and let me know what you think.
FILM and TV
I finally saw the movie Drive, a “neo-noir crime drama,” as Wikipedia categorizes it. The film features Ryan Gosling as a Hollywood stuntman by day and getaway car driver for hire. Key performances also from Bryan Cranston and Albert Brooks. Drive is one of the rare films that begs to be watched over and over. It’s dark, brutal, and beautifully done.
Not yet ready to leave the world of gritty crime dramas, I found the 2007 film Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke. Another brutal movie, this one with a Greek tragedy-like plot. I’ve also started watching Boss, the political drama with Kelsey Grammer where he plays the corrupt mayor of Chicago. Grammer does an incredible job playing pure evil. There’s a Roman opulence to this one.
ADVENTURES IN LITERARY NIGHTLIFE
Last night I kicked off Brooklyn Book Festival Week (my unofficial title) at BookCourt with a panel discussion called “Who Gives a Sh*t about Literary Magazines?” Obviously, I do. It was a conversation between Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review, John Freeman, editor of Granta, and Rob Spillman, editor of Tin House, moderated by Randy Rosenthal, editor of The Coffin Factory. Both The Paris Review and Granta are in the process of launching apps, in part hoping to ease the current challenges of international distribution. All three have, to varying degree, created some sort of free, online content on their websites–all of which uphold the quality of the print magazine. The topic might seem like a well-trod one but the way these four guys are thinking about the technology available to them, the conversation went into new territory.
The fall is upon us, which means huge blockbuster titles are coming to a bookstore near you. Here are some amazing paperbacks that are on my radar for September.
Young Man with a Horn by Dorothy Baker
Rick Martin loved music and the music loved him. He could pick up a tune so quickly that it didn’t matter to the Cotton Club boss that he was underage, or to the guys in the band that he was just a white kid. He started out in the slums of LA with nothing, and he ended up on top of the game in the speakeasies and nightclubs of New York. But while talent and drive are all you need to make it in music, they aren’t enough to make it through a life.
Dorothy Baker’s Young Man with a Horn is widely regarded as the first jazz novel, and it pulses with the music that defined an era. Baker took her inspiration from the artistry—though not the life—of legendary horn player Bix Beiderbecke, and the novel went on to be adapted into a successful movie starring Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall, and Doris Day.
Read This!: Handpicked Favorites from America’s Indie Bookstores edited by Hans Weyandt
This book offers lists of favorites that have flown under the radar, but off of bookstore shelves. First published on Hans Weyandt’s blog for Micawber’s Books, each list includes a bookseller’s top fifty books, anecdotes, and interviews about the life of being a bookseller, reader, and engaged citizen. All proceeds will go to American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE).
Contributing bookstores include Book Passage, Tattered Cover Book Store, Three Lives & Company, Boswell Books, City Lights Bookstore, BookCourt, Harvard Book Store, Carmichael’s Bookstore, Prairie Lights, The King’s English Bookshop, Square Books, Magers & Quinn, Micawber’s Books, Unabridged Bookstore, Regulator Bookshop, Subterranean Books, Faulkner House Books, Skylight Books, Maria’s Bookshop, Inkwood Books, Rakestraw Books, RiverRun Bookstore, Sherman’s Books and Stationary, Iowa Book, and Fireside Books.
Hans Weyandt is a co-owner at Micawber’s Books, an independent bookstore in St. Paul, Minnesota.
The Conde Nast Traveler Book of Unforgettable Journeys: Volume II: Great Writers on Great Places edited by Klara Glowczewska
Condé Nast Traveler is the preeminent travel magazine in the United States, boasting a readership of 3.5 million. This second collection of the award-winning magazine’s best travel writings, includes essays by luminaries such as, Robert Hughes, Russell Banks, E. L. Doctorow, André Aciman, Pico Iyer, and Edna O’Brien.
