Make your own kind of music, sing your own special song
Subjects discussed: Laszlo Krasznahorkai, Tunic, Miami Vice, Linkin Park, the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
One of my favorite authors, though I’ve only finished a few of his books — several others sit on my bookshelves, at varying states of completion — is the Hungarian writer Laszlo Krasznahorkai. A Krasznahorkai sentence will begin simply, perhaps describing some action like “The light fell over the gingko trees,” but upon reaching the point where most writers would probably punctuate their thoughts and start a new line he continues, chaining together sentences and occasionally whole paragraphs with nothing more than the dutiful comma, before doubling back on himself as if to say, well, it wasn’t as simple as light falling over the gingko trees, it had been a brooding and ominous spring, an unpleasant grayness choked the skies, it was as if the possibility of sun was perhaps environmentally impossible, a thought that was on everyone’s mind, how could it not be with the news, the news which did not have to be specified because it was in the air, the same air now choked with grayness, a literal and metaphorical color suffusing the atmosphere, so that when the first tendrils of sunlight poked through the irreducible shroud of gray and fell upon the tree it was as if the possibility of sun had re-asserted itself within our imaginations, we who looked at the trees every day and wondered how the leaf might have seemed were it not for the irreducible shroud of gray, the little leaf trembling at the end of the branch — and then he will go on like this for a while, sometimes for entire pages at a time, some of his books have sentences that last for 30 pages, it’s really quite something, and though at first I started imitating Krasznahorkai out of mild fun I now find myself entertaining the possibility of writing like this all the time because of the freedom it allows to never stop until I feel like it, which would be no fun for any of you, and possibly only a little more fun for me.
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So I’ll cut it out. For me the pleasure of Krasznahorkai is in these wildly messy run-ons, which function opposite to the ideal of literature presented in so many essays and novels: the potential of language to be manicured and pruned and hedged until you are staring at a series of perfect sentences that somehow interlock into a more perfect body. Housekeeping, that’s a perfect novel. I haven’t read much criticism of Krasznahorkai, partly because I don’t want to break the spell for myself, but I imagine — and I do have a tendency to imagine the negative criticism, being someone who occasionally writes it for a living — that naysayers would accuse him of grotesque indulgence. Throat-clearing, if you will. A book of his I’ve just finished is A Mountain to the North, a Lake to the South, Paths to the West, a River to the East, a short novella published by New Directions whose plot can be reduced to one sentence: A Japanese prince goes looking for a mysterious monastery, and a drunken retinue is dispatched to find him. In between, Krasznahorkai writes extensively of the monastery’s construction, taking us through the growing of trees and curing of wood and carving of statues and every single facet in between, while meditating on the value of this slow, meticulous craftsmanship. All this unfolds over 130 pages, which is a short breath for Krasznahorkai, and maybe halfway through I thought to myself, “Alright… the wood has to be very particular, I get it.”
And then there was an unexpected twist: The monastery we’ve spent dozens of pages taking in, and considering as some kind of idyllic and meditative space, is revealed to be irretrievably broken, and tainted with violence. The prince succeeds in his search, but it’s a hollow success. A surreal, unsettling effect creeps in: Krasznahorkai has built heaven on earth, in his pages, but heaven is abandoned and evil has made itself known. A Mountain to the North, unlike his other books I’ve read, is written in short chapters, and the relative frequency of these stops — for a chapter, more than a period, denotes that it’s time for something new — throws all of this into stark relief. You sit there, imagining this violated space. The horror grows, as centuries of craftsmanship give way to desolation and apathy. Something bad has happened, and we’ve come too late to do anything but observe, and feel the downside of our lateness.
