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Alex Carnevale

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Mia Nguyen

Senior Editor
Brittany Julious

This Recording

is dedicated to the enjoyment of audio and visual stimuli. Please visit our archives where we have uncovered the true importance of nearly everything. Should you want to reach us, e-mail alex dot carnevale at gmail dot com, but don't tell the spam robots. Consider contacting us if you wish to use This Recording in your classroom or club setting. We have given several talks at local Rotarys that we feel went really well.

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In Which We Murdered Him By Firing Squad On An Ocean Planet

Fought In A War


Home Fires
by Gene Wolfe
Tor Books, 304 pp

Sometimes people will stop me in a grocery store or in a park or when I'm high on ecstasy and they will ask me, "AC, who is the world's greatest living writer?" What other reason would I carry around a portable pedestal for than this exact situation? He lives in Barrington, Illinois and his name is Gene Wolfe. Wolfe grew up in Houston and served in the Korean War. He was an engineering prodigy who invented the process that makes Pringles, and he edited the journal Plant Engineering for over a decade. In the military he had been a cartographer, and his extraordinary grasp of how things are in relation to each other is always on full display in his fiction. What other fabulist would you want making up your stories than the one who knows where everything is?

His latest effort Home Fires explodes on the page. Almost all dialogue, the book is nearly high on speed. There isn't a single moment that Skip Grison isn't involved in some kind of action, usually uncovering deception in one form or another. He is a lawyer, the first lawyer protagonist that Wolfe has ever used in his long fiction. Like all Wolfe's heroes, he is just as much a priest or godfather than anything resembling the finest of legal minds. The fact that he was able to write this novel indicates Wolfe could easily be a Supreme Court justice (Scalia with a handlebar moustache?), his grasp of the law is that rigorous. As a legal thriller, Home Fires would be fantastic in paperback for airplanes.

Because his characters always lie so ruthlessly, Wolfe's writing has been called hard to follow. The masterwork that made his name was the first part of his first quadrilogy, The Shadow of the Torturer, but there is precious little in the way of the high technology inherent in the work of giants like Asimov or Heinlein. It is Wolfe's narrative techniques which are state-of-the-art, not his settings.

I can't even imagine what someone must have felt picking up The Shadow of the Torturer in some bookstore in 1980 and expecting the same old generic paperback fantasy to read on the toilet. The story of aging Earth's last ruler read like someone had watched Star Wars and thought of how much better the future could be instead of the past, with dead spaceships plunged into the ground and reinvented as prisons. The Book of the New Sun's main influence is Marcel Proust; some parts of it are even gentle jokes on In Search of Lost Time. The book is so deep that it demanded its own guide, penned by Michael Andre-Driussi, in which the elaborate chronologies and geographies of the novels are revealed to their fullest.

Wolfe approved Andre-Driussi's work; he seems to realize that his books should offer some guide to those who embark on them, like any worthwhile amusement park ride. The Book of the New Sun in four parts was followed by his landmark The Book of the Long Sun. With Severian's tale The Book of the New Sun he had stretched out time to its very limit. Long Sun tightened the action, sticking it on a generational spaceship running out of gas in the far part of the universe. His Calde Silk figure was modeled after G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown stories, and his admiration of Chesterton's devout belief in the presence of an all-knowing God is at its most entertaining in stories like "Bed and Breakfast", "Westwind" (his tribute to The Man Who Was Thursday) and "The Fifth Head of Cerebrus", a sister planets novella that some account as Gene's supreme masterpiece.

