Reviews

The End of Free Love by Susan Steinberg

Doug Pond

Conceptual fiction is often about itself ultimately, and The End of Free Love is no exception. The publisher makes no secret of this: the book's cover states that Steinberg's writing 'is as much about form as it is content.'"


The End of Free Love

Publisher: Fiction Collective Two
Length: 220
Price: $13.95 (US)
Author: Susan Steinberg
US publication date: 2003-01
Amazon
She felt no contempt, she said, for her fellow artists who counted themselves realists, in fact she envied them, they seemed so young, so untouched, there was something childlike and belligerent in their art.
— Joyce Carol Oates, Solstice

In my favorite writing workshop at the University of Minnesota, the professor, Valerie Miner, prohibited students from saying anything while their own stories were being discussed. On the first day of class, Miner issued a list of rules like bug spray -- as a result, some students immediately dropped the course, while others resisted and became serious pests.

The most persistent rule-breakers wrote "experimental" fiction. For many students, it seemed the same lack of discipline and maturity that drove them to shun classroom rules also shaped their experimental (rule-breaking) fiction, which Miner did not try to regulate. After the experimentalists could roll their eyes no more at what they considered gross misreadings of their work, they would burst forth with quick, angry disclaimers. While the comments were often arrogant or pretentious ("I didn't FORGET to use punctuation -- I'm trying to show you a new way of reading"), they occasionally approached legitimacy: "My writing just seems unclear because it accurately reflects my characters' interior realities," and "I mix dialogue and narrative together to slow you down and force a more careful interpretation."

And sometimes the objections were right on target (in which case, they usually were offered by the professor.) I was always amazed by how clearly Miner could see into her students' manuscripts. At a glance, she could tell the real thing from gratuitous experimentalism, and with a single comment, Miner could deflect unfair or irrelevant criticism from a story.

Thus, she cleared the way not only for a constructive reading of the manuscript under review, but also for an appreciation of experimental or innovative forms of writing in general (the workshop was called "Forms of Fiction"). Without the experience the course provided, I wouldn't attempt to write about the subject of this article: Susan Steinberg's collection of stories, The End of Free Love.

The title story is perhaps the most accessible of all eighteen pieces. In the spring, a teenaged boy and girl take a "three hour bus to the ocean" where they get stoned off of cough syrup. The sensation, they say, is like "being cold your whole life and a blanket appears." It's significant that the blanket merely "appears," as if to mock their needs rather than fulfill them. The curtailed image contradicts the profound experiences the kids claim to have.

The narrators (who use the royal "we" throughout the story) frequently describe the drug's disassociative effects and reduce the sensation to one word: "locking." They become irate when other kids, who merely take the "okayed dosage," use their word: "They call it locking when they're fakers walking in a zombie way." Even worse, the fakers steal cough syrup, while the narrators "always pay" and are therefore "the truest thing." The story is their manifesto, whose only workable policy calls for an end to free cough syrup.

The narrators also denounce the 60s "life-way" -- not "lifestyle." They feel the need to stake a claim to that word too, but not explicitly; they don't prattle on about it like they do about "locking." If you dislike these kids as much as I do by this point, the "life-way" remark might get under your skin. I should also mention that the story does not reveal that a common term already exists for getting high off of large doses of cough syrup -- it's called "tussing," named after the generic cough syrup Tussin DM. This nonfictional detail becomes relevant, perhaps, in light of the narrators' preoccupation with coining words and claiming authenticity.

Because they are the "truest thing," the narrators mark "the end of free love," which suggests they are the vanguard of a new generation. The soaring rhetoric and constant self-mythologizing rankles, but the joyless sound of the phrase ultimately rings true, whether the kids mean it that way or not. By the end of the story, the title might sound earnest, rather than ironic, even though the kids are fakers themselves.

Just because the narrators are annoying does not mean the story is flawed. In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield comes close to being that which he despises most, a "phony," but the irony adds to the richness of the story. The same must be said for "The End of Free Love," but the cough syrup junkies are so obviously a sham, you come close to dismissing them completely, rather than having the kind of conflicting emotions that make for great literature. Throughout the collection, Steinberg tests limits -- with her characters and with her formal techniques.

