Aspen: The multimedia magazine in a box


Over at the always wonderful and data-deep UbuWeb, there’s a complete look at Aspen, which, from 1965 to 1971 was an exclusive magazine “in a box”. Each issue was different, and each contained a jumbled assortment of items, ranging from art prints and essays to flexidiscs and Super 8 film spools. Contributors included some of the best known names in art at the time. I’m sure the surviving issues are worth thousands–UbuWeb presents the full archive to watch, listen, and read.

Austerlitz – W.G. Sebald

Modern Library
2001

It’s like a novelistic version of Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil,
said Jon, which was good enough recommendation for me. However my experience of Austerlitz is really a tale of two readings. The first half was unwisely choosing to read the book at home, at night, as my bedside reading. For a novel that rambles, stream-o-conch’ like through various stories and ages, with very few fullstops and no chapters, this was a poor choice for the late night read. It defeated my poor brain at every turn. Once I finished “Getting Things Done” at work, I brought in Sebold’s book and on breaks got into the second half and was done in days. The second half, coincidentally or not, is where the rough edges of a plot begin, and where the novel becomes less experimental.
The title character is a wandering eccentric, who makes friends with the narrator, and whose stories and search for his vanished history take over the book, such as what happens in Heart of Darkness. Austerlitz discovers later in his childhood that he was spirited out of Nazi Europe by the Kindertransport, to be adopted by a Welsh family. Years later he goes looking for clues to his parents by retracing the transport route back. It’s a journey into an old Europe of evocative places and place names, and the empty center for those who want to go looking for history after it has been annihilated. There are no conclusions, only infinite possibilities.
By the end I was rather underwhelmed by it all, as it ends on such an uncertain note. But I did like this passage on time:

And might it not be, continued Austerlitz, that we also have appointments to keep in the past, in what has gone before and is for the most part extinguished, and must go there in search of places and people who have some connection with us on the far side of time, so to speak?

Why yes, it most probably is…

Jumper – Steven Gould

TOR Books
1992

Gould’s book takes a sci-fi premise–teleportation–and throws it into a coming-of-age story for young adults.
This got highly recommended by someone on BoingBoing, and being YAF (Young Adult Fiction) promised a quick read.
Davy Rice learns he has the talent to “jump” to locations he’s been before one night when he flinches from his father’s drunken, physical abuse. He pops up in the safety of the school library. He does so again when he runs away from home and nearly gets raped by a truck driver. From these grim beginnings, we follow Davy as learns the limitations and benefits of his powers, but most importantly tries to seek “closure” (eek) over his abusive dad and his absent mom.
I have to say I was ready for the sci-fi, but wasn’t prepared for the touchy-feely psychobabble. Davy spends quite a lot of the book crying, weeping, and blubbering. Even more amazing, he hooks up with an older woman called Millie (older as in college student), who becomes his shoulder to cry on, and is so well-adjusted she’s like a cut-rate family counselor (and the voice of the author). Now, that’s some sci-fi! The more the tears roll down his face the more she wants to sleep with him. Don’t try this at home, kids.
The first half of the book is all logistics, as Davy funds himself by robbing a bank, creating a little safe house apartment in NYC, then gradually extending his knowledge of places (he can’t teleport to places he hasn’t visited). He gets revenge on Daddy Dearest by making him believe his son’s a ghost, a similar tactic he does to the truck-drivin’ rapist. He makes amends with Mom, just before she is blown up by a terrorist (!), spinning us into the book’s second half, a riff on “with great power comes great responsibility.” The NSA want to know who this teleporting kid is, and how he’s able to get onto planes and subdue terrorists. Davy has a special desert oasis hideout where he brings his vanquished foes, dropping them from 50 feet in the air into the water. Also on his tail is Brian Cox (who hopefully will be played in the film, if they ever make it, by Brian Cox) his nemesis at the NSA. By the end of the book, Davy confronts all three father figures (Dad, terrorist, and agent) and Gould does a good job wrapping everything up without a shootout or a speech (those come early, usually from Millie).
I enjoyed the novel for what it was, although I skimmed all the times the waterworks got turned on. What pleased me most was the ordinary uses of teleportation. When Davy is traveling to scout out new locations, his flight is delayed five hours. He teleports home, sets the alarm, then has a nap up till boarding time. Now that’s a super power!

