Culture To Go


BOOKS

Will Self

Grey Area

Viking

Self (self) v.t., v.i.--to self-pollinate or produce young from one's own gamete pool. Humans can't do this; the mere attempt conjures images of frosty test-tubes in Deutschlander labs, or cousins as lovers with cross-eyed young. Whenever British phenom Will Self picks up the pen, the prose that emerges is just as fantastic and disturbing (and often unfulfilling) as the notion of the hominid selfing itself. In his novel My Idea of Fun, a portly eidetic discovers that his business mentor is the Devil. In the paired novellas Cock and Bull, a bloke develops a vagina behind his knee. Yet only in his most recent story collection, Grey Matter, does Mr. Self devote his fertile and febrile imagination to real creation instead of elaborate onanism.

"There are only eight people in London," begins the opening story, "Between the Conceits," "and fortunately I am one of them." The narrator goes on to suggest that these eight people control legions of plebes down to the tiniest detail: homicide, handshakes, bad birthday presents. It's evocative. Delusional. Kafkaesque. In "Inclusion(TM)," an antidepressant pharmaceutical trial with bee mite powder goes awry as the drug causes a subject to physically absorb his surroundings. In the closing piece, a bereft woman makes an odyssey across London, infecting each couple she meets like a Typhoid Mary of the heart. In these loosely connected (and stylistically adventuresome) tales, the author diagrams the convoluted wiring between selves. That the resulting circuit is singularly eerie is a credit to its clever solderer. (Michael Tortorello)

Michael Pye

The Drowning Room

Viking

Trashy historical fiction is a bit like a veggie burger piled with Velveeta: delightfully base, yet virtuous underneath. No matter how inane the plot, you should be able to come out of the book having learned something about history. The Drowning Room, however, doesn't quite fit the classical parameters of historical fiction. More emphasis is placed on the characters' thoughts and feelings than on describing the historical setting, and the little dialogue that occurs sounds more like contemporary TV than 17th-century Amsterdam. (Says the sailor to the girl: "Do you want to go for a drink?" "I don't know." "What else have you got to do?" "I've got everything to do, but I'd still like
a drink.")

Well, no matter. Once you get the swing of the narrative, which shifts abruptly throughout from the childhood recollections of a 17th-century Dutch woman to "present time," it's an enjoyable book. Gretje has ventured over the sea to settle in New Amsterdam, and finds herself working unself-consciously as beggar, housemaid, whore, and actress, scattering a few offspring and one great love affair along the way. Author Pye created his main character when, conducting research for a different book, he came upon court records on a certain Gretje Reyniers noting a few petty scandals, including public lewdness and minor assaults. She was reputed in particular for shouting out in court: "I've been the nobility's whore long enough! I want to be the people's whore!" Would that Pye, instead of taking her words at face value, had conjured a more well-rounded, if not wholesome spirit for this Gretje. (Amanda Ferguson)

ZINES

2600: The Hacker Quarterly

This lo-fi journal for the high-tech outcast has been around for years and can now be found lurking on racks everywhere from independent bookstores to Barnes and Noble. Having managed to capture a dedicated national and international following, 2600 could be called the Maximum Rock 'N' Roll of cyberspace, with readers reporting various discoveries and observations of their hacking "scenes." Unlike slick Internet publications pitching endless amounts of software and upgrades, this mag doesn't concentrate on being an extension of the system, but rather on beating the system.

The focus here is on pure technical information presented with a defiant attitude. Topics range from outsmarting police interrogations to very detailed schematic drawings of computer systems and altered tone dialers. Straddling the line between the legal and illegal, 2600's language is full of innuendo and euphemisms, with most of its writers using false names. Meeting sites, usually pay phone numbers or food courts at malls, are posted for 2600 hackers' groups all over the nation, and its classifieds even include an individual from Minneapolis who wants help with "clearing [his] credit report." Now that's what I call technical assistance. (Paul D. Dickinson)

VIDEO

Meet the Feebles

Dead Alive Productions

I don't know about you, but last year's Heavenly Creatures was not what I expected from a tale of parricide. I anticipated something slow and dour; instead it was electrifying, with the aspect of a wicked grin. So I got to wondering about the director, Peter Jackson--where, other than New Zealand, was he coming from? Turns out Jackson cut his teeth as an auteur of cheapies calculated (successfully) to offend: a sci-fi film called Bad Taste, in which people get eaten by space aliens with atrocious table manners; and Dead Alive, a way-over-the-top horror movie that climaxes in the massacre, by lawnmower, of a houseful of zombies. And then there's this one...

