Listen to my words via e-mail:

Sunday, September 30, 2012

NW: Community, Language & Visitation

The Penguin Press, 2012

In the fourth novel from Zadie Smith, a new prose style and ambitious narrative complexity emerges. NW is a novel primarily about language and the way that language defines us as people in the context of the modern world and the cities and communities that have raised us.

The story is one of visitations and intersections, showing those who are at home within the constructed world and those who are just guests within the story - as framed by power, and ultimately by language. The narrative follows two main female protagonists, Leah Hanwell and Natalie Blake (formerly Keisha Blake), childhood friends drawn together by a powerful incident when they were young. Woven within the stories of Leah and Natalie are also Felix and Nathan - the male presence, written primarily as visitors within a world over which they have not been able to garner control.

Set in NW London, where Smith set White Teeth and also where she hails from, the four main characters were raised in the same housing estate. A sense of community is established -whether real or fashioned by events and shared environments -and this community is what binds the stories together. While they are together, they are equally disparate in their own realities and Smith uses different language motifs to make the distinctions of each character more clear.

NW was very quickly compared to the work of Virginia Woolf, particularly Mrs. Dalloway, for the use of stream of consciousness prose. But while it's inherently inspired by it's Modernist predecessors, it's also filled with the language of the present climate - google maps directions, text messages, IM conversations, stage directions, concrete poems, patios, conversations overheard while waiting, pop culture references - an onslaught of hyper-modern language motifs. Perhaps even more resounding in the comparison to Woolf is the woman's struggle to make a place for herself in the modern world, and the use of time to measure this conflict. I couldn't help but hear Big Ben striking "first a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable" (Woolf), throughout my read of the novel and it's many references to time. In fact, Smith goes so far as to hold women as the cadence, the timepiece:

"If it was not quite possible to feel happy for him it was because the arrangement was timeless - it did not come bound by the constrictions of time - and this was the consequence of a crucial detail: no women were included with the schema. Women come bearing time."

Even in the telling, Smith clearly understands this is the most complex of her works, and uses her own language throughout the novel to engage with the reader. She pulls through the narrative, as if to separate herself from the story, and address you: "reader, keep up!" Characters are often referred to by their full name, as if this use might serve as a formal separation between author, protagonist, and reader. We may share a community within the novel, but we are not the same.

And, keep up you must. For as much emphasis is placed on language, it's perhaps the implications between the language that play the most important role in the story. Conclusions must be drawn between what is told and what is felt, a motif that the late Modernists mastered, but perhaps becomes most relevant now in the age of technology. At the same time that one is or seeks to be the "the sole author" of their story, it becomes clear that that, "nothing survives in the telling."

Smith crafts very careful communities - both in Willesden, in relationships between protagonists, and in the pages of the novel itself - and then is careful to show that these communities have been authored. The illusion is broken, both for Leah and Natalie, Felix and Nathan; but alas, for the reader as well.
"People were not people but merely an effect of language. You could conjure them up and kill them in a sentence."

Perhaps my only complaint with the novel was the progression towards the novel's ending and it's ultimate conclusion. It seemed that something this carefully wrought by language ran out of time and came to a desperate end within the last 50 pages. Communities are established and destroyed, and thus in the ultimate act for control, the narrative is changed drastically not by language, which has been our guide, but by force. However, being a masterful artist, I can't help but wonder if this was Smith's intention after all. For as quickly as communities were created in the text (by socio-economic conditions, geography, incidents in youth, birth and death), they can just as easily be destroyed. A dramatic play for control -a search for authorship -is made by each of the characters within the novel, and at the end of the novel it seems their story has not been fully drawn. Control is lost. The characters are merely ghosts; failing to understand their progression towards, and ultimately away from their own conclusions about themselves.

Smith still reigns master at writing histories for characters of race, socio-economic struggle, and especially of women trying to build a place for themselves within the roles society has demanded. As a fan of Woolf, I was especially drawn in by the prose, and felt the language was a successful, resounding attempt for Smith. Though, let's be careful not to place this story on the shelf with other Modernists as a few reviewers have suggested, because in its essence and conclusion it's inherently a story of our current Zeitgeist. Ultimately, we are all just visitors in the communities that have been constructed for us, or even unknowingly created by our own hands.

For more wonderful writing by Zadie Smith, check out her article on Jay Z, The House that Hova Built.

