29 June 2010

Difficult Dhalgren

The Millions has a fun series going -- short posts about "difficult books".  "Difficult" is, of course, a relative term, and I could spend the entire afternoon analyzing it, but I won't, because I'd rather celebrate Garth Risk Hallberg writing about Samuel Delany's Dhalgren.

The post is one of advocacy more than analysis; it's Hallberg making the case to read the book, to give it a shot.  He's one of the better literary critics I know of, so I hope he'll return to Dhalgren at more length.

I have no problem with Dhalgren being labeled "difficult" -- I've talked to lots of people about it over the years, and most of us who came to love the book got to that point from a moment of difficulty, both difficulty with the book and, to broaden the implications of the word, difficulty with things outside the book.  Indeed, it's one of those novels that seems to benefit from being read at certain times: difficult times.  I know multiple people who couldn't really get into it until they were at a moment of transition in their lives, a moment when they felt between worlds, a bit lost, maybe drifting.  In such moments, Dhalgren is no longer itself difficult -- it is necessary, both consoling and challenging.

My masters thesis was called The Road to Dhalgren, and the last chapter is a fragmentary and very much incomplete bit of musing on connections between Dhalgren and the book Delany was writing along with it, HoggHogg is a truly difficult book, in just about every sense of the word I can think of.  I've published various pieces of The Road to Dhalgren over the years, but have not published the last chapter because it feels more like an outline to me than a finished piece of writing, but below the cut I'll past a section from it about the two books, since this section addresses some of what Hallberg says...

Rambo: Pope of the Church of the Holy Gun

When one of my favorites blogs, The House Next Door, began the Summer of '85 series of posts and asked for submissions, I decided to give it a try.  I looked up a list of movies that had come out that summer to see if any were ones I could write about, and lo and behold, many were major films of my childhood.  (One, Pumping Iron 2, was directed by George Butler, who lives a couple towns over from me and once took my father hunting with Arnold Schwartzenegger, or so my father claimed.)

Though I could have chosen many of the summer of '85's films to write about, one was so obvious I couldn't ignore it -- Rambo: First Blood Part II. I emailed House editor Keith Uhlich, and he said go for it.

I thought I might write 800 words or so. It got a bit longer than that. Despite the current length, the essay feels bare bones to me -- there's a lot more to say about Reagan and Rambo, about gender and masculinity, and about all four Rambo films together, because they're each quite different (First Blood is I think unquestionably the best film in terms of what most reasonable people think of as quality, and it remains utterly heartbreaking for me every time I watch it, but parts II and III are much more enjoyable, since they're closer to being superhero epics. The recent fourth part, just called Rambo, I've only watched once so far, but it didn't really do much for me -- Rambo beyond the 1980s just seems ... sad. Son of Rambow accomplished more.)

It's a thrill to see my byline on a site I read all the time and respect immensely, and I'm particularly pleased that I could appear there with this essay, which for obvious reasons for anybody who reads it means a lot to me -- it's the most personal thing I've published since the first Strange Horizons column I wrote after my father's death, a column that is also about my father and film, and mentions Rambo.


25 June 2010

Friday Fun Fact


The original novel of First Blood by David Morrell -- the book that gave us the character of John Rambo -- is dedicated to Philip Klass and William Tenn, author of, among other things, "The Liberation of Earth".

Lone Wolf Schaller

Eric Schaller continues his guest blogging duties at the Clarion Blog, now contributing a fascinating essay on the myth of the lone scientist.  Adding to the fun, he includes a wonderful cover from a vintage paperback.

23 June 2010

20 Under 40 and the Fantastic

With one post, Larry Nolen simultaneously offers a thoughtful and well-informed response to folks who got all "wwaaaahhrrr!  waaaahhhhrrr!  genre good!  waaahhhhrrrr!" about the New Yorker's "20 Under 40" promotional list (whereas I just offered snark) and he proves what we already knew -- that he was the perfect successor as Best American Fantasy series editor, because his perspective is exactly the one we wanted for the book when we created the series (and he's a much faster reader than I am, which will make the work perhaps a bit less arduous for him than it was for me).  It's a post well worth reading -- one of the things being inundated with piles of lit mags does is show you the extraordinary variety of writing out there, both in terms of content and form.

Now if I can just get him to stop calling it "mimetic fiction", I'll have achieved all of my goals for world domination, bwahahahahahahahaaaa!

Update: The link for "20 Under 40" above goes to interviews with the 20.  Here are some questions and responses:

Chris Adrian:
Who are your favorite writers over forty?
Ursula K. Le Guin and Marilynne Robinson, John Crowley and Padgett Powell.


