RAVINGS

MOTHER MASKS

This story was dashed off as a sort of "improv" and collaboration for the Eden Mills Writers' Festival/Guelph International Jazz Fest. The cello piece performed by Isaiah Farahbakhsh which served as a jumping off point for this story isn't available. You kinda had to be there, man.

After three years the mother masks started to show their age. The colours became light-struck and dull, the mouth and eyes sagged, and each mask established an odor that was both general to the material and specific to the wearer. One mother took the initiative to wash out the inside of the mask, not taking into account that, though the scent had maybe become offensive to us, it was what the child was familiar with. One whiff of the washed mother and the relevant child had suspected something was up. The child, a podgy redheaded boy who was already timorous, wouldn’t come to the mother for two days. When he did return it was out of necessity only. The olfactory betrayal had been enough to wallop desire for affection out of the boy. He was removed after a week and for our own well being, none of us dared imagine where or what he was removed to.

While we found that the children wouldn’t tolerate washing the masks, they didn’t seem put off by cosmetic changes. Some mothers went to the trouble of touching up their masks, revivifying skin that had become sallow, re-ventilating hair that had been tugged and tousled by growing grip strengths. These were the mothers who went the extra mile to affix the drooping eye sockets to their own faces with improvised spirit gum, a process they then used on their waddling necks. At three, it seemed all the children did was reach and grab and the danger of exposure was becoming increasingly clear and present. Better attaching the masks made a kind of sense, but many of us suspected that there was as much vanity as utility in the attention some of us were starting to devote to our mother masks.

It was under the guise of convenience and longevity that some mothers started keeping their masks on at the barracks. The putting on and taking off was accelerating wear, was their reasoning. But soon these mothers were not just touching up the skin tones and untangling the wigs, but were applying make-up and styling their hair based on archive material that you would find at first secretively and then cavalierly tacked to the walls of their dorms.

Soon, the mothers who stayed in their masks also stayed in the maternal personality they affected in the field. As the years passed, as the children were growing and needing less from us, getting more from one another, our own purpose, our own sense of duty and worth became fragile. Those of us who took our masks off started going to those who kept theirs on for comfort and reassurance. The couplings happened so gradually that it’s impossible to say when they actually began. You would pass by single rooms and see a Face and a Mask in bed together, the Mask mothering the Face, stroking and speaking in the soothing voices they had become adept at. However, the program didn’t last long enough for the taboo of Faces and Masks going further with this intimacy to ever be resolved. There was always hearsay and conjecture about what so-and-so was doing with so-and-so, and when a Mask was found dead in their room, strangled, mask removed and torn, we assumed the unspeakable act was somehow connected to other acts we still hadn’t decided how to speak about.

After thirteen years, our time with the children ended. They were removed from us and reintegrated. We mothers watched as they were approached by the indigenous teens. We all felt the stress of the meeting personally, as there was some of us in those children. They had been with us all that time the same as we had been with them. And this made it all the more difficult to see these children we had raised from babies turned on, to see their bone and their viscera exposed, to see their flesh being torn as our masks might.

In the observation theatre, the horror and the failure registered on our all our faces no matter how hard we tried to keep our composure, except those in their mother masks. Their expressions remained unmoving, stoic and placid as they watched their children get furiously disassembled. 

FORGET IT, L.A. IT'S CHINATOWN.

In the early 20th century, William Mulholland, the superintendent of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power – and namesake of the famous Drive, by the way – started poking his nose into the fertile Owens Valley. Los Angeles was growing rapidly – 11, 000 in 1880; 200, 000 by 1904 – but that growth tugged at the leash of slim resources. The Owens Valley was a small, agrarian community to the North and, through patient duplicity, Mulholland and his colleagues bought up all the water rights, starving the valley and hydrating Los Angeles. This history is the groundwater of Chinatown, with John Huston's Noah Cross (Noah, get it?) standing in for Mulholland. For a long time the city thrived on this bamboozlement, but now that L.A. is starting to return to desert, what better time to revisit this 1974 landmark neo-noir?

"There's no more beautiful city in the world," said director of Roman Polanski of L.A., "provided it's seen at night and from a distance." You might say that, with Chinatown, Polanski – working with a script from Robert Towne – looks at the city in the daylight, close up. In fact, how much closer could you get than addressing the water, the life force of – in Towne's words now – "an artificial city which has been pumped up under forced drought, inflated like a balloon, stuffed with rural humanity like a goose with corn." The history of how L.A. got its water adds a deviousness to its very existence. The city was growing on a land that wouldn't support it, and the fact that it's become what it's become scoffs at any idea of natural order, is both proof of man's dominance and his hubris.

Chinatown fundamentally has abuse on the mind – abuse on all levels. The plot pivots with the revelation of incest. It's worth pointing out that the ecological process Mulholland set in motion is often referred to as "The Rape of the Owens Valley." With this in mind, the human abuse in Chinatown can't help but be braided with the historical ecological and governmental repugnance.

Chinatown doesn't really feature as a literal place in Chinatown. It's only really referred to anecdotally, as the former beat of now private investigator Jake Gittes. In conversation, it points to a past never fully revealed. Likewise, the history of water in California lurks in the background of the film, never fully commingling with the action. As more a concept than a place, "Chinatown" comes to represent a broken system that just gets more busted the more you try to fix it, an illogic moving forward with such momentum that it will flatten anyone who gets in the way. 

