24 December 2007


For various reasons, I'm going to need to take a hiatus from blogging for a bit. I do promise to return.

sende nicht aus,

durchgründet vom Nichts,
ledig allen
feinfügig, nach
der Vor-Schrift,

nehm ich dich auf,
statt aller

do not send out,

transgrounded by the void,
free of all
fine-fugued, according to
the pre-script,

I take you in,
instead of

--Paul Celan
trans. Pierre Joris
from Lichtzwang/Lightduress

21 December 2007

Sweeney Todd

I know Terry Teachout reveres the stage version of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street at least as much as I do, but I can't entirely agree with him that Tim Burton's film version "is -- without exception, and by a considerable margin -- the best film ever to have been made from a Broadway musical." However, this is only because I think Bob Fosse's Cabaret is a more profound and innovative film. Fosse turned an awkward and mediocre musical into something newly rich and strange, and the camera work and editing in Cabaret remain breathtaking even after thirty-five years and oodles of CGI movies. Tim Burton simply had the task of not obscuring the brilliance of his source material. That he did more than that is something to be celebrated.

Burton has created what is certainly his best film in many years, and perhaps his best film yet, although opinions on that will depend on how much you prefer Burton's darker side to his goofier side. This Sweeney Todd is dark indeed -- dark in color palette, dark in tone. By cutting out the "Ballad of Sweeney Todd" segments from the play, Burton has removed the device that allowed the audience to keep a bit of distance from the gore and mayhem, and his ending is more that of a Jacobean tragedy than a Victorian melodrama, for the untainted purity and goodness of Anthony and Johanna is left more unresolved in the movie than in the play. (Did I miss the "Ballad" sections? Sure, because they contain some of my favorite lyrics, and I love the moment when Sweeney rises in the final one. But they're theatrical and would either have made the movie campy or Brechtian, and Burton wisely chose to go in other directions.)

This is very much a Tim Burton movie, and that's just fine, because Burton has tremendous respect for the original play, and his style is not one that is at odds with the source, although it certainly offers a different experience. He is a filmmaker with as distinctive a visual vocabulary as any director I can think of -- there is a continuity of imagery between many of his films, and at times Sweeney reminded me of Beetle Juice and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Batman Returns and Corpse Bride and, at the very least because of the razor blades, Edward Scissorhands. Indeed, Sweeney is the nasty Struwwelpeter underside of the sentimental sweetness at the core of Edward Scissorhands (which, I rush to say, is a movie dear to my heart). Sweeney's line upon getting his razors back -- "At last, my arm is complete again!" -- could be the cry of Edward after having grown up and lost his way for a while. We don't need to refer to Isaiah Berlin to know that some artists have many different styles and visions and others are masters of digging away at particular stylistic obsessions -- Burton, it seems to me, is the latter, with each new film a work unto itself, certainly, but also a work that offers variations on its predecessors' images.

There are a few moments of Sweeney that feel a bit long, a bit theatrical, a bit off (mostly with Anthony's song "Johanna", which generally comes off as silly in the movie because Anthony's passion is a shallow and ridiculous passion of love-at-first-sight, the sort of thing theatrical melodrama can absorb, but which is unintentionally funny on screen). For the most part, though, Burton's version works quite well as a film, making for a fine meld of gory gothic horror and movie musical.

I had heard enough clips of the singing online that I knew what to expect, but I wasn't sure how it would all fit together -- would it seem as thin as it does alone, or would the intimacy of the camera and the lushness of the production design compensate? Overall, I was perfectly comfortable with the singing, and I say that as someone who knows nearly every note of the score by heart. It's simplified in the movie, certainly, and has more the quality of a pop album than an operetta, but the only singer who really disappoints is Helena Bonham Carter, because the quality of her voice is so thin that, for instance, in her first song ("The Worst Pies in London") many of her words are lost beneath the orchestra. But she's a fine actor, and that matters -- I've seen productions of Sweeney Todd with excellent singers who are not particularly good actors, and it is a far more painful experience than productions with adequate singers who are excellent actors. (And her voice is just right, I think, for her later song "By the Sea", which is one of my favorite sequences in the movie.) Burton gets his actors to create vivid, over-the-top characterizations that are often mesmerizing. Johnny Depp is just about the best in the business at such characterizations, and many of the people who can give him competition for that title are in the movie, too: Sacha Baron Cohen, Alan Rickman, and Timothy Spall. Each sings, and each is at least competent -- the key is that they do what the best actors do, and throw themselves so deeply into their roles that how they sing becomes a vital part of the character. Timothy Spall's version of "Ladies in Their Sensitivities" is much less pretty than it usually is, but his characterization of Beadle Bamford is also far less pretty than the usual -- he is no self-important fop, but rather a rat-like creature, a lurking pustule of corruption. Johnny Depp's Sweeney lacks the bombast and rugged masculinity of most stage Sweeneys, and so his gentler, less forceful singing makes good sense for his character -- there is a creepiness to him that I've never encountered in Sweeney before, because usually he is presented as rugged, strong, forceful -- whereas Depp finds something else within him: not a vulnerability so much as the ghost of vulnerability, the shell of a man who was once too sensitive, who was nearly destroyed because of it, and who now maintains an obsession because nothing else will keep him from shattering into a thousand tiny bits of self. It lacks the complexity some of the best stage actors have found in the role, but it provides a unity the film needed.

In 1994, my father and I saw the glorious London production of Sweeney Todd at the National Theatre (with Julia McKenzie as a strong and multifaceted Mrs. Lovett and Adrian Lester adding more depth and the role of Anthony than anyone probably ever imagined could be there). My father didn't know the show at all, but likes horror movies, so I thought he'd enjoy it, and he did, saying, afterward, "That had more blood in it than any play I've ever seen!" I don't remember it being particularly bloody, myself, but it's one of those plays that, regardless of how much blood actually gets poured onto the stage, feels like a bath of gore. The movie, though, is full of blood right from the opening credits, but the notable thing about the blood is how stylized it all is -- Burton doesn't try to make the blood look realistic, but rather makes it very, very red, and the effect is both unsettling and beautiful. Perhaps unsettling because it is beautiful. The only truly painful moment of gore is one of the slightest and involves Pirelli's technique with a razor, strop, and Tobias's fingertips.

An interesting change Burton makes from the play involves Tobias, who is generally played as a dim-witted young man. Tobias in the movie is played by Ed Sanders, a young boy. It's a notable performance because it is so understated and sincere, the one character who lacks almost any trace of caricature in the movie. (It's interesting that this year two of the best American movies are musicals -- I'm Not There and Sweeney Todd, and both include startling performances by kids: Sanders here, and Marcus Carl Franklin in I'm Not There.)

I had hoped the film of Sweeney Todd would at least not cause me to cringe while hearing some of my favorite theatre songs sung on screen. I crossed my fingers that it might do more than that, and might even provide occasional moments of joy. It exceeded even those hopes. It was entertaining, entrancing, surprising, delightful, and emotionally affecting in ways different from, but not inferior to, the stage version. It is very much a work of art of its own, separate and different from the other iterations of the story and music -- which was my highest hope, the one I didn't dare dream of, because the chances of disappointment were so high. There was, though, no disappointment at all.

17 December 2007


Thanks to this post, this site has become the top hit on Google for such phrases as "I will have vengeance!" and "I will have vengeance, I will have salvation!" And lots of hits a day are coming through because of it.

I don't know if people are looking for ways to get vengeance and salvation, or if they're looking for the song the phrase came from in Sweeney Todd.

