Friday, August 15, 2008

Mark Kingwell

Mark Kingwell is a philosopher, cultural theorist and best-selling author. His new book is Concrete Reveries: Consciousness and the City.

Recently, I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Right now I’m working on a philosophical biography of the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, so much of my recent reading has related to that. Tim Page edited The Glenn Gould Reader, which shows the vast range of Gould’s critical thinking -- much of it contradictory and even crackpot, but almost always fascinating. Among other things, in these pages Gould interviews himself, defends Petula Clark, dismisses Mozart and the Beatles, and generally throws his intellectual weight around.

Geoffrey Payzant’s Glenn Gould: Music and Mind was the first book published about Gould and it remains the best -- Payzant was a philosopher as well as a musician and understood the underlying philosophical intentions of Gould’s thought. I hope to advance some new arguments in my own book, but Payzant’s is pretty good.

There are of course lots of Gould biographies already, but I prefer works that attend to his own unease with the idea of a unified life narrative. Jonathan Cott’s Conversations with Glenn Gould gives a good sense of the man late in life, when he had not only retired from public performance but had become a sort of rambling intellectual monk, living by night and communicating almost entirely by telephone even as he recorded some of the best music and radio documentaries of the century.

A. N. Wilson is also rightly dubious of the biographer’s fiction, and his Iris Murdoch As I Knew Her is gossipy, meandering, self-regarding affair that nevertheless manages to give the reader a good sense of the woman and her work, pulling us away from the recent ‘Alzheimer’s Lady’ caricature from popular book and film.

Wilson is the sort of friend who makes enemies superfluous: he dishes dirt on pretty much everybody in the London-Oxford literary axis, including the revered John Bayley, Murdoch’s loving husband. But his judgments on the books, interspersed with the anecdotes, are mostly sound, and he recalls fans like me to the inimitable character of those many thousands of pages she wrote.

Still, the one book I’m now going to read as a direct result of Wilson’s is not by Murdoch. It is Barbara Pym’s novel Excellent Women, which both Wilson and Bayley esteemed. Pym is underrated, a wry social comedian to rival Penelope Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Bowen, if not Jane Austen. I’m saving that book for my vacation starting this week.

Alberto Moravia is funny in a darker manner. Just finished his book Contempt, which offers an unreliable first-person narrative of a marriage wrecked by the disgust the wife feels for our narrator, an undistinguished screenwriter. The book and the character are alike maddening, and Moravia has a way of getting under your skin.

Speaking of skin, Paul Beatty’s The White Boy Shuffle is probably the best novel written about race in America by someone in my generation. It’s middle section, which describes a laid-back Santa Monica black kid moving to West Los Angeles and having to “learn how to be black,” is hilarious and scathing. The book falls apart in its last quarter, with its Richard-Condon-esque absurdities, but is worth sticking with anyway.

I read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road just after, and that too strikes me as a book without a good ending. I was surprised at the acclaim since it is really just a pallid version of Russell Hoban’s post-apocalyptic masterpiece, Riddley Walker. Where McCarthy describes (brilliantly, yes) the workaday details of survival, Hoban extends and expands language as a form of endgame consciousness. George Saunders’s Civilwarland in Bad Decline, which I read earlier this summer, is more inventive than McCarthy, and funnier (not hard!). The stories are a little too similar, but taken apart are like nothing else being written today.

Finally, this summer I hugely enjoyed two books that might be considered polar opposites except in that both are funny after their own fashion: Simon Rich’s humour collection Ant Farm, and Slavoj Zizek’s brilliant and kooky For They Know Not What They Do. I suppose I could construct an intellectual scaffold joining my pleasure in these two masters, about symptoms of enjoyment and Lacanian jouissance, but I won’t bore you with that.
Among the early acclaim for Kingwell's Concrete Reveries:
“In this stunning treatise on the transnational global city, philosopher and cultural critic Kingwell (Better Living) meditates on how the architecture of the modern city must cater efficiently yet aesthetically to a combination of basic human requirements—“the cemetery within the city doubling as a park; the prison or madhouse as public architecture; the toilet within the house; the dump or recycling center within the city limits”—and how the city in turn is an extension and embodiment of human consciousness. More than 75 photos punctuate essays that meander around the poetry of porches, doorways, spiral staircases (“a line circling”) and the political implications of “generic, airport-style designs.” The book is not a travelogue; New York and Shanghai are merely stops along an intellectual walk, which also takes up geometry, boundaries, thresholds and other elements of urban design that are metaphors for the mind and body. “No room is just a space; it is always a place we are either entering, occupying, or exiting,” writes Kingwell in this book that is at once mesmerizing, indulgent, romantic, complex and perceptive.”
--Publisher’s Weekly (starred review)
Learn more about Mark Kingwell and his work at his University of Toronto faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue