The End of Oulipo?

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Lady Chatterley’s Brother

Lady Chatterley's Brother. The first ebook in the new TQC Long Essays series, Lady Chatterley's Brothercalled “an exciting new project” by Chad Post of Open Letter and Three Percent. Why can't Nicholson Baker write about sex? And why can Javier Marias? We investigate why porn is a dead end, and why seduction paves the way for the sex writing of the future. Read an excerpt.

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Ever wonder what English is missing? Called "a fascinating Life Perecread" by The New Yorker, Translate This Book! brings together over 40 of the top translators, publishers, and authors to tell us what books need to be published in English. Get it on Kindle.

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Naked Singularity

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Ten Memorable Quotes from William Gaddis’ Letters

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Here are ten of my favorite moments from these hugely interesting letters.


Interviews from Conversational Reading

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See this page for interviews with leading authors, translators, publishers, and more.


  • Nostalgia June 15, 2014
    Few habits are as prone to affliction, or as vulnerable to an ordeal, as the bent of a peddler’s consciousness. Placeless, the peddler completes an untold number of transactions; there are ideas to conduct (through language, which can transact a mind) and feelings to certify (through tasks, repeated interminably). […]
  • Why Literary Periods Mattered by Ted Underwood June 15, 2014
    There are some writers who are, and likely always will be, inextricably linked to the “period” with which their work is associated, and in many cases helped to define. Surely Wordsworth and Keats will always be “Romantic” poets, while Faulkner and Woolf will remain modernists, as the term “modern” has been fully appropriated to describe the historical era be […]
  • Trans-Atlantyk by Witold Gombrowicz June 15, 2014
    August 1939. You sail to Buenos Aires on the Chombry as a cultural ambassador of Poland. Why say no to a little holiday on the government’s tab? Soon after arriving you sense that something isn’t right. You emerge from a welcome reception and your ears are “filled with newspaper cries: ‘Polonia, Polonia,’ most irksome indeed.” Before you’ve even had a chance […]
  • Accepting the Disaster by Joshua Mehigan June 15, 2014
    The first collections of most young poets, even the better ones, carry with them a hint of bravado. Flush with recognition, vindicated by the encouraging attentions of at least one editor and three blurbists, the poet strikes a triumphant pose and high-fives the Muse: “We did it, baby.” When Joshua Mehigan published his impressive first collection, The Optim […]
  • The Histories of Herodotus, translated by Tom Holland June 15, 2014
    Two of the greatest of Tom Holland's predecessors in translating Herodotus are Victorian scholar George Rawlinson and Aubrey de Selincourt; the former translated Herodotus in 1860, making an enormous hit (despite the fact that its detractors often referred to it as “dull and prolix"), while the latter's 1954 Herodotus was another enormous hit, […]
  • Bullfight by Yasushi Inoue June 15, 2014
    The premise of Yasushi Inoue's debut novella Bullfight, celebrated in Japan as a classic of postwar literature, is unassuming enough: an evening newspaper sponsors a tournament of the regional sport of bull-sumo. As practical and financial issues arise, the paper's young editor-in-chief, Tsugami, soon realizes he has taken on more than he can handl […]
  • Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones June 15, 2014
    Sworn Virgin was made to be translated. Elvira Dones wrote this book not in her native language of Albanian but in Italian—a necessarily fraught and complicated decision. In an Italian-language interview with Pierre Lepori, Dones speaks about her choice of language: “Sworn Virgin was born in Italian . . . I’ve lived using Italian for nineteen years, it has s […]
  • On the Letters of David Markson June 15, 2014
    Knowing these narrators and how their lives paralleled David’s own, it’s difficult to deny his being a recluse. I certainly held that image of him, and nursed it, secretly cherishing it because it meant I was one of the few people with whom he corresponded, and with whom he would occasionally meet. Arranging our first meetings in person was something of a ni […]
  • Storm Still by Peter Handke June 15, 2014
    Storm Still (Immer Noch Sturm) does not necessarily represent new terrain for Handke. Originally published by Suhrkamp Verlag in 2010 and now available for English-language readers thanks to Martin Chalmers’ fluent translation, the play chronicles the dissolution of the Svinec family, a family of Carinthian Slovenes—a quasi-fictionalized version of Handke’s […]
  • Red or Dead by David Peace June 15, 2014
    David Peace's novel Red or Dead is about British football, but it partakes in the traits of Homer's epic. This is a novel about the place of myth and heroes in modern society, about how the cyclical rhythms of athletic seasons reflect the cyclical patterns of life. It is a book about honor and fate, and one which bridges the profound, dreamlike ter […]

Seeing Sounds by N*E*R*D Review

When I think of what defines postmodern popular music, I place my criteria into two groups: sounds and subject matter. Sonically I think of music that draws on the forms and sounds of the two last great traditions in popular music: rock and hip hop. Topically, I think of the sometimes kitschy, always ironic critique, or maybe just deconstruction, of late capitalism that’s often associated with authors like David Foster Wallace.

