It's a poem. It's beautiful. That's enough. We're not factcheck.org; our responsibility is to share the vision. Everything else is...criticism. Spare me.
It's a poem. It's beautiful. That's enough. We're not factcheck.org; our responsibility is to share the vision. Everything else is...criticism. Spare me.
IVE BROTHERS HEAR ME BROTHERS SIGNAL ME
ALONE IN MY NIGHT BROTHERS DO YOU WELL
I AND MINE HOLD IT BACK BROTHERS I AND
MINE SURVIVE BROTHERS HEAR ME SIGNAL ME
DO YOU WELL I AND MINE HOLD IT BACK I
ALONE IN MY NIGHT BROTHERS I AND MINE
SURVIVE BROTHERS DO YOU WELL I ALONE
IN MY NIGHT I HOLD IT BACK I AND MINE
SURVIVE BROTHERS SIGNAL ME IN MY NIGHT
I AND MINE HOLD IT BACK AND WE SURVIVE
--James Merrill, 'God B,' THE CHANGING LIGHT AT SANDOVER
When obtaining any magical result (including failure) always think of several explanations for it. These explanations should contain at least one each of the following types:
- An explanation based on the parameters of the magical system that you have been employing.
- Strict materialism
- Something exceptionally silly.
--Phil Hine, Condensed Chaos
Haven't yet sorted my thoughts on Evgeny Morozov's extremely protracted bludgeoning of Tim O'Reilly. The Metafilter thread is here, and its bog-standard MeFi snark/cynicism is less out of place than usual -- have a look. Bear in mind, though, the Morozov piece is 16,000 words long(!!!!!!!!). The throat-clearing along takes ages.
Lots of folks in my online circles recommend O'Reilly's technoutopian popcrit; fewer bring up Morozov, though Morozov's the deeper (I wouldn't say 'broader') thinker, not to mention an up-and-comer in tech-skeptic criticism. But then, Morozov's worldview is (literally) foreign to the tech-boosterish folks I know. This essay, unsurprisingly from The Baffler, feels like a nonideal entry to a very important conversation that not enough people realize needs to happen.
The only audience that'll read the piece, by the way, is inclined to violently disagree with it; that's a big part of the problem. I'm sickened and worried at the number of 'intelligent' people chiming in (on O'Reilly's Google+ page, for instance) to say nothing more than 'too angry, too lengthy, I couldn't figure out his point so I stopped reading.' Is it really necessary to point out what's wrong with those comments? (Especially when the same folks are happy to *nodnod* along to Eric Raymond's ranting...)
The problems with the piece are clear from the beginning and others are pointing them out, from fast'n'loose facts to undisciplined prose. But its virtues shouldn't be buried deep.
I think this point bears restating, over and over: one of the problems with O'Reilly and folks in his line of work -- the invited-speaker set, the 'disruptive tech' conference set, the TED set, the guys who attach 'Big-' or '-2.0' or '-ification' or especially 'Open-' to arbitrary words and then cash your check -- is that their pop utopianism looks like 'sensible' progressivism spiced with technolibertarianism, or vice versa, but it only succeeds in a market atmosphere that they helped create, through precisely the profitable word games Morozov is decrying. Ultimately, 'Web 2.0' and its rhetorical cousins are about selling gadgets, not feeing the poor; and 'joining the elite' isn't the same as 'changing the world,' even though in joining the elite your own tiny world does in fact change (it has lots more money).
The revolutionary-Internet myth is dangerous for a ton of reasons, all much much older than the Internet, and Morozov's important contribution is to point out that the (they're always) men with a vested interest in promoting that myth shouldn't be taken seriously as neutral analysts. O'Reilly is either a sage or a marketer, but he can't be both. Morozov argues that we should treat him solely as the latter, and see where that gets us.
He just doesn't need 16,000 words to do it. Hey Ev: freelance editor for hire, here!
...because Europe in the immediate aftermath of WWII is harrowing to read about. If this isn't one of the saddest, scariest, deadliest, craziest moments in history then I can't bear to read any more history. The writing is very fine but the subject matter is almost unbearable.
Unfortunately, having started one book I'm having trouble dipping into another, even to lighten the emotional/cognitive load. Ladies and gentlemen, may I present the real stars of this blog, not to mention its head writers: my neuroses. Yep yep.
The miracle year for flicks is 1984, but for genre fiction it's 1981, which brought two volumes of Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, John Crowley's Little, Big, and Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker. Jesus! Imagine being a lover of SF/F and having Wolfe, Crowley, and Hoban crash into your world one after the other.
(1984 wasn't so bad for SF either -- Neuromancer carries the year all by itself, doesn't it.)
Finished John Polkinghorne's Quantum Theory: A Very Short Introduction last night between bouts of dishwashing and playing Letterpress. I recommend it to interested nonscientists, as Polkinghorne makes it all the way through the main text without leaning on mathematical formalism (though he does head for the weeds a couple of times). I doubt it will be of much use to readers with strong math chops.
The point of the book is not to give a solid conceptual grounding in quantum theory. Unlike The Brain (in the same admirable series from Oxford University Press), which really does endeavour to explain the most basic workings of the brain in layman's terms, Polkinghorne's book is split between a history of the evolution of quantum physics, on one hand, and on the other, what's become Polkinghorne's chief professional interest: the epistemological debates that swirl around the field. (The author left the academy to become an Anglican minister, then returned to Oxford to work on science/faith questions.) As a result, you end the book aware of the contours of quantum theory as it stood upon the book's publication, but most of the book's informational payload is historical, while its method is almost impressionistic.
Polkinghorne uses the phrase 'cloudy and fitful' throughout the book to describe the quantum view of the world (vs the crisp mechanism of the Newtonian world), and I got the feeling that, having given up on the possibility of teaching a lay reader anything about the body of quantum theory as such, he was hoping to communicate the inescapable intensity of quantum theory's challenge to more or less everything humans have ever known about the world. Which is hugely interesting in itself, duh, and surely easier for Joe the Local Library Patron to wrap his head around than Hamiltonians and Hilbert spaces, but…
But I tend to think that one of the deepest problems faced by students at any level is being scared away from using the tools they have (by incompetent teachers, peer pressure from assholes, early trauma, selfishness, etc.). The 'cloudy and fitful' nature of the quantum world is scary and beautiful and intriguing, but what the physicist knows (and most students never learn, never feel in their bones) is that millennia-old mathematical tools offer an inroads into the questions opened up by quantum theory. Polkinghorne does his best to generate the abyssal feeling that open questions about the universe can give, but 99% of people will stop there and unconsciously choose not to worry about it, and the most effective weapon against that defense mechanism is sharpened skill. Stating the question is quite different from having the foggiest (cloudiest, most fitful) idea of how to make your way through it. To live with it.
Anyhow, I enjoyed the book, but it feels a bit like the right start to the wrong thing, if that makes any sense.
Up next: Tony Judt's Postwar. Lovely and sad so far. (The Apocryphal Gospels intro book isn't very exciting, and is taking me forever.)
Steven Berlin Johnson comes in for a vicious beating in The (impressively redesigned) New Republic this week. I'm reminded of the deep shock I felt reading Everything Bad Is Good for You in 2006: here was a grown man (who'd written a pop neuroscience book!) arguing, straight-faced, that the length of a linear process (e.g. a list of 'bring token A to container B' steps in a Zelda game) was a measure of something he called 'complexity' – which in his rendering was apparently the same as complication – and the dilettante 'critical' press was falling over itself to praise him. He really did want readers to think that the most important thing about trash like Survivor was that it required both basic strategy from its players and 'emotional intelligence' from its viewers…and that somehow this was connected to the number of scene changes in an episode of The Sopranos (irrespective of the ambivalence or emotional complexity of that show), and the Flynn Effect, and teaching kids to program…
It was flattering to the acolytes of my corner of academia (MIT Comparative Media Studies, Henry Jenkins's shop, which benefited hugely from the presence of old-guard literary scholars like Pete Donaldson and David Thorburn when initially forming up), and it was catnip to the same assholes who pay to see Malcolm Gladwell speak, but SBJohnson's book is a textbook example of driving a single semireasonable (and indeed very old and not terribly interesting) claim right off the cliff of wanting to be invited to conferences.
The hedgehog knows one big thing, but guys like Johnson (Shirky, Jarvis, de Landa, Benkler) make their career out of knowing one little thing – in fact they all seem to know the same little thing. (This might be giving Manuel de Landa too little credit. Then again, it might not.) Evgeny Morozov's essay (linked above) shines a harsh light on that one little thing; I recommend it. In particular, anyone who read Chris Hayes's Twilight of the Elites will recognize the elites-without-accountability effect Morozov claims to see in Occupy Wall Street:
One of the consequences of just how difficult and time consuming participating in the movement became is that key players stopped showing up. Well not exactly; they still showed up, but mostly for side conversations, informal gatherings, and the meetings that planned what would happen at the public meetings. Using social media ... they formed an invisible guiding hand that simultaneously got shot done, avoided accountability, and engaged in factional battles with each other ... you know what's worse than regular same-old elites? An [sic] barely visible elite that denies it is an elite and can't ever be called to account.
I can't unreservedly recommend all of Morozov's articles for TNR (an ugly technophobia is obvious in his TED Books piece, for instance), but this one's worth reading.
I read a bunch of Cosmicomics while visiting a two-years-older friend at college; I was a senior in high school and had never driven as far as Cornell, which I liked well enough. He recommended the book. I stole it. It's there on my shelf now, but I haven't opened it in years.
The summer after, what, sophomore or junior year at MIT, I used to ride the #1 bus up and down Mass Ave and read long stretches of Ulysses or Borges's stories and lose slowly my mind, or I guess I mean my me. My favourite ideas. I somehow overflowed a toilet at a Chinese restaurant at Wellesley while wearing a purple flightsuit. That is not germane to the story except that I had Joyce with me at the time and felt therefore like I shouldn't be blamed for things going wrong, like fuck you I'm doing something serious here.
I count as maybe the best reading experience of that summer, though, the time I took the Blue Line to Logan and sat (this was well before '9/11' hahahahahahahahahahhaha) in Terminal B overlooking the runway and read If on a winter's night a traveler. I bawled my eyes out because it was so unimaginably beautiful and sounded, I remember, like what the city looked like to me. Not then, as seen from Logan, which doesn't offer a great view as I recall; I mean when young-me would walk around in Boston I'd see it the way that book sounded to me. Frames overlaid, halfstories kind of shuffling forward and then sprouting new story-buds whose course of growth would be the next, what, five minutes or an hour of my day. Of young-me. That was a blissful summer. Or no, it was the summer when Jen and I split up and I was sad all the time; but then young-me worked like a dog that summer, and drove home from SIGGRAPH in 'The Violet Beauregard,' which Xor insisted was actually called 'Flumph' or something awful; and the toilet overflowed a little while after that.
For the life of me I can't care about that. The toilet. The only important thing was bliss in the Terminal, and changing. Is. The only important thing is.
It would seem like a missed opportunity never to write a book. Most novels are just dreadful; I don’t know if I could do a good one, but I know I could do better than most.
Nice knowing you, irony.
