Thursday, June 23, 2011

Great Philosophers Who Failed at Love by Andrew Shaffer

Great Philosophers Who Failed at Love
by Andrew Shaffer

If one ever needed further confirmation that smart people don't necessarily make outstanding mates, Great Philosophers Who Failed at Love is a great starting point. Andrew Shaffer has assembled the lacking love stories of 37 philosophers, mostly male, whose words may have stood the test of time, but their ability to personally connect did not. From 350 B.C. and Diogenes the Cynic's chronic (and public) masturbation and defecation habits, up until Louis Althusser "accidentally" strangles his wife in 1980, there's a lot here that will have you muttering, "These guys were absolutely mental."

Each entry is short — There's a photo or artistic representation of the person, followed by a brief history in regards to their love life, followed by a bit of their own words. The stories and thoughts are both hilarious and worrisome:

Meanwhile [Jean-Paul] Sartre adopted his Algerian mistress, Arlette Elkaïm, as his daughter in 1965. Neither he nor [Simone de] Beauvoir had any children of their own, and the adoption was a legal necessity to ensure the sanctity of his literary legacy. Elkaïm was named the executor of Sartre's estate upon his death in 1980. Not to be outdone, Beauvoir adopted one of her own lovers, Sylvie Le Bon, as her daughter after Sartre passed away — and named Le Bon the executor of her estate.

Despite the uncommon nature of their romance, Beauvoir and Sartre are forever linked by virtue of being buried together in a shared grave in Paris.


Elsewhere, there's the coldness with which Ayn Rand and her affair-mate Nathaniel Branden inform their spouses that they'd like to have an emotional affair. Branden wrote of the moment by saying that Ayn spoke with:

[...]the persistence of a drill cutting through granite. After Barbara and Frank flared up in angry protest, Ayn became still warmer, gentler, and more implacable. She acknowledged their feelings, conveyed compassion for their pain, and tried to make them accept the situation with the single-mindedness of a military commander.

On one hand, one could sort of respect the chutzpah of just laying it all out, but on the other... Damn, that's harsh. Of course, the two did eventually end up sleeping together for awhile, Rand with her "single-tracked concentration with which she did everything else," until Branden began seeing a fashion model named Patrecia Scott. Predictably, Rand puffed up with arrogance and swore that Branden would be nothing without her. He went on to publish a bestselling book, The Psychology of Self-Help.

Further on the side of existential, lovelorn despair, we have Nietzsche and his madness by way of untreated syphilis, Heidegger joining the Nazi party despite having a Jewish mistress (she left him, unsurprisingly), and Sartre seeing several women at a time, in addition to the aforementioned Beauvoir and Elkaïm. "It's amazing that he ever found the time to write," Shaffer says.

There's also a fair share of misogyny, chastity, and closeted sexuality, and Shaffer covers a sizable chunk of the philosophers that most people have heard of — Thoreau, Socrates, John Locke, etc.

There's not really a lot to analyze here — If you dabble in psychology or philosophy, or if you want to send a funny gift to a student of these subjects, this is a decent book. Shaffer also makes his living as a off-beat greeting card writer, so the site for the book has plenty of amusing merchandise that ties in with quotes from the people mentioned in the book. It's a quick read and the anti-chinstroke to other books on the subject of the historically notable in love.


Full disclosure: Harper Perennial sent me this book. I thank them for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair in my reviews.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.

Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives by Brad Watson

Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives
stories by Brad Watson

Sometimes, we are strangers in our own skin. Life becomes disorienting, and before we have a chance to change its trajectory, we look around and have no idea how we landed where we did. Brad Watson's collection of short stories, Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives, ache with confusion and loneliness, and the result is akin to a lucid dream. Each of his stories recall the recent past, a pre-internet stillness that amplifies his characters' disconnect. While I enjoyed this collection, I finished with some uncertainty over what I'd just read. Not every story stuck with me, but the ones that did have made me curious to seek out Watson's other work.

I know that I'm "supposed" to judge a book on the writing alone, but I feel a certain kinship when the author hails from an oft-ignored state. Brad Watson currently lives in Wyoming, a state that is even more ignored than Montana. Hell, here in Montana, we even try to claim Yellowstone National Park as our own, even though only a fraction of it resides on our side of the border. When I think of Wyoming, I think of long, straight and endless highways. I think of wind. I think of nothingness, and I think of that time a Wyoming Highway Patrolman was rude to a friend of mine, saying, "I know they do things different in Montana..." Sometimes I wonder what it's like to live in a place that, to non-residents, is just a stretch of land on the way to somewhere else. To have book filled with characters that struggle with their discontent and feelings of standing apart makes sense, when you think about it.

Sometimes I looked into windows at night, but only at ordinary things. People eating supper, or watching television. No undressing or showers or such. I only wanted to experience the mystery of seeing things as they were when I essentially did not exist to alter them. If you were quiet and still, it was almost as if you weren't there. It was like being a ghost, curious about the visible world and the creatures in it. As if you were dreaming it, and not part of the dream but there somehow, unquestioned or unknown.
-- from "Alamo Plaza"

(The above sentiment could very well be said about the act of writing, when the going is good and the words just happen, seemingly on their own.)

Don't mistake the author's locale for the stories' settings; so many have the deep, saturating humidity of the American South. Palmetto trees, steadfast religion, the Mississippi Coast, and damp moments lying in the grass — they all make appearances, and you can smell the salt air. Other stories could occur anywhere, as the gravity lies not in the location, but in the characters themselves.

