Lunar Park and required reading

I’m currently reading ‘Lunar Park’ by Bret Easton Ellis, a book in which the protagonist is a fictionalised version of Ellis himself. I’ve read and watched ‘American Psycho’, and my knowledge of Bret Easton Ellis ends there. Lunar Park appears at first to be autobiographical, but it’s soon apparent that Ellis the narrator is an exaggerated portrayal of Ellis the author. Both Ellises are famous and successful novelists with the same bibliography. Narrator Ellis has extreme drug problems, an illegitimate child, and a self-obsessed and sulky attitude.

Given the caricatured nature of Ellis the narrator, I’ve assumed that there are lots of details in the novel that are also exaggerated or falsified. The narrator is married to Jayne Dennis, a Hollywood superstar actress who has starred in blockbuster films with Keanu Reeves. Now, I’m pretty sure that Dennis is a fictional character, but now I’m wondering about how prepared one should be to read ‘Lunar Park’. Should I read Bret Easton Ellis’ Wikipedia profile to find out whether he did indeed have massive drug problems after the publication of ‘Less Than Zero’? Should I find out who were his celebrity friends? Should I Google Jayne Dennis to determine whether she’s fictional – and if she doesn’t exist, should I try to determine whether the name is an alias for another Hollywood actress? Would my understanding of the novel be lessened if I hadn’t read ‘American Psycho’, and should I have read ‘Less Than Zero’ before starting this book?

Some fiction clearly signals whether there’s required reading. Series or sequels are usually numbered to indicate where to begin. But some novels and films are more difficult to judge. A couple of nights ago I watched Wim Wenders’ ‘The American Friend’, an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s ‘Ripley’s Game’. The book is the third in Highsmith’s series of novels featuring Tom Ripley, and you could certainly argue that the series is richer if read in strict order. But with Wenders’ title change, and the lack of cohesion across the various filmed versions of the novels, the required reading (or watching) for ‘The American Friend’ is far from clear. Without prior knowledge of the character, perhaps it’s possible to get through the whole film without realising that Tom Ripley is a serial killer, given that in this particular story his motives are quite ambiguous.

Should works like ‘Lunar Park’ and ‘The American Friend’ come with a required reading list, or a set of instructions? What’s the correct or default way to approach them?

Talking of instructions for fiction, I’m interested in non-linear fiction, books that require you to determine some kind of unique path through the work. Nabokov’s ‘Pale Fire’ is a good example: a quarter of the book comprises a fictional work called ‘Pale Fire’, a poem in four cantos. The remainder is an essay on the poem, and yet both of these together make up Nabokov’s ‘Pale Fire’. To read the book you have to decide whether you’ll read first the poem and then the notes in standard linear fashion, or whether you’ll dot between lines of the poem and notes relating to those lines. I’d argue that the latter is the ‘correct’ way to uncover the plot, but it’s up each individual reader to decide. The introduction to Milorad Pavic’s ‘Dictionary of the Khazars’ instructs the reader to refer to dip in and out of the fictionalised encyclopedia entries to piece together the story. Almost every page of Mark Z. Danielewski’s ‘House of Leaves’ requires the reader to decide for themselves how to progress through the fragmented text.

Anyway.

I’m not really trying to reach any conclusions, but there does seem to be a lot to be said about non-linear narratives and prerequisites when approaching fiction. As a side note, it strikes me that while there are good examples of books and, more and more, videogames with non-linear narratives, there are no non-linear films that I can think of, apart from perhaps Mike Figgis’ ‘Timecode’, at a pinch. Maybe someone should attempt to create a choose-your-own-adventure film to be ‘read’ via DVD chapter selections. Or has this been tried already?

This too shall pass – RGM version (OK Go, 2010)

This music video is really rather wonderful. Various advertisers and filmmakers have created these Heath Robinson-esque contraptions before now (and I’m a total sucker for all of them), but this one’s especially inventive. I imagine that some people will be upset about what looks like a cut at about the 2:30 mark, but I don’t think it makes a bit of difference to the overall effect.

On top of that, the fact that this video is embeddable in this blog is important. See here for an discussion of OK Go’s struggles against record company EMI to allow them to create and share their own music videos.

Every Plan B magazine ever, for free

In an admirable attempt to secure its status in the history of music journalism, the team behind the now-defunct Plan B magazine are offering every single back issue in pdf format, for free. You can download it here – you’ll first need to get hold of a torrent client though.

