30 May 2008

DeNiro and Ulman Join Forces to Conquer the Universe!

Long-time Mumpsimus readers will remember a young man named Alan DeNiro, subject of an interview in 2004, and a young woman named Juliet Ulman, subject of an interview I conducted for Fantasy magazine in 2006. Recent readers will remember that, in 2008, the elves of Mumpsimus Mansion expressed excitement that a young woman named Colleen Lindsay moved from the world of publicity to the world of agenting, and one of her first clients was the above-named Mr. DeNiro.

Well, our plan for world domination is coming together. Super-writer DeNiro has, via the talents of super-agent Lindsay, joined forces with super-editor Ulman! The elves are jumping up and down with joy, expressing great congratulations to Alan for selling his novel Total Oblivion, More or Less to Juliet at Bantam via Colleen.

Numerologists will note that the various important events (interview 1, interview 2, joy for Colleen) occurred in even-numbered years. What do we have planned for 2010? Wait and see, my children, wait and see....

(Or we could just blame everything on this movie.)

28 May 2008

The Outsider and the Syllabus

One of the courses I'm teaching at Plymouth State University in the fall is called "The Outsider", and I've been struggling with the syllabus for the past few weeks. There are lots of reasons for this struggle, and as struggles go, it's been a fun and productive one. But every time I think I'm almost done with the syllabus, I decide to make a few changes...

One of the challenges is the breadth of possibilities -- the course is supposed to do a few different things, including introduce first- and second-year students to basics of literary study and critical thinking. It's also supposed to be interdisciplinary (which for this course has traditionally meant a mix of literature and film). And it should have some sort of historical component. But it shouldn't be backbreaking because it is, after all, a general education course for first- and second-year students, many of whom have no desire to become English majors.

Oh, and then there's the fact that outsiderdom and otherness are such common elements of literature that you could almost pick a bunch of books randomly and they'd fit the topic.

Naturally, my first attempt at a syllabus had the students reading something in the vicinity of 5,000 pages per month. I began to narrow it down by giving myself permission to exclude things that I know in my heart are essential -- for instance, I stopped trying to fit in something from every era of the last 3,000 years of the world's history. That wasn't enough of a restriction, though, so I allowed myself only a few works from the 19th century (Woyzeck and "Bartleby" were the two pieces that appeared most frequently on my various lists). Then I gave myself permission not to cover all regions of the globe, though I did promise myself that I would include at least one text that did not originate in North America or Europe.

For a little while, I had what I thought was a finished draft of the syllabus. It began with Octavian Nothing (paired with the movie If...), continued with Woyzeck, moved on to some stories by Kafka paired with a documentary about Henry Darger (In the Realms of the Unreal), transitioned to Coetzee's Life and Times of Michael K (and the documentary Amandla!), then Tsitsi Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions (and Ousmane Sembene's film Black Girl), then Suzan-Lori Parks's play Venus (with The Elephant Man), and finally finished up with Delany's Trouble on Triton and a bunch of movies about crossing and transing gender which, I thought, students would choose 2 of to see (Breakfast on Pluto, Transamerica, Orlando, Beautiful Boxer, Boys Don't Cry, maybe even Some Like It Hot, who knows!).

When I reread this syllabus, I decided it was not only too ambitious, but verging on the insane. First- and second-year students, I kept saying to myself. Not all English majors... I reread some of Trouble on Triton. Oh no. No no no. It would take an entire term to get them through it. I started plotting things day by day. There weren't nearly enough days.

I scaled back. I rearranged. I rethought. What if we started with a month of short stories by Kafka, Camus, and Paul Bowles? Then move on to Coetzee and Dangarembga, which I thought I might pair with something by Kenzaburo Oe, either A Personal Matter or one of the stories in Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness. Then pair Woyzeck and Venus and finish with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Parable of the Sower, adding Blade Runner as a movie to go along with them and keeping most of the other movies except In the Realms of the Unreal.

This was better, but again when I plotted it out day by day, there just weren't enough days. Too many of the discussions would be rushed, too much would feel crammed in. I loved the idea of doing Kafka, Camus, and Bowles together, but I couldn't entirely justify the amount of time it would take to do it right. (Those three writers together deserve a course unto themselves, maybe with the addition of some native, post-colonial North African writers, depending on the focus.) Do Androids Dream and Blade Runner also felt like they belonged somewhere else, much as I adore them. So I adjusted again.

