Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Alan Moore's "Jerusalem": Book Review

Renowned for his graphic narratives, Alan Moore creates this massive work of prose fiction, rivaling War and Peace in length and Ulysses in ambition. While not his first novel, it continues themes begun two decades ago in Voice of the Fire. In twelve deft chapters, Fire dramatized the evolution, in dazzling linguistic and intricate historical terms, of Moore's native Northampton. Jerusalem inflates this setting even as it narrows it down to a few blocks of the once-bustling Boroughs, which exist in a "simultaneous eternity" as developers build and then tear down this English city's core. Its working class dwellers find not an afterlife so much as a recurring existence, within a "trans-temporal chess game."

Defying the span of a brief review or facile summation, Alan Moore's evocation of his hometown sustains the meticulous composition of his graphic excursions. Lacking the brevity of a speech bubble or the compact limits of a comic-book format, Jerusalem challenges any reader's attention. Heady passages unfurl, as many of those taken up into the elevated realm of Mansoul, towering over the Boroughs (yet less apparent to those below still living) enter under the influence of Bedlam Jennies or Puck's Hats, fungal concoctions inviting comparisons to "eating fairies," amid a paranormal panorama of undines, Salamanders, and an Ultraduct. Those in this vortex may travel, in one case surpassing H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, to witness beyond "the death of day." Moore's inventive powers accelerate here, but they might bewilder, especially in the middle sections of this triple-decker tale which is a Victorian trope renewed. Rather than faltering, pressing on unveils to one’s mind many wonders.

Facing this other-world, two intermarried families comprise the central characters which Mansoul invites or repels. The Warrens arrive first. Siblings artist Alma and laborer Mick introduce us, via the largely omniscient narrator's voice, to their scrappy surroundings, after demolition of its imperial-era landmarks. Jerusalem then ambles back a century and a half, when Ern worked on London's St. Paul's. Mick, Alma and Ern receive eerie revelations from angels and Builders. Moore gradually reveals the reason for these ancient architects, and he populates the story-line with more Warrens and Vernells, who also have their own close encounters with those who hover about Mansoul. Named after John Bunyan's {Pilgrim's Progress}, "it was the very seat of war." Here, clashes summon demons.

Mansoul, made of "congealed dreams and memories," stands for Moore's version of space-time itself. "Think of your life as being like a book, a solid thing where the last line's already written while you're starting the first page. Your consciousness progresses through the narrative from its beginning to its end, and you become caught up in the illusion of events unfolding and time going by as these things are experienced by the characters within the drama." This scene's shifty teller boasts a lineage back to the apocryphal Book of Tobit. He tells Mick, swept up on a memorable "Sam O'Day ride" through the dark and the light as "an astral toddler," how "life and death" work, with admirable if surprising clarity. 

Sam continues: "In reality, however, all the words that shape the tale are fixed upon the page, the pages bound in their unvarying order." In the mind of their reader, progress occurs, but this remains an illusion. Instead, the book of life can be read over and over. So, every day "and every deed's eternal." Sam urges on his transported charge a motto Moore shares: "Live them in such a way that you can bear to live with them eternally."  Jerusalem, for Moore, represents more than his fantastic plot. It stands for a credo, one that in our world refusing conventional belief may survive past piety or doubt.

For, as an eighth-century monk learns, when he tries to center Northampton at the exact crossroads of England, hauling a stone from the real Jerusalem all the way to St. Gregory's Church, mysticism can tempt earthly calculations and thwart clerical confidences. The uncanny interactions the Warrens and the Vernells endure closer to the present (having taken ten years for Moore to write, most of this action stops in 2006) echo. A freed slave from America, the son of immigrants from post-war Sierra Leone, Ern's demented son, Buffalo Bill, Oliver Cromwell, the author of "Amazing Grace" and the members of the band Bauhaus fill the parade of figures who pass through or set up home as mortals in Northampton. What connects them, surmises Moore, is a gothic, altered, visionary sense. 

Their exchanges upend conventions. Moore favors his own detached telling more than the chronologically faithful linguistic ventriloquism of dialects and vocabularies that kindled Voice of the Fire, but some chapters in this one-volume trilogy adapt their own styles. Notably, a play starring Bunyan, the mad poet of nature John Clare, James Joyce's daughter and psychiatric patient Lucia, her friend Samuel Beckett, St. Thomas Becket, a "half-caste woman" elsewhere appearing as Marla Stiles and a married couple stirring up the Warren-Vernell mix demonstrates Moore's knack. He creates a Beckettian drama even as he satirizes its content, improving on its form as he links it to local history. 

