The impending Death of the Book, and other stray observations

2010 proved to be the year the book died, or so it seems from many pundits and book bloggers out there. The reason: new technologies like the Kindle and the iPad, which moved into the mainstream this year, have supposedly killed off the book. Book sales are down, according to many estimates, and the act of reading itself seems to be at risk as a result of this changing market, according to many.

At the same time, e-book sales continue to rise, reading devices and apps have grown in popularity, and online literary publications have thrived in the midst of this new technology. In addition, the recession has created an increase in used book sales, and from my own very unscientific observations, books are still all around us. Despite this, many continue to declare the slow and painful death of the book. The blame is put on electronic reading and reading devices, an easy scapegoat to what appears to be the end of reading as we know it as referenced by many of these authors.

I will come out and state my personal bias: my Kindle has revolutionized the way I read and process ideas. With this new technology, I admit that something has been lost. But at the same time, something new has been gained, and I don’t view my Kindle as killing off my desire to read physical books. Instead, I view it as something that has enhanced the way I read and interact with text. I still read physical books, and love them. Most people who own eReaders still do. But I do not see the two as separate from each other: reading is reading, and technology might change how, where, and in what object we read but the pleasure of reading remains the same.

I bring up these ideas in part to respond to an article by Kyle Minor that appeared on HTMLGIANT today. Minor reflects on the Kindle and why the debate surrounding the physicality of the book should matter to readers and writers alike. While coming to the conclusion that reading on a Kindle can be a pleasurable experience, Minor frames his article with some of the objections he had and still has to the Kindle. At the beginning, he makes this point regarding why he avoided the Kindle for so long:

[I]n a book whose structural trappings (the distances between numbered parts or chapters, some physically implicit invitation to flip around among moving parts) are meant to transparently convey something about how the reader ought to enter into and understand it (Roth’s American Pastoral, Coetzee’s Disgrace, Cortazar’s Hopscotch, Nabokov’s Pale Fire), the abandonment of the physical book also means the abandonment of a habit common to many sophisticated readers — the act of taking a book’s measure by a frequent flipping-around comparison of the part with the whole and subsequent thinking about how that impacts the way the book does the thing the book does.*

The physicality of a book does make a difference, and Minor reveals a technological problem with the eReader. As a technology, it might not yet be mature enough to elicit this type of sophisticated reading, but it is perfect for casual reading. He goes on to state that while this is a hurdle to a reader’s ability to dive into books in the same way on a Kindle, the Kindle’s convenience and quick access to a multitude of books allows him to understand (cautiously) its appeal to readers and writers alike. At the end of his article, he concludes ambiguously about the future of the book industry:

Do I still think about the various high-minded objections? I do. I still think that e-books are bad for writers, economically speaking, and probably aesthetically, too (Will we eventually be robbed of physical copies of the thing that cost us years to make?) Maybe they’re good for readers, though, and if readers have a new reason to be enthusiastic about books, maybe that’s good for writers. Would I give my books away for free if it ensured them a massive audience, even though it would keep me from making money on them? Maybe. Do I think writers ought to be compensated for their work. Of course, and, if the writer is me, well-compensated. Do I think it’s unhealthy for ebooks to tank booksellers the way big chains tanked indies? Yes. Am I distrustful of million-tentacled corporate monsters like Amazon? Very. Is there anything significant I can do about it? Not any more likely than my chances of getting people to abstain from MP3s and take up vinyl, culture-wide. It’s not going to happen.*

While I understand these objections, and agree that in ebooks a part of the interactivity of reading is lost, I still view the ebook as one more viable addition to the production of the book. It is a positive addition, and it is one that will only serve to bolster the importance of literature and the book industry for years to come.

Just as other book technologies have helped to add to the way we interact with text, the ebook will help, rather than destroy, the book as we know it (as an example, look at mass-produced paperbacks in the early 20th Century and the periodical in the early 19th Century and their effects on American literature). It is too easy, in many ways, to blame the medium for the sometimes negative changes in the way books are marketed and consumed, especially in our hyper-literate, over-stimulated society.

With this idea in mind, and with Minor’s interesting perspectives on the book as a physical object as a starting point (his article is well worth the read, by the way), I’d like to think that as the technology improves, so will our interactions with ebooks improve. Right now, the eReader works best for pleasure reading, but still leaves much to be desired for studying and devouring books much in the way the critic or author would like the book to be read.

Books like David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest or Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close play with and require a physical book to be enjoyed to their fullest potential. The depths of these books are lost on the reader without the physical book. Equally, reading a musty, leather-bound copy of Matthew Arnold’s Essays In Criticism instead of reading it in ebook or paperback form gives the work a different contextual meaning and breathes a certain life into the work that might be missed otherwise.

At the same time, reading a bestseller such as Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom in ebook form, a physically large and imposing book to read in its hardcover version, puts the book alongside other shorter, lighter bestsellers. The smaller size changes the way one treats the book’s significance. This may provide a different reading experience. Whether good or bad, it gives the book one more layer of meaning. It’s similar to the difference in listening experience between an mp3 version of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon playing on my iPod during my morning commute and the vinyl version on my home stereo in my living room. It might be the same album, but it sounds different, and my experience of it is drastically different. In this same way, as readers we must think of the ebook as providing one other reading experience, but not the definitive experience.

Ebooks do not represent the death of the book. Instead, they give the reader a different frame and context to interact with text. With time, this will influence the ways authors view their works being consumed by readers. Hopefully, this will bring new levels of sophisticated play with genre and form of literature.

The margins of criticism: a blog introduction

It’s hard to get a blog up and running, as I discovered this past year. Back in May 2010, I started Critical Margins with the intention of writing daily reviews and criticism on the state of publishing in the electronic world. It was an interesting time back in May. The iPad had just launched, and there were many discussions going on in the blogosphere and in print outlets announcing the “death” of the book. I wanted to jump in on the conversation and provide another perspective on how these new devices help open up the field of literary study. I had a lot of ideas drafted, but life got in the way. I had just finished up my master’s thesis (which explored how print technology helped shape the American short story into a viable genre in the early Nineteenth century, an idea I hope to expand on in the context of the early Twenty-first century) and I had in mind finding a job and stepping away from criticism for a while. Life got in the way, and I never quite wrote out that first blog post. The blog sat here, ready to go, but never took off. Until now. I hope.

