A.S. King – Please Ignore Vera Dietz

 

verdietz__spanJust a while ago, I read a Young Adult novel that seems to be the positive mirror of this. It was Jennifer Brown’s Hate List. Both novels deal with a tragedy, specifically a girl losing a boy to death and how it affects their lives. The relationship was big. Both happen to be outcasts in a Nowheresville. Relationships with the family is rocky and there is a sexually-active, supposedly hot chick that’s evil involved.

The difference is in how Hate List is darker, but more sympathetic whereas King’s book has more shocking content on the surface but less of the empathy which is truly disturbing. Therefore, at the bottom there isn’t much horror or insight. King lays out at the beginning who are the good guys and who are the bad. Nowhere in the novel do they get a chance to prove otherwise and we don’t get any view of their inner world. Dad figure swings from bad to good, and it’s actually nice to see a parental figure being allowed to be flawed but not a complete asshole. Sadly, this is where the good characterization ends.

I’m all for novels like this. Teenagers need books like these which deal with drugs, sex and death. They experience these things at this age and sometimes what they need isn’t the perspective of an adult, but a lot of perspectives similar to theirs. Books like this mention the important subject, but they offer such a narrow perspective. Perhaps for those for whom death and alcoholism ring close, this book can be some kind of an emotional outlet. For the rest of us, though, it’s too close-minded.

My issue is not with the content and not even that it’s quite wacky, moving away from the gritty-realism authors like this try to imitate. I can take the octagonal treehouse and teenagers burning shit down. I can even take the enigmatic, hot outcast male. Where’s the life in them, though?

Charlie isn’t as bad as Green’s females, but we still get a character with zero personal issues that we’re supposed to adore. He’s a dream boy – wild, untamed, skinny, always doing things, putting a tough exterior but is actually romantic and with some emotional issues. Of course, the romantic side and the emotional baggage is never let out – because men with emotions aren’t sexy. For some reason, too, love interests in these novels are always skinny and this is passed off as if it’s against the beauty ideal.

Eventually he goes to the dark side to be with ‘cool people’. King’s version of the Evil Cool isn’t jocks and football junkies for a change, but a bunch of druggies and a rocker girl. As for her, she happens to have a lot of sex and is nasty to people. Why she’s nasty to people, we never understand. Her sexual nature is also often painted hostile and morally low, but I’m not sure why besides the fact it’s ‘conformist’ – unlike Charlie who is really cool and builds treehouses.

She’s so nasty that she ruins everyone’s lives. I’m sure there are people like this, but if only King gave us a little insight into why she does what she does. Jenny ends up being nothing more than a plot device and someone we could hate. Besides breaking up between the main character and her lover, she has no role.

Many characters in this novel fit a scary template in fiction – characters whose main purpose is that we’ll have something to hate. Such characters contain some qualities that nearly everyone will claim as bad – cruelty, sadism, lack of empathy. On top of that the authors will put something else to make them uncool, like being stupid or doing too many drugs or being too conserative, or maybe just racist. We’ll be expected to really detest this character and hope for their downfall.

The problem is, we often feel this way in real life towards people because it’s all we’ve been exposed to. Sometimes hating people is justified, but what’s wrong is hating them while denying their humanity. Once we draw a too distinct line between us and the evil, we override the purpose of morality. Morality then is not decided by deeds or virtues, but by people. ‘A is just because of X’ becomes ‘A is just because B is unjust’. That type of morality leaves no room for redemption, and so no room for admitting when we’re wrong (since we can’t be – the other side must be wrong!). Once we adopt such a morality, nothing prevents us from becoming what we hate.

Sadly this is what King has to offer us. Jenny and the others remain an enigma – assholes without character. If only King would’ve developed further, maybe she could’ve conjured something more horrifying, more haunting. Evil is at its scariest when we realize we can do it, too. That’s why pictures of serial killers are so frightening. We look at them and see flesh and blood just like us.

