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adult play-date: the new statesman back pages

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I used to write for the New Statesman’s “back of the book” relatively frequently. Which was something that I impressed myself by doing – for god’s sake, I had a paper subscription to the thing before I moved to the UK. But editors change, and then, well, the salad days at £275 or whatever per pop are over.

But can someone tell me what the hell is up with the “back pages” columnists? Just picked up this week’s number on the entry-way floor, strummed through it while waiting for my daughters to call so that I can order my Friday-sabbath Pakistani feast (this is satiric performativity by the way – bread and butter tactic of this crowd) and this is what we have:

– Will Self at a bloody Who concert. “many of us share at least some of Tommy’s disabilities – although, unlike the deaf, blind and dumb kid, we’re no longer capable of playing a mean pinball.” Suppose it’s a slight uptick from “Man with a giant thesaurus visits the Stockwell Burger King to, well, verbalise about it.”

– Suzanne Moore telling us about a fling she had with a maybe-IRA bro in the, what, 1980s. She had sex with a guy who took her to a Holloway Road pub. All of her columns, from what I can tell, are about sex in the 1980s with a guy who she met in a North London pub. But this one seems to have used a false name, which is I guess more interesting. Would make a great anecdote, in a North London back garden like mine, over BBQ. But everyone would walk away, as do readers of Moore’s columns, simply thinking, “Hmmm… seems like she needs us to know that she once had a load of bad sex.”

– Tracey Thorn lamenting the fact that her teenage daughter is free and easy enough to borrow the family tent, go to Latitude (wow), and get up to whatever dirtied her “micro shorts.” Good Christ. You should know though that while watching Glasto on the BBC, her highlights were “Mary J Blige and Jessie Ware, and the moment when Pharrell brings some children up on the stage.” She also “gear[ed] herself up for Kanye West.”

– I’ll never make fun of Nick Lezard because 1) he’s literally the only bit of the New Statesman that I read in my lovely hand-delivered copy each week. 2) I’ve gone though a nasty bit of divorce-with-kids like him. 3) Above all, he writes really well. But still: I feel, as opposed to the above, that I’m cringing with him, rather than at him, as he details his weekly struggles with the Marylebone mice, the rising prices of wine at Majestic, the (oh dear) “hefty loan from the daughter.” Mostly the column seems like a worst case “divorced man of letters with kids” plea for help – I suppose the help comes mostly (though this weeks column is about a reader who sent him £50) in the form of cheques from the New Statesman.

At any rate, that’s this week’s back bits. And one can easily (if one wants) imagine the four at a sort of mixed North London, well, if not a dinner party, perhaps one the “better pubs,” where one could play out (as if with our youthful “action figures”) the conversations between the bunch. Does Lezard call Thorn up on the fact that he owns not a tent, let alone the scratch to fund his daughter’s Latitude indulgence? Do Moore and Self query each others hazy (but scriptable, when need be) sense of the 1980s and 1990s?

But the bigger question is: Why does the New Statesman, ostensibly the “soft left” magazine of Britain, feel the need to regale us with the stories of people who were born at a point when they could a) go to university for free b) louche around a bit, even quite a long bit and then c) still find themselves a house in North (or South) London and a healthy sinecure at a paying magazine? Why does it feel the need to stage some sort of horrific Islington adult play-date in its own back pages?

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July 10, 2015 at 8:51 pm

sex in fiction (notes)

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Lightnessw_original

From Michael Hofmann’s rather brilliant piece on Kundera in the new LRB (paywalled, I think). Here, he’s talking about Kundera’s characters and sex.

Kundera has an old – and I would say, a dated – trust in sex. Sex as the expression of or the stand-in for or the earthly (or heavenly) representative of personality or inner life. […] Whoever they are, sex tests them and keeps the score. Do they use rude words or not? Do they prefer darkness or do they like to leave the lights on? Do they shut their eyes or keep them open? Are they thinking of the person they’re with, or of someone else? Kundera is touchingly interested and trusting in what he finds out: they are about the only stage directions you get in his books. Where other observers might contend our species is at its most generic in bed, and any differences we might display there are either faddish or not interesting, that, for example, the way we like to shop is altogether more expressive and revelatory, Kundera takes another view. He deserves the label ‘erotic politician’ more than Jim Morrison ever did.

I’m in the very early stages of trying to write something about the representation of sex in contemporary (and relatively contemporary) novels. One question that I’m asking myself – and asking the works that I will talk about – is a relatively obvious one: how has the representation of sex changed since the arrival of ubiquitous internet pornography. I’m hoping that the answer isn’t as obvious as the question. But Hofmann’s paragraph above expresses perfectly part of what I am thinking – the part that we have left behind.

We no longer believe, or at least have begun to doubt, that sex is personally-revelatory, a pathway to the demonstration of some sort of personal (or interpersonal) quiddity. Perhaps pornography has something to do with this – what at first can seem intriguingly distinct comes to seem something else entirely when it dawns on you that there are hundreds of thousands of these totally unique things. (Every snowflake is different, yes, but the fact that there are so goddamned many of them, each a unique shape of their own, might start to make you wonder whether it matters that each one is different. That is to say, difference become less and less interesting the more that you realise everyone is different, but in an utterly random, meaningless way.)

Fiction, since its modern prose forms arose, has always been tantalised by sex. The romance suppresses it in sublimating it (or maybe it’s the other way around). But maybe now, with everything all out in the open, or at least nearly everything, fiction faces a bit of a problem. And instead of Kundera’s epiphanically-revelatory sexuality, we have the grim grinding of Houellebecq’s (and other’s) characters – grinding aimed at a sort of transcendence, still, but we can’t help but know that the joke, as it was on Emma Bovary, is always on them.

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June 26, 2015 at 9:20 am

Posted in fiction, porn, sex

‘sisyphean epic’

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sisyphus-1549

From this morning’s FT:

Monday’s emergency summit of eurozone leaders is likely to set the tone for markets for the week and could even be the tipping point in the Sisyphean epic being played out between Greece and its creditors.

A ‘Sisyphean epic’ is an interestingly semi-oxymoronic concept. Sisyphus’s whole story in Greek myth is a bit epical – meaning, at least, that it’s a long story, and a rather convoluted one. (Some versions of it have him as the father of Odysseus too – which would at least make him the progenitor of the greatest epical protagonist ever).