2010 has been an interesting year for publishing and literature. In many ways, the emergence of mobile devices such as the iPad, Kindle, Nook, and modern smartphones have allowed e-publishing to move into the mainstream and challenge the traditional ideas of literary legitimacy. While the internet has provided a source for anyone to publish anything, platforms that are tied to these new reading devices (such as Amazon’s publishing platforms) have legitimized and narrowed the field of online publishing. Traditional publications like The Atlantic are starting to see the value in these new devices and are publishing original works of fiction available only on the Kindle, iPad, etc. Other publications, such as Electric Literature, have used these new publishing platforms to show that through the “noise” that is e-publishing, good literature can still thrive. One complaint of e-publishing–a complaint that I hope to explore in detail as this blog develops–is that it’s difficult to filter out that which is “good” and that which is “bad” in terms of art or literature. While true, I hope to look at the emergence of technology and literature in a broader context and compare the new media changes to previous historical technocultural shifts. This perspective reveals that technological changes spur on new ways of writing, even though old ways of writing might suffer as a result.

There’s a lot of ground to cover over the next couple of months, so expect these first couple of blog posts to be somewhat cerebral. I have to work out all of these issues myself. This blog is sort of a chance for me to develop some ideas I’ve had for a couple of years. For at least two of those years, I’ve developed these ideas in an academic setting, but now I hope to take these larger academic ideas and write from a broader cultural perspective. I have a lot of previous experience writing on cultural trends in a blog format, so I’m trying to merge the academic with the blogospheric. But as this blog evolves, I hope to be more specific about what I feel differentiates this blog from other blogs out there, and what matters right now in terms of the development of literature within emerging technologies.

I hope to bring in reviews of books, essays on the state of current media, and a focus on short fiction (which I’ve noticed always seems to thrive when the technology of print begins to shift). I also hope to review current criticism and book reviews. I’d love to bring back the review of the NY Times Book Review, a weekly article that Levi Asher used to write over at LitKicks but no longer writes. I’d love to pick that up where his weekly reviews left off. I’d also love to bring in outside writers, possibly regular contributors to this blog, so write to me if you’d like to join our cadre of bloggers. In general, this will be a blog full of passionate criticism, and I hope that, on some level, the writing here will help influence someone, somewhere.

As a sidenote, Critical Margins is on Twitter. I’ll use Twitter to post links to articles or quotes from interesting stories/articles. Twitter allows me to talk about important things in a smaller space. After all, the title of this blog brings up the concept of the margin: what is written in the margin can provide a whole different perspective on reading and criticism. Twitter works as the “margins” of this blog. Our focus on the medium in which literature thrives is also part of this concept of the margin. This idea has a long tradition in literary criticism; we’re just bringing it into the Twenty-first Century.

There are so many other things to write about on this blog, so keep in touch. I’ll try to cover as much as I can in the next couple of weeks and expand on some of these rambling ideas as they develop.

Review: Nine Inch Nails – Ghosts I-IV (physical disc release)

by Kevin Eagan

I have to be honest, it came as a big shock to me when I first read that Nine Inch Nails would be leaving Interscope records, opting instead to release their albums independently. Don’t get me wrong, Nine Inch Nails has always been a band willing to try new things and branch out into new experiments, but they never struck me as the type of band that would leave behind the marketing machine.

Trent Reznor’s creative energy has defined the so-called industrial sounds of 1990s metal. At the same time, his marketing genius (yes, it still exists in music today) created a brand that goes beyond the music. From NIN’s popular symbol to the concept of halo (a system that numbers each NIN album that’s before its time, the halo series of computer games seeming oddly reminiscent), Reznor’s marketing abilities and the label that supported it was a rare breed.

However, Reznor’s frustration with his label had nothing to do with the past or his wild success throughout the ’90s, it had to do with his rejection of a broken system, a cause many musicians have taken up with the same fury Reznor has displayed. 2007 was the year that many artists sought independence, leaving the major labels wallowing in their own incompetence. Music historians will look back at Reznor’s decision as part of a major turning point in the record industry, seen as a time when musicians were taking control and the indie market thrived like never before as a result.

So I won’t go over it again or continue the comparisons between Reznor’s decision and Radiohead’s or any other bands or musicians. The fact is that Nine Inch Nails – the brand, the artistry, and the artist himself – is now free to do whatever it wants in more ways than it ever has nearly twenty years after it broke through with 1989’s wildly successful and artistically revolutionary Pretty Hate Machine. Reznor does so with his most ambitious project yet, Ghosts I-IV, an experiment in instrumentation and soundscape that isn’t weighed down by political messages or philosophical debates, but is instead out there for the listener to do with it what he or she pleases.

Revolving around four movements, Ghosts I-IV takes all of the electronic noise of 1999’s The Fragile and 2007’s Year Zero and throws it all together in a random mix; Reznor swears there’s no overall theme to Ghosts, but there is plenty of musical beauty that replicates the arid deserts and the fluid oceans in one long breath.

Within Reznor’s lengthy and expansive soundscape are some moments of pure bliss, the moments where listeners of NPR’s World Cafe can hold hands in unity with the tattooed punks that once defined Reznor’s marketability. Ghosts begins with a sublime piano played so quietly that you can hear Reznor’s feet shift on the open pedals, and even though the riff he plays sounds oddly familiar, it’s haunting enough that it brings you in and keeps you hooked. Electronic choirs hum around the piano as Reznor reveals what haunts him at night, and we’re left feeling the presence of something not of this world.

