I dont want this party to end.

The first time I visited Brazenhead was in 2010. I had just moved to New York and I was friends with a few regulars. It was the “secret bookstore” or the “speakeasy bookshop,” terms that immediately hook in a certain kind of curious person, especially an out-of-towner or new-to-towner. But it wasn’t twee or whimsical; it was just fucking great. 

I loved texting people directions to it, “right next door to Brandy's Piano Bar.” That was the old location. Later, after some commotion, it regrouped in his old apartment, and Michael Seidenberg, the host and sole proprietor, moved upstate, but returned on weekends for its open hours from evening to very very late. That’s where I shot my video series Just Browsing and I had a few birthdays and going away parties there (yes, that’s more than one “going away” party. None of my moves from New York ever quite stuck.) Once I had a party and no one showed up, but I didn’t care much because I could hang out with Michael. 

The nights were all different but there were a few constants: first you see the books everywhere, then the bottles of whiskey and ice and pile of glasses. Maybe Michael’s playing Blood on the Tracks on an old speaker hidden under some books. You’ll talk to the other people there because you have books in common. A few snapshots that come to mind first are the times at the old location when his neighbor would show up medium-late in the night—2am maybe, with a giant bowl of pasta and plates for everyone. That neighbor left his door open and people would sneak in his apartment to use the bathroom because Brazenhead didn’t have one. Sometimes Michael’s zany dogs were around. A few nights ended at the diner nearby. Once some friends and I built a books-and-chairs barricade in the back room to keep a creepy guy away from our conversation. Another time, I can’t remember why, but we were balancing books on our heads. I could go there by myself, which always a relief, especially when I first arrived and didn’t always know what to do on a Saturday night. It was incredible to know there was always somewhere I could go and feel welcome. Like the time I left a stuffy New Year’s Eve party full of rich people. Took the train uptown and walked to Brazenhead. I don’t even think I texted beforehand to see if he was around. I just guessed and guessed correctly.

Almost all my favorite people I either brought there or met there. And one of them was Michael.

We had a plan once to set up a shelf at his bookstore: “The Underread Writers Shelf.” There was going to be a corresponding website too, but most of our plans for it consisted of talking about the “underread writers” that we liked. Most of his favorites were underread and long gone. Although, I remember he said he really loved John Wray’s Lowboy—a rare recent-ish recommendation. I keep meaning to pick that one up. 

He did not care if you were a bestseller or a receptionist, a nobel prize winner or a janitor, or where you went to school. You liked books or didn’t. I was collecting unemployment after a stint working at a call center when I first showed up, but that said nothing of my bookshelf. I pointed out Max Frisch’s I’m Not Stiller that first night and said I love that book, what else have you got like it? I believe Confessions of Felix Krull is what he suggested. To be honest, I never got around to reading it, but I did go home with a copy that couldn’t have cost more than a couple bucks.

I only ever felt welcome at Brazenhead; and in the wider world of books as commerce and books as media events, that is something to cherish. Not that I haven’t tried to make my way in those hierarchies. Looking over our past emails I see I was constantly telling him about the book proposals I worked on, which only collected rejections; an endeavor akin to Ship of Theseus repair if it were sinking. It makes sense that I would take these woes to Michael: someone who believed in books, and didn’t divide the world into somebodies and nobodies. I worked hard and he could see that; but he never gave me false hope or anything like that, nor did he discourage me from continuing to press onward or work harder. There were no useless pep talks or shallow words of encouragement from him; just a lot of wisdom and realism. I would have liked to have given him a copy of my book, but at least I got the chance this year to tell him that I finished it. 

His indifference to hierarchies is why he was one of the great booksellers: he couldn’t care less where a book came from. All that mattered to him was whether a book was good or not. Not that he didn’t notice or care about celebrities. I don’t know if Carl Bernstein is a shopaholic or not but that’s the sort of funny gossip and unsubstantiated Madlibs of cultural figures that Michael was always good for. I thought that Brazenhead was the closest I’d come to having an Elaine’s, but now I’d bet it was better than Elaine’s; after all, it was a secret bookstore.

