Omnibus (week of Feb. 11, 2018)

This is both late and somewhat halfhearted. I apologize. Things have been pleasingly busy. Only one pick of the week, since it’s a small one.

Nine reviews.

Music

Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band: Live 1975-85 — This live set is a perfect capper to Springsteen’s golden age. Its 40 songs (!) represent all seven studio albums he’d released up to this point, plus an assortment of oddities and covers, like his classic rendition of Tom Waits’ “Jersey Girl,” a song that sounds genuinely strange in Waits’ voice, but which works perfectly for the more romantic Springsteen. The only downside is that the set starts too strong and never quite rises to the level of its opening. The acoustic rendition of “Thunder Road” from 1975 is one of the greatest live reinventions you’ll ever hear. I can’t say it better than I did in my column on North by Northwest from a few weeks ago, so just scrub to 2:00:57 in this podcast and kindly ignore the fact that I said pathetic fallacy when I meant dramatic irony. Other highlights include Bruce’s top-shelf storytelling on “Growing Up” and “The River.” He’d be great on The Moth. Also, the slightly amped-up renditions of songs from Nebraska are satisfyingly different from the album versions, and work better than you’d think in a huge arena. I think I actually prefer this version of “Johnny 99,” just for Springsteen’s more dramatic vocal delivery. It’s a fabulous live album. It’ll live on my phone for a while, I’m sure.

Kanye West: 808s & Heartbreak — Like many people, I strongly disliked The Life of Pablo when it first came out. But it’s possible that I just wasn’t ready for it and I’ll revisit it in two years and think it’s a masterpiece. Because that’s how the entire world seems to have responded to this album. These days, auto-tuned, performatively vulnerable rappers are a dime a dozen. But Kanye did it first, and now that we’ve all realized the extent of this album’s impact, we can basically all agree that he did it best, right? Before this week, I had never heard 808s from start to finish. (I think there are still a couple Kanye albums I haven’t listened to straight through, which I will likely rectify in the coming weeks.) I’m not sure it isn’t my second-favourite Kanye album after My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. For all his occasional lapses of lyrical taste, Kanye West is one of the greatest musicians in modern hip hop. And this album gives him an opportunity to show off his musicianship in a different light than any of his other albums — because it contains more self-imposed restrictions than any of his other albums. Most obviously, of course, he does not rap on it. But it also builds on a very specific musical aesthetic, based around the sound of the TR-808 drum machine. The economy of this album points ahead to Yeezus at times, and at others the cinematic sweep of it points to Fantasy. Those two future approaches come close to converging in a single piano line on “Welcome to Heartbreak,” an economical thing that over the course of a very long four bars, only uses five notes. It looped and looped in my head for a whole day, earlier this week. For me the other highlight is “RoboCop,” which contains some of the most florid, melodic musical material on any of Kanye’s records, and lyrics that approach Morrissey levels of hangdog irony. I love it. I love every song on it. Pick of the week.

Television

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Season 3, episodes 9-13 — Let me paraphrase a joke that made me laugh and laugh. “I took a career aptitude test once. It said I should be either an unlicensed barber or a police informant. And now look at me: I’m both.” I don’t know how anybody can write this stuff. Honest to god, I cannot remember anything about the story of this season, and I just finished watching it. But I laughed and laughed like a maniac. It is good television.

Podcasts

99% Invisible: “Border Wall” & “Making a Mark: Visual Identity with Tom Geismar” — The border wall episode is a nice collection of mini-stories dealing with that topic. And the Tom Geismar episode is a good example of a “Roman Mars does an interview” episode of 99pi, which I do generally enjoy.

Song by Song catch-up — I dunno, I like “Blind Love.” It’s amazing how much of this I’ve listened to given that I didn’t even like it at first.

Code Switch catch-up — The Valentine’s Day episode is properly contentious. Seek ye out that one. It is here.  

In Our Time: “Cephalopods” & “Fungi” — So I just learned that some cephalopods can change colour but can’t see colour. Thank you, BBC, for making me sad. Also, the thing that links these two episodes together, aside from being interesting discussions of the natural world, is that neither of their panels can agree on a single pronunciation of their subject. KEFF-ah-lo-pod? SEFF-ah-lo-pod? FUN-jie?

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The Winter Olympics” & “Black Panther and What’s Making Us Happy” — I have no television, and therefore will likely pass the Olympics by entirely. But Black Panther, whoo boy, am I ever in.

Desert Island Discs: “Christopher Nolan” — He does not have interesting taste in music, it turns out. His picks are all film scores, save for one Radiohead song he tried and failed to get the rights for when he was making Memento (“Paranoid Android”) and the blandest, weirdest pick for a song by his late, lamented former supporting actor David Bowie (“Loving the Alien”). But the interview is good: I always like hearing from artists who value order and discipline over chaos.

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Omnibus (week of Feb. 4, 2018)

Happy Family Day. 13 reviews, one of which is basically just a link. But it’s a link you should click.

Literature, etc.

Herman Melville: Moby-Dick — Hey, look over here.

Stephen King: It (audiobook) — At last, I’ve gotten through all 45 hours of this behemoth. I’ll start by praising the audiobook. The TV actor Steven Weber does a bang-up job bringing the dozens of characters in King’s sprawling narrative to life: many of whom in both child and grown-up forms. He seems to particularly relish Richie Tozier, who obsessively does voices himself. Frankly, Richie’s variously-offensive stereotyped characters get really annoying after a while, but that’s King’s fault for writing it that way. Weber’s commitment is commendable. As for the book itself, I’m comfortable saying that it’s one of the most extraordinary works of popular fiction I’ve read in a long time. There are elements of it that are dated, offensive, or simply a bit dumb, but they’re drowned out the same way that “Rocky Raccoon” is drowned out on the White Album. It is so sprawling, ambitious and heterogenous that its most flawed moments can easily recede from your mind when you consider the whole. Except one. You may have heard about the controversial child orgy in It? It is just as icky as you think. King has responded to criticism of this scene by saying: “it’s fascinating to me that there has been so much comment about that single sex scene and so little about the multiple child murders.” That only serves to demonstrate that he doesn’t understand the problem. Child murders are terrible, but they are a thing that happens. Fiction is a perfectly good way to try and work through that fact. But that sex scene, which involves eleven-year-old children, is both explicit and completely arbitrary. The whole time it was happening, all I could think was “Man, you didn’t have to do this! Why did you do this?!?” I like Stephen King, and I think he is a decent person. But this one moment is really very bad. Since we’ve gone straight into the negatives, so is his general treatment of his one substantial female character. But all of this is a preface that will allow me to enthuse in more general terms about the rest of the book. In On Writing, King has some very convincing things to say about theme. Basically, he thinks you should write your story, and then figure out what it’s ‘about.’ Once you’ve figured that out, keep it in mind while you edit, and work to emphasize it. It is a strong book because King clearly knows what it is about. It is about memory: about the way we selectively recall our pasts, forgetting things for our own sanity. It’s about how the memories we choose to suppress can continue to subconsciously inform our lives, and how they can come back to hurt us suddenly and unexpectedly. Most of the time when horror is about something in this way, the metaphor is personified by the monster. (See Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s endless cavalcade of beasts, each reflecting an element of high school life.) It doesn’t work that way, though. The shapeshifting Pennywise is a marvellous, terrifying creation, but he is not materially a representation of memory or suppression. Instead of baking his theme into his monster, King bakes his theme into the book’s structure. Throughout the novel, we flash back and forth in time, learning about a group of children’s brave stand against Pennywise in 1958, and simultaneously about their adult selves’ return to Pennywise’s domain to finish what they started in 1985. And as we learn more about the events of 1958, we begin to become wiser than our protagonists’ adult selves, who remember none of this, and are thus walking blindly into a danger they can intuit but cannot understand. King’s metaphor of choice for their amnesia is the phenomenon where you forget your nightmares almost immediately, only recalling them in vague detail much later in the day when they can’t disturb you anymore. Pennywise is aware of all this, but he ties into a different theme in the book: belief. His power, like the power of many childhood story characters, comes from people believing in him and believing him powerful. Still, though: Pennywise knows the importance of memory to this story, and he ties the two key themes together in one of the book’s most powerful lines: “Come on back and we’ll see if you remember the simplest thing of all — how it is to be children, secure in belief and thus afraid of the dark.” Maybe it’s just me, but I feel that the book is most powerful in these moments: the moments where Stephen King indulges in a bit of autocritique. I particularly love one moment with the young Stan Uris: a skeptical, bullied, Jewish boy who later claims that he’s fine with being scared, but can’t abide being dirty. He can’t abide things that present an offense to how he thinks about the world. He can’t find the words to express it to his friends, but the thought crosses his mind: “It’s offense you maybe can’t live with because it opens up a crack inside your thinking, and if you look down into it you see there are evil things down there, and they have little yellow eyes that don’t blink, and there’s a stink down there in that dark and after a while you think maybe there’s a whole other universe where a square moon rises in the sky, and the stars laugh in cold voices, and some of the triangles have four sides, and some have five sides and some have five raised to the fifth power of sides. In this universe there might grow roses which sing. Everything leads to everything, he would have told them if he could. Go to your church and listen to your stories about Jesus walking on the water, but if I saw a guy doing that I’d scream and scream and scream. Because it wouldn’t look like a miracle to me. It would look like an offense.” This passage is what this book is capable of at its best. It sprawls because it goes deep: deep into the history of its setting and characters, deep into the moments that change people’s lives, deep into the parts of our communities and minds that we don’t want to think about. That we’d rather forget.

Alison Bechdel: Fun Home — I have always wanted to write a book like this: a book that approaches real life as a subject for literary criticism. But unlike mine, Alison Bechdel’s early life actually justifies that approach. Fun Home tells the story of her relationship with her distant father, a complicated aesthete living in a tiny Pennsylvania town, who died young in a probable suicide. This is a man who spent his free time obsessively remodelling a dilapidated old mansion to old world splendor: a mansion that served as the family home. Immediately, you know this guy has to be interesting. The other major story element is Bechdel’s coming-of-age story, leaving home and discovering her own sexuality. The two stories entwine with one another and prop each other up. But the real connective tissue in Fun Home is the mutual obsession that Bechdel and her father have with classic literature. Each chapter revolves around a different work of literature that resonates with Bechdel’s story: the myth of Icarus and Daedalus as told by Ovid in Metamorphoses, Camus’s A Happy Death, a side-by-side reading of The Great Gatsby and The Portrait of a Lady, In Search of Lost Time, The Wind in the Willows, The Importance of Being Earnest, and finally — because that’s not enough of a reading list — Ulysses. This is the perfect kind of story to tell as a graphic novel. Again and again, Bechdel allows her expressive, beautiful cartoons to tell the surface-level story of her life with her parents, and reflects on this literature in the text that runs parallel. Never has a book that muses at length about Joyce been so staggeringly moving. It’s easily in my top five comics. Maybe top three. Read it immediately. Pick of the week.

