D. Harlan Wilson’s excellent book on J. G. Ballard

Book Review by Bill Ectric

Bill Ectric holding J. G. Ballard book by D. Harlan Wilson

Bill Ectric holding J. G. Ballard book by D. Harlan Wilson

D. Harlan Wilson has made a literary mark in the field of cultural theory, focusing on the loss of humanity in the inescapable rush of accelerating technology, with books like Technologized Desire: Selfhood and the Body in Postcapitalist Science Fiction and Cultographies: They Live. While his fiction tends to be disorienting (a trait his fans enjoy), his non-fiction has the clarity and delivery of a seasoned educator, as in his most recent study of the life and work of J.G. Ballard. 

Ballard was a vital force in the British New Wave of science fiction whose novels and stories inspired the cyberpunk subgenre, but he is most famous for writing Empire of the Sun (1984) and Crash (1973), both of which became movies, directed by Steven Spielberg and David Cronenberg respectively. D. Harlan Wilson makes a convincing case that even Empire of Sun contains elements of science fiction.

Wilson writes brisk, lucid text that flows like quicksilver. Clearly respectful of Ballard as an author and a man, his new book analyzes Ballard’s singular style, dystopian themes, and sometimes disturbing plots in a relatively simple, but smart, well organized, and skillfully researched masterwork.

Wilson describes how Ballard was less interested in flying saucers, aliens, and outer space than he was in the inner space of our minds, as we become the future, with relentless input from the internet, television, radio, billboards, working and playing inside mega-malls, gated communities, and high-rise apartments. We are the cyborgs, perceiving reality as dictated to us by the very media we covet. Ballard explores how these conditions affect the evolution of life, society, sex, and death. His influences included surrealist painter Salvador Dali, psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, transgressive experimental “Beat” writer William S. Burroughs, and media visionary Marshall McLuhan, who predicted the Internet 30 years before it existed. Wilson demonstrates, with fascinating examples, how the landscapes and cities in Ballard’s novels are often extensions or reflections of his character’s mindscapes.

Critics have complained about the violence in some of Ballard’s books. Wilson says, “Ballard didn’t want to see it happen in the real world” and quotes Ballard’s explanation that “notions about the benefits of transgression in my last three novels are not ones I want to see fulfilled. Rather, they are extreme possibilities that may be forced into reality by the suffocating pressure of the conformist world we inhabit. Boredom and a deadening sense of total pointlessness seem to drive a lot of meaningless crimes.”

In 1924, Andre Breton described Surrealism as thought or art created in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern. This launched an array of weird, dreamlike paintings and theater. But on a darker note, Breton also said that the ultimate surrealist act would be “to go out into the street and fire a revolver at random into the crowd.” Chillingly, we recall Donald Trump’s words on the campaign trail in Iowa: “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters. It’s like, incredible.” As Ballard said way back in 1971, “Everything is becoming science fiction.”

If you are new to Ballard, this book is a good place to start. If you’re already familiar with the man’s work, you will appreciate what Jonathan Lethem calls “a new comprehensive standard.”

Read More at the website of D. Harlan Wilson

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The David Roberts Interview

Crawfish of Love Septober Octember

No one knew what to think when we first saw a band called the “Crawfish of Love.” The stage was strewn with surreal artwork, a manikin head, several TV sets turned on to random channels or static, guitar amplifiers, drums, and five musicians that looked like they were conspiring mischief among themselves.

Andy King on bass and Scott Sisson on drums were such a formidable rhythm section that they were, and still are, often sought out to work as side-men for other bands and recording artists. Pat Ogilvie was lead guitarist extraordinaire. I remember after one fiery, tone-perfect, feedback-fueled guitar solo, Dave Roberts proclaimed from the stage, “Pat’s been listening to Blue Cheer!” Pat, too, has been sought by area band leaders who need a professional guitarist. The Crawfish line-up varied from time to time. I remember some impressive acoustic guitar fretwork by Steve Pruett at some of the Applejack’s gigs. I’m told that Michael Pearson played some swirling, spiraling electric guitar at some shows I didn’t get to see.  Brian Barr spiced the music with bongos, chimes, maracas, and other percussion. In his tie-dyed shirts and long blond hair, Brian looked like a surfer bohemian straight from 1967 San Francisco.