From there, Ghosts starts to sound a bit too familiar, and by the end of its first movement it feels more like the leftover instrumental samples from 2007’s Year Zero. Reznor ends this movement with the distorted guitars of his past, excoriating the “ghosts” of his heyday to come back down into the piano and electronic noise of beauty that has solidified his standing as a mature and welcoming musician.

However, by the third and fourth movements of Ghosts, Reznor has you convinced that something has changed, that artistic experimentation is possible without the controlling force of a major label. At the same time, Ghosts doesn’t forget the structures and sounds that made NIN what it is today, and Reznor’s experiment won’t alienate the majority of his fans. If anything, he’s brought in new fans, since many listeners now see Nine Inch Nails as an important part of rock music’s changing face instead of a flash in the pan.

By the second disc (movements III and IV), the remaining tropes and figures that have defined this record come to the forefront, and even with the masking of industrial noise, a positivity takes over the music. It’s as if the listener has finally made it over the arid wasteland to discover an oasis of life, and Reznor is ready to give them something in return. As movement III transitions into IV, the band takes on a fully fledged distortion of sound with beautiful melody, and as IV begins, everything seems to come together and it’s no longer about pitting disparate noises against each other, it’s about finding some type of coherence in the soundscape, some type of beauty that transcends the sound itself.

Through a completely instrumental experiment, Ghosts I-IV has fully solidified Reznor’s standing as a musical pioneer of our time. Even as he sometimes falls into his own bubble of marketing, Reznor has shown that it’s all about the music and less about the fans’ tastes. Those who have wanted something new from this band should take note: Ghosts I-IV signals that Nine Inch Nails is not interested in the hype, but rather the substance of independent music, and it’s willing to yell “fuck you” to the establishment – not because it sounds cool, but because it’s necessary. With that, I hope Ghosts I-IV continues the expansive creativity Nine Inch Nails has pioneered over the years, and I look forward to hearing whatever they provide in the future.

>Review: The Dumbest Generation – How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future by Mark Bauerlein

>by Kevin Eagan

It is an inevitability that with every generational change, the older generation will complain about the new generation and reminisce on the past – the “good ol’ days,” if you will. It’s not a surprise when the new fashions and trends of youth culture get misunderstood by the adults who say they know better, and as those fashions and trends become the accepted norms, those youth turn into the wise adults, criticize their children’s youthful ways, and continue the vicious cycle into the next generation.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, for many reasons. When cultural norms change, art, literature, and other creative outlets become more fluid, and people respond to the spirit of the age with an intelligent and relevant civic discourse. Only the old school traditionalists – those curmudgeons who see change as the end of the world as we know it – lambast and discourage this healthy pattern, a pattern that has made our great democracy run efficiently enough throughout the 20th Century.

That’s why Mark Bauerlein tries to distinguish himself from these old fogey stereotypes early in his book The Dumbest Generation, and states that his book is not an attempt to insult or undermine the youth of today, but to show “with empirical evidence” that those in Generation Y (or The Millennials, Generation Next, DotNetters, what have you) are truly stupid.

Despite being surrounded with more information than ever before, the generation that grew up on the Internet has become intellectually lazy, and that’s not just one man’s opinion, it’s supported by statistical fact, Bauerlein says. He won’t look at their attitudes, behaviors, or values, he states in his introduction, just their capacities for intelligence. And then he spends the rest of his book looking at their attitudes, behaviors, and values (in between his hefty doses of statistics and data), judging them unsound and lamenting the end of intellectualism in America.

It’s not the fairest assessment, especially since his metrics of evaluation don’t fit with his original premise. After all, can you really measure the intelligence of an entire generation based on samples of surveys and testing data without looking at their changing attitudes? Bauerlein’s opinion seems to be that the statistics reveal a surprising move toward stupidity, and that this stupidity manifests itself in Generation Y’s anti-intellectual attitudes.

Within Bauerlein’s collected research, several disturbing trends among young people do emerge. The fact-based, multiple-choice approach to education has hampered our ability to “think historically,” meaning young Americans have difficulties placing current events in relation to their historical contexts. Only 22 percent of those involved in one survey could identify key phrases from the Gettysburg Address. Yet in the same survey, 99 percent could identify Beavis and Butt-Head.

Equally, our ability to do basic math and our reading proficiency continues to drop. In a 2005 survey cited in the book, respondents aged 15-to-24 only read anything for eight minutes on a weekday and nine minutes on the weekend, while clocking hours and hours watching TV or surfing the Internet. These are just a few shockers that Bauerlein reveals, but not all of his statistical evidence points toward depressing trends.

At the same time, technology is making our IQ’s go up, and Bauerlein reveals how IQ tests have become more complex to meet our growing intelligence. In theory, having higher IQ’s would go against Bauerlein’s original assertion that we are all getting dumber, but Bauerlein quickly dismisses this idea, saying that today’s youth aren’t reading enough and aren’t interested in the arts in the ways previous generations were.

Despite contradictory evidence in other peer reviewed articles – after all, an author’s evidence is only what he or she is willing to offer the reader – that shows young Americans are more involved in civil discourse than ever before, Bauerlein sticks to his assertion that intelligence will continue to drop until it eventually threatens democracy as we know it. Of course, Bauerlein ignores the fact that the generation before was just as disinterested in high art (and the traditionalists blamed MTV), and the generation before them also seemed more interested in teen escapism than classical music or Victorian literature (and the traditionalists blamed rock and roll).

Is this really all that shocking? Not really. Bauerlein seems to think things are different because the Internet has only given teens one more way to escape adult life. And to a certain extent, he’s right; the Internet is not used by teens to further their intellectual pursuits, at least, not in the way educators would like. But as with all new technologies, the Internet is currently going through a teething stage, and it’s too early to say if our new digital lives will mean the next generation will forever ignore civil discourse and become apathetic toward art and history as adults.

