Having It Both Ways

In his New York Times review of Justin Taylor’s Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever, Todd Pruzan explains how Raymond Carver “advanced a literary genre with ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.’  The movement wasn’t dirty realism or minimalism, but ‘vaguely titled fiction’: stories concealing their intensity and anxiety behind titles full of pronouns and ennui, signifying nothing much about their narratives.”  As examples, he cites Miranda July’s No One Belongs Here More Than You, Lorrie Moore’s People Like That Are the Only People Here and Maile Meloy’s Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It.

Meloy actually goes Pruzan and Carver one (or two or three) better.  She not only borrows Carver’s technique (or was it Gordon Lish’s?) for titling her book  (the story titles are more to the point),  she mirrors his simple narratives and working class  protagonists. At times, her stories reminded me of  Annie Proulx, Richard Ford (who wrote a blurb for her book) , even Joyce Carol Oates.

Indeed, the book’s first tale of a gimpy, modern- day cowboy who falls in love with a young, traveling  attorney seemed like something Proulx might have done and done better. It immediately set me to thinking. Do MFA programs –Meloy took hers at UCIrvine, a school which produced Michael Chabon, Alice Sebold and, back somewhat, Richard Ford–teach imitation disguised as learning by example? There’s nothing wrong with learning from other writers. But how do you avoid sounding like them?

The second story, an abrupt coming of age for a 15-year-old girl triggered by an aggressive older man and her father’s compliance, all with the added tension (and metaphor) of firearms, was artfully disturbing but still came across as an Oates-meets-Ford story. At that point we put the book down.

That was a mistake. Picking it up again, we found Meloy master of her own voice in the remaining nine stories. They’re simply told and suggest all the complications and moral questions that salt even the blandest lives. Nor, as we feared, was she exclusively a Montana regional author (she was born and raised in Helena but now lives in L.A.). Her stories take us to working class  Connecticut in the 1970s and upper class Argentina.  There’s intrigue in the strange mystery of  intercom pranks in “Lovely Rita” and wise, generational contrasts of romance and reality between a grade school student  and her mother in “Nine.”

Meloy’s craft comes from her matter-of-fact voice, as easy and gentle as a soft rain, even if a storm is lurking in the distance. Disease and death pay quick and lasting visits, fidelity is challenged and even children aren’t quite sure what to make of their lives even as they seem routine. She infrequently spices dialogue with terrible insight, masked as down-home homily: “the whole soul mates idea,” explains one woman, ” is really most useful when you’re stealing someone’s husband. It’s not so good when someone might be stealing yours.”

What Meloy does best is inject a benign tension into her stories, tension that starts passively enough and builds into a sort of personal horror. In the last story, “O Tannenbaum,” which does take place in Montana, the fears and resentment between two couples, one traveling home with their daughter after cutting a Christmas tree, the other stranded in the snow, grows as Meloy reveals their reflected and assumed histories.As she does in many of the stories, the author employs a child, not only to show what is at risk, but to heighten the fearful and innocent qualities of action.

One other Carver comparison: Meloy seems so comfortable telling her stories from a working class perspective, one has to wonder if the details come from experience or research. If it’s the later, she’s done a great job (she’s reportedly now working on a novel set in post-war London). As author Dagoberto Gilb pointed out, Carver wrote about working class anti-heroes from his experience as a hard-scrabble graduate student, then applied the principles of struggle to the working class characters. Maybe we should be wondering what Meloy’s student days were like?–Cabbage Rabbit

Note: Why is it that in their book jacket blurbs, author’s are so reticent to note their education? Maybe they don’t want their craft to be thought of as manufactured? We discovered Meloy’s MFA school in a Wikipedia article, not necessarily a source the Rabbit likes to quote unconfirmed. We could not confirm it anywhere on her web site  and, as noted, it’s missing from her bio on the book’s jacket.  More Google searching to follow…

Jung and Foolish

What would Carl Jung say about the current state of political discourse in America? The Rabbit’s been rereading the founder of analytical psychology’s The Undiscovered Self in preparation for Liber Novus, a “new” book which records Jung’s middle age conflict or, in pop-psychology parlance, mid-life crisis. Undiscovered is one of Jung’s most political texts (the Rabbbit here admits to being only a casual reader of Jung’s work) and we were only a bit astonished to find him speaking across a half-century to post-millennial America and the psyche of tea-party extremism.

