31 October 2004

Weekend Fun

I've found myself listening almost obsessively to Richard Thompson's accoustic guitar version of "Oops! I Did It Again!" (see the NPR story for the link and some background. WireTap makes me very happy on those times when there's a bit of streaming audio I want to listen to offline). Thompson deconstructs a song with the same sort of imagination and skill Tori Amos demonstrated, first with Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and, later, with everyone from Tom Waits to Eminem.

"Oops! I Did It Again!" is part of Thompson's show 1,000 Years of Popular Music, which I saw Saturday night with some friends, and which was one of the best concerts I've ever been to. There were numerous songs, particularly the older ones, that I found mesmerizing, sometimes deeply moving, sometimes very funny (Richard Thompson doing Gilbert & Sullivan!). Of "Oops! I Did It Again!", which was, of course, a hit for Britney Spears, Thompson says: "Taken out of context, this is a pretty nice song." He certainly makes it more interesting than it was originally. Live on stage, he performed it with a phenomenal drummer, who was also one of the two background vocalists, and the added instruments and texture gave the song a bit more energy and humor than the NPR version has (I haven't heard it on the album offered from Thompson's website -- yet -- but expect that recording is similar to what I heard Saturday night). It was just immensely amusing to see Richard Thompson doing Britney Spears, or, rather, making a Britney Spears song sound like one of his own. If it had appeared on Rumor and Sigh, it wouldn't have felt out of place.

Throughout the show, I kept thinking about how well the old music worked, and how contemporary the songs felt in Thompson's versions. It didn't feel crassly contemporary, like some of the more thoughtlessly modernized productions of Shakespeare's plays can seem. No, the concert reminded me how fertile are the various arts of the past, and how much can be learned from playing around with once-popular forms and styles. It also reminded me -- because I do need to be reminded now and then -- that the popular arts can be, under the right conditions, as invigorating and beautiful as their more academic or elitist cousins. A performer who can easily move from rounds to madrigals to opera to music hall tunes to operetta to blues to rock, infusing it all with both sensitivity and delight, does us a great cultural favor by demonstrating what various forms of one art (music) have in common. Hooray for genre hopscotch and stylistic promiscuity!

World Fantasy Awards

The 2004 World Fantasy Awards have been awarded. In the three fiction categories, Jo Walton won for Tooth and Claw, Greer Gilman for "A Crowd of Bone", and Bruce Holland Rogers for "Don Ysidro".

It's an especially interesting group of winners for many reasons, particularly in that the two short story winners were from small press anthologies: "A Crowd of Bone" in Trampoline and "Don Ysidro" in Polyphony 3. I haven't read Polyphony 3 yet, since I didn't buy a copy until WorldCon in September, but Trampoline is a phenomenal book, without any real clunkers for stories and quite a few that are breathtaking, particularly "Crowd of Bone". It's nice to see Greer Gilman's hyper-lyrical tale getting the attention it deserves. I can't think of anyone else who so vividly and vehemently uses all the tools of fantastic literature to reconceive not only storytelling, but language.

As for Tooth and Claw, it's been on my must-buy-soon list ever since Kelly Link recommended it to me. And how can you resist the premise: If Trollope wrote about dragons...

In terms of quality, the World Fantasy Awards tend to be the most trustworthy. Congratulations to all the nominees and winners.

Halloween Tales

If you're looking for something at least marginally appropriate for today's holiday, here are thirteen links to online texts (a nearly-random sampling, in no particular order or disorder):
A Rose for Emily by William Faulkner
The Ghost Stories of M.R. James
The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
The Horla by Guy de Maupassant
J. Sheridan Le Fanu
Edgar Allan Poe
The Cedar Closet by Lafcadio Hearn
The Canterville Ghost by Oscar Wilde
The Jolly Corner by Henry James
Among the Dead by Edward Bryant
I'll Play the Blues for You by Gary A. Braunbeck
The Secrets of the Living by Sarah Langan
Front Row Seats by Scott William Carter
and, for a bit of humor, a fourteenth:
The Golem by Avram Davidson
If those aren't enough for you, there are good collections of online texts at East of the Web and Gaslight.

29 October 2004

Sarah Kane and the Theatre of Evisceration

I don't go to plays much anymore, and I don't keep up with the theatre world as I once did, but if I had the time to get to New York this week, I would do anything I could do to get a ticket to see Sarah Kane's 4.48 Psychosis at St. Ann's Warehouse. Ben Brantley's excellent review for the Times explains what the play is quite well:
Written as a refutation of reasons to live by Ms. Kane not long before she hanged herself at 28 in a London hospital five years ago, "4:48 Psychosis" is charged with the raging verbal energy of someone trying to make sense of a situation long beyond the reach of rational thought.

To say anything in "4:48 Psychosis" becomes a Sisyphean venture - defiant and pathetic - in the eclipsing shadow of this writer's anguish. In part by virtue of its very futility, Ms. Kane's language creates the most persuasive and authentic portrait of what it means to be terminally depressed that I have ever encountered in a theater. The words may be useless as lifelines, but they definitely leave their marks on those who hear them.
It's a daunting text for any director or group of actors to approach -- no set is defined, no cast or characters delineated, just a series of poem-like phrases and fragments, some of them horrifying, some of them funny, some tedious, some beautiful. Michael Billington's original Guardian review summed up the challenge of the play in the headline: "How do you judge a 75-minute suicide note?" (Brantley used the suicide note description in his own review -- not a lack of originality on his part so much as an acknowledgment that Billington pegged it perfectly.)

Kane was part of the late-nineties phenomenon of young British playwrights who got labelled as "the New Brutalists" or purveyors of "In-yer-face" theatre -- plays that portrayed sadistic violence, tremendous cruelty, and worlds deranged by chaos (kind of like John Webster or Seneca or even Euripides). Her first play, Blasted, got savaged by critics who thought its vivid representations of mutilation and rape to be nihilistic and gratuitous, and their ire brought Kane more publicity than she knew what to do with (she was only in her mid-twenties then). Her later play Cleansed seems to me to be her best work, her most unified dramatic statement, though almost unbearably grotesque. Crave marked a departure for her into a more abstract form of playwrighting, and 4.48 Psychosis was the, unfortunately premature, culmination of the exploration begun with Crave.

What Kane was able to do was use her medium to its fullest. Cleansed cannot be staged realistically on an average theatre's budget (for instance, one character's feet get chopped off then carried away by rats), and so it forces producers to approach the work as a creative problem to be solved. The solutions in the best productions are simple and symbolic rather than gory. This is art that realizes it must be presented to a live audience and must utilize the weaknesses of its medium as strengths. It is art that defies realism in search of better modes of communicating, the modes of poetry and ritual and dream.

Kane is not a playwright on the level of, for instance, Caryl Churchill, because she died, I think, before she had really developed into the writer she could and should have been. (And it's unfair to compare anyone to Caryl Churchill, who, if I were forced into the unfortunate corner of having to name the single greatest living playwright in the English language, would be my choice.) But Kane's work is remarkable, even though it is raw, even though it sometimes overreaches or strains for uncertain effect, even though an insensitive production can make the writing seem violent for its own sake. Nonetheless, there is a vitality and an energy to her work -- dare I say it, a moral energy -- that is certainly rare and nearly unique.

The effect of Kane's best plays is to eviscerate the audience. It is theatre that is not simply in yer face, nor is it merely brutal -- the effect is horrifying and jolting, but also numbing and absurd. It is the painful paradox of horror and apathy that fills Kane's plays with their fire. Done right, her best plays fuse language with imagery in such a way as to unsettle an audience so deeply that new and terrifying perspectives are available when you exit the theatre. The only comparable writer I can think of is Wallace Shawn, but Shawn's effect is primarily intellectual and linguistic, while Kane's work has that and more.

