Monday, January 31, 2011

illegible undecipherable

Story 11 in Curio is up: "illegible undecipherable." This is one of the strangest stories in the thing in terms of form, and also one of my favorites.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Best. Movie. Ever.

Guys, get ready to go on the journey of a lifetime. I think I've been spoiled for other films.

Thanks to Ned for the tip.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Nobody tells me what anything is about.

Guys: let's talk marketing for a second. I know it's unpleasant, but when you're an editor, a publisher, or a writer, these questions become of significant practical importance.

The thing is, I hate being asked what my books or stories are "about." Like most writers, I even mentally enclose the word "about" in quotation marks, as if the very concept of aboutness -- of a story having a subject -- is somehow illegitimate. This problem started when I was young, because I was having a hell of a time structuring my work, which was a very strange compromise between realist literary fiction (inspired by early John Irving and similar writers) and surrealism (inspired, more than anything, by film) and genre (China Mieville, Kurt Vonnegut, Neil Gaiman, etc.). Of course it still is, but this was before I'd figured out how to make it work, and so everything I wrote was rather shapeless, something I still fight today; it tended to be that the only way I could get a structure going was to hide a second book within the first, or rather, to designate a point at which the story behind the story would reveal itself; the new story wouldn't be very well formed either, but the pressures associated with getting from one place to the other was energizing in a way that almost simulated structure.

At any rate, when people asked me what my books were about, I would say the first (written at sixteen) was about a guy who shrank until he disappeared. This is not very helpful. The second, I said, was about a world where all the women had died out; this was accurate and sounded maybe a little helpful but in fact it told you almost nothing about the actual story (it was about a guy who was considering a sex change operation because he wanted to be loved by other men, and also, it turned out, because he had been disguised as a little girl by his father, a Hollywood makeup artist, for most of his childhood; also, in the third act, pink starfish aliens invade). I said my third book was about "eating disorders and God." This was rather conceptual and abstracted.

I've improved slowly at this game, to the point where my current book -- my sixth -- tends to get a really satisfying, slightly bug-eyed expression from the people to whom I describe it: "It's about the atom bombs Fat Man and Little Boy reincarnated as people," I say. They nod and then it registers and suddenly they become interested in what I'm saying. This reaction is why I believe this will probably be my first published novel. Some editor is going to make that face somewhere at work, and then it'll all be over.

I have a friend who works at Barnes & Noble, who on hearing the premise said that it had the advantage he could actually sell the book: if you can quickly express what a book is "about," you can get someone to have a look at it now and again.

Writers resist this for many reasons, some better than others. We resent aboutness because it can be such hard work: hewing to a subject generally requires sustained plotting, which few institutions teach and few writers enjoy learning. The writers with the best command of plot are often stigmatized, and in the independent publishing community especially we are, it seems, eternally frozen in the adolescent moment of discovery that a novel need not have plot or even story at all. This is true. However, most of us need story and even plot, and even a fair amount of it, to generate something very interesting. And if we want someone to look at our work, it's even more important; if it's impossible to communicate what the thing is about, then there's little reason for your potential reader to prefer one thing over another.

What writers want to do instead of finding and expressing aboutness is to build brands: their own, and the brands of their publications. And so I will see notes on Facebook suggesting I check out "the new story by Steve Stevenson in Wigleaf," or whatever. They don't tell me what the story is about. They don't tell me anything, in fact, apart from the name of the writer and the venue in which the thing was published. Some people and some publishers have strong enough brands that they can get away with this: I know what a Blake Butler story or a Matt Bell story or an Amelia Gray story is enough that I can decide, on the basis of that writer alone, whether or not to click that link. And the same goes for, say, elimae: there's a fairly well-defined aesthetic there that lets me know what I'm in for when I read elimae. However, it wouldn't be bragging exactly to call myself a high-information consumer: for the average person, the concept of a Matt Bell story is meaningless and elimae is maybe a girl's name. If you're big enough to rely on brand alone, you're not reading this post: you're flying to Europe on a jet filled with greased-up topless dancers or some such. For the rest of us, identifying the aboutness of our writing is essential if we want to get readers.

Our culture of writing and publishing, however, is allergic to aboutness at every level. If you look at a given literary magazine's cover you will generally see two things: an evocative cover image (or, worse yet, a boring one) that you know has exactly nothing to do with the contents, and, on the back, a list of names you maybe half-recognize if you're an expert in this shit. The high-level literary decoding ring required to understand anything you're seeing such that you have any idea whether or not you should purchase the book takes years to acquire, and even then you're often wrong. I would suggest that it's time we start putting brief excerpts on the covers (back, and sometimes front) of our magazines. The idea that putting our names on it is sufficient is based on the false premise that anyone knows or cares who we are. They don't.

I've been thinking about which links I click versus which I don't on Facebook, Twitter, and etc., and it occurred to me that I pretty consistently visit On Earth As it Is when someone reminds me to do so. Why is that? It's not because Matthew Simmons and Bryan Furuness edit the thing, although I've had somewhat personal interactions with both and they seem like very nice guys and good writers. And it's not because people I know and like, such as Gabriel Blackwell, are publishing there: I haven't read everything Gabe has written, though I know and like him and his work. I think the reason I go is I know, in a very basic way, what I'm there for: On Earth As it Is is about prayer. Every week, they publish a "prayer narrative." What is a prayer narrative? It's whatever they publish. You can see commonalities between the stories but the commonalities aren't especially strong. The point is there's a constraint, a sort of aboutness: I know why I'm supposed to go there. In a world where my eyes are the currency and that currency is asked for thousands of times more often than I can afford to give it, that makes all the difference. Bring actual cash into the equation, as in ask me to purchase your book, and we're in real trouble: I'll definitely need to know why I'm supposed to care, and the fact that you wrote or edited it isn't sufficient as an answer.

I write this partly, maybe chiefly, as an admonishment to myself: I am terrible about remembering to say what the things I'm trying to sell or convince you to click are about. I very rarely summarize my own stories when self-promoting, and I do it even more rarely for the works of others. Sometimes this is legitimate, online: with very short works, description can often be destruction. Usually, however, it's not. And when I see other people linking to "the new Steve Stevenson story at Wigleaf" without any sort of description at all apart maybe from a very general claim that the story is good, I become suspicious, as I often am, that no one involved has actually read the damn thing: that we are publishing and sharing purely as a mode of self-promotion, that none of us actually care about each other. Surely this isn't true. But when nobody can go to the trouble of describing something such that I will actually consider reading it, I become suspicious.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Friday Night Dance Party

"The simple thing—lock the car."