[excerpted from Fixing You]
the main difficulty with traveling, other than being eaten by carnivorous fish or having an "everyone here is very tan and speaks in gibberish"-related panic attack in the middle of the world's largest shopping mall or something, is adjusting to the little things, the tiny cultural differences that make life living: don't touch the food, don't look directly at sweet bitches or someone will cut off your hand, the mosquitoes have AIDS, there is no internet access unless you go to the city, nearly three hundred miles downriver, past the golden temple. THERE IS NO GODDAMN INTERNET. not 2.0, 1.0, little-known intermediate web technologies like web 1.5. nothing! plus there are sensitivity issues to worry about: how do you approach tiny japanese without being crippled by guilt, knowing that they've already lived through the 21st and 22nd centuries once, are aggressively fixing up the 23rd century with nanobots and thermonuclear magic spells at the moment (contemporary japan is what the 23rd century will look like if we make sexbots not only legal but *mandatory*), and now here you come with your stupid questions about "how do they make tempura" and "why did the police outfit me with this GPS-enabled dog collar when i got off the plane in tokyo," things like that. plus, cultural solidarity is one thing, open-mindedness is one thing, but why are all the muslims dressed like assholes? you see? you dropped out of georgetown's medieval studies program before getting the degree, which was the right move, everyone thinks so, but you never did take that acting class you'd been so excited about - so how are you going to convincingly act like you don't know how much better your country is than, uh, theirs? all of them really.
worthies, the world is just too difficult to understand. did you see the part about no internet web? it's not available in alaska, indeed most of the u.s. west of the mississippi river (minus san francisco, obviously), so what are the chances they've discovered the internet in bangalore, paris, the picturesque mountains of switzerland? answer: the chances are very very small, and you can't take that kind of risk. you're not a gambler, you're an exceptionally talented and stylishly-appointed urban elite. you can't bring mohammed to the mountain because he's been put in a secret government prison on the floating magical island of west frandisco. but someone has to be brought to the mountain; the gods demand it. it just doesn't have to be you. nor do you want the mountain brought here; it's trivia night at Foster's and you can't duck out of it, not when you have to defend your "80's sitcoms"-themed record-setting title last week. someone else can babysit the mountain.
well so the alternative is to make like a grownup and stay home. but how? no american is truly cultured unless he or she has traveled the world, and yet we've shown through careful logic that travel is impermissible if not simply impossible, never mind pricy - god even if you can lifehack your tickets into a first-class upgrade from coach you're still looking at ten, maybe thirty thousand american dollars to get a seat on a giant spacegoing quantum shark-jet, and who has that kind of money lying around? other than famous personal american productivity guru/authors who spend their nights covered in locally-grown honey and rolling around in four-foot-deep piles of authors'-advance cash, "lucre" really, who has that kind of money in today's enlightened western world?
so if you can't go abroad - and you can't - you have to find a way to make HERE more like THERE, without all the "charming" local "flavor" that the emaciated non-digitally-savvy citizens of THERE think is so special precious dear to their ancestors in the dreamtime or whatever but is, when you get down to it, basically las vegas with cheaper whores and lower production values. which, sure, *awesome* in a way, but remember: no internet...
See that tab up there, at the top of the page? The one that says
Click that sucker to journey to a magical land where you can buy things I have written.
THAT IS ALL.
I wrote a book-length fiction called THE ALLWORLDS CATALOGUE. It's not a novel, not just a collection of short stories; it's a single long thing made of myriad shorter things. It's hard to describe. There are funny bits and scary ones, some sad stories, Weird stories, a passage about a spaceship that's also a fraternity, a very old thing I wrote for (not quite about) my hometown, a very new thing I wrote for someone else's hometown. Much is made of the Weave, whatever (you decide) that is.
Paperback edition here, Kindle edition (and Amazon distribution) coming shortly. That makes three books of mine you can now buy and be distinctly over/under/merely whelmed by! (That's a lot of LaTeX to be crunching. Aaaaaah self-publishing, you do please me.)
Allworlds took a lot out of me -- more than the Phish book, unsurprisingly, though that one's surprisingly close to the bone -- and I'm proud of it. If you've liked anything on this blog, I'm sure something in Allworlds will speak to you. (Small pieces of it ran here over the years, though they make up a small percentage of the book.)
Give it a read if you're so inclined, and lemme know what you think; if you like it, pass it on.
I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death. I hear him leading his horse out of the stall; I hear the clatter on the barn-floor. He is in haste; he has business in Cuba, business in the Balkans, many calls to make this morning. But I will not hold the bridle while he clinches the girth. And he may mount by himself: I will not give him a leg up. Though he flick my shoulders with his whip, I will not tell him which way the fox ran. With his hoof on my breast, I will not tell him where the black boy hides in the swamp. I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death; I am not on his pay-roll. I will not tell him the whereabout of my friends nor of my enemies either. Though he promise me much, I will not map him the route to any man’s door. Am I a spy in the land of the living, that I should deliver men to Death? Brother, the password and the plans of our city are safe with me; never through me Shall you be overcome.--Edna St Vincent Millay, 'Conscientious Objector'
The Denver Hood is a classic, building from silkspun hush to roaring primary colours by way of Trey's bravura lead guitar work. In its cloudy sonics and simple lullaby-like melodic lines this Hood prefigures the sculptural Philly version from early December, and shares DNA with several beloved 1997 jams, from the Vegas Stash to the Darien Hood, not to mention the huge Timber jam that kicked off the second set just 40 minutes prior. It's a shapely performance: the band sets out to do one difficult thing and does it, seemingly without effort.
Trey is prone to what some fans cheekily call 'TreyDHD,' a tendency to try and grab all his ideas at once and squeeze them into a set or show or even a single solo, which can make for jarring discontinuities or frustration for fans looking for smooth continuity first and foremost. He's always done well with Hood, which opens out into a languorous I-V-IV space and stays there a good long time; still, in his dual role as ornamental lead and architectural rhythm player, he doesn't always arrive at the final huzzah in one piece. But Trey achieved an impressive degree of relaxed focus in late 1997, stepping back from his lead role for long stretches and letting the band's democratic improvisations take solid shape before moving into his customary topside melodic position.
In the Denver Hood Trey strikes a delicate balance: his guitar curlicues have a singsong clarity and simplicity even as they template the band's ensemble movement. All four players achieve real lightness here, particularly Page, who builds an electrifying dissonance around Trey's single-note thrusts late in the jam, only to bring the whole thing crashing joyfully down at the close. Dig Page's I-IIb pushback against Trey's glowing major thirds in the seventeenth minute, and his surefooted sidestep into cheeky blues a moment later -- Page is doing an enormous amount of work here within a 'simple' three-chord jam! But Trey has the conn here: pushing the whole band into a martial build in the fifteenth minute, filling the upper register with fog to shift rhythmic focus to Mike and Fish, ascending (over three or four minutes!) the long major chord thirdwise to provide a series of plateaus for collective gathering and upward explosion. Mike and Fish empathetically mirror Trey's combination of upper-atmospheric haze and precise rhythmic punctuation, so that his lead guitar line never seems like a solo, but rather a element of some ongoing evolutionary process, a sand castle emerging from the shore as a topographic inevitability, a principle, instead of (say) clumped bucketfuls stacking, stuck together...
Of course they close with Izabella, which isn't anticlimactic so much as much (?) of a muchness, and maybe giving away the game entirely: I mean, in those days sometimes the fifth man was James Brown, invisible onstage, but for a lot of November and December 1997 it was Jimi Hendrix, as the phrase 'upper-atmospheric haze and precise rhythmic punctuation' shoulda made clear, *duh*. A soaring solar Hood doesn't really need another tune to follow it, but if the set isn't yet spent, it makes sense to build on Hood's governing sonic principle. The Hendrix cover is just an alembic -- it purifies a key ingredient...
And yeah every Show is different, every night it’s some other city’s right-angled steel bone structure (clackity jack skellington makes of the lord’s house a home wheresover creep cold fingerbones catch hold, skin of earth or heart of stone, never you leave a child alone; he’s an American too like you and you’ll be someday a skellington too like the rest of us), or a campground near enough a theatre near enough a town; and they ‘jam,’ you’re always trying to explain to your friends or whoever, twenty minutes tracing skyward a wildening helix, eight hands twined as base pairs, perfect concord. (God amighty you wish you could birth a noise so finely formed, is that what gifting birth feels like? Or being born?)
But you live in the collapsing graph edges, the higher Way, not those disembodied points. The music falls away night upon night to become beacon – huh – or to beckon, I mean, children not yet conceived of…they’ll record the notes and stops and lines but your own presence won’t quite make it onto the tape. ‘Remember that security guard who…I was there, y’know?’: but now you’re not. Rather the place you dwell, untimely, I mean timeless, is that between where you spent much or most of your life anyhow. We can’t bear to be nowhere in particular but where else ever have we been? Your Virginia isn’t mine, nor the hunter’s shed lent by generous friends where your slicksweet spiriting lips first found his, nor your spot alongside the stage at Limestone that later on in summer (in summer it’s always late) where for days upon hours she seemed glittered golden to dance laughing toward you, eyes, mouth, hands, her light…
That world America is after all only you. That body.
Somewhat ugly stopgap Kindle version coming tonight, much prettier version (and ePub?) later this week when I figure out the ins and outs of pandoc's ePub conversion scheme.
This summer/fall I wrote a book of essays/criticism/blather about Phish, specifically their Fall 1997 tour. It's on sale right here. The weird cover image is right there on the right.
It's called A TINY SPACE TO MOVE AND BREATHE.
Available in softcover for $10+shipping today, Kindle/ePub later this or next week (allowing for Sandy-related delays).
It contains stuff like this:
Phish shows provide unbelievable sensory overload – not just tinnitus-inducing volumes of sound like every goddamn concert nowadays, but Chris Kuroda’s outlandish improvised light show, that inescapable mix of sweaty human and burnt-plant smells, the press of nearby bodies…it’s nothing like the antiseptic experience of listening on headphones in your home (like I’m doing right now, Timber > Simple to kick off the second set; I just killed a moth). Half the appeal of such an experience is its inescapable sensuality: you’re very much caught up with your fellow humans at the show, particularly smooshed together in that small space right in front of the stage but really no matter where in the arena you are. There’s nowhere to go and nothing to do, really, but dance; no one forces you to move but you’ll have a much easier time of it if you do, not least in avoiding the spasmodic ‘dancing’ of the dude next to you…
And of course the key to this pleasurable overload is first off the sensory deprivation that precedes and enables it. Same with going to the movies, compared to television: in the dark with lots of anonymous people, getting sensory information without context (like being tickled in a blindfold), your audiovisual senses ascendant, subconscious movements marking time, above all a feeling that your comfort in the physical environment will be provided for so that your psychic space can come under a kind of consensual assault – we enter into such places (contracts) to experience very literal psychotropism (mind-changing), assured of our providers’ benign intent. What if god could promise your safety after sunset – would you wander? Would you dream further out if you knew you’d be able to welcome in a world of no worry, afterward?
TV is domestic. Head-sized heads in your living room, stories about doctors cops firemen and high school students singing about true love. ‘Normal.’ The movies are bigger than life: bodiless and placeless, you’re greeted by 20-foot-tall giants beaming grand emotions and booming voices at one another (at you, in you). It’s like having your sensorium directly interfered with, as scary and maybe amazing as that sounds. (You can even do it stoned if you like.)
As soon as cop and detective shows made it on TV, the movies could start treating those figures with all the ambivalence of hushed private conversation. (‘I don’t want to seem…well, you know…but sometimes I can’t help thinking…’) Movies are about danger, and about relief. They scare you and then comfort you.[^moviecomfort] You go into the dark to receive the Light. Ever been to church? Same thing. Easter Vigil, the Paschal candle, robed wizard leading tuneless chants: ‘Christ our light…light of Christ…light…’ Then the lights come on and something new can be born. The year. Believers.
