12.21.2008

OKAY GUYS! My Epic Ten.

See more posts in the "Epic Ten" series.

Prefatory Remarks:

A few weeks ago, Dave's initial post unveiling the "Epic 10" concept led me somewhat improbably to the website of the "Fuck Buttons," who appear to be a British duo that makes buzzy droning sounds with two chords and is frequently lauded by critics as something edgy and brilliant (it sounds to me like music for teenagers that want to like Brian Eno but find themselves implacably bored by actually listening to Music for Airports and furthermore think that Eno neither used anywhere close to enough distortion nor screamed hysterically as often as he should have. Actually, the more I listen to this band [I am, regrettably, doing so as I write this] the more I want to write an entire piece on just how incredibly awful this is. Additionally, what is a Fuck Button? Why do I feel an uncontrollable urge to push one and see what happens?). The point is, Dave's off-the-cuff reference made me realize the extent to which 2008 was a year in which I felt particularly out of touch with the cultural zeitgeist, at least that of well-educated, progressively-inclined white 20-somethings (though the Fuck Buttons make me feel strangely comfortable with the fact). Isolated in my parent's house and later in New Jersey, I spent 2008 delving deeper and deeper into midwestern jangle pop bands of the mid to late 80's, the unabashed snobbery and elitism of craft brewing culture, the English ghost story of the late 19th century, largely forgotten British sitcoms of the late 90's and early 00's, and other relatively arcane pursuits such as I am wont to delve into when left to my own devices. In many ways, then, Epic Mail has proved an invaluable link to the world of pop culture. Other than my time spent scowling at preposterous-looking hipsters in Williamsburg bars, this is my main link to "kids" who are "with it." As such, I really have no idea if my list will appear aloof, disconnected, or even provincial. That having been stipulated, however, I am largely unapologetic and often downright passionate about what follows, my EPIC 10 of 2008:

Honorable Mentions: Friday Night Lights, Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales, Fallout 3, the Wilfully Obscure music blog

10. Epic Conversationalist: Stephen Metcalf

For those of you who aren't rabid consumers of the Slate.com family of podcasts, Metcalf's name might be unfamiliar. He rarely writes for the site anymore, but is instead a regular participant in the Culture Gabfest and the Audio Book Club, both of which I heartily recommend. Despite the fact that I have absolutely no idea how scripted or plotted these podcast "conversations" are, Metcalf strikes me as one of the most fabulous talkers I've heard in a long while. There is so much about him that I find compelling - his prodigious vocabulary, his ability to spontaneously craft beautifully complex sentences, his considerable knowledge of all things cultural - he has a certain panache that I find heart-meltingly irresistible. I even have a recurring daydream in which I'm invited to a most fashionable cocktail party populated entirely by Stephen Metcalf facsimiles (though I've never seen a picture, he's always devastatingly handsome in these reveries). It's my own private vision of heaven.

9. Epic Nerdlinger: Guillermo Del Toro

I think 2008 may have seen more of a Del Toro backlash than anyone else. Following the arty aspirations (maybe) of Pan's Labyrinth, this year marked his return to a more sci-fi fanboy aesthetic of filmmaking, one that probably turned off as many fans as it excited (tangentially, has anyone notice how closely he sometimes resembles the Comic Book Guy in The Simpsons?). But as anyone who actually saw Hellboy 2 ought to attest, as a comic-book-adapted adventure starring the cigar-chomping spawn of Satan, the movie is really fucking good. In particular, his films do more to inspire the sense of wonder and awe that seemed to be exorcised from America movie-going about 20 years ago than any other contemporary filmmaker. Though I don't think the sequel was as strongly written as the first, the sheer quantity of sweet things in this movie more than makes up for it. I'm glad he's here to take pretension down a notch, and remind us all of the legitimacy and value inherent in the imaginative and the fantastic. I also partake of wonderfully geeky delight in the rumors that he will be directing an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness.

8. Epic Pundit: Glenn Greenwald's blog at Salon.com

I love this man. One of the most thoughtful, articulate, and intellectually honest journalists on the web, Greenwald spent much of 2008 delivering a much-needed thrashing to the major media outlets in this country, accusing them of lazy reportage, a lack of intellectual rigor, and general complicity with some of the most egregious offenses of the Bush Administration. Greenwald has been particularly eloquent in his discussions about torture, the clusterfuck at the Justice Department, and domestic spying, but the most effective aspect of his work will always be his media critiques. As the incoming Obama crew ponders the fate of the various goons and thugs in the administration who have clearly committed criminal offenses during Bush's tenure, and most mainstream media outlets continue to ignore this fact (though there are glimmerings of hope at the Times), we need people like Greenwald to remind our less esteemed journalists of troublesome bits of news, like the fact that we've systematically dismantled every facet of the Geneva Convention. You know, along with the news that Joe Biden just bought, like, a totes cute puppy.