(When he was a young man, Wolfe corresponded with J.R.R. Tolkien. Where are these letters? Why haven't they been published by the highest possible authority - perhaps the government or Cory Doctorow?)

with neil gaiman (left) photo by beth gwinn

Last year's new novel The Sorcerer's House followed in the tradition of Wolfe's rewrites of themes taken up in the early 20th century work of Clark Ashton Smith and G.K. Chesterton that inspired him to write his first stories. Each time, in order to top himself, Wolfe rips all the naivete out of his work, making it that much more jaded and sinister. His concern in Home Fires is the meaning of war. It's not that Wolfe doesn't accept war – all his work seems thrust in the middle of a larger conflict the people in it can never quite fathom fully, whether it be Erebus and a mysterious undine in The Book of the New Sun, the espionage between our world and one where men die after they lose their virginities in There Are Doors, or the mysterious Os of Home Fires, who neither eat nor drink, but live among us.

Wolfe converted to Catholicism before he married his wife Rosemary. It is fun to analyze his books for various amounts of the faith that his characters truly show in God, which is the way believers judge a convert. After Wolfe underwent double-bypass surgery in April of last year, he put a literal God character in his new book, a man with a white beard and a long cane. Gene is always testing the unbeliever, seeing if the faith he embraces is a rewarding reality or a vicious lie. He regards this as the true test of the individual.

The premise of Home Fires is that Skip was dating Chelle when she decided to join the military. Due to the vagaries of space travel, she returns decades later having spent much of that time in coldsleep travel, where she did not age. She is so badly injured in combat that part of her is composed of someone else who died. Skip is now an older man and a partner in a law firm, and his "contracto" ("wife" and "husband" are terms relegated to history) is a vibrant young woman denied sex for biological decades. They "decide" to go on a cruise together; perhaps it is decided for them. Other events occur: picture Die Hard but with the world's greatest mystery lurking at the heart of it, and don't forget a cyborg, seven different types of handguns and rifles, mindwipe, and hard sex.

Wolfe at InConJunction IV, July 1984, photo by Michael Kube-McDowell

Skip tells us that he "kept the home fires burning" while Chelle was away, fighting the Os, an unimaginable alien enemy, off the planet Johanna. He feels, and he is right to feel this way, that she in her service made a sacrifice for him, and that he owes her something very specific. He dumps his secretary/girlfriend (usually called a Megan) and leaps to her aid out of a duty that is at once akin to love and other times resembles patriotism for a United States that does not exist in the future of Home Fires.

Some pine against interminable war, and they may be right to do so, but it is not as if there would be no fighting if our country abstained. We are in the middle of something that not even generals fully understand. Paul Ryan's budget didn't lower military spending even though we cannot afford it, or anything. Our financial situation as a country has never been more clear. But our spiritual condition: that is a different matter.

We eventually learn that Wolfe's soldier Chelle sets out for war because she does not really want to be a married accessory to a rich husband. She is attempting to avoid the very insignificance that so many of Wolfe's peers embrace, and so enters the military. The generation of authors who served in the armed forces because they had no other choice constituted the crucial heart of 20th century literature. Gene Wolfe and his protagonist took up a task that would knit Jonathan Franzen's balls to his asshole. Even if they are wrong to fight, we are nothing compared to them.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He is a writer living in New York. He tumbls here and twitters here. He last wrote in these pages about Charlotte Gainsbourg.

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In Which We Come Back To Life As A Tricycle

Death Tire


dir. Quentin Dupieux
85 minutes

Quentin Dupieux’s Rubber is a movie about a psychokinetic tire that kills people with its mind. We know the tire — listed in the credits as “Robert” — is about to blow someone up when his rubber tubing vibrates and the film score swells. This happens mostly when people stop Robert from doing the things he likes to do, like taking a shower, or watching television or stalking a beautiful French girl named Sheila. After he wipes out a California desert town, Robert is shot to death by the police and comes back to life as a tricycle. Tricycle Robert advances on Hollywood, an army of reanimated tires in his wake.