But generally when we today refer to Sisyphus, we’re talking about the end of his story, which involves a tragical turn. And in particular, we don’t so much remember the hubris or even the chain of events that lead to his punishment – but only the punishment itself, the perpetually fruitless rock rolling. It’s hard to think of this scene, the only one most of us know, as epical: Coming soon, to a cinema near you – the latest and bestest CGI epic masterpiece: Sisyphus Rolls His Stone, Forever – in 3D. 

But despite – or perhaps because of – its oxymoronic nature, the concept of a ‘Sisyphean epic’ does have a certain ring of truth when it comes to Greece, and its citizens, and citizens around the world who are dealing with life in the age of austerity. Sisyphus receives a form of punishment disproportionate to his crimes, and one that turns the momentary crisis into a perpetual situation. But most importantly, Sisyphus’s end mirrors  the festina lente experience of life under austerity – an ever increasing struggle for ever diminishing possibilities of reward. For what Sisyphus’s problem is is not simply pushing the stone up the hill over and over and over again. It’s also – perhaps more deeply – the fact that he must be aware of the fruitlessness of his task, as well, hellishly, of his inability to do anything other than to continue to participate in this sadistic game.

For, true to the oxymoron, austerity shrouds life in an anti-narrative structure. Not non-narratives: there are stories, struggles, and the like. But, as with Sisyphus as he time and time again dramatically shoulders his stone and once more begins his ascent, the stories and struggles are haunted from the start by an ever decreasing chance of a turn, a resolution, a positive accomplishment at the end. The stories keep running, but for more and more, the efforts that would be chronicled are rendered absurd right from the start. But we, like Sisyphus, are doomed to to keep on playing them out nonetheless.

 

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June 22, 2015 at 8:38 am

Posted in Uncategorized

no more evening standard for me

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I read papers. I subscribe to two (in the old fashioned paper version – I subscribe to six on the iPad) which are dropped every early morning through my mailslot in a wake-me-up kind of way. And I read one on the way home – the Evening Standard. I like living in a city that has an evening paper, a rare thing nowadays. And I was happy when it went free, although it did occur to me to consider the horrific changes in my home metropolis’s weekly paper, The Village Voice, when the same happened to it.

But I think I’m about to stop reading The Evening Standard, as much as a habit and sometimes a pleasure it is. What they tried to do to Labour in the city was one thing, despite what happened with the actual vote. And you know, I could do without daily updates on what’s happening in the capital’s poshest private schools. (Doesn’t seem to be on-line, but there’s an article today on page 8 about “muck-up day” at £14,000 a year City of London. Last week, there were two articles in the first 10 pages about Westminster School and its parents and pupils).

But what’s really making me throw the towel in – and make a decision to read something better on the way home tomorrow and for the tomorrows to come – is Lebedev’s, and thus the paper’s, weird edit-free support of the Tory candidate for London mayor, Ivan Massow.

An article praising him seems to appear every day. (As with the potential of a Labour national victory, feels as though Lebedev is a bit terrified of what might happen to him and his extended stay in London were Labour to win, though with the mayoralty, I doubt it’d be anything as bad as the end of the non-dom exemption). Massow seems like an OK guy – despite the fact that he seems to have a lot to get out in front of with today’s article, entitled “I’m a gay, dyslexic ex-alcoholic… vote for me.” (One suspects that a left candidate with the same “credentials” might get a different treatment from the Standard – take for instance the fact that he seems to have impregnated his lesbian roommate. One wonders whether Sadiq Khan would get a calm “explainer” opportunity if that was the case with him.)

But anyway, what’s annoyed me today is a single sentence in the latest puff piece they’ve run for Massow. The paragraph in which it’s contained runs:

“It’s been true since Dick Whittington that anyone can come to London and make it even if they have nothing in their pockets. In New York it’s all about what university you went to. In Paris you have to be Parisian. But London is a city that loves outsiders.”

That sentence about New York is simply a lie. If anyone was editing this rubbish, or even mildly “curating” it, that sentence would have to come out. Let’s take a look at the facts.

London has had two mayors. One was Independent-Labour, who – it is true, never went to university. The other, the Tory, well, yes, he went to Balliol College, Oxford. Which is about as “what university (and secondary school of course) you went to” as you as could possibly get.

On the other hand, let’s do a (relatively) recent list of New York City mayors and their undergrad alma maters:

Bill DeBlasio – New York University

Michael Bloomberg – Johns Hopkins University

Rudy Giuliani – Manhattan College

David Dinkins – Howard University

Ed Koch – City College of New York

Abraham Beame – City College of New York

So we’re back to 1974 with that. There’s one “elite” university on the list (Hopkins- though it’s not really a “king-maker”) and another one (NYU) that’s become very expensive now, but certainly wasn’t considered elite when DeBlasio attended it. In other words, what Massow’s said is complete bullshit – propagandistic bullshit that at once shines his own “self-starter” badge as well as shimmies up to his “aspirational” audience. So… whatever, it’s a throwaway line, right? Well, if I’m going to read a newspaper, and if even if it’s going to pimp for a candidate, I’d like there to be at least a semblance of honesty, objectivity, and backchat-upon-factual-error. Massow’s simply wrong in his claim – and no one at the Standard cares. Or they do, but they’re wise enough to know that crossing their oligarchical boss is probably a very, very bad career move.

I don’t think it would ever be reasonable for us to expect the Standard to present an “unbiased” portrayal of national or local politics, what Lebedev is doing for Massow is over the line. But the point is, they opined against the beliefs the constituency they pretend to journalistically represent. And now, they’re stumping for another one of the same sort. Watch forwhat they’re about to do to any Labour or further left candidates that run for the London office.

For myself, I’ll not be picking up a Standard tomorrow – and won’t be again until the London election is over. I encourage you not to too.

PS. If you want to read a weird wikipedia page, read Lebedev’s. According to it – brief as it is – he’s the strange sort of lucky, but simple, pub owner and restauranteur who also happens to own an 800,000 circulation newspaper. Thinking about buying my local, so that I can do that sort of thing too…

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May 18, 2015 at 6:08 pm

Posted in london

dfw on bureaucratic heroism

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140425122645-hill-street-daniel-j-travanti-story-topI’m re-reading (as much of) Infinite Jest as I can this weekend, as I’m teaching it (for the first time – I’ve before done The Pale King in graduate seminars) on Wednesday. Made it up to page 318 yesterday, no mean feat, and want to do the same sort of numbers if possible today. Ah, the joys of the end of term. I spent the entirety of last weekend reading Midnight’s Children. 