If it's the latter, that's easy: The song is "Epiphany" and the lyrics, wiht a fwe typoz, are available here. You can see it on YouTube in various productions: Len Cariou (the original Sweeney) and Angela Lansbury (the original soundtrack album is a masterpiece, like a bloody and brilliant radio show); George Hearn and Angela Lansbury; George Hearn and Patti LuPone; a little bit of Johnny Depp.

For actual vengeance and salvation, let me introduce you to my friend Nick Mamatas, who will be happy to help, I'm sure...

A Question for the Audience

I had parent-teacher conferences the other day, and the most common statement-then-question from parents was, "My child doesn't really like to read, and I don't know how to turn him/her/it onto the pleasures of reading. What can I do?" My stock response was, "If I had an easy answer to that, I'd be a millionaire." I didn't want to say that I think most of the time we English teachers are an impediment to students' enjoyment of books (though I do think I slipped and said that to one parent), and that suggesting to an adolescent that anything is good for them is the surest way to make them avoid it at all costs. I didn't want to tell them, either, how little I feel like I understand adolescents anymore, how far I am from their frames of mind, how much they seem to have changed (or I have changed, or not changed enough) since I began teaching ten years ago.

Many of the parents who said, despairingly, that their child doesn't like to read were parents of boys. The parents of girls most often were concerned that their daughter didn't read the right books -- that instead of challenging herself, building her vocabulary, expanding her mind, etc., she goes to the library or bookstore and finds "junk".

I wished I had easy answers. I wished I had any answers.

A couple of parents asked me for recommendations of places where their kids could find out about books they might like. No answer came to mind, because I've never looked at the sorts of websites or resources that kids might look at, and I honestly wouldn't even know where to begin. But I know some of you out there are interested in such things as YA books, and so I thought you might have some good pointers. I'd particularly love to know if there are any teen-oriented blogs out there that ever talk about books, particularly blogs by teens themselves. If you were (or are) a teenager, what sorts of resources would help you discover books you might like?

Delany Week at Strange Horizons

Over at Strange Horizons, the reviews department is devoted to the work of Samuel R. Delany this week, and it begins with my essay "Night and Day: The Place of Equinox in Samuel R. Delany's Oeuvre", which is a piece I cobbled together from various fragments of academic writing. It originally had footnotes, much more jargon, etc., and then Niall Harrison did a heroic job of editing it, and I went back and rewrote various parts, to turn it into what it is now. (Some clunkiness still remains, because I decided that preserving a couple of ideas was more important than giving readers smooth transitions, so I hope you'll forgive me.) The whole process produced my favorite editorial suggestion of all time, at least among editorial suggestions I've received: "Maybe better to omit the next two paragraphs and skip straight to the sex?"

Keep your eyes on Strange Horizons this week, as Graham Sleight will be writing about Delany's short fiction, L. Timmel Duchamp will be writing about About Writing, and Paul Kincaid will be writing about Dark Reflections (which I wrote about a few months ago).

15 December 2007

The Farther Shore by Matthew Eck

The Farther Shore is the current LitBlog Co-op pick, and reading it caused me to think about a few different things, given that the novel portrays American soldiers in East Africa. It was, in fact, exactly a year ago that I was a tourist in Kenya, only a few hundred miles away from Somalia, where Matthew Eck had fought for the U.S. Army in the 1990s. A few hundred miles, a decade of years, entirely different worlds. (The U.S. has had a long history in Somalia, with U.S. military operations continuing, though this time as part of operations against al-Qaeda, while the situation remains complex and difficult.)

Before reading The Farther Shore, I wondered about why it needed to be a novel -- why, in these memoir-sodden days of ours, would a writer choose fiction when he could probably have gotten more money and notice by writing about his own experiences? I became a bit skeptical of the fiction, because there were many possible pits it could fall into: politics and polemics overcoming the alternate sort of experience fiction offers; a glorification of the battlefield; all sorts of sentimentality -- the men from various backgrounds who start out distrustful and end up bonded as brothers in blood, or, alternately, the sentimentalism of so much of Hemingway: the hyper-masculine matter-of-fact tone that can't hide the drip of how tough-and-yet-noble it is to be guys being guys. And then there was Africa, which causes even more of my hang-ups to rattle their hangers. It's an unfair prejudice, but I rarely read books about Americans going to Africa. That continent has for too long been used as a literary device for otherness, and I think it's time to read literature by Africans and let them tell their stories for a while. (If we need a place for exoticization, let's use Europe, instead, since European literature has a long and vivid history to counteract our fumbling representations, and there's less chance of doing damage, less chance of our inadvertent, best-intentioned stereotypes propping up a master narrative of dehumanization.)

All of which is just to say that I read and enjoyed The Farther Shore, and if I was able to do that through all the distorting lenses of my biases, then it's clearly got something going on.

A few different things saved The Farther Shore for me. First, the compression of its narrative. This is a very short novel: 173 pages of somewhat large type and pages with a comfortable amount of white space (it's a nicely designed book). It is full of events, but the writing is not that of a novel all about its plot. The plot happens to the characters, and that's part of what the whole book is about, the gravitational force of events. The narrator's life is one where again and again everything changes in less time than it takes for consciousness to catch up. The words don't try to explain it all for us, they don't slow down to let us have a more reflective experience than the characters get. And yet they are more reflective, the words on the page, because the narrator is looking back -- looking back and still wondering what happened.

This is not, then, a novel about Americans going to Africa and getting lots of difficult experience and hard-won knowledge, though their experiences of being separated from their unit and wandering through hostile and indifferent territories is certainly quite difficult. Nor is it the Heart of Darkness Africa where everything's a symbol of metaphysical blight. It's more like a Werner Herzog movie, where people from one world go to another world and moments of comprehension are few. In a sentimental story such moments would be precious and valued and trascendent, but in a more honest tale such as this one, they do nothing so much as highlight how much disconnection there is.

There is strangeness at the heart of the book, too, as the landscape gets sparer and the narrator and his fellow lost boys wander aimless and wounded through senseless ruins. People become little more than objects and stimuli, and I don't think I will soon forget a scene where the narrator is numbly cruel to a little girl. "You never know where to stand in a war," he says in one of the book's most quotable sentences -- and its own quotability, the fine bite of its sound, the pregnant possibilities of its implications, tells us much about where the narrator has gotten to at that point: it's no coincidence that that sentence comes only a few pages after this passage:
"I bet they'll make a movie about us," Zeller said. His face was thin and pale by now, and his eyes were sunk deep in their sockets, surrounded by dark shadows. He'd lost a lot of weight. We all had. I wondered what I looked like. Maybe like a hero.

"They'll make a movie about us," said Santiago, "made for TV."

We all laughed.

After a while Santiago said, "I wonder if they'll include the kids we killed?"
And so reality gets mediated, and men who have grown up on images of war get battered by war themselves, and in their struggle to enunciate all they have seen and done, they fall back on what they know, seeking a way to fit their lives into a comfortable three-act structure with rising actions and climaxes and good guys making it out okay after struggle and hardship, their actions paved over with swagger.

I wondered what I looked like. Maybe like a hero.

Or maybe not.

I wonder if they'll include the kids we killed.

The novel falters -- perhaps inevitably -- at the end, because once everything has been in extremis there's hardly anywhere else to go. I kept wishing there were a way it could end with the haunting scenes of an abandoned train, rotting on rails going nowhere, an image that becomes, for the characters, something more concrete: a place of rest. I started rewriting the novel in my mind after that point, which is utterly unfair to it, but I'm a playwright at heart and it was such a wonderful set that I wanted it to be the one we stayed with, a variation on Joanne Akalaitis's staging of Beckett's Endgame in a post-apocalypse subway car. Mostly, I just didn't like the last few sentences, which tinkled in my ears like lines from a country song.

