Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

-Wilfred Owen

Rating: 6/10

This was one of the most profound reading experiences of my life. It is a book that I would compare, for a number of reasons, including quality, to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. It is one of, if not the best told novel I have read. There are three narrators, each telling their story in the first person. They are Linc, Wub, and Manny, and the trio of youngsters constitute a group called, well, ‘The Tumbleweeds.’ Don’t get me wrong, although it is told from the perspective of 3 kids, it is a very mature book, and the characters grow throughout. As their friendship crumbles, we see their perspectives on life and each other, altered. What I think gives tremendous merit to the novel is that there are no quick fixes, nothing is ever simple, and life takes its toll.

The neighborhood in which the Tumbleweeds reside, referred to as ‘the nabe,’ is the background of their lives, and as they change it retains its ebb and flow. In time, the Tumbleweeds either grow out of it, or it consumes them, that is all I will say in that regard. The main character, I would say, is Manny Kohl. He is the first and last voice of the book and his journey into manhood will bend and perhaps break the reader. There is nothing quite like this book, I could not call it gritty. I have read my share of gritty books, which kill off characters for shock value, and leave you with a cold, numb ache like you were punched in the schnoz. But Tumbleweeds is not a cold book, it is very sensitive, yet shows the harshest parts of life. There is nothing in there just for the sake of it, nothing seems to happen just as a plot device, what occurs does so randomly, and retroactively acquires meaning through the eyes of our narrators. And with every shaking of the tree of life, more fruit falls. In other words, everything that happens feeds the development of the characters, for good or bad.

I want every writer to read this novel because there is so much to learn from it: how to subvert clichés, how to write a fight scene, how to distinguish voice, how to write dialogue, how to compose an organic plot. I could go on. One thing which some people might see as a flaw is the manner in which kids are portrayed in Tumbleweeds, in that they are very aware of life and not as naive as we might expect, but I don’t think this potential criticism would be justified. I think we imagine kids, as adults, to be more childish than they really are. We forget the way we perceive the world as kids. In reality, we are the blueprints for the people we will become, and this, I feel is really the centermost theme of the book. The man Manny Kohl will become is outlined herein, as a writer of the future, the man who would one day write this book, the first of a Quartet.

The real writer, however, is Dan Schneider, and this is an interesting example of playing with meta techniques, because Manny Kohl- in the introduction to the next book, The Vincetti Brothers– explains that Dan Schneider is only a pen name, but there is a hint that he may also be a real character in the world of the novel. More on The Vincetti Brothers in my upcoming review, but I bring up the fictive authorship of Tumbleweeds to point out that, while we seem to get 3 different POVs in the novel, there is in reality only one and the sections of Linc and Wub are in fact only the projections of Manny Kohl.

In this, and numerous ways, Tumbleweeds is one of the most complex and brilliant novels that has ever been conceived, and it is executed perfectly. Another, unfortunately, unpublished work by its prolific author. I hope that this review will contribute, in some way, to the awareness of his work. Promoting underappreciated writers is, however, a nice change from denouncing overrated hacks that are all too common these days.

Rating: 9/10

Denis Villeneuve has had a very successful few years lately: Enemy (2013), Prisoners (2013), Sicario (2015), Arrival (2016), and Bladerunner 2049 (2017). Arrival is based on a short story, which I read before I first saw the movie, by Ted Chiang (Story of Your Life). I believe the short story is better than the film simply for having better character development, but then the film goes to the core theme more directly, so they both get the same rating.

When ETs arrive, most films believe the only follow up is all-out war- because apparently, aliens are as primitive as humans were until long ago when the first thing we’d do upon contact with a foreign race was to destroy them. Now, nations still exploit each other, but that is a much more long-term process. Why would aliens necessarily be malevolent, however? Well, most science fiction writers and filmmakers can’t see any reason why an alien race would make contact in the first place unless for recourses. Arrival gets over this by a neat circular solution, that ties the plot together: the ETs give humans their language, and in 3000 years the humans help the ETs. This is also original because it has nothing to do with technology. The language (due to some pseudoscience about linguistics) enables one to think outside of linear time. One of the most admirable things about the film is the manner in which every element is connected to the central theme. The aliens use nonlinear symbols that are disconnected from their speech, which is convenient because the humans need to learn it, and they can’t speak alien. Specifically one human, Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) our protagonist. The experimental structure of the film is successful and allows the plot to work on two levels: on the level of science fiction adventure, which itself is better than the majority of sci-fi plots (the arrival), and also on the personal level (the life story). The structure of the film mixes the main plot with flash-forwards

