Argentina bans unhealthy books

Here’s something you won’t read everyday: The Argentine government has severely restricted the importation of books due to human health concerns*:

That’s right. According to the government, it can be dangerous to “page through” a book that has high lead quantities in its ink. “If you put you finger in your mouth after paging through a book, that can be dangerous,” said Juan Carlos Sacco, the vice-president of an industrialist organization that supports the measure.

The government claims that this is not a ban. However, since each buyer has to demonstrate at the airport’s customs office that the ink in the purchased book has lead quantities no higher than 0.006% in its chemical composition, the result is that all book imports into the country are stalled.

*(following that link will lead you to an unpleasantly partisan right wing site, so be warned.) (Via)

Harry Crews died

According to the Georgia Review this morning, the amazing Harry Crews died yesterday. One of the first reviews I ever wrote was of Harry Crews’ extraordinary A Feast of Snakes, and I always meant to dive deeper into his work, but somehow never came round to it.

Below there’s a short trailer for an incredible film about Crews called Survival is Triumph Enough. I started posting videos exclusively on my tumblr, but this needs to be here:

Edit: here is the NY TImes obit

The poem of my life

A poem by Adrienne Rich from the sequence “Twenty-One Love Poems”. This is poem #2

I wake up in your bed. I know I have been dreaming.
Much earlier, the alarm broke us from each other,
you’ve been at your desk for hours. I know what I dreamed:
our friend the poet comes into my room
where I’ve been writing for days,
drafts, carbons, poems are scattered everywhere,
and I want to show her one poem
which is the poem of my life. But I hesitate,
and wake. You’ve kissed my hair
to wake me. I dreamed you were a poem,
I say, a poem I wanted to show someone . . .
and I laugh and fall dreaming again
of the desire to show you to everyone I love,
to move openly together
in the pull of gravity, which is not simple,
which carried the feathered grass a long way down the upbreathing air.


Still more work to do: RIP Adrienne Rich

Since I learned that the great poet Adrienne Rich died yesterday, I’ve been mulling over a response, but I don’t think I’m capable of putting my grief over this loss into words, nor am I likely qualified. A year ago I posted a poem that seems strangely fitting. But what I would do is point to her remarkable essay on Elizabeth Bishop, and especially to a passage near its end, because it always appeared to sum up the force driving Rich’s magnificent work through all these past decades, and it’s the first thing I thought of when the terrible news of her death reached me:

It is important to me to know that, through most of her life, Bishop was critically and consciously trying to explore marginality, power and powerlessness, often in poetry of great beauty and sensuous power. That not all these poems are fully realized or satisfying simply means that the living who care that art should embody these questions have still more work to do.

Read Rich. There are many editions of her work out there and you really can’t go wrong.

Hunger Games & Racism

I read The Hunger Games last year, when I was in a non-reviewing slump, and so there is no review of the book, and given the insane amount of detail scattered over three medium size novels, I wouldn’t do these books any justice if I reviewed them now, but let me just state that the series is utterly fantastic and magnificent and impressively smart and I was very much looking forward to the movie. A lot of people were. And then this happened. On facebook (cf. this Racialicious post) and on twitter (cf. this Jezebel post), people shared their outrage over casting choices. And the outrage wasn’t directed at the fact that the director chose a pale white girl to play a character described as “olive skinned” (which is, in fact, upsetting (cf. Bitch Media and Julian Sanchez)) – the outrage was directed at the director correctly casting a black actress for a black character. The cries of outrage are eerie, but they do remind me of how cleverly the books are constructed, how the book makes use of class and race lines and provides strong and powerful images of exploitation on a surprising amount of levels. I highly, highly recommend these books.

So much sensitivity and pain in my voice

I was really touched by the emotion in my voice, especially with the Pinkerton songs. It struck me that there’s so much sensitivity and pain in my voice. (…) I don’t know. My voice, I think, has been pretty similar throughout my life. But yeah, little overtones – little changes in the weather are now reflected in my voice. I might be wrong, but on Pinkerton, it sounds like someone’s been in a lot of physical pain for a good year or two. And that was exactly my situation.

Rivers Cuomo in a 2010 SPIN interview on listening to Pinkerton-era Weezer Songs.

Something you investigate when everybody’s asleep

Stipe: Yeah. Now I think I can tell, listening to your music–this is just me as a fan, but also having done it for 31 years–I can see that you’re not a dark person, but I can see the darkness in there.

