Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for August 2011

A novelist moves to Oak Park

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Today my wife and I closed on our first house, a beautiful single-family home in historic Oak Park, Illinois. My original goal, after realizing that we were really going to move, was to become the greatest novelist Oak Park ever produced, which I soon discovered might be difficult, if only on account of this guy. The greatest living novelist, perhaps? Unfortunately, that requires catching up to the extraordinary Chris Ware, perhaps our best living novelist, period, which I’m not sure even I can do. So I might need to settle for being the best novelist on my side of the block. If that. Still, I’m pretty excited.

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August 31, 2011 at 9:23 pm

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“I am a poet. It’s really not my fault…”

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I’m now making myself as scummy as I can. Why? I want to be a poet, and I’m working at turning myself into a Seer. You won’t understand any of this, and I’m almost incapable of explaining it to you. The idea is to reach the unknown by the derangement of all the senses. It involves enormous suffering, but one must be strong and be a born poet. And I’ve realized that I am a poet. It’s really not my fault.

Arthur Rimbaud, in a letter to Georges Izambard

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August 31, 2011 at 7:11 am

The Monster of Art

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Yesterday, after watching clips of Lady Gaga’s peculiar drag performance at the MTV Video Music Awards, I became aware of two things almost simultaneously. The first is that Gaga is the ultimate realization of what Cindy Sherman once promised. I’ve been a huge fan of Sherman’s ever since discovering her Untitled Film Stills, with their uneasy but seductive commentaries on roleplaying, voyeurism, and, above all, the importance of movies in shaping our ideas of ourselves and others. Although her work has grown increasingly alienating over time, she remains one of our most interesting artists, and you can draw a direct line from her to Gaga, an acknowledged fan. Indeed, Gaga might be Sherman’s daughter: both women are provocateurs, aggressively intelligent yet fascinatingly blank, famous but unknown, so that either could probably walk down the street unrecognized, after all the costumes and disguises have been stripped away.

Of course, Gaga is far more famous than Sherman has ever been, which leads me to my second realization, which is that we’re witnessing a cultural phenomenon that hasn’t been seen in twenty years or more. Gaga is that rarest of pop icons, a deservedly popular artist who also serves as a conduit for smuggling unexpected images and ideas into America’s heartland. The VMAs were seen by the largest audience in MTV history, which means that Gaga’s strange little drag act succeeded, if nothing else, in confusing the hell out of millions. I’m not saying that her performance as Jo Calderone was entirely successful—the reaction of most viewers was probably close to Justin Bieber’s—but the fact that it was staged at all, with such oddness and commitment, counts as a weird sort of triumph, a Whitney Biennial moment in a Jersey Shore world.

And a crucial part of Gaga’s genius is her accessibility. Some have criticized her for linking outrageous imagery to resolutely conventional (if highly accomplished) pop music, but it’s hard to imagine her ascending to her current cultural position in any other way. And her talent as a musician shouldn’t be underestimated. As a lifelong fan of the Pet Shop Boys, I’ve always believed that dance music can be as rich a form of expression as any other, and Gaga comes closer than any arena-level artist in a long time to achieving that magical combination of irony, earnestness, and encyclopedic skill. A song like “Alejandro” is a miniature history of pop music, both good and bad, as well as a movie, a radio play, and a sensational dance song. And Gaga’s art absolutely needs to be part of the mainstream to make any sense. It’s no accident that her first two albums are called The Fame and The Fame Monster.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that this heady combination of surrealism and accessibility hasn’t been seen in this country for more than twenty years—since June 10, 1991, to be exact, when Twin Peaks went off the air. Both Lady Gaga and David Lynch used their nimbleness, intelligence, and talent to introduce an unprecedented level of strangeness to a mass audience. Both ended up on the cover of Time. Both were clearly just good kids at heart. And both emerged during recessionary, politically divided, and culturally conservative periods that nonetheless managed to produce at least one exemplar of the outré, as if all the culture’s unresolved weirdness were being channeled into a single icon. Lynch, of course, has retreated in recent years, and where Gaga goes from here is anyone’s guess: I have no doubt she’ll continue to produce interesting music, but it’s hard to imagine her thriving anywhere but in the spotlight. But at the moment, she threatens to make the rest of us seem obsolete.

