Category Archives: Books

Notes on Moby-Dick (which one day I will finish): Part 3

LET’S REVIEW. Ishmael has set sail at last aboard the whaling vessel Pequod, captained by the mysterious Ahab, about whom much has been implied and little has been actually established.

Chapter 24: The Advocate

Having just delivered his most generous volley of actual story thus far, Ishmael now stops in his tracks to mount a defence of the whaling industry to anybody who may not approve. This is a difficult chapter to parse. On one hand, we have not known Ishmael to be an especially ironic person in the story so far. He’s a bit of a liar, certainly, but a sincere one. So, perhaps we ought to simply take him at his word that he sees whaling as an honourable profession.

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Not Ishmael.

On the other hand, one of the most compelling readings of Moby-Dick in this day and age — a reading that allows it to speak to our times rather eloquently — is the environmental reading. It’s easy to look at this novel as a story of humanity’s attempt to dominate its environment, with catastrophic consequences. There are those who believe Melville actually intended the story to be read this way. If that’s true, then we’re faced with the first serious case of Melville, our author, disagreeing with Ishmael, our narrator. Ishmael steps an inch closer to Lemuel Gulliver, a narrator that Jonathan Swift transparently thought was an idiot.

I’ve been tripping over myself to square these two scenarios, because I desperately want to read Moby-Dick as an environmental story, but I also adore Ishmael and I want him to be as smart and modern as the author who created him. Maybe it isn’t impossible to have it both ways.

Here’s something: the most outlandish claim that Ishmael makes in this chapter is that whaling helped to end colonialism in South America. He actually credits whaling with the emergence of “eternal democracy” in Peru, Chile and Bolivia. This is patently absurd, and Dr. Parker’s footnotes tell me that Melville was well aware of its absurdity. If we’re taking Ishmael at his word, this idiocy is the most Gulliver-esque that he ever gets.

But I can’t accept this. We’ve established that Ishmael is deeply traumatized and that the entire process of telling this story is, for him, a deep dive into the experiences that left him that way. And Ishmael himself also told us explicitly in the first chapter that he is “quick to perceive a horror, and could still be social with it.” Surely, having been through the traumatic episode of his voyage on the Pequod, Ishmael would be quick enough to perceive the horror in whaling. I think that in this chapter Ishmael is simply extending his customary social niceties to the grandest monster in his past: the entire edifice of the whaling industry. Certainly, this will enable us to more easily sympathize with the slew of experienced and enthusiastic whalers he’s about to introduce.

I like to think that Ishmael’s spirited defence of the whaling industry is more a debate club exercize than a sincere attempt to convey his opinion. If whaling was indeed Ishmael’s Harvard, as he claims, it taught him well. This is probably a fairly weak reading of this chapter on my part. I don’t expect anybody to be especially convinced by this. But I’m not in university anymore, and these days it’s more important to me to find a way to read books that makes me enjoy them the most. And this is the reading that achieves that. Take it or leave it.

Chapter 25: Postscript

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A person who does NOT smell like fish.

Here we have a tiny chapter that is such fake news it wasn’t even included in the original British printing. Ishmael continues his argument from the previous chapter by pointing out that every British monarch is consecrated with oil at their coronation — and alleges that the oil in question is sperm oil, doubtless lending the newly-crowned royals a none-too-pleasant aroma. I have determined this not to be true, though I would have appreciated some guidance from Dr. Parker on this point. WHERE ARE YOU WHEN I NEED YOU DR PARKER

Anyway, the oil used in coronations starting in the 17th century is a perfume that includes orange blossom, cinnamon and jasmine among other things. The one used to anoint Elizabeth II wasn’t far off from that same formula. And here’s Ishmael being all “the royals smell like sperm whales!!!” Pah.

Chapter 26: Knights and Squires

After 25 chapters of exposition and postulating, it is now time to meet our main characters! The next three chapters consist of tell-don’t-show character sketches of the six men we haven’t met yet who are crucial to the story to come. Either Ishmael or Melville is clearly aware of what a blunt instrument the character development in this novel is turning out to be — how else do you account for the description of Starbuck as “A staid, steadfast man, whose life for the most part was a telling pantomime of action, and not a tame chapter of sounds.” Faced with a man of few words and many actions, Ishmael is rendered completely baffled. Because, what do we have here but “a tame chapter of sounds” that entirely fails to elaborate on what “action” the “pantomime” of Starbuck’s “life” may have entailed?

I’m not implying that this chapter is bad, lest anybody misunderstand. It’s just unusually direct in the way that it straight up describes a character’s personality rather than allowing them to demonstrate it. The personality he paints for Starbuck is one that rings true to me. There were never any whalers in my family, to my knowledge, but there were plenty of fishermen. The most successful of them shared Starbuck’s unceasing conscientiousness and wariness of the sea. They had no patience for anybody with a cavalier attitude towards a dangerous job. They, too, knew “that an utterly fearless man is a far more dangerous comrade than a coward.”

I like this Starbuck. He’s severe and humourless, but he is the sort of person you ought to have on your team. Ishmael implies that this story will at some point bring about a “fall of valour” in Starbuck. Brace yourself.

Chapter 27: Knights and Squires

Here we have a chapter with the same title as the previous one. Sometimes I feel like Ishmael only breaks the chapters up because he gets a bit too excited and needs an excuse to get back down to business. At the end of chapter 26 he’s basically praying — a thing he’s apparently more willing to do as a storyteller than as a character in the story. What’s the easiest way to get from “bear me out in it, O God!” back to the mundanity of “Stubb was the second mate?” Chapter break.

Stubb, incidentally, is the second mate. He’s a man so unconcerned by the dangers in the world around him that he hums as he hunts sea monsters. Ishmael ascribes his cheerfulness to his constant habit of pipe smoking — a pipe containing only tobacco, we’re told. We’re treated to another of Ishmael’s dubious cosmic notions, which is that all the world’s air is polluted by the misery of every person who’s died here. Stubb’s pipe, we’re told, filters all that out. I think Ishmael’s just too polite to say that Stubb’s none too swift.

The third mate is Flask, and you’d think he’s the last person Starbuck would want to be working with. “I will have no man on my boat who is not afraid of a whale,” Starbuck said in the last chapter. Yet here’s just such a man. It’s Flask, more than Stubb, who strikes me as a liability aboard the Pequod. Stubb’s dumb, but he isn’t likely to pull anything too impetuous. I’m not sure I can say the same for this Flask fellow. We’ll see.

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How to set up a chessboard.

Finally, we meet the harpooneers. First up, there’s our beloved Queequeg. Next, there’s Tashtego: an indigenous harpooneer from Martha’s Vineyard. A bit of digging reveals that, whether Melville knew or cared, the indigenous people from the region Tashtego hails from are called the Wampanoag. One gets the sense from Ishmael’s description of him as the descendent of brilliant archers that he is in fact a good deal swifter than Stubb, who he serves as harpooneer. Finally, the diminutive Flask commands a harpooneer named Daggoo: an enormous black man that Ishmael describes in the same mutedly condescending tone as he does all people of colour. But as ever, his intentions are clearly better than most of his contemporaries’ would be. He makes a point of mentioning that in whaling, while officers are almost always American (he means white), the industry’s workforce is massively multicultural. This is the workforce he takes pains to glorify at every turn. Remember: this is the narrator who told us in his first chapter how “the commonalty lead their leaders,” and the one who told us only one chapter ago how brightly God’s dignity shines “in the arm that wields a pick or drives a spike.”

Moby-Dick is, however inadequately, a multiculturalist novel. This is what Ishmael, and doubtless Melville, wants us to realize as he sets up his chessboard.

Chapter 28: Ahab

Ask anybody who knows the broad strokes of Moby-Dick to tell you the name of a character in it, and they’ll most likely come up with Ahab. This, in spite of the fact that this novel has one of the most famous first sentences in all of literature, and that sentence is “Call me Ishmael.” Adaptations of the novel have a tendency to shunt Ishmael to the side in favour of the one-legged captain of the Pequod. It’s not hard to see why that is — Ishmael’s a novelistic conceit: a massively multidimensional character who nonetheless has very little to do with the actual story. The story belongs to Ahab. And even Ishmael knows that this character is his ace in the hole.

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This is the cover of my beloved Norton Critical. But with all due respect to the artist Oleg Dobrovolskiy, this is how exactly NOBODY pictures Ahab.

Witness the difference between how he introduces Ahab and how he introduced his slew of inferiors in the last two chapters. He was willing enough to sum up Stubb, Flask, and even Starbuck in a few declarative sentences, the way an undergraduate might in an exam. But with Ahab, after teasing the reader with suggestions and premonitions and dropping his name with little context, like “Bad Wolf” in Doctor Who, Ishmael permits us to get to know the mysterious captain the way that any preternaturally observant sailor would: first by taking careful note of his absence, then with shock at his sudden presence, and gradually taking stock of the man from his appearance and ways of moving about the ship.

I’m not saying Ishmael’s offering us anything like an objective view of Ahab, even at this early stage. He is categorically unable to avoid imparting his own sense of things onto them when he describes them: “moody stricken Ahab stood before them with a crucifixion in his face; in all the nameless regal overbearing dignity of some mighty woe.” When he writes like that about his tragic anti-hero, Ishmael all but ensures that he himself will be at best the second most memorable character in his own story. Poor guy.

Chapter 29: Enter Ahab; to him, Stubb

He speaks! If we are to believe Ishmael, which of course we should not, Ahab could be overheard mumbling to himself as he descended into his cabin, “It feels like going down into one’s tomb.” Unless I’m very mistaken, those are his first words in Moby-Dick. Even when he has urgent character development to attend to, Ishmael refuses to stop beating us about the head with portents of death.

Also worth noting: the title of this chapter is a stage direction. Ishmael will play with this a heck of a lot more in later chapters, but for now it’s just one more indication of how much he’s puppetmastering his story into a dramatic shape, rather than laying it out genuinely according to his memory. And indeed, this chapter finds Ishmael penning a soliloquy for the second mate, Stubb, who’s starting to feel something like a Shakespearean fool: a hapless, much abused dogsbody who stumbles upon nuggets of wisdom in his rambling speeches to nobody.

(c) National Galleries of Scotland; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

King Lear and the Fool in the Storm by William Dyce. A cool thing about making blog posts is Googling random shit and finding dodgy old paintings.

After the episode that the chapter title alludes to, in which Stubb and Ahab interact for the first time and Ahab abuses Stubb with Shakespearean overzealousness (“I will not tamely be called a dog, sir,” says Stubb; “Then be called ten times a donkey, and a mule, and an ass, and begone, or I’ll clear the world of thee!” replies Ahab, measuredly) and possibly kicks him so hard he instantly forgets it happened, Ishmael quotes Stubb directly in a speech that goes on for a whole page, during which there is nobody else around. Note that one of the people who isn’t around is Ishmael himself, unless we conjecture that he is very good at inconspicuously listening to people talk to themselves and remembering it word for word. I think not.

My favourite bit of Stubb’s soliloquy is the bit where he entirely abandons all thought of Ahab and thinks instead about sleep:

“Here goes for a snooze. Damn me, it’s worth a fellow’s while to be born into the world, if only to fall right asleep. And now that I think of it, that’s about the first thing babies do, and that’s a sort of queer, too. Damn me, but all things are queer, come to think of ‘em. But that’s against my principles. Think not, is my eleventh commandment; and sleep when you can, is my twelfth — So here goes again.”

Love it.

Chapter 30: The Pipe

If Ahab and Stubb ever had anything in common, it would have been their mutual love of pipe tobacco. And as if to drive home the fact that the regal, revenge-maddened Ahab has nothing at all in common with the foolish and carefree Stubb, Ishmael devotes an entire sublime little chapter to the act of Ahab throwing his pipe overboard: “What business have I with this pipe? This thing that is meant for sereneness, to send up mild white vapors among mild white hairs, not among torn iron-grey locks like mine. I’ll smoke no more.”

Chapter 31: Queen Mab

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“Gotta find the queen of all my dreams…”

Mab, of course, being the queen of dreams, most famous for being in the best bit of Romeo and Juliet. And here we have more prime Stubbiana, though this time Ishmael actually gives him an audience for his ramblings: the thoroughly disinterested third mate Flask. Stubb, preoccupied by the kick that may or may not have happened the previous night, has had a weird dream that he’d be best advised to keep to himself, but naturally he can’t.

In Stubb’s dream, Ahab is kicking him and Stubb attempts to kick back, only for Ahab to suddenly turn into a pyramid. Pyramids are, of course, the subject of many a whack-a-doo conspiracy theory. They are ancient, mysterious and inscrutable. Possibly extraterrestrial. Much like whales, if you subscribe to that sort of thing. And like Ahab lost his leg at battle with the white whale, in his dream, Stubb’s leg pops off as he attempts to kick the pyramid. Here we have Stubb manifesting not so much as a Shakespearean fool, but a holy fool — the kind of hapless idiot that superstitious villages would defer to because they had visions of the truth in their madness. Unbeknownst to him, Stubb has dreamed a reenactment of how Ahab lost his leg — except in this version, Ahab himself has become the monster. *OOOOOOOOOOOO*

Stubb finishes recounting his dream just as Ahab calls out for the crew to keep an eye out for white whales. And Stubb once again demonstrates that though his wits may be dim, his intuition is second to none: “A white whale — did ya mark that, man? Look ye — there’s something special in the wind. Stand by for it, Flask. Ahab has that that’s bloody on his mind. But, mum; he comes this way.”

Aaaaaaannnnd CLIFFHANGER.

Chapter 32: Cetology

At last we’ve made it to the most infamous chapter in Moby-Dick. Just as we’ve started getting to know our ostensible protagonist and his retinue of old salts, Ishmael once again draws the story to a screeching halt to enumerate and categorize the different kinds of whales.

It’s these bits of Melville’s novel that might compel a contemporary reader to label it “bloated” or “indisciplined.” Which is probably right. But like I said at the beginning of these notes, I wasn’t at all interested in reading Moby-Dick when I was under the impression that it was primarily a seafaring adventure story — the sort of story it’s made into in the adaptations that prioritize Ahab over Ishmael. It wasn’t until I cracked it open to “Loomings” and met our maddeningly discursive narrator that the book called out to me. Adam Gopnik put it better than I possibly could in a New Yorker piece about an abridged version of the novel in 2007:

“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.”

Hear, hear.

In light of all this, you’ll be unsurprised to know that “Cetology” is my third-favourite chapter of Moby-Dick thus far (I’m still only like halfway through this thing, god help me), next to “Loomings” and “The Lee Shore.” And how could it not be? This is the chapter in which the most bookish man to ever sail the seven seas categorizes the whales using terminology taken from bookbinding.