Hadreas: I’ve learned that that’s something you investigate when everybody’s asleep. You know what I mean? [laughs] Like going through my day, I try not to bother people with it, and plus it’s not like it’s always right underneath and seasoning everything that I do. I don’t know, some days it is, but–

Stipe: Yeah, but there’s a toughness, a real toughness there that I really admire, I have to say. I mean I think it makes the music. It adds another depth and another level to what you’re doing lyrically. And also melodically and the presentation, like the production that you do and blah blah blah. I’m not blowing smoke up your ass, but I mean that’s the thing with music, is that one projects oneself onto the work of someone else and it becomes yours.

Michael Stipe interviewing/talking to the wonderfully magnificent Mike Hadreas, also known as Perfume Genius (check out a live version of his songs Hood and Normal Song and of his song Dark Parts and the official video of “Hood”). Click here for part 1 of that interview. Click here for another interview on Q TV, where he also performs stuff from his first album.

I put myself in a position where I kept failing.

It’s not as bad to me to fail at a shooter because it doesn’t mix with my identity. But it’s worse for me to fail at a very strategic game. But the thing with StarCraft is, I kept coming back to it, but I wasn’t getting any better at it, I thought. And that was very disappointing and painful. Part of me was just like, “I don’t have a knack for this game, that’s just it.”

But the experience itself was so painful that years later, whenever I lost a match on the ’net with someone, I was so upset I couldn’t bear thinking about it. And I actually wasn’t learning the sort of stuff I was supposed to be learning from the game. I was just sort of stuck in this negative loop where I wasn’t necessarily improving. And that’s an important aspect of failure. In a way, it was so important for me not to fail that I put myself in a position where I kept failing.

– Jesper Juul, author of the forthcoming The Art of Failure: On the Pain of Playing Videogames, in an interview @ Kill Screen Daily

Jeff Smith: RASL: Romance at the Speed of Light

Smith, Jeff (2011). Rasl: Romance at the Speed of Light. Cartoon Books.
ISBN 978-1-888963-33-5

This is going to be a short review, because it’s a review of the third volume of a series that you shouldn’t start in the middle. You should start at the beginning. If you click here you can find my review of the first volume, as well as general comments on Jeff Smith’s remarkable work, and if you click here, you can find a review of the second volume. If you need a summary of all my reviews, here it is: RASL is one of the best creator-owned comics we currently have, and if you haven’t yet, you should start reading it as soon as possible. Jeff Smith is one of the best graphic novelists of our time. Read him now. The whole RASL project has been, from the start, a fascinating undertaking. In its mixture of myth and science fiction, it resembled Terry Moore’s extraordinary (recently finished) Echo (see here my review of the first Echo trade), but with a much darker and twisted core. Readers coming to find a second Bone will be disappointed. This is no warm, full, engaging fantastical tale. The richness of Bone’s woods, mountains and ravines is in stark contrast with the desolate stretches of desert we’re offered in the RASL books. It’s really hard to believe that the same writer who gave us the gorgeously detailed rat monsters and fantasy foliage in Bone is the same that creates vast expanses of white emptiness in RASL. While I’m obviously commenting on a work in progress, it seems clear that there is less consolation in Smith’s most recent work than in his most famous books. The warm heart of Bone was palpable in its protagonists, the cartoonish Bones, and the lovably odd villagers. Even the monsters threatening to destroy the idyllic life are drawn with a playful love for furs and twinkles and the humorous moments of epic adventuring. True, there was much drama as the story of Bone unfolded, and a serious tragedy at the center of it, but it was all part of a much brighter, more colorful whole. RASL, on the other hand, starts off on a bleak note in volume one and maintains that mood throughout the second and this one, the third volume. Even the glimpses of love and sexual relations are shrouded in the anticipation and memory of loss and impending doom. By the third volume, sex is presented less like a loving act, and more like a desperate way to be less broken, less alone, less adrift in a multitude of worlds.