Possibly this would’ve had less resonance had I not been taking in another piece of art, at the same time, that involves roughly parallel ideas: Tunic, a Legend of Zelda-type adventure game that came out last March, but is just now available on the consoles I own. As in some of the Zelda games, in Tunic you play a mysterious stranger who washes up on a shore, quickly finds a sword, and attempts to solve the mystery of why you’re there by fighting enemies and completing dungeons that allow you to obtain different items allowing you to fight stronger enemies. There are dozens of games like these, and I have played dozens of them. But Tunic throws in a novel wrinkle. There are no text-based instructions, no prompts instructing you to “press X and swing your sword” as happens in basically every single video game, even the pathologically difficult ones. The closest you get is an in-game instruction manual, written mostly in the game’s fictional gibberish language, which kind of lays things out… but only if you’re paying attention. I was struggling with a boss, and getting increasingly and repeatedly upset about how thoroughly I was getting my ass kicked, until I realized I hadn’t actually leveled up within the game — that I was essentially doing one of those uber-difficult level 1 speed runs that choke up YouTube — and thus was playing with a handicap. The instructions on how to level up were in the manual, but I hadn’t read them closely, and so I’d overlooked the mechanic entirely. Embarrassed, I immediately leveled up and beat the boss in two tries.
It happened like this for a while: I was ready to quit after struggling with some challenge, until I figured out that I’d dumbly ignored something that would make it much easier. Slowly, this gameplay dynamic bled into the story itself. It turns out the idyllic, meditative island we’ve been exploring is home to a deeper evil — our pastoral environment, filled with green shrubs and blue skies, actually sits over what seems like (I’m not done with the game yet) the ruins of an advanced technological society. Mysterious black obelisks are spread throughout the island, and because “mysterious black obelisks” are also always popping up in video games I didn’t give them too much thought, but it turns out the obelisks are powered by the energy of living creatures who’ve been trapped inside, an uncomfortable thing to discover even though those same creatures have also been trying to kill you. (What’s a worse fate: quick slaughter, or protracted torture?) I’m being a little vague here, because I know that “length explanation of video games” is a difficult bar to clear for some people, but let’s say it’s a little like the start of the second season of Lost, when we learn that the mysterious hatch actually contains a well-appointed three-bedroom apartment. You thought this island had these one set of secrets, but it’s really another, and the implications of those new secrets — and with it, the truth of how mistaken you’ve been about what’s going on — are more chilling than the revelation that Desmond has a great record collection.
I would have enjoyed A Mountain to the North, and I would have enjoyed Tunic, but encountering them at the same time added new, richer dimensions to both, in a way that felt more mutually beneficial than if I’d waited a half a year to read Krasznahorkai’s novel after it showed up in the mail (as part of a monthly book club that Jen got me for Christmas) or played Tunic when it came out last March. I love when a piece of music references another (like Alvvays’ “Belinda Says,” both in its lyrical quotation of “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” and its musical quotation of the key change that propels the final minute to unreal emotional highs) or when a movie references another (like Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, which calls back to many of his films — Sammy is consoled by his mother in such a way that echoes David being consoled by his mother in A.I: Artifial Intelligence), or when a video game references another (like Elden Ring, whose citations of Dark Souls are admittedly obvious because they’re made by the same developer, but there’s something energizing about encountering these familiar concepts and mechanics in a brand new, much more expansive game). But what I really, really enjoy is the transference of meaning between distinct mediums. Partly why I spread my attention between things, at potential loss of expertise in any particular realm, is because of the pleasure created by these coincidental encounters, an evergreen reminder of how experience is conditional on more contexts than can necessarily be anticipated.
This is separate from the work of criticism — I’d be a fool to file a book review that concluded with, “… and so you really gotta play this video game” — but it’s lovely for my own casual consumption, when I’m just ambling between things without any special purpose. A few weekends ago, Jen and I were taking it easy because we had to travel to London for a funeral in a couple of days, and while one does not ever want to get COVID-19, we really did not want to get it at this exact moment in time. We decided to watch Miami Vice (2006), which Jen had seen at release and I never had. The film bombed commercially and critically at the time, but in the years since has been reconsidered as an expressionist classic. Many of the film’s derided aspects — the lack of color, compared with the 1980s TV show; the slackened plotting, compared with director Michael Mann’s prior crime epic Heat; Colin Farrell’s moody acting, and especially the way he says “I’m a fiend for mojitos” when flirting with a sexy, villainous accountant — are now what it’s praised for, which is almost always how retroactive appraisals play out in the public eye. (Genius = failure + time, whether in the pages of Bookforum, Pitchfork, Reverse Shot, The Ringer, The New York Times Magazine, Financial Times, you name it.)
