Fanfare for the Comic Muse

Time to play catch up.  Three books, one post, because I’m all about customer service.

familiarMark Z. Danielewski, The Familiar, Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May. After thinking about this one for a couple days, I came to the realization that Mark Danielewski may very well have written a book that’s unreviewable. This isn’t to say that it’s bad or that the content somehow puts the book outside the scope of a review – it’s just clearly incomplete. There are, to date, at least two additional volumes in Danielewski’s latest endeavor (with more to come, I think), and Danielewski being Danielewski, the first volume makes very little effort to tell a satisfying story with a conventional narrative arc. Usually the first book in a series sets the stage for what’s to come: introduces the characters, gets all the expositional business out of the way, ramps up the conflict, and so on. What the first volume of The Familiar is, instead, is a series of stories that I suspect will interlock at some undetermined point in the future. For now, we get only a taste of what’s to come: an epileptic girl who may have powers of healing; a Latino gang member; a couple on the run from government agents; a frankly incoherent story featuring (I think) Thai or maybe Korean characters speaking in a patois so thick I couldn’t really figure out anything that was happening.

And all of it is written in typical Danielewski style, with experiments in font and text placement, illustration and color, and shifts in perspective. It’s fun if you’re into this sort of thing (which I am), but anyone entering into it expecting a satisfying story is going to leave disappointed. But if you’re on Danielewski’s wavelength, there’s no way not to be really excited at the prospect of what’s to come.

*****

Your_Fathers,_Where_Are_They-_And_the_Prophets,_Do_They_Live_Forever-Dave Eggers, Your Fathers, Where Are They? and the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? Your Fathers, Where Are They? works more effectively as a thought experiment and an exercise in conversational flexibility than anything else, which marks this as minor Eggers. It’s a fun little thing, and a quick, relatively breezy read, but basically Eggers sets out to answer these questions: Why are white males such dickbags? (and) What’s missing in their lives to make them so angry and unsatisfied despite the fact they’ve had every advantage a person could want? I mean, it’s a compelling question (especially as one of the white males in question), but I find books that set out to do this kind of heavy lifting usually fail as solid narratives because they’re primarily concerned with responding to a thesis instead of telling a story. This one isn’t a failure – Eggers is too talented for that – but where a book like Eggers’ masterful Zeitoun works because the message is embedded in its heartbreaking narrative, the message is the narrative inYour Fathers, Where Are They?, and once that becomes clear it’s hard to get involved in the plot when we know that plot is just a means to try and answer a question.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around a man named Thomas. He’s 34 and disaffected, angry about the shooting death of a childhood friend, and someone so unstable we learn he once tried to burn down a hospital to make a point. But now he’s kidnapped half a dozen people and chained them in separate buildings in a decommissioned military base. The book is told exclusively in dialogue, as Thomas essentially interviews them (with the threat of violence right below the surface) about a variety of topics. From an astronaut, he wants to know what it felt like to work toward a shuttle mission for his entire life only to have NASA defunded just as he was on the cusp of career success. From a congressman he wants to know how and why even politicians with the best of intentions get sucked into the bureaucratic machine. From his 6th grade teacher he wants to find out if he and his friend were molested as children. And so on.

Watching Eggers play with dialogue and perspective in this way is fun, even if, as I said above, it becomes less satisfying once we clue in to what he’s doing. It ends ambiguously, as it must, which is probably only going to annoy people who aren’t already on board. I think Eggers fans will enjoy the exercise, but for the uninitiated, Your Fathers, Where Are They? will probably be more frustrating than anything else.

*****

To riseJoshua Ferris, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. I mean, I don’t know. Clever is good, right? It indicates intelligence (I think) and a certain sense of humor (I think). I like clever. Monty Python, Christopher Guest movies, Michael Chabon. But it’s gotta be effortless. If I can see the flop sweat, it’s not clever, it’s work. And Joshua Ferris sweat all over this mofo.

