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?

Out There in the World

Rick Bowes has taken to calling me "Garbo" (or, when he's feeling particularly familiar, "Greta"), but it is not true that I am avoiding the world, merely that I am busy with teaching, grading papers, writing lesson plans, etc. As proof, though, of my continued existence, I offer the following:
Tonight's Interfictions reading at McNally Robinson, where I will be reading alongside Tempest Bradford, Veronica Schanoes, and Delia Sherman. (I may also channel Theodora Goss, having last achieved this feat two years ago at the World Fantasy Convention, when Dora couldn't make it to a panel.)

A conversation about Best American Fantasy at Booksquare, in which Jeff, Ann, and I throw questions at each other. Many thanks to Kassia Krozser for inviting us to do this!
The evidence is before you, my children. Garbo or ... Harpo? You decide!

28 October 2007

Into the Wild

I admire Jon Krakauer's book Into the Wild quite a bit, and so I was wary about seeing the movie. What I most like about the book is the interplay between Krakauer's sensibility and Chris McCandless's story -- Krakauer understands the mix of idealism, frustration, and foolhardiness that led McCandless to abandon as many of the accoutrements of civilization as he could, dub himself "Alexander Supertramp", and set out with very little preparation or knowledge, eventually heading for the wilderness of Alaska -- and yet Krakauer is also different enough in temperament from McCandless to be able to provide a counter-narrative through his wrestling with the implications of McCandless's actions, ideas, and mistakes. It's not as drastic a counter-narrative as Werner Herzog provides the story of a somewhat similar Alaskan dreamer, Timothy Treadwell, in Grizzly Man, but it's enough to make the book compelling and thought-provoking.

Alas, the movie Sean Penn has made is a sentimental and declawed version of Krakauer's book. I didn't really hate it -- Emile Hirsch gives a warm and dedicated performance as McCandless, which makes the movie generally pleasant to watch -- but every time I was about to fully surrender myself to the characters and events, something annoyed me, and the more I've thought about Into the Wild as a whole, the more I've been frustrated by its many lost possibilities.

A story like Chris McCandless's cries out for a visionary director, and I couldn't help wondering throughout Into the Wild what a director like Herzog or Terrence Malick or even David Lynch would have done with the material, because Penn is too pedestrian a filmmaker -- too given to visual, audio, and narrative cliches -- to do real justice to the source material.

The music for the movie consists mostly of songs by Eddie Vedder, and though I like some of the individual songs, they are used so obtrusively that they turn otherwise interesting scenes into banal music videos. At moments of emotional intensity, the score (by Michael Brook) reverts to strings, letting us know this is a place where we're supposed to feel. (There's a nice moment, though, when Hirsch and Kristen Stewart perform a pleasant duet of one of my favorite songs, John Prine's "Angel from Montgomery". It's contrived and obvious, but it's such a good song I didn't mind.) The editing and cinematography don't help -- each shot is designed for short attention spans, and much of the footage of wilderness looked to me like it could have been taken from any anonymous nature documentary. (For comparison, take a look at a masterpiece like Paris, Texas.)

And then there's the voiceover. Usually, the voiceover is of McCandless's sister, Carine, who yaks about Chris and about life after he disappeared from the family. It's at best unnecessary, at worst a clumsy reiteration of things we could figure out otherwise or decide for ourselves. (At the end, we get Chris himself taking over the voiceover.) Worse, though, are words from McCandless's writings occasionally scrawled across the screen in big, handwriting-style yellow letters that seem more appropriate to a show on Nikelodeon circa 1988 than to a movie such as Into the Wild seems to aspire to be.

The biggest problem I have with Into the Wild as a film, though, is that it presents McCandless as a holy fool. Wherever he goes, he makes people seek out what is meaningful in existence, he makes them recognize love, he helps them see beyond consumerism and materialism and other, like, bad stuff. So even though he might not, himself, have the best end, he nonetheless helps other people find meaning in their lives, repair their relationships, and dream. It's the sort of gooey, optimistic woo-woo appealing to everybody from people who use the word "spirituality" without a trace of irony to devout fundamentalists of various religions, and in that sense it's hardly different from the average feel-good movie or get-well card.

McCandless sought some sort of truth, and in seeking this truth he sacrificed absolutely everything. That's the sort of idealist I like, the sort of person who sticks to deep convictions and tries to build a life from them, even if they do so rashly or ignorantly. Herzog is attracted to this sort of figure, and has spoken of "ecstatic truth" as a goal of his films, and though this idea is a bit abstract for my tastes, nonetheless it leads Herzog to produce interesting work, and I wish Penn had been better able to aim for such a truth; instead, he emitted rote simulacra of ecstacy, reducing McCandless's quest for truth to, more often than not, comfortably familiar imagery and easy emotions.

There are, though, redeeming aspects to the film, including some of the scenes of McCandless's last days -- visceral scenes presented without bombast. There are some fine performances (especially by Hal Holbrook) that transcend the inspirational-movie-of-the-week situations the actors have been given for material. At brief moments, the music gets out of the way and we are allowed some choice and ambiguity in how we will respond emotionally. The attention to books throughout the movie, and McCandless's fascination with writers such as Tolstoy and Jack London, will please anyone who has carried books around as totems and companions.

I suppose, then, that my strongest feelings about Into the Wild as a film are feelings of disappointment -- disappointment at the lost potential to film the story as something unique and powerful, something that escapes received ideas and gestures; disappointment that the fleeting moments of real excellence couldn't be extended.

24 October 2007

The Aussies are Coming!

Some of the most fun I had at the World Fantasy Convention a few years ago involved hanging out with various Australians. They all stood on their heads to adjust to the gravity here, and I just found that tremendously endearing.

A bunch of Aussies are coming to New York City this weekend and then continuing on eventually to the World Fantasy Convention in Saratoga, NY. Alas, I'm not going to be able to be there this year (too many work obligations), nor am I going to be able to go to the event at the Australian Consolate to welcome Australian SF writers to the U.S. because it's at nearly the same time at the Interfictions reading at McNally Robinson, alas. (Yes, I said alas at the beginning and end of that sentence. Because I feel much alasness.) But I'm hoping to at least make a brief appearance at the Books of Wonder event on Saturday from 3-5, where Garth Nix, Justine Larbalestier, Scott Westerfeld, Margo Lanagan and Jonathan Strahan will be collectively and individually wondrous. (And Deborah Biancotti is threatening to teach me how to stand on my head so that when, eventually, I visit her homeland, I will be prepared.)