RASL: Romance at the Speed of Light is the best installment so far, as expected. It is the first time the plot and its characters really come together. I admired the way Smith took his time with the plot, without offering his readers easy satisfaction. The first volume, RASL: The Drift, is full of mysteries, full of beginnings and ideas, and it’s not an easy book to figure out. There was never any doubt that the end result would be magnificent, but the exact direction was unclear, as we readers were left impatient asking for more. And just as the first volume was full of beginnings, so the second volume, RASL: The Fire of St. George, was clearly transitory. Instead of whispered hints and intriguing settings, we were offered more muscular developments and a great deal of information was injected into the book. It seemed as if Smith tried to make up for the vagueness of the first by being extremely specific in the second volume. As a read it was much different, but every bit as brilliant. In it, Smith treats us to the (by now well known) story of Nicola Tesla and fleshes out most of the principal characters and their relationships with one another. Additionally, we are offered more background on the protagonist, and how he came to be this disturbed traveler between worlds, haunted by guilt, and driven by something dark lodged deep inside. Finally, we are introduced to the book’s MacGuffin, Tesla’s journals, which contain some powerful, brilliant secret that Rasl, as the books’ protagonist is called, endeavors to hide from his friends and the government. Tesla’s brilliant ideas have often served as pivotal elements in science fiction or steam punk culture. One of the most recent examples is Christopher Nolan’s movie The Prestige, where Tesla’s near-magical science provides the mechanics of one magician’s attempt to reproduce another magician’s magic trick (which, as it turns out, was achieved in a much more profane and simple (though not easy) way).

Indeed, The Prestige is a fitting reference because of how the RASL books are perched at the divide between magic and science. In fact, we might be reminded of Arthur C. Clarke’s famous third law, stating that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. In Smith’s work, magic is replaced by religion and myth, but the basic question remains: if something extraordinary happens, is it a scientific success or a miracle in a religious sense? The third volume puts considerable emphasis on this part of the book. As our memories of Tesla’s historical experiments slowly recede, we fall back into the protagonist’s attempts to fully make sense of what’s happening in his rapidly expanding world. Government agents are added, and questions of self and reality are invoked again, but most importantly. Smith evaded providing a faux-scientific explanation for the dimension-jumping. Instead, he confronts his readers with the bleakness of a man lost between multiple copies of the woman he loves and the multiple worlds that woman lives on. Rasl has no great plans: when he jumped into another dimension, he did so impulsively, and ever since, his actions have been less driven by careful deliberation than by impulsive acts. The first of the (so far) three books gave off a strong noir vibe, which is more expounded upon in this volume that affords more space to Smith’s protagonist. Like a character straight from Hammett’s pages, Rasl drinks in order to deal with the labyrinthine world around him (although in Smith’s work, the effect the world has on Rasl is a palpable, violent one as dimension-hopping exerts a heavy price on the person doing the hopping), he is quick to threaten and execute violence on other men, and his sexuality doesn’t lead to happiness or peace, au contraire, it’s as desperate and violent as everything else in his new life.

Like all extraordinary works of science fiction, Jeff Smith’s RASL books use the freedom afforded by the added and changed vocabulary in order to tell a story about the world that discusses issues on the fringe of knowable and expressible facts. Tesla’s scientific work proves to be a red herring, as it is his journals, which contain a secret discovery that makes sense of the scientific and metaphysical puzzles of the books, journals which are treated just like sacred texts. In Smith’s art, we are also presented with technically advanced objects that look like mythical or ritual artifacts. With every new issue, Smith continues to put the screws on what we feel can be easily said. He works within the languages of masculinity and violence, but at his hands, they blossom into possibility. Jeff Smith is a very good writer who, so far, had written two vastly different masterpieces, Bone and Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil. RASL, still a work in progress, is ready to join their ranks. When it’s finished it might well be his finest achievement yet.

A short personal note (January 2013). As I am trying to finish two manuscripts and getting back into reviewing books, I have a hospital bill to pay off, which means all kinds of issues for me. If you have a buck or two to spare, I would be more than thankful. There is a paypal button on the right hand side of this page. That’s just in case you feel charitable. As it is, I am happy enough about every single one of my readers. There are more of you than I ever expected, even through the dry months in the past year, and I am thoroughly humbled. Thank you all.