7. Epic Aristocrat: Edith Wharton

She's Henry James for people who like plot, or something like that. I don't know what inspired me to pick up The House of Mirth this spring, but I was delighted and surprised to discover a novelist who defied almost all of my preconceptions. Her attitude towards her upper-crust protagonists is far more ambiguous than elegiac, her sense of psychology and interiority is nuanced rather than dimly reflective of the Master, and she only dips into melodrama occasionally (anyone who has made it through Mirth's maudlin ending knows what I mean). The real treat, however, with Wharton is The Age of Innocence, which immediately won a place on my short list for Favorite Novel Ever. Suffice it to say that I embarrassed myself thoroughly by crying through the last two pages on the DC Metro. Edith Wharton won me over so completely, in fact, that I made a trip to Lenox, Massachusetts this autumn to visit The Mount, her majestic country house that is now in a state of fairly sorry disrepair, but still well worth the trip, if only to fiddle with the bathtub in the Henry James Guest Suite.

6. Epic Subculture: 1st Annual Savor festival

In what I hope will become a DC tradition, the first ever Savor beer festival was held in late Spring, and I was fortunate enough to receive a ticket as a gift (they were something like $75). I'm pretty sure that Savor was the biggest beer event ever held in the US in terms of participating breweries or something, and it was truly awe-inspiring. I was able to attend a small beer-cheese pairing session with Garrett Oliver of Brooklyn Brewery (who seemed nice but comes across as a complete dick in a recent New Yorker article), tell an amusing anecdote to Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head as he poured me a World Wide Stout, and discuss the finer points of puking with Rob Tod of Allegash. The only minor hang-up was towards the end of the evening, when I became, for whatever reason, intent on being a part of some guy from Stone's video blog (alas, it was not to be). Every major player in the craft brewery was present, and I found myself reduced to a puddle of goo in front of luminaries like Adam Avery and Tomme Arthur. I've heard that Savor is making a return for 2009, and I strongly urge anyone who cares about beer culture to attend.

5. Epic Tragedy: David Foster Wallace

I always looked slightly askance at the type of person who secured a conspicuous spot on their bookshelf for a copy of Infinite Jest. For years it seemed to signify a certain type of cultural capital that was decidedly smug, and I harbored (and still do) deep suspicions that the majority of the people to whom I refer never made their way through the massive tome. It was primarily this notion of book-as-mark of distinction that made me fairly uninterested in David Foster Wallace's writing (I also used to get him confused with the hack-ish Bret Easton Ellis, so that wasn't particularly helpful either). Thus, having read only his "Consider the Lobster" essay prior to his suicide this year, I was surprised to find myself remarkably affected by his death. I promptly purchased his two collections of essays, Consider the Lobster and A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again (the title essay of the latter being my favorite) and have spent much of the last few months making my way, in many instances several times, through these writings, which are as consistently hilarious and penetrating as they are warm and big-hearted. I still have not tackled Infinite Jest, but the essays have been more than enough to convince me that neither I nor the general public has yet fully appreciated the enormity of our loss.

4. Epic Spookfest: House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski

Never has my consciousness been so fully consumed by one fearful obsession than during a week in late January, when I read (that word seems decidedly inadequate, perhaps something like "gave myself up to" would be more accurate - actually no, because that implies agency on my part) House of Leaves. Never have I been so terrified of a physical object, let alone a book, than I was those fateful few wintry days. It got to the point where I couldn't be in the same room with the text if I was not actively reading it, but then found myself "checking on it" every so often, to make sure it hadn't moved about on its own, or done something even more sinister. I forced myself to bring it to school and keep it on my lectern (to the great confusion of my students), so that I could keep an eye on it. And to this day, the very sight of it on my bookshelf, sitting in mocking insouciance nestled between James Fenimore Cooper and Robertson Davies, sends a current of fleeting terror through my veins (sidenote: I've discovered this year that it's a cult classic among graduate students in English - it's like being in a cool secret club, but one whose admission requires you to endure some incredibly traumatic hazing). Quite easily the finest horror novel I've ever read, I'd recommend it only if one takes very, very seriously into account R.L. Stine's classic admonition, "Reader beware, you're in for a scare."

