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LitMonkey – August 2013

August 28, 2013

LitMonkey is a monthly series where I discuss the books I’ve read over the past month in a highly personal way.  It is in no way an exact clone of Nick Hornby’s “Stuff I’ve Been Reading.”  This is the tenth installment.  Enjoy!

Books I Purchased:

Books I Borrowed from the Library:

Books I Read:


First, an explanation. I purchased Dr. Ozzy as a gift for a friend. Honestly. Of course, this excuse cuts both ways. It means that I have at least one friend who I know would appreciate the wit and wisdom of “Dr. Ozzy.” Don’t we all though?

In news more appropriate for polite society, I’ve officially made my first foray into the world of David Foster Wallace. Prior to this month, I’d somehow avoided reading a single novel, essay or short story of his. The book was recommended to me by a bookseller at Cobble Hill (Brooklyn’s) Book Court, in response to my request for something “new, non-fiction, makes you think.” When presented with an opportunity to explore a legendary author discussing music – in this case, rap music – how could I pass?

Signifying Rappers – Wallace’s non-fiction debut – was originally published in 1990. Last month it was republished with a new preface by Wallace’s co-author and friend, Mark Costello. (This is the edition that I read.) I’m not sure that starting with this book was a great decision in terms of introducing myself to Wallace. Infinite Jest, generally considered one of the best novels ever written, probably would have been a better choice. Or Consider the Lobster, his very popular book of essays.  My issue with Signifying Rappers is that Wallace doesn’t present a consistent thesis about rap music. (Costello admits as much in the new preface.) It isn’t that he doesn’t have an opinion of what rap music is meant to signify – it’s that he has many opinions, many of which are contradictory yet each delivered with passionate certitude. I felt as though I was reading Wallace’s thoughts as they spilled right out from his brain and onto the page, thoughts written as they were forming, not after they’d been fully baked. I appreciate that Wallace is a different soft of writer and so I expected something unusual, possibly even something incoherent. (Some of the final third of the book is in fact incoherent, another fact that Costello acknowledges. He blames it on Wallace’s deeply depressive mental state at the time.) However, I hadn’t expected to read what felt like a rough draft. Wallace is obviously brilliant and by “rough draft” I’m not saying he needed an editor. What he needed was to sit down himself, reread and rewrite. I have a feeling that if he’d put as much effort into writing this book as he did to learning the world of rap music (inexperience is not among either of the authors’ problems) we could have been left with the definitive word on rap music. Instead, there are tangents and fragments of thought that I wish had been explored to their end.

I suspect that most people reading my review will come to the conclusion that I just don’t get it. That because I’ve never previously read Wallace I am missing the point, that this is his style. However, I genuinely don’t believe that to be the case. There is simply too much inconsistency and patently false assertions (as seen from developments in the rap world post-1990) to dismiss my criticisms of the book as style choices by the primary author. Blame it on his mental state, blame it on his youth and inexperience as a writer, even blame it on the fact that rap music was still in a developmental stage and not ready to be written about in 1990. For whatever the reason, Signifying Rappers doesn’t live up to the normal DFW hype. (Mark O’Connell, in his review on Slate, explains this much better than I ever could, as he properly holds it up next to Wallace’s other works.) And yet with all that said, the book is worth reading. It’s a short read (though not as quick as implied by the scant number of pages – some paragraphs are best read more than once) with some brilliant points made throughout. Both writers give us much to think about when it comes to rap music, the culture surrounding it, and society more generally. Should it have been my first DFW book? No. Was it ultimately more frustrating than satisfying? Perhaps. But given the chance to go back and decide whether to read this book, would I make the same decision? Yes. The thoughts may be scattered, but boy can that guy think. (As you can see, I went ahead and purchased Consider the Lobster. I fully expect to be blown away.)

