22 June 2008


I'm moving back to New Hampshire at the end of this week, and so I'm going to put things on hold here at The Mumpsimus for a little bit. I'll have a lot more time for reading and writing once I'm settled, though, and so I expect that things will be livelier around here soon enough.

21 June 2008

Best American Fantasy 2008: The Contents

We have now finally settled on the contents for Best American Fantasy 2008 (to be released this fall) and tracked down all the permissions, which means I can now announce the stories that will be included:
"Bufo Rex" by Erik Amundsen (Weird Tales)
"The Ruby Incomparable" by Kage Baker (Wizards)
"The Last and Only" by Peter S. Beagle (Eclipse 1)
"Mario's Three Lives" by Matt Bell (Barrelhouse)
"Interval" by Aimee Bender (Conjunctions)
"Minus, His Heart" by Jedediah Berry (Chicago Review)
"Abroad" by Judy Budnitz (Tin House)
"Chainsaw on Hand" by Deborah Coates (Asimov's)
"The Drowned Life" by Jeffrey Ford (Eclipse 1)
"The Naming of the Islands" by David Hollander (McSweeney's)
"Light" by Kelly Link (Tin House)
"The Revisionist" by Miranda Mellis (Harper's)
"In the Middle of the Woods" by Christian Moody (Cincinnati Review)
"Story with Advice II: Back from the Dead" by Rick Moody (Mississippi Review)
"Ave Maria" by Micaela Morissette (Conjunctions)
"Logorrhea" by Michele Richmond (Logorrhea)
"Memoir of a Deer Woman" by M. Rickert (Fantasy & Science Fiction)
"The Seven Deadly Hotels" by Bruce Holland Rogers (shortshortshort.com)
"How the World Became Quiet: A Post-Human Creation Myth" by Rachel Swirsky (Electric Velocipede)
Thanks to Ann & Jeff VanderMeer for great work on this volume and our previous one. And now our next guest editor, Kevin Brockmeier, is already reading his heart out for volume 3...

18 June 2008

Biological Determinism, Essentialism, and You

Cheryl noted that some new studies are best read in conjunction with Ekaterina Sedia's recent analysis of some older, similar studies. Now a post by Mark Liberman at Language Log takes a look at not only the stats in the new studies, but the way those studies have been reported:
If we do the same calculations for the means and standard deviations reported for the other categories, we get predictions that might have been presented as follows:

Rightward hemispheric asymmetry was found in the brains of 14 of 25 heterosexual males and 11 of 20 homosexual females, but in only 13 of 25 heterosexual females and 10 of 20 homosexual males.

How much media play do you think the study would have gotten, if the results had been spun like that?

Or to put it another way, how many readers of the media descriptions do you think understood the story in those terms?
I've just begun reading Deceptive Distinctions: Sex, Gender, and the Social Order by Cynthia Fuchs Epstein, which is a similar critique of essentialism and gives some perspective on the history of these studies. (Also valuable, as I mentioned in the comments to Kathy's article, is Science and Homosexualities, which presents various sides of the debate and history.) I have a natural (essential!) bias against such studies, and very little capability with stats, but I expect that even people who are not so odd and stubborn as I will find the Language Log article fascinating reading.

17 June 2008

Stoner by John Williams

It's all Mr. Waggish's fault.

Since the marvelous book publishing arm of the NY Review of Books reprinted John Williams's little-known novel Stoner, I've noticed mentions of the book here and there, and I had even picked it up a couple of times in bookstores. There was something mysteriously attractive about the cover (part of a Thomas Eakins painting). But I always hesitated because the novel was praised for its realism, and because the central character is an unexceptional professor at the University of Missouri in the first half of the 20th century. (No, the book is not the sort that has a sequel called Pothead. It was published in 1965 and the central character's name is William Stoner.) The people praising the book, I figured, were probably the sorts of people who truly like books about unexceptional professors at midwestern universities. I am not that sort of person.

But then Waggish wrote about it. Mr. Waggish has extraordinarily good taste, is better-read and more intelligent than I, and every book I have sought out because of him has been satisfying (indeed, I owe some of my enthusiasm for Christopher Priest's works to him -- and in a nice bit of overlap, NYRB is bringing out a new edition of Priest's The Inverted World next month with an afterword by John Clute).