David Roberts

David Roberts – late 1980s or early 1990s

David Roberts

David Roberts circa 2012

The band was always evolving and full of surprises. On one hand, they were top-notch musicians. Their musical bag included rock, jazz, reggae, and folk. But they also did weird stuff. How can I describe it? Between covers of Minor Swing by Django Reinhardt or I’ll Sleep When I”m Dead by Warren Zevon, the the Crawfish sprang songs on us about a living inside of a green bell pepper, or the Creature From the Black Lagoon looming toward you on Little Talbot Island, or “singing through bread” with actual slices of bread on stage to sing through. Some people I brought to see their shows didn’t like it. They didn’t get it. Among those of us who liked it, there was no need to explain. And there were a lot of us who loved it. At a Crawfish of Love concert, people from all around who had never met each other could share their taste for, not only good music, but a bizarre experiences. Sometimes they headlined shows, other times they became the back-up band for some big-name performers. We’ll talk more about that later in the following interview I did with the Crawfish of Love band leader David Roberts::::

Bill: I remember you telling me that one of your influences was the “cut-up” writing technique used by William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin.

Dave: What I liked most about the Burroughs Cut Up stuff was the absurdity and nonsense of the word flow. I know Burroughs, Bowles, and the others thought eventually the cut ups lead to profound mystical messages but I never had that experience. I’ve just always been tickled by human voices speaking in normal voice tones saying things that violate all rules of syntax. Actually, more than the Burroughs cut ups I was highly influenced by the speech patterns of schizophrenics, particularly undifferentiated schizophrenics, to which I was exposed during viewing training films and doing my internship to earn my master’s degree in psychological counseling from the University of North Florida in 1978. I interned at the old University Hospital Mental Health unit on 8th street and we saw a daily flow of fresh schizophrenics. They speak in a pattern called “word salad,” which really is almost impossible to ad-lib. I was also influenced by the old party game called “Bloopers” where you would fill in a story full of blank spaces with words you had chosen prior to seeing the story. They came printed on pads and there were several series of them. The pre-chosen words sometimes led to hilarious sentences. This goes way back to the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. I’ve also always been able to hear the taste of food in words since I was about 5 years old. For example, the word “example” tastes like the meat filling from Chef Boyardee’s canned ravioli. The word “work” tastes like oatmeal cookies and coffee to me. The word “tape” tastes like butterscotch. Not all words make me taste tastes in my mind. The word “computer,” for example, doesn’t taste like anything but there is a certain “orange” smell to it. I was thinking these thoughts long before I knew who Burroughs was. But I guess the streak of urban discomfort and darkness in my stuff is most greatly influenced by Burroughs sidekick junkie raconteur Herbert Huncke. His book The Evening Sun Turned Crimson from 1975 is the ultimate account of the underbelly of the beast. Look for that one on E-Bay if you can find it. It’s the book Jim Carroll wished he could’ve written. Huncke led the life Carroll tries to capture in his vanilla trust-funded accounts of addiction.

Bill: Your CD, Septober Octember, seems to mythologize North Florida the way Faulkner did with Mississippi, Tennessee Williams with New Orleans, or Jack London and Robert Service did with the Yukon. It’s also got some very funny moments.