What was the inspiration for the piece included in the “20 Under 40” series?
Kate Bernheimer asked me to contribute a piece to her new anthology of fairy tales, “My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me,” and I was excited to have a chance to revisit a story that disturbs me: Goethe’s “The Erlking.”

What are you working on now?
A story about a haunted house.


What was the inspiration for the piece included in the “20 Under 40” series?
[...]I wanted to try a sort of fantastical-historical story—Hitchcock meets the swamp.

What are you working on now?
New stories and a novel about a whacked-out imaginary town during the Dust Bowl drought.

Who are your favorite writers over forty?
Just a very few on a long list would be George Saunders, Kelly Link, Joy Williams, Ben Marcus, Jim Shepard, and whole cemeteries of the well-over-forty deceased ones.

22 June 2010

Novels and Alternatives

Yesterday, I read a review by Scott Byran Wilson of Steven Moore's The Novel: An Alternative History in the new print issue of Rain Taxi, the first time I'd heard of the book, and then today via Scott Esposito discovered this thorough review-essay of the book by Steve Donoghue. Wilson's review was all praise, Donoghue's mostly the opposite. I suspect I'd fall somewhere between them, since I am sympathetic to keeping the definition of "novel" broad and encouraging complexity, but Moore's tone in many of the excerpts both in the Wilson review and the Donoghue is, if it's representative, one I know I'd find tiresome.

Donoghue's essay is well worth reading because it is a thorough attack on certain rhetorical stances common to critics who want to praise "difficult" or "experimental" writing (the terms are often mushy), stances that buy into a terrible polarity and so end up as smug and blinkered as what they set themselves against -- to be for something, these critics must be against whatever is different from what they are for, and often from a position where they attempt, whether admittedly or not, to give moral meaning to their preferences, making their preference a superior one to those of people who prefer other sorts of things. Many times, this is in response to ignorant and impatient cries of "Unreadable!" and "Elitist!" by people who prefer conventional fiction and who, in their own sense of superiority (which may just be another sort of defensiveness), state or imply that people who like less conventional fiction don't actually enjoy it.  An individual response gets inflated to a universal one: If I don't like this, nobody can -- and if they say they do, they must be lying! Both sides play this arrogant game.

Steve Donoghue does a good job for a while of not indulging in the game, but he can't help himself later in the essay, and the sound of grinding axes unfortunately begins to marr the prose. Nonetheless, the essay is thorough and valuable for many of the points it raises.

I hope Moore's book continues to provoke such posts and ripostes, because the discussion could be valuable. It would be especially helpful for more critics to follow up on a passage in Wilson's Rain Taxi review, that Moore shows "that even aspects of fiction that feel fresh to us now are evident in the earliest stories." In my reading of older literatures, this has been the greatest revelation, and one that deserves to be brought to more readers' attention.

21 June 2010

Reality Narrative Death Point

My latest Strange Horizons column has just been posted, and it's a sort of meditation on four books: Reality Hunger by David Shields, Narrative Power edited by L. Timmel Duchamp, Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor, and Vanishing Point by Ander Monson.

All four books are well worth reading, thinking about, arguing with. I especially hope that in the wake of Paul Di Filippo's review of Who Fears Death in the B&N Review that the column will offer an alternative way of evaluating the novel. For the way Di Filippo read the book, I think his assessment is valid, but he read it in the most narrow and silly way possible, the way someone who's only ever read science fiction would read. And I know he hasn't only read science fiction, so I'm perplexed at the assumptions he applies. I agree with his desire for fewer savior of the world/universe/everything characters, and in fact once wrote another SH column about it, but I think there's abundant evidence in the text that Okorafor is a smart writer who is as aware of this paradigm as anybody else, and is both using and critiquing it in complex, multi-layered ways, just as she is simultaneously using and critiquing other tropes, tendencies, templates -- not all of them from SF -- throughout the novel.

18 June 2010

Saramago

I had just finished reading this note about the New Yorker's 20 Under 40 List with its prejudice toward youthful fictioneers when I headed to the NY Times website to read the day's headlines and discovered Jose Saramago has died at age 87. I nearly screamed out, "Too young! Too young!"

It's been a few years since I last read Saramago, simply because other things kept grabbing my reading time, but I will forever be grateful to the Nobel Prize committee for bringing him to the world's attention, because I doubt I would have encountered his work otherwise. I read Blindness soon after it was released in the U.S. to see if the latest Nobel Prize winner was my sort of writer, and it was a shattering experience. Because I came to it with only basic expectations and knew little about it, I was in just the right frame of mind to be shocked and awakened by its visceral power. No other book had ever so powerfully made the fragility of human civilization so clear.