Quoting from her scripts is pointless. Read them to see the possibilities. Not all plays are interesting to read, but hers are. They are searing and haunting. There is also a good overview of her work, Love Me or Kill Me: Sarah Kane and the Theatre of Extremes, which, in addition to a discussion of each play (particularly Blasted and the controversy it created), includes interviews with various people involved in her life and her productions.

4.48 Psychosis may seem like a relentless cry for help. In some ways it was (or, perhaps, a refusal of help), but it is also art -- it is shaped experience, and shaped so carefully that within its sharp-edged shards it contains the ability to help us see a world many people turn away from. I know of no other piece of writing of any sort that so vividly portrays what it is like to experience severe, debilitating, life-threatening depression. It doesn't make for a light evening of theatre, but it does make for a profound experience.

26 October 2004

New IROSF, etc.

The new Internet Review of Science Fiction is available now, and includes an interview I did with M. Rickert. (Registration is still free, folks, so if you haven't done so yet, you should, because they're threatening to charge a small subscription fee soon.)

In other news from people I've interviewed, Jeff VanderMeer has sold or resold a bunch of books, including Veniss Underground (one of the first books I ever wrote about here) and City of Saints and Madmen to Big Time Publishers in the U.S. and a collection of the secret lives he wrote for people to Prime. To celebrate, send him squid and mushrooms c/o Voss Bender Memorial Mental Institute, 1314 Albumuth Blvd., Ambergris Il3-24.

25 October 2004

Travel in the Mouth of the Wolf by Paul Fattaruso

Travel in the Mouth of the Wolf, a recent book from Soft Skull Press, is the first novel of Paul Fattaruso, who has an MFA in poetry. It's the kind of book that makes me yearn for a better adjective than "surreal" to describe it, because during the course of the novel we encounter Iple, a young man who is deafened when a truck full of chickens crashes into a gas pump; we encounter the driver of the truck, a man named Zebedee, who always wins when he gambles; we watch Iple go to Antarctica with a bunch of scientists, one of whom kills him, and then we continue to watch Iple when he's in the afterlife, a place of strict social rules and fish that offer a lens back to Earth; we meet Penelope the microbiologist who studies Isabella, a brontosaurus found in the ice in Antarctica and thawed by the scientists and an ex-president who sometimes insists on being called Harry; we hear Isabella's story of ancient humans who were slightly shorter than the current versions but who were scientifically advanced, capable of remarkable genetic manipulations; we travel to other planets.

The book is a novel created from fragments of incident, prose poems that ache to add up but can't quite get there. There are 58 chapters over the course of 114 pages, and a few of those chapters have a gnomic beauty to them, the beauty of roads disappearing over an untouchable horizon:
Thirteen. Life on Other Planets

There's a way by which things get unsorted. A crucial button takes a gyre-dive down the sink's drain. A language vanishes, turns to babble.

Iple feels better. He doesn't miss his favorite shoes. In the evenings he uses his brain like a crystal ball to watch over the living world. He enjoys now understanding languages, the Bantu languages, the Mandarin dialects, the dialects of the owl, the dialects of water. There's a brook Iple watches over, that tells all at once the many interlocking stories of its polliwogs.

There's a boy who looks like Iple did, who takes naps by the brook in the afternoon. He wakes up from these naps feeling right and calm, then goes back into the world to get unsorted.

When someone is taking a trip, one way to wish that person off is to say, "in boca al lupo," which means, "travel in the mouth of the wolf." If the wolf's mouth will have you, it is the safest place to be. Just the world alone is so big that it's hard not to vaporize. But when traveling, there is also the giant emptiness between one place and the other to consider.
Chapter after chapter is entrancing on its own, and they go down like bite-size candy, but the book only begins to reveal its best elements upon rereading, because to understand how all the strands fit together, it helps to have a sense of where the book is going, its contours and boundaries. Someone -- maybe Gregory Benford -- said writing fantasy is, compared to writing scientifically-based science fiction, like playing tennis with the net down. Robert Frost is reputed to have said the same thing of free verse poetry. But a book like Travel in the Mouth of the Wolf shows how narrow-minded such a view is, how obdurate and mulish and wilfully perverse -- because this is the sort of book that creates its own court, its own game: raquetball, not tennis. On a first read, it seems that anything could happen, any sentence would be allowed, but by the end we realize this isn't true. There is a structure here, a purpose and meaning. It's not a random sampling of strange imagery held together by bizarre characters and even more bizarre situations. No no no. It's a book that traps a universe in its pages, and though the physics may be unfamiliar, there are still at least a few scientific laws at play, even if they don't come from the science we know.

Travel in the Mouth of the Wolf is, ultimately, a book about time and memory and mortality and reponsibility. But, unlike so many doorstopping volumes of soon-to-be-remaindered lore, this is a tiny book with a comic, naive tone, a pixellated Rasselas. It ends, like all of us, with death, but we already know that after death the thing to do is ignore your neighbors and find some fish, so we're prepared.

Note: More excerpts from Travel in the Mouth of the Wolf are available at Soft Skull Press and La Petite Zine.

20 October 2004

Good News for Writers and Readers

Just got some good news about two writers. Sonya Taaffe has sold a collection of short stories to Prime and a collection of poems to Aegis, both for 2005 release.

M. Rickert has sold a collection of stories to Golden Gryphon, to be titled A Very Little Madness. I'm assuming this will also be a 2005 release. (Update 10/21: Alas, it's coming out in 2006.)

2004 has been a pretty good year for collections, and now 2005 looks like it will continue that trend (Jeff Ford's got a new collection coming out eventually, too, but that may be 2006).

I'm particularly interested, because I have an interview with M. Rickert coming out in IROSF sometime before the end of the year, and am currently transcribing an interview I did with Sonya this weekend, and which I will post here (sometime before the end of the year -- I'm a slow transcriber). So, apparently, if I interview you, you will eventually have a collection of stories accepted for publication. I think Jeff VanderMeer might have a collection coming out within the next year or two. Who's next? Paolo? Alan? Kirsten? Cheryl?

Joyce Carol Oates: Some Contradictions

I have avoided writing about Joyce Carol Oates for a long time, and for a variety of reasons. Mostly, because I'm conflicted -- I find a small amount of her writings to be compelling and brilliant, the majority of them to be frustrating; the phenomenon of her career fascinating, but also exhausting.

Two recent responses to her work have caught my attention, though. First, there's Lionel Shriver in the Globe and Mail opening a review with this sentence: "Joyce Carol Oates is an atrocious writer."

The second piece to catch my eye was Miriam Burstein's post at The Little Professor about Oates's novel The Tattooed Girl. Burstein's general feelings about Oates are somewhat similar to mine: "As an undergraduate, I devoured Joyce Carol Oates' novels every chance I could get. A decade on, I find that my enthusiasm has waned to a near-vanishing point..." I, too, began reading Oates while at college, and her writing was an addiction for a couple of years. Part of this stemmed from how I became interested in Oates: I was in a staged reading of one of her plays. I didn't think it was a good play (far from it), but I enjoyed meeting her, and so I began reading her books. After a few years of finding her work to be flawed but compelling, my interest in her cooled, and I decided she was skilled at melodrama, but not much else.

Burstein writes,
While I was reading, the word that kept creeping into my head was..."facile." Oates doesn't seem particularly comfortable imagining her way into the heads of anti-Semites, which means that despite the back cover blurb's boast that she "probes the tragedy of ethnic hatred and challenges accepted limits of desire," the probing doesn't get far below the epidermis.
Yes, facile, exactly. And not just in her approach to her subject matter, but in the prose. Once upon a time, I thought Oates's prose style was carefully, skillfully crafted to seem careless, to capture the tumble of characters' thoughts and their visceral reactions to the world. But, in her novels at least, that's the way she always writes, regardless of whether it's an appropriate tool. It has become a habit, a stylistic tic, a shortcut to avoid having to create real emotional content for her books. All thoughts are breathless, all responses are overwrought. This is not meta-melodrama, it's just melodrama.

