Corduroy Books

Books you should be reading. Music you should be listening to.

Month: April, 2012

Existentialism and Zombies

by Jeremy Griffin

Zone One by Colson Whitehead

I’m not exactly sure when it was that zombies became such a fashionable literary trope. One could argue as far back as Romero, though I suspect the legitimization of the undead as a subject of popular fiction has a lot to do with Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend and Max Brooks’ World War Z. Since then, hordes of writers have thrown in their two cents to the zombie literary genre, some with a great deal of success, some without.

Of course, to be fair, there’s only so much you can do with a zombie story; there’s a pretty strict formula to follow, and only the most skilled writers are ever able to pull off something new in terms of narrative while adhering to it. Coleson Whitehead seems to be one of these skilled few. In Zone One, the award-winning author of Sag Harbor makes a clumsy but ultimately enjoyable foray into the zombie genre.

The story, which takes place over the span of three days, concerns a man who goes by the name of Mark Spitz (the reasons for him having adopted this moniker are made clear in the book). Spitz is part of a three-man team of “sweepers” through a section of Manhattan following a zombie apocalypse; their mission is to seek out any stragglers, that is, men and women who’ve been infected with the zombie virus but for some reason never transformed into the gruesome flesh-hungry creatures; rather, their brains more or less shut down, locking their bodies into place indefinitely, a kind of exacerbated shock syndrome. Spitz’s team is one of many sent in to help renovate NYC for habitation once more, a massive task overseen by the mysterious head office in Buffalo which, with a comical degree of corporate sponsorship and naivete, is trying desperately to reclaim the U.S.

Of course, surprise surprise, things begin to go horribly wrong, and soon enough the team realizes that the zombie threat is far from gone.

But that’s actually sort of beside the point in Zone One. Whitehead seems  aware of the limitations of his subject matter; even with all the gore and violence, the focus in this book is character–not only that of Mark Spitz and his team members, but also of New York City itself, the memory of its grandeur and the promise of its rebirth. This is, in a lot of ways, Whitehead’s love song to the Big Apple, which wouldn’t be so bad were it not for the book’s overinflated prose style. Perhaps in an attempt to compensate for the hokiness of the genre, Whitehead writes with wordy passion, employing an annoying degree of poeticism that in certain places really just makes it hard to understand what the hell he’s trying to say. He’s also quite fond of the word “interregnum,” which I guess makes sense in the context of the story, but still: you can’t use that word even once without seeming the least bit showy.

Ironically, one word that never once appears is “zombie.” Again, this is Whitehead acknowledging the history and inherent drawbacks of the genre in crafting legit character-driven fiction, and then finding ways around them. He doesn’t want this to read as a Dawn of the Dead-type horror tale but rather a brutally plausible story about America’s obsession with calamity. The human drive to persevere is rendered frighteningly realistic here; this is the only piece of zombie fiction I’ve ever read that addresses the large-scale psychological impact of such an event: the Buffalo office distributes intricate leaflets on PASD, or Post Apocalyptic Stress Disorder. To be sure, the gore here is second to the deep philosophical panic of extinction; Whitehead is writing about our fixation with post-9/11 catastrophe, and while the journey through Zone One can be bumpy, the destination is very much worth it.

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

I turned 30 not too long ago, and since then I’ve become disturbingly obsessed with aging. Or so says my girlfriend. Call it a midlife crisis, but at certain milestones in our lives we can’t help but reflect, with a certain level of regret, on what we’ve accomplished so far, the people we’ve become. Not necessarily out of any overt sense of self-hatred or failure (although this is sometimes the case), but mostly because we’re in a position to do so, and because we want to believe that we’re learning from our mistakes, even though there is pretty solid evidence that this doesn’t happen. And nobody seems to understand this better than Julian Barnes.

Our narrator in The Sense of an Ending is Tony Webster, now a middle-aged divorced father. Webster begins by laying out for us the story of his friend Adrian, whom he met while in middle school. Adrian was everything that Tony and the rest of the group was not: sophisticated, intelligent, seemingly too advanced for the world. So it’s almost no surprise when Tony discovers decades later that Adrian has committed suicide. What does surprise him is the package he receives in the mail shortly thereafter and his subsequent discoveries about Adrian and their group of friends.

It’s hardly any wonder why The Sense of an Ending, which doesn’t even run 200 pages, won the Man Booker prize: the prose is immaculate, gorgeous, the story fleshed out with grace and the kind of understanding that can only come from a life lived. Plot aside, Barnes’ primary concern here is Tony’s aging, his clumsy attempts to reconcile elements in his past that even the reader knows cannot be reconciled. Tony is, for all intents and purposes, a prick, although he doesn’t know this, not in the way that the reader can see, no, he believes himself to be a swell guy, an honest fellow attempting to figure out what it was that happened between Adrian and a certain ex-girlfriend. His thoughtlessness is both hilarious and a little sad, the result of which is a fantastic story rendered in exquisite prose.

