canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Back to School Reading for Fake Urban Guerillas

By Brian Joseph Davis

In Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le fou, Anna Karina tells Jean Paul Belmondo, "Let’s play ‘Vietnam’!" A jump cut then has the two enacting the Vietnam War in vignettes for tourists at a beach. In the same way, the Symbionese Liberation Army, most well known for the kidnapping of Patty Hearst, played the parts of urban guerillas. In lieu of struggling through Das Kaptial, they watched movies. They pretended their San Francisco apartment was a Latin American jungle and ran through maneuvers like children over and around furniture. Whether or not the SLA’s performance art was self aware, they make more sense as literary beings than as freedom fighters. In my novel I, Tania (ECW, 2007) history is rewritten with the hopelessly inept SLA turning to fiction and writing workshops instead of violence. I like to think of the following as an extra credit-reading list.

by Tom Vague

Televisionaries collects the history of West Germany’s Red Army Faction into snarky timelines by Tom Vague, the editor of the great 1980s British zine Vague. Stylish, smart and—most important for urban guerillas—popular, the RAF were embraced by the young of late 1960s Germany as the only answer for the previous generation, who had by then settled into postwar power and memory lapses. The Velvet Underground of Marxist insurgents, its leaders died in prison, which ensured a permanent folk hero status. A neat hat trick that was—smoothing out their extremism and ambiguous morality.

The Tunnels of Cu Chi
by Tom Mangold and John Penycate

The first rule of war, which everyone but the U.S. military seems to know, is "location, location, location." The Vietcong knew their country and land and within months of troop escalation in the early 1960s also knew everything there was to know about their junk food eating, loud and stupid invaders. The U.S., in turn, never learned anything about them. As relayed by the journalist authors, it was during the first part of the war (before it was fought with large offensives) when the farmers and students who made up the Vietcong went underground to the tunnels they had previously used to repel the Chinese and the French. In the earth, the Vietcong had workshops where recovered bombs were carefully rebuilt, and hospitals where blood from wounds was run through coffee filters then transfused back into the dying. There were even theatre productions by traveling companies who worked the tunnel circuit. Aboveground, hollowed-out trees became sniping posts, hornet’s nests were rigged on snap line traps and all the forces of modernism—for a few years at least—were stopped by the landscape itself.

Snow White
by Donald Barthelme

A fairy tale updated to an early 1970s commune (which makes it a dated updating)—the dwarves are emotionally stunted men and Snow White is an obscure object of desire. Pleasure is delayed and lost in word games about relationships, power, and pajamas.

Love is Colder Than Death: the Life and Times of Rainer Werner Fassbinder
by Robert Katz

"I don’t throw bombs. I make movies," the late Fassbinder liked to say and his life and death is a perfect road map for the conflict between art’s decadence and politics’ demands for the impossible. He ceaselessly made the rarest art—that which rewards the viewer with both intellectual rigor and swooning, three-hanky emotion. At his most cynical, Fassbinder simplified the world to three places: the brothel, the slaughterhouse, and the concentration camp. At his most human, his films show those places as escapable. Nowhere is this more apparent than during the scene in In a Year With 13 Moons where Elvira, the heartbroken transsexual, wanders through a very bloody slaughterhouse while reciting Goethe. It seems like a recipe for bad art but we realize we flinch more from the sound of her raw emotion than the visual carnage and Fassbinder has taken us through hell to show us something tender and real.

by Don Delillo

Delillo’s best is seemingly his most straightforward and spare. By working logically, Lee Harvey Oswald is made one of the most bewildering literary characters of the last century—full of rancor, stuttering pathos, and the yearning to commit acts twisted and beyond his abilities. Delillo’s secret is that he wrote Oswald as having the same neuroses common to writers. Writers, like assassins, want to enter history, not knowing the devastating debt that journey always collects on.

The Books 1978-1998
by Raymond Pettibon

I was living in a near condemned house set in the middle of a used tire yard when I was in the process of being thrown out of school. Across the street was a SRO hotel full of recent ex cons from Detroit. My roommate—the one on the couch who liked to set himself on fire when he was bored—would hang out at the hotel and bring strange old men back for conversation after they all ran out of money for dollar half pints. These men wore impeccably maintained suits, but smelled like pencil shavings and carried plastic bags full of their conspiracy notes and "research." These men at the edge of existence, where the bus service blows, were gathering evidence about a truth shadowy and subjective that permeated all of American life with its conspiratorial tentacles and was only glimpsed in clues gleaned from billboards and flickering TV sets with Jiffy Pop foil antennas. But the madman is always only half right—there is that truth but there is no organizing principle to it other than his own imagination.

Somewhere between being the cover artist for Black Flag and an art world superstar, Raymond Pettibon could have been one of those men, with his photocopied collections of drawings and text fragments taken from film stills, 1970s cults, forgotten novels, and his own poetic and scarily lucid mind.

Bend Sinister
by Vladimir Nabokov

Neither as devastating as Lolita nor as dense as his later novels, Bend Sinister is a bizarre, personal, and alienating work. And for those reasons I love it. Nabokov created his first English language novel around a fictionalized revolution in an eastern European country where Paduk, a dictator, imposes stupidity and crassness as national virtues and systematically destroys the life and sanity of his old school mate, Professor Krug. Reality bends and Nabokov joyfully geeks on his new written language. Having lived through the terrors of Lenin, and later twice fleeing from the Nazis, Nabokov is a more than a qualified tour guide to the black holes of the human condition and its double speak. My copy is set in Jenson and has one of those Time Life edition plastic covers.

Interrogation Machine: Laibach and the NSK
by Alexei Monroe

Why overthrow a government when you can just make one up? Now into their third decade of activity, the Slovene art collective, best known for their music released under the aegis of Laibach, live and work in an imaginary "perfect state." Passports, television stations, fake embassies and even "official folk culture," NSK is art that directly confronts the visual symbols and structures that impact the most, yet remain the most unknown—those of government and economics.

Brian Joseph Davis is the author of I, Tania (ECW, 2007) and Portable Altamont (Coach House, 2005).







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