Sunday, June 8, 2008

John Crowley's The Translator

Our reading group gathered to discuss John Crowley’s novel The Translator. It’s a narrative about a Russian poet in exile (Innokenti Falin) who alights on a Midwest college during the Kennedy years. Isolated from his native language, Falin asks a writer’s-blocked coed poet (Kit Malone) to translate his poems, and so they collaborate both poetically and personally. The story and characterizations suggest parallels with Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, and Nabokov’s Lolita and Pale Fire; with signposts from Paradise Lost (e.g., a Miltonic ‘youth and maid / golfing in the chequer’d shade’) and appropriate circuities through Lewis Carroll. [Favorite Alice references in the book include the young Kit’s self-examination “as though she were catching a bright centipede in its damp crevice, she discovered what she had not known before, that she had a hole there: not how far it went, or where it led.” And when she “looked at herself in the mirrored door of the medicine cabinet;…she then opened the door…to find, behind her face, not the contents of herself but only this stuff”. Kit’s looking-glass perception is projected onto the entire narrative as if she had passed into Falin’s world via his open eyes, which were “not probers or perceivers….. but only portals”.]

Frost lectures the nation:
The Nadezhda Mandelstam epigram “poetry is power” is quoted to inform the reader that poetry is, and will be, significant to the narrative. Robert Frost had lectured to President Kennedy for “an Augustan age….a golden age of poetry and power” for America, (and this Roman theme is echoed in Kit’s “saying” of Baudelaire’s Spleen). Yet, it appears that the Augustan importance of poetry in the Soviet Union had caused Falin – framed by his public role as poet – to flee his country. He is a ‘lesser angel’ – both innokenti and fallen from the ‘nation’s angel’ of Russia. The festering Russian/American duality that dominates the novel feels as if it can only be stitched by the IRBM contrails of a fatefully-spun Cuban Missile Crisis.

A U2 spy plane, one of many “great feeble angels, long-winged and slow, all eyes”:

Crowley presents other dualities. Some are clear: The consciousness of the 60s is painfully birthed in Kit’s inner self as an extended “warning tremor” that erodes her 50s expectations - Just as the displaced orphans of the Revolution (besprizornyi) are indicative of the real inner Russia as opposed to the officially-sanctioned Soviet version of it. [In Crowley’s documentary film The World of Tomorrow, the 1939 New York World’s Fair is a precarious aspirational façade that eventually crumbles under the real inner “warning tremor” of impending world war.]

1939’s aspirational façade:
Sometimes the boundary between dual truths is deliberately vague, e.g. in the political allegiances of the secondary characters Jackie and Milton; and in the political intrigue: “Knowing they don’t know everything, but not knowing what it is they don’t know”. And, as in early Eden, it is not clear if Falin and Kit have had sexual intercourse. However, their emotional bonding is clearly announced by the specific use of the word ‘they’ in this passage: “she turned her body so that she could place her head on his stomach…and [she] thought; and the worlds turned and multiplied as they thought, each within all the others.” Yet, despite Kit’s aspiring reach, Falin remained ungraspable as if her pursuit was danced along Keats’ Grecian urn. Where does Falin disappear to - “too small to see any longer or even remember”? And is that disappearance into silence a required political quid pro quo?

The writer as crafty tease:
At our RacFest a few weeks back, the author asked us ‘Is the story real or a fantasy?’ - a fantasy perhaps consistent with the Nabokov assertion that all great novels are fairy tales. Crowley’s terse dualist teasing did not divert us, his careful readers, from the belief that the story is not fantasy, because he had deftly placed appropriate clues to ensure its credibility. Yet, by mustering such unresolved dualities, a crafty writer who teasily dangles the carrot of Edenic closure before his reader, creates an ungraspable aspiration toward further re-reading.

