Saturday, August 14, 2010

Summer Reading: abandoned books and The Slave Ship: A Human History.

I go through phases where I don't finish reading what I started. Right now I'm in one of these phases. I have a pile of books beside my bed. Half lie open where I abandoned them.

I haven't come up with a satisfactory reason for why I go through these phases. Its certainly not that my taste suddenly and inexplicably turns to shit or that I hit a patch of bad books. All but one of the abandoned books that lie next my bed are good and I would like to finish them some day. The good ones are Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar, Promise of a Dream: remembering the sixties by Sheila Rowbotham, The England's Dreaming Tapes by Jon Savage, The Crying of Lot '49 by Thomas Pynchon and Engels: A Revolutionary Life by John Green. The bad one is Lipstick Traces by Greil Marcus, which Stewart Home deservedly obliterates in a fantastic manner in Cranked Up Really High. Nor is it some sort of neo-romantic explanation where the book doesn't click with who I am. The only thing I can fathom is that its somehow symptomatic of my summer which has consisted of the previously structured activity of working and teaching being replaced by working two days a week and spending the rest of my time working on my thesis. For some reason this type of activity makes me listless while sapping my attention span.

However, I am now close to finishing a book: The Slave Ship: a Human History, which I spotted looking for Sunday reading at the library, forever proving I'm an odd duck with unconventional interests.

The book, by Marcus Rediker, has a structure and approach that make me think of Evergreen. This is because Rediker, a historian at Pittsburgh, gives a social history from the bottom up that incorporates the different classes and types of people on slave ships, their coercive relations and the technology that ensured these relations. As can be imagined it is work, that like Mike Davis' books, is numbing in the proliferation of death, dehumanization and brutality. But it is also humanizing in giving names and stories to the previously anonymous Africans coerced into slavery, as well as in providing an explanation of how sailors were economically coerced into working on slave ships where they served as de-facto prison guards. Although such things are meant to be behind us, as Rediker says this chilling and compelling portrait of the wooden factory of slave ships also serves as an essential aspect of the prehistory of capitalism, sharing many parallels with the factories and prisons of today. I look forward to reading his The Many Headed Hydra: sailors, slaves, commoners, and the hidden history of the Revolutionary Atlantic.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A Visit from the Goon Squad

I was drawn to read this novel, by Jennifer Egan, because of the excerpt in The New Yorker that featured early 80s punker kids in SF playing in a band and hanging out the Mabuhay Gardens, so maybe I was, in a way, setting myself up for disappointment—that time and place is only a snapshot in this book, in which each chapter is narrated by a different character, from a different location and moment in time. The characters are (surprise!) eventually all interconnected, but, for the most part, they make only cameos in each other’s stories. Reviews I’ve read have praised Egan for the innovation and riskiness of her form, but I found the book too diffuse, too unguided, and thus gimmicky rather than genuinely surprising. Nothing—no emotion, no sense of character—accumulates from one chapter to the next, and thus we’re left with a whole that’s less than the sum of its parts.

By far the strongest chapters are those where Egan is writing about teenagers. There’s an energy to her writing about those SF punkers whose band, The Flaming Dildos, practices in the drummer’s garage in the Sunset; to the perfectly awkward poles of adolescence brother and sister Rolph and Charlie find themselves on during an African safari with their record-producer father; to the beautifully-wrought portrait of a post-suicide-attempt maybe-gay former-football-player-NYU-student taking ecstasy and walking the streets of the Lower East Side all night. That energy allows for a multi-dimensionality of character which is missing from the portrait of the washed-up record producer, the failed publicist, the depressed housewife. Is “energy” too vague a term? Is that just my prejudice toward punk rock and teenagers showing through? Maybe, but it seems to me that that kind of unevenness is a major risk you run when you switch protagonists so frequently, if you don’t have some kind of strong thread tying it all together.

The one chapter in the book that I did find both risky and moving is one that comes near the end. It’s a PowerPoint presentation made by a teenage girl about her family—particularly, her brother, and her brother’s relationship to her father. Her brother is obsessed with charting the “Great Rock and Roll Pauses”—the moments in songs when nothing is happening, when you’re waiting for something to happen. Through pie charts, graphs, and wrenchingly simple sentences, Egan utilizes the Microsoft Office Suite for more emotion than I knew was possible. This is one case in the book where the concept—the form—meets its content as if the two were destined, rather than forced, to be together.