31 December 2006

And We're Back

I am now home, having returned safely from two weeks in Kenya. My friends up here in New Hampshire very kindly ordered a big snow storm for my return -- a few days ago, I was in the intense equatorial heat of Lamu Island, and yesterday I drove up from Boston and saw one car after another off the road, felled by snow and ice. (Indeed, a friend of mine was in a big pile-up that closed a section of the highway for two hours. He's not hurt, but his car was totalled.)

I've been trying to figure out how to write about all I did and saw and learned in Kenya, but right now it's such an undigested mass of experience in my head that I distrust much of anything I might say about it all, for fear of generalizing too much, for fear of blathering on, for fear of ranting. I've been dreading the inevitable questions such as, "How was your trip?" because there is no way to sum it up succinctly. The best thing to come up with is to say that if I were able to go back in a time machine and tell my earlier self if it was worth the time, expense, and anxiety, then I would certainly tell myself yes, go for it, do this. I would certainly warn myself of a few things, though -- be ready to be more outgoing than you are normally comfortable being, be ready for many hidden expenses, don't expect too much from the organized events (because "organized" is not what most of them were, and the best experiences were the most spontaneous, anyway), be prepared to be suspicious of everything anybody says, and though you won't regret not going on safari you may want to limit your time on Lamu more (the smell of donkey shit will become tiresome, as will the constant attention from locals wanting to offer their services for one thing or another -- they are friendly in a way that, for a lifelong New Englander, is both amazing and wearying).

I came home with a pile of books and magazines, and will report on them as much as I can, because one of the things I would like to do is find ways to bring more attention to some of the African literature that is difficult to find outside of Africa. A consortium of literary journals from Africa, the U.S., and elsewhere are working now to create ways to bring more of what has been published from Africa to readers throughout the world, and I hope be to be able to help bring more attention to these efforts as they progress.

Meanwhile, I have hundreds of emails to catch up with, various writing assignments to complete, jet-lag to get over, and that full-time teaching thing that I'm also supposed to be doing...

I'll be posting some links to various things that appeared while I was away, and I'm also moving this blog to the new version of Blogger -- no change in address or anything, but there will be some tweaks to the template and functions, and inevitably I'm sure there will be some moments when things look a little weird or out of place.

20 December 2006

Ships in High Transit

Below is a discussion by Njihia Mbitiru of "Ships in High Transit" by Binyavanga Wainaina.

Thank you to everyone who so kindly wrote of their anticipation of the following:

Around the age of twelve I took a highly significant shit. The actual shitting was not that special; what gave this otherwise banal episode an aura of importance was what happened after: as I pushed down the handle, I noticed for the first time, painted on the side of the porcelain tank in faded bold print: Made in Sussex.
That same evening I told my father of my discovery, expecting as children typically do that parental enthusiasm for the banal would be equal to or greater than their own, not understanding that by the time older folk have started having kids, the exotic origins of the downstairs crapper are as banal as the shit they were made to move.
Matano's boss may very well have his toilets made in Sussex and shipped to Kenya and all parts of the Commonwealth. I went on to peg most every toilet I saw and used with identical features as of British origin. Though I can’t fairly say I make a conscious association, hydraulic disposal of personal waste has an air of Albion stronger than say, wearing shirts and pants my ancestors would not consider proper clothing.
How interesting then, to read this excellent story, which extends the metaphoric potential of waste production and disposal into a meditation on history, identity, and the vagaries of negotiating both. (Spoilers start here).

Armitage Shanks, one of that class of not-quite Brits, has decided he should perhaps aspire to the “heroism” of his ancestors, of shipping "heavy ceramic water closets around the world".

So he decides to make shit up (Note: I can't promise I'll stay away from all the easy excremental puns--please bear with my enthusiasm). Enter the Maa, a piece of fakery both rank and grandiloquent.
The story of the Maa People niftily synthesizes the most common stereotypical narratives about Africa, and draws on that reliable saw of everyone from Edgar Rice Burroughs and Rider Haggard (whose brother, by the way, was for a time a colonial District Officer stationed in Kenya) to Leo Frobenius: a group of isolated primitives is somehow in possession of ancient wisdom, which they have intuitive (and therefore degenerate and inferior) access to. Typically there's a pile of old stuff to go along with this mystical power, tied to it in some ineffable way. While this intuition is beyond the pale, so to speak, simply unacceptable as the route to that legacy, it takes the right person to come along and use his superior faculties in claiming that antediluvian prize.
It's also this apparently innate superiority that turns primitive intuition, itself a mask placed on the "Other", into a non-threatening artifact (Matano’s astute disappointment with the desire of Westerners to turn a person into an index of exotic features, for example). And the story is full of these ostensibly non-threatening artifacts, like Matano, Abdullahi, Otieno a.k.a Ole Lenana, and the "Maa" women arrayed in the hotel courtyard to sing for Armitage--I mean Ole um Shambalaa's guests.

All involved in the local end of the charade understand, like um Shambalaa, that making shit up pays. And all are prepared to go to the necessary lengths (i.e. “making a white man your pussy” as Otieno does, getting in business with Nigerians— Matano’s secret sex tape) in order to realize profits.

No desires—especially the sexual kind—are ever anything but part of a sales pitch. Everything is a hustle. Everything has a price, and the rapacious hunger for profit is only successful in the degree to which it identifies and secures an equally rapacious desire for what is on offer.

I’m thinking of the pitches in the story, first Shanks, then that of Prescott and Jean Paul (as seen through Matano’s eyes), Abdullahi’s, the anonymous panting-into-the-receiver monologue for the “SugarOhHoneyHoneyMommy” in Germany, and the unwittingly self-parodying macho bluster of the beach boy. The story could even be seen as a parody of a sales pitch, pointed bitingly at its own absurd debasing premise. Everyone has something to sell. The goods are a body and history is a marketing strategy.

On the other end are the Jean-Paul and Prescotts, themselves in search of an angle, of something to sell and a way to sell it, and the working class European tourists taking a vacation from twelve months spent in “some air-conditioned industrial plant”, availing themselves of the pleasures their history has prepared them to seek after, again and again, and that the locals are working overtime to convince them is really their hearts’ desire.

There is plenty in this single story to think over, and it’s a testament to Wainaina’s acuity and skill that he is able to suggest in just a single story about tourism the devastation wrought on a whole continent by the relentless application of the pernicious logic underlying this sad business.

Earlier I told a story about my early experience with a toilet, and if I may, I’d like to take a cue from Wainaina and, at the risk of being excessive, tie that encounter more firmly to the story.

The promises and injunctions of colonialism are those of the toilet. With independence came the realization that, in fact, both the revamped toilet and the shit it was supposed to disappear could still provide an entertaining spectacle (the secret raison d‘etre of tourism?), if only because the nation-state-toilet was now a caricature of its former pure, guided-by-the-enlightened-European self, a thing now made of shit. Shit disappearing more shit; developed, highly industrialized others may come attend the museal proceedings, and for a hefty price, extracted by the locals with cynical resignation, indulge in purging themselves into various flavors of delight.

Shanks’ efforts are ironic in their production of the very thing his family devoted itself to making disappear. His desire to sanitize his past is simply more bullshit proffered in the hopes of making money. Matano and the rest chase that money, and find themselves laboring to produce shit facsimiles of their history, their selves, for the pleasure of others. It is still possible to do things like provide for one’s own, to make sure that “things will appear in the household” and “school fees…mysteriously paid”, but these minor victories cannot be weighed decisively against the logic to which all efforts are finally bent.

And so the wheel turns as before, a sad dirty secondhand joke laughing mirthlessly at itself. For money.

Topical exegesis aside, the story is put together well enough, and I’m looking forward to that promised novel. I suspect Wainaina’s will find the novel a more amenable form than the short story.

I do wish the story were leaner. There are extraneous bits whose variant repetition of thematic concerns does not seem to add to the story. For example, the paragraph about the village is a distraction and should have been left out. Same goes for the one featuring the Texan.