Dave: I wanted the CD to reflect the geography of North Florida more than mythologize the region or it’s people. I wanted the slow syrupy water from the swamp-water runoff mud trail. I wanted the heat from a moonless 2 a.m. August moment staring across Trout River at Jackie’s Seafood. I wanted the decayed horseshoe crab shell placed on my head like a helmet while standing in the dunes at Talbot Island…not up to anything in the dunes…just standing. And yeah, sure, there’s Winn Dixie stuff on it too but it relies on the things one might see out of the corner of your eye around here while looking at something else. Like you’re looking ahead at a carousel in the forest but you find yourself noticing the bandannas lying along the edge of the soccer practice field next to the forest…really more interested in the bandannas than the carousel. Septober Octember is not meant to be a comedy CD at all. It’s meant to help you smell the beauty in the vapor coming from a small pot of macaroni as the ice cold wind blows and mixes the vapor into your nostrils blowing across a highly-polished wood floor in a Riverside apartment. It calls to those times in my life when I could pay attention more to the edge of tape grass on a February swamp bank than to a trailer full of lawn mowers following me constantly draining what’s left of my zeitgeist like little gas-powered Draculas. Septober Octember was my celebration of stuffing and gravy, new green onions in the spring, and the weird Gideon’s Bible Dr. John holds on the cover of his seminal 1969 album, Babylon. Recording it was an absolute joy.

Bill: Didn’t you follow the Grateful Dead on tour one summer?

Dave: No. I have a bunch of friends who did, though. Indeed, I was and to a small degree still am a Dead fan, but no, I couldn’t stand to do something like that. The Dead could be disappointing sometimes in concert, particularly toward the end when Garcia was consumed for the umpteenth time with drugs. I also resented the “rules” of the Deadhead world, a supposed “free thinking” group of folks who have very strict rules for behavior, appearance and comportment. But, to be sure, between the years of 1968 to 1995 I was a major appreciator of the Gratefule Dead’s improvisational excursions on their “space” instrumental passages. I was actually consumed by their music from 1973’s Wake of the Flood album up through the last days of the performing Crawfish. I would go running in those days with 90 minutes of Dead on my Walkman and Crawfish shows started to get very Dead-like due to that subconscious influence. Andy King complained about it back then. I disagreed with him then but now I think he was right. When I listen to Crawfish tapes circa 1988 up to the end in 1998 it does sound too Deadish. It kind of ruined the originality thing we debuted with in 86 and 87, probably the heyday of the Crawfish. I remember you up on stage with us at Applejack’s in 1987 singing Let’s Cook the Dog, which I think was your tune. Those were the early days when I had a clearer vision for the band.

Bill: Dave, you’re a teacher. What’s the deal with algebra? I mean, who uses that stuff except people going into science or engineering? Why can’t it be an elective?

Dave: Algebra requires 3rd-level intellectual thinking because it utilizes the problem-solving areas of your brain. Humans hate algebra for the same reasons that humans hate physical exercise…it’s hard, not fun, requires dedication and actually calls for increased challenge. Also, third level operation increases the likelihood for failure and humans fear failure. But the fact is, utilizing this third level of the brain ( called “application” by the way ) forces the brain to function in ways, problem-solving ways, that “pave the way” for future problem solving, and not just in mathematics. You need experience in third-level cognition in everything from changing a flat tire to performing a delicate surgery. It’s like a mental workout for future needed performance the same way that physical exercise prepares one for future needed performance. Algebra is good.

Bill: Well, fine, then. Now that you put it like that…okay. Let’s get back to music. You guys have managed to play with some legendary performers. Tell me about working with those big-time collaborations.

