Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 
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Sunday, Jun 24, 2007
by Jonathon B. Walter

The Age of Wire and String: Stories
By Ben Marcus
Knopf
October 2005, 144 pages


Heaven: Area of final containment. It is modeled after the first house. It may be hooked and slid and shifted. The bottom may be sawed through.”
—Ben Marcus, “The Age of Wire and String”


That’s probably as good a definition of heaven as has ever been written by any theologian, and yet the book it comes from might be one of the strangest and most baffling pieces of experimental fiction ever published in the United States. Calling this thing “fiction” is actually being kind; Ben Marcus’s collection of alien yet strangely logical how-to articles and wild definitions stretches the definition of literature itself. The terms “how-to articles” and “definitions” might be awkward and ungainly, and in fact barely scratch the surface of what Marcus is trying to accomplish, but they’ll have to do because nobody else seems to have any idea what to call this idiosyncratic, confusing and just plain odd piece of fiction. Even the publishers themselves seem split; the back cover proclaims it “a collection of stories” while the front cover, conversely, states it is “a novel”.


What it resembles most is a kind of nihilistic Boy Scout handbook from another planet, or perhaps a post-apocalyptic Earth, where words no longer mean quite what they meant before. Marcus holds to the basic rules of grammar and syntax, sure (and thank God for that), but replaces certain nouns and verbs with different ones in specific places so that the reader is forever this close to understanding what’s being said—but not quite. The final effect of this over 140 pages is genuinely weird and unsettling; the word “dreamlike” is tossed around like confetti in book reviews, but this might be the first book I’ve ever read where a description of the prose might actually warrant its use.


The book’s various pieces are split into sections with titles like “GOD”, “FOOD”, and “HOUSE”, with a “TERMS” section at the end of each in which the various strange objects (and people) used as nouns in that particular section are defined just as strangely. The author even defines himself (three different ways), stating that the “Ben Marcus” is a “false map, scroll, caul, or parchment” or “the garment that is too heavy to allow movement” or “figure from which the antiperson is derived; or, simply, the antiperson.” Some short pieces, like “Leg of Brother Who Died Early”, have been suggested by some to be autobiographical, but that seems to be a rather desperate clutching for meaning seeing that the book’s elliptical, unknowable language makes it impossible to assume anything at all.


To get more concrete, reading The Age of Wire and String is comparable to listening to a bearded psychotic complete with grocery cart and incomprehensible Xeroxed handouts rant and rave on a public street corner. In both cases, there’s clearly some kind of logic to what’s being said (it’s not just random words), but damned if anyone but the person speaking can understand it. A sample: “When children sleep on these points of lawn, the funeral of air passes just above their heads in a crosswind with the body. Funerals generally are staged in pollinated wind frames, so that the air can shoot to the east off of the children’s breath, dying elsewhere along the way, allowing fresh, living air to swoop in on the blast-back to attack the house ...” And the book generally goes on like that, at varying levels of comprehensibility and incomprehensibility, until it just…stops. There is no character development, no plot (and therefore no resolution), no situation, no theme, no real setting.


Only one section of the book courts, however obliquely, with a plot—“The Weather Killer”, which may in fact be its greatest moment, a disturbing collection of anecdotes (“The morning sun was loud, and they ran into the open and gouged at their ears with wire. He collected oil from broken drums and led them in prayer. A rag was found hooked on a tree branch. Men could no longer urinate and their hips blackened”) that completely dispenses with the “handbook” language and uses simple third-person prose. While it is impossible to comprehend exactly what happens in “The Weather Killer” (the setting and characters, if any, remain oblique) the general feeling created is one of utter terror, destruction and pointless violence. To completely alter the meaning of words and still maintain a sense of impending doom is a real literary achievement. The obvious precursor to this kind of writing is Gertrude Stein, whose Tender Buttons (which gave us the infamous “Out of an eye comes research, out of selection comes painful cattle”) went down similar avenues of pure linguistic musicality; but Marcus’s attempt may even outdo hers in its uncanny ability to generate a feeling, a mood, using nothing but the beautiful and jarring sounds created by one word placed after another.


 


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Friday, Jun 15, 2007
Spook: Adventures in the Afterlife  by Mary Roach W. W. Norton July 2007, 228 pages, £14.99

Spook: Adventures in the Afterlife
by Mary Roach
W. W. Norton
July 2007, 228 pages, £14.99


From the number of atheist polemics hitting the bookstands in recent months, you could be forgiven for thinking we are entering a new era of scepticism and rationality. Yet in spite of the arguments emanating from scientific and philosophical corners, millions of people worldwide continue to hold to religious and spiritual beliefs that seemingly defy reason.


Author of the bestselling Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and self-confessed sceptic Mary Roach has entered into the debate with a review of the scientific evidence for what happens to her stiffs after they pass away. In a highly entertaining journey through the creepy, the wacky and the downright deceitful, Roach tackles reincarnation, ectoplasm, ghosts and whether the human soul has a weight.


Except for the reincarnation chapter, most of the “afterlives” explored are from Western traditions, predominantly 19th century-style spiritualism. This is probably wise, because Roach’s writing sometimes veers into a kind of superior sneer at the sheer silliness of it all. While it’s funny to read, it could have left her open to accusations of cultural insensitivity. It is much simpler to stick to widely disregarded beliefs held by only a small number. This is also a weakness, however. A large percentage of believers in an afterlife belong to major religions such as Christianity and Islam, which are barely covered in Roach’s examination.