Otieno is an interesting character, particularly in the context of an aggressively homophobic society, who should’ve had more space in the story. The lamentably common stereotype of coast-dweller as more susceptible to the foreigner-introduced “perversion” of homosexuality receives comparatively little treatment for a story so deftly concerned with the production of stereotypes. Wainaina could have gone further.

Jean Paul’s view of the proceedings would have made for a satisfying counterpoint to the well-handled treatment of Sixty Minute Lady. I also wanted to hear more from the “Maa” women, who always appear as a group. Why not as individuals? Isn’t there one local woman—Giriama femme to Matano’s homme—who might have featured with the same prominence as the other more visible characters? I’m not interested in the reproduction of social inequities in the structure of a story purportedly about those inequities; I am unlikely to learn anything interesting if this is the case.

In this sense the writer appears to share the blind spot of his main protagonist. This is less a negative criticism than the recognition by an artist that one is always working within the parameters of a received discursive imperative, and whether or not we hew to the injunction that we must obey this imperative, I find the most rewarding literary experiences (reading, writing, and discussion) come from an investigation of the marginal and “distasteful”.

Some little things, such as a Swedish man named Jean Paul, I found mildly distressing.

Marechera references are always a plus, and I encourage those unfamiliar with this extraordinary Zimbabwean writer to read Black Sunlight, from which the line “ and the mirror reveals me, a naked and vulnerable fact” is taken, as well as House of Hunger, The Black Insider, and Cemetery of Mind, all of which are readily available in the US. For those in Zim, send me a copy of Mindblast!

This is a longer post than I intended, but honestly it doesn’t feel long enough. I hope this story receives the attention it deserves, for its merits as a fine piece of fiction that is part of what Borges might have called our universal patrimony, and also as one of the best short stories to have been written by a Kenyan in a long time.

19 December 2006

A Few Resources

I'm here in Nairobi, having an amazing time with all sorts of writers from around the world, learning so much that it's going to take me weeks and months and years to sort through it all. For now, though, and while Njihia formulates his next guest post, I thought I'd share a few resources from people who are here, are associated with the Kwani LitFest, or are just particularly interesting:That's all I have time for at the moment. Once I get back to the States at the end of December, I'll have much, much more.

15 December 2006

Thanks to Matt

Hello all. I didn't realize that Matt's never done this before--had a guest blogger--something he failed to mention when he suggested I try it...
I apologize for having kept you all waiting--I realize Matt meant for this to come on sooner, but I've been having cold feet.
But, I'm very excited and grateful to Matt for the opportunity. He and I had dinner the week before his departure, and our conversation has stayed in my mind. The prospect of his visiting my hometown had the curious effect of making me feel as though I had just arrived in the US, as opposed to having lived here for several years.
I also realized, with pleasure, the swarm of connections that each person has the ability to make by simply leaving one place and going to another. Perhaps there will be time to talk in some detail about these connections in my entries. I feel in this moment generous enough to make a number of philosophical remarks about chance and fate and so forth, but as my papa says, this would be just "winetalk".
I'm simply happy that a friend of mine has the chance to see the place where I'm from, a chance so few of my friends here have. I'm also happy that SLS is providing a much needed fulcrum for the literary efforts in Kenya and in the region, efforts which a change in the political climate has allowed to thrive.
That there are now, in Kenya, not just Nairobi I hope, fifteen year olds writing bad poetry and nursing the stirrings of literary ambition who have the opportunity to know of such an event as SLS, let alone attend or be close to it in some way, is itself a watershed.
I look forward to the emergence of an open, vibrant literary culture. I want those same people, my neighbours, my relatives, my friends, who fed me with all sorts of books, with the skiffy that made me want to become, well, a skiffie, to see "local produce" on their shelves.
With that in mind, let me say that the next entry will be on "local produce", so to speak. I'll be talking about Binyavanga Wainaina's "Ships in High Transit", which Matt mentioned.

11 December 2006

Guest Blogger: Njihia Mbitiru

I'm getting packed up and ready to head to Kenya for a couple weeks, and while I'm gone I will try to post an occasional update, but I also thought it would be fun to try something I've never tried around here -- a guest blogger.

And it only makes sense that while I'm in Kenya the first Mumpsimus guest blogger should be Njihia Mbitiru, who is in the same masters degree program as I am in at Dartmouth, is a Clarion Workshop graduate, and is originally from Kenya. In fact, my participation in SLS Kenya owes a lot to him, because he stopped me one day at the Dartmouth library and said he'd just read an amazing Kenyan story -- "Ships in High Transit" by Binyavanga Wainaina. That put Wainaina's name into my head, I read up on his literary organization Kwani, and started paying more attention to Kenyan writers. When I chanced upon a reference to SLS Kenya somewhere, I was intrigued, and when I saw Wainaina was involved, I decided to apply.

So please be nice to Njihia while I'm gone -- this is his first time blogging, so any encouragement is welcome. His first post should appear sometime in the next day or so, if all goes well...

07 December 2006

"Words Can Mean Anything"


Orpheus never liked words. He had his music. He would get a funny look on his face and I would say what are you thinking about and he would always be thinking about music.

If we were in a restaurant, sometimes I would get embarrassed because Orpheus looked sullen and wouldn't talk to me and I thought people felt sorry for me. I should have realized that women envied me. Their husbands talked too much.

But I wanted to talk to him about my notions. I was working on a new philosophical system. It involved hats.

This is what it is to love an artist: The moon is always rising above your house. The houses of your neighbors look dull and lacking in moonlight. But he is always going away from you. Inside his head there is always something more beautiful.

Orpheus said the mind is a slide ruler. It can fit around anything. Words can mean anything. Show me your body, he said. It only means one thing.

(She looks at her father, embarrassed for revealing too much.)

Or maybe two or three things. But only one thing at a time.
--Sarah Ruhl,

05 December 2006

Duotrope's Digest

Via a discussion at the Metaxucafe Forums, I discovered an amazing tool: Duotrope's Digest, which bills itself as "Markets for Writers", but I can also see it as a useful tool for readers who are curious to find magazines, journals, and publishers they haven't encountered before.

For writers, indeed, this is a treasure-trove, providing detailed information on a stunning variety of publications. It's also got a great search engine that lets you filter results by all sorts of different criteria, including genre, length, media, payscale, submission type, country, theme issues, and even what awards the publisher nominates for. The site claims to update daily, with every market checked at least once a week.

The White Diamond

After reading Tom Bissell's appreciation of the films of Werner Herzog in the December Harper's, I decided to use the wonders of Netflix to catch up with Herzog's documentaries, because though I revere many of his feature films, of the documentaries I had only seen Grizzly Man and My Best Fiend: Klaus Kinski.

Now I have added The White Diamond to that list. It is an astounding film, strange and powerful, filled with rich imagery and immense, subtle depths of emotion and philosophy. It presents many of Herzog's favorite themes and character types, making it feel like a cousin to Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo, but it is a gentler film, more hopeful and less corruscating in tone, but no less powerful in its portrayal of obsession, vision, and nature.

The White Diamond tells the story of Dr. Graham Dorrington, a British aerospace engineer who created an airship to fly over the canopy of the rainforest in Guyana -- rainforest canopies have been mostly unexplored territory, and are thought to be places of tremendous biodiversity. Herzog explores Dorrington's reasons for taking on the project, which stem from his association with Dieter Plage, a wildlife filmmaker who died in 1993 in Sumatra while flying above the rainforest in a craft Dorrington had built for him. Herzog shapes the story to portray Dorrington's quest as the dream of an obsessed man, the sort of dream common to many Herzog protagonists.

Of course, any story leaves things out and trims ragged edges into cleaner cause and effect relationships -- reality contains too many details to be reduced to anything other than itself -- but Herzog is particularly known for sculpting his documentaries, and in a BBC interview, Dorrington addresses how that tendency affected The White Diamond:
BBC Four: Herzog is famous for fabricating certain elements in his documentaries. Did you experience any of that?

