Thursday, March 29, 2012

Aburdly Arrhythmic Absurdistan Accounting

I'm returning Gary Shteyngart's "Absurdistan" to the library soon and I never did post anything about it, so here is a parting thought or two, though much of it was covered in our Russian-themed meeting last month.

Once again, I tended to like it more than the group's average likefulness distribution, and I didn't have problems with some of the dislikes. I thought his insertion of himself into the story worked well and was more than just obligatory, crass self-deprecation of the kind we've almost come to demand nowadays - it was a great foil for the main character as well as a quick portrait of complexity - someone who seems not to have the privilege of Misha but who also is revealed ultimately to have the same cynically viewed shortcomings as everyone else in this sprawling narrative.

What I liked most about this book is how well it talks about ethics, enlightenment and the universal human condition without ever really talking about them directly. Shteyngart packs so much skepticism and ironic humor into nearly every sentence of every paragraph while playing off of the reader's [hopefully] jaundiced eye that he sweeps you along with such moment by moment head-nodding, cringing, and guffawing that the character development and insight happens right underneath your feet before you even realize that's what happening.

I yearned for development once he witnessed a group execution which includes someone he'd just gotten to know but I didn't really feel it happening, only to realize later (once he gets hit on the head with a rock and finally experiences a moment of obvious paradigm shift) that the earlier incident (and others) were indeed steps along the path, each incrementally cracking the facade, slipping feet in the doors for change.

One favorite scene was the attempt to barge into the American consulate in St. Petersburg after way too much vodka consumption (is there such a thing in Russia as over-consumption of vodka?) only to be turned back by two young Russian soldiers in American-provided uniforms who ineffectively beat on him as he offered helpful hints such as "choking or kidney-punching are probably your only hope". They end up collapsed on the sidewalk together slugging vodka and experiencing a camaraderie and connectedness that is a reversal of and in interesting contrast to the later story arc where two other young (non-Russian) soldiers ferry him around in Absurdistan humoring his imperatives until order breaks down and they turn on him like feral animals.

I also like the immediacy and intimacy (for better or worse) of the spaces these people inhabit - when someone is in your face to talk to you or kiss you, you feel pinpricks of spittle landing on your cheeks, or you can tell that they had garlic lamb for lunch earlier in the day!

On a conceptual and cultural level, it is rife with inline humor and observation and let me just say that since I didn't win the recent Mega-Millions I should at least get a chance at a Golly Burton goodie bag or a sampling of the latest scents from the prestigious 718 perfume store, like its premier Ghettoman aftershave ... For that matter, I'm also glad not to have a toxic lump that needs massage, though I guess the point of that is that we all have one of those on some level or the other and yes, they need massaging from time to time.

Finally, a personal note: A long-time friend of mine, Maud Humphrey, passed away unexpectedly and early from this life while I was reading this book. I was about halfway through it when I discovered that in fact Maud has recently read it and liked it quite a lot, and was further surprised to talk to her son who had the book and was getting ready to read it, as Maud had given it to him after finishing it (or bought it for him and then read it herself first, knowing Maud!). So I don't know, maybe that unfortunate setting helped me put other issues aside and really allow the book to enter and inhabit my world for a bit so I could really get to know and like it. I don't know.

Perhaps I'm just not critical enough because for the most part I've found PBR Bookclub selections to be wonderful experiences, through and through ("Ready Player One" was the closest I came to criticism and I mostly side-stepped it then by lowering expectations for the book as being more or less a playful low-brow homage to video games). So I blame the clubbers - pick a crappy work now and then and perhaps I'll find something to truly disparage!

Friday, March 23, 2012

Richard Offers 5 Observations on Miranda July's No One Belongs Here More Than You

[contains spoilers, but it's no big deal, since nothing much happens in most contemporary short stories anyway]

1) I was immediately intrigued with the first story's incorporation of very funny New Age-speak ("These days people are too angry for stabbing. What you might try is punching."). It's a little like George Saunders...except NO ONE does this better than George Saunders. But my hopes for these interesting stylistic touches fizzled pretty quickly. Most of the stories are fairly traditional.

2) For me, the longer stories are easily the best. With some of these, she comes close to developing actual three-dimensional characters, whereas the shorter pieces just feel like an extension of what many of us might imagine July herself to sound like (these shorter stories tend to blur together for me, with all the voices seeming like the same character). I liked "The Sister," which tries on a male POV as our older narrator falls head-over-heels for the imaginary sister of his older friend (a bit like the imagined realities that take flight around the young boy's chatroom messages in July's film Me and You and Everyone We Know). And I dug "Something That Needs Nothing" in which Pip joins a peep show (any story that contains references to Paris, Texas and Harry Dean Stanton is aces in my book).

3) There's an interesting recurring image in this collection of characters frozen in moments (often mundane actions) who believe that their next movement will alter the course of their existence. Look at Pip at the end of "Something That Needs Nothing": "If no customers came in, I would yell the word 'Quit.'" Or the narrator near the end of "Ten True Things": "I was still holding the dust cloth, and I knew that if I could let it fall, I would be able to move again." Or the narrator of "Making Love in 2003" staring at the tree-trimmer outside: "If he saw me, I would live." So what do we make of this? Some statement on the paralysis of the modern condition, no doubt? (make links to Beckett's Waiting for Godot...).