This choice on Ishmael’s part is not arbitrary. He is intentionally thumbing his nose to science. As far as Ishmael is concerned, a whale is not a mammal; it is a giant fish. Because of course it is. Just look at it. Read the story of Jonah, or any of the sources that Moby-Dick’s eighty epigraphs came from, and you’re sure to find it referred to as such. Reason may have it that a whale is not a fish, but the popular imagination says otherwise, and Ishmael finds that far more important.

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Duodecimo is even littler.

And so, we have whales categorized in “books.” The big ones are “folio whales,” named for the largest size of book, the middle-sized ones are “octavo whales,” named for one of the middle sizes, and porpoises are classed as “duodecimo whales,” after one of the smaller sizes of books. Ishmael guides us through several examples of each, pausing to offer folksy sailor’s wisdom on many of them. He also, amusingly, offers a list of probably fictional whales that includes the blue whale, which was thought to be either extinct or altogether legendary when Moby-Dick was written.

But the real reason to love this chapter comes at the end of it, when all the taxonomy is done and dusted. Ishmael takes pains to inform us that his system of categorizing the whales is incomplete and inadequate, and hopes for some enterprising soul to make amendments to it someday. It isn’t so much that Ishmael couldn’t be bothered to finish his Whaleipedia himself: it’s that he’s built his entire aesthetic around incompleteness. That’s what he was getting at back in “The Lee Shore,” when he wrote that “in landlessness alone resides the highest truth,” landlessness being the state you’re in on an unfinished voyage. It also ties in with Ishmael’s perpetual unwillingness to just get on with the story the way that Gopnik’s abridgers would have him do. That would be anathema to him, because the end of the story is death. All of these sorts of things — endings, destinations, homecomings, logical conclusions and states of certainty — are anathema to Ishmael. Home is death for the soul. Better to die at sea than live on land, as Milton might phrase it.

Ishmael savours the journey and rues the destination. Very soon we’ll learn that Ahab is the other way around. The white whale must die. Everything that happens between now and that teleological endpoint is a mere inconvenience.

“God keep me from ever completing anything,” Ishmael proclaims in an aphorism that defines him and this novel better than maybe any other single sentence. Maybe it defines me, too. How many things have I left unfinished? How many times have I pulled the brakes on a train of thought before arriving at a troubling certainty? And how long will it take me to finish this book? Perhaps I, too, prefer to remain adrift in the uncertain seas of exploration, frightened at the prospect of arriving anywhere?

We’ll soon find out.

To be continued.

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The Final Omnibus

“As we all know, there is a kind of lazy pleasure in useless and out-of-the-way erudition.” — Jorge Luis Borges

Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having no steady job, and nothing particular to interest me in empirical reality, I thought I would begin writing reviews of everything I watched, read and listened to. It is a decision I have lived by relentlessly ever since.

Now it’s time to stop.

To the dozen or so of you who constitute my core audience, thank you. And don’t fret — there will be plenty more nonsense for you to read here on matthewjrparsons.com in the future. But the exhaustive reviewing project that’s currently called Omnibus (still known to its friends primarily as Omnireviewer) is over, as of this post.

But as longtime readers will attest, if Omnibus is to vanish it is only appropriate that it should vanish up its own ass. And so, I present the last missive of the Omnireviewer. Strap in. In all my years of blogging I have never been as self-indulgent as this.

One review.

Literature, etc.

Matthew Parsons: Omnireviewer/Omnibus — Some things are so self-explanatory that you can review them just by describing what they are. “A prog rock album with only one 44-minute long song,” for example. Or, “a graphic novel that intertwines a gay coming-of-age memoir with a character study of the author’s father by way of the literature that fascinates them both.” Some readers will look at these descriptions and say “yes, please,” and others are philistines. Regardless, the point is that these particular works are so obviously the thing that they are, which nothing else is, that to say more would be almost superfluous. Surely there has never been a clearer example of this than the present one: “A blogger writes reviews of everything he watches, reads, and listens to for nearly three years.” You’re no philistine if that premise makes you run for the hills. But even if it doesn’t, if you’ve spent any amount of time at all on the internet — better still, any amount of time at all around me — you know precisely what you are getting into. To say more would be pointless. STILL, I PERSIST.

Before we go any further, let’s dispense with the no-paragraph-breaks schtick. That’s a policy I instituted early on to prevent myself from writing too much. It never really worked.

So. Was Omnireviewer any good? No, not really. I believe it’s the home of some of my worst writing, in terms of the actual quality and readability of the prose. But assessing the quality of things was never quite the point of the enterprise, nor should it necessarily be the point of reviewing in general — except in cases so superlatively brilliant or awful that there’s little else to say. Generally, I prefer a more rhapsodic approach — drawing connections, parsing out meaning, converting subtext to text. And if in my explorations I should happen to touch on the success of a given thing, fine. Quality vs. success is a subtle but useful distinction. To me, the former implies that there’s an objective standard to which everything can be held. And while I do half-heartedly believe that, I don’t trust myself to be the arbiter of such things. Neither does anybody else.

But success is different. Success, to paraphrase the great British avant-gardist Cornelius Cardew, exists in relation to goals. To determine the success of a venture, you need to know something of the intention of the venturer.

So, if we’re going to establish whether Omnireviewer has been a success, we need to explore why I started writing it in the first place.

***

Of all the various magical accoutrements in the Harry Potter books, my favourite one as a kid was the Pensieve — Albus Dumbledore’s magical basin full of thoughts. “One simply siphons the excess thoughts from one’s mind, pours them into the basin, and examines them at one’s leisure,” Dumbledore explains in my nostalgic fave, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. “It becomes easier to spot patterns and links, you understand, when they are in this form.” I have often described Omnireviewer as my Pensieve: the technique I use to evacuate my brain of all the swirling observations and analyses of trifling pop culture matters that threaten to crowd out what’s actually important. It’s an easily avoidable place where those observations and analyses can live permanently, so I don’t feel compelled to annoy my friends with them in bars. At least, not when they don’t ask me to.

All of this is true, and it is a large reason why I’ve continued to write Omnireviewer for nearly three years. But it isn’t the whole story. And the Pensieve isn’t the only valid pop culture analogue for this weird project. For a more honest one, we’ll have to look back a whole generation to another totemic childhood text:

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Omnireviewer entered the world on November 1, 2015, but the context for it dates back more than a year prior to that. The circumstances that enabled this blog emerged in the summer of 2014. That summer, two extremely ordinary things happened. Firstly, I finished grad school, marking the end of twenty consecutive cycles of school/summer/school/summer etc. Suddenly, I was all too aware that my life was now FREE JAZZ — structure be damned. Exacerbating this anxiety was the small matter that I had graduated with a masters degree in journalism, and the universe was laughing at me. ONE SINGLE DAY after I turned in my thesis — in the form of a radio documentary — the Canadian Broadcasting Company cut 600 jobs. “Screw you, Parsons,” said the universe, “and everybody who shares your ludicrous ideas about how to make a living.” Just as all this was going on, a relationship I’d been in for seven years came to an end as well. Like every breakup, it seems inevitable in retrospect. But at the time it seemed impossible.

Unemployment; breakup. I bring up these two extremely ordinary things only because they are the first two misfortunes in my life that I couldn’t just smile my way through. I’m not sure why. Unemployment and a breakup are empirically no worse than things I’d been through previously. Maybe there just comes a time in a person’s life when the emotional warp drive has to give out and you’ve got to rely on just a regular engine. I dunno. But prior to 2014, I always prided myself on my ability to be happy in spite of things. Losing that was like falling out of the sky.

What helped me was work. In the uncomfortable grey zone between graduation and the start of my first contract, some friends of mine tried to start a magazine. They brought me into the fold as a writer, and even though it wasn’t really my project, I contributed as much writing to its embryonic form as anybody. What else was I going to do with my time? The magazine never properly launched. But if nothing else, it kept me from going off the deep end during the worst few weeks of my life.

And since the experience of writing for that vapourizing magazine was such a lifesaver, I proceeded to try that method ONE HUNDRED MORE TIMES. Even when my work situation started to pick up, I had to be constantly doing things to distract myself from the swirly void. A friend proposed an epistolary project where we assigned each other albums to listen to. I eagerly accepted. I took up cooking with the vigor of Hannibal Lecter. I started running. At work, I built a huge interactive story about dead composers, cheerfully spending twice as many hours on it as I got paid for. (It has since vanished into the digital wastes, mourned by no one, least of all me.)

Over the next three years, I would start, and swiftly abandon, a history of progressive rock. I would write 20,000 words about Jethro Tull in a single week. I would put together, and never submit, a book proposal. I would take a class about writing for comics. I would begin and struggle to complete a set of annotations for Moby-Dick. I would make two comedy podcasts with one of the guys who started the vapourizing magazine. I would make podcasts on my own, which reside on my hard drive to this day, waiting for their moment.

Yeah, I’ve been busy.

But as of November, 2015, I was not busy enough. So I filled my time the way we all do. I watched TV. I went to movies. And since I’m me, I also read voraciously, listened attentively to my favourite records dozens of times in a row, and listened to 30 or 40 podcast episodes per week. And the more time I spent on that, the more aware I had to become of how little time I was spending in gainful employment or meaningful social exchange. So I made up a game to put it out of my mind. The game was Omnireviewer. Every Sunday since then, I have released a report on the game, with the week’s score tallied up at the top of the post. 17 reviews. 23 reviews. 35 reviews. Here was a game I could win.

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***

Since keeping score was always such a big part of what this blog has been about, let’s look at some final statistics:

Total instalments of Omnireviewer/Omnibus: 143

Total reviews: 2,822
Average reviews per week: 20
Largest number of reviews in a single week: 38

Total words: 441,637
Average words per week: 3,088
Highest word count in a single week: 8,493

A few notes on these numbers:

  • Bear in mind that I sometimes clumped together whole seasons of television in one review. A large number of the reviews I have written on this blog have been for more than one episode of a show or podcast. So, as impressive as the number 2,822 may look, it is still deflated somewhat.
  • A cursory Google indicated that novels tend to range from 60,000 to 100,000 words, on average. If we split the difference and go with 80,000, my reviewing habit has stretched to the length of five-and-a-half novels in less than three years’ time.
  • In spite of everything I’ve written here so far, I am intensely proud of both of these stats.

Speaking of pride, shall we move on to the set of statistics that make me the proudest of all?

Ttotal page views: 2,146
Average page views per week: 15
Highest page views for a single post: 117
Lowest page views for a single post: 3

They say that if you do any one thing on the internet for long enough, you’ll eventually find an audience. I am just pleased as punch to have disproved that rule. The post that got 117 views — still paltry, by any reasonable standard — accidentally demonstrated the real way to find an audience on the internet. It only received such a substantially above average number of readers because I got retweeted by one of the post’s subjects, the food scientist and cookbook author J. Kenji Lopez-Alt.

By the way, the post that got only three views was 3,000 words long. That’s one reader per thousand words.

“Really don’t mind if you sit this one out.” — Jethro Tull

When I started this project, I started it for myself. I made it public only for the sake of accountability. The thing that makes me proudest of all is that I kept writing Omnireviewer for as long as I did in spite of the fact that nobody read it. The human mind is a cobweb ball of rationalizations and suppressed motives. I’ve never felt like I can be entirely sure when I’m just looking for attention. But surely, here is numerical proof that this project stayed true to its roots.

One final note on the statistics, that only slightly undercuts what I’ve said above: these numbers don’t account for the people who saw my reviews on the associated Tumblr account. In some cases, this was substantially more, but mostly it was not. The numbers also don’t account for the homepage, which got a significant bump on weeks when my site’s URL was read on the radio. In the interest of transparency, my homepage has been visited 7,163 times since I started Omnireviewer. What a pathetic number. I love it.

***

On the topic of the radio: the best thing to come out of this blog was a column that I’ve been doing on CBC Radio 1’s North by Northwest since June of last year. I pitched it as a recurring summer feature on the show, and it just never stopped. Since the beginning, that column has distilled the best of this blog into purposeful nuggets of meaning and connection. It is Omnireviewer at its most Pensieve-like.

In the written edition of Omnireviewer, anything might prompt a veiled exegesis on the disappointments and regrets of my life. The Beatles’ Help. Olivia Liang’s deeply relatable work of memoir-through-art-criticism The Lonely City. The death of Anthony Bourdain. Chris Gethard. Maria Bamford. In the written edition, the music of Brian Eno is not only ingenious, but kind and restorative. In the written edition, Alison Bechdel is a saint, because she confirms the value in reading your own life as literature, like I do — drawing connections, parsing out meaning, converting subtext to text.

But on the radio, it isn’t about me. It can’t be. A public radio audience requires you to put aside your self-indulgence in a way that a blog with 15 readers just doesn’t. And that made for a far superior version of this project. Many paragraphs ago, I asserted that Omnireviewer wasn’t very good. That’s true, at least of its original form. But its radio form is one of the things I’m proudest of in my entire career so far.

In my last radio column of 2017, I flirted more dangerously than usual with the masked confessional approach of the blog. But I’m glad I did. I finished it with a segment on Margo Price’s “Learning to Lose,” a heartbreaking duet with Willie Nelson that struck a chord with me immediately. I closed out my year in radio with the sentiment: “Maybe next year we’ll learn to win.” Three months later I got a job as the associate producer of North by Northwest. I ran around, waving my arms in the air and laughing like a maniac. The context for this blog collapsed in a heap.

***

To me, Charlie Brown is not the hero of the Peanuts comics. It’s Linus — the would-be philosopher who stays positive in spite of his insecurities, which are made manifest in the blanket he cannot be parted from. Omnireviewer was a security blanket I wove to shield myself from the emptiness of my life. But unlike Linus, I’m not stuck in time. I can outgrow my compulsions. I don’t need my blanket anymore. Life is good. More to the point — life is good in spite of the fact that lots of specific things about it are not. At last, we’re back to where we started.

“God keep me from ever completing anything.” — Herman Melville

In the months to come, I’ll work on other things in my spare time. But not because I need to for my sanity — because there are things I want to make that I think people might enjoy. I’ll keep posting fun nonsense to this blog. Notes on Moby-Dick will return. I’m thinking about writing more short fiction. Maybe I’ll rank all the tracks on ABBA Gold. And I’m going to make some tweaks to those podcasts I alluded to earlier, and hopefully get them out in the world before too long. That’s what I’m going to do with the time I would have spent on Omnibus. I’m not convinced I could bring myself to do any of it if not for this blog. I’ve learned so much from doing this. I’ve made connections I never would have made. I’ve learned about the conditions under which I do my best and worst work. I got a job that I probably wouldn’t have gotten if not for this blog and the radio spots it inspired. And I have kept my head above water. I have nothing but warm feelings for this weird-ass thing I’ve been doing these past few years.

And so it comes to this. Omnireviewer has fulfilled its purpose, and fulfilled it better than I could ever have foreseen. Time now to set it adrift in the obscure internet sea where it has always resided and always will.

Pick of the week.