Story 9 in Curio, "Onions," is ready for you.

When I was doing illustrations for the book, this was one of the first stories I tried. But the image I chose was, well, just about impossible to capture properly. You'll just have to read it and guess which one I mean.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Project NES

If this weren't the blog that it is, but was instead a blog about playing every game ever officially released for the NES in alphabetical order, it would be this other blog instead.


Right now I am a dude into playing chess online. There may be better venues but I am using Why am I playing chess? In some ways the more relevant question is why I haven't played for several years. As I've mentioned before, I was home-schooled, and so pretty much destined to play. We tended to have Napoleon complexes, and it's not hard to imagine why: our mothers cut our hair, we had no idea how to dress, and we were generally shrimpy shut-ins. It was inconceivable that we would succeed as social entities or even soldiers, but we might be good at telling other people who to shoot. (Notice this is also a hobby of the would-be ruling class, which was how many of these kids also understood themselves: no one had told them you've got to be able to talk to human beings if you want to rule anything.) For my part, I've always had a feeling I would die alone in a ditch, but I wanted to beat those kids at something. So that I would play chess was maybe what you would call over-determined. I'm consistently embarrassed by the fact my first e-mail address was Not, mind you, because I was good at chess, but because I was deluded.

Of course Tim's posts re: fairy chess pieces may have also had something to do with it.

Anyway, I played through most of my childhood and into college, though it was only in undergrad that I would actually join a chess club, where I was one of very few regularly attending members. Several of the other attendees were friends who are no longer friends, though not because I beat them at chess -- historically, I've had trouble beating much of anyone. I've always had a pretty unstable game, the sort where I could hold my own against players of nearly any skill level but very rarely sealed the deal. I was a constant victim of knights, which would fork my king and rooks regularly. (A fork is when a piece is moved into a position such that two of your pieces are endangered: you can move one out of the way, but not both. Knights are good at forks because they can often do them from less-than-obvious positions.)

An extremely unlikely example of a fork.
Part of my problem is aesthetic: for years, in childhood, I was playing to make the board look pretty. I would spend turn after turn arranging my pawns into a jagged, seemingly impassible barrier at the center of the board. It was more sculpture than strategy.

Eventually I moved beyond this rather hopeless maneuver and started building intensely complicated series of trades, often in the king's column, with the idea being that we would swap pieces back and forth for a while and then, because I had more pawns, bishops and etc. trained on the spot, I would eventually end up with a rook alone in the center of the board, pointed at the king. Which would mean the king was in check. Which would, well, not do me much good: you need two rooks for a mate, or at least a rook and some other piece, most of the time. And anyway, the epic trading sequences never really happened. Those things are so complicated, rely on so many assumptions, that they never really quite pan out. It comes apart, and everything the opponent's been building in the way of a contingency plan is one more contingency you haven't got.

A big part of my problem was I didn't understand how to checkmate. Like, at all. This was partly a result of my second problem, which was that I never quite learned how to deal with a world where you could only do one thing at once: the reason you need two rooks to mate is once the first has his eye on the king there has to be another waiting to catch him where he wants to go next. And by that same token, if a piece is aiming at your king, you can't do anything but deal with that piece. The closest thing in chess to making two moves at once is hiding one piece behind another, say a rook behind a knight, so that when you move the one the other is aimed at the king -- and yet the other piece, the one you actually moved, has gone on to do his own thing.

Mate with two rooks.
In the college chess club I learned the necessity of trading. When you're as easily distracted as I am -- and I was often just a little hungry in college, not starving but slightly underfed, such that by midday I was sometimes light-headed, which made me a bit of a spazz -- you have to remove pieces from the board to simplify things. I learned the concept of development, which is more or less what it sounds like: the degree to which you have created a structure, a system, a machine at the board's center. (Usually the center, anyway.) I learned how to checkmate with nothing but a king and a rook. I learned how to avoid stalemates, which were back then how my games ended maybe half of the time, even when I really should have won.

Mate with one rook.
I learned a lot of this from Reid, a pharmacy major who had been nationally ranked. I don't know how high, but very high, in a game where being anywhere near even the middle upper ranks requires some wild combination of intelligence, concentration, and memorization. There's a level of play where if you lose the coin flip and therefore play black and therefore have to go second, you've already lost, or the best you can hope for's a mate. I beat him one time, because he (more a teacher than an adversary) was kind enough to suggest I reconsider one disastrous move, and because he played me in a way I understood: trading. It was thrilling. Sure he'd gone easy on me, but his "going easy" was better than most people ever play.

So I've been coming back to it. And sucking. And but also, for the first time, learning to play properly. Slowly climbing the ranks. Odds are you'll hear more about it, because presently I'm obsessed.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Kane and Lynch: Dog Days

Okay so I know I've just been linking to cool stuff today, but what can I say: I've been too busy reading the stuff (cool stuff) to write anything! So, here's another thing. Tim Rogers wrote a review of Kane and Lynch: Dog Days that kind of makes me want to play said game. Which I thought was impossible. Here's how it begins:

First there was Kane & Lynch: Dead Men, and the marketing was a little better than the game itself, the ideas cited by the creators more compelling than what they did with them, though here and there — through the dodgy aiming and tedious field-resuscitations — there was the glimmer of something compelling in whole.
Then came Dog Days which, in its fifth month of release, can be purchased for less than twenty American dollars in these United States, a reflection of its rapid descent from the good graces of a public primed by similar maybe-better-than-the game marketing, and a mixed critical reception.
But I love Dog Days, and for a time, while I was still in the middle of it, couldn’t articulate why. It’s ugly, visually and thematically. It’s simple. On the later levels, and higher difficulty settings, the fragility of your avatar often renders it tedious, but I kept playing. I beat it, in fact, after picking it up just to try it out, when I was stuck on a particularly obnoxious bit of Dead Men. Intending a brief jog, I was sucked into a marathon, beating it in two sittings before I polished off the final chapters of its precursor, and by the time I was done I knew why.
It is about the dogs, those dogs, at the end. You know the ones.Yahtzee sure as fuck knows them, but he doesn’t get them, doesn’t see that what he glibly dismissed as an artifact of sloppy design is just a pointed middle-finger to his expectations, and those of an entire subculture of media-consumers.

"The Benefits of Video Games"

We often think of immersive computer and videogames—like "FarmVille," "Guitar Hero" and "World of Warcraft"—as "escapist," a kind of passive retreat from reality. Many critics consider such games a mind-numbing waste of time, if not a corrupting influence. But the truth about games is very nearly the opposite. In today's society, they consistently fulfill genuine human needs that the real world fails to satisfy. More than that, they may prove to be a key resource for solving some of our most pressing real-world problems.

