Wednesday, September 16, 2009

the eXile

I'm borrowing my supervisor's office for a few weeks, while he's away on leave. Several benefits accrue on that account – not least of all that I'm writing and revising my thesis in the same room in which my undergrad work has received so much criticism and assistance, which lets me channel my indolence into a constant stream of improvements to grammar and expression – but the best part of it all is the immediate presence of all the books an old-school Modernist could ever want, with particular emphasis on Lowry, Beckett and Joyce. And sidelines on Nabokov, Flannery O'Connor, Dante, John Fowles, Graham Greene, et cetera, ad infinitum.

My casual reading list has been much richer for all of this, of course – last week it was Lowry's Selected Poems and the Conrad Aiken-inspired Ultramarine. (Lowry named the novel after Aitken's Blue Voyage; Aiken suggested the more fitting title of Purple Passage.) Then I moved on to a book of essays on Joyce's "The Dead"; the hard-to-find (at a reasonable price) Faber edition of Eliot's manuscript for "The Waste Land", with plenty of annotations and strikethroughs by Ezra Pound; Brian Boyd's take on Nabokov's Pale Fire (and then Pale Fire itself); Borges' Inquisiciones and Other Inquisitions; and yesterday, to a book I didn't think I'd find here – The eXile: Sex, Drugs and Libel in the New Russia, by Mark Ames and Matt Taibbi.

There was a flurry of interest in the eXile around these parts in 2003, when Critic landed an interview with Dr. John Dolan, who'd left the University and the woes of what was then English 124 (now ENGL126) behind him in a cloud of dust, and headed off to co-edit the newspaper. Critic's then-news editor (later editor for real) Hamish McKenzie wrote this feature on Dolan and the eXile, complete with gratuitously long quotes with so much gold that there was nowhere to cut or paraphrase:

"Listen, I taught the first-year med students at Otago for EIGHT YEARS!!! You think I'm scared of death? Death is nothing! Those terrible lectures in ENGL 124 on Monday afternoons - those were the test for me. I remember that nightmarish first year - I came so close to bolting from Castle 2 one time. The valium prescription had run out on me about halfway through the lecture and I saw in full intensity the serried ranks of those mean, med-student faces sneering lazily down at me from the nearly-vertical rows of seats. People at Otago don't know how strange the atmosphere there really is by comparison with most real universities. I had been teaching at [University of California] Berkeley, where students of 18 are grown-ups and pleasant, witty, trusting grown-ups at that. To be faced by eight or nine hundred vicious, provincial adolescents staring down at you on a sleety Monday evening ... you think that after surviving that I'm going to be scared in Moscow? Death is easy; the med students are scary. Those were the most vile, evil, worthless excuses for human beings I've encountered in a long and checkered life. It's a pity they can't all be put to work shovelling the water out of the Leith with colanders."
That's Dolan for you - give him an inch and he'll write a column lambasting everything that's wrong about the society you live in.

The book (Grove Press, 2000) has a foreword by Edward Liminov in almost-broken English that sets the tone:
[The] female condition in eXile is worst than in poorest Bedouin family wandering in the deserts of Israel.... The eXile's crew is also arrogant, and making fun of authorities. They have questioned Russian men: How much money would you have to be paid before you'd fuck Madeleine Albright? Russian men declined proposition.
What are political beliefs of Ames and Taibbi? they are totally politically incorrect. they are extremists of a new brand: leftists and right-wingers in same time, they are racist red communist agitators worst than three-key people, bloodthirsty as Chikatilo, about women you know.

But damn it's a great read. Ames and Taibbi clip in dozens of articles from the newspaper as sidebars, slander their workmates and each other, come up with new and curious ways to get some serious libel happening, and slam idealistic expatriat Americans to the ground. Wonderful stuff – if related by potentially unreliable narrators – it's depressing and scary, all the more so because it's exactly like the alternative press should be anywhere in the world, strugging for funding to stay afloat, jumping from scandal to libel to the horrors of everyday politics, and it's nothing I'd have to guts to write myself, regardless of where I lived.

The eXile is gone now, shut down over a year ago after an "unplanned audit" of its editorial content; scared investors promptly pulled their funding. “The government does not need to jail or shoot people,” Mark Ames told Carl Schreck. “All they have to do to keep people under control is say ‘Boo!’" Here's Owen Matthews, writing for the Moscow Times:
Is the paper guilty? Hell yes - at least by the puritanical standards of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The eXile was a biweekly dish of political gossip (often surprisingly incisive), grim reports from the country’s underbelly and amphetamine-fueled vitriol against Middle America. It was also heavily laced with pornography, satirical graphics and outrageous club reviews penned by a series of fictional correspondents. This was the paper that created the “Death Porn” column, a compendium of the week’s most gruesome crimes illustrated with police photos. Its most recent issue hailed the early arrival of “snapper season,” complete with photos of naked provincial girls taken from the “Dyevscovery Channel.”
The original website's still up, apparently still shilling for donations to stay afloat, while new content has shifted to Gems from the eXile's new home include Tal Sutsa's article "Memphis: where Steve Jobs goes to eat his fellow Americans" (link) and Mark Ames' new radio show (link). The eXile is a model for controversy, fun, an incidentally increased readership and doing absolutely everything you can't do if you get that internship at Fairfax.