23 October 2007


My thoughts are fragmentary today. Here are some of the shards:
  • A few days ago I watched The Dresden Dolls: Live at the Roundhouse, and though it didn't give me the utter and complete joy of the Dolls' earlier DVD, Paradise (because how could they possibly top Christopher Lydon listening to the song about him?! And Brian Vigglione's wonderful drumming at the beginning of "Half Jack"? And the stiflingly heat and invigorating intimacy of the stage? And...?), it's great fun if you like their music. I was particularly taken by the collaboration with Trash McSweeney (of the Australian band The Red Paintings) on the old Tears for Fears song, "Mad World". I've liked the original version of "Mad World" since I first heard it while riding on the school bus one day many years ago -- that version of the song seems utterly psychotic to me now; Gary Jules offered a somewhat more melancholic and teen angsty version later. The McSweeney/Dolls version turns it into a kind of anthem.

  • Speaking of music, as I just was -- do you all know about the Daytrotter website? (I'm often late to this sort of thing.) Tons of free, legal downloads of indie bands performing exclusive versions of their songs. Far too many great bands for me to point any out here, but I will point to one particularly beautiful song: Shearwater's "Nobody".

  • Speaking of beautiful, my mothers are famous! Being good, frugal Yankees who like to globetrot, they read Budget Travel magazine religiously, and my mother thought that for their once-in-a-lifetime trip to New Zealand and Hawaii this past summer, they should get some advice. (This was mostly because my mother wanted to learn how to surf.) So they wrote in, and the magazine did a little piece about the Hawaii part of their trip. Then my mother got to write up how it all went. The picture on the website is of them, which is appropriate, but I hope some of their great photos of sights (and sites) from the trip make it into the printed magazine.

  • Haydn vs. Mozart. (Mr. Bowes, I expect a comment!)

  • I don't think I ever linked to my review of Rupert Thomson's Death of a Murderer at Rain Taxi. Until now.

  • "The Night of the Cure": a play by Austin Bunn.

  • Currently reading: Foreigners by Caryl Phillips (more a book to appreciate than love, I think, but there's much to appreciate) and Christopher Priest's The Affirmation (which I'm finding incredibly unsettling, though I'm not sure it's a particularly unsettling book -- I think it's just driving a sharp pin into some of my current neuroses).

  • A Manual of the Art of Prose Composition.

  • A map of the Apocalypse.

22 October 2007

Baby Got Book

Now and then friends send me links to weird things. I don't blog about them much, because, well, we're all pretty good at finding weird things on the internet these days, aren't we? But sometimes.... Sometimes somebody sends me a link to something so bizarre that I must share, because the joy I get from such things simply cannot be contained.

So it is with this extraordinary video called "Baby Got Book". (Don't worry, it's safe for work ... and church...)

Farewell to the Giornale

Sad news this morning: Giornale Nuovo has reached an end.

Giornale Nuovo is a blog I've been reading and linking to for years now, and, in fact, I have probably linked to a greater percentage of the posts there than to any other blog, because though new material came out somewhat infrequently, the posts were so often fascinating and beautiful -- many times focused on artwork of some kind -- that they deserved much attention.

The archives are rich and extraordinary, and well worth sauntering through. I will miss the excitement of new GN posts, but I am grateful for all that has been given to us over the years, and I will keep some hope up for an eventual resurrection.

Stephen King and Leonard Lopate

Leonard Lopate did a good interview with Stephen King on WNYC last week (the day after my birthday, actually). King talked about his edition of The Best American Short Stories and about short stories in general, and he gave much praise to F&SF. It's well worth a listen.

21 October 2007

"Akhil and Judy" by Avi Lall

Whenever I encounter a piece of writing that blows the top of my head off, I try to settle down and figure out how it works and what I so forcefully responded to within it. Sometimes I can figure it out, sometimes I can't. Sometimes the top of my head just won't go back on.

So it is with "Akhil and Judy" by Avi Lall, published in the latest issue of Porcupine Literary Arts Magazine. You might not have heard of Porcupine, but it's worth your attention; this issue in particular is rich with good poetry, prose, and pictures. But "Akhil and Judy" is the standout for me, and a standout among all the stories I have read this year, or, for that matter, any year.

I have a few hypotheses for why I find this story so affecting, so impressive, but I don't have much in the way of solid reasoning, though I'm going to try here to make my hypotheses hold some water. I know the story's effect on me: during one of my three readings, it brought me to the verge of tears; during another, I was struck by how charming and even funny it sometimes is. Each time I read it, the story took hold of my attention and imagination in a way few stories ever do -- I heard nothing other than the words, imagined nothing other than the images those words expressed.

It's a difficult story to summarize, and that's often a good sign. Summary cannot really convey how (and how well) this story works, because its subject matter is so vividly and inextricably connected to the narrative structure.

Nonetheless, there are things I can say. I can say it is the story of Akhil, who was born in India and then was brought by his father to Rwanda, where the family settled in Kibeho, where an orphaned girl named Isobelle saw apparitions of the Virgin Mary, and then, a few years later, everyone was in hell. Akhil and Isobelle met in a refugee camp and fled, eventually ending up in California. That's where the story begins:
Akhil and Isobelle first set eyes on each other while they were fleeing for their lives-- Akhil, amongst a throng of screaming people, from the east end of the camp, Isobelle, in a frenzied crowd, from the west. They stared, slowed down, crossed paths, turned to keep their eyes connected then continued their flight from the men with machetes and machine guns. Akhil hid in a toilet hole along with a mother suffocating her child. Isobelle buried herself beneath a pile of recently inaugurated corpses. When Isobelle later appeared, looking into the toilet hole, yelling for Akhil to get out, Akhil was convinced he finally had a real vision. Now the vision ends, or walks out the door, slamming it vengefully behind her.
Akhil decides to leave, and so he gets on a train to Portland, and there he meets a family from India with a little boy, and the little boy thinks Akhil is his lost brother, Mohammed. The family is from Ahmedabad, and left in 2002, a year after a terrible earthquake, and the year of a month of riots that began with a train on fire.