"The Rape of American Prisoners"

Across the country, 12.1 percent of kids questioned in the BJS survey said that they’d been sexually abused at their current facility during the preceding year. That’s nearly one in eight, or approximately 3,220, out of the 26,550 who were eligible to participate. The survey, however, was only given at large facilities that held young people who had been “adjudicated”—i.e., found by a court to have committed an offense—for at least ninety days, which is more restrictive than it may sound. In total, according to the most recent data, there are nearly 93,000 kids in juvenile detention on any given day.19 Although we can’t assume that 12.1 percent of the larger number were sexually abused—many kids not covered by the survey are held for short periods of time, or in small facilities where rates of abuse are somewhat lower—we can say confidently that the BJS’s 3,220 figure represents only a small fraction of the children sexually abused in detention every year.

What sort of kids get locked up in the first place? Only 34 percent of those in juvenile detention are there for violent crimes. (More than 200,000 youth are also tried as adults in the US every year, and on any given day approximately 8,500 kids under eighteen are confined in adult prisons and jails. Although probably at greater risk of sexual abuse than any other detained population, they haven’t yet been surveyed by the BJS.) According to the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, which was itself created by PREA, more than 20 percent of those in juvenile detention were confined for technical offenses such as violating probation, or for “status offenses” like missing curfews, truancy, or running away—often from violence and abuse at home. (“These kids have been raped their whole lives,” said a former officer from the TYC’s Brownwood unit.20) Many suffer from mental illness, substance abuse, and learning disabilities.

Fully 80 percent of the sexual abuse reported in the study was committed not by other inmates but by staff. And surprisingly, 95 percent of the youth making such allegations said that they were victimized by female staff. Sixty-four percent of them reported at least one incident of sexual contact with staff in which no force or explicit coercion was used. Staff caught having sex with inmates often claim it’s consensual. But staff have enormous control over inmates’ lives. They can give inmates privileges, such as extra food or clothing or the opportunity to wash, and they can punish them: everything from beatings to solitary confinement to extended detention. The notion of a truly consensual relationship in such circumstances is grotesque even when the inmate is not a child.

"The curator was particular"

Story 8 in Curio, "Spoon and Blade," is now up for you to read.

Thanks for keeping up with this project, guys! <3

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

More on Fairy Chess Pieces

When I was in middle school I had a tenuous relationship with our school's TAG program. TAG stands, in Iowa at least, for Talented and Gifted, and my relationship with the program was tenuous because I had nice standardized test scores but earned a D- in some actual class (I think math). For a while I was enrolled in these afterschool enrichment courses, in which a leather-jacketed woman guided me and other quiet and stooped children through exercises in toothpick bridge building and tangram shuffling. Then I got the D-. For a few days it was a fluke, then somebody decided it was more than a fluke.

I still had this idea, unfortunately, that good times were to be had by sticking around the building after hours, so I obeyed a flyer in the hall and joined the chess club. The first thing I had to do in chess club was rank myself by playing a veteran. A boy my age sat across from me in a fluorescent-lit room and we moved plastic pieces at each other until his ride showed up. He started packing up his backpack and said something like, Um. And I said something like, Well. We looked at each for a while, both awkward. I started taking down my pieces and the other kid said, Oh, you forfeit. You forfeit.

So I quit chess club.

Then I pretty much gave up chess. To hell with chess, I thought (except I didn't swear much then). Sometimes I played with the girl who lived next door, and sometimes I'd set up the pieces (now fantasy pieces, bought at a garage sale, tall and intricate, three-inch kings and knights and ladies) and narrate while I video recorded my three-legged cat knocking them off the board. In college I dated a woman who was interested in chess, and who was probably at least as good as me (I remember us being evenly matched, although she might argue against that evaluation), and the game gave us something that seemed intellectually engaging to do while we swallowed vodka or ate pizza. I even went online and bought a new chess set, a nice folding thing, for $50, and then went mad with impatience while I waited for FedEx to bring it.

But then, again, I grew bored with the game, and impatient with my own impatience. My thought then, as it is now, is that it would be pretty sweet to be really good at chess, but much in the same was as it would be pretty sweet to know three languages perfectly, or to know how to kick box, or to train to control a plane.

This probably explains why I can't stop thinking about those fairy chess pieces I mentioned a few days ago. They're interesting in so many ways: chess is just crazy old, old enough to have gone through all these variations, and then even when it didn't go through certain variations on its own, some people decided it should go through some variations, and then really all these variations are moderately to fairly valid, in that few of them do anything that much different than regular pieces, or at least anything so different that we couldn't imagine them, with straight faces, as valid in a universe only slightly different than our own.

I am going to tell you about some of the fairy chess pieces that strike me as most interesting. Of course, you may want to check out the Wikipedia article or your favorite casual research resource to determine which fairy chess piece you love the most, and will dress as next Halloween:

The Basilisk: This piece moves like your average and, okay, kickass queen, but also immobilizes enemy pieces within a knight's hop of itself. It just sits there and stares at them. Come on, it says, but of course the other piece can't come on, because it's turned to stone, and the Basilisk laughs and laughs and laughs, until an enemy Basilisk comes along, and then nobody's laughing anymore.

The Amazon: This is a queen who has also trained as a knight. It is honestly also called a superqueen, which was probably a band name at some point in the past few decades.

The Kraken: The Kraken goes wherever it will, but rather than swim there it hops there, tentacles swinging, flailing, water everywhere, soaking the board, infuriating all players and spectators, which is to say that the Kraken produces by itself the natural effect of most chess games.

Sexy Batman: Why I Love Kate Beaton

Like all right-thinking men, I have a bit of a crush on Batman. It's not that I love the comics that much -- as best I can tell the continuing Batman series is a bit of a mess, as with most continuing hero titles -- and it's not that I'm all that into the Christopher Nolan movies, either. The Joker was great in The Dark Knight and beyond that I don't think it's aged very well: it's a not-very-smart person's idea of a smart Batman story, one that strips away all the fun and weirdness and replaces it with a very "gritty," very "realistic" sort of action movie. I will continue to go on record as much preferring the Iron Man movies. Probably the best incarnation of Batman I know, and the one where I fell in love with the character, is Batman: The Animated Series, which was on for some time during my most formative years. The mix was perfect: it's grim and serious in the way a cartoon about a guy named Batman can be, without insisting on its own seriousness to the point of becoming a farce all over again.