King Solomon’s Carpet – Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell)

Random House
1991

I picked up my first Barbara Vine/Ruth Rendell novel for two reasons;
the story was centered around the London Underground and because I had seen the TV adaptation of Dark Adapted Eye. I have to say I’m slightly disappointed, even though sticking with the book to the end. Halfway through this convoluted tale, filled with strange variations of loser characters, I did not know the plot. There’s a large former schoolhouse in London that is let out by the landlord Jarvis. This includes Alice, a woman escaping both a dull husband and her newborn child; Tom, a busker who scrapes by and takes up with Alice; Jed, who keeps a falcon; Tina, a freewheeling spirit with two children, one of which is Jasper a rough 10-year-old who thrill seeking is undertaken by riding the roofs of underground trains. There’s also a dark-clad figure, Axel, and his companion who dresses up in a bear suit and terrorizes passengers with confrontational theater.
Jasper, Jed, Jarvis: three “J” males. Try keeping these straight as the narrative jumps between them. There’s also Tina’s mother Cecilia, who lives elsewhere and who had unmentionable, suppressed Sapphic longing for her longtime friend Daphne.
I kinda expected all these lives to intertwine in strange, unexpected ways, but so many of them are loners and socially inept that, despite renting rooms in one big house, they don’t. Of a main plot, there is the one of Alice, escaping a controlling marriage and finding a controlling relationship with Tom, until being seduced by the dark charisma of Axel, who, I don’t think it would be ruining anything seeings I guessed it in the earlier chapters, is a mad bomber. I finished the book, and I’m relieved.
Though mentioned as a book about the underground, the author shows no affection for the system–the tube is portrayed as dark, polluted, and full of strange, pleblike people. Oh well.

Man Ray’s Montparnasse – Herbert Lottman

Harry N. Abrams
2001

Herbert Lottman’s book on Man Ray and Montparnasse,
at that time in history the center of the art world, is one of the best books I’ve read about the pre-WWII art scene. Most of my previous reading on the Surrealists have come either from their own texts, or in the stodgy writings that accompany art books. But none gave a sense of time and place as this history of a neighborhood.
It’s not exactly a book on Man Ray, but the American born, reluctant photographer (nee frustrated painter) serves as a conduit through which passes nearly every single important artist of the early 20th Century. Man Ray moved to Paris, believing he would be a painter, but wound up paying the bills with photographic portraits. His subject/client list is enviable: apart from the group of Dadaists and Surrealists that haunted the cafes there, he photographed Gertrude Stein, Eric Satie, Marcel Proust (the day after he died), Picasso, James Joyce, Hemingway, and many more. He was able to stay above the fray of many political/artistic fights and divisions because of his portraiture, and never earned the wrath of Andre Breton.
Lottman reports all this in the context of how these artists spent their time–sleeping with their models and mingling with people of all nationalities at the cafes and clubs that lined the street. They moved in and out of tiny studio apartments, and they opened and closed galleries. Man Ray had several major love affairs, first with the infamous Kiki, who is the model in his most famous early work, Lee Miller, his student and lover who then went on to a successful career in her own right, and a few other dalliances.
The world that we get to look into in the book is refreshingly modern, but also long past, especially when one considers how important creation and art was to all these people (well, except Duchamp, who had a successful career doing as little as possible). It would be hard to imagine such vigorous defences of art made today.
Anyway, a bloody quick read, to be had on Amazon for cheap, printed on lovely thick glossy paper, and full of relevant photos (although I would have liked more).