JD McPherson + Alabama Shakes + That Old Old Sound : Best New Music 2012

by Weston Cutter

If you’re paying attention to music of late you’ve likely heard lots about the Alabama Shakes, whose debut album, Boys and Girls, dropped last week. If you’re really, really paying attention to music, you maybe caught a song called “You Ain’t Alone” which hit the net last year (maybe you, like me, got it from Aquarium Drunkard), and maybe you, like me, searched in vain for months to find more about this band called The Shakes (which is as shitty a name as possible far as Google goes, almost as bad as The Glands, maybe the greatest unknown band ever)—a band which seemingly had recorded just that one song, “You Ain’t Alone,” which song could well have been an outtake from some old Janis Joplin session you’d never heard of, or, at least, I never had.

The Shakes, of course, we now know, were hard to find because they’d changed to the Alabama Shakes, and if you decide not to pay attention to this band you’re missing maybe the year’s best album—certainly the year’s most exciting debut (or, at least, top 2). Boys and Girls, their 12-tracker, is lots of things: it’s certainly, first and foremost, a sort of old-school album, something that sounds timeless—or, maybe better, sounds ripped from an older time, something that could’ve been recorded reel-to-reel in 1971. I mean that both in terms of the sound of the recording and in terms of the songs themselves. By way of example, here’s a video of them performing their phenomenal “You Ain’t Alone”:

That’s Brittany Howard, the band’s frontwoman (and good god, what a frontwoman: is that not exactly what vulnerable ferocity looks like?). That patience in their playing and style—that ability to let a song bubble quietly along, the way they don’t rush to fill in and max out every sonic aspect of the song (you think it’s common to let just a bass line keep a song moving? Listen to old M Ward and listen to his latest: even folks who’ve been huge champions of understated musicality seem to’ve been lately lured into believing more is better, always and ever)—that’s among the glories manifestly availble on Boys and Girls, but there’s more to it. Here’s what’s been my listening life of late: I’ve had a playlist with the Alabama Shakes and JD McPherson’s debut albums on it, and both albums feature throw-back sounds, yes, but the thing that unites them far more crucially is how…innocent sounding the music is. This gets tricky.

Look, one of the things that music’s seemingly always been able to offer—and one of the things one can get almost nowhere other than music—is the way it’s overwhelming, both to listener and to performer. Find some transcendent video of a great band—Pearl Jam, whoever—and the thing that’s striking in ways that no other art can possibly strike is how much the musicians can get moved and undone by what they’re doing. Yes: writers and painters get moved by what they’re doing when they’re making their art, certainly, but we don’t perform: we create, in quiet and remove, then let the shit come to light later.

But so anyway: what I’m getting from the Alabama Shakes, and from JD McPherson (about whom more below), is that Boys and Girls is ultimately hugely innocent—and I don’t mean that as a criticism. They sound like four people who dig the shit out making music together, and the album sounds exactly like that, song after song: like celebrations, each track. I don’t want to dwell on what that says about the music business and scene that that’d be so rare as to be worth celebrating, but there it is: Boys and Girls by the Alabama Shakes sounds as pure and innocent and fun a record as any I can think of from the last decade. It’s put-it-on-and-do-yardwork music, and it’s have-three-beers-and-finish-the-night music, and it’s, for me, been every-minute music for the last good while. You’re missing more than you can imagine if you’re missing this.

And then there’s JD McPherson, whose Signs and Signifiers is now coming out in wide release though it has, apparently, been available for the last 1.5 years or more as a smaller release. You’re best off just digging what this album’s all about by way of the video for the single, “North Side Gal”:


The bulk of what’s written above applies to McPherson and his trio as well as it does to AS: this is innocent music, pure music. Let’s neither get all Alan Lomaxy, nor let’s pretend that innocence or purity are aspects which automatically lend music power or punch (who hasn’t seen earnest-as-fuck crapshows?). But, again, as with AS, there’s a directness and joy in what McPherson’s doing, or at least that’s what it sounds like to this listener. Here’s what you should maybe know as well: everything used to record and make Signs and Signifiers was made before 1970 (often well before). A move like that could, depending on the seen-it-all world-weariness of the listener, strike as a gimick or schtick—I wonder how I’d feel it, say, The Strokes were to try a stunt like that. I don’t know. I’d claim, though, that McPherson and his bandmates did not endeavor to make an album like Signs and Signifiers out of any avaristic, let’s-look-like-this intent. Who knows, maybe they did, but I doubt it: what it sounds like is they’re into this old-time rock+roll music (which, let’s be real clear: McPherson’s songs could be fucking outtakes from Ray Charles’s magic 1950’s years; I’m not kidding) and they’re trying to make the best old-time rock+roll album they can. Meaning it doesn’t remotely sound like they’re trying to appear any certain way, meaning they are—like the Alabama Shakes—about as rare as it gets in terms of modern bands and music: folks who seemingly, truly, don’t give a shit about coming off any certain way other than trying as hard as they can to get to the sound and idea they’re most moved by. If you think I’m crazy and that this is more common than I’m believing it to be, I’d simply ask: when was the last time you were surprised by music? We talk about Adele with such reverence for a reason, and we did about Amy Winehouse the same way for similar reasons, and we talk about Radiohead for similar reasons. All of these folks? I’d argue that they share an uncompromising, un-self-conscious drive to get to the music they’re most moved by. Holy hell do you owe it to yourself to listen, as do we all.