“But, why?” is a question Dupieux was smart enough to answer before we could ask it. In Rubber’s opening scene, a character named Lt. Chad (Stephen Spinella) delivers a resolutely nonsensical monologue on the absence of reason. “In the Steven Spielberg movie E.T., why is the alien brown? No reason. In the movie Love Story, why do these two characters fall madly in love? No reason.” Chad goes on like this for a beat too long — “Why are we always thinking? No reason” — and then climbs into the trunk of a rusted Cadillac DeVille. The scene is an explanation and a warning — if pseudo-philosophical absurdity isn’t your thing, now would be a good time to see if you can swap out your seats for tickets to Hop.

The rest of the movie will infuriate a certain type of person, and delight that person’s exact opposite. The dialogue is wooden, the acting, weird, the plot one the Aqua Teen Hunger Force writers would have rejected for being too stupid. But Dupieux never wavers, and it’s his unswerving earnestness that makes the whole thing work. Without it, Rubber would be an irritating experiment in cinematic dada. Instead, it turns into a loving send-up of vintage American road movies, a surrealist spoof that’s just sincere enough to be clever.

Dupieux keeps the homicidal tire conceit from getting old by adding a meta-layer in the form of an audience within the film, a motley assortment of teenaged girls, film nerds and middle-aged moviegoers who comment on the action as it unfolds. We watch them watch as Robert rises from the sand to roll through the desert like a demonic Shel Silverstein creation. First he crushes a water bottle, then a scorpion, then he blows up a rabbit by vibrating at it. The film’s careful camera angles and taut score allow us to revel in Robert’s glee as he discovers the breadth of his destructive powers. It’s strange to come away from a movie realizing you’ve spent the past hour and a half empathizing with a wayward piece of mechanical equipment, but such is the power of Rubber.

Eventually, Robert’s travels lead him to a pretty French tourist (Roxane Mesquida) in a VW rabbit with shag-covered seats. He follows her to a seamy motel and installs himself in the room next to hers. When the cleaning lady tosses him out, Robert, as is his wont, explodes her head. It’s around this point that things start to get weird. The third act is a beautiful, gnarled mess during which each separate element of the plot converges and absolutely nothing gets resolved.

Critics have described the film as a metaphor for everything from mindless consumerism to the disintegration of American film, and probably they’re right, but whatever. It’s a movie about a tire. Too, the amount of effort Dupieux puts into it — a palette so saturated with color that every still looks like a William Eggleston print, a pitch-perfect score that gives Robert his own personality-defining theme song — makes it strong enough to stand up on its own, with or without symbolism.

Either you want to see a metafictional movie about a serial killer tire directed by a french electronic musician (Quentin Dupieux is the real name of French techno producer Mr. Oizo) or you don’t. If you don’t, well then look: Life, as we’ve all figured out by now, is a series of choices. Maybe it’s time for you to start making better ones. Watching Rubber won’t fix all your problems, but it can’t hurt. The experience should leave you feeling reassured. If a movie like this one managed to get distribution, things can’t be all that bad.

Sarah LaBrie is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Los Angeles. She last wrote in these pages about her favorite novels. She tumbls here.

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In Which We Take A Room With A View Of Burkina Faso

The Road to Ouagadougou


The whole city of Ouagadougou smells like burning trash and gasoline, which gives me unholy headaches, causing every night of the seven nights I am there to feel long and restless. Burkina Faso is not South Africa. It is not Morocco, nor is it Ghana or Côte d’Ivoire, despite their relative proximity. It is not touristed by Americans, and there is no beach, no mountains, no fields, no anything that you can find to place yourself in front of to pose and photograph. The view out my window is not comforting, either. A stretch of tin-roofed shacks — with debris covering everything — visibly sigh and bend under the heavy weight that follows you everywhere in the slums where they rest. I am distressed by this strain, but the people barely seem to notice it. This is the Burkina they know.  

Eighty-four children pause at my inelegant use of the word écrivaine, then I take it back clumsily and say, "Non, je suis une journaliste," to which they respond with nods and murmurs of understanding. They are happier with my profession as a journalist than as a writer; in their eyes, this means I will return to America with a chronicle of my time in Burkina Faso and publicly recite it through a megaphone, igniting international attention for the little country that no one’s heard of.