Most of the best parties I’ve ever been to happened there, often whenever Jonathan was back in town. Jonathan’s absence was another piece of the Brazenhead’s legend—like the cool cousin away at college while visiting the coolest uncle’s house. But as often as I visited, I find myself wishing now that I hadn’t missed out on so much—I can’t believe I never got around to one of Jace’s book clubs. Never got to know the poetry community who met on Tuesdays.

I am reminded of these lines in Susan Orlean’s The Library Book:

In Senegal, the polite expression for saying someone died is to say his or her library has burned. When I first heard the phrase, I didn’t understand it, but over time I came to realize it was perfect. Our minds and souls contain volumes inscribed by our experiences and emotions; each individual’s consciousness is a collection of memories we’ve cataloged and stored inside us, a private library of a life lived.

It seems to me that Michael embodied all of the best qualities of New York City and all the best qualities of books: generosity and history and community and connections between people over time. Now that’s gone but people, many people, are carrying and cherishing the times they had there. These are only a few of my remembrances and I am just one of the many people who was lucky to know him and get book recommendations from him. 

Read an underread writer this summer in his honor. Any lonely and interesting-looking unfamiliar book at a used bookstore will do.

summer reading

Here are a few of the books that I've enjoyed lately or hope to enjoy soon. The first was They Shoot Horses Don't They. I've seen the movie a million times but hadn't read the book before. The hapless narrator's delusions about his future—convinced his big break is right around the corner up to the very end—completely destroyed me. Worth checking out if just for the devastating use of font sizes (not sure if it's in every edition, but very prominent in the Serpent's Tail edition I got.)

I also recently read Ann Marlowe's How to Stop Time: Heroin from A to Z and hope someone else will, so we can talk about it. Seems inevitable that this will be a NYRB Classics reissue one day, as it could very well be marketed as Renata Adler after a night at Max Fish instead of Elaine's. I was skeptical of the structure (assembled like a dictionary, no chapters but sections under headings like "arrest" "cool" etc..) but it works, especially for anyone who already loves books like Bluets or Dept of Speculation. Her politics can be a bit Adler-ish too, and this is an addiction memoir from a very privileged position, but the author is direct about this, if not fully wise to it. Poor people of color she "cops" from, are present in the book, rather than edited away; she is aware of their hardship, and aware of her own discomfort with it. Even the posh anecdotes are stories that I haven't heard before — like juggling dope with tae kwon do classes, or her superrich Skidmore grad /drug trafficker friend *who took flying lessons* in order to distribute with her own plane. Wtf. The book is particularly poignant on the anxiety that draws someone to substance abuse and the time that addiction steals, but there's still something off...if not unreadably so. Here's a good review from 1999—the year it was published—by Rhonda Lieberman.

I really really loved Jackie Wang's Carceral Capitalism and Natasha Leonard's Being Numerous. Leonard is a playful and fiery writer, which why her book of ethical and moral questions feels light to read at first, but it is special and powerful and sneaks up on you. Wang's book is absolutely essential, a brilliant thinker in full command of her brilliance; and as a bonus there is lyrical chapter nestled in the middle of the book, almost secretly (it isn't listed in the index) that is so good and astonishing I don't know where to begin to talk about how good it is.

A few things I plan to read:

This series of "modern horror" short stories on Amazon. I'll read the Scott Heim story first, cause he's the best.

Barbara Comyns's Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead — I love her so much, I'm spacing out when I read her books

Molly Gloss's Dazzle of the Day — It was just reissued with a cool, almost dazzle-ship cover I could not resist picking it up. A novel about Esperanto-speaking Quakers in space? Hell yeah, why not.

I also just started reading The Children's Bach by Helen Garner. Not sure what to make of it yet, but I like the kooky dialogue. I don't know who needs this but:

Sascha Pohflepp, the artist and friend to many many many people passed away last week. He was always so genuine and friendly; expressing overwhelming care about the world and the people in it. I didn’t know him very well outside of the time that we overlapped at Eyebeam, but he was one of the people that make that community great. So I’ve been thinking about this piece he made in 2006, a "blind camera" that was nothing but a red button and a screen. The project, called Buttons, would find a photo taken at the moment you pressed the button and display it on the screen.… “This work tries to focus the user's imagination on that other, to create the narrative that runs between one's own memory and a stranger's moment.”

