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Graham Joyce: IMG The Powell’s Playlist: Graham Joyce



The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit is set on the English coast in the hot summer of 1976, so the music in this playlist is pretty much all from the... Continue »
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Unrecounted by W G Sebald
Unrecounted

geoff.wichert, January 25, 2012

While trends in mainstream publishing are driving readers towards the use of books as alternatives to other forms of entertainment -- TV, movies, and the newest-and-biggest, on-line computing -- writers like W.G. 'Max' Sebald continue to make the case for literature as a valid extension of real life. In 'Unrecounted,' short, aphoristic poems demonstrate that words can do much more than count experiences: they can penetrate and illuminate them and, perhaps most important, make the essence of life our common property for all to share. Juxtaposing these small gems with Jan Peter Tripp's engravings of the eyes of men and women, images reminiscent of M.C.Escher's finest depictions, advances Sebald's breakthrough, in his novels, of using photographs in the text to lend verisimilitude to already highly-detailed stories and bring back to the serious novel its revolutionary power to convince us of the reality of life in the mirror.
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Last Evenings on Earth
Last Evenings on Earth

geoff.wichert, September 1, 2011

Roberto Bolano was a poet whose huge, posthumously-published novel, 2666, made him the critical and popular darling of those who love the realism, literary bravado, and vital sense that reading can still be more than just entertainment (no matter what they teach you in MFA school) that you get from European and Latin American authors. But during the ten years he spent at the end of his life writing prose, he cut his teeth on short stories, 14 of which are here translated by Chris Andrews, who specializes in Bolano's short works. While a couple will go into my all-time keepers list, every one of them offers something vivid, transporting, likely to stick with the reader for good. Read each one in a single sitting, or at least in a single day, and in two weeks you will have entered the future of prose literature: a literature that is instantly accessible, yet ready to open in the mind like a flower as the final words of each story are read.
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Elroy Nights by Frederick Barthelme
Elroy Nights

geoff.wichert, August 5, 2011

I found Elroy Nights on a list of novels supposed to be about artists. That didn’t turn out to be quite accurate. Elroy, the protagonist�"and a narrator so casual that he doesn’t name himself until page 19�"teaches art at a former junior college that grew with increasing enrollments into a four-year state college. Although he used to make art, and some of his work lurks unseen in the background, he makes none in these pages, and seems not to have made any anytime recently. The one undisputed artist in the book, one of his students, commits suicide early on, and his death precipitates some desultory events and maudlin, if sincere, soul-searching. Anyone unfamiliar with what’s called Minimalism (Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, etc) may find this a dry read.The talk is realistically cryptic: they know what they mean in the moment, and we have to read between the lines. It’s also ironic, mocking, funny in a way the speakers are enjoying without laughter. This kind of impossibly clever patter will be familiar from TV and movies, which in their insatiable need for material stole it blind (and tone deaf). Readers used to conventional dialogue, which sounds like nothing outside of fictional narratives, may be lost or misled. Most of all, though, nothing dramatic happens in the present moment. We learn of the suicide, rather than see it. Even when a character is shot, a reader whose attention blinks could miss it.

Those familiar with minimalism might imagine a whole novel (228 pages) written by Carver and necessarily (don’t take any nonsense about it) edited by Gordon Lish. The worse news, though, is that this isn’t a book for today’s primary book demographic, which is an alliance of fantasy-prone teenagers and their mothers. There are no living dead here, unless you count the long-married couple with a teenage daughter of their own. Elroy and Clare’s separation frames the novel, but it’s a separation as ambivalent as it is amiable. He may be a little more candid about the learning-sparking erotic charge between teacher and student than some readers are ready for. Or what goes on in the mind of a step-father. On the other hand, we all know a woman like Freddie, whose first serious entanglement is with her best friend’s father. What are we to make of it when Elroy says he not only loves his wife, but he has no other feelings for her? It may be that everything trivial has weathered away. His having been an artist is useful because when young, artists more than anyone else think of themselves as different, apart from the hoi polloi. Yet what comes with experience is the unwelcome realization that we’re all so much more alike than we are unique. Our lives are more like Barthelme’s account than they are like movies or adventures. That gives us reason to escape, but it also gives us reason to return to honest literature like this.
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Oregon Favorites: Trails and Tales by William L. Sullivan
Oregon Favorites: Trails and Tales