And, as with the analogy that other Sam shows, characters repeat and return throughout this unvarying book's order. It's not all gloom. Humor surfaces, whether poking fun at Alma's scarecrow appearance, the simply wrong name of Newlife granted a hideous corporate block, or an everyday night down the pub. Hapless Ben Parritt "looked round appraisingly at the establishment's half-dozen other clients, motionless upon their stools like ugly novelty-set chessmen, sidelined and morose."

Moore varies approaches, when he lets one character late on burst into rhyme, or earlier when Lucia's monologue descends into a verbal morass of Finnegans Wake, fifty daunting pages mirroring the opening of Fire, when Moore reduced the consciousness of a Neolithic boy to 4000 stunted words. Here, Moore opens up rather than contracts his expressions; that contrast will weary some while exciting many. A reader may wish to pause, and let this epic find its rhythms within oneself. 

Moore never seems to flag in this telling. One part begins with Bob Goldman's gumshoe parody before settling into a more Moore-ish pace. But this may be an inevitable capitulation to the weight of the imaginative universe built here that threatens to crush any single inhabitant's utterances or ego. 

In this gigantic production, Moore avoids cliché, he regales us with a local chronicle demanding immersion into its erudition and he plays fairly with expectations. How this new Jerusalem ends will be discovered by the dogged, but the conclusion, circling back to the invitation offered Mick by Alma, satisfies and stuns. Having announced retirement from the graphic arena, in this printed spectacle, Moore dazzles. (Amazon US 9-13-16)

Monday, February 29, 2016

Slán a fhágáil ag Harry

Bím ag scriobh seo inniu, 2ú Marta. Chaith muid ag fáil ár piscín, Harry, ag codhladh. Tá leoicéime aige.

Bhí sé ina stríoc bán ar a driomh dubh. Bhí sé cosúil le scúnc. D'iarr muid air "scúncín."

Bhí sé an-chíuín. Mar sin féin, "purred" sé. Ar maidin, tháinig Harry chun suí agamsa.

"Purred" sé is airde. Bhí Léna ábalta chloisteáil dó ar fud an tseomra. Is é mo chuimhne air.

Bhí sé féin agus a dheartháir Jerry ach ceithre mhí d'aois. Tá brón orainn anseo. Deanfaimid chailleain Harry.

Goodbye to Harry.

I am writing this today, March 2nd. We has to put our kitten, Harry, to sleep. He had leukemia.

He had a white stripe on his black back. It was like a skunk. We called him "little skunk."

He was very quiet. Nevertheless, he purred. This morning, Harry came to sit with me.

He purred very loud. Layne was able to hear him across the room. It is my memory of him.

He himself and his brother Jerry were but four months old. We are sorry here. We will miss Harry.


Friday, February 26, 2016

David Loy's "The New Buddhist Path": Book Review

 A New Buddhist Path: Enlightenment, Evolution, and Ethics in the Modern World
This book opens promisingly. David Loy favors a third course, bypassing the transcendental, nirvana- and karma-based model of a Buddhism aiming at next-world reward, as well as an immanent one that tries to reinforce the self's construction in league with mindfulness gimmicks, rather than reducing it. "If my ultimate goal is something or somewhere else, I don't need to be too concerned about the her and now. And if the goal of my practice is to de-stress so I can perform my usual work and home roles better, I won't be inclined to consider the larger social and economic implications of the Buddhist perspective. In both cases, the radical nature of the Buddhist critique of self is unappreciated, and the new possibilities that arise when we realize our nonduality with this world remain unfulfilled." (38) This plainspoken approach elucidates Loy's socially aware direction well.

Loy looks provocatively to the story of Adam and Eve to wonder if "our sense of lack" is built into our human condition. As a fable of self-awareness, Loy interprets the origin story about civilization's start and perhaps the start of religion. Maybe beliefs and practices are our way traditionally to cope with our feelings, he suggests, "of lack and disconnection by conducting rituals and offering sacrifices, to get back into the good graces of the gods and harmonize with the cosmic powers. Then we feel better--for a while." (46) Christianity explains lack as sin, and condition sinners to respond.