Bad decisions arrive in full force, decisions made by people who often know better but cannot stop their momentum. In "Vacuum," three brothers try and mostly fail to make their depressed mother feel better, and in "Terrible Argument," a couple cannot stop themselves from fighting and it stresses their already fragile dog. In "Visitation," Loomis cannot grasp how his life has come to the point where he has to fly to California every three weeks to visit his son. Why, every day, he cannot shake the feeling that the rest of the world is not meant for him.

Loomis had never believe that line about the quality of despair being that it was unaware of it being despair. He'd been painfully aware of his own despair for most of his life. Most of his troubles had come from attempts to deny the essential hopelessness in his nature. To believe in the viability of nothing, finally, was socially unacceptable, and he had tried to adapt, to pass as a believer, a hoper. He had taken prescription medicine, engaged in periods of vigorous, cleansing exercise, declared his satisfaction with any number of fatuous jobs and foolish relationships. Then one day he'd decided that he should marry, have a child and he told himself that if one was open-minded these things could lead to a kind of contentment, if not to exuberant happiness. That's why Loomis was in the fix he was in now.

Readers prone to depression/anxiety may nod knowingly during many of the stories, and in the wrong (right?) mood, they are effective enough to exacerbate those feelings. I suppose that's a sign of a good writing, however detrimental.

My favorite portion of the book was the title story, which is really more of a novella in length. "Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives" is dreamy, disorienting and baked in the heat of summer. Set some time in the sixties, a teenage couple get married in secret, figuring that it's best to have secured an apartment and have a plan for their life together before telling their parents that she's pregnant. And then, things get a little strange:

Something woke me up a few hours later I saw I'd left a light on in the living room, so I shuffled in there to turn it off. That's when I saw the man and woman sitting on our sofa. They wore identical pairs of white cotton pajamas and looked sleep-rumpled, and older, in their forties or fifties. They looked familiar, though I couldn't say I'd ever seen them before. I didn't know them, that's for sure. A rush of fear went through me. My scalp prickled, I felt myself shrink up in my boxers. I kind of hunched over, ready to run or fight. But then the woman raised her eyebrows like she'd forgotten something, and waved a hand at me, as if passing something before my vision, and I felt myself relax somehow.

"Who are you?" I said.

The man and woman just sat there smiling at me.

I don't exactly know how to describe this collection accurately, or what to say about each individual story. I know that I liked it — I didn't love every offering, but I did not dislike any of it. Bits of each story floated about my head long after reading them, though I wasn't always sure of their source, a side effect of reading before bed, I think. The sadness and confusion feel very real amidst surreal situations, and so in that way, the cover blurb comparison of Flannery O'Connor meets David Lynch is apt. Watson respects and roots for each of his characters deeply, and it's a lovely thing.

(On a related note: Largehearted Boy has a playlist to go with Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives, and it's quite good. Do take a gander.)


I received this book from W.W. Norton for review purposes. I thank them for the gesture, and will continue to be fair in my reviews.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

McSweeney's 36 including work by Michael Chabon, John Brandon, Colm Tóibín, Wajahat Ali, Adam Levin and more

McSweeney's 36
including work by Michael Chabon, John Brandon, Colm Tóibín, Wajahat Ali, Adam Levin and more

I do not have a subscription to McSweeney's quarterly publication, and I usually purchase things from them when they run sales around Christmas. However, two things compelled me to pay full price for #36: Michael Chabon's annotated chapters of his abandoned novel, Fountain City, and the fact that the issue is contained in a head-box. A somewhat disturbing head-box where one can lift open the scalp and rummage through its contents. It is gloriously morbid and I wanted it.

(After I bought it, it went on sale for around $5 less. Because of course it did.)

Let's take a tour of the contents:

Brain stemmy...The underside of the head-box

I love the fish postcards (What is it with us and fish lately?), and the fortune cookie scroll is fantastic. The very first one reads, "Oliver Platt is your real dad. Sorry for the late notice." I also liked "You pregnant," and "Please make yourself seem like less of a shit."

First thing, I started in with Michael Chabon's Fountain City fragment. Chabon has been one of my all-time favorite authors for around a decade now, and I will gladly consume whatever he puts out. He is the sort of writer who is so good that I often hover perilously atop the line of "Yes! He makes me want to get to work!" and "Now I know I am so talentless." I realize the latter is irrational, since of course all writers hate what they are working on at some point. Fountain City provides a window into that pre-published state where even the most gifted get bogged down with fruitless plot lines and inconsistent details. Chabon spent five years and 1500 pages on this book about "the vanished notion of home," before finally abandoning it for Wonder Boys (a book, in part, about an author who has been endlessly working on a 1000+ page novel).

Every novel, in the moments before we begin to write it, is potentially the greatest, the most beautiful or thrilling ever written; but in the long dying fall after we have finished it (if we finish it), every novel affords us, with the generosity of a buffalo carcass affording meat, hide, bone, horn, and fat, the opportunity to measure precisely, at our leisure, the distance between it and L'Enfantesque dream. Our greatest duty as artists and as humans is to pay attention to our failures, to break them down, study the tapes, conduct the postmortem, pore over the findings; to learn from our mistakes.

The text of the book itself was interesting enough — though who knows how a whole book would've been — but you can bet I pored over every footnote. I know that some people liken it to the process of lawmaking and sausage, but I love seeing the bones that went into someone's work, and how the author's everyday life affected its contents. If you know me at all, you know I have already shamelessly pilfered our relationship to each other for writing material.

