Haruki Murakami, After Dark

df124716-cfdb-58c5-a5f5-390bed2fa7ed.preview-300Six or seven years ago a good friend, also a reader, gave me two Murakami books for my birthday: Norwegian Wood and After the Quake. I read the latter first and absolutely loved it. The former I started but didn’t finish. I have a long-standing policy of not finishing books I don’t actually want to read. I think the habit must have started in elementary school, as soon as teachers started assigning books, because in all my schooling I never really wanted to read anything my teachers assigned, and I never really read anything in school. When the teacher assigned Vonnegut I thanked God it was The Sirens of Titan, which I’d already read on my own by that time. I actually did skim it for class which was for me a pretty good showing.

I will be clear from the start that I did finish the book and I did enjoy it. This speaks of a basic quality of the book. That said, After Dark is by no means a great book and this is particularly disappointing given Murakami’s elevated reputation. This is a writer whose name one drops for literary hipster cred. And I say that having really enjoyed, as I noted above, one of his books. I remember as I read it–before this “blog” came into being–thinking more than once, “ah…this is really interesting. I think that’s one of the things I read for, those moments when I see things in a way I hadn’t expected to see.

But here we have bits like the following. The full text is from the book, and the strikethrough is mine.

A thin cream-colored coat and red pumps. The shoe bottoms are worn out of shape. A deep pink, beaded crew-neck sweater, an embroidered white blouse, a tight blue miniskirt. Black pantyhose. Underthings of an intense pink with an unmistakably synthetic lace trim. These pieces of clothing give an impression that is less sexual than sad. (128)

There is nothing in the experience of a work of art that makes my skin crawl more than being told how to feel about something that happens. I’ve never expressed it here, but I detest everything Steven Spielberg has ever done, even the things I actually enjoyed watching. And why? Because he hates his audience. Only an artist who hates his audience would, as Spielberg persistently does, tell them how to feel. You can imagine my disappointment that Murakami descended here to Spielberg’s depths.

A writer should approach text like Hitchcock, not Spielberg. Hitchcock directed the viewers’ attention, where Spielberg directs their emotion. Strike out that last sentence, and we have perfect mise en scene a la Hitchcock, or that great shot in “Citizen  Kane” where Kane and the doctor break down the bedroom door, the one that’s in every film textbook.


In the film, Welles, like Hitchcock, has entirely prepared us to see the glass, spoon and bottle. No explanation is needed and we know entirely what it means. As a result, our feelings on seeing them are appropriate. The things onscreen elicit our response. This is how a writer, particularly a writer of fiction, should write.

As it happens, Murakami–who can, in fact, write–has likewise set up the scene. I remember reading the list of clothing and finding it incredibly sad. And then, that last line.

These pieces of clothing give an impression that is less sexual than sad.

When I read that it was like getting slapped in the face by an insult. One of my pet terrors is that we live in a society that is becoming more elitist while producing elites of diminishing quality. This line struck me as clear evidence of the process. If this is how one of the “great writers” of the day approaches the craft and his audience, we’re more screwed than I had previously imagined.

I also wondered who the h**l edited the book. No way would that have gotten past an editor of serious fiction at Random House back in the ’50’s or early ’60’s. The assumption was that the reader was capable of doing some of the work in the work of art. None of this back then, at least in “serious fiction.” Again, my strikethrough.

Backed up by electric piano, acoustic bass, and drums, Takahashi is playing a long trombone solo, Sonny Rollins “Sonnymoon for Two,” a midtempo blues. (163)

Now, any writer who cites Sonny Rollins scores a few points with me. And in my case, I would have gotten the reference immediately without aid. Most readers at this point, and likely when the record was new as well, wouldn’t have known the tune. But when Joyce packed Ulysses full of references, he very consciously didn’t pad them with explanations. He thought enough of his readers to assume they would put forth the effort to chase down his references if they were curious. And Joyce is not so scary and high-falutin’ as some people would have you believe, if you just put in the time and effort.

