Omnireviewer (week of Apr. 23, 2017)

Well, this is an odd instalment. For the first time since starting Omnireviewer in October 2015, I went a week without listening to any podcasts. This is because I was listening to an audiobook instead. It also means that this week we only have seven reviews, which is an all-time low. Given that, it would seem logical to only do one pick of the week. But, you know what? I’m going to allow myself not just my usual two, but THREE. It was a very high-performance week and I make the damn rules, here. And a seven-review Omnireviewer with no podcasts is an anomalous farce to begin with, so fuck it.

Here are your seven reviews.

Literature, etc.

Jorge Luis Borges: “The Library of Babel” — I have purchased a rabbit hole full of rabbit holes. Namely, the collected fictions of Jorge Luis Borges as translated by Andrew Hurley. I am essentially unfamiliar with Borges, given that the only things I’ve actually read of his are excerpts from The Book of Imaginary Beings and a long-ago, half-attentive read of “The Garden of Forking Paths.” But I’ve always meant to dive into his work, primarily because of my personal obsession with metafiction (note that Neil Gaiman also figures largely in my media consumption this week). There’s a quote I happened upon once (I think it’s Borges, but I may be wrong because I can’t source the quote no matter how hard I Google) that explains what’s creepy about metafiction. The quote posits that we’re unsettled by stories where the characters become self-aware as characters in a story, because it makes us feel like there’s a possibility that we too may be fictional. Stories within stories suggest infinite regress of which we are only one level, and by definition in between two others. (I may be thinking of the second paragraph on the second page of this essay, where Borges discusses Hamlet’s play within a play, which kind of outlines the same idea. Though in my memory, the quote was more on-the-nose than this.) I love this. It’s like Borges predicted The Matrix, and also every Silicon Valley conspiracy theory about how we’re actually all in a computer simulation. More to the point, it pins down my exact morbid fascination with metafiction. This is why I suspect Borges might be a writer I should seriously investigate. “The Library of Babel” is a much-suggested starting point, and I adore it. At a mere seven pages long, it establishes a complete universe governed by a simple premise with some unthinkably mindfucky implications. The premise is that the universe of this story is an inconceivably vast (but not infinite) library, in which every possible combination of 25 characters is present. The most astounding implication of this is that all meaning, even impossible meaning, can be expressed flawlessly through language. An example: in this library, there is a book that tells the true story of your death. Because there would have to be. Read this goddamn story. I enjoyed Hurley’s translation and the one linked here is not that, but a cursory glance finds it to be adequate, though it regrettably does not contain Borges’s footnotes. Pick of the week.