I know it

Dialog from the utterly amazing (yet short-lived) neo-noir crime show Terriers

00:14:08 » HANK: But that’s what you want.
00:14:09 » KATIE: That’s exactly what I want.
00:14:11 » HANK: Then why-why won’t you let yourself have it?
00:14:13 » KATIE: What’s wrong with me?
00:14:15 Why, Hank, when everything’s like so perfect?
00:14:18 » HANK: Yeah, drive a big dynamite truck right into it?
00:14:20 » KATIE: Yeah.
00:14:22 » HANK: Probably because somewhere deep down inside you— you just don’t feel like you deserve it.
00:14:30 » KATIE: I’m gonna lose him.
00:14:34 I know it.
00:14:36 I’m so scared.

William Attaway: Blood on the Forge

Attaway, William. Blood on the Forge, NYRB
ISBN 9781590171349

Blood on the Forge, originally published in 1941, is an interesting read. Its author, African-American novelist William Attaway, is perhaps best know today as co-writer of Harry Belafonte’s “Bananaboat Song“. His only two novels have deeply sunk into the obscure chasm of American literary history, much less successful than those by contemporaries like African-American novelist Richard Wright. Lucky for us, Blood on the Forge was rescued from oblivion by the invaluable NYRB Classics imprint. It’s not a perfect book by any means: for a short novel, it has quite a few dull stretches, and oftentimes, its author seems more interested in the story he’s telling and its political and historical contexts than in the telling itself, which is never a good sign. Despite all this, it’s a novel well worth reading, because Attaway crams it full of ideas and tangents and fragments. As a novel, there is a lot wrong with it, but as an overall reading experience, it’s a trip worth taking. When it was published, Attaway was all of 30 years old, and upon finishing it, his desire to create long-form prose narrative seems to have been finished with it. The rest of his career was spent by writing song-books, songs, and screenplays. Blood on the Forge, like Wright’s and fellow realist novelist Upton Sinclair’s work, is very much of its time, and aesthetically it’s hit-and-miss, but the fact is, it’s a damn remarkable book to end one’s career on, and fittingly, it contains enough details, energy and conviction for several more novels. I’ve never read a novel quite like it, and it feels more knotty and interesting than many more highly praised and well known novels of its era, which is enough reason to recommend it. Read it, dammit, and maybe NYRB can be persuaded to publish Attaway’s debut novel, as well.

Meanwhile, this is how Blood on the Forge begins: “He never had a craving in him that he couldn’t slick away on his guitar. You have to be native to the red clay hills of Kentucky to understand that.” We as readers are plunged straight in the middle of a heartbreaking tale of poverty and hunger. A family of African-American farm-workers, consisting of three brothers (called Big Mat, Melody and Chinatown), their mother, and Hattie, a strong and opinionated woman married to the oldest brother, is struck by tragedy as the mother dies while plowing the fields. In a fit of rage, Big Mat kills the mule pulling that plow. Now, however, the family, poor to begin with, finds itself completely unable to pay its debts, let alone pay for food or seeds or a new mule. As the desperate foursome attempts to somehow salvage the situation, events spiral out of control and the three brothers end up having to flee their home. It’s quite remarkable how well and densely woven this initial situation is. The novel never really looks back on “the red clay hills of Kentucky”, telling a story of steel mills in the North, but like so much of Attaway’s book, the setting and scene are incredibly rich with meaning, resonance and context. As Big Mat kills a white overseer in a fit of rage, we might forget what century we’re in. It’s like a tale straight from the late Middle Ages, where a peasant fights back against his lord and ends up having to flee the place he’s from. The contrast to the industrialized setting of the bulk of the novel is striking. The steel mill tell us: this is modernity, greasy, violent, dirty modernity, but the three brothers come from a world closer to the Middle Ages in social structure and outlook than to the 20th century.

This is significant, because the period the book is set in is a very specific historical period, the so-called Great Migration (1910-1930), and there are multiple stories of the Great Migration, two of the most well known (apart from Blood on the Forge) being Black Boy, Richard Wright’s absolutely extraordinary autobiography (originally published in 1945), and Thomas and Beulah, Rita Dove’s Pulitzer-winning 1986 collection of poems about her grandparents who came to the North during that same period (a book that seems to be inspired in part by Attaway’s novel, by the way, Thomas and Melody sharing significant similarities). Attaway’s medieval brutality and feudal structure isn’t found in either of these books, and it seems to make a very specific and pertinent point about the society that Big Mat, Melody and Chinatown escaped from by making us aware how many degrees of civilized development co-existed within the same country in the 20th century. The man Big Mat killed might as well have been their liege lord for all the difference it would have made in this tale. But there is even more to this short early section of the book. We are, within the first three pages, made aware of the horrific misogyny of that society. It’s not just the fact that women, throughout the book, seem one-dimensional vessels to be used by the men, highlighting their strengths and weaknesses. It’s also the absurd hatefulness with which all the book’s men seem to treat all the book’s women. As Hattie makes a cogent point, albeit in simple language: “We jes niggers, makin’ the white man crop for him. Leave him makin’ his own crop, then we don’t end up owin’ him money every season”, the novel imparts on us Melody’s perception of the situation, describing it this way: “Hattie kept at Big Mat, driving him crazy with her talk, blaming him for everything.”