Neighbors, arguments with my ex-wife, meals eaten, hostels haunted, shoes I used to have, all made their way into the book, invisibly and unknown as such to anyone but me. I also found all kinds of bits and pieces of my childhood and life before my work on the novel began, stories and anecdotes and people and settings that, having served nobly and without complaint to feed the needs of the failed novel, receded or vanished completely from my own lived memory, until I rediscovered them, touched by the reunion, in the page of Fountain City.

Chabon also touches on the frequent occurrence of gay and bisexual characters in his stories, and the friendships they have with straight men. He is often asked about his sexual orientation — as though a person who is straight couldn't possibly be interested in writing about not-straight characters — and he admits he's given various bullshit answers over the years. My favorite book, Mysteries of Pittsburgh, details the first post-college summer of Art Beckstein, his complicated relationship with his father, his dating a semi-nuts girl named Phlox, and his all-out adoration of a man named Arthur. Chabon has a lengthy footnote comparing the character to himself, the assumptions other people made, and why he decided to have Art continue the sexual relationship with Arthur, when he had not with the man he loved in his own life.

Art's relationship with his Arthur seemed to need the heft and the active sexuality of his thing with Phlox, or else the reader would discount it as somehow lesser. So bisexual Art became — just like, in other words, in some real, mild, and I believe, universal way, his creator.

I realize I've gone on at length about a mere 1/6th of the head-box, but I've already burned through most of Michael Chabon's back catalogue prior to my book reviewing days. I haven't yet had the chance to tell you all how I love his work, and feel a kinship with his marriage, as I, too, am married to someone in a creative field, someone whose opinion I trust. And while I wish he were online as often as his wife, Ayelet Waldman, perhaps it's better that I know him through his official writing. It's hard to say. I'm not a very good judge for healthy amounts of attention, as I often do my damnedest to OD on anything that pleases me.

And speaking of overabundance and 1000+ page novels, I was pleased to have an excerpt from The Instructions by Adam Levin included in the head-box. A book that long requires some serious faith, and despite the many good reviews I'd seen, I did not know if I wanted to read it. Concerning Gurion Maccabee, a messianic 7th grader in the "special" behavioral class, the first chapter details his fight after gym and his crush on a girl named Eliza June Watermark. Levin writes in such a true way, the flashbacks to middle school were almost uncomfortable.

I thought that maybe he didn't know who I was — most Aptakisic students outside the Cage didn't — and I wanted to tell him, "I'm Gurion Maccabee, best friend of your number-one enemy, Nakamook," before I'd said anything, he was walking away, and before he walked away, he'd chinned the air a second time, and I'd chinned back, without even thinking, and felt just as brotherly and bothered as the first time.

"Baaaam Slokum," Desmorie said as Slokum turned the corner.

I made the noise Tch = I am not your audience.

Desmorie made a noise back = "You're lucky you're not my son."

I said, Hnh = That happens to be true, but not because you say so.

When I started the chapter, I really didn't know whether or not I cared enough to want to read the whole book. Gurion is flat out strange, and could I handle 1000+ pages of strangeness? By the end of the 40 pages, I wanted in. Bring me that behemoth of a book when I've caught up on my book queue, and let's do this.

Really, why should I be afraid of devoting time to a very long novel? This issue of McSweeney's is over 600 pages in total, according to GoodReads, and though it took me some time, I made my way through it all, with one exception.

Another book excerpt comes in the form of Ma Su Mon: An Oral History of Resistance in Burma, edited by Maggie Lemere and Zoë West, which is taken from the upcoming Nowhere to Be Home. Part of McSweeney's Voice of Witness series, it details the story of Ma Su Mon, a woman who became involved in Burma's pro-democracy movement in the mid-90s. She was arrested and spent nearly a year in prison, and since her release, she has relocated to Thailand to continue her work as a journalist. "I don't think I can go back home again, but I hope that one day it's possible," she says. "I hope that all my family members stay alive, and that I stay alive to see them again. If my family had a problem, I don't know if I could go back to help them. If I died here in Thailand or somewhere else, my editors or my collegaues would have to take care of the funeral — I have no family here. Maybe my family could come, but they might not be able to get a visa. I don't know."

Now, Jungle Geronimo in Gay Paree by Jack Pendarvis? I … pretty much hated it. I don't use that word lightly with art, but apart from a somewhat amusing introduction, I tried and failed to get into the rest. I am willing to give just about anything a fair shake, but this was just ridiculous for the sake of being ridiculous. I quit about 20 pages in, I admit. I'd quote something from those pages to illustrate my complaints, but that means I'd have to read it again. And make the effort of typing it. I'm not going to bother — that's how much I disliked it. I had to move on.

Only slightly more enjoyable was Bicycle Built for Two by Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington. Written as an imaginary screenplay for a Mike Myers/Dana Carvey buddy comedy about pro baseball players on the title bicycle, it is another example of ridiculousness for the sake of ridiculousness. I finished it, but I don't know, maybe I just like my silliness in the form of television. I know that it's supposed to be a joke on the emptiness of movies that try to cash in on previously used formulas and cliches, but that doesn't mean I'm going to enjoy reading 80 pages of it.

I'm going to have to revisit "Early Morning at the Station" by Andrew Kennedy Hutchison Boyd because, while it was a very slim fold of paper, something about it made it not great pre-sleep reading. I couldn't absorb any of it during the first pass through, but that may not be the fault of the content.

Luckily, in terms of other brief offerings inside the head-box, Sophia Cara Frydman's "Don't Get Distracted" illustrated piece was quite lovely. The level of detail in her drawings is beautiful, and the random encounter between two people on the street reminds me of my own random conversations with people. It's funny what sticks, the small moments we use for creative fodder.