A work of art does not exist as a thing, but comes into being as it is experienced by an audience. The artist is not the most important part of the relationship between artist, work of art, and audience. It’s the audience. And when a reference in a novel doesn’t just let the reference be but explains it–in this case, tells the reader who composed the tune, and what type of tune it is–the novel, the author, and the industry kill the process of the reception of the novel as an active, imaginative process. We need novels that let their readers breathe, not that do their breathing for them.

Don’t misunderstand me. I finished the book. It was good enough to finish.

J.R.R. Tolkein, The Two Towers


As I write this I’m already a bit into The Return of the King. Despite what seems to be its reputation as the relatively boring middle bit, I thoroughly enjoyed The Two Towers. These books pass the most important test I give to books at this point in my life: I enjoy reading them.

Having said this, and feeling like the whole point of this blog is to say something, I’ll say that there are all kinds of flaws in Tolkein. The reverence with which some people approach his work, and the issuing of every single piece, it seems, of material he wrote to prepare for the trilogy, seems completely unwarranted. I know that there are classes offered in Tolkein as I’ve spoken with people who have taken them. I can imagine devoting a few classes to the work in a larger course, but a full course seems to me a desperate measure by untenured faculty to offer something–anything–which will boost their enrollment. The best use of Tolkein is to read the novels, not to study them.

One of the common praises sung of Tolkein is that he “invented a whole world” and “invented entire languages” that people spoke. These praises are generally presented with an endearing type of fanboy credulousness. But while Tolkein is certainly, in his creation of Middle Earth, hugely inventive, what is actually more interesting to me, reading it, is the extent to which it is visible that he did not invent out of whole cloth. This doesn’t make it less of a creation, but rather gives a sense of what it actually means to create. It’s not that there’s nothing new under the sun, because that’s not true. History doesn’t just repeat itself despite the cliche.

And so what’s interesting is not the extent to which Tolkein doesn’t invent something new. What he was clearly trying to do was to create a novelistic approximation of the type of otherworldliness one encounters in pre-Christian English literature, Beowulf specifically, and also like the various Scandinavian sagas. That literature presents worlds very different from the ones we inhabit. There’s magic, for example. Yet they are written not as fantasy, or not seeming to be as fantasy, but rather as a record of how things were, magic included. Behind the formal execution of those works, the actual words on a page, there is a full conception of a way the world works, or worked we would say from our current vantage point.

So, we should not say that the world of Tolkein’s is actually different than our own. A quick google reveals all kinds of predictable discussion about the underlying racism of Tolkein’s presentation. Predictable in that it’s not hard to see in the reading of it, and predictable how lots of people try to pretend it’s not there. This bit describes the problem well:

Tolkien did not write in a vacuum. Caught up in a generation of global war that profoundly and permanently altered British culture, he saw the world in terms Samuel Huntington might have recognized: the “clash of civilizations” in which East and West are pitted against one another. It is not a coincidence that Tolkien locates evil in Middle Earth in the East and South, or that the Haradrim mercenaries recruited by Saruman are readily identifiable as North African Arabs. Nor is it a coincidence that the dividing line between good and evil, the river Isen, is a homonym of the common German surname Eisen, and is given the same meaning (“iron”).

I will say that I was shocked but not surprised that at one point Orcs referred to some of the Rohirrim–people from Rohan–as “white skins.” It just made it all clear.

This isn’t about Tolkein as much as it is about how one goes about creating art. Tolkein clearly saw the world in a way that reflected the racism of the British Empire in which he grew up and which he defended. I can get past that. It doesn’t make him a bad writer. God help me if it’s only my worst qualities that count. What’s interesting to me is how generally well Tolkein actually does in presenting his world with an air of versimilitude. It’s only in moments like that use of “white skins” that the fictive nature of the endeavor peeks through. Really, it’s very good.