There's also a good bit about 'this segue compares favourably to the performance from...' but you already knew that, on account of it's a 220-page fan book about a single Phish tour.
OK lovers, there you have it. Hope you like it.
Keeping busy on a Friday with some Photoshop MAJESTY: take a gander at the cover of 'A Tiny Space to Move and Breathe,' featuring the absolute most perfect cover image ever coughed up by a search for Creative Commons photos on Flickr...
$10, cheap! On sale VIA THE DIGITALS in a couple days.
Yes, this book is aimed primarily at a very specific audience. Yes, it contains many many pages of characteristically undisciplined digressions on a host of topics, 9/11 (weirdly) prominent among them. Important facts about this work:
The phrase 'apocalyptic time, mirror time' appears more than once. The title is from the song 'Dirt' which I rather like. China Miéville is mentioned; his fashioned choices are questioned. The phrase 'COCK-MISSILE' also appears, alas. And yes, it's capitalized like that. Useful Google search strings are adumbrated -- ahh the hell with it, here's one: hoydog23 spreadsheet. Dig it. SPOILER: A good deal of psychophilosophical thrashing-about and parenthesizing occurs, is apologized for, and is EXTREMELY ENDEARING.
The book of essays/articles/nonsense I assembled a while back, FALSEHOODS, CONCERNS, is available here for $9.99 plus shipping. It runs to ~180 pages in paperback and now has a charming cover photograph of a treasure map, as you can see in the li'l clickable thumbnail image on the right.
Here's a very kind, indeed generous review from Mr A.R.R.R.R.R. Roberts.
I get a little more than $4 per copy if you buy F,C from Createspace. Not bad! If you would rather buy the book through Amazon -- paying less for shipping, perhaps, and/but cutting my royalty in half -- you'll have to wait a few days. BUT WHY WOULD YOU HATE ME THAT WAY.
In the next week or so I'll have three more books for sale at the same site. To whet your non-appetite, here are the titles: The Allworlds Catalogue (fiction), Fixing You (self-
help hindrance), and A Tiny Space to Move and Breathe (about a band I like).
Kindle/ePub to come as soon as I figure out my Markdown-to-ebook workflow.
I wrote another book, this one ostensibly about Phish (but not nearly just that), and if you think you'd like to read it, drop a line and I'll let you know when it's available -- probably on CreateSpace or somesuch site, because this isn't exactly mass-market material. :)
The Routledge centenary edition of William James's Varieties of Religious Experience contains two Introductions by its two editors. The header 'Introduction: Section One' is footnoted, which might seem to the uncharitable or reactionary reader to suggest a bad case of compulsive (gonna verb some stuff here check it) over-apparatus-ize-ing in stuffy academic fashion.
The first footnote cites the Introduction to every previous major edition of the Varieties. Dig this style:
We stand on the shoulders of giants: William James, L’experience religieuse, essai de Psychologie descriptive. Traduit avec l’autorisation de l’auteur par Frank Abauzit; preface d’Emile Boutroux. Paris: F. Alcan; Geneve: H. Kundig, 1906; von Georg Wobbermin, Die religiose Erfahrung in ihrer Mannigfaltigkeit: Materialien und Studien zu einer Psychologie und Pathologie des religiosen. Lebens von William James; Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs, 1914; Barzun, Jacques, Forward to The Varieties. New York: New American Library, 1958; Nock, Arthur Darby, Introduction to The Varieties. Glasgow: Fountain Books, 1960; Niebuhr, Reinhold, Introduction to The Varieties. New York, Collier 1961; Ratner, Joseph, Introduction to The Varieties. Enlarged ed., with appendices. New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1963; Din va ravan / Vilyam Jaymz; Tarjamah-i Mahdi Qaimi. [Persian]. Qum: Dar al-Fikr [1359 i.e. 1980]; Marty, Martin, Introduction to The varieties. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England; New York, N.Y.: Penguin Books, 1985; Smith, J. E. Introduction to The Varieties. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985.
That is an absolutely priceless resource for the scholar or interested lay reader, huh? The problem is that now I wanna go grab the editions with Neibuhr and Barzun's introductions out of perverse curiosity.
Yes I'm procrastinating. Why do you ask?
If you've got a bit of time, this seems (on my quick reading) like a good'un.
Dave Sim from way back:
I see the superhero as a specific personality which is not dependent on the cosmetics of the tights and whatnot. It's the complete outsider who adjusts to his "outsiderness" by developing an over-inflated self-opinion. To me, that's the way the Roach character works. It's interesting to bring someone in who is completely clueless but thinks everything is related to them. The world revolves around them.
They've so dominated the medium for 50 years. I wasn't here for the first 18 years that Superman was around. And that's well worth looking back at. Why did that endure? Why did something that's so... if you look at the seminal point, ÔSuperman' was used extensively in the popular vocabulary because of the Nazis. Jerry Siegel grabbed this word and said "Yes! A comic book about Superman." And then his next trip to the well is to do the Spectre. And it's like "Yeah, that's another word going around; the spectre of war. Superman. Geez. That's kind of scary when you start to think of it." This environment where that endured in its context and in its own subtext without any kind of purge. It's one of the things that I don't think people look at with the 1954 clampdown on comics. Yeah, it was about horror and terror comics. But they were talking about superhero comics, too. "Let's not have these God-like guys. It's a little disturbing that it's 1950 and my kid's still talking about Superman. The only time I heard about Superman was when Adolf Hitler was talking about Supermen." Captain America! We'll make our own Superman. "America's Superman can beat Nazi Superman." No, we fought this war to put the idea of Superman into retirement.
Sim is one of my favourite artists ever, in any medium; and I say that in full knowledge of the abhorrent, hopelessly naive things he thinks about most people on earth (and says just a couple pages down in this interview). He's been a great inspiration to me, not just in his singleminded devotion to his craft but in his teaching impulse -- and I really do think that with all its faults, for all its eventual moral repugnance, Cerebus is the Great Work of the comics medium so far. Whatever that means.
Anyway, neat quote, I thought.
The quite good joke that leads off the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – in which Arthur Dent’s house is destroyed to make way for a bypass, but he’s not around to see it because he’s fleeing Earth, which is being destroyed to make way for a (hyperspace) bypass – deepens by degrees throughout the first four volumes of the series, until it attains a kind of comic grandeur. A quick overview:
One extraordinary thing about this series of increasingly Weird treatments of Earth and its fate – too big to be a comic ‘runner’ but so lightly handled that it’s easy to miss its centrality to the (ahem) trilogy’s (ahem) philosophy – is that Douglas Adams kept finding new ways to tell grand jokes about the true nature of the human race and its beautiful, broken planet. The bit about the mice would’ve been a fine topper to the initial gag, but the Golgafrincham sequence manages to strip away its sentimentality while achieving real emotional resonance – we killed what was true and good about the Earth long before the Vogons justifiably did us in.
The contemptuous ease with which various beings (mice, Vogons, Halfrunt, the galactic judiciary, Disaster Area’s stage crew) kill off or otherwise terrorize various other beings (usually Arthur and his companions, but also the entire population of Earth, the telepathy-stricken inhabitants of Belcerebon, Prostetnic Jeltz’s crew, the billiards-ball planet in Ford’s story, et al.) is the blackest joke in the whole series. Of course in Adams’s ass-over-other-bits Darwinian cosmos, this is the nature of life, universe, everything. Which makes his ‘true’-nature-of-Earth revelations all the more bleak: they follow an emotional line straight toward dissipation and despair, and Arthur can only respond with an exhausted shrug.
Here’s one of Adams’s bleakest interpolated narratives, in full:
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is an indispensable companion to all those who are keen to make sense of life in an infinitely complex and confusing Universe, for though it cannot hope to be useful or informative on all matters, it does at least make the reassuring claim, that where it is inaccurate it is at least definitively inaccurate. In cases of major discrepancy it’s always reality that’s got it wrong.
This was the gist of the notice. It said “The Guide is definitive. Reality is frequently inaccurate.”
This has led to some interesting consequences. For instance, when the Editors of the Guide were sued by the families of those who had died as a result of taking the entry on the planet Tralal literally (it said “Ravenous Bugblatter Beasts often make a very good meal for visiting tourists” instead of “Ravenous Bugblatter Beasts often make a very good meal of visiting tourists”), they claimed that the first version of the sentence was the more aesthetically pleasing, summoned a qualified poet to testify under oath that beauty was truth, truth beauty and hoped thereby to prove that the guilty party in this case was Life itself for failing to be either beautiful or true. The judges concurred, and in a moving speech held that Life itself was in contempt of court, and duly confiscated it from all those there present before going off to enjoy a pleasant evening’s ultragolf.
The entire Hitchhiker’s Guide universe runs just like that. The destruction of Earth in chapter 1 of the first book fits this pitch-black comic mood perfectly, but it’s also a comfortingly benign event at the time, because it seems so utterly out of measure with readers’ expectations. After all, England runs more or less the same way, is the obvious satiric point, but it’s all more civilized in a way, isn’t it? There’s contempt and then there’s contempt, right?
Well. By the end of the series, in an ironic ‘triumph’ of worldbuilding, Adams has lifted up Earth – or rather the various mutually-contradictory Earths – to the status of full participation in the carnival of malice and cruelty and offhand, even accidental, genocide which is his (nonetheless quite funny) titular Galaxy.
The only consistently nice, earnest, curious creature in the whole series is a mattress, which flollops around in a swamp.
I read this 'YA novel' in a single 90-minute gulp before bed last night. It's lovely and I very much enjoyed it (thanks Norah). I'll note, almost as an afterthought (I forget things like this), that the illustrations are a dark delight.
[SPOILERS FOLLOW for a story worth reading unspoiled.]
I feel churlish picking on Ness for this, but the climax is frustrating, and throws an uncomfortable light on the rest of the book. A Monster Calls is, after all, about a single mother dying, and her son Conor's complex ambivalence about her impending death -- he knows she won't survive her cancer and his dark secret is that he wants it to be over even so. In his recurring nightmare, his secret, (he thinks) he can save his mother from falling to her death, but he lets her go -- he lets her die. The climax of the book is Ness's rendering of Conor's nightmare, and his confession to the Monster that he wishes for the dying to end, for death to come.
The words 'die' and 'death' don't appear in the book. The words 'It's not your fault' do, of course. This strikes me as an evasion, and a mistake.
Ness retreats from his (strong) rendering of Conor's limited perspective only to make speeches through the Monster, and that's a mistake too. What's missing from the book is a clear picture of what the other characters are going through; after all, that's the thing that no teenage reader is going to understand on his own, but it's the real story, even the cosmic one: Conor's isn't the only life here, but it's the only one Ness focuses on.
The story is divided between somewhat didactic (and in one instance weirdly tonally mismeasured) scenes at Conor's school, somewhat incomplete scenes with Conor's father and grandmother (a fascinating character who deserves, but doesn't get, a moment of revelation comparable to Conor's), and the Monster's evocative stories, which are the best part of the book. Indeed, the novel is a little stiff until the Monster tells his first tale; Ness takes obvious pleasure in the Monster's Entish voice, and the tales themselves are evocative and meaningfully ambivalent.