Theatre

The Old Trout Puppet Workshop: Jabberwocky — I’ve wanted to see a production by the Old Trout Puppet Workshop since way back in high school, when I was a marginal contributor to a puppetry company myself. I dunno why I never did. I now live even farther away from them than I did back then. But this show was a marvellous entrée into their weird world. Jabberwocky is a cheap and janky-looking production that was clearly engineered to show all of its seams, and that’s what makes it so compelling. From the very start, the four members of the on-stage company make you feel like you’re witnessing something that will barely hold together. And then, within the context of that aesthetic, they tell a story that just knocks you flat. It’s a reinterpretation of the famous Lewis Carroll poem — specifically just that poem, and none of the Alice-related material surrounding it. So, it really is working with a bare minimum of source material. Essentially, the story of “Jabberwocky” is: a father warns his young son to beware of a terrifying monster, that young son impetuously goes off to slay that monster, and he succeeds and makes his father happy and proud. The Old Trouts have rethought this elementally simple story as a parable on how we shunt off all of our hopes and dreams for ourselves onto our children. It is a multi-generational retelling of “Jabberwocky” in which nobody gets to slay the Jabberwock. It is brilliant storytelling, brilliant theatre, and a brilliant reinterpretation of a too-familiar story.

Television

The Chris Gethard Show: “Whatever Happens, Happens” & “Bring It Home” — I like this show because I like Chris Gethard, but I sometimes wish he’d spend less time talking about how he wants to break the format of a TV talk show and more time just getting on with it. Still, there are great moments in these episodes: Nick Kroll staring down the camera, a cameo appearance by a goat, and a recurring bit in which Ira Glass wanders around the studio, alone.

Doctor Who: “The Ribos Operation” — The first classic Doctor Who story that I’ve watched a second time. I think there’s an argument to be made that this is not only one of the most brilliant and non-dated episodes of the classic series, but that it is the best possible starting point for new viewers. The writing is solid, of course; this is Robert Holmes we’re talking about. But it’s also one of the most self-aware stories in the classic series, where the comedy lands most successfully. It introduces an awesome new companion who, in spite of the Doctor constantly being a dick to her, holds her own and is a boss. It takes place in a few easily-rendered locales, so the sets aren’t too embarrassing. And most crucially, the acting is great all around. Every actor in this serial knows exactly what kind of story they’re in, namely a silly quasi-medieval space caper with terrible monster puppets, and they seem to appreciate both its ridiculousness and its brilliance. That is everything you can hope for from classic Doctor Who. This is amazing, and if you haven’t ever seen the classic series, watch this. I’m not saying you’ll love it, but if you don’t, I doubt there’ll be anything much for you in the rest of the series.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Season 3, episodes 1-8 — I didn’t love the second season of this because the jokes weren’t landing for me. But they sure are in this season. I’m uncertain about some of the ongoing jokes, like the caricatures of campus leftism who are seemingly the sole denisons of Columbia University. But Maya Rudolph as Dionne Warwick is a thing to behold, and there are jokes in this that I can’t believe anybody could come up with. “You know what yuppies eat? Ice cream that tastes like lavender.” “No! That’s a smell!” Love it. I’ll probably finish it in a couple days.  

Music

The Rolling Stones: Some Girls (Deluxe Edition) — The latest instalment in my increasingly tortured attempt to listen to every Stones album up to Tattoo You in order. I like Some Girls, but I feel like those who call it the best post-Exile Stones album undervalue Goats Head Soup. And the bonus material on this deluxe edition that I decided to check out for god knows what reason is fairly strong, but only by the standards of a band that was already on its downward slide.

Bruce Springsteen: Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. — This is maybe the clearest demonstration of “early promise” ever recorded. Compared to its successor, The Wild, The Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, which remains one of my favourite Springsteen albums, this is Wordy As Hell. And while Bruce’s best songs will always be a bit hyperverbal, this is a bit much. For the only time in his career, Bruce’s lyrics are more clever than they are meaningful. I still like it, and “Spirit in the Night” is particularly essential. It’ll probably grow on me.

Bruce Springsteen: Born in the U.S.A. — This marks the point where I’ve heard every studio album from the Boss’s heyday. This week, I listened to the records that are commonly thought to bookend that period: this and Asbury Park. I deliberately saved them for last because I had a feeling that they were going to be the ones I liked least, and I was right. That said, neither one of them are outright bad. I find Born in the U.S.A. a bit slick. The title track, regardless of its universal misinterpretation, is a cliché. So is “Glory Days.” But weirdly, I like “Dancing in the Dark.” That chorus has three iconic lines in a row “You can’t start a fire without a spark/this gun’s for hire/even if we’re just dancing in the dark.” That’s skill, right there. And the smaller songs on this are really great, especially “Darlington County” and “My Hometown.” Now I’ll just round this whole binge off with the live set, and commence repeat listening.

Podcasts

Slow Burn — This series from Slate about the weirdest, freakiest details of the Watergate scandal is a great binge listen, and it’s done now, so get to it. The main idea is that it took Watergate a long time to find its way into the public consciousness, no matter how shattering an event it seems now. The show is a reflection on a state of scandal that resembles the current political craziness, but in a pre-internet age. It’s a bit wonky — this is Slate, after all. But listen to the first episode, which is about a woman who was forcibly tranquilized to keep her from talking, and see if you’re not hooked.

Pop Culture Happy Hour catch-up — The Grammys will always disappoint Stephen, an Eagles victory will always delight Gene, and Roxane Gay will always be a fantastic chat. Darkest Hour sounds dire. Over and out.

More Perfect: “One Nation Under Money” — The second season finale keeps up the pace. This, as much as any other episode of More Perfect, made me understand a debate that I didn’t know was happening. Essentially, it is about the legal and ethical knots that America ties itself into when lawyers try to win cases by making everything about money. That is a vast oversimplification, but like all of the best things Jad Abumrad is involved with, it cannot be summarized easily. More Perfect is the best thing he’s done in a long time, and this is a great episode of it. Pick of the week.

Notes on Moby-Dick (which I have not finished): Part 1

OKAY. Time to crack open this CLASSIC MASTERPIECE. My Norton Critical Edition has taken up long-term residence on my nightstand and I am PUMPED to set sail on this LITERARY VOYAGE. HERE WE FUCKING GO.

Etymology and extracts

So I feel like this introductory quasi-chapter probably has a lot to say about what kind of book this is going to be. Most novels start with one or two epigraphs that are relevant to the story or themes. If you’re Steven King, maybe you’ll indulge yourself and stretch it out to five or six. Moby-Dick starts with A WHOLE CHAPTER OF EPIGRAPHS. There are EIGHTY of them.

Also, most authors present their epigraphs without comment. They just put them there in the middle of an austere, mostly empty page. NOT HERMAN MELVILLE. This guy’s got to make-believe like he got his etymology of the word “whale” from a schoolmaster who died of tuberculosis (“a Late Consumptive Usher to a Grammar School”) and his cavalcade of epigraphs from a vanishingly minor drone at a public library (“a Sub-Sub Librarian”).

It’s important to note that neither of these people are real. Melville definitely did all of this himself. We haven’t even properly started the book yet and Melville is already trolling us. (MOBY-DICK IS FAKE NEWS)

But that doesn’t mean these epigraphs aren’t sort of an amazing accomplishment. Imagine trying to find eighty resonant extracts about whales in texts ranging from Shakespeare to ship’s logs — without the help of the internet. Melville has really gone the extra thousand nautical miles, here. And that’s something that I happen to know will be a recurring theme in the early bits of the book. (Prolly the rest of it too.) We’re not just dealing with a storyteller, here. We’re dealing with a person who Knows Stuff and has Read Things and Really Could Go On For A While. Moby-Dick couldn’t have happened without the depth of research that’s indicated by this bewildering introduction.

So: let’s take stock, quickly. We’re ten pages in and we’ve already witnessed a gratuitous display of erudition, nested in a weird structure game where you can’t quite tell the real from the fake; the comical from the plain faced; the sane from the mad.

Onwards.  

Chapter 1: Loomings

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Richard Basehart in the 1956 movie version I haven’t seen.

Reading this chapter made me want to read all of Moby-Dick. Before I picked up the book and read chapter one on a whim, I’d assumed that Moby-Dick was just a super long adventure story about a one-legged obsessive’s insane quest for revenge on a great white whale. I’d assumed it was a banal potboiler with puffed-up literary ambitions. This chapter immediately dispels that notion.

I read this again and again, often out loud, before I managed to move onto the second chapter. I fucking love this, and I’m going to try and explain why. In the process I’ll hopefully explain briefly what happens in this chapter — which, in a sense is nothing. But in another sense, CHRIST ALMIGHTY DOES SHIT GO DOWN.

This chapter introduces us to one of the best narrators in any book ever: Ishmael. I mean, maybe that’s his name. Famously, he tells us to call him that, but the first sentence isn’t “my name is Ishmael.” I dunno why he’d lie, but it’s strange phrasing, isn’t it? “Call me Ishmael.” Why? What else would I call you? Are you fucking with me again? (“CALL ME ISHMAEL” IS FAKE NEWS)

Moby-Dick has a reputation for being a bloated, overlong, unnecessarily discursive novel with far too many redundant, superfluous, unnecessary words. Remember, this is the book with eighty epigraphs. But by the end of the first page, you should realize that the book is not like this because of any indiscipline on Melville’s part: it’s like this because Melville has created an extraordinarily rich and idiosyncratic narrator in Ishmael. Ishmael is a genius and a polymath. He’s manic, and everything fascinates him — particularly language. He loves language so much that he often gets excited and uses more of it than he needs to. He’s the personification of all the joy there is to be had in observing the world.

He is also traumatized. It shouldn’t be too much of a spoiler to say that Moby-Dick does not end happily. (I’m far from finished the book as I write this, but I know the plot from cultural osmosis. I guess most people do.) Ishmael is telling the story in retrospect, some years later. (“Never mind how long precisely.”) I don’t think he emerged from his maritime ordeal unscathed. Look at the way he first brings up the whaling voyage that’ll be the whole subject of the book: “But wherefore it was that after having repeatedly smelt the sea as a merchant sailor, I should now take it into my head to go on a whaling voyage…” That sentence is the turning point of the chapter and the first indication of what the story’s going to be — and it’s just sitting casually in the middle of a paragraph. He basically crab walks his way into the story. I have a personal theory that part of the reason Ishmael beats around the bush so much and talks about pyramids and Niagara Falls and other irrelevant topics is that he’s actively trying to avoid telling the story for as long as possible. Because it is definitely going to be an emotionally taxing story to tell. Moby-Dick is a novel where a storyteller peels off an emotional band-aid as slowly and haltingly as possible.