I went back and found everything else I could get my hands on by him. (My copy of Baltasar and Blimunda was discarded by the New Hampshire State Prison, and I almost brought it back to the prison and said, "No, you need this. Keep it.") The History of the Siege of Lisbon, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, The Stone Raft, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, All the Names, The Cave -- I devoured these books, one after another, their voices melding in my head over the course of a year or two of hungry reading. I have few memories of the books individually, but ghostly memories of their voices and characters, and that seems appropriate to them, so filled with what is otherworldly, so beautiful in their terrors and aching in their loves.

And so I imagine Faulkner and Kafka sitting together at a wobbly table in a café in an unnamed city built with thousand-year-old stones, drinking something locally distilled, a little tipsy and loquacious, twilight setting in, and so they help each other stand up and discover themselves skipping down the street and humming a tune and giggling until they get to an alley and they realize it's dark and time to go home, and melancholy sets in, and they stare up at the sky in silence for a moment and they see the stars through industrial haze, and there's a new one up there, shimmering, and at the same time, without even realizing it, without knowing why, the two men whisper a word whose meaning they don't understand, Saramago, and then walk home, slowly, in opposite directions through the endless darkness of night.

17 June 2010

Essential SF Collections

I love SF Signal's Mind Meld features, and they've just posted one that's particularly wonderful: "What Single-Author Short Fiction Collections Should Be in Every Fan's Library? (Part 1)". They limited everyone to only ten choices each, which of course is impossible, but it forces the minds melded to focus their perspective, and in the best cases to make lists that are something more than just a collection of books they happen to like. Note Jeff VanderMeer's list, for instance, which for me, though I actually find them all pretty agreeable, is the most interesting one there.

Speaking of Mr. VanderMeer and single-author collections, I just received an advance copy of his own new collection, The Third Bear. It's a really fascinating collection of stories about big hairy men. Oh wait, no, that's something else... Actually, it's a collection of linked stories that are basically a Goldilocks/Rambo mashup. Or no, that was another thing I was reading... I know I know I know -- it's stories about the difficulties faced by National Park Rangers during the Bush administration, and what happened when Werner Herzog went to a circus, and fantastic tales of lovely maidens saving hapless knights stuck in trees, and lots of stories about unicorns learning to live in peace and harmony with vampire meerkats, and a fine group of vignettes about the happy-go-lucky lives of capybaras, and--

I think I need to look at the book again...

Anyway, it's an essential collection because it's by Jeff VanderMeer and it's attractively designed, affordably priced, and will cure most of your weird medical conditions for the duration of the time you're reading it. Thus, if you want to live forever, never stop reading The Third Bear. And buy copies for everyone you love and insist they do the same.

15 June 2010

California Dreamin'


Because director Cristian Nemescu was killed when a speeding Porsche smashed into a taxi he and sound designer Andrei Toncu were riding in, California Dreamin' is not quite a finished film, but it is so rich with incident and detail that you would never know this were the case if credits at the beginning didn't state it.  It's possible Nemescu would have shortened the film a bit, but who knows.  As it stands, while there are occasional moments that feel like they could be more efficiently paced or connected more closely to the whole, none of these moments detract from the powerful experience of living in the world of these characters.

Some reviewers have referred to the film as a satire, and that may be true, but it didn't have the sizzle and bite of a satire to me.  The characters are sometimes comic, but it's a lived-in comedy, complex rather than sharply focused, like the perpetually-rumpled mayor in the film, hapless with good intentions, unable to get his tie and shirt to agree on much of anything, never mind his town. 

The closest thing to a caricature is Armand Assante's Captain Jones, one of those career military men whose entire body seems designed to support his crewcut.  Assante knows how to use his eyes, though, to convey far more than words from his mouth ever do.  Liviu Marghidan's camera catches extraordinary moments of Jones trying to adapt to the situation he's been forced into -- a simple transportation of radar equipment has been made impossible by a small-town railroad station manager named Doiaru (Razvan Vasilescu), who has enough frustrations and bitterness to last several lifetimes and enough influence in town to inflict all his resentments on the entire community.  California Dreamin' is full of pairings, and Jones and Doiaru are one of the most compelling -- men who spend much energy each day consolidating and maintaining their authority, channeling the storms of their lives into barked orders and barely-restrained violence: men of sucked-in bluster, blind to the ways they weaken their own best efforts, a tin soldier and a thug.  And yet they are more than that, too -- Nemescu had an uncanny eye for details of humanity, and so Jones and Doiaru have scenes of awkward communication together, moments that can not last but, in their awkwardness, are far more humane than any satire would allow.  They are men who have shaped their lives, though not had a lot of freedom to determine that shape.  They have made, and continue to make through the film, choices that ruin all their best chances, but it's a sign of Nemescu's extraordinary talent that we learn to sympathize, at least briefly, with those choices, even though we can see the ruin ahead.