Plot doesn’t matter much in novels like these since the psychological development of the character is important. King is better than Brown in creating a main character. The writing is utilitarian and doesn’t add much, but there’s a toughness to the writing, an edge that lets Vera be more than an outcast. She’s a tough person who bottles it all until it comes back out. While King is not the peak of minimalism, she lets just enough edge to let this psyche be expressed in the prose.

It would’ve been better if she didn’t need a big event for the story to revolve on. Considering how Vera has enough depth to carry a story on her own – not much, but just enough – big explosions were unnecessary. All we needed was to see these characters go about their lives, how their worldviews and personalities – Vera’s detachment, will to be responsible and for escapism and Charlie’s adventurous spirit – collide, stray, collide again and eventually fall apart. She does it quite successfully throughout the novel. The relationship is convincing enough with how the characters relate and then go separate ways when puberty hits.

Scattered throughout the novels are other perspectives – the pagoda, the father. King doesn’t have the writing ability to give these a new tone. Don’t look at the heading and you’ll find the father and the daughter are speaking in the same internal voice. Still, it’s a refreshing addition that almost gets close to adding empathy to this story. Sadly, these are tidbits, not a choice of method that re-frames the whole novel. Most likely a young author will be inspired by this but will accidentally credit As I Lay Dying.

It’s quick and to the point, but mostly it’s an insulting collection of stereotypes. We all could use books, like music, that offer us catharsis but this is not a song that will carry on to future years. It’s more like your first local show, where the mere presence of sound and emotion is enough to inspire you to keep digging. You won’t remember precise details about that band, and the same goes for this book.

1.5 rocker girls out of 5

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Papa Roach – Crooked Teeth


While Papa Roach’s previous album was decent, it also put the band at a crucial point. The songs lacked emotional punch, were nothing but decent stadium anthems but had nothing going to them besides things to sing along to at shows. It didn’t even sound like the band could pretend to have emotions. They didn’t even try to make tools for venting your frustration. So while pretty melodies like “Falling Apart” are nice, they had to give us something more or quit music. It’s been this way for a few albums now, but F.E.A.R. was their driest record yet.

And Crooked Teeth is exactly the kind of album I wanted from them, yet I never thought they were capable of making it. Sure, I believed they could crack an earworm or too. So when “Help” dropped, it was a good sign. It was ordinary mid-tempo rock, but there were subtle differences that hinted at a sense of purpose. Acoustic guitars were quite prominent and the vocals weren’t as explosive, adding a layer of vulnerability. It’s still an anthem, but it now had a bit of that shallow emotional sentiment that makes it work outside stadiums.

Then there was “Crooked Teeth”, which of course was praised because it was loud and we all know Pop music is bad. It’s not just the noise, though – it was truly chaotic, opting for a half-screamed verse and the band just hammering on their instruments. Most weird as the short Hip-Hop break in the middle. In the past I said “Gravity” was a brilliant career highlight but I wrote it off as a fluke. Most of this record builds from there.

You can’t escape how Hip-Hop-driven this record is, as if Papa Roach looked to the controversy surrounding Linkin Park and decided to replace them. Papa Roach were some of the worse genre-benders in Nu Metal and their rapping didn’t add much back then. Here, though, the rapping is far more focused and smooth.

Shaddix sounds like an actual rapper, having an actual flow and adopting the right tone for rapping. Even for someone used to Rap-Rock, these songs are confusing at first. “Break the Fall” and “My Medication” might as well be Hip-Hop with some guitars. Later they even adopt the genre’s bragging antics for “Born for Greatness”, where they also use their guitars for a bass drop. Add the cheery, easy vocals and you have a fantastic, chest-beating anthem that sounds confident and huge.

This rediscovery of Hip-Hop either causes, or a symptom of rediscovery of purpose in their music. Each song has its unique vibe now, nothing sounds like just another anthem. The aforementioned “Help” would sound generic in any other album, but here it’s one of a kind. Its subtle unique traits, like letting the acoustic guitars stay prominent rise to the surface. On “My Medication” and “Break the Fall”, they re-capture the spirit of teen angst that made their old music so good. What was lacking in their latest album was that.

