Thursday, October 25, 2012

dear austen keene

Dear Austen Keene (fine young fellow who I interviewed at the comic bookstore last Saturday),

I do believe that I saw you yesterday, waving at me from across the street and smiling the sort of broad, charming smile that only unabashedly clever, book-consuming, rather nice 15-year-olds can manage.

Please know that I'm often terrible at recognizing people's faces, especially when I run across them out of context or am surprised. I once ran into a boy I sat across from in English class for four entire years and couldn't place him, even after he told me his name. I once ran into the brother of a friend, had a conversation with him, and had no idea who he was until several hours after we parted. Funerals, weddings, and large parties are always a trial. I'm either faced with a familiar face that I can't attach to the story of a life, or, more embarrassingly, a face that pounces on me with recognition while I remain blank.

This is why I looked confused, turned away, and assumed you were waving at the only other young person in visual range, despite his obvious fascination with the phone clutched in his hands.

Please know that talking to you reminded me that there is a point to telling stories, beyond the pleasures of telling and consuming. Beyond craftsmanship and art and technique, there you are, the human being on the other end of the street, the one whose soul some lucky story will get to leave its fingerprints all over.
"I'd say that while I don't really have a book that's changed me, reading has sort of made up what I do, how I look at things. It puts ideas in my head. In the comic I'm reading now, the pure of heart are kind of, like, in both sides, so you're not really sure who's good and who's bad. So maybe the bad guys aren't the ones who are really doing the bad things, and things aren't really what they seem. And that really excites me. I could go on for hundreds and hundreds of books." -- Austen Keene
Oh, and if you see me again, just wave until recognition drills through my thick skull.

x. M

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

on having your mind unexpectedly blown, or, why I'm no longer afraid of Daniel Clowes, or, some thoughts on the educational aspects of romance

There are times when I feel like the top of my skull has been ripped off and the dim, crumbly interiors of my thoughts are being flayed by revelation. By a change of opinion, or a forcible departure from indifference.

This doesn't happen too often. It's probably fortunate. I imagine that if it did occur with too much frequency, I would have a curdled sense of moral and artistic direction, an inability to say whether I like something or dislike someone, an irritating tendency to say, "ah, well, you know" and not much more.

I love it when it happens though. God! It is the most miraculous sensation. Here I am, not caring about something very much and then, in the next instant (though it's never an instant... it just feels like one, being the shocking event at the end of an invisible avalanche that's been building over weeks or months or years), I care very much. I feel it to the bone. The switch goes from off to on and you can't imagine what the room looked like before, when it was in the dark, because you couldn't actually see it then; and now, even if it goes back into the dark, you will be forever unable to unsee.

It's both addictive and impossible to replicate on demand.

I recently read The Death Ray by Daniel Clowes. I had never read a Clowes book before. Something about the way he draws faces, from certain angles and at certain distances, had repelled me. It was the same breed of feeling that I get from R. Crumb's work, an irrational distrust and fear of the hairy line and bulbous shape that makes absolutely no sense but somehow shoots straight from eyeball to gut. My fear of Clowes wasn't as strong, but it was enough to make me pass over his books, despite their clean lines and immaculate covers, and put them in the category of things I assumed I didn't like. I could talk about Clowes in the shallow white lies that all skilled bookstore girls can wield when asked about books that they personally distrust, but have achieved a certain tipping point of importance (just ask me about Infinite Jest or The Catcher in the Rye or The Corrections or The Night Circus), but I had no intention of reading him and was, faintly, afraid.

But, The Death Ray... Holy smokes. It's a graceful, jaw-loosening display of storytelling pyrotechnics, one chilling and perfectly formed panel after another. I'm pretty much a stranger in the land of comics; before a few months ago I could literally count the number of comics I'd finished on one hand (Sandman, 1602, Mr. Punch, one volume of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and Britten and Brulightly, a very strange and depressing story about a private investigator whose sidekick is a teabag that he keeps in his pocket). But even I can see the brilliance that rolls off The Death Ray's impeccably constructed pages. It's a story that I can't imagine in any other form. There's a wobbly, delicate permeability between interior feeling and exterior spectacle that goads you into misplacing your compassion, then crushes you with unhappy horror. You are inside the story and outside of it within the same page and these flickering shifts in the way you experience the story make you vulnerable to the crazy leaps in time that it makes, so that it can connect one thought to another in the most impressively manipulative (and I say "manipulative" with admiration) way and not be stuck on the road of chronological sense. Painful efficiency.

It's not a pleasant book. For me, it was deeply horrifying. But, it's so well done. I couldn't stop reading it, and now I'm infected with an enthusiasm for comics in general and Daniel Clowes in particular. I keep going to the comic bookstore and picking up things that hit me over the head with newness and freshness and surprise.

(Jar of Fools by Jason Lutes... it's like the author had a fishhook lodged in the current state of my heart back in 1990-something.)

It's like having a raging appetite for a taste that never previously thrilled me.