Plan B was a pretty bold publication. It had some really fantastic aspects, and I hope it’s not disrespectful to the journalists to say that I thought the often beautiful illustrations were among its best assets. Everett True’s snarky, self-congratulatory editorials often grated with me, and his indulgence often permeated into the rest of the magazine. Having said that, Plan B was a welcome forum for new music in the years following John Peel’s death, and since the magazine closed shop last year I’ve still not found a single source for music recommendations that feels so much like home.

Hauntology and nowstalgia

‘Hauntology’ is a word that’s appeared on my radar only recently. It was originally a term coined by Jacques Derrida, linked to the similar-sounding ‘ontology’, the philosophical study of the nature of being and reality. Derrida’s idea was that the end of history would be signalled by a preoccupation with nostalgic, ‘old-time’ aesthetics. I first came across the term in The Wire magazine, used to refer to the music of artists like Leyland Kirby and Broadcast & The Focus Group who create dreamlike aural soundscapes that conjure up nostalgic versions of the past.

This reminds me of a term that I and my friends used to joke about: we used the word ‘nowstalgia’ to refer to nostalgia for the present moment. I think we coined the term when the first wave of inexpensive digital cameras were available. One summer, every social event featured a common moment, usually two-thirds through the event, when people would gather around the tiny LCD screen of a digital camera to view the images. The appeal of seeing still images of an event that was still happening was a guilty pleasure. Spending time reviewing the images actually seemed to involve removing yourself from the moment, and seeing the event through a nostalgic filter. Years later, the proliferation of camera phones and latterly direct publishing of images on Facebook means that the phenomenon is far more common but perhaps a little more unsettling.

Today’s worry: is there an outside chance that Derrida might be proved right? Is ‘nowstalgia’ just a first step into our obsession with the recent, then more distant, past?

Every Day the Same Dream (Paulo Pedercini, 2009)

I already posted about this game on my serious games blog, but it definitely bears repeating. Every Day the Same Dream is a beautiful independent game from Paolo Pedercini as an entry to the Experimental Gameplay Project. Illustrating the tedium of routine office work, the game allows few interactions – for example exchanging brief words with your indifferent wife, a homeless man, the elevator operator. You can only ‘win’ the game by searching out the few ways to break the routine of everyday working life. It’s bleak and often tedious – and it’s one of the most consistent and affecting games I’ve played in a long time.

See Paulo Pedercini’s website for links to his other works, including a machinima video about post-traumatic stress disorder filmed with the recruiting game America’s Army, and online games covering subjects such as the unethical practices of fast food corporations and child abuse by the Catholic clergy.

Two Weeks (Grizzly Bear, 2009)

Up until this point in this blog, I’ve tended to write about music that I unreservedly love – songs that I replay as soon as they’ve ended. ‘Two Weeks’ by Grizzly Bear falls into another category. In 2009 Grizzly Bear escaped the long shadow of Animal Collective; in the indie press there were few songs that were as widely praised as ‘Two Weeks’. I love it too – but I’m not sure it’s a keeper.

I’ll avoid asking whether it’s a good track. The question that interests me is whether we – the music obsessives and list-compilers of 2009 – will like the song in 5 years time.

The track has a swagger unknown to Grizzly Bear up to this point. The piano line and ‘whoa-oh-oh’ backing vocals are infectious. The chorus swoons. But isn’t the production a little too perfect, almost clinical? There’s nothing wrong with a guitar band sounding more like Beyonce than Pavement, but something about this track rings false – there’s an inherent smugness that rankles.

It’s hard to predict how prevailing musical tastes will change – but when I listen to this track I always have the uneasy feeling that when we move on from 2000s-era American psychedelica-tinged indie, it’s tracks like this that we’ll guiltily ridicule. The grandiose follies of Sufjan Stevens, Akron Family’s freak prog – will they in retrospect sound like the last fart of early 21st century US indie before some pared-down music style sweeps them away? At the moment my money’s on Animal Collective’s work standing the test of time, partly because they’ve evolved significantly with each release. But Grizzly Bear? Ask me in 5 years time.

The album Veckatimest isn’t on Spotify, so listen to Two Weeks at Grizzly Bear’s homepage, here.

Tim Major – writer & editor

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