It's the imagery that makes this book more than something predictable or familiar, because the ordinary and sometimes cliche-spattered sentences of the soldiers gain, every few pages, some twist or turn to move the language beyond the immediately familiar (though it never, for better or worse, becomes estranging. The imagery is sometimes that of dreams or nightmares, but dreams or nightmares based in a known world, comprehensible. Is this a strength or a flaw? More limitation, I think, or maybe, again, a bias of mine: I like to see the deformation of words alongside the deformation of consciousness.)

Ultimately, this is not a book about Africa at all, which is probably for the best -- it's a book about a person caught by chaos, and chaos knows no geography, but settles wherever it can find some ground. It's a cousin to the reveries of The Short-Timers and Apocalypse Now, but more staid and stoic, with a narrator who observes more than he participates in the whole dream -- even his actions seem separate from his observations, and the effect is the same as what (in completely different circumstances and a completely different work of art) Dr. Dorn in Chekhov's Seagull says is the effect of alcohol: "...your true 'self' fades away and you start seeing yourself in the third person."

The farther shore of the title has various implications, but perhaps in addition to the implications of that image as it is used in the novel there is another one -- an image of a man looking out across the ocean for a self he can no longer distinguish from the horizon and the waves.

12 December 2007

"The detritus of the white man's world"

I've spoken of my admiration for much of Doris Lessing's work, but I have remained silent on her writings about Africa and her thoughts on that, the continent of her birth. Mostly because I've felt that her perspective on Africa was an important one for a while, but that she is also very much a product of her time and situation, as are we all.

I liked parts of her Nobel lecture very much, and the overall thrust of it -- which I perceived as a call to recognize the systems and luxuries that allow literature to be written -- is one I think deserves to be raised more often, and I was glad Lessing did. I didn't even mind her disparaging comments about the internet, because I never expected her to be very familiar or approving of it, anyway.

But some of what she writes about Africa bothered me quite a lot, in that she seems to be nostalgic for colonialism. Ramblings of an African Geek now has a post addressing this:
Never mind the damage colonization has done and still does to Africa, never mind the fact that the mission schools she so easily praises were built to teach a small minority of Africans to be government clerks and clergymen and were never meant to either educate the masses or produce the thinkers they did, thinkers who primarily came into existence because they understood how to subvert the education they were being given and take more out of it than was intended for them. Instead let’s take swipes at African governments and praise colonizers who were happy enough to enslave people, turn those they didn’t enslave into second class citizens on their own land and then annex the aforementioned land and strip it of resources for their advantage.

Post-Pboz-Party Post

Pindeldyboz is migrating from being a print-and-online magazine to being only an online magazine, and so they held a party Monday night, and I went. So did other people. Including Richard Larson, Dustin Kurtz, Ed Champion, and Sarah Weinman. The last print issue of Pboz is actually only appearing as a free PDF download. It's 16 megabytes of worthwhile reading.

Of last night's readings from the last issue, I was particularly taken by two. Here are excerpts:
As internships go—is that still what this is? -- you could do a lot better than zig-zagging through no man’s land carving up no man’s cows all summer. It’s not for credit, what the hell kind of major would give you credit for that? It’s more like an apprenticeship, but with no hope or desire to take over the business. Every Wednesday $250 is direct-deposited into my account back east. This job makes a lot more sense on Wednesdays.
--from "Every Creeping Thing of the Earth"
by Patrick Rappa

I agreed with you -- wholeheartedly, in fact -- that it was a relief that you were upgrading your BlackBerry that evening. If you hadn’t, then you wouldn’t have returned to the office and received the call from the Committee Chair, confirming that she did receive the proposal and she thought it was "exceptional." I also agreed with you that the shock you suffered was unfortunate and upsetting. And yes, I do understand that just because you had -- as you stated -- a "brain fart" it was not my responsibility to take it upon myself to complete the mandatory proposal for a grant that increases our project budget by two million dollars. I was to find you and have you view the final edition so that you may “put your spin on it” and I didn’t do that and, as I said, I am sorry.

What I really wanted to say was that you would certainly know that you had a "brain fart" because your head is so far up your ass you could probably smell it.
--from "What I Wanted to Say"
by Kristin McGonigle
The good news is that the Pboz website is going to continue to publish five new stories every other week, as they have done for a while now, and impressively so -- in fact, for Best American Fantasy (which makes a great holiday present, by the way) we reprinted more stories from Pindeldyboz Online than from any other source.

09 December 2007

Failbetter 25

One of the more venerable online literary magazines, Failbetter.com, has now reached a milestone: its twenty-fifth issue. Published quarterly since the fall of 2000 (when, coincidentally, one of the other venerable online magazines, Strange Horizons, also began), Failbetter has been a model of what can be accomplished on the web. They've consistently offered interesting fiction, poetry, art, and interviews -- indeed, their very first interview was with pre-Pulitzer Michael Chabon, and they would go on to interview a number of other authors only a few months or even weeks before they, too, would be bestowed with prizes.

Of course, the web has changed a lot since 2000, and Failbetter has changed too. Now they've got an RSS feed and are releasing content every week rather than just four times a year. The quality is still high, though, and the diversity of content exciting.

I can't claim impartiality -- one of my first publications of fiction as an adult came with "Getting a Date for Amelia" in the Summer/Fall 2001 issue. Editor Thom Didato and I had met at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference the summer before, and Thom promptly rejected two other stories of mine, saying they were well-written but dull. I'm glad he said that, because "Amelia" is a story I'm still fond of (even if it's a bit too much of a George Saunders pastiche), and I only sent it to him out of spite, thinking, "Well, this may be junk, but at least it's not dull!"

I've seen a lot of literary journals -- in print and online -- appear and disappear during the past few years, but Failbetter has remained strong and reliable, and in these times when so much attention runs a deficit, and so much of what we encounter is ephemeral, I think Failbetter's relative longevity and consistently high quality is a real accomplishment.

06 December 2007


John Klima is having everyone who contributed to his anthology Logorrhea write up a little something about why they chose the Spelling Bee word they did, and then post the section of Jeff VanderMeer's all-encompassing "Appogiatura" story that corresponds with the word. Also, there is a podcast of each section of "Appogiatura". And John is going to chronicle it all via this blog post.

First, about my own word and story...

Elegiacal Origins of "The Last Elegy"

It was the only possible word for me. What stories have I written that couldn't, in some way or another, be described as elegiacal? Sorrow for the past -- that is, it seems, one of the few things my imagination is willing to fixate on for fictional ideas. Often, too, the novels and stories that most appeal to me as a reader are ones with at least a hint of the elegiacal in them, partly because memory and time fascinate me with their twinned ability to haunt us with the ghosts of all we have lost.

Also, two books had captured my mind: Man Into Woman, which is the story of Lili Elbe, one of the first people to undergo sex reassignment surgery; and Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys, a novel where spare and very straightforward prose rises to a form of lyricism that I have seldom encountered elsewhere, and where a wandering, often mysterious narrative became, for me, far more enthralling than most novels with strong plots. I knew I wanted to write a story to work through some ideas the books had brought to me, but I didn't know what sort of story I wanted to write.

And then I saw the word "elegiacal", and I knew that would provide the solution. Immediately, a character sprang into mind: a professional elegist, someone who gained great fame from writing elegies, a popular poet in the mold of Edgar Guest. I imagined that at first the fame and money would be pleasing, but then a trap, as he was known only for one thing, and the public only wanted that one thing from him.

