Book Roundup: Douglas Coupland, Chris Kraus, and David Foster Wallace & Mark Costello

January Readings

Read all these books back in January/February and wrote about them then, but never quite finished them. So I sat down this afternoon and hammered out the remaining details with what I could remember—Kraus’s volume was the most difficult, because I had a hard time understanding while I was reading it, so any details that might have proved useful in decoding it are gone from my memory. Either way, here’s three books, and hopefully a Record Bulletin tomorrow or next week.

generation xDouglas Coupland: Generation X (St. Martin’s Press, 1991, 211 pgs.): Andy, Dag, and Claire are three twentysomethings slumming through life, post-uni know-it-alls who have detached from the commercial world and locked themselves away in the desert doing McJobs they know they’re intellectually above, living an irony-soaked life they recognize won’t last forever but are sure as hell going to make last as long as they can. Only not really. Coupland’s characters are not the lifeless, nonhuman globs of flesh that meander through the same plastic world as hacks like Brett Easton Ellis. No. Despite their recognition of how strange the world has become—an eternal hall of mirrors bouncing back images from generations past with which they have no connection, coupled with commands to consume—there’s really no sense of superiority present. Despite all the damnations cast upon parents and post-boomer bosses for their conventional, conformist lifestyles, Coupland’s narrator Andy recognizes the vapidity of his own existence, one trying to ignore that he will either become the aging hippie/bohemian no one can take seriously or else one of them—the adults, like his parents, who have provided a world for their children with which they have nothing in common.

The story itself largely revolves around the protagonists telling each other stories, short parables used as way to articulate their dissatisfaction with their current situation, a way into their past when the world still presented itself as mystical, mysterious, and unknowable and not a product of human capital geared at increasing that capital. As Dag laments, “I’m just upset that the world has gotten too big—way beyond our capacity to tell stories about it.”

It’s interesting to see how the trio deal with the realization that they will never be quite as materially comfortable as their parents, and whether they’re bitter and jaded because of this or if they feel a sense of relief, an enlightenment having been showered upon them that allows them to see through the façade of fake happiness, contentment, and comfort that materialism provides. But there is redemption. In their own ways, Andy, Dag, and Claire find relief in unexpected places, in random events. Andy in particular experiences a powerful catharsis that could transform his life. Yet immediately after, in the book’s epilogue, a long list of statistics indicating the shifts in generational norms appears, implying that something fundamentally off has crept into the American youth of the early 1990s. And it’s this list that marks the difference between Coupland and Salinger, with whom Coupland is constantly compared: Salinger’s Holden was a man (or boy) on his own island looking out; Coupland’s Andy is representative of a large portion of his peers, none of them being able to really identify just what, in all the images and hyperrealistic details, is the cause of their grief.

where art belongsChris Kraus: Where Art Belongs (Semiotext(e), 2011, 171 pgs.): Best way to start is by saying that I don’t pretend to understand a good deal of what’s here. Kraus examines various art scenes, all of which I know nothing about, and while sometimes I’m able to snake through her observations and conclusions, I largely miss what’s meant to be taken away. The biggest mystery that remains to me after reading this slim volume? Well, where the hell does art belong?

So let’s start with Kraus’s documentation of the life of Tiny Creatures, an art ‘community’ on the west coast that sprung up, got hot, and died all within a relatively short amount of time. In the beginning, it was a place where just about anyone could display their work, and indeed for a while mostly non-artist hobbyists were throwing up whatever they sketched. But as word got around it became a hotbed for fresh MFA grads wanting to become part of that crowd, and in the same breath the founders of Tiny Creatures issued a manifesto proclaiming the space as not a venue or gallery, but as a community center. And yet it necessarily had to be exclusive; what can you do when your requests to display outweigh the space you have to show them in? And so Kraus aptly titles this whole section ‘No More Utopias,’ as no matter how pure the intent, the actual is unachievable.

The penultimate section, “Matrix,” features in its second essay (“Indelible Video”) the problem visual art faces when art is everywhere because image is everywhere, a dilemma documented best perhaps by Jean Baudrillard, the famous French postmodernist philosopher. Kraus posits that the problem might be overcome if one could figure out how the market might be used to return visual art (and in particular video) to what it used to do—whatever that is. She also pontificates that the saving grace of visual art could be ‘perceptual historiography’—that the image is not meant to signify in itself, but that what’s more important is what we project onto the image.