Each of the three tales contains more wisdom than the novel as a whole, I think -- if that's even possible.
After my own mother died I spent a long time -- years -- seeking comfort and withdrawing from the world, which is knowledge (which is experience). My 'healing process' was slowed by my own insistence, and various people's ready agreement, that it was in fact a discrete process, and that its focus was pain or suffering.
People die. Death isn't special. There's no one to blame; blame is a fiction. It's comfort.
What I needed, in order to 'heal,' was knowledge: to realize that I wasn't the center of the 'story,' that it had no center. My mom's death was pointless. Yours will be too.
Conor's grandmother buries her only daughter. Conor's dad isn't there for his ex-wife's death. These stories are as much a part of Conor's life as his own suffering.
Why do we comfort ourselves by fixating on our pain, when pain is part of something larger? Why are we quick to narrow our vision at those moments of deepest transformation?
I don't think my 'youth' was or is a good excuse for my selfishness.
These things I'm saying feel ugly even as I say them. Conor is a kid and his story is meant to provide solace for young people trying to understand the emptiness of death. But I can't help thinking that the truth of dying -- its physicality, its inevitability, its nothingness, how small a thing death is -- isn't a problem to be solved. It is the solution. The problem, I've come to believe, is that we make other people's deaths about us, and avoid the mounting evidence that nothing in the world is about us. Not even mom dying. Especially not that.
It seems to me that A Monster Calls is part of a true story, but by its partiality it implies something false. The stories it doesn't tell, the ones Ness skillfully alludes to in the Monster's tales and the grandmother's story but is unwilling, for some reason, to tell outright...those stories belong in this book too. I wish they were here.
Right Ho, Jeeves (P.G. Wodehouse): Gussie’s prize-giving at Market Snodbury is as perfect as everyone said it would be, but – this is one of the worst confessions I’ve ever had to make – by the time I got around to it, after all those weeks of not finding time to read and all those months of reading elsewhere about the perfection that is Gussie’s damned prize-giving, I was too worn out by anticipation to fully enjoy the thing itself. Wodehouse is the greatest comic writer I’ve ever encountered, without question. But I read this one at the wrong time.
Weirdly, I miss Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit, which is surely a ‘lesser’ novel by some measures, but is suffused by a warmth and tenderness that Code of the Woosters and Right Ho seem to lack.
I have a bunch more to read of Bertie and Jeeves, and I look forward to it, but I have other things on my mind at present. Alas. I love those two fellows.
The Book of Genesis (God, h/t King James): Astonishing, ridiculous, perverse, deeply Weird, familiar, new. Why have I never read any KJV before? By the time Joseph got his coat I was tired out, but the early chapters were an exhilarating experience. Such a density of Strangeness! Completely daft and not a bit reprehensible, frankly, but so is Cerebus and that’s the best comic ever made, so…
I plan to read the whole KJV this year, which may be difficult, given what else is on my plate. I speak of –
The Solitudes (John Crowley; v.1 of Aegypt): I’m not sure what to say.
Little, Big is one of the best novels I’ve ever read, the truest and most welcoming, but I have no desire to have written it, if that makes sense; I’m joyful and content that someone else has had those thoughts and made music of them. The Solitudes, on the other hand, has nearly killed me – it’s (retroactively?) become, or been revealed as, the novel I dreamed of writing, reflecting back everything I’m lately interested in, all in Crowley’s achingly beautiful prose. I feel like there’s no longer any point to me thinking the things I think, because Crowley’s already thought and written them, and I’ll never have his skill.
Kind of a pain in the ass. But good.
I wrote to an ex-something, last year, to tell her (out of the blue) that Little, Big was the novel she didn’t know she’d been waiting all her life to read. She’s a Mark Helprin fan, and I hoped Little, Big would rid her of her affection for Helprin’s ‘look at all this beautiful beauty’ stuff that’s enough to give you diabetes.
The Solitudes is the novel I’ve spent the last 15 years learning how to read. I would’ve flipped for its formal ingenuity in college, but I wouldn’t have understood it at all back then. This was the rightest moment to read it.
Pierce Moffett is a berk but I do look forward to the rest of his story.
[Deleted a whole post, replaced it with this.]
If you lead off your book by clumsily misquoting Douglas Adams like so...
...and you don't get why the words 'the question of' need to be in there to make the joke work, then you'd better be prepared to work hard to win back all your credibility with those who care about comic writing.
...is that outside of the imaginative world of King Lear -- outside of the contract with Shakespeare and his performers which guides our experience of the play and the events it depicts -- no one actually thinks King Lear is a factual account of being in the world. It feels that way for a while, but as spectators at a drama we maintain a dual awareness that the events are both real-to-us and factually-incorrect, strictly speaking; the status of Jewish/Christian Scripture is such that readers/listeners accord it radically different ontological status.
That said, the Biblical God is a lot like a 'literary character,' and it's good to appreciate the ways believers relate to him both literarily and historically, all at once, complexly, with their full humanity intact. It's OK to think wrong things. It's good to feel deeply, even about nonsense.
But still: 'this kind of thing happens, it feels this way' is one good thing. 'This happened exactly this way so join our church' is straight bullshit.
I first read the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books in elementary school, on my friend Scott’s recommendation. I think he’d heard about the books from his older brother Sean; over the few years of our friendship I got a lot of my cultural learnin’ from Scott/Sean. (Good stuff too: Depeche Mode, Zork, Talisman, the Avalon Hill Civilization, Paul Simon’s Graceland, early Chili Peppers…)
Over the years I reread the first three volumes of the increasingly inaccurately named Guide trilogy many, many times. (I read So Long and Thanks for All the Fish only twice, and Mostly Harmless just once, though I imagine I’d think more of its daddy-anxiety material now.) I also listened many, many, many, manymanymany times to a cassette of the Restaurant radio series – or rather, its LP rerelease, which abbreviates the radio show’s second storyline into an hourlong, headlong Magrathea > Milliway’s > sunship > B-Ark story of unusual-for-Adams structural cleanliness and utterly-typical-for-Adams comic density. The LP rerelease is actually a brand-new performance by the cast, from a revised version of the original radio scripts.
The performance is better by far than the original, with much stronger production, and I heartily recommend it to any DNA fan. For aforementioned personal reasons I’ll always consider it the definitive Restaurant recording, though like any right-thinking person I dearly love Zaphod’s trip to the Frogstar and Marvin’s duel to the death with the battle tank at Guide HQ, and have read those sections of the Restaurant novel more times than I can count.
God I love these stories.
God Gosh I miss Douglas Adams.
Anyhow I just want to make a quick point about the Hitchhiker’s Guide stories: the remarkable business of Adams’s fictional universe – its crowded urban vibe, the way Adams piles up incidental details through Guide entries and interpolated vignettes, always with a dead eye for his ongoing satirical project – invariably gives way, at peak narrative moments, to a powerful sparseness which not only serves his original narrative form (linked comic sketches for a handful of actors) but reflects Adams’s deeper concerns, which would find clearest expression in Last Chance to See.
Think of the moments of unexpected (but always totally earned) emotional seriousness and weight in the Guide trilogy: the songs of Krikkit, Ford’s look at the bartender near Arthur’s house, Marvin’s death, the factory floor on Magrathea, Ford and Arthur and the Scrabble pieces, Arthur and Fenchurch on the airplane’s wing, Arthur and Thor, Marvin’s hilariously sad monologue in the Milliway’s carpark (‘After that I went into a bit of a decline…’ is perfect), Zaphod on the Frogstar(!), and – of course – Zaphod, Trillian, and Zarniwoop visiting the man with the cat.
Almost without exception, they’re moments of stillness and isolation amidst a great deal of very effective background bustle. At these peak moments, the characters are afforded a sense of their own smallness, which less crushing than freeing – these are moments of taking responsibility. (The Total Perspective Vortex is a literalization of this two-sided revelation, though with Zaphod around you have to play for laffs, of course.) Indeed, one of the lovelier narrative arcs in the trilogy is Arthur’s slow journey from unhappy connectedness to melancholy contentment – learning to accept the immensity of the universe and his own essential aloneness in it. (By the end he’s done with all the other characters, isn’t he? Except Random, I suppose.)
The end of the Restaurant radio show has Ford and Arthur accepting, with characteristic good humour, the futility of trying to help prehistoric Earth’s cavemen: they’ve lost the evolutionary race, and humanity will evolve thereafter from the useless bloody loonies on the Golgafrincham B Ark, the telephone sanitizers and management executives and hairdressers and documentary filmmakers and insurance salesmen. The moderns. In one of the radio show’s deft little running gags, Ford relates a wild story (billiards this time); Arthur asks where he heard it, and Ford says it’s from the Guide. Arthur is totally underwhelmed. ‘Oh, that thing,’ I think he says. Nothing special. Just a travel book, after all, and the real human race is slowly, sadly wiped out all around them.
And Louis Armstrong sings ‘What a Wonderful World.’
Gets me every time. A moment of perfect love for all living things, turned sideways a bit, with a ‘comic’ story of planetary genocide nested within another ‘comic’ story of planetary genocide (and ecocide, per the colonists’ mad tree-burning deflationary fiscal policy), sung with a sigh rather than a belly laugh. Ultimately the Guide isn’t about hijinks in a crowded galaxy that’s a merciless riff on the awfulness of modern ‘civilized’ life – or not just that, anyway. Not really. Deep down it’s about escaping, not even into space, but into the feeling that space affords. The matter is distance, and smallness.
Our yellow sun is close enough, important enough, to beat down on us, to beam, to burn. A ball of angry light with no mystery to it. Other stars must be content to hide during the day and be (barely) visible only at night – and to us they seem like tiny pinpoints, formless. Kind of pathetic, really.
But they twinkle.
What a wonderful world.
Miss you Adams.
[An excerpt from my current big project, whence came also the Sasquatch thing a while back. Dedicated respectfully to A.R.R.R.R. Roberts, an obvious Bilbo Baggins manqué, who bears no resemblance to anyone in this piece, my hand to God, except in terms of one coincidental isophony -- and Englishness, of course. Oh, oh, dude's got Englishness coming out his ass.]
Collected worlds (complete with scholarly annotations) of authors famed for what the donnish corpse with the tobacco pipe called ‘subcreation’: chief among them Dandrel’s horrible but influential Helion trilogy (Apogee, Perigee, Anapsis). God I spent so many hours wishing I could live there. The interstellar-travel-by-giant-solar-trampoline conceit was more or less the cognitive soundtrack to my ages 13–15. Play and dissipation. So much wanting to believe that swashes would in the spacegoing future still be buckled, planks (airlocks, probably) nervously walked (or the equivalent) by those richly deserving of such mistreatment – or heroes sure suuuuuure c’mon c’mon! to make it Outta This Scrape in one piece. Back then there was this growing idea that outer space was at once a solved problem, ready to fade from dream to waking like a Christmas present turned out to be socks, and an increasingly distant/inaccessible bureaucratic zone, cowboys being replaced by factory farms, except the cowboys were never actually real, not in my lifetime anyhow. Machines all the way down. Nah. That tentative/reckless phase of early space exploration was done by the time I popped out. Or in, I guess.