Strangely enough, despite the lack of any unambiguous evidence and her strong pre-disposition to unbelief, Roach ultimately finds some room for a possible afterlife. There is no light-bulb moment, no Damascus Road experience, but the conclusion of the book seems to leave open the possibility that there are more things in Heaven and Earth than were dreamt of in the author’s imaginings. Perhaps this is the small gap between reason and wonder that religious people have usually called “faith”.


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Wednesday, Jun 13, 2007

Since PopMatters has an affiliation with Soft Skull Press, I thought I might point out that, as a consequence of being bought out by Winton Shoemaker, Soft Skull is short of cash:


One little bit of hell right now is that we are seriously b-r-o-k-e for the next 6 weeks because this deal is not scheduled to close until June 30th. So, as a result, 40% off virtually everything on the Soft Skull website! Buy early, buy often!


Shop away!


(Via Bookslut and others)


 


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Tuesday, Jun 12, 2007

EXCLUSIVE Podcasts: Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer


Following in the footsteps of PopMatters’ exclusive five-part series of excerpts from the new Joe Strummer biography in May, we now offer the podcast accompaniment.  Chris Salewicz’s book, Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer, is the most in-depth and in-the-know look ever at Strummer, a genuine rock and roll legend, as well as the history of the Clash.  Pop these podcasts into your pod-like musical device or stream them right here.  Then head over to Amazon post-haste and pick up this essential book for any music fan.


In the first installment, beginning with news of Strummer’s death, Salewicz remembers Joe’s drive, humor, and constant internal conflict.
Read the excerpt here.
Part One: Straight to Heaven—2002 [MP3]
     


Hop aboard the Anarchy tour bus for an exclusive ride with everyman’s thinking man and his smart band: the Clash’s first tour, first single, and their first album.
Read the excerpt here.
Part Two: Under Heavy Manners—1976-1977 [MP3]
     


Strummer hangs with Warhol; Thatcher comes to power, and after a lot of sweaty work in a shadowy space in the back of a garage, London Calling is unveiled like a gleaming, bad-ass drag racer.
Read the excerpt here.
Part Three: Red Hand of Fate—1979 [MP3]
     


Megavitamins and beer, egos and conflict, Combat Rock goes on tour and Mick Jones gets the (combat) boot.
Read the excerpt here.
Part Four: Anger Was Cooler—1982-1984 [MP3]
     


Earthquake Weather sets Strummer wandering solo through his “wilderness years” in the not so barren climate of Southern California.
Read the excerpt here.
Part Five: On the Other Hand…—1988-1989 [MP3]
     


Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros - Redemption Song



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Saturday, Jun 9, 2007

Let me begin with a disclaimer: when I expressed interest in reviewing this book, I wasn’t aware just how young were the “Young Artists” for whom this book is evidently intended. Niedzviecki, founder of the art zine Broken Pencil, is something of an indie guru, and I’d assumed this would be a book for the art college crowd about zines, blogs, websites, and other ventures in self-publishing, along the lines of Ellen Lupton’s fantastic D.I.Y: Design-It-Yourself (Princeton Architectural Press, 2007). In fact, however, it’s actually a book for young teens. Now, I don’t know any young teens, and it’s a long time since I’ve been one, but I’m going to give it a shot anyway, so please bear with me.


The Big Book of Pop Cultureby Hal NiedzvieckiAnnick PressApril 2007, 176 pages, $14.95

The Big Book of Pop Culture

by Hal Niedzviecki

Annick Press

April 2007, 176 pages, $14.95


The Big Book of Pop Culture may not be as glossy, as big (or as pricey) as similar books aimed at this age-group, and the examples might date pretty quickly (which is always the case with pop culture), but it’s packed full with projects, ideas, plans, and inspiring sidebar interviews with young people who did it themselves: the producers of zines, blogs, self-published books, magazines.


In fact, I wish I’d had a book like this when I was a kid. Not only is it handy sized, appealing to the eye, and neatly produced, but it’s also full of projects that look like they’d be great fun to try. Quick and easy ideas, like keeping a family journal or writing fictional stories about your problems, are designed to help emerging artists get ready to tackle more ambitious works, and Niedzviecki is full of encouraging advice about what to expect, how to get things done, and how to avoid feeling disheartened when your ideas don’t work out as planned. Once these easy projects have been mastered, there are lots of suggestions about how young artists can use the tools of modern media to make popular culture of their own, in the form of print (self-publishing zines, comics, and books), video (making movies and shows), CDs (creating original music), or online (blogs and webzines).


Significantly, The Big Book of Pop Culture isn’t just about how kids can make culture of their own, it’s about teaching them to recognize mainstream pop culture, and to understand where it comes from and how it circulates. Niedzviecki has a strong and clear message here, and it’s a message about the corporate system and how it works to limit the kind of narratives kids tell about themselves and their experiences. By explaining to young adults how power works, how popular culture emerges, and how it has a tendency to co-opt independent ventures, Niedzviecki suggests ways for kids to think about models of success and self-expression that are different from those espoused by the mainstream media. This, ideally, will help them to create new communities and more personal kinds of grassroots-level cultural expression, which really do have the potential to transform our future, whatever age we might be.


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