How, though, would this story fit in with the other that I wanted to write -- something related to Lili Elbe that also gave me an opportunity to try out some of the rhythms and style of Jean Rhys? What if the elegist fled his fame, and then had to face one last request for a poem, a request he could neither honor nor ignore...

I decided to stay as true to the story and words of Lili Elbe as possible, and I wanted to evoke pre-war Germany less through specific details and more through style (hence, the place is never named; I'm perfectly happy if readers imagine different places for it). It should, I thought, feel like a story of the time -- a bit stilted, a bit melodramatic. I included some of Lili Elbe's own words and phrases, as well as some from Jean Rhys (since Good Morning, Midnight was published in 1939, only six years after the first edition of Man Into Woman came out in Germany). I didn't steal very much, and never without some tweaking, but just enough, I hoped, for flavor and a certain sort of truth. My favorite theft was a cause of death I pillaged from Man Into Woman: "paralysis of the heart", a phrase I hoped would leave itself open to many interpretations. I tried, too, to replicate the ostensibly plain prose of Jean Rhys, knowing that I lacked her skill, but hoping the exercise would, at least, prove fruitful -- what I love about Rhys is not the plainness of the style, but the way it lures the reader in, then presents gaps and ambiguities, creating beauty through absence. She gets compared to Hemingway now and then, but I think she's closer to Pinter. (Looking back on "The Last Elegy" now, in fact, I think I didn't leave enough out.)

Finally, because elegies are about not just memory, but time, I played around with the tense of the story, creating a structure and then breaking it, hoping such gymnastics might provide some subtle clues to readers, knowing full well the feat might simply be distracting.

And now, you'll see, Mr. VanderMeer was rather differently inspired by the word:

by Jeff VanderMeer

Brown dust across a grey sky, with mountains in the distance. A metallic smell and taste. A burning.

Abdul Ahad and his sister Parveen were searching for a coin she'd lost. They stood by a wall of what was otherwise a rubble of stone and wood. A frayed length of red carpet wound its way through the debris.

"It has to be here somewhere," Parveen said. It had been a present from her uncle, a merchant who was the only one in their family to travel outside the country.

Her uncle had pressed it into her hand when she was eight and said, "This is an old coin from Smaragdine. There, everything is green."

The coin was heavy. On the front was a man in a helmet and on the back letters in a strange language, like something from another world. For weeks, she had held it, smooth and cool, in her right hand-to school, during lunch, back at their house, during dinner. She loved the color of it; there was no green like that here. Everything was brown or grey or yellow or black, except for the rugs, which were red. But this green-she didn't even need a photograph. She could see Smaragdine in her mind just from the texture and color of the coin.

"I don't see it," Abdul Ahad said, his voice flat and strange.

"We should keep looking."

"I think we should stop." Abdul Ahad had a sharp gash across his forehead. Parveen's clothes had ash on them. Her elbows and the back of her arms were lacerated from where she had tried to protect herself from the bomb blasts.

"We should keep looking," Parveen said. She had to keep swallowing; her throat hurt badly. She heard her brother's words through a sighing roar.

Now the muddled sound of sirens.

A harsh wind roiled down the brown street, carrying sand and specks of dirt.

Abdul Ahad sat down heavily on the broken rock.

Now Parveen could hear the screams and wails of people farther down the block. Flickers of flame three houses down, red-orange through the shadows of stones.

Their father had been dead for a year. Now their mother lay under the rubble. They'd seen a leg, bloodied and twisted. Had pulled away rocks, revealing an unseeing gaze, a face coated with dust.

Her brother had checked her pulse.

Now they were searching for the coin. Or Parveen was. She knew why her brother didn't want to. Because he thought it wouldn't make a difference. But Parveen felt that, somehow, if she found it, if she held it again, everything would be normal again. She had only survived the air strikebecause she was holding the coin at the time, she was sure of it, and Abdul Ahad had only survived because he had been standing next to her.

"You don't have to look, Ahad," she said, giving him a hug. "You should sit there for awhile, and I'll find it."

He nodded, gaze lost on the mountains in the distance.

Parveen walked away from him, kneeled in the dirt. She stuck her arm into a gap between jagged blocks of stone, grasping through dust and gravel, looking for something smooth and cool and far away. In a moment, she knew she'd have it.

04 December 2007


Things are going to continue to be light around here for at least a month, as I have various duties to attend to, deadlines that are quickly threatening to pass, etc. And last night I decided that I needed to start the Big Project over yet again, despite progress, because it's obviously in the wrong POV and starting far too far from the stuff that matters. And I owe 13,593 people 642,482 emails. And only a few of them are princes in Nigeria who want me to take care of their money for a few days. And I've been sick, which is never fun, though I have reached the post-sickness point of being just utterly weary.

(I perplex my students repeatedly because they have all been indoctrinated into believing that sentences cannot begin with such words as "and" or "but", that paragraphs cannot have more than five sentences in them, that sentences with more than a certain number of words in them are run-ons, etc. I tell them this is not true. I tell them what matters is purpose and audience. I tell them there is no such thing as "right" or "wrong" style and usage, just style and usage that work and are appropriate to particular audiences and purposes. They ask me why their other teachers told them differently. I want to say, "Because they were lying. All of us lie to children. You will, too, someday." Instead, I say, "They were trying to teach you some basic principles. They were good at heart. Don't be bitter. There are plenty of other things to be bitter about.") (What is my purpose here? Whittling away the time. What is my audience? [No comment.])

And now for what you hunger for: links!

  • At the LitBlog Co-op, we have announced the one book out of three that got the most positive votes from members: The Farther Shore by Matthew Eck. (It's notable that this is the second novel in a row we have chosen by a person named Matthew. I am entirely in favor of this tendency.) I mostly liked The Farther Shore, and so will be participating next week in some way or another in discussing it. (Yes, some of the procedures at the LBC are changing. We're not discussing all three nominees anymore, just the book that gets the most votes. And we're going to spread the posting around across various blogs, using the LBC site as a hub collecting them all rather than the One True Place of Posting. We'll see how it goes.)

  • I just read Cormac McCarthy's first novel, The Orchard Keeper, which I liked very much at the beginning, but less so as it went on, because there was nothing in the voice, events, or characters that, once I spent some time with them, I found continually engaging. I didn't expect a lot from his first novel, though, and found my eventual disengagement with it interesting on an intellectual level, because it's something that happens to me a lot: I read a third or half of a book, feel like I've gotten what there is to get, and stop. Or, I finish a book and think I should have stopped reading much earlier, because in some way or another the book felt to me like a lot of reiteration rather than development or surprise. Such a response is as much about the reader as the book. For instance, I finished reading a contemporary novel recently that many people have raved about -- indeed, I've seen nothing but good reviews of it, praising it for its style and its ideas -- and yet after being quite excited at the first hundred pages, I grew ever more uninterested as the second hundred fifty passed across my eyes, because the book was, as far as I could tell, little more than an elaboration of what had been set up in the beginning. The style was admirable simply for its consistency, and so it provided little pleasure, because even a great piece of food eaten again and again and again grows tedious. Basically, though, I just felt like I could have imagined it all just fine on my own, and so the writer's attention to detail and narrative felt, in some ways, like an imposition. I wanted more gaps, ambiguity, and surprise. I don't read to have what I could imagine for myself confirmed; I read to discover what I couldn't imagine, what I couldn't know, what I couldn't dream or extrapolate or come up with on my own.

    Which is not to say I could have imagined all of The Orchard Keeper after the beginning -- not at all, no way, nuh uh. It's just that it stopped pricking my imaginating in interesting ways, and by the end I felt unfulfilled.