Graham Dorrington: As the film went on I did repeat phrases that Werner used. I balked at one point when he wanted me to talk about curses, but he would often insist on a particular wording. For instance, the scene with the champagne bottle at the falls was all his language although the idea was mine. Also, some things were acted. The argument with Herzog in the film is completely fake -- pure acting. Why did I do it? Because I said to Werner that if I was going to do the film then we'd have to do it 100% his way; it would be no good for him to tell me how to design an airship and I couldn't tell him how to direct a film. So the argument was set up, but it did underline the feelings of a lot of people about who was really in control. On the other hand, there is a scene at the end where I had to think very intensely about Dieter Plage which brought back a lot of sadness and was very genuine.
This is a different approach from the cinema verite style of many documentarians -- filmmakers who would be horrified to stage any scene -- but it highlights the difference between journalism and art. Journalism seeks a mythical objectivity, with journalistic documentaries pretending their severe selection of materials to be somehow beyond the influence of any particular point of view, while art is (I'm tempted to say by definition) raw material shaped by perception. (I don't mean to denigrate journalism here -- just because absolute objectivity is impossible doesn't make it a bad ideal to strive toward.)

Herzog's mastery is shown in his ability to distinguish between good material that is raw and good material that needs to be shaped. The staged argument is convincing, and as Dorrington says, it efficiently conveys a conflict of ideas that, in the messier reality outside the film, would have come out in more fragmentary, less open ways. It helps viewers discern the characters' motivations and priorities. The scene where Dorrington talks about Plage's death is left raw, mostly a single shot with very few edits, because part of the film has been building up, through careful hints and shards of information, to that climactic moment, and it is as powerful a monologue as I've ever seen on film, an agonizing and cathartic moment of shared, tortured humanity.

And then there is the beauty. Herzog has not made a nature documentary. With The White Diamond, the place he depicts is intimately connected -- indeed, interpreted -- by the people who are a part of the story. We see the rainforest through their differing perceptions of it. By the time we are released into our own consciousnesses and given imagery without commentary, we glimpse the animals, the plants, the trees, the water through many different points of view -- through the view of personal, natural, and cultural histories, none of them complete, all of them full of possibility. The White Diamond is certainly an incomplete and perhaps even misleading portrayal of the "real" Dorrington, but it is much more than merely a portrait of a person -- it is an evocation of the mysteries Herzog has himself been obsessed with for his entire career, the unsolveable, fascinating mysteries of desire, dreams, and nature.

02 December 2006

Quarterly Conversation

My essay "What is Appropriate", about literature and high school and sex, is now live at The Quarterly Conversation, where lots of other interesting stuff is also available -- despite my appearance there, it has become quite a strong webzine, a place for enlivening and enlightening discussion of books and writers, as well as various other cultural arts and artifacts.

01 December 2006

Katherine Min at The Happy Booker

Here at Mumpsimus Central, we love it when our friends hang out together, and so we're having a little party* to celebrate Friend of the Mumpsimus Katherine Min guest-blogging for Friend of the Mumpsimus The Happy Booker. As Hero to the Mumpsimus Col. John "Hannibal" Smith used to say, we love it when a plan comes together. Or something like that...

In any case, we loved in particular these sentences of Katherine's:
I come to fiction from the premise that reality isn't so great. Reality is what we're stuck with. Fiction is compelling precisely because it takes us beyond what is merely real.
*What is a little party at Mumpsimus Central? All I'll admit is that it usually involves archaic words, obscure books, and shotgun shells.

Salon Fantastique Giveaway

Update 12/2/06: The contest is now closed, because we have three winners: Aaron Hughes, Livia Llewellyn, and Mario Milosevic! Many thanks to everybody who responded. I have appended the correct answer to the question below.

I have come upon some extra copies of the new anthology Salon Fantastique edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, and so it's time for a giveaway.

The first three people who email me the correct answer to the following question will receive a free copy of Salon Fantastique:
Who established the salon at the Hotel Rambouillet?

Answer: Catherine de Vivonne, Marquise de Rambouillet
Here's the table of contents for the book:
"La Fee Verte" by Delia Sherman
"Dust Devil on a Quiet Street" by Richard Bowes
"To Measure the Earth" by Jedediah Berry
"A Grey and Soundless Tide" by Catherynne M. Valente
"Concealment Shoes" by Marly Youmans
"The Guardian of the Egg" by Christopher Barzak
"My Travels With Al-Qaeda" by Lavie Tidhar
"Chandail" by Peter S. Beagle
"Down the Wall" by Greer Gilman
"Femaville 29" by Paul Di Filippo
"Nottamun Town" by Gregory Maguire
"Yours, Etc." by Gavin Grant
"The Mask of ’67" by David Prill
"The Night Whiskey" by Jeffrey Ford
"The Lepidopterist" by Lucius Shepard

30 November 2006

Fragmentary Utterances

I'm too busy at the moment to write at any length about a bunch of things I'd like to write at length about, so instead I will make fragmentary utterances and hope that they suffice for the moment...

Fragmentary Utterance #1: I've been reading through some of the stories in Elizabeth Hand's new collection, Saffron and Brimstone, and they are the sorts of stories that make me feel like all my adjectives are inadequate: evocative, lovely, beguiling, masterful -- yes, they are all that, but more, and differently, and not exactly, and... The collection is subtitled "strange stories" and I think it's both perfect and wrong, because it's not that they're just strange, or that strange encapsulates all that they are. Instead, it's more a kind of placeholder, a way of saying "this, at least, is something", and it's true, because they are strange, but marvelous, too, and...

Fragmentary Utterance #2: The new 3-CD album from Tom Waits, Orphans, is full of treasures and oddities, and though I've been listening to it continuously for a week, I am only beginning to get a grasp of my reaction to it, because it's just so full of, for lack of a better descriptor, stuff. I'm a sucker for Waits's ballads especially, so the middle disc, titled "Bawlers", is the one I find, on the whole, most compelling, but there are unique and addictive songs on the other two discs, "Brawlers" and "Bastards". The album as a whole is worth listening to simply for the variety of material it contains -- everything from experiments with sound to covers of such songs as "Sea of Love" and "Goodnight, Irene" (and two from the Ramones) to spoken-word pieces. It's a grab-bag, sure, and the entire collection is likely to appeal only to those of us who find just about anything Waits does to be at least vaguely interesting, but there are a good number of songs here that are just so beautiful they should have a wider appeal than much of the other material: "Tell it to Me", "Long Way Home", "Fannin Street", "Home I'll Never Be", and at least a few others. I'm particularly pleased to have the two songs Waits created for the soundtrack album to Dead Man Walking on a Waits album, because they are among my favorites from his entire career, and for reasons I can't quite pinpoint, I've always wanted them to be surrounded by other Waits tunes.

Fragmentary Utterance #3: I watched the movie Sophie Scholl: The Final Days last night, and have mostly conflicting feelings about it. For one thing, I've read just about everything in English about Scholl and the White Rose group, and even wrote a short play about them when I was in college, and this knowledge makes me hypercritical of any fictional representations of the people and events, because they're easy to turn into sentimental hooey. I haven't watched Michael Verhoeven's 1982 film about the subject in many years, but my memory of it is of a movie that is mostly accurate historically, but that emphasizes the action-adventure elements of the story. Sophie Scholl has this tendency as well, and I'm not sure it's a bad tendency -- there are certainly adventurous moments in the story -- but the newer film changes tone so much that it becomes jarring. Moments of excitement with kitschy dramatic music alternate with truly powerful, intimate scenes. Many of the characters come across as caricatures, but Julia Jentsch as Sophie is often excellent. Some of the interest in the movie stems from its script's use of transcripts of interrogations discovered in East Germany in the early 1990s, but the re-enactment of these scenes seemed to verge on the tasteless, because something in me screams against having actors pretend to be particular people in particular historical situations such as this -- perhaps I'm too much of a Brechtian at heart to ever be satisfied with historical dramas that don't admit their artificiality. And the ending, in which the executions are re-enacted, seemed as grotesque and wrongheaded to me as the wretched sequence in Munich where a sex scene is intercut with the killing of the kidnappers. There is no intercutting as Sophie gets guillotined, but the filmmakers would have achieved so much more if they had shown a bit of restraint in what they chose to represent.