For a while, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour read like a worthy successor toAnd Then We Came to the End, Ferris’ previous book, which I loved. Paul O’Rourke is a dentist with some impressive anxiety issues, an unhealthy tendency to get overly attached to the women in his life, and an obnoxious devotion to his atheism. As a guy of comparable age who shares all three of those traits, I could relate. And Ferris is funny and unusually perceptive at times. I love this quote, which is going to haunt me every time I head into the classroom with students who grow farther and farther away from my age with each passing year:

The 1980s were thirty years ago. The people now following [minor celebrities] Daughn and Taylor thought of the 1980s as I used to think of the 1950s. The 1980s had, overnight, become the 1950s. It was unimaginable. I might as well have been wearing a Davy Crockett hat and cowering under my desk for fear of a Soviet attack.

Then Paul discovers someone is posting as him online. First appears a website for his dental practice where there hadn’t been one before. Then a Facebook account. Then someone using his name on the Boston Red Sox fan forum he frequently visits. Then Twitter. And at first the postings are innocuous and full of non-sequiturs. But then they become fixated on Judaism, and an ancient sect of religious doubters called the Ulm, and the tweets and postings start to sound more and more anti-Semitic.

And that’s where things go downhill. I love a good conspiracy novel as much as the next guy, but I shouldn’t see the gears and cogs of the conspiracy’s machinery at work. In To Rise Again at a Decent Hour the machinery was so obvious and laborious I could practically smell the grease and feel the steam. Where before we got wry humor, we suddenly get entire pages that go like this:

The Ulms’ origins were well documented by references to those books of the Bible where the Amalekites were mentioned, from Genesis through the Psalms. It was said that the Greeks called the Ulms metics and were known to them as anthropoi horis enan noi, or “the people without a temple.” There was a list of ways the Ulms had been systematically suppressed since the advent of Christianity . . .

And on. And on and on. And on. By the end of the book I was bored with the whole thing. I didn’t care about what happened to Paul or his practice or any of the other characters, really. And it’s a good thing, because the book ends with a damp squib of a resolution. I don’t mind vague endings – I’ll go to the mat defending the end of the movie adaptation of No Country for Old Men – but you’ve got to give me something. In this case, there was a story, and then it was done.

How did this get short-listed for the Man Booker Prize? The mind boggles.

*****

Current listening:

Beatles red

The Beatles – 1962-1966

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Crawl Out from the Fall Out

GirlIt’s no secret that of all the fictional monsters out there, zombies have been employed to do the most allegorical heavy lifting.  Director George A. Romero has made a cottage industry of this practice, using zombies to critique race relations (Night of the Living Dead), consumerism (Dawn of the Dead), the military-industrial complex (Day of the Dead), economic inequality (Land of the Dead), social media (Diary of the Dead) and – I think – survivalists (Survival of the Dead, which is easily his worst movie, so it’s hardly a surprise there’s no apparent theme).  The reasons for this are well-documented; the most popular theory goes that because zombies are personality-free eating machines, directors can easily filter the conflict through whatever message they hope to impart.  In all this time, though, there hasn’t really been a zombie movie – or book, since that’s what I’m writing about here – that deals with the inescapable humanity of zombies.  In the pressure to survive, characters engage in very little hand-wringing over killing things that used to be people.  Jonathan Maberry is the only other author I can think of who’s tackled this subject.  In his Young Adult series Rot and Ruin, a character “releases” zombies with as much dignity as possible in an effort to respect the people they once were.  But virtually every other depiction of zombies is mainly a vehicle for lots of stabbing and smashing and gooshing.*  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  I love a good gorefest as much as the next horror movie nerd (which I absolutely am), but I also like movies that confound our expectations and tinker with the tropes we’ve come to expect.