I mean really what I love at this point is the idea of Batman. He's so serious! If you are a bad guy, he will get you. And put you in prison. And then you'll get out like ten minutes later and do it all again. Don't think about that part too much! His worst enemies are a clown, a guy with a messed up face, a dude called The Penguin, and a lady dressed up like a cat. And why does he fight them? To avenge his parents' untimely murder. Also, he is a detective. And but also, he knows kung fu. I mean you have to understand, this is pretty much the guy I would design if I were going to make up a super hero so awesome no one would ever believe him.

And Kate Beaton's got his number. I think the joke here began as a bit of revenge for the absurd contortions lady comic book characters are put through in order to look "sexy," and it still works on that level, but there's also the figure of Batman himself: add one more contradiction to the pile (he's not just ultra-masculine, now he's self-consciously sexy) and the absurdity of it all blows up wonderfully.

The best part, I think, is the clear affection with which Beaton treats poor sexy Batman. He's absolutely a figure of fun and mockery, but you can see the love in not only the humor, but the lines themselves. Her art started out a little rough, though very charming and lively, and has since developed an elegant, controlled goofiness that makes her characters feel very alive.

She started out doing mostly comics about history, but has since branched out to book cover comics and general silliness. I guess she gets a lot of e-mails saying "Wow, you're a girl! That's weird, 'cause you're so funny!" Which is really too bad.

I love the silliness of her jokes. She draws some of the funniest cartoon butts in history. (She drew Sexy Batman's butt in the link provided above, trust me it is hilarious.) A lot of her characters make the goofiest faces -- check out Harley Quinn in Sexy Batman strip 2, with her crazy duck lips and silly eyes. By posting several related strips at once, she can often build a decent gag into a great one -- check out her Gatsby comics to see what I mean. I like that she's not above just doing a gag, going for a larf.

You see a lot of "silly" humor these days, I think, that's really better described as random. Take Family Guy, every comedy fan's worst enemy: they're silly in the sense that stuff happens for no reason, in the sense that the world is usually revealed to be a senseless, cruel, crass place. I much prefer Beaton's good-natured approach: it's not that she hates these characters and it's not that she wants to make them suffer arbitrarily. She'll take an easy laugh, sure -- but not a cruel one.

So yeah, basically her comic is a good time, I think you should read it.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Uncanny Valley at AWP

We won't have a table this year because we don't have any physical product, but I will be at the Puerto del Sol table pretty much all the time. Sadly, Tracy can't make it. :(

As far as Uncanny Valley-related people who will be attending, off the top of my head Robert Alan Wendeborn will be there, as will Roxane Gay, Brian Oliu, and Blake Butler (who may be surprised to hear himself described as "Uncanny Valley-related"). I believe Laura Ellen Scott will also. Am I missing anyone?

Will you, our beloved readers, be there? Do you want a hug? Let us know in the comments.


It's been common, especially recently, for people to justify fiction -- perhaps more than any other art or form -- by its resemblance to reality. Even its unreality has been justified by a relation to a "deeper truth." As in, we lie to tell the truth.

And yet the term "fiction" derives its meaning precisely from its difference from reality. Literally the only thing we know about fiction is it isn't true.

How, then, did "realism" come to dominate storytelling? And how long can such dominance possibly persist?

Is the obsession with truth a defense against feelings of shame over the "work" of fiction being so very unlike work? Or simple narcissism?

I have spoken several times about the fundamental silliness of using fiction or poetry as a means of discovering truth of any sort, because of their fundamental weaknesses as methods of producing knowledge.

If we don't produce knowledge when we write fiction, what do we produce?

Perhaps entertainment first and foremost. Most self-styled authors seem to consider entertainment secondary. But I consider it, as a reader and a writer, thoroughly primary. It is the one thing I know I can and should do. Which is not to argue that everything in a fiction should be subordinated to crass grabs at attention. Such things are rarely even really entertaining. 

This is terribly abstract I suppose but it seems urgently important to me. Share your thoughts.

"Bun started with little kids because that seemed like protocol"

Story 7 in Curio, "Bun," is ready for you.

I consider "Natural Light" one of the saddest phrases in the English language, because while it ought to refer to something very pleasant and wholesome -- the sort of light that makes you want to paint -- instead it refers to the world's worst beer, favored by college students who can't find it in them to pay the extra two bucks to upgrade even to High Life.


Did you know there is a class of things known as fairy chess pieces? It's true! They're pieces that don't exist in formal chess but do exist or have existed in variants or in chess problems. I searched Wikipedia tonight for "Camel" and Wikipedia asked if I meant lots of things, one of which was the camel fairy chess piece. The camel fairy chess piece moves two spaces, then one diagonal space. It's like a drunken knight.

The camel I really wanted, though, was this one, the band. I came across them originally through a weird route, that one where a friend loans you a mix CD that a significant other made for her, and then you listen to it and think Wow, that guy had pretty good/weird taste, but then you remember all the complaints your friend lodged against that guy, and you think, Wow, what a weirdo, and then you think, Wait, I'm listening to his music, so am I the weirdo?

Probably you are.

I have found some pretty great music this way, though. I found Camel's Moonmadness this way, maybe 18 months ago, and it was just strange enough to grab my attention and get me thinking in unusual ways but familiar enough in its structure to work as writing music. Sometimes there are vocals and other times there aren't. There's a lot of electric guitar and drums and organ. The album sounds like the soundtrack for a mashup of Dune, Return to Oz, Mad Max, and Krull, starring David Bowie and Sting. Listening to it triggers the same type of reaction I felt when I was a kid watching the reruns of old British science fiction shows PBS ran on Saturday nights: it hints at something both more playful and more serious than what I'm used to.

The important thing this band did for me, then, was to come into my head at a formative time in the project I was just starting and help me take it in a weirder direction than I would have otherwise. It's the same thing that happens sometimes when you read a story that pulls a novel and exciting move, or when you watch a film with some neat tricks and think, I'd like to make that happen in words. Have you found anything great like this lately?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Lessons Learned from Video Games

Someone in Australia did a fun interview with Owen Pallett in which they asked him to talk about some video game-inspired life lessons. He did so, naming Space Quest III, Out of This World, Ico, Portal, and Call of Duty 4

I thought I'd really quickly do the same.

Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure taught me that, no matter how cute and otherwise harmless you are, being a hero means destroying the environment one boss at a time. 

Metal Gear Solid taught me that you can keep your mind your own as long as you remember to switch controller ports.

Legend of Dragoon taught me that revenge takes a good long time, so you'd better find other things to interest yourself along the way.