The parallels  seem prophetic (indeed, the book’s first line is, “What will the future bring?”). Jung cites “physical, political, economic and spiritual distress”  as he describes the modern condition. He seems to be speaking directly to our time and its irrational politics when he states, “Rational arguments can be conducted with some prospect of success only so long as the emotionality of a given situation does not exceed a certain critical degree. If the affective temperature rises above this level, the possibility of reason having any effect ceases and its place is taken by slogans and chimerical wish-fantasies.” Is there any question, with the screaming of August giving way to the racism of autumn, that we’ve exceeded that “affective temperature?” Jung even seems to explain the numbers of shrill and mindless protesters which spring from the 20 per cent that still support discredited conservative policy (as opposed to valid, rational  conservatism; the discredited are known as “Republicans”). “Such individuals are by no means rare curiosities to be met with only in prisons and lunatic asylums,” he says. “For every manifest case of insanity there are, in my estimation, at least ten latent cases who seldom get to the point of breaking out openly but whose views and behavior, for all their appearances of normality, are influenced by unconsciously morbid and perverse factors.” Is that what we’re seeing today? A breaking out of latent insanity?

The extreme right as well will find much to quote in The Undiscovered Self, especially in regard to Jung’s declaration that the state is increasingly depriving the individual of  “the moral decision as to how he should live his own life…”  There’s even a line which seems to describe Islamic (as well as Christian and right-wing) terrorists: “Everywhere in the West there are subversive minorities who, sheltered by our humanitarianism and our sense of justice, hold the incendiary torches ready…”  But it must be remembered that Jung is writing in the throes of the Cold War and it becomes apparent as one reads on that he is talking of  life in the Soviet bloc and in terms of East/West rivalries. Indeed, he cites the dangers of religious fanaticism present in the West (read “the Christian right”) and says that the West “unfortunately (has) not yet awakened to the fact that our appeal to idealism and reason and other desirable virtues, delivered with so much enthusiasm, is mere sound and fury.”

This short, easily-read text, updated in 1958 to reflect the consequences of the Hungarian uprising, has much to offer modern times, especially regarding our need for spirituality and the political surrogates rising up to replace it. The Undiscovered Self speaks to us with communal as well as personal relevancy. Can we expect the same of  Jung’s upcoming, personal  account of his descent into creative madness? We may never know. Set to be released in early October, The Red Book as it has come to be known, carries a list price of $195. Sometimes the price of knowledge, especially self-knowledge, is too dear.–Cabbage Rabbit

Break On Through

In the future, nostalgia will continue to be hip. Witness Marc Ribot’s latest collective (don’t call it a “project”) Ceramic Dog. It opens with a charged version of the Doors’ “Break On Through,” finds inspiration in the decades-gone downtown New York music scene and, at different times, recalls Zappa, Lou Reed, even Devo. Still, it seems to be its own thing; smart, irreverent, neoteric and loud.

Take that opening number. It’s not so much an invitation as the Doors’ original was, but an insistent demand that uses brain control techniques—shouts, abusive guitar and hypnotic repetition of the title—to cross over. It’s hard to categorize what follows. On his website, Ribot defines Ceramic Dog as “free/punk/experimental/psychedelic/post electronica.” To us, that sound about right.

Ribot’s no stranger to put-ons, irony and embracing nothing in particular (see his quasi-Latin band Los Cubanos Positizos). The disc’s title tune carries some Zapa-esque social satire, blurring the suggestion of bygone leftist politics with scenester self-indulgence (maybe they’re the same thing?).”Todo El Mundo Es Kitsch” is a sultry, tongue-in-cheek look at shiftless, jet-setting pleasures. The snappy “Girlfriend” is narrated by a bored hipster who goes out to restaurants when he isn’t hungry, laments he missed the downtown scene of the 1980s and wants to make it with his girlfriend’s girlfriend. Some guys are never satisfied.

Not everything is done tongue-in-cheek. “For Malena” is a sweet, sorta Latin, sorta reggae beat tune about a single father trying to make a home life for his high school-aged daughter. The instrumental “Bateau” rocks back and forth in a gentle sea against a backdrop of masts and clanging riggings that recall Gamelan gongs. “Digital Handshake” is an electronic gallop through open territory. The moody “When We Were Young and We Were Freaks” is a melancholy tune of lost love, or something like it, with references to blood, black satin sheets, handcuffs and the inability to cry “no more!” Ribot’s guitar playing here is all short-circuit spark and tracer fire against Ches Smith’s wired, schizophrenic percussion. Elsewhere Ribot’s phrasing, in the best punk tradition, is a demented expression of anger and self-conscious insistence though a bit more ambitious—you might say artistic—than what passed as punk.