He shifts for most of the book into the emergence of what he regards as a self-generating cosmos. He bases this on quantum mechanics: "what we experience as reality does not become 'real' until it is perceived. Consciousness is the agency that collapses the quantum wave into an object, which until then exists only in potential." (62) Certainly tricky material, and the remainder of Loy's argument, while interspersed with well-chosen quotes from a variety of thinkers, verges off into what for me felt more New Age-inspired cosmology than a critique grounded in either physics or secular Buddhism.

Still, the remainder has its moments. Loy recovers his footing when he examines the weakness of ancient Buddhism as it emerged, its force weakened as it capitulated to the institutional regimes. Accommodating itself to the state, its challenges to 'dukkha' weakened. Loy reckons (116-117) this may be how Buddhism was "reduced" to a religion, unable because of its submission to kings to challenge them. Karma and rebirth teachings then were channeled into support of inequality. The elite enjoyed the fruits of their past lives and their earlier benevolence; the poor or disabled suffered their just reward. Monastic instruction encouraged a few to pursue perfection while kingdoms ruled over a laity resigned to supporting the cadre of those who had to rely on the favors of those kept in power.

In conclusion, Loy's book, ranging across enlightenment, evolution, and ethics, seems itself aligned with rather conventional Mahayana teachings. Published by Wisdom, a press that popularizes this fidelity, it may be unsurprising that Loy's message is a bit muted. Oddly lacking any mention of Stephen Batchelor's examination of similar themes in the Pali canon (which Loy reminds us is eleven times the length of the Bible), it nevertheless may serve as an introduction to such perspectives. (2-28-16 to Amazon US)

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Heatmiser's "Mic City Sons": Music Review

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Like Faces and Rod Stewart or Roxy Music and Bryan Ferry, Heatmiser and Elliott Smith faced a quandary. When a talented singer-songwriter fronts a band with equally compelling musicians, how does he balance his burgeoning solo career with the demands of his formidable bandmates? Does he save his best songs for his own albums? Does he break with those who helped make his reputation, or can he work with them on his own albums under his own name?
After releases on the Los Angeles-based indie label Frontier, Portland-based Heatmiser had progressed since forming in 1991. Dead Air and the EP Yellow #5 blended grittier, downbeat songs from singer-songwriter-guitarist Neil Gust with his Hampshire College classmate Smith's delicate, downbeat songs. These tended towards introspection, as well as gloom and suspicion, so Heatmiser created a tense mood. Gust's lyrics skirted around tawdry gay sex in nasty places, while Smith's narratives plumbed addiction and depression. The band’s early records wallowed in post-grunge gloom.

While another Portland band, Pond (a deft, overlooked trio), was signed by Sub Pop in the post-Nirvana frenzy, Heatmiser remained in the margins. Its second full-length, Cop and Speeder, revved up the momentum, delivering the band's finest songs to date, pummeling and careening as Tony Lash's forceful drums locked in with thrusting bass from Sam Coomes. 
Tensions surfaced when Virgin signed the band to a major label. Smith's success on the low-fi Roman Candle and self-titled second solo album sparked jealousy between Smith and Gust. Smith resented being in a “loud rock band” and the band broke up around the release of its third album, Mic City Sons, which ended up getting distributed by indie subsidiary Caroline Records.

When I first heard this album 20 years ago, I knew more about Heatmiser than Elliott Smith. Mic City Sons opens with the kind of winning pop Smith went on to pursue alongside his darker tendencies. "Get Lucky" pitches its arena-rock singalong chorus and cocky riff at the mainstream, yet Smith's characteristic melancholy remains as he promises, "We're taking you to pieces." "Plainclothes Man" follows in more subdued style, and lives up or down to its everyday title.

On this album, Gust is relegated to a lesser role compared to Smith's ambitious filigrees and baroque style, as his Beatles influence began to dominate his persona. But, as a Heatmiser fan more than a Smith fan, I speak for the minority view. Gust digs deeper into the corrosion coating his mood. In "Low Flying Jets," his guitar trebled and echoed rings more memorably than the dirge-like pace of the song, but "Rest My Face Against the Wall" dourly conjures up the act exchanged between men in a dour, dismal place. His voice, like Smith, speaks from pain. 