However, for those who seek such closure, he provides a jeweled catharsis via the de facto climax of the narrative when the grown-up Kit visits St. Petersburg (after the Soviets’ ‘angel’ had fallen) and she reflects to the elder Gavril: “What we had together were not his poems, really, but mine. I think that he hoped he could pass on to me something he couldn’t keep any longer” - To which Gavril replies “Not his poems into other poems, then. Himself into another poet. You began then to write again. So then it was he who was truly the translator.” She nodded. The streetlights and the Neva sparkled in her vision and she pressed the cuff of her shirt to her eyes. “Yes, she said. “All along.”

The cathartic Neva, seen through sparkling tears:

And, because we are only casually informed that the older Kit eventually married and had children, her encounter with a lesser angel of the Russian besprizornyi (who is also named Innokenti) consonantly brings her looking glass journey full circle.

Friday, May 16, 2008


Deep-throated Bindlestiff, Keith Nelson, wolfs down a yard of neon.

The Raconteur Festival began with a bang, or rather with a piercing, pulsating screech: the sound of the church's fire alarms going off as smoke poured out of drummer Elf's over-sized floor tom during the crashing opening number of The Dan Whitley Band (front man Dan is the younger brother of the late blues legend Chris Whitley). It concluded with the alt country combo, The Roadside Graves, playing fiddles in the aisles as fans stomped their feet.

In between Keith Nelson of the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus swallowed a three foot illuminated neon tube and rammed a screwdriver up his nose. Seville folk singer, Sandra Rubio, sang in English, Portuguese, and Spanish. Critical darling Charles Bock gave away rock posters inspired by his hit book Beautiful Children to audience members who correctly responded to a series of literary questions (I don't remember the questions but the answers were William Burroughs, Cold Mountain, and Flea). Then he threw guitar picks imprinted with the novel's logo out into the audience.

Samantha Hunt read from her acclaimed novel about Tesla, The Invention of Everything Else.Then, realizing she was mere miles from the home/lab of bitter Tesla rival Thomas Edison -- making the surrounding area a "Tesla blackout zone" -- proceeded to explain exactly who he was (he invented the AC motor, wireless communication, etc.). The Idiom, a local literary fanzine, provided strolling buskers and a 4' Science Fair volcano that hiccuped rags of smoke. Prodigiously talented singer/songwriter Jeremy Benson tried to mack Rac volunteer Marcy while Chaos Kitchen, a local punk rock cooking show, served World Fantasy Award Winner/Yale prof John Crowley some sort of meat.

Crowley eyes a paper plate of punk rock pork.

Participants were all given newly minted Raconteur book totes (Rac Sacks) with copies of The Raconteur Reader (the inaugural volume of our budding publishing house) tucked inside. Limited edition Motorcycle Club T-shirts (that's right, motorcycle club, click here for relevant post) were given to shop friend/frequent guest Paul Watkins, a two time Booker Prize finalist who apparently traded his previous Club tee to a keg-chested Viking biker he met on a recent trip to Norway, and Keith Nelson, whose wife Stephanie regularly rides a motorcycle on a tightrope. Charles Bock, who vowed to join our upcoming ride to the Robert Louis Stevenson cottage in Lake Saranac NY, was also given a shirt, which he put on immediately and wore throughout the day.

Lit bad boy Bock becomes honorary RMC member.

After the festival, which ran six hours, participants and staff mingled down at the shop, drinking Islay Malts and occasionally breaking things (ex: a framed and autographed Harvey Pekar comic cover). I spoke at length to team Bindlestiff about their now defunct traveling sideshow/bookstore, The Autonomadic Bookmobile.

The Edison U-Haul on Route 1 has revamped their fleet with brand new cargo vans and are, accordingly, selling off their old moving trucks. And while we've taken no pragmatic steps, I must say, the idea of a rolling Raconteur is very appealing.