The question of the film is really- if you could see the future, and you knew where your life choices would lead, would you still make them? In this position, our protagonist does make the right choices, as hard as they are. Now, it’s entirely circular, she sees the result of the choice she will make and this leads her to make those choices, just like in the sci-fi plot- she learns the language because she will learn the language in the future/she knows the solutions to problems because of information she receives in the future etc. Because of this, David Mamet in his Masterclass course was not wrong when he said that it skips over the most challenging aspect, how to communicate with the ETs. He wants to raise the bar in terms of pure entertainment factor, as a linear plot is less contrived than the circular- ends determine the means/effect before the cause- structure that we get. But if we had it his way, would this film be as psychologically interesting? I don’t think so. I do think the film works, but it must make a compromise, and, like our hero, makes the right choice to prioritize themes and symbolism, and ask forgiveness for the rather Christopher Nolanesque plot.

Rating: 7/10

In the circus tent of a hurricane
designed by a drunken god
my extravagant heart blows up again
in a rampage of champagne-colored rain
and the fragments whir like a weather vane
while the angels all applaud.

Daring as death and debonair
I invade my lion’s den;
a rose of jeopardy flames in my hair
yet I flourish my whip with a fatal flair
defending my perilous wounds with a chair
while the gnawings of love begin.

Mocking as Mephistopheles,
eclipsed by magician’s disguise,
my demon of doom tilts on a trapeze,
winged rabbits revolving about his knees,
only to vanish with devilish ease
in a smoke that sears my eyes.

-Sylvia Plath

Rating: 7/10

We seem to be living in the age of over-writing, and I’m growing fatigued by it. The advice given to new writers is just the absolute worst it can get, and it is even leading publishers to seek out novels which follow this bad advice. We need to stop this nonsense once and for all because it means that great books actually do not get published anymore- works by those I would call truly misunderstood geniuses. Misunderstood at least by the industry. Aside from the general lack of depth, and the contrivances of most plot building, etc, the biggest problem is with prose. The use modifiers these days has reached a point where, in books such as City on Fire, there are approximately three layers of modification in a typical sentence. Let’s take a look at the first paragraph of the prologue-

In New York, you can get anything delivered. Such, anyway, is the principle I’m operating on. It’s the middle of summer, the middle of life. I’m in an otherwise deserted apartment on West Sixteenth Street, listening to the placid hum of the fridge in the next room, and though it contains only a Mesozoic half-stick of butter my hosts left behind when they took off for the shore, in forty minutes I can be eating more or less whatever I can imagine wanting. When I was a young man- younger, I should say- you could even order in drugs. Business cards stamped with a 212 number and that lonesome word, delivery, or, more usually, some bullshit about therapeutic massage. I can’t believe I ever forgot this.

-City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg

This is nowhere near as bad as it gets, and yet this book was sold for $2 million! Now, some of you may be wondering what exactly is wrong with the prose, you may be so used to writing like this that it doesn’t faze you. Okay,  observe how Hallberg adds details that are ultimately superfluous- even though this information can be conveyed in a more graceful manner besides. There are better ways than this. There are also run on sentences with multiple clauses: which are, not only confusing, wordy and awkward to boot. But then you see some of the reviews this word-vomit got, oh boy-

A symphonic epic… A big, stunning first novel and an amazing virtual reality machine… Captures the city’s dangerous, magnetic allure… A novel of head-snapping ambition and heart-stopping power- a novel that attests to its young author’s boundless and unflagging talents.

-Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

I would have to quote Kakutani, wouldn’t I? Her BS is always the most entertaining.

Now, if you still don’t get why I think COF, and writing like this in general, is plain bad, I’ll ask you a question: where is the voice of the book’s first-person narrator? Does it sound like a person, or does it sound like a pretentious ‘writer’ trying too hard to come across as sophisticated? ‘Mesozoic half-stick of butter,’ are you kidding? The guy wrote over 900 pages of this shit during his 30s and he’s lauded as both prodigy and genius!