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Omnibus (week of June 24, 2018)

This contains one of my longest reviews ever, though a bunch of it is just a list of paintings, sculptures, woodcuts, lithographs, cathedral facades and interiors, ornate candlesticks etc. It also contains some of my shortest reviews ever because reviewing podcasts can be tedious. It also contains a lot of Belle and Sebastian. Enjoy.

25 reviews.

Music

Belle and Sebastian: Dear Catastrophe Waitress — In the past few weeks I’ve stumbled upon a couple things with unexpected connections to Yes’s unexpected commercial breakthrough 90125. It is not a particularly good album, so I’ll likely not heed the signs that are telling me to revisit it. But the two Trevors who made that album into a Yes album like no other (Rabin, a.k.a. the composer of the Hot Rod score, and Horn, a.k.a. half of the Buggles and the producer of this Belle and Sebastian album) are admirable people in their own right. This is my first listen through the full album, but I’d heard “I’m a Cuckoo” before. Trevor Horn’s influence on it was less obvious to me when I’d only heard The Life Pursuit. But now that I know what this band sounded like before they committed to actually sounding good, I get it. This is far from the high-gloss production we identify with Horn, i.e. 90125 and the first Frankie Goes to Hollywood album. But by B&S standards, it’s basically Purple Rain. It’s a great record. My favourites are probably “Step Into My Office, Baby” and “Lord Anthony,” but this will doubtless be subject to much reassessment.

Belle and Sebastian: The Boy With the Arab Strap — I’ll continue my odd habit of referencing Yes in Belle and Sebastian reviews, because this reminds me of Fragile in a very specific way. For Yes, that album was undeniably a step forward — the first to feature their classic lineup, and the home of several of their most accomplished tracks. It also contained five tracks designed to feature the band’s individual members, which are slight by design and hold the album back from unqualified masterpiece status. The album that had preceded it, The Yes Album, was a huge step forward in itself: the first album to consist entirely of originals, and the one that cemented them as critical favourites. Looking back on the two albums, the earlier one is the more consistent of the two. But nothing on it quite has the sublime confidence of “Roundabout” or “Heart of the Sunrise” from Fragile. I think this comparison is roughly analogous to If You’re Feeling Sinister and The Boy With The Arab Strap. The latter demonstrates a real advancement over the former in terms of the band’s performance and willingness to try out new instrumentation. “Sleep the Clock Around” is an album highlight for that reason: its synths and horns lend it the euphoric feel of much later Belle and Sebastian songs, like “We Are the Sleepyheads.” Even the Rhodes piano of the title track (which I only now realize the Decemberists totally ripped off in “Days of Elaine”) is a nice touch. But is anybody really going to think back on an album with tracks like “Chickfactor” and “A Space Boy Dream” as an unmitigated classic? Basically, I like this album a lot and its best songs are classics. But its restless need to try things makes it patchy in a way that its esteemed predecessor is not.

Belle and Sebastian: Tigermilk — Last week I expressed that I was slightly underwhelmed by If You’re Feeling Sinister, but I did think it was more than just nostalgia that made that album so revered. Now I’m reconsidering the role nostalgia might play. Because Tigermilk — Belle and Sebastian’s debut, made the same year as Sinister, first pressed on only 1,000 vinyl records, containing the first few recordings of songs from Stuart Murdoch’s massive songwriting backlog from his years with chronic fatigue, and presumably the ones in which he was most confident — is outstanding. It’s confident, it has hooks all over, Murdoch’s voice is strong, and it’s even fairly well recorded, which is not something anybody’s likely to say about If You’re Feeling Sinister, whatever its virtues. But only one thousand people at maximum heard it when it was released. Most people didn’t hear it until it was reissued in 1999, post-Arab Strap, at which point If You’re Feeling Sinister had already been enshrined as, if not a classic, then at least the Moment Of Revelation for the first wave of Belle and Sebastian fans. It strikes me that this album is similar enough to Sinister, and good enough on its own merits, that had it received wider distribution on its first release it might have had the same impact its successor did. That calculus reduces Sinister slightly, suggesting that the biggest thing it has going for it is the fact that it was the indie community’s first contact with the band. Don’t get me wrong, I really like If You’re Feeling Sinister, and it’s grown on me the couple more times I’ve listened to it since last week. But I love Tigermilk. “We Rule the School” is the most beautiful and delicate thing I’ve heard of theirs from before “Dress Up In You.” There are hints of the sonic variety I had assumed were first introduced on The Boy With the Arab Strap. The synth lead on “I Could Be Dreaming” is irresistable. And “The State I’m In” is delightfully funny and vulnerable at once. The Life Pursuit is still my favourite. After all, that was my first point of contact. But this is a close second.

Belle and Sebastian: How to Solve Our Human Problems — The last phase in my cramming for the concert. This is a compiled version of their three EPs released a few months back. It’s fine. There are some standouts, like the single “We Were Beautiful,” the leadoff to the first record, “Sweet Dew Lee,” and the Sarah Martin feature “Poor Boy.” But there’s a fair bit of chaff alongside it. Worth a listen, but only a few moments are worth returning to.

Live events

Belle and Sebastian live at the Vogue — What you don’t expect from a Belle and Sebastian concert, if you’ve never been to one and you’ve been marinating in their lo-fi early work for a week, is relentless energy. But you get it. This band, and particularly Stuart Murdoch, has mastered the fine balance of spreading catharsis without forcing it. There is no desperation in Belle and Sebastian — they aren’t Arcade Fire. Murdoch’s magnetism comes from the sense that he’s proven all he needs to prove to himself, and that it was a hard-won victory. It’s a confidence that radiates outwards to the rest of the band, with the effect that you can’t help but love them all. This was a great show. Musically, the band has the tightness of their post-Catastrophe Waitress records, and none of the sloppiness of their early ones. Excellent as those early records are, at least conceptually, nobody should mistake this for a loss. Many fans appreciate the sincerity of B&S’s lo-fi era — but they’re mistaking sincerity for an aesthetic. Nothing puts the lie to this notion like hearing the far more experienced modern iteration of the band play the snot out of “Judy and the Dream of Horses.” Songs from that era struck me as being better live — but only because they’re a better band now. Many of the highlights were early songs: a delicate reading of “We Rule the School,” a rollicking “Boy with the Arab Strap,” and “Me and the Major” transformed into a rousing encore. All of these hit harder in the room than on record. That’s less true of the later material, but a live performance only solidifies the brilliance of “I’m a Cuckoo,” “Sukie in the Graveyard” and especially “I Didn’t See It Coming.” Music aside, Murdoch also dispensed relationship advice and love hearts (one package of which he tossed cleanly into the balcony, which shouldn’t have been impressive but kind of was). Stevie Jackson wore a suit and was the spitting image of a British Invasion lead guitarist. Sarah Martin played a dozen instruments. A huge screen played wistful black and white video, which in the haze of the coloured lights became an animated rendition of the band’s album covers. The crowd was all about it. I am notoriously unmoved by most rock shows. But I left this show liking Belle and Sebastian a lot more than when I went in. Pick of the week.

KNOWER live at the Imperial — This concert preceded Belle and Sebastian in my week, but I’m reviewing it after. The contrast between these two concerts in a single week is not lost on me. The fellow nerd I saw both shows with summed it up rather well by pointing out that Louis Cole and Genevieve Artadi make music that is as counterintuitive as Stuart Murdoch’s is natural. Their melodies go off in every direction at once, they use complicated jazz school chords I don’t even understand, and they can change tempos on a dime. And yet it still all holds together. This was one of the few concerts I’ve been to by a group of professional musicians where it genuinely felt like anything could happen. This is the line that jazz fans use to explain the appeal of that music, and indeed this was a Vancouver Jazz Festival event. But this isn’t that. (Indeed, it’s not jazz — I’ll spare you my explication of the emerging genre of “meme funk” for now, but expect it in the medium-near future.) This is ludicrous dancing and drumstick throwing and lyrics about pizza. And I highly doubt that anybody else at Jazz Fest will be dressed as poorly. Cole was sporting a black t-shirt tucked into tiger-striped pajama pants and dark shades. It’s a look. Point is, KNOWER’s show is definitely not anybody else’s show. They are compulsively unpredictable. The most illustrative moment in the show came when Louis Cole called out to the audience to see if his cousin was still around (he’s got family here, shout out to the Coles). Turns out, Cole’s cousin is also an excellent drummer. When he joined the band onstage, the band started playing a song he hadn’t heard before. The premise of this song is that the band only plays for a few bars at a time before the drummer takes a solo. He goes wildly off in a direction that has nothing to do with the song itself, then counts the band back in and we’re back to where we started. So it would have presumably continued for several iterations, but in this case, the two Coles switched out on the drum stool every time the band started up again. And it worked. This kind of logistical fast-and-looseness only works for groups of supremely confident musicians. And they all are — the three touring band members included. Fun shit.

Literature, etc.

E.H. Gombrich: The Story of Art — Two flights and a quiet evening later, I know 99% more about art than before. As a person with very little visual imagination, who tends not to pay much attention to what’s happening in front of my eyes, this book made me see differently. Now I feel like I can go to a gallery and just enjoy the pictures, rather than spend 90% of my time reading the curatorial text. I’ve even started to look at photographs differently, making careful note of the compositions in news photos, and the expressions on people’s faces. (Check out the sneer on the woman near the centre of this story’s top photo. Or the play of light in this one.) This in turn has given me a greater appreciation of the work of painters who conceive of and craft scenes like this from scratch, or nearly. It seems to me that the biggest barrier to entry for appreciating works by painters like Vermeer and Rembrandt is how accustomed we are to seeing similar images in photographs. At the time, it must have seemed like magic for a painter to conceive of a scene like this one, with all of its personalities and reactions conveyed as if they’re of a piece with each other. Nowadays it takes a jolt of realization to fully recognize that a painting like this is the construction of a single mind. The Story of Art’s greatest asset is providing that jolt, without ever resorting to didacticism. This isn’t a book about arguments and value judgements. It is what it says it is: a story. Specifically, it’s the story of dozens of generations of artists trying to solve particular problems, like how best to represent nature in art, or how to convey depth in two dimensions. Gombrich’s central contention is that every artist, whether they know it or not, works inside a set of parameters that pose problems that need to be overcome. And if the artist is a great artist, we admire the resulting work of art for its beauty without even thinking about the reasons the artist had for making the choices they did. If Brian Eno could be bothered to write a survey of the history of art, it might not be so unlike this. Some of the problems solved are things you wouldn’t even think of as problems until you try to imagine a world where they hadn’t been solved. Here’s a crazy insight: think of an Egyptian relief carving. You know the ones I’m talking about — the ones where the head is in profile but the body is front on. You know why they look like that? It’s because the Egyptians hadn’t yet thought through the idea of conveying things as they saw them. Instead, they conveyed them as they thought about them. You can show more of a thing if you show it from different angles simultaneously. These images even have two left feet for this same reason. This is by no means a value judgement. In fact, the 20th century found Picasso doing much the same thing deliberately. One more example: think about what it would have been like to see a painting in perspective for the first time. You’ve never seen depth represented on a flat surface before, and suddenly there it is. Must have been like seeing Avatar. If you’re thinking about reading this book but wondering whether you might be better served by reading something more recent — I kind of can’t help you, because I don’t know any more recent books. But I can counsel you thus: Gombrich was clear-headed and sceptical enough to distrust certain fashions of his age that have come and gone, i.e. that creativity and madness are somehow intertwined. Even if this scepticism also made him discount Warhol, Rauschenberg and the other pop artists whose works still seem penetrating to us today, it seems to me a fair tradeoff. Gombrich’s outlook makes this book far less of its time than it might be. Of course, it is parochial in the way that all mainstream histories of creative endeavour have been until quite recently: people of colour are underrepresented save for the chapters on prehistoric art, which to Gombrich’s credit he clearly admires. And women are almost entirely absent — though even a critic writing in 1950 couldn’t ignore the stunning works of Käthe Kollwitz. The histories of these artists are something I’ll need to supplement my reading to learn. Gombrich saves his best writing for last. The final chapter of his original book (which, in my 16th edition is followed by an additional chapter on developments since then) sums up Gombrich’s idea that art tends to form around a central core of requirement, either from a patron or a flummoxing artistic problem: “We know that in the more distant past all works of art gained shape round such a vital core. It was the community which set the artists their tasks — be it the making of ritual masks or the building of cathedrals, the painting of portraits or the illustration of books. It matters comparatively little whether we happen to be in sympathy with all these tasks or not; one need not approve of bison hunting by magic, or the glorification of criminal wars or the ostentation of wealth and power to admire the works of art which were once created to serve such ends. The pearl completely covers the core.” Gombrich, circa 1950 is concerned about the fact that artists now exist for the sole purpose of creating “art with a capital A.” Maybe it’s our fault we don’t understand modern art: “If we do not ask them to do anything in particular, what right have we to blame them if their work appears to be obscure and aimless?” The point is: critics are important. Now that we no longer live in a world that accepts portraiture of the wealthy as great art for our times, there need to be people in the public who hold artists to specific standards. Today, this is a more resonant point than ever. Alex Ross wrote about it in the New Yorker only last year. So, read The Story of Art. You will enjoy yourself, and you will not necessarily even feel that you’re living in the past. A postscript: this is a dense book, and I feel the need to look through it again. So here, for your Googling pleasure, is a list of some of my favourite works featured in Gombrich’s book, upon a quick skim through. I can’t be bothered to link them. There’s only so much work I’m willing to do for y’all. Firstly, I love all of Gombrich’s tailpieces to his chapters, which are all images of artists at work that Gombrich does not comment on at all. It’s a nice touch. Here are more favourites, in order of appearance, with occasional notes: Caravaggio, Saint Matthew (both versions); Pablo Picasso, Cockerel; 19th century Haida chieftain’s house; Inuit dance mask from Alaska; Tutankhamun and his wife (c. 1330 BC); Hagesandros, Athenodoros and Polydoros of Rhodes, Laocoön and his sons (a favourite among favourites; enormously powerful; I desperately want to see it in person); Trojan’s Column (Google close-ups of this; crazily detailed); Court of Lions, Grenada; Mu Yüan, Landscape in moonlight; Liu Ts’ai, Three fishes; Saint Matthew (830 AD; artist unknown, but oh my god it’s practically Van Gogh 100 years early); the Gloucester Candlestick; Amiens Cathedral; Giotto, The Mourning of Christ; Virgin and Child (silver gilt statue, 1339); Paul and Jean de Limbourg, May; Masaccio, Holy Trinity with the Virgin, St. John and donors (the origin point of perspective); Donatello, The Feast of Herod; Jan van Eyck, The Ghent altarpiece; Jan van Eyck, The betrothal of the Arnolfini (there’s a mirror at the back of the painting, in which the painter paints himself painting; this is one of those decisions that seems almost unbearably clever when you think that he’d never seen a photograph); Benozzo Gozzoli, The Journey of the Magi to Bethlehem (one thing I didn’t expect is how colourful pre-Renaissance art can be); Leonardo da Vinci, anatomical studies (not so much for their aesthetic virtues as for their insight into one of the most obsessively probing minds of all time); Leonardo da Vinci, The Last Supper (it holds up); Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa (so does this); Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel ceiling (quite possibly the greatest work of art ever made; there is much to be said for the intersection of skill and spectacle); Correggio, The Holy Night (the most convincing faces in the book); Correggio, The Assumption of the Virgin; Albrecht Dürer, St. Michael’s fight against the dragon (some of these figures could come straight from comics); Grünewald, The Resurrection (Blake before Blake); Albrecht Altdorfer, Landscape (better than landscapes from the heyday of landscapes); Hieronymus Bosch, Paradise and Hell; Federico Zuccaro, window of the Palazzo Zuccari (this one I will link because it’s bonkers for 1592); Giambologna, Mercury; El Greco, The opening of the Fifth Seal of the Apocalypse (the most shockingly modern thing from before the 19th century); Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Peasant Wedding; Anthony van Dyck, Charles I of England (so dashing); Diego Valázquez, Las Meninas (so meta; so Borges); Frans Hals, Pieter van den Broecke (maybe my favourite portrait in the book; very loveable); Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-portrait (c. 1655-8; probably objectively better than the previous portrait, but I still like it a little less); Jan Steen, The christening feast; Jan Vermeer, The kitchen maid; Gian Lorenzo Bernini, The Ecstasy of St. Teresa; Melk monastery; Francisco Goya, The giant; William Blake, The ancient of days; Joseph Mallord William Turner, Steamer in a snowstorm (basically impressionism); John Constable, The haywain; Claude Monet, Gare St-Lazare; Katsushika Hokusai, Mount Fuji seen behind a cistern; Victor Horta, Hotel Tassel; Vincent van Gogh, Cornfield with cypresses; Ferdinand Hodler, Lake Thun; Frank Lloyd Wright, 540 Fairoaks Avenue; Käthe Kollwitz, Need; Paul Klee, A tiny tale of a tiny dwarf; Piet Mondrian, Composition with red, black, blue, yellow and grey; Marc Chagall, The cellist; Grant Wood, Spring turning; René Magritte, Attempting the impossible; Salvador Dali, Apparition of face and fruit-bowl on a beach; Jackson Pollock, One (number 31, 1950); Zoltan Kemeny, Fluctuations; Giorgio Morandi, Still life (1960); Henri Cartier-Bresson, Aquila degli Abruzzi; David Hockney, My mother, Bradford, Yorkshire, 4th May, 1982, terracotta army.