There's even more to the story, both foreground and background, but that's enough to let you know there's a lot. Yet "Akhil and Judy" isn't even twenty pages long. That's where some of its wonder lies: it compresses three continents and three decades of history into remarkably few words, and it does so without reducing the continents or the history to simple lessons or easy emotions. The affect of the sentences is flat, yet they gain power from Lall's careful control of tone and diction, with surprising (and effective) choices of words popping up every few sentences to keep the story from falling into an inappropriate deadpan. It stays, instead, tensely matter-of-fact, jutting now and again into lyrical images that would be much less effective were the whole striving for the same effect.

I would quote some passages to prove my point about the prose, but (in this case) to rip the words out of the story hobbles them. The sentences and paragraphs need each other for their rhythms and patterns, and what looks in an excerpt like too much or not enough proves itself to be, in the story itself, exactly right. The familiar doesn't lose its familiarity, doesn't become completely strange and new -- rather, it becomes both familiar and exact, satisfying in its inevitability, amazing in its ability to contain so much in a form that would, anywhere else, be mundane.

The title points to one part of the story I haven't yet mentioned. Early in the story (though not in their lives), Isobelle tells Akhil, "We have to become different people." Later, we discover what this means:
Their date was at a pier in Newport Beach. Akhil was supposed to come upon Isobelle and approach her as if for the first time, using an alias and a past made of fiction.
It doesn't work the first time -- Isobelle scoffs at Akhil as he pretends to be other than himself, and she walks away. But they try again, and this time they talk, with Akhil calling himself Jack, and Isobelle ("in a Jamaican accent that faded in and out") calling herself Judy. As the characters talk, fiction leads to something that sounds too convincing to be anything other than a horrible truth.

One of the reasons I find the story so effective, aside from how much it crams into its sentences and how well crafted those sentences are, is that it is not linear, and yet it is patterned. We move back and forth from the present-tense travels on the train to past-tense reminiscences and meditations. We gain glimmers of the past until, by the end, the accumulated bits of collage gain a shape in our minds, and all the previous sections grow richer and revelatory.

And so we have a story about time and memory and vision and loss and faith; about exile, truth, and family; about religion and politics, Akhil and Isobelle, Jack and Judy, Kibeho and Ahmedabad, us and them. It's a story so achingly sad at its heart that it is nearly unreadable, and yet the sadness is leavened with a hope in the possibility that comes from new beginnings, though that hope is tempered with the knowledge that survival is a blessing tempered by the ineradicable taste of ash on the tongue.

20 October 2007

New Blogroll

I'm experimenting with a new version of the blogroll in the sidebar. The hack to create it comes from Google Operating System and utilizes Google Reader. (Yes, we've pretty much become All Google All The Time here at Mumpsimus Central.) I do wish there were a way to ignore the first articles "A" and "The" when alphabetizing, but I haven't figured it out yet; also, people are alphabetized by their first names.

When I was writing in every link separately myself, I alphabetized the blogroll by ignoring initial articles and sorting by people's last names, but I also stopped updating the blogroll because it was absurdly time-consuming to keep doing this in Blogger's template editor, which has some nice features, but which, when it comes to revising long lists of links, is awful. So the compromise I've made is to have an easy-to-update blogroll that is not alphabetized perfectly. (See what sacrifices I make for you?!)

I thought about creating subcategories for the blogroll to better identify blogs that are associated with particular things -- books, movies, ducks -- but decided against it, partly out of laziness (well, mostly out of laziness) and partly because to do so would in some ways violate the basic philosophy of this site -- that categories and labels should be viewed with great skepticism. (I did consider randomly assigning categories to blogs -- categories like sulfur, mercury, and salt, for example -- but though the thought still amuses me, I thought it would be more perverse than helpful.)

There's also an option to view the blogroll as a webpage, or you can read all the blogs there as one big RSS feed. I doubt these are particularly useful options, but they're kind of fun nonetheless.

I've put blogs on the blogroll that I regularly read. This means some are not there that used to be there, because, for whatever reason, I don't read them all that often anymore. I expect now that I can easily add and subtract blogs from the list, it will be far more dynamic than it has been in the past. I'll still use the "fresh links" section to point to individual items I've found of particular interest (this, too, is from Google Reader, so it can be viewed as its own page, and it also has an RSS feed), and these will continue to come from a wide variety of sources.

The other sections of the sidebar remain at best dusty, and shall remain so for a little while yet, because really I'd rather be writing about books and movies and people and stuff. Especially stuff.

In other site changes, some of you might have noticed that I've started moderating comments. This is not out of a desire to become a dictator of the comments section of posts, but out of a desire to cut down on spam. Tons was getting through the word verification, and so now I'm moderating. I will try to only reject comments that seem like spam to me, or comments that seem utterly and completely obnoxious and offensive. I realize this is a subjective judgment.

18 October 2007

Alive and Kicking

Though I am shamefully behind in blogging, reviewing, interviewing, and e-mail answering, nonetheless, I am not dead yet. Just busy in the midst of a few different things, especially trying to figure out how to teach anything to energetic 9th and 10th graders and, in the bits of spare time that allows, reading stories for the next edition of Best American Fantasy (thanks, by the way, to Rick Klaw for a very nice review in The Austin Chronicle).

Proof of my status as a living, breathing human being can be found at two upcoming public events in Manhattan. First, on October 30, I will be participating in the Interfictions reading at the wonderful McNally Robinson bookstore, with some of my favorite fellow-readers, Tempest Bradford, Veronica Schanoes, and Delia Sherman.

And then on November 21, I will be reading at the KGB Bar with Lucius Shepard. (I expect to read a story that will be coming out in the next issue [I think] of LCRW.) This is something I'm looking forward to tremendously, because Lucius Shepard's story "R&R" was the cover story of one of the first issues of Asimov's I ever read, and the story perplexed and bewildered me in just the right way (I was far too young to understand it all) that it helped make me a devoted reader not only of science fiction, but of contemporary short stories. I've been reading Shepard ever since, and some of his more recent work, especially Viator and Floater, are among my favorite novellas of the past decade or so. I've never gotten the chance to either meet him or hear him read, so my plan is to read as quickly as possible myself so he can have most of the time (this is assuming I'm the first reader; if I'm second, I'm just going to encourage him to keep going as long as he wants). (And while I'm talking about Shepard, will somebody please collect all of his Dragon Griaule stories in one book?)