I apologize for getting riled up about this and believe me, I’m not doing it for views. My best-received content is low on negative criticism. People just don’t want to hear it. The problem is not Hallberg, but the entire establishment of lit and lit criticism. If you search ‘how to write descriptively’ into Google, the first video that comes up is a titular piece [of crap] by Nalo Hopkinson, which was produced by TED. Now, I ask, anyone who dares lose brain cells watching it: do you really consider what they gave as exemplary of great prose to be so? Is it not just a bunch of clichés, and over-modified clichés? Such metaphors as are so out of touch with reality that, had they not provided the simple, to the point sentences at the beginning, would you even have a clue, say, that Billy was Nauseous? The first is so ridiculous a ‘description’ that it actually gives one nausea just to hear it read aloud.

Now, the other thing wrong with descriptive writing today- this I’ve mentioned before- is the over-use of sensory data. It’s following the ‘show don’t tell’ rule, or so people think. Actually, this rule has nothing to do with trying to draw a picture of every little thing and make you viscerally feel what the characters feel. This took me a long time to figure out. It was when I was a kid and first learning to write, something of a mystery to me what use books were when movies existed. What use are the Hunger Games books if the movies exist, aside from having a slightly different plot, or containing more stuff within the plot? It turns out, the novel as a form is a highly versatile thing because it uses language, something that taps into every part of our minds. But that’s just the thing novels are without equal in their ability to access the mind. Okay, they might not be as efficient as poetry, but novels have many elements that poems simply do not, which can make it hard to find the balance between poetic and other- such as filmic- techniques.

There is an obsession with characters running, jumping, struggling. fighting. The reason for this, I believe, is that people think the more visceral the better. Well, this is simply not true. It’s an offshoot of over-saturating fiction with visual details. Unless details are important, you are better off building character and moving things forward. Minimal visual data is best, as no matter how well you describe someone’s features or attire, no two readers are going to have the same mental image. It is not essential anyway. More important than the characters appearance is their mind, outward expression, and actions. It is often just a way to show off the writers ability to string words together, and also perhaps a case of writer’s block in disguise, which makes authors think they have license to tap away at the keyboard and say nothing. You should oscillate between showing and telling, but you need to learn how to do both of these very well, and this is not an easy task given resources. Read Moby Dick, which is the best primarily told novel in print. One of the greatest primarily shown novels in print is The Picture of Dorian Gray. Work hard, do something creative with the form. Over-writing- modification, and saturation- only serves to make all fiction read the same. Get to the core of what matter, and beautiful, unique prose, will follow of their own accord.

One morning the spirit of my lover’s uncle returned
there was no fanfare no terror only a blue silhouette

translucent above our bed growing dim
I was the sole witness to this specter quiet

as the rising sun waking overhead I awakened
cold to see an Aegean blue figure hovering bedside

through his gaze and mustachioed grin
on the other side of his face a dazzling tremolo

of morning light streamed into this darkened space
and later that evening as we moved

through the neighborhood streets dead with aging trees
frozen sidewalks led us freely into the moonlight ahead

-Reuben Quesada

Rating: 3/10

So this is the first poem that I’m going to comment on since it is simply awful. Which, as I mentioned in Site News is a privilege reserved for anything that warrants partial or total criticism. This is one of the latter cases. It’s almost as if my work here is done before I’ve started because it is so obviously bad, do I need to say anything? There is no punctuation, so I can’t comment on enjambment. The would be good enjambment present is so by happenstance; there is no rhythm; no rhyme. There’s no intellectual or emotional content- it’s apparently about the beauty of death’s worldly forms; actually just a bad, overwritten description of a ghost. The imagery is clichéd and the writing is as dead as the theme.

a blue silhouette/Aegean blue figure– repetitive.

Aegean blue/dazzling tremolo of morning light– ridiculous choice of words.

through the neighborhood streets dead with aging trees
frozen sidewalks led us freely into the moonlight ahead– trite nonsense.

 

That’s what misery is,
Nothing to have at heart.
It is to have or nothing.
It is a thing to have,
A lion, an ox in his breast,
To feel it breathing there.

Corazon, stout dog,
Young ox, bow-legged bear,
He tastes its blood, not spit.

He is like a man
In the body of a violent beast
Its muscles are his own…

The lion sleeps in the sun.
Its nose is on its paws.
It can kill a man.

