Feature: 2017 Best Of/Worst Of — And a Look Ahead

The increasingly baffling and ever-arcane world of the visual arts continues to offer considerable potential; if that promise is rarely redeemed, still we look.

A scene from "The Square."

A scene from “The Square.”

By Timothy Francis Barry

Another year of paging through new books, staring slack-jawed at the television with its now 400 channels (hoping for something to flicker into view that will engage and delight); trundling our weary carcasses out to the cinema, where surely something sublime will appear in the dark (alas, almost never happens.)

Art galleries, museums, site-specific whats-its; the increasingly baffling and ever-arcane world of the visual arts continues to offer considerable potential; if that promise is rarely redeemed, still we look.

The old can be what’s new, at least in the eye of this observer — I made my way to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts to take in Annette Lemieux: Mise En Scene (through March, 2018). One’s gaze is diverted by….a water lily. Damn fine water lily that.

The same satisfaction generated by avidly tucking into editor Bill Morgan’s The Best Minds Of My Generation: A Literary History of The Beats, as Taught by Allen Ginsberg (Grove Press, $27). One (of a certain age) is cast back to high-school days, when the ragged angels Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, and John Clellon Holmes cast their spells on adolescent consciousnesses. How rare and wonderful to have a first person account of the writing of indelible modern classics like William S. Burroughs’ Junkie, and to look over Ginsberg’s shoulder as he walks us through the back-story of the novel’s naissance:

Burroughs didn’t see himself as a writer then….Burroughs saw himself more as an investigator of souls and cities, a person of curiosity, or a picaresque adventurer. He was interested in information and facts, not so much interested in literature. The crucial time came when he killed his wife and was plunged into such despair that writing itself seemed to be the only activity, the only path open to him…..Burroughs took the Chandler-O’Hara (John O’Hara), hard-boiled American fiction and turned it into a total satire of the American character….

On the heels of reading this I devoured my battered and tattered copy of Junkie, and was reminded that perhaps one benefit of aging is that rereading a book decades later is like reading a new book. Nuances, references, images, and correspondences pop up that wouldn’t have decades ago, certainly when this jejune proto-hipster first inhaled it in the previous century.

Nordic lands have been responsible for some of the best new mysteries. If you indulge in this genre (this reader does so, unapologetically), try Norwegian Samuel Bjork’s I’m Travelling Alone (Penguin Random House, paperback, $16). It will scare you to the marrow. The two lead characters: an overweight, chain-smoking chief of detectives and his brilliant and beautiful, though alcoholic and suicidal, female profiler. Great stuff.

Disappointment can be sweet sorrow. I was delighted one bright day in July to come across an advance copy of Tom Perrotta’s new novel Mrs. Fletcher (paperback coming in May 2018, Simon & Schuster, $16). One of my favorite living authors, Perrotta (shouldn’t he be labeled ‘the Balzac of suburbia?’) is best known for Little Children.  His Bad Haircut and Other Stories is also worth seeking out (not to mention the novels Election and The Leftovers, both of which transferred to large and small screens with varying degrees of success.) In Mrs. Fletcher Perrotta seems to be attempting to revisit Little Children, except this time the protagonist is a woman with an internet porn addiction…. comes in at about a 7.5–the aforementioned Perrotta titles all 9s and 10s.

My favorite living fiction writer may be the perceptive, but always readable, Paul Auster.  Call it ‘literature sans heavy lifting.’ His new volume 4321 (Henry Holt, $32.50) comes off as a sort of Great Expectations for the digital age; it is also the novel in which Auster comes closest to autobiography (presumably) and also serves as a history of 1) Multi-generations of Jewish Experience in America; 2) A social and political history of the 20th-Century; 3) A compendium of valuable books and records you might have neglected thus far to check out, such as Leo Tolstoy’s misogynistic novella The Kreutzer Sonata and Hermann Scherchen conducting Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion. Auster’s inventive, though unconventional, narrative scheme takes a bit of getting used to — but it is well worth the effort. Also, shouldn’t you and I be reading Fernando Pessoa’s The Book Of Disquiet: The Complete Edition (Edited by Jeronimo Pizarro, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, New Directions, $24.95)?

Speaking of TV, we finally bucked up and got Showtime in my house this year. Hence many hours spent comfortably numb in front of Ray Donovan, with the Brando-redux Liev Schreiber murmuring his lines; also highly enjoyed William H. Macy’s booze-addled dad in Shameless, and you also include The Affair and I’m Dying Up Here as more or less guilty pleasures. NB: Shameless in its current season has lost its savor, now that Macy’s Frank Gallagher has gotten sober and Emmy Rossum’s Fiona is on the road to a stable career.

In terms of the cinema, 2017 heralded good things; if you haven’t seen the amazing The Florida Project, it’s your loss. Likewise, there’s The Square from Sweden, written and directed by Ruben Ostlund. The film is a hilarious, genre-blurring take on the contemporary art scene (as well as a lot of other things….)A highlight: a harrowing, terrifying sequence with performance-artist and Hollywood stunt man Terry Notary that is a de rigueur viewing experience.

2017 was the year this reader (finally) engaged seriously with poetry. New to these eyes are versifiers such as Juliana Spahr, Elaine Equi, Frank Lima, Maggie Nelson. Reading these drove me back to look carefully at T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and poetry by Paul Metcalf, Jack Spicer, Denise Levertov, Anne Sexton, Frank O’Hara, and the late and very great John Ashbery.