  • Via Mark Sarvas, I discovered an essay by Cristina Nehring about "What's Wrong with the American Essay". I agree that many of the essays collected over the years in various books of American essays and personal essays and essayistic essays are ... well ... boring. But that's just because most of us aren't as good as Virginia Woolf, whose "Death of the Moth" is, I think, among the greatest things ever written in English, and could be seen as suffering from some of what Nehring criticizes, except it isn't, because it's written by a genius. What really bothered me about Nehring's essay, though, had nothing to do with her, but rather with whoever at the website decided to illustrate the piece with a picture of the new Best American Essays edited by David Foster Wallace. I kept waiting for Nehring to discuss the Wallace collection, because in his introduction Wallace says some of the same things she does, and I found this particular entry of the series to be more entertaining and immediately engaging than any of the others I have read (and I've read a few. I like the Alan Lightman one quite a bit, too.) Nehring notes the dates 1996-2006 multiple times, so it becomes clear enough that she isn't discussing the Wallace volume, but then to put the Wallace book prominently on the page with the article is misleading.

  • Speaking of great essays and essayists, Elizabeth Hardwick has died at the very fine age of 91. I owe much of my understanding of Melville, if I can claim to have any, to her. In honor of her, check out "Grub Street: New York" from the first issue of the magazine she helped found, The NY Review of Books.

  • And from the most recent issue of the NYRB: Michael Dirda on Joyce Carol Oates. Oates is an amazing, overwhelming, frustrating writer, one who it's difficult to really get a picture of without devoting your life to reading her work (Randy Souther's Celestial Timepiece website is a great help. In fact, the JCO discussion group there was the first online community of readers I ever joined, when I was a wee lad finishing up college.) Dirda mis-states the title of A Bloodsmoor Romance and leaves out the third of Oates's experimental Gothic novels in his mention of them: Mysteries of Winterthurn, which I remember being among the books of Oates's that most impressed me. I just received a galley of a new edition of that book that will be out in May of next year, so I am hoping to get the chance to reread it, and hoping it will find a new audience now. In some ways, in fact, I think we are now better ready to receive the sorts of genre play that Oates was up to with Winterthurn and the other books, and it might now have a better chance of finding an audience. Perhaps, too, we will finally see The Crosswicks Horror published.

  • Ms. Gringa found A Hard Day's Night of the Living Dead, which made me think of a 45 my father had (RPM record, not gun, though there were plenty of those, too) of Peter Sellers singing "A Hard Day's Night" and "Help!". I wondered if they were available on the internets, and lo and behold, there's a TV clip of Sellers being introduced by the Beatles as he does Laurence Olivier as Richard III reciting "Hard Day's Night" -- and there's also a site called The Songs and Sounds of Peter Sellers, which offers mp3s of not only the two songs I knew, but also other Beatles covers, including one of Dr. Strangelove putting a rather ... Hitlerian ... spin on "She Loves You". (Sellers later returned to his German accent, and also returned to Richard III.)

  • Happy Chanukah to all my Jewish friends!

30 November 2007

Glowing Reviews

Ed Champion linked to this, and I'm passing it on, because the customer reviews on this product are the funniest things I've read all week.

Wo(o)lf(e)s in the World

Virginia Woolf and Gene Wolfe are topics of a few conversation out on the internets these days:

28 November 2007

"I will have vengeance! I will have salvation!"

The website for Sweeney Todd has just been updated, and it contains a number of audio selections. I'm hardly alone in being simultaneously excited by Tim Burton directing my favorite musical and skeptical of a cast made up largely of people who are not known for their singing.

The clips on the site, though, are heartening. Most are of Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. Neither will ever be mistaken for powerful singers, but they're not atrocious. (Alas, no Sacha Baron Cohen yet.) These versions of the songs are a bit thin on their own, and sometimes the actors get overwhelmed by the lush orchestrations, but I can imagine the songs working pretty well on film, which, thanks to the way the camera modulates the audience's proximity to the actors, can be much more effective as an intimate aural environment than live theatre (or maybe it's just me -- I hate plays where the actors are heavily miked, and I have more than once walked out of shows because of the sound design). Here's a fun YouTube comparison (audio) of four versions of Sweeney (Len Cariou, George Hearn, Michael Cerveris, and Johnny Depp).

The songs promise to be streamlined in the film, and that's not necessarily a bad thing, since most of the worst movie musicals are the ones that stick too faithfully to the stage version. I love "A Little Priest" in live performance, but if the whole thing were in the movie, the pacing would be quite a challenge, given how static and word-based the song is.

In any case, some of my fears about the movie being embarrassing or unintentionally cringe-inducing are allayed, and I'm very much looking forward to seeing Burton's visual interpretation of it all.

23 November 2007

Magpie Semiotics

Thanksgiving is a hit-or-miss holiday for me -- I've had some wonderful ones with friends and family, but some of my favorite Thanksgivings have been ones where I've hung out on my own and taken a break from everything. This year was one of those, and a memorable one, because I decided to see two movies I was sure would be interesting to see together: I'm Not There and Across the Universe.

Both films are based on the work of some of the most recognizable, revered, and influential musicians of the last fifty years: Bob Dylan for I'm Not There and The Beatles for Across the Universe -- musicians who came of age and influence at roughly the same time. Both films are helmed by idiosyncratic directors: Todd Haynes and Julie Taymor. Both films have gotten wildly divergent responses from viewers.

I am far more of a Bob Dylan fan than a Beatles fan (though I did go through a bit of Beatlemania as a kid, and so most of the words to their best-known songs come immediately to mind if I hear only a few notes). I am far more of a Julie Taymor fan than Todd Haynes fan (his films often seem thoughtfully imagined, intelligently constructed, and mostly lifeless to me). I went into each movie trying to watch it as an artifact of its own, something toward which I would bring as few preconceptions as possible, for fear of being disappointed about either a director I respect or a body of music that has been important to my life. In particular, I wanted to see the movies as movies, not as movies about Dylan or the Beatles.

It proved impossible to watch I'm Not There without always thinking about Dylan. That shouldn't be surprising for a film that says it is "inspired by the music and many lives of Bob Dylan", but still -- I had read Anthony Lane's review, and even without seeing the movie I knew there was no way anyone could enjoy it if they had such a literal, flatfooted approach as Lane did. I had thought the best way to really enjoy the movie was not to try to connect the dots between Dylan and the kaleidoscopic hallucination of his life and music that the film presents, but rather to enter into the hallucination, to let it go without reference to anything other than itself.

Easier said than done. And not necessary, either. Here's the thing you need to be able to enjoy this movie: you need to like Bob Dylan's music. If you don't, you're doomed, because that music plays almost constantly through the film. But if you like Dylan's music, you've got a chance. You then need to watch the movie the way you listen to a Dylan song, with an open mind and a willingness to not get all the references, but to enjoy their presence nonetheless. Instead of making a biopic, Todd Haynes has made the cinematic equivalent of a Dylan concert.

Dylan has often been described as a magpie (or, less charitably, a thief), and what Haynes has done is similar -- he has taken not only Dylan's life and work, but many of his influences, and from them he has built his structure out of riffs and allusions, quotations and transpositions, dreams, fantasies, rumors, myths, and the iconography of an array of cultural moments. Haynes has a semiotics habit, and he deconstructs one sign after another, sticking them all up on different posts to point the way toward something ineffable. (A town called Riddle figures prominently.)