Final Fantasy IX taught me that you don't have to be born to fear death.

Final Fantasy VIII taught me that friendship is magnetic, cosmic, genetic. It taught me that working hard might mean forgetting about the people you love. It taught me that you don't have to remember someone to love them--unless you're going to mess around with space and time, in which case, you better have a meeting place picked out.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Drunk Pokemon

Kevin Nguyen:

This is Dogerpion (but some people call him Kevin). He is a fire Pokemon!!
OK, so he’s not the coolest Pokemon, but he’s reliable and caring. But he’s all of the best animals combined — part dog, part tiger, part scorpion, and he has fucking wings!
Also from The Bygone Bureau, a sex advice column by a girl who's never had sex, the girlfriend cash cab, and a sort-of appreciation of Braid.

Real Books Smell Like Stuff

So I just read White Collar Worker: I am a destiny, an e-chap by Dan Magers, and H_NGM_N and I love it.  I can't do more than try to say why.  The language feels like an irregular pulse developed from too many cigarettes and downers.  I don't get surprised more than once when I hear something like:  "Now My Band Will Fuck You" next to "Meaning contains a glancing similarity/to what is happening to me."  That's just what happens when you smoke a lot of cigarettes do a lot of downers:  I got used to missing heart beats in the language and I really really enjoyed it.  The speaker of the poems is a lovable asshole, a guy you would beat the shit out of if he was less funny and less generous with his booze.  The form uses the so-cool non-sequitur, reminiscent of Matthew Rohrer's A Plate of Chicken, though Magers' lines accrete into something bigger and more or less profound (though I don't know which).

When I finished I was sad and wanted to write poems.  I felt like the speaker died and I had to write his eulogy.  Two things that make a book good.  I love the design H_NGM_N put into this little e-chap, but I want to see a real, physical, full length book that smells like shit when it gets wet.  If I had a gun and a few thousand bucks I'd make Dan Magers write more poems and let me print them all.

(Adam Robinson also reviews here)

The Case Against Economic Disaster Porn

Noreen Malone:
When I sat down to my keyboard recently to Google the city of Detroit, the fourth hit was a site titled “the fabulous ruins of Detroit.” The site—itself a bit of a relic, with a design seemingly untouched since the 1990s—showed up in the results above the airport, above the Red Wings or the Pistons, the newspapers, or any other sort of civic utility. Certainly above anything related to the car industry, for which the word Detroit was once practically a synonym. Pictures of ruins are now the city’s most eagerly received manufactured good.
We have begun to think of Detroit as a still-life. This became clear to me earlier this week, when the latest set of "stunning" pictures of Detroit in ruins made the rounds, taken by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre for a book, The Ruins of Detroit. (More such pictures here and here.) They were much tweeted and blogged about (including byTNR’s own Jonathan Chait), as other such “ruin porn” photosets of blighted places have been, and were described variously as wonderful, as beautiful, as stunning, as shocking, as sad. They are all of those things, and so I suppose they are good art. But they are rotten photojournalism.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Puerto del Sol 45.2 now available

It's been a weird, long, weird journey, but Puerto del Sol 45.2 is now available for purchase. This is the third issue of Puerto with which Tracy and I have been deeply involved in editorial decisions in our capacities as managing editors, so if you like this blog you will probably like the issue. It's thick, full of brilliant weirdness, and just generally really exciting. It features contributions from writers like Grace Krilanovich, Joshua Cohen, Rick Moody, Sandra Simonds, Abraham Smith, Robert Lopez and Samuel Ligon, as well as our own Gabriel Blackwell and friend of the blog Brian Conn, whose book The Fixed Stars I also reviewed for the issue.

We hope you'll buy a copy and let us know what you think!

"When mad behavior yields profit we call it savvy"

Story six in Curio, "Ancient Recipe," is here.

And now I have to come up with something else to post to scroll the image below off the screen.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Nicki Minaj: Surreal Feminist

I was talking with my neighbor about teaching.  He gets to teach Rhetoric of Music and he asked me if there were any narrative rap songs, to which I had a handful of classics right away:  Gin and Juice, Boys in the Hood, Just a Friend, Fresh Prince of Bel Air... (the last song, though not nearly as awesome, is engraved in the brain of every person I know born in '83).  I noticed immediately that this wasn't the most recent mode for rap and hip hop.  I also exploded a blood vessle in my brain when he asked me what is the current mode of rap and the new Kanye record made me say surreal:  contemporary rap is surreal.  This is a recent discovery of mine, so it's just surface right now but expect great things to come...

“I made a conscious decision to try to tone down the sexiness... I want people—especially young girls—to know that in life, nothing is going to be based on sex appeal. You’ve got to have something else to go with that.”   
-  Nicki Minaj  
(via Here)

(From Kanye's Monster)
Pull up in the monster
Automobile gangster
With a bad bitch that came from Sri Lanka
Yeah I’m in that Tonka, colour of Willy Wonka
You could be the King but watch the Queen conquer
First things first I’ll eat your brains
Then I’mma start rocking gold teeth and fangs
Casue that’s what a muthafucking monster do
Hairdresser from milan, thats the monster do
Monster Giuseppe heel that’s the monster shoe
Young money is the roster and the monster crew
And I’m all up all up all up in the bank with the funny face
And if I’m fake I aint notice cause my money aint
So let me get this straight wait I’m the rookie
But my features and my shows ten times your pay
50k for a verse no album out!
Yeah my money’s so tall that my barbie’s gotta climb it
Hotter than a middle eastern climate
Find it 20 mataran dutty whine it
While it, nicki on a pit while I sign it
How these niggas so one-track minded
But really really I don’t give a F-U-C-K
Forget barbie fuck nicki she’s fake
She’s on a diet but my pockets eating cheese cake
And I’ll say boy the Chucky is Child’s play
Just killed another career it’s a mild day
Besides ‘Ye they can’t stand besides me
I think me, you and (____) menage friday
Pink wig thick ass give em whip lash
I think big get cash make em blink fast
Now look at what you just saw I think this is what you live for
Aaahhhh, I’m a muthafucking monster!

Possessed of Possession (1981)

(minor spoilers ahead)

In Mike’s recent post he included this:

When realism was invented, its writers were being ambitious and wild. They were trying to do something big and crazy. They weren't trying to “master the basics first,” they were writing the most beautiful things they could possibly imagine.