Thanks for reading.

friends and "not your friends"

This is the best thing I've read in a while, and I'm sharing it with you, so it can be the best thing you've read in a while: Luc Sante's essay, Maybe the People Would Be the Times. It is about being young and then growing old, watching a city change, New York City, music, and a lot of other things that many many other essays are about, but you have not seen these topics handled like this. It is alive, with a closing paragraph that continues to haunt me. It is an essay much too alive to be filed under nostalgia. I saw him read it just before the secret guest at the reading series that night, none other than Debbie Harry, with a selection from her forthcoming memoir (also pretty great) but when I got home, I went straight to my computer to look at the text.

I found myself in Las Vegas this week and finally went for a tour at the Neon Museum. It is the perfect museum for the way it uses a local phenomenon to get at the history of the location. Dreamy to walk through at night with that flickering sound like synthetic crickets. Until the tour, I did not know the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign and the old Moulin Rouge sign were made by a woman, Betty Willis. Or how much Googie design, like the giant flying saucer at LAX, is the work of a black architect, Paul Revere Williams.

I saw a bunch of good movies on the planes like Hotel Artemis (fun!), Aquaman (awesome, wish I had seen it in theaters), The Wife (well made, not as heavy handed as reviewers made it sound), and Brokeback Mountain, which is so much better than I remembered. What a curious movie, so tender. Inevitably an academic has written about this, and much better than I might; but I found myself thinking of it in comparison to the many depictions of male queerness authored by women (slash fanfiction, A Little Life) which often seems like a way to ground a fictional relationship in equal footing. This is very much a straight man's adaptation—Ang Lee, Larry McMurtry, the actors—and I remember it was a lot of straight guys at the time telling me how good it is. And it is very good!

I also had just enough time to catch the start of Almost Famous for that glorious beginning with Zoey Deschannel as the big sister ("It's Simon and Garfunkel, Mom!") and the sweeping use of "America," (“…It took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw…!") Right up to Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lester Bangs' "they are not your friends" mini-monologue, that's basically the only advice a young arts journalist needs starting out (but few are lucky to get!)

Thanks for reading.

Cayce and Case

A couple weeks ago, I picked up Pattern Recognition and reread it. It holds up really well—just as I expected—because now that moment of online communications feels so distinctly of the past, while totally natural to include in the text.

One of the nice things about reading William Gibson is that you can learn from him. Philip K Dick and J. G. Ballard are so entirely in their own spirits that you can only admire rather than wish to imitate them. A writer who tries to do something Ballard-like ends up transparently riffing off Ballard. A writer who tries to learn from PKD will only end up with a clumsy homage. But there are stylistic tricks and techniques Gibson employs that can be borrowed like his attention on the sentence level, general story mechanics, and pacing. Even characterization—Cayce is so subtly brought to life and so recognizable; he makes interesting choices to describe certain mundane tasks, while leaving other aspects of her as an enigma.

That's not to say Gibson hasn't been ripped off and constantly. That is why, having moved on to a reread of Neuromancer, I am trying hard to image what it must have been to read the book with fresh eyes in 1984 — back before there was much of a "consensual hallucination" between hardware and through networks. That novel has been so absorbed by the culture, especially the internet-centric culture we have now; it's like trying to assess the merits of something like Citizen Kane.

I started taking notes while rereading Neuromancer, because I had this idea that no one has yet to write a great long critical piece about William Gibson's body of work. I thought I could probably do a good job on such a piece, because while he's an influence on my work, his books aren't as elemental to me as say, Concrete Island or A Scanner Darkly. And if I were to read and reread all his work starting now, I could probably have a long essay together in time for his next novel which drops in January.

Then, I wondered if I actually wanted to write this piece or I felt motivated simply because of the absence of anyone else accomplishing it and my own perception that I might do a good job.

There’s the writing I want to be doing—that fully engages my imagination, that is risk-taking, and might not command a huge audience, but when it is well-received, there is no better feeling. There's the writing that I know will always whip up attention when I want that. And there's writing that helps me feel less precious about publishing, such as this newsletter, which I think of as like an ice rink figure skaters practice on that is open to the public. Nothing written here is ever perfect, but it isn’t meant to be, either.