Which brings me, if you couldn’t guess, to M.R. Carey’s The Girl with All the Gifts, one of the best novels I’ll read all year, and one of the best horror novels of all time, full stop.  Carey does something that’s almost unthinkable: he writes a novel that works simultaneously as a  thrilling horror story, a thoughtful meditation on what it means to be human, and a critique of what comedian Patton Oswalt describes as, “Science: We’re all about coulda, not about shoulda!”  And he does this the good, old-fashioned way by creating characters that we come to care deeply about and for whom we want the best to happen.  Even the villain – and I use that term loosely, because this is a book that deals exclusively in shades of gray – is complex and sympathetic.  Carey does so many things well that I almost don’t know where to start – and I’m very hesitant to say much at all at the risk of ruining things for everyone else.

Here’s what I will say: The book begins twenty years after the Breakdown, a biological catastrophe that turns most of the population into ravenous zombie-like creatures the survivors eventually call “hungries” (which I have to admit is probably my favorite nickname of all the ones given to zombies by movies and television and books).  At a remote military base in the north of England, Helen Justineau teaches a class full of young hungries, small children that display all the zombie signifiers but which are also capable of speech and rational thought and, most importantly, learning.  They behave like normal children except for the fact that they have to be strapped to chairs with arm and neck restraints, and Justineau and the other adults at the school have to slather themselves with a medicinal astringent that masks their scent.  Justineau develops a particularly strong connection with Melanie, the smartest child in the class, and this causes her to butt heads with Dr. Caroline Caldwell, a military scientist in charge of studying this unique group of children in the hope of finding a cure.  Also present is Sergeant Eddie Parks, the no-nonsense leader of the guard who essentially views the children as a threat to be carefully monitored.

For the first part of the book we watch these four characters in uneasy orbit around each other.  Justineau becomes heavily invested in the well-being of her students, and especially Melanie.  Melanie, even though she doesn’t fully understand what she is, loves Justineau for seeing her potential and giving her glimpses (especially through Greek mythology) of the wider world.  Caldwell sees the children only as subjects, and has no compunction about, say, removing their brains so she can study them further.  And Parks is all about by-the-book containment; he doesn’t hate the children, they’re just part of his job.  As a result, Parks and Caldwell see Justineau as unnecessarily (and probably unforgivably) soft-hearted, failing to see the animalistic nature of the children.  Justineau, in turn, sees Parks as a violent military puppet who just follows orders and Caldwell as a cruel sadist who delights in torturing (undead) children.

The beauty of all this is just how subtly Carey establishes these inherent conflicts.  Even though we see them developing, nothing is telegraphed, nothing is obvious. It wasn’t until the second third of the book, as the characters (along with naive soldier Kieran Gallagher) have been cut off from the base and now face a long march south to the main military complex, that I realized just how clever Carey had been.  He took his time to bake in the suspicion these characters have for each other and then put them in a situation – marching over hostile terrain, pursued by human enemies and encountering more hungries – where they have to depend on each other.

So that’s the horror/thriller part.  But I also said at the top that it’s a thoughtful rumination of humanity, and it is.  Melanie is kind of an ingenious creation: an engaging and preternaturally smart child who also happens to be a ruthless killing machine.  She’s constantly at war with herself, fighting against her nature and refusing to harm the humans with whom she’s traveling.   This is largely down to how they view her.  Justineau, especially, takes her seriously, and even Parks comes to respect what she brings to the group.   She has a role.  She belongs, and Melanie doesn’t want to jeopardize that because of a little hunger.  So she encourages them to keep her in restraints and muzzled, and makes sure they remember to coat their exposed skin in “e-blocker,” an ointment that renders them scentless.  But during their journey she starts to learn more about herself, who she is, and what Caldwell ultimately wants to do to her.  Justineau and Parks know this, too, and as the external threat increases the farther south they travel, so too does the internal one.  This all comes to a head in London, when the characters learn the truth both about the Breakdown and what Melanie truly is.

It’s a fantastic book – an effortless thriller that, yeah, also made me a little weepy at the end.  The movie adaptation comes out later this year, and I will fight everyone involved if they mess it up.