Further posting around here is likely to be minimal for the next month or so.

12 October 2007

A Few Small, Personal Thoughts on Doris Lessing

There are few awards that much interest me these days, but I look forward to the announcement of the Nobel Prize in Literature every year, not because I think it's more legitimate than any of the others, but because it's so often weirdly surprising, and now and then it goes to a writer I quite respect. The choice of Doris Lessing this year surprised me mostly because she's been rumored for it so long that I was sure her time had passed, especially since most of her work since her autobiographies hasn't gained much acclaim.

As for me, I can't claim to be devoted to Lessing the way I am to Coetzee and Pinter, but I did go through a Lessing phase eight or nine years ago, and read many of her books. Which doesn't mean I'm an expert, by any means -- she's so prolific I don't think I read even half of her novels. Maybe a quarter. (I gave a lot of them away, and the ones I kept are in a box in New Hampshire, so I don't have any at hand. Thus, my memories are more impressions than anything specific.)

The Lessing books that I remember being most affected by include some of her most famous -- The Golden Notebook, certainly, and The Four-Gated City (about which John Leonard said, "On finishing this book, you want to go out and get drunk.") -- but also some of the ones nobody else ever seemed to like, such as Mara and Dann, a book I haven't dared re-read, because when I first read it I found it so emotionally affecting that I'm terrified to try again, in case, under different circumstances and moods, I might find more to agree with in the bad reviews. I had mixed feelings about The Good Terrorist, but certain scenes from it remain in my mind, even if most of the characters and plot points have been utterly forgotten.

The Lessing books that I remember most clearly are The Fifth Child and its sequel, Ben, in the World. The first is a knockout of a novella, a profoundly disturbing and alienating book. The second recasts the whole thing, as if one writer had written both Beowulf and Grendel. Taken together, the books are marvels of manipulation, and show just how severely a writer can reconfigure our sympathies. Or, to view the books less metafictionally, they offer a dialectical evisceration of such abstract, often dangerous, ideas as human nature, innocence, and evil. If you want to quickly see the power Lessing is capable of conjuring, read The Fifth Child and then immediately follow it with Ben, in the World.

But then I didn't continue to read Lessing. I stopped after trying multiple times to read The Sweetest Dream, every time finding it turgid, though I had so desperately wanted to like it. I suppose I stopped because I didn't want to happen with her what had happened to me after I overindulged in the work of an even more prolific and uneven writer, Joyce Carol Oates. I devoured Oates's books and stories for more than a year, and after initially being in awe of everything she wrote, I soon enough found more of it to be frustrating than pleasing, and even the work that had initially drawn me in began to seem lackluster. I didn't want that to happen with my reading of Lessing.

Now that I've gained some distance from my initial fascination, though, there are Lessing books I hope to read, and others I look forward to returning to, particularly The Four-Gated City.

My greatest amusement with Lessing becoming a Nobel Laureate, though, is that this -- as Patrick Nielsen Hayden pointed out -- gives us the first Nobel Prize in Literature winner who was also a Guest of Honor at a World Science Fiction Convention (in 1987).

11 October 2007

Nova Swing by M. John Harrison

a review by Dustin Kurtz

Nova Swing's conceit is essentially the same as the conceit of M. John Harrison’s previous book, Light. Somewhere out in the hinterlands of human-inhabited space there is a stretch of bad physics, a mean glowing strip of strange, light years long, known as the Kefahuchi Tract. In Light the Tract is a wild plaything for entradistas -- thrill-seeking celebrity pilots whose exploits seem to make up the substance of much of that galactic arm’s rumor. In an example of the casual but powerful analogy at which Harrison excels, the galactic neighborhood near the Tract is often called the Beach. The Tract is also puzzlingly related to an invisible, though hungry, earthly horror and his serial killer scion. And, just to spice things up, the Tract is somehow involved with ancient alien relics, the appropriation of which forms the goal of much of that book’s plot. If you haven’t read Light and are confused, don’t worry. I have read it, and those muddled sentences above are about the best I can do for a summary.

Nova Swing is set on a world that somehow intercepts that same Kefahuchi Tract on one discrete area of its surface. Or rather a sliver of the Tract, the alien K-code incarnate, has fallen to the ground near the depressed city of Saudade. The previous book spends much time in space, aboard a stolen military-grade K-ship. Here, though there are moments in which space travel comes into play, the action is almost entirely terrestrial.

With Nova Swing Harrison has written, or perhaps hopes to have written, a beautiful bastardization of far-flung science fiction and a gritty noir crime story. Gene-mods are sold like the latest fashions. Prostitutes with peppermint-scented hair, tusk-mouthed professional fighters and enormous horse-thighed rickshaw drivers all take their place among Harrison’s characters. His gun-kiddies, deadly packs of mercenary seven-year-olds sporting pastel raincoats and heavy weaponry, are some of his most memorable touches. Many of these characters are familiar from Light, though they are much more fleshed out here. The ostensible protagonists of the book are Vic Seratonin, a "travel agent" into the dangerous wastelands of fallen Tract, and Lens Aschemann, a grandfatherly detective who drives (or rather, is driven) around in a vintage convertible and looks like Einstein. Vic is this novel’s nihilist version of Ed Chianese. He is a terrestrial entradista. His predecessors entered the bewildering "event site" for adventure and glory. Vic, however, is terrified of the deadly chaos he encounters there. It makes him bitter and ashamed. The plot here is spare. Of course there is a bit of cat and mouse between Vic and Aschemann, particularly when Vic brings a piece of living code out of the site with some nasty side effects. There are some curious scenes in the event site itself, a bit of virtuoso accordion playing, and even one very gratifying firefight, but really this book, unlike either of the genres Harrison is drawing from, is not about the plot. It is about characters and atmosphere.