This ‘hysterical screaming woman’ stereotype is used fairly often in Blood on the Forge and one would be tempted to see this as reflective of the author’s or at least the novel’s bigoted attitude towards women. It’s the densely packed beginning of the novel, however, that tells us this is not the case. Very clearly, the author shares Hattie’s disdain for wanting to obey the basic social and economic structures in place. Hattie, like other women later in the book, is a sensible character in an impossible situation. It’s interesting that Attaway seems highly aware of the fact that African-American women are oppressed in at least two different ways, both as African Americans and as women. The novel, largely channeled through Melody’s perception as it is, repeatedly offers us male misreadings of situations. As the novel hurtles towards its end, it’s the ravaged and desperate female characters that stood out most for me, although eventually, all women tend to fall by the wayside in this tale of three brothers. Their masculinity is not an asset, although at times it may seem like it. The novel contrasts Hattie’s sensible observation with this grandiose assertion of Big Mat, who (having murdered a man, and hopelessly in debt and with no way to pay for food) is in the process of convincing himself that leaving Kentucky is a good idea:

Ain’t nothing make me leave the land, if it good land. The hills bigger’n any white man, I reckon. Take more ‘n jest trouble to run me off the hills. I been in trouble. I been born in trouble. Shareworked these hills from the bad land clean to the mines at Madison. Now the land done got tired. (…) The land has jest give up and I guess it’s good for things to come out like this. Now us got to give up too.

Compared to Hattie, Big Mat is a silly sentimental fool who arrives at the correct conclusion by way of a strange and archaic process of reasoning. This, too, will be repeated in the rest of the book in various guises. There is no sympathy with Big Mat, whose obsessive but dispassionate relationship to a prostitute later in the novel is described like this:

Big Mat had slapped her around. He had made love to her tired body. It had not responded to either. He had gone to work twice and come home twice. Everything remained the same.

You can spent ages unpacking just this beginning of the novel, which isn’t more than a prelude, and introduction to the characters before putting them on a train north. At the same time, Attaway states most of the book’s concerns in an incredibly precise and concise although not always aesthetically pleasing way.

The rest of the novel develops and examines concerns that are already embedded in the early sections. The three brothers move north, and find work in a steel mill. Various disasters happen to them, and not all of the three will make it out of the ensuing tumults and turmoils. Big Mat meets and falls for the aforementioned prostitute. He is accepted by the Irish workers because of his strength (to quote one of his co-workers “He’s got some Irish in him somewhere […]. Lots of Black fellas have got Irish guts.”), but accidents, fights, depression and their fellow men wear all three brothers down in a book that always feels oppressive and dark. You’re not surprised by any bad turns because you sort of expected them to come. All this is not as simple as it sounds. The whole novel is as densely packed as the beginning and offers a multitude of ideas to work with. These things alone make it a novel worth reading. But there’s more.

It’s a novel about the Great Migration that turns into a book about industrialized oppression and the evils of exploitative capitalism; true, novels by more famous writers on the same subject, like Upton Sinclair’s 1906 masterpiece The Jungle are still in print, and are reprinted in multiple classic editions. But Blood on the Forge offers a vital antidote to the racism prevalent in many of these books. Sinclair and many of his contemporaries depict strikebreakers in labor conflicts as being black, which wouldn’t be so bad, if strikebreakers were not usually described as a villainous mass of people. In The Jungle, Sinclair speaks of “a throng of stupid black Negroes”, and feels obliged to offer this assessment of this group of people he just demonized in a few brushstrokes:

The ancestors of these black people had been savages in Africa; and since then they had been chattel slaves, or had been held down by a community ruled by the traditions of slavery. Now for the first time they were free,–free to gratify every passion, free to wreck themselves.