The act that has best satisfied me in this way, sonically and topically, would be N*E*R*D. Their very embodiment of postmodernity can best be seen in the fact that I don’t even know how to classify them: are they a rock group or a hip-hop group? In their music it’s easy to see elements of The Beatles, The Police, Jay-Z, and A Tribe Called Quest, and if I’d lean toward rock being a bigger influence on the records they put out, I’m not so sure that they’re most interested in making music most suited to a rock’n'roll audience.

What they have definitely always been interested in is the mediated relationship between the people who make the music and the people who listen to it. Take, for instance, the chorus from one of their first songs, "Lapdance," off the album In Search Of . . .

I’m just straight ill! Ridin my motorcycle down the streets
While politicians–is soundin like strippers to me
They sayin, but I don’t wanna hear it…
Oooh baby you want me?
Well you can get this lap dance here for free

This heavily ironic passage comes at the end of a series of rap-style taunts ("I got somethin chrome /
And I got it from home"), and it throws all of these gangsta rap brags into uncertainty. Does Pharrell, N*E*R*D’s lead vocalist, really mean it when he swaggers all over this track, talking about guns and baseball bats? I doubt it, not only because the chorus undermines all the harsh language–and perhaps even places Pharrell alongside pandering politicians who will say whatever’s necessary to win fans–but also because of the rest of In Search Of . . ., which so clearly questions and pokes fun at the cliches of rock and rap music. The song’s title throws all the posturing into further doubt, as if the whole thing is really just one big tease. To top it all off, once you’ve seen the album’s cover with a young Pharrell immersed in what looks to be a Super NES, you can’t possibly take his tough talk seriously.

It might seem strange that N*E*R*D would create a song that is ostensibly sung in all sincerity, and then undercut it with only the slightest hint that the song is really pure irony, but this is far from the only time I’ve been convinced that, despite almost all outward appearances, N*E*R*D’s just having a big joke. Hip-hop is heavily ironized territory (I often think of the music as a minefield of irony), but the music of N*E*R*D seems to go even further than anyone could reasonably expect any pop music act to pursue irony; the members of this group positively revel in it, as though irony were the very atmosphere that is suitable to sustaining life on their planet. And as that figure implies, they need irony, they can’t compose music without it. Listening to their CDs, I’m always on guard, always second-guessing everything I think they’re trying to tell me.

cover

It’s only natural that N*E*R*D would relish in creating so much uncertainty in its music, as throughout its career, N*E*R*D has undertaken the heavily ironic, tricky job of deflating pop culture from the inside out. To see this, look no further than the title of the lead single from Seeing Sounds, "Everyone Nose (All the Girls in the Bathroom)," (video above) which puns atrociously–or rather, so atrociously that it ends up being funny–on the poorly kept secret of female club-goers doing drugs in the bathroom. This isn’t the song’s only pun; the chorus is equally kitschy with:

A hundred dollar bills–look achoo! achoo!
A hundred dollar bills–look achoo! achoo!

That is to say, "look at you"–which is, of course, what all the ladies in the club want to have happen–becomes "achoo," the sound made when a little coke gets stuck on the way up one’s nose. N*E*R*D trades heavily in this kind of kitschy, pun-ridden humor, and in many contexts these lyrics would sound awful; in the hyper, ridiculous, heavily self-mocking, self-defeating context that N*E*R*D purveys like no other, it actually works quite well. Most pop acts simply can’t discuss cocaine in the bathroom so frankly, and the bad puns are a big part of how N*E*R*D can not only bring the topic up but critique it without losing any bit of their cool. Cocaine in the bathroom, by the way, is far from the only touchy subject willfully and joyfully leapt into on this album; my count thus far (and I’m sure I’ve missed some) includes voyeuristic window-watching, club violence, attention deficit disorder ("Motherfucker are you ADHD? ADHD? ADHD?"), government propaganda, and the war on terror.