So I went out and got a copy of Stoner. And it is, indeed, the most satisfying novel I have read in a long time, a novel that reminds me more of Virginia Woolf than of the realistic academic novels it ostensibly resembles -- regardless of its setting, characters, props, and prose, the experience I had of reading it felt in some ineluctable way like the experience of first reading Mrs. Dalloway or To the Lighthouse.

In the introduction to Stoner, John McGahern quotes an interview with Williams by Brian Wooley. "And literature is written to be entertaining?" Wooley asked. "Absolutely," Williams replied. "My God, to read without joy is stupid."

I'm sure that there are many things about reading, writing, and teaching that Williams and I would have disagreed about had we had the opportunity to discuss them (he died in 1994, the year of my high school graduation), but I love that: "My God, to read without joy is stupid."

And the marvelous thing about Stoner is that it is a joy to read, as compelling a novel as any thriller, I think, though certainly in a different, and far more nourishing, way. That this is true is a small miracle, because it is, after all, a novel about an unexceptional professor in the first half of the twentieth century, and it contains many of the basic elements of the most soporific and trivial novels of its genre: skirmishes amongst the faculty, a bad marriage, successes and failures in the classroom, an affair with a student.

Waggish is right that much of what allows Stoner to work so well is its "unremitting gravity", but there are novels about similar characters, settings, and situations where the unremitting gravity succeeds at nothing other than squashing the petty into the trivial. Williams, though, is a master of applying the gravity in the most effective ways: to the details, to the sentences, to the narrative structure. McGahern in his introduction is correct to note that Williams's portraits of his characters are complex and affecting, and that even the minor characters grow vivid in our imaginations. The contexts of those characters' lives are equally important -- the novel begins with Stoner's childhood life on a farm, moves to his life at the university, and glimpses the world beyond that he is isolated from: the world of wars and commerce. Despite his isolation, the world reaches in at him, dropping death and desperation.

When young, Stoner and his only two friends discuss what they think is the purpose of the university. His friend David Masters says, "Stoner, here, I imagine, sees it as a great repository, like a library or a whorehouse, where men come of their free will and select that which will complete them, where all work together like little bees in a common hive. The True, the Good, the Beautiful...." Then Masters offers his own view:
It is an asylum or -- what do they call them now? -- a rest home, for the infirm, the aged, the discontent, and the otherwise incompetent. Look at the three of us -- we are the University. The stranger would not know that we have so much in common, but we know, don't we. We know well.
He then points out what they each have that makes them fit only for the world of the university. Of Stoner, he says:
Who are you? A simple son of the soil, as you pretend to yourself? Oh, no. You, too, are among the infirm -- you are the dreamer, the madman in a madder world, our own midwestern Don Quixote without his Sancho, gamboling under the blue sky. You're bright enough -- brighter anyhow than our mutual friend. But you have the taint, the old infirmity. You think there's something here to find. Well, in the world you'd learn soon enough. You, too, are cut out for failure; not that you'd fight the world. You'd let it chew you up and spit you out, and you'd lie there wondering what was wrong. Because you'd always expect the world to be something it wasn't, something it had no wish to be. The weevil in the cotton, the worm in the beanstalk, the borer in the corn. You couldn't face them, and you couldn't fight them; because you're too weak, and you're too strong. And you have no place in the world."
Not much later, Masters goes out into the world and gets blown to bits by the Great War. Stoner stays in school and lives, but his life takes few truly happy turns. He marries impulsively and badly, he makes an implacable enemy who soon has power over him until nearly the moment of Stoner's death, he finds his only moments of lustful, sensitive joy with a woman who will have to flee from him to save them both.

Yet Stoner is not the tragic character in the book. If there are tragic characters, they are some of the people around him, particularly his wife and daughter. Stoner's talent is his adaptability, his passionate passivity. He loses much of what he has, but at least, for a while, he has it -- his wife and daughter seem never to have anything, though it's only partially Stoner's fault. More than any person, circumstances and society are to blame, and one of the wonders of the book is that even its most vicious characters seem trapped in their roles, helpless against the forces and systems that shape them into who they are. Everyone is marginalized in one way or another and grasping at whatever edge they can crawl across to make their way toward some imagined center.