Updates + Elsewhere + MADDOW’S DRIFT

by Weston Cutter

Elsewhere: an interview with me at the Sycamore Review. I’m more and more enjoying talking about MN and writing.

Also elsewhere: recent KR blog posts, including an interview with Tupelo Hassman. Like an idiot, I a bit back posted here about an interview not panning out with Hassman. For those who don’t do interviews: maybe 15% of the time, interview questions get sent (over email) and one simply never hears from the artist again. Ever. This is especially bad with bands, I’ve found. Regardless: I’d just assumed the same’d happened with Ms Hassman, but I’m here glad to report it was easier, just a matter of things and cracks and fallings, and I’ll here reiterate, again, that girlchild is a 100% badass book, and among the spring’s best fictions, and you’re a fool for missing this. I’m still sort of amazed it hasn’t been made of a big deal of, but I imagine this one’ll find it audience, day after day (seriously, buy and read the thing).

Also in interview news: I emailed with Daniel Torday about his about-to-be-released The Sensualist, which is coming out from Nouvella. I can’t say enough good about this book, though it struck me as offering a different sort of satisfaction than I usually track toward fiction to receive. I don’t know how to speak real clearly about this trait, or even how to logically articulate what it is I’m talking about. Mostly this: the book simply goes along, on its own, in ways I found sort of startling—its got a generative movement, but I couldn’t, no matter how closely I looked, figure out the causality that made it move forward. Maybe the easiest way to articulate this is to say that some books are really obvious in terms of plot movement—the reader’s fairly dragged through the narrative, and the narrative ends up being hugely satisfying, of course, though the reader’s also able to maybe scan certain late-stage paragraphs, simply because the narrative, building-block aspects of the story have become so crucial it’s hard to focus on much else. I’ll say here that Torday’s book is not something you want to skip a paragraph of, both because a) the writing’s wonderfully confident and clean, and b) the plot’s motion is not something you can see overtly coming. It’s a hell of a thing. Read it.

And now, today:

Drift by Rachel Maddow

I neither love nor loathe Maddow. My politics align closely with hers, and I appreciate the hell out of what she does, and probably the only reason I’m not a feverish fan is exposure: I lived years without tv (not for some moral snooty reason, just that I was broke and drank what disposable income I had). I want to establish this stuff at the start simply to make clear that what follows is in no way some fanboy screed in which the book in question is judged according to the merits of its writer in another context, or in how much the reviewier likes the writer.

(An aside: my wife enjoys Maddow quite a bit, and one of the reasons my favorite person so enjoys Maddow is because Maddow doesn’t wear jewelry on air. Maddow [my wife would likely argue, I think, and I’d agree] is betting that smart folks don’t care about baubles stuck into pierced lobes or dangling across necklines, that smart folks are more interested in the content of the news and ideas being presented than the way the person presenting appears [and that there’s some very small but significant and worthy battle being fought by Maddow, a battle about how women are expected to look while on camera]. There are other reasons to enjoy Maddow, but that seems a worthy and great first aspect.)

All that said: holy shit is this a good book. This may in fact be the best policy book I’ve read in I can’t think how long—certainly the last policy-ish book I read this good was Herding Donkeys, though that wasn’t policy in this way. Anyway: Drift‘s subtitle is The Unmooring of American Military Power and I felt a level of oh-my-gosh-yes-exactly while reading it that I haven’t felt from any recent nonfiction. The ultimate gist of Maddow’s argument is that the way the United States wages war has increasingly become a private, unilateral decision, an executive command adjudicated behind the doors of some secure room in the White House’s basement—a decision which, sure, is come to with the help of military and intelligence experts, but ultimately the decision’s in one man’s hands.

This, of course, is antithetical to not just the constitution, but very much to the spirit in which the founders wrote the constitution: the President, acting as commander in cheif, was structurally prevented from falling under the sway of any war’s rush—Congress was given the power to declare war because it was a messy institution with divergent voices, because war is too massive a decision to put it in one—any one—person’s hands. Post-Vietnam, Congress moved to present future presidents from being so able to pursure military actions (given how de-fanged Congress’d been made by that fiasco), yet as of Reagan, such Congressional strictures were getting mercilessly end-runned.

And Reagan, for what it’s worth, really really does not come across well in Drift. The reader’s made to understand that there are structural issues afoot between the President and Congress and who gets finally to decide to go to war, but the scope of Reagan’s lying and duplicity is just jaw-dropping (Grenada, Iran, Nicaragua…it’s just shocking).

Drift‘s a real easy book to love—smart, passionate, and, I’d argue, largely nonpartisan. Maddow may be among the firebreathing leftists the right wing likes to believe will lead to this country’s undoing, but she comes across in Drift as someone nerdy and insightful and deeply engaged, akin to Sarah Vowell, and she’s wonderfully not content to sit back and lazily just point out things’s badness: the last chapter’s a primer on how we’re not stuck, how we’re still capable of living up, as a country, to the highest ideas and ideals of who we are. Maybe that sounds sappy, but Maddow actually makes you believe. You’re a fool to miss this.


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