And though, obviously, this statement was being made in relation to creative writing pedagogy, it was in my mind a statement just as applicable to the films—the excessive narrative forms—of director Andrzej Zulawski. And especially his 1981 film Possession. Both the most perfectly realized example of a horror film that I’ve ever seen (i.e. = most literally horrifying) AND one of the most startling, revelatory, resistant versions of what is commonly referred to as the “art-house” film—a real head trip.

Watching it for the first time reminded me what I consider to be the best kinds of experimental lit—I remember thinking that any successful film version of, say, Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood couldn’t help but look a lot like this film. And, in my experience, Zulawski’s films share at least one thing with Barnes’ out-and-out weird masterpiece:

Though they tend to be mentioned, referenced, name-checked, they turn out, much less often, to be actually seen or read. (Certainly Zulawski’s public persona does little to encourage new fans; this is a man who is as [mildly] famous for quotes as he is for his films, quotes like: “To please the majority is the requirement of the Planet Cinema. As far as I’m concerned, I don’t make a concession to viewers, these victims of life, who think that a film is made only for their enjoyment, and who know nothing about their own existence.” What does that do but make him sound like a pretentious, self-important prick? An acquaintance recently put it this way over email: “He [Zulawski] strikes me as excitable and excessive, sometimes in a wonderful way, sometimes in a somewhat trying way (I like excess as a rule, but often AZ seems to stretch).” Which is as true a statement about his films as any. Except, in Possession’s case, the film is still the film is still the film—the film, still for me, persists.)

MUBI offers this summary of the plot:

Possession is a 1981 cult movie directed by Andrzej Żuławski. Mark (Sam Neill) returns home to Berlin to find his wife Anna (Isabelle Adjani) is leaving him for unclear reasons. He initially suspects an affair and hires detectives to track her, but gradually discovers clues that something far stranger is afoot. Instead, his wife leaves him and her lover, Heinrich (Heinz Bennent). What follows is a series of horrific, compelling and surreal events. The film was very controversial when first released and heavily edited for distribution in the United States. After an initial limited theatre release in the United Kingdom, Possession was banned as one of the notorious Video Nasties, although released uncut on DVD in 1999. It gradually developed a minor cult following among arthouse aficionados.

I.e., what starts out ostensibly as the story of a dysfunctional (and like liquid-dissolving) marriage between Mark (Neill) and Anna (Adjani) becomes, by about 10 or 12 minutes in, a relentlessly unfolding personal apocalypse. Adjani’s oft-discussed performance exudes, advances on the screen, in orders of magnitude. Her 4-minute single-take transformation in the infamous subway scene is nearly indescribable, both in terms of her performance and in its significance to the plot. (On subsequent viewings it is tempting to say the scene is about a miscarriage, or [and? also?] about another character’s birth, indeed the film’s titular MONSTER.)

Zulawski has commented that the reason so many of his films contain an apocalypse stems from the biographical beginnings of his own life—from being born into, under, Soviet control. His debut feature, The Third Part of the Night, takes up this theme most explicitly—not only adapting its title from the end of days so mysteriously enumerated in the Book of Revelation, but even going so far as to use Revelation’s passages to frame (if not adequately unpack) the film’s beginning and end.

In Possession, the apocalypse unfolding inside the film’s structure is twofold: One, it is the moment-by-moment, off-the-charts, always-exploding (or about to) absolute MANIA of the film—its mounting action, piled-on acting, a phantasmagoria layered frame by frame. I.e., this:

Or this:

Or this:

The other form the film’s apocalypse takes is more deeply embedded, lodged and latent in its very running time as DREAD, as a ponderous fear of THE END (it reminds me of that line from “Hey Bulldog”: “Some kind of innocence is/ measured out in years”)

The first kind of apocalypse is typified by the startlingly reckless, insistently depraved acts carried out by the characters in the gross guise of the plot, carried out with cruel, even demoniac flourishes and tics. See Mark’s coercion of a taxi driver into an almost certain death, a kamikaze attack by car on police officers in the hopes of distracting them long enough for Anna—by this point in the film unapologetically, fundamentally deranged—to escape their net.

Or, even better, one of Mark and Anna’s many domestic disturbances, this one in a cafe early in the film, during which they discuss what to do about their son Bob when they split. In short order this tense, unpleasant conversation turns nuclear, on public display much screaming, flailing, flinging of cups and chairs and plates—Mark barreling into one piece of furniture after another in an unchecked fit, stopped only by the entire kitchen staff pouring into the room to tackle him.

Anna’s speech just before Mark’s full-on freak out—as well as the many, concentric conversations the two engage in—serves not as ironic comment on traditional morality, but instead as a naming of their apocalypse, a putting into words of how barren, fallow, hollow their moral-ethical universe has become. (It is distressing at times, especially in relation to their son Bob, to try and imagine Mark and Anna before this—as wife and husband, as lovers, as one-time intimate friends.)

Or, another example, when Mark’s double—the use of dark twins and doubles is one of the film’s amorphous, unresolved mysteries—employs his palpable ability to corrupt. He malevolently encourages a bystander—wide-eyed, stereotypically “innocent” and plain—to fire indiscriminately at a gang of approaching men. (The fact that she is blond and has one leg in a cast makes her an unacknowledged double of another character in the film, Anna’s best friend Margie [those familiar with Fassbinder will recognize Margrit Carstensen here]. The fact that this unnamed woman’s role was originally much more fleshed out in the script—she was to be the new wife of Anna’s ex-husband—further situates her in a sort of narrative limbo, a leftover from a previous draft, an excised, deleted character somehow appearing here nonetheless.) Mark’s double presses the pistol into her hand, guides her aim with his own, reacts to the startled but darkly thrilled look on her face with a knowing nod, a look, of his own. A look like: “Eh? Wasn’t pulling the trigger just the best? Wouldn’t it be even better to indeed do it again?”

The second apocalypse comes as the film’s physical end. We find Anna’s lighter, brighter double—she is Bob’s elementary school teacher, an inexplicable dead ringer for Mark’s wife that he initially suspects to be some sort of “trick”—we find her babysitting Bob while his parents are away. In her apartment, in the middle of making him a meal, someone knocks. Bob (whose understated performance acts as a kind of inadequate counterweight to rest of the film—he who has quietly tolerated the film’s undercurrent of dread always lapping at him) Bob begs her not to answer the door. When she playfully refuses, he flees the table, flees the scene, up the stairs while doing scales to try to ward off what he senses will happen next. As he runs he keeps repeating his plea up and down in a drone: “Dooonnnt oppppeeeennn! Dooonnnt oppppeeeennn!”