 

* Colson Whitehead’s Zone One also qualifies as a thoughtful take on the zombie genre, but I think I’d argue that the zombies are almost incidental to what he’s doing and therefore Zone One isn’t really a zombie novel.  Nit-picking, probably.

*****

Current listening:

Sonic murray

Sonic Youth – Murray Street (2002)

Ghosts of a Different Dream

Bluebells sistersDiscogs Challenge #2

In my inaugural Discogs Challenge post I claimed that my musical wheelhouse has been, since about 1988, “fey honkies playing guitars that go jingle-jangle.”  Turns out Discogs has a sense of humor, because the album it pulled up for my second post doesn’t get much feyer or honkier than The Bluebells’ 1984 album Sisters.  Even that name – The Bluebells – conjures up images of Dutch schoolgirls frolicking in a meadow before settling down to a lunch of tea and cucumber sandwiches, sans crusts, and you just know at least one band member regularly wears a cardigan and/or horn-rimmed glasses.  The band isn’t completely dissimilar from fellow early-80s Scots Aztec Camera and Orange Juice, but the tunes just aren’t the same caliber.  It’s all pleasantly inoffensive – quite nice for cleaning the house or grading papers, but it’s not a band that will change your life.

Part of the problem, I think, is the band’s occasional willingness to dabble in instruments and styles that butt up against their otherwise genial indie rock.  Opener “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool” comes sailing in, buoyed by a gently parping harmonica, and the very next song, “Young at Heart,” brings the fiddle in a virtual hoedown.  There’s absolutely overlap between Scottish folk music and American country or bluegrass, and while I can hear the lineage the band is following, the result – especially considering the album’s later songs – comes across more as a band that doesn’t quite know what it wants to sound like.  An album like The Waterboys’ Fisherman’s Blues (a record I hope Discogs pulls up for me at some point) makes this instrumentation central to its effect; it isn’t just grafted onto the songs like a Frankenstein’s monster made out of an unholy marriage of mandolins and Marshall stacks.  Fisherman’s Blues weaves the instruments into a tapestry; Sisters proclaims, “Hey!  Here’s our fiddle song!”  We get a brief respite in the really quite nice double-feature of “I’m Falling” and “Will She Always Be Waiting,” but the harmonica makes its return at the end of Side 1 in minor radio hit “Cath.”   At least the instrument works better here, accenting the guitars and underpinning the ebullient “Whoa oh” chorus in what is probably the album’s best song.

(Re-reading those last few sentences, it strikes me that maybe I just have something against the harmonica.  But I don’t.  Promise.)

I don’t mean for this to sound as negative as it does.  While I’m not a stone cold fan of The Bluebells, the record fits nicely into my love of bookish indie, beginning with the previously mentioned Aztec Camera and continuing through The Smiths to modern-day nice guys Belle & Sebastian.  And, to be fair, Side 2 begins with a hell of a 1-2 punch in “Red Guitars” and “Syracuse University.”  On the latter, especially, the band nearly breaks a sweat, abandoning the folk pretensions and relying solely on a churning electric guitar line.  But then, as if to say, “Hey gang!  We’ve still got some unplayed instruments in the closet!,” “Learn to Love” opens with a brass fanfare and turns into a none-more-Motown stomper, complete with wailing female backing vocals on the chorus.  I take back what I said earlier; this is the album’s best song.

(Of course you don’t get the brass or the backing vocals in the above video, but such is the paucity of Bluebells material on YouTube.)

It initially seems as though the album is ending on a subdued note, transitioning to a cover of Dominic Behan’s “The Patriot’s Game” (a flute is present and accounted for, if you’re keeping score at home), but the Falklands-referencing “South Atlantic Way” is a stirring protest anthem complete with martial drums and the kind of ringing guitars we’d expect to find on a U2 album.  The song escalates into a dervish of an outro – drums, guitar, and pounding piano combining to almost make us forget the album’s timid openers.