I Must Be Living Twice: New and Selected Poems 1975-2014 (HarperCollins, paperback ,$16.99) by Arlington, MA native Eileen Myles was published in September 2016 (I didn’t open it until this year …). The volume opens up a world heretofore unknown to this reader; contemporary poetry that does not reek of MFA writing programs and braggy references to Greek mythology or French post-structuralists. It’s fun to read, easy to understand (but if you try to write your own poems in this mode….well, good luck with that). New and also worth diving into — Myles’ Afterglow: A Dog Memoir (Grove Atlantic  2017 $24).


The work of poet Peter Gizzi was critiqued well in The Arts Fuse by Matt Hanson a couple of years ago (his 2015 review here). He continues the tradition of first-rate verse emanating from the Pioneer Valley (Amherst and Northampton), though his approach bears little resemblance to such Valley poets as James Tate, Richard Wilbur, and Emily Dickinson. His brand new chapbook, New Poems, published in a handsome letterpress, hand-assembled edition of 250 copies (The Brother In Elysium, $30), showcases what makes him such a  distinctive modern poet: his use of abstraction, lists, humor (of the dark variety), musical repetition, and lines that almost turn into a narrative, but not quite:

                          Some Joy For Morning


       Now the connection with spring has dissolved.

       Now that hysteria is blooming.

       Says everyday I want to fly my kite.

       Say’s what’s a grammar when you is no longer you.

       My world is hydrogen burning in space and in the fullness of etc.

       I have read the news and learned nothing.

       I try to understand the whooshing overhead.

       But for a little light now.

       I didn’t realize the tree was weeping.

       How was I to know I was not alone.

       Wild light.

Though this is not strictly speaking a ‘best of’ column, I’d like to nominate the The Arts Fuse’s Betsy Sherman for her elegy to the late  comic legend Jerry Lewis. One of the best things I read online all year!

Highly Recommended Coming Attractions

Visual Arts:

A long overdue exhibition: Art in the Age of the Internet, 1989 to Today at the ICA-Boston (February 7 through May 20).  Could be interesting, but there is the possibility of misfire: featuring Dara Birnbaum, Frances Stark, Nam June Paik, many others.  Curated by Eva Respini with Jeffrey Du Blois.

In Hartford, CT., Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art will present Gorey’s Worlds, an exhibition (February 10 through May 6) that features drawings, books, and ephemera by the elusive illustrator of macabre and humorous tableaux. The exhibition also includes a group of works Gorey bequeathed to the museum. From the 1970s through the ’90s,  Gorey drove from his Cape Cod home down to New York to see ballets. He would often stop over at the Wadsworth Atheneum to take in its collections. This most gossamer of connections resulted in the bequest. Curated by Erin Monroe.

At Harvard’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts: the two-year residency of Renee Green wraps up  with Renee Green: Pacing. It is the final installment in a multi-part project (February 1 through April 15).

Rock Music:

The Killers play Boston’s TD Garden on January 7. Should I choose to venture into a 10,000+ capacity venue to groove to heavy rock, this is the show I’d consider.

Alt-country rockers The Felice Brothers visit The Sinclair in Cambridge on January 12.

Into the Brighton Music Hall (March 3 at 7 p.m.) comes Londoner Peter Perrett, ex-frontman/singer-songwriter of The Only Ones. His song “Another Girl, Another Planet” is regarded as one of the greatest singles of the punk era, but the 65 year old musician is not merely recycling his greatest moments. (Though several Only Ones songs would be welcome at the Brighton Music Hall.) Perrett’s new album, How The West Was Won, was five years in the making; it is being hailed in the UK as a contender for Album of The Year. Jangly guitar-driven rock, enhanced by Perrett’s trademark mix of clever wordplay and distinctively cut-like-a-knife vocal delivery: think of the snarl of Lou Reed, the narrative approach of Bob Dylan, and the mystique of Roy Orbison. His band is a family affair; his two 30-something sons, James and Peter Jr., supply expert bass and lead guitar, while their girlfriends chime in with backing vocals, as well as accents via violin and keyboards.

April 3 proto-jam-band Yo La Tengo come to the Paradise Rock Club. Count on this cult band to perform superbly.

I haven’t been to a show at the relatively new venue Narrows Center for The Arts in Fall River, MA, but I’ve heard good things about this intimate performance space. The Cowboy Junkies will perform there on April 7.

Timothy Francis Barry studied English literature at Framingham State College and art history at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. He has written for Take-It Magazine, The New Musical Express, The Noise, and The Boston Globe. He owns Tim’s Used Books and TB Projects, a contemporary art space, both in Provincetown.

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  1. john shuman on December 30, 2017 at 9:29 pm

    To Tim Francis Barry-

    I wanted to send a note to say how glad I am to read of another Paul Auster and 4-3-2-1 fan. I was introduced to him with Moon Palace — a story that I very much connected to. I did love this recent novel, but as you said, I had difficulty getting into it. Things turned when I decided to read the book jacket description…who’d have thought?
    I have recently moved to the Cape-Wellfleet from New York City and will check out Tim’s Used Books in Provincetown.

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