From her earliest books, critics have wondered why Oates writes so obsessively about violence. She bristles at the question, saying that life is violent and therefore writers should write about it, but I think the question recurs not so much because Oates writes about violence, but because of the way she does it. In much of her fiction, violence is a cheap trick she uses to create drama and intensity. She creates grotesque situations, writes about them with lots of exclamation points and simplistic stream-of-consciousness, and therefore avoids any effects of more depth or subtlety.

These criticisms are general, not specific. There are works by Oates that are, at least in my memory (I haven't read any for a few years), notably more complex and effective than the majority of her work. Broke Heart Blues is overlong but has some interesting parts, Because It is Bitter, and Because It is My Heart is deeply moving almost to the end, and the first 100 or so pages of Wonderland are as intense as any I have read (unfortunately, the rest of the book isn't nearly as good). I have heard great things about her gothic series (Bellefleur, A Bloodsmoor Romance, Mysteries of Winterthurn, and My Heart Laid Bare), but, for one reason or another, when I was reading Oates I stuck to her realistic fiction.

One of the things I admire about Oates is her determination, and her willingness to write in a wide variety of genres and modes. She has published in F&SF, Ellery Queen's, and various of Ellen Datlow's anthologies. She has praised Stephen King and edited a collection of Lovecraft's stories. Her anthology of American Gothic Tales is wide-ranging and filled with interesting choices (I'm particularly fond of Nicholson Baker's "Subsoil"). On the other hand, I often find Oates's nonfiction to be -- that word again -- facile, at least when she's writing about topics I know something about. Little errors crop up a lot, the result of, apparently, writing more from memory than from research.

Lionel Shriver says, "Oates gives the impression of publishing nothing but first drafts, which helps to explain her astounding output, and her implicit motto that more is more," but Greg Johnson, Oates's biographer, has documented that Oates revises constantly and obsessively. I have often wondered how a writer who spends, apparently, so much effort on her prose can write so many truly dreadful paragraphs, pages, and entire books. Now and then something great comes out, but so does an awful lot of dreck.

Eventually, we will be able to look back over Oates's entire career and find the gems, but for the moment we're stuck with sorting through all the dreck. I, for one, have given up, because I don't want to keep wasting my time hoping Oates will write a masterpiece. Watching her was fascinating for a while, but now it's simply exhausting, and somewhat sad, because I can't help but think she is wasting the potential she once showed, wasting it by writing so carelessly. Even when she's not being careless.

19 October 2004

Want to Write a Review?

I have advanced proofs of two forthcoming books, Harry Turtledove's Homeward Bound and Stephen Baxter's Exultant that are parts of series I have not read and don't expect to read any time soon, so I'm not going to review the books.

However, I expect somebody out there might have read either Baxter's Coalescent, to which Exultant is a sequel, or the various books in Turtledove's Worldwar or Colonization series. If you have, and want me to send you the proofs I've got, then here's a deal:

1. Send me an original review of 500-1,000 words of either Coalescent or the other Turtledove books.

2. If I like it enough to post it here at The Mumpsimus, I'll send you the corresponding proof. (So include your postal address in your email.)

3. You will then read the proof and send me another review of 500-1,000 words to post.

Since I've only got one proof for each book, whoever responds with the first publishable review will get the prize. (I can't sit around all day waiting for the next John Clute to email me, after all.) If nobody responds within a month, or if none of the responses seem to me to be worth posting, the offer is no longer valid. Void where prohibited by prohibitions.

17 October 2004

Familiar is Good, Good is Familiar

MoorishGirl links to an article in The New York Times about this year's finalists in the fiction category of the National Book Awards, an article that spends most of its words bemoaning the fact that none of the finalists are famous, because, apparently, only famous writers deserve awards.

It's a stupid article for a number of reasons, but I'm only going to focus on one, because it's an attitude I can't stand, an attitude that makes me so angry I am barely capable of arguing against it -- the attitude that promotes the familiar over the unfamiliar, that prefers the known to the unknown.

We saw plenty of this with the announcement of Elfriede Jelinek this year's winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. "She can't be any good!" people screamed. "I've never heard of her!"

Now, it may be true that Jelinek's work is terrible, or that the books nominated for the National Book Award are not nearly as good as books by Well-Known Writers. Or it may be that people don't like women winning awards, since all the National Book Award finalists are women. Maybe Philip Roth does deserve more acclaim and money. I haven't read much Roth, have read no Jelinek, and don't find awards particularly compelling for anything other than bringing attention to writers who haven't had enough.

Look at the whining in the Times article, though, by the employees of major corporate publishers -- "We are completely closing ourselves off from the culture at large", "We are not helping the book business this way", "I can't imagine what the conversation was that produced these results" (the last from a man who almost certainly hasn't read all of the finalists, and yet thinks Philip Roth must be included on all awards lists). None of these people are saying, "I read these books and didn't think much of them," but, instead, "These books didn't have expensive publicity campaigns behind them. How can they be any good?" The children of Mammon scream for the tit.

The culture at large? Have you looked at the bestseller lists recently? Or even not recently? Plenty of good fun, yes, but not much of real substance. Fiction of subtlety and depth -- the kind of fiction that deserves major literary awards -- seldom finds its way anywhere near the culture at large, and the culture at large couldn't care less. An award like the NBA should say, "Hey, culture! Look here! This stuff here, this is good!" Anything else is pandering.

Not helping the book business? Ahhh, now we begin to understand. An award is an extension of the corporation's profit plan. Books aren't bringing in as much money as DVDs and Michael Jackson, so clearly they are a marginal activity, and we, the Defenders of Books, should rally together and determine which few books should be promoted more so that they don't disappear into the oblivion of the unprofitable midlist. Philip Roth will keep the illiterate bosses happy.

Can't imagine the conversation? Maybe it went something like this: "Did you like the new Philip Roth book?" "Yeah. Interesting. But you've got to read Christine Schutt's book. It's amazing."

Even though Florida only sold (according to the Times story) about 150 copies before the announcement of the finalists, I didn't find the above conversation particularly difficult to imagine.

The central paragraph of the article is not a quote from a handwringing lackey of commercial publishing, but, instead, comes straight from the author of the article, Edward Wyatt, who, in the interest of feigning balance, quoted the editor-in-chief at Milkweed Editions, then undercut the quotation with the following comment:
Still, however uneasy the alliance between literary culture and commercial publishing, it is not clear that literature benefits when one of its signal awards involves only books read by a few hundred people.
Not clear to whom? Does giving awards to books that sell millions of copies benefit "literature", whatever Mr. Wyatt's conception of it is? This guy should go back to whatever business school produced him.

I know that I've read quite a few books -- and stories and poems and uncategorizable things -- over the past year by writers whose names were unfamiliar to me, and some of those writers proved themselves to be extraordinarily skilled, their work far better than anything I read by well-established names. That doesn't mean lesser-known writers are always good or well-known writers are always mediocre or bad. No, the point is this: What good is served by bringing more attention to writers already drowning in it? Why assume something is bad because it is unfamiliar?

14 October 2004

Return of the Bloggers

Two writers who stopped blogging shortly after I started reading their blogs (correllation is not causation) have returned: William Gibson and Richard Calder (who isn't blogging very frequently, but a little bit now and then is certainly better than nothing).

Gibson's reasons for launching himself back into the blogosphere give a sense of the direction he expects his blog to take:
Because the United States currently has, as Jack Womack so succintly puts it, a president who makes Richard Nixon look like Abraham Lincoln.

And because, as the Spanish philospher Unamuno said, "At times, to be silent is to lie."via Boing Boing

Poetry and Speculation

Daniel E. Blackston at SF Reader has reviewed the latest Rhysling Award Anthology from the Science Fiction Poetry Association. It's nice to see the anthology getting some attention, because it's a nice collection, and is, for authors and editors and nominators and everyone involved, a labor of love. As a member of the SFPA, I know I found it a valuable tool when voting. In fact, it even caused me to vote for one poem I didn't nominate, because I thought it was better than the one I had, but I hadn't previously encountered it.