For a little while, I tried everything I could do to fit in both Woolf's Orlando and Charlie Anders's Choir Boy, but I would need at least another month of classes, and I couldn't bear to cut anything more to fit these two in, alas. Someday...

As of tonight, then, here's the list of texts. It may change a bit, but probably not drastically, unless I suddenly awake with a brilliant idea for how to better meet all the various needs of the course and also teach some stuff I'm qualified and excited to teach.....
  • Kafka short stories
  • Coetzee, Life & Times of Michael K.
  • Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions
  • Büchner, Woyzeck
  • Parks, Venus
  • Maureen McHugh, China Mountain Zhang
  • Butler, Parable of the Sower
  • Films: Amandla!, Black Girl, Herzog's Woyzeck (and maybe János Szász's, but I haven't had a chance yet to see it), and The Elephant Man
The McHugh and Butler are probably the most likely to be changed, if anything changes, partly because the timing is still tight -- I may look for a shorter Butler novel, and I need to reread China Mountain Zhang, since it's been quite a few years since I first read it. But the list feels right, book orders are due very soon, and I need to convince the library to buy the films they don't own. We shall see.

Clearly, though, I am having fun with the opportunity to design classes after a year of teaching a curriculum that I had no hand in designing...

26 May 2008

"A Map of the Everywhere": The Earrings

The Interfictions Auction continues (though it is nearing its end) with a pair of earrings by Sarah Evans that are inspired by part of my story "A Map of the Everywhere". Follow the link for more information about bidding, etc. It's been exciting to see how the words and images from stories have led to such an array of creativity from the various artists, and I'm particularly thrilled (and humbled!) that my weird little story has proved inspiring.


I knew almost nothing about the Norwegian film Reprise before going into the theatre, which is a good thing, because if anybody had told me its central characters are a couple of young novelists, one of whom struggles with mental illness, I would have said, "No thanks, I'll wait for the DVD" and I would have missed the best movie I've seen in months.

Before I get into what makes Reprise so good, I have to pause to describe the audience I and my companion were stuck in while watching the film. We arrived at Lincoln Plaza half an hour before the show, got tickets, and then waited in what seemed, even for New York, a pretty long line for an afternoon on a beautiful day. We also seemed to be the youngest people in the line, which also seemed odd, because, as far as we knew, this was more the sort of movie to attract a crowd of hipster Cinema Studies majors than, well, grandparents -- but this is New York, after all, and if there's anywhere in the world where grandparents will turn out en masse for a Norwegian movie about angsty twenty-somethings, New York is it.

This would have been simply amusing if, no more than fifteen minutes into Reprise, it had not become very clear that many of the audience members expected something different from the movie than what they were getting, and when they were not sighing, coughing, shuffling their feet, checking their phones (really!), or falling asleep on my shoulder (really!), the people around us were whispering loudly in an attempt to figure out some of the basic elements of the movie -- "Who is he?" "Did he have a car accident?" "Are they taking drugs?" "I thought this was in French -- it's not in French. What are they saying?"

(An aside to this aside: I am extremely sensitive to audience noise. Whispering, chewing, foot-tapping, fidgeting, candy-unwrapping, sighing, coughing -- all these sounds and movements cause me pain while watching movies and plays -- the person who introduced popcorn to movie theatres deserves, I believe, a circle of hell unto him- or herself -- but I know it's something that is peculiar to me, and so I seldom comment on it, thinking it's my own problem. My companion, though, who is a much more balanced and tolerant human being than I, commented on the awfulness of the audience the moment we left the theatre.)

It is a mystery to me what caused this particular audience to gather for this particular movie. (If you are telling people that Reprise is the Norwegian On Golden Pond, please stop doing so!) But despite being stuck in the middle of a dreadful audience, I was still able to find Reprise engaging and thought-provoking, and that fact alone is a testament to the movie's quality.