Written by nevalalee

August 30, 2011 at 9:50 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

August 30, 2011 at 7:35 am

The Strand dollar bin and more news from New York

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Over the past week, New York City has seen three exceedingly rare events: an earthquake, a tropical storm, and a visit by me. And while my recent trip, thankfully, wasn’t something that happens once in a generation, it’s still less frequent than I would like. I lived in New York for seven years, moving there right out of college despite never having spent more than a few days in the city, simply because I figured, as a writer, that it was the only place in the world to be. Perhaps inevitably, it was only after I left two years ago, moving to Chicago to be with my wife, that my writing life finally began to resemble the one I wanted. But I still miss New York and the time I spent there, so it’s always a pleasure to go back.

If there was a center to my New York life, it was the dollar bin at the Strand Bookstore. My own suspicion, confirmed by long experience, is that every book in the world, no matter how unusual or rare, turns up there sooner or later—usually just after you’ve bought it somewhere else. For years, then, on a weekly basis, I would take the train to Union Square and browse in the Strand dollar bin for an hour or so, nearly always emerging with some unexpected find. And although inflation has increased the price of certain hardcovers to $2, my visit last week was as productive as usual: in half an hour, I found a copy of Nancy Arrowsmith’s classic Field Guide to the Little People, a book I remember fondly from my childhood, and, even more remarkably, the anonymous Mediations on the Tarot, a book I’d been hoping to pick up for years.

And while a visit to the Strand alone would have more than justified the trip, it wasn’t the only reason I went to New York. One of my closest friends, the poet and memoirist Katy Lederer, is getting married at the end of the year, and her engagement party seemed like a good excuse to fly out for the weekend. At the party, in addition to Katy and her fiancé Ben, my wife and I got to hang out with Katy’s dad, the legendary Richard Lederer, author of Crazy English, Anguished English and many other classic works on language and wordplay. I devoured his books growing up, and I’m pleased to report that, in person, he’s exactly what you’d hope him to be: funny, garrulous, a fount of jokes, trivia, and sharp observation. I’m looking forward to seeing him again at Katy’s wedding.

On the business side, I also had the chance to catch up with my agent, who had some updates on The Icon Thief and its sequel. Now that the cover art and copy have been finalized, the next step is to go out to readers for potential blurbs, which we’ll be doing in two stages over the next few months. My publisher will also be printing advance readers’ copies soon, which is very exciting. Otherwise, it’s just a matter of pushing forward on House of Passages, the final draft of which is due on September 30, and laying the groundwork for a possible third novel, a tentative synopsis of which I’m hoping to finish shortly. All in all, the next few weeks promise to be exceptionally interesting, with a move to Oak Park, a novelette, and possibly a couple of surprises. Check back soon for more!

Written by nevalalee

August 29, 2011 at 9:43 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

August 29, 2011 at 7:30 am

Posted in Movies, Quote of the Day

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Was Colonel Cathcart a novelist?

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Colonel Cathcart was impervious to absolutes. He could measure his own progress only in relationship to others, and his idea of excellence was to do something at least as well as all the other men his own age who were doing the same thing even better. The fact that there were thousands of men his own age and older who had not even attained the rank of major enlivened him with foppish delight in his own remarkable worth; on the other hand, the fact that there were men of his own age and younger who were already generals contaminated him with an agonizing sense of failure and made him gnaw at his fingernails with an unappeasable anxiety…

Joseph Heller, Catch-22

Written by nevalalee

August 28, 2011 at 9:18 am

Posted in Books, Quote of the Day

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