Although the digital age has created one of the largest generational rifts in modern history, it is not the only time America has gone through major cultural changes as a result of youth rebellion. As postwar American youths tried to make sense of a difficult time in American history, Jack Kerouac’s 1957 novel On The Road became a bestselling novel and rock and roll replaced jazz as the rebellious music of the day. Changes in American culture spiraled out of control in the 1960s, and as this young generation was shipped off to Vietnam after enduring the Cold War fears of nuclear war, a resentment toward authority grew. Despite what the powers-that-be said at the time, this age of American uncertainty created a new surge of art and cultural veracity that not only brought about new labels (Postmodernism, Deconstructivism, et cetera) but a new wave of tolerance and accessibility that continues today.

Bauerlein, of course, doesn’t have a problem with what happened during this period of American history; after all, Kerouac and the beats actually had something to say, unlike teens today, who aren’t reading, and are therefore clearly not writing. Yet, Bauerlein fails to find out exactly what is going on among The Millennials in terms of art and literature, and just like the beats and the pop art afficionados of the ’60s, art is flourishing among the fringes of our young generation. With independent artists and musicians trying new things on the internet to poets exploiting their spam folders for artistic inspiration, a thriving art community has used the Internet to push new boundaries. If Bauerlein had merely interviewed a couple of his English students (he is a professor at Emory University) or spoken with some art students, he would realize that there is some hope for the future, and that some Gen-Y’ers are bucking the trends.

Although some of the statistics cited by Bauerlein point to disturbing changes in how Millennials process information, he seems to overlook many of the positive changes – and the potential for a new approach to civil discourse – that will inevitably occur as the youth of today come of age. The Dumbest Generation is certainly a necessary part of this new discourse (after all, we do want to improve), but it drowns in its heavy reliance on statistics that range from mildly convincing to flat out contradictory.

Bauerlein’s approach reveals a one-sided argument, one that forgets that art is created on the fringes of society and that young people rarely get involved in these pursuits since, after all, they’re too busy trying to impress their friends. The Dumbest Generation is a great book for those who already agree with Bauerlein’s main thesis, but won’t change the opinions of those who disagree and see a lot of potential in young people today.

Originally posted on Blogcritics.org.

>Review: Radiohead concert in St. Louis (5.14.08)

>by Matthew Ryan

Before it even got off the ground, it was obvious that the show was to be taken seriously. On the left side of the stage were rows of banks of crates, arranged in store-esque aisles. One of these crates bore the spray-stenciled name: RADIOHEAD. An arsenal of 20-ish guitars lined one of the aisles, ready for battle. Wires stuck out of metal crates like a network of nerves from a DaVinci anatomical sketch. From a light platform suspended above the crowd, rope ladders came down. Three stagehands climbed to the top of the platform and sat in customized seats, manning lights, pointing cameras, setting the trajectory of laser beams and whatever alien technology Radiohead was about to throw at the crowd. Yes, they meant business.

When it came time, the musicians, sans Yorke, came on and took positions in short order. The crowd — a mix of pimply high schoolers, highbrow college nerds, polo shirt-clad frat boys, girls in towering high heels and dangling dresses, folks with mortgages and kids — examples of every kind of live, breathing people — started hollering in a way that couldn’t be one-upped, until Yorke finally came on stage, then it reached a new kind of loud.

Yorke came on, a bit like a nobody and a bit like an alien. He wandered back and forth at first, hands in pockets, occasionally looking at the ground, perhaps waiting for a train at a station. Or maybe he was waiting for the mother ship. He looked a bit tickled as he examined his St. Louis audience, as any average human being looks at another human being doing something odd, or maybe it was the look that an extraterrestrial observer gives when examining the human race.

This was all very strange, yes, but strange for both parties. The crowds didn’t seem to make sense of it either. Here was the band they’ve rocked-out to, toked up to, screwed and had babies to, a band built into a Beowulf-like mythological construct (Did you hear these guys didn’t even charge for the last album? No way! I heard he’s got an actual radio stuck in his head that receives all sorts of interstellar frequencies? Whoa, freaky!). Considering the hype, perhaps it was a band that wasn’t supposed to exist at all. Yet Yorke cometh, and was putzing around on a stage before all. On top of that, you could see his maligned eye from a camera feed as it shone on a display in the back of the stage. And this bassist fellow had an oddly-shaped nose and an eye that looked punched-in. And then there was Jonny Greenwood, with his bony face. What was going on? The crowd went with the flow. Beeps and boops trickled in the background and the evening began with “All I Need.”

Yorke talked after the second song, “Jigsaw Falling Into Place,” something about smelling donuts??? And how anybody could eat donuts at a time like this??? And now donut sales would dive??? He was talking about the smell of Elephant Ears stands, but it was barely intelligible through his British accent.

In quick succession, Radiohead played song after song from the catalog (but conspicuously nothing from Pablo Honey and only one from The Bends), not wasting any time in-between. Light effects came into full bloom, with LED tubes that hung from the rafters like neon streamers. One song they’d twinkle like ice crystals, flash like lightning and flow like rain, and the next they’d glow purple and otherworldly. Green washed down the length of the tubes like goo flowing from the sky, all very high-end and hypnotic. This was the backdrop that Yorke spazzed out to, head jerking, mouth moaning, arms and hands snaking along like he was embracing a first-time acid trip. The crowd fell in line and clapped to his beat.


Tricks were en masse. For “You and Whose Army,” Yorke made use of a piano rigged with a camera, which made for an extreme close-up blasted on the massive screen at the back of the stage. In Crayola green, the audience witnessed Yorke get closer and closer to the camera, until a massive Yorke eye took up the entire screen. Backing off the camera, his face then became distorted in the screen with a fish-eye effect, before being multiplied over and over.

For “There, There,” he ran around on stage with drumsticks as the crew plopped a small drum set in front of the mike. After sitting down, Yorke said “I wonder what this thing does.”

In his second and final address to the crowd, Yorke told of a song from Amnesiac that was “lost sight of.”

“It seems very pertinent now,” he said, the “P” popping through the sound system, and played “Optimistic.”