In an interview with Jeff VanderMeer, Harrison has said that this book was meant to explore some of his favorite people from Light in greater detail, and that intention certainly shows. His ensemble is endearing, in a pathetic fallen-world kind of way. They are all of them weary, nostalgic or deluded, bitter and strung out and wonderful. Each character, from his cancer-ridden old Emil to his ingratiating Fat Antoyne captures you and makes you want to read more. The problem is that Harrison himself is as much in love with his creations as any reader. He cannot, it seems, bring himself to let them go when the time comes. The main plot of the book is much shorter than the book itself, the excess being filled with the lives of his sallow flock.

Of the two genres, his noir elements are arguably the more successful. In fact, he is better in this regard than most crime fiction authors being published today. Take this scene in a shoreline bar:
"I’ve seen you here," Aschemann said.

She leaned towards him when he spoke. Asked him for a match, upper body bent forward a little from the waist, head tilted back, so that the dress offered her up wrapped in silk, jazz, light from the Live Music Nightly sign. She needed only a brushed aluminum frame to complete the image of being something both remembered and unreal. He’d seen that dress in the nanocam pictures of Vic Seratonin. More importantly, perhaps, he'd seen it fourteen days ago when she’d stumbled out of the toilet at the Café Surf disoriented by the neon-light and music as if she were new in the world. She still had an unformed labile air. Her smile was cautious, but the dress was ready to promise anything.

"I’m here a lot,” she said. “I like the band. Do you like them?"

He took a moment to light his pipe. He swallowed a little.

"They’re as guilty as ever," he said.
The science fiction elements are pervasive and, again, very well written, but somehow end up feeling less than necessary. Yes there is interstellar travel and virtual reality, the nanocams mentioned above, even an alien race or two. But all these elements are bent under the weight of Harrison’s forlorn setting. Thus the aliens are VR addicts and the gene-mod kits are used by desperate girls forced into prostitution by desperate circumstances. His characters are outsiders, one and all.

In fact, the entire world of Nova Swing is defined, indeed posited by, its outsider status. Paradoxically, the landscape we are shown in the book, possibly including the planet, even the entire galactic branch, are characterized as being apart from some unseen centrality. The center of this landscape, from which all affluence, power, and even hope might come, is only hinted at in personal histories, glimpsed in the actinic glare of ship engine flares. It is just over the horizon, just across that fence, three star systems down the line. But the force of action in nearly all narrative, particularly in the two genres from which Harrison is ostensibly borrowing here, is driven by the division between a center and its lesser valent. One of the classic character tropes of cyberpunk is the outsider pitting his skills and moral superiority against a mainstream system or structure.

With no focus, no centrality, Harrison’s downtrodden characters are trapped. They have no drive to action. Indeed, they often seem puzzled by their idleness. And though they are excellently written, they display little of the change, the development, that we associate with successful characterization. In this, I would argue, they resemble an older conception of character, an early romantic model of static character, tempered here by invasive third-person narration.

In the absence of a center to this othered landscape all character motivation must come from a different source. The Kefahuchi Tract, or rather its planetside sliver, fills that void. Harrison has mentioned the Tract as a location for alien physics inscribed on the substrate of the universe. In practice, however, the event site comes across as a dream locale, full of portent. Cats come streaming out at dawn and running back in at night. Their coats are white or black, but never mixed. Landscapes are uncertain in the site, and distances have no meaning. There tend to be a lot of stray shoes. The site, here, is an impetus to action. Vic is driven to explore it in search of an unruly client, and also to satisfy a local tough’s hunger for valuable artifacts. Lens is driven into the site by his own past, his curiosity, and to track down Vic Seratonin. The event site is a medieval wilderness to these characters. It is the source of all signs, a mirror of the meaningless void surrounding their small world. It is a hyper-semic realm, mirror to the empty a-semic reaches of space from which it came. Everything has significance in the site, even if this sign is only one of alienation and difference, not meant to be communicated. "In every corner there’s a broken telephone nailed to the wall," Vic says early in the novel. "They’re all labeled Speak but there’s no line out. They ring but no one’s ever there." Just as Harrison’s characters have in them shadows of the pre-romantic, unchanging except perhaps in form, but with no significance attached to such transformation, here we see the mythical dark forest through which all quests must lead. Vic Seratonin is a Percival with a drinking habit. He is an outsider even among this lot, drawn into the event site despite his reluctance and bald-faced fear. Just as in tales of knights-errant, the landscape demands the action and the knights merely fulfill it. Unlike most romantic heroes, Vic is explicit about it. "You want to know what it’s like in there? The fact is, you spend all your time trying to make something of it. Then guess what, it starts making something of you."

If, then, the book does share more with early Romantic tales than either of its apparent source genres, it is so excellent a book that it serves only as a surprising confirmation to me that I must love tales of romance and questing. It takes a great writer to defy the larger trends of genre, even literary history, from within. Harrison, with this book, shows himself to be one of the best writers in the field, whatever that field might happen to be.

07 October 2007

A Conversation with Thomas Ligotti

by Geoffrey H. Goodwin

(Geoffrey Goodwin is going to be popping in here at The Mumpsimus now and then with interviews with a variety of writers. I'm thrilled that the first he has provided for us is an interview with a writer as unique and fascinating as Thomas Ligotti.)

Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, and Thomas Ligotti are a reasonable list of the three best writers of horror short stories. In the tradition of gnarled minds that scare more with their thinking than with simple shocks, they're almost certainly the ones who matter most.

Ligotti is a genius at exploring emptiness and nothingness. He has committed his life to rejecting life. It's harder than it sounds. His stories take place in a "world forever reverberant with the horror of all who ever have lived and suffered" (a phrase taken from "We Can Hide from Horror Only in the Heart of Horro: Notes and Aphorisms", excerpts from his notebooks from circa 1976-1982). His many books, including recent works like The Shadow at The Bottom of The World, Teatro Grottesco, and Death Poems, are often released as limited editions that become totemic objects for his readers.

Ligotti's is an important and vital voice, though one that speaks most loudly to a certain and rarified sense of darkness. He has been included in numerous anthologies and been a nominee for and winner of multiple awards, but his focus on the horror of pain, suffering, and death have kept him from coming anywhere close to the mainstream. His long essay The Conspiracy Against the Human Race (still awaiting publication) will shatter those who embrace it fully.

What led to your writing The Conspiracy Against the Human Race?

