Monday, June 30, 2008

I like the meta of chess more than the execution of it. You look at the language people use to describe chess and it sounds so dramatic: attack, defend. Games are played with unique style from opening to endgame. Strategies and opponents, trading and counter-attacks. Chess gains the prestige of life-metaphor, in some way that's never made sense to me. Because the description is the metaphor, while the game itself is just pieces being moved according to rules with goals in mind. Which, sure, itself, could be sort of a life-metaphor. But it's not a terribly dramatic one. Though in one mood or another one might concede (concede!) to it the status of honesty.

Of course, I'm jaded, because I've long since learned that to become good at chess is to seek to be as close to the "best" at it out of everybody in the world who plays it, and that "close" will never be a word one will ever use to describe my level of chess mastery, and that for as much as you might study the game, there's still only so far you'll ever get, and it will never be far enough, so I might as well go off and start a litblog or something, in which realm at least nobody cares who's better than who. Right?



Anyway, I started reading The Yiddish Policemen's Union today, in which Michael Chabon describes the book Three Hundred Chess Games as being "the book of orderly surprises," which I think might be the most accurately beautiful possible description of a book about chess that can be had. Because, really: nothing is new, though perception makes it so, and anyway seriously fuck Chabon for making the composition of a phrase like that seem so effortless. Come on. Jealousy is unbecoming.

Bellows (part four)

(Click here for part one.)

(Click here for part two.)

(Click here for part three.)

Of course, every happy city is unique, and every city built to be so, doubly so. Meaning there's always challenges to be overcome; certainly our biggest was the presence of so much poverty in our future riverbed. Then there were the dogs. We'd intended for our wealthy to be cat people, but no. I blame geopolitics. When one of our leaders labelled our enemies as "sleeping cats we could ill-afford to allow to lie idly, dreaming up new ways to scratch and claw at the bare legs of freedom and free thinking," it was inevitable that a fashionable sheen would descend upon dogs the likes of which they haven't enjoyed in decades. What nobody could expect was so much such laxity in the way the wealthy treated their pets. A wild dog is one more ready to fight for what it holds dear, true. But. One day, an unparalleled city, the next, the shock of seeing dogs running free over the bridges and up and down the streets of an increasingly awkward-smelling, slippery downtown. Dogs on the elevators, dogs in the coffee rooms, dogs perched on shop counters, howling at the moon and begging for handouts from every Tom, Dick, and Lilly looking to purchase one consumable good or another. Fast action was required. We recruited a fair number of men from the slums to act as dog catchers and clerks at the county kennels, and I admit we were caught with our pants around our ankles and our hands on each others' backs with regards to the readiness of our street cleaning crew, a gap that was filled swiftly and efficiently though it should never have needed to have been so. Only so many jobs could be created and filled this way. Synergistic problems needn't void each other. If anything, they can elevate a mutual amplification--the suicide rate rose as the working-class poor told tales to the poor-class poor of the foods the rich ate and the games they played, the painful brightness at the core of downtown, like a star on earth you could enter, light so white you could taste it like skyfire. It was beautiful, they would say to one another, hovering near their stoves for warmth, drawing their rags and cloths around their shoulders. We shall never never achieve this, will we? Our gray stone will never shine no glimmer, our hopes will perish inches from fulfillment? Death, dread, and dearth.

Yet! Bellowsville has always been a happy place. City architects have access to tools by which they can judge the prosperity of their creations. One is rarely able to visit one's creation first-hand; work never ends, of course, and though I haven't initiated any new projects since the Bellowsville River began to flow, administration is perpetual, and I consult for firms I've kept friendly relations with, I give inspiring speeches to university graduates and political conventions, I mentor the young. So many students of city planning, I feel, show so much promise for the future of our craft. My mother instilled in me early an unavoidable concern for the welfare and ideals of those who come next, inextricably linking my success in life to the joy my departed father feels in his ethereal heart when he cast his all-seeing gaze my way; where would he have ever been without her, she'd asked? My life is no answer. But it keeps me busy. All the same. And, yet, all the same, through the speaking and consulting and training circuit, as it has kept me on the road from weekend to weekend, I have still always found the opportunity to read the e-mails the citizens of Bellowsville sent to each other every day, to check their Internet usage statistics and their spending habits, to review the film they shoot of each other when their guard is most down, to pry open the spreadsheets that collect the details of what they do and, hence, who they are, and, by and large, through it all, as the preparations for the river were made and the lake was filled with water and cleaned and scrubbed and as the fish were placed, ready to swim and breed and make sense of all of this to the people who needed sense to keep them going, the people were happy, pleased, underproductive, true, but content. Such is success. The city was doing well. My job was one well done.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Bellows (part three)

(Click here for part one.)