Blackston's review is thoughtful and shows careful reading of the anthology. It would be wonderful if more poetry got this sort of attention*. I'm also glad that he's willing to take issue with some of the collection, essentially creating a manifesto, a call to arms:
My overall verdict on The Rhysling Anthology is that the poems included probably do represent the most technically accomplished SF poems of the year. That means, you are getting grade-A quality with this collection and the Awards are going to deserving writers, but to my mind, there are creepier, more science-fictional, more heroic, more squarely speculative poems being published, and some of these should be included in the anthology, as well. After all, the academic and small press literary journals are chock-full of lyric poems in the manner of Stevens, Plath, Rimbaud, Pound and the Imagists, and even ... Bukowski. The SF field for poetry, as for fiction, isn't limited by literary tradition; we're the makers of new traditions ...
While I think my taste is quite different from Blackston's (he doesn't mention either of the poems I nominated, and only two of the six I voted for), I agree with his overall take on the anthology: it's full of competent poems, a few of which are excellent by almost any standard, but it's monotonous.

Blackston argues for SF poetry to be more SFnal. I have never been able to figure out what "SF poetry" is, what it's supposed to do, how it is different from other types of poetry**, so I can't join him in that argument, but I do think that the poetry that gets called SF Poetry ought to have a larger horizon, because by the standards of literature outside of the SF world, SF poetry makes most speculative fiction look daring and formally innovative. At least the fiction is being written as if we're living in 1950, not 1900. SF poetry has plenty of people emulating Donald Hall, but where is our Charles Olson, our Muriel Rukeyser, our Frank O'Hara? We don't need one form, we need multiplicities! (Heck, even Donald Hall's written a couple good poems.)

Of course, I'm generalizing horribly, and I'm arguing for something I don't believe in, since I don't believe in SF poetry, but just because I don't believe in it doesn't mean people aren't trying to write it. But The Rhysling Anthology isn't even within lightyears of the variety of either an average Pushcart Prize volume or Robert Creeley's 2002 Best American Poetry anthology, which is, I think, a model of what a truly diverse annual anthology can be (Lyn Hejinian's from this year seems less successful to me, but I also haven't spent as much time with it as I have Creeley's volume. --By the way, Hejinian's My Life is being blogged.)

I'm as much at fault as anyone, having been responsible for putting two poems in the anthology. Yes, "Tomatoes Cannot Tolerate Frost" is O'Hara-esque in certain ways, and I'm very fond of its out-of-left-field weirdness, but "Quasimodo Takes the Grand Tour" impressed me primarily with the vigor of its language -- a commendable quality, but the most common one among the best work nominated. I chose it because I encountered so few poems that met the length requirement for the "long poem" category and did anything other than bore me.

What we need are more editors like Alan DeNiro, who edits the poetry for Say.... You may not particularly care for the poetry Alan selects, but you can't say that it's the sort of poetry that appears everywhere else. Say ... Why Aren't We Crying includes the best poem I've ever read from Bruce Boston, whom I associate primarily with an interminable series of jokey poems about famous monsters' wives. He's actually a writer of tremendous skill, vision, and diversity, and Say... gives him at least one place where he can demonstrate that fact. (To be fair, Boston's poem "The Crow is Dismantled in Flight" in The Rhysling Anthology has fascinating elements, and got one of my three votes in the "long poem" category, though I did think it was a bit too long for its own good.)

In any case, it's good that poetry is getting some attention. Now I hope that attention will lead to more diversity, more imagination about both form and content, more pure weirdness for its own sake. Because if poetry can't revel in weirdness, what can?


*Note that Blackston has put out a call for people to send him chapbooks and collections for review. Poets -- do so! I'm also always willing to review poetry, regardless of genre, so if you've got a chapbook or a collection published, email me and see if I've got time to read it.

**"SF poetry" is a label for content, which means it has no more (or less) value than "car poetry" or "what-I-did-on-my-summer-vacation poetry" or any other poetry defined solely by what it's about.

Update 10/15/04: Trent Walters is far better read than I when it comes to Bruce Boston, so please be sure to see his generous and thoughtful response to my post here. Though Trent says at times I make him want to stop blogging, I hope he doesn't quit before me, because he's good at keeping me honest.

Two from Maud

Maud Newton notes that the National Book Award finalists have been announced, and include Madeleine is Sleeping by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, a book that is sitting on my desk at this very moment, waiting to be read. (It was recommended to me both by a friend of the author, who said, "It's weird, you'll like it," and by Gwenda Bond, who once even mentioned me in the same post as the book -- a fact that may be an omen dooming the book to inevitable obscurity and failure.)

Maud also links to an interview with Jonathan Lethem, in which Lethem discusses contemporary fiction and its influences. For a guy who got his start writing for Asimov's and the now dearly-departed Aboriginal SF, Lethem has done well for himself, and identifies Don DeLillo as the writer who has merged the worlds of literary innovation and tradition. The most amusing part of the short, rather shallow interview is that whoever transcribed it conflated John Barth and Donald Barthelme into John Barthelme. I'd like to read a book by him! Giles Goat-Boy's Dead Father, The Snow White Factor, A Sabbatical in Paradise, "Lost in the School"....

12 October 2004

Goss, Singh, Gilman Reading in Cambridge, MA

I think I will be going to the following:
16 Oct. 3-5 PM -- Theodora Goss will launch her debut chapbook, The Rose in Twelve Petals, with two other readers, Vandana Singh & World Fantasy nominated ("A Crowd of Bone") Greer Gilman, Pandemonium Books & Games, The Garage @ Harvard SQ, 36 JFK St. Cambridge, MA
I'm not 100% sure I'll be there, because I have to work until 11.30 or so, but there are a couple of reasons I'm going to do my best -- the readers are each phenomenal writers, my first Locus review is of Goss's chapbook (the review should be out next month), and it's a day before my birthday (aw, shucks).

Here are fine samples of writing by the writers who will be reading:

"The Rapid Advance of Sorrow" by Theodora Goss

"Three Tales from Sky River" by Vandana Singh

a short excerpt from "Jack Daw's Pack" by Greer Gilman

Real Gone by Tom Waits

Definitely part of the original idea was to do something somewhere between surreal and rural. We call it surrural. That's what these songs are -- surrural. There's an element of something old about them, and yet it's kind of disorienting, because it's not an old record by an old guy.

--Tom Waits, 1999
Since Jonathan Strahan has been writing about R.E.M.'s rather bland new album, I thought I would say a few words here about Real Gone, the new album from Tom Waits.

If you have heard Waits previously and found his voice -- which sounds like Bob Dylan chewing on a carburetor -- off-putting, then you will not like this album, because most of the songs here are noisy and raw. Waits growls and screams and grunts and moans relentlessly through the first five tracks, letting up only for a moment with How's It Gonna End. This is industrial Waits -- surruralist prayers hung on the wall of a munitions factory, their rhythms collated in a dadabase of grunge.

To someone who doesn't appreciate Waits, it's impossible to explain his appeal. Yes, we can praise his lyrics, and even his melodies (when he chooses to have them). But how to explain the thrill his voice conveys, how to explain that "Hoist That Rag" moved me both to laughter and tears? Music goes to the limbic system, it bypasses reason, it spits on our epistemologies.

So let me just say here that, once again, the lyrics Waits has come up with (in collaboration with his wife, Kathleen Brennan), are phenomenal and surprising -- the lines "Smoke is blacking out the sun/ At night I pray and clean my gun" from the aforementioned "Hoist That Rag" are, perhaps to me alone, simultaneously hilarious and haunting.

Guns and God appear as often on this album as at a Republican Convention. "You know I feel like a/ Preacher waving a gun around", "He had a bullet-proof smile", "God took the stars and he tossed 'em", etc. Death appears a lot, too, especially in the song "Dead and Lovely", which is a kind of gothic torch song, perfect for a David Lynch movie, with the chorus: "But now she's dead/ She's so dead forever/ Dead and lovely now."