geoff.wichert, July 30, 2011

this sort of thing can be useful if done well, and only time will tell if Sullivan has . . . BUT here's the thing that bothers me. We humans have a knack for saying "This place is beautiful! Let's move here and spoil it." Portland between 1980 and 2000 was a case in point. So at the least ironic, books like this enrich one man's career while increasing the load of visitors on a place that may not be able to sustain it. On the ironic side, if everyone follows the writer's advice on when it's best to visit, those people -- who presumably could have found it on their own if they'd been looking -- will find themselves on the natural equivalent of the freeway at rush hour. So my suggestion is buy this book, read this book, get inspired by this book, but don't follow this books directions. Go find your own place. It will be as spectacular as Multnomah Falls, but without the intrusive fences and acres of chain-link avalanche fenders. And the crowds.
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An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter by Cesar Aira
An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter

geoff.wichert, July 26, 2011

An Episode In The Life Of A Landscape Painter
by César Aira
translated by Chris Andrews
New Directions, 87 pages. ($12.95)

No one is eager to talk about it, but every reviewer faces the dilemma of how much attention to pay to prevailing public opinion. Fortunately, in the case of César Aira�"like Roberto Bolaño and a handful of other wonderful writers�"that’s not a problem, because a critical perspective has yet to crystallize around Aira and the 30, or 50, or according to his latest translator, 70 novellas he’s written in the last decade or so. That An Episode In The Life Of A Landscape Painter is a masterwork of story telling and prose writing cannot be disputed, but when it comes to explaining just what makes it so good, critical voices falter. What seems clear is that Aira’s prose is simultaneously strange, unprecedented, and yet in some important way familiar. His methods remain unpredictable, yet the results quickly come to feel like a part of the reader, as if one has always been reading this book, or isn’t now reading it but hopes to get back to it soon. Like we had been waiting for this experience, and now it’s finally here.

Part of the quality that makes Aira irresistible is sheer talent. He can write the kind of paragraphs that leave a discerning reader hungry to read them again, but out loud, and preferably to someone else. An anecdote early in An Episode hints at how such compelling passages arise. The protagonist’s great-grandfather was trained as a clockmaker, but had to start over when an accident took his right hand. Rather than abandon the skills he’d practiced since childhood, he redirected them into drawing and painting with his left hand. Meticulous training, practical adaptation, and methodical deliberation gave him preternaturally precise draughtsmanship: ‘An exquisite contrast between the petrified intricacy of the form and the violent turmoil of the subject matter.’ Something similar may have happened to an experienced translator�"Aira’s day job�"whose inner, creative turmoil finally overflowed the precise use of language he’d practiced daily for decades.

What makes an Aira novella unmistakably his, in spite of the wildly inventive subjects and plots and the range of sub-literary genres he draws from freely, must be his approach to the actual process of writing. An outspoken partisan of el continuo, his term for constantly forward motion in a story, he has called his own technique fuga hacia adelante: flight forward. Painters among his readers will understand that an artist who meticulously prepares, working from sketches, preparing a ground, and finally filling in the colors, who examines the results and then makes changes as necessary, will get a different result from one who brushes paint on an unprepared canvas and takes directions from the spontaneous result. Aira’s method is similar to the second, or to a brush-and-ink or watercolor process permitting no penitence. Aira composes episodically, supposedly in coffee shops, and should it go badly, he continues to write forward until the problem is resolved. The result, when he’s ‘hot,’ is one of those sections that soars and rushes along, hypnotic prose that generates surgically precise sense impressions that can build to overwhelming intensity. Then when he resumes, he may very well be in a completely different narrative mood, and the result may be a change of direction, a philosophical digression, or (in one of the best-known cases) a sex change for the protagonist that goes un-remarked upon within the text.