(Click here for part two.)

Did Ohio do? Or, to put the question less succinctly but with greater accuracy: did Ohio do what Ohio had to do which had to be done? Would you like the truth? I don't know. Hindsight affords clarity but never certainty. I can say I see now how the decision could have been perceived as gutsy or insane. Though many factors were considered, few outcomes could be predicted, and only now can we see the terrible power of desperation. Sure, less death would have occurred in a more sparsely populated state, a state where the key economic indicators were already kept higher by a stronger citizenry. But the critics only see the side of the coin that fell face skyward: pick it up, this tarnished half dollar, the one I found under my pillow when I lost my first tooth, the one I carry with me to this day, the one that has often aided me in making the hardest decisions, the one from which I've always derived my greatest source of hope: turn it over now, feel the beveled edge slide between the tip of your finger and your thumb, and look at the other side of the coin, the side you can't see: witness carnage. The creation of new cities on the lands of our enemies by our nation's youngest and brightest minds, blinded by lack of experience and led by ideals into defecting: city after city, raised only to be razed. Uprising and riots, fire replacing horizons: pain, floods of blood. I am no judge, I am only one with vision. And I will always choose an accident over inevitability.

Percentage points aside, Bellowsville--"Let this magnificence, this approaching artwork," I'd said, the day I'd signed the paperwork, "be my finest calling card, my success"--was no failure: without failure, we can't claim to know the answers are, or even necessarily the questions: the city is beautiful. Wealth and the wealthy who carried it poured into it from both coasts. Their reasons may have been wrong-headed, in that they, I believe, have seen the city from the beginning to be a sort of glorified resort, a place to escape the demands of the real world, like a secret room they always hoped would never belong to anybody more than themselves. Hide but don't seek. A place to achieve a temporary respite from the burdens and tribulations of the old cities of matte stone where we make decisions about new cities of glass and metal. A city survives by the work done within it, and as a result of the new citizenry's collective attitude toward Bellowsville, little real work was performed in the downtown skyscrapers--taller than anything you'll find in New York or Chicago or even St. Martin's Cloak, that former front-runner in the race to be the finest possible work of the hands and minds of man--and less profit was captured within the city limits than was exported outward to the corners of the country. Not that the venture hasn't put a penny or two in my accounts--everything has long since broken even. People still need bread and beer and movies, and in this time of desire for instant gratification, we're unwilling to wait for the day's mail. "Locally owned" and "locally manufactured" have become buzz-phrases sent to the architects of new cities by the angels charged with overseeing such activities from their heavenly perches. Still, though: it's fair to say those first five years were relatively lean ones for we receiving what we'd hoped would be glorious fat.

The slums were what flourished with impudence. It wasn't the arival of the poor came that surprised us; we'd done the research, read the reports; Ohio was littered with poor; the poor long for opportunity; and opportunity can mean nothing more to the destitute than having a vision, the ability to see near them things they could consider hoping to achieve, were they to drudge up within themselves another ounce of survival instinct and consumerist lust. What better place to be than where affordable apartments were placed between towers of glass and metal that bent the morning sunlight into rainbows on one side, and expanses of trees and shrubbery on the other that barely concealed the rich as they pranced about like fawns and baboons playing badminton and eating sushi and drinking Flaming Dr. Peppers? Nevermind the bridges that arced overhead connecting one to the other, the relative lack of roads leading out of the slums. New roads could be built, certainly, new chances to achieve manufactured the same way the ground under their feet was made seemingly overnight. Correct? No: it was the amount of demand for access to our slums that caught us off-guard. We'd built them long and narrow, intending to take only as much space as the river would later require, with little expectation that what we did build would be filled, believing we could easily reform the poor we could in time to make them respectable and valuable members of our wealth-trodden society. But so many came so quickly we had to create a waiting list, our Value Assessment, Realignment, and Training teams could not properly indoctrinate a tenth of the hopeful poor; people camped over mile-wide tracts of land in the lawless areas beyond Bellowsville's borders. That the waiting lists recycled fairly frequently was due to the skyrocketing suicide rates; hope can be a deadening thing.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

"I read the first half of Jesus' Son last night," my girlfriend says.