The molten core of this power trio is bassist Shahzad Ismaily who knows when to riff and when to spike the sound with something stronger. Ismaily adds moog, drummer Smith gets credit for electronics and, at times, the audible impression is of a fuse about to blow. Looking for something tame? This isn’t it. Released June, 2008—Cabbage Rabbit

Unconventional Wisdom

Choice can be a dangerous thing.

Ants, or wise bees, or a gang of wolves,
Work together by instinct, but man needs lies…

–Robinson Jeffers, “Faith”

It seemed like a good time to again take up drinking again. Politics had driven me to drunkenness back when Reagan was first elected and a nasty, reoccurring hangover had made me quit when Bush won his second term. In 1980 we’d elected a buffoonish B actor to the nation’s highest office on the strength of his one-liners, fictional anecdotes of welfare queens and a war history he didn’t even have. It seemed excuse enough to make intoxication a morning-noon-and-night proposition. Never mind my personal problems. Bush’s re-election, stacked on incompetence and smears, made me too cynical to continue.

Now, in this political season, just ahead of the conventions, I was craving cheap scotch. Cynicism ruled. Hope, no matter how audacious, was under attack. For a while it seemed people had realized the last eight years had been a disaster in every way, that needless wars and necessary ones had been badly botched, that the Treasury had been looted by political cronies, that that national debt had been criminally inflated and sold to offshore thugs, that income was being ripped from the middle class and marched off to the holding cells of the super rich, that the gutting of Federal regulation had led to poisoned food, deadly pharmaceuticals and financiers who spent their time denying they were thieves and murderers. Our right to privacy and the very notion of America as a place of honesty and goodness had been trashed. People wised up. But then, during the primaries, the Democrats surprised everyone by voting in an elitist Muslim kid with an America-hating wife who subsisted on arugula and wants babies to be aborted after they’re safely delivered. Or that’s what I was hearing. His opponent was someone with ideal leadership credentials: he’d been a prisoner of war who, on release, left his wife to marry a beer heiress and, once in office, facilitated the savings and loan scandal. Now he wanted to drill and restart the Cold War. Choice can be a dangerous thing. Suddenly things didn’t look so hopeful.

So, here in the middle of another restless night’s dreaming I found myself in front of that bastion of American political discourse, the Great American Bar. And I thought, why not have a couple, it’s a dream, no one will ever know. It was one of those classic taverns that barely exist anymore, the kind that don’t have windows, the kind that daylight never enters even when it’s daylight outside; where time stands still. Inside, there were two guys on stout stools, one a thick, hunched old codger with a pair of walking canes at his side, the other a tall, skinny guy with aviator glasses and a cigarette holder who seemed to have part of his jaw blown away. I pulled in next to them and ordered a Scotch.

“Scotch?” demanded the tall one who looked younger with his jaw suddenly intact. He kept a hand on his cigarette holder and pushed his packet of Dunhills at me. I pushed them back. I wasn’t smoking, even if it was a dream. “That’s nothing to be drinking when the world’s going to hell. Give him a Wild Turkey, bubba.”

“We should have done more drinking together when we were alive,” the pudgy old guy lamented. “I might have taught you something.” He made a grab for his two canes as they tumbled to the peanut shells. As I slammed my first alcohol in years, I recognized these two, both men who, in the past, had been driven by politics to drink. Was it a curse –or a blessing—to have one’s dreams haunted by Norman Mailer and Hunter Thompson?

“Why you guys?” I asked.

“Celebrating my new book,” Mailer said. “And the fact that somebody—you–read it.”

“It ain’t new,” said Hunter.

“Okay, a reissue. Just in time. “Miami and the Siege of Chicago,” Mailer supplied. “You know, all about the most god-awful conventions of our lives. 1968. The year of revolution –turned out to be a kiss-ass revolution. Amazing what fear and a couple assassinations will do to a country.”

Thompson snickered. “This year could be worse. What if the agents of swine attack the pro-solar forces in Denver? What if another bridge collapses in the Twin Cities under the weight of Cheney’s motorcade? What if some god damn crazy puts some kind of screaming powder in the water supply, or bin Laden’s caught in a Minnesota titty bar or Nixon’s reincarnated or Christ himself comes down and give the Evangelicals the what for…”

“Doesn’t matter,” says Mailer. “I said in our lives and we’re dead.”