The basic story Reprise tells is a simple one: two friends in Oslo want to be writers. One, Phillip, succeeds quite quickly with his first novel, then falls in love with and starts dating Kari, a young woman who's not quite sure of her place in the world, and his love becomes obsessive and he begins acting irrationally, then has a breakdown. He recovers from his breakdown slowly and never completely. Meanwhile, Erik eventually publishes his first novel, dates a woman he's not really in love with, wonders what he's doing with his life, thinks about getting out of Oslo. Phillip and Erik's friends from elementary school days are also trying to figure out what to do with their lives.

I have now succeeded in making the movie sound, I expect, quite tedious. (You are starting to sympathize with the sighers and whisperers in the audience!) But Reprise is not tedious at all, and the reason is that the story is simply a skeleton of events that gives support to an exploration of the characters, and it is this exploration that provides the film's substance. The structure that writer-director Joachim Trier and his co-writer, Eskil Vogt, created emphasizes the vagaries of memory and yearning within the character's lives, and this structure and emphasis gives a coherence to what is, really, a fragmentary narrative. The first moments of the movie lay out Phillip and Erik's grand, naive hopes for the manuscripts they have written -- that the envelopes will be opened immediately by a top editor who will be awe-struck at the novels' brilliance and publish them to world-wide acclaim that will cause the writers to become cult heroes and even to inspire revolutions in African countries. The reality, of course, becomes more complex, but as we move through this reality, it is peppered with flashbacks and what-ifs, many of them rich with a playful and ironic tone, until, in the end, a narrator returns us to the future perfect tense of the first minutes, but now what is described are less naive scenes, scenes of friendship and maturity, and these scenes are imbued with suspense because we know that what we are watching is wished for, hoped for, ached for -- and by that point, we're wishing, hoping, and aching, too.

There is as wide a range of tones in Reprise as in any other movie I can think of, and it is a wonder they all work together so well. Again, this is a virtue of the film's structure. From early on, we are prepared for light and lively scenes contrasted with moments of quiet: long shots and slow movements, bits of meditation in amidst the storm of living. Hyper-stylization becomes a tool of realism: this is what it feels like to be alive, the movie says. The long, slow shadows of a bedroom at night juxtapose with the fluorescent glare in the bathroom. The vast, cataclysmic hustle and screech of a city's heavy-metal rush turns into a slow, almost static musical phrase from just far enough away to pull patterns from chaos. Friendship becomes smothering in a moment, love flips into obsession with an eyelid's flash, the joy of success shatters into a thousand shards of insanity after too many pressures on too many points. And vice versa and vice versa and vice versa.

The changing tones and the general lack of sentimentality are what allow Reprise to be far more than a movie about writers. That Phillip and Erik are writers is important because it allows their struggles with ideas to be dramatized -- their books become external versions of their philosophies and hopes, and when it becomes clear that Phillip has not read Erik's novel, the shock is stunning; Phillip's and Erik's struggles with the public reception of their writing dramatizes the conflict between their dreams and their realities; etc. -- but the movie stays away from offering a romanticized view of writers, and, indeed, through their friends shows that though writers may have struggles specific to their sort of occupation, it doesn't make their occupation a particularly enlightened one. (Although it does seem, at least in Norway, fairly lucrative -- both Phillip and Erik, despite not being bestselling writers, appear to be living off of their royalties. Though Erik lives with his mother, Phillip is somehow able to afford quite a nice apartment.) Though it is a very literate film -- how many movies namedrop Maurice Blanchot? -- it never feels pretentious (which is not to say its characters, being young, are not sometimes pretentious), because it never privileges writers above other human beings. There's nothing mystical or romantic about the literary life in Reprise, nor is it the only life there is.

Reprise does so many things well that I could go on and on and on (the acting, for instance, is a wonder), but I'll point briefly to two elements: The film's portrayal of long-term friendship and its handling of mental illness.