A little over an hour of songs rapid-fire and the band rushed off. But the house lights stayed off and stagehands still ran around, preparing for who knows what. It didn’t fool any of the crowd, not for a second, so some went ahead and shouted encouragements while others sat and waited for the inevitable encore, which came in about two minutes. As the band came back, they waved and clapped. Colin Greenwood smiled big, and Yorke looked at the ground and scratched his head. They knew we knew it was all for show. There may have even been a bit of an ashamed blush on Yorke’s cheeks. He thanked the crowd and took up an acoustic, at which point the amphitheater became quiet and attentive, and “Exit Music” flowed through the PA. Little flames began cropping up in the crowd up front, people flicked on lighters. From under the stage covering, the stars couldn’t be seen, but when people in the lawn seats held up lighters, it created an eerie similarity.

When the five-song encore came to an end, Radiohead left as quickly as they did after the first set, but stagehands were still messing around with equipment, so the shenanigans were busted again. It was apparent to the audience that a second encore was inevitable, so with further encouragement, the band came out for another round. Three songs resulted (the double-encore was repeated at other concerts on the same tour), and in one last splurge of energy, going out supernova-style, the band hit the crowd with a green and purple light-strobing, video screen pixilating, uber freakout to “Paranoid Android.”

After that, it was done. Honest.

Setlist:

FIRST SET
————
All I Need – (In Rainbows)
Jigsaw Falling Into Place – (In Rainbows)
Airbag – (Ok Computer)
15 Step – (In Rainbows)
Nude – (In Rainbows)
Kid A – (Kid A)
Weird Fishes/Arpeggi – (In Rainbows)
The Gloaming – (Hail to the Thief)
You and Whose Army? – (Amnesiac)
Idioteque – (Kid A)
Faust Arp – (In Rainbows)
Videotape – (In Rainbows)
Everything in Its Right Place – (Kid A)
Reckoner – (In Rainbows)
Optimistic – (Kid A)
Bangers + Mash – (In Rainbows)
Bodysnatchers – (In Rainbows)

FIRST ENCORE
——-
Exit Music (for a film) – (OK Computer)
Myxomatosis – (Hail to the Thief)
My Iron Lung – (The Bends)
There There – (Hail to the Thief)
Fake Plastic Trees – (The Bends)

SECOND ENCORE
——-
Pyramid Song – (Amnesiac)
House of Cards – (In Rainbows)
Paranoid Android – (OK Computer)

>Review: Shy Child – Noise Won’t Stop

>by Kevin Eagan

The indie underground has always thrived upon borrowing from the past to create something new, discovering new styles that can’t be easily defined and have not yet been exploited by the mainstream. In music, as well as in art, indie artists try to reject modern approaches by tearing apart the sounds and actions that make up the current pop culture.

It’s an approach that is not new by any means. In fact, it’s an approach that sparked the high modernism of early 20th-century art when Ezra Pound so famously urged artists to “make it new,” sparking a revolution of new approaches that may seem tame now, but caused riots at the time (see Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring for an example of the power of the new).

Modern indie musicians continue to revolutionize sound, and even as they become a part of the mainstream, many of them continue to try new things. Beck’s 2005 EP GameBoy Variations is a great example. By re-mixing some of his most recent hits using a Nintendo Game Boy, Beck connected his music to the sounds of an emerging generation while taking a completely new approach to his songs.

It’s with this concept of modern indie music that I approached Shy Child’s latest LP Noise Won’t Stop, an album that takes the electronic noises of the modern world (cell phone beeps, game consoles, MacBooks, whatever) and mixes it all into some beautifully composed songs. At the same time, Shy Child borrows heavily from 1980s pop and modern dance music to create something oddly familiar, yet far out in space.

Noise Won’t Stop begins with “Drop The Phone,” a song chocked full of beeps, buzzes, and dial tones. Using synth noises on top of a driving drum beat, singer Pete Cafarella adds in situational lyrics to accentuate the cell phone theme: “Then I just lost the signal / the signal’s gone.” It’s a powerful start, but there are better moments on this album.

The album continues with “Pressure to Come,” a song more in tune with modern dance and electronica than anything from the past. Drummer Nate Smith adds some complex drumming on top of sirens and Cafarella’s keytar riffs. On “The Volume,” the electronica takes on a more vintage tone, and Smith uses a drum machine to keep with the ’80s mood. While “The Volume” has a straightforward sound, the syncopation is complicated, and Cafarella’s vocals summarize the band’s lifestyle: “The volume’s turned up too loud, but we don’t cover our ears / Because they’re already numb, from damage already done.” Indeed, Noise Won’t Stop is an album designed to be enjoyed at high volume.

Noise Won’t Stop takes a turn with “Generation Y,” a song that nods to the generation that will make or break the band. Cafarella makes generational distinctions that suggest the changes ahead, and since “change” has been the buzzword of the year, it seems to be something Shy Child embrace as well; while the band declares “We got it, we got it,” Cafarella sings “Generation Y can’t get things off their mind / Generation X can’t get things off their chest.” And in “Murder Capital,” Cafarella waxes political, singing “Everybody is looking over themselves…Selling things to get the means to get what they want,” a telling sign that Shy Child’s music has more depth than the music alone can suggest.

Yet the music on Noise Won’t Stop is still highly successful, and it’s packed full of beautifully synthesized orchestration. On title track “Noise Won’t Stop,” the band creates a beautiful new anthem for us Pitchfork readin’ Millennials, and on “Summer,” the band bangs out some beautiful poetry that contrasts a carefree lifestyle with a Lennon-esque “war is over”: “Just in time for summer / And the war is over and the fighting overseas / Teenage sex and yoga, marijuana, I can hardly breathe / Underground communities are overflowing with possibilities.”