Very little in I'm Not There is a one-to-one allusion where x = y. Instead, in the best moments, like some of the best moments of Dylan's best songs, the allusions are so many that they gain weight of their own -- the gravity of synergy, perhaps -- and so we have, for instance, scenes that reference Fellini, A Hard Day's Night, Don't Look Back, and much more. Such scenes become so overdetermined that the references don't really matter, except for a chuckle or nod, and we are left to consider that first-and-last refuge of the inveterate postmodernist: the surface.

Something else Haynes has done is show us how powerful the music is. (Not that those of us who have spent much of our lives listening to Dylan ever really needed anybody to tell us the music is powerful -- but I'm Not There provides the sort of defamiliarizing jolt that reminds us what resides within those notes and words.) Both I'm Not There and Across the Universe succeed by letting the music do the emotional work, but not (usually) in the crassly manipulative way of so many middling movies, the kind that underscore every climax with strings, treating their audiences like a kennel of Pavlovian dogs. I'm Not There busts its main character into six personas and tells a nonlinear, associational story with a panoply of film stocks and styles. That's a recipe for an intellectual adventure, not an emotionally satisfying experience, and while I don't think all art needs to be an emotionally satisfying experience, the evocation of emotion within nonlinear, associational forms is, it seems to me, a great artistic accomplishment -- one I appreciate in everyone from Joseph Cornell to David Markson, Virginia Woolf to Paul Celan.

The music in I'm Not There works as a link and a lifeline, a depth charge blowing the images and story to bits, leaving a ghost of electricity to shock us. All of the characters are more glimpses than they are full people, though some, because they fit into the cozy outlines of a more familiar biopic, fill up on our extrapolations. Scenes of loss and loneliness become immensely powerful not because we have any real dramaturgy warming us up for emotional exercise, but because the music is deployed so skillfully that it combines with the images to give us more information than we would ever have otherwise, and it provokes a reaction.

Haynes shifts cinematic tones again and again throughout the film, but the music remains that of Dylan, and even the songs that are performed by other musicians are mostly so faithful to his versions that the soundtrack eases us over bumps that should, by all rights, be more upsetting. Pastoral scenes alternate with parodies, goofy surrealism keeps close company with historical reconstructions. It shouldn't work. It does.

Across the Universe shouldn't work, either, but it does. Unlike I'm Not There, Across the Universe tells a linear story, but it is almost as out of the ordinary, because the story it tells is episodic and even occasionally epic, containing big musical numbers (with precise and sometimes wondrous choreography), psychedelic set-pieces, moments of quiet intimacy, caricatures side-by-side with characters, and a hippie-dippy love-conquers-all ending. What's not to love?

Julie Taymor is a wonderfully visual theatrical artist, but she has not yet had a movie that allowed her to express her visual talents as fully as Across the Universe does. I love both Titus and Frida for their exuberance and the depth of their designs, but Across the Universe goes even farther, giving Taymor the opportunity not only to work with two-dimensional backgrounds, extraordinary props and costumes, masks, and other elements present in her previous films, but also with giant puppets and extended scenes of bizarre fantasy (some of this is visible in a few of the film's YouTube clips, such as with Eddie Izzard as Mr. Kite. I was particularly happy to see Taymor get to use puppets based on those of Bread & Puppet, with whom she studied briefly.)

The characters in Across the Universe are more developed than those of I'm Not Here, and the music serves a more familiar purpose, a purpose common to most musicals: it cuts in when the characters are in the grips of strong emotion or they need to express themselves more forcefully. Here, too, though, the songs provide a particular richness to the film, because the story is generally predictable and sometimes feels composed of outtakes from Forrest Gump, but almost every bit of it is redeemed by the imagery and the music (I don't think the brief war scenes quite come off -- they don't feel much different from the other scenes in the film, when really, to motivate much of what happens, they should hurt more).

The two films overlap in their suspicion of idealism. The folk song era is portrayed in I'm Not There through gentle parody, with the tales of the young and earnest Dylan figure told in a documentary style that calls to mind A Mighty Wind and Bob Roberts more than No Direction Home. The protagonists move farther and farther away from commitment (of all sorts), though they are chased and hounded by interviewers and authorities who try to make them bow down or take a stand. In Across the Universe, the ravages of the Vietnam war radicalize Lucy until she almost loses sight of everything, and everybody who believes fervently in a cause -- whether soldier or civilian -- gets beaten, broken, bombed. The survivors in Across the Universe are the folks who never went too far, or if they did, they turned around before too late. Via different paths, the two films seem to support an ideology of transcendental individualism: Nobody gets to change the world, but they do get to change themselves, and if enough selves change, then the world changes, too.

Because I was so taken by what the writers, directors, and designers of these two movies accomplished, I have said little about the performers, but each film is well performed and sometimes extraordinarily performed. (From I'm Not There, Marcus Carl Franklin and Cate Blanchett deserve particular accolades.) I was particularly surprised by Bono in Across the Universe -- he's a riot, and, at least until he sings, nearly unrecognizable. The young actors in the main roles all perform with great energy and commitment, making scenes that would have induced cringes of embarrassment were the actors less confident into real delights.

Delight, in fact, is what I felt after each film. I'm Not There is overall a greater accomplishment, I think, than Across the Universe -- its form is more innovative, its philosophy more nuanced -- but there's really no need for such a judgment, because both movies are more entertaining and thought-provoking than all but a few of the other films produced in the U.S. this year, and each will, I'm sure, reward rewatching. In fact, I'd be happy to see both movies again tomorrow if I had time, and it's rare that I encounter one film a year I can say that about, never mind two in one day.

20 November 2007

Join the KGB!

Tomorrow, I'll be reading with Lucius Shepard at the KGB Bar in Manhattan. (Rumors that either of us will be performing hip-hop are untrue, at least for me.) I plan to read my story "The Lake", from the brand-new Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, which is now available in all sorts of different formats. La Gringa has promised to throw pickles and other assorted fruits and vegetables at me.

18 November 2007

No Country for Old Men

(Some preliminaries. First, I should note that to say anything about my reaction to this movie, I have to discuss the last third in some detail. If you're the type of person who doesn't like to know anything about the last third of movies, don't read on. I don't think knowing such details would harm the experience of first seeing this movie, but that's just me.

Second, I should say that I did not read Cormac McCarthy's novel, from which the Coen brothers have wrought this film, though a friend who attended with us had read it, and said he thought the movie was quite faithful, or at least as faithful as is possible, given the differences in media.

Finally, I should mention that Richard Larson attended with us, so keep an eye on his blog in case he writes up his response, too.)

No Country for Old Men is as clear an example of subverted genre expectations as any movie I can think of. It gains power from the iconography of certain types of westerns and noir thrillers, and for at least the first hour, the pleasure of the movie is the pleasure of a cat-and-mouse story: a man stumbles upon millions of dollars of drug money, and other men chase him. One of those men is a lone killing machine, a force of destructive nature. Our hero escapes close calls, has some good luck, shows real cleverness, gets battered enough for us to feel his pain.

And then everything starts to get weird.

By this point in the movie, we're settling in to the comfort of familiar patterns played out in expert ways: the pacing is suspenseful, the characters idiosyncratic enough to hold our interest, the mayhem vivid, the stakes high.

But there are rifts in the patterns. Characters who seem to have been introduced into the story for important reasons don't end up being important at all, except as corpses The mayhem continues, but is represented differently, kept off camera -- in terms of violence, a Jacobean revenge tragedy becomes a Greek tragedy, except the violence here offers no catharsis, only carnage. The one stable element is chance. Again and again, till it becomes so obvious as to be annoying, we are told that you never know what's going to happen. It's as if the characters themselves are coming to grips with the failure of their genre expectations.