Phillip and Erik have been friends since elementary school, and they have other friends who go back nearly as long. Friendships that last through childhood and into adulthood are strange, wondrous things. We wake up one day and discover that our best friends, the people who know us most deeply, are not people we might ever have sought out now, as adults. Our interests are different, our perspectives on the world, our senses of humor and etiquette -- and yet the bond is deeper than anything we could deliberately cultivate with people more like who we have turned out to be. Reprise presents just this sort of friendship, and it does so with rare complexity and subtlety, showing the group from within and without -- the ragtag band that comes to get Phillip when he's ready to be released from the psychiatric ward and that never makes him feel anything but welcome and loved is the same group that causes horror in a smart assistant editor who, in a brief encounter, thinks that Erik's friends are uncouth and boorish.

Phillip's breakdown and never-quite-successful struggle to recover are presented with similar sensitivity. Movies about crazy artists are hardly a rarity, but movies that don't turn the character's illness into either a freakshow or a badge of outsider honor are, indeed, rare. The audience is not led to see Phillip's illness as a necessary aid to his creativity -- it seems, actually, to end his creativity. We are not encouraged to marvel at his oddness or wish that he would stop taking his meds so he could embrace his inner weirdo. Instead, we see a character who is more than a cliche. He lives, having good moments and bad, ordinary moments, moments of clarity even, and yet the shadow of the breakdown is always there. We see the strain on friends and family that the alienating force of illness causes -- the difficulty at communicating from or to a personal cosmos of pain, the soon-to-be-regretted actions brought on by the pressure obsession exerts on reality, the exhaustion attendant with constantly second-guessing your perceptions. The effect, emotionally, is more complex and profound than anything offered by the more melodramatic representations of mental illness we usually get in movies.

There are many other complexities to the film as well -- for instance, there is an ongoing but understated exploration of gender relations (it's a movie about heterosexual men, yes, but it never pretends their immaturity about women or sexuality is anything other than immature, and the women in the film call the men on their bullshit) -- but I fear that continuing to celebrate its many extraordinary pieces will distract from the effect of the film as a whole, because what is most extraordinary about Reprise is not that it contains smart and artfully crafted pieces, but that the pieces all join together in a whole that is more artful, evocative, and affecting than any discussion of the pieces can convey.

21 May 2008

New New Haven Review

The New Haven Review is a print and online magazine that includes Brian Francis Slattery as an editor. A while back, Brian asked me if I'd review something for the journal's second print issue, and I volunteered to write about Caryl Phillips's Foreigners, which had just been sent my way by the good folks at Knopf. I'd liked some of Phillips's earlier books, so expected to enjoy this one, especially since it began with a story about Samuel Johnson's servant, Frank Barber, a man I'd had an interest in for some time.

Alas, I ended up being quite disappointed with Foreigners, and Brian suggested that instead of just reviewing it, I expand the piece to give an overview of Phillips's other books, or at least a few of them, to dig more deeply into what was so disappointing for me about the new one. So I tried. And that's the thing -- partly a review, partly an overview, partly a pushmi-pullyu -- that is now available both in the print edition and via the website as a PDF, as are all the articles. (The review I submitted didn't have a title, so Brian [or somebody] gave it one, pulling a famous phrase from one of my favorite Dylan songs.) There's a bunch of good stuff in the magazine, including ten poems by Lizzie Skurnick and an article by Deirdre Bair about Simone de Beauvoir.

Here, for the curious (or masochistic) is the first paragraph of my piece:
Ours is a hybrid age, an age of mixing cultures and histories, an age of migrations and transmigrations. Such an age deserves hybrid forms to explore the life it breeds and to delve down into the sources of its textures. The hope is that those forms will express more than can be expressed otherwise and will point toward truths invisible to less eclectic lenses. One of the strengths of Caryl Phillips's oeuvre is that it is difficult to box up with convenient labels and ship off as widgets and comfort food. It sings and talks and hectors and hums. It walks and chews gum at the same time.

20 May 2008

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

Little Brother is the most entertaining instruction manual I have ever read.

Yes, it is a novel, but "novel" just means some sort of extended narrative fiction, and that doesn't give enough of a sense of what the book is up to. This is an unambiguously and unapologetically didactic novel, a novel that not only wants to teach its readers, but wants to inspire them to view the world through a particular lens and to act according to that view. It is a book with a very clear message, but more than just communicating a message, it seeks to give its readers a sense of how to spread the gospel and have fun while doing so.

