Sunday, January 21, 2007

VICE, The Fiction Issue

Vice magazine, first time I’ve seen an issue in a good six months or something, maybe more. Since I don’t currently live in New York, L.A., or London, I only get them when a friend gives or sends me one. (Guess I should check the website more often, since you can actually download them for free.) But one thing I immediately noticed was a letter in this issue’s Mail section – a gushing, over-serious ass-kiss (“This is not an ass-kiss,” it begins) from a 37-yr-old man who actually deems it necessary to stipulate, “I am not a part of Vice’s demographic.” The letter-writer is, “however, always drawn to your magazine because it shows a side to society that us comfortably numb old farts can peer into and then ponder the world around us.” It then goes on to laud Vice for its “bold and important” articles, “courage,” the “issues” it “highlights,” etc. The title the editors have given this short missive is “Averting Midlife Crisis.” Inexplicably (for anyone who has ever read the magazine around, say, the early 2000’s), they don’t make fun of this guy in the slightest and actually go so far as to answer, with no real trace of irony, “Thanks, old-timer.” Perhaps Vice has in a sense entered its own mid-life crisis. But then one could hardly expect it to maintain the same relentless style of attack after ten-plus years. But to see them openly accepting a comment about a “demographic” at all, much less tacitly admitting that a 37-yr-old guy might not be part of it, was a bit weird.

It was always well-known that advertising was a major part of the magazine, but it used to be that it was more just a vehicle which enabled them to do their own uncompromised and uncorrupted thing. Now we’ve got product placement in the “Tidbits” section. Believe it or not, underneath the item on the Clone-A-Pussy kit is a blatant promo for Canon’s Elph camera: “Call it brand loyalty but it seems like the Elph just keeps getting better and better...” Is it just me or does this stick out like a sore thumb? Well, at least they actually gave Jay-Z a bad review. On second thought, part of the reason seems to be because he’s too old! And meanwhile, Li’l Wayne gets the thumbs up (unbelievably termed “best rapper in the universe”) for lyrics like this: “Bitch I’m paid / that’s all I gotta say / can’t see you little niggas / the money in the way...” They actually quote this as a testament to his genius. Well, put me in the “old” category too then, because I’ll take almost any half-decent old-school rapper, or anyone who can come up with something at least slightly more original to say, over this. (I agree with them on the Clipse album though. As far as commercial rap goes, it’s not bad.)

But this is Vice’s Fiction Issue and a lot of the sorts of articles that normally would have been included aren’t here, in favor of short fiction pieces. So in some ways it’s hard to compare it to other issues, and it’s not got a lot to do with any supposed demographic. I was really surprised by the high quality of the writing they’ve published. Not because I’m down on Vice, because, let’s face it, despite my above criticisms it’s still the best magazine out there and the only one I would read on a regular basis with any real interest. Really it still is. And despite the occasional clunker, they always seem to come back with a great issue. Surprised just because frankly I don’t read a lot of contemporary fiction, being as preoccupied as I am with poetry and “non-contemporary” fiction. I have, however, read 57-yr-old Richard Hell before – his novel Go Now was pretty good I thought – and his piece here about early sex is too. Also included is a story by the almost 45-yr-old Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club. Sam Brumbaugh (40) conjures a weirdly claustrophobic sense in “Baron in Vegas,” a story about a guy selling his dead semi-famous uncle’s guitar to something like a Hard Rock Cafe. Harmony Korine’s (only 34) fictional (?) conversation between Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Clint Eastwood, though, comes off as rambling and a bit dull, but then probably how it would have gone down in real life. Another filmmaker, Neil LaBute (44) (who, unfortunately, directed that awful remake of The Wicker Man) has a really good story here, about an office racist. He gets into some pretty twisted shit (no pun intended) (you have to read it to know what I mean). And I have to mention Eileen Myles (57), a really interesting figure, a punk poet who’s been doing a lot of great stuff since the 70’s – “Tapestry” is no exception, a brief chronicle of certain erotic adventures, which she likens to “a procession of beaver shots.” Speaking of poets, when is Vice going to do a poetry issue? Or have they already and I missed it?

Anyway, I could go on, because almost every story in here is really, really good. Sorry for those I left out, but after starting off criticizing, all of the sudden I notice all I’m doing now is saying how amazing this issue is. But alright, one last kudo – as always the photography is great too, not least the cover pic of the Strand Bookstore by Roe Ethridge (age 37). Enough.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Maurice Scully, Tig

Got Maurice Scully’s latest book, Tig (Shearsman Books, 2006, 102 pp., ISBN 978-0-907562-96-2), which is the conclusion to his massive meisterwerk entitled Things That Happen. Tig follows Five Freedoms of Movement (1987, 2001), Livelihood (2004), and Sonata (2006). At present I have not gotten my hands on the penultimate volume Sonata, so I’m looking at Tig as its own thing, and am not at the moment all that worried about how it ties in with the rest (although I have read the others, Livelihood being the bulkier volume).

But now that I see the gigantic scheme of all this, I am reminded of William Carlos Williams’ Paterson, which, like Things That Happen, is a large continuing poem written over the course of decades. And though I don’t want to stretch the comparison too far, Scully, at the very least, is obviously a poetic kindred spirit to Williams.

Tig opens with an image of a butterfly migration, an “immense blizzard of wings,” but Scully, as always, wants to get under the surface of the image. It is not only the beautiful forms and colours one sees, but also “...light exuding // over the visible / light intruding...” and there is a comment on the evolution of insect wings, and a rectangle representing a window, “rain on glass to the side of yr face...” Then comes what is more or less the book’s central (and recurring) image, a leaf falling from a tree (thus the cover photo), again seen from a windowpane, a windowpane that is the lense through which the poet sees, at a remove:

different (or) touching a windowpane where
drops gather ( ) difference ( ) &
or different

The window implies a house behind it, which is a central concern here too. A couple of sections have the title “A Place to Stay”: a space where one lives, or from where to engage with the wider world, as in a society, how one approaches society from one’s own space. In Munster Irish, the word tig means “house.” The themes are simple but the actual process may be complex. The section “Backyard” gives us a crisp picture, “on still pools oakleaf / folded in a muddy crevice” and wonders, “are we just / photographs talking...?” Life is “one elong- / ated crisis (with / modulations)....” Things that happen.

But it is the modulations that are of crucial importance here, otherwise why put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard. The falling leaves suggest age; there is an oblique reference or two to death. And modulations in writing. The best thing about Scully, for me, at the moment, is his style, which he’s really honed at this point. It’s got clarity and precision, even the way it looks on the page is made for particular effect, the use of certain marks, and the occasional use of the Irish language and Gaelic literary tradition totally makes it. It has got purpose, and he says so:

I’ve had quite enough

Free Expression, Genius & all that.

Let’s communicate.

That’s the end of book one. Book two opens (nearly) with an observation, “essentially a poem is a flat surface covered in part by groupings of twenty-six quite well-known symbols.” Later an ironic joke:

All that these able writers have said on language has been
challenging, provocative, & generally very helpful.

Thank you.

And that’s where it starts to get really good, I mean really turned up a notch. All the images from the first half of the book are reconstituted, repeated, cut up in a sustained burst of energy, like watching a fireworks display, which keeps getting more and more spectacular till the end. For me, Scully is one of the very best Irish poets alive today. Tig reconfirms it; and this book is worth your while.