So in order to get at the shared pre-Sputnik awe and aspiration of limitless space, indeed the recognition or belief that a place could still somewhere exist which was limitlessness itself, a dark principle, well ironically enough you had to turn back the clock a little. Big-time thing with kids all throughout history, probably: realizing first that time passes, then finding a way to escape into a new present which was the past’s future, today what shouldabeen. You dreamed of being an astronaut, but always as somebody’s angry libertarian writer grandpa had imagined it: the spacesuits less marshmallow, more race car; rocket ships like big sleek motorcycles, or just nuclear-powered flying cocks pretty much (because of course that – the implied parallel term, ahem – was the other forbidding limitless void to focus on, back then, after you’d learned that babies come from there but before you really internalized that holy shit babies really actually come from there; and maybe that’s the moment Cthulhu awakens?); laser guns actual guns, instead of…
Come to think of it, that was the worst part. The further along time went, the harder it was to convince ourselves that we’d be able to defend against whatever Inevitable Menace might rear up out of the frigid wastes to, not eat us probably, but digest, or cognitively-scramble, madden, suffocate, poison, freeze, unmake us…the way grief manifested in those days was I was never going to geta laser gun because by that point it’d be utterly pointless. You didn’t need one to deal with your fellow man, and even low-slung hip-holstered laser pistols (such as F.R. Dandrel’s interplanetary gunslinger Tubby Crozan might wear) would be no match for bacteria that turned flesh to slime, or movies so entertaining that to look at them was to will yourself suddenly toward death by consumption (by consuming – just looking into the staticky whatever it was supposed to be, forever). Fuck grownup literature. And fuck the Department of the Galactic Interior or whatever for spending all its astronaut time making minute adjustments to the lenses of telescopes, as if slightly clearer pictures of nebulae were some kind of substitute for the immensity, impersonality, the divinity of the frontier. It was UN-AMERICAN.
Tubby Crozan comes in for it hard in the footnotes, is one of the additional childhood-beshittenings awaiting the grownup SF fan here. The greatest of all mechanical-engineers–9th-class-turned-pistol-packing-mercenaries, the first man to make a solar trampoline jump in just a suit (not even a ship! the unmitigated gall, the titanic fucking balls on that guy!)…and all editor Avram U.N. Robers wants to talk about is ‘Crozan, a too-obvious Heinlein manqué, comes close at times but never quite breaks with the dreary juvenile misogyny of his author, not to mention his thinly-veiled SFnal homage-referent; the lasting popularity of the Helion cycle is testament to the guilelessness and vivacity of Dandrel’s prose and his just-left-of-the-familiar plotting rather than any psychological insight. Like C.S. Leavis’s Hornea books, Dandrel’s novels grow more difficult to like as their readers grow older; though perhaps – like reactionary family members sinking into familiar, almost comforting gesture, thereby losing their power to wound – for the very same reason they grow easier to love.’
Robers won an award for the annotated edition, not a big deal award but enough to feel good about being, at death’s door, a SF scholar of all things; and it’s hard to separate gratitude for his hard, revelatory biographical work (Dandrel collected butterflies but refused to kill them, adding them to his library only after they’d died natural deaths in captivity?!) from frustration at the characteristically British is-it-really-ironic-after-all-these-centuries snippy melancholy which pervades his scholarly work. Robers (an obvious Franklin C. Kitzis manqué if you must know) deserves his reputation, though perhaps we can with a wink-n-nudge admit to one another, right here and now, that that’s not meant solely as a compliment. Fa!
Oh, shit. Damn. That felt good. I can’t tell you how much I hate Frank Kitzis. And no, it’s not because he dated one of my grad school professors for a while and was cheating on her either before, during, or after the worst of all time guest lecture he gave in our SF-and-feminism class, which I think he actually had the stones to call ‘Criminal, Liminal, Subliminal: something something something Rosetti something something rape.’ I liked that class well enough for most of its run, but maybe it’s testament to every thinking human being’s overall feelings about grad school in the humanities – so long, fuckers – that that really is all I can remember of the talk’s title. And nothing whatsoever of the content. Kitzis had fashion hair, you know? The kind you’re supposed to look at and maybe notice without recognizing outwardly that you’re noticing it, like Wow that guy’s got Cool hair, it’s just messy, but then it’s only hours later you’re supposed to realize that he must’ve spent ten minutes and five dollars in product (people just call it ‘product’ now) to get his hair into that ‘artful’ dishevelment, only my curse – talk about First World Problems so to speak! – is that I always notice the time/’product’ costs of hairstyles right in the moment. Right there in that instant. Or like how someone’s courier bag is brand new but he’s walking around like he’s King Hardcore Biker of Bikerville, complete with the clip-in shoes and everything, but also brand-new sunglasses that he takes off super carefully because while he wants you to think he doesn’t care about the money, He cares. About. The Money. Wouldn’t you? That’s why they call it money.
Or how all the pronouns are ‘he’ and all the metaphors are balls this and stones that, and there’s some racism maybe, plus weird nationalism? And who actually thinks it’s awesome that spaceships look like dicks? I notice that stuff too. But since they severed my corpus callosum in the course of an otherwise routine cranial probe, prefatory to my first Saturn trip (boooooooring!), even when I see my worst impulses as if secondhand, even in moments of what pre-AI cultures called ‘self-awareness,’ I’m powerless to prevent such heedless action.
And you know what?
‘I’m a man,’ Crozan said, and aimed the laser blaster at Freia’s heart. ‘You’re a monster,’ she replied. Her eyes were defiant but she shrank back. Crozan laughed then. ‘A distinction without a difference, Your Highness.’ He pulled the trigger, and as warm blood splashed his handsome face – her blood, his lover’s blood, royal blood – he found that he could not stop laughing. He laughed and laughed, and in his triumph he grew larger, and darker, and more joyful…
I’m a monster.
Heard it. Oh, no. I couldn't hear Crowley read the book on tape. Maybe live, to hear him experience the thing as we the listeners did; maybe that way. But judging from the sample, the audiobook is like so many others: it takes an unusually fluid, heightened-naturalistic text -- one that rings just right in the ear, nicely balancing flights of lyrical (and specifically literary) fantasy with the easy syncopations of American English as she is spoke -- and makes it into A Reading. Hard articulated T's between words, words proceeding at a sliiiiightly unnatural andante.
I hate to 'hear books,' but I like to hear stories told from books, as if from prompts. To me, the best audiobooks capture that energy -- particularly variation in tempo and dynamics. Jim Dale is one of the masters, no question. Hitchens too (he developed a writerly voice that more or less was his speaking voice -- no mean feat, whichever way the arrow points). I saw James Ellroy speak at MIT once, and he read aloud from one of his later, more 'telegraphic' books. ABSOLUTE BULLSHIT. It was...wrong, in a way I could never put my finger on. I've never been so forcefully reminded that the Author isn't the god of the text -- and more to the point, that folks who write for a living shouldn't be expected to be master vocal performers too...
I bow at Crowley's feet but I couldn't listen to his Little, Big. Maybe not anyone's, come to think of it. And that's me for you. Maybe you could though? And bless you, if so.
Per ARRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR's recent (wonderful) post about The Hobbit and its welcome, welcoming lightness of spirit:
Does John Crowley's Little, Big relate to his later, longer, darker Aegypt roughly as The Hobbit relates to Lord of the Rings? I'm thinking specifically of the way Little, Big plays its Secret History line for wonder laced with a kind of Old World[*] melancholy, while Aegypt, which like LotR is written against a Great War (WWI-WWII in Tolkien's case, the cultural revolutions of the 60s-70s in Crowley's), grounds its more cosmic/cosmological topics in a bittersweet depiction of modern life lived among the wreckage of the past's unfulfilled (or neglected) promises. Great Wars left as unfinished business, leaving behind cultural and mythological fragmentation for the survivors...
Plus there's something Shire-like about the Faraway Hills -- right down to the name.
While we're on the topic: It's eerie how closely my reading interests these last few years track with Aegypt's subject matter, and with Crowley's ongoing interest more generally. Even more than Pynchon, he's the author I've been waiting for, for many years; or maybe I've been preparing, for some time, to be the reader Aegypt expects, or just prefers. I'm disappointed with how much of myself I see in Pierce Moffett, as he's a bit of an asshole (in this first volume) and I like to pretend I'm not.
I wonder whether Crowley has read much Charles Fort -- whose own take on 'damned thoughts' also tracks, in some ways, with what I read as Crowley's depiction of lost worldviews as alternate, arguably more 'magical' worlds. Though of course Crowley writes as a generous skeptic who's presumably taken his LSD, while near as I can tell, Fort's madness didn't ever have a welcoming alternative social context to fit into. And I'm not sure how he'd feel about modern 'Forteanism'...
[*] L,B and The Hobbit are in some sense fairy tales about Britain, or British-myth-come-to-America in Crowley's case, whereas the respective longer stories seem to be, at some level(s), about the destructiveness and confusion of revolutionary change and the passing of eutopia, on a continental-European scale in fact. Gotta come back to that when I'm much further into Aegypt.
The editor of the Buffy comics at Dark Horse, Scott Allie, recently did an interview about Angel+Faith #5. It included this exchange:
AndrewCrossett: I have a question about the "zompires" and the mechanics by which they are created. In Buffy #3, Willow says "When someone becomes a vampire, a demon possesses their dead body. But without the Seed, demons can't pass into this world. The demon has to possess the vampire's body from another dimension." I took the last sentence to be Willow clarifying that [...]
So, could you clarify the real explanation behind the zompires (at least insofar as the characters understand it at this point)?
Scott: [...] This season has also led to a lot of conversation about the metaphysics of the demon/vampire/human connection, and we have some varying theories. Joss doesn't want it nailed down in a scientific kind of way, so we try to make sure that what we do loosely works within a few differing ideas for the metaphysics of it. We think that giving the readers something to ponder in terms of the nature of these characters is more interesting than explaining it. [my emphasis --wa.]
I once referred to Allie as a 'glorified project manager' rubber-stamping Whedon's scripts and getting a shitload of free publicity for what seemed to be other people's work, and that was unfair and small-minded of me. He did write the second most incoherent arc of Buffy Season 8, so he has more to apologize for than enjoying secondhand Whedon publicity; but it was still a totally inappropriate comment which embarrasses me greatly.
But this answer is straight amateur-hour bullshit -- a writerly failing rather than a publicity-tour faux pas -- and he's made this mistake often enough that I'm starting to get embarrassed for him too.
Ambiguity is not ambivalence. (Cognate: complication is not complexity.) How many times must I and everyone else with half a brain say it? Incoherent plots are not the same as complex thematics; multiple explanations for a plot device are not the same as multiple moral frames for a story. JESUS CHRIST!
If you can't make 'there's a demon inside you and it wars with your human self for control over your actions' resonant without making a half-assed mystery out of the logistics because you can't be bothered to finish building the world your employers licensed, you're in the wrong business. Whedon handwaves his metaphysics all the time; he's infamous for it, in fact. But he never handwaves the meanings of his stories; he never misunderstands 'open to interpretation' as 'we don't have to work out super basic plot details.' Simple plots, complex stories. That's Joss's strong suit.
Y'know where the Dark Horse Buffy comics went badly off the rails last year? When the story called for one of Whedon's patented 'here's the big unbelievably-thematically-freighted plot cliché which we'll spend the rest of the story complicating' moments (Glory is a god, Buffy curses Angel, Buffy 'came back wrong,' Faith 'turns evil'), and the best the writing staff could do -- unbelievably -- was 'the universe did it; it's fate.' (I can't even bear to explain what this means; just typing out that offensive shit will lower my IQ by a good 30 points.) It felt like Whedon simply let the story get away from him for the rest of Season 8 -- indeed, in interviews he's given the impression that the offending plot-shit wasn't actually his idea, though he's justly taken the blame for the comic's incoherence.