Doctorow gets away with such open didacticism by pitching the book toward teens. Sympathetic adults will want to give it to kids because it's a pleasurable way to learn about some of the political and social issues likely to be present in their lives, and kids who encounter the book are likely to find it fascinating because of its anti-authoritarian stance -- yeah, it's trying to teach you stuff, but what it's trying to teach you is all the stuff adults don't want you to know!

The story is an exciting one of kids figuring out ways to undermine a police state -- as the title alludes, this is 1984 gone wireless and viral. A terrorist attack on San Francisco causes the Department of Homeland Security to institute draconian surveillance throughout the city and to detain and torture anybody they decide might be doing something remotely related to something that could in some possible way perhaps connect to something connected to terrorism. Thus, our narrator, Marcus, a teenage hacker who happens to be in a relatively wrong place at a very wrong time, spends some days in an undisclosed location where he is brutalized by federal agents. After his release, and after he discovers one of his friends was not released and might be dead, Marcus starts a rebellion via X-Box, a tool he's able to hack to create a secure underground internet. He and his friends and allies share knowledge and ideas, risks and bandwidth. They wreak havoc on the plodding tyrants who are out to destroy life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and all open source projects. (Ultimately, the kids do need some help from adults and dead-tree tech, but that's after they've done enough on their own to be causing concern at the White House.)

The story, characters, and prose are nothing particularly special -- if they were, they'd be a distraction from what really matters. This is a functional book, not an artistic one. The plot is fast-paced and surprising enough to keep us wanting to find out what happens, the characters are familiar enough middle-class urban American heterosexual teens to be appealing to the book's target demographic, and Doctorow writes Marcus's voice in an inoffensive approximation of that demographic's argot. There's even some romance and sex, but those elements are about as generic as it's possible for them to be, and they are by far the least convincing or interesting parts of the novel. (If you want to see Doctorow do the traditional elements of a novel better, see Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town.)

To focus on traditional novelistic elements in Little Brother would be to miss the network for a few wireless routers. The tradition this book is a part of is less the tradition of 1984 than the tradition of Hugo Gernsback's scientifiction, and in many ways it lives up to Gernsback's vision of what science fiction should be better than any other book I can think of (at the moment). It tells a rousing story and teaches us stuff about science, both the science of now and the science of maybe-tomorrow. It even ships with two afterwords (one by security expert Bruce Schneier, one by hacker Andrew "bunnie" Huang) and a five-page narrative bibliography, all of which will help readers move from the world of the book to the world of the moment. In fact, Doctorow isn't content just to teach readers about tech -- he also wants us to learn some history, so he has Marcus discourse on how cool Jack Kerouac is, what you can find at the City Lights Bookstore, and the nature and purpose of Abbie Hoffman's Steal This Book.

Some readers have complained that Little Brother is too full of coincidences, that the evil government is made out to be much too stupid, and that not all of the tech stuff makes sense. I'm ambivalent about these criticisms. On one hand, they're almost undeniable. On the other, they're irrelevant. A more realistic book would have made a better instruction manual, yes, but it also would have been less exciting for a general audience. More importantly, it would have been less inspiring.

Because when I call Little Brother an instruction manual, I don't mean to suggest it will give you everything you need to know to turn an X-Box into a tool of revolution. Give up on that idea now, all ye who enter! The information about the Beats and Yippies is what gives it away. This is a book that aspires to be a manual for rewiring your brain. The story doesn't have to be probable or even believable, it just has to suck you in and provide a scaffolding for the information. The information doesn't have to be exact, it just has to be intriguing. The whole doesn't have to be a finely tuned item of aesthetic bliss, it just has to make readers say, "Oh cool! I wonder if..."

And then perhaps you'll do like me, and halfway through the book punch some stuff into Google to check out whether it exists. (ParanoidLinux? Not exactly. But close.) Or start thinking of people to give the book to -- I'm telling some of my high school students about it as well as a friend studying computer science. Because it's a great novel? No. Because it's great propaganda, both entertaining and thought-provoking, more modern and less clunky than The Jungle or Ralph 124C 41+, its ancestors. The strongest memory I have kept of my reading of Little Brother is not a memory of the characters or situations or style, but of the desire to join in fighting the powers that be, the desire to change the world. A naive desire, indeed, one the accumulated cynicism of my oh-so-many years seldom allows, but Little Brother broke through that cynicism with its passionate charm, which makes me think that for the kids who are its intended audience, it could be a wordful amphetamine, a jolt of ideas and possibilities, a manual of instructions for how to dream big.