Tin House: Portland/Brooklyn edited by Tin House
For thirteen years Tin House has been publishing out of both Brooklyn and Portland, Oregon. We draw our strength and inspiration from these two vibrant cultural centers. For the Fall, 2012 issue, we dedicate the entire issue to Portland and Brooklyn writers, artists, and musicians. From fiction by beloved Portland author Ursula K. Le Guin to provocative pieces about unapologetic hipsters and Middle Eastern enclaves in Brooklyn, we’ve found work that goes beyond the clichéd images of single-speeds and sideburns. This issue brings its readers poetry, fiction, essays, art, and interviews that showcase the unique character of each place, and how these hothouses produce such unique characters and art. It also includes a download code for 16 tracks from Portland and Brooklyn musicians curated by Amy Kline (Titus Andronicus, Hilly Eye) and Liz Harris (Grouper).
Pym by Mat Johnson
Recently canned professor of American literature Chris Jaynes has just made a startling discovery: the manuscript of a crude slave narrative that confirms the reality of Edgar Allan Poe’s strange and only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Determined to seek out Tsalal, the remote island of pure and utter blackness that Poe describes, Jaynes convenes an all-black crew of six to follow Pym’s trail to the South Pole, armed with little but the firsthand account from which Poe derived his seafaring tale, a bag of bones, and a stash of Little Debbie snack cakes. Thus begins an epic journey by an unlikely band of adventurers under the permafrost of Antarctica, beneath the surface of American history, and behind one of literature’s great mysteries.
Growing Up Absurd by Paul Goodman
Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd was a runaway best seller when it was first published in 1960, and it became one of the defining texts of the New Left. Goodman was a writer and thinker who broke every mold and did it brilliantly—he was a novelist, poet, and a social theorist, among a host of other things—and the book’s surprise success established him as one of America’s most unusual and trenchant critics, combining vast learning, an astute mind, utopian sympathies, and a wonderfully hands-on way with words
Frequencies: Vol. 1 Various
This collection features original work by Joshua Cohen on the origins of the phrase ‘Open Sesame,’ Blake Butler and Morgan Kendall on the disintegration of the mind, Tracy Rose Keaton on groupie-dom and consumer culture, an interview with Anne Carson, and an excerpt from Scott McClanahan’s forthcoming memoir,Crapalachia: A Biography of a Place
Barcelona Brothers by Carlos Zanon
A gritty noir set in Barcelona’s savage underbelly.
Epi Dalmau is a desperate man. Early one morning, he carries a duffle bag into a dingy bar in a rough neighborhood of Barcelona. Four other people are in the bar: his brother Alex, his good friend Tanveer, the bartender, and a Pakistani man who wandered in to use the restroom. Epi grabs a hammer out of his duffle bag and attacks Tanveer. After a brief struggle and a couple of blows, Tanveer lies dead on the floor and Epi flees the bar.
Alex and the bartender plan to find and protect Epi, while blaming the murder on the unfortunate Pakistani man, who was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Meanwhile, Epi is hunting for Tiffany, the woman of his dreams and the reason behind the murder. What he’ll do when he finds her, and what drove him to brutal violence are the subjects of Carlos Zanón’s gritty, unflinching novel, set in a city tourists never see.
Whenever anyone asks me where I plan to travel next, without skipping a beat I say Russia. I’ve long been fascinated by the country: its ruthless winters, its self-serious cultural history, and its tortured political past. I know my view of Russia is anachronistic, as if there were a switch that flips it from 1880 to 1980 and back again with very little in between or after. I often imagine stepping off the plane and sinking knee-deep into the quicksand of days gone by.
I know the country is no longer the land of revolutionaries conspiring to overthrow the czar and that the fields are no longer littered with peasants, stooped and head-covered, hacking away at wheat with their scythes; I know the political and economic landscape has changed and with it the arts as well.
It’s actually the Russia of today that keeps me from reserving a hotel room and booking a flight. Thoughts of Moscow fill my mind with visions of great wealth discrepancy—nouveau riche on the streets of Moscow, women draped in furs with diamonds hanging off their fingers, and men in Armani suits opening the doors of shiny, black Mercedes for them. Meanwhile, in the parks I can see bums sleeping on benches, surrounded by empty bottles. At least this is the reason I tell myself why I haven’t visited yet but my noble stance falls apart when you consider my daily walk to the subway includes passing numerous homeless people either passed out or crouching in doorways while me and my peers head off to office jobs or the local coffee shop for a day of freelancing. In the end, it’s laziness more than a sensitivity to human suffering that keeps me from leaving the country.
