The Dazzle of Day

I first bought Molly Gloss’s The Dazzle of Day (Macmillan, 1998) when it came out because of the cover. Something about the colors… I kept picking it up, putting it back, and then coming back to the shelf. Once I read the back-cover copy and the Ursula K. Le Guin blurb, I was in.

I’ve had a copy of the book off and on ever since. Last year Saga Books reissued it with a new cover by one of my favorite artists. Jeffrey Alan Love‘s blotchy, blocky ink monoliths make great single panels and book covers. This one is no exception.

So, I bought it again because of the cover.

Obvious cliché aside, I am happy to say that the story lives up to the shine I got from both covers. The Dazzle of Day is about a society escaping the depleted bonds of earth in search of a new planet of resources. While most of the book occurs on a craft in space, it doesn’t read like traditional hard science fiction. There’s a heart, a warmth, a depth that is often missing in such precise speculations.

It’s not just the corporeal characters and their day-to-day activities and anxieties that make this book so deeply moving but the poetic way that Gloss describes all of this: maintaining the ship, doing the chores, exploring a new planet, experiencing a stroke, love, lust, loss… While reading it, I took pictures of whole pages and paragraphs and sent them to friends. It’s engaging at every scale.

If you’re looking for an escapist read that will still make you feel human when you return, look no further than The Dazzle of Day. And don’t miss Molly Gloss‘s other books, as well as Jeffrey Alan Love‘s own fabulous books and other designs.

Memoirs and Misinformation

Bret Easton Ellis has made a career out of thinly skinning his own experiences with a fictional sheen. All the way back to his college days with Less Than Zero (1985) and The Rules of Attraction (1987) through his layers of postmodernism with Glamorama (2000) and Lunar Park (2006). Given his fictionalized appearance in Lunar Park, the main character is named Bret Easton Ellis after all, I was sure White (Knopf Doubleday, 2019), his first work of nonfiction, would blur similar lines. It’s by no means an autobiography, but it does have those elements, as well as being based in our current consensus-less reality.

Who knew that American Psycho (1991), Ellis’s most violent and overtly ironic novel, would be the most relevant 30 years later? The Wall-Street serial psycho, avatar of detached dismemberment and manic misogyny, Patrick Bateman could be president now, and he’s nothing if not his contemporary. The way that Ellis flattened out the descriptions of Bateman’s routines is one of the most unsettling aspects of that book. Whether brushing his teeth or cutting off a human head, discussing the finer points of a Whitney Houston song or which tools work best on bone, Bateman’s affect remains steady. The heightened events are the most trivial: missing dinner reservations or sales on suits, or whose business card or haircut was best. The problem with irony as such is that it is so often lost. The problem with Bateman and American Psycho is that without the irony, it doesn’t work. It’s just layers of shiny surfaces and toned abs at best, and abject horror at worst. The problem with our current moment is that without the irony, it doesn’t work. It’s just layers of fake facts and reposted untruths at best, and abject horror at worst. Bret Easton Ellis demonstrates this in fact and in fiction. Twitter as theater. Vitriol as validation.

In the preface to his 1997 book Doom Patrols, Steven Shaviro explains that it is a work of theoretical fiction because he treats “discursive ideas and arguments in a way analogous to how a novelist treats characters and events.” At the end of the preface, he writes, “Needless to say, this book is autobiographical. Every word.” Jim Carrey and Dana Vachon start Memoirs and Misinformation: A Novel (Knopf Doubleday, 2020) with the Shaviro-echoing line, “None of this is real and all of it is true.” Their book reads like a Bret Easton Ellis novel: some obviously veiled true stories and other obviously made up scenarios contrived to make a point about real events. The main character is Jim Carrey, who has method acted his way through biopics and documentaries alike, so he knows the terrain well. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t get lost every once in a while, but those burning valleys and coastal fractals are some of the best parts of the trip.

The thing about both of these books, one ostensibly nonfiction and the other explicitly fictionalized, is that they are full of characters and events. People playing characters. Events allegedly playing out among characters. People not being real yet playing real all the same. Both approaches accurately sum up the moment we’re living in. All the promises of postmodern persona fulfilled at last. Events and nonevents flattened out all the way to the horizon.

The Day of the Drones

I read A.M. Lightner’s The Day of the Drones (W.W. Norton, 1968) while doing research for my book Dead Precedents: How Hip-Hop Defines the Future (Repeater Books, 2019). Though I didn’t cite it, the book is notable for its reversal of races (“black is beautiful; white is taboo”) and gender roles. 