That was an example of complication, rather than complexity, of storytelling weighing down the tale. Instead of making a clear, strong plot choice for the audience to interpret however it liked, Whedon/Allie/Meltzer made a half-assed plot choice without really committing to it, which robbed the rest of the season of almost every drop of its moral weight. As a result, what should've been one of the most tragic events in the 14-year(!) Buffy story made absolutely no sense -- and was robbed of so much of its impact -- in Allie's telling of it.
Too much plot 'cleverness,' too much business, not enough story. That ended up being the unexpected problem with Season 8. And this 'zompires' silliness sure seems to be more of the same. Joss is partly to blame, yes. But the TV series sure didn't have this problem...
As much as anything, my frustration here comes from the knowledge that -- perhaps, perhaps -- the Buffyverse is running out of steam again, because it's once again lost its prime mover. Season 4 of the original show was an enjoyable mess, a recovery period during which the writers searched for a way to write the Scooby Gang, who had been clearly written as unjustly burdened adolescents through the show's first three years, as adults. Whedon had planned to tell 'high school is hell' stories on Buffy, and the show had to shift gears, somewhat uncomfortably, before it could become a story about accepting the selflessness and entry into real community that so much constitute adulthood. (Marti Noxon's knack for depicting burgeoning eroticism and heartbreak helped the show move into its triumphant second season, and she was instrumental in guiding the series through seasons 5-7.)
The last three seasons of the show were explicitly about the deepest nature of the Slayer (mythos and character), but they were even more about the expansion and overflow of personal and group identity: Buffy joins the world, main characters drift apart and reconstitute themselves, families grow and are reimagined (remember the episode 'Family'!), destinies are grappled with and ultimately rejected, and private moralities are explored in a grey zone way way way beyond the simple 'Slayer good, demons bad' rules of the early episodes and seasons. The finale of the TV series showed Buffy simply blowing up the entire premise of the show -- the Slayer mythology itself -- and in the process giving away her birthright...so as to become a whole person, without it. ('Cookies,' in the parlance of the series finale.) The story had come to a natural ending and exhausted itself.
Then the comic began. And suddenly Buffy was...a supporting character in her own book. The mythos came back in the clumsiest way imaginable: a plot as old as the universe, by which a Slayer/supervillain teamup was preordained so as to bring into existence a magicless world and...oh fuck it, it's still too stupid; the point is, the nature of the Slayer was trivialized instead of deepened by the 'Twilight' plot. The comic was burdened, in the end, by a lot of conspiratorial gobbledygook, which wasn't enough to hide the fact that the story -- the characters, their development, the play of actual human desire -- had been lost.
I have no idea whether 'Season 9' will be any good. But it's clear from the first couple of issues that one of Whedon's key storytelling ingredients -- a dead-simple premise which ramifies and signifies in an ever-expanding assortment of (usually painful) ways -- is still missing, or deeply buried in plot mess. 'Magic has left the world' just doesn't feel personal; the 'Twilight' thing still doesn't make sense to me; Spike flying around with a spaceship full of bugs feels like a bad joke; the Xander/Dawn pairing isn't desperately necessary (it's just...limp). It's all business.
That's a sign of a faltering story: business. (For a show consisting entirely, solely of business, see Lost or the laster seasons of Galactica -- two promising shows that crawled right up their own respective assholes double quick.)
Or maybe the problem is I just don't care about comics anymore. 20 pages a month? Are you kidding me? Give me Dave Sim or BKV or even 100 Bullets, but it's just not working for Buffy. Or rather, for me. I'm the problem.
One of the main purposes (or in more neutral language, uses) of art seems to be programmed psychotropism: art permits the artist to arrange thoughts at a distance. Some art forms permit the artist only coarse-grained control over the Other's mind; a painting, for instance, might resonate with its viewer for a long time, but that resonance is highly personal and associative, even if the painting's subject matter (and the artist's aim in presenting it) is quite clear. Poetry works similarly, by evocation and association.
Not many people read poetry. Not many people spend time looking at paintings.
It's hard to share your neighbour's precise reaction to a poem or painting.
A novelist, on the other hand, can achieve very fine-grained control over the step-by-step alteration (excuse me, Prof. Austin: alternation) of the Other's consciousness. She controls the pace of presentation/encounter, the emotional context and content of each scene, and -- through sheer repetition and acculturation -- even, to some extent, the private linguistic framework within which the reader-Other will (must!) encounter the events depicted in the text.
My mentor Prof. Thorburn always said that 'Great novels teach us how to read them.' One way of understanding that not-quite-transparent claim is in the terms I'm suggesting here: by the time you reach the last page of a 500-page novel, your reading-consciousness has been subjected to a very specific series of remote-control instructions from the author, and that specificity of effect-dictation can't be matched by any other art form.
Dramatic performance comes close, long-form serial entertainment (e.g. TV shows) even closer; but our social-cognitive and emotional-processing apparatus has a lot more free reign to interpret events onstage or onscreen. They're people up there, after all.
But literary characters don't come to us as people. Not quite. Not like dramatic characters, whose medium of existence is human action, however abstract/formal. Epic poetry has some of the same quality, but its allusive/metaphorical qualities induce a certain lossiness of info-encoding.
The novel is one of the great innovations ever achieved by mankind, because it allows for an astonishingly high-fidelity transfer of enormous amounts of information, whose key function is to programmatically alter the consciousness of the reader, creating an impression not just of events-in-line but of meaning-creating-meaning. A painting can take you to an imaginary place; a poem can create a synthetic feeling; a dramatic performance can communicate a social moment. What the novel transmits, above all -- its informational payload -- is structured time: not just an explanation of how the universe works, but a fully functional example of an artificial universe.
I make no such claim regarding blog posts, though.
OK, hopefully I can sleep now.
I read Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit and Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves quite quickly, but was forced by fate to take a long time with this one -- which is too bad. It's the best of the three by some measures (colder, I think, less affectionate, and deadlier), but one of its great strengths is the sheer breeziness of the prose, which wants to be taken in great gulps.
I've never read such perfect comedy as the Jeeves stories, excepting arguably Wilde's Earnest (ur-Wodehouse?), which is written with a more audible snarl and is therefore presumably 'greater' but, for me at least, less purely pleasurable. (There's no one in Earnest I actually like, not even a bit; whereas I love Bertie and Jeeves, and Aunt Dahlia, and Gussie and Stiffy and Stinker and Madeline and even Sir Watkyn Bassett the deplorable ex-magistrate.) My previous gold standard for written comedy was Douglas Adams, but the extraordinary lightness of Wodehouse's writing has helped me put a name to the weird tension within Adams's writing, which seemed to come from the encroachment of his Very Serious Ideas onto his fictional worlds. (Hence the surprising seriousness and even leadenness of the Dirk Gently books, compared to the Guide.)
I admire Wodehouse's commitment to the integrity of his fictional world, and his embrace of Bertie Wooster himself -- I don't think Bertie is ever ironized in the text (beyond the worldwide ironies which cast, say, Anatole's meals as more significant than a month in jail), and Wodehouse is careful not to rob Bertie of his sympathetic humanity for a laugh. It's generous, humane work.
I'm in awe of him.
Next stop, inshallah: Aegypt. For realsies this time.
Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker articles are basically retweets. He's not a deep thinker; he's a collector. No wonder business whores love his stuff. They're collectors too. He collects concepts, they collect money.
Oh, and he collects money.
Alas, Gladwell is not restricted to 140 characters.
The data in this book, fascinating and counterhegemonic as it is, could just as easily have been marshaled to support a book arguing, say, this:
'Monogamy is arguably the oldest extant human cultural tradition - nearly as old as agriculture or the stationary village. Its utility to technologically-minded humans is difficult to measure, but the astonishing productivity and exploration of monogamous societies certainly suggests that monogamy has been immensely useful.
'In the last 100 years, however, cultural traditions like monogamy and monotheism have come under intense scrutiny and challenge, and like monotheism, monogamy would seem to be on the wane in the modern world - or at the very least, undergoing a catastrophic transformation in which fundamentalist monogamies and emergent "non-state" alternatives compete for resources, just like their equivalent theisms.
'We dismantle the "biological" arguments for human monogamy, while recognizing its totally self-evident status as sensible cultural/behavioral adaptation, and tentatively suggest modifications to human monogamous practices, including relaxation of the strictures of monogamy itself.'
But of course that book wouldn't sell. Instead they've written a scattershot, snide, airily generalizing, unfunny, self-important book: well-researched, I believe, but filled to the brim with dipshit rhetorical questions and insinuations. It's not an argument for the utility of polyamory - it's a collection of evidence for that argument.
The book's rendering of evolution strikes me as cartoonish. In particular I'm appalled by the authors' disregard for the evolutionary importance of self-organizing optimizations like monogamy, and for their thuddingly 'biological' (and oddly deterministic) treatment of human sexuality. Their dim view of marriage is also a hackneyed Euro-cliché - how bohemian to carry on and on about the stultification and soul-deadness awaiting anyone stupid enough to explore a single long-term sexual relationship!
I need to think more about this (and to finish the book). I see why polyamorists are so excited about the book, though: as if modern polyamory were a return to an ecstatic Eden - excuse me, a savannah - of sexual-intentional purity, more 'natural' than modern monogamy. Blah, blah, blah.
Something tells me A General Theory of Love would be a tremendously useful corrective to this book's overreach, even as Sex at Dawn is a vital corrective to the overreaching lunacy of fashionable ev-psych.
And I have to set off this comment: the authors imply that clerical child-rape is a result of sexual repression - i.e. if those priests had only been allowed to fuck adult women/men they would never have raped those boys. This view is contemptible, and I desperately hope they're not so vile as to believe it. A child molester isn't picking children as targets for abuse from the societal leftovers after being denied grownup sex. If celibacy the only (or main) problem behind clerical child-rape, why isn't there an epidemic of Catholic priests impregnating their parish secretaries?
The book isn't that bad, on the whole. I hope I've mistaken their intent.
Specifically, would you like to buy a book of my writing, most of it new-to-all, pretty much right away?
EVEN MORE SPECIFICALLY, would you like to send me $12 for a right'n'proper locally-printed copy of THIS BOOK?
YES: That is Falsehoods, Concerns by yours truly. YES!
The book contains the following
220 180 pages of PURE 100% MAGIQUE:
Hey, I'll ship you a copy anywhere in the U.S. for $12. Multiple copies, internat'l shipping, that sort of thing - we'll figure something out.
My address is email@example.com. Drop a line and we will make this happen to your mind; once I've got a sense for the number of copies we'll need, I'll email you with info on PAYOLA and SHIPPING-OLA.
Tell your friends! They stand to benefit most from this kind of brain-rearranging wisdom/nonsense.
This Bertie and Jeeves book, my second, was probably better than my first (Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit), but now that I expect Wodehouse's absolute mastery of character, voice, and staging, I'm in that strange position I'm in with, say, the Beatles - Revolver will remain near-perfect for all time, a source of great joy and comfort, but it can only surprise you so many times.
But I'm trying to live without the need for joyful experiences to be surprising atop all else. Day by day it gets easier.