I borrowed Left of the Dial from the library for one reason only – the title. Most readers probably would have been drawn in by the subtitle – “Conversations with Punk Icons” – but for me it was those other four words which swayed me. Those words – the title of a song by the Replacements – have become synonymous with indie rock music for over 25 years. There is a record store in California named Left of the Dial Records, specializing in “psych, garage, power pop, shoegaze, 60’s & 70’s rock, 80’s post punk & new wave, punk, goth and indie rock.” It is the name of an online magazine that “covers music spanning from classic punk of the late 70’s, to 80’s indie and college rock, along with artists of the 90’s and current artists.”  It has become the norm to refer to anything related to independent music  as “left of the dial”, but in particular it is shorthand for a musical era/genre spanning 1981 (-ish) though 1993 (-ish) alternative rock. It doesn’t include the Sex Pistols or post-Bleach Nirvana, but it describes everything in between. If Michael Azerrad were to rename his book more accurately (or less creatively) he would have called it “Left of the Dial: Scenes from the American Indie Underground, 1981-1991”.

Despite the plethora of associations, when I hear the phrase “left of the dial” the first thing I (and Google) think of is this amazing 4-CD compilation album released in 2004. I don’t know if every important alternative rock band from the 1980s is included on Left of the Dial: Dispatches from the ’80s Underground, but it sure seems that way. The idea that I might get to read a book for which this album was the soundtrack was too good to pass up. Unfortunately, after reading David Ensminger’s book, my conclusion is that it’s a crime that this fantastic title was wasted on such a weak addition to the music-literature landscape.

First off, it’s important to note that when Esminger speaks of “punk icons” he is using the term extremely loosely. He did not interview Joey Ramone, John Lydon, Iggy Pop, Debbie Harry, Henry Rollins, Joe Strummer, or anyone nearing that level of fame. There are over twenty people whose full “interviews” (intentionally in quotes – we’ll get to that in a moment) are published in this book; at best, Jello Biafra (of the Dead Kennedys) and Ian MacKaye (of Minor Threat and Fugazi) might be considered icons. Others made meaningful contributions to the world of punk music (Mike Watt, Keith Morris, Dave Dictor); many more would normally be considered mere footnotes. Nevertheless, despite the misleading title (on multiple levels), with first-person accounts from so many people on the front lines of the punk music scene, this book had the potential to be an extremely interesting read. And so I carried on.

Early on it became apparent that Esminger did not conduct interviews. He made statements to his interviewees which they used as jumping off points to tell whatever story they felt like telling. Often he would import his own preconceived notions into the interview, making a declarative statement about his interviewee’s point of view, creative inspiration or the meaning behind their work, which the interviewee might refute as completely false. Moreover, while there are over 20 interviews, I suspect I could count the number of proper follow-up questions on one hand. Esminger simply is not a good interviewer.

Nor is he a good story-teller. There is no link made between the personalities covered in his book. Not only does the book not have a singular theme about punk music, it’s missing a basic portrayal of the scene which – coming from these insiders – would have been fascinating and is otherwise untold. The book is nothing more than the ramblings of random musicians from a particular time – very few of them essential to that time period – printed on consecutive pages (without any direction or cohesion from the book’s author), bound together to be called a “book.” (For example: The very first question posed to Biafra is “How do you feel about the encroachment of NATO on Eastern Europe?” Is this really the single most important question to ask Jello, especially in a book about punk music? Even if it is, who begins an interview this way?) Of course, a few of these interviews are extremely interesting – if you sample any random assortment of people and let them all speak pretty much extemporaneously, a few will have something really smart to say. Mike Watt (of the Minutemen and fIREHOSE) is brilliant. I could read an entire book written by Watt even if it had nothing to do with music. (Tony Kinman of the Dils is another person who comes across as very bright.) Immediately following Watt’s interview though is one of Shawn Stern (of the band Youth Brigade). He has a lot to say, but I have no choice but to conclude that Stern was included in this book because of his availability, not his intellect. (He complains about how easy it is for anyone to make a record nowadays, arguing that the democratization of music has eliminated the quality of it. Now there’s an argument you don’t see every day.)

