On the first day of my writing classes, I make my students do the improv-writing one-sentence exercise. It’s the one where you pick a line from some random source—a book, a magazine, a writing partner—and use it as a jumping-off point to write a story. It’s a great exercise for getting unstuck as a writer, and for scaring the shit out of students on their first day of class.
Coordinated and designed by Mike Corrao, Collected Voices in the Expanded Field (11:11 Press, 2020) contains 34 chapters, each by a different author, all opening with the two 11-word lines, “You see a watering hole. Reprieve from the old dusty path.” Publisher Andrew Wilt compares and contrasts the book to the inexpensive compilations punk labels used to put out. It’s like them in that it’s a good way both for his 11:11 imprint to publish a bunch of authors at once and for readers to find them. It’s different in that though they all have books out, a lot of these authors are not published elsewhere by 11:11. Wilt and Corrao wanted to showcase members of “this weird writing scene” they’re a part of.
The book represents an experiment on several different levels. Outside of the launching lines, the chapters are set in conversation with the chapters around them. That is, this doesn’t quite read like a collection of short stories but one, long loosely linked set of weirdness. There are also whole chapters of script pages, word art, and glitchy layouts. The 34 voices here include Arielle Tipa, Evan Isoline, Candice Wuehle, Ali Raz, Sean Kilpatrick, Tatiane Ryckman, Jake Reber, Mike Kleine, Rosie Šnajdr, and my friends B.R. Yeager and Gary J. Shipley, as well as Wilt and Corrao themselves. It’s one hell of a line-up.
Wretch by Ansgar Allen (Schism Neuronics, 2020) opens with the line, “This is the last machine they will give me, so I hope, since if I do not wreck it, I am healed.” It’s a prison journal of sorts, but it’s difficult not to read it through 2020’s lens of chaos. The machine, the copying of files, phrases like “internal demolition,” and “unreliable reports” all sound way too familiar to anyone locked in their house, scrolling through a feed, reposting nonsense:
No single account can be trusted. Each account may contain the forces of unreason at work within it. There is at least one tear in every account.
In spite of this and because of this, Wretch is a harrowing read. Its dread is unshakable. Its own expanded field is deep inside each of us.
Hip-hop and the scholarship surrounding it are still young enough that its origin story gets repeated to some degree in every book written. In his Bedroom Beats & B-Sides (Velocity Press, 2020), Laurent Fintoni mercifully assumes the reader has a working knowledge of hip-hop’s modes of production and just gets right to it.
The book is built like a collection of mixtapes. Each chapter is a tape, each section is a track, and each track has a producer. It’s a meticulous way to get you into the brains behind the beats. It gives you the utility of a sourcebook and the enjoyment of narrative nonfiction. It’s really effective.
Fintoni has been writing about beats for two decades, and one thing he does that a lot of hip-hop writers don’t do is cover the hip-hop-adjacent electronic beats. There’s a line in there somewhere, and most writers don’t cross it. The beats, the sounds, and the producers do though, and so does Fintoni. Bedroom Beats & B-Sides presents a refreshingly broader picture of the culture, and it’s nothing if not thorough.
I spent most of the 1990s and a lot of the 2000s in Seattle, so reading Emerald Street: The History of Hip-Hop in Seattle (University of Washington Press, 2020) was both mildly nostalgic and wildly educational. I’m versed enough to have been asked to write the Pacific Northwest entry in the St. James Encyclopedia of Hip-Hop (Gale/Cengage, 2017), but Daudi Abe goes much, much deeper than I was able to, due to space of course, but mostly due to knowledge. He has it, I don’t.
Pre-internet Seattle was isolated by geography. It’s way up there in the corner of the country, not a destination and not on the way to one. Touring musicians would typically skip it completely. This gave the region its own sound, even where hip-hop was concerned. From Sir Mix-A-Lot (who also wrote the foreword) to Shabazz Palaces, from Blue Scholars to Oldominion, from Prose and Concepts to Source of Labor, from Kid Sensation to Criminal Nation, from Do the Math to Classic Elements, from my man B-Mello to super-producer Jake One… If every region is to have its own hip-hop history, let them all be as solid and celebratory as Daudi Abe’s Emerald Street.
This year might have been like living in the longest, most boring bottle episode ever, but it was a good time for reading. Whether you were catching up on the TBR pile or staying up on new releases, there was plenty of time for both.
I quit social media last summer (except for Twitter, which probably should’ve been the first to go—a topic for a different piece), and I started keeping a list of books I read in the meantime. I don’t know if it was the keeping of the list or if I read more, but it seems like I read more books this year than in the recent few. Here are the best ones, new and kinda new.
All of the titles here are linked to IndieBound so you can buy them locally.