The famous, enigmatic line, "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown," is finally an admission of futility, a well statement of complacence and complicity. The disgrace of its own origin is L.A.'s Chinatown, if you will. Whatever the city matured into, its birth is fundamentally ignominious. The ecological trouble Los Angeles now finds itself in is the product of the, in the terms of history's critics, the "rape" perpetrated by Mulholland. As the city now scrambles to figure out how to correct its direction, it's tempting to say, Forget it, L.A. It's Chinatown.

JIM'S BASEMENT TAPES

On the occasion of Jim making available the four tapes he released through the Sonic Bunny label in Guelph, like, twenty years ago, I said some things about what those tapes are, where they come from, and the sort of historical documenting that they're – somewhat unbeknownst to them – connected to. I missed the boat on the original release of these, found them backwards after the release of Jim's – ahem – monumental A Thousand Songs, which contains and reshuffles some of the material on these guys. As someone who had to basically lie, cheat, and steal to get my hands on this stuff back in the day, I can't understate how amazing it is that Jim's early work is just sitting there on the internet now, available for all.

If you were in and of Guelph in the 90s, you probably know about these four tapes: Home Is Where The Rock IsVictim of Lo-FiDocumenting Perks Part 1, and Some Things You Should Know About Sound and Hearing. Maybe you owned them at one point and have subsequently misplaced them over years of moving house, or you accidentally left them to melt on your dash and are still kicking yourself, or you’re a preservationist/hoarder and still have them but don’t have a deck in which to jam those Jims. If any of the above is the case, then you’ll probably not want or need to read anything some random dude has to say about said tapes. Probably you’ll want hop into the time machines that they are and blast back to the halcyon time and the place you were first listening to them. Thanks for reading this far.

But if these tapes are news to you, if you come to Jimmy Guthrie through his soundtrack work, or his high-pop-water marks, then a bit of context might be helpful. To begin to fully appreciate what these tapes are and where they come, we’ve got to back to – bear with me – the twilight of the 19th century:

At the dawn of the technology, the pioneers of sound recording had differing opinions about what exactly they meant to capture. What kind of literal record were they making? Was it the live performance that they were documenting or was it the piece itself? With the former as the goal, the time and the place and the performer should be secured, blemishes and boners and all in an unaltered reflection. Favouring the latter, though, fidelity would be to the piece of music itself, to creating a sort of ideal version and an ideal space. Over a century of sound being gouged into wax, or being zapped onto magnetic tape, or converted to 1s and 0s, recording has mostly sought perfection. These days, records are rarely those literal records anymore, but more craft than performance.

Thanks to further monkeying by the likes of Les Paul, the original catchall recording techniques opened up to recording multiple tracks, so the live-ness of a recording could be fudged. One person could jam with herself all of sudden. Building on this newfound freedom, recorded music moved further away from being conventionally live, producing early tall poppy examples like The Beatles, who strove to create music in the recording studio that had no relation to live performance. As the technology got more slick, became more digital and less analog, capturing a live performance became less important. The song became more built than performed, sort of in the same way that oral storytelling was gradually corralled into structured, honed narrative prose.

But as mainstream music embraced this sonic perfection, a subset of artists eschewed polishing all together, for both economic and artistic reasons embraced a type of record-making much closer to that original avenue of document making, of making a record of a time and place and people, and the unique result of those convergences and combinations. An offshoot of the DIY punk surge of the late 70s and early 80s – more recognizably kin in spirit than sound necessarily – this type of scrappy, basic music-making could be done by anyone. The making became more important than the product. Just so we don’t get too soaked in specifics, we’ll pop up the lo-fi umbrella over this movement.

These four early Jim Guthrie records are record-records. Put to tape between 1992ish, when Jim had only been playing music in his basement for a few years, and 1998ish, when he had become something of a figurehead in the local music scene of Guelph, Ontario – this is between the ages of about 19 til 25 – these are documents of personal, creative, and technical growth. But they also double as a record of a specific time and place, of the maturation of a sound and an experience of that mid- to late-90s home rock movement in Guelph, Ontario, Canada.

Recording for Jim started out as just a literal record his progress. Any time he successfully transitioned from a D to C chord, he’d hit record on the pink boombox he started out with. Eventually, he got a Fostex X-18 4-track, which would allow him to, as the name implies, record 4 tracks of himself. Now that every Mactop comes with GarageBand, it might be a bit difficult to understand how revolutionary home recording technology like the 4-track was. They amounted to a pretty cheap learning tool, offering a fairly idiot-proof way to break down songs are learn how they’re constructed. For the most part, they’re a tool for demoing songs, sketching them out, before heading to the studio to create that perfect version. But early stand-out lo-fi acts like Sebadoh, They Might Be Giants, Pavement, and Ween set a precedent for having the moment of creation come as close as possible to the final product. Lo-fi elevated the learning and fumbling process, argued that an original sketch is as good, if not better, than the final painting. So yes, Jim is sloppy and awkward on these early albums, though less and less so, but working in that lo-fi comfort zone, there’s an aplomb to that inelegance. If nothing else, listen to these albums for that gusto.