© 2012 Eamonn McCabe

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Liberal Arts: A Story About Knowledge

"For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow."
-Ecclesiastes 1:18

It's pretty easy to get annoyed with Ted Mosby on How I Met Your Mother (seriously kids, where is your damn mother?), so it's a good thing that actor Josh Radnor also writes and directs thoughtful, earnest movies. Radnor's first feature, Happythankyoumoreplease - which he wrote, directed and starred in - was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize and won the Audience Award at Sundance in 2010.
Liberal Arts premiered at Sundance earlier this year and reached theaters this month (limited release, or check your cable provider for the IFC release). It's a love song to academia, intellect, and a gentle warning to the dangers of nostalgia and the ideals that come along with knowledge.

The story follows Jesse (a college admissions counselor), a thirty-something who battles ennui with his job, personal life, and life in New York City. As the desperate point of apathy is reached, Jesse receives  a call from his favorite college English professor, Peter Hoberg (played by Richard Jenkins), and he is invited to return to his alma mater in Ohio to attend a retirement party. As any flailing academic would, he eagerly returns to the arms of the one who provides knowledge. When he arrives on the grounds of his former campus, it seems nostalgia might drip from his pores - what a placating medicine. 
While there, Peter faces retirement as gracefully as most face deletion from academic life - with terror; and Jesse meets a free-spirited college sophomore, Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), and they quickly connect over consuming dialogue about education, books, classical music, and theater  An obvious tug-pull relationship develops between Jesse and Zibby and it becomes clear that she will play the role of the passionate improviser, and Jesse the intellectual - the heedful idealist. While he is there Jesse also meets a "yes-please" hippie (thank you for the laughs, Zac Efron), and encounters Dean (Joe Magaro) an at-first patronizing genius, who turns out to suffer from the darkness of intellectual mania and isolation.
Eventually life must go on, as it does, and Jesse returns to New York. An ardent Zibby leaves Jessse with a classical music mixed CD in hand (where can I sign up for this offering?) and promises to begin a relationship of the pen. Their letters serve as an emotional and romantic catalyst for their relationship and eventually Jesse is headed back to campus to reconcile with reality and romanticism.

The writing in this movie is earnest, witty, and especially poignant for our generation of young adults. Rador delivers concise and genuine dialogue, but wavers just slightly in filling the spaces without dialogue -the narrative movement. Overall, the film's message and emotional thesis was clear and well delivered. At times it bordered on the sentimental as it reached for narrative solutions. But where there were lulls or bits too sweet, they were certainly made up for by unfeigned acting performances. The casting was near perfect and the performances were ravaging - in the best way.  It seems that Rador truly acts with his heart bleeding on his sleeve, which is why Ted Mosby and Jesse seem to have similarities.  I couldn't help but notice them, but I also couldn't help but empathize with this character and his "gooey little heart". Richard Jenkins, break my heart - another convincing and truly devastating performance as a "life after academics" professor struggling with the loss of intellectual identity. Allison Janney also gives a hilarious, raw performance as a Romantics professor. Just perfect. And then of course, Elizabeth Olsen. Olsen nearly over delivers in this role giving us just the right amount of emotional maturity, balanced by the vulnerable presence of one of the most important presences in the movie: youth.

I was truly delighted by this film in many ways. It's no secret that it spoke to me on many personal levels, being the "victim" of a liberal arts education, and suffering under the brute hands of romanticism and nostalgia at all times. It certainly was intentional that the Romantics were woven into the film - the cruelest of literary periods.  For at the same time as one must learn to rely on emotions as their aesthetic guide, they must also remove the intellectual perspectives that inhibit the raptness of the present moment. Knowledge does not allow for the unascertained of the present; therefore we can only romanticize the past, and theorize about the future, but untimely fail to understand what this feels like. True emotion is only experienced in the present, everything else is just knowledge, memory, or theory.

The relationship between Dean and Jesse was one of my favorite parts of the film.  Not haunted by romanticism or nostalgia like other characters in the film, Jesse ultimately suffers devastatingly from the weight of his intellect. Jesse and Dean meet first in a coffee shop and briefly discuss an unnamed author, though it's clear by reference that the author is David Foster Wallace.
As I marinated further on the film, I couldn't help but think about the commencement speech that Wallace gave at Radnor's alma mater, Kenyon College, where this movie was mostly filmed. I read through the speech and found a quote that seem fitting as pairing to, or thesis for, Liberal Arts.