"How do you like it so far?" I ask.

"It's pretty good."

"Yeah. I love that first story."

"I think you just like stories about car crashes," she says.

"What?" I ask, thinking, But I never even finished that Ballard book. "What other stories about car crashes do I like?"

"Oh, I don't know," she says, in a tone that suggests I'd forget my own name if she asked me what it was, "maybe Interstate? Which is one of your favorite books ever? Which is basically an entire novel about car crashes?"

"Oh, yeah."

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Bellows (part two)

(Click here for part one.)

Suicide, for me, has never been an option. And so, faced with the way things are, have been, and can be, the only thing for me to do was say: Let there be life, light, and water to reflect it. Not that my signature on the project plan was inevitable: things could have been otherwise: my blue-inked scribble represented a courage and vision unmatched. It represented the audacity demanded by a modern city built against an edifice of overwhelming financial and social risk. Broad strokes. An enthusiasm born of old testament passion, trials by fire and salt. I haven't attended services in decades, half a century perhaps, not since before my mother's death, oh, not since long before that, when I could have sat at her side on the hard wooden pew, when she might have set her hand on my hands, whispering, when she could have told me to stop fidgeting, such flagrant disrespect in and for the house of the Lord our God Jesus Christ and all the Angels in Heaven where your dear father waits for you with Fury and Love, in the old church where everything smelled like dust soaked with the perfume of old ladies and the host tasted like burnt butter on my tongue, but I think some measure of the old preacherman's scorn for sin and weakness became ingrained in my veins in my youth, and that, in times of fear and doubt, his voice runs through me, as it did when I announced my plans at the board room table to my team of advisors and partners only moments before signing the plan into action. Nothing could be foretold. Still, I foretold. Initiating this project was to pick up a strange gun, point it at my face, and proclaim my certainty that this weapon contained flowers, not bullets. And then to fire.

Of course, though the rousing applause and the chorus of laudations that its signing occasioned were real--there are those city builders who employ nothing but lackeys, but I've always selected free-thinking individuals, believing that challenging thoughts makes them thrive, with the understanding at all times that properly placed layoffs could give life to any desired measure of momentum, and so I could rest certain that night that the praise was genuine, if underwhelming--the project plan was less so; little more than a symbolic document, the kind of thing they had to have on hand at the National City Planning Oversight Bureau in case anybody anywhere should ever sue someone over something, the document did little more than say that, yes, GWB Enterprises intended to build a city, details to come, Latin Latin, etcetera and so forth, sine qua non. We began hashing out the details that evening. It was a late night. So was the next night. And all the nights that followed. We worked with fervor: nobody was let off the hook: husbands phoned their wives in the hallway outside the boardroom, apologized for missing dinner, apologized for not making it home in days, requested shipment of fresh clothing and new deodorant, apologized for missing birthdays, apologized for missing their children's first steps, first words, first questions. We ate salads from boxes and pizzas on paper plates. Managers slept on their office floors. Planes were booked and vacations were cancelled. Secretaries became dishevelled, lawyers billed triple time, janitors lamented their lot in life, and I never once faltered. We kept busy.