The same applies to Tolkein’s “invented” languages. Rohirrim, a plural, is a good example. Yes, Tolkein put a lot of effort into inventing an elfish language, etc. But the “-im” plural rang really familiar to me when I read it. It was one of those moments where, despite the best efforts of the author, the fictive nature of the novel becomes visible. It’s like a scene in a movie where you see the overhead mic dip onto the screen. The source for this plural–at least as it reads, which is the real test–would be seraphim & cherubim. My point is not that Tolkein wasn’t inventive, but that what he invented didn’t come out of nowhere.

The big problem in Tolkein, as a read, is the massive contrast between the thoughtfulness of the setting and the shallowness of the characterization. As I start to read The Return of the King, Gandalf is developing some depth as a character. Memory is imperfect, so maybe it was on display in The Two Towers as well. Here’s Gandalf, the wonderful celestial being, who flies off the handle at the slightest inconvenience. Not horribly interesting, but complex in a way that none of the other major characters are. None, except Gollum.

We'll tip our hat to Ralph Bakshi.

We’ll tip our hat to Ralph Bakshi.

Were I to advance a bold thesis, I’d say that Gollum absolutely ruins The Lord of the Rings as a work of literature, not because he’s poorly characterized but on the contrary because he’s the only figure in the series that is thoroughly well-drawn. I will say that once Gollum fully entered the narrative I had this sense that, for the first time, I had encountered a real person in this book. I thought of Tolstoy–now this is a real writer, I thought, with a real novel. Every tiny character in War and Peace is as well-drawn as Gollum, if through Tolstoy’s complete mastery of the small, telling detail. And those are the tiny characters. I thought, Tolstoy gave us hundreds of these characters, and Tolkein gives us one. I am not so much making a judgement as I am reporting a thought process. What is true is that, as I experienced it, the depth of Gollum only served to make all of the other characters look shallow. This is a real problem.

Tom Piazza, Devil Sent the Rain

DevilSentRain_PB_tile_ver6I think I have previously reported my habit of wandering the stacks in the library and randomly picking a book off the shelf to read. Often I won’t get out the door with it, and more often than not I won’t finish it or even get more than 50 pages in. I don’t finish books I don’t enjoy reading. Never did. Sometimes, I find a real gem on a subject I know nothing about.

Tom Piazza’s Devil Sent the Rain is not one of those real gems, but I did finish it. I don’t know why I grabbed it off the shelf, but it was with the books about music and when I leafed through it I saw that it had a piece on Jimmy Martin. That was enough for me to take the book. And, sure enough, by far to me the most interesting work in the book was the stuff about Martin. The main piece on Martin had a slightly pornographic quality to it, with, to be certain, nothing that would actually qualify as pornography. Piazza meets Martin, Martin drinks a lot, lives up to his reputation as “difficult,” raises hell at the Grand Ole Opry, Piazza watches, writes, makes money off it. Making money off someone else’s personal difficulty, just like the porn industry, but with clothes on.

In no way do I mean to dismiss popular music journalism, no matter how much I will get upset by it. Scholarly music writing for sure has its problems as well, though different ones. Above all, I appreciate music journalists because I like to read about music that I care about. That’s really all the justification a music journalist needs. While I love to read, though, about a musician I care for–and Jimmy Martin is for me far and away the best thing bluegrass has given us–when it gets down to it the Martin piece is really more about the personality than the music. This is interesting at some level but totally incomplete. Yes, the man was difficult, but the man was the music as well. Maybe you can do music journalism without really getting to the music itself in detail, but you can’t in my book do it well.