The high points on Sisters are so good that it makes me wish the weak spots were better.  It’s obviously not a bad album, but it feels in places like the band needed a better editor, someone to rein in some of their less successful impulses.  This was their only album, alas, so if anyone told them, “More ‘Learn to Love,’ less hoedown, please,” we never got to see how it played out.

Next up: Built to Spill’s Untethered Moon (2015)

Read the rules of the Discogs Challenge here.

A Girl Called Destruction

Lauren shining

Sometimes an excess of pop culture knowledge is a hindrance.  When I first heard that Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls dealt with a time traveling serial killer, there’s just no way I wasn’t immediately going to think of Malcolm McDowell as H.G. Wells in pursuit of Jack the Ripper in then-modern day (but really 1979) San Francisco.

It wasn’t exactly two strikes against the book, but the baggage didn’t help.  And that’s sort of a shame, going in with those preconceived notions, because The Shining Girls is all kinds of terrific.

Most notably, Beukes does some really fun stuff with narrative structure.  In some ways she’s telling parallel narratives.  In one of them we follow Harper, a killer who discovers a dilapidated house whose front door serves as a portal into other times.  In the other we’re following Kirby, the only one of Harper’s victims to survive his attack.  But rather than tell this is as a linear narrative – even one where the author alternates perspectives in each chapter – she skips around from character to character.  Where we might be with Harper in 1937 in one chapter, in the next we might be with Kirby in 1994, and then with another character entirely in the next.  It’s not nearly as confusing as it sounds: Beukes helpfully titles each chapter by character and year, but because she’s drawn the characters so indelibly, they’re easy to track.

So we have this bit of structural ingenuity on one hand, and on the other we have a substantial degree of playfulness afforded by the time travel conceit.  When Harper discovers the house, he also discovers in an upstairs room a list of girls’ names written on the wall.  The names are – title alert! – literally shining, and beside them is a collection of artifacts: a lighter, a cassette tape, a Jackie Robinson baseball card, and so on.  Harper begins visiting these “shining girls” as children, talking to them or giving them one of these artifacts, and then returning to them as adults and killing them, as he believes he’s destined to do.

Cut to Kirby, one of Harper’s victims.  He first tracked her down in the 1970s, giving her a plastic pony to hold, and then returned to viciously attack her in the late 80s.  Now, in 1994, she’s a survivor and an intern at the Chicago Sun-Times.  Paired with Dan Velasquez, a grouchy sports writer who used to work the homicide beat, Kirby sets out to find out who attacked her.

Beukes skillfully skips back and forth between the characters, and we watch as Harper works his way through his list in a variety of time periods while Kirby conducts her investigation in the early 90s.  We know there will come a reckoning between the two of them – how could there not be? – especially because Harper doesn’t yet realize that Kirby survived his attack.

I’m not normally a time travel guy, but I really enjoyed The Shining Girls.  There’s an infectious sense of play to the proceedings, where even though we’re watching some exceptionally grisly crimes play out and are getting caught up in the suspense of Kirby’s sleuthing, we also can’t help but admire how thoroughly Beukes has created a range of worlds in which the characters travel.  Just as importantly, Kirby and Velasquez make for a compelling team, the former increasingly obsessed with finding her would-be killer and the latter basically along for the ride because he has the hots for Kirby.  Harper is a little trickier to get a handle on.  We never get a very satisfying reason for why he discovers the time traveling house – or why the house does what it is – but Beukes does so many entertainingly mind-bending things with loops in time that it seems a little churlish to pick at the details.

The best recommendation I can give is that the same afternoon I finished The Shining Girls, I went out and bought a couple of Beukes’ other books.  Color me impressed.

