Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Sherman Alexie vs. Neutral Milk Hotel

Two things, this week, have got me thinking about the false dichotomy between intellectual sophistication and emotional directness--and the commonly held misapprehension that the two are somehow mutually exclusive.

The first is an album that an undergraduate of mine turned me on to: "In The Aeroplane Over The Sea," the second and last (so far) album by Neutral Milk Hotel, a nineties band from Athens, Georgia. This record came out about ten years ago and is a kind of imaginative response, on the part of reculsive lead singer Jeff Mangum, to the diary of Anne Frank. In it, among other things, he fantasizes traveling back in time to save her:

And I know they buried her body with others
Her sister and mother and 500 families
And will she remember me 50 years later
I wished I could save her in some sort of time machine

The album, though brainy, is characterized by a very unadorned, present sound, extremely simple chord changes, and a somewhat terrifying frankness, which some listeners are liable find cloying or off-putting. For my part, I love it, and am a bit obsessed with this band right now. My own instincts tend toward the ironic and indirect, and such music--like a lot of folk and blues--has an unsettling effect on me. But an importantly unsettling effect, and one that I suspect could tell me something about myself, if I'm prepared to hear it. Mangum's voice is extraordinary--it bends to the breaking point, goes ragged at the edges, and leaps entire octaves in the space of a measure--and has been stuck in my head for the better part of a week.

Anyway, in the middle of this same week, I was stunned to come across another work that imagines traveling back in time to participate in horrfying historical events. I'm talking about the forthcoming novel Flight by Sherman Alexie, most of whose previous work I have read, and have developed rather a complicated relationship with.

I must confess I didn't really "get" Alexie until I saw him give a reading from Reservation Blues in Missoula years ago. He opened up the novel, read the first couple of pages from behind his lectern, then closed the book, stepped aside, and ad-libbed the story, so that it was sort of, but not quite, like the version in the book. His direct, almost childlike, style suddenly made a lot more sense--as the ultimate manifestation of the novel's narrative, it sometimes seemed unsophisticated. But considered as merely one possible approach to an infinite verbal narrative, its complexities suddenly revealed themselves. They were extrinsic to the novel--the novel was part of a great whole, and if read as such was far more satisfying.

So Rhian brought a galley of this new book home from work, and I read it in an evening, and really enjoyed it. It's about a teenage delinquent, half Native American, who appears to murder everyone in a bank, but eventually gets another chance not to commit the crime, after a journey through time. He is a crooked cop putting down a reservation rebellion; he is a wounded adolescent Indian at Little Big Horn; he's a white tracker who leads American soldiers to a doomed tribe. And in the end, he gets a second chance at life.

Flight reads like a YA novel at times--its style is, if anything, even more goofily straightforward than Alexie's previous books. But the narrator's historical jaunt, though it feels incomplete, also feels infinite, as though he might have zoomed through time forever. The simple narrative voice suggests possibility--it's a vessel into which the sweep of history might be poured.

But, as with the Neutral Milk Hotel record, you have to be willing to go along for the ride. And not everybody will be. The sophistication of these works lies in the demands they make on the reader or listener--they're a kind of challenge to the imagination. I'm not sure if this is an established category of art, something that has been identified, debated, and codified in dissertations, but maybe it should be--the peculiar, wry false innocence that leads you down roads you might otherwise be afraid to wander.

EDIT: Rhian just pointed out that Trevor, in the comments of her 9/11 post, brought up Neutral Milk Hotel...and I didn't even notice. Serendipity!


5 Red Pandas said...

"the peculiar, wry false innocence that leads you down roads you might otherwise be afraid to wander."

Yes! This subset is a bit different from "twee" bands, a bit darker. Like Daniel Johnston, Half Japanese, The Clean, Animal Collective, Beat Happening, etc. Interestingly, Daniel Johnston and the guy from Half Japanese both produce interestingly childlike, but disturbing visual art as well. (This is one of my favorite subsets of rock music.)

I was a college DJ at SUNY-Albany when "aeorplane" came out and I (along with a few of my friends) played the hell out of that record. It was definitely one of the biggest cult records of the '90s. Up there with Pavement's "Slanted and Enchanted".

There is a book in the 33 1/3 series about "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea" by Kim Cooper. They're put out by continuum books.

I was at a show when I acosted Rob Schneider of the Apples in Stereo (he helped produce "aeroplane") and told him that I thought he and the band did a fantastic job on the record. He said that the record was one he was most proud of. They were all part of the elephant 6 collective of sorts. Another offshoot band was Olivia Tremor Control-- pretty out there, but interesting stuff.

After Jeff Mangum fell off from music (though he made some field recordings of Bulgarin folk music that I believe was released some time ago) he briefly had a radio show on NJ's WFMU where he apparently played some pretty out there stuff. It was simply listed as Jefferson. He's quite the enigma, and in the small insular world of indie rock he's attracted much scrutiny of the sort he probably hates. A writer even contacted his family trying to figure out why he wasn't releasing music anymore. I think that's where he drew the line and asked people to just leave him alone.

If you're interested in a mix cd of music I think falls into a similar NMH vein (I'm a bit of a music geek) e-mail me a POBOX address or what have you. It would be no hassle for me at all!


5redpandas AT

Anonymous said...

Yeah, there's a fine line between "wryly innocent" and precious...and there are a lot of bands/artists out there walking that line, ie., Joanna Newsome, Arcade Fire, Sufjan Stevens, etc. I was huge on Pavement in those days, I don't know how I missed NMH. I ordered that book and all the other NMH stuff from Merge records...looking forward to getting it all.

I think this particular line is rarer to find in contemporary lit though. Somehow the artifice with writing is too complex--it isn't expected to be spontaneous, the way popular music is. Alexie is unique in a lot of ways.

5 Red Pandas said...

Maybe there is more evidence of this in graphic novels/comics? Like the Jimmy Corrigan book by Chris Ware.

There is, of course, art that gets termed "outsider" art, and both Daniel Johnston and Jad Fair do what many would consider outsider visual art, as well as their music.

I don't think that the major publishing industry is interested in work that's as "lo-fi" as a band like NMH. What exactly would a book with the same sort of emotional weight as In The Aeroplane... read like? Do you think perhaps some of Jonathan Safran Foer's work fits this category?

There definitely seems to be less of the type of DIY presence that gives birth to bands like NMH in publishing. Those guys didn't go to college and get advanced degrees, but the work is still smart.

When I first read Alexie I was really taken with his directness and simplicity. Many of his stories reminded me of how my mother tells me stories. My mother doesn't read fiction in Chinese, but she's a great story teller. Maybe American readers are not as open to something that smacks of an oral tradition, which is generally more simplistic than writing that is more academic.

I chose Alexie's "This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona" along with "Fiesta, 1980" by Juniot Diaz, and "Brownies" by ZZ Packer, to teach in some high school lit classes because I felt like the immediacy of those stories would draw my students in more than something more traditional (though all three stories are pretty traditional, they just have less traditional characters). The stories were successful but when I asked the students why they liked them they said it was hard to explain. They said the stories were simple and in language that they could understand without having to "translate", which for public school kids is what it often feels like to read many works of fiction.