Like a lot his lo-fi contemporaries, Jim is all over the map on these tapes, experimenting with random instruments and random genres, throwing anything he can get his hands and interest on at the wall to see what’ll stick. when you’re working with the idea that there’s a worth to everything you try, this permission gets created to try anything you want. With this in mind, these four tapes become a sort of Cradle of Civilization for Jim’s career. These tapes are full of tangents and tests, of Jim trying a little bit of everything. He doesn’t always succeed, but he often does. I’m no rock doctor, but I’m willing to diagnose Jim’s continued success as a product of his adaptability. Over the time period of these albums, Jim tries a bit of everything: field recordings, pop songs, jingles, slow-burn post-rock, noise collages. In his twenty years of making music, Jim’s dipped his creative wick into a bit of everything. If you’re a fan of a particular instalment of Jim’s many interests, you can find the early, primordial experiments on these tapes.

But these tapes also fall into a local context, make for a few significant, influential drops in the ocean of lo-fi home rock. These albums were part of an impressive swell of music-making in Guelph, where everyone with an impulse to make music could and did, whether or not they had the prowess, or whether or not they were interested in getting better, in growing and learning the way Jim did. In the timeframe of these tapes, Jim himself was a supporter and facilitator of kids up to like hijinks. Whether he was playing the basement recordings of strangers on a local radio show, or recording kids in his basement, or playing in their bands, or hosting your band for shows in that same basement, he and these albums were major gears in making that scene work.

Getting your ears on this material might give you a little idea of the galloping creativity of that time and place, both in Jim’s life and in Guelph’s life. But downloading the material, there’s a physical specialness that will inevitably get lost. These tapes were released on the Sonic Bunny cassette label, run by a couple of comparative youngsters, Stewart Gunn and Colin Clark. For each physical copy of each album produced, either Stewart, or Colin, or Jim, had to handmake that copy. They had to hang out for the full length of the album to transfer the tape, had to photocopy the insert, had to cut it out, had to glue a label onto each cassette. In the same way that the crumby audio pointed to the closeness and the personalness of the songs, the crooked label, or the wonky insert, or the cracked case, represented the closeness of the production. That’s a unique, individual feeling that’s hard to represent digitally.

Jim making the material widely available is exciting as hell. While this music may not be objectively astounding, it’s subjectively exciting. It’s easy to pin the lo-fi stuff to a specific social or economic or artistic context, but there’s something essential about these scrappy, scruffy gems. On the whole, music has favoured that record of perfection, but all manner of listeners still find something fascinating and special about the rough records that may not sound great, or may not be performed perfectly, but still capture those rare, unreproducible qualities that we want from out art. Whether it’s Alan Lomax’s field recordings or Bruce Springteen’s favouring his original demos over the full band version of Nebraska or Bob Dylan and The Band’s Basement Tapes being desired over the hits they eventually became, we connect to this rough material in a way we don’t to the smooth stuff. If you’ve ever worked with clay before, you know you need to score the surfaces of any two objects you want to bind together. I think we ultimately glom onto to perfect imperfection because we are ourselves, in whatever way, all scuffed up.

Go forth and cram your ears full of the rough gems: https://jimguthrie.bandcamp.com/

And don't forget that that Jim's just re-released A Thousand Songs! You can read more about Jim's flurry of releases over at Jim's househttp://www.jimguthrie.org/news/2015/4/21/a-thousand-things.html

Q&A: CLIFFORD JACKMAN

In Clifford Jackman's The Winter Family, the last half of America in the 19th century is stitched together by a roving band of killers for hire. The stitching is almost battlefield surgery, all blood and pain and booze and urgency. Named for their leader, the stoic, pale-eyed, and seemingly amoral Augustus Winter, the titular Winter Family is an odd bunch made up of a military general, an unnatrualized German, a freed slave, and a booze-ruined Cherokee, all leftovers from the Civil War who aren't convinced that wars are the sort of things that are actually won or lost, let alone ever fully end. With a melange of violence, humour, and pontification, they attend and assist the awkward, sometimes excruciating, growth of a nation trying to define and secure its vision by any means necessary. They punish slave owners in Georgia, tamper with a still struggling democracy in Chicago, and remind a Phoenix lawman that lawless remains the law of that land.

I loved the daylights out of The Winter Family. It overlaps a lot of figurative and literal territory that I've been working with the past few years. A lawyer by day who who recently moved to Guelph with his family, I bought Clifford a beer so he'd have to talk to me about genre, history, and the daily grind of writing.

How'd you come to writing?

I've always wanted to be a writer. I was a writer when I was a little kid. And I was always a big reader, relative to the other kids my age.
 

What kind of stuff were you reading?

I read pretty broadly. I was an ambitious reader. I wanted to read things above my age level. If I was in Grade 9, I’d be reading stuff the Grade 12s were supposed to be reading. I was under the mistaken impression that it made me cool. Which, in fact, it did not.

Were you reading and understanding?

I would read first and the understanding would come after. When I first read, say, Heart of Darkness when I was 14 years old, I literally had the CliffsNotes there. I would read a page of the book, and then read a page of the CliffsNotes to figure out what I just read. But I always found that once I read one book by a writer, whether it was Joseph Conrad or Charles Dickens or Dostoevsky, I could crack the code [of that writer], and then I was understanding.

I should say that I didn’t just read the classics. That was one half. The other half was fantasy and sci-fi, and I was a huge Stephen King fan. I loved the Dragonlance novels. I was all over Dungeons and Dragons, all over space, all over Lord of the Rings.


If this is 1995ish, the stuff you were into – oftentimes called "genre" – was generally considered low entertainment. But if you’re reading that stuff next to Conrad, who himself was writing for entertainment – I mean, those were the entertainment stories of the time – it must have created a personal context. Did you seeing those connections then?
 