Teen angst may be shallow, generic and too general for any depth. It can be effective though, especially with good hooks. “My Medication” has a manic energy in how the guitars roar and Shaddix sounds like he cares about this subject matter, like he is a drugged-up rockstar living a reckless life. The anthemic nature of the songs is secondary to their purpose. Even their ballads improved. “Periscope” lets the guitarists try something else for a change, a pseudo-underwater riff while Shaddix along with Grey keep the vocals low. It’s a song you’d expect from Deftones if they tried to go Pop. If this sounds like ripping off, it might – but Papa Roach throw themselves with full conviction that people in YouTube got worried over that track.

The highlight of the album is easily its oddest track – “Sunrise Trailer Park”. In a way it’s a spiritual successor to “Gravity”, only it pushes so far into Hip-Hop that it has no business being on Rock radio. True, it’s not as harrowing emotionally was it wanted to me. Lyrical imagination was never one of their strong points and the subject matter of losing a friend from drunk driving – and being guilty – has no depth here. Still, the band is sincere enough, letting the emotions rise out without forcing them. It might be obvious, but it’s never overt and there is something quite haunting and damaged in the line “I’m still haunted by the best years of my life”. At the end of the songs these lines just float with the beat. Such decisions can only come from a focused band who knows what their songs is about.

What I wanted from Papa Roach was focused songwriting and capturing the old energy of frustration rock. In some cases – like in the title-track or “Help” this is what I get and it’s enough. The addition of rapping, exploring new sounds and territories, having “Sunrise Trailer Park” suddenly hints that maybe this band has something in them more than just venting tools. Maybe that’s what happens when you grow up. You may not have emotional depth, but you realize you’re free to try whatever you can. Hopefully this is a rebirth and maybe they’ll become genre-benders like Linkin Park.

3.5 crooked teeth out of 5

Raymond Carver – What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

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How do short stories work? How does any story work? Stories are a series of events connected by a theme, time and circumstances. They lead into one another and eventually conclude. Every ending is a beginning, of course. The end of a relationship is the beginning of a life as a single. Still, we live with these beginnings and endings – we draw lines between childhood and adulthood, day and night and Mondays and Sundays.

If you want to aim for realism, you need to remember this bias when writing stories. Beginnings and endings are what give stories meaning and we tell a story because it means something. It can be funny, it can show something about love but you never tell a story just to tell a story. Carver’s stories have some kind of a beginning, but no real endings. Sometimes they end with a punch, sometimes with the implication something terrible is about to happen. Concrete endings are rare, yet these stories still work.

Is this poetry, or is this literature? What’s the boundry between them?

Carver’s stories work because he puts the purpose way ahead of structure. His purpose isn’t clear-cut, which makes it all the more impressive when his stories work. There is no specific situation Carver wants to explore, no guideline that connects the stories. A lot of drinking happens and love is a big deal, but that’s because love is a big deal in general.

He tries to tap into life’s energy. If this sounds overly-sentimental, it’s because it’s hard to talk about the stories in any other way. How he achieves such emotional resonance is still unclear. Characters might as well not exist and stories rarely end or begin. It must be because of the unique structure of the book.

Few stories here stand on their own. Even the best one requires prior experience with his style before enjoying them. In fact, even as an experienced reader in minimalism and in Carver (I actually read this a long time ago in its original version – Beginners) it took me time to get into it. The style is so minimalist, so sparse that it’s shocking at first. We’re used to maximalist literature. Every beginner writer who gave me their stories to review has overflowing language.

We look for the grandness. We look for the symbol or the sentence that repeats itself, or characers talking about who they are. Carver creates Everymen by letting the situation speak for itself. In one story, everyone lives in Alburquerque but are all from somewhere else. In another, a man puts his whole house – couch and TV and kitchen – outside. In another, a couple fights violently over a baby.