"Given the triumphant academic setting here, an obvious question is how much of this work of adjusting our default setting involves actual knowledge or intellect. This question gets very tricky. Probably the most dangerous thing about an academic education--least in my own case--is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualise stuff, to get lost in abstract argument inside my head, instead of simply paying attention to what is going on right in front of me, paying attention to what is going on inside me." - David Foster Wallace, Commencement Speech Given at Kenyon College, 2005

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Words as Weapons, Songs for Hope

I used to believe in writer's block; I thought it was actually a symptomatic condition - a uptake inhibitor of words and stories, but these days I'm not so sure. Words are everywhere; how can we misplace them?  Shapes and patterns prevail in our minds, we build them even in darkness. The building of patterns (or ideas, if you will) is innate, instinctive; they are only then further manifested in words. Nabokov himself said about writing, "The pattern of the thing precedes the thing." Can we say that the act of writing is simply transmitting these prevailing ideas from shapes into words? It seems reaching a writer's block is simply just a hesitation, a hesitation built mostly of cowardice. There are always stories to tell, but perhaps I do not have the nerve to create a permanence for them.

My mind has been busy the past few months, but my blog has been idle.  In May I was hoping to share some short stories in honor of short story month.  I sat for days in my apartment with towers of books surrounding me; moated by Joyce, Oates, Carver, Cheever, Salinger, Hempel, Fitzgerald.  Shall I stop here? I could literally go on for days. I eventually failed to organize my passions and could not commit to five favorite stories.  I toyed with sharing my own short fiction, and could not hit "publish." How stripping, how lasting; what would be taken from me?
Earlier this month, I was blown away by this. Thoughtful and gracefully bare, this letter was called many things, but never art. I wanted so badly to talk about Frank Ocean, about vulnerability and self-expression, and what it means to be an artist and how that relates to being an activist. Where does the man end and the artist begin?

Perhaps that's just it. Is being an artist bound to being an activist? Are we naive to think that we can separate what we create from who we are? Creation comes with responsibility, but art requires seeking the truth, whatever the cost. The great injustice to art is censorship, but doesn't the responsibility of creation require that we censor our words in some ways? What weapons will my words create, and who will they sacrifice?
It's more terrifying than I would like it to be.

One day I will loose the terror, and I will rise fearless with words as forces that are full of truth and permanence. They will, as one of my idols so bravely said, "march and fight." But I better be prepared for them to kill as well.
Until then I will share what I know, and perhaps what is safe. Below are some really stellar bands that have released great albums this year. Enjoy their sounds. Let them sing of hope, until then.

Trampled By Turtles, Stars and Satellites

Stars and Satellites has been one of my favorite albums of 2012. I've enjoyed their previous releases as well, but this album in particular perfectly marries a traditional bluegrass sound with progressive rock notes and a transmigratory narrative. An ode to being on the road, the lyrical journey beings in darkness with Midnight on the Interstate and ends with the quiet of the morning in The Calm and the Crying Wind.  
I've always loved bluegrass for it's rich background and darker tales. Uneducated music followers often relate bluegrass to American country music, but it's origins speak otherwise. It's the cold Irish fiddle, the Appalachian banjo in some terrified nightIt's Scottish funeral songs, African-American jazz sounds and gospel notes singing shapes of hope. It's holy, it's lonesome, and it's everyman's tale.  
I can't help but think of the Medieval "Everyman" play when I hear these notes. Like the medieval morality plays, even these modern tales elaborate on the goodness and evil of everyman and the conflict therein.
The morality is complete within itself; a detailing of this inherent conflict and yet a surrender to those things of greater power...whatever that might mean in worlds both ancient and modern.
I can't get enough of the anthemic ballad, Alone. 

"The days and nights are killing me 
The light and dark are still in me 
But there's an anchor on the beach 
So let the wind blow hard 
And bring a falling star"

Walk The Moon, Walk The Moon

Another great release of 2012, I actually discovered Walk The Moon by way of some of their lighter, dance-friendly songs like Anna Sun.  But, I was blown away when I came across Iscariot, which feels like a quiet prayer song in the midst of battle.  Do not be fooled; though it presents itself like an offering it's sick with the syrup of betrayal and is indeed a battle-ready revenge ballad.  And who can't use one of those?  If I fail to finish this post, it will be because the last minute of this song just killed me. I would trade more than 30 pieces of silver for the song to go on for another minute, even though it's already 5:24 long.  There's enough passion, enough anger, enough sadness to fill the whole album with just this song.  
I'm sorry, were there other songs to talk about here?  Check out Anna Sun (dance on, hipsters!) and Shiver, Shiver. And though I judged them immediately for making a song called Quesadilla - it's actually quite catchy.  Dance on. Die on.