-Wallace Stevens

Rating: 8/10

A while ago I had seen an interview between Cliff Sargent and Damon McMahon, in which they discussed music and books, of course. Now, it is a very interesting thing to learn what kind of content someone is drawn to, and it is telling, especially when they themselves are artists or artistes as it were. Damon’s music, that is, the music of Amen Dunes, is filled with some of the most inane lyrics out there. And what’s more, he knows this to be the case. He actually thinks his music is more raw, or pure, or something, because of this. It’s like he thinks that it wouldn’t cut to the soul enough if he were to actually think through what he was saying, and Cliff remarks that this kind of music is actually another form of literature.

This brings us around to the question, what ‘literature’ influenced such ridiculous nonsense, I mean, lyrical genius? It turns out that it was primarily the duo of William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf. Now, I have not read a lot of either, but considering what I have read, I can see now why Amen Dunes is given to such pretentiousness. His claim that these two are the most mature writers, and stand head and shoulders above everyone, that no one even comes close, well this was just too much. Both of these writers are terrible, and not nearly as well loved as many people suppose. They are the kinds of writers who are forced upon the young, while they go through the rigamarole that is formal education, and the result of this is two-fold: 1) most kids can’t stand their likes, and 2) the reason for this is apparently because kids aren’t smart enough.

And why am I so confident that the reason I don’t appreciate them is not that I lack the brains to comprehend their supposed brilliance? Well, it is very simple, when an author is actually brilliant, they are clearly so. The thing about real genius is that any idiot can recognize it. A good writer communicates depth through their work- lays bare its intellectual content to be explored. Great writing elevates the mind, it does not require you to be smart, it will inevitably be smarter than the typical reader, but insofar as it is comprehensible on the surface, working in the back of the reader’s mind is the rearranging of neurons so that by the end, life takes on new meaning. Perspective shifts.

What happens with Woolf and Faulkner? Well, not much. As far as their work is stimulating- how entertaining, moving and intellectual is it- there is absolutely nothing there. Modernist writing prioritizes experimentation with language more than almost anything else, yet paradoxically these particular modernists write nigh exclusively in clichés. Here is some of the writing-

About here, she thought, dabbling her fingers in the water, a ship had sunk, and she muttered, dreamily half asleep, how we perished, each alone.

A sort of transaction went on between them, in which she was on one side, and life was on another, and she was always trying to get the better of it, as it was of her.

The sigh of all the seas breaking in measure round the isles soothed them; the night wrapped them; nothing broke their sleep, until, the birds beginning and the dawn weaving their thin voices in to its whiteness.

To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Clocks slay time… time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life.

She loved him not only in spite of but because he himself was incapable of love.

Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

I would love to know who the hell could tell them apart? To give some contrast here is some prose I would consider to be good:

Human madness is oftentimes a cunning and most feline thing. When you think it fled, it may have but become transfigured into some still subtler form.

Our souls are like those orphans whose unwedded mothers die in bearing them: the secret of our paternity lies in their grave, and we must there to learn it.

Ahab is for ever Ahab, man. This whole act’s immutably decreed. ‘Twas rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before this ocean rolled. Fool! I am the Fates’ lieutenant, I act under orders.

-Moby Dick by Herman Melville

He lifted the picture for a closer look and saw himself among a group of men, tossing a baseball from bare right hand to gloved left hand. The flight of the ball had always made this photo mysterious to Francis, for the camera had caught the ball clutched in one hand and also in flight, arcing in a blur toward the glove. What the camera had caught was two instants in one: time separated and unified, the ball in two places at once, an eventuation as inexplicable as the Trinity itself. Francis now took the picture to be a Trinitarian talisman (a hand, a glove, a ball) for achieving the impossible: for he had always believed it impossible for him, ravaged man, failed human, to reenter history under this roof. Yet here he was in this acne of reconstitutable time, touching untouchable artifacts of a self that did not yet know it was ruined, just as the ball, in its inanimate ignorance, did not know yet that it was going nowhere, was caught.
But the ball is really not yet caught, except by the camera, which has frozen only its situation in space.
And Francis is not yet ruined, except as an apparency in process.
The ball still flies.
Francis still lives to play another day.
Doesn’t he?

-Ironweed by William Kennedy

Not only can you tell them apart, they are completely unique, because there is nothing trite or inane to reduce the writing to mere playing with words as is the case with the above passages. With Melville and Kennedy, there is actually something there. There is some real insight to be gleaned, rather than the poetic sounding, but intellectually banal gimmickry of Woolf and Faulkner.

Comparing the former to that latter duo is the literary equivalent of comparing a Jackson Pollock to a René Magritte.