The other night I finally got around to watching Room 237, which, if you haven’t heard of it already, is a documentary about people obsessed with Kubrick’s The Shining and their various, often wacky, theories about what’s really going on in the movie. It’s absolutely fascinating, and not necessarily because of the interpretations. Sure, the one about how The Shining is Kubrick’s attempt to admit to having filmed the Apollo space landing is incredible—“he changed the room number from 217 to 237 because the moon is 237,000 miles from Earth!”—and the ones analyzing the “magic window” and Danny’s three trips on his Big Wheel around the hotel are compelling and provocative, but the real joy of this movie is simply listening to how people make sense of things.
Talking about “high art” as “high art” is always a dicey prospect, so I’ll dive right in: to me, real “art” fucks with your mind and expectations and forces you to see new patterns, to try and analyze what it is that’s happening, since what’s happening isn’t at all what you’re used to. This goes beyond content and plot and character, and is more about the form and style of a particular book/movie/piece of music. Great art feels “new” and leaves the impression that there’s some pattern just beneath the surface . . . (Which is maybe why I love Pynchon and The Crying of Lot 49 so much?)
To me, that’s what’s going on in Room 237. I don’t give a shit about the theories themselves—some are more believable than others—but the way in which the obsessives puzzle things out is simply incredible. That’s the real joy of this movie—having the chance to see how someone else’s mind works when they’re presented with an object that doesn’t quite fit preconceived ideas. (Which is why I think Kubrick’s assistant totally missed the point when he said, “There are ideas espoused in Room 237 that I know to be total balderdash.” No shit! and/or DUH.)
This kind of experience—of analyzing, of feeling like “there was something going on that I wasn’t seeing . . . yet”—can only happen when a creator (or team of creators) creates something and then hands it over to the public.
By contrast, check this post on Mashable about self-publishing and the modern advantages of serializing your work (in contrast to writing a full novel and then giving it to readers):
Allen Lau, CEO and cofounder of Wattpad, credits [Abigail] Gibbs’ choice to serialize [The Dark Heroine, which sold for six-figures to HarperCollins after they examined her sales on the Wattpad self-publishing platform] as “one of the key factors of her success.” With the traditional publishing method, he explains, it can often take two or three years before a book lands in readers’ hands, but serialization short-circuits that. “As soon as you finish that first chapter, you can post it [online] and start to generate a fan base, start to generate excitement.” [. . .]
The opportunity for readers and writers to directly connect marks a real shift from the established relationship between the two typical publishing parties.
“The readers don’t just read the story in a read-only mode; they participate in the content creation process,” says Lau. “Some of the comments can absolutely influence the storyline. This type of collaborative content creation and crowd participation simply and structurally doesn’t exist in the traditional system.”
Thanks to the class I teach in the spring semester—and the fact I make my students give presentations on some of my favorite authors, tying them into one another, creating a network of influences and influencees—I’ve been thinking a lot about “literary movements” and how there doesn’t seem to be the same drive to articulate new forms of storytelling as there was in the twentieth century . . . except maybe in terms of digital things.
It seems that digital believers—by which I mean the people who articulate reasons why digital forms of creation and distribution will help them make bank, and those who feel like writers should take full advantage of the possibilities of digital to make a truly multimedia text—are the vanguard of new narrative forms. Which, I have to say, leaves me feeling empty.
I don’t care so much about the technocrats who look to everything digital to find “disruptions” to “legacy publishers” so that they can find a new way to make lots of money and get themselves a smidgen closer to the 1% . . . I’m just not one of those people. I wish I could afford child care and an endless supply of wine, but I can’t, and I’m happy spending all my disposable income on graphic novels and cable packages that allow me to watch soccer matches. I personally don’t feel a drive to have more than that.
It’s the aesthetic techies who frighten me. “People Powered Publishing”? Books that are crafted based on feedback? I’m all for more interactions between authors and publishers and readers, but this reeks of giving people a variation on what they want. (I just looked at the comments for a random Wattpad story and they’re way worse than I expected. My favorite is “everything repeat the samr chapter. my part favorite is whatever school, whatever class.”) Although I read my fair share of books that are simply entertaining and not “artistic,” I hope that future writers will continue to produce things—like 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining and whatever—that upend my expectations and make me feel like I’m missing something . . .
The Panda Theory and A26 by Pascal Garnier, translated from the French by Gallic Books and Melanie Florence (Gallic Books)
I finished The Panda Theory last week, and am now ready to go on a Garnier bender. Which is fortuitous, since Gallic Books is bringing out four of his books in U.S. this year. I could explain what I liked about this novel, but really, I think this bit from Garnier about why he became a writer should do it:
That’s when the wife and baby came along. All around me, the faithful companions I’d met along the way were nestling back into their kennels, burying their dreams and delusions like bones to gnaw at in years to come when they were old and toothless. Rebelling against such mass surrender, I threw myself into rock and roll—and landed with a resounding thud. I was no better at being a pop star than I was at being a dad. Still, it was writing my pitiful ditties that gave me a taste for words. Deep down, I harboured a wild dream of writing something longer, something like a book. But my limited vocabulary, terrible spelling and hopeless grammar seemed like insurmountable obstacles. So I got divorced, remarried, dabbled in design for women’s magazines, took on odd jobs, got up to the occasional bit of mischief. In short, I was killing time, frittering my life away. The boredom of my childhood numbed me once again with the sweetness of a drug. I was thirty-five.