California Dreamin' is more than just a story of cultural miscommunication, though it is certainly that, and its last half hour is one of the most complex and undidactic representations of such miscommunication that I've encountered in a film.  Doiaru's daughter, Monica (Maria Dinulescu), is popular and a bit boy-crazy, but more than anything she is unsatisfied by life in a small town and dreams of being somewhere else, the daughter of someone else, free.  She and Captain Jones's next in command, Sergeant McLaren (Jamie Elman) begin what both know will be a brief affair, and here, too, the complexity of the story is apparent -- at first, we are sure Sgt. McLaren is too smart, too disciplined to get involved with a 17-year-old girl who doesn't speak English in a town he will be leaving at any moment.  We see the other soldiers hooking up with women from town, and it's a little sad, a little embarrassing, more than a little exploitative, and we can even understand that Monica might think there's nothing to be lost by entangling herself with an American soldier, but McLaren seems like the stereotypical military golden boy: well educated, a girlfriend back home who he talks to on the phone, sensible, concerned for diplomacy...  We watch as Monica convinces him to dance at a party and we tell ourselves he's just being nice, flattering a young girl who's never gotten to hang out with Americans before.  But then Monica enlists the help of the only person she knows who speaks English, a boy who is, in fact, hopelessly in love with her, but who, until she suddenly needs him, she hardly notices except to occasionally insult.  And he doesn't translate Sgt. McLaren's words when the soldier tries to say to Monica, "I want to kiss you," but it doesn't matter -- what will be, will be.

There will come later moments of awkwardness, later moments when language fails, when electricity fails, when old bombs suddenly explode and water pipes burst through manhole covers with late-night orgasmic glee.  Through it all, Nemescu's objective, though almost Romantic, approach pays off in more complex emotional force than would be possible were the story more schematic, the characters pushed closer to doom.  The camera swishes and swoons, peers, glimpses, jerks -- like a home video or a low-budget documentary, offhand and patient, incapable of asserting Import or Meaning, just there, like the characters themselves.

There is doom, though, and clear blame for it.  Jones and Doiaru are the men they are, demolition derby drivers destined to collide.  Machismo wreaks havoc, whatever the address, whatever the language.  The penultimate scene is a masterpiece, with the soldiers, ignorant and blissful, pulling away from a mess they cannot see, charmed by fireworks: the gorgeous, fleeting residue of violent explosions.

It's not the end, though, for again Nemescu (and his co-screenwriters -- Catherine Linstrum and Tudor Voican) knows that grace notes are the key to a certain power in music. The final scene is almost Pinteresque in the vivid implications hidden behind the banal non-conversation. What is true of the entire movie is doubly true of this scene: the writing is subtle, the acting rich, the filming restrained.

In 2006, a recklessly-driven Porsche robbed the world not only of two young men and a taxi driver, but of someone who probably could have had a distinguished, extraordinary career as a filmmaker. Nemescu did not die without making a mark on the world, though. California Dreamin' is a better film than many directors make over the course of entire careers, with much to show us about power and arrogance and communication, about human foibles and human desires. It's a movie to live in for a while, a movie that lets us feel our way back to our own lives, enriched.

A New Clare Dudman Novel is Now in the Wild!


Clare Dudman's new novel, A Place of Meadows and Tall Trees, has just been released in the UK.  (It's currently selling for just under US$10 with free shipping via the Book Depository, so even those of us who are stuck out here in the colonies can get it.)

I wrote about Clare's 98 Reasons for Being back in 2005, and our fiction has shared space in a couple of anthologies since then.  Both of her previous novels have stayed with me long after reading them, and my assessment of them has only grown more positive with time, since I remember details and images from them far more vividly than from many other books I have read since.  

I am terribly excited for the new novel, which not only promises the wonderful Dudman prose, but happens to be one sort of story I am particularly attracted to: travelers adjusting to all the unexpected hardships of a world new and alien to them.  There's a 3-minute YouTube video introducing the book, and it had me thinking of all sorts of things, from Uttermost Part of the Earth to In Patagonia to Natives and Exotics (another novel that has stuck with me far more than I expected it to) and on and on...