Piazza does, in pieces about Jimmie Rodgers, Charley Patton, and Bob Dylan, try to get to the music more particularly. Unfortunately, the conclusions he comes to aren’t particularly interesting. Rodgers is found to be a fox, in Isaiah Berlin’s sense. Patton is the deepest of real blues deeps you can get. Dylan tapped into some Great American Vagueness or Vague Americanness and expressed what was already there waiting to be said by someone who would say it. Two problems, the first the smaller. First, these are completely pedestrian opinions, right or wrong. You can’t spit 10 feet at this point without hitting that same line about Dylan. And Rodgers–the most interesting thing about his work, aside from how amazingly good it is, is how his music–I know nothing about the man, though I hope–is functionally anti-racist in a genre that often as not encourages redneckery. I love the music, but that’s how it is. Not Jimmy Rodgers’ music, though. But nothing about that.

The second, deeper problem, is that when dealing with the music, Piazza really doesn’t penetrate the sounds themselves. Penetrate, for lack of a better word. The best music criticism of which I know, like Amiri Baraka’s work or Lester Bangs‘ best stuff, gets one inside the music by providing a vocabulary with which we can experience the music more fully than we would otherwise.

I’d heard of Piazza for his timely Why New Orleans Matters. One large section of the book consists of pieces about New Orleans, post-Katrina. I agree with everything Piazza says, socio-politically, on the subject. As I said earlier, I finished this book, unlike many I randomly pick up off the shelf. Tell me something I didn’t already know? No, not really. Got a few new facts. But I am not sure that the function of journalism at this point is to tell a reader, like me, something he didn’t already know. It’s pretty clear it’s to tap into a market demographic of people who already agree with the premise.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

The-Fellowship-Of-The-Ring-Book-Cover-by-JRR-Tolkien_1I don’t know what precisely possessed me, but I finally started reading The Lord of the Rings. I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the various writers, Moorcock, Durham, Martin, Leiber, who have in various ways attempted to up-end Tolkein’s model of fantasy.

In my responses to all of those writers, I sympathized. At any number of levels, I still do. Tolkein’s work is classist and legitimist, and it presents a simplistic moral philosophy in which good and evil appear to be things.

A read of The Fellowship of the Ring confirms at least provisionally all the elements of these critiques. I will say, though, that while, for example, Tolkein indeed presents too simple a dualism of good and evil–it doesn’t, in its simplicity fit my experience of the world–he’s also more interesting in the actual reading than one would imagine from the movies, or The Hobbit.

What struck me was that at one point, almost as an aside but huge in its implications, Gandalf noted that Sauron was not always evil. Now, that is interesting. Having no interest to read the Silmarillion, I used Wikipedia and found that Sauron was more or less a fallen angel as we would find in Milton. This certainly makes for a more interesting read, as a dynamic evil, i.e., subject to change, is vastly superior to a static one, if one is going to adopt a framework of good and evil as a moral philosophy. More interesting as moral philosophy, though it does make Tolkein’s overarching mythology, highly original in its copious, pushing obsessive detail, less so it its broadest, essentially Christian contours. I guess the lesson is that great artists steal.

What was most interesting about the read was not that the moral philosophy was a bit more nuanced than I’d come to expect, and I will say that Tolkein did not surprise me with an unexpected depth of characterization. Really, characterization is his biggest flaw as a writer. Great on conceptualization, not so much on characterization. What really took me surprise, however, was the portrayal of land in the book. My ex began reading The Fellowship of the Ring while we were together, and stopped, citing among other things interminable discussions of hills and dales. Surely, she had a point to make.

For my part, though, I was blown away. Tolkein clearly gave more thought to land than to people. I don’t think this makes him a bad person. I find the long discussions of the land in which the narrative takes place both enormously interesting and politically important. This gets to the contradiction in English politics of the 18th century, one that E.P. Thompson pointed to in his Whigs and Hunters. When I was a kid in school, raised with the politics I was, the Whigs, Liberals, were the good guys in that story and the Tories the bad.

But of course as time passed and I got a fuller story, it became more complex. The good guys weren’t so good, and the bad guys weren’t simply bad. Tories, in seeking to maintain traditional social bonds of necessity recognized, if implicitly, traditional social rights, however imperfectly as I am all too aware they upheld those rights on an individual level in practice. The Whigs, in seeking to “liberalize” social relationships threw the baby of traditional rights to use land, in this case for hunting, necessary for the maintenance of agricultural communities.