Stephen Rodrick: “The Trouble with Johnny Depp” — A showbiz tale for the ages. This story of how Hollywood’s most bankable star went broke is worth a read even if you’re not interested in him. Rodrick at one point compares Depp to Elvis, which is very apt. Johnny Depp, circa 2017, comes off here like a man child with access to vast riches and no sense of personal responsibility. This piece also casts Depp’s domestic abuse allegations in a larger context of increasingly troubling behaviour.

Podcasts

On the Media: “Chaos Agents,” “Polite Oppression” & “The Worst Thing We’ve Ever Done” — The first two are standard episodes, and good ones. But “The Worst Thing We’ve Ever Done” is a feature episode with no specific time hook, and those are often the best episodes of this show. This one is about America’s insistence on rewriting history and not confronting the reality and aftermath of slavery. The comparison between this problem and Germany’s total acknowledgement of the Holocaust has been made before, but maybe never as deeply as here. For one thing, this episode brings up the fact that the Allies dictated the narrative for Germany going forward — an example of history being written correctly by the winners. But the rest of the episode points out that this is a coincidence of history, and it isn’t always like that.

Reply All: “An Ad for the Worst Day of Your Life” — Alex Goldman helps a guy whose wife died tragically take down the clickbaity ads that take advantage of his story. In the process, he elucidates the shady (but very profitable) world of those ad boxes with terrible stories in them. It’s good.

Decoder Ring: “Clown Panic” — Willa Paskin is a welcome addition to the pop culture podcast world. This show is turning out to be as much about analysis as storytelling, and that is good. This is the story of how scary clowns became more ubiquitous than happy clowns and what that says about us.

Song by Song: “Wire Stripped Special” & “Straight to the Top” — Sometimes this show is a bit dumb and I wonder why I listen to it. The idea that anybody could ever listen to “Straight to the Top” and see it as anything other than a complete piss take is ludicrous to me. Oh well.

Theory of Everything: “It is happening again” — More stories of fictional artists from Benjamen Walker. No complaints.

99% Invisible: “Post-Narco Urbanism” & “Right to Roam” — Two stories from two continents that aren’t North America. Nice. The Latino USA collaboration “Post-Narco Urbanism” is especially good, outlining how urban planning played a role in rehabilitating a Colombian neighborhood after the fall of Pablo Escobar’s cartel.

In the Dark: “Discovery” — This season of In the Dark has something that the first season of Serial had that no true crime podcast I’ve heard since (including Serial season two and In the Dark season one) has had, which is the occasional incursion of innocuous but surreal investigative side streets. In this episode, the team speaks to more than six different men named Willie James Hemphill, searching for one person with that name who might be connected with the case. It’s like something Peter Greenaway would write. I’m not sure if this or Caliphate is my favourite podcast of the year so far, but it’s a two-show race.

Ear Hustle: “So Long” — Stories of people getting out of prison. It takes a lot of planning. Imagine dating. This is really good.

Slow Burn: “What If Nixon Had Been Good At Football?” & “Live in New York” — The first is a crossover with Mike Pesca’s new sports podcast Upon Further Review, which sounds good but not good enough to impel me to listen to multiple episodes of a sports podcast. The live episode doesn’t really add much to the series. I am looking forward to season two, though. My lack of enthusiasm for these specific episodes notwithstanding, Slate’s killing it these days. This has been followed by Decoder Ring and Lend Me Your Ears, both of which I love. Good work, Slate.

Code Switch: “Immigration Nation” — This is a long-term look back on the times when anti-immigration fervor reached similar heights as it has in America today. History. It’s useful.

The Truth: “The Jesse Eisenberg Effect” — Starring the real Jesse Eisenberg! As the fake Jesse Eisenberg. This is the best episode of The Truth I’ve ever heard, and it’s basically an episode of Upon Further Review. It’s the fully dramatized, and hugely exaggerated, story of how Jesse Eisenberg’s letter to his favourite basketball player ruined the world. I love it. Pick of the week.

We Came to Win: “How Soccer Made It in America” — Another underdog story, and a perfectly good one. But I think I’m done with this show now.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The Songs of Summer” — An NPR Music takeover featuring a great many songs that I cannot rightly say I care about. I dunno. Some years I’m in new music mode. Some years I’m not. 2018 isn’t a new music year.

Home of the Brave: “Lick the Crickets by Larry Massett,” “Rumble Strip: It’s a Podcast” & “End of Season One: A Walk On the Beach” — “Lick the Crickets” is bonkers and I don’t understand it, nor do I feel the need to. I need more of this Larry Massett fellow in my life. Rumble Strip isn’t for me. But the story Scott Carrier replays to finish off his “first season” of Home of the Brave is beautiful. Just a conversation with an old friend as they walk along the beach. Simple. It’s the sort of thing people should do more of.

Trump Con Law: “Taking the Fifth” — This ties the Hollywood blacklist to the Russia campaign — but only conceptually! Though, I really would like to hear that conspiracy theory. Anyway, it’s really good.

Bullseye: “Special: The Wire!” — I don’t know if I’ve ever heard an interview with Wendell Pierce before, but that man is interesting. This whole episode is great and made me want to watch The Wire again. Wherever will I find the time.

StartUp: “Arlan Hamilton” episodes 1 & 2 — I’ll always give a new season of StartUp a shot. But as interesting as Arlan Hamilton is, this show has become Gimlet’s “business podcast.” It’s no longer about the real-time tribulations of startup founders who may or may not succeed, like it was in its epochal first season and its hugely underrated second. For now, I’m out.

Omnibus (weeks of Apr. 22 & 29)

I’ve been away for a week, and that always throws off my schedule here. So, we’ve got two weeks worth of reviews, and they are ALL OVER THE PLACE.

I think I’m actually proud of this particular Omnibus. There’s a lot going on here. There’s opera and paintings and other hoity-toity shit like that. There’s the new Avengers. There’s a pair of films about rock and roll, and a pair of albums by a band I’m currently obsessed with. There’s stuff that made me laugh. There’s a weird game. And there are not so many podcasts as to tip the balance away from the other stuff. I think this may be good. Anyway, it was fun.

I will also take this opportunity to direct you to the Tumblr associated with this blog, in case you would like a more media-rich experience that also includes paragraph breaks. Paragraph breaks are good, but we have a house style here and some rules are not made to be broken. Even when the paragraphs clearly are. I think the Tumblr may be particularly advisable in the case of the Vancouver Art Gallery entry, because pictures. Regardless of your choice, enjoy.

Does three picks of the week sound reasonable? I think that sounds reasonable.

20 reviews.

Events

Gaetano Donizetti: Anna Bolena (Canadian Opera Company) — I only had time to take in one show while I was in Toronto. It might have been a hard choice if Sondra Radvanovsky hadn’t been singing at the COC. That made it damn easy. I’ll be honest: I don’t like Donizetti. I don’t find his music memorable, and the librettos in these Tudor operas make me cringe. But in this case, that didn’t matter at all, because I was in this for Radvanovsky specifically, and she was magnificent. She’s a singing actor who puts intensity front and centre, in the tradition of Maria Callas — except, in my opinion, with a more innately attractive voice than Callas. And intensity is what you need for Bolena, a role that encompasses imperiousness, regret, madness, spite, and maybe love. Radvanovsky’s Bolena seems ready to spit in the king’s eye at any moment — a dramatic task made easier by baritone Christian Van Horn, who plays Enrico (Henry) VIII as a louche slimeball with no sense of his own hypocrisy. Van Horn and Radvanovsky have that delicious dynamic of intense loathing that’s hard to come by outside of the Lannisters on Game of Thrones. Remarkably, soprano Keri Alkema holds her own alongside Radvanovsky. The role of Giovanna Seymour is intrinsically less interesting than the role of Bolena, even if she does get some nice coloratura stuff to sing. Seymour is merely a lover — and a tediously sincere one at that, who knows Enrico is objectively horrible and loves him anyway. Bolena’s concerns are more complex: she wants power, and she’s concerned about her legacy. There’s a great love in her past, but when she looks back on it fondly, you get the sense that she’s really just regretting the pickle she’s gotten herself into by marrying such a terrible man. But it’s precisely this contrast between the two characters that makes Radvanovsky and Alkema so effective together. They understand that relationship completely. Of the smaller roles, Allyson McHardy stands out in the pants role of Smeton, a character whose only narrative purpose is to drive the tiresome intrigues that are a mandatory part of all bel canto opera. What the character lacks in narrative interest, McHardy compensates for with wonderful singing. If I haven’t made it clear already, this is a very well-directed production. Even though the libretto (or at least its translation) is made up exclusively of things that nobody would ever say, the actors commit. And their understanding of the relationships that underpin the drama goes some distance to papering over the weakness of the text. The set is spectacular without being overbearing. It is essentially a Jacob’s ladder of connected, tall wood panels that can slide back and forth across the stage to produce the impression of intimate spaces when they’re close to the audience and grand spaces when they’re far back. They can become corridors and gates. It’s nifty. It also aids the drama: Bolena’s chambers seem tiny and claustrophobic, while Enrico seems particularly frightening slouched on a throne in the middle of a huge, empty stage. Director Stephen Lawless and set designer Benoit Durgardyn have done well, here. I enormously enjoyed this. I still think it’s a dumb opera, but it hardly seems to matter. (Okay, fine, “Al dolce guidami” is gorgeous.)

A visit to the Vancouver Art Gallery (April 24, 2018) — As I’m writing this, it has been nearly two weeks since the visit in question, and the network of connections and ideas that formed in my head as I traversed the five exhibitions present at the time has largely disintegrated. But I did see a bunch of art that’s stuck with me and will continue to. So I’m just going to rattle some of it off. The reason I was at the gallery was that it was my last chance to see Takashi Murakami’s retrospective exhibition “The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg.” Given what a hit it’s been, I figured I’d see it last, so as not to be completely underwhelmed by the rest of the art in the gallery. In practice, I think the opposite happened. I was at the VAG for more than four hours. By the end of that, I was completely overstimulated and my brain was having trouble processing images. That’s not the state you want to be in when you walk into a whole floor of brightly coloured, enormously detailed, narratively complicated art with influences ranging from ancient Japanese painting to Instagram. I’ve never seen Picasso’s Guernica or Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights in person, but I imagine that some of Murakami’s most gigantic paintings rival those works for sheer impact of spectacle. Seeing Tan Tan Bo Puking on a screen or an advertisement makes it look like a comics splash page or a Roger Dean album cover: you may be drawn in by its whimsy and impressed by its minute detail, but you’re unlikely to be overwhelmed. Seeing it in person is overwhelming because it is seven metres long. I have no idea what, if anything, it is meant to convey. But it doesn’t seem to matter because the spectacle is so effective. That’s a reasonable summary of my whole experience with the Murakami exhibit. I wish I could see pieces like 100 Arhats or Dragon in Clouds again while not being quite so spent, because they require a lot of energy. Knowing that I would need at least a fragment of my energy left for Murakami, I breezed through the small exhibition on the fourth floor somewhat inattentively. In addition to the traditional selection of Emily Carr paintings (which I never tire of), the VAG was showing some prints of photographs by Mattie Gunterman, a photographer born in 1872 who walked six hundred miles with her husband to get to B.C. to mine for silver. Seeing her photographs alongside Carr’s famous forest pictures made perfect sense, prompting me to go “ah” as I slingshotted around this floor and headed for Murakami. This brings us to “Bombhead,” maybe my favourite exhibition I saw on this visit. It’s a selection of art and artefacts focussed around the idea of nuclear disaster, curated by John O’Brian. It’s accompanied by a nifty little booklet designed in the style of Canadian nuclear survival guides that were published in the 50s and 60s. The exhibition takes its title from a Bruce Conner picture that sets the tone for the whole thing: the nuclear age is a void too dark to stare into, so we resort to whimsy. Accordingly, the exhibition is exhausting and marvellous. I spent more time than I needed to in an alcove, watching an old Cold War era documentary called The Atomic Cafe, while a Globe and Mail story about Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un loomed over me. I stared at a wall lined with photographs from Robert del Tredici’s epochal book At Work in the Fields of the Bomb. I surveyed unexpected images of nuclear detonations in popular culture. And I nearly barfed at the power of Nancy Spero’s bomb paintings. It’s a bonkers experience that feels terrifyingly relevant. The fallout from “Bombhead” seems to be drifting downwards to the lower floors of the VAG. Murakami’s exhibition is also concerned with the literal and figurative flattening of Japan by a nuclear bomb. And World War II looms large in the focus of “Living, Building, Thinking,” an exhibition of expressionist art building from the collection of McMaster University. I love expressionism. I do not know art, but this is where I live. This exhibition shuffles the entire history of expressionism and its influence around so that the expected wartime Germans rub shoulders with contemporary Canadians and others. Walking in, you’re greeted by Yggdrasil: an oppressive, overwhelming painting by the German painter Anselm Kiefer, who was born just as WWII ended. That sets the tone nicely. Shortly thereafter, we see Canadian painter Tony Sherman’s Poseidon, which stares bleakly at us from a sea of drab dribbles. At that point, we’re well prepared for an intensely German freakout by Jörg Immendorff and a moving work by the Montreal-based painter Leopold Plotek called Master of the Genre of Silence, depicting the Soviet journalist Isaac Babel being interrogated. But the real heart of the exhibition is a whole room full of wartime lithographs and etchings by Nazi-persecuted artists like Max Beckmann, Hermann Max Pechstein and Frans Masereel. Pechstein’s multi-part illustration of the Lord’s Prayer is the absolute highlight of the exhibit, and even more modest works like Beckmann’s The Draughtsman in Society and Masereel’s wordless graphic novel Passionate Journey have incredible power in their simplicity and expressiveness. I’ll explore all three of these artists in greater depth. We’ve been working backwards through my visit to the VAG, so we’ve now finally arrived at the beginning. The expressionism exhibition shares a floor with another one taken from the collection at McMaster, this one containing art that was donated by the private collector Herman Levy. With all due respect, I do not care about Mr. Levy, no matter how hard the annotations in this exhibition try to make me. However, he doubtless had excellent taste in art, and I totally enjoyed seeing some great works by Monet and Pissarro in the comfort of my own city. I enjoyed noticing for the first time that painters sometimes convey the motion of water by actually thickening the layers of paint on the ripples. And I definitely enjoyed being introduced to the work of George Braque and Roderic O’Conor, who I was previously unfamiliar with. You know what, I like art. Art is good. This was a fun afternoon. Also, during the course of my visit, two different people stopped to look at a fire extinguisher and jokingly said “so beautiful” to their friends. I wonder if that joke happens every day. Pick of the week.