First and foremost came the selection of a site. This came long before the decisions we'd come to make about the clothing our city's new citizens would enjoy (for casual wear, short blue skirts covered in white polka dots and brown light sweaters for the ladies, plaid shorts and dark green polo shirts with popped collars for the gentlemen, and the most adorable tiny suits and sun dresses for the babies and children), the dominant architectural themes of our new city's buildings (modern!, modern!!, modern!!! for our new downtown, hypermodern and tall and functional and sleek and strong, able to withstand the coming strain, a skyline shaped like a whipcrack surrounded on all sides by a residential mix of neo-southern plantations and lush, hypoallergenic growth, large yards and wraparound porches and white gazebos, quaint but freshly painted and entirely inspiring compared to the desperate sameness and gray blockiness of the eastern bloc-esque slums that would slash through one side of the city like an oversight or an error), green space and road plans (tricky, tricky), and the like. We chose a spot in central Ohio for the available space and the elegant distance between it and the jewels of the east coast. It was near enough that nobody would mind travelling to it, but distant enough that, even were it not constructed to be my own personal calling card, had we not painted it to be a true work of art, it would still feel exotic. Almost paradisaical. Debate rose, of course; one subgroup never stopped pushing or Iowa, but Iowa is nonsense; always has been; once a trend, now nothing more than a regret. Pennsylvania and Illinois both close, but Ohio? Ohio, as it always did, when it came time to do, would have to do.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Bellows (part one)

First I built the city. Then I built the river. I normally build rivers before I build their cities. Rivers are more expensive than cities. Building a river through an existing city exponentially escalates expenses, but in this case, I felt the risk was warranted. And though building a river on an untouched piece of land affords me both creative freedom and comparative convenience, I was willing to sacrifice both of these things to do my part for the greater good as well as the profit that seemed, if not promisable, at least possible. I could deal with some measure of short-term nuisance in pursuit of long-term success.

That rivers cost more than cities surprises most first-time city builders. I believe it's the hidden expenses, the ones no project plan or initial estimate can account for, though initial estimates never fail to shock amateurs. There was once a golden age for this sort of thing but I'm afraid there's more soul searching than real city building done these days. A shame. Lacking a variety of ideas, the field suffocates, goes brown. I have done this often enough that I know to expect the unexpected; it's a lesson I've learned the way all good lessons are learned: through failure and repetition. The economy is failing and we are at war; either of these facts alone would raise demand for--while reducing the resources available to--the construction of shiny new cities. Even my most intrepid colleagues, partners, and vendors have been scared by the current state of things back into their holes, where they stoke their accounts in anticipation of the arrival of a more promising time, when they'll all scramble free every which way at once, tripping and trampling each other in their rush to grab the first fresh floating buck. I myself would not have ventured to build so much as a Welcome To sign had not some of my pre-war projects been met with unparalleled, if qualified, success. I'd say my position is the better for it, today.

But yes, I've learned that to cut a corner is to forfeit a square of success. Almost every decision a first-time city builder makes is bad and both they and their work suffer for it. Consider fish. Consider lakes. It's industry tradition that we never account for fish or lakes in our initial cost estimates. Everyone I spoke with the lone idle Sunday I attempted to track down the historical source of this tradition seemed indifferent on the subject; I was a young man, a perpetual optimist, still devoutly religious, still moderately anarchist, still trying to work a goatee. Hope taught me little though the memories make me smile. Now I know well enough that whether or not there's a reason for the way we do business doesn't change the facts of how we do business, and that how we do business is how we do business, and no cause will ever change that effect. Needless to say, the first-time city builder who surmounts the initial obstacle of financing the survey team responsible for selecting the location and size of the necessary lake will come to face the sight of their glittery new river as if through the filter of their drastically shrunken bank account. Inevitably they opt to "hold off on" putting fish into the water, once they realize that fish are the exact opposite of cheap. But fish are not luxury items. Fish and lakes breathe meaning into rivers. Citizens today might never see the fish but they know when the fish are missing. Fishless waters birth nothing but ghost towns and suicides.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The reality is that how I write is immaterial. I have written in the margins of books I happened to be reading, in the steam of shower mirrors, on my own skin, on the hard disk of a 12-inch Powerbook. I have written surrounded by my books in the basement of my then home in upstate New York, in the loneliness of the attic of a former hospital for Plague victims in Antwerp, caught up in the deep despair of wooing an unwooable woman in an ice-cold Berlin apartment, as well as in the blaze of a blossoming love -- it all didn't matter. What matters is the space you inhabit when you write -- you live within the setting and the characters and the truth of the story. All else is circumstance.