*****

Current listening:

XTC white

XTC – White Music (1978)

What More Can I Say

Jay blackAs ubiquitous as hip-hop has become, it can be difficult to remember just how far outside the mainstream it was in the 1980s.  Now it’s on the TV and in movies and soundtracking commercials and on the radio (people still listen to the radio, right?).  It’s a musical language most people are familiar with, if not entirely conversant in.  We’ve come a long way from “Can’t Touch This” and “Ice Ice Baby,” where even the most recalcitrant rap naysayer (i.e., my dad) at least knows who Kanye West is, even if he can’t hum the hook to “Gold Digger.”

But it wasn’t that way in the late 80s, when I was developing my musical identity.  In rural Ohio, hip-hop was still very much a dangerous prospect.  All the “Walk This Way”‘s and Beastie Boyses in the world couldn’t diminish the perspective that rappists and their fans were hooligans at best, criminals at worst.  And this was before N.W.A. and 2Live Crew and the kerfuffle a bunch of scared white people brought down on everyone.  But I loved it, almost from the get-go.  True, starting in 1988 (my 10th grade year), my musical bread and butter has always been fey honkies playing guitars that jingle-jangle, but Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back blew the top of my head off.  I couldn’t begin to relate to the rage Chuck D was expressing, but there’s always been an anti-authoritarian streak running right below the surface of my personality, and I could absolutely relate to Chuck’s “fuck the Man” sentiments.

I loved Public Enemy so much that I had to figure out what else I’d been missing.*  In a year or so I discovered Boogie Down Productions and Eric B. & Rakim, Gang Starr and De La Soul.  The Jungle Brothers and A Tribe Called Quest were just around the corner, and of course so were N.W.A. and 2Live Crew and Ice-T and the continued fear that hip-hop was going to pollute the precious bodily fluids of a bunch of suburban white kids.  (Which it kind of did.  Which is good.)

All of which is to simply establish some street cred where hip-hop is concerned.  I’m not the most obvious hip-hop fan, but my love for the genre runs deep and is 100% genuine.  And all of that brings me to my inaugural entry in the Discogs Challenge, Jay-Z’s The Black Album (2003).

Like any good middle-aged hipster, I actually first encountered this album via Danger Mouse’s 2004 Beatles/Hova mash-up, The Grey Album.  I of course knew “99 Problems” (because I was a a breathing, carbon-based life form), but that’s about as far as it went.  Truth is, I had stopped listening to much hip-hop – where early rap spoke to me as modern-day protest anthems, the rise of gangsta rap just felt like sensationalist nihilism – so I really didn’t know anything at all about Jay-Z when I first gave The Grey Album a listen.

In some ways this now makes a kind of prophetic sense because huge swaths of The Black Album have now entered the pop culture canon to such a degree that they sound as familiar as anything by The Beatles.  The thing that strikes me now listening to The Black Album is that’s a near-perfect juxtaposition of braggadocio and vulnerability.  Nothing captures this more than “December 4th,” an origin story as compelling as anything in the Marvel Universe.  Backed by a melodramatic brass fanfare, Jay tells his story: from birth to early childhood, his later introduction to drug dealing and ultimate decision to leave that career behind to pursue music.   Running parallel to his own narrative we get spoken-word interludes from his mom that serve to fill in some gaps from her perspective.  But the really striking thing is how Jay (and his mom) includes details that run the risk of softening him in a genre that rarely values perceived weakness: “But I feel worthless cause my shirts wasn’t matchin’ my gear”; “Hard enough to match the pain of my pops not seeing me”; “I pray I’m forgiven / For every bad decision i made.”  It’s a hell of a statement of purpose for the album, and it’s such a strong track that on many albums it would be the high point.

(skip to :40 if you want to avoid some early-video tomfoolery)

Unbelievably, The Black Album improves from there, running from strength to strength for nearly an hour in a melding of styles that ensures the album never gets old.  There’s the relentless momentum and breathless flow of “Encore,” the slinky grooves of “Change Clothes,” the film noir menace of “Moment of Clarity,” the sultry whispered hook of “Justify My Thug,” and the Latin spice of “Lucifer.”  And of course there’s the Twin Towers of the album, the angry and defiant “99 Problems” and the empowerment anthem “Dirt Off Your Shoulder.”