So, how does a lazy, wannabe traveler experience Russia’s present day culture without an airline ticket? Well, if you’re like me, you head to the nearest bookstore and look for a good novel. While it’s hard to argue that reading a book and visiting a country are on equal footing, one can surely soak up a sense of a culture through literary voyeurism.
When many of us think of Russian writers it’s Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov that come to mind; and if we’ve read anything at all it’s Anna Karenina, War and Peace, and for those who scratch surfaces, possibly The Master and the Margarita by Bulgakov. These selections are only encouraged when perusing the literature section of many bookshops but if you’re someone who has read all the classics they wish to encounter, or if you would rather read contemporary fiction, finding new voices can be frustrating.
Even at the best bookstore, the Russian titles range from those published in the 1800s to those from the Soviet-era. While byzantine governments often make for interesting tales, the USSR dissolved in 1991 and it’s time for our shelves to reflect the change. Much of the absence of modern day Russian writing is in large part due to lack of translations. Modern day works in English are hard to come by simply because they don’t exist.
Lucky for those interested, just this past June, New York-based publishing house Overlook Press announced it was partnering with the Russian Federal Agency for Press and Mass Communication (also known as Rospechat). Together, they will publish at least 125 classic and contemporary titles in English over the next 10 years, beginning in 2013.
The goal of the project, which will include fiction, drama, and poetry, says Overlook publisher, Peter Mayer, “is to transcend the well-respected classics and broaden the awareness of Russian culture by making available for the first time in uniform editions these important works of literature, so many barely known outside Russia.” Which contemporary authors and titles they will publish is yet to be announced.
For those who want to start now, Akashic Books has two collections of contemporary Russian crime writers in their excellent noir series. In 2010 they released Moscow Noir, edited by Petersburg-based literary agents Natalia Smirnova and Julia Goumen. This month, the same editors return with St. Petersburg Noir, featuring a new crop of writers to discover.
However manufactured for literary effect the stories may be, both books offer a strong sense of place. Just one example is “Europe After the Rain” by Alexei Evdokimov (Moscow Noir):
Here, the river and the open space in front of Kiev station leave a large expanse open to view. Here, you can really see the sky, which is rare in this capital city that squeezes you between enormous stone slabs. The view that spreads out before you here—the Gothic silhouette of the university on a distant bluff to the left, the palisade of mighty pipes on top of the Radisson, the spire of the Hotel Ukraine perpendicular to layers of lilac clouds—is one of those typical and utterly urban landscapes that create the face of a city, which Moscow, monstrous and vague with its eroded individuality, so lacks.
While these two collections are not the strongest in the series, a difficult task if there ever was one, they succeed in bringing much-needed attention to genre writing happening in Russia today.
In their introduction to the Moscow collection, Smirnova and Goumen explain the state of crime fiction in their country: “A noir literary tradition does not yet really exist in Russia in general or Moscow in particular. Why? Possibly due to the censorship of czarist Russia, to say nothing of the Soviet era.”
However, for their St. Petersburg introduction they claim a different legacy:
Petersburg somehow nurtures ironic, satirical, and darkly humorous interpretations of reality. The darker and harsher life gets, the more humorous its interpretations tend to be. Indeed, only at a Petersburg house party could writers argue enthusiastically over the most efficient way to get rid of a corpse … The origins of this rich noir tradition come from the city’s history, its urban landscape, and even the weather, as Petersburg’s climate undoubtedly affects local character. What morbid thoughts can freezing winds from the Baltics bring along? Which emotions swirl inside a person struggling through snowdrifts in the streets? How can one remain positive when the long-awaited northern “summer” offers less than a dozen sunny days?
An annotated travel guide of sorts, these two collections—so obviously tailored to the psyche of their respective city—offer a look into the individualism that exists in this vast country today; and as I had craved, many of the stories struggle with post-Soviet Russia, its identity and inner workings, and the residue left from the previous decades. Regardless of what impact Russian masters might have had on the literary landscape, the country’s noir—and more broadly, the writing coming from this new generation—has a fresh feel, one of promise and commitment to the days ahead.
Anyone interested in bringing contemporary Russian writers to an American audience should support these new and forthcoming publications. If there’s a show of interest from the reading public, there’s a chance we’ll see more from these new voices.