16 May 2008

New SF Site

The latest issue of the venerable SF Site has been posted, and it contains a review I wrote of Paul McAuley's 1995 novel Fairyland, a book I enjoyed quite a bit. General busy-ness has kept me from writing for SF Site for a while, and it's nice to be back. (Next up for them will probably be a review of Ursula LeGuin's recent YA trilogy, but I doubt I'll have time to get to it for a few months, alas.)

Here's a snippet from the review:
The effort to distinguish between "science fiction" and "fantasy" is a futile and exhausted one, but part of the fun of Fairyland lies in watching Paul McAuley take words common to the vocabulary of high fantasy stories -- "fairy," "fey," "trolls," etc. -- and employ them within the unambiguously science fictional setting of a nanotechnologized future of virtual realities and designer diseases. It’s a simple conceit, but not a jokey one, because the terms lend the novel depth, linking the forward momentum of the future world to the backward glance of legends and folktales. (It's particularly appropriate that Fairyland won the Clarke Award, since one of Sir Arthur's most famous statements was that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.") There's a metafictional effect, too, drawing our attention to the novel's genre play, daring us to impose our assumptions about what is possible and what is not, both in reality and in fiction.

15 May 2008

"Gender and Binary Thinking"

I was going to try to excerpt a little bit from my favorite thing on the internet this week -- Cheryl Morgan's wonderfully thought-provoking review-essay "Gender and Binary Thinking" -- but taking a piece from the whole would not do it justice and might risk simplifying some of the arguments. Therefore, I will simply point you toward it and hope you find it as stimulating as I did.

14 May 2008

Money Shot by Christa Faust

I confess: I like the idea of noir novels more than I tend to like noir novels themselves. (Noir movies I often enjoy watching, but there are few I've found very memorable, for whatever reason.) In fact, I don't much like mystery novels of any sort, though I've read a lot of them in a desperate attempt to like them more. I've tried at least one novel by all the classic mystery writers I know of, and the only such writer I've managed to read more than one book by with any pleasure is Patricia Highsmith. I've tried contemporary mysteries by a bunch of different writers, but hardly any of them have remained in my memory. I don't know all the reasons for my inability to really embrace mystery and crime novels -- strange, I think, given my interest in the psychology and sociology of violence -- but I think most of it comes from my general indifference to plot. I like books that have some sort of narrative, certainly, but I don't generally care for books where plot is the primary element.

And yet I loved Christa Faust's recent novel Money Shot.

I'd been intrigued by the Hard Case Crime series for a while. Their retro covers appealed to the part of me that revels in the pulp era, and everything I'd read about the series indicated that it was thoughtfully edited. I decided to start with Money Shot because I was curious to see how the first female writer in the Hard Case series would handle a story about the porn industry.

Because I am not a good reader for the mystery/crime genre, I can't tell you whether this is a good mystery/crime novel. What I can say is that it overcame my prejudice against plot-heavy books by being somewhat more about its main character than its plot. The basic plot, in fact, seemed fairly standard and predictable to me, but this seemed more like a virtue than a flaw, because if the plot had been too clever or complex, the novel's strengths might have been less prominent. Its strengths are the development of the main character, Angel Dare (a retired porn actress), and the presentation of what everyday life in the world of porn is like. I have no idea how accurate Faust's presentation of porn life is, but that doesn't matter -- what matters is that it was portrayed with so many well-chosen details that it was convincing and vivid. All the accuracy in the world is useless if a writer doesn't know how to select and present details to create verisimilitude. Most good fiction writing, regardless of genre, requires some worldbuilding skills, because even if the story is set in a real place, fiction is just a representation of a conception of that real place, and the best "realistic" fiction has as much care for rendering an imagined place in the reader's mind as does the best science fiction set on alien worlds.