William Attaway’s novel offers us the other side of the story. When he has someone tell us early on: “[People] always hate new niggers round here [because] the company bring them in when there strike talk. Keep the old men in line.”, it is an obvious reference to the long history of radical American prose with black strikebreakers playing the role of henchmen to the company bosses. This is remarkable in and of itself, but what’s more striking (no pun intended) is the fact that he doesn’t sacrifice a more general awareness in the process, which elevates his novel beyond those of writers with less generous empathies and more narrow awarenesses. And there’s so much more. I haven’t even touched on the two other brothers and their (significant) roles in the book, including most prominently, Melody’s music and Chinatown’s limitations, I haven’t begun to touch on the nature/culture rift discussed by the novel. You could write books and books about this novel. And this is its biggest weakness. With all the stories and ideas, there’s not much room for the slow business of literary perspicacity. But the riches the book offers more than make up for any of its shortcomings. Read this book.


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David Peace: The Damned United

Peace, David, The Damned United, Faber and Faber
ISBN 978-0-571-24955-8

As a reader of American novels, you’ll likely have read at least one excellent novel about baseball or American football by one of America’s best novelists. Among the excellent novelists who have written a novel about Baseball or wherein baseball is featured prominently are Philip Roth (The Great American Novel), Don DeLillo (Underworld), Robert Coover (The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop.), Bernard Malamud (The Natural) and Michael Chabon (Summerland). American football plays a role in novels by fine writers like Don DeLillo (End Zone) and Howard Nemerov (The Homecoming Game); not to mention countless excellent novels making heavy use of sports culture in some way, like Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes or Richard Ford’s Sportswriter. Soccer, or as we Europeans call it: football, has not had the fortune of inspiring such extraordinary art. To be honest, I would be hard pressed to remember any novel of note or even a truly excellent work of journalism. The best, and most famous, book that football culture has produced, is Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, Hornby’s memoirs of being an Arsenal supporter. The quality and reflective powers of Fever Pitch are well summarized by the way its author describes becoming a football fan, telling us he “fell in love with football as I was later to fall in love with women: suddenly, inexplicably, uncritically, giving no thought to the pain or disruption it would bring with it.” So, no, this is not a good book. It does work well for readers who are football fans themselves, I suppose, at least it worked well for me, because it vividly evokes being young, male, and enamored with football. If I hadn’t fallen into all three categories when I read it as an impressionable teenager, I doubt I would have liked it as much. It is a sad state of affairs that until David Peace’s novel The Damned United was published in 2006, Hornby’s sentimental piffle was the best literary achievement to have come out of football culture. I suspect that many of the accolades heaped on Peace’s book are due to a public starved for some decent literature about football to emerge.

Well, there’s no denying the fact: The Damned United is a reasonably good book. Nothing more, but also nothing less. There is much in it that can annoy readers, but David Peace, judging from this book, is a writer with passion and an excellent ear for the rhythms of other people’s passion. His book looks into the life of a football legend, and paints him as an angry, fearful, impassioned football professional who falls prey to his oversized personality, not able to restrain himself, not able to control his impulses, his desire to be loved and admired, and his hatred of those who would oppose him and the novel traces his downfall in minute detail. Peace’s nonfiction novel could well be called a tragedy in the sense that we are made to witness the demise of a man, and we understand what his harmatia, his character defect is, which leads to the inevitable end. The football legend in question is Brian Clough, and the novel tells us about his ill-fated stint managing Leeds United in 1974, starting with his first day at that “hateful, hateful place; spiteful, spiteful place”. This quote, by the way, is from that first day, it demonstrates Clough’s enmity towards his new team. He doesn’t welcome his new job, much as his new team doesn’t welcome him. From the first day, Clough, and Leeds United, are at odds. Peace’s book has 44 chapters, one for every day that Clough is employed by Leeds United, and the chapters are all narrated by Clough, and written in present tense. Peace emphasizes the dramatic nature of Clough’s soliloquies in multiple ways: some quotes, some intense thoughts and comments are written in italics, but Peace is also a fan of line breaks after a particularly expressive thought, and quite a few sections end on short, dramatic sentences. Not all the sections are about Clough’s time at Leeds, however. About half the sections are about Clough’s career up to his Leeds engagement. It starts with Clough’s last day as an active footballer, brought low by a horrific injury in the winter of 1962 and traces his career from his first assignment as manager of Hartlepools United, a small fourth division club, to his successful years of managing Derby County and finally accepting the appointment at Leeds United.