I keep forgetting to link to this Paul Verhaeghen interview at The Book Depository that Mark Thwaite tipped me (and you) off to back here.
"Why would you call a character Scribble?"

I don't know, Phil; why would I call you a slant-haired face-jerk?

The Three Musketeers is probably about the only book I could be reading right now: it's energetic and it reads fast but it's still a classic (i.e., it was written several centuries ago) so I can read it for fun while still feeling like I'm doing something good for my brain. I'd be doing something better for my brain if I tried to process all the references and spent a lot more time Wikipediaing things, but, hell. I'm cranky and unmotivated and unapologetically down on myself and I don't need to know who the hell is who to enjoy the ride. And so enjoy the ride I shall, for as long at a stretch as I can before my brain wanders off to get interested in something else, like staring at the carpet. Oh, my brain.

Monday, June 16, 2008

" which point I'll promptly swear off long books again for a while for one week before jumping into The Recognitions or some such nonsense."

Or, like, the Richard Pevear translation of The Three Musketeers, or whatever. (The one with the awesome cover art.)
From various sources. Ain't gonna comment. (I still haven't read Tree of Smoke. I think the paperback is due out in about 2034. Preposterous.)

Thursday, June 12, 2008


That is all. Ahem.
"The shapes of things are bleeding slightly in the heat." Mary Gaitskill reads from a novel-in-progress. (Via.)

(Well-timed. I've been meaning to give Veronica another shot lately.)

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Great opening, awesome ending: Omega Minor by Paul Verhaeghen pretty much totally rules.

Friday, June 06, 2008

...the truth is the truth, independent of who brings it to light. How superficial is authenticity! There is more eloquence, more instruction in the most complicated lie than in a simple truth.

- from Omega Minor by Paul Verhaeghen





...I'm neck deep in section three of Omega Minor and it's pretty much like the book opened up a huge can of oh, snap all over my face. So hooked right now.

(I won't be in the "dragging this out way too long" phase much longer, that's for certain, if my desire to read instead of sleep tonight is anything to go by.)

Thursday, June 05, 2008


The Muttering Retreats CD Release Party will be part of the Music Saves 4th Birthday Bash on Saturday, June 28th, and 9 PM.

I will be wearing a suit.

(You can pre-order their album now.)

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Just to give an example, right now I'm reading a 300-page section right in the heart of 2666. This part, I think, is the main part of this book. It's largely comprised of short (1- to 2-page) police-style narrations of discovering the bodies of murdered women and then brief explanations as to whether the murderer was found or not. That's mostly what this section is, over and over again.

Well that sounds about as much fun as cleaning up a tickle-factory an hour after a delivery of a thousand barrels full of over-hydrated monkeys. Forgive me, gods of lit-hip, but I think I've just decided that life is too short to spend it reading Bolaño.
And--by the by--the Quote of the Week award goes to my girlfriend, on the recent occasion of the (some might say soul-consuming) addition of Dr. Mario Online Rx to TDAOC's World HQ's Wii Ware line-up: "It brings out your competitive side, Darby. Which is a little disorienting."
Also, w/r/t Omega Minor, I should say that graphic sex scenes, Auschwitz scenes, and atomic bomb detonation scenes do not make for the lightest lunch minutes of one's life.

Ah. Hem.

Monday, June 02, 2008

I'm in that annoying "I'm dragging this out way too long, aren't I?" phase of Omega Minor: after g*d knows how many weeks--feels like a thousand--I'm only barely more than 4/7ths of the way through the book. The good news is the book is still good, though not as good (read as: breathlessly disorienting) as those opening hundred pages. There's aspects of the book that trouble me--it can be a little, ah, verbose, from time to time (the book does not in the least feel like a translated work), and it's not quite the action-packed thrill-ride I think I might have thought I was signing on for, and, I mean, not to seem like a prude, but, come on already enough with the penises and the sex-ing--but for the most part I'm with it and plan to be so for however long it takes me to reach the end, at which point I'll promptly swear off long books again for a while for one week before jumping into The Recognitions or some such nonsense.
Grant Bailie's Mortarville is favorably reviewed at The Quarterly Conversation.