Made in '89 but released on video only after the success of Heavenly Creatures, Meet the Feebles is a backstage musical enacted entirely by animal puppets. These are not, however, the kind of characters you buy for your children to cuddle. They're pumped full of vanities, insecurities, and drugs, and obsessed with sex--just like real theater people. A lizard performs his knife-throwing routine whilst in the throes of smack withdrawal. A hippopotamus chanteuse loses first her figure, next her boyfriend, finally her mind. In the basement, a rat produces skin (hide?) flicks featuring a cow with four enormous, hugely-nippled teats. Journalism is represented by a coprophagous fly. And if you've ever wanted to see a walrus shtup a Siamese cat, this is your chance. Meet the Feebles may or may not be clever; it's certainly crass, disgusting, and deeply cynical. I enjoyed it. (Steve Schroer)

Road Scholar

Hallmark Home Entertainment

Nobody knows America like a horny Jewish-Romanian expatriate ex-dissident closet aging hippie poet. Nobody loves America like Andrei Codrescu. Native to a land where only Big Brother had the big guns, now child of a country where they let the little people shoot each other, the NPR commentator lies on the desert floor and fires a massive mounted gun at a target. "You can feel the power surge. It's almost mystical!" Codrescu hates guns. And loves them. And hates himself for loving them. And while he's ultimately unconverted by their quasi-spiritual charms, he does unearth a subtle divinity in other American perversions such as drive-thru weddings, retirement-community garage rockers (One Foot in the Grave), and roller-skating Christians. They're all part of a tragicomic documentary road trip in search of America's soul--or was it Codrescu's?--finally available on video two years after its theatrical release.

Armed with Slavic skepticism and a poet's pith, Codrescu revisits sites of his own late-'60s quest for Walt Whitman's America, and is continually disappointed. A prison now stands across the street from Whitman's house. Former peaceniks have become warrior/capitalist Sikhs or spirituality supershoppers. Yet (toward the end of his trip, of course) he does manage to find something redemptive in this culture, and the only subjects who truly refute America--the dwellers of Taos Pueblo--are the very breath of the beast. Impossible as it is, Codrescu's America is held together by pure mystery: He finds that "Paradoxically, the most materialistic country in the world is also the most spiritual." I hope he's onto something. (Kate Sullivan)

CD-ROMS

Bartlett's Familiar Quotations,
Expanded Multimedia Edition

Time Warner Electronic Publishing

As digital storage gets increasingly compact and exquisite, there will develop an inverse form of territorialism. Connoisseurs of info storage will battle one another, like czars collecting Fabergé eggs, to have ever more facts, quotes, sounds, images, and words in ever smaller containers. It will become a kind of addiction: to have not one but 10 Encartas; to pile up art-ROM collections or Complete Works Of like so many crystal belladonna jars. This rampant rage to assemble everything (Eurocentric, though apologetic) now includes the Bartlett's people, who are no longer content with providing handy (though potentially inappropriate) quotes for B.S.-ing sophomores. They are now supplying these sophomores, and those Rotarian speakers, and I suppose a minister or two, with pictures! sounds! and teeny-tiny movies!

This new version of the old standby is at first glance an impressive cabinet of wonders: Enter "gun" and you get various texts, but you also get a picture of Colt's Revolver (c. 1836-1847). Look up the same gun on its "Media Timeline" and you find it in accidentally poetic proximity to a placid Japanese woodcut, an English painting of a train, and Edward Hicks's oft-quoted The Peaceable Kingdom (lions with lambs, etc.). But choose the search terms "violent" and "entertainment" and the gun doesn't show up at all. (Neither does Samuel Jackson from Pulp Fiction.) So while it's pretty and teasingly comprehensive, this disc doesn't get irony and offers little in the way of context. Images of the city of Giralda and of Angkor Wat show up (full-screen) but without a hint of where they actually are. And, as on the World Wide Web, authors both revered and long-since discredited share status. Is this good or bad? It suggests something like a Borges world, where--as one of his personae once said--the hint is always present of the "total book" lying somewhere. This isn't that book but it points the way. (Phil Anderson)

LASERDISCS

Alphaville

The Criterion Collection/The Voyager Co.

It helps to know that Jean-Luc Godard's original title for this sci-fi/noir/whatever hybrid was Tarzan vs. IBM. In other words, it's about an iconic tough guy (Lemmy Caution, hardboiled detective) who swings into action against a futuro-corporate menace bent on suppressing creativity and controlling the world. Take the metaphor another step and Alphaville could just as well be called Godard vs. Bourgeois Narrative Cinema. I'm sure JLG would appreciate the irony that his mid-'60s-era technophobic vision is now more clear than ever on this, a flawless laserdisc with digital sound and a high price tag.