There are indications that Ishmael had some issues before he ever set foot on the whaling ship that traumatized him. He proclaims, semi-jokingly, within the first few sentences of the book that he likes to go to sea “whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off.” This is CONCERNING TO SAY THE LEAST. But it is ultimately what pulled me into the novel in the first place. I’m not sure how interested I am in revenge stories, maritime adventure, or obsessive captains. But I am ALL IN if the story’s going to be told by a narrator capable of this kind of polymathic mania, interrupted by occasional intense melancholy. A narrator as rich as Ishmael could make ANY story interesting.

And even though he clearly has some serious baggage related to his time at sea, he obviously thinks this story is a good one. Look at how his language takes flight at the very end of the chapter, as he’s about to launch into the narrative proper: “the great flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open, and in the wild conceits that swayed me to my purpose, two and two there floated into my inmost soul, endless processions of the whale, and, mid most of them all, one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air.” That gives me chills. And it’s still more effective when you think about how this guy can even conjure up some Wonder At The World’s Miracles when he’s thinking about the worst experience of his damn life. “I am quick to perceive a horror,” Ishmael tells us, “and could still be social with it — would they let me.” Would that we could all be so charitable towards our traumas.

In chapter one, we meet our mysterious, manic, melancholy guide through the tale of Moby-Dick. He tells us essentially no details about the story or about his past life. But he does something much more profound and compelling: he shows us how his mind works. He tells us about why he loves the sea and why he loves being a lowly sailor rather than an officer. He tells us about the doldrums that take hold of him when he lingers too long on land. And, maybe half by accident, he exposes us to the sheer force and charm of his personality and makes us want to pay attention — whether he’s getting on with the story or not.

Chapter 2: The Carpet-Bag

carpetbag

This is what a carpet bag looks like. Whatever his many virtues, Ishmael is not a strong accessorizor.

Ah, look! We have some honest-to-god story! Things Are Happening! Essentially, the next several chapters detail Ishmael’s wanderings in New Bedford, a whaling town that seems at this point to have superseded Nantucket in its industry prevalence. But Ishmael, being something of a Hipster Whaler, makes a point of expressing his disappointment in this fact. He is headed for Nantucket, thank you very much; nothing but the OG whaling port will do for a man of history such as our narrator. Still, he can’t help but start his narrative long before the action begins. So, we’ll follow him around New Bedford for a few chapters while he waits for something to happen. (Did I say Things Were Happening? I was speaking in the broadest possible terms.)

In chapter two, Ishmael walks through the streets of New Bedford with his weird bag, looking for a decent place to stay. It contains one of my favourite examples of his tendency to use far too many words to get his point across: he means to say “I didn’t have much money, so I needed to find a cheap hotel.” Instead, he says: “With anxious grapnels I had sounded my pocket, and only brought up a few pieces of silver,—So, wherever you go, Ishmael, said I to myself, as I stood in the middle of a dreary street shouldering my bag, and comparing the gloom towards the north with the darkness towards the south—wherever in your wisdom you may conclude to lodge for the night, my dear Ishmael, be sure to inquire the price, and don’t be too particular.” Marvellous.

In any case, Ishmael settles on a place called the Spouter-Inn, which will make up the setting and title of the next chapter.

Chapter 3: The Spouter-Inn

Our narrator’s account of his arrival and first night at the Spouter-Inn contains a bunch of top-shelf Ishmaelisms about the weird painting by the bar, and one crucial plot element. This is the chapter in which we meet our first non-Ishmael main character: Queequeg, a cannibalistic harpooneer from a made-up island in the South Pacific who unexpectedly becomes Ishmael’s (literal) bedmate. (Now Things Are Actually Happening.)

My understanding is that Queequeg becomes important later in the book because he’s Melville’s way of making Moby-Dick into a modern, internationalist kind of story — a pretty impressive impulse for a white dude writing in 1851. We’re meant to see Queequeg — with his fully-tattooed skin, tomahawk, and pidgin English — as a person who would be written off as a “savage” by most of the characters in the novel, but who is in fact noble, kind and intelligent. I’m not far enough into the book to judge how Melville’s very early attempt at an anti-racism narrative plays out. So far, I’m a bit concerned that Queequeg is, at least in part, a stereotype. The pidgin English is a problem. Melville made up his home island out of whole cloth. And the first facts we learn about him are that he’s a cannibal and he’s been out selling shrunken heads on the street. Regardless of what we learn about him later, this characterization traffics in some typically colonialist assumptions. Still, it’s worth noting that this is not entirely blind prejudice on Melville’s part. Some of the islands in the South Pacific actually were among the few places where cannibalism was still practiced when Melville wrote the book. The man did his research. (Eighty epigraphs.) But we can’t expect a guy from almost two centuries ago to adhere flawlessly to modern sensibilities about race in fiction. And he doesn’t. Best acknowledge that.

But the way he introduces Queequeg is kind of ingenious. The landlord — which is what Ishmael calls the innkeeper — of the Spouter-Inn does the bulk of the heavy lifting. His surname is “Coffin,” a word which will come to take on a substantial significance for both Ishmael and Queequeg later in the book. (I know this because I have cheated and read the epilogue.) This Peter Coffin is a right dickwad. The biggest of the dickwads. Moby-Dickwad. It’s this guy who decides that Ishmael and Queequeg will sleep two-to-a-bed this night, and as soon as he makes that decision it becomes a huge private joke for him. Coffin’s well aware that Queequeg is harmless — though whether he regards him as fully human is doubtful. Still, he insists on dropping cryptic, racist hints to Ishmael that his sleeping companion may in fact be mortally dangerous. So basically, before we get to know Queequeg through Ishmael’s more progressive eyes, we see him as he is seen by the bulk of the Americans he interacts with: as a disfigured monster. In the end, though, it will turn out that this book’s disfigured monsters — human and otherwise — will be white.

At the end of the chapter, Peter Coffin’s practical joke pays off: Queequeg is startled to find a strange man unexpectedly in his bed, and Ishmael is mortally frightened to find himself in the company of a startled man he has every reason to think is a murderer. Hearing the commotion in the room where he’s paired them off, Coffin arrives to defuse the situation, and all is well. It’s as close as classic literature gets to farce without actually being a straight-up farce.

Chapter 4: The Counterpane

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For the faint of sight: “Queequeg and his Harpoon”

Ishmael wakes up to find Queequeg’s arm flung around him matrimonially. Hmm, I wonder if I Google “Ishmael/Queequeg fanfic” what would OH MY GOD

This is the chapter where we’re made to start seeing Queequeg as a human being, rather than the monster that Peter Coffin portrayed him as. Still, Ishmael regards him as a bit of an archeological curiosity. The business about him being part “civilized,” part “savage” is distasteful. It points out that, no matter how much we may want to identify with Ishmael, he is by necessity a person of his time, because Melville was a person of his. Still, even if he expresses it in a less than modern way, this is the beginning of an awakening in Ishmael. An awokening, if you like.

Also, every time Ishmael shares a memory from before the start of this story, it is fucked up. First there was that bit in the first chapter about knocking people’s hats off in the street. Now there’s stuff in this chapter about him hallucinating a phantom hand as a child. Our narrator has a jolly demeanor, but I feel like he could benefit from a bit of modern counselling.

(By the way, if it seems like I’m glossing over the plot, that’s just because the plot is still happening in dribs and drabs at this point. The plot of chapter four is “Ishmael and Queequeg wake up.” What actually transpires has a lot more to do with the characters and their relationship than the story. So you’re pretty well caught up.)

Chapter 5: Breakfast

Ishmael descends from his room to eat a hearty morning meal. He generously forgives Peter Coffin for his skullduggery. He observes that you can tell how long a whaler has been ashore from his tan. And he complains that none of his fellow tenants at the Spouter-Inn want to talk at the table. It’s easy to assume, because he’s the narrator of the book — and a verbose one at that, that Ishmael is one of those people who never shuts up. But how could he have become so worldly-wise if he weren’t also an accomplished listener? I understand his frustration at this silent breakfast. If you’ve got a good story: tell it, goddamn it. In as much detail as possible.

Chapter 6: The Street

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This is another of Ishmael’s purely descriptive chapters, so let me just take this moment to say Holy Hell, does New Bedford ever sound a lot like my hometown. I’m from Fort McMurray, Alberta, a middle-sized oil town in what most people would consider the frozen north. Like New Bedford, it is a place where the land itself is almost comically inhospitable and ugly. When Ishmael describes New Bedford, he tells us that “parts of her back country are enough to frighten one, they look so bony.” And yet, “the town itself is perhaps the dearest [most expensive] place to live in, in all New England.” He makes a big thing of how big and lavish the houses are in this landscape that ought to be desolate — all because of whaling: the mad slaughter that was at the time the fifth-biggest industry in the United States. All these mansions, Ishmael says in an impressively cinematic turn of phrase, “were harpooned and dragged up hither from the bottom of the sea.”

Fort McMurray is much the same. It is a deeply inhospitable part of the world. First off, it’s freezing. My mom still lives there and lately she keeps texting me complaining, justifiably, about the fact that it’s been minus 40 for a week. It snows for half the year. Also it’s flat and featureless and a million miles from the nearest ocean and/or mountain. But mostly it’s just bone-chillingly cold. The cold in Fort McMurray is so pervasive that it’s practically a state of mind. Live there long enough and your soul freezes.

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Photo credit: Gord McKenna

And yet, much like Ishmael’s New Bedford, it was until recently cripplingly expensive to live there. Some of the houses in the nice neighbourhoods are, if not impressive and beautiful then at least imposing and large. And why? Because of the prevalence of an equally destructive industry as the whale slaughter that Ishmael will come to abhor. Whence came yonder lofty McMansions? One and all, they were dug out of the earth and refined out of the sand.

Not quite as evocative as Ishmael’s image of houses being dragged out of the ocean, I grant you. But I’m not Herman Melville, no matter how hard I try. Anyhow. Back to business.

Chapter 7: The Chapel

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The modern Seaman’s Bethel in New Bedford, which stands on the same land as the OLD Seaman’s Bethel in New Bedford which burned down, but which was the inspiration for Melville’s chapel.

Ishmael and Queequeg spend the next three chapters in church. The church they go to actually exists, by the way. It burned down in the 1860s, but they rebuilt it. It was originally a church specifically for the whalers of New Bedford and their families — a place to go and pray that neither you nor any of your loved ones will get eaten by sea monsters. It’s a valid mandate for a church: people died at sea in droves back then. The main purpose of this chapter is to establish that fact. The memorial plaques on the wall of the chapel make us aware of the fact that we are following Ishmael on a journey of staggering risk. It’s Melville’s way of ratcheting up the tension, the way a fantasy writer might point out all of the human bones in the cave that the would-be dragonslayer has just entered.

Except that it’s also really powerful. As Ishmael observes the grieving families around the chapel’s memorials, he reflects: “Oh! ye whose dead lie buried beneath the green grass; who standing among flowers can say—here, here lies my beloved; ye know not the desolation that broods in bosoms like these.” It’s an observation that applies to more than nautical deaths. Imagine having a missing loved one. Plenty of people in that situation, in this country. “Ye know not the desolation that broods in bosoms like these.”