One thing I’m on the look out for this time through Infinite Jest are early signs of the themes of The Pale King. How about this one, on bureaucratic heros. It comes from an essay that Hal Incandenza writes for his Entertainment History class:

Chief Steve McGarrett of ‘Hawaii Five-0’ and Captain Frank Furillo of ‘Hill Street Blues’ are useful for seeing how our North American idea of the hero changed from the B.S. 1970s era of ‘Hawaii Five-0’ to the B.S. 1980s era of ‘Hill Street Blues.’

Chief Steve McGarrett is a classically modern hero of action. He acts out. It is what he does. The camera is always on him. He is hardly ever offscreen. He has just one case per week. The audience knows what the case is and also knows, by the end of Act One, who is guilty. Because the audience knows the truth before Steve McGarrett does, there is no mystery, there is only Steve McGarrett. The drama of ‘Hawaii Five-0’ is watching the hero in action, watching Steve McGarrett stalk and strut, homing in on the truth. Homing in is the essence of what the classic hero of modern action does.

Steve McGarrett is not weighed down by administrative State-Políce-Chief chores, or by females, or friends, or emotions, or any sorts of conflicting demands on his attention. His field of action is bare of diverting clutter. Thus Chief Steve McGarrett single-mindedly acts to refashion a truth the audience already knows into an object of law, justice, modern heroism.

In contrast, Captain Frank Furillo is what used to be designated a ‘post’-modern hero. Viz., a hero whose virtues are suited to a more complex and corporate American era. I.e., a hero of reaction. Captain Frank Furillo does not investigate cases or single- mindedly home in. He commands a precinct. He is a bureaucrat, and his heroism is bureaucratic, with a genius for navigating cluttered fields. In each broadcast episode of ‘Hill Street Blues,’ Captain Frank Furillo is beset by petty distractions on all sides from the very beginning of Act One. Not one but eleven complex cases, each with suspects and snitches and investigating officers and angry community leaders and victims’ families all clamoring for redress. Hundreds of tasks to delegate, egos to massage, promises to make, promises from last week to keep. Two or three cops’ domestic troubles. Payroll vouchers. Duty logs. Corruption to be tempted by and agonized over. A Police Chief who’s a political parody, a hyperactive son, an ex-wife who haunts the frosted-glass cubicle that serves as Frank Furillo’s office (whereas Steve McGarrett’s B.S. 1970s office more closely resembled the libraries of landed gentry, hushed behind two heavy doors and wainscot-ted in thick, tropical oak), plus a coldly attractive Public Defendress who wants to talk about did this suspect get Mirandized in Spanish and can Frank stop coming too soon he came too soon again last night maybe he should get into some kind of stress counselling. Plus all the weekly moral dilemmas and double binds his even-handed bureaucratic heroism gets Captain Frank Furillo into.

Captain Frank Furillo of ‘Hill Street Blues’ is a ‘post’-modern hero, a virtuoso of triage and compromise and administration. Frank Furillo retains his sanity, composure, and superior grooming in the face of a barrage of distracting, unheroic demands that would have left Chief Steve McGarrett slumped, unkempt, and chewing his knuckle in administrative confusion.

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March 22, 2015 at 10:57 am

kundera on the fictional essay

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I sometimes wonder whether we’re not all getting Knausgaard wrong. It’s not the non-impersonality of it that matters, perhaps. It’s the essayism. The fact that he feels free to slip from narrative into essayistic prose more or less at will. Many of the parts that we tend to remember most vividly are from the essayistic portions. Or, to put it another way, imagine what the texts would be like if they left the essayistic material out – if they were straight “memoir.”

But the second question, then, is what the difference is between this “essayism” that I’m describing and “old fashioned” nineteenth-century narration, the sort that we find in Dickens and Eliot for example. If this were the case, then we’ve just slid backwards, back past the innovations of Flaubert and his progeny, into a space of the wisdom-imparting storyteller, and into a realm where the narrative characters simply play out a morality tale as a backdrop to the droning play-by-play of the authorial announcer.

I’ve just, however, come across an interesting reframing of the issue in Milan Kundera’s 1983 interview with the Paris Review. In the course of discussing the polyphonic nature of Hermann Broch’s writing, the interview asks about an “essay” that is inserted into Broch’s The Sleepwalker. 

INTERVIEWER

You have doubts about the way it is incorporated into the novel. Broch relinquishes none of his scientific language, he expresses his views in a straightforward way without hiding behind one of his characters—the way Mann or Musil would do. Isn’t that Broch’s real contribution, his new challenge?

KUNDERA

That is true, and he was well aware of his own courage. But there is also a risk: his essay can be read and understood as the ideological key to the novel, as its “Truth,” and that could transform the rest of the novel into a mere illustration of a thought. Then the novel’s equilibrium is upset; the truth of the essay becomes too heavy and the novel’s subtle architecture is in danger of collapsing. A novel that had no intention of expounding a philosophical thesis (Broch loathed that type of novel!) may wind up being read in exactly that way. How does one incorporate an essay into the novel? It is important to have one basic fact in mind: the very essence of reflection changes the minute it is included in the body of a novel. Outside of the novel, one is in the realm of assertions: everyone’s philosopher, politician, concierge—is sure of what he says. The novel, however, is a territory where one does not make assertions; it is a territory of play and of hypotheses. Reflection within the novel is hypothetical by its very essence.

This might be a place to start for an answer about the specific difference of Knausgaard’s writing – and the sort of writing that I am most interested in reading now. Essayistic, in parts, to be sure. But essayistic in a sense that the essay itself turns “fictional” – isn’t the “ideological key” of the novel but rather an utterance on the same level of “truth” as the narration in which it is submerged.