From the very second I walk through the dilapidated gate of Lycée Ouindinsongde, the questioning begins. Every student wants to ask the American about America, and when I respond, they are eerily quiet; their attentiveness so determined that it’s painful. The questions vary and are presented in such amalgamations of French and English that I sometimes forget which language is native. They ask me things like,        

"How old is your brother?"

"What is wrestling?"  

"How do you find the food of Burkina Faso?" 

"Is there racism in America?"

"Are you married?"         

I tell them that my brother is twenty-five and that the food is delicious. I draw a picture of two men wrestling on the chalkboard — it looks disastrously sexual, so I erase it and explain it’s a sport where men play-fight with the goal of domination. I laugh at the four classes I’ve been in today — ranging in age from 7 to 21 — when one brave boy will stand up and proudly ask me about my marital status. When I say no, I am not married, I am a fool to appear incredulous, for several of the young women in my classes are — one or two of them with children. The shades of difference paint themselves darker.

It was curiosity. Not the version of curiosity where one thinks of how novel something is and they’d like to immerse themselves in the blissful bemusement. My curiosity was sorrowful and disbelieving, a desire to see the facts with my own eyes. The facts being Burkina Faso’s literacy rate (the lowest in the world), it’s GDP (ranking one above Madagascar and one hundred twenty-six behind the US), and its utter invisibility. No one had heard of it — an entire country undereducated, underpaid, and neglected to fend for itself.

Traveling in the third world requires a higher level of self-awareness, just enough to understand that danger is not an impossibility. But traveling alone to Burkina Faso as a white American female with no point of reference for the country’s security was preposterously naive and I blanch at the thought of my ignorant courage now. Why was I willing to compromise my own safety for a week-long trip to a trash-ridden dustbowl?

It is a Tuesday night in the city and the owner of the nightclub that I am in has just turned up the music to a cheerful boom with the intention of getting people excited to dance. There is a lone dancer slowly twisting her hips on the round pedestal in the center of the floor. She seems satisfied enough to not need a partner. The music is a confused mix of salsa and Afrobeat but the patrons are content, nodding their heads and talking quietly. It is early yet; the real dancing won’t start till later.

At my table, I am stuck in the middle of an argument. Alima sits to my left, her boyfriend, Aly, to my right, and they are disputing over a text message that was sent to Alima’s phone, then immediately deleted before Aly could see it. Aly tries to bring me into the conversation, goading me to take his side. He does so in French, and I pretend that I cannot understand.

"Ce n’est pas juste, tu es d’accord?" I nod but am looking at Alima, attempting to express my allegiance to her with a weak smile. Aly presses me and my look turns blank, as if to say I can’t understand you. It feels uncannily like situations I've seen before, heard before, in comfortable environments, bars, and apartments. But at this moment, I’m the outsider sitting with a young couple in a foreign city, very far away from Brooklyn.

My French, though considered fairly fluent anywhere else, is elementary here, where everyone I speak with moves through the language with a staccato rhythm, enunciating syllables that Parisian French has forgotten. Despite the difficulty I am having with communication, I feign comfort — I smile at perceived compliments, laugh at anything resembling a joke. The obvious is hard to ignore, though. I am the only white person in the bar; my companions, both Muslim, are drinking Coke with no alcohol (as am I, to be polite); and my senses are being attacked by unsavory smells and caustic sounds. It’s my first time in Africa and though the conversation is familiar, I could be on another planet, another vastly different world.

The argument ends when a large plate of chicken arrives at our table, and I am asked several times why I won’t eat with them.

"Je suis végétarienne," I say, apologetically. "C’est difficile de manger en Afrique." They laugh and nod. Yes, it is difficult for you here. They continue to eat, bent over the table, and now I am thinking, Yes, it is difficult for me here.     