Lightner wrote several novels and many youth nonfiction nature books under her real name, Alice Lightner Hopf. Her naturalist knowledge shows in her depiction of a white society based on bees in The Day of the Drones.

I don’t remember how I even found this book, but Lightner’s work should be considered right up there with Marge Piercy, Octavia Butler, and Ursula K. Le Guin.

David Grubbs: A Meaningful Pause

David Grubbs has been making notes and noise for decades, from his involvement with bands like Squirrel Bait, Bastro, and the Red Krayola to his many solo and collaborative efforts. His and Jim O’Rourke’s record under the Gastr del Sol name, Crookt, Crackt, or Fly (Drag City, 1994), remains a post-rock touchstone. He still composes and plays, but he has also gracefully eased into academia. After the excellent traditional scholarly work of Records Ruin the Landscape: John Cage, the Sixties, and Sound Recording (Duke University Press, 2014), Grubbs has moved into literary territory more akin with his music.

The kind of improvisation that Grubbs tends toward thrives in live performance. The tension between playing live and recording was part of what Records Ruin the Landscape explored. In Now that the audience is assembled (Duke University Press, 2018), Grubbs turns specifically to live performance, with “the patience of a grand piano, parked and unattended.” Unlike his previous book, this one is built of both prose and verse, sometimes recalling the tetrads of Marshall McLuhan:

It disappears into and emerges
from; disappears into
and emerges

Grubbs switches to the strangeness of recording and the recording studio, where no audience is assembled in The Voice in the Headphones (Duke University Press, 2020). Here there is more tension. A different kind of tension. A tension he is all too obviously familiar with. Where live performance includes feedback from the audience, the recording studio represents the “absence of pushback.” Even in this absence, or perhaps because of it, one must maintain a composing composure. His knowledge of these pressures is palpable in lines like, “File under another future no one wanted.”

These two books combine writing about music with a musical style of writing. They are as much compositions as any of his recordings.

Speaking of, his latest, his second with Taku Unami, Comet Meta (Blue Chopsticks, 2020), continues the duo’s explorations in sound and silence, together and apart. The slow dance of sparse guitar, piano, and various drones mixes with air, background noise, and often a meaningful pause.

This is as much poetry as any of the above.

It’s a lengthy journey from David Grubbs’ scrappy Squirrel Bait days, but the landscape between here and there is littered with documents of both word and sound.

Help Your Self

I always found it frustrating that self-help books are often lumped in with psychology books at the bookstore. Their mingling on the shelves seemed to do at least one of them a disservice.

Even given my bias, I’ve always been mildly fascinated with self-help as a genre. In The Self-Help Compulsion: Searching for Advice in Modern Literature (Columbia University Press, 2020), Beth Blum takes Kenneth Burke’s designation of literature as “equipment for living” much further. She searches novels for the answers to what ails.

Of How-To-titled books like Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (Simon & Schuster, 1936) and Charles Yu‘s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (Pantheon, 2010), Blum writes,

“…advice strives to compensate for the shortsightedness of the present. And with its heady second-person collapse of reader, narrator, and character, the how-to fiction represents the counterfactual space where one’s mature and naïve selves can converse” (p. 232).

Citing an unpublished review from 1939 titled “Dale Carnegie: America’s Machiavelli,” her account of Marshall McLuhan‘s taking issue with Carnegie’s book is especially fun. Mere flattery or a “Way of Life,” McLuhan wasn’t with it.

Blum goes on to cover self-help advice in the work of such literary ghosts as Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Edith Wharton, Virgina Woolf, and Samuel Beckett, as well as modern music moguls like 50 Cent and DJ Khaled, among many others.

My other favorite of these meta-self-help books is Promise Land: My Journey through America’s Self-Help Culture by Jessica Lamb-Shapiro (Simon & Schuster, 2014). Her insights into the genre are unique. During Lamb-Shapiro’s second year here, her mother died. Her father wrote self-help books for decades. The latter was never forthcoming about the former. The list of things she endured while writing this book (e.g., walking on hot coals, talking to over thirty aspiring self-help writers, helping make a vision board, selling mental health products at an Asperger’s convention, watching suicide prevention videos online, eating breakfast with over a hundred grieving children, facing her fear of flying, etc.) probably don’t compare to that. Something that could probably be said for all of us, hence the tenacity of self-help as an industry.

“It’s nearly impossible to live in the world and escape self-help,” writes Lamb-Shapiro. “We are surrounded all the time by its bastard derivatives.” Beth Blum agrees, “self-help is everywhere.” From the cult of self-care to the mindfulness movement, from hang-in-there posters to keep-blank-and-carry-on memes, daily affirmations can be as useful as they can dangerous.