Without a doubt, Shy Child are a band that’s attuned to the here and now, and express the hope for the future that so many feel is just around the corner. At the same time, Shy Child operate on the cusp of the indie underground, creating some new and experimental sounds while borrowing heavily from the past. At a time when the indie underground is truly thriving, Shy Child certainly aren’t cramping anyone’s style, and Noise Won’t Stop is a great example of what can be done when artists choose to “make it new.”

Originally Posted on Blogcritics.org

>Review: I Was Told There’d Be Cake by Sloane Crosley

>by Kevin Eagan

Growing up in middle class suburbia has become the height of American comfort, but it’s also true that it breeds a certain level of eccentricity – at least, for those who came of age in all of its pre-packaged glory. Blame it on the lack of originality; the strip malls, the four-lane divided highways, and the big box retailers all start to look the same after a while, and those seeking a thrill end up in the city trying to make it in a completely different world.

While David Sedaris’ bestselling essays have shown that coming of age in suburbia can be an absurd experience, he’s not the only writer who portrays the urban-suburban divide in a hilarious way. As America has moved out of the urban centers and created a new level of urban sprawl, it could be said that the suburban life is about as American as you can get.

Count Sloane Crosley as one more essayist who has endured a childhood in the suburbs, and has a hilarious (albeit slightly eccentric) way of looking at her upbringing. For Crosley, childhood was about working at the mall, surviving the rigors of an all-girls summer camp, and getting a high score on the computer game Oregon Trail.

I Was Told There’d Be Cake is Crosley’s first collection of essays, and nothing is held back. Throughout the 15 essays, Crosley takes us on a trip through some of her most hilarious and heartfelt experiences, both as a successful urban woman in New York City and as a self-conscious girl growing up in Westchester, NY (“I came to understand that being born and raised in suburbia makes it difficult to lay claim to a specific type of childhood,” Crosley writes).

Crosley’s clever way of looking at life and her unique use of language makes I Was Told There’d Be Cake a fun read, and each essay will have you laughing at the odd and bizarre situations Crosley gets herself into. In the first essay, “The Pony Problem,” Crosley’s attempts at finding uniqueness (by making jokes about ponies) gets interpreted by everyone around her that she really likes ponies, and before you know it, she has a drawerful of plastic ponies that she just can’t bring herself to throw away, even though she thinks they are “insanely creepy.”

“The Pony Problem” is just one example of how Crosley’s dark humor creates an engaging and unique look at life. In “Bring-Your-Machete-To-Work Day,” Crosley’s inner child and “awkward” transition into teenager left her abusing her favorite computer game Oregon Trail by naming all of her characters after people she knew, and then watching them suffer: “Eventually a message would pop up in the middle of the screen, framed in a neat box: MRS. ROSS HAS DIED OF DYSENTERY. This filled me with glee.”

In “You On A Stick,” Crosley also re-visits her childhood through her “best” friend’s wedding, and her sardonic inner monologue reveals the friendship as a complete fraud, but one that works well for the wedding cameras. Of course, Crosley lets us know the truth, that being maid of honor is a chore that’s not worth the brouhaha: “‘Horror is a six-letter word. So is ‘fuck me.'”

Throughout the collection, language is used to great effect, and Crosley’s clever word play portrays otherwise mundane events in an original way. In “Lay Like Broccoli,” Crosley defends her vegetarian diet by “[keeping] a set of (vegetable) stock answers at my disposal for all queries about my diet,” and in “Smell This,” Crosley discovers an unpleasant object on her bathroom floor after a party, and tries to deduce who left the surprise: “Jesus, she’s got shit on her floor.”

I Was Told There’d Be Cake is an excellent start for a writer who has spent most of her career surrounded by books (she also works as a publicist for Vintage/Anchor books), and it certainly suggests that Crosley has more to come. The collection is both a wonderful read and an excellent critique of the suburban upbringing. Crosley’s Web site also provides an interesting extension to the book, and adds a level of multimedia output that sets her writing ahead of many of her predecessors. Overall, I Was Told There’d Be Cake won’t take long to read and will have you laughing the whole time.

Originally posted on Blogcritics.org

>Review: You Don’t Love Me Yet by Jonathan Lethem

>by Kevin Eagan

Jonathan Lethem’s fiction has never been the type to conform to genre restrictions. If anything, Lethem has become the master of exploiting the trappings and clichés of genre to great effect, and given his track record so far, he’s not afraid to use these clichés as an artful indictment of our consumer society. Subsequently, Lethem also shows that literature and art thrive on mimicry, and that the best artists borrow from the past.

In his critically acclaimed novel Motherless Brooklyn, for example, the great tradition of the detective novel is thoroughly deconstructed through Lionel Essrog, a bumbling former orphan with Tourette’s Syndrome. Equally, in The Fortress of Solitude, Lethem uses the mysticism of the comic book superhero to give his young protagonist Dylan Edbus some of his own super powers, and in the process revealing why comics have had such a profound effect on young Americans, especially those who struggle socially.

So it’s not all that surprising that Lethem’s most recent novel You Don’t Love Me Yet exposes another literary phenomenon: the love story. At the same time, You Don’t Love Me Yet is full of all of the pop culture references and obscurely artful situations that have made Lethem unique, and Lethem’s love for music is put front and center in a way we haven’t seen from him in a long time.

Recently released on paperback, You Don’t Love Me Yet follows the impressionable Lucinda Hoekke, a bass player who plays in a band struggling to find their sound. After quitting her job at a coffee house and breaking up with her boyfriend Matthew (the band’s guitarist), Lucinda takes a job at a faux call center set up by her artist friend Falmouth as part of an art experiment. While the band is struggling to find a unique sound amidst the glamor of Los Angeles, Lucinda beomes enamored by “the complainer,” a man who dials the call center frequently and gives Lucinda a fresh batch of original material for her songwriting. The band goes through a musical renaissance, Lucinda meets and begins a romantic affair with Carl (the complainer), and the band finally gets exposed to the masses at their first gig.