Definitely. After high school, I went to York University thinking I was going into creative writing, and it was a shock. I took this course, Introduction to Literary Genres, and I thought we’d do mystery novels and science fiction novels and stuff, but they took a pretty different approach to what “genre” was. So we were reading people like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. And for me there was a fair bit of resistance to that. I wouldn’t say I hated it, but at the time I was like, Oh, man. These people think they’re cool. But then I went on to get my master's and came to love Woolf, and Joyce, and Faulkner.

I’ve never really believed in the division between "literary" and "genre" fiction. But I get the feeling that that gap is starting to shrink down again. I vividly remember in the 90s Margaret Atwood denying up and down that she was a science fiction writer, or that Handmaiden’s Tale was a science fiction book. As a guy who liked science fiction then, I remember that. But people aren’t nearly so fussed about that I don’t think now. "Genre" was sort of the kiss of death back then. People treated you like crap.


There was a shift in the 90s, I think exemplified by authors like Jonathan Lethem and Michael Chabon. Chabon especially became vocally bored with the suburban, domestic literary stuff that he had earlier made his name with. I especially remember him pointing out that "literary" is as much as a formula as anything else.

I think that’s the thing.


I get the idea that around that time authors got bored and readers got really bored.

I think fundamentally… And I don’t want to be rude to anybody because I know everyone’s trying really hard. Writing really hard to do. But fundamentally, when, as a writer, you’re making your list of things to do, you can forget about the reader to a certain extent. Books are a commitment of the reader's time and mental energy in a way you don’t when you just click on shit on Netflix, or when you play Candy Crush or something. If I’m gonna bore a reader… There’re writers I really respect who were boring on purpose. Like The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, which I read in school. I like that book and Sterne makes jokes about how he’s boring you on purpose. At the end of the day if that you want to do, fine. But make sure you think about it. 


Ask yourself, Who’s reading this book? Why are they reading it? To me, it seems like that sometimes gets lost. It's easy for a writer's audience to become juries for prizes, or reviewers, because that’s a way to get sales. It’s same if you’re at a convention and there’s a book with a cool dragon on the cover – I’m not saying they’re equal, but they’re similar. They’re a way of selling the book.

You were writing while you were at York?

I was. It took me a long time to finish my first novel. I got pretty far into one, then gave up. It was a retelling of the Hercules myth basically. I got pretty far in another one, a fantasy story again, about a world of two races on it who fought each other. I got stuck and it took me years to finish. What happened was, my second year at York they went on strike. That one lasted 10 weeks. All that time, I did no writing. All I did was play video games. Baldur’s Gate 2 – another nerdy Dungeons and Dragons game. 


When I went back to school, I decided I was never going to finish a book ever. I’d had 10 weeks, had nothing to do, and had done nothing. I was 21 years old, so I’m basically old already – that was my thinking process. But then my philosophy changed. I made sure I put down 1 000 words a day no matter what. And I made sure to cut out everything boring. And then, lo and behold, the book got finished, and that was a big moment for me because I knew I could do it. I went on to write a bunch of stories and actually became very productive at school and at work. I got my 1 000 every day for some time.

Then I did my masters [in English Literature] at Queens and struggled on and off with a story there, then took a year off, then went to law school. I had these projects that were sorta fun projects, like science fiction stuff, but then other projects that would be The Thing, would be more publishable. And a lot of the time that stuff wouldn’t go the way I thought it would. It wouldn’t get finished.

What was your idea of publishable?

I had one idea set in the 1980s around this scandal: basically, the CIA cooked up this deal with justice department to not prosecute contras that were smuggling cocaine into the US, and the contras eventually hooked up with this guy, Rick Ross – who, I believe, the rapper got his name from – who was the biggest cocaine dealer in the universe and that fueled the crack-cocaine boom in the 1980s that was devastating to a lot of American inner-cities. So I did all this research and got about 120 pages in and it just died on me. 


Then I had another idea about a lawyer set in Toronto and I thought, Oh, now I’m writing from what I know. That’s what you’re supposed to do. This’ll be good. Up to this point a lot of books had failed for me, and this was the first one that ought to have failed, but I technically, on paper, finished it. I had a lot of issues with it, but it was still a big moment, knowing I could finish anything if I have to.
 

The Winter Family was something I wrote for fun. It wasn’t something that was supposed to be publishable, it wasn’t supposed to be anything. I sat down and, in four days, wrote a much longer version of [the chapter in The Winter Family] "Oklahoma 1891", and I put it aside thinking, That was fun. But at the time my friend had a store in Toronto, Article 8, on College and Bathurst, and we decided to self-publish Oklahoma 1891. His store closed before the book was done. It ended up at the Modrobes store – which is closed now too – and we had the party there. A lot of people came out and I started getting positive feedback to my writing for the first time. This would have been 2008, 2009.

What on earth’s a Modrobe?

I never owned a pair, but they kinda looked like this hospital pant-type things, very popular in college dorms and people would I guess wear them to raves. But then the inventor of them went on Dragons Den and got a bunch of money and opened a store, and that’s where I launched Oklahoma 1891.


That story was supposed to be a standalone. Spoiler alert: there’s not much left after 1891. But I ended up writing three prequels and a sequel to it. Eventually, in 2010, I randomly went out to an event in Whitby called DarkFest. One of the events was a PitchFest, where you have 10 minutes to pitch your book. So I pitch my book, saying it’s a western, and here’s who I am, and that’s eventually how I got my agent, Carolyn Forde. But that was, what? Five years ago? So it’s still a very, very long road to where we are today.