Fragmentary Utterance #4: What SF writers would you recommend to the Library of America? Oh, I don't know. The suggestions Ron Hogan got from various folks mostly seem sensible to me. A Carol Emshwiller retrospective. Alfred Bester's first two novels, plus most of his short stories. A selection of Theodore Sturgeon short stories and some of the novels. Cordwainer Smith. Damon Knight's selected stories and criticism. Tiptree's collected stories. Delany, definitely. (If I were selecting Delany, I'd choose some of the short stories, "Empire Star", Babel-17, The Einstein Intersection, Nova, Trouble on Triton, and Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand for one big volume; Dhalgren, and Hogg for another; all the Neveryon books for another; Heavenly Breakfast, The Motion of Light in Water, Atlantis: Three Tales, and various interviews for another; and as much of the remaining nonfiction as possible for another. Yes, a 5-volume set of Delany for The Library of America. A fine thought. [Yes, somebody is procrastinating working on his thesis about Delany again....])

28 November 2006


Sez Jonathan Lethem to Mark Sarvas:
...I'm helping preside over the utter and irreversible canonization of one of my (formerly outsider) heroes, Philip K. Dick: I'm writing endnotes for The Library of America, which is doing a volume of four of his novels from the sixties, which I also helped select.
Here's a USA Today (actually, Associated Press) article about the upcoming book.

26 November 2006

"Quitting Dreams" by Matthew Cheney and Jeffrey Ford

I just received Electric Velocipede #11, and though I'm sure it contains many excellent stories, the only one I have read (well, skimmed) so far is the collaboration between Matthew Cheney and Jeffrey Ford, "Quitting Dreams".

What the reader will notice first is that the story's title and byline are printed on a label attached to the paper. While Mr. Ford's lawyers have requested that I not spread what they call "vile, malicious lies, untruths, and stuff", I would like to note that many a message-board is abuzz with the rumor that Mr. Ford has initiated a suit against the corporate fatcats at EV in what has so far proved to be a fruitless attempt to have his name removed from the story. Apparently, the lawyers for all sides came to a compromise solution, and now readers can tear the title and both names off the story for themselves.

Nonetheless, "Quitting Dreams" is a truly extraordinary piece of fiction, and not merely because it contains some very long paragraphs. Readers will be pleased to see that, despite Mr. Cheney's stated penchant for long sentences, "Quitting Dreams" actually contains more short sentences than long sentences (as measured by freelance statisticians of sentence length hired by The Mumpsimus). In fact, the story begins with two short sentences: "I met Paul Cleary because I was addicted to his dreams. I wanted to meet the man who had ruined my life."

This is an admirable beginning, because it introduces us to both the main character and the premise and conflict of the story. Such skill is displayed throughout the story -- notice, for instance, this sentence from later in the story: "I didn't go back to the house." Here the narrator not only states an action, but the action is a negative one, and yet indicates a concrete thing (the house). It takes a writer with truly basic knowledge of English to be able to write such a sentence.

The integration of dreams into the story is a particularly brilliant touch. So much fiction today is limited to the malaise of pedestrians, usually over-educated men walking down the street to have an encounter with someone who is not their wife. Unlike such stories, "Quitting Dreams" includes "stock market crashes, genetic mutation of crops and food, portable nuclear bombs set off in O'Hare Airport, oceans rising, martial law declared, personal ownership of firearms banned, evangelical Christianity proclaimed the national religion of the U.S. of A., famines and plagues" -- and all of this within one sentence.

Another strength of "Quitting Dreams" is its realism. Much science fiction today refers only to its own predecessors, creating a feedback loop of in-jokes and recursive fetishization of the nostalgicized tropes of Golden Age writers. "Quitting Dreams", instead, uses its addictive dreams to create a true relationship to consensus reality:
I dreamed I was a writer and had a reading gig and when I got to it, it turned out to be at the base of this pier. It was night and it was cold. The water lapped the sand behind me. Boards were nailed up across the stanchions of the pier so I really couldn't see too well underneath it. A couple of them were falling off. I stood there and read a story (I think it was called "The Beautiful Gelreesh", whatever that means). All I could hear was the ocean behind me.
This is hard science fiction with a hardboiled realism -- writing that refers not to other writing, but to the world at large.

Aesthetically, philosophically, politically -- really, in any way imaginable -- "Quitting Dreams" must stand among the most brilliant stories written in the hour it was written, a story for the ages, prose for the deathless, fiction for the fictional. Anybody who doesn't read it is not only missing out on sentences written in more-or-less grammatical English, but probably has something better to do.

25 November 2006

From Oregon

Here's a photo from Thanksgiving day in Yoncalla, Oregon. It has been suggested to me that this would make a fine publicity photo. I'm not sure for what sort of publicity. It certainly does seem appropriate, though, to the author of "Blood"...

A strange picture of Mr. Cheney(The item in my hand, by the way, is a leg crook used on sheep.)

22 November 2006

Robert Altman (1925-2006)

I was shocked by the news of Robert Altman's death. Despite the fact that he lived a wonderfully long and productive life, he was one of those icons I always thought would be around, because how could we live in a world without Robert Altman?

I could praise his genius, his willingness to experiment, his determination, his ... well, you name it. But as I've been absorbing the news of his death, what I've been thinking about is that he is the one director who has produced movies I have loved for all of my life.

When I was a little kid, Popeye was my favorite movie. I thought it was the funniest, most delightful, most emotionally satisfying film that could ever be created. (Yes, you could probably say that only an 8-year-old would feel that way about Popeye, but still...)

In high school, Vincent & Theo was my favorite suffering artist movie. I had a grainy VHS tape of it, a tape I must have watched 20 or 30 times before finally getting the DVD when it finally came out recently. It remains a favorite, and continues to be neglected in discussions of Altman, which generally focus on some of his slicker, more superficial films like The Player and Gosford Park.

I saw a matinee of Short Cuts at the cinema in Plymouth, New Hampshire when it came out in 1993. I was the only person in the theatre. It was an overwhelming experience, and I'm sure some of the power of watching that film alone in a theatre has contributed to it being my favorite Altman movie (and thus just about my favorite movie by any American), but nonetheless, I have watched it repeatedly, and every time I discover something new to capture my attention within it.

Right around the time I saw Short Cuts, I met the writer Calder Willingham, who got screen credit for writing Altman's Thieves Like Us. I had already read about Altman's freewheeling approach to filmmaking, and so assumed that writers probably weren't particularly thrilled with what he did to their words, so I was gentle when I brought up Altman's name to Willingham. A look of disgust -- perhaps even horror -- came over his face, and he immediately changed the subject.

My first disappointment with Altman came when I saw his film of Christopher Durang's play Beyond Therapy. For a while, Durang was among my favorite playwrights -- his anarchic comedy at its best fits my sensibilities well. Beyond Therapy was on TV very late one night, and I stayed up to watch it, only to discover the film was leaden and completely destroyed all the humor of the original.

Of course, anyone who loves Altman also has to admit that he was capable of making atrociously bad movies like Beyond Therapy. That's part of what is so fascinating about his work -- the same commitment to experiment that led him to moments of genius also produced truly failed experiments. While this could be disappointing -- we want our geniuses to be gods of perfection, after all -- it is in the end, I think, his greatest quality, because he fully committed himself to the process of filmmaking, and he let his interests range farther than any other director I can think of. It's likely we wouldn't have had the masterpieces without the failures in between them, and if it required a few Beyond Therapies to get Altman to the point where he could create such films as MASH, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Nashville, Vincent & Theo, and Short Cuts ... well, I'm not going to complain.