Neil Gaiman: American Gods (The Tenth Anniversary Edition audiobook) — I feel as though my initial impressions of this novel from last week carried through to the ending, so I won’t belabour this. I’ll only say that this is straightforwardly one of the greatest fantasy novels ever. Still, I think it’s in third place out of the four Neil Gaiman works I’ve encountered (numbers one and two being, respectively, The Ocean at the End of the Lane and Sandman. “The Doctor’s Wife” is a respectable number four.) This is at turns immensely moving and terribly clever. As a mythology enthusiast in general, I got a lot out of this. I’m incredibly psyched for the TV show. I’m certain Ian McShane will knock it out of the park. Also, a word on audiobooks: I’ve decided I like them. I got through this a hell of a lot faster than I would have if I’d read it, because I seemingly spend most of my life on busses, running, or doing chores: none of which are settings I tend to enjoy reading in. This is going to be part of my life now, I’ve decided. And now, a few more specific notes. Firstly, Neil Gaiman has a very specific and nuanced sense of the epic. In American Gods, that manifests in many ways, some rather unlikely. Food, for instance. In The Odyssey, everybody is constantly eating. They eat roasted meat and fruits and they drink sweet wine, and the way Homer (and his translators) describe it draws me into the adventure as surely as any story of a cyclops or siren. In American Gods, everybody is also constantly eating. And the meals they eat are every bit as decadent and as lavishly described as the feasts in Homer, but of course they’re modern and American. One of the first things that happens in the novel is a man eats a burger with a side of chili. A burger with a side of chili. It may simply be that I’m Canadian, and thus used to a touch more restraint in my pub fare. But to me, chili is under no circumstances a side dish. So this plot detail is deliciously and, yes, epically gluttonous. I love it. It makes me want to live in this world of heroic, divine eaters. It makes me want burgers and chili and french fries and meatball subs and macaroni and cheese and fried chicken and lager and black coffee. Not chocolate cream pie, though. I’ve never liked chocolate cream pie. But when I read about it in American Gods, I kind of wish I were the sort of person who would enjoy chocolate cream pie. Another note: the “Coming to America” chapter about Essie Tregowan is everything I love about Neil Gaiman in a nutshell. Essentially, it’s a story of a woman whose love for fantasy stories helps to bring a god over to America. Stories about the value of stories are not rare in Gaiman’s oeuvre, but he does them more movingly than anybody else. Hearing this in audio form makes me wonder if Nate DiMeo has read or listened to this. Because, supernatural element aside, that segment could easily be an episode of The Memory Palace. I’m not sure whose writing that’s a greater compliment to: DiMeo’s or Gaiman’s. Finally: it’s nice to now have read two novels with Mad King Sweeney as a character. He is a highlight of At Swim-Two-Birds as well, and that is my favourite novel ever. American Gods has an entirely different take on him, and that take deepens my impressions of this mythological personage. I adored American Gods. Neil Gaiman is a class act in a generation of genre fiction writers that I mostly don’t like. He articulates a vision of America from the outside that is deeply consistent with my Canadian perspective, and thus I’m certain the perspectives of many many non-Americans living in a world inundated with American culture against our will. He strings you along like the finest con artists the world has ever known. Pick of the week.

Television

Better Call Saul: Season 3, episodes 1-3 — I always forget how much I love this show when it isn’t in season. I wouldn’t say that any of these three episodes find the show at its very best. But we’ve got several promising elements, here. Firstly, it looks like this season’s arc will primarily deal with Jimmy being on trial. That’s a good story arc idea, and it gives plenty of opportunities for development in my favourite element of this show, which is the relationship between Jimmy and Kim. Rhea Seehorn continues to be outstanding, and I love every scene with the two of them together, not just because of the dynamic established between the two characters in the scripts, but also because Seehorn is really good at reacting in a traditionally actorly way to Bob Odenkirk’s often idiosyncratic approach to delivering lines. It’s easy to forget, given the increasing esteem in which he is held for this role, that Odenkirk comes from sketch comedy, which is a writer’s medium, not an actor’s one. He’s not at all the usual sort of person you see headlining an hour-long drama. That’s a big part of this show’s appeal. Of course, the other promising element is the return of the magnificent Giancarlo Esposito as Gus Fring. I must admit, I felt a bit trepidatious about this when I first heard they were doing it. I’m not a fan of overreliance on favourite elements from any given narrative’s canon (see basically any review I’ve ever written of Welcome to Night Vale). And this show has generally been very good about ensuring that its story works independently of Breaking Bad — quite the trick given that show’s long shadow. But so far, it seems like Gilligan and Gould are managing to integrate Fring into their narrative fairly organically. The origins of Mike Ehrmantraut’s relationship with that character is narratively rich ground, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it turns out. The episode that he first appears in is brilliantly stage-managed as well, with the delayed reveal of the Los Pollos Hermanos sign and then the extended sequence where Fring is an extremely conspicuous blur in the background of a shallow-focus shot. You have to be really paying attention to see it, but when you do, you know it’s completely intentional. This is what I love most about Vince Gilligan as a television auteur: he takes the audience’s intense attention for granted, and uses it to his advantage. I’m really looking forward to the rest of this season. Maybe this will be the year when I remember how much I love Better Call Saul even when the season ends.