Each of these small tidbits are rife to analyze. Just by telling you what happens I imitated a whole story, and do we really need more of it? A couple fighting violently over a baby is a great illustration of a fallen relationship. The baby is a product of both parents, yet the two parties want it for themselves. The baby couldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the other. Relationships need room for selflessness, for caring about the other. One of the last line feels like Carver summing up every fallen relationship:

“He felt the baby slipping out of his ands and he pulled back very hard.”

Is this how we should react when love comes down? Should we pull back towards ourselves stronger and stronger at something that can only exists thanks to co-operation?

Self-insert characters are often criticized as lazy. That’s true, but there is a time and place for them. Sometimes the situation is the main character. The objects moving carry the meaning, not the personality. It’s true this has been used for escapsim – Harem anime create a situation many guys would like to escape to. Carver doesn’t create comfortable situations.

His situations are soaked in pain, but more than anything confusion. It’s as if by expressing the events in the most blunt way possible, he hopes he could make sense of the human condition. As evidenced by the last two stories (who gain a lot of their power by their position), Carver didn’t even come close to a solution.

These stories are a journey through a land that’s not really barren. People exaggerate when they describe Carver’s stories as ‘people drinking and talking’. He’s more concerned with the absurdity of life. That’s why a lot of these stories involve weird situations that feel odd in this collection. When was the last time a person with no hands asked to photograph your house? Life is strange – any attempt to capture realism by removing odd events results in bland monotony. Since strange events are confusing, many authors write about them with colorful language and your dull feel-good ending. “Viewfinder”, in different hands, would’ve been distorted into how ‘it all depends on your perspective! snap out of your depression!’. In Carver’s hands, he lets the interaction stand on their own. The loneliness is obviously there, and that makes their connection all the more engrossing and life-affirming.

‘Empathy’ is another word that suits Carver’s style. His style is so warm, so intimate. You can pop this book in the middle and it wouldn’t feel any different than starting from the beginning. The stories like a collection of aimless anecdotes friends tell each other into the night, just to have something to talk to. Like your friends’ anecdotes, the stories ramble and swerve into unnecessary territories before snapping back to the main topic. This isn’t sloppy writing but a deliberate attempt to capture the warmth of sharing stories.

Although Carver has been hailed as a master of minimalism, it didn’t actually come from him. Gordon Lish, the editor. The original manuscript wasn’t as minimalistic, although Lish clearly saw the potential there. The attraction to these stories is in the how intimate they feel. Even when Carver starts writing in bigger paragraphs, this would remain the defining feature of his work.

It’s as sparse as a Joy Division record, but don’t read Carver for the minimalist macho bullshit. This isn’t about covering up an iceberg like Hemingway. He does the opposite. By writing about the stories just as they are, he mines them for every sip of emotion there is. A lot of great authors gave us insight into the human mind/condition/experience, but none feel so intimate as Carver.

4 talking about love out of 5

Tove Lo – Queen of the Clouds

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In almost every disucssion involving the thrillng (yet repetitive) subject of romantic love, I pointed out how different men and women experience it. Men suffer from a lack of attention, from a loneliness that’s like a black hole sucking up the joy from everything. I rarely met any women who complains about that. Rather, there is always a stream of guys waiting to get in bed with them. Their biggest problem is that they’re just not the guys they want, or that they only want sex.

I know I can come off as a prick in these discussions. If I told a poor man that my steak was cooked well-done, he’d laugh at me and tell me to be thankful I at least have a steak. This is generally how I reacted when I heard women getting ‘burned out’ on male attention.

Queen of the Cloud both confirms my view and challenges it. Nowhere in these songs Tove Lo talks about being really alone. That emptiness you hear in American Football isn’t here. There’s nothing like “Forget Her”. Yet it doesn’t make it any less emotionally effective. Like Lana Del Rey, Tove Lo shows things from a very female perspective and brings depth to her character.