For what it’s worth, while “99 Problems” is the song that gets all the press, I think “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” is the album’s true standout.  The hook is more indelible, the lyrics more nuanced, the production more subtle.

Whatever your own preference is, the important thing to remember is this: an album that could boast just one of these songs would be remarkable; that Jay-Z can bury both of them in the middle of The Black Album is the sign of a record making its case for immortality.

 

* Full disclosure: I make it sound as though It Takes a Nation . . . was my first exposure to hip-hop, which just isn’t true.  Like anyone who was watching MTV in the early 80s, I was a fan of the Run-D.M.C./Aerosmith hybrid “Walk This Way,” and I recorded LL Cool J’s “I Need Love” off the radio a year or two before my Public Enemy epiphany and played it incessantly, fancying myself a loverman-in-training.

A Design for Life

IMG_0955A note from the management, primarily to establish the rules of a new game in its own post that I can link to later.

A couple days ago – here – I posted my musical canon, the records I own that have shaped the listener and, in many cases, the person I am today.  In that post I said I’d eventually be discussing these albums, one at a time.  That’s still true, but that discussion will now be subsumed under a larger project I’ve been kicking around for a while.

Here it is:

My record collection is inventoried in Discogs, a terrific site that music nerds like me can use to catalog our collections and buy and sell records from dealers and other collectors.  But it also has a nifty feature in the “Random Item” search button.  Click it, and Discogs pulls up a random album from your collection.  For instance, I just clicked it, and out of the 1,600 records in my collection, Discogs pulled up Jay-Z’s 1999 masterwork, The Black Album.

My plan is to use this feature to talk about music.  Rather than simply walk through my canon, where the narrative will probably get a little samey – “Gee whiz, this is an awesome album!” – using the “Random Item” feature will generate some different types of discussion and analysis.  Some records I own because I genuinely love them.  Some I own because I’m a completist, and while I feel warmly toward them, I own them mainly to fulfill a collector’s compulsion. And then there are also some that I know less well, impulse buys or records that I purchased after enjoying a cursory listen or two online.  The point being, my experience with The Black Album will be very different from my experience with U2’s The Joshua Tree or R.E.M.’s Greenand I think that difference will result in what I hope is an engaging snapshot of popular music post-1965 through the lens of my obsession.

So I’ll click the button, give the record my undivided attention, and then see what kind of writing it generates.  Look for this – thinking optimistically here – a few times a week, when I can find the time to put the effort into it.*

First up, to prove I’m not cheating and just clicking until I get one of the albums from my canon, I’ll tackle The Black Album, a record I admire more than love.

* but, true to form, I’ll probably do it a couple times, get bored, and quit.

Hounds of Love

AnsariOne thing immediately became clear to me as I read Aziz Ansari’s excellent treatise on modern romance (titled, conveniently, Modern Romance) and it’s this: I would have had more dating success as a young man if I had had the options afforded by today’s technology.  As a shy, awkward kid with – how to put this? – “a face that is not pleasant to look at,” I wasn’t super successful with the ladies.  I was (and still am, I think) fairly proficient with words.  If I had had access to text messaging instead of the painful “date request” phone call, if I could’ve charmed from a distance with my written wit, if I’d been able to make a good physical impression via the smoke and mirrors possible in Instagram, I might have been happier as a wee lad.  I’m generally useless in social situations, especially at first, but once I warm up I can hold my own.  If I could’ve warmed up to the girls I was interested in through technology (instead of stumbling haphazardly through a gauntlet of clumsy personal interactions) I think I would have fared better.

But as I reflect on this, I guess I’m getting a little ahead of myself while also failing to mention what I found most fascinating about Ansari’s book.