Dave: By “big-time collaborations” I guess you mean the seven shows the Crawfish of Love did between 1996 and 1998 with three of the San Francisco psychedelic Haight-Ashbury luminaries: Gary Duncan from Quicksilver Messenger Service, David LaFlamme from It’s A Beautiful Day, and Sam Andrew from Big Brother and the Holding Company. They were all wonderful and they were all horrible and every shade in between. The Crawfish burned with such intensity of devotion and discipleship in learning and performing the repertoires of all three bands that I’m afraid it burned us up. I did all the financing and lost a small fortune, so that ultimately is the strongest stamp it all placed upon me. Yeah, it was great to play with those guys on a certain level, but what I went through to do it was enough to cloud over the fun. Now, if someone else was paying for it all I could’ve enjoyed it more. My mood and level of crap I was willing to take steadily disintegrated from the first gig with Duncan up to the point where when Sam Andrew showed up to do his shows with us in 1998 I wanted absolutely none of his shit and before long he and I were not really on speaking terms, although technically the Sam Andrew shows were the best of all. He was real hard to deal with and I was real hard to deal with too. I had had it at that point with egos and temperaments and I could tell people had it with mine. We all felt relief when those gigs were over and it really was the end of the Crawfish. Pat (Ogilvie) didn’t even play the Sam Andrew show anyway and if Pat isn’t there it can’t really be a Crawfish gig to me. At that point, in 1998, we were invited twice a year to play Beth and Randy Judy’s Magnolia Fest and Spring Fest on the Suwannee River and Pat and I decided to scrap the group and play acoustic tunes from our 1973 repertoires. It was a period of great cleansing and refreshment to both of us and we formally stopped playing any gigs except the festivals. We developed quite a little following using the Crawfish of Love name but not doing Crawfish material. We turned our backs on it. We recorded what we felt was as perfect a CD as we could record in Septober Octember. It was just what we wanted. No need to do it again. We also hated playing music in bars late into the morning hours so we just went with the festival gigs. We were invited to play the festival up to 2002 and then we stopped getting invited. So our course had been run and now we exist only on the most special occasions. We did reunite the original band last August at Brenda Walker’s Chinacat Festival and played a set of the original 1987 Applejack’s repertoires. It went over well with the hippies old and young and it was great fun but it was enough to keep me satisfied for a long time.

Bill: Would you ever consider more Crawfish of Love concerts?

Dave: The only gigs I really miss are the Magnoliafest and Suwannee Springfest gigs. I loved playing under those mossy oaks lining the Suwannee River. I would gladly reconvene the Crawfish under any format to play on the Suwannee again. But basically, I dislike playing music in bars late at night hanging around a bunch of drunks and drug users and cheaters and club owners and managers and band members who can’t make it tonight and all the absolute shit that goes with trying to play music on this very low rung in which I abide. To me the biggest names I’ve played with are Scott Sisson, Steve Pruett, Andy King, Pat Ogilvie, and a couple more.

Bill: I need to get a petition started. “Bring the Crawfish back to Magnolia!” Seriously.

Some of his former students from Terry Parker High School with David Roberts (front & center with black shirt)

Some of his former students from Terry Parker High School with David Roberts (front & center with black shirt)

End of Interview       Return to Interview Selection Page

Go to Bill Ectric’s Home Page

Excerpts of: William Burroughs, “The Western Lands”

The Western Lands    Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000035_00020]

Today, instead of writing my own post, I’m sharing a post from Rudy Rucker’s blog, which begins:

Some notes on the book’s contents.
(1) The “Western Lands” of the book’s title come from Egyptian mythology about the afterlife. Supposedly, beyond the Land of the Dead, lies a heavenly Elysium: the Western Lands.
(2) Burroughs often goes off on these great riffs like you’d find at the start of a story or novel—such as a detective story, or a science fiction tale, or an exotic adventure novel about explorers in the jungle. He slips smoothly into the genre conventions, but then begins warping them, and ultimately he drops the riff once he’s gotten all the juice from it that he wants. He just about never bothers to really wrap up a sequence or bring it to a full conclusion. I especially noticed a lot of great science-fiction twists.

Source: Excerpts of: William Burroughs, “The Western Lands”     Read More

 

Didion on Burroughs

TheSoftMachine

1966 is calling.