My only complaint is he didn't live even longer. But it's a hollow complaint, because he died in the midst of work, at a time when he was receiving accolades for the achievements of his life, and there aren't too many better ways to go.

21 November 2006

Julie Phillips Interview

It's Thanksgiving week here in the U.S., and I'm in an undisclosed location in the wilds of rural Oregon visiting friends, so it's unlikely there will be many updates this week.

I did want to direct your attention, though, to Strange Horizons this week, where there are many things worth looking at, and where I have an interview with Julie Phillips, author of James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon.

19 November 2006

Waiting for an Angel by Helon Habila

Waiting for An Angel is Helon Habila's first novel, although it is also a collection of interlinked short stories, one of which won the 2001 Caine Prize for African Writing. (Though each story can be read separately, it is their resonances with each other, particularly in the order Habila has presented them in the book, that provides the most emotional power, and so I will refer to the book as a novel.)

The events of Waiting for an Angel are not presented in chronological order, and this choice strengthens the book's effect. It is seldom confusing, and is, in fact, in many ways clarifying -- by the second half of the book, whenever we encounter a character, place, or situation, we often know something of its past and future, and so casual actions or phrases that might have otherwise meant little instead take on significance.

The first chapter of the book, in fact, is the last chronologically. It begins:
In the middle of his second year in prison, Lomba got access to a pencil and paper and he started a diary. It was not easy. He had to write in secret, mostly in the early mornings when the night warders, tired of peeping through the door bars, waited impatiently for the morning shift. Most of the entries he simply headed with the days of the week; the exact dates, when he used them, were often incorrect. The first entry was for July 1997, a Friday.
We will soon learn that we are in Nigeria during the reign of General Abacha, that Lomba was a journalist in Lagos and is now a political prisoner, and then we will move backward to discover the people Lomba knew outside prison, the life he led and the lives that intersected his. The point of view will shift, but the matter-of-fact prose will continue to convey wonders and terrors with an accumulative power, so that by the end of the novel what we will come away with most vividly is a sense of intersections of personal and political life, because loss is loss, regardless of what causes it.

Because of the structure of the book, we know from early on what will become of Lomba, and so the reader is put in the position of a dreamer, again and again with each passing page hoping, wishing, yearning for a different resolution, for a way for Lomba and everybody else to escape fate. Habila is always ahead of us, though, and he knows what he has conjured -- the second chapter tells the story of Lomba and a friend going to a fortune teller to find out what will become of them:
"What did he say?" I asked.

Lomba shrugged. "Prison. That was all he saw ahead of me. Go in, try your luck, ask for good fortune, don't ask too closely."
The friend asks to know when he will die. The fortune teller will not say, but instead offers what he can for advice: "A wise man is always ready for death. Assume it will come tomorrow, or in the next minute." We know from the first sentence of this chapter what we are reading about, though: "Today is the last day of my life."

Waiting for an Angel is all about death, yes, and fate, and wretchedness, but though it wrenches both gut and heart, it is less depressing than many such books, because throughout it all there is an unsentimental attitude of carpe diem, a focus on the details of living that makes the fortune teller's view of wisdom into a view of the world.

In an afterword, Habila says he sought "to capture the mood of those years, especially the Abacha years: the despair, the frenzy, the stubborn hope, but above all the airless prison-like atmosphere that characterized them." I am not capable of judging whether he succeeds at this goal, but I can say that perhaps what impresses me most about the book is that it does not feel like a self-consciously "social" novel -- it does not feel like it is trying to do what Habila says it is trying to do. Instead, it feels like a collection of glimpses of human lives. This is not to say that Habila therefore fails to write the social book he wanted to write; the most deeply affecting portraits of society are composed of portraits of individual people, and it is those portraits that make this such a complexly affecting work. (The problem is not with social novels per se, but with social novels that feel like social novels, therefore becoming something closer to history lessons and case studies.)

In February, W.W. Norton will release Habila's second novel, Measuring Time, and it is a book I await eagerly, because for all its strength of vision and specificity of character, Waiting for an Angel feels like just a taste of what Habila has to say.

18 November 2006

Holiday Books

The busiest shopping days of the year are coming up soon, which means a couple of people out there might be looking for good books to give as gifts. Here are some that have delighted me over the past year and thus are on my list to give as gifts for readers looking for intelligent and entertaining reads:
  • The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Vol. 1: The Pox Party by M.T. Anderson. This is simply an extraordinary novel, regardless of the fact that it's being marketed as a book for "young adults". It's one of those books I'll probably always try to have extra copies of, just to give away whenever I encounter someone who hasn't read it.

  • My favorite novel from last year, The People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia, is now out in paperback. I loved the hardcover just for its shape and weight and design, but the paperback has preserved most of the interior design, and so now an inexpensive and easily-available copy is ready for a whole new batch of readers.

  • (Other favorites from last year have also come out in paperback, including Magic for Beginners, Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, and Divided Kingdom.)

  • Shriek: An Afterword by Jeff VanderMeer. I could be accused of bias, since I once met Mr. VanderMeer (in a dark alley in a forgotten city), but this novel has received accolades from far and wide, so I know my admiration and enjoyment of it are not anomalistic. (In fact, I'm trying to like the book a little bit less these days, because I'm uncomfortable agreeing with so many people.) I recently forced a friend to buy Shriek, a friend who does not generally read fantasy fiction, and she reported to me that she finds it both compulsively readable and extraordinarily disturbing. She has been having strange dreams about mushrooms, she said. She worries that there are other books in the world like this. I said she should not worry, because there are not.

  • Daughters of Earth: Feminist Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century edited by Justine Larbalestier. In a year that seems to have produced some good anthologies, this is the one I have found myself returning to most frequently, because the mix of stories and critical essays creates such a compelling conversation.

  • 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann. I seldom read history books cover-to-cover, but this one I did, and I've found myself recommending the book again and again to various and sundry people. (For a taste of what the book has to offer, see this article, much of which was incorporated into the book. There's also a lot available at Mann's website. For lots of discussion of the book, check out this post at Making Light.)

  • James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips. This is a book I'll be giving to people who profess no interest in science fiction, but who have some interest in 20th century gender issues or just like interesting life stories, because though Alice Sheldon became best known as the woman who wrote the fiction published under the name James Tiptree, Jr., Julie Phillips tells the truth of her life so well that it is simply a fascinating portrait of a human being.

  • Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology edited by John Kessel & James Patrick Kelly. I'm not much interested in defining "slipstream", if there even is such a thing, but this anthology makes a fine gift simply because it's got a bunch of good stories in it. Anthologies can be pretty hit-or-miss, and this one is just about all hit.

  • An American Obsession: Science, Medicine, and Homosexuality in Modern Society by Jennifer Terry. Of all the books I've encountered while working on my masters degree, this is the one I have found most illuminating and invaluable. It's a big, rich book, with revelations on every page about the intersections of science, medicine, and identity in the U.S. in the 20th century. The writing is remarkably lucid for an academic text, and the stories Terry has to tell are amazing.

  • Map of Dreams by M. Rickert and The Empire of Ice Cream by Jeffrey Ford. 2006 been a good year for short story collections, but Golden Gryphon Press may have published the two best, at least of collections marketed as SF. Rickert and Ford are very different writers, and though neither book is perfect, each shows a commitment to both imagination and art that is rare this days. They are collections of wonder and thought, and, as such, make marvelous gifts.

  • Last Evenings on Earth is a short story collection I have just begun reading, and I'm entranced. Bolano's writing is deceptively straightforward, seemingly artless, and yet by the end of each tale, it feels as if an entire novel's worth of life has opened up. Having only read a few stories, I'm already planning on giving this book to a number of different people.

  • The Children's Hospital by Chris Adrian is another book I must admit not having finished yet. In fact, I've only read the first 60 pages or so, and it's a big book. I have no idea when I'll be able to finish it. I'm not worried, though, because it's a book I'm perfectly happy to live with, a book that promises riches -- the opening pages are among the most original and spellbinding of any new novel I've read in years. I'll be giving copies of this to friends just so there are people I can call up late at night and say, "Did you read that sentence on page x,y,z? That paragraph on page u,v,w? Isn't it amazing!"