The set-pieces in this volume are stronger than those in Feudal Spirit - particularly the scene with Basset, Bertie, and the awful dog, and Bertie's lengthy sojourn behind the sofa, which ends with a jaw-dropping sequence in which Wodehouse illustrates the passage of an enormous amount of time and action solely through overheard dialogue, faithfully recorded by our humble n., Wooster. Jeeves has a nicely active role in this one, compared to Feudal S., which gives Wodehouse plenty of chances to depict Bertie's great love and admiration for Jeeves. Masterful as Bertie's narration is, what stays with me is the warm glow that fills the pages whenever Jeeves shimmers into the room. (What a fine word choice is 'shimmer,' capturing both Bertie's relief and sincere longing, on one hand, and Wodehouse's own acknowledgement of Jeeves's plot function - essentially a bottled genie - on the other.)
In a sense, Jeeves is Bertie's (our) ideal teacher: patient, kind, strict without being bullheaded, sly but never mean, authoritative but egoless. If the relationship weren't complicated by Jeeves's status as
manservant gentleman's gentleman (and the very male, if not quite masculine, nature of Bertie's various pursuits), we could well imagine Bertie and Jeeves as an innocent young 19th century girl and her doting, wizened minder.
Of course it's a love story, as so many novels of mens' shenanigans are; and it's a sad commentary on our fallen age that we lack a modern language to describe that vital love. ('Homosocial' is graceless and clinical, while 'homosexual' is merely[?] incorrect.)
[Upon further reflection, I'd like to clarify this: Bertie hardly exudes heterosexuality either. My dismissal of a homosexual-erotic reading of the Jeeves/Bertie relationship stems from the fact that their obvious affection seems to lack any sexual component, unless of course you think there's always a sexual/erotic component to appreciation of great beauty. I dunno about that. Rather, I think J. and B. take care of one another with an awareness of self-interest - Jeeves is a tricksy fellow, after all - but without feeling threatened by one another. Bertie's love and admiration for Jeeves involve no posturing at all; they simply divide their domains of authority, join their interests, and act at all times with care for one another. That's love, but it's got nothing to do with sex. Bertie describes Jeeves as 'shimmering' into the room - but not as a desire-object. Jeeves is an angel, a djinn taking human form; Bertie is a holy Fool. (Remember your Major Arcana! The Fool is immortal precisely because he steps off the ledge into thin air, never looks down, and so never enters into a fatal contract with gravity.) Together they're...well, they're perfect together. Which description applies much more readily to Lennon and McCartney (or to Fry and Laurie!) than to Romeo and Juliet...]
Well. I love these books and could listen to Bertie carry on all day, but it's time to take a swing at the next book. Since my collection is still boxed up - Christ! - I'm confined to the local library's holdings. Next up, therefore: selections from McGinn's The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism. My life overflows, as is no doubt obvious, with 'fun.'
Tell me a story.
In this century, and moment, of mania,
Tell me a story.
Make it a story of great distances, and starlight.
The name of the story will be Time,
But you must not pronounce its name.
Tell me a story of deep delight.
--Robert Penn Warren, 'Audubon: A Vision'
1. The ending, in which PKD's 'Hitler won' fiction and The Grasshopper's 'Britain won' inner-fiction - along with Tagomi's vision, which may well be our own world? - all coexist in a kind of alt-historical superposition, isn't the 'meaning' of the book, nor its solution. It's an explicit allegory for the previous 200+ pages, which enact the same dynamic implicitly.
2. After all, we know the world of High Castle is 'fiction' - a world in which Americans speak with stilted movie-Japanese diction and have learned, over a couple of decades, to live with Japanese/Nazi occupation. Tagomi's vision in the park is the most extraordinary material in the book, but until then PKD's great achievement in High Castle is the creation of a world in which complex, small-scale interpersonal drama in Occupied America is presented both schematically and with ragged emotional intensity. This outer story, PKD's depiction of the Japanese/Nazi occupation with both empathetic intimacy and an unexpectedly subtle irony, is an impressive humanistic feat. And a literary one: alt-histories generate intense force by virtue of their ironic distance from our world, but Dick never hits the 'different but the same' button too hard. It's a restrained book.
3. It's also a clumsy one. Dick's dialogue is at times absolutely abominable. Well, what can you do.
3.5. It's also, particularly in its latter chapters, a shockingly funny book.
4. The point is, PKD gives us believable inner lives of Japanese occupiers, Nazi double agents, and American resistant-collaborators (Childan). He's less good with Juliana Frink, but the emotional richness of the book never falters. It's an enveloping world: desperate and harrowing.
5. The authentic/fake/historicity/relativism thematic stuff doesn't much matter much to me as Theory of History. I imagine its main importance to PKD (and its appeal to me) is private, emotional: the book climaxes with Tagomi's vision, a very funny and very familiar depiction of Tagomi's struggle to yield to a dream-state, the transition between worlds in which intellectual scaffolding gives way to a state of total immersion. The book is ambiguous, or rather ambivalent, about whether Tagomi is granted a vision of the 'Real' or of an also-present Possibility, and that ambivalence is precisely its Magical character - its psychedelic quality, if you like.
6. The bit in the Castle seems like a misfire, and the Oracle's 'revelation' feels unnecessary to me, except to generate a neat bit of schemata: generate a negative image of our world ('Hitler won') then shift it laterally in some small way while flipping the colours again, so instead of 'we beat Hitler' you get 'Britain beat Hitler'; yes that shift opens up an interesting conceptual space, but ultimately that space is less important than Inner Life in America Under Japanese Occupation, at least to me...
7. ...but what marks this as a SF novel, maybe, is that the concept remains important to the end, and the climax resolves the concept rather than its emotional content. I was left not really caring about Juliana Frink at all, who is after all (as a plot point in heels rather than a fully-embodied story-person) living in the plot rather than its deep story, its inner story. I cared about Tagomi, the visionary-hero in a way, the put-upon company man.
8. And that's what gets you, ultimately. The Japanese Trade Mission representative, the occupier, the condescending goddamn Jap, is where my heart goes. That's an extraordinary thing, a great achievement, but not primarily an intellectual one. You follow?
"To choose order over disorder, or disorder over order, is to accept a trip composed of both the creative and the destructive. But to choose the creative over the destructive is an all-creative trip composed of both order and disorder." --Malaclypse the Younger
My first Wodehouse but (I vow) not my last. The prose is perfect. To the extent that the claim is reasonable at all, I mean it literally: there are no errors, misjudgments, or failures of craft to speak of in 231 pages of writing. Nor even a momentary lapse or break in the extraordinary narrative voice. I've never read a piece of writing so perfectly formed. There's barely a plot to speak of, of course, despite the crowd of 'plot events' to be found; the pleasure comes from the characters, who are sympathetic grotesques, and from the voice, that voice! Wooster!
What to do? I was asking myself. It seemed to me that the prudent course, if I wished to preserve a valued spine intact, would be to climb aboard the two-seater first thing in the morning and ho for the open spaces. To remain in statu quo would, it was clear, involve a distasteful nippiness on my part, for only by the most unremitting activity could I hope to elude Stilton and foil his sinister aims. I would be compelled, I saw, to spend a substantial portion of my time flying like a youthful hart or roe over the hills where spices grow, as I remembered having heard Jeeves once put it, and the Woosters resent having to sink to the level of harts and roes, whether juvenile or getting on in years. We have our pride.
The pleasure of inhabiting, for a while, a mind totally incapable of correlating or even making basic sense of its contents - the pleasure, in other words, of absolute guilelessness by proxy, of sweet sympathy and fretfulness without consequence; of a way of life in which worry is replaced by a kind of gauzy half-awareness. Wooster's verbal resources are vast (I love his weird command of American cliché) but there's no force to his speech, no imposition. Every single word passes by at the same idle half-speed. The story strolls.
As a kid I considered Douglas Adams the (my) gold standard of comedy; the Guide is still cherished Scripture to me. But it's brain-work without question - the nervewracking Pythonesque topology of DNA's sentences is half the fun. There are jokes in the Guide that take dozens or hundreds of pages to pay off. The effect of this structural involution is an impression of seemingly limitless complexity and dynamism: Adams's universe might come from sketch comedy, but it feels crowded with complicatedly-interrelatedly events and implications and sentient anthropomorphic mattresses and such. The key word is complex: DNA's proper subject was the inflationary (physical and mental) universe, ideas banging bigly. (Pardon me.)
The effect of Bertie's narration is to flatten every hierarchy and establish all of his misremembered poetry, wistful Jeeves-longing, aunt-horror, and dimwitted status unconsciousness as equally central: Wooster's world is completely flat, which is to say at every level equally complicatedly alive, which is to say Wooster's world is without status. That's the kicker. A story ostensibly concerned with trivial matters of status-consciousness, which sends up the world of the English country house (vanished now if it ever existed), does us the great favour of showing us a world in which all relationships can be, in a way, tidily symmetrical...with Wooster and Jeeves the fine-man-in-two-bodies, the attractive fantasy. Your Bertie will get you into lovely trouble, and your Jeeves will pluck you out, and there's always more.
It is bliss.
It reminded me of Neuromancer, actually, in the sheer density and efficiency of its storytelling; Swanwick never pauses for 'infodumps,' never gives in to ostentation (neither prosewise nor in his worldbuilding), and manages to keep the 'plot' humming along even during the heady, slightly awkward magic-erotic interludes. The Tempest-frame never intrudes, nor does the (perhaps less obvious) Christ parallel; and Swanwick's great feat of the imagination, the Puzzle Palace, is both vividly alive yet startlingly thinly described, which is to say perfectly evoked: fantastic. It has a dream's Weird logic but also a heavy materiality, not least in its depiction of mere humans merely living. It's logical, magical, human, alien, and (wonder!) a tightly organized, lightning-quick read in which nothing is obfuscated (but nothing's simple either).
I have a great deal of respect for this book; I can't recommend it highly enough.
[The initial subject here is Finnegans Wake. For 'allways,' read both 'always' and 'in all ways/directions.']
rifling through the wake as through a burnt-out memory attic or grandmother's vault or safe or the home of a deposed king; or walking slowly hallway by allways through a museum corridors opening up to exhibitionisms aplenty. it gets into your wording like riddley but you knew that. it makes old ideas calamitatiously anew. noob i mean newborn. it makes ideas borne-again i mean to say you have to hold them. what but what. what but you open up a book and it is a consciousness machine. you are a consciousness machining it is a nother mechanism attaches to you inside outwise. human brains and literary minds interoperate. genre is part of the API of literary mind-melting i mean melding i mean to say magic exists and its language is Once Upon a Trembling.
hard to pull back from that oceanic language unnerving. to bricks and periods and colons. pull back the view the camera widens the words walking about lose focus dissolve into the sea again. up close you see the bacterial music of it. exactings at the paleoatomic scale old notions new forms. the formlessness that total surrender permits. what words are for is giving structure to time that might otherwise pass inchoate in the interstices i mean through the bodies i mean among the desires of human separated beings. strange estrangement. i mean i mean you are writing your way into a state of alltogetherness ideally. but what if you cant.
we all know magic exists because it scares us. i mean to say the fear is real and what else can there be. ??? question but what else must be in order for this life to be this life, to match our expectings? fearfully we make fire. fearful make words for fire, watch burn, we wish for words for the working of fire into the cells of living things; wish for a straightforwardness of cause to accommodate our infinitude of question. i mean we'd like to think we wouldn't ask questions have no answers.
fear of magic is fair, is fireful speech. our trembling invests the words with potent power. precisely the confliction of what can not possibly against the collapsing layered border surface of what we clearly perceive clearly. that interspace, that innerworld. thereby we come to believe in what we make. magic is there because there is magic because we made that place for that thing. i was saying last night able to isn't the premise for doing. doing is the journey to being able to able being. i mean to say the acting that is the body the world is not the consequence of the being that is readiness. we are ready when we act in becoming. you can't readily move you movingly be. you are made not was. you are making. magic is maybe the realizing of the act that hides behind being. it is to see be as do. but if that seeing is magic, if the saying is its operation Magical Words i mean to say if the spellcasting is to see the die has been cast, if it is Acceptance --
i think magic is true living, an end to self-deception. but then the self is the deception. but to see yourself as merely seeing, to feel the presence i mean the presents i mean the presentness i mean that-the-present-is-all-that-allways-is; to do as totality, in authentic presentness -- there you miraculously are. there you truly are. true things are miraculous. nothing is miraculous. see but both ways are; both are ways of being; allways find every expression.
no but every language is constraint. yes but every language is pattern which is expansion. pattern multiplies what it orders; pattern is collision. you think you are repeating as if an old idea. no but you are yes, you yes are, yes you are singing the oldest song. magical is taking up old songs as responsibilities laid by. merely to allways be everything. please it is only chance. there is no shame in a universe in which all things are all things and nothing can be held against anything because everything being is allways acting. the one thing that can fill up the universe and deny nothing is Song.