Take family, for instance. Wajahat Ali's play The Domestic Crusaders uses the lives of a Pakistani-American family to tell the story of traditions versus the modern age, discrimination, and perspective. I enjoyed it a lot, and I'm not typically in the habit of reading plays, though I do go see a live theater production at least once a year. Ali works in Islamic expressions, as well as lines delivered in Pakistani, without them seeming out of place or overly deliberate. I believe one can buy the play on its own through McSweeney's as well.

The book of McSweeney's 36 itself is one of the true highlights of the entire head-box, if for Colm Tóibín story "The Street" alone. Malik is a relatively recent arrival at a Barcelona barber shop that employs Middle Eastern immigrants. Eventually, Baldy has Malik selling phone cards rather than have him clean up inside the barber shop, the reasons for which are vague, but it still feels like a promotion. He stays with other employees at a dormitory of sorts, headed by their boss Baldy. There's a shared bathroom, but in general, Malik does not mind the arrangement. One night, he retrieves a glass of water for a sick roommate, Abdul.

He whispered to him that he would get him more water if he needed it. Abdul did not reply, but squeezed his arm and then moved his hand down and touched Malick's thigh.

In the morning, when he heard one of the others say that Abdul was too sick to go to work, he felt that something had happened between them. It had only been a second, but the touch had made him feel warm and comfortable, more so than if Abdul had spoken.

It's a lovely, quiet and conflicted love story, and I wanted to read an entire book with these characters. Tóibín's one of those writers whose work I always mean to read more, and I think "The Street" has finally confirmed for me that I need to make a more active effort.

The other stories and letters inside the 36 booklet are varying degrees of good, particularly the strangeness of Ismet Prcic's "At the National Theater," but if I expound any more on the contents of the head-box, I will be in danger of having said too much (if I haven't already). This isn't a perfect collection of work, but the novelty of the packaging and the pieces that I enjoyed immensely made it worth far more than its retail price.

Let me peek inside your brain...


This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Electric Literature No. 5: Stories by Kevin Brockmeier, J. Robert Lennon, Ben Greenman, Lynne Tillman, and Carson Mell

Electric Literature No. 5
Stories from Kevin Brockmeier, J. Robert Lennon, Ben Greenman, Lynne Tillman, and Carson Mell

I hope it's not only because I've read a few less-than-satisfying books lately, but I really enjoyed Electric Literature No. 5. From the first paragraph of Kevin Brockmeier's "A Fable For the Living" until the last line of Lynne Tillman's "The Original Impulse," I remained so glad that I'd purchased a subscription to the quarterly publication. (Well, their March sale didn't hamper my decision any either.) While Alison Elizabeth Taylor's full cover "The Gamer" — I've cropped it here to make this review safe for work — is certainly attention-grabbing, after reading five stories filled with loneliness, a naked man playing video games makes so much sense. What do appearances matter if you are the only one looking? Or rather, even if someone were to pay attention, are you past the point of caring?

In Brockmeier's "A Fable For the Living," people are able to communicate with the dead through writing. Some talk about everday happenings, some confess everything they ever wanted to tell the person, and others just like knowing that their loved ones are available in some form. During the summertime drought, deep rifts form in the ground, and into those rifts people slip their messages. They do not expect replies, only a sense of relief. The story focusses on a woman who lost her husband not long after their engagement.

That first summer, immediately after he died, she had barely been able to pick up a pen, but by the time the earth split open a year later, she had amassed three heavy baskets of letters. One afternoon, she went to the parched field where the fair sat in the autumn and the soccer team practiced in the spring and dropped the letters into the deepest opening she could find. The ground swallowed them as neatly as a payphone accepting coins, except for the last page, which continued to show through the dirt until gravity gave it a tug and it slipped out of sight. That was where her heart was, she thought, cradled underground with the roots and the bones. As she stood in the dust listening to the insects buzz, she dashed off one last note and let it go: Are you even out there?

The next morning she received her answer.

Without spoiling things further, it's a haunting and beautiful story, and easily my favorite in the collection.

"Hibachi," by J. Robert Lennon, gives us the passionless-yet-newlywed marriage of forty-one year old Philip and forty-three year old Evangeline. Five months after their wedding, Philip is run over and dragged several yards from a crosswalk by an inattentive woman driving a large SUV, and he is now confined to a wheelchair. What little spark they had between them, and the few friends that they had before the accident, have disappeared as they adjust to their new life. Still attempting to make an effort with their relationship, they go to a hibachi-grill style restaurant for their anniversary.

A familiar dread came over Philip, the same one he felt whenever he was about to witness any kind of performance, whether on a stage or at his front door, behind the Book of Mormon. He turned to his wife to express his feelings but was brought up short by the expression on her face: one of rapt attention and giddy anticipation. It would have taken a trained eye to detect these emotions, but a trained eye was what Philip had, and he kept his mouth shut.

The way Lennon explores how a person can grasp onto and even become slightly obsessed with one pleasing thing is excellent. He gets right into how a person manages any form of grief — even if that grief does not come from literal death, but a longterm handicap — and it's captivating.

Also dealing with themes of pain and obsession is Carson Mell's "The West." Eight-year-old Dan travels accompanies his father on a trip with a man named Mr. Horselover. Mr. Horselover wants to open up a burger chain, and he's decided they should take a trip from Phoenix to somewhere in California, sampling every burger joint along the way, in order to determine what makes the best, most moneymaking burger. Horselover is, to put it mildly, quite fat and a source of wonder and bewilderment for young Dan.