Charles Yu Interior Chinatown(Pantheon): Employing many of the conventions of screenwriting, Yu uses the discrimination of Hollywood casting to explore discrimination elsewhere. Roles like Generic Asian Guy, Old Asian Man, Dead Asian Guy, and the coveted King Fu Guy feel as familiar as they do foreign, which is exactly the point. On the set of Black and White—so named both for its cop-show aesthetics as well as its racial designations (Black Dude Cop and White Lady Cop)—the Asian characters are all on the periphery. For Interior Chinatown however, those are the main characters. Bringing the edges to the middle further highlights the differences. Since my full review, Interior Chinatown has won the National Book Award!
Here’s Yu talking about the book on The Daily Show back in February:
Elizabeth Hand Curious Toys(Mulholland): With its carnival setting and kid mystery, Curious Toys is kind of a noir Something Wicked This Way Comes with a cameo by Charlie Chaplin in old Chicago. Hand deftly blends these elements into something wholly new. And you have to give it to her mom who suggested she write Henry Darger as a detective… So good.
Lauren Beukes Afterland (Mulholland): Lauren Beukes’ last few books have been absolutely amazing, and 2013’s The Shining Girls (HarperCollins) is among my all-time favorites. Afterland tells the harrowing story of a mother and her son in a world without men. I won’t give it away, but it shines a bright little light in a very dark world.
Anna Wiener Uncanny Valley(MCD): Uncanny Valley is a memoir that shows just out of sync the goals of tech companies are with their human counterparts. I read it as kind of a follow-up to Ellen Ullman’s Close to the Machine (1997), which also explores the human relations between the codes and protocols of computers and networks. Wiener, like Ullman, is able to make this sound way more enticing than I can.
Will Wiles Plume(Fourth Estate): Even though I don’t drink anymore, I related a little too well to narrator Jack Blick’s alcohol-induced memory loss. As layers of changes make his London, his journalism career, and his home increasingly unrecognizable, Blick is betrayed by everything and everyone he knows. Watching his downward slide is a hilariously nail-biting ride.
Emma Cline Daddy (Random House): I’ve been reading a lot of short stories lately, and Emma Cline’s new collection contains some of the best I read this year. I don’t know that Bret Easton Ellis necessarily needs an heir, but we do need a young, incisive voice like his once was. Cline’s just might be the one.
Lavie Tidhar Unholy Land(Tachyon): My friend Peter Relic gave me a copy of this book, and it left me reeling. Tidhar takes his time, but once this story gets moving, it moves. I was fully swept up in its distorted reality and disorienting points of view. If China Miéville’s The City & The City were less social construction and more magical realism, it might exist in the same dream as Unholy Land.
Jim Carrey and Dana Vachon Memoirs and Misinformation(Knopf Doubleday): Jim Carrey and Dana Vachon start Memoirs and Misinformation with the line, “None of this is real and all of it is true.” Their book is full of 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.
Rebecca Giggs Fathoms(Simon & Schuster): Subtitled, “The World in the Whale,” Fathoms is a deep exploration of those largest of Earthlings, from the abject despair of a whalefall to the yawning poetry of whale sounds. The whale collects our waste, the victim of both our shores and our metaphors, the giants of an invisible world adjacent to ours.
Bret Easton Ellis White (Knopf Doubleday): The subtle differences between reality and fiction have been the fulcrums of Bret Easton Ellis’s writing for decades. The problem with our current era is that without the difference, the irony doesn’t work. It’s just layers of fake facts and reposted untruths at best, and abject, unverifiable horror at worst. Ellis demonstrates this in fact and in fiction. Any attention is good attention. Twitter as theater. Vitriol as validation.
Charlie Kaufman Antkind (Random House): Well, if you thought Charlie Kaufman’s dreamlike adaptation of Iain Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things was enough for one person for one year, Kaufman released his own novel a couple of months prior. It’s everything you’re expecting and several things you’re not. You know exactly what I mean.
Colson Whitehead The Nickel Boys(Doubleday): This one is a Best Seller, won the Pulitzer Prize for literature (his second book in a row to do so!), and stacked up various other coveted accolades, and it deserves them all. There is that subtle thing that a writer does that puts you right in the time and place of a story, and Colson Whitehead has it mastered so well he is able to employ it at will, to play with it. It’s fascinating to witness the results of someone this good at something.
Molly Gloss The Dazzle of Day(Macmillan): I bought this book twice because of its cover, the newest by the inimitable Jeffrey Alan Love. As I wrote earlier, 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.
Jeffrey Alan Love The Mountain of Smoke (Flesk): Speaking of Jeffrey Alan Love, his sketchbooks came out this year. His stark style is like no other, and seeing it emerge on the page in sketches and studies is fascinating. “What was happening on the pallet was more interesting than what was on the canvas,” he says of the evolution of his work. This hardbound edition of his pieces, like all of this others, is really something to behold.
Tim Maughan Infinite Detail (FSG): I read Maughan’s newest last year, but it needs to be mentioned again. Once in a while you read a book that you think everyone should have read. Infinite Detail is that book right now. It’s not about this moment, rather it’s about the one that might follow if we aren’t more careful with this one.
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.
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.