16 November 2006

A Well-Deserved Award

M.T. Anderson has won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature for his novel Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation; vol. 1: The Pox Party.

I don't usually note award results around here, but in this case I am thrilled to see such an odd and extraordinary book honored, and it also gives me a chance to note that Jenny Davidson (of Light Reading) recently wrote a fine review of the book for the NYTBR.

Update: Here's a great interview with Anderson about the book.

15 November 2006

Rules for Writing

If you use adjectives in your prose, do not use nouns. If you use nouns, you must not use verbs. If you use verbs, try to avoid verbs that specify a particular city.

When specifying particular cities in fiction, do not use cities that have been specified in poems. Poems have so few things left of their own anymore that we should let them have their own cities.

When writing poems, use many different points of view. Poems without multiple points of view are too strident. Prose is allowed to be strident on certain political holidays, but poems that are strident tend to resemble over-ripe fruit, and nobody likes that.

Bad writing is usually caused by over-ripe fruit, but often enough there is too little rain during the season, and that isn't any good, either. More good writing is produced by rain than by drought.

Do not write about the thing that annoyed your brother the last time you wrote about it, because he's bigger than you and he's got a mean streak and there are plenty of other things to write about, like the weather.

If you write about the weather, use as many adjectives as you can, or else your nouns will wilt and become adverbs.

Some coaches insist adverbs are stronger than nouns, but an independent panel of statisticians has proved otherwise. Despite appearances, though, statisticians don't like nouns so much as they adore conjunctions.

If you use foreign phrases in your writing, be careful to use the correct pronunciation.

There are really only three plots: the queen cried because the city became a piece of over-ripe fruit; the king killed himself because the political holiday was ruined by the weather; and the thing that annoyed your brother caused him to hate nouns.

If you write a play, call it a poem, because otherwise everyone will assume it's a blog post, and trust me, you don't want that.

14 November 2006

Some Notes on Invitation to a Beheading

I've been subjecting my Advanced Placement students to Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading, and it's been fun to see their responses, because many more of them enjoyed the book than I expected. I introduced it by having them read Azar Nafisi's memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran, which most of them found engaging, and it helped give them a grasp of some of what Nabokov was up to before they plunged into the bewildering world of Cincinnatus C. and his prison cell.

Inevitably, there were students who were convinced Nabokov was insane or a drug addict or both. This accusation comes up all the time when we read anyone who is not among the hardest of hardcore realists, because imagination is something that has come to be associated only with the stimulus of drugs or madness. That someone could think up a story like Invitation to a Beheading -- where a man is imprisoned for "gnostic turpitude" in a fortress of porous walls and fake windows and rules against improper dreams -- without being addicted to hallucinogens or lacking a couple of screws is at best inconceivable to many people, if not threatening. The people who issue these accusations would never think of such a story or such imagery themselves, and therefore they can't imagine how anyone else could, unless there was something wrong with their brains. I am sad to see this way of thinking in my students, because it means they are suspicious of one of the fundamental techniques of art, but at least in the classroom I am able to challenge and undermine those beliefs; the effect of such suspicion on the world at large is depressing to contemplate.

It is against just such thinking that Invitation to a Beheading stands, the story of an "opaque" man in a "transparent" world. For reasons that are (intentionally) never made clear, it's hard to figure out exactly how Cincinnatus C. is different from the people around him, except that he is apparently more "real" (at least to himself) than the "parodies" of people he encounters throughout his life, and throughout his life they have distrusted him, reported on him, interrogated him, threatened him. It is not the crime that matters, but rather the perception. Very little in the book gives us concrete evidence of Cincinnatus's difference from his, as he calls them, coevals -- they're all a bit strange, yes, but he's a pretty odd duck, himself. What the book shows, though, is a conflict of perceptions, of feelings, of imagination, because everything has always felt wrong to Cincinnatus, and imagination is his one tool of hope for escape. An incident in childhood was, he says, "when I first understood that things which to me had seemed natural were actually forbidden, impossible, that any thought of them was criminal."

Inevitably, people compare Invitation to 1984, and Nabokov speaks out against Orwell in his preface to the English-language edition of the novel, calling Orwell one of the "popular puveyors of illustrated ideas and publicistic fiction". He did not desire comparison to any writer at all, but Orwell particularly irked him. At first, it's difficult to see why, because it is difficult not to think of Invitation as, if not a political book, then at least a book with some political implications. 1984 may illustrate ideas, but no novel can avoid doing that -- the human mind likes patterns, and stories, being elaborate patterns, echo and suggest other patterns -- and so Invitation to a Beheading illustrates ideas as well, but one of the differences lies in what gets missed if the book is reduced only to its ideas. 1984 can be discussed as a political tract -- we can talk about the implications of Newspeak and the Memory Hole, of Big Brother and rewritten history and perpetual wars and all the other prophetic/satirical accoutrements to the book. I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing -- different books yield different items of interest -- but trying to read Invitation to a Beheading in such a way becomes quickly frustrating, because while Invitation contains a portrait of a totalitarian world, it is equally about art, perception, and "reality". And, this being a Nabokov novel, every word serves the purpose not so much of illustrating those ideas, but of embodying them.

Invitation to a Beheading refuses to create a stable fictional reality for the characters or for the reader, and, as with much of Nabokov's best work, there are multiple plots at once: the surface plot of what's happening in the story, the subtextual plot of things "really" going on that the characters either aren't aware of or are hiding, and the plot between the text and the reader (or sometimes the narrator and the characters). It could be that, in the last sentence, Cincinnatus has broken through to a "real" reality, but we have no way to know, because it is all a matter of perception -- his wishful, imagined double achieves life in the second before (during?) Cincinnatus's death, and he walks toward what he thinks are "beings akin to him", but he is able to judge only by their distant voices. The characters who persecuted him have all metamorphosed into tiny, pathetic creatures. The funhouse mirrors have been turned. Body and spirit are inverted, but no-one can say which is which.

This is not a "it was only a dream!" ending, though, because the reality of the book is the reality of Cincinnatus's perceptions, and he has not perceived the world he has escaped to be a dream -- indeed, the hopefulness of the last sentence is predicated on everything before it having been, for Cincinnatus, utterly true and real. A shallow political interpretation of the book would have trouble with the ending, I expect, because such an interpretation would see the ending as suggesting that totalitarianism can be escaped through imagination, but what the book shows with nearly every sentence is, instead, that imagination is anathema to totalitarianism of every sort. Nabokov was no sentimentalist, however, and Invitation to a Beheading demonstrates as relentless a fight for purity and rigor of imagination as do his Lectures on Literature -- Cincinnatus does not, after all, walk down a path toward beings who might be akin to him until he has been within a second of having his head chopped off.

On Being Ill

I had not planned to completely stop posting things around here, but in the middle of last week I began to get a fever, and that fever steadily progressed into the full-blown flu by the weekend, causing me to be able to do little other than moan and sleep. Today is the first day in the past five when I have been able to function at, if not full capacity, at least something resembling it.

I haven't been this sick in many years, and it was a bizarre, agonizing experience to be completely unable to do anything I wanted or needed to do at a particularly busy time of life. I tend to want to pretend I do not have a body, or at least that it doesn't have much control over the "real" me, but now and then that body does something to remind all the me's, real and imaginary, that it is, indeed, in charge.

In any case, this is not a plea for sympathy -- I'm fine, and millions and millions of people suffer through worse every day -- but merely a note to say that I expect things will be returning to their regularly unscheduled, erratic pace from now on.

06 November 2006

Strange Horizons Fall Fund Drive

The Strange Horizons Fall Fund Drive has been extended to Nov. 12, meaning you still have a chance to give some of your ill-gotten gains to them before you're thrown in prison. Please don't blame them for things like my latest column. They also publish good stuff, like a week of Tiptree-related reviews.

