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This Week's Reading

Staff Picks: Pop, Rock, and Bear Hock

August 29, 2014 | by

From Barry Guy's Witch Gong Game ll/l0 (1993).

From Barry Guy’s Witch Gong Game ll/l0 (1993).

John Swartzwelder has written more Simpsons episodes than any other writer (fifty-nine in total). He’s also one of the most eccentric writers in the business: one story goes that “when he could no longer smoke in restaurants, he bought his favorite booth from his favorite diner and had it installed in his home.” Since leaving The Simpsons in 2003, he has self-published a novel each year, all of which are available on his Web site. After reading his first novel, The Time Machine Did It, I’m not surprised that Swartzwelder is the same person who introduced now-classic Simpsons characters such as Cletus Spuckler, Stampy the Elephant, and the three-eyed fish Blinky (who has now become a symbol among pundits for nuclear waste and wildlife mutation). The novels are pure screwball, honoring the comedies of the Marx Brothers and Preston Sturges as Swartzwelder dismisses any narrative rule for laughs. In The Time Machine Did It, a private detective named Frank Burly (“to give prospective clients the idea that I was a burly kind of man ... and who would be frank with them at all times”) finds himself traveling through time for a supposed multimillionaire who wakes up one day to find that everything he owns is gone. The plotline includes a homemade time machine and a town taken over by criminals, but why the novel works is the simple fact that it never takes itself too seriously. “On an impulse I mooned most of the 1950’s as I went by. I don’t know what makes me do these things. I guess it’s just part of my charm.” —Justin Alvarez

In outline, it reads like something made up by Roberto Bolaño: an Austrian writer crosses America, wracked by nightmares and visions and pursued by his mysterious, estranged wife. Peter Handke’s 1972 novella Short Letter, Long Farewell helped inspire the American “road movies” of Wim Wenders, and if Bolaño didn’t know the book, there is a strong family resemblance. As the critic Wayne Koestenbaum put it, the two writers share an “ability to sound sane (though vacant-souled) about insane circumstances,” whether these involve a desert sunset or a restaurant serving bear hock à la Daniel Boone. —Lorin Stein

That Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” is, in part, a transmutation of birdsong into lines of music has oddly come up several times over the past month, in the course of putting together the Fall issue and elsewhere. At the same time, I’ve found myself returning periodically to Music & Literature’s impressive fourth issue to gaze at the work of British composer Barry Guy, whose graphic scores are translations of sensory experiences relating to literature, painting, and architecture and visual reflections of movement, energy, and pitch. So it felt like the stars had fully aligned when I read Christian Wiman’s “translations” of Osip Mandelstam, from a small collection called Stolen Air. Instead of faithfully translating Mandelstam’s poems, Wiman has created versions of them: though some closely resemble the originals, others, he says, are “liberal transcriptions” and “collisions and collusions” between the two poets. Wiman sought to get at the sound of Mandelstam’s language, its music, without having any knowledge of Russian but feeling buoyed by Mandelstam’s notion of a poet’s “secret hearing.” And so we get silvery, jostling lines like “I love the early animal of her, / These woozy, easy swings” and “Better to live alluvial, / Better to live layered downward, / To be a man of sand, of hollows, shallows / To cling to sleeves of water / And to let them go—” —Nicole Rudick

During my subway rides this summer I’ve been working my way through Leonard Michaels: The Collected Stories, a marvelous compendium of his short fiction from 1969 to 2000—epigrammatic stories that are inimitably raw and perspicacious. My favorite thus far, and probably among the most anthologized, is “Murderers,” a three-and-a-half-page outré narrative, from 1975, about four adolescent boys who sneak onto a Brooklyn rooftop to spy on their rabbi and his wife. They watch as the couple dances and, shortly afterward, makes love, with the great metropolis in the background. Phillip Liebowitz, the narrator, reflects, “I could tantalize myself with this brief ocular perversion, the general cleansing nihil of a view. This was the beginning of philosophy. I indulged in ambience, in space like eons … How many times had we risked shameful discovery, scrambling up the ladder, exposed to their windows—if they looked. We risked life itself to achieve this eminence.” The musings of young Phillip erase all shame in the boys’ watching, so that we’re left wondering what, if anything, was shameful to begin with. Certainly not the “the Statue of Liberty putting the sky to the torch” nor “the shimmering nullity, gray, blue, and green murmuring over rooftops and towers” nor “the view of the holy man and his wife.” —Caitlin Youngquist

Pop Sonnets, a Tumblr devoted to rewriting the choruses of pop songs as Shakespearean sonnets, has been making the rounds on social media lately. Each entry is charming and razor sharp in its appropriation of Elizabethan tropes and terminology. For the uninitiated, sample the concluding couplet of Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies”: “If you truly did wish to win my hand, / you should have graced it with a wedding band.” Pop Sonnets is notable not only for its fun rhymes but for its design, which channels the original typesetting of the 1609 version of Shakespeare’s sonnets, heightening the juxtaposition of old and new, high and low. Sarah Werner at The Collation (the blog of the Folger Shakespeare Library) provides some smart analysis of sonnet typography and what makes the styling of Pop Sonnets feel authentically “old timey.” —Chantal McStay

Earlier in June, I stumbled upon a Banksy graffito near Borough Market—an ape bearing a sandwich board that read “Laugh now, but one day we’ll be in charge.” Banksy’s satirical work has gained widespread media acclaim, and his recent work, Mobile Lovers, sold for £403,000 despite being situated on a public wall in Bristol. As the press stimulates interest in this anonymous artist who communicates strictly through his work and e-mail, I, like many others, couldn’t help but notice his outright appropriation of the Parisian graffiti artist Blek le Rat. Revolutionizing street graffiti in the eighties with his stenciling technique and politically oriented works, Blek le Rat had a colossal influence on subsequent graffiti artists—notably Banksy, who practically replicated his work TV Helmet and included Blek’s signature tag of a rat in his own murals. According to Banksy, “Every time I think I’ve painted something original I find out that Blek le Rat has done it as well, only 20 years earlier.” Yet the notoriety that seemingly bypassed Blek le Rat and has clung to Banksy can oddly enough be attributed to the latter’s ventures outside graffiti. Banksy brought a rebellious and seditious nature to his graffiti at a degree unmatched by Blek le Rat, from surreptitiously hanging his works in New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Metropolitan Museum to setting up a statue of a Guantanamo Bay prisoner in Disneyland. —Luc Lampietti

“Wow! Wow! Wow! Wow! Wow! Wow! Unbelievable! So begins the chorus of Kate Bush’s 1978 hit, (unsurprisingly named) “Wow.” Well, this week certainly marked an unbelievable event in the calendar of every Bush enthusiast: the start of her sold-out tour in the UK, her first tour in thirty-five years. And she certainly did not disappoint, judging from the reports of giant paper airplanes, chain saws, and bird-masked figures that filled the Hammersmith Apollo on Tuesday. The theatrical staging of her latest performance only strengthens the impression I have had of her since my first encounter with Wuthering Heights—as a singer who not only performs her songs but also dramatizes them into fantastical narratives that can transport the listener from “the wiley, windy moors” to the futuristic science labs of Experiment IV. Her flexibility and creativity as an artist mean that her tour has, inevitably, exploded onto the scene like “a rubber band bouncing back to life.” —Helena Sutcliffe

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