He flees to the bathroom, to an already-full tub (earlier in the film he had taken delight in showing his parents how long he could hold his breath underwater), instinctively preferring to fling himself facedown in the tub—to apparently drown himself—rather than meet his father’s dark double still imploring at the door (through its frosted glass we see his silhouette, his elongate hands and arms poring over the glass’ surface as if looking for a crack). This his father’s dark double whom he’s never met. Some monster he cannot comprehend. Instead, like an animal getting a whiff, he registers, processes, retreats from this preliterate stimulus, him not having the words but still knowing as sure as shit: His parents’ apocalypse has come finally for him:

The end.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

"The Story Problem"

Cathy Day has one of the best essays I've read on creative writing pedagogy in a very long time. She begins with the question of why so many students and writers are making short stories, and the insight that probably most of them didn't start out with that in mind. Though I don't know that she would endorse this language, what emerges is a catalog of the ways a confluence of habit, practical limitations of the workshop format, laziness, the best of intentions, and cowardice lead to the production of small stories within a narrow range of acceptable length, ambition, and style.

You should really just read the thing itself if you're interested in the subject but I thought I would highlight a few sections I find especially pertinent and comment a little. And so:
I’m going to go way out on a limb here and say this: The short story is not experiencing a renaissance. Our current and much-discussed market glut of short fiction is not about any real dedication to the form. The situation exists because the many writers we train simply don’t know how to write anything but short stories. 
Yes. This has been especially frustrating for me in my MFA -- I like short stories, and I love specific stories and the exercise and art of creating my own, but generally I love novels. I love reading them, I love the fact of their existence, I love touching them, I love making them. And this is I think common among people generally: we talk about how difficult it is to make a living as a writer, but a genuinely surprising number of people can at least make real money as novelists. So why don't we teach people to write novels, which they and their audience love? Well, Day has listed some of the reasons. I might also point out that the academy has emerged as a sort of welfare system for writers of short fiction -- which is fine, but it also slants our pedagogy in unproductive ways. We end up mostly learning from people who teach quiet, academy-safe stories, and so we learn to produce those, and so there are eight thousand journals whose names end in Review and too-often fail to distinguish themselves.
If you are a budding Lydia Davis, you will learn to artificially inflate your story so that no one will think you’re lazy. If you’re a budding Tolstoy, you will learn to artificially deflate your story because don’t you know that more than 15 pages makes people cranky?
God yes, and I'm so glad I'll never have to put up with this again. As a writer, my default form is the novel. I'm way better at novels, and I like them better. (I'm currently starting my seventh.) I've found (for reasons to be explored in a moment) that bringing a chapter of a novel into a workshop is generally a mistake, and so I've tended to write short fiction. But even my short fiction has historically been rather long -- thirty pages or more. Unfortunately this makes publication pretty difficult, but ultimately that's a good challenge: it just means I have to make my work better. But for years students have been bitching about my stories' length, pretending they can't possibly find the time to read a thirty page story twice. (Which, well, most of them probably aren't reading even twice anyway, but that's another story.) I was somewhat sympathetic to this in undergrad, though not very, but in grad school every time somebody cries about having to read thirty pages I want to tell them to give up now: they don't love the work of writing enough and they almost certainly never will. Thankfully a lot of people in grad school have agreed with me on this point. Nobody in my class complained about my 400-page thesis, and they won't complain about reading the new, longer version either.

And, satirizing syllabi everywhere:
Please don’t write a story that is nonrealistic, because genre fiction makes us nervous and uncomfortable. Unless you’re doing a Saunders thing. We like George Saunders. If you want to do a Saunders thing, fine. Otherwise, no. Convey your story in a scene (or two) in the aesthetic mode of realism, preferably minimalism. We really, really like minimalism. “Show, Don’t Tell” is—amazingly—a quite teachable concept in an otherwise subjective discipline. The opposite of “Show, Don’t Tell”—the tell tell tell of artful narration—well, that’s complicated and hard to do well, so perhaps you shouldn’t really try that. As an added bonus, “Show, Don’t Tell” virtually guarantees that your story will be mercifully short. Think Hemingway, not Faulkner. Think Carver, and certainly not Coover.
Yeah. Pretty much. When I talk about this subject I get pretty angry. We'll leave it at this: her description is accurate, and this attitude is more or less responsible for how shitty and boring most fiction is today.

When realism was invented, its writers were being ambitious and wild. They were trying to do something big and crazy. They weren't trying to "master the basics first," they were writing the most beautiful things they could possibly imagine. That we don't allow our students to do the same thing today is criminal.

And then there's a discussion of what it's like bringing chapters from a novel to workshop. The short version: It's so depressing, and so utterly useless, as to make most people who try it give up on their novels. I actually had a very nice undergrad experience in this regard. For most of my time there I brought in short fiction like everyone else, and then in the final semester of my senior year I brought in my novel. My teacher was Susan Neville. We did my first chapter and what I think was my seventh or eighth. She helped me frame these excerpts for the students, and she framed it for them herself, in such a way that the discussion was actually really productive: I came away with solid ideas of how to revise not only that chapter, but the book as a whole. If we can learn to treat chapters as chapters, rather than as short stories -- if we can learn to be more interested in growing the work and embracing its opportunities, and less focused on prescriptively instructing students in how to get things right, right now, we could actually help students to write the things they want to write.

I mean, really, if you're a teacher or a student of creative writing, or if you're interested in these issues, you should read the essay. But regardless I think we need to remember to be brave, open, and large-hearted -- and to remember these things are not exclusive with rigor and care.

Monday, January 17, 2011

I am not qualified to write about The Harp of New Albion.

The Harp of New Albion is a piano recording by Terry Riley, released in 1986, the year of my birth. Tracy and I have an argument about whose birth year is better: I have The Legend of Zelda, she has Super Mario Bros. (1985). I've got The Harp of New Albion. Does this make me the winner?