That actually worked? I’ve never heard of anything coming from those pitch things.

I think it’s very rare, but it does happen sometimes. The thing is, it’s hard to break into this industry. It’s so hard. And it’s so hard even after you get your deal. There’s so much competition out there. It’s unreal. You put your book on the shelves next to something that was written 2000 years ago, not just the new stuff that came out that month.


Have you guys been talking about the market for The Winter Family?
 

There’s definitely a market. Cormac McCarthy is the name that always comes up, but this Grit Lit stuff is a sub-genre. I hadn’t heard Grit Lit until people started calling my book that. But The Winter Family is also supposed to be a fun book. This has been one of my concerns when I started seeing some of the reviews was that everyone was talking about the violence, but it’s also supposed to be fun. Quill and Quire got that.

It seems now that anyone with a book set in the past, in the desert, with people getting shot, gets hailed as the new Cormac McCarthy.

It sucks. Cormac McCarthy owes a lot of William Faulkner, but no one says he’s “William Faulkner, but not as good” every time he puts out a book. It’s a tough comparison. The Winter Family’s written nothing like McCarthy, although I’ve read all his books, he’s maybe my favourite writer.

I assume Augustus Winter will get compared some to The Judge in Blood Meridian. And probably the way you describe a human being’s ability to come apart will garner similar comparison to McCarthy's famous gore.

But that was a thing I did when I was a kid. We used to do that for fun. My friends and I would get a writing assignment and, because we were horrible… People talk about kids these days being terrible, but the kids in our day were so much worse. Kids today are maybe a bit soft or whatever, but they’re not dickheads like we were back in the day. We'd get creative writing projects, and it would turn into a contest to see who could be the most disgusting. You’d get an assignment about what you did in the summer, and everyone’s head would be getting cut off, or their guts ripped out. It was all a contest between me and my five friends to see who could be the most disgusting. If you did this today, you’d be sent to see the school psychologist. Back then our teachers were just like, “B. B+. B.”

Is it hard for you then, considering that gory glee, to also start bringing in questions about morality?

The theme of the book is caught in that anecdote of Alexander and the Pirates, how these guys aren’t the last breath of freedom before civilization, they are civilization. That’s not necessarily the thesis of The Winter Family, but that’s the question it’s asking. 


In terms of the morality of the book, I think, whether we live in a universe with any objective morality, or whether we live in a universe where it’s just whatever your personal prejudices happen to be, and the universe is nihilistic and uncaring. I don’t know if the book comes down on those questions so much as it deals with individuals’ fears and beliefs towards those questions. It was important for the book to not sugarcoat the world outside of civilization. The point isn’t, These guys are terrible and if only we were in a state of nature like Jean-Jaques Rousseau imagined and we're all naturally good. No. Everyone is violent and at the end of the day you have to make a choice, and it’s a tougher choice than you might think.

A character in book I like, that people don’t talk that much about because he was in just the one book, is the city councilman in the Chicago chapter.

I was just going to mention Chicago. I love that these Western outlaws get inveigled in Eastern politics. In Chicago it's community-minded gangster Micky Burns against industry-minded Noah Ross, the brother of one of The Winter Family.

The party in Chicago were oppressed Irish immigrants. They had their own code, too. It’s easy to forget because they’ve now integrated so well, but people like the Irish, Italians, and Germans were horribly discriminated against. Not as bad as other people, but bad. If you go back and read what people were saying about the Irish, their being naturally stupid, inherently criminal – basically racist screeds. So this councilman, Micky Burns, had the philosophy, We stick close to our friends, and yeah we’re stealing our faces off, but paying for funerals and handing out Christmas turkeys and stuff. Of course you can’t just steal all the time, but he saw himself as a big man in the community. There was more to it than just being a thief. He was the head thief, and there’re responsibilities that come along with that.

On the other hand, you have Noah Ross and his pig factory, stripping everything down to efficiency so no one will really benefit, who doesn’t care if the people working in his pig factory are living in disgusting shanty towns by rivers so full of blood they could crust over. But at the end of the day, he’s also not wrong, right? That kind of corruption meant economic growth, and that growth in these cities hauled people up into the middle class.

And then Winter comes along and he doesn’t care. The book doesn’t really have an opinion about what’s right or wrong, but looks at the consequences of certain lifestyles.

The idea of Manifest Destiny is interesting as hell to me, inasmuch as it’s still going on, that there’s this stain in the national cloth, this indelible feeling of rightness, even in the face of what's certainly morally incorrect. We’re reluctant to talk about the amount of violence and deviance that brought us to where we are now. Similarly, the people who use Augustus Winter never seem to know what to do with him once his directed amorality has given them a boost.

To me, I don’t know how useful The Winter Family ever was. People thought they would be useful, but they mostly made things worse everywhere they went. But they get replaced by The Winter Family 2.0, The Pinkerton Detective Agency, who’ll shoot whoever they’re asked to, but honor their contacts as well. To me, Manifest Destiny was opening Pandora’s Box. That’s all in Blood Meridian. You tell people, These Apaches are pissing us off and we’ll pay you for their scalps, everyone runs out and starts scalping anyone they can catch. Then they take all your money until the treasury’s dried up and shoot up your town. You hired horrendous human beings to help you with this problem instead of dealing with it in a human way, you hired mercenaries. That was the thing with The Winter Family. They were tools, but they weren’t very useful tools. It’s not that civilization got to a point where they didn’t need them anymore, they just realized they were never that useful in the first place. That’s civilization learning. These people don’t help us achieve our ultimate goal, which is to reformulate the entire continent basically.