I'm not trying to display how worn my passport can get; it’s not a trip of egoism or pride. What I had naively thought before arriving was that the facts I had poured over and gawked at would somehow be inaccurate and that I’d find American NGO and EU imprints everywhere; I thought I’d see progress. Instead I am immersed in an even more depressing reality: the streets are lined with unnamed foreign banks where I occasionally see white men in tailored suits hover around, making shifty phone calls. This was not progress, it was pillaging — Europeans use the country’s lack of resources and strength as a home base for financial corruption; whatever they want to do is simply easier to get away with when it occurs in the last possible place anyone would think to look. The rest of Ouagadougou is destitute, the roads unpaved and overrun by barefoot street children playing in and around piles of rubbish while the French contribute yet another ATM. Irony can’t even encompass the idea of a city with no money but an abundance of ATMs.

When my school has its two-hour break, a necessity instituted by the 110-degree heat, I am asked by my companion Nasse, if I’d like to see some schools in the suburbs of Ouagadougou. I respond that I’d love to and he directs me toward his motorbike.

"Both of us will ride on this?" I ask, feeling that it is not quite sufficient for two fully-grown adults. It is essentially a bicycle with a motor.     

Nasse laughs and says it’s the only way. His English is phenomenal and makes me feel less like a stranger when I am in class with him. He was the first person I reached out to when I planned my trip, and his fervor to have a real, live American girl come to his classes to teach was wonderful. He truly believed in the impact an American would have on his students. He wanted them to see that it is possible to achieve.

"D’accord, d’accord," I submit. He gets on and shifts his body close to the handlebars, then I follow. It is innocent and awkward because I do not know where to put my hands. Nasse instructs me to wrap them around his torso and I do, clinging tightly to the fabric of his navy rayon shirt. I am initially reluctant, as the shirt is soaked through with his sweat, and his body is so thin that there is little to hold on to. But as we get on the main road heading toward the suburbs, I instinctively squeeze tighter, valuing my life in spite of a moment’s embarrassment.          

The ride is long and anything but smooth. The farther we go, the greater my disbelief. The landscape changes drastically — there are no more paths, no people, no scooters, and no buildings at all. There is only an expanse of camel-colored dust that is spotted with brick huts the size of Western bathrooms. Then the shouts begin.

"Nasara! Nasara!" They come from all sides of us. I start to notice in the white brightness of the sun that there are children chasing after our bike. No shoes, few clothes, and wide, awed grins.       

"Nasara! Nasara! Nasara!"

"Nasse, what are they saying?" I yell into his ear.

He takes his eyes off of the path ahead of us and yells back, "White girl! They are screaming white girl!" He laughs boldly when he registers the horror in my face. "It is no insult. These children have never seen a white person before. They are shocked, they are surprised!"

"Never?" I yell. There are at least ten children running around us, blinking with uncertainty when a curve causes us to slow to a near halt. One little girl extends her hand forward.

"Never!" He laughs again, as if this is the most normal thing in the world.

A third world country needing Western "help" is rarely what it should be; the veil is so thin that it is transparent: "help" is commonly used as the negotiator for resources in return. A proverbially uneven and fucked-up version of "You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours."   

Burkina Faso — what little I saw of it — was indeed barren and arid; a constant swirl of dust and a narrow smattering of trees all indicate low agricultural yield. Having been in Morocco only days before, the two seem light-years apart. Casablanca overflows with opulence and grandeur; even the streetlights flash with a clear white intensity. It is a city of men — men in cafés, men in markets, men at prayer. There is an imposing quality to Morocco that is scarce in Burkina Faso. The capital city is unlit at night; everything is illuminated by car headlights and bonfires, and people gather in clusters on the sides of the main road, casually drinking and talking. The feeling is warm and the people seem content.

While I attempt to hail a taxi on Ouagadougou’s busiest street, an elderly man asks me how my day is going.        