20th Century Boys – Naoki Urasawa

Viz Comics (U.S. Release)
1999-onward

Near the completion of this fan-subtitled version of Urasawa’s manga masterpiece,
Viz Comics announced they were finally bringing out this title in the States, scuttling what was til then a 17 volume labor of love. I was fortunate to grab a Bittorrent file of Vols. 1-16 off the web just before they disappeared for good.
So consider this a preview.
If American comics have to go through the rigmarole of dopey “They aren’t for kids anymore!” articles every couple of years, imagine what it would take to get something like this unfolding manga serial taken seriously. Yet out of anything I’ve read this year, this multi-layered comic has be one of the most satisfying and emotional experiences I’ve had for a long time.
It’s a genre-busting series that combines sci-fi, horror, and adventure elements into a generation spanning plot. Influences and allusions abound: Stephen King’s “It”, Patlabor 2, The Seven Samurai, Dennis Potter-esque time jumps, The Stand (King again!), and much more.
At the center is failed rockstar Kenji, who is currently running a mini-mart and looking after his sister’s baby daughter. Yet his childhood comes back to haunt him, when it is suggested that a religious cult, the leader of which is a man named “Friend,” is plotting to take over the world, using a secret plan that Kenji and his friends designed back in elementary school as a joke. As Kenji assembles his old school friends, now all in their thirties and a various stages of their lives, they try to figure out through their collected faulty memories who Friend could possibly be, and how to stop him.
This is just the launching pad for an adventure that jumps backwards into the past, forwards into the future where things haven’t turned out for the best, and into a virtual world where the memories of their 1970s childhood are replayed and “corrected.”
Never, unlike other series, did I get the sense that Urasawa was just making this up as he goes along. Like The Sopranos, otherwise meaningless exchanges and scenes from the early volumes return much much later, revealing their deep meaning and throwing me for a loop. The manga is full of mysteries and unanswered questions, and each time one is answered, 10 more mysteries present themselves.
The emotional core of the manga deals with the idealism of youth and the failures of adulthood, and whether that can be regained despite (or because of) impossible odds. We see this in Kenji and friends, but also in Kenji’s niece Anna, who grows up to be a sort of savior herself.
“20th Century Boys” is also quite frightening. The pacing is cinematic, with big scares revealed in full splash pages. The face of “Friend” starts as a device out of suspense film: shrouded in shadow, we assumed his identity will turn out to be a character we’ve already seen in broad daylight. But as 20th Century Boys progresses, “Friend”‘s face becomes a thing of horror, causing paralysis in those who gaze upon it (we only see reaction shots). It’s a device that Urasawa uses again and again, and he always finds a fresh way of employing it. (I read the fansub as a slideshow on my LCD monitor, so I never see the pages ahead of time. It’s an excellent way to get maximum frights out of the comic!)
Urasawa is still writing the manga, and some of these series can stretch to thirty volumes and beyond. In Volume 16we jump ahead in time again and a new whole chapter of the story begins to open up, so I believe we’re nowhere near the finish. And now that Viz will start bringing out the series officially, we’ll have to wait for them to catch up. Unless Urasawa drops the ball near the end, this will be one of the most important mangas in recent memory.
P.S. Bush-haters may notice that the story of a religious cult that orchestrates its own terrorist attack to take over the government is…a bit familiar. But having been started in 1999, Urasawa’s comic is either prescient or tapping into the same evil forces in the air that are now part of our reality.
P.P.S. Now that I’ve discovered this whole underground of fansubs, I’m going to be reading a lot more manga!
UPDATE (5/25/06): From Wikipedia: “20th Century Boys is still running strong in Japan, and currently has 21 volumes so far. It seems to have been inspired in parts of the story by the works of Stephen King, containing allusions to It and The Stand. It was recently licensed by Viz (2005), however at Urasawa’s request it has been rescheduled for release after Monster finishes its English serialization due to a change in art style over time.”
Currently, scanlations are available here, but you must register: http://www.x3gen.com/new/manga_downloads_20thcb.php

Absolute Friends – John LeCarre

Little, Brown
2004

Recommended by Jon, and my first LeCarre novel
(after this, I think there will be more). This most recent work tries to figure out the world post-Cold War, in regards to spies, while backtracking and flashbacking to show the making of lead character and double agent Teddy Mundy. LeCarre evokes 1968 Berlin well–a hotbed of student activism–and what comes after, and Mundy’s relationship with a fellow activist, also spy, called Sasha. We then follow his rather centerless, wandering life, never really sure of his identity (as the author points out, spies have to operate under an enforced and necessary schizophrenia.) Finally, we catch up with Teddy in the present day, long after the fallen Berlin Wall has put an end to Teddy and Sasha’s careers. Now Sasha has come a’calling, with an offer.
LeCarre has been criticized for turning the last couple of chapters into a diatribe against the Bush Administration. He does get out some zingers: “It was an old Colonial oil war dressed up as a crusade for Western life and liberty, and it was launched by a clique of war-hungry Judaeo-Christian geopolitical fantasists who hijacked the media and exploited America’s post-Nine Eleven psychopathy.”
Like Seymour Hersh, LeCarre believes we’ve been taken over by a cult. And it should not surprise you that I think that way too. But the reviewers make it appear that this is just a context-less rant. It’s not. The novel is a traditional LeCarre spy narrative upended suddenly and violently by dismal post-911 realism. It’s Smiley’s People with the ending of Costas-Gravas’ “Z”. The fundamentalists on both sides are working towards the same goals, and both are enemies of reason. It’s a sock-knockin’-off ending, and expects you to jolt awake from it.