3. Epic Filth: New Jersey

The degree to which my imminent move changed the tenor of my summer might be more familiar to my friends in the DC area, but believe me, it was extraordinary. For whatever reason, the whole concept of me moving to Jersey ("JOY-zee"), became, in many ways, a centerpiece of DC weekends. Jager bombs, unprovoked Bon Jovi sing-alongs, horrifically obnoxious and frighteningly accurate imitations of Jersey accents, the constant referring to non-existant "Tony"s and ziti-baking "mothas," it was truly bizarre, and in many ways, beautiful. My Jersey enthusiasm waned a bit, admittedly, after I actually began living there, but I'm still constantly surprised and bemused by the sheer absurdity of life in the Garden State. Consider how incredibly weird this is: there are things called "Grease Trucks" at Rutgers, which sell sandwiches called (only somewhat unofficially) the "Fat Bitch" and the "Fat Dyke." I'm dead serious. This sort of thing happens. All in all, there's only one thing to ask concerning my great state: "Is this sweet?" And only one response: "Kind of. Actually, yes."

2. Epic 1 A.M. Broadcast: Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job

Something like the funniest nightmare you've ever had, Tim and Eric Awesome Show was directly responsible for 50% of the jokes I made over the course of the year. Actually I don't even think you could call rote repetition of nonsensical phrases or pathetic and half-recollected imitations of sketches jokes, but I found it hilarious anyway. Now through their third season, Tim and Eric might actually be getting more bizarre. Anyone who sat through the "Business Hugs" or "Child Showcase" sketches knows what I'm talking about. And for those of you who don't (and I pity you), I think I've heard the show described as cable access from hell, or something to that effect. I also think the Wikipedia page, in a marvelously felicitous phrase, calls it "surreal comedy." It's the kind of singular program that makes you want to laugh, puke, and get obscenely high all at the same time (though it is too often dismissed as stoner comedy). Salame, Salame.

AND


1. Epic Discovery: The "Great Outdoors"

2008 was the year in which I feel asleep to the howling of wolves, learned to identify common birds by their songs, bathed in mountain streams, read Walden no less than three times, stood stark naked on a precarious rock overlooking a snowy canyon, discovered the fledgling field of ecocriticism, coated my feet in duct tape to prevent blisters, spent an entire languorous afternoon observing waterfowl at play on a lonely river, confronted several bears without incident, thought I was going to die of thirst in the deserts of Montana, purchased more field guides than I could ever have use for, promised myself that I'd improve at tree identification, stumbled upon an obscure valley filled with wildflowers more redolent than I could have ever imagined, and all in all developed a passion for wild spaces that will be with me for the rest of my life. Number one. Absolutely uncontested.

The obvious omission in this list, of course, is our own little blogging enterprise (it would have been terribly predictable). But let me say that as Epic as 2008 proved itself to be, I have high hopes that 2009 will be even more so. To use an analogy from classical epic, it is as though we've gotten through all the tiresome wanderings in the first half of the Odyssey, and we're only now getting to the part where Odysseus slaughters the living fuck out of all those sniveling suitors. And so, with this two-fold sanguinity in mind, I wish everyone a splendid holiday season and the happiest of New Years.

6 comments:

Daves n' Davin' said...

I think of you every week when I hear Stephen Metcalf on the Culture Gabfest. You both share a penchant for reveling in your cultural detachment yet still believe that you have constructive opinions to contribute on subjects such as the musical merit of Beyonce's latest album.

Excellent Epic 10. Way to keep it going.

Hot Eatz said...

Happy holidays to you my friend, amazing post!

Quilliam said...

"Wild spaces?" They were so 1999. Now we're into liminal spaces, and sometimes sacred spaces.

Coaltrain said...

I too heart Glenn Greenwald. Although I think I like the giant-forehead cartoon version of him on the site more than the way he looks in real life.

Also, Grease Trucks is the genesis of sweet. It's the forefather of my beloved Hoagie Haven. You need to give it a chance.

Newman said...

Nothing compares to the picture accompanying the Dirty Jerz. Perfect.

Newman said...

Also, I think my experience watching Tim and Eric with you is similar to listening to Ariel Pink with Fact of Bob. I think it's great on its own, but I never get it as much as when I see it with you.

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