The film begins — and I mean really begins, it precedes the first image — with “Numb/Encore,” the mash-up of Linkin Park’s “Numb” and Jay Z’s “Encore” from their collaborative 2005 Collision Course EP. I imagine that if you subscribe to this newsletter you are maybe a little familiar with both artists, but let’s take a moment to consider how weird it was, in retrospect. Rap and rock had been occasional bedfellows dating back to Aerosmith and Run-DMC, and gangsta rap and nu-metal had sometimes postured as allies in order to piss off concerned parents, but Linkin Park made cinematically emotive rap-rock about suicidal ideation and Jay Z had begun maturing into the museum piece he is today — full-on business, man, not just a businessman. They did not seem like stylistic or ideological matches; nonetheless, these two acts tried to genuinely fuse their styles on a real record. It went… alright. Sales were robust, but critics were derisive, and it sort of seemed like Linkin Park had done all of the work — like the band had received Jay Z’s stems over email, and worked entirely on their own to integrate them into the material from Hybrid Theory and Meteora. (Upon reading about it, this is not so far off from what happened.)
I’m sure I brushed it off upon release as well, and I was certainly startled when “Numb/Encore” led us into the sight of Sonny Crockett (Farrell) and Ricky Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) surveying the South Beach club floor, looking for evidence of wrongdoing during what we figure must be a high-stakes operation. Michael Mann incorporates a ton of music from this period — there’s a lot of Audioslave — so I didn’t think much of this particular drop, once the scene was over. But I came back to it as the movie went on, and after it was over. There were a few things going on here. Most literally, the song pairs the braggadocio of Jay Z’s rapping with the intensely inward agony of Chester Bennington’s singing — a fusion that roughly mirrors Colin Farrell’s emotional state, as a seemingly cool and badass Miami detective who’s beginning to understand that his life is incomplete. (“I’ve become so numb” could describe Farrell’s interiority in like 87% of his scenes.) Watching from 2023, this combination of sounds firmly signaled that we were in 2006, baby, in a way that felt of a part with the film’s usage of non-smart phones and the casting of Gong Li. And because so much time had passed, during which Jay Z’s musical output had dramatically dropped and Bennington had died by suicide and rock n’roll had basically all but disappeared as a mainstream cultural force, I could better appreciate the small courage of both artists, given the myriad disadvantages of attempting this in the first place.
I returned to the song in the following days, now more capable of appreciating what they’d been going for. Linkin Park and Jay Z sang and rapped about different things, to say the least, but their music from this period shared some commonalities. Jay Z made The Black Album with Rick Rubin, who stripped his production back to a hard-edged boom-bap with antecedents in Rubin’s Def Jam days. And though they were grouped with other nu-metal artists, Linkin Park shared more DNA with an act like Gorillaz, who also anticipated how hip-hop would become the 21st century’s dominant sound and were subsequently driven by rhythm and percussion, not riffing and distortion. (Most crucially, Linkin Park were never sexually crass, nor did they seem like they were trying to scare the normies.) More details stuck out as I listened: the false start of the music at the beginning, turning “Numb” into something a DJ might legitimately play at a Miami club; the trailing echo of Bennington’s vocals as he sings some of Jay Z’s lines; the minor key sadness now underpinning the confidence of the verses. It felt like a direct anticipation of how, just a few years later, Kid Cudi and Drake would become wildly successful by both rapping and singing about how unfulfilled they were, a little chip in the wall that had traditionally corralled mainstream artists into their specific lanes. And I don’t think I would’ve felt any of that as deeply had I not watched Farrell basically act out the song, over two-and-a-half hours, as I was preparing to attend a funeral, thinking about how one of life’s only guarantees is that you’re going to say goodbye to the people you love.