As Horselover ate, he stared into the long, narrow window between the lunch counter and the kitchen. He was chewing fast, breathing hard through his nose. He almost seemed to eat automatically, his arm swinging the food up, his mouth chomping down to catch it, his throat working it down. It was like these parts of his body worked independently of the rest.

I liked this one, but really, the endless eating is morbidly fascinating instead of sympathetic. Horselover is so odd, you really do want to carry on and see how it all plays out.

Also car crash-like in its drama is "Come Out" by Ben Greenman. A group of middle-aged friends gather for a party at Bill and Louisa's house. Louisa dated two of the friends in attendance, Carl and Jim, and once she and Bill married, the friends grew apart. Bill and Louisa are childless, and in an attempt to distinguish themselves from the rest of their neighborhood, they've filled their yard with vintage bathtubs.

Bill serves the drinks, puts out the bowls of nuts and olives, gets to grilling. Steve is telling Julie about a study he read that explains why some species eat their young. "They are culling," he says. "If you eliminate a third of the eggs, the rest have a better chance of surviving." He pops an olive in his mouth illustratively. The party has just started, and already the talk has turned to survivial. Everyone is huddled on Bill's deck like it's a ship. One thing about the tubs is that they are theatrical. They demand a certain level of energy. No one just wanders out into the yard; people venture. There are too many people and none of them is Jim. Bill works the meat on the grill and wishes that some of the guests would leave. "Culling," he says.

It's an interesting story about expectation, and how people compare themselves to others in order to feel more at home in their quiet insanity. Greenman writes with a lot of resigned sadness, and I almost wished I had more than a short story to get the full picture of these people. That's not to say that the story felt incomplete or poorly excuted — No, I just wondered more about from where it came and where it might be headed.

The last story in the collection, Lynne Tillman's "The Original Impulse," picks up the esoteric, speculative story of love that "A Fable for the Living" introduced, still fraught with loneliness and longing. Here though, the difference is that Katherine is unsure if she's ever found a great love, much less lost one. She feels a longing towards the past, and a longing for a man she had a brief relationship with, and she doesn't understand people who dismiss history. She has trouble moving forwards.

Her time was full, adequate, hollow, fine, and she felt content enough with love and work, but no one lives in the present except amnesiacs. Her history was a bracelet of holes around her wrist, not a charm bracelet like her mother had worn; that was gone.

Electric Literature No. 5 is a fantastic collection, with all five stories bleeding into one another to make a cohesive whole. Each one deals with people trying to fill some void in their life, some unspeakable absence, even when their methods for doing so are unhealthy. These are flawed, interesting individuals, and I couldn't ask for more in a collection of short stories. I flew through this slim volume, and I am eager to read No. 6 when it arrives in my mailbox.


This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Oasis: The Truth: My review and interview with Tony McCarroll

Oasis: The Truth: My Life as Oasis's Drummer
by Tony McCarroll

(Review and interview written by Sara Habein)

The way in which we recall history comes down to two things: vantage point and loyalty. If you've known me for any amount of time, you know that I am wholeheartedly and irreparably enamored with Noel Gallagher's music, and I am a hopeless apologist for the sometimes insensitive and exaggerated things he has said throughout the years. My indulgence threshold is very high in the presence of great talent, and I do not apologize for this. I have loved Oasis since 1996, around the time of their second album, (What's the Story) Morning Glory, which is to say, I came in after drummer Tony McCarroll's departure.

If one asks Noel Gallagher why he sacked Tony McCarroll, he will often answer with an insult to his playing ability or make a joke about his appearance. If one asks Tony McCarroll? "My demise came in stages. Firstly and most importantly came my clash with Noel fronted to us by Alan McGee and Creation [Records]. […] Plus, the contract I had signed gave him the power to sack me."

Their months of arguments and personality differences only hastened the process. "I had strived to achieve everything I had aimed for all those years ago, but I didn't get to enjoy it for long," McCarroll says near The Truth's end. "It was a sorry situation that led to end of friendships that should have lasted a lifetime."

This is not an objective review. The Truth is not an objective book. It is disingenuous to claim otherwise. Everyone has their stories which cultivate our personal legend. And truth, as anyone who has ended a relationship knows, has little to do with facts.

"This isn't going to be a vicious swipe from a rejected band member," McCarroll says in the book's intro, and I would agree. Vicious is the wrong word. Angry? Yes. Proud? In more ways than one.

A quick Oasis primer, for those uninitiated: In 1990, originally formed as The Rain, the band consisted of guitarist Paul "Bonehead" Arthurs, bassist Paul "Guigsy" McGuigan and drummer Tony McCarroll. Their original singer, Chris Hutton, departed not long after their inception, and Liam Gallagher joined in the summer of 1991 at the insistence of a longtime friend, BigUn. After changing the name to Oasis, the band invited Liam's brother Noel to come on as lead guitarist. Noel had just returned from a roadie job with the Inspiral Carpets and had been writing songs on his own.

Quickly adopting a more focused rehearsal schedule, the group began blagging their way into opening gigs with more successful bands, as well as cultivating a following of their own throughout 1992. In May 1993, they hired a van to get themselves to Glasgow for a gig at King Tut's Wah Wah Hut. Creation boss Alan McGee was in the audience that night, and his approval led to their becoming one of the biggest bands of the 90s, helping to cement a new period in British rock.