4) As Abby's post points out, July is very good at capturing the awkwardness of life and the loneliness and difficulty of relationships. Look at this passage from "It Was Romance": "I got up and stood alone in the hallway and pressed my face to the wall. It was wood-paneled and smelled like pee, as so many things do. Romance. My apartment. Romance. My Honda. Romance. My skin condition. Romance. My job." It's a funny juxtaposition of how "reality" brushes up against the necessary illusions of "romance." But, based on this collection, I remain a bit unclear on what sets her apart from any number of other contemporary short story writers who are mining this same vein? I'll await your answers at the Tap on April 9.

5) I wrote this whole piece up to now without using the word "twee."

Monday, March 12, 2012

Abby's reaction

I like to think that Miranda July and I are similar people. For one thing, our hair is the same. Also, we’re both awkward, whimsical people who spend a lot of time (too much time?) in our own heads, although I’d say she’s probably got me beat in the awkward and whimsical departments. I guess what I’m saying here is that regardless of whether or not July is “twee,” or even regardless of whether “twee” is or is not a bad thing; I’m pre-disposed to like July’s work, because I feel like we are coming from similar places.

I found that the best stories in “No One Belongs Here More than You” are stories that seem to reflect July’s own personality and weird sense of humor, and that also reflect the way she sees herself. My favorite piece in this collection is “Majesty,” about a character who becomes obsessed with Prince William after he appears to her in a dream. I think this story in particular distills what I like about July better than any of the other stories in the book. For example, this passage:

“His sons will all be beautiful and strapping royalty, and my daughters will all be middle-aged women working for a local nonprofit and spearheading their neighborhood earthquake-preparedness groups. We come from long lines of people destined never to meet.”

It’s one of those lines that seems so instantly true and funny and a little sad that it makes you laugh out loud. Also, I think it made me laugh because I automatically identified. Not only will my children probably work for a local nonprofit, I will probably end up working for a local nonprofit. That is me.

But as much as I like July, I find that “No One Belongs Here More than You” contains both the good and the bad aspects of her art, the stuff that makes people really dislike her as well as what makes her so unique. “Mon Plaisir,” for example, had me rolling my eyes in disgust. I realize (or rather I hope) it’s satire, since the couple in the story are so ridiculously self-involved and sentimental and new-agey, but I can only take so many serious discussions about yoga and Buddhist mediation before I find myself skipping pages. I think that serious treatment of trivial, whiny stuff is why some people don’t find themselves connecting with July’s films. I think it all depends on what you view as whiny or trivial. One person’s goldfish on a car roof is another’s complaints about tai chi instructors, I guess.

Overall, I really enjoyed this short story collection, and am glad we read it. I’m looking forward to hearing what you all thought!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Miranda July: Definition of a Hipster Multi-media Artist

We are always looking for hipster books to read for our PBR Book Club.  Our current book of short stories is written by quirky hipster Miranda July.  We know July as a filmmaker and as a writer, but July is also a well known visual artist.  Her art involves interactions with people and words and is web and performance based.

One of her main works, a web project that lasted seven years called Learning to Love You More, has been acquired by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The online project  was started in 2002 and ended in 2009, and worked with over 8,000 participants. July and others created assignments for the participants to complete.  Participants accepted the assignment, completed it, and sent in the required report (photograph, text, video, etc), and their work was posted on-line. Examples of assignments include spending time with a dying person, braiding someone's hair, and growing a garden in an unexpected spot. 
Assignment #66 Make a field guide to your yard 

Assignment #62 Make an educational public plaque

In another project set up in Washington Square in New York in 2010 called Eleven Heavy Things, July set up a series of gray pedestals with text written on them by July herself, encouraging people to stand on and interact with its components.

Reaction to July's movies, books, and art have mixed reviews. In an October 2011 Guardian article by Paul Harris entitled Miranda July-doyenne of the art house chic or epitome of trendy indulgence?, he writes "To their fans, the works of July, Anderson and Baumbach are whip-smart and intelligent. But to their critics they are indulgent and overly focused on the perceived problems of a literary, white middle class......The criticism against July and others who create similar genres of art are nearly always rooted in the same arguments. Their work is all too often
twee and overly self-conscious..."

I love the the new buzz word "twee" and I actually love July's art. Whether or not you love or hate July's work, July is the definition of a multi-media artist.  More about her work and her artist statement can be found at:

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

A Hip-Hop Mix for Misha & Alyosha-Bob

In the opening pages of Absurdistan, Misha tells us a little about his favorite hobby:
"Alyosha-Bob and I have an interesting hobby that we indulge whenever possible. We think of ourselves as the Gentlemen Who Like to Rap. Our oeuvre stretches from the old-school jams of Ice Cube, Ice-T, and Public Enemy to the sensuous contemporary rhythms of ghetto tech, a hybrid of Miami bass, Chicago ghetto tracks, and Detroit electronica. The modern reader may be familiar with "Ass-N-Titties" by DJ Assault, perhaps the seminal work of the genre."
Making this hip-hop mix for you, PBR Book Club, was the most fun ever! To honor Misha and Alyosha-Bob, I disciplined myself to stay away from political and conscious raps and instead piled on the ghetto tech. "Ass-N-Titties," of course, is on the mix. And: plenty of old-school.