"Circus" is a spoken-word piece, similar to "What's He Building?" from Mule Variations. It's a familiar enough track, harking back to the proto-Beat songs of the '70s albums.

What's new on this album, though (aside from the prevalence of beat-boxing gospel songs with guns), is "Day After Tomorrow", a song that seems to be speaking to current events (an impression aided by the song's appearance on Future Soundtrack for America, a grab-bag of songs created as a fundraiser for anti-Bush forces [it also includes one of the better songs from the new R.E.M. album]). The song has a certain affinity to "A Soldier's Things", but it's more frightened and hopeful than nostalgic, being a dramatic monologue from a soldier waiting to come home:
They fill us full of lies everyone buys
'Bout what it means to
Be a soldier. I still don't
Know how I'm supposed to feel 'bout
All the blood that's been spilled.

Will God on this throne
Get me back home
On the day after tomorrow?

You can't deny the other side
Don't want to die anymore
Than we do. What I'm
Trying to say is: Don't they pray
To the same God that we do?

And tell me how does God
Choose, whose prayers does he
Refuse? Who turns the wheel
Who rolls the dice
On the day after tomorrow?
A reviewer somewhere made an astute point about this song: While we may see it as a comment on the current situation in Iraq, there is nothing in the song to locate it in one particular war or another, and so Waits's real accomplishment is to have written a song that feels like it could be the thoughts of any confused and frightened soldier of the past fifty years at least. Laid out naked and on their own, the lyrics seem touching, painful, and naive -- their job is not so much to be penetrating philosophy as to portray a character: a kid lost at war.

Musically, "Day After Tomorrow" is one of the simplest songs on the album, one of the quietest, the sound of whispers in the night. After so many relentless and coruscating songs, "Day After Tomorrow" is a devastating finale. (It's not the final song, though, as Waits adds an amusing, minute-long coda of mouth-noise to remind us of where we have been.)

It is not surprising to me that Waits's music has made cameo appearances in books by Neil Gaiman and M. John Harrison (among others), because there is something to the oddity of his vision, his insistent strangeness, that matches those writers' emotional landscapes, different as they are. In another life, Waits would have been a great fantasy writer.

Some links:
Tom Waits's record company's site, which includes some downloads

Official Tom Waits website (not updated recently)

Tom Waits for No Man: A Tom Waits News Blog

The Eyeball Kid, another news blog

Rain Dogs Mailing List

Tom Waits Fan site

various reviews of Real Gone

09 October 2004

If the Presidential Debates were Moderated by Science Fiction Fans...

MODERATOR: Welcome to the first World Science Fiction Presidential Debate, sponsored by Tor Books and Baen Books. Let's start right off. What do you think about the threat of clones and/or cyborgs replacing middle-class workers? Mr. President?

BUSH: I'm against it. In my administration, no cloning will go for money. I was talking with Tommy Franks just the other day about cloning. The President has to be strong on cloning. You have to make decisions. My opponent has been in the Senate since the end of eternity, and he has never once made any. Decisions. And that's bad. The American people expect cloning to be against God's will. It's like abortion with stem cells, which I supported very much, it's important, it's the beginning of the start of something, but there's morality. The President has to be moral.

MODERATOR: Senator Kerry, a rebuttal?

KERRY: I'm glad you asked that question. Considering that cloning is, at the moment, a theoretical venture, we must be certain that what I voted for is what was enacted, which, if you consider what this administration has accomplished, is very little. It's a complicated issue. The President has shown no leadership on this subject, and it's a subject we can't approach with folded hands. My plan will accomodate clones and non-clones, it will allow cyborg technology to be explicated by the best minds in the universe, and it will cut the deficit in half.

MODERATOR: How do you feel about genre-bending movements such as The New Weird and Interstitial Arts? Are they a threat to the purity of science fiction and fantasy? Senator Kerry?

KERRY: I believe that we can have a large movement all together, and that the tent we live in -- or, rather, everyone here but the President and I and, I'm sorry to say, you Mr. Moderator [chuckles] -- that tent -- it's large and can contain multitudes. What's new and weird is the President's approach in Iraq. If we had made alliances, we would have an interstitial approach to foreign policy, but at the moment, the failed policies of this administration have given us a maze of death which our troops are dying inside.

MODERATOR: Mr. Bush?

BUSH: What's new and weird is my opponent's love for Saddam Hussein. Look, I don't know half of what he's talking about, I don't understand any of the words he's using, but I know I'm right. And that's not weird, and it's not new.

MODERATOR: What happened to the science in science fiction? Have we forgotten the future? Mr. Bush?

BUSH: Science is good. But so is God. We need to be careful. I know what you're asking. Your question is about Iraq. If we had used stem cells in Iraq, Saddam Hussein would still be in power and my opponent would like that. You see, being President is a tough job. It's always about the future. I am the future. I am God.

MODERATOR: Senator Kerry, a rebuttal?

KERRY: This administration hates science, and they hate the future. I'm going to be the President who believes in science, even if it's science fiction, which is about the future, and when I was in Vietnam I thought many times about the future. Let the President call me wishy-washy, let him say I vacillate -- the choice is yours, the future and science, or fuzzy math and deficits and more jobs lost than any President in 72 years, which, when factored by five, becomes the phone number for Dick Cheney's office if you just rearrange some of the digits, and I'm concerned about that, I'm deeply concerned, because I did not vote for it, even though the President will try to convince you that I did, but we know the truth. The future of science is fiction, and we can all agree on that, even if we think differently.

MODERATOR: Is the fantasy genre too dominated by the influence of J.R.R. Tolkien? Mr. President?

BUSH: When I was young, yes, I did things I was not proud of, including some fantasies. I had fantasies. But I am a different man now. I don't approve of all that. We passed the Defense of Marriage Act because of the influence of fantasies. Some people say that was a bad decision, but the President has got to be willing to make bad decisions. Unpopular decisions. Decisions. About things. That are real. Not fantasies. My opponent is a fantasy. He sits at home and comes up with numbers that just don't add up, and then he doesn't vote for them. He is Saddam Hussein. Still in power. That's a fantasy. We're supporting the troops. There are jobs that have been created. Real life. No fantasy.

MODERATOR: Senator Kerry?

KERRY: Boy, to listen to that -- the President, I don't think, is living in a world of reality, and if the Red Sox win the World Series that will be because the deficit has been cut in half by the descendants of J.R.R. Tolkien. It was the Clinton Administration that created the Defense of Marriage Act, and here is the President trying to take credit for that great deed, a deed I approve of and voted for, just like I voted for killing Saddam Hussein, but we must never forget that Mervyn Peake was not a writer to be underestimated, and I have respect, great respect, for people who claim him as their predecessor. Let me just say to you, though -- number one, don't throw the labels around. Labels don't mean anything, and what we need to do is see the world as one large alliance of different types of people who have not been brought together by this administration because they are unwilling to see that there are multiple paths toward any one problem, and that problems are complex, and complexity can be the basic sword used to capture the ring of the dark lords, like Saddam Hussein, who I voted against, even though he wasn't in Afghanistan, which was right, and I promise you my administration will go to Afghanistan and kill the dark lords.

MODERATOR: Final statements. Why should a science fiction fan vote for you? Mr. President?

BUSH: Because the future is important. The future is tomorrow, it's not yesterday. If you change horses in midstream, then Saddam Hussein would still be in power. Do I own a timber company? Do you want some wood? The world changed after 9/11, and I think science fiction knows that. I think people are smart. Not everyone can go to Yale, though, and that's why I'm going to triumph in November.

KERRY: I would like to end with a song. [Sings in a deep voice:]
When Summer lies upon the world,
and in a noon of gold
Beneath the roof of sleeping leaves
the dreams of trees unfold;
When woodland halls are green and cool,
and wind is in the West,
Come back to me! Come back to me,
and say my land is best!

MODERATOR: And that concludes our debate. Thank you everyone, and may the Force be with you in November.

