by Rem Koolhaas and others
"If there is to be a new urbanism," Rem Koolhaas has written, "it will not be based on the twin fantasies of order and omnipotence; it will be the staging of uncertainty."
Rem Koolhaas' latest literary venture, in the uncertain mixed-media fashion he's become known for, comes stinking of raincoat plastic and sounding like ambient noise. Mutations, a three-inch thick volume, collects four essays on the city as a global phenomenon, along with photos of and startling statistics on the world's growing urban-centrism. To enhance the reader's sensory experience, a CD is also included: Sonic City, music and noise selected by Hans Ulrich Obrist.
Koolhaas, whose Amsterdam-based architectural firm is designing Seattle's new Central Library (to open in 2003), writes only a small section of this large book, but his philosophies flavor its whole, as evidenced by titles of essays like "Notes for Cultural History Between Uncertainty and the Contemporary Urban Condition." Peculiar and trendy, Mutations, despite its lists of numbers (did you know that, for example, "Home Depot--the number three retailer in America--adds a new store on average every 52 hours"?), is less like reading a book and more like wandering through a city, replete with wonderful distractions. TRACI VOGEL
FREUD IN BROOKLYN
by Joanna Fuhrman
(Hanging Loose Press) $21
Joanna Fuhrman feels philosophy in her bones, or at least in the bones of her poetry. What most of us might regard as a useless theoretical quandary she is likely to take up as a heartfelt crisis. I know this isn't the most seductive way to introduce a book of poems, but I am hard-pressed to think of a more succinct way of describing Freud in Brooklyn as a whole.
You can fairly easily divide up contemporary poets between those who read philosophy and those who don't, and, in the darker days of this reader's life, it seems the two sides are merely inversions of each other. Which is why a poem like "A History of Western Art" can feel liberating, where "Our history is the 'loon' in hot air balloon.//Leave it at this. Leave as leaves/shroud our fourth meeting./You could have been more/than the egg in the tempera.//Oh you, who will always be a you." Is the history here that of the couple or Western art? The poem questions whether such a distinction can be: no emotion without representation, as it were.
The sensibility here is gleeful, mordant, but not simply surreal and abstract: Fuhrman's poetry certainly thinks, but it also plays. I challenge anyone to read "Now I'm New and Improved," where "Once I thought/that kissing was the same as driving along a highway in/June," without having a shiver of recognition normally triggered by Hank Williams or the Magnetic Fields. There are moments when Fuhrman convinces you that loneliness is ontological rather than a matter of the various impoverishments of the spirit caused by racism, sexism, poverty, etc. She does this and is pretty damn funny at the same time.
In one poem, we learn of a personal ad that reads, "Must be willing to whine and be whined at/Must lie and tell me everything is great," while another begins, "In my dream Pinocchio is six feet tall." "Exuberance is beauty," said Georges Bataille (quoting William Blake). He didn't quite have these peculiar, yet wholeheartedly open poems in mind (rather, Emily BrontË and terror on the moors), but for sheer energy and sincere delight in the complexities of the human condition, you can't go wrong with Freud in Brooklyn. ROBERT CORBETT
Lost and Found
THE TORTILLA CURTAIN
by T. Coraghessan Boyle
Are you a "white liberal" who is really a "stupid racist"? You're the target audience for this book!
Author thought-bubble: I'd like to write a heavy-handed book. You know: moralistic, self-righteous, the whole bit. I want to show that rich white people in the U.S. of A. are actually self-serving hypocrites who would rather wallow in guilt and psychodrama than ever lift a single charitable finger, or, God forbid, recognize any causal link between their own lush lives and the misery of the downtrodden and weak (who are therefore righteous, however pitiable).
I think I'll stage a car accident: Rich white guy hits a poor Mexican illegal who is crossing the road. Mexican guy is hurt pretty bad; white guy pays off Mexican with a twenty. Mexican staggers home but survives. White guy lies to auto repair guy: "I hit a dog--yeah, that's it, I hit a dog." From there we can chronicle their separate lives: living accommodations (palatial house; sewer), work (environmental columnist; abused day-laborer), lovers (successful professional; 17-year-old illiterate), daily struggles (is that juice fresh-squeezed?; will I bleed to death or get deported?).
Critic thought-bubble: This story is so manipulative I wanted to retch on every page. This is bad art in the service of politics. Characters and events are so wholly subordinated to predetermined concepts that nothing here is believable or warranted. (The name of the Mexican guy's wife is América!) Empathy is absent. Antipathy is reserved for the author. It's not that the story recounted here (of class, race, and gender, of course) shouldn't be told, but when a convenient landslide ends the narrative, you breathe easier knowing you've been jerked for the last time. GREGG MILLER