John Crowley, who once wrote an entire novel from Lord Byron's perspective and was recently compared to Thomas Mann by The San Francisco Chronicle, met his intellectual match in the shop's resident braniac Larry Mintz, a painter and former academic who is, quite simply, the smartest person I know. Holed up in a balefully lit corner, they twittered about renaissance philosophers while The Roadside Graves hunkered around an oak table and compared arm ink while sucking down Sierra Nevadas. Store overheads are turned out for parties/events and the shop was moodily lit by red and blue clamp spots, a string of Christmas lights made from shot gun shells, and a handful of lamps (including a gold Orient Express repro and a little tassled number that once sat on a highboy in a 1940s brothel).

Crowley poses for pic in blood red light while Graves caper behind in frosty glow.

Crowley, who hails from Northampton, Mass, spent the night in Metuchen. Shop friends Beth and Will have a looming Victorian on Rector and frequently offer B&B services to our esteemed out-of-town guests. In the past, they'd hosted overseas author Jeremy Mercer, who wrote a heralded account of living and working in the famed Parisian bookstore Shakespeare and Co., and former Sudanese lost boy Abraham Awolich, who made the shop a stop on his national tour earlier this year. Mr. Crowley (who, I'm told, has no association with the Ozzy Osbourne song of the same name) was leaving early the next morning, and because breakfast with our overnight guests, especially ones as charming as Crowley, is a treat Kristy and I look forward too, we were up at 6 AM the next day for scrambled eggs. Over piping hot cups of Café Bom Dia, we talked about Crowley's Aegypt quartet and Rosamond Purcell (whose picture of decaying books was on the cover of the recently published final installment). Purcell has made a career photographing putrefying artifacts at a shuttered antique warehouse called the Owl's Nest, and Crowley described her photograph of moldering dice so vividly that I immediately searched for it online later that morning.

Purcell's decomposing dice commissioned by sleight-of-hand performer/Mamet regular Ricky Jay.

We talked about our mutual friend Nebula award winner Kelly Link (Magic for Beginners), her publishing house, Small Beer Press, which released Crowley's last book, and Northampton, where they both live. "It would," Crowley suggested, "make an excellent destination for The Raconteur Motorcycle Club." Beth and Will, who are happy to board Raconteur guests provided we never saddle them with "twits or assholes," were enchanted by Crowley's company, as were we, and the meal was a delight.

So now the festival is over. But as agreeable replies dribble in from authors we'd contacted but who, for one reason or another, had originally failed to respond, like Gary Shteyngart (Absurdistan) and Jennifer Egan (The Keep); as effusive e-mails from impressed festival goers flood my inbox and post-show pics of sword swallowers pop up in local papers, festival co-coordinator Dan and I scheme and plan. "The next one," Dan says, fluttering his templed hands, "will be even better." And, indeed, it may well be.

Saturday, May 10, 2008


What do a sword swallower, a young female folk singer from Seville, Spain, and an author whose latest novel, Skin, is slowly being written on the bodies of ten thousand volunteers (each who've agreed to have a single word tattooed on their body), all have in common?



The Raconteur Festival is a semiannual hootenanny/cultural clambake featuring acclaimed authors, live music, sideshow performers and an independent press book expo. While clams covered in seaweed and steamed on hot rocks is typical of clambakes, The Raconteur is anything but typical i.e. no clams.

All Tickets: $15


270 Woodbridge Avenue, Metuchen, NJ
(One block from the Metuchen train station; Adjacent to the First Presbyterian Church)


For advance tickets call 732-906-0009 or visit The Raconteur at 431 Main Street. Tickets available at The Refectory day of event ONLY.

In the past, The Raconteur staged its festivals at the 500 seat Forum Theater. The Forum has since closed and The Refectory Theater is less than half the size (fewer seats = fewer tickets). Don't miss out on a chance to see a man eat a light bulb! Buy your ticket now!