Stable Strategies 3

[Part 1, Part 2]

Today I read the next four stories in Stable Strategies and Others, "Computer Friendly", "The Sock Story", "Coming to Terms", and "Lichen and Rock".

"Computer Friendly" was written in the late 1980s, and it garnered a Hugo Award nomination, probably because its plot revolves around a girl in a super-cyber future where everyone is part of a network and children are euthanized if their personalities are out of line -- an idea still capable of being fresh then (although Isaac Asimov did a better job with elements of the story in 1951's "The Fun They Had"). It's the sort of thing that gets labeled a "cautionary tale", but it's also an example of the danger of writing SF solely about ideas: if the ideas become quaint, the story needs to be able to survive on something else. Unfortunately, time has not dealt kindly with "Computer Friendly", and now it simply seems to take too many pages to accomplish too little. The main character is a cartoon, her situation doesn't make much sense (she overcomes obstacles so easily that it's unclear why she is the first and only person to accomplish what she does), and the attempts at satire are broad and cliched.

"The Sock Story", which follows, is good fun, mostly because it's only three pages long and the narrative voice is strong to the point of arrogance. It's a simple and trivial story, but I love the attitude in the last sentence: "That's all there is to this story, and there's no use in complaining if you don't like it, because this is the way it's got to be told." So there, all you crritics!

The next story, "Coming to Terms", is new and first published in this collection. It's essentially a mainstream story, one with some moments of excellence, but the last paragraphs are so determined to make sure the hapless reader Gets It that the tone is grating, the story undermined by its own weighty seriousness. Had Gunn cut the final three paragraphs, the ending would have had far more resonance. It is the story of a daughter cleaning out her father's apartment after his death, wondering why he wrote in all his books and why he left little notes everywhere, as if scribbling in the margins of his life, a life lived more fully with books than with people. This idea is a beautiful, sad, and complex one; indeed, it is based on reality: Gunn tells us in the note after the story that she was inspired to write it after helping to clean out the apartment of the late Avram Davison, who, she discovered, wrote in all his books and left notes around. The story ends with the appearance and disappearance of a ghost or a memory or a dream, one that nearly kills the narrator. The image itself is not inappropriate to the story, but the explanation of it is, leaving us with a good story that was, apparently, sent to Hallmark for final approval.

Gunn did not send "Lichen and Rock" off to the Hallmark Factory, and, consequently, it is the best story in the book so far. Earlier, I said I looked forward to reading this story, because I had fond memories of reading it when it was first published thirteen years ago. I was also scared, because my tastes have matured (or at least changed) in that time, and I had not yet read a story in the book that truly excited me. All so far have been competent, some have been more compelling than others, and I've only regretted spending time on one ("Computer Friendly"), but none of the first five stories really seemed to justify the collection -- never mind justify the ridiculous hyperbole of the blurbs, introductions, and afterword.

"Lichen and Rock" justifies everything. I read it with a skeptical eye, and it won me over, it sucker-punched my imagination, and moments after finishing it I read it again. It's both science fiction and fantasy, it's a fairy tale, a tall tale, a legend and a myth of a future. It's funny and sad, it's sentimental and hard-edged, it's beguiling and enthralling. It's dense and yet easy to read, and each paragraph is perfect, each sentence exact. It tells the story of a girl named Lichen who is sent away to a school run by carp-eyed creatures with circuits inside. She loses paradise, enters servitude, escapes, ascends to heaven, reconnects with her family, laughs, and discovers the whale-shaped rock she once played on as a child has been released into the sea. The story is sui generis, it playfully scuttles all genre distinctions, it is a joy and a revelation.

Though the stories in Stable Strategies and Others are not arranged chronologically, they feel that way, because "Lichen and Rock" is the culmination of all that is good about the previous stories, without any of the bad. Here is dark humor supported by a vivid imagination, here is a child viewpoint character in a story with a strong and versatile narrative voice, here is a moral vision that doesn't preach.

Now all I can do is hope the rest of the book is not just a long denoument from the climax that is "Lichen and Rock". We shall see.

08 October 2004

15 Great Science Fiction Novels

Mark Sarvas discovered an interesting list of 15 recommended science fiction novels at, of all places, Business Week's website.

It's a purely personal list, arranged chronologically, but it's wonderfully varied. Far better than most such lists I've seen. Rather than the specific choices, what I most admire is the spirit of the list -- books that are classics of the SF field alongside books better known outside the confines of the SF label.

07 October 2004

Magic Realism, Science Fiction, Futuristic Fantasy, and the American Short Story

Rake's Progress points toward an interview with Lydia Davis (writer of odd and often interesting shortshortshort stories) in which Davis and interviewer Mark Budman say the following:
Budman: But if you survey American literary magazines, with the notable exception of Zoetrope All Story (i.e. The Cavemen in the Hedges), you will rarely see magic realism published. Could it be that some editors are afraid that magic realism will be mistaken for, gasp, science fiction?

Davis: One name comes to my mind in this discussion, and that is George Saunders. I wonder just how you would categorize his fiction.

Budman: Well, he is an engineer like me. Which means he is a literary, goofy, surreal science fiction writer--it all comes with a little known clause in the engineering diploma (should you decide to accept it). What is your take on him?

Davis: I like his work very much. I was bowled over when I first read it--so horrifying and yet familiar and funny at the same time. It does (magically) manage to sit squarely in the tradition of the American short story and yet just as squarely occupy the niche of futuristic fantasy (I guess we can’t call it science fiction because there’s no science in it, but exaggerations of the horrors we already live with).
First off: yes, indeed, George Saunders is an excellent writer -- a year or two ago I even had a review of his two collections, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and Pastoralia published in English Journal. I was very happy that the SF world discovered him this year, with his story "Jon" in Karen Haber and Jonathan Strahan's best SF of the year anthology and "The Red Bow" in the Datlow/Link&Grant Year's Best Fantasy and Horror.

And yes, he exaggerates the horrors of contemporary life and turns them into futuristic fantasies, a technique used by science fiction writers for quite a few decades now.

What can we make of that problematic term "magic realism"? Outside a specific Latin American literary tendency, I'm not sure how "magic realism" is any different from "fantasy", unless "fantasy" is what people write to make money and "magic realism" is what people write to make tenure.

Okay, yes, I'm being unfair. There are plenty of definitions of magic(al) realism, some of which distinguish it quite specifically from any other mode of writing. There's even an excellent page where various scholars and writers connected to the SF world have a go at delineating the distinctions between magic realism and other types of imaginative writing.

I wonder if the general term "fantasy" is dead? Does it only refer to faux-medieval tales with dragons and dark lords? Must there be distinctions between magic realists, surrealists, fabulators, and fantasists?

A few years ago a friend of mine was at the MacDowell Colony with Paul LaFarge (who also appears in the Datlow/Link&Grant anthology). "You'll love him," she said to me. "He calls himself a fabulist." She thought this was fabulous. It meant he was serious and wrote complex stories for adults.

I liked LaFarge's book The Artist of the Missing -- in fact, when I first read it I fell head-over-heels in love with it. My passion for the book has dwindled with time, but we're still friends. (I was less thrilled by LaFarge's second novel, Haussmann, or, The Distinction -- mostly because I went into it with an overwhelming idea of what it should be, and it wasn't. My fault, not the book's.)

"The tradition of the American short story" and "the niche of futuristic fantasy" are not mutually exclusive gated communities, as George Saunders's work certainly demonstrates. It is a shame to neglect a lot of writers who came before him, however, and who wrote stories at least the equal of his, just because he's safe to discuss at cocktail parties of the literati. Saunders is, in many ways, a great 1950s science fiction writer who happens to be publishing in the New Yorker fifty years after he could have appeared in Galaxy alongside his contemporaries: Robert Sheckley, William Tenn, and (well, a little later) R.A. Lafferty.

06 October 2004

Experiment and Fiction 2

During my recent pause from blogging, I realized what I like most about this medium is not the opportunity to spout out my own questionable opinions, but rather the opportunity to participate in conversations. In the comments to my previous entry, a wide variety of people offer valuable thoughts, arguments, and clarifications.