Matching this tone, "The Fix is In" takes us into Smith's struggles with drugs. Like his solo work at the time, Lash's measured percussion and processed guitars create a somber atmosphere. Here, Smith’s AOR leanings contend with gloom. Gust perks up for the rawer punk-pop of "Eagle Eye" and "Cruel Reminder," whose choruses over reverbed guitars recall the band’s less-heralded work on Frontier Records.

Smith's simple "You Gotta Move" is followed by a Gust track sometimes mistaken for Smith. "Pop in G" inspires the album’s title after a city of microbrews and their drinkers: "{Mic city sons seem to dumb everything down}."  The album sags by "Blue Highway," with Gust coming in second to Smith for narrative appeal but it closes with two strong features for Smith.  “See You Later” and “Half Right," a hidden track that shows off the indie-rock sensitivity that would make his breakthrough. 

After Heatmiser, Gust formed the band No. 2. Oddly, its two albums opted for a softer touch more akin to a grumpy Smith instead of the amplification that better suited Gust’s voice and stories. Lash moved on to the band Sunset Valley before entering production work for noted Northwestern bands, including the Coomes –led Quasi (with Sleater-Kinney’s Janet Weiss). Smith burst into fame and an uneasy entry into late-'90s troubadour prominence before going out like a roman candle. While most listeners may listen to Heatmiser primarily for its tragic co-founder, a closer listen should earn more props for his accomplished bandmates. (Spectrum Culture 2- 24-16 as part of the Holy Hell! --- Turns Twenty retrospective of albums recollected.) 

Monday, February 22, 2016

The Fall: "Wise Ol' Man": Music Review

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As a faithful fan of the Fall, my shelves fill with their records. Over thirty albums in the studio, and triple that with compilations, concerts and ephemera, this prolific band has long left behind its limited punk or post-punk labels. Yet they continue to remain punk in the truest sense. For Mark E. Smith and whomever he recruits into the line-up produce music that sounds truest to themselves, and no other band. Few musicians or vocalists who started in 1976 can surprise or entertain us so today. The Fall's repetition sustains their prickly music, and their latest, and by now longest-lasting, version of the band has tightened its delivery. This combines discipline with chaos, and it buzzes, clangs, and rambles on, to irritate or inspire. Other British bands totter along on the reunion circuit, churning out their hits, but The Fall look forward, and even the one song remade here from their full-length debut, Live at the Witch Trials gains verve from its fresh restoration, merged with one of their newest songs.

The Wise Ol' Man e.p. introduces two songs along with remixes and alternate takes of others from Sub-Lingual Tablet. Smith's voice warbles his credentials on the opening title track as the sagacious frontman, over a forceful guitar riff from Peter Greenway. This song fits neatly into the band's sound for the last few years, where the instruments collide with the mutters and mumbles of Smith, who challenges and subverts any definition of what constitutes a singer. Smith does what he wants. 

Similarly, "All Leave Cancelled" bursts out, with production from Smith which plunges the listener into a maelstrom. While this may not be the best place for newcomers to The Fall to enter, for veteran  audiences, this satisfies better than some of the post-millennial period. Then, too many songs went on far too long, and felt like the tape kept rolling and the musicians kept doodling or dawdling. 

"Dedication not Medication" remixes that track from the last studio album. It and the instrumental of the e.p.'s title track move along fine, but for me they do not open up the energy or experimentation of the first two tracks. Another remake, of "Venice With Girls" from that album, adds swagger to that tune, and as it opened Sub-Lingual Tablet, on what is here deemed "side two," the band appears to realize its catchy presence and lyrical fun. "Face Book Troll" shows off another great title, and presumably a target of Smith's considerable wrath. It's enriched by the interplay of Elena Poulou's whirling keyboards with Smith's rants, backed by Dave Spurr's bass and Keiron Melling's drums. This segues into "No Xmas For John Quay" from their 1979 debut LP.  Hearing the latest ensemble tackle the shambolic, sneering ditty from Live at the Witch Trials proves a delight. The continuity between a Smith barely out of his teens and the grizzled man pushing 60 now reveals a twisted talent.

Closing this brief recording, "All Leave Cancelled (X)" continues the in-studio trend to take apart Fall songs and kick around the pieces before putting them back on tape. Commendably, Smith and company revel in what may seem to the unconvinced a mess, but to the committed, another success. I look forward to more such revelations from a band whom one can never consign to nostalgia. (Amazon US 2-24-16 + 2-23-16 to Spectrum Culture)