Modern Romance is absolutely a humor book.  For those who know and enjoy Ansari’s humor (whether with his Human Giant sketch show, his standup, his indelible role as Tom Haverford on Parks and Recreation, or his fantastic Netflix show, Master of None), you’ll quickly hear his voice come through loud and clear:

To be honest, I tend to romanticize the past, and though I appreciate all the conveniences of modern life, sometimes I yearn for simpler times.  Wouldn’t it be cool to be single in a bygone era?  I take a girl to a drive-in movie, we go have a cheeseburger and a malt at the diner, and then we make out under the stars in my old-timey convertible.  Granted, this might have been tough in the fifties given my brown skin tone and racial tensions at the time, but in my fantasy, racial harmony is also part of the deal.

But while it’s unquestionably a book where Ansari gets to be laugh-out-loud funny, it increases the comedy book stakes by also being an honest-to-goodness social science text.  Ansari and his research partner, New York University’s Eric Klinenberg, spent years conducting focus group interviews and analyzing interactions with volunteers on a subreddit forum to present an illuminating view of what it’s like to date in the 2010s (in the U.S. and in other countries), and how it differs from generations past.  We get chapters dealing with the “initial ask,” online dating, international trends, the implications of technology, and so on.  Each chapter is grounded in their research and shot through with Ansari’s unmistakable humor.

While there’s certainly a wealth of information here, much of which I didn’t know (Japan is in the middle of a marriage crisis? A third of the people who got married in the first decade of the 21st Century met online?), the most striking issue the book reveals is the problem presented by having too many options.  Ansari sets this up early by discussing the interviews he conducted with older Americans, most of whom met their spouses in a very small radius.  Over 80% of those interviewed lived within 20 blocks of their future spouse, and many of them lived in the same apartment building or on the same street.  This is true of my parents, who lived four houses apart, met when they were 13, married in their early 20s, and stayed married until my mom’s death in 2011.  According to Ansari, this was a pattern repeated by many people in my parents’ generation (that is, meeting someone from your neighborhood and marrying young, not necessarily dying an early death from cancer), but it’s one that has largely disappeared.

Instead, thanks to the rise of online dating and apps like Tinder – as well as increased mobility and larger social circles brought about by social media networks – people today have dozens (and in large cities, literally hundreds) of possible mates a phone swipe away.  When you combine this with people’s increased need to find the best thing possible – Ansari very funnily recounts the tortuous process he uses just to find the best taco joint in town – it only makes sense that people are dating more and marrying less (or at least later).  Because we can now see just how many other attractive single people are out there in our vicinity, Ansari argues, people are increasingly less satisfied with their current situation in the hope that they can eventually find not just something better, but the best there is (be it taco joint, television, or spouse).

Most fascinating, Ansari reports that this isn’t really a thing in the other countries they researched.  People in those countries still largely fall in love as a result of meeting through friends or at work or in bars or clubs (although he also details the frankly horrifying verbal assaults women in Buenos Aires face on a daily basis).   This need to find the “best” seems to speak to a restlessness in the American psyche that I can’t help but think also speaks to our competitive, capitalist identity.  Doesn’t it make sense that when a country has as one of its bedrock principles the notion of upward social mobility, its people would find themselves increasingly unwilling to settle for second-best in all aspects of their lives?  We typically see this occurring in the context of economics, but in light of Ansari and Klinenberg’s work, it seems unavoidable to consider how this mindset has influenced other aspects of American culture, including dating.  Even though Ansari doesn’t make this connection himself, it’s to his book’s credit that it allows for this sort of speculation instead of merely settling for funny.

This is a rare book that’s able to mix laughs with research, and the few topics I’ve mentioned here are really just the tip of the qualitative iceberg.  Modern Romance is a fascinating read, not just as social science, but as a snapshot of America – and young Americans – at the dawn of the 21st Century.

*****

Current listening:

Dream days

The Dream Syndicate – The Days of Wine and Roses (1982)