(And yes, I know I've been a lousy blogger recently. I've been a lousy everything recently, what with work, thesis, deadlines for various writings I promised to people back when I had a delusion of spare time, etc. I probably owe you an email. I probably forgot to do that thing I said I'd do for you. I probably ruined your childhood. I apologize for the first two. With luck, things will get a bit more lively around here soon.)

03 November 2006

The End of ManBug Week

ManBug Week has wound down over at the the LBC with a podcast interview with George Ilsley created by the great and glorious Carolyn Kellogg of Pinky's Paperhaus and the tenebrous, ranting denizens of The Bat Segundo Show.

I haven't been on a fast enough internet connection yet to listen to the interview, but Carolyn told me she enjoyed talking with George and that he said plenty of illuminating and amusing things, so I'm looking forward to listening to that part of the interview. I'm more wary of the beginning, because Carolyn and I talk about the book for a moment before introducing George, and I expect I sound like an idiot. Ignorance is, perhaps, bliss.

02 November 2006

Fresh Links

I rely on NetNewsWire for RSS feed reading, but have begun to experiment with Google Reader as an online alternative. As part of that experiment, I'm trying out the sharing capabilities, so you will now see (I hope...) a "Fresh Links" section of the sidebar. This offers some recent links to weblog posts that I've found in some way or another interesting. You can connect from there to my public page, which also has its own feed if you want to receive it all in your own reader*. I'll keep playing with it see how it works out. Ideally, it could be an easy way to keep some fresh content going, and reduce some of the need for big linkdump posts.

Note: If the "Fresh Links" section has disappeared, that means I'm fighting with it or am abandoning it. If it looks funny, that means I haven't gotten the code to integrate well with this site's template. In other words, this is all a test.

*I've only been able to get the feed to work in Google Reader, which may be the only place it will work, I don't know. With more time, I'll figure it out.

30 October 2006

ManBug Week Begins

Things are likely to be slow here this week, as I will be the ringleader of ManBug Week at the LitBlog Co-op. There should be lots of provocative discussion of literature, sex, and entomology...

28 October 2006


And now for some big news, or at least something that counts as big news around here: I'm going to a writing workshop/conference in Kenya from December 14-28. It's run by the Summer Literary Seminars program, about which I've heard good things from a friend who went to their St. Petersburg program. I entered the fiction contest, and though I wasn't one of the top 3 finalists (alas), I did manage to do well enough to get a significant reduction in tuition, and so it seemed like too good an opportunity to pass up.

I've an interest in African literary culture and have been trying for a few years to remedy my considerable ignorance of both African literature and history; this program seems like a good way to continue that exploration.

With luck, I'll be able to do a bit of blogging from Kenya, but I won't know until I get there what time and resources will allow. Between now and then I hope to write a bit about some African fiction, and I'm sure that after I return I will want to share much of what I've discovered, thought about, and learned.

27 October 2006


24 October 2006

The Limits of Rhetorical Negativity

Today's happy thought comes to us via Ben Marcus, writing about Thomas Bernhard in the November Harper's:
Bernhard's language strained the limits of rhetorical negativity: if his prose were any more anguished, it would simply transmit as moaning and wailing. Building interest in the grief experienced by people who look at the world and find it unbearable was a dark art of Bernhard's, and his characters do not resist the long walk to death's door but run to it and claw at the surface, begging for entry. After all, says Strauch, the agonized painter in Bernhard's first novel, Frost, "there is an obligation towards the depth of one's own inner abyss," even if meeting that obligation destroys you.
Note that in addition to Frost being released in the U.S. for the first time, Bernhard's Gargoyles and The Loser have also been re-released in paperback.

23 October 2006

Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation; vol. 1: The Pox Party by M.T. Anderson

My experiment in reading YA novels did not begin particularly well. I got 60 pages into A Drowned Maiden's Hair and found myself resenting the book because it was such a slog to get through, and any time I feel this way, I know that a combination of the book's qualities and my mood are leading toward nothing good for either of us, and so I stopped. It may be a perfectly good book for kids, but it was definitely not a perfectly good book for me.

I then looked at The Black Tattoo, but it didn't really catch my attention, so I didn't read far, and instead moved on to other books. I may return to it, I may not.

Then Meghan McCarron borrowed the advanced copy of Octavian Nothing that I've had since Kelly Link and Gwenda Bond insisted I pick it up at BEA, and she insisted I would enjoy it.

Meghan was right. The book fully titled The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation; vol. 1: The Pox Party is among the best books I've read in the last few years. Not among the best books for kids that I've read in the last few years, because that would be an easy group to be at the head of, but among the best books of any sort, for anyone.

Previously, I had only read Anderson's novel Thirsty, which I thought was pretty good as far as books for kids go, but it didn't feel particularly substantial, and I had a mixed opinion of the ending, which seemed to me simultaneously brave and a cop-out.

Octavian Nothing is a novel of substance, and nothing in it feels like a cop-out. It amazes me that this book can be marketed to a young adult audience, because it is written in the diction of the 18th century, sometimes densely so, making the reading of it seem at times more like reading Mason & Dixon than the average Newbery Award winner. I'm sure the book would have been published had Anderson not written anything else, but I wonder if the reason it has been published as YA is simply because that is an audience Anderson already has access to -- there is simply nothing, other than the narrator's age, that makes this a book that must be sold to people under the age of 20, and yet is the marketing category into which it is being placed. I don't mean to suggest this is a bad thing, and it may, in fact, be better than the alternative, because Candlewick Press has given it real attention and turned the text into a lovely physical artifact -- even the ARC is graceful.

I don't mean to linger too long on the vagaries and oddities of marketing in these confused times, and my comments above may reflect more of my ignorance of the YA category than anything else. Regardless of how it is sold, Octavian Nothing is an astounding book. It tells the story of a slave before and during the American Revolution, a boy whose mother is brought to the colonies from Africa and sold, along with her young son, to a society of scientists that has some similarities to the American Philosophical Society and its ilk. He and his mother become part of a strange experiment, and the nature of that experiment changes over the course of the novel, until eventually Octavian escapes and joins a militia fighting against the British. The story is episodic and picaresque, the many years of events linked together through the authority of Anderson's narrative voice, which is mostly built from Octavian's own words, though as the tale progresses more and more other documents are inserted, including newspaper clippings and letters from various other characters. Linking it all, too, are themes of freedom and restraint, of liberty and slavery, science and myth, knowledge and ignorance. These themes are handled deftly -- inextricable from the story and characters, yet always present, emerging from the conversations and events in ways far more complex than in even many heralded novels about such subjects. Our knowledge of history makes the events even more poignant, because we know that any victory Octavian can achieve for himself will be within the context of a society that would maintain the institution for slavery for nearly another century, and violent racism for much longer.

Complexity of themes and ideas is certainly welcome, but it is the quality of writing and structure that differentiates the well-intentioned novel from the great. Octavian Nothing is intelligently structured and brilliantly, beautifully written. For instance, these paragraphs from early in the book:
A man in a topiary maze cannot judge of the twistings and turnings, and which avenue might lead him to the heart; while one who stands above, on some pleasant prospect, looking down upon the labyrinth, is reduced to watching the bewildered circumnavigations of the tiny victim through obvious coils -- as the gods, perhaps, looked down on besieged and blood-sprayed Troy from the safety of their couches, and thought mortals weak and foolish while they themselves reclined in comfort, and had only to snap to call Ganymede to their side with nectar decanted.

So I, now, with the vantage of years, am sensible of my foolishness, my blindness, as a child. I cannot think of my blunders without shriveling of the inward parts -- not merely the desiccation attendant on shame, but also the aggravation of remorse that I did not demand more explanation, that I did not sooner take my mother by the hand and--

I do not know what I regret. I sit with my pen, and cannot find an end to that sentence.