So, while working Englishmen in the countryside had reason to fear both Whigs and Tories, in significant ways Tories were much less of a threat than Whigs. Tories–the local, landed aristocrat–were of the land, too, at least in some kind of imagination. I did not expect to see that connection to the land, the aspect of European Conservatism with which I am most sympathetic, so fully displayed in Tolkein, but there it is. Good for Tolkein.

Pascal Bussy, Kraftwerk: Man, Machine, and Music

093408193It comes as a shock to me that what is the most prominent popular book on one of the by this point unarguably most important musical groups of our time is one of the most poorly edited books I’ve read in years. I read the first edition, grabbed off the library stacks. Maybe subsequent editions are improved, but I’m shocked, shocked.

It has been some time since I’ve read a book of popular music journalism, and I have to say that the standard critique, that rock journalism is shallow and mercenary, seem to apply. To be certain, I loved reading the book, but while Bussy hinted at a breadth of understanding when he first name-checked Gilbert & George, his cultural context seems narrow when they’re name-checked for the tenth or so time.

Bussy posits a very tidy trajectory in the band’s development from openness to closed-ness. They began as part of a krautrock scene, one improvising group among many. Socially, part of a scene, they were open. Musically, improvisers, they were open. Gradually, Bussy tells us they applied greater and greater structure to their music, while at the same time, developing the Kraftwerk mensch-maschine aesthetic, the group withdrew socially to its Kling Klang studio and autonomous daily routine.

This is one way to explain a band that put out a record a year for most of a decade, then two in the next, then one album of remixes at the start of the following. Bussy makes it sound, in his telling, more than a little dysfunctional on a social level and almost sinister. He–Bussy–gives the impression of being a stereotypical techno scenester, though I have no idea if he actually is. He doesn’t seem to understand that “scenes” are not universally appealing. There are non-dysfunctional reasons for not participating in scenes.

What is clear is that Kraftwerk, as time passed, both worked through their musical idea thoroughly–by Computer World–and developed a daily routine that suited Ralf Hutter and Florian Scheider, if not Bartos and Flur as much over the long-term. They slept, drank coffee, biked, made music, and danced. They could certainly have put out a record a year, but Electric Cafe, an inferior work by any measure, demonstrated, I have to hypothesize, the futility of that kind of work, unless the only goal is to make a lot of money.

I don’t think that retreating from a scene is at all the same as retreating from the world, as Bussy seems to paint it. In fact, I’d argue it’s precisely the contrary. Kraftwerk seem reclusive only if one takes the perspective of the journalist denied an interview.

Bussy suggests that improvisation declined in Kraftwerk’s working methods as time passed. It certainly is true that they moved from wholly-improvised to generally structured music over the course of their work. To that extent Bussy is right, but it misses a key point to Kraftwerk’s project.

In discussing The Mix, Bussy cites one of the members whose name escapes me at the moment, having returned the book to the library. That project, which more or less formed the basis of their performance work to this day, consisted of digitizing their earlier work to preserve the sounds, and then reprogramming the songs as sequenced events. The effort, though, was not in order to make the entire thing automatic, reproducing exact performances every time, but to facilitate improvisation. Many more specific sequenced patterns exist on Kraftwerk’s computers than actually get used in any particular performance. The members, it was noted, choose which patterns to play as the performance continues. I would also note, having seen them twice, that pedals and knobs also affect timbre, reverb, and other effects. The actual sound one hears in the audience is entirely dependent on the choices of the musicians in the moment of the performance.