Thompson shakes out another Dunhill. “Let the living suffer. This is heaven.”

“We’ll celebrate your book, too,” Mailer proposes, lifting a shot glass in a swollen fist. “Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ‘72. Politics as addiction by a true addict. It never went out of print and it was never more relevant.” Thompson toasted his fellow political haymaker. I slurped another Turkey.

Booze never tastes like much in dreams and seldom delivers a high. But, as in real life, it was making me obnoxious. Before 1968, Mailer had written one great novel, The Naked and the Dead and a couple of good ones, including the macho Why Are We In Vietnam? His book on the 1967 Pentagon march Armies of the Night had won him the Pulitzer Prize. He was no stranger to covering political conventions. “So why should we care about your god damn books?” I sputtered. “That’s all done and over with. Nixon, all the players are long since dead. What in hell…”

Mailer looked ready to throw a punch. “McGovern’s still alive. He’s your Obama. A shrewd innocent. Read Hunter’s book.”

“I did. Obama’s smarter than McGovern,” I countered before slamming down another shot that appeared, as thing in dreams do, out of no where.

“Hey, its your dream, bucko,” says Thompson, puffing like a madman. “You’re the one putting words in our mouths.” And that’s when it hit me. Mailer and Thompson’s books were more relevant than ever, not so much as history but for what they said about American politics. You can see the great smoke-filled room political conventions morphing into stage shows in Mailer’s account of the Republicans in Miami back in ’68. You can see the Democrats with all the finesse of professional wrestlers succeed in tossing Gene McCarthy from the ring in ’68 and take a three-count for George McGovern back in ’72. You can see the mainstream media—was there any other kind back then?—latching on to the wrong interpretation of events again and again, sticking with it long after it was proven folly. Reading Thompson’s demented account of the ’72 primaries made it was easy to see Hillary first as Edmund Muskie, the shoe-in, and later as Hubert Humphrey, the old school Dem who never really got behind the party’s candidate. You could see why McGovern won the battle but lost –big time—the war.

Most frightening in those decades-old accounts are why a country, mired in a pointless war and seemingly ready for change, surrendered to the status quo. What parallels can be drawn between 2008 and 1968 (few) and 1972 (many) don’t bode well for our political future. That McCain owns more than a half-dozen houses trumps extending tax breaks to the rich. That Obama went to see his grandmother in his birth state of Hawaii (elitist!) overshadows health care solutions. That the Republicans can still pull it off after screwing things up so badly the last eight years reflects the nation’s shallow interests, the dumb-and-dumer state of political discourse and (consider the McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin to be his heart beat away) the ultimate in cynicism. Dream or no dream, I don’t want to believe it.

Forty years ago, the country was torn by an unpopular war, by racial and cultural struggles, by creeping economic crisis, burgeoning poverty (despite a so-called war on it) structural and environmental neglect. There were angry political recriminations and threats of violence and a little something called the draft that could jerk a guy out of his comfortable life and land him in a rice paddy firefight. It’s all so familiar even as it’s all so different, then escalated by street action and angry protest and the fact that tens of thousands, not a few thousand, of our young service people had been killed in Vietnam. In 1968, a sitting president, not nearly as unpopular as the current one, chose not to seek re-election. The country’s most important civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and the ruling party’s great hope, Robert F. Kennedy was gunned down just as it seemed the election was his. There were riots in the streets and talk of revolution. Political repression against those expressing opposition, was a fact of life.

But the social and economic problems as well as political process were largely as we know them today. Mailer draws distinction in his book between the Republican and Democratic conventions; how the Republican gathering was carefully managed for television, while the chaotic Democrats were foolish enough to run their convention as if it were still part of the process. The Republicans greeted their delegates with attractive young women in mini-skirts, blonde “Nixonettes” and brunette “Nixonaires”. They drank expensively. One of the convention’s biggest moments was the arrival of an elephant, the party mascot, on a plane from California. Mailer reports that the pachyderm walked off the plane, sized things up and dropped a huge terd on the runway.

Mailer, on assignment for Harpers magazine, was sober enough to see the party’s future taking shape He tells how the so-called conservative wing cut the throat of Nelson Rockefeller, maybe the last pragmatic Republican. Ronald Reagan lurks in the shadows, his minions calling out Nixon’s softness on any issue that wasn’t treated with a John Wayne-style of ferocity. He introduces Spiro Agnew, the attack-dog vice-presidential pick who did more to define politics as organized crime than any politician in the last 50 years, precluding a long line of Republican hoodlums skilled at shaking down taxpayers and spreading around kick backs. Back in the ‘60s, political extortion was thought a Democratic skill.