Especially these days, it's hard to imagine an anticapitalist sci-fi epic sans FX, but that's Alphaville: The film's omnipotent computer is basically a high-beam headlight with a gravelly voice (no-budget auteurs take note!), while Godard does more with a sterile office building and some men in white coats than George Lucas did with his whole megabucks Death Star. And therein lie the movie's plot and subplot: Both Caution and Godard must thwart the power structure by asserting and subverting. Ultimately, it's a stalemate. As in Blade Runner, the Detective Hero rescues the Woman with No Feelings, and the two drive off toward greener pastures; but in neither film does the happy ending begin to convince. Indeed, in Godard's recent Alphaville sequel, Germany Year 90 Nine Zero, the director and his alter ego are still under siege, this time from a New World Order and the same old shit. (Rob Nelson)

MUSIC

various artists

Czeching In

Skoda Records

It didn't take much to be subversive back in Prague's bad old days: Just doing Velvet Underground covers could get you busted, and writing honestly about the simple misery of being human was heresy. In that sense, the Party elite did Czech rockers a favor, because underground music never got lost in a politics-as-identity shtick, and when the curtain was lifted they still had plenty to rock about.

So if the music on Czeching In, the first American compilation of Czech/Slovak pop, is abstract, complicated, silly, and more aggressive in its aesthetics than its politics, consider it a blessing. The set opens with the spastic boogaloo of "Light Explosion"--sort of "Dragnet" on speedy barrio ecstasy--by world-music man-children Sum Svistu. There's a marvelous "We're here, we're weird, get used to it" attitude at work here, and in most Czech/Slovak art-pop, with an aesthetic sensibility reminiscent of our own late Wallets: Naturally a polka accordion goes with a funk bass. Of course Kurt Weillian melodies should be sung in gibberish, backed by a six-piece ska brass section. Further on, Tornádo Lue--who mostly use Sylvia Plath's poems as lyrics--spew bittersweet bile like a hard-assed Björk, and Uz Jsme Doma epitomize the frenetic Czech marriage of punk, ska, and jazz on the cut "Jassica," a pub song about a whale and a sailor and their giraffe love child that only hints at the operatic desperation of their live shows. (See A-List, p.33.)

Also included are baby boomers Yo Yo Band (feel-good reggae) and Buty; Laura a Její Tygri, a convulsive 14-piece brass ska/jazz rock band; Zuby Nehty (guitarless, all-female sisters to Stereolab); and ska stompers Sto Zvírat. Uz Jsme Doma's album Hollywood(another Wallets connection?) is due for an April release on Skoda, but if we're going to be deprived of full records from Sum Svistu and Tornádo Lue, a Czeching In sequel is mandatory--and should include Slunicko, the country's finest hard rock group. (Sullivan)

Skoda Records, PO Box 1389, Wilmington, DE 19899. CP

Lewis Blackwell and David Carson

The End of Print: the Graphic Design of David Carson

Chronicle Books

In case you still don't know who David Carson is, he's the mythic ex-surfer, ex-high-school teacher who, with minimal design training, shaped some of the most influential pop culture magazines of the past several years, including Ray Gun (from which he was let go last fall) and Beach Culture. His chaotic and sometimes lush layouts and challenging, if sometimes indecipherable text have resulted in equal heaps of professional glory and criticism; he's also probably the first graphic designer to have groupies. And though I wouldn't go so far as to call it "the end of print," Carson's work did mainstream the declining tradition of segregating text and image, transforming both into layered, multi-channeled, multi-meaning print: He made paper the equivalent of multimedia.

The Carson "look" became a commodity in itself, with the likes of Pepsi and Nike signing him on to help capture the youth market. Indeed, as you'll see from the abundant illustrations in The End of Print, Carson is quite talented; but contrary to what he and co-author/design commentator Lewis Blackwell would have you believe, he didn't rise out of the surf like Venus. Blackwell, editor of the British magazine Creative Review, is remiss for promoting Carson's view of himself as a renegade outside of design history. His destabilization of print is much in the spirit of the raw, experimental Dutch design of the '80s, and goes even further back to the type experimentation of the Dada and Futurist movements; cross-fertilization between Carson and designers at schools (including Cranbrook and Cal-Arts) was another influence. Fortunately, David Byrne does a much better job of framing Carson's work in an introductory essay, comparing it to music in its ability to communicate directly, and at a level that has nothing to do with logic and rationality. Meanwhile, I still can't tell if I'm in the presence of artistic genius or design-wank eye-candy. (Anne Galperin)

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