At some level, the story that Bussy missed is the story of Kraftwerk’s accommodation to the sequencer. Their basic project has always been to develop some kind of symbiosis, for lack of a better word, between man and machine in the moment of performance. The sequencer, programmed ahead of time in an act of composition rather than performance, upsets this symbiosis. If electronic music is programmed rather than played, the machines win in the moment of performance. This explains the long wait between Electric Cafe and Tour de France Soundtracks. With a Moog, a musician plays notes. Kraftwerk opted, to integrate the sequencer into a performance environment in which the musician plays not notes but sequences. That’s a huge task in terms of man hours, but it squares the circle.

Alan Moore, Watchmen

watchmen-thumb-350x538I’d been meaning to reread Watchmen for years now, but I didn’t feel like I liked the book enough to spend money on it, and it was always checked out at the library. Then, lo and behold, it was on the shelf a few weeks ago. A part of me wants to write a lengthier piece, and may at some point. Here, 500 words or so.

My first take on Watchmen, borrowed from a friend about a decade ago after I’d first gotten into comics, was that its reputation greatly outweighed its value. I had heard “greatest comic ever” from any number of people, and once I’d finished it, it was clear to me that those people were simply repeating to me what any number of people had told them. It was as if there needed to be a greatest comic ever and Watchmen was in the right place at the right time and so took the title. My second read has confirmed that first impression.

I’ve written about Moore’s Swamp Thing elsewhere and all of the basic critiques of his writing there were really expressions of what I’d felt upon that first read of Watchmen. What became clearer on this second read, however, was just how full of holes he is as a writer, or rather how wide the gaps are in his understanding of the world as it expresses itself in writing. Moore gets plenty of stuff right, to be sure. As a critique of superhero comics from within, the work is brilliant. Moore is a guy who–it seems to me from the outside–has an understanding of his medium that few likely can equal in sophistication, however one may disagree. No need to over-rehearse the details, but Moore very clearly exposes the fascist implications of the genre. Watchmen is genuinely meta, and from a time–late 1980s–when meta remained semi-hip.

Likewise, the comic is one of the finest documents of British/European Center-Left Cold War nuclear angst of which I know. Outside of its place inside comics, this is probably its chief importance as literature generally. As the Cold War has ended outside only a few right-wing think tanks, the possibility of nuclear annihilation has faded from public consciousness, however real the possibility remains. So too, at the time of publication, the general discourse in the United States was all Reagan triumphalism. Falklands aside, there was more room in public for a robust anti-nuclear movement in England, possibly because England lay in the middle of the two nuclear “superpowers.” Interestingly, reading Watchmen in this light gave it a vitality where it might, in 2013, seem a relic. Moore clearly had passionate feelings on the subject, and his eggheadery needs all the passion it can get, as a tonic.

The flaw in the work is that Moore references things he doesn’t really understand. One example: Nite Owl’s ornithological article, “Blood From The Shoulder of Pallas,” at the end of issue #7. No actual 1980s academic journal would publish an article a) in the flowery prose of British gentleman historians of the late 19th century that b) questioned the whole premise of the academic discipline the journal represents. That’s not how journals work. It might have been a letter to a colleague. This is admittedly a detail, but from a guy who seems to want to be placed among literary titans, it is completely unacceptable. The work is littered with similar semi-understandings. I’ll get to those in depth later, maybe.

577 words, not 500. I gotta reel it in.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

invisible-citiesI’d read Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities a number of years ago, decades. I’d read Borges, and started thinking about all the talk about “the postmodern novel” or whatever one might call it. I’d taken a course in college in which Calvino was assigned, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, and I felt an antipathy toward it at the time. Likely, I felt an antipathy above all to what I felt, at times in hindsight justifiably but not as generally as I then felt, was an antipathy toward the pompous Lit majors who would pontificate about the book when they hadn’t read it. I only skimmed it, but I kept my mouth shut.

So it was part of a process of opening up to the world, at the time very incomplete, that I allowed myself to read Calvino in my 20’s. I read most of his work over a two-year period. As it happens, I really did enjoy If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler least of the lot. Invisible Cities, the first of a serier that I’d read on a friend’s recommendation, I enjoyed most, followed very closely by The Castle of Crossed Destinies.