Estimated Performance Times Follow Bios


CHARLES BOCK: The New York Times can't say enough about Bock’s recent debut, calling it “raw and ravishing” and a “whirling roulette wheel.” Beautiful Children hit shelves a few weeks ago and has gotten the rare Times treatment of a glowing review AND a Sunday magazine profile. The son of Las Vegas pawnbrokers, Bock spent much of his childhood behind the counter of his parents’ shop, staring out at desperate adults as they hocked their most precious possessions in hopes of restoring their luck. Now in his late 30s, he has spent a decade transforming those memories into his first novel, Beautiful Children. In it, he brings together the intersecting lives and innermost thoughts of parents and adolescents, strippers and pornographers, runaways and addicts, gamblers and comic-book illustrators, setting them against the neon-lit, heat-parched backdrop of Nevada. “In Beautiful Children, Bock’s vision and voice create a fictional landscape as corruptly compelling as Vegas, and as beautiful as the illusions its characters cling to for survival.”--The New York Times.

THE BINDLESTIFF CIRKUS: Gone are the days when villagers could wander down to the town square and see a duck with three wings, a horse you could hold in your hand, a lady swallowing razor blades, and a man driving 3” deck nails up his nose with a bal peen hammer. But since 1995 Manhattan’s Bindlestiff Family Cirkus has traveled the world working hard to restore these small town delights, bringing its uniquely hip hybrid of vaudeville, circus, burlesque, and sideshow to theaters, clubs and festivals. “It's fantastic. There are certain things that make New York City so incredibly special. And [Bindlestiff] is one of them.”--The New York Times. “The Bindlestiffs are responsible for spawning the whole neo-vaudeville, indie circus trend.”--The Village Voice. “Bindlestiff bought vaudeville back to Times Square.”--Time Out New York

SHELLEY JACKSON: Shelley Jackson's first novel, Patchwork Girl, reconfigured the elements of the Frankenstein myth into a postmodern mosaic. Her second offering, Skin, a story in progress, is slowly being written on the bodies of thousands of volunteers, each of whom has agreed to have a single word tattooed onto his or her person. Jackson, it seems fair to say, has so far been perfectly happy to labor outside the boundaries of mainstream publishing culture. Grotesque, inventive, and moving, Jackson's latest book, Half Life, is a story of a parallel world where conjoined twins are a sizable minority. “A shimmering, dazzling delight…Half Life does what great fiction is supposed to do: entertain us a lot, and change us a little.” --The Washington Post.

THE DAN WHITLEY BAND: With a sawed off vocal approach that can sound like a lumberjack's gassed up tool-of-choice revving and rampaging through the American landscape, Whitley's range runs from gospel and plain-spoken blues to complex spoken-word enigmas that rival T. Bone Burnett's most cryptic, labyrinthine lyrics. Zack Leffand's powerful guitar is at various times rampant and elegant, and Elf's thumping drumwork sounds like something beating on a cabin roof in the dead of night (I mean that in the best possible way). Like his influences, Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker and Howlin' Wolf, Whitley's best songs pick you up, shake you hard, and throw you down in the dirt. But rest assured, you'll dust yourself off and ask for more. Dan Whitley is the younger brother of music legend Chris Whitley (with whom he frequently played). In 2001, The New York Times called the older Whitely "restless ...evoking Chet Baker and Sonic Youth as much as Robert Johnson," The Rolling Stone said "The post-Hendrix explosion of whammybar wankers hasn't produced a single axeman who can compare to Chris Whitley," and Dave Matthews said, "I have a fervent, religious devotion to the magic that Chris Whitley makes." Chris Whitley died in 2005 at the age of 45.

JOHN CROWLEY: Spanning three centuries, and weaving together the stories of Renaissance magician John Dee, philosopher Giordano Bruno, and present-day itinerant historian and writer Pierce Moffitt, Crowley's astonishing and lauded Ægypt sequence is as richly significant as Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet or Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time. "In its entirety, Ægypt stands as one of the most distinctive accomplishments of recent decades. It is a work of great erudition and deep humanity that is as beautifully composed as any novel in my experience." --The Washington Post Book World. "A dizzying experience, achieved with unerring security of technique." --The New York Times Book Review. John Crowley is the recipient of an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award for Literature and The World Fantasy Award. His critically acclaimed works include Love & Sleep, Ægypt, The Translator, Lord Byron's Novel: The Evening Land, and Little, Big. The San Francisco Chronicle called him, "An original moralist of the same giddy heights occupied by Thomas Mann and Robertson Davies." Spin Magazine said, "Crowley will, I predict, be America Lit's next Cormac MacCarthy."

