Out and about

I’m still on a more-or-less hiatus until mid-September, but that just means I’m not writing much; I’m reading plenty, though, and here’s a sampling of the best:

Mark Sarvas makes me want to read David Leavitt’s The Indian Clerk. A key graf:

In his 2005 biography of Alan Turing, The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer, Leavitt first displayed his skill at taking complex mathematical concepts and making them accessible to lay readers. Here he goes a step beyond, making them not merely accessible but integrating them into his novel so that they not only do not hinder the narrative, they resonate emotionally as well as intellectually. Readers of The Indian Clerk will learn a good deal about prime number theory but the book never feels like a math class and, in fact, the metaphor of the prime—a number divisible only by one and itself—is beautifully apt for this tale of these two isolated geniuses.
From the damp residences of Cambridge to the busy streets of London to the humid swelter of Madras, Leavitt has expertly weaved real events and real places with his formidable cast of real and imagined characters. His control of this dense, sprawling material is impressive—astonishing, at times—and yet despite its scope, Leavitt keeps us focused on his great themes of unknowability and identity. The Indian Clerk might be set in the past but it doesn’t resemble most so-called “historical fiction.” Rather, it’s an ageless meditation on the quests for knowledge and for the self—and how frequently the two are intertwined—that is, finally, as timeless as the music of the primes.

Robert Christgau rocks out to M.I.A.’s brand-new album, Kala:

Arular was about M.I.A.—her ambition, her education, her contradictions, her history of violence. Kala is about the brown-skinned Other now obsessing Euro-America—described from the outside by a brown-skinned sympathizer who’s an insider for as long as her visa holds up. It opens with the uninvitingly spare “Bamboo Banga,” which samples Indian Tamil filmi composer Ilayaraja and bends the lyric of Richman’s “Roadrunner” so it celebrates a kid running alongside a Third World tourist’s Hummer and banging on its door. “BirdFlu” disses dogging males everywhere—“selfish little roamers”—over another filmi sample and a barely synchronized four-four on some thirty deep-toned urmi drums. Also on “BirdFlu,” high kiddie/girlie interjections add a cuteness that’s sustained pitchwise on “Boyz,” with its video of synchronized Kingston rudies shaking their moneymakers for the Interscope dollar. Only with “Jimmy,” a Bollywood disco number a kiddie M.I.A. used to dance to for money at Sri Lankan parties, does a conventional song surface.

She’s the new face of pop and, despite that last line, Christgau seems to really dig this one. I dug Arular, and Kala’s got me as giddy with anticipation as the indie kids seemed to be over the Arcade Fire a few months ago. It’s a well-considered take from a long-time M.I.A. booster.

The old, brilliant though messed-up, face of pop is, of course, the King. Over at Television Without Pity, three folks—Matt Zoller Seitz, Steven Boone, and a woman known as Sars—watch an Elvis Presley concert documentary so you don’t have to. Maybe it’s the heat, but it’s been a long time since I’ve laughed this hard:

MZS: I love that Elvis loved the Beatles’ music as much as they loved his. That seems to be true at the uppermost levels of the arts—the big dogs respect each other, and it’s only the fans that sit around denigrating one to raise another.
Sars: Didn’t one of the Beatles get yelled at for smoking grass at Graceland one time? …“Grass,” listen to me. Hi, I’m 70 years old.
MZS: Yeah, but I would be surprised if the yeller was Elvis. And I believe the term you’re looking for is “wacky tobacky.”
Sars: He was really against street drugs. Elvis was a Cross Tops man.
MZS: Interesting. Only pharmaceuticals, then.
Steven Boone: His killers were pills and Colonel Sanders.


Steven Boone: Whether it’s drugs or genuine connection with the audience, I think he’s actually ON at this point.

Sars: I agree. It’s just hard to tell what he’s perceiving, if that makes sense. If there’s a there there.

Steven Boone: He’s actually participating in the drug counterculture unbeknownst to his fans.

MZS: I like his patter between verses of “Pork Salad Annie,” about the character being the sort of woman who’d carry a straight razor in her purse. …Oh, Elvis. No. Don’t pull a piece of paper with lyrics on it out of your pocket IN THE MIDDLE OF PERFORMING THE SONG.

Sars: …Wow, that was unfortunate.

MZS: Elvis Aaron Presley, you break my heart.

Comics critic—and founder of Fantagraphics Books—Gary Groth interviews my favorite working cartoonist, Gilbert Hernandez. Here it is, in audio. I’ve expressed my love before for him, and I’m sure I’ll do it again once I read his new Chance in Hell. Here, in an 1989 recording, he talks about his schooling (hated it), Batman, the origins of his Heartbreak Soup stories, and watching foreign films late at night as a teenager. Good stuff.

Speaking of great cartooning, the Onion’s A.V. Club’s monthly comics round-up has become the go-to spot for informed, concise criticism on the form. Seriously, be on the lookout for this feature.

And, finally, the Self-Styled Siren takes on the prickly subject of making a film canon, and how (and why) filmmakers go in and out of vogue:

Other directors are also getting fewer awed reactions than in the past. When in her late teens the Siren started trying to watch movies in an intellectually engaged manner—reading up on history, seeking out serious critics, trying to mix as many highly regarded films into her viewing as possible—it was axiomatic that John Ford was a towering great. That was a while back, and Ford’s status has slipped for some; he even got a sideswipe in Rosenbaum’s piece. David Thomson and Richard Schickel, both veteran Ford haters, have a lot more company now.

On the other hand, back in the 1980s the Siren had a hard time getting a serious discussion of Billy Wilder going, unless she wanted to talk about his supposed misogyny. (She didn’t want to talk about that, because she doesn’t think he IS a misogynist, but that’s another post.) Reagan was in office and, not coincidentally in the Siren’s view, Frank Capra was fashionable. It was a go-go era, a time of vocal patriotism, even more so than now. Capra was better suited to it than Wilder, with his mordant view of what success means for Americans, and what we will do to achieve it. With the publication of Cameron Crowe’s book and the tributes after Wilder’s death in 2002, suddenly the Siren had no trouble finding Wilder admirers. He is better suited to the tenor of our own times than Capra—Ace in the Hole is a lot closer to the age of reality television than Meet John Doe—so it isn’t surprising that Wilder now is more in vogue.

That is all.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Atlanta, GA. He is the co-author (with Daniel Couch) of Bob Mould's Workbook (Bloomsbury, 2017). His work has been published in The Quarterly Conversation, RogerEbert.com, Bookslut (RIP), The Comics Journal, The Baseball Chronicle, and other periodicals. Twitter: @walter_biggins.
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