Probably every human being has to be a hypocrite of some sort. Maybe we need to be just a little bit full of shit some of the time. You can’t take every idea to its logical conclusion. Dostoyevsky dealt with these problems. Arthur Koestler talked about them in Darkness At Noon, the idea that logical things brought to their conclusions become absurd.

I hate to be that guy who asks you if you’ve ever seen The Wire, but have you ever seen The Wire?

I love The Wire.

The Winter Family really has a The Wire feeling, inasmuch as it goes up the rungs of power, understanding how corruption and hypocrisy goes all the way to the top. I’m trying to think of other westerns that visit the city the way you did the in the Chicago chapter. There’s this romance of the west – maybe the same way there’s a certain sort of cultural romance to a kind of street life now – that turns that place into a kind of bio-dome, which ignores the fact that the railroads and economy are keeping even the most far off place connected to civilization.


For me it’s important that the Winter Family wasn’t just on the frontier. It’s important to say that people are shooting each other in Tombstone, Arizona as much as they are in Chicago. It’s all a democracy that, fundamentally, is unrecognizable by our current standards. Ballot box stuffing, gangs rushing around and battling on the streets. There’s craziness on the fringes, but there’s also craziness as the heart of democracy.
 

So you wrote "Oklahoma 1891" in 2008. You were gradually expanding the history since then?

I wrote the Phoenix chapter, then I wrote California – which has been cut out of the book, but will apparently be released as a digital short. Then I wrote Chicago and Georgia. They were in different orders and there were a lot of edits to make it to the book that’s getting released.

I edited a ton before sending it to my agent, and then we retained an editor to keep at it. Then we sent it out to all the big Canadian publishers, and were rejected everywhere. Then I redid the whole thing and we submitted it to New York, about 10 places. Everyone rejected it. I was devastated. But Melissa Danaczko at Doubleday liked it enough that she offered to work on it in her spare time. Then Anne Collins got on board in Canada and decided to put me up as the New Face of Fiction, which is obviously huge.

How does this experience match up with how you thought it’d be when you started slugging it out with your first novel back at York?

This is a lifelong dream for me, and I’m happy, but it feels weird. If the book's a big hit, that’s one thing; if it’s not, that’s another thing. I guess I’ll always be a writer. You just go on.

One thing I wrote during all those years was a screenplay of Beowulf. I thought I was so smart because I was ahead of the curve, but then three movies came out. They kill Grendel, but the next day Grendel's mother comes around, so I had this scene where Beowulf killed the monster and they’re like, Why aren’t you happy? You killed Grendle who’s been tormenting us for decades. And Beowulf’s like, This is a happy time, but the sun’s gonna come up the next day, and the next day, and other shit’s going to happen. I think that’s how I feel with the book.

I have always wanted to be a writer. There’s one quote from Hemingway where he’s talking about aspiring writers, which he calls "mice." The mouse asks him, When did you start wanting to be a writer. And Hemingway says, I have always wanted to be a writer. There was no when. I’ve always written. I have eight novels that will never get published. And to be here, it just feels weird. I hope that doesn’t sound too negative.

That’s the shit people don’t talk about. You start out writing towards this dream of publishing, but even if you've written the best book ever, it doesn't mean anyone cares. I remember getting my first book published and it sort of dawning on me that, as awesome as that is, and as awesome as it feels, I've got to go back to the same place at the desk regardless. Succeed or fail, you've got to get up the next day and just continue.


It’s so much work to be a writer...

Actually, no. It’s not hard work. Writing's like going to the gym. If we could all be totally jacked and ripped by doing something horrible over a short period of time, say 48 hours, and afterwards we walk out of there and we’re cut, everyone would be in good shape. It doesn’t matter how horrible that would be. But if you have to do something that’s not all that bad, but you have to to do it today and tomorrow and the next day, and you don’t really see any progress – and even when you do see progress it’s so slow you don’t notice it on a day-to-day basis – that kind of process takes more than hard work. It takes some other quality of craziness.

Maybe that's the true grit they talk about.


Okay, true grit, if you like. Basically, if you don’t love doing it, you need to do anything else. Because there’re easier ways to get rich. As a lawyer, I assure you there’re easier ways to get rich. If you’re going to do something you don't love, you should at least be getting rich so you can buy a boat or something. What’s the quote by Oscar Wilde? Something about the only reason to do a useless thing is you admire it intensely?

DOCUMENTING PERKS PART 2

a2076501002_10.jpg

I spent June 2013 to June 2014 listening almost exclusively to the jams of Jim Guthrie. At first this was concentrated research, me working at being attentive and critical with work I'd had my feet up on for all my adult life. But over that year, listening to Jim's music daily became a sort of version of the physical, spatial work routines I've had in the past: getting up and going to some particular desk, cafe, or bar to start, carry on, or complete that day's work. So, in some regards, Documenting Perks Part 2 is, for me, a little version of the room I wrote Who Needs What in. An ode to that room, if you will. 

More importantly, though, this is a mix for you – whoever you are – meant as a companion to the book that I wrote while in the room that is also the mix. If you follow me...

