Today’s cultural acceleration leaves me completely unmoored. Step away from the current for less than a second and the frenetic wash of conversation has already gone down to the sea and is evaporating, only to reform again upstream so that it can rush back to the the sea once more, quickening, and ever faster. Time and tide waits for no man.
This is true only up to the point in which you simply take it. Time that is. (And tide too for that matter, which is intended to be synonymous, the original meaning being more like season or while, e.g. yuletide.) My will is strong, and if I’m just getting around to reading a book published in 1940, I shouldn’t have to answer to deathless time. He gets to read the entire book of life while I only get one word at the bottom corner of page 313,609,093 (from what I understand, it’s going to be a multivolume work).
So here they are, the top five cultural artifacts I took time for during the first half of 2015.
Fare Thee Well: The January announcement of the Grateful Dead’s final go-round with the core four instantly generated two thoughts: 1) Big cash grab; 2) I need to scrounge up whatever money I can to buy a weekend pass and a plane ticket to Chicago because I know the experience will be the closest I could ever come to a Dead show. Thought number two never materialized, but my wife and I attended night one of a simulcast at Portland’s Crystal Ballroom, and it brought a smile to my face. Critics–Hell, even the president of the United States–have acknowledged the Dead as pioneers of a uniquely American songwriting and entrepreneurial aesthetic, and American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead are held in high regard by fans and non-fans alike. The band is a shambling bunch of elders who still rock and roll, and even if it was a cash grab (which, what could be more American?) they took their blaring, chugging steam engine through Jack Straw’s Tuscon, around down and out jailhouses, past mosquito rivers with children clapping hands, all while still managing to go through the occasional tunnels that inexplicably wormholed into transcendent deep space. Weirdness is still alive and well.
To Pimp A Butterfly: A hip-hop masterwork with braggadocio and insight in equal measure that also speaks to the current moment and the experience of being black in America. Kendrick Lamar wrote the album after seeing the wider world outside of Compton and realizing it was filled with the same ignorance, ferocity, and injustice that he saw in the ghetto, and he tries to deliver a message, however imperfect, that is meticulously crafted and deftly artistic. On “Momma” he raps about knowing everything–“I know street shit,I know shit that’s conscious”–and it’s not just posturing. He’s taken the message from the underground, the one that never sold that many records nor appealed to mainstream rap fans, and repackaged it for the street, reaching far more listeners with positive messages about community and self-worth.
Inherent Vice: P.T. Anderson’s 2014 film led me to the book, which was one I’d let pass by despite the heaps of praise it received in 2009. The book was rollicking, playful Pynchon of the long, drawn-out sentences and shambling, shaggy dog conspiracy plots that ring close to home and make you reflect on how things might actually be all connected, and the film lovingly depicts the tone of the book with every character expertly cast and every scene expertly composed. It’s film directed by master based on a book written by a master, and it’s one I’ll return to because there are scenes you can live in.
2666: Every now and again I task myself with a big one, a door stopper of a book that requires devoted attention. I knew Roberto Bolano only through the short stories he’d published (and continues to publish despite his death in 2003) in The New Yorker and elsewhere, but I’d read enough about 2666 to know that it stood as his magnum opus, a sprawling postmodern novel. I am 2/3 of the way through, and wading past The Part About the Crimes is overwhelming. He inundates the reader with death after death, all with a journalist’s detachment that occasionally spins itself into the fabric of a story. I find myself glossing over the horror of the growing number of the dead women he describes, unable to stomach another description of decaying corpses and violent crimes, and hoping for another narrative thread to grasp onto. That may not sound like pleasant reading–which it’s not–but it is utterly compelling.
Farewell My Lovely: Raymond Chandler’s novel stands as a favorite from the detective novel bent I was on for a couple of months earlier this year. There’s a reason Philip Marlowe still stands as the archetypal detective, and the book is nothing but character, plot and description–in other words, straight fiction. Chandler can encapsulate entire characters with one description, and the book is often funny.