Johann Moritz Rugendas (1802�"1858), the landscape painter of the title, was born and died in Germany. The men in his family had been documentary painters for generations, and Aira identifies him as not only the best of them, but the finest documentary painter of all. He is surely one of the most influential. How he became a painter, spent half his working years in Central and South America, and established his reputation on the work he did there forms the introduction to Aira’s tale, in which the novelist shows how Rugendas’ circumstances and his response to them, like his great-grandfather’s response to the loss of his hand, came together to produce a watershed moment not only for him, but for art. Before him, the family business was painting the warrior caste in Europe and their battles. But Johann Moritz had the misfortune to come of age just after Napoleon’s defeat, at the beginning of what he foresaw would be a long peace. Realizing his predicament, he left his teacher and enrolled in the Munich Academy of Art to study nature painting. Then as now, a graduating student was expected to take on a kind of thesis project, though Aira compares Rugendas’ next step to Charles Darwin’s decision to sign on for a sea voyage as the captain’s companion. The failure of Rugendas and his new employer to get along is another deciding circumstance: while the expedition met with disaster in the New World, Rugendas was able to pursue his own interests.

Aira tells this story as efficiently as a summary, but in more forceful prose, bracketing the names of factual objects with evocative adjectives and strong action. I couldn’t help comparing this lithe, fast-moving story telling to where creative nonfiction seemed to be headed before being hijacked by memoirs wallowing in self-regard. A novelist’s decision to take real people hostage as fictional characters can cause a deadening rupture in the reader’s suspension of disbelief. Aira avoids this pitfall by carefully controlling his proximity to the painter. Rugendas took copious notes throughout his travels, which aided him in turning his thousands of sketches into finished works. He also wrote long letters to his family and colleagues. By anchoring his point of view to this documentary record, Aira delivers a convincing illusion that combines the verisimilitude of fiction with the factual accuracy of a biography.

Rugendas returned to Europe and published a journal of his travels that brought him to the attention of Alexander von Humboldt, whom Darwin called the greatest scientific traveller ever, and who is known to us as the father of modern geography. Humboldt had already put forth the goal of setting down in one place everything known about the earth, with his priority on visual presentation as the most direct. He urged his theory on Rugendas and urged him to confine his art making to the tropics, where the density of mineral and vegetable data was richest. But a secret, life-long desire drove Rugendas: he wanted to explore the absolute emptiness that he anticipated finding on the Pampas of Argentine. Attempting to reach it led to the devastating title ‘episode,’ and subsequent events reveal how Rugendas’ character enabled him to translate Humboldt’s process for portraying the rain forest into a model of anthropological study and presentation. It’s not as dry as that makes it sound, and the challenges of carrying fragile art materials in nature and the sequence of sketching, note-taking, and synthesizing images makes for a story that can stand beside the accounts of Monet, van Gogh, and company as they learned to paint al fresco half a century later.

The popular imagination sees the artist as a romantic figure propelled by cyclones of inspiration, but Aira writes two to four novellas a year�"some of them based, like this one, on 19th century history, others set in his neighborhood and full of surreal whimsy�"and Rugendas is important to him because of the way, in the face of adversity, he got back on his horse with his sketch pad and returned to work. When the trackless plains of the Pampas presented him with new battles, this seventh-generation professional was ready to depict them, to rise above the fray and capture truth on both sides. He faces philosophical questions here, but ultimately what matters to Rugendas, as to Aira, is the work. Making art saves Johann Moritz Rugendas, and An Episode In The Life Of A Landscape Painter ennobles César Aira.
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