McGee's influence over Noel Gallagher should never be underestimated. [...][H]e would stir the imagination of Noel Gallagher, at whose feet he would lay the glory. This acclaim certainly matched Noel's own ideas about himself and his ambitions, and so the new Noel was born. The introduction of a record contract and the financial allure was just all too intoxicating. The Noel of old had left us and a new one had arrived. I found out that I didn't really like the new Noel, and I know now that he didn't much like me. In fact, he didn't like many people.

McCarroll is quick to disparage Noel's change, but ever-embracing of the new opportunities brought by being in a signed band. The perks and drugs and travel are all just an adventure for him, supposedly with no ill effect.

I had a chance to interview McCarroll through email, and I wanted to know how he viewed the concept of "truth," and how it related to his book.

SH: Would it be fair to say that everyone has their own truth? Your perspective on Oasis' history, the 'Truth' in your title, I imagine, would be different from Bonehead's or Liam's, etc. Would it be fair to say that one's emotions and thoughts inevitably color that history?
TM: Although I have tried to be as objective as possible with the book it is also fair to say that all my decisions and perspectives are slightly bias[ed] towards me. I think it's called human nature.

SH: Going off that idea a bit, some of Noel's exaggerations — for instance, that he arrived with a bag of songs and all the authority — he's later recanted (there's a Q interview I'm thinking of, but I don't have it immediately available), saying that he only said those things "for effect." Again, from an outside perspective, it seems like when Oasis was first entering the public consciousness, a lot of effort was put into crafting an official 'story,' and in later years, that story didn't seem so important to maintain. Or rather, it has evolved. I realize I've just rambled at you, but any thoughts?
TM: Couldn't agree with you more. The 'official' Oasis story was the sole creation of Noel. I guess it's not important to maintain after it becomes embedded in people's minds. All my book does is offer a different angle. I guess it's up to the reader who they'll believe. Funny how Noel's legal camp have been very quiet though, eh?
SH: In the book, you mentioned that you were asked to write it. Who approached you, and had you thought about writing a book before?
TM: My publisher approached me. After listening to what they had to say I realised I had simply had enough of Noel's constant put downs and derogatory remarks. Noel has been busy recreating his own Oasis history for the last ten years, much to the detriment of all the original members, and in particular, me. I'm not sure if Noel can actually distinguish between reality and a press release.

Listen, I want to maintain some air of professional journalistic distance, and I am absolutely for everyone telling their side of the story, but I cannot support the notion that McCarroll tried to remain all that objective. The original title of the book, after all, was Oasis: The Truth, The Noel Truth, Is Nothing Like The Truth — a title that some editor down the line was kind enough to nix. And I know it is my loyalty to Noel talking, but I recognize the need to craft an official story in order to stick in the public consciousness. The idea of swooping in and knowing a band is on the cusp of great things, if only they had focus and leadership, plays right into the story of Oasis' eventual massive success. I get why the story existed in the first place — that doesn't make it fact, but apart from Tony, the rest of the band went along with it for the most part. Forgive me, but I don't think Liam, Guigsy and Bonehead operated as mindless drones, and they wanted success as much as Noel did.

However, I also concede McCarroll's point that a fabricated story is annoying and personally offensive to him because he felt that he was not allowed to speak his mind to the contrary. According to him, his independent nature would not let him stand by, and it became a source of tension between him and Noel. There is always more than one point of view in regards to leadership style.

Still, Tony devotes a lot of words comparing his authenticity to Noel's — everything from upbringing to musical influence to fighting words are fair game. 1970s and 80s Manchester saw its fair share of economic struggles, and the children of the working class (particularly those of Irish immigrants) bore the brunt of their parents' stresses. Much was made in the press about Liam and Noel's abusive father, Tommy, and the struggles their mother Peggy endured in order to raise the children on her own. Though their experience was not unique to the times, it provided some context to Liam and Noel's ambitions, and perhaps to their personalities as well.

Noel has mentioned in recent interviews that his upbringing was "virtually no different" from that of the people he knew as a kid, so it surprised me to read Tony's initial assessment of growing up during this time:

I had a very loving and happy upbringing – though if we stepped out of line, there would be the whoosh of the brush to dodge. I guess it's easy to look back on bygone days in a misty, wistful kind of way, which can be misleading, but I can honestly say I enjoyed every challenge or dare that came my way. I was that type of kid.

SH: You speak favorably about your childhood, but acknowledge the difficulties in growing up in 1970s Manchester. Compared to your former bandmates, who have not typically characterized their childhoods as favorable, how do you think your upbringing played a role in the band? Were you able to relate to your bandmates' difficulties?
TM: My upbringing was extremely tough but I guess it's how you react that matters. I guess when Noel highlighted his problematic upbringing it didn't raise any eyebrows within the band. Certainly raised a few in the media though.

All right, sure. Life is never wholly wonderful or terrible — it is what it is. However, nothing in either the book or subsequent interviews elaborates one way or another. Perhaps I've been spoiled by reading more literary memoirs, but I suppose I expected more in-depth reflection. If McCarroll is willing to theorize on the motivations of Noel Gallagher, then why not offer more clarification to his own story? Apart from having to move between Manchester and County Offlay, Ireland, due to his father's construction job, there is little in the book to indicate a similar childhood. While I respect the desire to not speak ill of any living family and to also maintain some level of privacy, one does not usually write a memoir and also guard their privacy so closely. I don't need a sob story or great tale of tragedy — just better context.