12 June 2010

Crackpot Saturday: Common Sense, Reality, and Terminal Fools

CNN has a report on a study of 78 families where lesbian parents raised children over more than 24 years, with the results being that those children's scores on a standard test of behavior and psychological health are better than the average for children in "nonlesbian families".

Wanting to offer a skeptic's view as well as that of researchers, CNN get a few quotes from Wendy Wright, whom they identify as "president of the Concerned Women for America, a group that supports biblical values" (presumably they don't pick and choose the "biblical values" they support, since that would be nothing more than using your favorite Bible quotes to support what you'd believe anyway, with or without the Bible, so they're probably similar to A.J. Jacobs, except they actually believe it all).

It's good journalism to have scientific studies commented on by crackpots.  Very fair and balanced, that.

CNN notes that "Funding for the research came from several lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender advocacy groups, such as the Gill Foundation and the Lesbian Health Fund from the Gay Lesbian Medical Association."  Wright pounces:
"That proves the prejudice and bias of the study," she said. "This study was clearly designed to come out with one outcome -- to attempt to sway people that children are not detrimentally affected in a homosexual household."
 Well, no.  I'm all for noting where funding comes from and looking closely at research to see if it's more designed to please funders than contribute scholarship.  But funding itself does not prove prejudice or bias.  Even if we went with the worst case scenario, though, and posited that the funders deeply influenced the study, that doesn't necessarily lead to the crackpot's conclusion.  It's entirely possible that the funders of this research really did want to know whether there was evidence that children of gay parents struggle and suffer more.  After all, if you grow up in a family that is considered by many people to be an abomination against the Flying Spaghetti Monster or some other entity, well, there might be some bad psychological side-effects that go along with that and need to be dealt with.  (I don't mean to slander the Flying Spaghetti Monster.  She told me last night that she's all for lesbians and their families.)  Lots of families face various obstacles to happiness, but that's not a reason for considering those families illegitimate and evil.  The funding organizations might want to find ways to alleviate some of the specific challenges that not-entirely-hetero families face, and to do that they'd first need to identify the challenges.

Later, we hear again from the crackpot (which is not, I know, an objective term; I do not desire to use objective terms for crackpots. William S. Burroughs once said, "Do not offer sympathy to the mentally ill. Tell them firmly, 'I am not paid to listen to this drivel. You are a terminal fool.'"  I might amend that slightly to "Do not listen to crazy anti-intellectual non-scientist ideologues" rather than "Do not offer sympathy to the mentally ill," because I think Burroughs's choice of the word "sympathy" is unfortunate there, and I am happy to offer sympathy to the mentally ill; I just don't want to base my perception of the world on their judgments):
Wright questioned the objectivity of Gartrell's research, saying the author can "cherry pick people who are involved and the info they release."

"In essence, this study claims to purport that children do better when raised by lesbians," she said. 
Well, again, no.  I know that Biblical values people need to believe in essences, and they and I can probably agree to disagree on that one, but what's happening here is what often happens when people try to sum up somewhat complex and even perhaps a little bit nuanced studies into soundbites -- 78 people who were studied for 24 years is not exactly cherry picking, but it is definitely a small sample of the many lesbian parents out there.  (This does not, in and of itself, mean it's an unrepresentative sample, however.  To make that judgment would require way more research than I'm willing to do right now.)

Notice how the researchers themselves describe the "lessons" of the study:
The children "didn't arrive by accident," [Dr. Nanette Gartrell, the author of the study] said. "The mothers were older... they were waiting for an opportunity to have children and age brings maturity and better parenting."

This also could have occurred because "growing up in households with less power assertion and more parental involvement has been shown to be associated with healthier psychological adjustment," Gartrell wrote in the study.
This is rather different from "Lesbians make better parents!  Kill all men!" (I know I know I know -- the crackpot didn't portray the study as concluding, "Kill all men!", but in essence it's what she claims the study claims to purport.)

Continuing:
Studies have shown that children thrive having both a mother and a father, Wright said. 
Well, okay.   Citing some of those studies would be helpful, but I'll go with the Biblical value of having faith, and I'll even be generous and say that what Wright probably meant was children thrive having a mother and father who live together and are happily married and participate in their children's lives.  Sure.  That makes sense.  Children thriving in such a situation does not, though, mean that children in other situations cannot also thrive.  People who eat spinach and broccoli a lot also probably thrive, especially in comparison to people who live on Swedish Fish.  This does not mean people who eat apples and tofu do not thrive, especially in comparison to people who live on Swedish Fish.