I am not qualified to write about The Harp of New Albion, which is, from what I can glean, the sort of technical and artistic accomplishment you would expect from the author of In C. All I know is it's beautiful and absorbing:

Wikipedia tells me it was written in "just intonation." What is just intonation? Well:

In music, just intonation (sometimes abbreviated as JI) is any musical tuning in which the frequencies of notes are related by ratios of smallwhole numbers. Any interval tuned in this way is called a just interval. The two notes in any just interval are members of the same harmonic series.[1] Arbitrary frequency ratios such as 1024:927 are not generally said to be justly tuned.
Just intonation can be contrasted and compared with equal temperament, which dominates Western orchestras and default MIDI tuning. In equal temperament, all notes are defined as multiples of the same basic interval. Two notes separated by the same number of steps always have exactly the same frequency ratio. However, except for doubled frequencies (octaves), no other intervals are exact ratios of integers. Each just interval deviates a different amount from its nearest equally tempered interval.
Justly tuned intervals are either ratios, with a colon (for example, 3:2), or as fractions, with a solidus (3 ⁄ 2). For example, two tones, one at 300Hertz (cycles per second), and the other at 200 hertz are both multiples of 100 Hz and as such members of the harmonic series built on 100 Hz.
I hope that clears it up for you. I'll admit it's not much help to me. This part I get a little better:
Some composers deliberately use these wolf intervals and other dissonant intervals as a way to expand the tone color palette of a piece of music. For example, the extended piano pieces "The Well-Tuned Piano" by LaMonte Young, and "The Harp Of New Albion" by Terry Riley use a combination of very consonant and dissonant intervals for musical effect.
As (I think) in "Circle of Wolves," which does not appear to be available for streaming.

Kevin Holm Hudson says yes! It's true!
As a result of Riley’s just intonation tuning, three “fifths” are identifiable as so-called “wolf fifths” - 40/27 (D#-A# and E-B) and 1024/675 (B#-G). It was the “out of tune” quality of these intervals that led to certain keys historically being considered unsuitable for modulation. (Figures 3 and 4 show how strikingly different such intervals are from the “pure” just-intonation ratio of 3/2.) Of these “wolf fifths,” the most complex (therefore “out of tune”) ratio is 1024/675, heard in this tuning only between the pitch classes B# (C) and G. As a result, B-sharp - the tonal center of “Circle of Wolves” - is the key “most distant” from the C-sharp tuning center. The B-sharp/G dyad (or C-G) makes up the tonic and “fifth” scale degree of the pitch collection that characterizes “Circle of Wolves”; the other pitches in the collection are the two 40/27 fifths. The resulting sonority is as “out of tune” as possible within the tuning system, and Riley explores its unusual quality deliberately by making it the main sonority of his improvisation (Example 1).  The title is a punning reference not only to the “wolf” quality of these fifths but to the classical “circle of fifths” that results from equal temperament.
Kevin Holm-Hudson writes:
Then Riley returned to the piano. As he related in an interview, “Around 1980 I bought an old upright and started to play and develop music on piano again. Of course, I’d been aware of La Monte [Young]’s Well-Tuned Piano since ’64, but I’d also been playing both Indian music and electronic keyboards in just intonation. So I decided to tune the piano that way rather than in equal temperament.” Because of the way that the overtones of piano strings resonate sympathetically with other strings, working in just intonation turned out to be a powerful expressive tool for Riley: “I was able to give the music a different shape. The piano has a much greater scope of expressive possibilities than electronic instruments.”
That's a good way of explaining why the sound of Harp is so rich! Nice. Wish I had thought to put it that way.

Not sure who wrote this, but it also helps:
Although Riley improvises throughout The Harp of New Albion, each movement is defined by structural or composed elements. Astonishingly, the halo of harmonics drifting above his solo piano creates an orchestral sound, complete with horns, reeds, strings and voices. At times, the melodic interplay is ethereal, the micro-tonal relationships within the standing waves of sounds creating a haunting spectrum.
Is that what it's called? A halo? Is this a technical term? It's possible, in listening to the album, to imagine it was recorded using much more than one piano, is the point: the harmonics are so rich as to allow the listener to participate in a unique, surprising way, weaving melodies and harmonies and accents from the air, from suggestions of those things left like ghosts on the air. The things you hear are there and not there: you choose them, interpret them into their fullness. The way that in a sufficiently large crowd or in the midst of sufficiently resonant white noise you can hear music or language where there is none. See for instance:

The note is struck and then it radiates outward from that instance, its impression growing larger than its occasion.

More from Holm-Hudson:
Another aspect of Indian classical music, all the more striking in Riley’s case because it is found in Indian vocal (rather than instrumental) style, is a technique of ornamentation called gamak. Peter Manuel describes gamak as “a technique in which every note in a passage is approached from its lower neighbor,” and notes that the practice has “crossed over” from Indian classical music to popular genres such as film music. Riley’s improvised passages in “Magic Knot Waltz,” especially the long rhapsodic lines that come at cadential points, employ the same “lower neighbor” ascending-step contour cited by Manuel as essential to gamak. One example of this technique in Riley’s improvisational style is found in Example 5.

You know this explains a lot about the quality of the sound that I couldn't have explained myself! The simultaneous fluidity and angularity of it.

In listening to the music one suspects it was improvised but it seems so deliberate. The logic or the arc of the improvisation is sufficiently clear -- at least in the broad sense of its trajectory -- that the listener can follow it. And yet it must be composed to some extent, as the logic takes sudden sharp turns no one could think of on the spot, and the system of the music is too perfect for an accident, the notes of a whole even in their sourness or "falseness." Holm-Hudson explains:
The goal of tightly structured improvisation is evident throughout The Harp of New Albion. Much of the work is improvised, but improvised passages are found side-by-side with composed ideas. A performance of a movement from The Harp of New Albion can perhaps be compared to a jazz improvisation, in which the theme or “head” is followed by solos over the chord structure before concluding with a return to the “head.” The interchange between “composed” and “improvised,” however, is much more fluid in Riley’s music; John Schaefer describes the piece as having a “spiral form.” As Riley explains it, “Something spins off a little motif and gets larger and more arpeggiated, more embroidered. It cycles back to a certain note, but it’s very irregular; it takes a circuitous route.”
The results are in some ways my ideal of an artistic object. The Harp of New Albion takes absolute responsibility for its own beauty. It was recorded with care, after extensive thought and planning, on a piano perfect for the task. It was composed to the extent that composition would make it beautiful. Then, Riley sat down and played, improvising to the extent that his improvisation would make the recording beautiful. The object is the result of a successful negotiation of several competing impulses, including an urge toward timelessness (the seemingly infinite deliberation made possible by composition in advance) and an urge toward timeliness (the practical necessities of performance, of improvisation, of music as a thing happening now). This is more or less how I try to write a book, with allowances for further cycles of composition (revision, control) and improvisation (exploration of new possibilities in the text).

What I mean is when I read I like to feel the thing was written, and the weight and the arc of its writing, in addition to enjoying the contents. There are quite a few things that seem to be errors in Infinite Jest but which also illuminate the novel's composition; there are passages gorgeous in their apparent improvisation. 

I try to avoid the fallacies and self-loathing implications of identifying my writing with music too often, but I would like my novels to feel often, as much as possible, like The Harp of New Albion