Chapter 8: The Pulpit

In keeping with the chapel’s general decor, the pulpit is fashioned in the likeness of the prow of a ship. Ishmael doesn’t come out and say it, but this is real tacky. The whole idea of decorating a whaler’s chapel like a ship is tacky. It’s like the pastor thinks the congregation needs these symbols of seafaring life to remind them of their shared identity. If that’s true, then it isn’t a very strong shared identity. There was a seafood restaurant like this in Fort McMurray, which is full of nostalgic expat Newfoundlanders. Rigging along the walls, part of a rowboat affixed to the ceiling. I always thought, how can this possibly be helping?

Here’s something interesting: Wikipedia tells me that the tacky pulpit was Melville’s invention. There was no such thing in the actual chapel. But after Moby-Dick became a hit, they made one. Ugh.

A final observation: Ishmael expresses an opinion that the pulpit is at the head of the world. The person giving a sermon is in the lead, and everybody else follows. Given certain things that happen in the next few chapters, I’m inclined to think that this is less a display of religious conviction from Ishmael than a display of faith in the power of language. The pulpit is a place where speeches are made, and people act on those speeches. That’s powerful, and it’s a good illustration of why Ishmael believes in language, and storytelling, more than anything else. (Alas, his faith in language will betray him when he falls under the spell of a famously adept speechmaker with one leg and an axe to grind, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.)

Chapter 9: The Sermon

(We’re still at church. Nothing’s happening still.)

If the chapel’s decor was tacky, then Father Mapple’s constant use of sailor-speak as metaphors is downright vulgar. “…one of the smallest strands in the mighty cable of the Scriptures.” Please.

Still, the Father’s sermon is pretty clever. He starts off with a hymn: a whaling-inspired adaptation of Psalm 18 in the hymnbook Melville grew up with, in which a sinner is filled with fear and anxiety before finding salvation in prayer. Ever heard Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman?” That’s a better version, with kickass piano and no happy ending. After the hymn, Father Mapple tells the story of Jonah, which is A LITTLE ON THE NOSE YOU’VE GOTTA ADMIT. But he tells the story of Jonah’s encounter with the whale in a way that makes it fit the narrative of Psalm 18 (and “Sinnerman,” actually). That’s a bit of a rhetorical ninja move. And he is capable of some really good lines, our Father. I particularly like this one: “In this world, shipmates, sin that pays its way can travel freely, and without a passport; whereas Virtue, if a pauper, is stopped at all frontiers.” Kind of backs up Ishmael’s antipathy towards paying passengers in the first chapter, doesn’t it?

Also, do you think this priest talks about Jonah every Sunday? Maybe he alternates between Jonah and the whale and Noah’s ark? I feel like this guy doesn’t have time for Bible stories about the desert.

Chapter 10: A Bosom Friend

First, the plot: Ishmael gets back from church, bonds with Queequeg, and worships a wooden idol with him – no small thing for a Presbyterian.

Here we have a chapter where my Norton Critical really comes in handy. The good Dr. Hershel Parker’s footnotes have pointed out to me that the 30 pieces of silver Queequeg gifts Ishmael with are an echo of the 30 pieces of silver Judas received for betraying Jesus. They also inform me that, in spite of Ishmael’s straightforwardly admirable and humanist justification for joining Queequeg in his worship ceremony (dude just wants to be friendly) it is a blasphemous justification according to the conventional reading of Exodus. (“I am a jealous god” and all that.) So, 30 pieces of silver for a betrayal of the lord. A neat metaphor. But I’m with Ishmael on this one. Screw the jealous god. Just be nice.

The footnotes also assert that Melville’s blasphemy was maybe the second-most important reason why his writing career ended prematurely. The first, seemingly, was piracy. Not the fun maritime kind of piracy, though. That would just be too on the nose. The banal, intellectual property kind of piracy.

Chapter 11: Nightgown

Another chapter in which Ishmael and Queequeg bond with each other in bed. Ishmael carefully elides any sexy business that may have happened, leaving gaps for the internet to fill in. I do wonder whether Melville actually wanted us to see Ishmael and Queequeg as lovers. I hope so. They’re delightful.

Also: I really love Ishmael’s point about us not being fully ourselves unless we have our eyes closed. It’s a way of shutting out the reality outside and constructing our own reality. There’s a degree of narcissism in this. I suspect that no narrator, and indeed no writer, could manage a book like this without being intensely narcissistic. But Ishmael’s is a benign narcissism: in fact it allows him to understand others better because he has fully taken stock of himself.

Chapter 12: Biographical

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These pictures are from Rockwell Kent’s old-as-balls illustrated edition, BTW.

At last we get to hear Queequeg’s backstory. He’s the son of a king on a non-existent Pacific island. “It is not down in any map,” Ishmael informs us, “true places never are.” Whatever, dude.

Basically, Queequeg decided one day after an encounter with some white men who came by on a ship that he’d like to visit Christendom, learn what he can, and return to his people to help engender some kind of cultural exchange. So, he managed with great difficulty to convince the captain of the ship to take him to America. But soon he came to realize that white Christians could be cruel and venal and that this wasn’t his world. But then, neither was his home island, anymore. He felt he was too Christianized to rightly ascend his father’s throne. Thus, he is a man of the sea: a skilled harpooner who can live nationlessly aboard whaling vessels until such a time when he feels it’s right to go home.

Chapter 13: Wheelbarrow

AND WE’RE MOVING. After eleven chapters in New Bedford, our narrator has finally set off for the OG whaling port of Nantucket on a schooner. He’s got Queequeg in tow and thank god for that, because this chapter also contains some HONEST TO GOD ACTION, a thing our scholarly narrator seems slightly ill-adapted for, however much of a salt he is.

I seriously love this moment where we first see Queequeg in action. One of the would-be whalers (Ishmael calls him a “bumpkin”) on the schooner dares to mock Queequeg, and he responds by calmly THROWING HIM INTO THE AIR and flipping him around SO THAT HE LANDS PERFECTLY ON HIS FEET. SIDDOWN, BUMPKIN. Naturally, this display of Jackie Chan-style comedy violence provokes the ire of the captain. But that ire can only last so long, because the ship’s boom comes detached, leaving everybody on deck scrambling. Having now established that Queequeg is Spider-Man, it makes perfect sense when Ishmael tells us that he single-handedly fixes the problem in a whirlwind of jumping and lasso twirling — rescuing our lowly bumpkin in the process since he’s been flung overboard in all the commotion. I guess that’s how awesome Queequeg has to be if he wants to not get treated like shit. He has to be an actual superhero.

Do these tall tales of Queequeg’s derring-do strain credulity? (QUEEQUEG IS FAKE NEWS) Maybe. But remember what book we’re reading. You can’t quite tell the real from the fake; the comical from the plain faced; the sane from the mad.

Onwards.

To be continued.

Omnibus (week of Jan. 28, 2018)

I’m not sure there has ever been a smaller omnibus than this. I have spent the bulk of the week with a pair of problematically anti-racist novels by American white men (Moby-Dick and It). I have nothing to say about either of these at the moment, being relatively near the start of one and enticingly close to the end of the other. So, content thyselves with these two reviews of a wonderful piece of music that everybody should hear and a brilliant season finale to a show that everybody should watch.

Music

John Luther Adams: Four Thousand Holes — I return to this fairly often when I need something cathartic, yet slow-paced. Adams’ music always moves at a rate that’s slower than your brain wants to move, which is how it pulls you in. But the title composition of this album is, I think, a particularly special piece because it slows your brain down, and then proceeds to build up to a satisfying climax while it has you in a trance. I daresay it does in a chamber music context what his epochal Become Ocean does with a full orchestra. The fact that it invokes the climax of “A Day in the Life” in the process is a nice touch, but unlike many “art music” works that reference iconic pop songs, it is not the entire point. I really adore this. Pick of the week.

Television

The Good Place: “Somewhere Else” — It’s a smaller finale than the season one finale, but that’s inevitable. Once again, this show has drastically altered its status quo: a thing it does several times per season. This is a particular barnburner for Kristen Bell and Ted Danson, whose barroom scene is one of the best in the show so far. How long do we have to wait for season three???

Omnibus (week of Jan. 21, 2018)

A big week for podcasts, a small week for everything else. Also, if you’d like to hear me try and make a connection between a prototypical sound recording from 1860 and a Bruce Springsteen song, you are cordially invited to scrub to 2:00:57 in this podcast.

24 reviews.

Literature, etc.

Herman Melville: Moby-Dick — This is happening. I’m putting my whole reading list on hold for this, and I have no regrets so far. For now, I will only signpost that I’ve started it. I guarantee I will have lots to say about it at some point, but who knows when and in what form that will come. In any case: I have started reading Moby-Dick. Pick of the week.

Adam Gopnik: “The Corrections” — This is a long essay I found thanks to a link in a shorter essay I found thanks to the fact that I’m reading Moby-Dick. (By the way, I’m reading Moby-Dick.) Gopnik wrote it in 2007, which was actually a fairly long time ago, and it contains some blasé sexism that I suspect Gopnik would regret nowadays. Or, maybe I should say — it contains some blasé acceptance of the sexism in James Bond movies, but it adds up to the same. Also, it hails from a time when DVDs were dominant and people watched movies with director’s commentaries. (I do miss director’s commentaries.) Still, it’s a good piece of criticism. The subject is essentially alterations being made to established texts — like the abridged version of Moby-Dick, or Apocalypse Now: Redux. The Moby-Dick bit is the best. I’ll quote his conclusion here and leave you to read the rest should you see fit: “…when you come to the end of the compact ‘Moby-Dick’ you don’t think, What a betrayal; you think, Nice job — what were the missing bits again? And when you go back to find them you remember why the book isn’t just a thrilling adventure with unforgettable characters but a great book. The subtraction does not turn good work into hackwork; it turns a hysterical, half-mad masterpiece into a sound, sane book. It still has its phallic reach and point, but lacks its flaccid, anxious self-consciousness: it is all Dick and no Moby.”

Music

Barbara Hannigan: Tiny Desk Concert — What a perfect choice for the tiny desk. Hannigan is maybe the most exciting artist in classical music, full stop. And in this miniature set, she sings four weird German art songs by Alexander Zemlinsky, Alma Mahler, Hugo Wolf, and Arnold Schoenberg, which are all captivating. I would say I’d like to hear more art songs at the tiny desk, but frankly most art songs bore me to tears. It takes an expert curator with sublime musicianship to bring this off. It’s great.