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March 20, 2015 at 11:35 pm

Posted in fiction, form

surface / depth, fiction / autofiction (part 1)

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An interesting parallel, perhaps. This is from Elaine Blair’s review of Rachel Cusk’s Outline in The New Yorker:

The novel is mesmerizing; it marks a sharp break from the conventional style of Cusk’s previous work. The characters in her earlier novels presumably share some of her biography—they age as she does, study or teach literature, raise children, tend to the chores of daily life in London or in provincial towns. But they remain smoothly sealed in their fictional worlds. “Outline” feels different, its world porous and continuous with ours, though not for the reasons we might expect. Cusk has not named her narrator Rachel. She does not put a fine point on the verifiability of the novel’s events. Though the narrator is a writer, the novel does not tell the story of how it came to be written. It is not an expansive account of a life but a short account of two days that the narrator spends teaching a writing seminar in Athens. Indeed, “Outline” proposes an unexpected solution to the weariness with fiction which Anne calls “summing up”: Cusk has her characters literally sum things up, making them speak about past events rather than showing those events as they unfold. To paraphrase Anne, why manipulate characters into situations dramatizing jealousy when they can tell us about their jealousy?

And this is from Jeffrey J. Williams’s piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education called “The New Modesty in Literary Criticism”:

The change has crystallized around “surface reading.” The term comes from Sharon Marcus, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, and Stephen M. Best, an associate professor of English at the University of California at Berkeley. Marcus broached it in her 2007 book Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England (Princeton University Press), and elaborated on it in the introduction she wrote with Best to a 2009 special issue of the journal Representations on “The Way We Read Now.” (They had been colleagues at Berkeley in the late 1990s and early 2000s.) Surface reading, they suggest, characterizes the work of a rising generation.

A good deal of contemporary criticism has performed “symptomatic reading,” a term that conveys looking for the hidden meaning of a text, using, for example, Marxian, Freudian, or deconstructive interpretation. Fredric Jameson has been one of its most influential practitioners, codifying the approach in his 1981 Political Unconscious to look for “a latent meaning behind a manifest one.” Surface reading instead focuses on “what is evident, perceptible, apprehensible in texts,” as Best and Marcus put it. Thus the critic is no longer like a detective who doesn’t trust the suspect but more the social scientist who describes the manifest statements of a text.

Between Women shows how this works. Marcus examines female friendships in Victorian society, but rather than exposing the secrets underneath normative family life—as much of queer theory, for example, has done—she shows how women’s relations were openly affectionate and sometimes sexual, but not secret, suppressed, or hidden in a closet. Surprisingly, she writes, the companionship among women provided a model for heterosexual marriage. While Marcus gathers her argument from the surface, she casts a wide scholarly net, drawing from Victorian fiction, fashion, domestic treatises, political debates. Marcus calls her approach “just reading.”

So, on the one hand, a new post-fictional stance, or at least one that abandons the rules of the game that fiction writers have long embraced as conducive to the evocation of meaning or significance, however half-lit or opaque. If fiction has long been invested in the distinction between what characters say (to others, to themselves, to us) and what they do – that is to say, fiction has had a long standing investment in what we call irony – Cusk (and others like her) seem to be advocating the abandonment of half of the ironic equation. He says he is in mourning for his wife, but why does he keep staring at his interlocutor’s breasts? She says she doesn’t have a problem with her parents, but why does she keep darting off to take phone calls from her father? 

On the other hand, Williams’s piece on literary criticism likewise evokes scholars and critics giving up on a parallel fundamental move of criticism: the discovery and description of latent meanings that subtend the surface playout of the text. Rather than, like the psychoanalyst who knows that “It’s not about my mother” means no such thing, means the opposite of what it claims, scholars have generally taken an approach grounded in a sense that whatever it is a text thinks it’s up to (or the naive reader believes it’s up to) something else has to be at play. This novel is ostensibly about the relations between men and women, but why are the relations between men so much more pitched, interesting, and troubling than those between the two sexes? The stance described – perhaps a bit roughly – by Williams abandons the ironic relation between surface and depth that criticism of so many schools and guises, both conservative and ‘radical,’ has held as its privileged locus of significance.

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January 7, 2015 at 10:52 am

cute…

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Hadn’t before noticed this love letter to her future husband near the start of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth:

[T]he schoolgirls of St Jude’s kept to the tried and tested formula. Though Ryan would never be privy to the conversations of the school’s changing rooms, Clara knew. She knew how the object of her affections was discussed, she kept an ear out, she knew what he amounted to when you got down to it, down amongst the sweat and the training bras and the sharp flick of a wet towel.

‘Ah, Jaysus, you’re not listening. I’m saying, if he was the last man on earth!’

‘I still wouldn’t.’

‘Ah, bollocks, you would!’

‘But listen: the whole bleedin’ world has been hit by the bomb, like in Japan, roight? An’ all the good-lookin’ men, all the rides like your man Nicky Laird, they’re all dead. They’ve all been burnt to a crisp. An’ all that’s left is Ryan Topps and a bunch of cockroaches.’

‘On me life, I’d rather sleep with the cockroaches.’

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January 6, 2015 at 11:09 am

Posted in fiction

ben lerner’s scapegoat

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At one point, quite late in Ben Lerner’s new novel 10:04, the narrator/protagonist has a meeting with one of his graduate poetry students. The conversation soon reveals that the student, Calvin, has become psychologically unhinged.

“Well, you said once that we shouldn’t worry about our literary careers, should worry about being underwater.” I must have been joking around in class— half joking. “And in any new civilization you need those who have a sense of usable history and can reconstruct at least the basic concepts from science. Also there is the literalization of all literature because the sky is falling, if you know what I mean— that’s no longer just a phrase. A lot of people can’t handle it, how everything becomes hieroglyphic. I lost my girlfriend over that. Body without organs, for instance. I can swallow but there is a cost to swallowing in the sense that I don’t have the same kind of throat. That’s a metaphor but it has real effects, which is what she couldn’t understand. What’s tricky is you want to test it, take poison or whatever to show how you can absorb it, but you don’t know in that instance if it will be symbolic or spider out.”

The college did not have good psychiatric services. He was twenty- six; no one could force him to get help or even legally contact his parents, whoever they were.