Although there’s much more to the story than that, You Don’t Love Me Yet is less about the plot and more about the underlying message, and that underlying message isn’t easily accessible. At the surface, Lethem has exposed how genre can shape our expectations, and just like he has done from the beginning of his writing career, he successfully uses those genre motifs to create a brilliant work of satire.

But this book is also about the meaning of ownership, an indictment of the corporate copyrighting of everything (and everyone) that’s marketable. As the band’s new songs (inspired by Lucinda and Carl’s phone conversations) take shape and warrant interest among fans and promoters, Carl weasels his way into the band as the fifth member, a “fifth Beatle” in an already crowded band. From there, the band loses its artistic way, and Lucinda’s love for Carl wavers. Carl’s belief is that he essentially “made” the band because his catch phrases helped form their songs, but the truth is that the band’s musical ownership was a collaborative effort. Of course, Lethem is targeting the very idea of corporate ownership, especially in a time where music and art are stymied by what is easily marketed and palatable to the masses.

While Carl may represent the old school thinking of corporate ownership, Lucinda and Matthew seem to represent the burgeoning underground, where art becomes a do-it-yourself experience that thrives on community interaction and trust. Just as people see through the insanity of copyright lawsuits and the infighting between artists and their record labels over artistic control, Matthew and Lucinda learn that a lucrative record deal and band promotion are for nothing. At the same time, artists like Falmouth and the band’s songwriting guitarist Bedwin try and make sense of all of the absurdity. Through these three opposing viewpoints of the band, You Don’t Love Me Yet effectively summarizes how Lethem views the world of art, literature, and pop culture.

You Don’t Love Me Yet is an interesting story that works well as a social critique, but it’s not flawless. At times, the plot itself becomes trite and difficult to follow; the dialogue throughout seems rushed and hollow, and the sex scenes between Lucinda and Carl are god awful. Although it seems that these bad clichés are part of the point, it’s not done as effectively as some of Lethem’s past fiction, blunting the effect and message he is after. At the same time, You Don’t Love Me Yet speaks a truth about modern society, one that is often missed in the maze of clever marketing and confusing copyright laws.

Originally posted on Blogcritics.org

Book Review: Last Last Chance by Fiona Maazel

by Kevin Eagan

[Note: this article first appeared on Blogcritics.org or as “Book Review: Last Last Chance by Fiona Maazel” on April 21, 2008]

 

The idea of “making it” in the world, to come from nothing to something through hard work and persistence, is such a deeply held American principle that we don’t give it a second thought. When a child declares he will grow up to be an astronaut or top-forty musician, we encourage it — hell, it might come true. When he does grow up and he’s struggling to make manager at McDonald’s, we still don’t discourage his dreams when he spends his days crooning out of key at his favorite karaoke bar, or watching episodes of NOVA in hopes to learn something about his astronaut life goals.

Of course, our cultural aptitude towards making it big doesn’t fit with reality. In fact, it’s one of the reasons why we celebrate the small things in life, like the single mother who manages to feed her children and pay her bills on time, or the drug addict who manages to kick her addiction. These are honorable goals, but still reflect the many divisions we still have between rich and poor in America.

Fiona Maazel’s debut novel Last Last Chance attempts to demystify these preconceived ideas of success through her main character Lucy Clark, a drug addict trying to kick her addiction and find love along the way. In the process, she points a lot of the hypocrisy and fear America faces in a post-9/11 world, and she throws in the apocalyptic threat of a superplague for good measure.

Last Last Chance follows the chaos and mystery of drug addiction and impending plague through the first-person narration of Lucy, who has so many things going on in her life at once, it becomes difficult to follow. Despite being in her early thirties, Lucy’s had a hard time making her way through life; as the novel begins, she’s been kicked out of her home and is searching for some sense of purpose while working and living at a kosher chicken-processing plant. As she returns to her home in New York to attend her best friend’s wedding, things in her life spiral out of control: she misses her friend’s wedding after getting the dates mixed up (but no matter, her friend married the only man Lucy ever loved), her mom is willingly trapped in a serious crack addiction, and her father, a former scientist for the U.S. government, has just committed suicide because vials of the plague were stolen from his lab, unleashing a superplague. It’s a lot to take in, but Maazel’s sense of humor, irony, and her engaging prose style make for a great read.

As Lucy falls back into old patterns in her childhood Manhattan home, apathy sets in. Although she tries to break her addictions, she watches her mother die slowly from crack addiction (a very wealthy one, at that). Lucy tries to seek help for her own drug problems from local 12-step programs, and eventually rehab. While all of this takes place, the strain of superplague is making its way across the country, striking fear and uncertainty in an America that is already full of fear and uncertainty.

The superplague seems like a minor part of the plot in comparison to Lucy’s many personal problems, but Maazel uses it to make some profound observations of modern America. The idea of bio-terrorism doesn’t seem all that ridiculous — at least, no more ridiculous than the threat of nuclear war felt when Kurt Vonnegut began writing his post-apocalyptic prose in the 1950s and ’60s.

It’s this threat — one that has remained in the back of people’s minds since 2001 even if it still hasn’t happened — that makes Maazel’s story work, because Last Last Chance becomes more about real fear of death than the self-absorbed complaints of a drug addict. It’s not just the threat or the panic felt throughout the novel, it’s the apathy and selfishness that comes as a result of bio-terrorism. As the cable news programs hype up the threat of superplague, Lucy observes that “panic is understudied for something so destructive and ubiquitous…What of the people whose panic results in apathy? The mind scrambling for purchase. Indecision or madness. Flee to the suburbs or flee this life.” Through Lucy’s narration, Maazel suggests that fear of the unknown can breed panic, and this is an apt observation in a time where we fear terrorism.

At the same time, Maazel has weaved an excellent story about the dangers of addiction. It’s not a cautionary tale, but it does show how drugs have ruined Lucy’s life. Unlike her mother Isifrid, Lucy is willing to try to overcome her addictions, and does learn to manage them in the end. Yet, the damage of addiction is still felt; she has difficulties with real relationships, and even though she spends time in rehab and frequents her 12-step meetings, she still deals with anxiety and her own personal fears. Lucy also seeks out a spiritual life, and at the end of the novel she speaks to God but hears nothing in return. Even though she manages to overcome drugs, not everyone does, and her sense of “making it” is never fully restored.

