#tobyreads: Oceans, Sonic and Otherwise


It took a  lengthier-than-expected  internal debate to convince myself that I shouldn’t name this week’s column for Isis’s 2002 album Oceanic, if only because I’d wager that most of you would look at me (or this column) with some bafflement. “Yes, Toby, we get it–but what do whaling disasters have to do with experimental metal bands?” So instead: metaphor, unreliable narrators, Aphex Twin, and cannibalism.

Reading Marc Weidenbaum’s book on Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II has, not surprisingly, gotten me to revisit the album in a big way. (Ditto Alarm Will Sound’s fantastic version of “Blue Calx.”) And the breadth of the interviewees here is impressive, including Seymour Stein, Oceans of Sound author David Toop, and Warren Ellis, who riffs a bit on Aphex Twin’s unlikely connection to his run on The Authority. Weidenbaum has essentially written a smart guide to the music of Richard D. James, with nods to how music was discussed on the internet in the mid-90s, the influence of Brian Eno on this album, and questions of translating deeply digital music to physical instruments. It’s fascinating stuff, concisely assembled.

From one set of obsessions to another: Caitlin R. Kiernan’s The Drowning Girl focuses on a young woman, Imp, as she sets out to document several troubling months in her life. It isn’t that Imp is an unreliable narrator as much as she’s an unconventional one: her schizophrenia causes the narrative to loop back on itself, and sometimes fragment, as certain events recur from multiple perspectives. Imp has long been obsessed with a painting (which shares a title with the novel), and a series of events suggest something paranormal at work, connecting a figure in this painting with the woman Imp discovers, naked and soaking wet, by the side of the road one night. Read one way, this could be the story of a haunting; in another, it’s about its narrator’s struggle to maintain a constant relationship with reality and hold on to the stable relationship she’s found. At times, its fragmented narrative and ambiguities reminded me of Brian Evenson’s magnificent The Open Curtain.

The New England setting of Kiernan’s novel paralleled the portrait of nineteenth-century Nantucket in Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea. It’s the story of the ship Essex, which was attacked by a whale in the Pacific, and went on to inspire the film 2010: Moby Dick, along with some novel that some of you may have read. The narrative itself, which captivated audiences since not long after the disaster, is a gripping one, and Philbrick recounts it well and adds in information from similar disasters to make the crew’s attempts for survival even more wrenching. And his detail on Nantucket’s history and the uneasy racial politics of 19th-century whaling also made for fascinating reading.

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