I could recite a litany of reasons for my writing The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, but the most immediate cause was my reading an essay written in 1933 called “The Last Messiah” by the Norwegian philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe. Down the ages, pessimistic writers and thinkers have wailed that our lives are predominantly characterized by meaningless suffering and therefore everyone would be better off not to have been born. This is sometimes referred to as a hedonist view of existence, and for one reason or another practically no one is persuaded that there’s anything to it. Even if someone grants that life is mostly, or even entirely, a trail of tears with nothing but death at the end, they still don’t feel that being alive is not worth it. They’ll carry on till the end and pass on this legacy to another generation, perhaps thinking that somehow things will get better.

My own long-held view was that even if suffering as we ordinarily conceive it could be wholly eliminated, there would still be a differential among the pleasures in our lives. The consequence of this would be that some pleasures would be greater than others, and the lesser pleasures would then come to be felt as suffering. You could also turn this around and say that in a world of all-pervasive but variegated suffering, some ways of suffering would be felt to be worse than others, making the lesser sufferings perceptible as pleasures. One solution to this state of affairs seemed to be the achievement of a steady state of non-suffering. Of course, the problem is that to attain a tolerable middle ground between pleasure and suffering isn’t possible without the experience of pleasure on the one side and suffering on the other. This is assuming that we could live under laboratory conditions in which pleasure and suffering, or degrees of pleasure and suffering, could be controlled by some means presently unknown, unworkable, or underdeveloped. That would be a fantastical scenario, of course.

Other solutions that occurred to me were also more or less fantastic or futuristic. Among them was a psychophysical apparatus that could be implanted in us so that we could live much as we do now, except that whenever a certain level of suffering was reached, a combination of mood elevators and, if necessary, painkilling drugs would be released into our system in proportion to our suffering. These agents could also be regulated to work disproportionately as we approached death, thus assuring us that we would leave this world in a state of ecstasy. No one would ever have to witness the agony of a loved one dying from natural causes or imagine the horror of someone close to them who has died from gruesome accidental causes, since they would comforted by the knowledge of an anti-suffering apparatus functioning in the moribund or traumatized individual as well as having their anxiety assuaged by their own anti-suffering mechanisms. Now, the methods outlined here are just extensions of present-day strategies for bettering our lives, and those of future generations, and operate on the premise that suffering has negligible value or none at all. They’re also based on the same hedonist philosophy that, taken to sufficient lengths, is the basis for pessimism.

But hedonism as a life-philosophy isn’t limited to pessimists. All spiritual beliefs and practices originate in hedonist values and they’re not condemned as pessimistic. What could be more hedonistic than to be addicted to the idea of heaven or Nirvana? Belief in an afterlife is a great Plan B if things don’t work out so well for you in this one. And why even believe in a blissful afterlife, or in the salvation of total oblivion if you happen to be a Buddhist, unless you’re already committed to the view that this life is pretty lousy? Nevertheless, this isn’t how religionists consciously look upon human existence, at least most of the time. As far as atheists are concerned, they just have to hope for the best for themselves and for those who mean anything to them. This is the substance of what I would call "functional optimism" -- the idea that on the whole things aren’t so bad and won’t ever become so bad that everyone would be better off not having been born. And it’s impossible to effectively oppose that way of thinking. It really doesn’t work to tell someone who’s already alive that it’s better not to have been born. They’ve already been born. It’s too late for them. So they make the best of things. They try to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative. Even pessimists for the most part follow this course. It would be suicide not to, and committing suicide is really hard to pull off in cold blood. Almost no one kills themselves because they think nonexistence is preferable to existence, or because they want to avoid any extraordinary psychological or physical suffering that may be awaiting them. Suicides wait until things are so awful that they can’t stand being alive anymore. Sometimes they’ll kill themselves when it looks like things are going to become really awful in the near future, but there are a lot of pressures against being a proactive suicide. And when it comes around to facing the facts, almost everyone is afraid of death, so they do what they can to hang on as long as they can. They choose the path that they perceive to lead to the lesser of two horrors and keep following it until they keel over dead. And no hedonistic philosophy is going to convince them or anyone else that this isn’t the way to go.

Zapffe was the first pessimistic philosopher to my knowledge who actually came up with a non-hedonist reason for why it would be better not to have been born and not to give birth to others. His observation was that human consciousness, an evolved trait of our species, turned our existence into an untenable paradox. According to Zapffe, it’s one thing to experience suffering and then die. But it’s quite another thing to be acutely conscious that this is our life -- to be aware that we suffer for no good reason and have only a decline into death, or death by trauma, to look forward to. In order to cope with our consciousness of these realities, then, we must smother our consciousness as best we can by using various tactics. The result is a whole species of beings that have to lie unceasingly to themselves, not always successfully, about what they are and what their lives are really like. If we didn’t so this, the rug would be pulled out from under us and we’d have to face up to the fact that we’re a race that can’t come to terms with its existence. Thus we devise ways to mute, distract, and otherwise obfuscate our consciousness so that it doesn’t overwhelm us with what we’re up against in being alive. This line of thought goes beyond hedonism by exposing us as creatures who bullshit themselves a mile a minute in order to keep going. This bullshit takes various forms. Primary among them are simply ignoring that there is anything problematic about our existence, indulging in pleasurable distractions, creating bogus structures of meaning such as a pleasant afterlife in which the books will be balanced for the suffering we endure in this life, and transmuting our suffering into works of art and philosophy wherein we distance ourselves from what real suffering is and in the process reform it into a source of amusement. Even pessimists who believe they have gone the distance of realizing that we lead lives of meaningless suffering are caught up in this game and must brutalize their consciousness into submission or feel the full force of the reality that all our so-called pleasures are based on lies. The only solution to this conundrum, as Zapffe saw it, would be to bring an end to this festival of falsehoods by ceasing to reproduce.

Now, every reading of human life is subject to alternate or contrary readings, and so is Zapffe’s. But his reading captivated me, because I was already predisposed to believe that life was at best worthless and at worst an intolerable nightmare. In essence, Zapffe’s philosophy became another source of bullshit that kept me going so that I could articulate the many aspects of my own grievances against being alive and, I hope, extend or give a greater rhetorical force to what Zapffe had written in "The Last Messiah." I might add that the title character of this essay appears at the end, tells everyone to stop being fruitful and multiplying, and then is murdered for his trouble. Given Zapffe’s reading of the way we are, no other conclusion except utter hopelessness that we will ever change our ways is possible. We’re positively doomed to live and wallow in our own bullshit until we become extinct as a species by one of the many means that have led to the extinction of almost every other species on this planet.