“Nobody thinks we’ve been told the truth about Fukushima. Think about the milk you’re buying from a bodega, the hot particles there, I mean in addition to the hormones and what those do. There are rabbits being born there with three ears. The seas are poisoned. Look at this”— here he pulled his hair back, maybe to indicate his widow’s peak; I wasn’t sure— “that wasn’t there when I lived in Colorado. And I know that some of the bone mass in my jaw has thinned, can feel that when it clicks, but I can’t afford insurance. And now there is this storm, but who selects its name? You have a committee of like five guys in a situation room generating the names before they form. The World Meteorological Organization’s Regional Association IV Hurricane Committee— I looked it up. And ever since I looked it up I can’t get service on my phone. Every call is just dropped.”

“I agree it’s a crazy time,” I said. “But I think in times like these we have to try to stay connected to people. And we have to try to make our own days, despite all the chaos. We have to focus on feeling comfortable in our own skin, and we need to be open to getting help with that.” I was desperately trying to channel my parents.

It’s a fairly convincing portrait of a graduate student, hopped up on Deleuze and Guattari and god knows what else, who has lost his bearings – and in particular, has lost his grasp on the relationship between personal events and global events. Calvin’s paranoia takes a particular shape: he is reading the matters of his own life as if they are directly related to their historical context, the apocalyptically-tinged context of our times. His difficulty swallowing has something to do with a failure of meaning that in turn has something to do with ‘being underwater’ – metaphorically as a cash-strapped student or literally given the climate change atmospherics of this work that runs from one New York City hurricane to another. Other illnesses have to do with radiation poisoning, with Fukushima, with international presumably-capitalist conspiracies. Hypochondria connects up with a political persecution complex; bad phone service becomes a symptom of living at the end of history.

Calvin more or less disappears from the novel after his cameo appearance; the narrator tries to check up on him a couple of times and later wonders if he should use some of his book advance to bankroll a run of therapy for him. 10:04 isn’t the sort of lock-plotted novel that forces readers to question a fleeting appearance or digressive encounter – there’s enough wandering and intermittency that Calvin’s scene doesn’t seem too discrepant in the general scheme of things.

But still, I think there’s something to be read in Calvin’s quick appearance in and subsequent removal from the novel. In a sense, isn’t Calvin’s psychopathology very similar to that of the novel as a form – and in a sense, of Ben Lerner’s two novels in particular. In his first, Leaving the Atocha Station, we follow the inconclusive experiences of a young poet-cum-pothead as he messes with girls and doesn’t do his fellowship work, all leading up to… the terrorist bombing of the main train station in Madrid, an event totally out of proportion and sync with the foreground pseudo-plot. In 10:04, the same sort of situation obtains: framed by the two hurricanes that struck New York City in recent years, the novel itself traces out relatively banal plotlines drawn from the everyday life of literary Brooklyn. Will the narrator impregnate his friend? And what will become of his incipient romance with another woman as he tries to? Will the physiological deformity discovered in the early pages become symptomatic? What will he write his novel about?

While both Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04 are carefully self-aware about the non-correlation between the banal foreground action and the cataclysmic backdrops, the simple fact of the juxatpositoning of the two elements in each case still begs a question about the relation between plot and context. Of course, this is what novels do – what they have always done. A doctor and his wife have a hard time in the rural France of the Second Empire. A woman is planning a party in London in the wake of the First World War. Two men wander Dublin as the world lurches toward the war and the empire toward its dissolution. Foreground and background, character and setting, everyday life and the workings of history – the novel as a form forces us to consider the relations between these elements.

Lerner, as I’ve said, is very self-aware about these issues – the text never forces the conjunctions, even seems ironically knowing about the forced nature of such line of thought that could read, for instance, the reproductive decision-making dilemmas of gentrifiers as somehow tantamount to the the specter of climate change. But that doesn’t prevent Lerner from bringing this minor character, this trouble graduate student, on stage as a sort of scapegoat – loaded with the sins or at least symptoms of the novel in which he is contained, or perhaps even the novel as a form in general – only to shuffle him off again almost immediately. Lerner’s conjunction of the personal and the macro-political belongs on the bookshelf, while Calvin’s belongs in a mental institution, or so the novel implicitly tells us.

After the exchange that I quoted above, Calvin reacts wildly in response to the narrator’s suggestion that he might seek some psychological help.

“Okay, wow. Wow. You want to pathologize me, too. I guess that’s your job. You represent the institution. The institution speaks through you. But let me ask you something”— I sized Calvin up physically; he was taller than I was, nearly as tall as the protester, but thin, almost lanky; I involuntarily visualized punching him in the throat if he attacked me— “can you look at me and say you think this,” and here he swept the air with his arm in a way that made “this” indicate something very large, “is going to continue? You deny there’s poison coming at us from a million points? Do you want to tell me these storms aren’t man- made, even if they’re now out of the government’s control? You don’t think the FBI is fucking with our phones? The language is just becoming marks, drawings of words, not words— you should know that as well as anybody. Or are you on drugs? Are you letting them regulate you?” He stood up so suddenly I flinched, then felt bad for flinching. “Sorry for wasting your time,” he said, maybe holding back tears, and stormed out of my office, forgetting his legal pad.

In a sense, isn’t the ‘institution’ speaking through the narrator and the story that he tells us as much that of the ‘literary novel’ as a form as any that Calvin might be thinking of. A regulatory message, a message that keeps an ‘appropriate’ perspective on things – one that gets on with vivid interest in the conventional workings of conventional lives, even if as it solemnly acknowledges that the shit may in fact be about to hit the fan. I generally think Lerner’s a smart enough novelist to sidestep this ethically and politically perilous position. But then again, the reactions of some of his readers provide evidence more in line with Calvin’s response. For instance, at the end of her gushing review in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Maggie Nelson writes that upon reading Lerner’s new novel,

Far from despair, I felt flooded with the sense that everything mattered, from meticulous descriptions of individual works of art to kissing the forehead of a passed-out intern to analyzing our political language to documenting the sensual details of our daily lives to bagging dried mangoes to the creation of the book I was holding in my hand to my deciding to spend some time writing a review of it.

In other words, despite the apocalyptic overlay, 10:04 more than anything else gave Nelson a revivified vision of her own demographically-appropriate and seemingly already-quite-comfortable daily life.

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October 1, 2014 at 4:13 pm

first world problems: mckenzie wark on boredom

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While reading Sven Lütticken’s new piece in the New Left Review, I was led to click through to a piece by McKenzie Wark called “#Celerity: A Critique of the Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics.” While I don’t want to go directly into the “accelerationism” issue here – those of you who’ve been reading me for awhile have a sense of where I stand on the matter – I would like to flag up one paragraph that speaks (despite itself?) to the big problem that I have with what we might call neo-Situationist thinking.