Stoner, then, is a novel about power and its damages, about figuring out ways to live when you're not cut out to live in the world.

Except there's more to it than that, and reducing the book to its power dynamics is much too reductive indeed. Because even though this is a novel about a man who limits his life to the asylum of the university, it has an expansiveness to it. Part of this expansiveness, this vastness comes from the narration -- while we are mostly stuck inside Stoner's mind and perceptions, we are not limited to his mind alone. Now and then we see things he could not see, and the narrator breaks into omniscience every few chapters. From the very beginning, we are offered Stoner's life as a whole, a kind of bio blurb that is the first paragraph:
William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910, at the age of nineteen. Eight years later, during the height of World War I, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same University, where he taught until his death in 1956. He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses. When he died his colleagues made a memorial contribution of a medieval manuscript to the University library. This manuscript may still be found in the Rare Books Collection, bearing the inscription: "Presented to the Library of the University of Missouri, in memory of William Stoner, Department of English. By his colleagues."
The rest of the book will add complexity to this portrait, but will never entirely contradict it (though it becomes clear that there are times when Stoner is a relatively popular teacher). The complexity the following pages add is not simply that of details of Stoner's life, but rather a complexity built from attention and lyricism. Our interests are directed, our attention is manipulated. We discover the individual in what is superficially unexceptional. As Stoner's portrait grows fuller, the words used to create that portrait gain poetry. We slow down and zoom in, and therein the magic lies. Here, for instance, is the end of Chapter XI (of XVII), a paragraph that loses something out of context, but which will, I hope, give a glimpse of the beauties herein:
Once, late, after his evening class, he returned to his office and sat at his desk, trying to read. It was winter, and a snow had fallen during the day, so that the out-of-doors was covered with a white softness. The office was overheated; he opened a window beside the desk so that the cool air might come into the close room. He breathed deeply, and let his eyes wander over the white floor of the campus. On an impulse he switched out the light on his desk and sat in the hot darkness of his office; the cold air filled his lungs, and he leaned toward the open window. He heard the silence of the winter night, and it seemed to him that he somehow felt the sounds that were absorbed by the delicate and intricately cellular being of the snow. Nothing moved upon the whiteness; it was a dead scene, which seemed to pull at him, to suck at his consciousness just as it pulled the sound from the air and buried it within a cold white softness. He felt himself pulled outward toward the whiteness, which spread as far as he could see, and which was a part of the darkness from which it glowed, of the clear and cloudless sky without height or depth. For an instant he felt himself go out of the body that sat motionless before the window; and as he felt himself slip away, everything -- the flat whiteness, the trees, the tall columns, the night, the far stars -- seemed incredibly tiny and far away, as if they were dwindling to a nothingness. Then, behind him, a radiator clanked. He moved, and the scene became itself. With a curiously reluctant relief he again snapped on his desk lamp. He gathered a book and a few papers, went out of the office, walked through the darkened corridors, and let himself out of the wide double doors at the back of Jesse Hall. He walked slowly home, aware of each footstep crunching with muffled loudness in the dry snow.
Though Williams has been compared to Willa Cather, and I can certainly see the comparison, here I again think of Woolf, and this time not the novels, but rather one of the most wondrous essays ever written: "The Death of the Moth". The comparison has something to do with the quality of time, the squeezing of an entire universe of living and dying, breathing and seeing, moving and resting and falling and flying -- squeezing an entire universe into a moment of perception.