The fair and balanced reporter of CNN (Madison Park, who I'm assuming is an individual, though may, with such a name, be a corporate entity, something with trees and benches and plenty of targeted advertising) ends the article by giving the crackpot the final words:
"You have to be a little suspicious of any study that says children being raised by same-sex couples do better or have superior outcomes to children raised with a mother and father," she said. "It just defies common sense and reality."
Well, no.  And, by the way, Madison Park, this is not good journalism -- this is hooey.  Endings matter.  Endings create emphasis.  They are a method of implication.  The implication here is that the research is nonsensical and unreal.

The crackpot doesn't even get the basics of the research right.  It's not a "study that says children being raised by same-sex couples do better or have superior outcomes to children raised with a mother and father" but rather a study that compares the responses to a basic measurement by the children of 78 lesbian couples over 24 years to the responses of what is probably a much larger general sample of "children of nonlesbian families".

Common sense and reality can be different things.  It is, for instance, common sense that the sun moves around the Earth.  This is not, however, reality.

The reality of the study is that the children of 78 families raised over 24 years scored, on the whole, better than the average on a basic and common measurement of psychological health and adjustment.  The reality of the study suggests that good parenting is less a matter of the parents' sex than a matter of how prepared they were to be parents and how involved they are in their children's lives.

If that's not at least somewhere in the vicinity of your common sense, then, well, you are a terminal fool.

06 June 2010

David Markson (1927-2010)

David Markson has died.

When I was in my senior year at the University of New Hampshire, having just transferred there from New York University, the library was under a massive renovation that caused most of the books to be locked in storage and only a tiny percentage to be on temporary shelves in a little building at the far end of campus.  At the time, this seemed to me a perfect metaphor for my life and aspirations.  (I was fond, then, of quoting a line from Harry Kondoleon's play Zero Positive: "I used to have desires, dreams, the usual things, they got so banged up and hard to look at I took them out one afternoon and shot them.")  One day, I was looking at the few shelves of contemporary U.S. writers, and there was book called Reader's Block.  I liked the title.  I flipped through the pages.  "What is this?" I thought.
Protagonist living near a disused cemetery, perhaps?

A sense somehow of total retreat?  Abandonment?

Albert Camus' father was killed in the Battle of the Marne when Camus was only months old.  His mother was an illiterate charwoman.

Once, at dinner, with great delicacy Brahms told Tchaikovsky that he did not approve of his work.
With equal delicacy Tchaikovsky told Brahms that he did not approve of his.
I flipped pages...
Tacitus was an anti-Semite.

How would the woman have lost her leg?

Does Reader remember with any certainty which leg it was?

Was Santorin also the origin of the Atlantis myth?

In Walter Scott's The Antiquary, there are two Tuesdays in one week.
And the sun once sets in the east.

Our Ground Time Here Will Be Brief.

The name of the slough was Despond.

Blake was buried in an unmarked pauper's grave.

Kavitavali.

For six years, in his twenties, Edward Elgar conducted a band in a lunatic asylum.
I was entranced.  From an early age, I've loved random facts about artists.  I've only read a few biographies cover-to-cover, but it's a rare month that I'm not reading around in some biography or another of a writer, painter, musician, filmmaker, etc.  (The habit began when I was young and thought writers' lives would contain the Secret Secret of Writing, and if I just learned enough about the writers, I'd learn how to write.)  I imagined David Markson, the writer of Reader's Block, was only a few years older than me, probably the product of a "good education", and thus crammed full of random facts and factoids.

I checked the book out of the library and my memory is that I kept having to renew it, because I just couldn't let it away from me.  The book bothered me in the best sense of that word -- I couldn't stop reading and rereading it, but at the same time I couldn't bring myself to admit how great it was, what a hold it had on me.  I kept telling myself the technique was too easy, that it wasn't any way to write a novel, that it was a trick, a gimmick, not Serious Art.  And I was all about Serious Art in those years.

I was too young and inexperienced both as a reader and a writer to really know how extraordinary Reader's Block is as a book, and I was too invested in the idea of Serious Art as hard work to recognize that the effort to create or to understand a piece of art isn't what matters, and it certainly doesn't guarantee wisdom, beauty, or any of the other high-falutin' concepts devotees of Serious Art so venerate.  But I'm a New Englander, and the Protestant Work Ethic is at the core of our being, and anything lacking clear evidence of sweat and toil is suspect (it may be the Protestant Work Ethic, but we're Puritans at heart.  I live in the town where Nathaniel Hawthorne died.)