At a site called The Beat Patrol, I found a good review by Joan Didion, an author I really like, on William S. Burroughs, another author I really like. Originally published in 1966 in Bookweek, NOT the modern Book Week for children’s books), it begins:

There sometimes seems a peculiar irrelevance about what is claimed for William S. Burroughs, both by those who admire him and those who do not; the insistent amorphousness of his books encourages the reader to take from them pretty much exactly what he brought to them. Burroughs has been read as a pamphleteer for narcotics reform. He has been read as a parabolist of the highest order. He has been read as a pornographer and he has been read as a prophet of the apocalypse. The Naked Lunch I read first on a beach in the Caribbean and the Naked Lunch I reread a few weeks ago in a hospital in Santa Monica, the book I read once when I was unhappy and again when I was not, did not seem in any sense the same book; to anyone who finds Burroughs readable at all, he is remarkably rereadable, if only because he is remarkably unmemorable. There are no “stories” to wear thin, no “characters” of whom one might tire. We are presented only with the fragmented record of certain fantasies, and our response to that record depends a good deal upon our own fantasies at the moment; in itself, a book by William Burroughs has about as much intrinsic “meaning” as the actual inkblot in a Rorschach test.

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Rudy Rucker’s Tranrealist Manifesto

Image from BoingBoing when Rudy Rucker was guest blogger. Rucker says, "My jeweler daughter, Isabel, made me a great “Swiss Writing Knife” with symbols of seven of the things I’m interested in: A Zhabotinsky scroll (for cellular automata), the Mandelbrot set (for fractals), a robot, A Square (for the fourth dimension), Infinity, a UFO, a Cone Shell (for diving, cellular automata, universal automatism, and SF). It’s gold-colored metal and the little “blades” swing in and out, with the icons in silver-colored metal riveted on."

Image from Boing Boing when Rudy Rucker was guest blogger. Rucker says, “My jeweler daughter, Isabel, made me a great “Swiss Writing Knife” with symbols of seven of the things I’m interested in: A Zhabotinsky scroll (for cellular automata), the Mandelbrot set (for fractals), a robot, A Square (for the fourth dimension), Infinity, a UFO, a Cone Shell (for diving, cellular automata, universal automatism, and SF). It’s gold-colored metal and the little “blades” swing in and out, with the icons in silver-colored metal riveted on.”

I first saw a link to this on John Shirley’s Facebook pageRudy Rucker’s “Transrealist Manifesto” struck a harmonious chord in my perception of the writing craft. I especially like his statement, “Although reading is linear, writing is not.”

Rucker goes on to explain why you don’t necessarily needs an outline:

A book with no readers is not a fully effective work of art. A successful novel of any sort should drag the reader through it. How is it possible to write such a book without an outline? The analogy is to the drawing of a maze. In drawing a maze, one has a start (characters and setting) and certain goals (key scenes). A good maze forces the tracer past all the goals in a coherent way. When you draw a maze, you start out with a certain path, but leave a lot a gaps where other paths can hook back in. In writing a coherent Transrealist novel, you include a number of unexplained happenings throughout the text. Things that you don’t know the reason for. Later you bend strands of the ramifying narrative back to hook into these nodes. If no node is available for a given strand-loop, you go back and write a node in (cf. erasing a piece of wall in the maze).

Not only is this a good writing tip, it also reminds me of William S. Burroughs notion that “cause and effect” is an illusion. In an article at 3 Quarks Daily, Burroughs says, “I must give up the attempt to explain, to seek any answer in terms of cause and effect and prediction, leave behind the entire structure of pragmatic, result seeking, use seeking, question asking Western thought.” Writers can create events for our fictional characters. Some would say that God, or some force, guides and maybe even predestines our experiences on Earth. This is either reality reflecting fiction or fiction reflecting reality. In The Mosaic of Juxtaposition , Micheal Sean Bolton quotes Burroughs as saying, “When I got interested in cats, I started seeing cats in Brion’s paintings. The notion that what goes on inside somebody can effect something outside goes against the dogma of scientific materialism . . . but that’s obviously not true. I’m thinking about New Mexico, and I come around the corner and there’s a New Mexico license plate. The land of enchantment. I didn’t put it there by thinking about it. But I was there at the same time.”

