The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Saturday, June 27, 2009


Several versions of Simon Reynolds' RIP IT UP AND START AGAIN: POSTPUNK 1978–1984 circulate around. The UK version is long--almost 600 pages, with a chronology of releases and band foundings--and the US version is significantly shorter. But as far as I can tell, there are versions within versions and a couple editions of each. Having finished the longest version I could get my hands on (the second paperback edition), I can say that I don't quite understand why it needed to be as long as it was. The book traces "postpunk" from, as its title makes clear, 1978 to 1984. Because Reynolds is a rock critic, he's got to set forth some arbitrary landmarks and boundaries, and so his book begins with the breakup of the Sex Pistols (duh) and the founding of PiL (his first interesting choice, but not a very daring one) and ends with Frankie Goes to Hollywood, which is a very British choice. I don't think anyone in the US saw Frankie as following in a postpunk line, but Reynolds makes a pretty convincing argument that they did come from that stock. The book isn't as good of a read as I hoped, although the research is great. Three dozen or more stories about bands getting together in England, orienting themselves to punk rock, and either succeeding or disappearing gets pretty repetitive. It was fascinating to read about how the Human League, which have become essentially synonymous with silly 1980s synth rock and big hair, actually came from the projects of Sheffield, England with a very well-developed political project, a kind of Chumbawamba. (But for all of his understanding of English sociopolitical life in the late 1970s, it is amazing that Reynolds calls Cleveland the heart of the US steel industry.)

As far as I can tell, Reynolds' most important act of critical judgment was in deciding what to exclude and what to include and what to count as the main gene line of "postpunk." Unlike what an American-oriented critic would do, Reynolds puts synthesizer music at the very center of the postpunk family tree, sprouting from PiL's early records. Because of this, a lot of music that I never considered "postpunk" in any but a chronological sense is at the heart of Reynolds' story: the Human League, for instance, are key players here. Reynolds excludes from his story hardcore and the early 1980s punk revival, seeing them as irrelevant. It's an interesting story, very indebted to the post-Velvet Underground cult of artiness. But I don't think he mentions the Jam at all, and Elvis Costello is outside of his purview. Were they too derivative of pub rock? Dunno.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

plotting in puerto vallarta

Originally uploaded by Mantooth

Sunday, June 14, 2009

naipaul and menand

Although I finished it several weeks ago, I'm still not sure what I think about V.S. Naipaul's A BEND IN THE RIVER. He's one of those authors that I'd heard a great deal about, essentially all of it wildly positive, but still didn't know much about even after reading one of his classics (A HOUSE FOR MR. BISWAS, which I read about five years ago). A recent and very sensationalistic authorized biography of Naipaul caused a commotion in the book-review press, as the biography dwells on Naipaul's taste for rough sex and his often brutal and generally callous treatment of the women in his life. None of this was an entirely new story, of course, as Paul Theroux had already written extensively about what a bastard Sir Vidia is/was, but to have this in an "authorized" biography was pretty delicious. Anyway, apart from all of the gossip I'd always heard that Naipaul was one of the great stylists in English and that if his politics weren't so uncongenial to the project he'd be the great postcolonial writer. (His novels certainly document the fragmenting of the old colonial order, but not in the celebratory way that lefty postcolonials prefer.) I had slogged through MR. BISWAS without it making a great impression, but since A BEND IN THE RIVER is considered Naipaul's greatest work I tried it out with my last credit.

Like MR. BISWAS, it wanders and meanders and doesn't feel particularly tightly plotted. Huge events occur during the novel, and the main character (Salim) observes them from his unimportant position, and they determine Salim's development, but it's hard to say about this novel "this happened, and it led to this, and it ended up this way." Salim is an Indian Muslim from the Indian trading diaspora, here in southern Africa (an unnamed nation but most critics see it to be what used to be called the Belgian Congo and then Zaire). He leaves his "cosmopolitan" coastal city for a city in the interior where he buys a general-store business. The city in which he lives waxes and wanes with the nation's fortunes; over the course of the book the foreigners who give the city culture and money are driven out by "bush" people during decolonization, then return when the nation normalizes, then start to leave again when the Big Man leader (likely modeled on Mobutu Sese Seko) begins to rile up those "bush" people. It's a fascinating look at a little-known group of people and at a predicament I'd never thought much about.

After that I quickly sped through Louis Menand's THE METAPHYSICAL CLUB, a kind of heavy-hitters lineup of mid-19th-century American intellectual history: Dewey, Holmes, Agassiz, Peirce, William James, and many others make appearances. Menand is a New Yorker writer and he brings that blessed clarity to this book, but even at that I'm such a philosophical illiterate (and lazy reader of this book) that I couldn't quote back at you Menand's explanation of what "pragmatism" actually is. Oddly enough, I did start to understand why statistics was such a breakthrough by reading THE METAPHYSICAL CLUB.