SH: From an outside perspective, it seems like Noel and Guigsy's reactions to conflict were flight over fight. Bonehead and Guigs had a lot in common with avoidance and trying to align with the "winning" side. You and Liam had more of a fighting reaction to conflict. Do you think these different ways of dealing were at the root of the band's conflicts?
TM: I would say these different approaches were caused by the band's conflicts rather than them being the root. Noel was the root of all conflicts be it through his changing personality or his newly realised demands.
SH: Regarding the drink and drugs, you comment a lot on how substances changed the behavior of your friends and bandmates, but I'm curious to how you think they affected yours. How much have you changed since the 90s?
TM: Drink and drugs were an ever present in my life from a very early age. It was as natural as rain growing up in Manchester. Like all vices though the long term effects are most damaging. I am happy to report that the only vices in my life these days are coffee and the occasional glass of stout.
SH: Regarding Noel's claims of musical influence, particularly his authenticity, I'm only with to you to a certain extent. I'd agree that the timeline on which these influences appeared is likely exaggerated, but I'm wondering why that makes a difference? Surely one doesn't expect a musician to come out fully formed and articulate the sound that speaks to them. I don't say that to be harsh — I'm just wondering where you draw the line. Every music fan has their own set of "rules," I think, as arbitrary as they might be.
TM: I agree completely, every music fan has his own set of rules and should be influenced by such. My issue was the fact that Noel's (Oasis') musical influences were being provided by Creation Records rather than us. People will say 'all part of the business', but that just don't sit with me.
SH: That said, would you agree that it is common to at first dismiss a band and then come around to loving them? I'm thinking of your bit about Noel disliking The Smiths. I'll admit that when I first heard Oasis at 13, it wasn't immediate all-out love, for whatever (probably stupid) reason. Now, I could go on about more obscure B-sides and the like. Do you have any musicians that are like that for you --- ones you didn't necessarily love at first?
TM: Not really.

SH: While I would agree with you that Noel can be abrupt, dismissive and rarely admits any wrongdoing, the songs often tell a different story. "Don't Go Away," "Let's All Make Believe," and lines like "to say all the things I wish I'd said" — among others — demonstrate more vulnerability. Do you think he sometimes speaks through his songs instead?
TM: No.

His abruptness with those last two answers surprised me, especially given the genial and more outspoken stance he took when interviewed by the Oasis news site Stop Crying Your Heart Out, back in January of this year: "Noel has bared his soul for all to see for the last couple of decades or so where as Liam has shrouded himself in mystery."

So which is it, then?

Really, much of the book suffers from lacking context and insight. Moments that should be lingered upon are often brushed over in a way that either implies indifference or concedes to previous accounts made by other people. The narrative needed better direction. Two events stand out as prime examples: the recording of "Live Forever," and Noel's temporary disappearance following a tanked Los Angeles gig in 1994.

McCarroll's account of hearing one of the greatest contributions to rock n roll (and my all-time favorite song, so go on and call me out for bias again) is easy to miss among all the insults and tales of mischief:

When I say Noel could blow us out of the water with his compositions, I mean it. You know if a song has potential the first time you hear it. "Live Forever" was a simple piece of brilliance and the best offering to date from Noel, in my opinion. Liam had a look of pride in his eyes and kept glancing at each of us with a broad smile on his face. It was his 'I Told You So' face. And he had. He had shown faith in his brother. This was a completely different style of song to what Noel had come up with in the past.

This little bit of fairness and honesty extended Noel's direction is somewhat dimmed when, not five pages later, McCarroll is back to painting the picture of Noel as a coward searching for a father figure.

SH: Can you expand upon hearing "Live Forever" for the first time and then later recording it?
TM: The first time I heard Noel play "Live Forever" was an epic moment. After he had finished, we all sat and looked at each other in silence. Then we all roared laughing and eagerly set about our own parts. The drum pattern that was to eventually become the introduction to the song was a rhythm I had been working on for a different song. I love the way that people recognise the song from the drum pattern alone.

To be honest, when I asked him the question, I'd forgotten about the aforementioned excerpt where he praised the song and Noel's songwriting ability, and was trying to find a polite way to glean more information. It was one of only a few paragraphs that had anything positive to say about Noel, all of which are overshadowed by the criticisms.

With the failed L.A. gig, Liam, high on crystal meth, couldn't remember lyrics, Guigsy's amp blew, Noel sang out of tune, and Bonehead played the chords for different songs. McCarroll, naturally, "kept in time and drummed the right song," — of course, even though you were also methed-out, by your own admission — "yet most of Noel's glares were heading my way." Worst of all, Ringo Starr was in the audience.

Rightly mortified, Noel cut off the last song and left the stage. After an argument with Liam in a dressing room regarding his drug use, Noel convinced the tour manager, Maggie, to front him the remainder of the tour money. He disappeared for a week and eventually turned up in Las Vegas. When he returned to California, he agreed to have a clear-the-air meeting with the rest of the band.

It had been agreed that Bonehead should be our spokesperson and explain that the rest of us understood why he had been upset. When he started, though, Noel cut him short and said that he didn't ever want the event to be discussed again. He then started up a tirade that he must have stored up inside him since walking off the stage at the Whisky. We all sat and listened, as we had said we would.

He was back.

Given that it was one of the most noteable moments during that tour, and it's often cited as a contributing factor to Oasis insufficient popularity in the US, aren't specifics of Noel's tirade important? But no, McCarroll moves on to sitting in the bar with Noel later that night, debating the merits of Ringo Starr as a drummer. He spends just as much page space discussing Ringo's musicality as he does on Noel's return. I doubt that McCarroll has trouble remembering what was said during that moment. His co-author, Richard Dolan, should have insisted upon him telling us.

Yes, The Truth has a co-author. McCarroll is not a writer by trade, and as is the case with many celebrity memoirs, he required some assistance to bring his story to print.