First Aid Kit, The Lion's Roar 

If I am not also in this field wearing my paisley frock and dancing, I honestly don't know where I am.
I've been a fan of these Swedish sisters since their 2008 Drunken Trees EP and their cover of the Fleet Foxes' Tiger Mountain Peasant Song, which helped them along with their growing popularity. The Lion's Roar, released this year, is a field dream of an album.
You cannot hear their haunting, full voices without calling to mind the voices and sounds of their American music idols, as seen in Emmylou.  The spirits of Emmylou and June are certainly here. And though they can easily call to mind the mothers of American folk music, their sound still bears a tonality I can't help but call Nordic. The reverence and allusions to those who have come before them, combined with modern perspectives and languid tones make this make this a perfect epistle on modern love from start to finish.

"In the hearts of men
In the arms of mothers
In the parts we play to convince others"

The Lighthouse and The Whaler, Pioneers

Let me start by saying this: The Lighthouse and The Whaler's 2009 Self-titled album was a really phenomenal full-length debut.  If you aren't yet familiar, make haste. Be sure to listen to Morning.
Their 2012 album This Is an Adventure will be released in September and word on the streets (actually, word on their website) is that it's produced by Ryan Hadlock (The Lumineers) and mastered by Greg Cabrillo (Bon Iver, Grizzly Bear).  But though these subtle hands of influence can be seen, their sound is unique, full of life and energy, and their soundscapes and lyrics still have the depth I like to see in my music.  It feels light, but it's heavy. Pioneers is from this year's EP and I can't get enough.
"I was wishing we could go back to how it was before age impaired our reach," indeed.

S T A Y   T U N E D.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Shape of Heaviness

From here I can almost see the sea. I will know when they're coming; I'll see the little armies rise from the ashes of the sea.  They will ascend unannounced, terrifying; but somehow quiet. Slippers crafted from sadness, not a sound will be made made as they climb the shore. From here I cannot see their faces, only the shapes of their bodies.  Contrary to what we know about war and invasion they will not be men, nor will they be women-  sexless as angels. What will they carry in their arms?  Will their weapons be made of heaviness or lightness - a certain kind of  burden only Kundera can describe.

Some theorize the world will end in whispers.  But whispers are light and impermanent.  Their complacency floats away cruel and buoyant.  I see the end in the arms and mouths of these armies, quiet only until they reach the shore.  I can only hope when they rise their weapons to meet me, they are heavy.  Crafted of wood, brass and sun-drenched copper, with strings, reeds and hides - bows made of the strongest linen.  And when the weapons touch their lips they will make a sound that will lie down upon upon me, heavy and permanent.  Play me a song.

 We are most surprised by the weight and shapes of those things that can hurt us.

Summer Heart, I Wanna Go

Delta Spirit, Yamaha

Sharon Van Etten, We Are Fine

Noah Gunderson, Fire

While all other songs are from albums released in 2012, I just came across this live version of Fire and could not resist.  Noah Gunderson is yet another great artist from the Northwest and the soul and sound of this song feels, well heavy -in the most wonderful way.  Check out Family on Bandcamp.

The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant. What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?”
-Milan Kunderea

Friday, April 6, 2012

April is the Cruelest Month

And I will show you something different from either 
Your shadow at morning striding behind you 
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you; 
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
-T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland

As a student of literature and a disciple of words, April always calls The Wasteland to mind.  "Memories and desire" of a Modernist sensibility, it's a foreshadowing of darker times; a discontentment with fellow man, art, and religion. A call to an earlier time, or perhaps a return to it's classical binds and mythologies.
I can't help but turn contemplative as April arrives, and think about our current zeitgeist.  I recall a professor once speculating if we would ever be able to rise from the depths of post-modern thought.  I'm not sure we have.  Perhaps we stripped down so far we've removed the context for what came before.

Let us not forget our fathers.