An interesting counterpoint to Left of the Dial is the third music-related book I read this month, Elliot Tiber’s Taking Woodstock. I haven’t seen the movie based on the book, so I’m in no position to compare the two. I also (obviously) did not experience the original Woodstock, so I don’t have a sense for the degree to which Tiber’s stories are exaggerated by his memory. (Although Woodstock was as legendary as an event can get, Tiber’s fantastic tale is obviously exaggerated at least a little bit, if not much more so.) None of that matters though when you read Taking Woodstock. It may not be the most historically accurate account of what took place in the summer of 1969 in upstate New York, but Tiber was a critical figure in the events that took place and his recollection of events is one worth sharing. Perhaps, like me, you have a father or an uncle or a cousin who loves to tell the story of how they experienced Woodstock, or what it was like being part of “the sixties.” Deep down you surely know that some of the stories are embellished, yet they’re all based on events that actually happened – amazing events – that shaped the story-tellers’ lives. They may not be entirely “true” in the way we normally define the word, but who are we – the listeners/readers – to say what is and isn’t true. Events are what the one who experienced them perceive them to be. Tiber – the man who brought Woodstock to Bethel, NY – experienced Woodstock like no one else. His tale – as he deems fit to tell it – is well worth the 200+ pages he takes to deliver it. I’m sure that many of the punk “icons” featured in Esminger’s book have stories of their own from inside the world of punk, stories that as outside observers we’d have been lucky to have shared. There is some of that in Left of the Dial, but not nearly enough.

There’s a possibility that I’m being too harsh on Esminger in part because I read it so close in proximity to reading Azerrad’s book. Like watching Scottie Pippen and picking apart his flaws because he played alongside Michael Jordan. I can’t help but feel though that Left of the Dial is more Harold Miner than Scottie Pippen. There’s something worth seeing – Miner did win 2 slam dunk championships, the chapter on the Deaf Club is mildly interesting and something I haven’t seen written about elsewhere – but a lot more to forget.

Fortunately for me, having my expectations unmet by Left of the Dial was offset entirely by my experience with Mark Haddon’s novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The wrinkle in this book by the British novelist (apparently the only kind of novelist I read) is that it is told in the first-person from the perspective of a boy with Asperger syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder. Typically, I would not consider reading such a book. I have a lot of personal experience with children with autism and find many characterizations of those on the spectrum – particularly those with Asperger’s – at best misleading and at worst offensive. It’s true that we’ve come a long way from the days of Rain Man, but I am no less concerned with the depiction of Sheldon Cooper than I am with that of Raymond Babbit. Most people who have considered the role of autism in popular culture have come to the conclusion that its depiction in characters like Shedon in The Big Bang Theory is a positive step forward for the autism community. The A.V. Club’s Noel Murray makes a compelling (though somewhat biased based on his own experience) argument as to why that is the case. I disagree strongly with Murray, though to be clear it is not because I disagree with this statement by him:

It’s okay to find the autistic funny. Trust me: I have an autistic son, and he’s frequently hilarious, without meaning to be. Besides, it’s the job of comedians to test boundaries, even if they end up offending people. I don’t consider jokes about the autistic to be out-of-bounds, by any means.

Murray is absolutely 100% correct – autistic children can be hilarious, often without meaning to be. It is a funny disorder. Spend a day with an autistic child and you are guaranteed to spontaneously laugh out loud at least once. My issue with the portrayal of people with autism in popular culture is that in an effort to humanize people with autism, the pendulum has gone too far in the other direction. Autism has gone from tragic to funny, when it properly resides somewhere in between.