“But my limited vocabulary, terrible spelling and hopeless grammar seemed like insurmountable obstacles. So I got divorced . . .” It’s an indisputable fact that divorce improves two parts of your life, one of which is your creativity.
Quesadillas by Juan Pablo Villalobos, translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey (FSG)
I really want to like Villalobos. He’s young, he’s Latin American, he includes bits about alien abductions in his books . . . But there’s just nothing there in my opinion. This novel, and Down the Rabbit Hole, are technically fine, but they don’t create new patterns . . . instead they feel a bit pandering. A bit thin.
Actually, and I write this despite knowing that so many people I respect love his works, I feel like the “rage” that Neel Mukherjee writes about in the intro to this novel rings a bit false. As a reader, I find the rage of Villalobos’s characters to be of the “look, I’m raging, and I’m funny, look at me!” sort. Toothless.
Miruna, A Tale by Bogdan Suceava, translated from the Romanian by Alistair Ian Blyth (Twisted Spoon Press)
I just received this in the mail the other week, and I have two things to say about it: Bogdan did his Ph.D. in math at Michigan State University around the same time I was there (although I did no Ph.D., and my idea of being good at math is schooling my daughter on long division), and thus he’s automatically the greatest Romanian author of all time (Go Spartans! Just please god go further in the tournament than Syracuse, because, fuck Syracuse); and secondly, Twisted Spoon Press is the most underrated press in the world dedicated to producing high-quality works of international literature. Also, fuck Syracuse. More on that below.
Efina by Noëlle Revaz, translated from the Swiss French by David and Nicole Ball (Seagull Books)
Revaz’s With the Animals was longlisted for the BTBA the other year, which is why I personally was so excited to find out that Seagull was bringing out another of her books. With the Animals was one of the most incredibly misogynist books I’ve ever read. There is no way that sentence comes out right. If you read the link above, you’ll know what I mean, but in short, With the Animals focuses on a narrator who is pure shit. Total woman-despising asshole. Whose literary voice is incredible. Efina promises letters from two characters who write “often to express their intense dislike of each other”! I can’t wait; people who believe you should only enjoy novels if you like the characters should run and hide.
Severina by Rodrigo Rey Rosa, translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews (Yale University Press)
Willsconsin has translated a bunch of Rodrigo Rey Rosa stuff, and the fact that Will is into him has me convinced that I should read this. Plus, covers of girls in bookstores are an automatic yes for me.
Corpse Exhibition: And Other Stories of Iraq by Hassan Blasim, translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright (Penguin)
Last week, Jonathan Wright settled his case with Random House regarding his translation of Alaa Al Aswany’s The Automobile Club of Europe, which Al Aswany deemed shitty for the most insane of reasons. I have a student from Yemen in my classes this year, and he was BLOWN AWAY by Al Aswany’s bullshit (my word) reasons for claiming Jonathan Wright shouldn’t translate his books. Thing is, as a publisher, every time you’re all “authors are the worst! They make this job so fucking intolerable!” a translator will jump up and want a terrible author photo on the cover of a poetry book.
Stories by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, translated from the Portuguese by Rhett McNeil (Dalkey Archive)
Even if I’ve written it here before, it’s worth repeating a million times: JOAQUIM MARIA MACHADO DE ASSIS is the greatest name to pronounce aloud ever. If you add a faux-Portuguese accent. Which may sound a bit sinister. But friendly sinister. I spent a week in Brazil repeating Machado de Assis’s name to everyone I met. It’s a wonderful icebreaker.
Encyclopedia of Good Reasons by Monica Cantieni, translated from the German by Donal McLaughlin (Seagull Books)
This weekend, I took my kids to see the Lego Movie. (Or however you italicize that. Seriously: trademarks are confusing to me when they become commercial pieces of art.) It was pretty awesome (I’ve never seen my son smile like that, which is so happy making), but what was equally awesome was hearing a “dorky” (your words, not mine!) high school boy say this in line behind me:
I know we’re seeing the Lego Movie, but Vampire Academy? A movie with hot high school girls AND vampires? It has ALL the things I think about.
The Good Life Elsewhere by Vladimir Lorchenkov, translated from the Russian by Ross Ufberg (New Vessel Press)
Moldova! The first book I’ve ever seen from Moldova!
Aaron’s Leap by Magdalena Platzova, translated from the Czech by Craig Cravens (Bellevue Literary Press)
Bellevue Literary Press reminds me of Erika Goldman which reminds me of her friend Dubrakva Ugresic, whose Europe in Sepia you should all be buying and reading. Dubrakva is awesome and witty and poignant and a genius; Erika is awesome and quick-witted and fucking brilliant. Just buy both books: If Erika chose to publish it, you know it’s amazing.