Just as the group has been adventuresome in crossing boundaries of good taste and good sense, it hasn’t flinched from trying out new sounds. "Everyone Nose" combines a staccato-strummed bass with DJ scratching, punctuated by a piercing horn at the end of each short bar. When the song switches over to the bridge at about the halfway mark, it suddenly becomes a laid-back piano ballad with Pharrell crooning about how he understands and sympathizes with the trials of young women forced to club all night long (mocking "achoos" being harmonized as accompaniment in the background), and then, once that’s all done with, the soft bridge-piano and the earlier chaotic, savage beat combine seamlessly into what is a most beautiful cacophony.

"Everyone Nose" is N*E*R*D at their least subtle (well maybe second-least-subtle, as the song that follows "Everyone Nose" is a rather blatant, bouncy ditty about obsessively watching a woman undress in front of her window every night), but Pharrell can often be sneaky with his lyrics. "Yeah You" is a song about an obsessive fan, but, except for a few words here and there, you might think it’s some song about teenage love. Have a look at the chorus:

Textin me a hundred times, callin me a hundred times
Hope it is not you this time, damn I gotta change my line
Textin me you’re gonna die, call the psychiatric line
Friends and family should know I’m, reporting this as a crime

If you listen to it sung, that "reporting this as a crime" feels tucked in, an afterthought that could easily be missed, yet it changes the whole frame of the song from simple infatuation to criminal obsession. In fact, it’s striking how much of "Yeah You" sounds like just another teen angst song, albeit one done in the age of texting and reality TV. It could be just another sweet, somewhat dull ode to high school love, except for a few words here and there that place the song within an entirely different frame of reference. What’s interesting here is how the suburban conventions of young love are brought into the sinister territory of obsessive fandom, and how the song implicates, well, everyone listening to it. Here’s the rest of the chorus:

I bet you heard this song wanna know who I’m talkin ’bout
I said I bet you heard this song wanna know who I’m talkin ’bout
I bet you heard this song wanna know who I’m talkin ’bout
I bet you heard this song wanna know who I’m talkin ’bout–YOU!

Here again, N*E*R*D is probing the line between them and us, playing with the layers of mediation that stand between a pop music group and its fans. N*E*R*D has never been a group to avoid the second-person, but the word you seems even more all over Seeing Sounds than would be usual for them. This isn’t the traditional rock/hip-hop you, the one that almost by default stands in for an ex-girlfriend or a lyrical opponent; this is you as in you–the one listening to the music–and coming from N*E*R*D it sounds plastic, in the tradition of a ’60s pop art novel. In the era of blogs and YouTube, the distance between you and them feels smaller than ever, but, listening to Seeing Sounds, one wonders if N*E*R*D is reveling in that fact or trying to establish some distance.

In terms of the sounds, each track on Seeing Sounds is fresh and interesting; lyrically there are some lapses from time to time, definitely more so than in previous albums, though there’s much more good than bad here. And the fact remains that, even when they’re pulling that C+ from sheer lack of enthusiasm, the members of N*E*R*D feel far ahead of most hip-hop acts dripping with earnestness. If you’re new to their music, start with In Search Of . . . and work your way up. If you know them and like them, the new album will certainly give you a lot to listen to.

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  1. Friday Hip Hop: J-Live <A HREF="http://ws.amazon.com/widgets/q?ServiceVersion=20070822&MarketPlace=US&ID=V20070822%2FUS%2Fconversatio07-20%2F8014%2Fca6ec0ee-5127-483d-8cca-26bcd1a4a688&Operation=NoScript">Amazon.com Widgets</A> I’m using the Amazon clips widget to preview J-Live’s new album here. Click on the above box to listen to clips...
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3 comments to Seeing Sounds by N*E*R*D Review

  • Haven’t heard this record (or any NERD, really) though I’ll give it a spin. sounds up my alley (mostly b/c as I read the article i could have sworn I was in some time warp reading about Paul’s Boutique — probably my all time favorite record).

  • heir very embodiment of postmodernity can best be seen in the fact that I don’t even know how to classify them: are they a rock group or a hip-hop group?
    True, true, true!
    And I thought CR was purely a litblog. My mistake.
    Jahsonic

  • w

    I’ve kept away from NERD because of the Pharrell glut, but I listened to them again over the weekend and remembered what had attracted me to their music in the first place—their boyish earnestness, their silly though spot-on irony, their fresh funky groove—but I remembered all this by bopping along like a dancing monkey, not through this wonderful analysis you’ve offered. Thanks for articulating it, and for nailing it on the head, and for reminding me that I need to get the new album.

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