The italics in the sections dealing with Clough’s past have a several effects, the most important of which is the most simple one: they provide a stark visual contrast to the Leeds narrative, which allows Peace to treat both narratives the same way. Both narratives are written in the present tense, both make use of the same dramatic voice with short, self-obsessed sentences showing us the inside of Clough’s strangely wired mind. And while they at first seem to be contrasting stories, one the story of a doomed assignment to an unpleasant team, and the other the story of the meteoric rise of a young football manager, as the novel progresses, we are more and more treated to two stories of certain doom, as Clough fights with players, administrative staff and the press both in his career with Derby County and his time with Leeds United, and are made to understand what it is that connects both these stories: Brian Clough’s mind. Although his novel is about a football manager, Peace barely gives us details of games or managing strategies. Instead we are hooked up to his protagonist’s strange mind from the very first line, and are never allowed to leave. Like a maelstrom, Peace’s prose, simple, repetitive, expressive, pushes us through 44 days in the life of a strangely damaged, but also greatly talented man, and barely gives us time to breathe. A sign of his accomplishment is the fact that the book reads like a thriller although we all know the historical facts about Clough’s career. Brian Clough’s fear of failure so dominates his every thought that we start to expect him to fail. Even if we didn’t know the history of what happened at Derby County and Leeds United, Peace would manage to make us expect the worst. Peace traps us in the obsessed mind of a great football manager, thoroughly gripping us in the process.

Well, at least I was gripped. Like Fever Pitch many years ago, there’s a good chance that this book appealed to me because I am a fan of the sport, and am acquainted with its history and with the weight and importance of various events happening in it. You don’t have to be a baseball fan (I’m not) to appreciate the excellency of Malamud’s or DeLillo’s novels, but I’m not sure the same is true for The Damned United. This is one of the drawbacks of Peace’s reduced prose, his utter lack of context or framing devices that would help our understanding. The tragedy of Clough’s obsessions is obvious to any reader, but the book is too long and too detailed to maintain the attention of readers not interested in the sport. What’s more, it’s incredibly repetitive. I’ve said it before but it’s really one of the cornerstone’s of Peace’s prose in this book: it seems as if he built the book from a small assortment of pieces, arranging and re-arranging them every time Clough runs into another wall. Even in his triumphs, Clough is never just happy, he’s spitefully triumphant, a slave to his hate and demons in his best as well as in his worst moments. There is a strange power to the repetitiousness. The writing, both the phrases used, and the overuse of dramatic line breaks, is very close to cliché sentimentalism, but the repetition elevates the prose to an extent. It’s like a strange, misanthropic chant in many ways. And it does something else: as we all know, football is a culture very devoted to masculinity and chauvinism, so much indeed that it has proved to be a hotbed of homophobia and racism. And in The Damned United, Brian Clough’s struggle with success and his own torments are consistently framed with issues of masculinity and power. As in the phrases used, Peace has a penchant for cliché here, as well.

Thus, we are repeatedly treated to Clough’s concept of managers being fathers or father figures to their players, and his arch nemesis, Don Revie, the Leeds United manager he’s succeeding at the beginning of the book (and who, it turns out, vociferously opposed Clough’s appointment) clearly fills an oedipal role for Clough. Trying to take over and win with Leeds is frequently described as destroying Don Revie or his legacy. But Peace, while certainly not a subtle writer, is less dull than this made it seem. He cleverly sees and describes the 1970s as a period of change both in football as well as in British society at large. Clough is a thorn in the side of the administrative boards of his clubs because he embraces TV and newspaper journalism. He is outspoken, nimble and surprisingly popular. Don Revie, by contrast, represents an older kind of thinking. In his time at Leeds, Peace stresses, Revie embraced a rough, foul-centered play, and time and again we hear about Revie’s reliance on superstition. As we read the book, we start to see through the screeds and rants, we see the pattern and see beyond the mundane business of managing a football team, and as we do so, Peace catches up with us and injects overt politics into the book, as Clough, temporarily out of a job, between his time at Derby and his stint at Leeds, supports a Labor candidate for parliament. He calls himself, standing in the rain, campaigning for his candidate, a “pied piper”. This is a significant term, because here, Peace ties together all the strands in his hand. Again, not in a subtle way, but vastly effective. The book starts with a lament on British politics, titled “The Argument”, cobbled together from various sources, quoting and paraphrasing an array of writers. There is a bathetic urgency to it, and the novel bears out this urgency. Clough may fail because his character is weak, but in his failures and successes, Peace mirrors developments in British public life.