I’ll start with the uncharitable read of the work. At some level, Calvino is Borges-lite, for the NPR crowd. Above all, he reads incredibly easily for someone who associated himself with semiotics. I am all for easy reading on its own merits, but the situation is ripe for abuse by the audience. While most of us won’t slog through Barthes if there isn’t credit attached to it, we can read Calvino, talk about postmodernism (-structuralism, semiotics, or whatever), and feel like we’re cool. We heard these terms on NPR on some report as we were driving to work. We know we should use them. With Calvino, you get a lot of name-dropping bang for your buck. You can say “Oulipo,” and then tsk-tsk your interlocutor for mistaking the word for a font.
Borges, on the other hand–or at least the Borges of Ficciones–is a graceful, engaging read, but not an easy one if you pause a bit and scratch below the surface. He’s playing–we will get to this–with some of the same things as Calvino, but in a way that is not quite as light.This gets to the charitable read of the work. Calvino’s real virtues, as far as I can tell, rarely get talked about. Above all, Calvino has as light a quality to his writing as anyone I’ve read. Lightness, I have said again and again my friends will attest, is my cardinal virtue in any form of art. This is a matter of personal taste, without doubt. Lightness, too, does not mean insubstantial, or “lightweight.” The best example I can find in any medium of this quality of lightness would be Jo Jones‘ playing in the Basie band of 1938.

Invisible Cities–I haven’t yet actually described the book–is a series of descriptions of imaginary cities threaded together as an ostensible dialogue between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo. These descriptions are by no means all equal. At their best, though, they give a feeling of a lifting of the reader, this reader anyway. It’s like I’m in a hot air ballon, floating somewhere. This feeling is absolutely priceless.

This is the kind of thing that I never hear discussed about Calvino, and which I’m sure he’d be thrilled to hear. Calvino associated with hip postmodernists before it was hip, but he also, like Bakhtin, was fascinated by pre-modern popular culture, in particular folk literature as his collection of Italian folktales retold bears witness. Calvino’s approach at some level is that of a storyteller rather than po-mo novelist.

Calvino might be hip, but I have a clear sense that being hip was not his agenda. Rather, like a storyteller in a traditional setting, he very clearly wanted to produce in his reader a sense, through fiction, of a wider world of being than what any one individual’s daily life encompasses. Reading Invisible Cities, I get a clear feeling that the world is wide and that anything is possible. Art can communicate this. With Welles, people talk about his use of the camera, his play with narrative, his self-conscious artificiality, but his real virtue as an artist is–present tense–that he communicates the idea that anything can be done. I get this feeling with Calvino.

As with Welles, Calvino plays with his medium. The most obvious example of this is The Castle of Crossed Destinies, the writing of which he began by laying down a bunch of tarot cards on a table to see what lay where. It is this sense of play, in the most basic sense, not in a hipster po-mo kind of non-play play pretension, that produces that feeling of lightness so critical to the beauty of any work of art.

So, with Calvino, we need to discard all talk of the postmodern novel, semiotics, and post-structuralism. Attaching these terms to Calvino is like attaching lead weights to an air ballon. Rather, when we discuss Calvino, we need to see his work for what it is. Calvino’s work is light, fun, easy reading that opens a reader up to the idea that the possibility of the world is far from exhausted. I can’t imagine that Calvino wouldn’t prefer this type of discussion.

Jack Vance, the Dying Earth

dying-earth2These words refer to Jack Vance’s original, 1964 anthology, consisting of six stories, and currently out of print. What remains in print is a larger anthology of the four Dying Earth books Vance wrote over the course of his lifetime. Unless there is some compelling reason, I like to deal with things as they originally came out.

I’d long known Vance’s name because of his influence on the magic system in Dungeons and Dragons, and, then, by the consistently high regard in which his work is held by readers who by all appearances care about quality. I will say that with this collection–to be clear, I’m talking about first Dying Earth book, six stories–I entirely agree.