Movies

Don’t Think Twice — I’ve been meaning to watch this since it came out, and was reminded of it on Chris Gethard’s last podcast. I confess, I have a personal stake in this because I feel as though it outlines an alternate timeline version of my life. It’s about a troupe of 20/30-something improv comedians on the precipice of either breakout fame or the need to give up entirely. I was an improv kid in high school, and I can attest to the accuracy of this movie’s portrayal of adult improvisers. When you spend so much of your time on an art form that demands constantly saying yes to everything and essentially ignoring your god-given impulse control, it can cause you to act really strangely in social situations. I gave improv up after high school, studied classical trumpet, and was never spontaneous again, thank Jesus. But I know people who kept going with it, and they were increasingly difficult to associate with because improv makes your brain work in a weird way, like you’re constantly on a mild stimulant. Mike Birbiglia (who directed this and wrote the bits that aren’t actually improvised) understands this, and in that sense, Don’t Think Twice is a fascinating movie to watch. The casting is flawless, with Keegan-Michael Key and Gillian Jacobs standing out in particular as two very different kinds of people that improv attracts. Key is the hyper-performative show-off whose sense of self depends on the attention of others. (I was this.) Jacobs is the team player who believes in the art, and the slightly mystical notion of “group mind” that it’s based on. Birbiglia’s best decision as a writer was to take these two archetypes and put them in a relationship. The personal drama in the film springs from the same personality differences that make its two central characters such different presences onstage. Birbiglia and Gethard flesh out other important elements in the troupe’s collective psyche. Birbiglia plays the flipside of Key’s character: the one whose hunger for attention goes unsatisfied and makes him an insecure man-child. And Gethard plays, seemingly, his younger self: a person who can’t find purchase in the world around him, and takes solace in an increasingly untenable dream. (If you don’t like movies about sad creatives, give this one a miss.) The problems I have with the movie are the same problems I have with Birbiglia’s stand-up. He’s a fantastic storyteller, but he always has a theme in mind and he’s completely unwilling to let it arise naturally. His impulse is always to use the most obvious metaphor. For example: he establishes at the beginning of the movie that the first rule of improv is to say yes. When you negate something a teammate says onstage, it’s called “blocking” and it’s the most basic error in the improv book. Near the end of the movie, Birbiglia has a relationship come to an end during an improv scene — in which the breaker-up blocks the break-upee. It’s too much, and in a movie about spontaneity, it really exposes the strings in a way that takes you out of the experience. This sort of thing happens a lot: an audience member will shout something to the troupe for the purpose of showing the movie audience how the characters are feeling, or an improv scene will ham-fistedly reflect on the goings-on offstage. But the contrivances in the story can be mostly forgiven because of how real the characters feel. I suspect this is a movie that plays a lot better for people who have some experience with improv. Watch it if that describes you, or if you like any of the actors in it, because it’s worthwhile for the performances alone.

Television

Doctor Who: “The Romans” — I enjoyed this more than I expected to, given my lack of enthusiasm for a) historically-focussed episodes of Doctor Who, and b) the William Hartnell era in general. But for all its manifold flaws, there are some charming things in this. First off, Hartnell himself is finally playing the Doctor as a character that’s identifiably the same as his future, more famous incarnations. You need only look at his gleeful expression when he realizes his role in the burning of Rome to recognize that Hartnell, for all his manifold flaws, invented this character in a way he’s not always given credit for. He’s flubbing his lines as much as ever, but he’s so charming in this. This version of the Doctor, the gleefully Rome-burning one, comes back in many a future “geronimo,” “would you like a jelly baby,” and “oh, brilliant!” It’s also marvellous to have Vicky around instead of Susan, because she was always a problematic character to say the least. Maureen O’Brien plays Vicky as intelligent, curious and brave — three things that Susan was manifestly not, in spite of the characters’ assertions that she was. I’m quite a fan of Nero being portrayed as a bumbling idiot whose key purpose is to get fucked with by the Doctor, who is in a particularly playful mood this time around. I am less fond of Nero’s tendency to chase Barbara — the show’s longest-standing female character — around his palace in a clear attempt to commit some form of sexual violence. That last bit aside, I have basically just enumerated all of the redeeming qualities in this story, which very much remains television from the 60s that is mostly of historical interest.

The Good Place: “The Burrito” — I’m still waiting for this show to repeat itself. This takes place almost entirely in settings we haven’t seen before, and introduces another whole mechanic into the show’s cosmology: an ageless judge played by Maya Rudolph — my second-favourite guest appearance in this show so far, after Maribeth Monroe as Mindy St. Clair. She can spin a line like nobody else. Still, I find myself much more interested in the twists and turns of the story itself than I do in the show’s larger thematic concerns or, crucially, the jokes. To a certain extent I think The Good Place is the first sitcom I’ve watched where the jokes aren’t always funny but it doesn’t matter. There’s a perfect example in this episode. Near the beginning, Jason comes up with the loony idea that perhaps the burrito sitting before the group is in fact the judge they’ve been looking for. Tahani replies: “Don’t be so bloody ridiculous. Judges aren’t food, judges are serious people who wear long silk nightgowns and big white powdered wigs.” In a Tina Fey show, that would not pass muster. It’s a moment where, according to the rhythms of a single camera, non-laugh track sitcom, there should be a joke, and that line fills the space — not especially well. But you don’t really need to laugh during this scene, because, crazy as it sounds, you’re actually caught up in the question of what is actually going on with that burrito. And Eleanor refocusses the conversation on that pretty much immediately afterwards. It’s a very distinctive comedy that can make you care about the identity of a burrito more than you care about the jokes.

Podcasts

All Songs Considered: “Viking’s Choice: The Year In Cathartic Screams And Meditative Drones,” “New Year, New Mix: Typhoon, Lucy Dacus, Anna Burch, More” & “New Mix: David Byrne, Sylvan Esso, Nils Frahm, More” — I always love the year-end Viking’s Choice episode with Lars Gotrich, but the MVP of these three episodes of All Songs is definitely the most recent of them. It features a David Byrne track, co-written with Brian Eno (I’m already salivating), an appearance from Tom Huizenga to talk about Nils Frahm (whose new album sounds more promising than his last, which I did like), and a beautiful track by Darlingside, who I hadn’t heard of but whose album I will 100% check out. Likewise for Typhoon. Mostly I’m writing this to remind myself what to listen to later.

Imaginary Worlds: “Brain Chemistry” & “Doctor Who?” — “Brain Chemistry” is a collaboration with The Truth that I liked well enough, though I never especially like The Truth. This is about a guy who gets cryogenically frozen and wakes up as nothing but a brain. Listen if that sounds like a fun premise. The real attraction, though, is the first episode of Eric Molinsky’s Doctor Who mini-series. It’s very 101, but for most people that’ll be necessary. Also Molinsky does something here that he’s done before, which I always love: he focuses in on the reception of a piece of fiction rather than its making, and he finds people whose reception of that fiction is unique in some way. The best part of this episode features an interview with a trans man and his wife about how the Doctor’s constant state of change gave them a language to use in reference to his transition. It’s lovely stuff, and I’m looking forward to seeing what more specific topics Molinsky dives into.

Constellations: “joan schuman – walking in bad circles” — Of all the podcasts I listened to while I was cooking this week, this is the one that probably got the rawest deal. Always listen to Constellations through headphones, folks. It’s the only way it works. All the same, I really like the phrase “walking in bad circles,” which makes up a significant part of this short piece.

Criminal: “The Choir” — A deeply affecting story about Lawrence Lessig, of internet law fame, and the way he dealt with a horrifying instance of childhood abuse by a predator. This is one of the heavy episodes of Criminal, which I can sometimes find hard to take. I like when this show does light subject matter, because it shows the flexibility of their premise, which is basically “crime!” But this one’s good.

The Memory Palace: “The Prairie Chicken in Wisconsin: Highlights of a Study of Counts, Behaviour, Turnover, Movement and Habitat” & “The Nickel Candy Bar” — The Memory Palace has a few kinds of stories that it does often. One of them is “driven, iconoclastic woman from a bygone time defies the norms of her era.” This is a good kind of story, and the first of these two episodes is a particularly good iteration of it. It also incorporates elements of another Memory Palace standby: the environmental parable. So, it is altogether one of the most Memory Palace episodes of The Memory Palace, and that is a good thing. “The Nickel Candy Bar” is a lovely thing with a bit more structural adventurousness than usual. It starts with one story, abruptly transitions to another, brings them together, then undercuts the whole thing. Marvellous.

Bullseye: “Rian Johnson & The Go! Team” — The Rian Johnson interview is what makes this worthwhile. He’s a charming and funny guy, and this conversation really drives home the thing I’ve been saying about The Last Jedi all this time: it’s just a Star Wars movie. A very good but totally ordinary and in no way groundbreaking or unusual Star Wars movie. The only exception to this that Johnson and Jesse Thorn get to is that the reveal about Rey’s parentage reverses the franchise’s reliance on bloodlines for narrative importance. Granted, that’s not a small thing. But it’s only one thing in a whole movie full of things that strongly resemble everything else about Star Wars.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: Four-episode catch-up — I’ll be seeing The Florida Project ASAP, but I believe I’ll give Mrs. Maisel a miss. This panel wasn’t hot on Phantom Thread, which doesn’t surprise me, but I’m quite certain I’ll like it more than them. I’m prepared for it not to be There Will Be Blood or The Master. But I’ll like it. I’m 90% sure. Will I watch The Good Doctor? No I will not.

Reply All: “Apocalypse Soon” & “The Bitcoin Hunter” — Okay, now I’m starting to want more bespoke stories and fewer segments on this show. “Apocalypse Soon” is a fine and deeply entertaining episode. Anything that finds Alex Blumberg giggling about a meme is okay by me. And “The Bitcoin Hunter” is a captivating Super Tech Support that does everything you want a Reply All story to do. But I want more Sruthi Pinnamaneni.

The Kitchen Sisters Present: “House of Night – The Lost Creation Songs of the Mojave People” — This is the story of two men who recorded and archived hundreds of Mojave songs. Being a Kitchen Sisters piece, it’s full of amazing archival tape and sounds great. But the story is compelling in itself. I always love how the Kitchen Sisters foreground the way that recordings and archives don’t just document, but can actually affect the course of history. In this case, a recording of a mostly forgotten song helped to save the Ward Valley and Colorado River from development by proving the longstanding Mohave connection to that land.

Theory of Everything: “Utopia (part iii)” — Instead of reviewing this I will tell a story about something that happened to me as I was listening to it. I started it on my lunch break, at which point I went out for a salad. As I sat and ate, I had a realization of a kind that I frequently have: that somebody I know has been trying to get my attention. In this case, it was a co-worker, and she was about to give up completely and leave me to my lunch when I looked up and saw her. Little did I know, this was not the whole story. The next day, a different co-worker came up to me and told me that he’d been waving at me and calling my name in that same restaurant at that same time, to no avail. He was just about to walk up to me and tap me on the shoulder when I noticed my other co-worker standing in the line. Two separate people tried and failed, or nearly failed, to get my attention while I listened to this. I guess it must be good.