SH: Can you talk about your writing process a bit? About how long did it take to finish the book?
TM: In total it took nearly a year of kitchen table meetings and at least 4000 cups of sweet tea. I would work with the co-author who would write up for me to review and sign off.

SH: How did you pair up with your co-author, Richard Dolan? Were you aware of his work prior?
TM: Richard is an incredibly funny man and was also present during the formative years of the band which gave him a unique insight. He's got a couple of more books due for release this year and is currently working on a screenplay for my story. The parts I have seen so far have had me crying with laughter.

I don't know anything about Richard Dolan as a writer. His bio on the book jacket is less than forthcoming about his prior work, and I am unsure if he is the same Richard M. Dolan who writes books primarily about UFOs and national security, so I cannot speak to his usual writing style. I am curious to know how much he really asked of McCarroll, and whether or not he tried to get more in-depth insight. To be fair, much of the criticism I have for the pacing of the book should be directed at him. If the overarching theme is how wronged Tony McCarroll was during his time in a massively successful band, then shouldn't we have a little more perspective and little less hijinks? A diligent co-author and a good editor could have given this book much more focus.

Ah, but hijinks do make up the really entertaining parts of the book, it's true. When placed at the right moments, they offer hilarious respite from the struggles of being a working band. McCarroll tells funny stories like an expert pub patron, and they are fantastic. One of my favorites takes place during the recording of Definitely Maybe, when he and Liam, along with friend BigUn, decide they are going to track down Ian Brown of the Stone Roses. Knowing that the Stone Roses were recording nearby, the three end up wandering around, high on acid, through the Welsh countryside. They end up stealing a tractor for transport and barge into the studio at 3 am. Sure enough, Ian Brown is sitting at the mixing desk, smoking an enormous spliff.

This was the man who had inspired most of the band to become musicians, and in particular Liam. Liam had a cartoon surprise face on. I suppose this was due both to his meeting an idol and the LSD that was still rocketing around his mind. We took seats either side of Ian Brown, who then started to talk like talking was about to be outlawed.

"I'm a fly in the ointment, you see. But I don't want to be no fly in the bottle. They ain't got anything to pin on me. It's not just the swings and roundabouts, there's also the slide to consider. The paling of the shadows are a sure sign of the morning light."

What the fuck?

Hilarious. I will give McCarroll the benefit here with his ability to recount what Ian said, as I imagine it was a story told over and over since it happened. It's too good of a story not to tell everyone. (Hell, I'm still telling people about the time I met Ryan Gosling, and it's not nearly as funny.)

"I guess I tend not too have much regret in my life," McCarroll said in his email reply, "so it was much easier to recall the humorous moments."

When McCarroll's time with the band came to an unceremonious end, the band had already begun work on (What's the Story) Morning Glory, which sold massively well upon its release. Having drummed on the single "Some Might Say," McCarroll had to sue for his share of royalties. He accepted an offer out of court after a long legal process, knowing that he'd signed a near-worthless contract that entitled him to little else. I'm firmly on McCarroll's side here — if he played on the album at all, then he deserved compensation, regardless of personal greivances. Still, let it be yet another lesson to upcoming artists out there — Always, always read your contract. Know your worth.

The band went on to have three more drummers: Alan White, Zak Starkey, and Chris Sharrock. What did Tony make of his successors?

SH: I remember reading a quote from Chris Sharrock saying that a drummer really has to know what they're doing in order to play in Oasis.
TM: I think Alan is a fantastic drummer but as always if you add a new drummer it creates a new band. The feel and sound can create a new direction. The way Zak approaches drumming often reminds me of his very so famous father [Ringo Starr]. It’s perfectly all over the place. Love it! For me, Chris did a great job of rolling everyone into one and getting everything absolutely bang on! Good on him! Great drummers all!

I know I've been critical with this review, as is my hardass editorial nature, but I really am glad I read the book. As a huge Oasis fan, I'm game for soaking up any new information and anecdotes, and yes, I appreciate hearing a new perspective. Despite its imperfections and contridictions, the book stayed on my mind long after I finished reading it, and it is an important piece in the assemblage of Oasis-related information in the world.

Oasis came to an end in 2009, following an argument between Liam and Noel Gallagher. The specifics of the argument, occurring before a Paris gig at the end of the Dig Out Your Soul tour, have yet to be specified other than it being "personal." Liam and the rest of the band — Gem Archer, Andy Bell and Chris Sharrock — have gone on to form Beady Eye. They released their first album, Different Gear, Still Speeding, earlier this year and continue to tour. Noel is currently working on his solo album, and is due to marry longtime girlfriend Sara MacDonald on June 18.

SH: How do you like Beady Eye? To me, it sounds like a natural progression of Liam's musical presence.
TM: Liam looks like he is really enjoying his music and his liberty at the moment. I think the longer he is out on his own the more progressive his music will become. Good to see him smiling again.

And on that, Mr. McCarroll, we agree.

Though he may not be a writer, Tony McCarroll is still an excellent drummer. Anyone looking for confirmation should look no further than "Bring It on Down:"

Oasis' history is a lengthy and complex one, and entire books could be written on the Gallagher relationship alone. The Truth represents one version of the band's early days that we longtime, big-picture fans could not have known previously. Though I would not recommend it as an introductory source for someone unfamiliar with Oasis, it is still one man's history. The least we can do, as fans, is listen.

Full Disclosure: John Blake Publishing in partnership with Trafalgar Square Publishing sent me this book at my request.


This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.