Movies

Avengers: Infinity War — It is without a doubt the mostest movie I’ve seen this year. Avengers: Infinity War is a big fun spectacle that I had a great time watching. And it embodies all the best and worst tendencies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in one movie. Weirdly, I think a useful way to look at this movie is in comparison with Game of Thrones. I’ll tell you why, and I’ll do so with no spoilers. Relax. The key question for me going into Infinity War is how the hell they’d be able to juggle all of these characters and still maintain a semblance of a cohesive story. The answer turns out to be that they structure it like an episode of GoT, which famously encompasses a vast range of characters and settings. Your standard episode of GoT pushes several independent stories forward at once, each of them linked to the others only in the sense that viewers are aware of the complex web of familial relationships and power dynamics that relates them. Tune into a random episode, and it might feel like you’re watching five different medieval soaps. Infinity War is structured much the same way, with characters from various bits of the MCU grouped off and pursuing stories independently of the others. But unlike GoT, this movie’s characters are pulled from separate franchises, some of which have drastically different tones than the rest. It’s great fun to see a Spider-Man school bus scene that could come straight out of Homecoming bump up against big silly Guardians of the Galaxy space opera scenes and climactic battles in Wakanda. If Infinity War operated along the same lines as the first two Avengers movies, with its cast largely concentrated on one threat in one area, it would be impossible. But the GoT approach makes it surprisingly fleet-footed. You can quibble with the underrepresentation of certain favourite characters (for many, Black Panther; for me, Hulk). But in a movie with a gazillion superheroes, this is inevitable. Infinity War strikes that balance more deftly than anybody could have hoped. (But seriously, though: when are we going to get a Mark Ruffalo-starring Hulk movie? That’s maybe my favourite performance in the whole MCU, and he’s only ever been a side-character.) The other way in which Game of Thrones can help inform a viewing of Infinity War is less flattering to the latter. GoT is famous for killing off major characters at the drop of a hat. So as not to spoil too much, I will only say that Infinity War also has a body count. But the funding models of these respective franchises prevent us from looking at them the same way. GoT can kill off characters and twist the plot around in crazy ways because its viewers are invested in a brand called “Game of Thrones” which will endure regardless until the story’s done. This is how television works. Infinity War, on the other hand, can’t easily kill anybody important off permanently because the MCU is a blockbuster movie generator buoyed by big, bankable characters. There is no end in sight to the overarching storyline of the MCU, and the brands that draw audiences in are “Spider-Man,” “Iron Man,” “Captain America,” and so forth. You can’t kill these characters because the characters themselves are brands. The brands need to stay alive if they can make money. In GoT, Tyrion Lannister is not a brand. He’s arguably a selling point for the show, but nobody’s tuning into a show called Tyrion. They’re watching Game of Thrones. These cold hard facts of capitalism are impossible to ignore while watching Infinity War, and they seriously undercut what would otherwise be some deeply affecting moments. Basically, I liked Infinity War. It’s a big, silly action movie. The villain is undercooked, and some of it is boring because of underdeveloped relationships. But it’s fun, and I don’t mind that it made a billion dollars.

Deconstructing the Beatles: The White Album — I went to this screening at the Rio expecting something else. This is a film of a multimedia lecture given by the Beatles scholar Scott Freimann. Freimann himself was in attendance, so I thought we’d actually be getting a live rendition of the multimedia lecture captured on the film. Still, the film was worth seeing, and it was fun to be able to ask Freimann questions after the fact. He’s been doing this whole series of lecture films on the Beatles, including ones on Sgt. Pepper, Rubber Soul, and Revolver. This particular film on the White Album covers the usual beats associated with that album — the move away from psychedelia, the trip to India, Yoko, George Martin getting fed up and leaving, Ringo getting fed up and leaving — but it also highlights the musical consequences of those events in a way that taught me a lot. I’m always worried going into a Beatles-related thing that I won’t learn anything. Martin Scorsese’s George Harrison documentary fell into that category. But this didn’t. It’s worth seeing for Freimann’s breakdowns of the multi-track recordings alone. Who knew the vibrato on Clapton’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” solo was done by manipulating the tape machine? Sounds like a whammy bar, but it isn’t. There are gems o’plenty along those lines in this. I’m curious to see the others, and may well do.

The Fearless Freaks — I’ve seen a ton of rock documentaries, and I’m not sure that any of them capture the spirit of the band they document quite as well as this one. Director Bradley Beesley had known and worked with the Flaming Lips for years by the time this was finished, and it allowed him to get footage of them that feels like genuine fly-on-the-wall material, rather than just relying on talking heads like most rock docs do. It also helps that Beesley directed a bunch of Flaming Lips music videos, so he’s a person who actually contributed to their iconic visual aesthetic, which is represented here in spades — it’s a hectic, fast-edited movie full of overwhelming colour. Except for when it’s in black and white. Honestly, the black and white footage is nutty because watching it is almost exactly the same as watching black and white footage of the early Pink Floyd. Without the beard, Wayne Coyne even looks a bit like Syd Barrett. A lot changed between the late 60s and the early 90s. But the appeal of getting high and making loud noises on guitars evidently did not. What I did not expect was that Coyne is not the highlight of the film. He’s a compelling live performer, no doubt. But this movie makes it entirely clear that his key virtue is being incredibly hardworking. That’s admirable, but not super interesting. The hero of this movie is Steven Drozd, the band’s once-heroin-addicted drummer/guitarist/keyboardist/pantomath. Drozd is a naturally lucid talker, to the point where Beesley can even have a frank conversation with him while he shoots up. This scene is the cornerstone of the film, but it doesn’t feel voyeuristic at all, given the obvious trust that exists between the two people. The key tension in the movie comes from the fact that Drozd is the most talented musician in the Flaming Lips, and Wayne Coyne is well aware that the band’s sound depends on a guy who could die at any moment. I don’t know the Flaming Lips’ music very well, but this is a great primer on their story.

Music

The Flaming Lips: Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots — The first time I listened to this I was really distracted. My review at the time said that “I generally find myself wishing that the fun spacey sounds and weird beats would occasionally also yield to a nice melody or a good lyric.” Did I just flat out fall asleep during “In the Morning of the Magicians?” That is a serious melody. Where was I right at the top of “Fight Test?” That’s a melody so good it’s actually by Cat Stevens. And as for lyrics, you can’t beat “you realize the sun don’t go down, it’s just an illusion caused by the world spinning round.” This is every bit the album I didn’t used to think it was.

The Flaming Lips: The Soft Bulletin — My second foray into the Lips discography, and the one that’s going to end up cementing me as a fan. This album is gorgeous. It has just enough of the archness I know from Yoshimi and the smattering of earlier Flaming Lips stuff I’ve heard to keep it from being tedious. But Wayne Coyne and co. seem much more concerned here with producing a thing of beauty rather than a thing that’s just fun. “A Spoonful Weighs a Ton” strikes the perfect balance between preening Broadway balladry and cheap, janky indie rock. The song itself is grandiose and cathartic, but it’s clothed in bad orchestral synths and Wayne Coyne’s detuned bleat. It’s perfect. I love every song on this. The ones I keep going back to are “Buggin’,” which is a very unexpected summer jam about mosquitoes, “The Spark That Bled,” which goes off madly in every direction, “The Gash,” which is psychedelic gospel music, and “Waiting for a Superman,” which is one of those songs that made me regret not being close to a piano right when I first heard it. I don’t know why it took me so long to get to this, but it’s one of my favourite musical discoveries I’ve had recently. Pick of the week.

Literature, etc.

E.H. Gombrich: The Story of Art — What book should I take on the plane, I asked myself. Maybe Moby-Dick, so it won’t take you a whole year to get through it? Or possibly something light, both physically and figuratively? You know, airplane reading? No, I said to myself. What you need to take on the plane is this hardback brick of a book about the history of visual art from prehistoric times through the 20th century. That is what you will enjoy. And you know what? I DID. I have only gotten up to the Renaissance so far, but this book is 100 percent living up to its reputation as a clear and lucid introduction to art with a layout that encourages you to look at the pictures discussed with a fresh eye. I’m learning so much — like, I didn’t realize that the reason Ancient Egyptian art looks like that is because they were trying, Picasso style, to show the whole of a thing from one angle. Nor did I realize how long it took for painters to devise a way to show an image from a perspective that makes it look lifelike. These are things I just took for granted. Thank you, Dr. Gombrich. I look forward to learning more.

Chris Onstad: Achewood — My plan for Achewood reading going forward is to read a year’s worth of the comics followed by a year’s worth of the affiliated blogs until I’m done. It’s too tedious to keep up with the blogs as I’m reading the comic, but I’ve realized that they are an essential part of the Achewood experience. If you’re unfamiliar, Chris Onstad wrote a series of in-character blogs for the various personages that populate his webcomic. Together, they expand the universe by a fair margin. And more than that, they provide Onstad with a more flexible platform to explore the language of his characters. Everybody in Achewood talks in their own particular way, and the blogs reflect that. Given that, some of them are virtually unreadable. Lyle’s blog is a tragically garbled account of life as an unrepentant blackout drunk. Little Nephew’s is an admirably committed performance of teenage affectation. Both are nearly as challenging as some chapters of Ulysses, or at least A Clockwork Orange. Molly’s is problematic for a different reason, namely that her entire identity revolves around her boyfriend. But aside from these, the blogs are a pleasure, and they add layers upon layers to the comic. If you noticed that Cornelius had been absent from the strip for a while, you might well take to his blog to see where he’s been. Sure enough, he’s in Russia, attempting to seduce an Olympian. (Cornelius’s blog contains my absolute favourite post I’ve read so far, which is this.) The other standout is Nice Pete’s blog, which contains a serialized novel of such derangement that your laughter is almost defensive. A sample: “Eustace ducked into the bathroom six seconds later. Six seconds is the amount of time it takes a man to really get into a good pee. He knew that Dimitri would be focused on the pleasure of his peeing sensation, and that he could have his way.”

Comedy

John Mulaney: Kid Gorgeous at Radio City — Mulaney remains the comic with the highest batting average. His two previous specials are both brilliant and this one keeps the pace. It’s a bigger venue (it’s Radio goddamn City Music Hall), and Mulaney is accordingly more physical. But his jokes are still things of immense precision. I’ve been off learning about how to write better for the radio for the last week. Radio producers would do well to listen to Mulaney’s writing. It is everything that is good in writing. If you are a radio producer and you are reading this, I specifically recommend the bit about Stranger Danger. It is a well-oiled machine of perfect construction. Also, this has a live appearance by Jon Brion playing Radio City’s weird old organ. He closes Mulaney’s set with Nirvana’s “Lithium,” which he’s talked about at length in interviews. That’s fun.

Games

OFF — I was listening to a recent episode of the podcast No Cartridge and this weird French indie game came up as a point of contrast with EarthBound, which I love. So, I downloaded it — for free; it is a non-commercial release. And I could not run it without it freezing constantly. But I was compelled enough by it to want to see it in some form anyway, so I watched a three-hour playthrough on YouTube. I wish I could have played it myself, because watching somebody else play a turn-based RPG isn’t the best experience. Still, I think I got a sense of the story and feel of OFF, and it is a hell of a thing. Firstly, it came out in 2008, before the recent pileup of recursive, meta indie games (The Stanley Parable, Device 6, Stories Untold, Pony Island, etc., etc., etc.). Nowadays, it’s par for the course for an indie game to put forth a Borgesian transgression of the boundary between fiction and reality, but it doesn’t seem to me that this was the case in 2008. Given all the praise that was quite deservedly heaped upon Undertale, which is also a deeply meta game with a fairly explicit debt to EarthBound, you could be forgiven for thinking that it was the first game to really question the mechanics of a video game in that particular way. But OFF did something remarkably similar, long before. That doesn’t lessen Undertale’s accomplishment — it is, execution-wise, by far the better game. But it does demonstrate how ahead of its time OFF was. In this game, you control a character known only as the Batter (seemingly a reference to Ness’s weapon of choice in EarthBound, though apparently the creator of the game denies this). The Batter is aware that he is being controlled by a puppeteer he cannot see — the player; you. At least one of the other characters in the game, a grotesque cat called the Judge, is aware of this as well and often addresses the player directly. This one idea — that the player character of OFF is aware of the player — completely changes the dynamic of the game, relative to your standard old-school game. Where a character like Ness or Link looks like a hero moving actively through the world and overcoming obstacles, the Batter comes off as a ruthless inquisitor. He kills because it is inevitable that he must kill, because that is why we are playing the game. Again, this is expressed more subtly in Undertale, but OFF has more going on that just that theme. Its final stage is a creepy masterpiece of bizarre reiterations and echoes. At one point, you have to navigate several different versions of a room by using a fake version of the menu screen. That’s very nearly an Undertale idea. I enjoyed this a lot. I only wish I could have actually played it.