Radiolab: “The Voice in Your Head – A Tribute to Joe Frank” — Oh god, how I wish I could dive into this guy’s archive for free. Joe Frank is a radio innovator I had never heard of until a few weeks ago, and I can already see how his work informs so much of what I love in radio. This features Jad Abumrad, Brooke Gladstone and Ira Glass talking about him, but aside from those three I see a huge debt to Frank in Nate DiMeo’s work, and even more so in Jonathan Goldstein’s. I could even see Kaitlin Prest being an acolyte of his. The stories they play here are outstanding and I will definitely be buying some of his pieces from his website (this is how he operated, even in a post-podcast world). This made me want to go make radio immediately. Pick of the week.

Beautiful Conversations with Anonymous People: “Boy Crazy” — This is a lighter episode of Beautiful/Anonymous, and also a lesser one. The caller is a 21-year-old artsy college student with some insecurities. The thing that makes the conversation work when it works is that Chris Gethard really relates to her, having been in much the same situation himself. But it’s awkward and meandering in a way that these conversations usually avoid being. I mostly enjoyed this. But the appeal of this format is that it isn’t always going to work. Really, the appeal of anything Chris Gethard does is that it isn’t always going to work.

Fresh Air: “Paul Thomas Anderson On ‘Phantom Thread’” — P.T.A. seems like a decent fellow. I’m prepared to basically enjoy Phantom Thread without being over the moon about it. But hearing the director talk about working once again with Daniel Day-Lewis and Jonny Greenwood makes me remember how much I love this guy’s work and everybody in his orbit.

99% Invisible: “Speech Bubbles: Understanding Comics with Scott McCloud” — Coincidentally, I just started a class on writing for comics. I read Understanding Comics a few years ago, and it blew my mind. McCloud is a very clever guy, and hearing him talk with Roman Mars is fun because they both get angry about bad design.

Song by Song: “Gun Street Girl, Rain Dogs, Tom Waits” — Phoebe Judge and Lauren Spohrer are the only two guests so far in the Rain Dogs episodes who haven’t really worked. You need pop culture geeks for a show like this, and as much as I love Criminal, Phoebe Judge manifestly isn’t that. Lauren Spohrer may be slightly more so, but this isn’t a very enlightening conversation.

Code Switch: “The ‘R-Word’ In The Age Of Trump” — In which Kat Chow gets called out by a listener for not calling Trump racist. But… institutions like NPR are huge beasts that can sometimes force you to work against your better judgement. Fortunately, there’s such a thing as Code Switch, where conversations like this can happen publicly.

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law: “The 4th Amendment and the Border” — “The border” is not a line, legally speaking. It is a space of up to 100 miles wide. Who knew?

Showcase from Radiotopia: “Secrets #3 – Broken Dreams” — A man hides his unemployment from his father for months. A good story, but the weakest of this series so far. I am not very invested in this, I’ll confess. But I’m too far in now to quit.

Omnibus (week of Jan 14, 2018)

I’ve had a big week for wasting time, and also a big week for getting stuff done that allows me to also listen to stuff simultaneously. You may enjoy the fruits of my labours below.

25 reviews.

Literature, etc.

Chris Onstad: Achewood — It’s been ages, but I went back to Achewood this week and fell right back in. I got the the end of 2004 in the comics, which was also the year when Onstad started writing in-character blogs as all of the major characters. I’m making my way through the first year of those now, because what’s a rabbit hole if you only go halfway down? The blogs are interesting because they’re less explicitly comedic than the strips are. They’re basically sincere character studies where every single character seems unique and well-rounded. That makes them a bit of a mixed bag. Ray’s blog, for instance, is intermittently insufferable because Ray is a rich asshole whose life is a fantasy from a men’s magazine. Seen from a third-person perspective, this is always funny. But when it comes straight from him, it can be rough going because he’s less ridiculous when seen through his own eyes. But the blog never drifts out of character, which is a testament to what a fantastic writer Chris Onstad is. Other characters fare better. I’m particularly fond of Pat’s blog, because Pat is the least sympathetic character in the strip, and thus the most likely to have a completely insufferable blog. So the very existence of the thing is a joke in itself. Also, it features a plotline in which Pat attempts to place the mailman under citizen’s arrest because in Pat’s crazed worldview, junk mail constitutes litter. Achewood is a marvel. It’s a whole universe. I love it.

Movies

The Shape of Water — I’ve always loved Guillermo del Toro as a visual stylist, but the only movie of his that really stuck with me for some time after I watched it was Pan’s Labyrinth. I think what I liked about it was that it presents a very simple metaphor about childhood trauma and takes for granted that you’ll pick up on it. So, it just focuses on telling a story and, even more crucially, presenting a cavalcade of memorable and distressing images. The Shape of Water is much the same. It is not a subtle movie. It finds del Toro wielding Michael Shannon like a bludgeon. More troublingly, it also finds him casting Octavia Spencer as a walking trope, which, ugh. That makes the movie’s central civil rights metaphor a tad less resonant. But all of the stuff that del Toro packs around that metaphor is really marvellous. Maybe the best light to see the movie in is as a tribute to the romances of golden-age Hollywood. Del Toro has always been a film geek first, a storyteller second. And this movie finds him geeking out not only about monster movies, which is his perpetual obsession, but also with musicals and melodrama. And look: there are days when I’m a chilly aesthete, and there are days when I’m totally on board for a musical monster melodrama. This hit me on one of the latter kinds of days.

Coco — I don’t much like to cry in public, so there were some uncomfortable moments in this. *sniff* Coco has one of the most satisfying narrative switcheroos I’ve seen in a while. If you’ve seen it, you know the one. It’s a late-game reveal that I genuinely did not see coming, which is also the element the film’s emotional impact hangs on. Where Inside Out’s effect comes from a sustained melancholy, Coco’s comes from a single surprise gut punch. And what a gut punch it is. I don’t like this quite as much as Inside Out or WALL-E, which remain my two favourite Pixar movies. (Were they this good when I was an actual child??) But Coco goes beyond those movies in a couple of ways. First off, it takes place partially in a convincing (according to my Mexican friend) version of small-town Mexico. Its visual style is a pretty brilliant amalgam of Mexican art and architecture with Pixar’s usual fantastical whimsy. Once the movie finds its way to the land of the dead, it really turns into a visual marvel. And it’s not just the setting — it gets a lot of mileage out of the fact that most of its characters are skeletons and can thus be deconstructed and rearranged at will. There’s a character in this, Hector, who is maybe the closest any animator has gotten to the genie in Aladdin in the past ten years. Story-wise, the tension that drives Coco is the same as in Ratatouille: there’s a kid who wants to be an artist but his family forbids it. But where Ratatouille portrays its protagonist’s family as mere philistines, Coco manages to find a reason why they act like they do that makes them sort of sympathetic. I think that points to a way that children movies have matured since I was a kid: there doesn’t have to be an obvious villain anymore. Coco does have a villain, but for the bulk of the movie the key antagonists are the hero’s own family, who basically have some version of his best interest at heart. This is much more subtle than The Lion King. This is charming. And I’ll note one final detail: the town it takes place in is called Santa Cecilia. Cecilia is the patron saint of music in Catholicism, and thus a significant symbolic figure in this story. Nothing’s an accident in a Pixar movie.

Music

Gustav Mahler/Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic Orchestra et al.: Symphony No. 3 — Man, it’s probably been five years since I listened to this. Famously long, obviously. But when you’re sitting at home with a glass of Petite Sirah (I am a caricature of myself) and a few open browser tabs, it flies right by. The scherzo is one of my favourite movements in Mahler’s whole oeuvre. I remember learning the offstage trumpet parts back when that was a sort of thing I did, and for all of their endurance challenges, they are some of the most satisfying orchestral excerpts I ever had to practice. There’s a haunting delicacy to that section that’s the sort of thing only Mahler can muster. This isn’t altogether one of my favourite Mahler symphonies, but even his lesser works are essential, to me. And that scherzo. Man oh man.

Bruce Springsteen: The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle — I think I prefer this to Darkness on the Edge of Town. I definitely prefer it to The River. Elements of it feel in retrospect like a warm-up for Born to Run, but it has an unexpected soul element that Springsteen wouldn’t really revisit after this. And I like that facet of this record. Much of the credit should likely go to David Sancious, a marvellous keyboardist who makes his final E Street Band appearance here, to be replaced by the equally brilliant but totally different Roy Bittan. Sancious is all kinds of funky throughout. “The E Street Shuffle” is a truly rollicking opener, and it’s the sort of thing that just wouldn’t fly on either of Springsteen’s next two albums. It’s got the requisite keen observational poetry, but it’s just too… fun for Born to Run or Darkness. Pete Townshend once said “When Bruce Springsteen sings, that’s not ‘fun.’ That’s fucking triumph.” It’s presumably those two albums, and Born to Run in particular, that he was talking about. The element of that classic style that E Street Shuffle is missing on about half of its songs is the profound romance — the seriousness. And while that makes it a less effective album, it also makes it a fundamentally different one, which can serve a different purpose in your rotation. On the other hand, if you’re worn out on “Jungleland” and “Backstreets,” “Incident on 57th Street” and “New York City Serenade” can easily fill in for them.

Bruce Springsteen: Nebraska — I can see myself coming to like this Springsteen album best of all. The guts it takes to make a record like this at that point in a career, I tell you. He’d just had his first major hit with “Hungry Heart,” and he comes back with an album of what were meant to be demos of almost unrelentingly bleak songs. But even that doesn’t quite get to the gutsiness of this release: try and think of a solo artist whose sound is more dependent on their band than Bruce Springsteen. The E Street Band is a way bigger part of their particular equation than, say, the Jimi Hendrix Experience was of theirs. And yet this album happened. Thank god Columbia Records had the guts to let it happen, too. Because, different as it is from everything else in his imperial phase, Nebraska has a delicate beauty that makes it stand up alongside Born to Run in terms of its ability to connect. Its palate of mostly acoustic guitar with a few ornamentations and a generous dollop of reverb reminds me of the first Bon Iver album, except made in 1982. My personal highlights are “Highway Patrolman,” which has a gorgeous melody and lyrics that compel you to actively listen to the story, and “Reason to Believe,” which may only feel as strong as it does because it’s positioned at the end of the album. After so many stories of hardship and wrongdoing, it’s nice to hear Springsteen sing about people’s tendency to keep their chin up in spite of it. I’m still processing this. I can tell I’ll be listening to it a lot.