When did you first read Peter Wessel Zappfe's essay, "The Last Messiah?"

I read it not long after it was published in the March/April 2004 issue of the British journal Philosophy Now. Later that year I began work on The Conspiracy Against the Human Race.

Does this mean that Zappfe's work was a confirmation of things that you already knew or were aware of?

I hadn’t conceived of the paradox that Zapffe explained had been incited by the development of consciousness in the human species. Nevertheless, I did feel that being conscious was not a good thing. In my story "Dr. Voke and Mr. Veech," there’s a dummy who suffers for having been awakened into awareness. I just thought of consciousness as a source of suffering rather than as a faculty that made all human existence into a tissue of lies, which was Zapffe’s idea. While it’s not invulnerable to argument -- as is no concept in philosophy -- this idea provided me with a basis for my generic pessimism, which, as I’ve already said, is not conceptually defensible. I could rant on a daily basis that, as Lovecraft wrote in one of his stories, "life is a hideous thing." But anyone could come along and say, "What are you talking about? Everything is beautiful. I’m having the time of my life being alive." There’s no reply to that. You can just say, "Well, if everything is beautiful, even on every other day, then you’re just not paying attention." But Zapffe’s reply was that not only is everything not beautiful, no one actually believes it’s beautiful even if they say they do. All of our actions bear witness to this observation. In a single essay, which was later expanded as a treatise titled On the Tragic, Zapffe beat the stuffing out of the theory on which Arthur Schopenhauer expatiated for thousands of pages -- that everything in the universe is activated by a "Will-to-live," a transcendental force that works the world like a cosmic puppet show. Schopenhauer’s Will does have its appeal, because if you accept it, then everything that once seemed mysterious makes perfect sense. If you ever wondered why things are the way they are or why people do the things the things they do, it all goes back to the Will, which is pulling all the strings. Intellectually and emotionally, it’s very satisfying. The problem is that Schopenhauer’s system only works on paper and can’t be detected as being part of existence any more than a creator-God.

Zapffe’s thought is very down to earth. You can experience how being conscious ruins human life by taking it out of nature, where the imperative of every living thing is simply to survive and reproduce. Human beings, on the other hand, can ask themselves what they are, why they’re alive, what happens after death, and so on. Since there aren’t any credible answers to these questions, we make up answers for the purpose of shutting down our consciousness as much as possible. At the same time, we busy ourselves with all sorts of projects and playthings just to wile away our time, also for the purpose of repressing our consciousness as creatures who know they’re alive and know they’re going to die. At any rate, the whole endeavor of being human is reduced to trying not to be human, which is very messed up. This allows Zapffe to go all the way and make the pessimist’s signature pronouncement -- that instead of continuing to carry on, we should be getting down to giving up on life. Naturally, this line of thought will not sway anyone who thinks that everything is beautiful, or that anything is beautiful, but it does takes pessimism another step forward, which is admittedly something that concerns only other pessimists.

Before reading Zapffe, I too was aware of my life as a series of distractions and denials that staved off thoughts of the terrible things that could happen to me and of my impending death. I was also sensitive, probably overly so, that these terrible things could happen and in fact were happening everywhere in the world. They had always been happening and, barring some radical change in material existence, would continue to happen until doomsday. I knew that I needed something to take my mind off these things and discover some immediate pretext for being alive. I also knew that I was just biding my time until something terrible came along and I snuffed it, something that would probably happen only after I had to watch those to whom I had become attached in one way or another had snuffed it. One of those terrible things, among others, that actually did come along in my life was major depression. This is sometimes called the common cold of mental diseases, but that’s not how it feels to those who suffer from it. Aside from its other effects, depression has a philosophical effect to it that other kinds of pain do not, and its implications very much changed my sense of what it was like to be alive in the world. In depression, everything is just what it seems to be: a tree is just a tree and not something that arouses symbolic meanings or affective associations. Life itself becomes very transparent in all its aspects to a depressive. There aren’t any mysteries left, since all mysteries come from within us. We’re mystery-making machines, and we project a sense of mystery onto a world that has no such thing behind or within it. Certain questions remain that may one day be answered or may not be answered. Either way it doesn’t matter to a depressive.

Recent movements such as transhumanism and abolitionism project a future in which suffering will be transcended with drugs and technology. There’s a guy named David Pearce who runs a Web site called The Hedonistic Imperative, and he very articulately insists that the only worthy goal in human life is that of feeling good all the time. Of course, this is the goal that everyone is concerned with in their lives, but Pearce argues that this could be more effectively and speedily attained by entirely artificial means. The fact that these people are obsessed with making a serious attempt to abolish human suffering, and to establish this aim as the central project of their lives, is nice to see. Thus far in human history, people have put their effort into curing diseases that make us dysfunctional and unproductive or that are obstacles to increasing our longevity. There hasn’t been much interest in confronting human suffering as such. Paradoxically, should the efforts of those who want to annihilate suffering succeed, it could be the end of us as a species. We would be returned to paradise. And reproduction would be irrelevant in a paradisal landscape where all dreams have been satisfied and all fears quashed.

You're best known for writing horror stories and poems. Did The Conspiracy Against the Human Race feel like a different endeavor, even though it was an obvious continuation of certain themes in your work?

Writing Conspiracy was different from writing horror stories in the following way. For me, a story usually has its inception in something irrational -- a dream, an image, a phrase that doesn’t make any sense. This irrational germ for a story will be something that I feel is dense with meaning and possibilities, even if I know it’s going to end up as a horror story. Then some element of the story pokes its head out -- a character, a setting, a particular scene in the narrative -- and everything comes together very quickly. I’m definitely a didactic writer in that my stories can be reduced to some point that I’m trying to get across, something that emerges in the course of elaborating its narrative elements. I may start a story in the irrational, but unlike a lot of writers I’m not content to let a story be its own meaning. I have to move from the irrational to the rational. With Conspiracy, I started in the rational and stayed there. It was kind of like working in two dimensions instead of three. All the force of Conspiracy had to come from concepts and rhetoric, both of which are prominent in my stories. But the imaginative landscape was missing. There wasn’t a sense of being in a world inside of my head as I wrote. It was more like writing a poem, which for me is an elaboration of an idea. I may start a poem with a single line that fits somewhere into the poem, but that line will make sense conceptually. So writing Conspiracy was like writing a very long poem.