Podcasts

On The Media: “Moving Beyond the Norm” & “Dog Whistle” — Two good episodes with some great segments between them. Highlights include a Ken Kesey retrospective, a piece on the history of self-immolation, and two bits of metacriticism on Roseanne and The Simpsons — the latter featuring Hari Kondabolu. So yeah, it’s On the Media.

The Daily: “Friday, Apr. 20, 2018,” “Tuesday April 24, 2018” & “Friday, April, 27, 2018” — Wow, I’ve been away from this blog a while. The first of these is Michael Barbaro’s excellent interview with James Comey, which is the best of the many Comey-related things I listened to during Comey Week. Remember Comey Week? The media declared Comey Week, a couple weeks ago. It was all really interesting. But Barbaro’s interview is the best one because he focussed specifically on the idea of ego, and whether that character trait might have a lot to do with the decisions Comey made during the 2016 presidential election campaign. He denies this, and argues persuasively against it, but it’s interesting to hear how hard he has to work at it. The second is a fascinating look at a story that had nothing to do with the news cycle we’re constantly bombarded by: a Hong Kong bookseller suddenly disappeared and all hell broke loose. It’s an incredible story. The third is the Cosby episode. It’s also good.

No Cartridge: “Videogames’ Citizen Kane w/David ‘TheBeerNerd’ Eisenberg” — This is a conversation about EarthBound, a game I love and am endlessly fascinated by, and OFF, a game I had never heard of but have now watched a full playthrough of in the absence of a download that will run properly on my computer. It’s a fun conversation, but both of those games are sort of self-explanatory, and I’m not sure this really enlivened my thinking about either. But it did bring OFF to my attention, and I’m grateful for that.

Code Switch: “Members of Whose Tribe?” & “It’s Bigger Than The Ban” — Here we have a pair of episodes taking the long view of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in America. These are both things you should hear. Start with the anti-Semitism one because it is SUPER complicated, even by this show’s standards.

99% Invisible: “Gander International Airport” & “The Hair Chart” — The Gander airport episode is maybe one of my favourite things this show has ever done. I am intensely prejudiced about this, mind you, because one side of my family is from very near Gander and I grew up flying into the Gander airport to visit them. Nowadays the St. John’s airport has taken precedence, but I’m happy that the Gander airport’s foyer is still considered a modernist landmark. I’ll be honest though: the fact that it was considered that was a surprise to me. It’s one of those things you come to take for granted. Actually, there’s a lot of stuff in this episode that I was really surprised to learn for the first time in a podcast. I would have expected somebody in my family to have told me the story of Fidel Castro going sledding in Gander, but they did not. Thank god for Roman Mars. “The Hair Chart” is a really good episode too, about the endlessly complicated issue of how hair products are marketed to black people. Pick of the week.

Caliphate: “Recruitment” — Here we have the New York Times’ top ISIS reporter interviewing a guy who was recruited into ISIS. It is enlightening.

Theory of Everything: “Fake Nudes (False Alarm! Part ii)” — This series exploring fake news through the medium of fake news continues to be bewildering, clever, and one of my favourite things that any podcaster is doing right now.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Avengers: Infinity War and What’s Making Us Happy” & “Scandal” — Well Scandal sounds like a whole thing. If it was your thing, I’m sad for you that it ended badly. The Avengers episode is pretty much bang on. It’s one of those movies that it’s hard to have an original thought about because its virtues and problems are so self-evident.

All Songs Considered: “Swan Songs: Music For Your Final Exit” — As I finally come to the end of two weeks worth of review writing, I remember that the proximate cause of my Flaming Lips wormhole was a coincidence: I played one of their songs with a friend at a party one night, and woke up the next day to find “Do You Realize?” in this mix of funeral songs. It’s a maudlin premise, but there’s some good music here.

Notes on Moby-Dick (which I still have not finished): Part 2

When last we checked in on Ishmael, he was aboard a schooner with his new “friend” Queequeg, headed for the port town of Nantucket AND THENCE FOR THE SEA.

Chapter 14: Nantucket

The footnotes tell me that Melville had never actually been to Nantucket when he wrote Moby-Dick — unlike New Bedford. He didn’t have a sense of the place from his own experience. So, here we have a case of Ishmael knowing something that Melville does not. (Get used to it: Ishmael knows lots of impossible things. Just you wait ’til chapter 34.) The description of the island that makes up the whole of this chapter is therefore taken entirely from Melville’s copious readings. (Eighty epigraphs. Remember: he knows his shit.)

Maybe that’s why Ishmael doesn’t bother describing Nantucket in anything resembling realistic detail. Back in New Bedford, he obsessed over descriptions like he was trying to pass a test. (Three chapters in church, remember?) By comparison, he breezes through Nantucket. And he’s far less interested in what actually happens in the town than he is in its legend: the joke that they have to import weeds from elsewhere because they won’t grow in the sand; the indigenous story of the island’s first settlement; the reputation of its whalers for near superhuman seamanship. I love Ishmael’s Nantucketers. These fearless, sea-dwelling whale hunter’s he’s describing are not real people; this is not a real place. This is a HERMIT COLONY OF OCEAN WIZARDS, quietly making conquest over the bulk of the globe.

The point is: by steering clear of actual realistic detail in favour of all this crazy nonsense, Ishmael makes this place seem more than real. No wonder he wanted to set sail from here instead of New Bedford. This place is fucking MAGIC.

This fantastical stuff is all amazing, and it’s probably only here because Melville is consciously working around the fact that he’s writing about a place he’s never seen with his own eyes. Clever man.

Chapter 15: Chowder

chowder

Made some chowder.

Ah, look! A woman! It is my understanding that this gigantic novel has approximately 1.7 women in it, so let’s take a moment to appreciate this. The unfortunately-named Mrs. Hussey is the co-proprietor of the Try Pots: an inn that serves the best damn chowder in New England — or so Ishmael tells us. But before he and Queequeg may sample it, they must once again encounter a death omen: a structure that unintentionally resembles a gallows, set up above the door to the inn. First “Peter Coffin,” now this? One of two things is happening here: either some divine intelligence is trying to tell Ishmael to turn back and he is ignoring it completely, or Ishmael is just throwing death imagery into his story for foreshadowing purposes. (Is it really so surprising that Ishmael strains credulity so often? Apart from anything else, Moby-Dick is also the greatest Big Fish story ever told.)

Inspired by Ishmael’s enthusiasm towards the chowder at the Try Pots, I endeavoured to cook up my own very first pot of the stuff. I went for cod rather than clam in deference to my allergies. I found this recipe a sturdy base, though I substituted carrot for celery and added a splash of bone-dry chardonnay to deglaze the pan after sweating the onion. Ishmael mentions ship’s biscuit being used in the Try Pots’ excellent chowder. So I had intended, as a nod to my Newfoundland heritage, to add a couple of Purity hard bread biscuits to my chowder, finely pounded according to the method used when making fish and brewis on shipboard. (Purity hard bread is harder to break than you could imagine. A venerable old volume in my posession called The Treasury of Newfoundland Dishes advises thusly: “Place [the hard bread] in a piece of ship’s canvas or heavy calico and beat with a hammer or head of a small axe.”) But I couldn’t find any of the stuff in this resolutely west coast town, so I had to content myself by savouring my cod chowder alongside some Jacob’s cream crackers. I’ll give an update if I make another pot after finding a proper hardtack of some sort. Watch this space.

Also, in a footnote of the Norton Critical, Dr. Hershel Parker feels the need to clarify the meaning of the expression “chowder-heads.” They are “those with mixed-up or downright stupid minds,” he writes, “but Ishmael intends no disrespect toward chowder.” THANK YOU DR. PARKER, THAT’LL BE ALL DR. PARKER.

Chapter 16: The Ship

Okay. We’re back to the story now. Fortified by chowder, Ishmael goes forth to try and find a whaling vessel for him and Queequeg to sign onto. But Queequeg has a catch: his god, Yojo, has already selected a vessel he wishes for Queequeg to embark on. Yojo will only consent to the voyage if Ishmael should select the proper vessel with no guidance from Queequeg. Ishmael communicates all of this this in a single sentence, which must be the most byzantine one in the novel so far. I quote it here simply for my own amusement:

“But to my surprise and no small concern, Queequeg now gave me to understand, that he had been diligently consulting Yojo—the name of his black little god—and Yojo had told him two or three times over, and strongly insisted upon it everyway, that instead of our going together among the whaling-fleet in harbor, and in concert selecting our craft; instead of this, I say, Yojo earnestly enjoined that the selection of the ship should rest wholly with me, inasmuch as Yojo purposed befriending us; and, in order to do so, had already pitched upon a vessel, which, if left to myself, I, Ishmael, should infallibly light upon, for all the world as though it had turned out by chance; and in that vessel I must immediately ship myself, for the present irrespective of Queequeg.”

This chapter contains the first invocation of the name we’ve all been waiting to hear: Ahab. Settle down. He’s not going to turn up for a while yet. In reality, Ishmael spends this whole chapter introducing us to another of the book’s key characters: a garish old battleaxe called the Pequod. (That’s the ship. The Pequod is the ship.) From the very start, the Pequod comes off like a haunted house, infested with the ghosts of the dead whales whose teeth and bones decorate her bulwarks. But she’s marvellous, too. Ishmael can’t decide whether he wants to portray her as a noble beast or a monster.

The Pequod belongs primarily to its major shareholders: an Abbott and Costello-eque pair of old Quakers called Peleg and Bildad, the former of whom spends the bulk of this chapter abusing Ishmael for no good reason, and the latter of whom cheats him on his pay. It’s a dodgy business, this whaling. It’s a dodgy business, this Pequod.

Also, we never get to hear if Yojo approves of the Pequod or not. I should hope not. But then, as Queequeg freely admits, Yojo is a flawed deity.

Chapter 17: The Ramadan

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A figure of the sea god Tangeroa, who Yojo is maaaaaaaaaybe based on? Photo courtesy of the British Museum.

This is another chapter in which the cultural differences between Queequeg and Ishmael are played as a farce. I don’t know whether to be charmed at Ishmael’s self-effacement — he’s always the idiot in these situations — or queasy about the cavalier way he writes off Queequeg’s religious beliefs as “comical.” At least he has the decency to extend the same characterization to his own culture’s Presbyterian religion. One suspects that in mid-19th-century America, proclaiming that Christians and pagans alike are “dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending” required a certain amount of courage — though it might strike us as uncomfortably Richard Dawkinsy today. 

Anyway, in this chapter Queequeg locks himself in his hotel room for an entire day and prays in total silence, with the idol of Yojo balanced on his head. Having also locked Ishmael out of the hotel room in the process, he inadvertently causes a panic throughout the hotel: a panic that finds Ishmael capering ridiculously through the hallways shouting both “Murder!” and “Apoplexy!” and finds the proprietress fearing that Queequeg was yet another damned sailor to commit suicide in her esteemed establishment. (*SIGH* “FETCH ME THE FLOOR SCRUBBER”)

The chapter concludes with Ishmael explaining to Queequeg that such religious devotion is pointless. Queequeg then regales Ishmael with a funny story about how he and his countrymen once ate fifty of their enemy combatants in one sitting and got terrible indigestion. That’ll shut him up.

Chapter 18: His Mark

Dr. Parker’s footnotes tell me that the Quakers of 19th-century New England had a propensity for giving their young Biblical names. But when Ishmael casually suggests the existence of a deacon named “Deuteronomy Coleman” one suspects he is pulling our leg. (*briefly considers “Deuteronomy Ishmael Parsons” as name for first-born son, ceases*)

Anyway, here we have Queequeg signing onto the crew of the Pequod. Naturally, it falls to Ishmael to assuage Bildad and Peleg’s doubts about Queequeg’s religious convictions and dietary habits, which he does by basically saying “aren’t we really all the same, when you think about it?” Bildad and Peleg, being comedy buffoons, find this to be the most profound shit they’ve ever heard in their goddamn lives, and the discussion is over.

All the same, this double act gives us a poignant moment at the end of the chapter. Bildad, as is his wont, begins preaching to Queequeg. Peleg, as is his, tells him to can it. Taking umbrage at this, Bildad asks Peleg if he himself did not fear death and the judgement when he sailed under the command of Captain Ahab on his ***fateful voyage***. He assumes Peleg must have taken solace in his faith on that occasion — that he must have reflected on his eternal salvation.

Peleg’s response shuts him right up: “When every moment we thought the ship would sink… Think of Death and the Judgement then? No! no time to think about Death then. Life was what Captain Ahab and I was thinking of; and how to save all hands—how to rig jury masts—how to get into the nearest port; that was what I was thinking of.”

Moby-Dick has thus far been very concerned with religion, and it will continue to be. But after that outburst from Peleg, there isn’t much more to be said.

Chapter 19: The Prophet

frederick_leighton-_elijah_in_the_wilderness

Here’s a painting of Elijah by Frederic Leighton who, fun fact, died of angina the day after he was made a baron. To this day, he holds the record for having been a baron for the shortest amount of time.

OKAY I CALL BULLSHIT on these Bible names. DEUTERONOMY FUCKING COLEMAN was a stretch. But NOW you’re telling me you met an actual PROPHET named ELIJAH who proceeds to denounce a CAPTAIN called AHAB in PERFECT FUCKING SYMMETRY with 1 Kings 1:21 in the Old Testament? In which a DIFFERENT PROPHET named ELIJAH denounces a KING called AHAB!?!?! This is a bridge too far, Ishmael, I REFUSE TO BE FUCKED WITH.

Ahem.

So what happens in this chapter? Basically, if Moby-Dick were the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland, this chapter would be the bit with the skull that says “Dead men tell no tales.” Ishmael and Queequeg meet a shabby-looking, pus-faced old sailor who tells them that they have shipped with a mad captain — that Ahab lost his leg in a fateful battle with a giant whale, and that this was in accordance with some prophecy. Then, like all decrepit prophets in adventure stories, he refuses to actually say anything useful, leaving Ishmael a bit creeped out and none the wiser about his captain-to-be.

Chapter 20: All Astir

Ah, look! Another woman! And she’s allowed to board the ship, no less! There’s an old sailor’s superstition that women are bad luck on ships, and shouldn’t even be allowed on board at port. But the crew of the Pequod are hell of progressive.

Aunt Charity, as she is known, is one of many folks involved in the hustle and bustle of loading the Pequod for her voyage. Ishmael notes with more amusement than dread that all whaling ships must pack spares of everything. After all, Accidents Happen!!!

