Schnipper’s Slept On

December 04, 2007

Each Tuesday, FADER editor Matthew Schnipper highlights an underappreciated recent release he thinks we need to know about. This week it's Black Dice's self-titled 10-inch record. Listen to an untitled song from the record below and read about it after the jump.

Nestled into the middle of a talk about his book The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Díaz says that after (white, male, upper class) writers are finished dabbling with genres, they can go back to their “really great suburb called literary fiction.” He goes on to qualify himself at length, and it is of course a thoroughly blunted statement far from fruition, a two-minute bitty response to a question at a lunch time reading, not hefty research for a strong cause. It’s also not totally true, or if it is, it’s willingly hypocritical, because he lives there, too. Because what is “literary fiction?” It’s nothing. He knows that; he writes for the New Yorker. But what’s said is said. In last week’s Slept On I wrote the sentence “There is a needed heft of an older man’s voice and life, the dulled sadness at the world an open observer should have, but the uplifting need to represent and mimic and make and We Are Him comes from that blend of dry beauty and heavy sage,” which is a mammoth mouthful. I knew what I meant, and I don’t think it’s a particularly crass use of literary flower, but I wish it read less gawky and more like Díaz writes, natural elegance of conversation. But, then, how I speak is “This is awesome,” which, when written, sounds somewhat less than actually awesome. How do I reconcile that? Am I doing a disservice to myself, readers, musicians when I write foofy? Díaz’s magical lingual aping is clearly studied and perfected, an extension of that academic astuteness. But it’s really good and sounds like it’s written by a horny Dominican kid from New Jersey. So is his argument myopic because it doesn’t acknowledge itself as part of this canon of fancyiness that he has certainly absorbed, encircled and then theoretically risen above, or at least scooted parallel to or is it expansive and purposefully encompassing because he’s in there, too? And, either way, then how can you write without being either prosaic or ornate?

In her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion, old and newly alone, is able to weave that desire for complex ideas to be recounted through simple verbiage using repetition. Recounting the grief in the year following the death of her husband, she writes of memory. She calls her meanderings of these circuitous memories “the vortex;” narratives about nothing (television shows of the seventies, iceflows, driving directions) glommed atop each other laundry list-like until she pulls herself up, reminds herself that she’s in a rabbit hole of deep thought and, really, she misses John. She talks so often of nothing, of the same nothings, and that over-and-overness of the nothing in particular (but just something in particular) whittles away sense and becomes visceral. This gooey fluid blowback of memory is almost dull, it’s repeated inexactly and unspecifically throughout the book, the trail always leading to the remembered incantation that my husband is dead my husband is dead my husband is dead. Ever-reminded, she always comes back to where she started, which is alone and hurting.

To the reader, that evocation is unilaterally painful because it is so plainly plaintive. It is, in many ways, the inverse of Díaz’s dictatorial mourning. Díaz’s writing may be absolutely unembellished but it is also unabashedly wordy. Didion strips her prose to nothing, runs it ragged through reuse and hits raw when she snaps from it. Magical Thinking lacks the multi-tieringly difficult oral history of Oscar Wao but smacks with its dulled and maybe dulling prose. The narrative feels numb for so long that the tiny change that brings refeeling is surprisingly incomparably brutal.

Differently painful, Black Dice just liked to fight their audience. They toured, show after inevitable show of violent RISD noise spectacle. People knew what they would get, asked for more, complained about it when they got it. This self- (or maybe un-) titled record on Troubleman Unlimited has a song that mirrors that blunt force and bloody connection. It begins with some yelling that might be words but are completely ununderstandable and there’s some cocksure riffing and feedback but it’s a tiny tidbit, a minute-and-a-half garbling beast. Instead of ending, though, the song transitions out of what resembles regular structure into a pulpy four-second repetition of squeal, brief snare roll and crash cymbal. It sounds as though the record is skipping or has a locked groove until you listen and realize there are little differences. I counted and they play this part 100 times and it changes briefly and at random, 15 times. Nothing large, just a little extra jolting imp (two cymbal hits instead of one, quick cut snare, squeal drones at an extra tone). It’s mostly pointless, but it’s also fervent and obnoxious, and if you make it past that point, after infinite grate, it turns alluring. That’s the rub; the four second battered buzz isn’t much of winning statement solo, but redoubled and padded after the intro its endlessness is forever entrancing.

In Díaz’s book that padding is his title and first chapter. It’s clear that Oscar dies, and it’s clear, from that chapter, that he is victim of the familial curse, or fukú. Yunior, the narrator, tells the family’s story, and his own, through time and place and a lot of swears and funny filth. There is a lot of embellishment but, like Didion, it’s all only what’s necessary. In a moment of narration that seems to remove Yunior and install Díaz, when Oscar is visiting the Dominican Republic, an event is described as happing after an two page list of things. After this, after that, after this, after this, after this. After Oscar wipes his ass with a corncob, after he watches kids tussle for the scraps he left on his plate at an outdoor café. After mind-boggling poverty he says three times, not in a row. The second time, I thought “Did I read that already?” but I knew I hadn’t the third time, Díaz carving away quietly. “Mind-boggling” he says, regular enough adjective that I’m pretty sure he means it.

In my first two years of college, I was obsessed with Virginia Woolf and The Waves. I didn’t understand the book, but the idea of narration as something between thought and action and speech, her words literally essence of character. That ability to glean from its characters and project and enlarge their truths is both baffling and only logical. Why would we need to know what they say or do if we know what they feel? It’s not a coincidence that Black Dice’s words are unintelligible. They're saying something, but we’ll never know what it is, we just know how the sound of his voice feels. When that ends, they grate on end in such a small level, their own half-sentence on repeat, a simple idea drilled until understanding and from understanding comes empathy, togetherness and love. When Díaz speaks of literary fiction, then, it’s not types of words, fancy styles, he’s talking of, it’s the essence of those styles, the reasonings behind them that works to unclasp method and meaning. Like Didion and like Black Dice, Díaz’s writing has a true directness, and, if you can get through its bare shell it’s astonishingly debilitating, the ineffably human prickly spectrum of feelings.

From The Collection:

Slept On
Posted: December 04, 2007
Schnipper’s Slept On