"C’est bien, merci. Très chaud," I say, fanning myself with a hand — the universal sign for overheating."Vous êtes très belle. Je veux être vos ami." This type of conversation is typical and funny — by the time I leave, I have made more friends than I can count based on my looks alone. I carry with me a steno pad for note-taking and observations; it fills itself instead with e-mail address and phone numbers. One man passes me a crumpled piece of paper on the street that merely reads, "Je t’aime."

The conversation turns when I notice three distinct lines etched into either side of his face, right below his cheekbones. I am afraid to ask, thinking the subject would be taboo, but my curiosity overcomes me and I point toward his face with distinct awkwardness.

Not even a moment later, he explains happily to me in French, "Many men in Burkina Faso are born into tribes. This is the sign of the tribe that I am in. When a boy child is born, an elder will mark him on his face so that he will always know who he is and where he is from. It is not as popular anymore — the tribes are dying out. But there used to be many tribe wars."

In a capital city swarming with cars, smoke, and crowded markets, a man dressed like my grandfather is part of a dying tribe — a tradition so unlike anything I’ve ever known. He insists on giving me his phone number as I step into a taxi. And before I even scribble it down, the taxi driver asks me if I am married.

An older student walks into my classroom and approaches Nasse, who is sitting at a wooden desk behind me. The first level class is singing the Burkinabe national anthem to an audience of one. I am pulled away from the impromptu concert, which I am recording on my highly admired smart phone, as Nasse introduces me to Alima.

"She will show you around the school," he says. "When this class is through, go with her." 

We walk out of the room and back behind the school, to what Alima calls "the yard" — a vast plateau of sandy nothingness, where track practice is in full swing. She leads me to a bench and we sit, shaded by the only tree on the campus. While I observe the runners and Alima sends a text, the heat doesn’t feel so oppressive. Alima is petite, thoroughly dark-skinned with thin cornrows in her hair, which at the moment are covered by a pale blue bandanna. She is wearing thick eyeliner and clear lip gloss, and she is stunning, with or without makeup. She wears her school uniform as if it is an afterthought, pairing it with many items of clothing that probably don't fit within the code.

She knows everyone. The school is a small mini-campus but she waves and smiles at every student, and they respond warmly.            

"Do you want to come with me to get a snack?" she asks, gesturing toward the entrance to the school. I agree, and we walk through the front gate. She asks me a dozen questions, excusing herself three or four times for her poor English. I assure her that her English is better than my French and we laugh. I ask her about her family.

"My mother is from Ghana. She speaks very good English, it is very good. She is in Ghana now because her father is finished."            

By the look on her face, I assume she means that he has died, and so I correct her delicately.

"Her father. . . il est mort?"           

"Yes, yes, that is what I mean. How do you say it?"

"He has died, he is dead. I am very sorry to hear that."            

"It’s okay, she has been gone for two weeks. I hope that she will return home soon. If she was here, she would make you a big feast. Perhaps she will arrive when you are still here. How long are you staying in my country?"

"Only for one week," I say.

"That is too short." She orders a baguette avec lait and I watch, baffled, as the man at the little stand pours condensed milk from an open can onto a skinny baguette and passes it to Alima.        

"Your belly could not handle this," she says, which makes me laugh. She is almost certainly right, as the can is swarming with flies and has been sitting in the devastating heat for the entire morning.

Alima is incredibly bright, family-oriented, and like any teenager in the United States, not entirely sure of what her future holds. She speaks openly to me about her desires but does not commit to any real career path because, as she reassures me many times, she is only seventeen. One thing that she does know is that she wants to go to the United States, if only for a little while. She is proud of Obama and finds the American people to be exceptionally nice and tolerant. I ask her how, having never been there, she could possibly know this.

"Obama is your president. There is no racism in America. And I know you now."

Dayna Evans is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. She tumbls here. She last wrote in these pages about Tina Fey's Bossypants.

Photographs by the author.

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