There is much else to remark on, much else I would like to quote and celebrate within the book, but I'll stop with a final observation: Stoner's specialty is Medieval literature, and his world is one in which the Medieval (though not only that) assumption that physical characteristics are reflections of interior states is a true one. This is most clear with the character of Stoner's nemesis, Hollis Lomax, who is first described as "a man barely over five feet in height, and his body was grotesquely misshapen. A small hump raised his left shoulder to his neck, and his arm hung laxly at his side." Later, Stoner's entire career will be nearly ruined by his trying to hold a student accountable who has become a favorite of Lomax -- a student who has, Lomax himself says, "an unfortunate physical affliction that would have called forth sympathy in a normal human being." Both men are portrayed as physical and ethical cripples (the word occurs multiple times). Every other character of any importance also possesses physical traits that reflect their personalities, and their bodies change when their personalities do (most strikingly in the case of Stoner's daughter). Names of characters, too, are often suggestive, if not specifically allegorical or ironic (Stoner, his daughter Grace, Masters, etc). In the real world of morality, such ideas are at best quaint, at worst genocidal (phrenology, anyone?), but within the let's-pretend world of a novel, the effect is, if not mitigated, at least mixed with the coherence it provides to the book as a whole: the physical world is an extension of the interior world and vice versa; those worlds are also expressed in the world of all that is named. Within this world -- so realistic on its surface, so much a fantasy when probed -- the signifier and signified are alligned and unified.

Unity is one of the themes of the book, the difficult-to-obtain unity of flesh and spirit, mind and heart -- a unity essential to life. Toward the end of his life, Stoner reflects on the passion that has often seemed to elude him:
Beneath the numbness, the indifference, the removal, it was there, intense and steady; it had always been there. ... He had, in odd ways, given it to every moment of his life, and had perhaps given it most fully when he was unaware of his giving. It was a passion neither of the mind nor of the flesh; rather, it was a force that comprehended them both, as if they were but the matter of love, its specific substance. To a woman or to a poem, it said simply: Look! I am alive.

*Or maybe it was just that it's published by NYRB -- I have sometimes bought their books purely because of the packaging. If there were one series of books I could have a complete set of, it would be these. Aside from being tastefully packaged, they are well chosen -- a number of books I've wanted to see back in print have found their way through NYRB. (My edition of J.F. Powers's stories, though, completely fell apart, so I'm a bit skeptical of the bindings of their bigger books, but I've had no trouble with the fewer-than-500-pages ones.)

11 June 2008

Mind Meld!

I love SF Signal's "Mind Melds", where a bunch of people riff on a question. I'm part of the new one, where the question is: Which new or little-known genre writers will be tomorrow's big stars? Why?

I was clearly in a goofy mood when I wrote my answer, but every name mentioned was done so in seriousness.


Things fell into neglect here. Various reasons for that, most having to do with busy-ness, though the silence of the last few days has been caused as much by heat as anything else -- my study here is not air conditioned, and we're having a heat wave, which has made the keys to my laptop actually hot to the touch, so I've been keeping away from the computer. Things are a little bit cooler tonight, though, and so here are a few stray bits of something or other...

First, don't miss the Strange Horizons fund drive. Lots of fun prizes available, and your money supports a worthy cause -- a weekly online magazine that actually pays its writers (though not the staff) and is officially a nonprofit organization. (Don't punish them for publishing me; everybody has their faults.)

Some Strange Horizons readers may remember the Speculative Poetry Symposium I put together a few years back. One of the members of that symposium, Theodora Goss, has just published an interesting book with the ever-interesting Aqueduct Press, Voices from Fairyland: The Fantastical Poems of Mary Coleridge, Charlotte Mew, and Sylvia Townsend Warner. I just got a copy, and though the poetry is generally not to my taste (most 19th century poetry in English isn't), I found the book an interesting read nonetheless, because Dora does a fine job of contextualizing the writers' works. The book ends with a collection of Dora's own poems, and this addition broadens the book's argument -- it's not only an anthology, but a study of influence and inspiration.

And here's another worthy project: Guys Lit Wire--
Guys Lit Wire exists solely to bring literary news and reviews to the attention of teenage boys and the people who care about them. We are more than happy to welcome female readers - but our main goal is to bring the attention of good books to guys who might have missed them. The titles will be new or old and on every subject imaginable. We guarantee new posts every Monday through Friday and have a list of twenty-three individual scheduled contributors plus several additional occasional posters all of whom have different literary likes and dislikes. We hope to provide something for everyone and will strive to accomplish that goal.
This is going to be a hugely valuable tool for not only teenagers, but parents and educators as well.

Meanwhile, yes, we're still working on Best American Fantasy 2. We should have some exciting news about the contents ... soon...