When you finish the tough task of reading one of Steinberg's stories, you can look forward to the more pleasurable experience of thinking and wondering about it. I tried to rush through the first step to get on with the second, but obviously it didn't work. It's a constant temptation, though. The stories' packaging -- the lists, short paragraphs, long streams of consciousness, and sentences that somehow move at a high speed -- invite you to consume them rapidly. But what you think is bubble gum often turns out to be something tougher and less palatable. One of the common writing workshop disclaimers mentioned above accurately describes Steinberg's stories: they slow you down and force a more careful interpretation.

Conceptual fiction is often about itself ultimately, and The End of Free Love is no exception. The publisher makes no secret of this: the book's cover states that Steinberg's writing "is as much about form as it is content." For many writers of conceptual fiction, the self-referential tendency can easily turn into self-indulgence. Another common disclaimer that comes up in writing workshops, when somebody questions the realism of a scene, is that the story creates its own reality. The writer might say, for example, "So what if my scuba diving scene is full of technical errors? It's really a metaphor for the writing process, for the difference between shallow and deep writing, and (here comes another common disclaimer) the fact that you dwell on superficial errors only shows that you're not open to the possibilities of my prose."

That sounds like something the cough syrup junkies would say. Actually, casting the kids as avant-garde artists offers a rich interpretation¾in which case the "fakers" would be gratuitous experimentalists and "locking" a metaphor for the artistic process. Much of Steinberg's fiction operates best as allegory; her stories seem to express what the quote at the top of this article says about "realists." Their art is "childlike and belligerent" with its rudimentary meaning-making abilities, compared to Steinberg's high art. Fortunately, however, Steinberg's fiction -- especially the title story -- doesn't rely on an allegorical reading. As unsophisticated as it might sound, I prefer to think of the protagonists as real kids.

The stories themselves are rich -- and demanding -- enough to force you to read them simultaneously as fiction and poetry. The strongest piece in the collection, "Isla," could be read as a retelling of Anne Sexton's poem, "Oysters." In both pieces, a creepy, incestuous aura hangs over a teenage girl and her father as they eat at a restaurant. The fathers' personalities are polar opposite: in "Oysters," the father is ominously silent, and in "Isla" he does all the talking. His staccato utterances are numbered, from one to 134, as if to quantify the damage he's inflicting on his daughter.

Most of the stories explore damaged minds. In "Nothing," we inhabit an adolescent boy's subconscious as he sits in a circle with his parents and possibly a therapist. Reminiscent of the Columbine killer, Dylan Klebold, the narrator has created a list of people and things he dislikes -- with a "violent title," according to a parent.

The narrator's thoughts are presented in parenthesis, neatly separated from the narration and exterior dialogue -- however, the exterior information is infrequent and unreliable. He doesn't care much about things happening outside his mind, and his interior landscape is full of confusion, disappointment, and hostility. Like the Columbine killers, the petty torments the narrator receives from his peers trigger grand visions of revenge: "I would go, poof! And the females disappear," and "The females shake in circles. Oh horrible bloody messes!"

He borrows his modus operandi from comic books -- the Columbine killers got theirs from the video game "Doom." After a few minutes in the narrator's head, it's easy to imagine a shotgun in his gym bag and a pipe bomb in his closet. The story provides a harrowing glimpse into a troubled and possibly antisocial mind.

The stories are arranged thoughtfully. As much as they jump all over stylistically, they progress thematically from troubled adolescence toward jaded adulthood, with some exceptions. While the book is full of different voices, it gives an impression of a single lifespan. Steinberg's publisher, the Fiction Collective Two (FC2), seems to prefer books that provide a portrait of a generation. As one of FC2's founders, Ronald Sukenick, sought to mark the end of a generation with his book 98.6, so does Susan Steinberg with The End of Free Love.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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