Clough is not a likable everyman, he’s a hateful little man; it’s certainly true he’s driven, and as his years in Derby, and later years at Nottingham Forest show, a more than capable manager. But for us readers, we are left with someone whose main motivation isn’t ambition as much as a strange, twisting poison in his soul. For a novel with a strong moral bent to it, I find it to be morally ambiguous, but I don’t have an intimate enough knowledge of British politics of the 1970s and 1980s to really understand some of its argument. For all the obvious effects, and all the blatant drums and fanfares Peace employs, he ultimately relies on a sense of recognition in his readers, a recognition of a time and a place, and of a game that has few literary champions. Judging from this book, he’s a writer who demands a certain amount of patience from his readers, and quite a bit of collaboration. In a postscript to the book, Peace mentions that in 1979, Margaret Thatcher’s election, arguably a low point in British politics, and Brian Clough’s greatest success as manager (he won the European cup with Nottingham Forest) coincided. For me as a reader, there are enough obscure spots and twists in David Peace’s tapestry to make the book an intriguing read, and I was convinced to see the muscular repetitiveness as a good thing, rather than focusing on the surfeit of banal phrases and dramatic posturing. There are a few more clever things Peace does (reader address is one of them, and the use of fact, fiction and research in his nonfiction novel is another) that I couldn’t work into this review, so there is certainly a lot to recommend the book. I’m not, however, sure, it’s enough. I liked it, is all I can say. And it’s very clearly the best novel on football I ever read, and quite possibly the best novel on football ever written. Which is a bit sad, if we’re honest.


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Alan Moore, China Miéville and Racism

Because I really have very little to add to two rather excellent bits I found online, here’s a short post linking to these things.

1st, a slightly older take on the way Alan Moore treats race in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. It’s probably best to start here and start digging. I say ‘digging’ because the blogger has an admirable but slightly exhausting devotion to transparency, splitting edits into new posts etc. etc. I assure you though it’s certainly worth it. If you know Moore’s work, you probably know that the treatment of race in it can be problematic, but the obviousness of the insight doesn’t make this excellent blog a less worthy read. Well researched, well argued, well written and admirably upset. Read it.

The second is just as excellent, if much shorter. It’s an essay by the amazing China Miéville on the recent non-banning of the strikingly racist comic Tintin Au Congo, called “When Did Bigotry Get So Needy?”. Miéville, unsurprisingly, makes all the right distinctions, and there is nothing I could add. So, go ahead and read it. If you prefer, you can also read this really, really excellent essay on Miéville’s own blog here, but that version doesn’t have pictures, and the pictures are rather effective in demonstrating the obnoxiously obvious racism in the book.


From the history of Fanta on wikipedia

Fanta originated when it became illegal to import Coca-Cola concentrate into Nazi Germany during World War II due to a trade embargo. To circumvent this, Max Keith, the man in charge of Coca-Cola Deutschland during the Second World War, decided to create a new product for the German market, using only ingredients available in Germany at the time, including whey and pomace – the “leftovers of leftovers”, as Keith later recalled. The name was the result of a brief brainstorming session, which started with Keith exhorting his team to “use their imagination” (“Fantasie” in German), to which one of his salesmen, Joe Knipp, immediately retorted “Fanta!”

Want to buy some art?

Oona Leganovic is a fantastic artist. In the past days I had the humbling honor of looking through some of her sketchbooks which re-enforced that impression. Sadly (and puzzlingly), she’s also not a very well off artist. Since I am ridiculously poor myself I can’t do anything about that, but you can. If you follow this link, you can find out how to buy her drawings. If you live in or near Berlin or are planning a visit within the next few weeks, you can go see her exhibition at Kaufbar Berlin. If you don’t trust my word (and why should you), check out her portfolio here. Amazed? Forgot where the guideline to buy her work was? It’s here. She also has an etsy store you can access here. Thank you for your attention. As you were.