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November 8, 2006

Book Notes - Claro & Brian Evenson ("Electric Flesh")

I am always fascinated by books in translation, so this first Book Notes submission by both the original author and the work's translator is special to me. Claro's novel, Electric Flesh, is a lyrically adventurous and ultimately rewarding tale that incorporates Harry Houdini and his alleged executioner grandson into an encompassing psychological thriller.

In their own words, here are Claro and Brian Evenson's Book Notes entries for the novel, Electric Flesh:

Claro's Playlist, Electric Flesh

Houdini, one of the main characters of my novel Electric Flesh, is simply enclosed in a carnival mist. Think freaks! And listen accordingly. I would highly recommend Arcade Fire, especially "Neighborhood (Laika)", from the Funeral album. As freaks go, it is almost impossible no to dwell in the cabaret-like underworld of the excellent The Book of Lies, by Jack The Ripper, with, ladies and gentleman, the inescapable "The Assassin". Incidentally, I discovered very recently, and with great pleasure, a band called Houdini, whose CD Hotel Stories has exactly the kind of circus fancy we’re looking for here. Also, I wish I had discovered the Dresden Dolls earlier: track 4 on Yes, Virginia, "My Alcoholic Friends," would have been perfect at some point. For good measure, add a pinch of "Lonely Carousel", by Beth Gibbons & Rodrigo Lea.

When one is writing about some poor out-of-work electric executioner enduring a thrilling session on a famous & dangerous chair, one needs to find the necessary amount of voltage to sustain the juice. One needs extra energy. It is possible to gather an idea of the peculiar rage that my other character, Henry Hordinary, goes through by listening to the following musical mega tonic: Elli Medeiros’ last CD (simply called Elli), especially tracks number 1 ("Souleve-moi"), 3 ("Lonely Lovers") and 5 ("Altar") – but the whole album render perfectly the kind of mix between erotic fantasy and tricky violence I’m working on. In my novel, only one band is mentioned, and it’s Sonic Youth. I listened (and still listen) on a frighteningly regular basis to their album Washing Machine, and I just can’t get enough of track number† 7 : "No Queen Blues".

Last but not least, since writing can be as exhausting as challenging, one needs from time to time little spaces of floating beauty – obviously, The Moldy Peaches do this job perfectly ("Lucky Number Nine" and "Nothing Came Out" can do a lot for you at one a.m.).

But before the curtain fall, herren und damen, listen closely to the incredible cover of the infamous monologue of Jean Eustache’s cult movie – La Maman et la Putain –done by a band called Diabologum (from a strange album named Number 3 / Ce n’est pas perdu pour tout le monde).

Brian Evenson's Playlist, Electric Flesh

When you're translating a book, you end up reformulating it so that the mind's imagined mouth, while forming different words in a different language, can still try to impart the impact of the original.

Translating Claro's work was particularly challenging in that, since he's an acclaimed translator of somewhat difficult American fiction (for instance work by Ben Marcus, Dennis Cooper, Thomas Pynchon, William Gass, Kathy Acker, and myself), he has an awareness of the intensities of style and of the American fiction landscape that very few European writers have. This is a maximalist book, the prose beautifully complex, the sentences beautifully complicated, but it's also a short book, compact and somehow economical despite its verbal excesses. If you follow his list above, it'll lead you into some wonderful stuff, much of which, unless you're a Francophile, you're not likely to come across on your own. He has focused primarily on the carnivalesque aspects of the novel and on Houdini, so I've focused more on the ideas of electricity and electrocution that the text plays with. I began with the premises that 1) everything should be electrified, which precluded any tracks that are acoustic. Here’s my list:

1. Tool — (-Ions)

As an intro to Howard Hordinary's games with electric current, you might start with this subdued song from Aenima which features as a kind of ghost of percussion percussion the repeated snap of an electric current. That and the silence of the track itself gathers for me the heart of Howard's experience alone with the electric chair.

2. Virgin Prunes — Sons Find Devils

This is my one addition to the carnivalesque tracks that Claro mentions above. Playing like a kind of morbid post-war German cabaret song put into a goth blender this track offers a lovely mix of performative darkness.