The basic story of Money Shot is almost Existentialist -- Angel Dare's life is quickly destroyed for reasons she doesn't understand. The story is not Existentialist, though, but rather conservative in that the forces destroying Angel's life turn out to be identifiable; there are reasons her life is destroyed and there are people who committed various actions that come together in a web of cause and effect to cause the destruction. Everyone has a motive and once all the complications get explained we can understand why the various characters behave in the ways they do. Generally, I hate such stuff, because it seems reductive, dull, and untrue to my own experience of life. But I found Angel Dare's character and situation interesting enough that I mostly ignored the justifications for the actions, and so the narrative became, in my mind, a more complex and ambiguous one than its surface presented.

It helps that Christa Faust has a good sense of prose rhythm and pacing. She doesn't write "transparent prose" (the thin gruel offered by the anti-art workhouse), but she also doesn't indulge in the strained metaphors and clunky sentences that so many writers seem to think necessary for a novel to truly be noir. Angel's personality comes through the narrative voice Faust creates for her, and though it occasionally offers too many clichés for my taste, on the whole this voice is precise and engaging:
I normally hated that Men-Are-From-Mars, testosterone-driven impulse boys get where they want to solve all my problems by troubleshooting me like buggy software and offering up a simple concrete solution to stop my tears. But if Malloy had done something more intuitive and nurturing like hugging me or telling me everything was going to be all right, I would have disintegrated into a useless puddle. His simple answer to the problem of the big shoes gave me something to hold on to. Payless. Right. Good idea. It allowed me to pretend that the lack of shoes that fit really was the reason I was crying.
This is not a paragraph that will blow anyone away as Great Writing, but it is clear and efficient, and with that clear efficiency it conveys a few things in a short space -- it presents the complexity of Angel's feelings about men and masculinity, it conveys her emotional state at a vulnerable moment, and it shows us a little something about Malloy, one of the other important characters in the book. It's specific and it has the feel of originality, of something necessary to this character at this place in this time, without drawing us out of the story and situation by calling lots of attention to itself (which is a perfectly good technique in the right sort of book).

The ending of Money Shot is somewhat tame in comparison to the fatalism leading up to it, but I found it -- again, against all odds -- satisfying and even somewhat moving. The second half of the book is brutal, but it is a logical brutality, not a random one, and the conclusion brings the brutality to a close without offering any easy answers or simple morality, because what remains behind it all is the destruction unleashed on Angel's life, and no matter what happened to her in all the possibility ways Faust could have ended the book, that destruction would never be able to be assimilated into a simple conclusion. Revenge may be had, the law can do its thing, and loose ends can be tied up ... but the dead are still dead, and lost illusions and shattered dreams don't recover well. The great revelation at the end of the book is that we realize to what extent the whole tale has been a meditation on the implications of the first sentence:
Coming back from the dead isn't as easy as they make it seem in the movies.

12 May 2008


Via Meghan I discovered Muxtape, which allows users to create "mix tapes" of up to 12 songs (and yes, I know it got Boing Boinged all the way back in March, but I read Meghan more frequently and carefully than I read Boing Boing...) The simplicity of the format intrigued me, so I decided to give it a shot.

Here, then, is what I created: distantstar.muxtape.com. (The RSS feed is here.) These are 12 songs I tend to listen to when driving to and from work these days -- hence, these are songs that I find in some way or another keep me from going completely and totally nuts while trying to get through the rush-hour awfulness in the miles around the Lincoln Tunnel. What that fact and these songs say about me ... I do not care to speculate.

I'll be changing the mix whenever I have a chance. I was a compulsive maker of actual mix tapes, and this seems like a good outlet for some of that old enthusiasm. Keep your eyes (ears) out -- I expect it will get a bit weird...

08 May 2008


Barring a catastrophe, I'm going to be at Readercon this summer, partly because I haven't been to a science fiction convention in a while, and especially because James Patrick Kelly and Jonathan Lethem are the guests of honor. (I'm going to book a hotel room soon ... if anybody's looking for a roommate, let me know.)