I was also too young and inexperienced to trust my response to Reader's Block, a book that mesmerized and obsessed me.  I didn't know then what skill it takes to make the unrandom seem random while slowly unfurling its structure and shape.  I let my feeling that the form was too light blind me to the fact that this book spoke to me in a way few ever have, and that it contained extraordinary wisdom -- wisdom I needed, wisdom I benefitted from. 

It was too bad Markson hadn't yet written This is Not a Novel, one of my favorites of his works.  It begins:
Writer is pretty much tempted to quit writing.

Writer is weary unto death of making up stories.
That was me in my senior year of college, burnt out from three years of working hard to try to become a Great Playwright.  Reader's Block so captivated me at the time because it spoke directly to all the paradoxes and discontents that come to someone who cares about reading and writing.  Or so it seems to me.  Perhaps it's just that the book shares some of my neuroses.  Perhaps the book created some of my neuroses...

A few years after my year at UNH, more experienced and more content, I came upon Markson's novel Wittgenstein's Mistress.  I was intrigued by the description on the back: "Wittgenstein's Mistress is a novel unlike anything David Markson -- or anyone else -- has ever written before.  It is the story of a woman who is convinced -- and, astonishingly, will ultimately convince the reader as well -- that she is the only person left on earth.  Presumably, she is mad."

Again, I couldn't stop reading it.  But it was a different experience from Reader's Block.  It does what I so enjoy in fiction: delves deeply into a representation of consciousness.  It's full of references to writers and artists, but it's a different sort of technique from Reader's Block and the novels that followed -- less collage than stream of consciousness.  It's funny and strange, and then at the end it's emotionally devastating.

And that's the genius of Markson -- indeed, the uniqueness of Markson.  The effect of his novels from Wittgenstein's Mistress on is slyly, brilliantly accumulative.  The text plants thousands of tiny boobytraps in your brain, none of them particularly powerful on their own, and then in the last pages, they all go off.

I would probably not be lying if I said Wittgenstein's Mistress contains the single most powerful last line of any novel I've read.

I would probably not be lying if I said that This is Not a Novel contains the single most powerful surprise sentence in a novel I've ever read.

There are people to whom I have almost said, "If you die without reading Wittgenstein's Mistress, you will have lived a wasted life."  Hyperbole, of course, but the impulse was an honest one.

David Markson's last novel was called The Last Novel.

The last chapter of David Markson's novel Springer's Progress consists of two words:
Being continued.

04 June 2010

Periodic Table of Women in SF Meme

It's Friday -- time for a fun internet game!

By now you might have heard of the marvelous Periodic Table of Women in SF [that's science fiction/fantasy, not San Francisco, and you really should watch the video at the bottom of the post that that link brings you to].  A new meme has broken out about it, one I learned about from Cheryl Morgan:
Bold the women by whom you own books (I’m assuming this includes books or magazines edited by people who are not fiction writers).
Italicize those by whom you’ve read something (short stories count)
*Star those you don’t recognize [note: I've encountered so many names in my life, I always feel like I recognize most.  The ones I've starred are ones that, if somebody mentioned them in conversation, would cause a profoundly vague expression to come over my face.  And I'm doing this quickly, so I hope I don't star anybody who I not only recognize, but have spent actual time with...]

And below the jump, you'll find my answers...

03 June 2010

Eric Schaller on Science's Bleeding Edges

The Clarion Blog has an ongoing feature, Spec Tech, where real, live scientist people write about science in a way that might inspire aspiring science fiction writers. 

This week, Eric Schaller, who has written here at The Mumpsimus about Stanislaw Lem, contributes a post about zombies the "bleeding edge" of science.  Bloody good stuff!

Feel the Envy!

20 Young Writers Earn the Envy of Many Others

Yes, New York Times Headline Writer, my envy is vast!  It contains multitudes!  Well, not quite multitudes.  More like twenty little sharp needles of bitter, concentrated envy.   Why why why New Yorker elitists didn't you pick ME?!?  I coulda been a contender!   You know I'm out here, because I write to you every week to tell you how wrong you were to never publish a story by David Eddings!

Clearly, the only thing your editors appreciate are boring realistic stories about middle-aged professors who have affairs.  Like the stories by Daniel Alarcón and Chris Adrian in Best American Fantasy.  And Sarah Shun-lien Bynum's Madeleine Is Sleeping.  And the title story of Wells Towers's Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned.  And all of Karen Russell's stories, certainly.  Dirty realists!  Nasty rotten winning smug literary brats!  Baaaaaaah!  (Russell has even been photographed at that Communistic dirty realist gathering, the KGB Fantastic Fiction series!)