Also, she’s not a Syracuse University fan (I think?) (and is it the University of Syracuse? I get confused about second-rate programs. BASH.), which means she automatically knows more about college basketball than half of upstate New York and more than 90% of everyone in Rochester. Sorry, Otter Lodge (the “pub” where I watched the Syracuse-Duke game and was “informed” by multiple people that Duke University is in Chapel Hill. Which is it most definitely not), your bar sucks, and we will roll your indoor soccer team again.
Over at the PRI’s World Books, Bill Marx has a great appreciation piece for Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, a writer far ahead of his time, and who died 100 years ago yesterday:
“If Borges is the writer who made Garcia Marquez possible,” observed Salman Rushdie, “then it is no exaggeration to say that Machado De Assis is the writer who made Borges possible.” Rushdie’s piggyback history of the hemisphere’s premier intellectual ironists is correct but, at least until the last decade or so, Machado was a neglected progenitor, his finest novels hailed by a relatively small circle of discerning readers who wondered why the gargantuan achievement of the Brazilian writer wasn’t sufficiently recognized. [. . .]
Why has it taken so long for Machado to become as well known here as Borges or Marquez? In the 1950s and 60s Helen Caldwell and William Grossman translated the best of his fiction into English; these efforts were enthusiastically received by reviewers, including V.S. Pritchett and Elizabeth Hardwick. Among contemporary critics, John Barth and the late Susan Sontag are fans of Machado. But when the Latin American literary boom boomed across American campuses in the 1970s, lazy readers, gorging on diets of Marquez and Llosa, never adventured back in time further than three or four decades.
Perhaps the problem is that the remarkable playfulness of Machado’s fiction works against him. He is difficult to classify: romantic and realist, idealistic and cynical, rational and cranky. His life includes extremes as well: a mulatto who received little formal education, Machado was a shy epileptic who became president of Brazil’s Academy of letters and received a state funeral when he died in 1908.
I absolutely love pronouncing Machado de Assis’s name. It flows in a lively, exotic way—especially when spoken with an exaggerated accent—and is one of the longest author names I know of.
When we first started Open Letter, Machado de Assis’s Epitaph of a Small Winner (aka, The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas)was one of the first books we tried to get the rights to. Unfortunately (for us), FSG decided instead to reissue this in their “Classics” series with a beautiful (and spooky) new cover (and foreword by Susan Sontag).
Even if the rest of the book completely sucked, it would still be worth publishing it for this opening paragraph:
To the Reader: When we learn from Stendhal that he wrote one of his books for only a hundred readers, we are both astonished and disturbed. The world will be neither astonished nor, probably, disturbed if the present book has not one hundred readers like Stendhal’s, nor fifty, nor twenty, nor even ten. Ten? Maybe five. It is, in truth, a diffuse work, in which I, Braz Cubas, if indeed I have adopted the free form of a Sterne or of a Xavier de Maistre, have possibly added a certain peevish pessimism of my own. Quite possibly. The work of a man already dead. I wrote it with the pen of Mirth and the ink of Melancholy, and one can readily foresee what may come of such a union. Moreover, solemn people will find in the book an aspect of pure romance to which they have become accustomed; thus it is and will remain, disrespected by the solemn and unloved by the frivolous, the two great pillars of public opinion.
The reason I’m posting about Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (it’s even fun to spell!) is because the 100th anniversary of his death is coming up (Sept. 29th), and the New York Times has a decent overview article on him.
Over the next quarter century Machado produced the five somewhat interlinked novels that made his reputation. Though foreign critics tend to regard the exuberantly nihilistic “Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas,” published in 1881, as his masterpiece, many Brazilians prefer the more melancholy “Dom Casmurro” (1899), which focuses on the corrosive effect of sexual jealousy.
“As an English friend of mine said to me, he’s the best,” Roberto Schwarz, one of Brazil’s foremost experts on Machado, said in a telephone interview from São Paulo. “What you see in the five novels and his short stories from that period is a writer without illusions, courageous and cynical, who is highly civilized but at the same time implacable in exposing the hypocrisy of modern man accommodating himself to conditions that are intolerable.”
One of the surprising things in this article is the sort of resentment that some people have about his popularity outside of Brazil. Not often that this sort of thing happens to a foreign author:
For the most part, Brazilians have been delighted to see Machado’s prestige rising, though they too question why it took so long. And a few dissenters complain that the Machado now celebrated in the English-speaking world is a misrepresentation.
Enthusiasts in the United States and Britain “are making Machado appear less and less like Machado,” the critic and author Antônio Gonçalves Filho argued last month at a symposium in São Paulo. “Actually, they are making the writer white, like Michael Jackson. All of a sudden, he’s become ‘universal.’ ”
Regardless, Dom Casmurro and Epitaph of a Small Winner are both worth reading, and for more info about his life and works, this piece by Zulfikar Ghose is really interesting.
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