3.2 It’s a question of whether boredom with the commodity economy will work fast enough, as it spreads from the overdeveloped world to the underdeveloped, to open up a new path before metabolic rifts like the climate crisis forces the planet toward more violent, disorganizing, and frankly fascist ‘solutions’ to its problems. Already in China factory workers are starting to get restless. Beyond that, there’s only so much cheap labor left on the planet to exploit. Meanwhile, in the overdeveloped world, a rather novel regime of value extraction is finding ways to extract value from non-work. Search engines and social networking find ways to extract value from activity regardless of whether it is ‘work’ and without paying for it. It’s a kind of vulture industry, parasitic on frankly successful popular struggles to free vast tracts of information from the commodity form and circulate it freely. But having beaten back the old culture industries with this tactic, the social movement that was free culture finds itself recuperated at a higher level of abstraction by the vulture industries and their ‘gamification’ of every aspect of everyday life. So: any alter-modernity project has to bypass the expansion of the old commodification regimes across the planet, but also these curious new ones, dominant in the overdeveloped world, but tending now to transform information flows everywhere.

The “question” at play in the first sentences is whether “boredom” will spread fast enough from the overdeveloped world to the underdeveloped to best the onset of “metabolic rifts” like climate change. It’s a foolish – and yes, foolishly accelerationist question – and it’s one that provides space for a sloppy slippage in terms in the first few sentences.  “Already in China factory workers are starting to get restless.” Boredom has turned into “restlessness,” and restlessness is indeed something like boredom. But of course the factory workers in China aren’t restless because they’ve over-gorged in the fruits of “overdevelopment.” They are “restless” because they are being worked to death to provide the materials of this ostensible “overdevelopment.” (The more you think about it, in the context of this paragraph, “restless” is an absolutely horrifying word to use to describe the existential situation of those generic Chinese factory workers.) Wark’s slight of hand blurs the lines between the one and the other – casting Foxconn workers as in a sense “catching up” with our existential plight as they contemplate throwing themselves down staircases…

The perspectival problems continue in the next sentence – “Beyond that, there’s only so much cheap labor left on the planet to exploit.” Whether or not that’s true – I seriously doubt it – what are we to make of this statement in context? What will happen when the world “runs out” of cheap labour? Presumably there’s a possibility that global capitalism is in fact potentially about to solve the problems of uneven distribution of goods (and with the goods, “boredom.”) If it doesn’t – in the context of this paragraph – it doesn’t really matter anyway. We’ll all be toast.

In general, any argument that structurally equates (and I’m not even sure that’s not too generous a word for what’s afoot here) the exploitative tedium of Chinese factory work with our bored entrapment in the “gamification” of our tweeting or Facebooking is focalised from a perspective that so desperate to project hysterically one’s own (middle class, academic, first world) life-experience as the very model of the global drama of exploitation.

In short, this paragraph (and Wark’s argument as a whole) is grounded in a fantastical resolution of the real problems of worldwide inequality – a resolution necessary so that Wark’s hipster dilemma’s can take center-stage in the drama of global politics. Or to put it another way, whenever anyone founds their political argument on the concept of boredom, I reach not for my gun but for my World Atlas. Boredom may be a worry for “us” (us here in the “overdeveloped” world, even us trapped in the gears of a socio-economic system based on the festina lente temporality of precarity), but it’s not a pressing problem for the world, no matter what the spoiled youths of ’68 had to say about the subject. 

 

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July 3, 2014 at 12:03 pm

baudelaire (almost) on hipsters

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One of my brilliant PhD students quoted this passage from Charles Baudelaire’s A Painter of Modern Life in his thesis:

Dandyism appears especially in those periods of transition when democracy has not yet become all-powerful, and when aristocracy is only partially weakened and discredited. In the confusion of such times, a certain number of men, disenchanted and leisured ‘outsiders’, but all of them richly endowed with native energy, may conceive the idea of establishing a new kind of aristocracy.

It’s tempting to rewrite this for our times. It doesn’t require much of a transformation to do this.

Hipsterism appears especially in those periods of transition when democratic meritocracy has not yet completely disappeared, but when a new aristocracy is being born out of what remains of it. In the confusion of such times, a certain number of men, disenchanted and leisured ‘outsiders’, but all of them richly endowed with the inherited and rapidly redoubling spoils of their ancestors, may conceive the idea of establishing a new kind of aristocracy.

 

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June 20, 2014 at 12:57 pm

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choose your own adventure: middlebrow mad libs

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Originalml

I went through a period as a boy when I was obsessed with Mad Libs. Were they a UK thing too – or was there something similar? Basically, the player is given a set of prompts for parts of speech, various types of words, and the like. These are then plugged into a prewritten story, and of course much non-sequiturism and absurd hilarity (if you’re 8 or 9 years old) occurs. It’s sort of a poorman’s Oulipo, a vulgar literary surrealism for kids.

Anyway, tomorrow is the first day of summer, so the blurbs and related PR materials for all the middle-to-higher middlebrow fiction is starting to flow through the social media sieves. And as I skim this stuff, it’s impossible for me not to get a sense that the writers / agents / publishers responsible for its positioning on the airport news agents’ shelves and the tables at Waterstones or Barnes and Noble marked with the cardboard palm tree aren’t playing their own version of literary Mad Libs.

A young (doctor/student/yoga instructor) has suffered through (a divorce/ a bereavement / a layoff / pancreatic cancer) and decides to visit (Nepal / Laos / Peru / inner city Detroit). There she meets a (Buddhist school teacher / flamengo instructor / holistic gynaecologist / homeless savant) who teaches her to enjoy (food / dance / sex / her “curves” / abstract art) and, thus, life again. Upon returning to (London / New York / the family manse) she meets a (stock brocker / surgeon / idealistic social worker) and almost loses love… but ultimately, in the end, finds it.

Of course, one could compose similar rubrics for the various subgenres of this sort of stuff (the post-English Patient war romance, the self-discovery memoir, raunchy post-chick-lit chick lit, etc). (And hey, if you care to, post your own versions in the comments!) And further, of course, the fact that you can do this part of what makes genres genres – you could do the same for science fiction, the nineteenth-century realist novel, mid-century American “outsider” fiction, whatever.