Chapter 21: Going Aboard

Oh, shit, the prophet’s back. And he’s being even more annoying. He’s all, “You didn’t happen to see a bunch of CREEPY DUDES CREEPING AROUND THE SHIP IN THE DARKNESS, did you?” And Ishmael’s like “Yeah, actually I did!” And the prophet’s like “Hmm, that’s probably not good. Byyyyyyeeeeeeeeeeeeeee…”

Regardless, Ishmael and Queequeg board the Pequod and learn that a mere 21 chapters into the book, Captain Ahab has finally boarded his ship and is ready to set sail. For good measure, we even get our first mention of the first mate: Starbuck. (Incidentally, the world’s top coffee chain was nearly called “Pequod.”)

Also it’s established that on Queequeg’s island, humans are used as ottomans. *sigh*

Chapter 22: Merry Christmas

Ishmael mentions here that Aunt Charity, the vanishingly minor character from two chapters ago, is Bildad’s sister and also the brother-in-law of the second mate Stubb. I don’t know what that makes Bildad in relation to Stubb, nor do I know why it matters, since Bildad disappears from the story in this chapter, along with Peleg. But Melville seemed to think it was important enough to mention. What a weird book we’re reading.

The main thrust of this chapter is that Ishmael and company are finally leaving shore on their ship (Merry Christmas, readers!), though Ahab is yet to be seen above deck. Peleg and Bildad help pilot the ship away from the docks and head back to shore in a small boat, as is apparently the custom.

A couple of details in Dr. Parker’s footnotes stand out here. Firstly, in a tortured effort not to swear around the pious Bildad, Peleg cries “Aft here, ye sons of bachelors!” In the footnotes, Dr. Parker acclaims Peleg’s line as being “arguably funnier than the common epithet he avoids using.” If you say so, Dr. Parker. And finally, the song Bildad leads the crew in as the ship pulls away is apparently called “A Prospect of Heaven Makes Death Easy” — the very sentiment that Peleg so eloquently refuted a mere four chapters ago.

Chapter 23: The Lee Shore

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A weird thing about Moby-Dick is that there’s a card game based on it.

What an astonishing little chapter this is. From the fifth sentence on, it could just as easily have been written by Shakespeare or T.S. Eliot. Firstly, it is the closest Ishmael has come thus far to revealing the ending of the story. He mentioned in passing that Queequeg has died at the time of this story’s telling, but this is the point when we learn that Bulkington dies as well — specifically at sea, with a strong implication that much of the crew perishes with him. But more than that, it extends Ishmael’s argument from chapter one to a remarkable place.

Just hang on a sec — do you remember chapter one? Remember how much time Ishmael spent categorically enumerating all of the different reasons why the sea is so important? All that stuff about the factory workers gazing longingly from the harbour and the artists painting magical streams? Chapter 23 is a reflection of chapter one in the smallest, clearest mirror you can imagine. In chapter one, the sea is important for a hundred small, prosaic reasons. In this chapter, the importance of the sea comes down to one crucial, abstract notion: home is death for the soul.

The metaphor Ishmael is riffing on here is based on the idea that land is both the ultimate endpoint of all successful voyages, the place where all mankind’s creature comforts reside, and it is the ultimate hazard in a storm. If you get dashed against the rocks, you drown. In a storm, the safest place is the open ocean: vast, fathomless, empty. Nothing but uncertainty as far as the eye can see — but a lack of certainty means a lack of certain death.

For Ishmael — and for Bulkington, the sailor who we know only one thing about, and it is that he cannot stay on land for more than a few days at a time — this is not just the organizing principle of his life: it is the fundamental concept that guides the way he thinks about things. “In landlessness alone resides the highest truth,” he writes. “All deep, earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea, while the wildest winds of heaven and earth conspire to cast her on the treacherous, slavish shore.” For all his tendencies to categorize and enumerate, Ishmael does not wish to be certain of anything. He wishes to remain adrift in a sea of unformed ideas and half-told stories. Because the end of the story is death. Death is the only certainty. Best, then, to keep travelling forever. To never make land. To never go home.

Home is death for the soul. You can never stop running. You can never be certain of anything. You can never stay in one place. Home is death for the soul.

The Pequod has set sail.

To be continued.

Omnibus (week of April 8, 2018)

Oh, hey! Thanks for dropping by. May I recommend a podcast that is not in the long list of reviews posted below? That podcast is the North by Northwest podcast from CBC Radio. It is the show that I work on for actual money, and we are trying some new stuff on there. For example, this week I made an alternate version of a radio story I did about a guy who designs yachts, which is more than twice the length of the radio version. In addition to things like that, you will get a whole raft of Sheryl MacKay’s interviews with interesting people in the B.C. arts world, many of whom you won’t have heard of. That’s the fun of it. And occasionally you’ll get me, just talking nonsense about pop culture and spinning weird theories. If any of this sounds interesting to you, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, or wherever else you’re accustomed to listening.

We return you now to your regularly scheduled tedious blather, complete with no fewer than ten podcast episodes pertaining to the Mark Zuckerberg hearings. Brace yourself.

20 reviews.

Literature, etc.

Oliver Byrne: The First Six Books of the Elements of Euclid — I’ve never been a math person. I have traumatic high school memories of standardized tests and interminable homework assignments that haunt me to this day. Now that I’m out of school and making a living, I find myself interested in learning about all sorts of things I wasn’t previously interested in, but mathematics has never been one of them. Nonetheless, I was browsing through a bookstore earlier this week and I found myself unexpectedly transfixed by this volume. It is a facsimile of a 19th-century illustrated publication of Euclid’s Elements: the foundational text of geometry. The printer, Oliver Byrne, has rendered Euclid’s proofs and problems in a remarkable, easy-to-grasp illustrated format made up of blue, yellow, red and black lines and shapes. (The publisher’s jacket blurb points out that Byrne’s colour choices inadvertently prefigure Mondrian’s famous geometric paintings, and thus a great deal of Northern European and Scandinavian design. Accordingly, I’ve shelved Byrne alongside my Mondrian-inspired yellow-red-blue boxed set of the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo books.) With everything laid out visually, I found myself able to follow along with Euclid’s reasoning — and to see the elegance of his methods. Everything he does in the Elements can be proven with nothing more than a straight-edge and a compass for drawing lines and circles. No protractor. You can’t measure angles. Think about that for a second: say you want to draw an equilateral triangle, but you don’t have a protractor. You draw a line that’s 10cm long. You draw another line connected to it that’s also 10cm long. All that’s left is to draw a third 10cm line that connects the two — but since you couldn’t measure the angle between your first two lines, how likely do you think it is that your third line actually will turn out to be 10cm? Not very. Never fear: Euclid found a way. And that’s his first proof. It’s simple, elegant, and it makes you go “huh,” and maybe turn the page. I did turn the page. And then I bought the book. I’ve been reading it in bed, a few proofs a night before I go to sleep. I cannot tell you how calming it has been. If you, like me, associate math with stress and pressure, that is likely because you have never encountered it in a zero-stakes situation. When you read Euclid — and especially when you read Byrne’s illustrated Euclid — you don’t have to solve anything. You’re not expected to come up with an answer to a question. You’re really just watching somebody else do math. Euclid’s got it all laid out for you, and all you have to do is follow along. And if you don’t understand a step, who cares? There’s no exam. This has been a revelation for me. Its complete lack of what we normally think of as narrative or thematic content makes Euclid the best bedtime reading I’ve ever encountered. It is math as self-care. And I feel like I can’t be the only person who would experience this: surely in these times, the most therapeutic thing you can experience is a person saying to you “here are some things that are definitely true, and here is why.” Pick of the week.

Games

Stories Untold — My feelings on this game are complicated by two kinds of negative responses: technical concerns and story concerns. I’d rather not even write about the technical concerns because they’re boring, but they also defined my experience of this game, so I have to. I’ll save them for last, though. Let’s start with the story. Spoilers, ahoy. Evidently “The House Abandon,” the first of the four episodes that comprise Stories Untold, was released in some form as a standalone entity previously to this. Taken as a thing in itself, “The House Abandon” is a marvel. It presents the player with a game within a game — specifically a text game within a graphical game — and then reveals that the two layers of reality it depicts are linked. The moment when the penny drops is masterful horror: essentially, there’s a point where you realize that what you are typing into the text game is actually happening in another part of the house you’re in. The power goes out at your computer desk; you make your character in the text game turn on the generator; the power comes back on. You make your character open a door; you hear a door open. It’s immediately obvious that the episode will end when you encounter yourself. And far from curtailing the suspense, that grim certitude only makes the game more agonizing as it draws relentlessly to the chapter’s conclusion. “The House Abandon” gave me gooseflesh in the middle of a sunny Saturday afternoon. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. But here’s the thing. None of what is good about it has anything to do with the actual content of the story your character lives through. It’s a story that’s mysterious and vague, and that in no way calls out for clarification. The horror and fascination arise purely from the central conceit: that there’s somebody else in the house, and they’re doing everything you type into your computer. I don’t really care about what happened to this character’s sister or why that door is boarded up. It seems largely beside the point, and anyway I’m content to wonder. So, imagine my disappointment when the final episode of Stories Untold explains away all that ambiguity with the most banal reason imaginable: the entire game up to that point has been a series of psychotic episodes in the mind of a guilt-ridden man who killed his sister and an off-duty cop while driving drunk. This reveal causes a number of things from episodes previous to make sense in a way that completely robs them of their strange imaginativeness. It reduces a fascinating formal experiment to a Very Special Episode. It treats its own narrative as a puzzle to be solved and shelved tidily away, taking for granted that the most important element of storytelling is THE ANSWER. It seems custom-made for people whose brains fell out at the end of Night in the Woods. To sum up: the first episode of Stories Untold is a self-contained near-masterpiece, the middle two are fine, and the final one is a huge disappointment that will appeal only to those with no appreciation for ambiguity or nuance. Which, to be fair, is a large group of people. Let’s move on to my boring technical concerns. Firstly and most my fault-ly, I tried to run Stories Untold well below the minimum graphics card specs (it’s a text game, I thought, how much graphics power could I possibly need?) and by the final episode the main source of tension was not the story but whether or not the game would crash. THREE TIMES I had to restart the chapter because of freezing or crashing. And while I realize it’s petulant to complain about a game’s performance when you’re trying to run it on an old MacBook, a simple autosave feature could have saved me the trouble of having to play through the entire episode from the beginning four times. Stories Untold has no saving mechanism at all, presumably in an attempt to make you play each of its episodes in one sitting. I get that. It’s definitely best that way. But should anything go wrong, tech-wise, you can be set back by as much as an hour’s worth of progress. That sucked. And crap graphics card or no, it needn’t have sucked so bad. Secondly, there are some seriously annoying design choices throughout. At one point you are obliged to read text on a microfilm reader (making this the third game I’ve played this year to feature microfilm, after Night in the Woods and Virginia) and you have to meticulously zoom and focus in on it. This is needless. Also, at a few points you are made to turn a dial until a display shows the correct number. In some cases, the only way (obvious to me) to manipulate this dial is to click and drag for minutes at a time until you hit the correct number. A simple numerical entry would suffice, thanks. No need to make it feel that analogue. Finally, in the first episode, the game insists on teletyping large amounts of text one character at a time. This is valuable for suspense in many cases, but sometimes you have to revisit text you’ve seen before, and surely there’s no suspense in teletyping that. These details make the game actively annoying to play. It’s almost too bad that “The House Abandon” is so brilliant. Because that’s the only thing that could make me waver while advising my fellow horror game enthusiasts to pass this one by.

Podcasts

The Gist: “Zuck Everlasting,” “It’s Regulation Time,” “Tax Cut Conundrum” & “I Never Said That” — Mark Zuckerberg is appearing before congress. That’ll be fun. This chat between Mike Pesca and April Glaser is a good primer on what to expect. If you’re reading/listening after the fact, one expects this will be less relevant for you. Greetings, readers, it’s me: Matthew from a day later than the previous sentence. It has now become clear that Mike Pesca is doing a “Zuck trilogy” this week, the second part of which is an interview with Brooke Gladstone about the history of us blaming media for things. All the same, she’s under no illusions about the fact that social media works differently. It’s good and it’s less time-hooked than the previous instalment. Greetings once again, from yet a third point in time. In the third and presumably final instalment of Pesca’s Zuckerberg hearings coverage, he strings together a bunch of dumb questions from senators. Fun. OH SHIT, here’s number four, because we’ve got to have the coverage of the COVERAGE of the Zuckerberg hearings. Anyway, this has been good. The Gist doesn’t get enough credit for presaging the emergence of daily news podcasts. That’s not what it is, but it’s closer than any other show of its vintage.

The Daily: “Wednesday, Apr. 11, 2018” “Thursday, Apr. 12, 2018” — Here’s what you listen to if you want to know what happened at the Zuckerberg hearings. Michael Barbaro breaks it down with tech reporter Kevin Roose, one day at a time. Key takeaways: I know more about how Facebook works than most senators, and the House smarter than the Senate.

NPR Politics Podcast: “Zuckerberg Faces Congress And FBI Raids Properties of Trump Lawyer” & “More On Mueller, Zuckerberg And Landscape for 2018 Elections” — I came for Zuckerberg, but they couldn’t compete with The Daily on that count. The breakdown of the Mueller investigation developments is great, though. I should listen to this more. This always makes me feel like I know what’s going on. Something about listening to people talk about current events conversationally gives that effect more than a news reporting tone does.

On the Media: “Who’s In Charge Here?” — It’s a decent week for a Bob Garfield solo episode. Lots going on. The Zuckerberg-centric segment goes in a different direction from other more straightforward news and current events shows, focussing on anti-trust legislation and how that may or may not factor into regulation of Facebook. But the best segment is about how corporations have been gaining civil rights since long before Citizens United. Good stuff.

The Media Show: “The Age of Zuckerberg” — And now for some Brits. I haven’t listened to The Media Show enough to have a handle on the format, but this is less a discussion of Mark Zuckerberg as it is a discussion of the various projects that the guest panelists have on the go. I was interested to hear from the new editor of Cosmopolitan about her new strategy, though that’s not necessarily what I came for. I should listen to this more.

The West Wing Weekly: “Hamilton Special (with Lin-Manuel Miranda and Thomas Kail)” — My white-hot Hamilton obsession is long since past, but listening to Miranda and Kail talk about The West Wing brought a fraction of it back. This is a great chat, and it’s fun to hear about what a foundational text The West Wing was for Hamilton’s creators. It’s also fun to hear about their actual encounters with West Wingers both real and fictional. Kail’s story of the original cast’s performance at the White House is worth the listen in itself.

Constellations: “bonnie jones – and if i live a thousand lives i hope to remember one” — Last week’s commentary on this show’s preciousness stands. But Jones’ piece is far more intuitively likeable than some of the other sound art on the show — it’s musical. It’s fun. You should check it out.