10 June 2008

The Sound and the Fury (April 7th, 1928)

I was surprised that some people left at intermission. After all, it was the final performance of Elevator Repair Service's production of The Sound and the Fury (April 7th, 1928) at New York Theatre Workshop, it was an extended run, and if you'd been exposed to any of the reviews or publicity, you would know that the script of this play was the actual, pretty much complete text of the first section of William Faulkner's novel, with the various characters recited or portrayed by multiple actors. If you want South Pacific, that's playing uptown.

Nonetheless, there was audience attrition. I sometimes forget that bewildering joys and joyful bewilderments are an esoteric taste. But I am deeply grateful to the ever-intrepid Liz G. for having the foresight to get tickets, and the great generosity to offer me one. (I should note here that NYTW has a great program called CheapTix Sundays, where tickets can be bought in advance for only $20. When the average Off-Broadway ticket these days tends to go for at least $55, it's great to have such programs helping to keep audiences at least somewhat diverse.)

The play began with the cast frozen on the set, distant sounds seeping from the radio upstage center, and some basic information about the main characters projected at the top of the stage. Then the first words, projected and then spoken: "Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting."

As anyone familiar with the novel knows, the I is Benjy, the mentally-handicapped "idiot", and April 7th, 1928 is his 33rd birthday. Benjy has no conception of time, and so his memories float through his present reality with little to indicate deep-past or near-past.

It's was difficult at first to make much sense of what was going on on-stage. Before the first words, actually, came clog dancing. Then Benjy's narration. A copy of the book was on stage, and sometimes actors read from it, but often -- particularly with dialogue -- they worked from memory. Sometimes they said their own speech tags, sometimes the speech tags were uttered sotto voce by another actor. The technique soon became mesmerizing, but it was also essential to our understanding who was who -- just because an actor was the black female servant Dilsey at one moment didn't mean that same actor could not soon become the white male Jason.

For all its weirdness, the ERS production was less bewildering on a first encounter than Faulkner's text itself, because the various time shifts were delineated with changes of actors, lighting, and/or sound. This may not have been obvious at first, but once the text started returning to certain scenes, it got much easier to comprehend.

The acting ranged over various styles, sometimes realistic, oftentimes not (at times, the play felt like The Three Stooges Meet Robert Duvall). The cast was extraordinarily versatile and precise, though -- particularly Susie Sokol, who only plays Benjy. She was like a great silent movie comedian who has been transported to the present day: her performance brilliantly physical, transfixing, every gesture and every glance efficient, controlled, and richly communicative. Though Benjy is the narrator of Faulkner's text, Sokol spoke less than most of the other actors, an effect both strangely intimate and unsettlingly distant -- though his thoughts and experiences were presented to us, Benjy himself remained a fascinating cipher.

It's been more than a week now since I saw the show, and it has remained vivid in my mind, a rare example of a play doing what, really, only a play could do -- the book is an entirely different experience, and a movie of the production would be different still (and, unless a brilliant director discovered a form that could extend the production's discoveries into the new medium, a film of the production would be a vastly lesser entity). This is what keeps theatre vital -- not productions that attempt to be sit-coms or movies-of-the-week, but productions that try to exploit the particular experiences that can be created by live actors in front of an audience.

02 June 2008

Bacigalupi in Quarterly Conversation

The summer issue of The Quarterly Conversation is now online, and in addition to all sorts of interesting things, it includes a lengthy review I wrote of Paolo Bacigalupi's Pump Six. It began as a simple, straightforward review, but 3,000 words later it turned into something a bit more than that...
Paolo Bacigalupi's stories echo and build upon the work of writers who came before him, and in some ways they feel like an extension of the better ecological science fiction of the 1970s; the imagined ecocatastrophes of that era lost some of their power through reiteration, and growing interest in genetic engineering and nanotechnology led to many stories of technological triumph over the nonhuman world (and nonhuman worlds). In Bacigalupi's futures, whatever solution technology offers creates its own problems, and technological innovation is often a tool of the rich to shore up their defenses against the huddled masses yearning to breathe.
Readers unfamiliar with Paolo's work can find plenty of samples at his website, and the story I singled out for particular praise, "Yellow Card Man", is still, for the moment, available at the Asimov's website. I also interviewed Paolo back in 2004 (for more recent interviews, see the links here).