For Lovecraft's 'cosmicism' to attain full flower, he'd have had to give up his (meta)fictional conceit of Ancient Races Lying Dormant - it's a philosophical copout. If your supposed philosophical point is that humanity is insignificant, it's enough to pit man against Nature, or Thermodynamics, or Chance...but that wasn't Lovecraft's point; or at least that wasn't where his heart resided. His emotional connection to his 'cosmicist' philosophy must be located in his obsessive return to his mythology of malign forces from Beyond. In other words, while 'The Call of Cthulhu' is a brilliant work of fiction in its own right, I'd say 'The Dunwich Horror' is closer to the center of Lovecraft's imaginarium, because its stakes are more accessibly human. Its horror might be invisible, but it can at least be directly felt.
Critics' dogged insistence on HPL's writing as 'cosmic horror' obscures the fact that it's horrific only to the extent that it happens to human beings - which is of course the opposite of 'cosmicism' if you take it halfway seriously, wuntcha say?
[I seem to have written this poorly. The point of the following is just that the details of God's 'character', His true 'nature,' are not important; what's important are the lives that people lead in His service. That's what I mean by a 'human mythology.' Christianity is a mythology for human beings to live inside, not a set of stories about superheroes. This is not an attack on the myth of a deity - there are plenty of those already.]
The 'character' of Yahweh is theologically and practically irrelevant. It's an interesting literary question (He is, after all, a literary creation!) but to occupy yourself with the 'true nature' of the Biblical God is to misunderstand its purpose. 'God' is to Christianity as vampires are to Buffy the Vampire Slayer: an inconsistently articulated metaphysical/metaphorical premise for a human mythology. The details can vary from week to week so long as emotional continuity and integrity are preserved. (Hence the meaninglessness of Biblical dietary prescriptions and sodomy laws.)
The story of Christ isn't a biography, it's an allegory - after all he didn't 'raise the dead,' nor did he 'turn water into wine.' As Jesus and early Christians reread Jewish myth/history as allegory, so the various Christian cults/churches reread Jesus as allegory.
One of the main characters on Buffy was given multiple birthdates; they don't conflict in any dramatically meaningful sense, so what difference does it make?
The only people who care about that stuff are fans; they are a blight on the body which would give itself over otherwise to ecstasy.
Permit me to quote myself for a moment:
The interesting thing about ghosts is that (1) they're not real but (2) we've built immensely powerful belief/practice structures around them and (3) those structures become autonomous from the original claimed belief and no longer require dogmatic belief in the existence of ghosts. The experience of 'seeing a ghost' is absolutely real, but that doesn't mean it's an encounter with The Spirits of the Dead or any such thing. And yet, and yet...
UFOs - excuse me, 'alien spacecraft visiting earth' - are almost certainly not real. Can we all agree to that? There's no compelling evidence that visitors from another planet/dimension/realityline have ever visited earth. Same goes for fairies, deities, sentient dinosaur-accountants, books that change their contents every time we look at them, 900-year-old Jews, or really memorable and heartbreaking puddings.
we some believe. The question 'Are aliens real?' isn't particularly interesting; we can't answer it now, we're really not likely to ever answer it at all, the answer's probably NO anyhow, and either way it really shouldn't affect our day-to-day lives one iota. (What if there are Martians gadding about on the next planet over? Unless they have nefarious plans for us, aren't we likely to just keep on fiddling with our iPads and ignoring our children? Isn't that in fact the most sensible thing to do from our perspective, if not necessarily our kids'? Westerners can't be bothered to learn about alternative ways of life from the fucking Buddhists, what makes you think we'd pay any attention to Martian wise men?) (Or is the point only to co-opt Martian musical traditions for young white pop stars?)
Better to concentrate on the effects of insistence upon incorrect claims, or 'belief in "false" things.' Doubly interesting given the increasingly shrill ongoing debate about the place of atheism in a slowly-coalescing global culture that's probably gonna have to grow up and get pretty seriously pluralist soon, despite the maybe-impossibility of pluralism in a belief-sphere as complex as 'are "gods" real?' which, c'mon, no, that's totally ridiculous; though now you mention it mine aren't half as ridiculous as yours...
There's an early scene in Yellow Blue Tibia where Skvorecky, compulsive ironist, finds himself lecturing to a room full of UFOlogists who interpret his repeated insistence on aliens' nonexistence as sly avoidance of the appearance of dissension; i.e. they take him for a staunch, brave believer. The scene is funny and almost physically uncomfortable:
'There are no such things' I enunciated clearly, 'as UFOs.'
A murmur went from table to table, but not of dissension, or outrage, but rather of dawning comprehension. Somebody clapped.
'No,' I said, becoming annoyed. 'You are deliberately misunderstanding me. Do not transpose my negatives for positives. I am not speaking ironically, or in code; I am stating a simple truth.'
'The truth is simple,' somebody boomed, from the back of the cellar. 'It is the attempt to cover up the truth that is complicated! That cover-up forces complications upon us!'
'That's not it,' I said.
'Well said, Comrade Skvorecky,' said somebody else. 'No! -- we must hold fast to the dialectical! We must negate the official version!'
Things get more ridiculous from there: a 'squeaky penetrating voice' carries on about rectum-probing (ahem) and so forth. It's a good short scene, nicely capturing the queasy feeling of hopelessly incompatible belief-systems colliding, with a frisson of isn't-Soviet-life-weird for the Western reader. Totalitarianism is daft: check (funnily).
But YBT isn't actually about late-stage Communism; rather, it deploys familiar 'satire on totalitarian society' elements in service of a story that's less 'about' than around its thematic Stuff. Maybe that's a little of Kincaid's point, or Rich's: ARRRRRR's busy intertextuality isn't meant to support a unitary narrative, it's supposed to produce 'a kind of conceptual disorientation of the familiar' (Skvorecky's description of SF), which the bookish among us (professors of English lit, say, or SF critics) will find both comfortingly familiar and uncomfortably stuffed - plus some third thing, which let's call 'Lyotard's pomo sublime,' just for kicks. Making a home in Dislocation.
(That last isn't a bad description of 'falling in love,' I think. Which is one of the stories in YBT, of course, though I never quite felt it.)
YBT presents several forms of self-contradictory or 'magical' thinking, which are ultimately metaphorized in the 'realityline' explain-o-dump in the last chapter. Maybe I'm being too hard on that section; the finale is, after all, a depiction of one variety of Rapture, so it kinda has to come at the end, or rather the end has to come after the explain-o-dump. Skvorecky sees the nature of all things, which is Possibility, and is made keenly aware of the existence of the Great Big Supernatural; so he's crazy from then on, you might say, because his thinking-frame can't be mapped onto everyone else's. His private time is out of joint, though from his perspective ours is; cursed spite, everyone thinks his novel is a memoir. The I'm crazy/everyone else is crazy shift is nicely handled; the final page, 'Radiation in that sense' and so forth, is actually sweet.
But the Dora-Skvorecky 'love story' isn't a depiction of a growing romance so much as a metaphorical rendition of love as, simultaneously, endless possibility and inescapable destiny: wild swingy orbits that collapse in time onto one another. Crash. In a book where hyperliteralism is comedy and irony is trustworthy and synopsis is sinister, where everyone seems to be repeating half-remembered lines from one of a dozen different other novels from which they've been beamed (radiation in that sense?), I found it hard to take the love story seriously. 'True love' is, on top of everything else, a dangerous myth: like UFOs, lots of people claim it's real and will always be real and is the realest real YES but then they just one day grow out of it, or fuck their boss or something. Plus while love-amidst-totalitarianism is mere reality for the poor saps living under a Lunatic Regime, it's become for us coddled westerners a handy metaphor for the heroism of romance, which I've got my doubts about.
Dora the spherical cultist deforms spacetime in order to provide an a narrative image shaped just like our image of true love; that's at least one too many abstraction layers for me, sorry.
Yet Skvorecky is a human being: the best thing about Yellow Blue Tibia. Wonderful.
I guess what I'm saying here, or trying to say, is that YBT spends much of its runtime in a state of maddening epistemological betweenness, artfully depicted (as when Coyne is/isn't killed by a UFO, or the incompetent cop manages to dialecticalize his own self(!) by synthesizing Good and Bad cops into just a Scared Guy); but working against the novel's generative uncertainty is the attraction (inevitability?) of definition, such that the last few pages give us concrete answers to The Alien Question, plus a bowtied love story, so that even as Skvorecky says 'I did see a UFO...at the same time -- I didn't,' the fictional suspension that's carried through the novel finally gives in, and we did, after all, read a book in which The Alien Question is answered in the inventive-affirmative. A new kind of Yes to an old sort of question.
All of which makes for a satisfyingly unsatisfying novel, whether you've gone in looking for a linear narrative about Soviet SF writers or have somehow convinced yourself, as I somehow did, that forty thousand realitylines could be left open at story's end, unwoven, uncollapsed. ARRRR's depiction of rapturous all-seeing ('My feelings were of wonder'?!?!) doesn't quite spin me up to wobbling whirling velocities of psychedelic spin; not for nothing did the first part of this 'review' refer to his 'bone-dry conceptualism.'
The best part of Yellow Blue Tibia, for me, was the feeling that it might not have to end at all, that forty thousand threads might just run out, fragile and frayed like poetry (or love?), and be seen in retrospect flapping in the (meta)fictional breeze. That idea of multiplicity. The best part lasted almost to the very end. Not bad.
I quite liked the book. It's a strange, oddly-shaped, idiosyncratically-paced thing. Have I even talked yet about the interregnum in what might be heaven? Stalin is there and confesses that he's not a human being. It's like opening a fortune cookie and finding a 100-line lyric poem in the middle. Maybe the best part of the book, though that contradicts the previous paragraph. The best part of the book (third try) is its Strangeness, which is achieved through setting, character, plot, and above all (this being, I'm told, a novel by ARRRRRRRR) High Concept, of which some people claim he is 'the king.' Hell of a thing to be king of! It's also a funny book. Best part of the whole thing, except for the other best parts.
............OR IS IT