None of these ideas are particularly new, and I’ve glossed over large sections of the book because I either can’t remember what they were about or what they were trying to do. My completely honest response is that I’m too out of the loop to get a grip on what Kraus is attempting to document, but there is the unpleasant feeling in my gut that the kind of art she promotes is in its nature extremely exclusive, however much it might desire to not be so. This feeling could also be initiated by my own insecurity when faced with conceptual art that appears to be, in my opinion, more about its idea than its execution—that most of what she describes sounds, on the surface, to be less about discovery and more about pursuing a pre-determined end. But if I were you I’d bet my money on me having misunderstood and misread most of Kraus’s book. So pick it up and figure it out for yourself.

Signifying-RappersDavid Foster Wallace & Mark Costello: Signifying Rappers (Penguin, [1990] 2013, 151 pgs.): Conjure the image of the late DFW—tall and built with a boyish smirk, cheeks stubble-tastic, hair wrapped in a bandana—and throw on some associative adjectival phrases for decoration concerning his braininess—prophetic prodigy, wasted wunderkind—and chances are you come out with a shy though photogenic nerd, the pinnacle of the white layman intellectual who had a fetish for footnotes, arcane vocabulary, and occasional doggerel analysis. Now imagine that forty-something mug you know so well from flap-cover photos as a pre-Harvard graduate school attendee teaming up with his roommate (and later lawyer friend) to write a thesis about a relatively new art form at the time of publication—rap and hip-hop in an oh-so-distant 1990—on the verge of exploding into the mainstream. Also consider that the art form is primarily a black art form, and that the authors are quick to concede just how ‘outside it’ their pale asses are. Wallace and Costello’s Signifying Rappers takes two groups diametrically opposite—rich white kids trying to slum their way out of privilege and poor blacks trying to hit the big time—and goes for a road test, and despite the few patches of smooth cruising, there are too many speed bumps and potholes for this dissertation to hold water nearly twenty-five years after its publication.

Their stated purpose is to legitimize rap in the eyes of white audiences (in any capacity, but it generally seems aimed at upper/educated classes), to make them take rap as a serious art form. And for two guys who so desperately want to take rap seriously themselves, they do a fantastically poor job of making any effort to understand from whence hip-hop emerged and for what expressed purposes. They never see it as a community builder, never consider it an expressive art medium helping to bind the residents of poor and crime-ridden neighborhoods. Costello admits this much when he realizes that trying to talk to people at a locally-organized event goes poorly because the people in attendance just don’t get his high-brow questions.

Instead, the two spend a great deal of time theorizing based on a few sampled lyrics or pop cultural/historical events, such as Costello’s line-blurring of reality and ‘reality’ in his comparison of Jesse Jackson’s account of MLK’s assassination and the (violent) content rap personas espouse. However, the events are so tangentially related that he seems to misunderstand both sides of his own comparison. The biggest tell is Wallace’s obsession with anything meta, particularly his comment about halfway through IDing the irony of Run-DMC covering Led Zep ripoffs Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way,” a reversal of the white man stealing the black man’s music; in this case, namely Zep’s shameless co-opting of American Delta blues and R&B, which, as Wallace notes, resulted in “Willie Dixon [having] to sue Led Zeppelin to get proper credit for their use of his blues.”

Robert Christgau offered a brief but scathing review in 1990 when this tome still toted its subtitle (Rap and Race in the Urban Present) and included a discography. “Whenever the authors… get near a fact,” Christgau chides, “it hangs its head in shame.” Could be true enough—Christgau knew more about hip-hop in 1990 than I will in probably all my life—but I don’t see how that disqualifies all of their abstruse, albeit bloated, ruminations. Wallace aptly notes hip-hop’s self-imposed constraints in regards to form, likening the limitations of rhythm and rhyme within which rappers operate to the formalist poets of yore; their content is nowhere near the same, sure, but hip-hop was (and still relatively is) a young art form, and such constraints give guidelines to those interested in dabbling, allowing their creativity to fill the space in new and unexpected ways. Costello observes that the audience’s taste for blood will not be satiated, and as such publicists will have their work cut out for them in the future where violence will be front and center for much of what was to come in 90s hip-hop.

All in all, the book is probably worth a good skim for Wallace enthusiasts. In my own mind, though, it’s hard to tell whether Wallace really did enjoy hip-hop or if he was more interested in its probably unintentional postmodern characteristics. Harder to detect if this is an earnest defense of something he considered valuable or just an early hipster’s desire to play contrarian to the mainstream reaction.


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