Read Rudy Rucker’s entire Transrealist Manifesto here

Adventure Time

Adventure Time collage

Adventure Time might be the hippest cartoon on television. The art and animation are the stuff of dreams, the writing is witty (sometimes hilarious), but those two givens are only the beginning.

Amid the zany adventures are moments of adolescent angst and parental regret, and sublimely understated songs that display a talent for lyrics, melody, and musicianship. The duet between Marceline and Ice King in season five’s “I Remember You,” is more stunningly poignant than any Disney movie song I can think of. And check out where Marceline could have been strumming the guitar, but someone made the unusual decision to make it a subtle jazz bass riff.

The people behind Adventure Time also know a thing or two about the literary experiments of counterculture movements like The Beats,  the jazz poets, and Hip Hop. In “Thanks for the Crabapples, Giuseppe” (the thirteenth episode of the sixth season), Ice King and a band of misfit wizards take a road trip in a bus with the goal of creating their own secret society. The bus driver asserts that this trip will be “a destiny will guide us kind of thing.” That, and the wacky assortment of characters on the bus, made me think of the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour (1967), which, in turn, was inspired by Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, whose mission in the mid-sixties was to drive across the United States in a multi-color, hand-painted bus, spreading peace, love, music, and psychedelic shenanigans wherever they went. Check out the three Nymphs, whose bodies seem to be made of flowing water. It is a beautifully trippy effect.

At one point, the bus stops and all the passengers engage in writing poetry on rolls of toilet paper, which I take as a reference the continuous scroll of paper that Jack Kerouac used to write On the Road so his words could flow like improvisational jazz.  The character known as Abracadaniel says, “Let’s all write down arcane, cryptic words in unexpected new combinations and patterns.” Kerouac’s friend, William S. Burroughs, was known for recombining words with the “cut up” technique invented by Brion Gysin.

Notice that these wizard activities involve writing. Writer Alan Moore  has said, “In all of magic, there is an incredibly large linguistic component.” When Peter Bebergal  interviewed Moore for The Believer magazine, Moore said, “I don’t think there’s really any difference between art—or writing, or music—and magic. I particularly draw the link between magic and writing. I think that they are profoundly connected” and “The central art of enchantment is weaving a web of words around somebody.”

Several episodes on Adventure Time feature characters rapping, beatboxing, and dancing. Finn does a beatbox rhythm to keep the beat for a song sung by Marceline in It Cames From the Nightosphere (Season 2, Episode 1). In “Billy’s Bucket List” (from the fifth season) Finn and Rap Bear compete in an onstage “rap battle.” Even the shows that don’t include rap and beatboxing are informed by a kind of Hip Hop vibe. Characters say “That’s how we roll” and “let’s bust it” and various other slang terms like “I’ma,” meaning “I’m going to,” as when the Ice King is angry about not being invited to a party. He says, “They’re gonna do me like that? So I’ma do them like this!” (From “Princess Potluck,” the eighteenth episode in the fifth season).

I’m sure Adventure Time isn’t the only animated series that meets my description of “hip,” with its postmodern approach and heartfelt enthusiasm, but to me, its the best one.

Fortean Melancholia and Paranormal Mourning

TamperDeskBannerTwo-600x124

Many thanks to Andrew Wenaus for his review of my novel, Tamper!

Tamper is like the Hardy Boys in that it is a kind of mystery novel in clear/concise language, and it is like (William S.) Burroughs in the sense that there is a presiding desire to break free of some kind of invisible system of control. Yet, the system of control in Ectric’s novel is not the oppressive and determinate force of language (as it is in Burroughs); instead, it is memory, nostalgia, and melancholia. “Tamper” is, in this sense, a coming-of-age novel that is unwilling to ascribe to the rigidity of the coming-of-age narrative. Whit, the central, character does mourn his lost past but continues to revolt against the loss of wonder, imagination, and the possibility that the strangeness of life is more nuanced than we are often enthusiastic to admit.

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