Track List (* = mentioned in the book):
  • 1. Salt-n-Pepa: "I Like to Party"
  • 2. Lil' Kim: "Big Momma Thang"
  • 3. * Mr. FReDeRiCK: "Dick Work"
  • 4. Notorious B.I.G.: "One More Chance"
  • 5. Ol' Dirty Bastard: "Got Your Money"
  • 6. * DJ Assault: "Ass-N-Titties"
  • 7. Clipse: "Dirty Money"
  • 8. * Ice Cube: "Look Who's Burnin'"
  • 9. DJ Funk: "Every Freakin Night"
  • 10. * Ice-T: "What About Sex?"
  • 11. Tupac: "What'z Ya Phone No."
  • 12. LL Cool J: "Back Seat"
  • 13. Boogie Down Productions: "Super Ho"
  • 14. Peaches: "Set It Off"
  • 15. Eric B. and Rakim: "Paid In Full"
  • 16. Nas: "N.Y. State of Mind"
  • 17. Notorious B.I.G.: "Juicy"
  • 18. Boris S.: "Don't You Wanna Pussy Ride"
If you didn't get a mix cd yet and you want one, let me know! Also, the sound quality of those already out there might be kind of sketchy. Will totally burn you a new one if you ask.

Friday, March 2, 2012


I was thinking it was fate that we chose to read this book, because as it happened I read a majority of it while I was in Saint Petersburg, Russia. However, it turned out that this was not really a book about my beloved Saint Petersburg. Nevertheless Shteyngart paints an honest if sneering picture.

“Now, it’s no secret that St. Petersburg is a backwater, lost in the
shadow of our craven capital, Moscow, which itself is but a third-world
megalopolis teetering on the edge of some spectacular extinction.”

Absurdistan fed the reader some gorgeous pearls of Russian experience like,
“I absolutely refuse to sleep with one of my co-nationals. God only knows where they’ve been.” And my personal favorite,““ It’s Monday,” Lyuba said. “I never get pregnant on a Monday.””

There’s no question that the author has a clever and poignant turn of phrase. Like a tourist, he runs past a subject taking a memorable snapshot. And like all tourists, the subject really isn’t the countries they visit, but the luggage they bring with them. Shteyngart seems to abandon a chance to say something more about the Russian soul than this:

“I’ve been to Europe. The streets are cleaner, but there’s no Russian soul.
Do you know what I’m talking about here? You can’t just sit down with a
man in Copenhagen and look him in the eye over a shot glass and
then-boof-you are brothers forever.”

For @bananasuit I will leave the obvious but necessary commentary on how each woman is portrayed as a glittering, money obsessed, sex octopus. That discussion I hope will address the protagonist’s “generalized fear of women”.

In spite of its charm and wit, Absurdistan seemed to me like a big wet kiss to Voltaire. What am I to learn from the revenge fantasy of a lovably despicable fat guy? Was there something about human weakness I didn’t already know? Was the reader to think that a superfluous man could find love without God? Will Jorge Garcia be cast as Misha in the film? I didn’t learn anything about love from Absurdistan that a tube of KY and some anal beads don’t know. Even though the social and political commentary is razor sharp, I never really felt like the author had anything more to tell the reader than a memorable story.
Don’t get me wrong. I love this book. If for no other reason than that Snack Daddy and I agree: “Let me tell you something: without good friends, you might as well drown yourself in Russia.”

“…and what is worst of all, our intelligent, depressive citizenry has been replaced by a new race of mutants dressed in studied imitation of the west…”

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Bananasuit on Weiner & Weiners, or: Why Lady Writers Love to Hate on Shteyngart

I wish I could parse the following out for all you lazy hipsters, but I think I'm going to go down a few PBRs instead. Several months ago, chick lit authors Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult picked a fight with male literary darlings Gary Shteyngart and Jonathan Franzen. This blogger does a nice job describing the feud, or you can also read about it at HuffPo.

In a nutshell, Weiner complained in this feminist tweet: "NYT sexist, unfair, loves Gary Shteyngart, hates chick lit, ignores romance. And now, to go weep into my royalty statement." (Interestingly enough, Weiner and Shteyngart now appear to be bff on Twitter.)

And our March author, Miranda July, has the same complaint about twee male filmmakers: "All those men [like Noah Baumbach and Wes Anderson] are also personal. I don’t mind that, but I do mind that it’s not really questioned, whereas I or another woman is looked at as so self-obsessed. Men are just not being judged in the same way. They’re never going to be annoying in the same way." (Thanks, Richard, for pointing us to the source article!)

And so I pose the feminist dilemma to you, PBR bookclub: are chick lit, or "twee", female artists getting the fuzzy end of the lollipop when they create personal art? First: crack open your PBR. And now: discuss!