Interviewing Jim for the book, we sat down for two chats, in September and November 2013, which shook out to roughly eight hours of yakking. Otherwise, we carried on either pointed or casual back-and-forths over the year. In addition to that, I dished with with about two dozen of Jim's buds – more than a few of whom had to be nixed from the book for space reason – accruing thoughts, feelings, and memories of the guy, all of which added up to about two days worth of material. With a man's life/career in my hands, I wanted to be as thorough and accurate as I could. The thing is, as much as you can know a person through the things they say, do, and think, I did my limited damndest to create as accurate a Jim analog as I could in the book you've ideally bought, Who Needs What. Of course, like the finest Tussaud recreation, even the most accurate copy will fall short. You can hang out in the uncanny valley of it and mostly just admire the resemblance or – if you want to be a jerk about it – nitpick the inaccuracies. 

But if you throw on this mix, Documenting Perks Part 2, while you go about reading the book, my hope is that a little actual life will come into the eyes of the copy I managed. The flesh might seem a bit more flush, the jeans more naturally distressed. I'm not suggesting my golem Jim will come to life and do your bidding or anything, but ideally it'll enliven your experience and your impression – your Jimpression, rather.

As I did with the book, I tried to reflect 20 years or so of Jim making music, but also tried to reflect Jim himself. Locating the creator in the creation can be dubious, often fruitless work, so I would never want to suggest that listening to Jim is the same as knowing the guy. But as someone who had listened to an embarrassment of Jim Guthrie leading up to chatting with him, I was impressed by how much Jim in conversation is like Jim in composition, and hopefully this mix evinces that. Across these 23 tracks you'll get the melange of the high- and low-brow humour, the intelligent curiosity and curious intelligence, the thoughtfulness and impulsiveness, the sarcasm and the earnestness, and the seemingly bottomless warmth and generosity that seem to be simultaneously at work in the guy. 

Organized chronologically, hopefully you'll get a sense of how these qualities matured from Jim's first tape in 1995, Home Is Where The Rock Is, to Jim's most recent album, Takes Time. We begin with a kid who's only had a guitar in his hands for a year or two and end with one of the most highly regarded musicians of his generation. Throughout all of the work, though, from the most scrappy to the most deft, is a common, sui generis spark. Whether directly infused or inadvertently pollinated, Jim's all up in this work. In this career-spanning collection, you'll be able to hear the shift from a personality making music to a personality made of music.

At the very least, just enjoy inhabiting this music, this place that it equals, as much as I did – as much as I do still.

LISTEN HERE: http://www.invisiblepublishing.com/jimguthrie

THE 15 yEAR OLD JIM GUTHRIE COVER NO ONE ASKED FOR

(Image by Steven McCuen)

(Image by Steven McCuen)

During the twilight of Guelph's lo-fi uprising, I found a 4 track of my own in a pawn shop where there's now a gourmet burger restaurant. The thing was about the size of a briefcase and adorned with more knobs than I knew what to do with. I never got around to doing anything public with those fumbling stabs I took at music making, but I did assemble a bunch of the pink-cheeked, wet-eared, tone deaf, imitative results to give as a gift to my first girlfriend – one instalment of which just happened to a cover of the song I would name the book I wrote about Jim Guthrie after all these years later.

Time makes fools of us all, as the saying goes.

This would have been early 2002, when I was 18. At the time I was having my mouth adjusted in preparation for getting my jaw surgically broken, and you can hear a bit of the resulting lisp on this recording. Listening to this now is about as weird as watching a 15 year old video of myself getting hurt. It's no biggie, but man it's weird to see how awkward and stupid you look from that distance and that detachment, you know?

WHAT'S SCARIER THAN A GHOST? NO GHOST.

In an oft-told anecdote, Stanley Kubrick calls Stephen King late at night, out of the blue, to gab about ghosts. At some point in the conversation, Kubrick wonders if ghost stories, scary though they can be, aren't essentially optimistic. To Kubrick, the reality of a ghost implies the reality of an afterlife. By extension, the way at looking at the supernatural gives a sort of comforting logic to the possibly-unnerving illogical.

In this passing observation, Kubrick sort of inadvertently puts his finger on and fiddles with the linchpin of horror: we're scared by what we don't fully understand or perceive, but when we tell stories about these things we risk improving understanding and perception, diluting the fear. The problem persists: how do we talk about and describe something mysterious without demystifying it? How do we talk about ghosts without talking about the afterlife?

The yarns of old had it figured out. Take, for instance, the story of Hansel and Gretal. When those squirts wander out into the woods, it's taken for granted that a witch lives out there. Never mind why the witch lives there, she just does. Narratively speaking, this puts a lot of faith in the audience – a faith that's dwindling more and more – that something horrible is just there and has always been there. In the storytelling landscape we live in now, however, an entire movie would be dedicated to that witch's backstory. How she became a witch, how she came to live in the woods, how she acquired a taste for children. You could even devote a movie to the history of the woods. This love of unraveling backstory has become the bane of horror and suspense movies because all the mystery, and therefore all the threat, inevitably gets wrung out. 

As a horror or suspense movie The Babadook is good in a way that shines a light on why its contemporaries are so bad.

For this reason, The Babadook will be inevitably frustrating to fans of mainstream horror, but this is looking at it through the lens of the past thirty years of decreasingly scary scary movies. We're inoculated to movies where the source of fear has franchise in mind, and so inevitably becomes elaborate and awkward and thin, shining light on all the crannies where the legitimately frightening stuff hides. But Mister Babadook hovers in that ill-lit, classic spot between a literal and a psychological presence. 