Lana Del Rey is a good comparison. They both play a very similar character. They’re both sexually charged and heartbroken. The first third is about picking up hot guys in the clubs and telling them that if they love her right, they will fuck for life. Tove Lo’s character is more of an everywoman, one who wants to enjoy life and just happens to stumble upon a guy who makes her feel like she’s on drugs.

There have been plenty of break-up albums. What makes Queen of the Clouds distinct is, other than the obviously female perspective, is its coherency. It’s not just that the album is split into 3 parts with obvious titles. Each song in them show the progress.

The Sex part starts with “My Gun” and “Like Em Young”, which are general statements that Tove Lo likes to have sex and she prefers young guys. It’s a good time to stop and ask why do women can sing about hot guys without sounding so hateful. “Talking Body” is where she actually meets the hot guy, and is one of the best ever songs written about sex. The way she sings “If you love me right” is pure joy. Isn’t this how sex should be, fun and joyous?

We’ve been bombarded by female artists ‘reclaiming sexuality’. What they did was brag that they got ass and that rappers write songs about them. I don’t see it as a major achievement to have a hateful sex rap written about you, but such are things. These artists weren’t really sexual, though. They bragged about their sexuality, which is like bragging about packing guns or pwning noobs in World of Warcraft. In the end, the subject of your song is how awesome you are, not sex.

That’s not so in Tove Lo’s case. Her sexuality is full of joy and excitement. She doesn’t have sex to prove anything to us. She will fuck him for life if it goes right, if it’s fun enough. The whole first half as bouncy, EDM-like production that’s more about warm tones rather than aggressive sounds.

It gets more interesting as it goes on. There’s not much to say about the Love part. “I’m not on drugs/I’m just in love” is a line so brilliant that it raises an otherwise average song. There is also a lot of dubstep influence. What sticks out are the hesitation and insecurity in “Moments”. This is where Tove Lo reminds me that in heaven it’s as it is on Earth. Tove Lo shouldn’t feel insecure about attracting guys. She’s a famous singer who looks good and writes better than lyrics than almost anyone in her sound. Yet when she sings “I have my moments”, she sounds desperate to convince herself more than to convince the guy. Haven’t I felt this before?

The Pain part is the album’s beating heart, where Tove Lo sounds like she’s pouring all passion into. She still gets plenty of male attention. On “Habits” she talks about picking daddies in the playground and going home with other people to numb the pain. Yet it doesn’t work. This is where “This Time Around” comes in. It’s the beating heart of the record. The decision to add a boring house track after it is plain stupidity.

Everyone tells me that love is an unpredictable thing. I wish it was, but Tove Lo seems to agree with me despite our completely different experiences. “This Time Around” isn’t just a eulogy for a relationship. It’s lamenting how repetitive the whole thing is. We go all in only to find that we’re the same at the end and we can no longer feel it. Maybe it doesn’t matter how much attention you get. When you get burned out you’re no longer feeling it, and every time you try it’s the same thing.

Although the songs are good enough on their own, it’s mostly the concept that holds this album together. It’s a joy to listen to from beginning to end, because every song connects to the other. “Moments” opens up The Love with hesitation, while “Not on Drugs” is the climax where you’re feeling like you are on drugs. “Timebomb” ends The Sex with the excitement that makes you indifferent to anything else. “Thousand Miles” opens The Pain with the will to go back to the person, before you realize how much he’s hurt you.

A concept album doesn’t have to tell us the exact events. Music is always better at delivering an emotional experience than an intellectual one. Turning a philosophical essay into pop song will make it lose most of its depth. Turning a political essay to a rock song makes it propaganda. The concept works here because every song documents What It Feels Like in every stage of the relationship. That brings it closer to The Downward Spiral rather than that awful Muse album.

Only “Habits”, “Talking Body” and “This Time Around” truly stick out, although they’re all candidates for Best Pop Songs Ever list. Still, nothing here is filler and the songs that end up without melody (“Timebomb” especially) are musically interesting enough. Recently I’ve been thinking we’re in one of the best eras of Pop music. Albums like this are the reason.

3.5 clouds out of 5