What do you think readers will make of it?

I can only say with any degree of confidence what one faction of readers will make of it. Those are people who have read my horror stories and enjoyed them not in spite of their bleak quality but because of it. An analogy could be drawn with fans of Lovecraft’s stories, who read them for their charming regionalism, their mythology of monsters, or for their unusually literate nature -- something prized by readers who are generally well read yet still have a weakness for the horror genre -- or some combination of these and other characteristics of his work. But they don’t read them as expressions of Lovecraft’s vision of human beings as bits of inconsequential organic material quivering in a black infinity that occasionally throws some phenomenon our way that is completely alien to the settled structures of our existence, as if to say: "You can just forget everything you thought you knew about yourselves and everything else in the universe. You know nothing. You are nothing. And the choices you have for dealing with this reality are to go insane or kill yourselves. How about them apples?" This can be a rather consoling vision to those readers who already think as much and are grateful that someone else out there felt the same and had the nerve to make it the basis of his art. I was one of those readers. It was a great relief to discover the writings of someone who didn’t go for the same consolations as most of the rest of the world, even if the consolations they did go for were no less questionable. I think that some of my readers look at my stories similarly. And those are the ones who will appreciate Conspiracy. As for anyone else, I couldn’t say. The book could very well be judged as badly done on its own terms. It would also be easy for anyone to dismiss it by saying that its author is just a nutjob and has always been a nutjob who should be pitied or justly derogated or simply ignored. I would be in no position to argue with such an assessment, since the general estimation of the reading public about themselves and their existence is so different from mine. I myself don’t believe that my experience itself is so different from that of most people, but the conclusions I’ve drawn from my experience are indeed quite different. Furthermore, the whole point of Conspiracy is that pessimism as a resolute life-stance is not welcome to the minds very many people, even when it’s laid out as entertainingly as possible, which I’ve tried to do. But pessimistic works have never been well received as a rule. And I’m not naïve enough to think that it could ever be any other way.

Blade Runner: The Final Cut

It's a shame that Warner Bros. is, so far at least, only releasing Blade Runner: The Final Cut in theatres in New York and Los Angeles, because the virtues of this version lie not so much in the few changes from the earlier "Director's Cut", but in the remastering of the imagery and sound. To see the new version in a theatre like the Ziegfield in New York, with a giant screen and excellent sound system, is a visceral and sometimes truly stunning experience.

I had seen the earlier version of the movie at a midnight showing at the Angelika in the '90s, and I remember enjoying it -- certainly more than I've ever enjoyed the muddy DVD -- but it was nothing like seeing (and, indeed, feeling) the new version. I barely have words to describe it, because it was an experience outside of words, an experience of the senses. The plot of the movie has never been its main attraction for me, the mix of brutality and camp remains sometimes jarring, and the philosophical depth some people claim for the film eludes me, but there are very few other movies that I find as visually and aurally satisfying, particularly now.

The wonder of Blade Runner is its ability to create and sustain a world that provokes us to imagine our way even deeper into it. This is one of the great powers of cinema -- to soak our senses, to envelop us -- and one of the powers that so seldom gets utilized fully, especially in commercial film, which is so often either bludgeoning or boring. Lots of big-budget movies today have special effects that are more comprehensive or spectacular than Blade Runner's, but what so impresses me about this movie (even more so now) is the restraint. The violence hurts not because it's graphic (it is, but less so than the many contemporary adventure movies), but because it's just graphic enough to allow our imaginations to continue on with the pain. One of the subjects of Blade Runner is empathy, and it provokes empathy in us not through sentimental manipulation, but through suggestion, absence, and mood. The look of the movie is so engrossing not because it's full of whizbang puffballs of digital overkill, but because it has depth without distraction, and the logic of the design choices conveys information about the settings, cultures, and characters of each scene.

It will be wonderful to have the new DVDs of Blade Runner, but without a massive home theatre, I doubt there's any way to approach the experience of watching this film in a good cinema. Unfortunately, that experience has only been offered to those of us fortunate enough to live near New York or L.A. Perhaps, with luck, if the limited run is successful, the distributors will find a way to make a more general release.

05 October 2007

Bat Segundo's Guano Doesn't Stink

Though I had a rather scarring encounter with Bat Segundo some time back, I remain in awe of the quality of guests he gets for his podcast and the interesting directions the interviews go in. He's just posted some new interviews, including ones with Jeff Parker (who I just met last week), Katha Pollitt, Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie, and Brian Francis Slattery, author of the marvelous Spaceman Blues.

04 October 2007

The Cowboy Angel Rides

The best writing advice I've read in at least a week comes from M. John Harrison's blog. Read the whole post. Here's a paragraph in case you don't trust me:
When I read fantasy, I read for the bizarre, the wrenched, the undertone of difference & weirdness that defamiliarises the world I know. I want the taste of the writer’s mind, I want to feel I’m walking about in the edges of the individual personality. I don’t want to read a story misrepresented from some other culture’s folklore, or a story in which mainstream ideology of the last fifty years is presented as myth. Go read Clive Barker. Go read Kenneth Patchen, who was reportedly an unlikeable man but who could write you a fantasy in a couple of lines. Or put “The Gates of Eden” on repeat.

Buy a BAF, Get a Hobart

Hobart is a young literary magazine, and editor Aaron Burch is so excited that a story he published, Catherine Zeidler's "Pregnant", is included in Best American Fantasy that he's named Prime Books to be Hobart's Small Press of the Month and he is willing to send a back issue of Hobart to anybody who orders BAF from now on. (Although I expect he'll have to put some limitations on that, as millions of you are now about to go buy more copies...)

If you're interested in Hobart, be sure to stop by the website ... and do consider subscribing -- it's an attractively-designed magazine with eclectic content (in a good way).