This American Life: “The Impossible Dream” — I listened to this as soon as it hit my feed. I knew it was coming, thanks to Zoe Chace’s interview on Longform, but it evidently had a troubled gestation. The episode begins with Chace and Ira Glass talking about why it almost stopped being a story: namely that its protagonist, senator Jeff Flake, resigned before the story reached its logical conclusion. And it’s true that this doesn’t have a conventionally satisfying ending, but that didn’t stop me from listening past the caveat-laden intro, nor did it stop me from enjoying the hell out of this. I realized at some point during this episode that The Story Of Jeff Flake was not actually what I wanted from this, nor was the broader story of Why Congress Is So Ineffective. What I wanted was the Zoe Chace Capitol Hill Story. We’ve heard her on the campaign trail and it was brilliant. It was different from everybody else’s reporting on the Trump campaign. This is the logical next thing. And it is accordingly different from everybody else’s palace intrigue stories about the madness that has taken hold of Congress during the Trump administration. It is well worth hearing.

In Our Time: “Euclid’s Elements” & “Four Quartets” — I recently purchased a rather handsome volume of Oliver Byrne’s 19th-century illustrated edition of Euclid’s Elements. It isn’t normally the sort of thing I would read, but I found myself captivated by it in the bookstore and I’ve been looking through its various, completely understandable proofs before bed at night. In this day and age, it can be therapeutic to sit down with a book that tells you “here are some things that are definitely true and here is why.” Immediately after buying it I realized that this was a thing there was probably an In Our Time episode about, and I wasn’t wrong. The episode is outright fantastic, with all members of the panel expositing enthusiastically on not only the relevance but the joy of reading Euclid. Having heard it will make my reading experience better, and that is all you can ask of a show like this. T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets is a thing I have not read in its entirety, though I’ve read the bit of “The Dry Salvages” that talks about “music heard so deeply that it is not heard at all/but you are the music while the music lasts” more times than I can count. (It’s a beautiful line, albeit one that he undercuts immediately. That doesn’t make it less beautiful or perceptive, though.) The conversation on it is good, but there’s a pervading sense throughout that Melvyn Bragg’s enthusiasm for the poems is such that he barely needs his panel of experts. Fortunately for all of us, he doesn’t bother resisting the urge to speak his mind.

StartUp: Re-runs for Alex, Inc. — I contend that Alex, Inc.’s promotional materials are so awful that I cannot be blamed for assuming it is terrible without watching it. Still, it’s a big moment for Gimlet and for Alex Blumberg, and it makes sense that they’re taking advantage of the potential audience crossover from the terrible sitcom they accidentally begat. For the rest of us, this is an opportunity to revisit the early days of StartUp: a groundbreaking podcast that felt at the time like lightning in a bottle, and that now feels a bit quaint in light of the (relative) behemoth that Gimlet has become. I remember listening to StartUp when it first come out. I remember waiting on bated breath for new episodes in a way I’d never done for a podcast — or any non-fiction narrative — before. That was in 2014: podcasting’s watershed year — the year that also brought us season one of Serial, which I loved, but not as much as StartUp. (I joked in my first-ever year-end wrap that Serial “wasn’t even my favourite serialized podcast, created by a This American Life producer, that starts with the letter ‘S.’”) Since that time, podcasting and my taste in podcasts have both become enormously more diverse. And the early StartUp episodes that hit the feed once again this week seem accordingly less gutsy and revolutionary than they once did. But it’s still incredible to look back to four short years ago and see a version of Gimlet where Matt Lieber expressed transparent disappointment in the equity he was offered, whereas now he’s a beloved trope in Reply All’s end credits and a figure who Jonathan Goldstein is openly scared of. It’s fun to look back at a Gimlet where four stressed out producers were gathered around a computer trying to figure out how to upload the first Reply All episode to what was then still called the iTunes store, whereas now that show is an institution that justifies two full episodes of the Longform podcast being dedicated to it. It’s edifying to think back to the fact that when I first encountered StartUp there was no such thing as Gimlet Media, whereas now I associate the word Gimlet with podcasts far more than I do with alcoholic beverages. Crap sitcom or not, the story of Gimlet is the story of the rise of a medium. And it’s all on tape.

The World According to Sound: “Sound Audio: Year in Food” — Here we have a man listing everything he ate in a year, in alphabetical order, sped up. “Beef sandwich, beef sandwich, beef sandwich, beef sandwich, beef sandwich, beef sandwich. Beetroot salad, beetroot salad, beetroot salad… *deep breath* Bun! Bun! Bun! Bun! Bun! …” This is something else.  

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Barry” & “Antiques Roadshow and What’s Making Us Happy” — Barry is an aspirational watch, should I ever find the time. Antiques Roadshow is an ambient pleasure at best — however, the PCHH episode on that topic is a minor classic of the catalogue, due to the contributions of the very antique proprietor of the Maximum Fun network, Jesse Thorn. He is funny and insightful here, just like everywhere else.

Out of the Blocks: “200 W Read St, part 1: The Greenwich Village of Baltimore” — This is the best new podcast I’ve listened to in I don’t know how long. It’s made by an NPR affiliate station in Baltimore, and it’s based on a delightfully simple premise: each episode is devoted to a single city block in Baltimore. The host visits people who live and work on that block, and hears their stories of the past and present of the neighbourhood where they live. It’s all set to a marvellous original score, and it feels warm like you wouldn’t believe. Most of my favourite podcasts these days are rather thinky affairs: stuff about big ideas and abstract notions. But this is straightforward, out-in-the-world radio in the tradition of the Kitchen Sisters and Studs Terkel, and it’s absolutely marvellous. This episode on “the Greenwich Village of Baltimore” was a good starting point for me, so it likely will be for you too. Two more episodes to go on this block, apparently, and I can’t wait. Pick of the week. 

All Songs Considered: “New Mix: Ólafur Arnalds, Khruangbin, Whyte Horses, Ari Roar, More” & “New Music Friday: April 13” — Nothing much appeals in this week’s New Music Friday, alas. But I really love that Ólafur Arnalds track in the main episode. I’m still waiting for this year’s Let’s Eat Grandma moment on this show. Nothing has bowled me over. I guess there’s a new Let’s Eat Grandma album on the way, though. There’s always that.

Arts and Ideas: “British New Wave Films of the ‘60s” — A fun discussion of British kitchen sink dramas, i.e. The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, both of which I saw in a film studies class and never thought about again. Frankly it’s not my speed. But I recognize its importance as a movement. Also, we get a wonderful segment on the bizarre, bad literary contributions of infamous dictators. God save the BBC.

99% Invisible: “Lessons from Las Vegas” — A good, old-fashioned Avery Trufelman architecture episode. This show is on a hot streak right now, and I’m inclined to think it’s because of a return to first principles. This story is primarily about a well-known architecture textbook and the relationship that begat it. It takes twists and turns you wouldn’t expect, and it explicates some big ideas you may not ever have had to consider before. Lovely stuff.

Song by Song: “Straight to the Top (Rhumba)” — A brief and perfunctory episode on a song I like a lot more than this show’s hosts, who have been guestless for two episodes. Wonder what guests they’ve got lined up. I feel like guests would be nice.

Code Switch: “Location! Location! Location!” — Code Switch tackles housing segregation, and it’s as complicated as you would think. If you do not listen to this regularly, begin.

Omnibus (week of March 18, 2018)

Can I just say for a second how good it is to be busy? Honest to god, it is so much easier to get up in the morning when you have a million things on the go. Consequently, I am happy to say this was yet another week during which I consumed not much more media than I produced. HOWEVER, I have also started running again, after a too-long hiatus. So that probably means the podcast count will go up again in coming weeks. We’ll see.

Seven reviews.

Television

Broadchurch: Season 1, episode 1 — Not for me, I’m afraid. Given all its ties to Doctor Who both previous and forthcoming, I was hoping to enjoy it. But nothing in this really lept out and convinced me it’s significantly different from any other cop show — save for its beautiful cinematography. But in the absence of an unconventional story or characters more defined than “brooding cop with a troubled, mysterious past,” I think I’ll leave it at this.

Movies

Best of Enemies — Anybody with any interest in the media at all should watch this deeply engaging documentary about ABC’s televised debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley in 1968. But even if you don’t have any particular interest in that, you should watch it anyway because these two are among the most interesting characters of their milieu, and this is ultimately a character-driven film. The debates, it must be said, were character-driven debates. It probably speaks to the film’s quality that I changed my mind halfway through as to whether the debates were actually a good idea. At first, I marvelled at the notion that there was a time when a major network would devote a significant amount of time to lofty discussions of the issues by people with a decidedly academic grasp of language. How our discourse has been degraded since then, I thought! But then I realized that these debates weren’t about the issues at all — they were two-way character assassinations motivated more by mutual loathing than by any principles at all. By the time Buckley delivers his famous rejoinder in which he threatens to punch Vidal in the face, you realize that you’re watching the invention of modern political discourse on tape. Also, this film contains footage of Buckley playing Bach on the harpsichord, badly. As if we needed more reasons to find him noxious. (The filmmakers get bonus points for pairing that footage with Wendy Carlos’ Switched-On Bach, which came out in the year of the debates.)

What We Do In The Shadows — Taika Waititi is one of the funniest people alive. This isn’t entirely his movie, of course. He co-stars and co-directs with Jemaine Clement. But he steals every scene he’s in, right from the sublime opening, in which he floats out of a coffin and immediately grins goofily. You understand his character before he says a word. What We Do In The Shadows is consistently funny from start to finish. Every joke is contingent on the character speaking it, and the characters are all brilliant, so there are very few jokes that don’t land. (“Werewolves, not swearwolves” is a personal favourite that would not be funny in another context.) And there’s even a bit of heart. There are few things sadder than a vampire watching a video of a sunrise on YouTube.

Music

The Decemberists: I’ll Be Your Girl — Let’s start with the single. “Severed” was the first track I heard from I’ll Be Your Girl. That was before I knew it was produced by John Congleton, so it didn’t make a lick of sense. Once you know that, everything slides into place. Suddenly it’s hard not to hear it as a John Congleton song feat. Colin Meloy. You can even imagine Congleton singing it: lyrics like “I alone am the answer/I alone will make wrongs right/But in order to root out the cancer/It’s got to be kept from the sunlight” wouldn’t be out of place on Until the Horror Goes. Realizing this made something click into place for me that might otherwise have caused me to hate this album: for three albums now, the Decemberists’ goal has been to push the limits of what it means to be the Decemberists. (The Hazards of Love was pushing something, but it’s still resolutely in their Anglophilic comfort zone. So is The Queen of Hearts, for that matter.) I have had mixed opinions of how well this has worked. I adore The King is Dead and listen to it as often as the period classics from my high school days. What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World didn’t do much for me because I couldn’t put my finger on what exactly it was trying to be. So far, I’ll Be Your Girl sits somewhere between those two poles, but an awful lot closer to the good end. Like The King is Dead, it has a clear premise. The King is Dead was a migration of the band’s folk influences from England back home to America. It was a revitalizing switch-up. I’ll Be Your Girl is an earnest attempt to merge Colin Meloy’s archaisms and affectations with John Congleton’s deranged postmodernism. Part of that attempt involves paring back Meloy’s trademark long-windedness to an uncompromising opposite extreme: several of these songs revolve around one or two key lines repeated at length. This too is revitalizing. Like The King is Dead, this album is a reminder not to only expect one thing from a band. I’ll remark on a few key tracks. “Severed” isn’t the only song that could belong on a Congleton solo record: “We All Die Young” is even more deranged, with Congleton’s signature rough drum sound and a children’s chorus shout-singing the title line as a call-and-response in the chorus. That’s a Congletonian touch if ever I’ve heard one — and a particularly disturbing one in light of the recent school shootings and protests against gun violence. It steps right up to the line of being tasteless, but manages to land on haunting instead. Also: when I said that “Severed” was the first track from the album I heard, that’s not strictly true. It was the first recording from the album I heard. But I heard the Decemberists do “Everything is Awful” and “Sucker’s Prayer” in concert last year. Coming off the disappointment of Terrible/Beautiful, they were a ray of hope for the future. The former is an instant classic. Calling it plainspoken would be an understatement: it consists almost entirely of its title and a wordless singalong outro. Set to a chipper acoustic accompaniment that morphs into stadium rock over the course of three minutes, it is a perfect evocation of what it’s like to hate everything while trying to maintain your sense of humour. On that note: I’ll Be Your Girl is Colin Meloy’s most openly depressive album to date, and also the one where his debt to Morrissey is most pronounced. “For Once In My Life” is nearly a rewrite of “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want.” And like Morrissey, when Meloy writes about depression, he does so with the self-awareness of an elderly man and the overwrought drama of a teenager. “I wanna love somebody, but I don’t know how,” he sings on “Sucker’s Prayer,” before throwing all that self-knowledge away with the line “I wanna throw my body in the river and drown.” None of this is what you’d expect from the Colin Meloy of “The Infanta” or “The Mariner’s Revenge Song.” And that’s fine. But there is one thing here for the Picaresque and Crane Wife crowd. “Rusalka, Rusalka/Wild Rushes” is a prog folk epic in the vein of “The Bagman’s Gambit” or “The Island.” It’s nice that it’s there, but it’s frankly not one of the best tracks on the album. And that’s maybe the most encouraging thing: where Terrible/Beautiful made me long for the Decemberists of old (ye olde Decemberists), I’ll Be Your Girl makes me confident that while they can still do what they used to do, they’re now actually better at doing something else entirely. Pick of the week.

Literature, etc.

Jorge Luis Borges: “Notes on Germany and the War” — Not everything in this collection of Borges’ writings against the Nazis has aged perfectly, but it’s worth reading for the general thrust of his arguments about the people who support fascism implicitly without realizing it. It also contains this peal of slightly petulant but sympathetic wisdom: “the true intellectual refuses to take part in contemporary debates: reality is always anachronous.”

Podcasts

All Songs Considered: SXSW Late Night Dispatches, recap, and New Music Friday: March 16 — I’m always a fan of All Songs’ SXSW coverage. Points out a bunch of stuff I need to check out. But frankly, there are too many recent and upcoming releases from artists I’m already invested in that I doubt I’ll get to any of it soon. The recap episode is the most useful for actually finding new music. But even without actual music, the late night dispatches are great radio featuring a group of people who are as overstimulated as it is possible to get while also being sober. Plus, this was the first New Music Friday episode I’ve heard, which is a fun feature. I’m glad I put this show back in my regular rotation. It is as useful as it is fun. Pick of the week.

99% Invisible catch-up — The most recent five episodes of 99pi is a pretty strong run — as is appropriate, given that they’re coming up to their 300th episode. Imagine. Specifically, the two-parter on the Bijlmer is outstanding. The Bijlmer was a neighborhood built by modernists that fell into disrepair almost immediately. It’s a great story. It was also nice to revisit episode 200, “Miss Manhattan.” I don’t remember it being a favourite the first time around, but maybe I was distracted. It’s lovely. Next week, the big three-oh-oh, and an appraisal of how the show’s been since the epoch-defining Kickstarter that allowed it to expand its team to the extent that it now has.