Coming out of Australia, The Babadook is an objectively slight movie with an objectively big feel. Amelia is the widowed mother of Sam, an odd seven-year-old with an interest in magic and homemade self-defense weapons. He has the devotion of a knight, charged with protecting his mother. From what exactly, we don't know. On the surface, it would seem Sam is adopting the Man of the House roll on his lost father's behalf. What he's protecting against, however, becomes a bit more specific after an ashen pop-up bedtime book, Mister Babadook, pops up out of nowhere.

After the book appears – and then re-appears – Amelia and Sam's reality takes a pounding. But what is Mister Babadook, and where did book – as an object, it seemingly lets him into this world – come from? The thing's origins and intentions are never clear and its the fact that its reality is both obvious and obscure that makes it a palpable threat. Is this an actual, sinister being, or the psycological manifestation of inchoate grief? There's no easy answer. And this lack of easy answers sets The Babadook apart. Monsters become less scary the more literal they become. The more they become included in reality, the more they have to adhere to a logic. And logic is rarely scary.

At least anecdotally, The Babadook shares some commonalities with Kubrick's The Shining. For what's supposed to be ghost story, there are not clear ghosts in Kubrick's film. Almost – stress that almost – nothing happens that can't be explained by Jack's delusions. So too in The Babadook, what is supernatural and what is psychological is never clear. Kubrick's question to King can be read as a sort of an insult. In King's novel, the supernatural is literal – as dark as it might be, it's finally optimistic in Kubrick's terms. But telling that story with no certainty of ghosts dials up the tension and the horror, making possible the much more troubling story of a father twisted enough by his own mind that he'd slay his family. With a similar vagueness, The Babadook manages a similar, rare horror.

 

GOD IT'S HARD TO BE YOURSELF

It's with no shortage of wood that I present to you the face-melting cover of my upcoming book Jim Guthrie: Who Needs WhatThis puppy will be the 5th in Invisible Publishing's Bibliophonic series, which has already covered the likes of The Dears, NoMeansNo, Wooden Stars, and The Deadly Snakes. That the inimitable Craig D. Adams/Superbrothers would so lovingly arrange pixels for this slim little stab at the life of Jim Guthrie really warms my horrible heart.

There'll be plenty of talk and gush about working up to the book's release in mid-April, and even more to shit your shorts over upon the thing's release. But for now, let's all just bask in this humdinger cover.

IN THE MIDST OF INFERNO

In a 2010 piece for Wired, Patton Oswalt declares "I'm not a nerd. I used to be, 30 years ago when nerd meant something." Oswalt goes on to chart his own obsessions growing up, describes his interest in sci-fi and role playing games and the trappings that generally snare kids we think of — or thought of — as nerds. Interests that are not — and here he quotes Poe — "passions from a common spring." But by 2010, everyone was declaring themselves "nerds" and "geeks" and "otaku" — a Japanese word referring to "people who have obsessive, minute interests." Now everyone "considers themselves otaku about something—whether it’s the mythology of Lost or the minor intrigues of Top Chef. American Idol inspires—if not in depth, at least in length and passion—the same number of conversations as does The Wire."

Nerd or geek or otaku or — relevant to us here, as we are talking about Oswalt's new book — fiend are tricky appellations. It's not just the interest that garners the pre-2010 distinction, but the depth of interest. A nerd knows their chosen subjects more thoroughly than the creators. But then the question is begged: what sets a nerd apart from a highly regarded person who likewise fishes passions not from the so-called common stream?

Silver Screen Fiend is ostensibly an addiction memoir, detailing a period of 4 years in the late 90s where seeing as many movies as he could was all Oswalt was living for. But it's also, and fundamentally, a critical and creative coming-of-age story. A young Oswalt begins his addiction under the auspice of education. He'll become a filmmaker and the program at The New Beverly will be his syllabus. The idea is that consumption will eventually turn into production. I won't spoil the book for you, but you can check out the Writer and Director credits on IMDB. But these four years as a fiend also run alongside personal and professional maturation, with Oswalt's stand-up interests getting spun by a scene of "alternative" comedy in LA as well as getting his first job as a writer for MADtv. It's a period where the notion of responsibility begins to creep in — not in any civic sort of way, but creative and intellectual responsibility.

Compulsive consumption of culture can be like eating without tasting. "I... had to learn to look for the moments of substance and impact in the everyday," writes Oswalt, describing a personal pivot. "I was sitting in a minimall Subway having a sandwich one evening, on my way from work to go to Largo, when I read a quote by Italo Calvino: 'seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.'"

Here's the sad fact: when you eat without exercising, you just get fat. (This is a realization Oswalt makes a little too late, as his 4 years of devotion come to a close with the discovery of "shelves" of chub hammered into the wall of him.) Food has little purpose unless it's turned into energy. This is similar with entertainment and media. And perhaps this is when one officially stops being a nerd. What's the point of accruing knowledge for knowledge's sake? Silver Screen Fiend is ultimately about a young Oswalt's transition from a passive experiencer of culture into an active one. Patton burns his intake, turning it into energy as opposed to just hoarding it. 

His written voice is recognizably Patton Oswalt here, but it's not a transcription of his stage delivery. On the page, there's a gentleness and earnestness to Oswalt's voice. Untethered from what's usually about five or seven minute bits, his prowess as a nuanced experiencer and long-game connector blossom. His previous book Zombie Spaceship Wasteland went a little ways to distinguish his stand-up from his prose, but Silver Screen Fiend makes some serious threats towards an autonomous career as a man of letters.