Doctor Who: “Thin Ice” — So much of this season so far feels like a victory lap. I don’t mean that in a bad way, nor do I mean to credit Steven Moffat with every decision on this show, which has been written by three different people in as many weeks. (The usual state of affairs.) But aside from this season’s interest in reiterating the basic appeal of Doctor Who at its core, it also feels like an excuse to just have a hell of a lot of fun. If there was a non-tragic component to the Doctor’s loss of Clara’s memory (*sniff*), it’s that he’s been able to move on from his most recent loss faster than usual. There’s none of the brooding that was necessary after the departures of, say, Rose or the Ponds. This gives Peter Capaldi the opportunity to show off the side of Twelve that shares DNA with Tom Baker’s whimsical Fourth Doctor and Sylvester McCoy’s hammy, performative Seventh. Twelve will probably still go down in history as a curmudgeon with a heart of gold (the previous reference points always seemed to be William Hartnell and Jon Pertwee), but it’s lovely to see him cast off the shade and just have a ball being a mercurial pot-stirrer. Which, of course doesn’t last for long, because we need a story. And what a moment when Spider disappears under the ice. This character moment is communicated through acting, and without a single word. The Doctor, thinking pragmatically, retrieves his sonic screwdriver. He does not show an outward sign of concern for the death that’s just taken place. He busies himself examining the screwdriver. Bill is appalled. We as viewers are not made to think the Doctor monstrous. He is not, after all, openly cavalier. (This would have been a tempting but bad place for a one-liner.) But neither are we allowed to think that what’s just taken place isn’t a terrible thing, because Bill is there to offer the expected reaction while the Doctor behaves in the idiosyncratic way he believes to be most useful. Our brooding Twelve from two seasons ago (“You would make a good Dalek”) doesn’t make an appearance, however. This is a more stable version of the character. We seem to be done with the stories about whether or not the Doctor is truly a hero. I predict that this is the closest we’ll come to that this season, and it’s a subtly different sort of thing: it’s a story about confronting the unpleasant realities of throwing in with a character from an adventure serial. This comparatively sunny setup is going to make Twelve’s regeneration absolutely gutting. Let’s be prepared.

Movies

The Lost City of Z — I had high hopes for this that weren’t quite realized, but it’s definitely two and a half hours well spent in a movie theatre. And I do mean that precisely: this is a movie that you need to see in theatres, because it is conceived as an experience. This is an epic in the David Lean tradition: it’s the closest thing to Lawrence of Arabia that I’ve seen this decade. I do have a weakness for huge movies like this. (There’s a hint of Apocalypse Now in it too, which is always a compliment from me.) But I freely confess that my bar for these movies isn’t hard to clear: show me some pretty scenery framed nicely by the cinematographer, maybe with some elegant slow pans, and I’m pretty much good. This did that. But I won’t pretend to have been especially engrossed by the story or characters. The key tension comes from Charlie Hunnam’s protagonist, Percy Fawcett, struggling to balance his compulsion to explore the Amazon with his obligation to be present for his family. This is not psychologically complicated. And this movie is not psychologically complicated. The hardships of jungle exploration are mostly conveyed as physical struggles. This is where it breaks from Apocalypse Now, which finds a source of delirium in the jungle, rather than just a straightforward threat to life and limb. I can’t help but see this as a missed opportunity. Also, I’m not convinced that this movie is the corrective to certain colonial narratives that some critics seem to think it is. It is still focussed on a white man, and it has tinges of the “white saviour” trope about it. I dunno. I enjoyed looking at this movie, but I haven’t got much to say about it, apparently. The acting’s fine. Hunnam is more capable than I’d thought. And it’s lovely to see Robert Pattinson settling into the role he was always meant for, namely, second-fiddle eccentric character actor. Pattinson is a genius in this context and it was a criminal offense for any casting director to ever mistake him for a leading man. This is not a masterpiece. It’s awfully pretty, but it isn’t narratively or thematically ambitious enough for me to really consider it great.