Almost all of the comic books I accumulated in high school and college and very young adulthood are back in Chicago, in my teenage bedroom, sucking up space and giving my mother no shortage of heartburn. One of the things I decided to bring with me to New York is the complete collection of Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which ran between 1999 and 2019, during which comic books became established as the dominant art form of American pop culture. (Much to Moore’s regret.) A lot of people are probably only familiar with the League inasmuch as they may faintly remember the horrid 2003 cinematic adaptation starring Sean Connery, a shame because the comics are some of the most conceptually and artistically ambitious stories ever published by a mainstream company. The short of it is that they’re set in an Earth where all of our Earth’s fictional properties — across literature, film, video games, television shows, anything you can think of — somehow co-exist as having actually happened, within that world’s history. This is a world where Harry Lime from The Third Man was the head of British intelligence, a role once held by the Sherlock Holmes villain James Moriarty, who was unseated by a superhero team led by Dracula heroine Mina Harker and mostly forgotten British adventurer Alan Quartermain, who were assembled by the sorcerer Prospero from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and ultimately defeated the Antichrist… Harry Potter. I’m aware this could easily sound like semi-illiterate horseshit, were it in the hands of a pair of lesser creators, but Moore and O’Neill were such mad geniuses the whole series kind of succeeds through its chutzpah, at least as far as I’m concerned. (Some people really took issue with the Harry Potter thing.)
I don’t think I would’ve said the League, which I first encountered in high school, were ever my favorite comics, yet the complete narrative is something I return to over the years. Partly it’s the denseness of the fictional world Moore and O’Neill cobbled together from other fictions: any given page or panel may contain a dozen references to extracurricular material, and the annotations run incredibly long. (Nor is this inclusive environment limited by good taste: I once spotted a well-hidden poster for Honky Grandma Be Trippin’ 2.) Partly it’s the idea, abused by bad fan fiction but in these pages conceived as an epic tale spanning thousands of years, that all the art we’ve consumed bears some relationship to each other. I think if Harry Lime popped up in a James Bond movie I’d probably roll my eyes so hard I’d have a stroke, but it’s true that Lime does seem like a Bond villain, and you can easily imagine Ian Fleming having seen The Third Man and feeling somewhat inspired when he started drawing up his Bond stories, and so it’s just fun to comb through a well-realized world where the potential connection of all of these different materials is made literal.
A couple of weeks ago, I rediscovered Tempest, the series’ final installment, just sitting on my shelf. Surprisingly, considering the series was something I had enjoyed so much over the years, I had never finished it — the story gets a little too crazy, and you get the sense Moore and O’Neill were purely trying to amuse themselves (the art and narrative style often changes several times within an issue), and I think at some point I must have just gotten exhausted and put it down. But I picked it up, and started over again. It was still dense, and still crazy, but I more or less just forced myself to power through until the end, a fantastically insane climax involving dozens of plot threads they’d established over the years, which I can sort of summarize as “the fictional world decides to revolt against the real world.” The Earth is destroyed, our heroes escape to the stars, there’s no real ending except that life goes on, and our characters try to find meaning as they can. The actual ending is Moore and O’Neill, drawn as characters in their own story, walking through some of the series’ locations and snarking about how, for other comic books, a “universe” is really just a few blocks in Manhattan. Here, it’s every story that’s ever been told.
At first I was unsatisfied — I would’ve liked a neatly wrapped up happy ending, because I’m a simp — but the more I think about it, it’s the only conclusion that made sense. You can’t put a button on a story that technically encompasses all of recorded fiction. You can’t pretend there’s a true ending, that Moore and O’Neill could simply “wrap things up” by giving every character the arc they deserve. (The finality of the series, more than anything, was O’Neill’s death from cancer in November 2022.) I don’t think it’s sentimental to be awed by the sheer breadth of art we’re able to access, that humanity has managed to create through all its vagaries and indignities — from Shakespeare to Sally Rooney, from the Gregorian monks chanting to Ice Spice, from the packed houses at the silent films to the personal solitude of watching 30 Rock on Blu-Ray in your house. I’m thinking of the Krasznahorkai comma, the imperative to continue without taking a breath. Nothing is siloed off, nothing stops, these connections keep occurring until the world ends or we die, whatever comes first. It’s overwhelming, but as good a reason to keep going as anything else, an endless opportunity of things to see and feel and think about, and take back with us into the real world.
The death of David Crosby was sad for many reasons — the closure of this remarkable American life, and also the loss of his extremely good Twitter account. He did have one of the good ones, regardless of what Phoebe Bridgers said, and I wrote a short essay about how well he used the platform for The New York Times.