Mailer’s genius was in defining the Republicans, seeing what they had jettisoned and what they embraced. He saw on the convention floor “The corporate and social power” of the country that had somehow melded with small town America even as the party’s covenant with business betrayed those clueless hicks. All of us not endowed with wealth or power were hicks in the party’s eyes, useful stooges kept in line with appeals to morals and greatness. America, the Republicans believed, “was the world’s ultimate reserve of rectitude, final garden of the Lord….” Indeed, as Mailer states, the Republicans believe that the defeat of America, in any form, would be the end of God himself. But this is “never articulated by any of them except in the most absurd and taste-curdling jargons of patriotism mixed with religion…” That’s why even today wearing a flag as a lapel pin and regular church attendance can be a candidate’s most important qualifications.

Mailer “scorned” liberals, as he writes, didn’t think much of Democrat Gene McCarthy but was whole-heartedly behind RFK who was gunned down at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles even as he won the California primary. The anarchy of the Chicago Democratic convention seemed to suit Mailer and, something of a brawler himself, he developed a stubborn admiration for the protestors in the streets. “If they had been gassed and beaten, their leaders arrested on fake charges…they were going to demonstrate that they would not give up, that they were the stuff out of which the very best soldiers were made,” he wrote. He himself managed to get beaten and hauled in on the final night long after police had pushed demonstrators through the plate glass windows of the Conrad Hilton Hotel and bloodied protestors, delegates the press and casual observers, even diners in the restaurant just to show that they could. Then he went off to the Playboy mansion to have a drink with Hugh Hefner.

Unlike Mailer, Thompson played favorites, following the entirety of the ’72 campaign for Rolling Stone in what amounts to a chronicle of McGovern’s shrewdness in unseating Muskie, Humphrey and the others. Thompson also puzzles over McGovern’s complete destruction during the general campaign, beginning with the nomination of Missouri senator and psychiatric patient Thomas Eagleton to be his vice president. Scorned by the big wheels of his own party (Mailer compared them to the Mafia back in ’68), McGovern earned Thompson’s respect—the candidate wasn’t above taking a drink now and then—and his vote, even though he knew it was futile.

Thompson’s books shines in its steely-eyed scrutiny of political advisors and pundits. The press settled on accepted wisdom and then stuck with it, even if it wasn’t so smart anymore, just as they did with Hillary and McCain (“straight-shooter”, “maverick”) in the current election. “In mid-February of 1972, there were no visible signs in New Hampshire, that the citizenry was about to rise up and drive the swine out of the temple,” he writes. “…it was absolutely clear –according to the Wizards, Gurus and Gentlemen Journalists in Washington—that Big Ed Muskie, the Man from Maine, had the Democratic nomination so deep in the bag that it was hardly worth arguing about.” Thompson immediately began placing bets with his fellow journalists and winning nearly all of them. No doubt were he alive, Thompson would have put money on Obama early and ridden him to the finish.

There are other books you could read to learn the history of those long ago elections. Theodore H. White The Making of the President–1968 and1972 (and the compendium volume America in Search of Itself: The Making of the President 1956-1980) but you will learn only facts and conventional thinking—the most accepted of accepted thinking– with little challenge to the system or its crooked denizens. Joe McGinniss’ The Selling of the President, an obvious play on White’s titles, made the then-shocking disclosure that politicians, even in 1968, were being sold to the public like cigarettes. Now we know the political operatives—think swiftboating and the arrogance of Al Gore—spend their dollars blowing smoke.

My dream, like a good drunk, came to an end somewhere I can’t quite pin down, around the time Thompson said I was putting words in their mouths. Guilty. But their words, pulled from the convention accounts are now in mine. “…when a journalist turns into a politics junkie he will sooner or later start raving and babbling in print about things that only a person who has Been There can possibly understand,” Thompson says in ’72. Thank god Thompson and Mailer were there. Writing just ahead of the Democratic convention, I see the light they shed and what can go terribly wrong.