GABRIEL BROWNSTEIN: It is April 1922. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle arrives in New York on a spiritualist crusade. To packed houses at Carnegie Hall, he displays photographs of ghosts and spirits; of female mediums bound and gagged, ectoplasmic goo emerging from their bodies. In the newspapers, he defends the powers of the mysterious Margery, one of the most famous mediums of the day. His good friend Harry Houdini is a skeptic, and when Doyle claims Margery's powers are superior to Houdini's, the magician goes on the attack. Booklist labeled Brownstein’s debut novel, The Man From Beyond, a “shivery delight,” and The New York Times declared that “like his magician character, Brownstein puts on a compelling show.” Gabriel Brownstein won the esteemed PEN/Hemingway Award for his earlier story collection The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Apt. 3W, which was named one of the “25 Books to Remember of 2002” by The New York Public Library.

SAMANTHA HUNT: Hunt’s recent novel is a wondrous imagining of an unlikely friendship between an eccentric inventor and a young chambermaid in the Hotel New Yorker. The Invention of Everything Else luminously resurrects one of the greatest scientists of all time, Nikola Tesla, while magically transporting us (la Steven Millhauser and Michael Chabon) to an early twentieth-century New York City thrumming with energy, wonder, and possibility. Vanity Fair called it “dazzling,” The Village Voice called it “elegant and inspired,” and LA Weekly called it “marvelous.” Samantha Hunt spent four years researching Tesla, in the course of which she has appeared in several Tesla-related documentaries, visited Tesla fanatics across the country, and explored the five subterranean floors of the still-standing Hotel New Yorker. She is the author of the acclaimed first novel The Seas, and her short fiction has appeared in The New Yorker and McSweeneys and on This American Life. She recently received the first-ever "'5 under 35"' award from the National Book Foundation.

THE ROADSIDE GRAVES: Their sweet-tempered country-rock is far more slippery than it might first appear and often conjures images of a roadhouse Bad Seeds. “I've drank enough to know that I've drank enough," announces front man Gleason on the world-weary “Live Slow,” the one song that comes closest to encapsulating the enduring spirit of The Graves. Performed with an uncommonly deft touch and subtle grace, their songs concern themselves primarily with the pause for breath that comes after reaching original destinations, and the long, careful glance at the atlas that comes before deciding where to go next.

Literary wunderkind/Booker Prize finalist PAUL WATKINS is the author of ten novels and the memoir Stand Before Your God. Dubbed the heir to Hemingway by Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post, his work has been called an “amazing tour de force” by Newsday, “intense and precise” by The Chicago Tribune, “dazzingly rendered” by The Los Angeles Times, and “lyrical” by The Wall Street Journal. He attended The Dragon School, Eton, and Yale, and currently lives with his family in Princeton, New Jersey, where he teaches at the Peddie School and Lawrenceville Academy.

SANDRA RUBIO is a singer-songwriter from Seville, Spain. Now living in central Jersey, she performs with Hope, Star, & Browning (as well as on her own). In Spain, she was a member of the bands Senior Chinarra and Hebrides. She moves easily from Neil Young covers to original songs to traditional Spanish guitar and folk tunes. She is one of the friendliest human beings on the face of the Earth, and she also knows a really good joke about a fat bird, to which I forget the punch line. Ask her. I'm sure she'd be more than happy to tell it.