Music

Neil Young: On the Beach — This was the one instalment in Neil’s “Ditch Trilogy” that I’d never heard from start to finish. I’ve always considered the other two chapters, Time Fades Away and Tonight’s the Night to be among his most effective work. But On the Beach might be the best of the three. Of the three, Time Fades Away is always going to be the odd one out, since it’s completely live. So, if we judge this against Tonight’s the Night, we find that this is substantially more put together, even if its songwriting moves in the same general direction of desolation and despair. But in music, sound is everything. So, in its comparative restraint, On the Beach takes on a substantially different meaning than its predecessor/successor (depending on whether you consult the order of recording or release). If Tonight’s the Night is the sound that emerges from an open wound, On the Beach is the residue from a recently cauterized one. Given this interpretation, “Walk On” is one of the most uplifting and glorious tracks in the Neil Young catalogue. It opens the album with a sense of genuine fortitude in the face of trauma. “See The Sky About To Rain” is a sad song, but it’s wistfully sad, in the same way as certain songs on After the Gold Rush or Harvest. (It is also quickly becoming one of my favourite Neil Young songs, up there with “After the Gold Rush,” “Powderfinger” and “Tired Eyes.” I cannot listen to this enough.) The rest of side one keeps the pace, with a general sense of a person in possession of his faculties, in spite of having recently walked through the valley of the shadow of death. But side two gets darker. Here we have Neil really sinking into the feelings of paranoia and worthlessness that plagued him at the bottom of the ditch. “Ambulance Blues” is especially dismal, in the best way. If we look at the Ditch Trilogy in its intended order with Time Fades Away representing the descent, Tonight’s the Night representing the nadir, and On the Beach representing the emergence, then I think it’s a magnificent choice to have something as dark as “Ambulance Blues” to finish the whole thing off. “Walk On” is a great way to start the final instalment in a trilogy about pain and despair, but it would be a needlessly pat way to finish it. By putting the triple shot of “On the Beach,” “Motion Pictures” and “Ambulance Blues” at the end of the trilogy, Neil suggests that the hard times don’t dissipate so easily. Nothing here has the bloodshot suicidal terror of “Tired Eyes,” but much of it acknowledges that such a state existed in the past. On the Beach is a tremendously cathartic record. It has everything. It might be Neil Young’s finest achievement. Pick of the week.

Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Arc-Weld — I feel an intense Neil Young binge coming on. This is another album I’d meant to listen to for ages but never got around to. And oh my god is it heavy. It is hearing loss in an LP sleeve. It’s a return to shit-hot, dirty knucklehead rock and roll after a decade of bizarre (and sometimes interesting, but always bizarre) dalliances with other styles. But it’s more than that: Arc-Weld finds Neil doubling down on the heavy rock he’d done more than a decade prior on Rust Never Sleeps. The tracklist shares many songs with that earlier quasi-live album, but they are infinitely heavier, noisier, sloppier and better here. This is the Neil Young that they call the godfather of grunge. This Neil Young doesn’t do “Heart of Gold.” For background: you may have heard of Weld, which is the double live album that makes up the bulk of this collection, but it’s not really complete without the third disc, Arc, which is just abstract guitar noise culled from the same live dates as Weld. Basically, as far as I can tell, on this tour Crazy Horse did a ton of noisy extended endings and openings of the heavy songs (namely, all of them), and Arc is just a bunch of them sewn together. I saw Neil in 2009 (not with Crazy Horse, though I thought it was until a bit of recent Googling) and they were nearly this noisy, aggressive and abstract then, as well. (They did do “Heart of Gold,” though, and a handful of other acoustic tracks.) Noise is a huge part of Neil’s appeal for me, and that’s why I kind of feel like Weld alone is incomplete without Arc. The entirety of Arc-Weld highlights the extent to which Neil Young is as much a noise artist as a songwriter, but Arc throws it into starker relief. This is what puts Neil Young above many of his contemporaries to me: he embraces chaos and intensely esoteric modes of music-making such as harsh noise — even as he continues to epitomize the earthiest of North American songwriting traditions. The highlights are a 14-minute “Like a Hurricane” that seems to pass in three, a distortion-laden take on “Blowin’ in the Wind” with added air raid sirens that feels less like a pastiche than a much-needed update, and tracks from Ragged Glory that I hadn’t heard before, whose studio versions will surely pale in comparison once I get around to them. Also, apparently the backing vocals are overdubbed on this. I could care less. This has a rawness to it that you don’t get in a studio. I’m not often in the mood for Neil Young, but when I am I think maybe he is the definitive rock star: the one we can point to and say “that.” That’s what he sounds like on Arc-Weld.

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