But still, there’s something infinitely depressing about the implicit psychological profiling of the potential reader that seems to be running behind the construction of these blurs and the books that they stand for.  Commercial publishers know their readers, I guess. Or at least they know the (ever fewer?) readers who are already buying their books. And these readers, it seems, at least according to the evidence available in the products on offer, stand at the book tables (or their html equivalents) going through a not very complex dance of identification and aspiration as they decide which book to purchase for their carry-on luggage or beach bag. Ah, that’s like me. That’s like me too. That’s not like me but I wish it were. Ooh, wouldn’t it be nice if it turned out like that… 

(I’ve written about this process of identification in relation to the cover art of such novels before.)

Eat,_Pray,_Love_–_Elizabeth_Gilbert,_2007

Take for instance the work that can stand as an avatar of the middle range of the middlebrow stuff just as Ian McEwan’s Saturday can stand for the upper reaches of the form: Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. It’s a memoir, but it fits the rubric above so perfectly that it’s almost the platonic ideal of the genre – and undoubtedly has become a model that the book business looks to replicate over and over. Here’s a description of the work from wikipedia:

At 32 years old, Elizabeth Gilbert was educated, had a home, a husband, and a successful career as a writer. She was, however, unhappy in her marriage and initiated a divorce. She then embarked on a rebound relationship that did not work out, leaving her devastated and alone. After finalizing her difficult divorce, she spent the next year traveling the world.

She spent four months in Italy, eating and enjoying life (“Eat”). She spent three months in India, finding her spirituality (“Pray”). She ended the year in Bali, Indonesia, looking for “balance” of the two and found love (“Love”) in the form of a Brazilian businessman.

In this description, we can almost read the handwriting of the invisible hand that drives the publishing and marketing of such books: Our readers are almost all women, and what we all know about women is that women like to eat (even though they sometimes have to be coaxed into really going at it) and they like feelings and deepness and softcore “spirituality.” It’s even better if that leads (coaxes them into?) love and sex. It’s like a perfect dating experience – a dinner, followed by some deep conversation, and then, and only then, some sex –  extended into a self-discovery memoir! 

At any rate, what’s less interesting about all of this is to discover the venal cynicism of publishers and the vapid selection principles of some readers. It’s an old story, and not a particularly interesting – and perhaps not even entirely true – one. What’s more interesting, I think, is to consider, as I’m starting to do here, what we can make out of all that goes into the production of such products – especially at the spots where form intersects with baser motivations. That is, what I’m interested in is the semi-allegorical posture of the narratives to presumed customers lives, the socio-ideological substrate of the relations between the writing and the market, and what we might call, after Fredric Jameson, the nature of the political unconscious that somnolently calculates “Bali, Indonesia” as the reconciling synthesis of Italy and and India.

 

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June 20, 2014 at 11:40 am

peripheral omniscience 1: ballardian moments

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Westway_at_Paddington

Two sentences from Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station:

In the distance airliners made their way to Barajas, lights flashing slowly on the wing, the contrails vaguely pink until it was completely dark. I imagined the passengers could see me, imagined I was a passenger that could see me looking up at myself looking down.

I think of moments such as these as “Ballardian moments.” Certainly Ballard wasn’t the first to turn at the crossroads of subjective reflexivity and locational relativity like this, but it is a move highly emblematic of his work. For instance, perhaps the best example, from Chapter 11 of Crash:

Waiting for Catherine to leave for her flying lesson, I drove my car towards the motorway, and within a few minutes had trapped myself in a traffic jam. The lines of stalled vehicles reached to the horizon, where they joined the clogged causeways of the motor routes to the west and south of London. As I edged forward, my own apartment house came into sight. Above the rails of the sitting-room balcony I could actually see Catherine moving about on some complex errand, making two or three telephone calls and scribbling away on a pad. In an unexpected way she seemed to be playing at being myself – already I knew that I would be back in the apartment the moment she left, taking up my convalescent position on that exposed balcony. For the first time I realized that sitting there, halfway up that empty apartment face, I had been visible to tens of thousands of waiting motorists, many of whom must have speculated about the identity of this bandaged figure. In their eyes I must have appeared like some kind of nightmarish totem, a domestic idiot suffering from the irreversible brain damage of a motorway accident and now put out each morning to view the scene of his own cerebral death.

We’ve already stood with Crash‘s narrator-protagonist on his balcony overlooking the motorways approaching Heathrow many times, and we’ve overheard him speculating about all of the micro-narratives that are playing out, barely discernibly or only implicitly below. For instance, from Chapter 4.

I gazed down at this immense motion sculpture, whose traffic deck seemed almost higher than the balcony rail against which I leaned. I began to orientate myself again round its reassuring bulk, its familiar perspectives of speed, purpose and direction. The houses of our friends, the wine store where I bought our liquor, the small art-cinema where Catherine and I saw American avant-garde films and German sex-instruction movies, together realigned themselves around the palisades of the motorway. I realized that the human inhabitants of this technological landscape no longer provided its sharpest pointers, its keys to the borderzones of identity. The amiable saunter of Frances Waring, bored wife of my partner, through the turnstiles of the local supermarket, thedomestic wrangles of our well-to-do neighbours in our apartment house, all the hopes and fancies of this placid suburban enclave, drenched in a thousand infidelities, faltered before the solid reality of the motorway embankments, with their constant and unswerving geometry, and before the finite areas of the car-park aprons.

We have here – and at so many other places in Crash – an intimation, if a fleeting one, of another sort of novel – a novel whose action would be comprised of all of the micro-activity, the infra-events, that take place in a certain place at a certain time… in this case, the non-neighbourhood on the periphery of the airport run-up. This is interesting enough, but what’s even more interesting is when – in passages such as the one above from Chapter 11 or the sentences from Lerner’s novel – the micro-narratives of the denizens of the Westway or the passengers on the planes into Barajas are imagined in turn into micro-perspectives on the protagonist himself. From one, many; or, from many, one.

Tao Lin’s Taipei likewise has a similar preoccupation with such perspectival shifts, this time borrowed from the visual aesthetic of Google Maps and its gods-eye perspective. “He visualized the vibrating, squiggling, looping, arcing line representing the three-dimensional movement, plotted in a cubic grid, of the dot of himself, accounting for the different speed and direction of each vessel of which he was a passenger – taxi, Earth, solar system, Milky Way, etc.”

