Omon Ra, Victor Pelevin (1992)

omon raThis is a brilliant and heartbreaking little novel which I first read years ago and enjoyed just as much the second time around. Omon is a postwar Russian kid who dreams of transcending the banality of his circumstances by becoming a cosmonaut. The Soviet state is happy to help him do so, since his desire dovetails perfectly with the state’s desire to project an image of achievement and glory to the world. In the end it turns out all parties have been deluding themselves and each other; transcendence and glory turn out to be induced hallucinations. In the sacred profane tradition of Gogol, the story’s both tragic and comic, naturalistic and fabulous.

And to extend that last point, from a writerly point of view, I marvel at the way Pelevin segues seamlessly from the realistic to the absurd and back again, so that as a reader, you find yourself in a sort of hall of mirrors, where the unbelievable seems inevitable and the simplest explanation impossible. I wouldn’t know for sure, but it seems a perfect stylistic match for what life must have been like behind the Iron Curtain.

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The Phoenix

phoenix“They have also another sacred bird called the phoenix which I myself have never seen, except in pictures. Indeed it is a great rarity, even in Egypt, only coming there (according to the accounts of the people of Heliopolis) once in five hundred years, when the old phoenix dies. Its size and appearance, if it is like the pictures, are as follows. The plumage is partly red, partly golden, while the general make and size are almost exactly that of the eagle. They tell a story of what this bird does, which does not seem to me to be credible, that he comes all the way from Arabia, and brings the parent bird, all plastered over with myrrh, to the temple of the Sun, and there buries the body. In order to bring him, they say, he first forms a ball of myrrh as big as he finds that he can carry, then he hollows out the ball, and puts his parent inside, after which he covers over the opening with fresh myrrh, and the ball is then of exactly the same weight as at first. So he brings it to Egypt, plastered over as I have said, and deposits it in the temple of the Sun. Such is the story they tell of the doings of this bird.”

Herodotus, people.

I haven’t kept up with the blog in about a year. I’ve been in mourning for a failed writing project and obsessed with photography. Like a beaten dog slinking back into the yard, I am slowly returning to the written word, and I resolve to keep up with my reading, viewing, and listening here in 2013.

Some scraps from the unpublished posts of 2012.

Open City, Teju Cole (2011) I’ve wondered what an American Sebald would sound like. Cole provides a useful and provocative redirection for the question. The ways Cole thinks through history, space, literature, memory, and tone are consistently provocative, but as in Sebald, the overall impression remains one of stillness. A deceptively simple novel. I want to read it again in a year.

I wanted to like HHhH more than I did; it seemed unnervingly slight, too playful. I enjoyed Martha Marcy May Marlene, which was amateurish but affecting. I had to switch off a number of movies for intolerable violence, including Savages and Lawless. This is unusual for me; either the violence is getting worse or I’m getting less tolerant or both. In Moonrise Kingdom I saw Wes Anderson beginning to imitate himself and it made me sad. Cronenberg’s Freud movie was stupid; I don’t think Cronenberg has one single thing left to say and as such his attachment to Delillo’s Cosmopolis makes a great deal of sense. Almovodar’s The Skin I Live In was awesome and irresistible. That one I could go on about. The superficial level of the film being “about” identity politics — you could certainly lead a rousing discussion about the performance of gender in the film with a room full of students — but what really fascinates me is its crazy structure and pacing, like a 19th century generational novel crossed with TMZ.

Plus a bunch of other stuff I’m sure, but like I said, in 2012 I mostly spent my spare time watching photography how-to videos on YouTube and wondering if I’d ever write another word. I’m going to try to keep up this year. I’ll also post some photos from time to time, I think.

Drive, Nicolas Winding Refn (2011)

DRV-12153.NEFThe titles for this movie are in a pink cursive font, over a moody montage of a laconic, perfect criminal going about his business, while in the background we hear a breathy 80’s synth-pop song. I don’t think this guy is trying to be the next Michael Mann, I think he’s trying to be Michael Mann. And he comes damn close, to my delight.

Haywire, Steven Soderbergh (2012)

HaywireFile this next to The Limey in the dossier of completely disposable but formally interesting Soderberg genre pieces. The movie is boring and incoherent as a thriller. It’s sort of a Bourne Identity crossed with La Femme Nikita, I think, but to tell the truth, it’s been a couple weeks since I saw it, and I barely remember. But that’s OK; Soderbergh doesn’t really care about the plot, he cares about technique, and here what he seems to be exploring are claustrophobic spaces and the dramatic potential of terrible light. There’s no reason to go out of your way to see this, but it’s fine to look at. See Soderbergh point his camera right at the light to see what happens. See him film an action scene in drastically underexposed lighting to see what happens. Etc. I swear, I think he really does use some of these seven-figure movies as test kitchens for his eight-figure movies. I might have those numbers wrong but you get the idea.

The Debt, John Madden (2010)

debtGeriatric Mossad agents pursue a geriatric Mengele.  Plodding structure, uninspired mise en scene, overheated performances. What’s most interesting about it to me is the strange sense of history slipping through your fingers. It’s almost like the meta-movie here is about the fact that Nazi-hunter movies will inevitably become an antique, necessarily self-conscious genre, as Westerns did in the 1960’s.

Bouvard and Pécuchet, Gustave Flaubert (1881)

ImageBouvard and Pécuchet are copy clerks in Paris and good friends who enjoy discussing what seem to them serious ideas. When they come into a bit of money they retire to the country and proceed to indulge a series of obsessions: agronomy, archeology, literature, philosophy, religion, phrenology, pedagogy, sexuality, and so on. In each case they press on just enough to become a jack of the given trade but far from its master. Meanwhile their house crumbles around them. They are the types to become so engrossed discussing the nutritional composition of an ideal diet that they forget to eat their dinner. The book was unfinished when Flaubert died, but he left behind a plan which suggested that finally the two former copy clerks would choose to return to that pursuit. Instead of trying to implement all the ideas their scattershot reading had formerly led them to, they’d take the more direct route of pure recapitulation, simply compiling excerpts from pre-existing works into a compendium of received ideas. Just as Emma Bovary’s novels led her to mistake passion’s signs for passion, Bouvard and Pécuchet mistake the performance of erudition for knowledge.

Flaubert of course finds them fools. They know a great deal but understand nothing. They debate the merits of vegetarianism without noticing that they’re eating meat as they argue.

I confess to feeling a certain sympathy for them. Their struggle to ingest and be nourished by the overwhelming amount of information available to them reminds me of my own excitement and dread when I open my Google Reader feed, or contemplate the shelves of books I’ve yet to read. They may have seemed comic to Flaubert but they seem tragic to me.