3. Pere Ubu — Love Song

I gave up on Pere Ubu in the early 80s, so was really caught off guard when I first listened to their new album Why I Hate Women a few weeks ago. What's done with the electronics on this song, the way they seem to follow their own logic, is really amazing, and the bitter lyrics and woeful singing capture a lot about Howard's vexed relationships with women. (Plus the Cleveland-based band has the added benefit of being named after a French literary character.)

4. Ulan Bator — Sea-Room

As Claro mentions above, the one song mentioned in Electric Flesh is Sonic Youth's "No Queen Blues." I include "Sea-Room" by the French late-Krautrock trio Ulan Bator as a kind of translation, as the song that has the effect on me that I think Claro sees "No Queen Blues" as having on Howard, even though they're very different songs.

5. Talking Heads — Memories Can't Wait

I love the pulsing guitars that open this track from Fear of Music, and the way the track seems to build up slowly, threatening to break out into something and then being folded back in, finally changing key and breaking out at the end in a way that I find to be an almost ecstatic experience for the listener. That pattern or structure is a gentler equivalent of what Howard is trying to achieve with his ritual with the electric chair, the place he's trying to get to.

6. The Missing Ensemble — Part I

Here's another take on Howard's interaction with the electric chair, the slow and quiet way in which the current builds and drones and then is backed away from, by an ensemble that includes John Sellekaers (Dead Hollywood Stars), Mathias Delplanque (Lena, Bidlo), and Daniel De Los Santos (Tamarin) and which is interested, in their own words, in "abstraction, exploration and auditory hallucinations." They're exceptionally good, I think, at keeping Howard at that point when something is always threatening to break out, where there's always the promise of transcendence, but it never quite arrives. The album the track is from, Hidden Doors, is moody and brooding and beautifully done.

7. Ween — Transdermal Celebration

Okay, I just like Ween, and I like the idea of them standing in for a kind of transcendence following the experience of Hidden Doors. They're one of my guilty pleasures. The title is connected with the way Howard's skin changes and transforms as the current runs through it, and I like thinking of this song on the heels of The Missing Ensemble, of Howard breaking out of an experience of intense deep listening into a kind of pop moment.

8. Throbbing Gristle — X-Ray

But transcendence only can last so long before Howard's itching to get back in the chair again, playing with the voltage, hypnotized by it, addicted to it. This song, from the 2004 limited release TGNOW, captures both the slight discharges of electricity and the increasing rhythms of his heart.

9. Beck — Sunday Sun

We're most of the way through the book now, have arrived at the Sunday where Howard is about to visit his mother and has something of a respite. Beck captures for me the brief moment he has alone on the porch before setting about the business of the day.

10. Loose Fur — Laminated Cat

Howard's started out calm in the morning, but his nerves, as he gets closer to his mother are getting more and more jangled. This supergroup, consisting of Jeff Tweedy, Jim O'Rourke, and Glenn Kotche, starts calm and soft and becomes more and more and more textured and rich.

11. Syd Barrett — Let's Split

Howard's off to his final scene, to the sexual experimentation that will have serious effects for him….

12. Merzbow — Bronzo Pt. 1

Due to a series of unfortunate circumstances, Howard's feeling the electricity like he's never felt it before; by the book's end it's no longer under his control and is taking him forward into a kind of negation. This track is from the limited edition 2004 release Tamago. It's a remarkably clean track, taking on noise in a way different than Merzbow usually does, at once caustic and nearly melodic, but with a surprising rupture in the middle, where Howard slips into the next phase, a little closer to death.

13. Hecker — Stocha Acid Zlook

Howard's luck has finally run out. I'm using Hecker's "Stocha Acid Zlook," from the 2003 album Sun Pandamonium, as an outro that leads to Howard's end. My children and my girlfriend see this song as the sonic equivalent to being attacked by bees and will not stay in the house if I play it. It's an apocalyptic, unnerving song that gives the impression that everything is coming apart, that anything that's human is gone, and that the electricity has finally taken over.

see also:

Brian Evenson's Book Notes contribution for The Open Curtain
Brian Evenson's website

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)


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