In some ways, this is a movie about men and the failure of machismo. Every tough guy who says he'll slay the dragon and save the damsel ends up in failure. For all their talk of chance, it's just a mask, an excuse. Chance only rarely comes into play, and how many lives does it save? (Maybe one: the man at the gas station.) Determined evil wins all games of chance.

Or maybe chance is a red herring in the dried-up lakebed of this film. The best review I've read is by Matt Zoller Seitz, and he makes an interesting point about the Coens and morality: that in their movies decency matters most, and destruction falls most fully on those who become corrupt, those who drift away from community and love. Llewellyn Moss, who takes the money and runs, seals his fate when he becomes more cat than mouse. Chigurh, the hunter, succeeds because he is most alone and least devoted to the rites and expectations of the human world. Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, who never forgets the people around him, doesn't get much of what he wants, and ends up dreaming of his father and distant fire, but he does not, like so many other characters, suffer an apocalypse. He yearns for a lost time when things were easier and evil less empowered, but we've no way to know if such a time ever existed, or if his father, too, dreamed of a bit of light on a far horizon.

Is it satisfying? Not entirely, no, but then neither are movies that connect all the dots of genre patterns, the predictable fare we get most of the time. Even when achieved with great craftsmanship, met expectations are still just met expectations, and we might as well have stayed home and imagined it all in our mind. As with one of my favorite movies of the last few years, Memories of Murder, if No Country for Old Men were more satisfying in its conclusion, it would be a lesser film. It's still trapped by genre expectations, but at least it works against them, pressing up to the bars to say: You are conditioned by patterns that inhibit you. Recognize the patterns and see what it feels like to have them distorted. Then there might be hope for original thought and original art. To step beyond genre is to become sui generis, but there's no shame in taking one step at a time.

14 November 2007

The Affirmation by Christopher Priest

It is useful to imagine the book as two funhouse mirrors facing one another.

We often pretend to be objective about books when writing about them, but such objectivity is obviously a lie, and I would be foolish to continue that lie when writing about a book that has affected me in such a particular way as The Affirmation has. I am not so much going to describe what I think the book will do to you as what it did to me.

What it does to you ... well, for that you're on your own.

A saying of Leonard's comes into my head in this season of complete inanity and boredom. "Things have gone wrong somehow." It was the night C. killed herself. We were walking along that silent blue street with the scaffolding. I saw all the violence and unreason crossing in the air: ourselves small; a tumult outside: something terrifying: unreason -- shall I make a book out of it? It would be a way of bringing order and speed again into my world.
--Virginia Woolf
diary, 25 May 1932

An aside: I read The Affirmation at a time when writing had become, in various ways, difficult for me. First and generally, there was the lack of time. My life had changed. I had less time than ever before for myself, partly because I had changed jobs and learning a new job is immensely time-consuming and exhausting, and partly because I had changed where I lived, and learning a new life is equally time-consuming and exhausting.

While the volume of all of my writing and reading had decreased substantially, my writing of fiction had nearly stopped. I was used to dry spells -- fiction does not come naturally to me, and that is one reason I get more pleasure from completing a new story than from anything else -- but a year and a half without finishing a single new story, without ever writing more than a page of fiction that seemed even remotely promising -- this was a new experience. When I finally finished a very short story, I hoped it would lead to an outpouring of other stories: pent-up, gestated, waiting in the wings. It did not.

There are, I'm sure, many reasons for my inability to continue writing fiction, the form that has until now been the most constant in my life, the form that offers the greatest challenges. The reason that I've found most interesting, though, and the one that offers at least some hope of breaking through the wall is this: I felt that I had reached a point where if I continued to tell the sorts of stories I told, I would repeat myself. Almost all of the fiction I could stand for the general public to see found a publisher of some sort. Some of it gained attention and praise, some of it was criticized, some of it was misunderstood, some of it was ignored. But it was out there. Much of what I had written ever since childhood had been variations on a limited set of themes; I made one variation after another in an attempt to get it right, to find the best form. And then I reached a limit. I could no longer envision other forms -- I'd found ones that worked for me, I'd done my best with them, I'd reached an end where I could not imagine any more progress, only reiteration, and I felt no passion for that. To write again, I would need to find new material or new forms or, preferably, both. (No, I have not found either yet. I have seen glimpses, though.)

We treat the past as real insofar as present existence has been conditioned or generated by it. The more indirect the causal derivation of the present from a particular past becomes, the weaker the past becomes, the more it sinks toward a dead past.
--J.M. Coetzee,
"Time, Tense, and Aspect in Kafka's 'The Burrow'"
in Doubling the Point

The Affirmation
begins with the narrator, Peter Sinclair, asserting the things he says he knows for sure: His name, the fact that he is English, and his age (29 years old). Except: "Already there is an uncertainty, and my sureness recedes. Age is variable; I am no longer twenty-nine."

I was prepared for the uncertainty. I desired it. I had read (and reviewed) the novel Christopher Priest wrote after The Affirmation, The Glamour, and the uncertainties at its core had provided, I thought, a thrilling reading experience: the experience of never being on solid narrative ground. (The straightforward tone and style made this experience more profound than the tricks of many more obviously "experimental" novels ever had for me.) I had also read Priest's more recent (and most famous) novel, The Prestige, which is often masterful, but nonetheless disappointed me with what felt like a tidy resolution. The plot trumped the metaphysics, and I'll always prefer metaphysics to plot. The Affirmation, I thought from reading various comments about it, would be closer to the purity of The Glamour.

The Affirmation, it turns out, is even more pure on a meta(-physical)(-fictional) level than The Glamour, and this time its thrills were more unsettling to me. Peter Sinclair, it turns out, is writing a manuscript in an attempt to figure himself out. He has lost his girlfriend and his job, and he settles down to work at a cottage owned by his aunt and uncle, who have asked him to fix the place up a bit.

All seems fine until suddenly we discover that Peter's version of reality is not shared by other characters, and the moment this becomes clear -- when his sister offers a very different view of his existence than he has given us so far -- was, for me, so jolting I set the book down for a week.

For some reason or another, I had bought into Peter's version of events so completely that to have that version undermined was disturbing to me, and I had to get distance from the book. It was a pleasurable sort of disturbance mostly, and one that led me to be even more impressed with what Christopher Priest had wrought than I'd been before, because it's rare that a novel ever tricks me quite so fully, particularly when I know the author's proclivities and have even sought out the book for just this sort of trick. I had been expecting the narrator to be unreliable, but I hadn't expected him to be unreliable in this particular way.

"Give it back to me," I said at last. "I don't want you to read any more."

"I've got to," she said. "I've got to understand."

But time passed and not much was clear to her. She started asking me questions:

"Who is Felicity?"

"What are the Beatles?"

"Where is Manchester, Sheffield, Piraeus?"

"What is England, and which island is it on?"

"Who is Gracia, and why has she tried to kill herself?"

--The Affirmation

After the early shock, the rest of the novel was, in some ways, a let-down, because nothing in the rest of it would be as powerfully unsettling for me. Indeed, some parts would prove to be simply boring. Like The Glamour, the writing is flat and straightforward, which is often a strength (for misdirection, at least, since the sentences are so generally bland that they can not call attention to themselves) and sometimes a weakness (because sometimes blandness is just bland).