Television

The Good Place: Every episode thus far — Look, I had some spare time this week, and not a lot of willpower to be productive. It’s been a dog’s age since I had a good long binge, so I binged on this. I am a big fan of Michael Schur, primarily because of Parks and Rec: a show that was one of television’s greatest joke factories, and also had a cast of characters it’s almost dangerously easy to get invested in. The Good Place is an astonishing show, but for neither of those reasons. The Good Place is the first television comedy I’ve watched entirely out of interest in the story. I’m not sure I’ve watched a show whose fundamental rules change as often as this one’s. Maybe Lost. But I’d wager that the twists-per-minute ratio of this show is even higher. I’m going to leave it there. If you’re thinking about watching this, watch it. Don’t read anything more about it, just watch it. If you don’t find it funny, just keep watching it. You will eventually realize there’s a sort of virtuosic storytelling at work here that is incredibly rare in TV comedy. Pick of the week.

Podcasts

Love and Radio: “The Machine” & “The Secrets Hotline, Vol. II” — The secrets episode is much the same as the first one, which is to say it’s a bunch of secrets told anonymously on an answering machine. It’s great. “The Machine” is a really great story about a guy who bulldozed a bunch of his town before committing suicide, and managed to be remembered as some kind of hero. Being the show that this is, nothing is allowed to be that simple. It’s great.

The Kitchen Sisters Present: “Levee Stream Live from New Orleans” — A live episode consisting of interviews taking place in the seat of a sawed-in-half Cadillac, this is the sort of thing that could only come from a collaboration including the Kitchen Sisters. New Orleans is a super cool place I really want to visit, and this is a great evocation of its contemporary culture.

Pop Culture Happy Hour catch-up — The highlight of the slew of PCHH I listened to this week was their annual resolutions and predictions show, which I always love because they’re always so wrong except for Kat Chow. Good listening.

The Hilarious World of Depression: “Linda Holmes Leaves Law to Concentrate On Watching TV and It Works Out Great” — It’s always a shock when you learn about the difference between a person’s public-facing aspect and their private life. I’ve been following Linda Holmes’s work for NPR and as the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour for years, including during the period that she identifies during this interview as a mental health crisis. It was never less than amazing. I hadn’t listened to this show before, and I’m not sure it’s necessarily for me, but this is a really good conversation. Holmes’s story really demonstrates that there are gradations of depression and anxiety and that even the lower gradations need to be acknowledged and dealt with. Lovely stuff.

Beautiful Conversations with Anonymous People: “The Puppet Master” — This starts off as a pretty ordinary episode of Beautiful/Anonymous with a guest of middling interest. Then he laughs. And as soon as Chris Gethard hears this guy’s laugh, we’re off to the races. I listened to this on a train at seven in the morning. I had to keep pausing it because I was losing my shit. There’s nothing like listening to people laughing. And he really does turn out to be interesting later. Everybody is. That’s the point of this show.

WTF with Marc Maron: “Darren Aronofsky,” “Marc’s Family” & “Ta-Nehisi Coates” — These are all great episodes. Aronofsky turns out to be quite funny and engaging. He was a fan of Maron’s from way back in his struggling stand-up days. Also, Maron hasn’t seen the end of mother! He’s actually interviewing Darren Aronofsky about that movie without having seen it all. I love that. The episode of conversations between Maron and members of his family feels like some much-needed catch-up on the years of the podcast that I missed. And the Ta-Nehisi Coates interview is completely scintillating. Maron is enraptured with this guy, and Coates just loves how good he is at listening. It’s fabulous. Listen to that one.

The Organist: “How to Be in Two Places at Once: The Firesign Theatre in the US and Vietnam” — I am so glad this show exists. We need more arts and culture podcasts that are about long-form storytelling rather than conversation and criticism. I love those shows too, but I feel like Studio 360’s American Icons series has been cornering the market for long enough. I actually found a record by the Firesign Theatre in the five dollar bin at my local record store while I was digging for a gag gift recently. I did not pick it up, but it left me wondering about what it was. Apparently, they were a group of avant-garde comedians and sound artists who made records that had a substantial countercultural impact in their day. This is a good introduction to Firesign because it focuses not on the members of the troupe themselves, but on the people who listened to and understood the records in various contexts. Too often arts journalists default to interviewing the artists. The artists are arguably the least important people involved in a work of art. I will listen to this show a lot, I think.

Trump Con Law catch-up — The episode about whether or not you can prosecute a president is maybe the archetypal example of this show: it opens up the possibility that a thing you want to happen could happen, then shuts it down and makes you realize that it might not actually be a good idea anyway. I’m getting into this now, even if it kind of makes me even more fearful.

On the Media: “The End Is the Beginning” — Come for the retrospective on early third-wave feminism, stay for the tribute to the late Joe Frank — a radio producer I didn’t know and now am in love with.

Uncivil: “Song” — Basically, “Dixie,” the song widely regarded as the anthem of the Confederacy, was written by a white Yankee. Except actually no, it wasn’t, because it was probably taught to him by a black man. It’s a complicated, compelling story and if you want it in detail, this episode is the place to be.

Longform: “Zoe Chace” — Chace is one of my favourite This American Life producers, but the story of how she got there is pretty familiar. You just get an internship to get your foot in the door and do everything you can to stay there forever. That’s the gist of this, though it’s a good conversation because she’s good at talking.

Theory of Everything: “Utopia (part ii)” & “False Flags” — The second utopia episode features an attempt at utopia that seems to be falling apart less than the attempts in the first episode. But that’s because nobody there regards it as a utopia. So that’s interesting. But it’s “False Flags” that really caught my attention. Benjamen Walker merges his argument about the increasing prevalence of conspiracy theories with an amusing fictional vignette about him getting yelled at in the airport. That’s what I come to this show for.

The Daily: “Special Episode: The Year in Sound” — This is largely Barbaro-less: a collage of mostly Trump-adjacent sound bites from a completely insane year. Remember Scaramucci? I had completely forgotten about that guy. What kind of a year lets you forget that Anthony Scaramucci was in the White House for, what was it, a week?

Showcase from Radiotopia: “Secrets,” episodes 1 & 2 — This new series from Radiotopia’s rotating exhibition space is not particularly experimental or innovative, but both of these episodes have told really compelling stories. The first is about an undercover cop, and the second is about a wildlife photographer who faked his photos. Start with either.

Home of the Brave: “Two More Stories About Mountains” — The first of these two guest stories is an interview with Scott Carrier, with added music. But it’s the second that knocked me flat. “The Ascent to K-2” is a story by Joe Frank, who was still alive when Carrier released this episode, but who died shortly after. I became aware of him thanks to On the Media, and heard my first full piece of his thanks to this. This is an intensely odd narrative about the strangest (totally made up) attempt to climb K-2 that has ever been undertaken. It is radio storytelling at its oddest and best. Pick of the week.

The Turnaround: “The Turnaround with Dick Cavett” — Ah, I forgot how much I enjoy hearing Jesse Thorn interview people about interviewing. Cavett is good fun, and he taught me a new word. I’m going to paraphrase my favourite part of this interview. Cavett says, I think the lack of a sense of humour is the ultimate lack. It is un-human and inhuman. Thorn says, I wonder if the president finds anything funny. I’ve never seen him laugh at something funny. Cavett says, oh no, he’s a born clodpate. CLODPATE! I love it. Great stuff.

99% Invisible: “Mini-Stories: Volume 4” & “Thermal Delight” — This might be my favourite batch of mini-stories yet, but “Thermal Delight” came and went from my brain. To be fair, I was in the heat of cooking at the time, and sometimes that happens. It’s nobody’s fault but mine.

Code Switch: “This Racism Is Killing Me Inside” — This is about weathering, which is one of the most unsettling effects of racism. If you want to know more, you should listen to this episode. This should be a show you listen to always.

Omnibus (week of Jan. 7, 2018)

I was recently in a room that contained nearly all of the people who read this blog. (Hey guys!) I sometimes reflect that it is an act of madness to continue writing thousands of words per week on a blog whose audience numbers in the low dozens. But here we are.

13 reviews.

Literature, etc.

Philip Pullman: The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage — Having re-read His Dark Materials in its entirety in anticipation for this, along with all of its supplemental novellas, Audible-exclusive short stories etc., I am happy to announce that I am by no means disappointed with La Belle Sauvage. However, I may have approached it with slightly too much enthusiasm, egged on by the good reviews. Surely, I thought, if the critics love it this much, I’ll love it more. But here’s the thing: La Belle Sauvage feels very much like the first book in a trilogy. Specifically, it feels like The Golden Compass. Pullman’s original trilogy of novels about Lyra and company gained steam as they went along. There’s little hint of the cosmic warfare and tragic romance of The Amber Spyglass in the Arctic adventure story of The Golden Compass. And what shreds of it exist in that first book aren’t obvious until you finish the last. It seems to me that Pullman might be pulling something similar in the trilogy that will make up The Book of Dust. This book is a fairly straightforward adventure story, and it takes place in a much smaller geographical space than The Golden Compass did. But there are hints and suggestions here, particularly near the end of the book, that the fantastical multiverse of the first trilogy may have even more facets and mechanics than we’d been led to believe. And there are also seeds being planted about the trilogy’s themes. Where His Dark Materials was about the virtue of human curiosity and progressive values, The Book of Dust looks like it’s going to tackle the nature of consciousness. But it’s not there yet. The closest that La Belle Sauvage comes to Pullman’s acclaimed critique of religion and authority in his previous work comes in a slightly heavy-handed plotline about a government organization that encourages children to narc on their parents and teachers for being inadequately pious. This is an early incarnation of the fearsome theocracy we see in His Dark Materials, which has yet to consolidate its power. All the same, Pullman paints it with a far thicker brush than in his other books and once or twice he comes off as didactic, which he never has before. Still, his powers of description are as sharp as ever, and he leads his characters through one setting after another that comes straight to life the same way that Bolvangar did in The Golden Compass or the land of the dead did in The Amber Spyglass. As a child, I was determined to go to university in large part because of the way Pullman described Oxford in his books. Fifteen years later, La Belle Sauvage made me wonder whether I might like to run a pub in my retirement. Its main characters can’t compete with Lyra and Will, but how could they. It’s a fantastic yarn, and I have no doubt that it’ll balloon outwards into something really special in the next two books. If The Subtle Knife is any indication of where Pullman’s going next, it’ll be terrifying.