An essay I wrote about Jim Kelly will be appearing in the souvenir book, since Jim and I go way, way back. I'm able to write with authority about his years as a miner in New Hampshire's granite quarries, his conversion to a strange form of neo-paganism predicated on the worship of lawn ornaments, his ill-fated campaign for the governorship (he lost to his more liberal opponent, Mel Thomson), and his years as a writer for the Union Leader's editorial page. I also share my memories of acting in one of Jim's least successful plays, On Godot Pond, which was a somewhat uneven mix of Beckett and down-home Yankee humor.

"Hard-Working White People"

Driving home from work today, I heard Hillary Clinton on the radio. I hear lots of people on the radio, when I choose to listen, though much of the time these days I just throw in a CD, because whenever news of the U.S. election comes on, I lose a bit more respect for humanity. Or at least for Americans. And I know I shouldn't blame us for the awfulness of our politicians. I mean,yes, we haven't risen up and created the anarcho-communist utopia I dream of now and then, but it's not like I'm out there doing anything to help it along, either, so I haven't got any right to blame everybody else.

But even as awful as they are, I expect politicians sometimes to at least try to pretend they're not the amoral, arrogant, asinine, avaricious -- and I'm still at the beginning of the alphabet here -- monsters that we all know them to be.

Or maybe it's just that I never expected Hillary Clinton, for all her dreadfulness, to be courting the David Duke vote.

But there it was, her voice on my radio. And she said the same thing USA Today reports her as saying:
"I have a much broader base to build a winning coalition on," she said in an interview with USA TODAY. As evidence, Clinton cited an Associated Press article "that found how Sen. Obama's support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again, and how whites in both states who had not completed college were supporting me."
I'm looking forward to the Clinton/Buchanan bumper stickers...

On the Recent Decline in Productivity at the Mumpsimus Factory

The silence around here has been caused by my having to get a gazillion things done before moving back to New Hampshire (while also still teaching -- the last day of work for me is June 25). What I've discovered this year is that continually being overwhelmed and stressed out has a negative effect on my writing productivity -- imagine that! It's not that I'm lacking time so much as lacking the ability to focus. It often feels like I've been crowded out of my brain. Even just writing more than a few emails a day has felt difficult.

A year ago, I taught 3 classes, was head of a department, did all the various extra things required in boarding school work, searched for a new job, wrote the thesis for my master's degree, helped edit the first Best American Fantasy, wrote various reviews and essays and columns, still kept up with blogging, and felt guilty and miserable for not writing more fiction (I finished only a couple stories, maybe one of which was worth submitting anywhere). I did just write a new 10,000-word story ("The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid" -- with luck, coming soon to an anthology near you!), but my reviewing has been cut down to a quarter of what it used to be, and blogging has been, at best, erratic. Ugh.

But! There is a light at the end of this tunnel, and this month is probably the last really overwhelmingly busy-draining-numbing one I'll have for a while. I have my fingers crossed that at this time next year, I'll be back to my previous level of productivity, if not higher, and I'm planning on devoting a lot more time to writing stuff other than blog posts and reviews, because I miss the other, more demanding, things.

And to think I began this post intending to just say, "Sorry for the light blogging -- been busy, in case you didn't figure it out!" If I'd had time to write a shorter blog post....

05 May 2008


Ellen Kushner and Tempest Bradford both let me know that not only is the Interstitial Arts Foundation holding an auction of jewelry based on stories from Interfictions, but one of the pieces of jewelry is, in fact, based on my story "A Map of the Everywhere": "A Map of the Everywhere -- Boxcar Diner" by Sarah Evans.

I've tried to write something eloquent and thoughtful about how pleased I am anyone would find inspiration in something I'd written ... but basically all I want to say is: Wow! That's so cool!

In other cool news, Mumpsimus fave Chris Barzak has been nominated for the NewNowNext Awards from Logo, which is, apparently, a TV station (I don't have a TV). Chris is nominated in the "Brink of Fame: Author" category, which apparently means he's on the verge of becoming a contestant on a Bravo show. Or something. I don't know. But what I do know is you can go vote for him! Don't let Barzak Day in the Blogosphere have been for nothing, folks! Vote early, vote often! Then go bid on Sarah Evans's bracelet! Then vote again for Chris! Then bid again! Get into a feedback loop, friends! All the cool kids are doing it! Wheeee!