Throughout Last Last Chance, Maazel isn’t after happy endings. Instead, Last Last Chance is a book about recognizing fear and uncertainty, and showing that even in the lowest places of society, the American dream of rags to riches isn’t always possible. Maazel’s voice is bitingly satiric and hopelessly pathetic, the exact opposite of a novelist out to make the world a happy place. As a result, Last Last Chance is the right portrayal for a 21st Century America, an America trying to make sense of chaos and fear despite our growing apathy.

Originally posted on Blogritics.org.

The “Fake Empire” of Joshua Ferris’ Then We Came to the End and The National’s Boxer

“We’re half-awake, in our fake empire.”

So declares singer Matt Berninger of The National in “Fake Empire,” the song that kicks off their latest album Boxer. The entire album continues in this vein, suggesting that American life has become a life “half-awake,” one of suburban efficiency and catchy marketing.

And that’s essentially where the members of The National are coming from, having endured the life (career, rather) of catchy marketing; most of the members gave up the high life of a career in marketing to form a band that tackles the issues facing our “fake empire.” There’s something wrong with us, and it’s kind of ironic that those who once helped with marketing the things that supposedly will make us feel better are now the ones trying to warn us that we are about to collide into a brick wall.

Boxer is an album that digs deep into the upper middle class life of corporate America, the guy who is stuck, but has a numbing acceptance of it all (“I can tie my tie all by myself / I’m getting tied, I’m forgetting why”). The National have tapped into a sentiment that simmers on the surface, but rarely gets discussed directly: that conformity becomes numbing, and none of the quick fixes we give ourselves will work. It’s an essential question that goes to the heart of what it means to be American: to conform — chasing the elusive “American Dream” — or not to conform, and transcend societal expectations.

Equally, Joshua Ferris’ latest novel Then We Came to the End speaks to the essential questions of conformity and what it means to be American. In the epigraph, Ferris quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson, who urges against being “reckoned in the gross, in the hundred, or the thousand, of the party, the section, to which we belong.” This quote shows what we face within our society: we celebrate independence, but expect conformity. It’s both the essential elements of human nature and what makes corporate America tick, yet we put up with it all, accepting it as reality and popping pills along the way.

Since this lifestyle is so deeply embedded in the American consciousness, it was only a matter of time before a novel would attempt to tap into the reasons why we’ve let ourselves become obsessed with work. Ferris’ Then We Came to the End is such a novel. Chronicling the office lives of a marketing agency in Chicago, Then We Came to the End is both a hilarious and heartwarming account of how and why we endure such work-focused lives.

Ferris’ novel follows the copywriters and art directors of the agency as they endure cutbacks in the wake of the dot-com crash, and as they watch their colleagues get the ax — or, as they coin it, “walking Spanish” — they huddle in the corners of offices speculating why, how, and who is next to go. In the midst of all these layoffs, the agency takes on a mysterious pro bono breast cancer awareness case at the same time they discover (through office rumor, of course) that their supervisor Lynn Mason has breast cancer. Their task is to create ad copy that will make a breast cancer patient laugh, but the group is experiencing an extreme case of writer’s block.

The novel is written in first-person plural to reflect the collective “we” of modern corporate culture. As each character goes through his or her own personal conflicts, the group experiences these as a whole, or so it seems; Ferris’ “we” is actually an ironic critique of the groupthink that pervades throughout corporate America. “We were corporate citizens,” Ferris writes, “buttressed by advanced degrees and padded by corporate fat…What we didn’t consider was that in a downturn, we were the mismanaged inventory, and were about to be dumped like a glut of imported circuit boards.” So essentially, this “we” is nothing more than a commodity, the worker bees whose only goal is to keep the colony alive and fed.

Ferris uses two characters in particular to stress these distinctions between independence and conformity. Tom Mota, a disgruntled office worker who tries to shake things up through pranks, tries to find a level of transcendence but is eventually fired and doesn’t handle it too well. Although those at the office have termed him the office Emerson scholar (he quotes him throughout the novel), Tom never actually transcends anything, and eventually falls back into conformity (albeit in a completely different way). Even though Tom can never bring himself to fully reject societal pressures, he does introduce his office friend Carl Garbedian to the words of Emerson. Carl suffers from depression, and the pills designed to level him out never work, so he takes matters into his own hands, resigning from the agency and starting a successful suburban landscaping company. He ends up transcending the politics of corporate groupthink by returning back to nature, so to speak. Essentially, these two characters represent something profound about America: that conformity is difficult to understand, but even more difficult to break away from.

The National’s lyrics, like Ferris’ novel, don’t tell us how to live — rather, they show the parts of society that are numbing and inconsequential. In their song “Apartment Story,” Berninger sings about the apathy of a society that is “tired and wired” and “ruined to easy” where “we’ll stay inside ’til somebody finds us / do whatever the TV tells us / stay inside our rosy-minded fuzz for days.” And fuzz is a good way of putting it; it’s comfortable, but not entirely exciting. It’s shopping at Target and golf at the country club, but not life to the fullest, or the elusive “pursuit of happiness” promised to us.

It seems relevant that in 2007 — in the midst of a war with no end and the glut of a sub-prime mortgage meltdown — two works of art come out and to the same concerns about society. And here we are in 2008, our politicians promise “change” and our artists recognize that this numbing groupthink is hurting America (Then We Came to the End was nominated for the National Book Award and The National’s Boxer was voted album of the year by Paste magazine), and we still don’t have any definitive answers. Just like Emerson didn’t advocate changing society, but rather, removal from society, so to do artists in the 21st Century point out the absurdities and inconsistencies of our society and hope that someone out there is listening.