Music

Bruce Springsteen: Born to Run — I grew up listening to music from my parents’ generation. I expect this had something to do with my own somewhat perverse interpretation of what it means to be rebellious, which was to act like an alien who arrived in Fort McMurray, Alberta from Jupiter, by way of Edwardian London and subsequently Haight-Ashbury circa 1967. All teenagers have their affectations. Mine were just really specific. As part of my effort to distance myself from my actual circumstances, which were that I came from an upwardly-mobile family in the nice part of a shabby little oil town, I consciously avoided all of the music that my peers enjoyed. After all, they all came from those same sorts of families. Strange, then, that it was the music of the authority figures in my life — parents, music teachers, etc. — that transported me farthest away: classical music, and rock from about 1965-80. Soon enough, I found myself exploring corners of those idioms that my elder gatekeepers hadn’t ever seen. Beethoven and Chopin at age 12 led to Stockhausen and Ligeti at 16. Pink Floyd and the Beatles in middle school led to Van Der Graaf Generator and Captain Beefheart by junior high. This music was the score to my teenage years, which were a long-term piece of bad performance art. (As is this blog. Some of our worst impulses follow us around forever.) It occurred to me at some point during my first full listen through Born to Run this week that Bruce Springsteen’s music is custom made for the purpose I used Stockhausen and Beefheart for back then. Born to Run is a hymnal of anthems about escape. It’s an outlet for youthful energy with nowhere to go. It’s a reasonably accurate portrait of me at age 17. (Only psychologically, though. Even today, I can barely drive. Wendy would not have got to Thunder Road with me behind the wheel.) It is also a record I wouldn’t have been caught dead listening to at that age. If I had, I would have thrown it away in embarrassment if anybody found out. Why have I only come around to this a decade after it was actually relevant to me? I have a theory: the last thing that would have served my need for escape in my Fort Mac days is music about the need to escape. Back then, I didn’t choose music that I could identify with. I listened to music that had as little to do with me as possible: deliberately alienating music like John Cage and Jethro Tull, or music with seemingly cosmic significance like Mahler or Yes. I have only come to listen to music on the basis of its resonance with my own life within the last few years. (Therein lies the basis for my late 2017 obsession with Margo Price, my early 2016 obsession with John Congleton, and my perpetual need to listen to Brian Eno’s Music for Airports. Take from each of these what you will.) It took a long time for me to fully shake off my aversion to any music that reminded me of my own mundane circumstances. And in that time, those circumstances changed. Now, when I listen to Born to Run, I don’t especially sympathize with Springsteen’s characters and their youthful restlessness. But I remember feeling that way. The boundless romanticism of this music makes me realize that my former perversity, the impulse that would have led me to reject Springsteen at the time, was born of the very same romanticism that he’s expressing on this record. Sub out Springsteen’s chrome-wheeled, fuel-injected, velvet-rimmed suicide machines for a carpeted basement floor and a pair of headphones pumping out harpsichord music, and you’ve got a perfect image of me exactly ten years ago. I expect that a similar substitution exists for nearly everybody. Pick of the week.

Bruce Springsteen: Darkness on the Edge of Town — Somewhere in the gap between the release of Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town, Bruce Springsteen was the age I am now. Maybe that has something to do with why my initial thoughts on this album are so much less clear than my initial thoughts on Born to Run. Darkness is famously less optimistic than its predecessor, and those who connect with it really connect with it. That’s clear from a cursory look through remarks in various online fan communities. It’s also clear from some of the retrospective reviews in professional outlets. When this album was repackaged with a slew of bonus material as The Promise a few years back, Pitchfork gave it an 8.5 and an actually quite insightful review that characterizes it as an album “about grim acceptance and pressing on in the face of doubt.” That’s very accurate. If Born to Run is a dream of a far-off Utopia, Darkness on the Edge of Town is a diary about making the best of it after you’ve given up on that dream. It isn’t until one album later that Springsteen will ask “is a dream a lie if it don’t come true,” but the spirit of that inquiry is here in spades. I like most, if not all of the songs on this, but the one I find myself revisiting obsessively is the title track, which suggests that even after Utopia has faded from view, it doesn’t stop some of us from lingering in the liminal spaces where we used to catch a glimpse of it. Wanting is a key concept in Springsteen, and he’s never written a verse more eloquent about it than “Lives on the line where dreams are found and lost / I’ll be there on time and I’ll pay the cost / For wanting things that can only be found / In the darkness on the edge of town.” This is going to be a grower.

Bruce Springsteen: The River — This is a hard album to pin down. In spite of their drastically different subject matter, Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town share a relatively consistent aesthetic, thanks to the amazing E Street Band. Their huge sound on those albums, with Clarence Clemons’ saxophone in the fore, and a mix of piano, organ and glockenspiel sitting alongside the guitars in the central texture, is an obvious forerunner of totally over-the-top artists like Meat Loaf and Arcade Fire. And that sound is present on The River, in tracks like “Hungry Heart” and some of the ballads — “I Wanna Marry You” in particular. But the overall impression is like a more polished Exile on Main St., where the band is willing to experiment in public. It’s a huge album, clearly, at nearly an hour and a half. And it contains a handful of songs that rival the emotional high points of the previous two albums for poignancy: “The River,” “Wreck on the Highway,” and especially “Drive All Night,” which feels a bit like “Darkness on the Edge of Town” stretched out to twice its length and with twice as much regret. But The River is too big of a thing to have even a shadow of a thesis statement about on one listen. I’ll figure it out next time. But first, let’s address the elephant in the room, namely “Cadillac Ranch.” This is a song that I did not know was by Bruce Springsteen. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s cover of this song was the score to an unpleasant episode in my youth wherein my classmates and I were taught, nay, forced to line dance by the physical education curriculum of the province of Alberta. Too bad, because Springsteen’s original would be an irresistibly energetic bit of country rock if it didn’t retraumatize me. What a fine pile of weird memories this Springsteen binge has dredged up.

Podcasts

Code Switch catch-up — I am nearly caught up on this now, after having been backed up by two months. One does not miss an episode of Code Switch, because to do so is to miss an opportunity to be a slightly better, or at least more knowledgeable, person. Their year-end wrap up really puts the final nail in the coffin of 2017 being remembered as anything but a dung heap. It’s great.

The Memory Palace: “On the Shores of Assawompset” & “John C. Calhoun from the Opposite Side of the Line that Divides the Living from the Dead” — Two good ones. “On the Shores of Assawompset” is one of Nate DiMeo’s periodic episodes that pokes holes in colonial narratives. These are always appreciated, and you should listen to this if you’d like some clarity on the truth of the relationship between the pilgrims and the natives of the land they came to. The John C. Calhoun episode is more lighthearted, but still manages to tie in with pre-Civil War slavery narratives. This show really isn’t like anything else.

Crimetown: Three bonus episodes — I remain mixed on this show and uncertain whether I’ll be back for season two. It depends on the city they choose to explore, I suppose. But these bonus episodes tell some good stories. The most eminently recommendable is also the one I’d be most cautious to recommend: “Courtney” is about a woman who fell into an abusive relationship with a powerful predator while she was a minor. It’s harrowing stuff, but she’s allowed to tell her own story and if you’re not concerned about the potential triggers it’s worth hearing. It also stands alone pretty well, so you don’t necessarily need to have heard the whole of season one. And I’m not sure I’d recommend that you do that unless you’re a pathological true crime consumer.

Imaginary Worlds catch-up — The biggest news in the three episodes of this I listened to is that Eric Molinsky will be opening the new year with a series on Doctor Who. I don’t know what to anticipate. I really liked his series on Star Wars and Harry Potter, but those are franchises I have limited engagement with, at least insofar as I have no idea what their respective fandoms are on about these days. But Doctor Who is a thing I love dearly — it’s probably the one franchise that falls under Molinsky’s aegis that I’d call myself obsessed with. I wonder if I’ll still get something out of this show when I’m deeply familiar with the subject matter. In any case, I’ll listen with interest. As for these episodes, two of the ones I listened to deal with The Expanse, which I’ve neither read nor seen and don’t have much interest. But that’s part of the appeal of this show: I can get a sense of what something like The Expanse is on about without spending more than an hour. The update of Molinsky’s episode on The Force Awakens that deals with The Last Jedi is interesting, but once again I’m baffled at why anybody feels it is such a radical departure from the previous films. It is a perfectly adequate, safe, blockbuster with some really great scenes with Luke and some really nonsense scenes with Benicio del Toro. It’s Star Wars. Get over yourselves. Sorry, I have to be a jerk sometimes.

Constellations catch-up — Again, not quite caught up. But there was some good stuff in there: Aleksandra Bragoszewska’s “Coarse and Janky” is a lovely portrait of outsider artists doing what they believe in. Craig Desson’s “06-30-24” is an elegant bit of dreamlike sound art about his MacBook. Apparently he’s a bit Adam Curtis fan. It shows, and that’s good.

More Perfect: “The Architect” & “Justice, Interrupted” — “The Architect” is an updated episode from the previous season and “Justice, Interrupted” is a mini-episode about a thing I’d read about before: the constant interruption of the female Supreme Court justices by the male ones. It’s a good episode, but it’s pretty straightforward by this show’d complicated standards. I can’t wait for the season finale, though.

StartUp: “StartupBus Part 1: Monday” — Insufferable. This show has been on the skids for some time, and while I have tentatively high hopes for the next season, which will be serialized in the vein of this show’s three best seasons, I will not be listening to the remaining four episodes of “StartupBus.” Serialized it may be, but I’ve seldom heard a podcast that reminds me more of the godawful contrivances of reality TV. Basically, one of the show’s producers gets on a bus with a bunch of random strangers who are all on that bus to start companies within the span of a weeklong trip. The StartupBus is a machine built to generate needless conflict, narrative and otherwise. It is full of buzzword spouting delusional people with no calling and no passion. I hate it. I wish it didn’t exist. Do not listen to this.

On the Media: “Outrage Machine” — Worth it for Bob Garfield’s interview with Michael Wolff, the author of Fire and Fury, who defends himself reasonably well against charges of having misled his sources. Also for Brooke Gladstone’s one-year-later follow up interview with Masha Gessen, who was on the show previously to talk about her rules for surviving autocracies. How are we doing at “believing the autocrat,” asks Gladstone? (Not well, but he doesn’t make it easy.)

In Our Time: “Moby-Dick,” “Beethoven” & “Hamlet” — Melvyn Bragg’s final run of the year includes three episodes on huge things. I listened to these one after the other and it’s definitely the most fun I had doing dishes this week. Bragg is clearly enjoying himself in all of these episodes, especially given that the topics at hand are relatively well understood by lots of his listeners, probably. So he can facilitate a discussion that basically asks, “we know how this thing is, but why is it like that?” I’m fondest of the Moby-Dick episode, probably because I’m least familiar with that topic. (I haven’t read Moby-Dick, but I’ve reread the first chapter at least a dozen times. It is one of my favourite things in all of literature. I dunno why I’ve never gotten any farther. Sheer intimidation, probably.) By the same token, the Beethoven episode is the weakest, simply because I can’t accept one of Bragg’s panelists’ take at face value. I’ve listened to Beethoven for hundreds and hundreds of hours. And while I find him deeply inspiring, I cannot accept that his music is fundamentally about overcoming adversity. The idea of instrumental music being about anything at all strikes me as wrong, as it did Leonard Bernstein. But that’s just me, and disagreeing with things is part of what makes this show fun. The Hamlet episode is great, particularly for some of the details about the play’s development from its early versions, which I’ve never read. (Nobody has.) I really love this show. Even when it’s about stuff that I know a little about, I never feel like it’s condescending to me. It is one of a precious handful of public radio shows that always proceeds under the assumption that its audience isn’t dumb. Pick of the week.