I do not know what we may do, to know another better.
The progression of the diction there is what most thrills me, because the complexity of the first paragraph demonstrates Octavian's struggle to frame and express his feelings, and then the passage ends in a simplicity that reflects "the desiccation attendant on shame" and reveals the sadness hiding beneath the learned thought. What begins as a fine mimicry by Anderson of 18th century writing ends in utterly contemporary plainness, and this development mirrors the book's own balancing act: the evocation of a lost time to cause readers to reflect on their own era, their own situations and lives. Similarly, it mirrors the task we participate in as readers: with each page, we learn new things, we piece together new clues, we make connections that reveal the atrocities underlying the best-dressed and most-educated parts of society. The language finally implodes in the face of the worst crimes, filling the pages with blotted-out words, a choice that, had the material been less sensitively handled, would have been tricksy and clever, but is instead as powerful (and perhaps more powerful) than anything Anderson could have written.

I cannot resist ending these notes with words from the book itself, this time from the last pages:
They told me of substance and form; they told me of matter, of its consistency as a fluxion of minute, swarming atomies, as Democritus had writ; they told me of shape and essence; they told me of the motion of light, that it was the constant expenditure of particles flying off the surfaces of things; they told me of color, that it was an illusion of the eye, an event in the perceiver's mind, not in the object; they told me that color had no reality; indeed, they told me that color did not inhere in a physical body any more than pain was in a needle.

And then they imprisoned me in darkness; and though there was no color there, I was still black, and they were still white; and for that, they bound and gagged me.

People Collection

Because there is very little I would not do at the request of Clare Dudman, I shall continue the following meme-questionnaire-thing, which she tagged me for...

This seems to have originated here and requires the responder to list 5 personal qualities not generally known to readers of the blog it's being posted on. The idea, apparently, is to collect things that would be interesting attributes to draw on for characters in fiction.

Here's a required paragraph:

Remember that it isn’t always the sensational stuff that writers are looking for, it can just as easily be something that you take for granted like having raised twins or knowing how to grow beetroot. Mind you, if you know how to fly a helicopter or have worked as a film extra, do feel free to let the rest of us know about it :-)
We are all, apparently, interesting in our particularities.

Since I don't tend to put too much personal stuff up here, this should be fairly easy. Let's see...

1. In the past few months a number of extremely wonderful things have happened to me, most of which will end up being chronicled here, but a little over a month ago my cat, Vanya, disappeared. We had been companions for 9 years, and this loss has affected me far more deeply than any of the wonderful things, which is, I suppose, a testament to him and to how much he meant to me. He'd had a sister named Masha who died of cancer during the summer of 2001, and that loss was difficult, particularly because I hated to see her suffer, but it was softened because Vanya was still there, and so I was not alone.

2. I vehemently dislike shopping, and sometimes buy clothes that don't fit or items that are not what I was looking for because once I get into a store, all I want to do is get out.

3. Often when thinking, I flip a pen or pencil in my hand, usually without looking at it.

4. I have a motorcycle license, but haven't ridden a motorcycle in ten years.

5. I was an extra in the skating scene in the movie The Good Son, written by Ian McEwan and starring Macauley Culkin and Elijah Wood. Culkin was sequestered from the extras for most of the 9-day shoot, but he did seize the megaphone one day and have a group of us play "Simon Says" and "Hokey-Pokey" with him. Elijah Wood was far more friendly, not being particularly famous back then, and I remember pleasant conversations with both him and his mother.

If this sort of thing interests you and you have a blog of your own, consider yourself tagged.

18 October 2006


Things are a-hoppin' at the LBC, with Jeff Bryant proclaiming his passion for the book he nominated for this term, Sideshow by Sidney Thompson and me singing the praises of my nominee, Manbug by George K. Ilsley. Of course, Sam Savage's Firmin was the book that got the most votes, and it's a fun book well worth your attention, but don't neglect the other two, either.

(And no, even though Jeff, Ed, and I are known in certain circles as The Boyz of the LBC, we did not agree beforehand only to choose books with one-word titles written by men.)

17 October 2006

Lit'ry Magazines

My favorite benefit so far of being series editor for the upcoming Best American Fantasy is getting to read things I wouldn't otherwise know about or have ready access to, including a wide variety of magazines generally considered part of the literary mainstream. Inspired by these two posts from other bloggers, I thought I'd highlight a few that I have been looking through recently -- not an exhaustive list by any means, but rather a little sampling.

Agni is a magazine I used to subscribe to, but because I try to scatter my subscriptions, I let it go, and now I regret it. I haven't read a recent issue, but I have enjoyed some of the web-only content they've posted, and I expect the journal itself is as varied and high-quality as I always found it to be. I know I'll spend a day at the library catching up with this year's batch of fiction, in case there's something appropriate for BAF, and I look forward to it.

Gargoyle is a genuine find, a journal I hadn't encountered before beginning the BAF selection process. The quality is wildly varied, but the fiction is consistently strange, and that alone is enough for me to recommend it.

The quality of fiction in Hobart also fluctuates a bit, at least to my taste, but when it's good it's very good, indeed. I like Hobart's openness to all sorts of different things, from the realist of realism to utter batshit surrealism. It's a fine place to discover new writers with unique, individual qualities. Hobart is a young magazine yet, and lots of people have never heard of it, so I expect that it will have a breakout moment in the coming years, one where all sorts of people suddenly say, "Hey, where's this magazine been all along?" Read it now so you can feel superior to those people later.

Ninth Letter is a magazine with high production values -- it's like something from TTA Press on steroids. The design sometimes gets in the way of the readability, but when every page looks like it could be hung on a museum wall, that's a small price to pay. I've only read one issue so far, but the one I read was full of wonderfully weird work.

There was a time when I thought the New England Review was really boring, but either I or the magazine or, most likely, both have changed. This was one of the first magazines to send us copies for consideration for BAF, and to be honest, I laughed -- "What," said I to meself, "is this bastion of realism doing sending itself to Best American Fantasy?!? Whose idea of a joke is this?!" But I take my job as series editor seriously, and have vowed to read at least a few pages of every piece of fiction in every magazine we encounter, and the joke was on me. The nonfiction seems stronger to me than the fiction at the moment -- so strong, in fact, that I was considering trying to convince our guest editors to alter our guidelines somewhat to include at least one essay -- but I now am excited when each new issue arrives, because my preconceptions have been blown to bits, and that seems to me like a good state in which to read new stories.

A Public Space is a newcomer that I find myself recommending to people constantly, purely because I read the first issue cover-to-cover with great enjoyment. (It included a story by Kelly Link, which is what first brought it to my attention, but I was pleased to discover that just about everything in the first issue held my interest and sparked plenty of thought and, often, pleasure.) The fiction is a strange and eclectic mix, including both formally innovative and relatively straightforward work, the kind of mix I most enjoy, but the nonfiction is just as eclectic. I recently received the second issue, and it looks promising as well. I particularly like the section in each issue focusing on one country -- in the first issue, Japan, in the second, Russia.

Threepenny Review is another journal I've subscribed to for a while, and one that has survived my tendency to only subcribe to a magazine for a couple years. Frankly, I've seldom enjoyed much of the fiction, but the essays and reviews are among the best I know: thoughtful, surprising, beautifully written.

Zoetrope: All-Story is a magazine I've been reading for some time, though in the past I've thought its quality has been rather hit-or-miss. That's not been the case with the last couple issues, though, both of which I read cover-to-cover. In the past, Zoetrope tended toward traditional, plot-driven fiction, but the most recent issues have shown more variety of style and approach than I remember from before, which may be merely a delusional perception on my part, because I haven't gone back to old issues to compare. Whatever that perception is, though, the fact is that the newest issues are very much worth reading.

I don't know of anything in the world of literary magazines quite like the great Ralan.com market site for SF, but if you're interested in exploring the (overwhelmingly) vast world of lit journals, New Pages and Web del Sol are good places to spend time exploring. (The annual Pushcart Prize volumes are also a treasure trove of fiction, poetry, and essays you're not likely to come upon unless you devote most of your days to reading lit mags.)