I like Jeff Ford's first comment so much I want to draw a bit more attention to it by quoting it here:
It's my belief that when most of the writers you mentioned wrote their works, they were not "experiments" but instead passionate expressions of each artist's vision. A good reader can smell an "experiment" a mile away. When the vision dictates the form and the form no matter how different must be itself, that's not an experiment, that's writing a story. Much value is placed on "experiment" these days but less is placed on the true expression of a vision. Some of the greatest of these appear completely traditional, devoid of a recognizeable style, clear as water. An experiment is a test, as a reader I want the thing itself.
Also, I should point you toward Derik's marvelous blog MadInkBeard, which is devoted to literary constraint (e.g., what the members of Oulipo have done). Derik has been writing a lot about Gilbert Sorrentino, a writer who certainly deserves more attention (in fact, I quoted him myself one day a few months back -- a passage somewhat relevant to this discussion).

I should also point your attention toward Ray Davis's marvelous site Pseudopodium. In fact, Ray even has a great post that continues this very conversation.

In the comments, David Reilly disagrees with my characterization of Dubliners, noting that, indeed, Chekhov, Turgenev, and Maupassant had written similar sorts of stories before Joyce. I was thinking of a different context -- the context of Irish literature and society at the time Joyce was writing. According to Richard Ellmann's biography, Joyce read any Irish writer he thought might be doing similar work as he was, and ended up disappointed that no-one was actually doing so (at least to his standards. He also claimed not to have read Chekhov at the time he was writing his own stories). Whether something is "experimental" or "innovative" often depends on the perspective you choose and the contextual filter you apply. David Reilly and I don't particularly disagree, we're just choosing vastly different points of comparison.

Over at his blog, Alan DeNiro has some interesting posts about poetry: innovation, generations, teaching, reading. I particularly like the idea of mixing incompatible manifestos to discover new paths to explore, as I generally find myself attracted to movements that seem mutually exclusive. Even though I love the idea of bizarre, mind-busting, tradition-killing innovation in writing, the truth is that most of what I read and like to read is pretty traditional, and I have less patience with half-successful innovative writing than I do with half-successful traditional writing. But I know few joys greater than watching a writer accomplish something that seems, in concept, impossible or foolish. A recent example is Stepan Chapman's story "The Revenge of the Calico Cat" in Leviathan 4 -- in a book where some of the more obviously experimental stories didn't work for me (explanation forthcoming in a month or so at SF Site), Chapman's story is an example of a brilliant writer making a story work that has absolutely no right to work at all. It's an existentialist tale starring toy stuffed animals, told through multiple narratives and viewpoints, and it manages to be funny, sad, moving, and stunningly complex. (Toy stuffed animals!)

Since not enough women have joined the conversation here, let me end with another quotation from a contemporary writer who happens to be female, Suzan-Lori Parks, from an essay at the beginning of her book The America Play and Other Works:
Playwrights are often encouraged to write 2-act plays with traditional linear narratives. Those sorts of plays are fine, but we should understand that the form is not merely a docile passive vessel, but an active participant in the sort of play which ultimately inhabits it. Why linear narrative at all? Why choose that shape? If a playwright chooses to tell a dramatic story, and realizes that there are essential elements to that story which lead the writing outside the realm of "linear narrative", then the play naturally assumes a new shape. I'm saying that the inhabitants of Mars do not look like us. Nor should they. I'm also saying that Mars is with us -- right on our doorstep and should be explored. Most playwrights who consider themselves avant-garde spend a lot of time badmouthing the more traditional forms. The naturalism of, say, Lorraine Hansberry is beautiful and should not be dismissed simply because it's naturalism. We should understand that realism, like other movements in other artforms, is a specific response to a certain historical climate. I don't explode the form because I find traditional plays "boring" -- I don't really. It's just that those structures never could accommodate the figures which take up residence inside me.

05 October 2004

Experiment and Fiction

A question at the end of one of Jeff VanderMeer's recent posts has been nagging at me -- "Do writers of experimental fiction need to prove they can tell a good story before they start experimenting?"

Some people immediately reply, "Yes!" to that question, the same way people shout "Yes!" when asked whether a painter has to be able to paint recognizable objects before being able to paint abstractly. "Know the rules before you break them," is common advice to artists of all kinds.

Does that make sense? Why should an artist's ability in one mode be a determiner or critique of the artist's ability in another mode? Does the fact that somebody can "write a good, old-fashioned story" make you like their experiments any more than you would otherwise? Plenty of people write bad stories with "the rules", so why is it worse when people write bad stories without them?

I can think of a few visual artists who moved from representative painting to abstract -- Picasso being the most obvious. Is there a literary equivalent? No-one springs immediately to mind, perhaps because of my own ignorance (I haven't read, for instance, the earliest works of William S. Burroughs and John Barth, who may fit that pattern, but I'm only familiar with their later, more famous and experimental books).

I can't begin to get close to Jeff's question, because others nag me: Whose definition of experimental are we using here? Isn't every piece of writing an experiment of some sort, one that could be a success or failure? Whose definition of "good" and "story" and "good story" are we using? What period of history? What culture?

"Experimental" is, like so many labels applied to fiction, prone to problems, quibbles, and questionable assumptions. Plenty of writers prefer the term "innovative", but that just exchanges one vine of semantic thorns for another. Where the line between "traditional" and "experimental" lies depends on who is drawing it.

This does not mean that I deny there is such as thing as "experimental" or "innovative" writing, any more than I deny there is something called "science fiction", despite the fact that everyone has a different definition for it.

Nor do I deny that lots of writing that seeks to be innovative and edgy is utterly awful -- lazy, imprecise, meretricious, tedious, and stupid. It's difficult to criticize such writing, because it seeks to create its own rules -- rules that may or may not be apparent to the reader. What sometimes gets forgotten in the arguing back and forth between traditionalists and mad scientists is that just because a piece of writing scorns familiar literary customs and conventions doesn't mean that it exists without its own customs and conventions. It is against those customs and conventions that the work can be analyzed and evaluated. The burden lies in the work itself, for it must offer some clues as to how it can be constructed in the reader's mind. Even Finnegan's Wake, one of the most obviously experimental books in English, follows a system that can be interpreted, and (with some work) readers can judge for themselves how much the book's goals are ones they are sympathetic to, and how well they think it meets them.

Joyce himself may seem to be a writer who started out writing traditional stories (in Dubliners and the play Exiles) and who, with each book, moved farther and farther away from the basic traditions of fiction. However, it may be easy to forget how strange Joyce's first stories seemed when he wrote them, because their influence on later work has been profound. (Exiles is different because it did not have much, if any, influence on later playwrights. It attempted to bring Ibsenism to the UK, but Bernard Shaw had already assimilated and expanded Ibsen's innovations, and Ibsen's own plays were quite popular.)

What about another Irishman (and friend of Joyce) Samuel Beckett? Even his earliest work is wildly experimental, and it just got more so with each decade, until his last pieces of prose and his last plays seem to be trying to silence themselves. He certainly doesn't appeal to all tastes, but to me Beckett is the greatest playwright and fictioneer of the 20th Century, a writer whose words I cherish, whose images haunt me. A storyteller? No, not really. And yes, certainly, at times at least. I don't know. The question seems irrelevant with Beckett. Should we throw Beckett away because he didn't, and probably couldn't, simply "tell a good story"?

Virginia Woolf, who began as a more-or-less traditional novelist (with The Voyage Out), seems to fit the model Jeff is talking about, because she was someone who was capable of writing fiction that used the conventions of the basic fiction of her time. However, she didn't write anything particularly interesting or compelling until she discovered new forms and structures that let her talents create fictions quite different from the standard fictions of her day. Her first two books are hardly "good stories" -- they're quite dull, actually. But they are stories.