The last pages of The Affirmation do not provide the sort of shock the last pages of The Glamour do, because the kind of recontextualization of the narrative that these pages offer is easy enough to predict. What makes The Affirmation powerful is not its surprises, which are mostly superficial, but rather its unified uncertainty. It is a novel that is nothing other than itself; it is a hermetic structure. We cannot know what is "real" except the words that are provided for us. The book seems to reference a recognizable reality, but then it undermines that reference by positing other realities, and never settles obviously for one or the other. Everything could be a delusion. Everything is a delusion: the delusion that is fiction. We cannot choose what is true or what is imagined, because both are presented with the same techniques.

If the pages had become unworded, if the story was now untold, then it meant I could start again.

--The Affirmation

Blankness. Emptiness. Possibility. Nothing.

End? Beginning? Real? Unreal?

There's no way to know. Peter tells a story about seeing a room differently from his sister. But Peter tells many stories. He tells stories about islands we have never heard of and distant wars we didn't know existed. He tells stories, too, about places whose names we recognize and events we know happened in the world we think we live in, the past we call real, the one that created our present.

Peter tells stories so that he may try to find himself, find some truth, remember something that was somehow lost, bring life to the dead past. He tries again and again. The something remains lost, the past stays dead.

He does not know who he is. Nor do we. All we have are words.

09 November 2007


For two days I have had these lines stuck in my head:
Don't worry about me
I'm about to die of pleurisy
The lines were written by Jack Kerouac in a song (which you can hear him sing here) that Tom Waits later adapted. There are two very different recordings of the Waits song that I know of: a sad, weary version included on Orphans (listen here) and a lively collaboration with Primus (from the album Jack Kerouac Reads on the Road; mp3 here).

Before I ever looked at a transcription of the lyrics, I heard the line "Well the worms eat away but don't worry watch the wind" as "Oh the worms eat away, but the worry warts will win". I still like my version.

In any case, I don't think I'm about to die of pleurisy. I like the word, though, especially since it reminds me of Laura in The Glass Menagerie, who was nicknamed Blue Roses because someone misheard her when she said she had pleurosis.

08 November 2007

So Fey Reading This Weekend

The lack of substantive posts continues at a furious pace around these here parts, but I do want to take a moment to note the reading and book signing this Sunday (11/11) by contributors to So Fey: Queer Fairy Fiction at Housing Works Used Book Cafe. Copies of the anthology have been donated by the publisher, Haworth Press, and proceeds from sales will go to local homeless people living with HIV. The reading starts at 5pm.

Steve Berman edited So Fey and scheduled readers include Mumpsimus contributor Craig Gidney, Rick Bowes, Eric Andrews-Katz, Tom Cardamone, Cassandra Clare, Ruby deBrazier, Joshua Lewis, and Sean Meriwether.

06 November 2007

Mandarins Discussion

I recently discovered Ryunosuke Akutagawa's short stories, and was particularly taken with the beautiful collection of them that Archipelago Books published, Mandarins.

I'm thrilled to see, then, that Michael Orthoffer (of the excellent Complete Review and Literary Saloon) is leading a discussion of Mandarins at the Words Without Borders blog this month.

05 November 2007

Strange Horizons, WFC, Etc.

The latest issue of Strange Horizons has been posted and includes a column in which I blather on a bit and then recommend some literary journals that adventurous readers might enjoy.

While I'm here, I'd like to offer congratulations to the World Fantasy Award winners for this year -- especially to such friends, supporters, and critics of The Mumpsimus as Mary Rickert, Jeff Ford, and Ellen Datlow.

I was not at the World Fantasy Convention, for various reasons, but I had a little mini-convention all of my own. Friday's highlight was a panel on laundry. On Saturday, I participated in a kaffeeklatch with a writer I admire, Richard Larson, then continued on with him to see the associational (because its title invokes a fantastic creature) movie Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, which he liked overall a bit more than I did, but which I nonetheless thought was certainly worth seeing. And then on Sunday, to finish it all up, I moderated a special session of the SATs, which was similar to the World Fantasy Awards banquet, I'm sure, except quieter and without any joy or happiness.

02 November 2007

How to Save the SF Magazines

Paolo Bacigalupi, who used to work for High Country News, takes some lessons learned from his previous employment and speculates about the ways science fiction and fantasy magazines could save themselves from their ever-declining circulations. Paolo's thoughts appear in three blog posts: Part 1 (overview), Part 2 ("Marketing in Meatspace"), and Part 3 ("Online Marketing").

I don't have any great knowledge of marketing, so I will defer to Paolo and others on that, but I do hope the magazines are able to survive, partly because I respect the history they represent and partly because I like the idea of monthly magazines full of fiction being able to survive in our world.

But honestly, I only pay money to subscribe to one of them. I receive subscriptions to some others because once upon a time I reviewed them more frequently than I do now (I certainly still read them for Best American Fantasy), but for the others, when it comes time to make selections for BAF, I rely on recommendations from reliable readers for good work from them. I used to subscribe to a few of the magazines, but with one I realized I hadn't finished reading a story they published for an entire year, and another became so incredibly ugly that I found myself unwilling to read it -- the binding was so tight it made holding the magazine open difficult, the pages were crammed with small-print words on cheap paper with tiny margins, as if the whole thing were produced on a Mac 128K. I hated everything I read purely because of how it was presented, and so I stopped sending money to that magazine. (That you may now be having trouble figuring out exactly which of the possible magazines I'm talking about says an awful lot in and of itself...)

The magazines I subscribe to and read are ones that are either useful to me or ones that, when they arrive in the mail, I am usually tempted to put everything else aside and sit down and read them for a while. When Interzone arrives, for instance, I always tear the packaging open and look at every page, then at least skim all the nonfiction. The fiction isn't often to my taste, so I usually save it for later, but the design of the magazine is always so eye-catching that it simply gives me pleasure to flip through its pages, and the nonfiction is eclectic and rewarding more often than not. This is a magazine that feels like it was produced to appeal to people who are alive right now, rather than to the denizens of 1950.

The other magazines I at least skim immediately are Harper's and A Public Space. Harper's I love for the diversity of material it offers -- it's rare that an issue completely bores me -- and I would now never think of letting my subscription go, because subscribers get full access to the entire Harper's digital archive. It's not an expensive subscription, and it comes with 150 years of material. The best deal I know of in publishing.

A Public Space is beautifully designed and intelligently edited, with a range of writing of all sorts: nonfiction, poetry, fiction. Inevitably, there are things I don't read, things that don't interest me, things I don't like ... but it doesn't matter, because the variety of material and the pleasant design of the magazine causes it to maintain a strong grip on my attention.

None of what I've said here about my preferences and predilections has much to do with marketing, but it does have to do with the content delivered after the marketing has done its thing. It's hard to get me to subscribe to a magazine, yes, but it's even harder to get me to renew a subscription. I doubt I'm alone in this, particularly these days when there are so many other ways to find entertainment and fulfillment than by reading magazines.

(I'll have more to say about various lit'ry magazines that excite me in Monday's column at Strange Horizons.)

30 October 2007


The next issue of Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet will soon be released into the wild, and it contains a marvelous variety of stories, poems, and oddities, most of which, I'm sure, are of high quality, and there's also a story by me. (Don't blame LCRW. The editors are sworn to secrecy, but I can tell you they're only publishing "The Lake" because I kept sending them gift subscriptions to The National Review and Soldier of Fortune, and I promised to stop only if they would publish one of my stories.)

I'm particularly excited to see that Kirstin Allio has a story in this issue, because the only thing of hers I've read is Garner, an extraordinary novel set in my home state of New Hampshire. Garner was a LitBlog Co-op pick some seasons ago, and has remained one of my favorite LBC books.

Though there are many different choices for how to subscribe, most subscriptions to LCRW cost less than a new lung. So what's your excuse?