Too much politics! Now, back to the real world. As Benedetto Croce said in his Breviary of Aesthetics, only art is supremely real.
Halloween is coming, so here are three of my favorite, scariest books.
Empire of the Sun, by J.G. Ballard. Spielberg’s movie is a child’s romp compared to the book, although the Stiller and Malkovich characters in the film approach the level of Ballard’s scary creepiness. This story is from the point of view of a rather odd boy, and it is his naive, callow, cold take on the chaos and horror around him that makes it all so terrifying. Not that anything untoward happens, just WWII, but the way it seems to him is like one long waking nightmare that is not too different from everyday life. Ballard is like that, he can portray the nightmare dreamworld as everyday, and vice-versa. The scene in which the boy witnesses the start of hostilities between Japan and Britain in Shanghai is typical. A detached, precise yet confused jumble of detail involving a gun boat lobbing shells onto the shore, corpses, sailors trying to escape from burning oil slicks as they drown, one victim literally sliding out of his incinerated skin…you get the picture.
The Handmaids Tale by Margaret Atwood. (Foreign cover here, but I wanted the original picture.) This might be the scariest book I’ve ever read. I don’t know of another that conveys so well the sense of living in a totalitarian society in which any move might be your last, and everything is overheard. Not even 1984, which is one of my all time favorites, but which has too much satire and intellectual freight to move along with the pure horror. Atwood conjures a police state we can believe in, and she says that there is nothing in the book that hasn’t happened somewhere, sometime. As I say, it’s always 1984 somewhere. It’s about the near future in which the USA has suffered an ecological disaster rendering women infertile, so now they are enslaved as mere vessels for reproduction. Yet, it happens in the so-near future, that the current world still remains here and there. The final chapter, taking place at an academic conference hundreds of years in the future in which the fictional society portrayed is just another interesting historical topic is a tour de force of satire and dark humor.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy. The worst has happened, somehow. Nuclear winter has set in. Who knows what started it all? What’s missing from all those apocalyptic sci-fi stories from the1950’s on is the supreme horror of all: the horror of people caring for loved ones – in this case, a father trying to take care of his young son. What do you do when you suspect that there is nothing at all to hope for? Suicide is the answer for many. This book is chilling to the bone, and very restrained for McCarthy, I think. It has the majesty and universality of a mythic parable. Amazingly enough, it has a happy ending, sort of. At least, the best you could hope for in the end. Get ready for a real downer if you read it.
Okay, now for the crazy.
Cyro Baptista and his band, Beat the Donkey. This guy is brialliant-crazy. An established percussionist from Brazil, he has played with names big and small for years, but this is his own gig. A mind-boggling extravaganza of rhythm and sound, music at its fundamentals, with some Brazilian-style jazz and rock thrown in. I saw them last night at a local theatre and it was a joy from start to finish. Think of Blue Man Group without the gimmick and with a real, talented musicians – think Zappa without the weird funky stuff – think Tom Ze, if you know him, and with whom he’s played. This guy is funny, mesmerizing, and pure entertainment! Check him out here: Cyro Baptista
Frank Zappa, Weasels Tear My Flesh. I don’t count myself a big Zappa fan, and I know that he has a huge oeuvre that is highly varied, but mostly, from the little I’ve sampled, it doesn’t grab me. Except for this album that I happened onto, I don’t know how. The cover is a direct visual quote of a shaving advertisement – I found the original somehow – and the music inside moves from violin blues to Varese, to Stravinsky, Debussy, dada, rock, muzak-satire, and on and on. Sheer exhuberance! Loud, weird, experimental – sounds fresh today, 30 years after it was produced.
And here he is, Tom Ze. Not well known out of Brazil, he started during the Tropicalia movement of the late 60s when Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa, and so many other greats began. He is a sort of fey character, this Ze, surrealist, dadaist, poetic weirdo and commedian. How do these guys survive in our world, pursuing their wacked-out personal vision?