Described as a “tattletale psychiatrist turned rodeo clown” by acclaimed author Tom Robbins, CLAY MCLEOD CHAPMAN has spent the past decade in New York theaters reinventing the art of the campfire tale with his critically acclaimed Pumpkin Pie Show, a rigorous session of theatrical tale telling. Chapman is also the author of Rest Area, a collection of short stories and the novel, Miss Corpus, which was recognized as part of The New Yorker “Reading Glass” series. He’s been called “hauntingly poetic” by Time Out New York and compared to William Faulkner by The Village Voice. The Scotsman, Scotland’s leading newspaper, called him “Stephen King transformed into a punk, preacher poet.”

ARLAN FEILES: Arlan is one of the first musicians I scouted (most of the bands that play at The Raconteur I've known for years, either personally, or from my days of bartending and booking music in NB). I saw him at The Saint (in Asbury Park) and sent my girlfriend Kristy up to the stage with a business card. Arlan sings about the street and the barking of distant dogs. He sings about greasy brother crows wheeling, beak to heel, in a troubled sky. He moans about how he's sick of love and of himself. He's been compared to a young Bob Dylan and a class five hurricane ("if songwriters were bad weather..." you get the idea). He plays a mean little harmonica and a damn sweet guitar. In any case, whether you like Dylan, rough winds, brother crows, or just fine music, Arlan Feiles is not to be missed.

From his doleful dirges to his sweet, romantic blues, singer/songwriter JEREMY BENSON serves up torchers, scorchers and languid back porchers bursting with woodland wisdom and street corner philosophy. Though only thirty, he sings with the flinty voice and hard bitten wisdom of an aging guttersnipe. Indeed, he sounds as if he’s lived under a bridge in a cardboard fridge box for forty years, instead of middle class split-levels in Metuchen and Princeton. In addition to being a solo performer, Benson is a member of the Jersey based Roadside Graves and the former front man for The Home Alaskan, The Takers, and DarkSongs.

Dubbed an “Angry Young Man,” by The Village Voice, ALEX DAWSON has written 15 plays for the New York stage. His work has been called “intense” and “original” by Esquire, “Profane, funny, compelling, and tragic” by The Star Ledger, “gritty and lyrical” by Show Business Weekly, and “disturbing, hysterical genius” by author Jerry Stahl (Permanent Midnight). A former bouncer and bartender, he is a licensed Central Park carriage driver, the co-owner/manager of The Raconteur, the editor of The Raconteur Reader, and the producer of The Raconteur Festival.

Books & CDs on sale at the event. Concessions available. Authors will sign during the three fifteen minute intermissions.


ACT I - 2:00 PM

2:00 Music:The Dan Whitley Band
2:15 Emcee Introduction; Announcements
2:30 Clay McLeod Chapman
2:45 Paul Watkins
3:00 Music: Sandra Rubio
3:15 Shelly Jackson

3:30 Intermission; Shelley Jackson, Clay Chapman, Paul Watkins sign

ACT II - 3:45 PM

3:45 Music: Jeremy Benson
4:00 Charles Bock
4:15 Samantha Hunt
4:30 Sideshow: The Bindlestiff Family Cirkus

4:45 Intermission; Charles Bock & Samantha Hunt sign

ACT III - 5:00 PM

5:00 Music: Arlan Feiles
5:15 John Crowley
5:30 Gabriel Brownstein
5:45 Alex Dawson
6:00 Sideshow: The Bindlestiff Family Cirkus

6:15 Intermission; John Crowley and Gabriel Brownstein sign

6:30 The Roadside Graves

8 PM Rac Fest Reception (Raconteur Society Members/Festival Participants)

BOOK EXPO FREE TO PUBLIC! Featuring McSweeney's ("quirky, whimsical, and slightly Victorian" -- The New York Times), A Public Space (Best New Literary Magazine -- The Village Voice), The Idiom, Kitchen Press, Fallout Shelter (comic book collectibles), etc.

Please direct all queries to The Raconteur at 732-906-0009 or