Even as they line up behind Obama backers of that other Democrat cast doubts on the candidate’s experience, his fortitude. The opposition runs ads suggesting Hillary’s people were wronged. Purveyors of accepted thinking are publishing stories about divided Democrats and Republican minions keep whispering, whispering that the candidate’s middle name is Hussein. Remember how Humphrey destroyed McCarthy? Remember how the party powers couldn’t get behind that upstart McGovern? Remember how Nixon hijacked the issues and promised peace with honor? Never surrender, as Thompson would say. If they put one of yours in the hospital, send one of theirs to the morgue. I am not one to think that history actually repeats itself. But I know that ignorance makes the world go round. And round again. I want to believe things will be different this time. Please, please make it so.

You Too Can Be Creative!

…this is as pretty and as entrancing picture book as you’ll find, something to be explored under the spell of psychedelics as much as studied when perfectly straight.

Why is it that most classes in creativity stifle the very thing they seek to nurture? Somehow, becoming conscious of the creative process—in the way it’s usually taught—extinguishes creativity. You remember those grade school lessons in which what you drew or what you wrote was really an attempt at approval from your teachers and peers that had little to do with actually making art? When was it that we learned, if we did, to color outside the lines?

Cartoonist Lynda Barry, she of Ernie Pook’s Comeek fame, has pursued these question and come up with a method of making art that renders it a simple process. In distilled form, here it is: Keep moving. Don’t stop drawing or writing. If you’re suddenly stuck on the sentence displayed on your computer screen, switch to the note pad kept handy on your desk. Don’t let the flow stop. You’ll end up with puddles. Write what you know. And what you don’t.

What It Is (the formless thing that gives things form) is a beautiful and unsettling book that serves as a primer on artistic creation and self-knowledge. Barry digs into her twisted psyche to pass on what she’s learned and, in the process, has created a dreamy art book. A collage of symbols and ideas, the book less resembles her Ernie Pook’s strip, in which she explores the thumb-sucking angst of pre-adult life. It’s more like her weirdly reflective One! Hundred! Demons! in its assemblage and technique. Part memoir, part sketch book, part strategy for unlocking the mystery of image, it’s Barry’s least narrative work and, in a sense her most ambitious. A riddle about visual puzzles, it stirs both the conscious and subconscious mind. It’s a sort of Zen koan that poses questions—lots of questions– for which there’re no simple answers.

Confused? That’s just the state Barry wants you to start from. The inside cover of the book is filled with jottings–some on Post-It notes, some on file cards–that aren’t exactly revelatory. “Living Bacon” and “Freak out after” share space with “No narrative memories until language” and “Images require some sort of representation in the world outside of us.” Once inside, this sort of random thinking begins to unravel, leaving (mostly) clear lines of thought. Certain images reoccur. Birds, cats, monkeys and ghost-like creatures with hollow eyes drift through the pages. Deep sea images, complete with toothy fish, stand in for the sub conscious and a cephalopod (yes, an octopus) serves as a sort of Beatrice into the world of creation.

In her quest to capture the creative process (you just know she hates that word “process”), Barry pushes innocence. Childhood serves as a vehicle to revelation. “At the center of everything we call ‘the arts,’ and children call ‘play’ is something which seems somehow alive” she writes early on. “Adults are scared to do this,” she pens next to an owl, barely escaping triviality. Questions pile upon questions and the search for answers seems confused and hopeless. What keeps us moving through this hodge-podge are the personal narratives—her early discovery of Medusa figures—and the strangeness of her pages that blend a variety of scripts and images into thoughtful mosaics.

In other words, this is as pretty and as entrancing picture book as you’ll find, something to be explored under the spell of psychedelics as much as studied when perfectly straight. Many of the narrative pages appear to be done on lined yellow legal paper, giving space to her words and a structured frame for her drawing. Detailed pencil sketches from her “copying” days are contrasted with colorful constructions of flowers, candles, phrases and peanut shells.

It all starts making sense past half way into the book, after the story of how she became a cartoonist and was able to generate “That strange floating feeling of being there and not being there” in which “one line led to another an a story slowly formed under my hands.” Barry sets us up with somewhat absurd activities as to “writing the unthinkable” and giving images “living form.” Suddenly all the questions posed find value, if not answers, as she provides ways to bring out the details in the images we create. One facet left unexplored–revisions—seems foreign to her philosophy (One of the cover page notes sums up her thinking: “Why we don’t read it over? The person reading it over is not the same person writing it”). Surprisingly, this weird and wonderful book ends up being as practical as it is dream-like. But you might like it just for its visual appeal.–Cabbage Rabbit