There are other kinds of writing, but for the purpose of this being an imperfect space, let's stick with these three kinds. In no category does a 7,000 or so word critical essay about all of William Gibson's novels fit in. Nor would any possible publication pay particularly well for such a piece, for that matter. I don’t have all the time in the world so I have to make choices about what to write and when and why. But it was a nice idea for a moment; so instead I’m describing this discarded idea as I pirouette on my little ice rink. I have stopped taking notes, but I continue to imagine myself as a my-age person encountering it in 1984 while I reread Neuromancer. That makes it more fun.

beach velvet

I loved Jenny Turner's piece in the LRB on Mark Fisher. It is full of quotable lines and rigor and kindness. I especially like how she makes herself present in the review—ending with an anecdote about her son ("he’s following the new, in technology, in culture, in form and genre, looking at memes on 4chan and Reddit and posting his own. This scares me sometimes, when I read about the way racists use humour and irony to pull in the unwitting, so I asked my son what he thought, and we had a shouting match about how he thinks I think he’s stupid.")

Maybe the reason I like it is because I think Fisher might have been a stronger writer had he anticipated readers like Turner—not so much changing for them, as anticipating a wider world could have received him. His interests were arcane, but his point-of-view was not; his accessible writing style was not. Capitalist Realism is a 80 page zine essentially, widely available as a pdf online, that begins with a consideration of Children of Men, which, while hardly obscure—was no blockbuster, and today is widely celebrated as that film you might have missed ten years ago that got everything right. And yet the book sells pretty well and consistently. That book is speaking to many many sorts of people, not just the theorists and arts bloggers in and around London.

I think part of the reason Fisher's writing is picking up in the states is that right now the contours of class consciousness are visible, but the stakes and positions and interests are still muddled in the media. Class is a missing component to the cultural conversation about diversity—including desperately needed changes—that began in 2014ish. After the Felicity Huffman thing, the Markup spreadsheet scandal...another shoe is bound to drop and things are going to get messy. But maybe—hopefully—productively messy. Anyway, Capitalist Realism is as good a book as any to prepare yourself for it.

On that note, I have a new column in Filmmaker magazine called Speculations. My first piece is out from under the paywall. It is about the uncanny sensation of watching films set in 2019 (Akira, The Running Man, and Blade Runner) now. I also mention Michael Radford’s 1984, and Fisher's own writing about Children of Men, among other things. Check it out.

Turner mentioned this photo of Ian Curtis with his officemates at the Macclesfield Unemployment Office in her review. Now I can't stop thinking of it either. Maybe because I heard “Disorder” in a cafe the other day for the first time in years—struck by its power, awestruck for how young he was.

I was in Berlin this week, where I happened to have a delightful Only In Berlin moment. I walked by a little rave, like 35 people dancing in daylight behind a truck with a DJ playing techno. They were celebrating reading! Some were carrying signs that appeared—from what I, a non-German speaker, could parse—to celebrate the joy of reading.

On the plane I watched The Dark Knight Rises. It’s the final one in the trilogy. It is hilarious to watch now for the pathetic antagonism of Occupy and veneration of law enforcement and civility. But also....Anne Hathaway as Catwoman as ...AOC? If the film were released today there's no way critics wouldn't make the connection. But it came out when people hated Hathway for some inexplicable reason, so we missed our chance at a great standalone Hathaway—as—Catwoman—as—AOC trilogy. "I take what I need from those who have more than enough. I don't stand on the shoulders of those with less." What a great line! A line that only an actress as poised and vivid as Hathaway can convincingly deliver. No wonder Batman gives his money away at the end (sorry if I spoiled that for anyone haha.)

I'm not really in the habit of recommending products/objects/things to buy here but I'll make an exception for once, since I'm already a little out of it from all the travel this week. Beach Velvet. Get yourself some beach velvet! Really: get your ass in beach velvet. Yes, this is a phrase I just made up. Let me explain. I got Danskin leggings at Tj Maxx a few months ago. There were racks and racks of them for ten dollars because they are marked two sizes too small. If you want say, velvet leggings size medium, get the extra small or if you want velvet leggings that fit like sweatpants size medium get the medium. (actually velour leggings—"microvelour." But "velour" is a horrible word. These are my velvet leggings.) It's a fussy fabric and there's something nice about sitting in this fussy soft fabric on a rough texture like sand. So now these are my beach leggings. My beach velvet leggings. So wrong it is right!

Thanks for reading.

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