This is collection of a few artists I've been enjoying lately. There's nothing essentially  particular that ties these songs or artists together, but a feeling I have when I hear them.  There's an ambitious quality, a conglomeration of sounds, and a return to innocence and wonder.  
In a time when popular music makes one question our intellectual curiosity, its delightful to know that there are artists making music that borrows from the past, overreaches conventional music trends, evokes mythology, and reveals fear. In them I hear the shape of the future in the same breath as the past.  It was Eliot himself who said that "the conscious present is an awareness of the past in a way and to an extent which the past's awareness of itself cannot show."1

Blake Mills, Wintersong
This song is reaching all over the place, like eager hands in the night.  It's smooth and unhurried, but also  rough and sporadic.  With sounds this varied, it easily could easily be broken into a few songs of it's own. But it's just structured enough to come together to create one freakin'-un-real song.  In my book, you'll never loose points for overreaching.  It's fresh and fun and ends in a thrill of sounds and voices.
Mills is an acclaimed guitarist and at just 24 years has already toured with Band of Horses and Andrew Bird, among others. Wintersong was released on Breaking Mirrors in 2010, but it's hard not to keep coming back to this song, and the album for that matter.

Patrick Watson, Into Giants
If you aren't yet familiar with Patrick Watson, now is the time.  In 2007, Watson lent his vocals to The Cinematic Orchestra's album Ma Fleur on the song To Build a Home, and subsequently stole my heart.  In case you're currently soul searching, this song will change your life.  For real.  Try it.  His new album will be released in the US on May 1st.  Mark you calendars.
Even on it's own, Watson's voice is reminiscent of another era.  It floats with lazy, sexy ease and is tinged with falsetto.  Layered with female harmonies and symphonic instrumental magic (more trumpet, more trumpet!), this song practically sends telegrams to a long-ago time when music was wide-eyed and playful.  Yet it still grounds and moves in a way that only modern music can.  I can't wait to hear the rest of the album.

A.A. Bondy, Skull & Bones
Believers was one of my favorite albums of 2011, and highly underrated in my opinion.  With his haunting, synthetic vocals, darker tales; and overall minor tonality this whole album was mesmerizing.  It's so chill you might sit back and smoke it, but so entrancing you might believe it would play as the world quietly burned to an end.

Middle Brother, Mom and Dad
Another great album from last year.  2011 was hot.  Middle Brother is a super-group of members of Deer Tick, Dawes and Delta Spirit (true story kids).  If this group and song doesn't call to another time and place, I don't know what will.  The super-group (not to be confused with the boy band) was made stellar by Crosby, Stills, & Nash (you tooYoung) - and this takes me least to my dad's vinyl collection.

The Lumineers, Ho Hey
Do you know how catchy that Fun. song is and you can't get it out of your head for days and just want to "set the world on fire" all the time?  I hope that's not just me...
This song is equally as catchy and contagious,  but has more heart.  It's troubadour-esque.  It makes me believe in something.  In case you missed Medieval Literature, the contextual message of the Troubadour is exaltation of the chivalric code and courtly love.
Their sound is a bit reminiscent of Typhoon, but with a more definitive lead vocal and more experimental range.  On their self-titled album their sound ranges from Bob Dylan to 1920's nostalgia. Check out Flowers in Your Hair and Flapper Girl.


1Tradition and the Individual Talent, T. S. Eliot, 1919

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Wild Youth

I'm from the school of the Proust, Fitzgerald and other voices obsessed with time.  As I often do, I found myself reflecting on youth this week.  The wildness of it; the audacity.  During my quest for art related to youth, I came across this song; The Wild Youth, by Daughter.  Elena Tonra's vocals are haunting, and a bit reminiscent of Florence Welch, but a touch more restrained and ethereal - a quieter force.  There's a lyric quality here that suits my mission for finding something tinged in nostalgia.

You can find the 4 track EP,The Wild Youth on Bandcamp  Another reminder that there are many great artists to be discovered through these platforms; a great way for bands to distribute directly to their fans, and fans to discover days of pleasure uncovering new music.  Yes, I said days.

Some with daring and yearning, will want to live in a youthful state forever.  But how could you resist the temptation to remove yourself from that place and look back with longing and terror.

"We thought we were young and that there would be time to love well sometime in the future. This is a terrible way to think. It is no way to live, to wait to love." - Dave Eggers, What is the What