In our own time, we have writers like David Foster Wallace and Carole Maso. I think Wallace is over-rated, with his fans so determined to call him a genius that his occasional good work gets lost in the hype. Maso is, it seems to me, a far more versatile and profound writer than Wallace, though she also, like any writer, has better and worse pieces of work. I'm fond of her collection of essays Break Every Rule, and will conclude these unconcluded stabs at thought with a passage from her essay "Notes of a Lyric Artist Working in Prose":
To use all and everything that is available to us through observation, memory, fantasy, desire, imagination -- so as to get up close next to one's vision.

Miracles might occur.

Jean-Luc Godard: "Cinema is not a series of abstract ideas but rather the phrasing of moments."

New definitions of story and character may be required. To imagine story as a blooming flower or a series of blossomings. To change the narrative drive, to better mimic one's own realities, drives. So that narrative might be many things. One hundred love letters, written by hand.

Understand and accept the limitations and contours of traditional narrative. ...

How to incorporate the joys and pleasures, tenderness, delicacies, the generosities and seductions of the novel and its narrative capacities with the extraordinary, awesome capabilities of poetry? There's the challenge. Who is up to it? I wonder.

04 October 2004

Quote for the Day

Style in writing is neither simply scrupulous transparency nor runaway expressivity. It is the use of language to produce a particular effect for a particular purpose in a particular context. It is the willingness to so use language for what the language has to offer.

--Daniel Green

03 October 2004

Stable Strategies 2

And now to the substance of Stable Strategies and Others, the stories themselves. I've decided to read them in the order they are included in the book, rather than, as I was first tempted, chronologically. I'm curious to see Gunn's development, but I'm just as curious to see how the order she (presumably) has laid them out in affects the reading.

I have now read the first two stories, "Stable Strategies for Middle Management" and "Fellow Americans". The former I read in the late 1980s, when it was first published in Asimov's and then reprinted in Gardner Dozois's Best of the Year anthology. I remember thinking it was funny and perplexing. Now I find it odd that I was able to get any meaning out of the story at all, because I was too young then to know anything about what the story was satirizing.

If I were trying to sell a script of this story to Hollywood, I'd pitch it as "Kafka meets 'The Office'", but it's only Kafkaesque if every story wherein people turn into insects deserves that label, and none of the insects are quite as repulsive as some of the characters in the British TV series.

There is much to praise in the story, from its wit to its length (it does not overstay its welcome or wear its jokes thin), but what I like most is the first paragraph -- or, rather, I love how the first paragraph echoes the epigraph:
Our cousin the insect has an external skeleton made of shiny brown chitin, a material that is particularly responsive to the demands of evolution. Just as bioengineering has sculpted our bodies into new forms, so evolution has changed the early insect's chewing mouthparts into her descendant's chisels, siphons, and stilettos, and has molded from the chitin special tools -- pockets to carry pollen, combs to clean her compound eyes, notches on which she can fiddle a song.
--From the popular science program Insect People!


I awoke this morning to discover that bioengineering had made demands upon me during the night. My tongue had turned into a stiletto, and my left hand now contained a small chitinous comb, as if for cleaning a compound eye. Since I didn't have compound eyes, I thought that perhaps this presaged some change to come.
It's a light and vicious story in which the Social Darwinism of office politics gets literalized by entomology. A good choice to begin the book, because it's not only the most famous story here -- if you know Gunn's writing, it's likely you know it because of "Stable Strategies for Middle Management" -- but it also lets us begin with a chuckle or two.

"Fellow Americans" is funny, too, but it's a darker story. It is alternate history -- in this world, Goldwater became president, Robert Kennedy lived, Vietnam was nuked, and Nixon got famous as the host of a TV show where contestants won by figuring out when he was lying and not. It is a skillful story, building a world from hints and suggestions, though at times it gives in to the unfortunate tendency of many such stories to keep the reader guessing who is who and how they got cast in their cameo role. Gunn's story rises above the trickery of most alternate history tales by constantly being inventive -- Nixon's story of tripping on acid while his wife, Pat, lies under a piano, crying for all the music locked inside it, is phenomenal, as is the scene of Nixon and Pat naked in a hot-tub with Dan and Marilyn Quayle. There is also an undercurrent of sadness running through the story; the sadness of a Goldwater who unleashed horrors on the world and still thinks it was justified, the sadness of knowing we live in a world where Nixon, who in this story is at the very least likeable, had a far worse fate. The various strands aren't quite substantial enough to overcome my prejudices against most alternate history stories, but the character of Nixon is vividly drawn.

Both stories are a pleasure to read, though both also lack a difficult-to-pinpoint weightiness that I associate with stories that are both entertaining and profound -- the kind of weightiness George Saunders accomplishes at his best, where a story can move from being laugh-out-loud funny at one moment to deeply moving at the next. I'm not sure such an effect is Gunn's goal, and so I don't want to fault her for not achieving it, but I have the sense that if it were one of her goals, she would be the kind of author ideally suited to achieving it.

Stable Strategies 1 (Ancillary Material)

Stable Strategies and Others is Eileen Gunn's first collection of stories, though she has been publishing fiction professionally since 1978. She is not a particularly prolific writer.

I once thought she was, however. It was after I read what I have for a long time mistakenly thought was her first-published story, "Stable Strategies for Middle Management", which appeared in Asimov's in 1988. Between 1988 and 1991, Gunn published five stories in Asimov's, the only SF magazine I read regularly at that time, and so I thought she was a new, young writer "bursting onto the scene" as they say (who's they?). Either because I didn't bother to read the biographical notes appended to the stories in the magazine or to their appearances in Gardner Dozois's Best of the Year anthologies, I didn't know Gunn had been writing for quite some time and that the spurt of stories was an anomaly in her career. Thus, I was puzzled when she seemed to disappear.

She didn't disappear, though. I did not know it, but she was teaching at Clarion West, attending conventions, and, eventually, founding Infinite Matrix, which she continues to edit. Now and then, she even managed to write a story.

I bought Stable Strategies almost within seconds of its publication, primarily because I had happy memories of laughing my way through the title story, and a memory of the story "Lichen and Rock" being one of the richest and most interesting I'd ever read in Asimov's. I had not read the stories since their first publication, though, and was curious what I would make of them now, and of what I would think of Gunn's other tales.

Before reading any of the stories, I read all of the ancillary material: some introductions, notes to each story, an afterword, and a lot of blurbs. I often do this with collections and anthologies, because otherwise I find myself getting distracted. The risk is that the material will get in the way of the stories speaking for themselves, but I am generally able to forget it all once I begin reading them.

I'm not sure why Gunn or her publishers (Tachyon Publications) thought the book needed to be padded with so many words by people other than Gunn. I suspect they were worried because her name is not well known, even to many devoted SF fans, and short story collections are notoriously difficult to sell, even when written by notorious writers. The book contains blurbs from thirteen writers, everyone from Karen Joy Fowler to Stephen King, Ursula LeGuin to Warren Ellis, all of them saying wonderful things, of course. More wonderful things get said in William Gibson's introduction and Howard Waldrop's afterword. Michael Swanwick even provides a poem:
Hooray for Eileen and her bully machine
That turns out such volumes of stuff!
Some think it queer
She's so seldom here
Few find her absence enough.

(etc.)
It's unfortunate the publishers thought the book needed so much hype to live up to. It's certainly nice to know Gibson and Swanwick and Waldrop (oh my!) are so enamored of Gunn, that she is able to procure kind words from all sorts of Big Names, but it's all just noise. (Waldrop even offers a mispronunciation of Worcester, Massachusetts, which is not, as he says, "Were-chest-or", but rather "WOOS-ter", or, to be accurate to the accent, "WOOS-ta".)

Gunn's own introduction, and her notes after each story, are straightforward and amusing. I was most amused that the story for which I have such a fond memory, "Lichen and Rock", "Owes something to a whale-shaped rock that I knew as a child in the woods of New Hampshire." Appropriate, then, that I should have first read it at a young age while living in the woods of that very state.