It's not inexplicable. This often happens to me as a side effect or aftermath of romance. I'm always curious about the enthusiasms of the people I'm close to. Their passions are my guided tours to territories either unappreciated or foreign. It is, for me, one of the most intoxicating aspects of making room for someone among the furnishings of your head. Sometimes the curiosity fades and sometimes it locks in its barbs and takes up permanent residence. I've grown an honest delight in popular science because of this, a passing obsession with biological taxonomy, a thankfully brief addiction to a podcast called "This Week in Virology." I've attempted to appreciate the space opera stripe of science fiction and to understand the fine points of competitive kayaking. I've discovered the delights of banjos and concertinas, of live music shows, jazz, and walking for long distances in cold rain. I've apparently lost my fear of Daniel Clowes.

I used to think this was possibly lame, trying on someone else's enthusiasms. But that forceful, pleasurable change in point of view is so rare and so thrilling that I've given up on that opinion. It's an education. Row after row of dominoes falling inside my head.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

brief encounters no. 2

1. I thought you were a graphic designer.
2. I love Asian women from America. It's like... the spice without the accent. If you know what I mean.
3. Girl! What you got there? You got something for me? I think you got something for me!
4. Hey-yah, hey-yah, why you walking so fast? I'm trying to enjoy the view!
5. You smell like my favorite drink.
6. Are you looking for a good time? I am such a good time, girl, you don't even know.
7. Do you mind if I sit here? No... no, I mean here. Yeah, right here.
8. Oh, I know. I dated an Asian girl once.
9. Walk those pretty little legs right over here, baby!
10. You don't want to know what I'm thinking about right now.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

tunes recently enjoyed

"Lazy Afternoon" - Susannah Young

This is a song from a 1954 musical by Jerome Moross and John LaTouche that apparently takes on both the Iliad and the Odyssey and transplants them to the state of Washington at the turn of the 20th century. The Wikipedia synopsis contains the following amazing bit: "... the small town of Angel's Roost is thrown into confusion when old Menelaus' fancy-free wife, Helen, runs off with a traveling salesman named Paris. He's in town to judge an apple pie bake-off." How badly do I want to see this musical? Very badly.

The song is humid and dreamy, all long, drawn-out lines of sound that periodically tumble over the edge into crumbling trills. This version makes me think of that gorgeous, gorgeous bit at the beginning of Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (for which you should watch this video of Leonard Bernstein conducting the Boston Symphony... Bernstein's face just makes me ache it has so much happiness in it) and is so much more satisfying and odd than, say, Barbra Streisand's.

Chopin's Ballade No. 4 in F Minor - Arthur Rubinstein

I love how the first half of this winds you up with a swaying, aching theme that makes measured, gentle transformations that somehow also have yawning gaps hidden between the notes that threaten to either make you fall or cut off the piece and leave you without relief. Tension, just ratcheting up so gorgeously until it feels like your chest will explode from it. And then it lets you fall and you can breathe again for a few minutes before it pushes you into a racing, insane little coda.

Listening to this absolutely flattens me. But, it's so, so good.

"Welcome to Our World" - DRMS

I went to a DRMS show a little while ago. It's one of the few shows I've gone to recently that made me feel like I had to dance. This song in particular has so many weird sounds going on in it--odd plinking, insistent beats, synth-y twanging, hiccuping pauses--all laid out under a rangy voice. It's an addictive and bizarre collage, sort of like staring up at a mobile that has spaceships dangling on one arm and prehistoric tools on the other.

"Bach Suite" - Beginners soundtrack

This just makes me want to cry. It's an arrangement of some Bach melodies for horns. I have no idea who plays it or who arranged it... the track just lists "Johann Sebastian Bach"for the artist... but, it's so earnest and so lonely; the sound seems to come up out of nowhere and bleeds off at the edges, like it's being played in a vast space with no objects or ears to absorb it.

"A House, a Car, and a Wedding Ring" - Mike Preston

This song is weird. And kind of piteous. The lyrics are so heart-on-sleeve desperate that the song is almost embarrassing to listen to. But the guy's voice is smooth, simultaneously really attractive and disconcertingly controlled, with strange endings on certain words that make me imagine them evaporating up and out of his mouth. And the backup vocals are amazingly ridiculous.

"Good Thing" - Naytronix

This one makes me think of a processional, one that goes on and on and becomes progressively stranger as it goes. It's terrifically satisfying to listen to. The beat carries you along under a shifting canopy of bizarre noises that somehow also manage to be exactly the thing you need to hear at that moment. It's like walking through some abstracted animation of a jungle, all flattened out to suggestive shapes and pumped up with neon colors.

"These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You)" - Thelonious Monk

Wobbly, fuzzed around the edges, pounding and trilling... it's like a drunken high wire act. I like how much space there seems to be between the shambling, repetitive lower notes and the skittering higher ones. It's like having someone mumble and sing at you at the same time, which sounds horrible, but is somehow charming. I keep waiting for it to fall over the edge into pain, but it doesn't. Mostly it doesn't.