Sure, the New Yorker editors say they just want to offer some names of writers they think show a lot of promise for the future, but I know what their real purpose is.  It's to torment me!  That's why they keep sending me their magazine every week!  To show me how much they disdain me!

At least the New York Times headline writer knows the truth, even if she/he didn't mention me by name.  I know that headline writer was thinking of me.  They always are.  It's why I read the Times every morning -- to see what they're saying about me today...

02 June 2010

In Which I Exhort You to Read Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor


I just finished writing a long review for Rain Taxi of Nnedi Okorafor's Who Fears Death, and it's one of those rare books that I just want to recommend to everybody.  It's going to the top of my list of really good science fiction/fantasy novels that can be safely given to people who think they don't like SF, but it's also a book that can be appreciated both by people who merely want to read an engaging story and people who want more than just a good story. 

I had so much fun writing a review of Who Fears Death because it is, among other things, very much a book about textuality and storytelling -- about how the stories we tell, the words we use, the structures and vantage points we select, affect our perception of the world.  I kept thinking of some of M. John Harrison's books and the way they throw our readerly expectations and habits back in our face.  Some of the pleasure, though, in reading Harrison is masochistic ("Yes, master, flog me again for my desire for fantasy!"), but the effect of Who Fears Death is very different, despite the many horrific events experienced or observed by the characters, because its view of fantasy is more generous -- the world is, it seems to say, made up of stories.  They're how we understand things.  So be careful in the stories you tell and the stories you listen to, but don't give up on myth and legend and fantasy.  (In that, it's more Barry Lopez than M. John Harrison, really.)

Though the review I just sent off is 1,500 words, I felt like I could have gone on at twice that length, and I fear what I wrote is too general.  I didn't even find a way to write about the epigraph from Patrice Lumumba that opens the book ("Dear friends, are you afraid of death?") -- one of the fascinating things about the novel is how it uses fantasy in a kind of dialogic approach to reality, thus illuminating both.  For instance, part of the story uses a quest structure with echoes of Lord of the Rings (including a giant eye of evil) to critique both the good/evil dichotomy of so much epic fantasy and the good/evil thinking that fuels massacres and genocide in our own world.  The stories we tell ourselves are not innocent -- they affect how we behave toward each other, and Who Fears Death shows that vividly.  It's also about other types of fantasy -- for instance, the common one that the Harry Potter books so effectively exploited wherein nerdy or awkward folks become the saviors of the universe.  Typically, once they've saved the universe, those characters go on to have great lives in the epilogues of their books.  It doesn't really give too much away to say that Who Fears Death is smarter than that about what heroism and fate can demand, while also recognizing that stories, to be useful, may need to answer some of the ambiguities more common to life than fiction.  Just because there are lots of lies in legends and myths doesn't mean we don't need them or that they don't tell truths about life; we just need to be careful in how and why we choose to keep telling them.

The method of the novel's telling will probably not obsess ordinary readers the way it did me, because I'm always obsessed with the Barthian question, "Who speaks?"   There are a variety of levels of narration in the book, and it seemed to me to be a kind of fictionalized fiction: Onyesonwu, the protagonist, may be the narrator for most of the novel, but her narration is not "realistic", but rather novelistic -- not only is it full of dialogue in a way it probably would not be were it the transcription it is presented as, but both the dialogue and narration are shaped and intentional in a way off-the-cuff storytelling is not.  Everything exists for expository purposes, and there's none of the noise we get in even a very stylized novel like JR, nor the delight in the rhythm and stagi-ness of scripted dialogue that is David Mamet's calling card -- instead, we get fluent, deliberate, written conversation that moves the story along ... just like most novels that aren't posited as told tales give us.  I don't know if this was intentional on Okorafor's part or not, but it doesn't matter, because the effect is marvelous, suggesting multiple levels of distance from the actual (in a diegetic sense) telling of the tale.  What we are reading, then, is a novelized legend that wants to pass itself off as a transcribed autobiography, and this conceit fits wonderfully with so much of what else is in the book.  And then the final chapters add complexity to it all.

Anyway, the novel is wonderful in all sorts of different ways, and I'll be writing more about it, I expect, probably in my next Strange Horizons column, because I happened to read it while I was also reading Timmi Duchamp's fascinating anthology of essays Narrative Power and David Shields's provocative Reality Hunger, and the three books really had an awful lot to say to each other, at least in my mind.  More on all that later, though...