Of course, it’s always been possible to conceive of the novel in terms of movements on the map from on high. Franco Moretti’s work, for instance, has long embraced this aerial perpendicularity. But it goes back far further than that – as is visible, for instance, in Nabokov’s famous cartographical rendering of Ulysses. 

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But it is something a bit different when the works themselves perform or at least hint at the possibility of arranging themselves in this way. Moments such as those above – with Ballard’s characteristically long before the technological media that has clearly been so suggestive to later writers – are intimations of the possibility of new configurations of the matrix of personality and perspective within novels that otherwise remain enfolded in relatively conventional models of narrative construction. But at the same time, these new configurations can also been seen as developments compatible with the foundational conceptions of modernist literary art. To slightly edit one of the touchstone statements from early in the development of modernist prose technique, in these moments we start to see literature lean towards a new maxim, though one not all that different from the old ones:

An author in his book must be like Google’s algorithms in their processors, or Instragram’s archives in the Cloud, present everywhere, and visible nowhere.

 

 

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May 8, 2014 at 11:11 am

on molly crabapple’s latest piece for vice

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Can we have done with Molly Crabapple at some point soon? The self-appointed house artist of Occupy Wall Street (who cashed in even faster on the left-hip quotient of her radical turn than the most pessimistic of observers of the movement would have guessed for the most cynical of its fellow-travellers) keeps writing these articles about the Photoshopping of models and other female celebrities as some sort of neo-feminist form of détournage. She now writes for – among other things – Vice. I imagine that I don’t need to go into the politics of that. But here’s the latest example of what I’m talking about. Here we go:

To these feminists, Photoshop is to blame to unrealistic body standards, poor self-esteem, and anorexia in teenage girls. The campaign against Photoshop is the perfect cause for white, middle-class women whose primary problem is feeling their bodies do not match an increasingly surreal media ideal.

Ah, right. It’s the fat, lumpy bourgeois ladies that are angry about this – presumably not the ones who used to be topless models. But there’s something that we’re missing about Photoshop, and it’s something to do with out failure to understand Ahhht… Crabapple continues:  

Photoshop, the belief goes, takes a true record of a moment and turns it into an oppressive lie.

But fuck Photoshop. Photos are already lies.

I’m a former model and current artist. I’ve learned this every second I’ve stared into the camera’s insect eye.

As we learn in the course of her piece, all photos are lies, therefore participation in the increasing deceptiveness of the form is actually a form of liberation for women, for young girls. The ability to tweak your Instagrams (leaving aside whether it’s a great idea to build up an endless collection of tweaked selfies, pragamatically or self-confidence-wise) is cast as a guerrilla action on the part of young women, canny as they are (clearly, according to Crabapple, as canny as her) in the arts of ironically-distanced self-presentation.

Retouching is post-hoc glamor. Pixels shellac images like makeup on a face. From Photoshop to Instagram, each tech iteration has made retouching more democratic—and more despised. The self-facing phone cam is a master class in how posing affects perception. Media concern-trolls Photoshop’s effect on teen girls. Meanwhile, teen girls use iPhone retouching apps to construct media of themselves.

A teen girl knows the lies behind photography best. When she takes selfies, she’s teaching herself what were once trade secrets. Now she’s the one who angles, crops, and blurs.

Just in case the argument isn’t clear, and you’re not sure which side you’re on, Crabapple drops the bomb – as it were – near the end of her piece.

To get a “true” photo, you need to remove artifice. This means removing art. Art’s opposite is bulk surveillance. Drones, CCTV, ultra-fast-ultra-high-res DSLR, our fingers stroking our iPhones or tapping at Google Glass.

Ok then… So if Photoshop = Art and Art is the opposite of surveillance, to deny the magazines the right to crop women into hourglass magnificence is, what? To advocate the bombing of family get-togethers in Pakistan? Or, at the minimum, to back the imposition of some sort of Airstrip One style CCTV regime?

That is to say, if I’m a little worried that my now eight-year-old daughter is going to start to feel chubby, and thus unselfconfident, and thus worthless, and thus not even in line to become – for instance – an NYC downtown art celebrity due to her incessant bombardment with women as unrealistically rendered as those in the magazines on the supermarket shelves, I’ve supported some sort of Drone War on women – or in fact, implicitly, the Drone War itself. Or is the point that, when she’s inevitably confronted by these insecurities, I should just have her download Photoshop Express onto her iPad and inflate and deflate as needed, until she has the sort of body that buys her a place at the marketplace of culture commerce today?

At any rate, in Crabapple’s rendering of it, the camouflaging of flab, or small boobs, or a pasty face, seems to be tantamount to the secreting of the children away from the Hellfire missiles that drop from the sky in parts far distant from the lower Manhattan where she lives. I guess that’s the sort of conjunction that one has to make to get on with one’s hypocritical existence as the former artist-of-Occupy, on the “entrepreneurial” side of the movement of course, peddling on with the Vice pieces, the bogus art, and, most of all, the position as yet another of our new radical class of post-feminist confidence women.

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May 7, 2014 at 8:35 pm

Posted in magazines, occupations

the end of ‘net neutrality’

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One might be tempted to think that the end of “net neutrality” might well be counterbalanced by the tendency of all things of the electronic sort to grow and thus outpace the attempts to enclose them. That is, what would a fast-lane really mean in a world in which all lanes are getting faster all the time?

But we’ve learned this lesson again and again in capitalist modernity, during the slow but steady war on all things held in common and distributed equally. The very minute a top-up option is added – and added, as it always is, as simply more good on top of a very good thing – the forces of neglect, disinterest, and deliberate sabotage begin to go to work eroding the old, non-topped up forms. Education, health care, old-age pensions, civil services of every type – it always works the same way. And now, from the looks of it, the internet as well.

Once the mega-corporations (which are getting more mega all the time) who man the pipes can sell special sections of the pipes to the mega-corporations that provide the expensive content, watch to see how long the older, slow-lane sections of the “information superhighway” are under-maintained, full of pot holes and lined with crab grass, despite the toll booth newly erected every few miles.

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April 24, 2014 at 9:40 am