Friday, January 22, 2010

Book 7: Heavier Than Heaven by Charles Cross

I am not a big one for biography. I'd rather experience the work of the person in question first hand. Picasso? I don't need to see Anthony Hopkins ramble around in a striped shirt. I'll just look at Guernica again, thank you very much.

Occasionally though, I meet up with exceptions. 'Heavier Than Heaven' is a heartbreaking book that doesn't ride on the sad coattails of its subject. It perfectly articulates a certain subset of modern American society, one that had been ignored and excoriated for years before Cobain broke that particular glass ceiling with 'Smells Like Teen Spirit'.

The punk.

Now, music and pop culture have exploded with such ferocity and variety that it is hard to remember how limited and limiting categories were in the very recent past. It is as if a sort of Big Bang happened in the '70's and we are now witnessing the impossible velocity of a universe in the throes of expansion. You half blink your eye and you've missed an entire galaxy.

But in the '80's? Thing were still crawling along, or seemed to be. And a little unhappy boy in the Northwest seemed to have known all along that he would provide the spark necessary to speed it all up. If this book is to be believed this goal was present all along. As was the plan to exit stage left immediately upon achieving it.

For anyone who wishes to delve into the mind and psyche behind such a convulsive figure, this book is the place to do it. Cross painstakingly recreates the atmosphere that Cobain encountered and his reaction to it. But he does so in a way that is much like the split second before a car crash. You know the impact is coming and you are powerless to stop it. You know it is going to be bad and you are powerless to stop it. You are afraid but strangely exhilarated and you are powerless to stop it. He saw what was coming for him years before anyone else did and he was powerless to stop it.

Fascinating stuff.

For me it was like stepping through a door into my teen years. In many ways he and I were quite similar. Bought the same bands, traveled in the same small fanatic circles who wore their outsider status like military decoration. We pitied those who had plugged into the status-quo for their music, much like you'd pity some poor fat kid whose dumb-ass mom keeps buying him Cocoa Puffs and Pop Tarts. Yes, you blame the mom too but at some point that kid needs to take control of his own body. We had already done that.

Kurt Cobain had too. By the time he was 11 years old he was fully immersed in counter culture aesthetic. He was an outlaw in his own home. He compensated for this by dreaming grandiose dreams and he knew he had the talent to pull them off. This odd juxtaposition ate at him his whole can you be counterculture when you know your talent is so monstrous as to destroy those boundaries and create a new mainstream? I know this sounds a bit over-dramatic but these are really the questions he wrestled with.

And Cross plunges us right into the middle of it and makes us feel as if it is happening to us. He makes us want to chuck it all and disappear. He makes us see no other way out. He oppresses us with these arcane strident categories connected to the underground music world until we feel as trapped by them as Cobain surely did.

He makes it hard to breathe. What is heavier than heaven? Just about everything.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Book 8: Summerland by Michael Chabon

You are Michael Chabon.

You've just published a Pulitzer Prize winning novel that deals with the Holocaust, the transformation of American culture in response to rapidly shifting entertainment availability, and the personal side of coming to terms with homosexuality in the face of denial and open hostility to that reality.

What next? An examination of immigration and how it is shaping worker's rights? A searing look at the effects of modern warfare on fragile psyches? An inside look at the corrupt trappings of a political campaign?

Well, no. If you are Michael Chabon you will write a 500 page novel for young adults in which the main character must play baseball alongside a race of fairies in order to keep a mythical evil force named Coyote from destroying the Lodgepole, a giant tree that encompasses four different worlds or planes of existence.

Whew. Did you get all that? When it came out it was originally placed on the adult fiction shelves in Barnes & Noble. I know because that is where I bought it from and read it in a fever. Being a baseball fan and father of a young boy I flipped my wig for this book. Shortly thereafter someone in the Chabon marketing department must have said, "Hey, guys, this isn't really a book for adults. We gotta get that thing in the kid section!"

Sure enough it was as if the book had a re-release party. There it was in the kid section. My son read it at a very young age and I'm still sort of blown away that he did so. But it is that kind of story, the kind of story that will inspire a kid (who isn't even a baseball fan when you get right down to it) to stretch his intellectual capability in order to get to the end of the story.

I can't be sure but I would bet a significant portion of my life savings (i.e. close to $200) that this novel started as a bedtime story in the Chabon house. It has that sprawling anything-goes feel of the many stories I invented off the top of my head for Cash. For example, I was dragging a story out to try and get Cash to fall asleep. In the story a kid and his dog were walking through the forest. I knew they were going to have an adventure but I wasn't sure what. All of a sudden they'd shrunk down and were sliding down into a flower.

The book is like that. Giant impossible realities are introduced and accepted without so much as a shrug. After the relentless awesome reality of 'Kavalier & Clay' this book was a pleasant absurdist shock to the system.

Since this book, Chabon has seemed to delight in taking on genres and infusing them with his own sensibility. It is almost commonplace now, a bit of a crutch within his own oeuvre. I know some day he'll drop a collection of words that are as weighty and far-reaching as 'Kavalier & Clay' but in the meantime his experiments are a boatload of fun.

Except for 'Gentlemen of the Road'. Holy shit, if I were in 'Summerland' I'd let Coyote destroy the world of that book in a heartbeat! What a stinker. But that is the joy of a writer like Chabon. He goes as far out on a limb of the Lodgepole as he can.