Archives for posts with tag: Arts

Van Gogh's Bad Cafe, Emily M Keeler, Bookside Table

Van Gogh’s Bad Cafe is an unusually beautiful novel, built on the fault lines between worship and addiction, artist and muse. Yet despite the immediate intrigue associated with these themes, Frederic Tuten has taken time itself as his primary obsession in this work. And why wouldn’t he? The narrative form of the novel is the perfect tool for experimenting with time; events described therein are pulled along by the knotted rope of plot, and the reader can momentarily occupy a noumenal rather than physical time, collapsing space and time into a single and dynamic entity.

Tuten skillfully engages this possibility, and gently, brilliantly, manages to separate time from history. Van Gogh’s Bad Cafe tells the story of a woman caught between two lovers, who are themselves a century apart. Ursula is a photographer with a morphine addiction, trying desperately to capture the fleeting formal beauty of light bursting through space. She has her first lover, Vincent Van Gogh, haul her heavy plate camera into the fields where she hopes to trap the miracle on paper, catch it like a child would a lightning bug. Her second lover, an artist in 1990’s New York named Louis, equips her with a Diana and a Leica, and she breaks out on her own to try to intercept the east river’s rally with the fading day light. In addition to her ability to travel forward a hundred years, or perhaps because of it, Ursula is also fascinated with plugging up time, she has the addict’s peculiar ability to speed up time by slowing herself down, to literally kill time by entering a magic stupor, the warm blooded sleep of opiates slowing her blood and eating through the hours.

Ursula covers her ultra feminine body in the 1880’s by occasionally dressing in menswear, and carrying a revolver around to shut up guff givers as she runs into them. In the 1990’s, she transgresses gendered boundaries by shaving her hair, donning docs, getting pierced and reading Sylvia Plath. She eventually turns away from photography in order to make her body her primary mode of expression, and rather than escaping the women’s ghetto of the muse she becomes imprisoned by temporality. Her flesh will rot, her ideas shouted however loud will go unrecorded, and though she traveled through a century in her body she can never undo time, she can never reach forward with the miracle of light caught on paper.

Tuten’s prose is sensuous and lyrical, and this love story between art and time is charged with eros as it moves through the ages. Eric Fischl’s visual contribution of several eerie and diluted sketches offer so many small islands in the sea of yearning that makes up Van Gogh’s Bad Cafe.

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Should you be lucky enough to find yourself in NYC on December 4th, you might enjoy a marathon reading of Frederic Tuten’s astounding first novel, The Adventures of Mao on the Long March, hosted by The New Inquiry and BOMB Magazine in celebration of New Directions Publishing’s 75th anniversary. Click here to RSVP.

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Nightwood Book Cover, Djuna Barnes, E.M. Keeler

Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood is the story of a well loved woman: Robin Vote. In her name and character, Robin embodies certain freedoms. She is a pure line of flight, a painfully democratic animal that brings exquisite suffering to people just as she gives them pleasure.

Nora Flood, and Jenny, and Felix, the ignoble and decidedly ungentile Baron, all try their best to wrap her up in their civilized arms, but this woman who looks like a boy is wild, and willfully innocent. Robin is not a woman so much as a child, a bird, a doll, and a dog. Everywhere she escapes into images, into animals. Her children are fragile faced dolls and sensitive imbeciles. She denies the future in all things, and has no memories.

The story is told back to Nora by a madman, an illegitimate doctor, Mathew, a lost soul with a loud mouth who haunts the streets of Paris’ least reputable arrondissement. His cloaked and hunched body becomes the instrument of a Queer story, and yet he is reliable precisely because his narration is not official; he can only tell Nora and Felix what they need to hear. He is pure and pompous and yet he shifts the grounds of this story with such swift subtlety that you can just hold onto the thread of meaning even as the tapestry undoes and re-weaves itself.

This was a very complicated read, and I need to go back to it. More than once. T.S. Eliot went back into it again and again, and marveled at the dynamic power of this prose, of this story. I can only give you my very first thoughts, which are unstable and fragile.

Reading this hurt me, damaged me in some way. It was beautiful but never pretty, like a dying bird or a slab of meat. I couldn’t afford to read this the way it needs to be read. I need to go over each line with eyes like a scalpel, to parse out the beauty of every sinew of the beating muscle. There are treasures buried here, and though I saw the glinting gold I couldn’t bear to dig beneath the scarred surface. But I will. Next time.

My Cousin, My Gastroenternologist by Mark Leyner book cover

So, I think that maybe you had to be there when it comes to My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist. This guy, Mark Leyner, was a giant of new American fiction when this book exploded onto the scene. He was a muscle-man among gladiators; he was standing shoulder to shoulder with David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen. That’s actually why I wanted to read him.  And don’t get me wrong, it was pretty damn good stuff… mostly.

There were moments of real intrigue and delight! It’s billed as fiction, but there’s a picture of Leyner himself on the cover, and it reads like a gonzo memoir. Leyner even says right in the first section that it’s “An autobiography written wearing wrist weights.” And his real life wife, Arleen, to whom this book is dedicated, is a person-cum-character in this sparkplug story.

I think that part of Leyner’s project here may have been to showcase the way that corporations, commercialization, television, etc., have in some respects limited our abilities to communicate with each other. I’m not so sure that he nailed it. His much lauded prose was delivered with the shimmering delight of an over-medicated, over-caffeinated, and over-educated psychoanalyst. And I totally laughed, literally out loud, at many of his glorious one-twos. But, ultimately, there was no single punch that I couldn’t just roll with. The book lacked the heft of flesh, had no sticking power, and for all of it’s bravado didn’t make contact, and didn’t leave a bruise.

Lydia Davis Translation, Madame Bovary, Book Cover, 2010

I totally cried.

Lydia Davis’ translation of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary was beautiful, clear, and her ability to perfectly translate the tone of the work is astounding. For a taste of what she can do, The Paris Review published a handful of Davis’ short stories that were modeled on Flaubert, and you can read them here.

Because this is a well known story that has permeated literary culture, I already knew what was going to happen.  And honestly, I decided to read this version because I like Lydia Davis’ writing; if she specifically hadn’t translated Flaubert, I may never have read this book. I mean, everyone knows the story anyway: A stupid but good looking woman marries without love, and then seeks passion elsewhere, and tragedy ensues. I was so prepared to hate the heroine in this book, so ready to be dismayed by another old story about a woman torn by the choice between two men, so anxious to feel the sting of a character built from the sexist archetype of beauty without brains.

Yet when I was actually reading this book I was really surprised by how much I liked Emma, how I recognized in her the anxieties and fits of naivete I have seen in myself and other people I know. And she wasn’t so dumb, really. She was callous, selfish, brutally unkind at times, and a wretched mother and careless wife. But somehow I felt for her, y’know? It seemed like the little fictional village in Normandy that Flaubert sets this drama in was built up of insidious illusions and untruths, that there were lies in the newspapers, and that the shop keepers and notaries were disingenuous at best. In that light, Emma isn’t a sexist archetype, just a player in a larger game. Her ideas about passion and love and being head over heels and having cosmically and improbably hot monkey sex are still ideas that circulate in the cultural landscape of right now. The lurid romance novels and poems that turn Emma on to impossible love are old time versions of pop songs and rom coms. We’re still looking for that spark, that special person that breathes fire and incinerates the desire for everything but love.