So why then did I read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time? It is because of my irrational belief in the power of coincidences.  More often than not, I don’t merely take note of a coincidence – I fear it. One day as I sat reading on the beach I met a nice stranger, with whom I exchanged normal Sunday afternoon pleasantries. He asked what I was reading, and so I showed him my copy of The Polysyllabic Spree, explaining what you, dear blog reader, already know about Hornby’s “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” columns in the Believer magazine. When asked, “Why would you read a book about books someone else read?” I answered, “because I like books that much (and I like Hornby).” This gentleman then suggested that I read The Curious Incident, which until that moment I’d never heard of. He explained the book’s gimmick and I filed it away in my head as something I’d likely never read. After finishing up our conversation I returned to The Polysyllabic Spree. Specifically, I returned to my place on page 66, the entry for April 2004 – the month in which Nick Hornby read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

This coincidence was too strong to ignore. The fates wanted me to read this book. As did Hornby, who generally praises it (with some minor nitpicking). My assessment of The Curious Incident is similar to Hornby’s – it’s not a perfect book, but it’s just about as close as one could get when writing first-person fiction from the perspective of someone with Asperger’s. Haddon finds that sweet spot between tragic and funny, which really isn’t a spot at all. Autism may be a spectrum, but portrayal of it necessarily fails when it falls anywhere on the funny/tragic spectrum. Instead it should be seen more like a wave – autism exists in both places, tragic and funny, at the same time. Haddon masters this difficult task.

There is a paragraph in the book that not many people highlighted (popular highlighting is a pretty neat feature on the Kindle edition) and I’m sure most simply glossed over. After reading this one paragraph – which shows up very early in the novel, on page 15 – I knew I’d love this book. Christopher – our protagonist – is explaining why the chapter numbers in his book (he is writing a novel within the novel) are sequenced 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, 23, 29, etc. and not 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, etc. Christopher loves prime numbers, and so he just decided to number his chapters using only prime numbers. And why does he love them?

Prime numbers are what is left when you have taken all the patterns away. I think prime numbers are like life. They are very logical but you could never work out the rules, even if you spent all your time thinking about them.

Naturally, any extremely popular characterization of a person with autism is going to be extrapolated as being representative of all people with autism, regardless of what extreme character traits that person has (a savant like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, a semi-lovable misfit like Sheldon Cooper on TBBT). In the absence of direct experience, popular culture is how society necessarily builds and reinforces its stereotypes. In my opinion Haddon does the best job I’ve ever seen of making a universal autistic character. Christopher is obviously very highly functioning – otherwise there wouldn’t be much of a book. After accounting for that necessary character trait (which obviously is not universal among those with autism) Haddon depicts the inner workings of the mind of an autistic person with astonishing realism. Christopher never stops being autistic. The book never gives you a breather from his broken yet functional mind. A mind which, to me, based on a fair amount of experience, is close to a “truly” autistic one, whatever that may be.

Going back to that short paragraph above about prime numbers, would an autistic 15-year old boy ever actually have, let alone express, that thought? No. Not unless he was a very extraordinary boy. But might an autistic 15-year old boy have a love of prime numbers for reasons he couldn’t quite articulate, but which intuitively made sense to him on a subconscious level in the manner described above? I think so. This is why Haddon’s book is fantastic. Christopher isn’t a typical autistic 15-year old boy; he’s a character, and so by definition he is extraordinary. But his extraordinariness comes from a very real place to which anyone who knows an autistic child can relate.

Finally, Chuck Klosterman is one of my favorite writers, and so I expect that one day I’ll devote an entire post to him. If you’re reading this I suspect that you’re a fan of pop culture, in which case you’re probably very familiar with Klosterman’s work. In a nutshell, here’s all you need to know about I Wear the Black Hat: If you’ve read Klosterman’s other non-fiction essay collections (Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, Chuck Klosterman IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas , Eating the Dinosaur) and enjoyed them, read this one too. If you haven’t, read any of the others first and eventually work your way to this latest one. In the meantime, read my experience taking in one night on the I Wear the Black Hat book tour. There are a few highlights in there that you won’t read in any of his books. And so the tale of my month ends the same way it started – in Cobble Hill’s Book Court. Next month … back to Sedaris!

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