by Alex Shakar
For culture hounds, social critics, and others, it's important to get a finger precisely on this society's cultural pulse-of-the-moment, the attributes and workings of irony, and so forth. The Savage Girl is a smart, funny novel that concerns itself with people like that--trendspotters--but keeps enough distance to raise important issues about capitalism and consumerism.
The novel follows Ursula Van Urden, a failing artist, who takes a job with trendspotting company Tomorrow, Inc. With other trendspotters, Ursula scours the Boschian Middle City (which sits alongside a roiling volcano), looking for new clothes, tastes, and attitudes to be used in cutting-edge ad campaigns for nonsensical products that don't exist in our world, but might, like diet water. Ursula then discovers an urban savage girl who has dropped away from the business of everyday life, wears animal-hide clothes, and eats pigeons. The ironically minded Tomorrow, Inc. decides this savagery is the future and that there's lots of money in it.
What's best about The Savage Girl is its way of being just a thumbnail's edge away from our world; or, that author Alex Shakar uses elements of our world and shifts their context a bit in order to create a setting that's startling, jarring. Characters with slightly slimy, metaphoric-sounding names like Chas LaCouture, James T. Couch, and Javier DelReal give an inordinate amount of texture and kinetic energy to what is essentially a book that philosophically puzzles over the labyrinthine absurdities of consumer desire, marketing, and other aspects of our world that aren't real but constructed by Disneyish imagineers and evil businessmen from the future. To read this book is to sink into Shakar's deft and considerable talent for crisp, startling language. It won't disappoint. STACEY LEVINE
R&B (Rhythm and Business): The Political Economy of Black Music
edited by Norman Kelley
Rhythm and Business is a book that reminds us once again that we haven't left the cotton fields that far behind, that whitey still has the ball and is making us run it for him. Norman Kelley, the editor of this fine conspiracy text, has found a host of authors to comment and rant on the history and current state of blacks in the music industry. And everyone in the book agrees: The situation is critical. As former Nation of Islam cleric Conrad Muhammad puts it, basically the hiphop industry is made up of "penny-chasing, champagne-drinking, gold-teeth-wearing, modern-day sambos" and the corporate whoremongers who own them.
Here you can read the historic Harvard Report, a sort of Protocols of the Elders of Zion for the music industry that details its takeover strategy of black soul and R&B labels. Other chapters cover rap music as minstrel show, Chuck D pens a short and furious piece on Negroes vs. Niggros, and there is a wonderful roundtable of MCs, DJs, and lawyers bemoaning the lack of legal and business knowledge in black brains.
Even as everything else falls apart in this jumbled mess we call a nation, it's nice to know that something as old as institutionalized racism is still here for us to lean backwards on. I'll leave you with another great quote--and the book is full of them--from Clarence Avant: "How can we own anything when our best assets want to stop being black when they are successful." PAUL ROSENTHAL
This Is Me, This Is You
by Roni Horn
Catalogues of art exhibitions are notoriously removed from the experience of looking at art, what with their reduced images, their long texts, their inability to produce the feeling of being in the presence of something. Roni Horn, a photographer and sculptor whose work is rooted in (and then sweeps out from) tiny little increments of perception, has gotten around this problem wonderfully well with the catalogue for her installation This Is Me, This Is You.
I saw this piece a few months ago at New York's Dia Center: It consists of two walls, each with over 50 ordinary snapshots of a rather homely little girl. The images record familiar and everyday moments in a child's protean manifestations: wet-haired in a bathing suit, in costume, with a pink hood of her coat pulled up over her head. The two walls of the installation are parallel and almost face each other, but don't quite; and the photographs, laid out like a game of concentration, almost match, but don't quite. On one wall, the child in the costume makes a silly face; on the other, still in costume--a moment later? or earlier?--the camera catches her in repose. The act of looking at a photo on one wall and its corresponding image on the other involves the viewer in a strange staggered whirliness, turning and searching and then still, registering minute changes in expression and mood and larger changes in age and facial features. (In one gallery's installation of this work, the two sets of images were hung in different rooms altogether.) It's the activity that makes it intimate.
Instead of turning this experience into something static, the catalogue has the images bound in two volumes back to back, so that to see these changes you have to turn the book over. It's a different effect, but one that similarly forces the viewer to participate. It's a beautiful and frustrating thing, a game, a sophisticated trick to make you look carefully and see more. It's so Roni Horn, it almost hurts. EMILY HALL
by James McCourt
James McCourt's dense, evasive prose in Mawrdew Czgowchwz (pronounced "Mardu Gorgeous") poses a question to the reader: Is the narration artistically thorough or simply overdone? Perhaps an initial, excruciatingly slow reading of Mawrdew Czgowchwz or a secondary or tertiary re-read would desensitize its audience enough to allow some comprehension of this twisted text. It will take a patient and dedicated reader to enjoy McCourt's first novel.
A contemporary Irish-American literary hero to his growing cache of devotees, McCourt published Mawrdew Czgowchwz in 1971 and has followed up with a number of books and short stories. His bloated version of post-war New York stars Mawrdew Czgowchwz, an Irish-Czech opera diva who takes the city by storm, but instigates a state of collective, claustrophobic ennui when she collapses from stress and only mumbles incoherently in Czech, Irish, and McCourt's brand of English.
Indeed, an unnatural dialogue haunts the pages of Mawrdew Czgowchwz, recalling the stilted tone of many modern plays. It's as if the characters aren't listening or responding to each other, but are simply tools for what the author wishes to proclaim to his ideal audience. There are, however, isolated moments of sudden hilarity and minimalist nostalgia that are entirely comprehensible and expertly executed. It makes one wonder: Why (and how) did McCourt write 205 pages of over-concentrated prose when obviously he is capable of such clarity and simplicity? McCourt is a writer for a particular breed that finds happiness in thickets of narrative chaos. LAURA DUNN-MARK
Burden of Ashes
by Justin Chin
For his fourth book, Burden of Ashes, performance poet Justin Chin weaves a series of interconnected essays that ruminate on childhood, sexuality, and the abstraction called home. It's part autobiography, part fever dream. His matter-of-fact style is spiked through with surreal moments, as if in the act of looking at something it starts to morph and pixilate. The familiar becomes strange and vice versa. It's at these moments of dislocation that the stories soar.
Burden takes glancing snapshots of his childhood in Malaysia, his school days in Singapore, and his adult life as a gay man in San Francisco. It's territory that is familiar from many sides. The gay life he depicts, and the alienation because of his race and sexuality, is well-tilled material that doesn't always shake the sense of familiarity, even with well-crafted specifics.
As a 13-year-old having sex with men in bathroom stalls, Chin captures a level of discomforting alienation from the world and his body that is visceral and deeply sad. But elsewhere he relies too heavily on a sentimentality that waterlogs his subjects. If the contrast is meant to keep his more hard-bitten moments from tilting into bitterness, it works in reverse, eroding and diluting them.
As his title suggests, history and memory are heavy, but remembering takes more than guts. It necessitates a deft touch and an unflinching eye. While Chin's stories can be provocative, they tend to hedge their bets, playing chicken and losing their nerve at the last second again and again. NATE LIPPENS