The War of Art – Steven Pressfield

Rugged Land
2002

One of my favorite productivity sites, 43 Folders,
recommended this book to all who have dealt with writers block and such, and so I decided to check it out. (At least I think it was 43 Folders–maybe it was a link from them to somewhere else). Steven Pressfield is best known for the book “The Legend of Bagger Vance,” which was made into a movie with long title intact. The War of Art is a very short, lots-o-white-space manifesto on creativity, which can be read in one sitting. It can also be digested in one sitting, as the thought behind the 200 pages can be summed up this way: “Stop procrastinating. If you’re a writer, write. If you’re a painter, paint. Just get on with it!”
Not the most shocking advice, though it never hurts to read it again and again from different people. Because he is offering this to all sorts of artists, from screenwriters to sculptors, he keeps things general. But it’s the general where his writing is at its snooziest. I learned much more from his biographical anecdotes sparsely dispersed through the book than from the generic self-helpy stuff.
Oh yeh, and it only takes two hours to read, giving you ample time to get back to whatever it is you’re working on.

River of Shadows – Rebecca Solnit

Viking
2003

I came to this book for two reasons
–one that I am interested in Eadweard Muybridge, as he is considered the grandfather of motion pictures (and a character in a story I am/was writing), two that I’ve read Rebecca Solnit’s writing on Tom Dispatch, where she usually writes hopeful essays of an ecological nature. So when I heard that she had written this book on Muybridge and the birth of the modern world, I needed to check it out. And damn, can this woman write! This is the kind of history book I love, one that takes in disparate elements and demonstrates how they all snap together. The previous history of Muybridge I have read was straight hagiography and focused on his motion studies and his time in Stanford and Philadelphia. But Solnit is more interested in the years that went into creating a man who would change history–stopping time, in essence; making people aware of themselves as an image–and the society that surrounded him. Solnit brings in the railroads, San Francisco history, the emancipation of women, the last stands of the Native Americans, the birthing of educational and artistic institutions, and much more. Here is a sample paragraph which demonstrates Solnit’s command of the language and of juggling several ideas:

Those great landscapists Russel, Hart, and Savage photographed the physical process of the building of the railroads, and when the line was open, Mybridge and Watkins both made extensive stereoscope series of the scenery along the route. Most accounts of the building of the railroad concentrate on just that: the heroic and unprecedented toils of the laborers and engineers that drew a line in wood and iron across the continent. But less visible webs were being spun. The transcontinental railroad was far vaster than any of the manufactorites of the East. It required unprecedented strata of bureaucracy, unprecedented degrees of managerial coordination, and it reached as far into the political and economic systems of the United States as it did into the landscape. The Central Pacific and the Union Pacific were the biggest corporations of their time and the first to have such extensive dealing with the federal, state, and local governments. The modern corporation’s complex synchronizations first appeared there, and so did the penetration into the world on such a scale. First the railroads, then the networks for distributing energy, food, and basic goods, drew people further and further into a system; and more and more of them became employees of such systems. The independence of the frontier and the subsistence farmer retreated further and further. This was the moment in which many Americans first began to feel like cogs in the machine.

And so here we are today. One of Solnit’s points is that the “Wild West” was the last gasp of a mythologized frontier that was about to become less wild and more regimented, just as authors were romanticizing the Native Americans while the Feds were busy killing the last “insurgents” off.
Muybridge comes across and driven, but private, only partly aware of the changes he is making to the world, and maybe not as honored in his time as he should be. The ultimate American success story, he retired to England where he was born, and died ten years later in 1904, the graveyard slab misspelling his name as Maybridge. Whoops.