While on the one had the characterization in the collection is strong across the board, the setting itself here is of central interest. Briefly, the “Dying Earth” stories are so-called because the setting is on the planet Earth, but of the far future, when the Sun is in the process of dying out. Climate and weather change in fantastic ways, and, more interesting, the characters are aware that they are living, if not at, then near the end.

It’s not a deep observation to say that good speculative fiction, be it sci-fi or fantasy, or whatever, uses the speculative aspects of the genre to examine ways in which actually-living people live in the world. Not a deep observation, but a critical one. There is an escapist appeal to speculative fiction, but if it is going to stick, it needs to be about us. The best case in point I know of is Octavia Butler. Vance’s setting, fantastic, with magic, points to the underlying awareness in all people that life is transitory. Nicely done, Vance.

Nearly immediately, it’s clear why the people who created D & D turned to Vance as a source for their system of magic. It’s not simply that Vance’s portrayal of magic fits the demands of a game. It certainly does: in Vance people who use magic must memorize spells verbatim, which, upon their use, they completely forget, requiring more study before more use of magic. Great for a game.

Reading Vance, though–and this leads right to characterization–what’s most interesting is that part of the reason people need to memorize spells is because, late, late in the Earth’s game, magic is magic because people have, by and large, forgotten how to create it through experimentation. What remains are the records of other magicians’ work, which one memorizes, uses, and forgets.

In “Turjan of Miir,” we meet the titular character who is trying to create humanoid live in vats using magic. He is not up to the task, and seeks another, greater magician, Pandelume, who by reputation knows how to pull the spell off. This of course is the same basic trope, with all its attendant patriarchal problems, as Pygmalion.

Pandelume has previously created a physically beautiful and mentally flawed woman named T’sais. T’sais sees everything negatively, and as a result is both miserable and violent. Her story in the collection, taking her name as its title, is one of the most affecting works of fantasy I’ve read, and by any measure a beautiful story. Maybe it spoke to me on some personal level, and as a result produced the emotional response it did. I know what it is like to see everything as ugly. The crucial moment, one of the most beautiful transitions I’ve read, is when T’sais becomes conscious that it’s not that the world is ugly, but that she perceives it to be so. She then resolves to learn how to see beauty, and her attempts, with some beneficial results, are entirely believable and therefore very affecting.

I can’t overstate how thoroughly a small transition in a character, like that in T’sais, is the mark of a real writer. I’m in the fifth of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, and feeling very frustrated with the writing. The action seems to be in taking more or less static characters and creating situations in which the plot develops, but the characters do not. Or–this in hindsight–we have a character who develops, if very early on, like Daenerys’ change from timid girl to Dragon queen. The more I read in the books, though, the more confused I am about how that change actually happened, and the more convinced I am that Martin did not in fact give us a character development but merely replaced the first Daenerys with a second. Vance, totally contrary and vastly superior, not only shows us a turning moment in T’sais but causes us to feel it. That’s the real thing.

George R.R. Martin, A Feast for Crows

A_Feast_For_Crows.365x600.w.bI’d heard from more than one source that this fourth novel was one of the weaker, if not the weakest, of the five yet published. Likely this is because—I’m not making an original observation here—it’s one-half of the too-large manuscript Martin submitted to his publisher, only to be told to split the thing into what would be the fourth and fifth books of A Song of Ice and Fire. Martin chose to divide the text geographically rather than chronologically, and this meant that a number of well-liked characters, left in cliffhangers in A Storm of Swords, made no appearance in A Feast for Crows. This, and a large part of the book involves new characters, yet to prove their depth compared to the old.

So be it: the book’s good. If the new characters don’t seem as deep as the old, then at some level it remains to be seen whether this is a function of knowing them for less time or a less-compelling conception.

The broader issue for me, aside from enjoying the read, is the extent to which Martin’s work revises Tolkein’s precedent. Along this line, the question of women in the narrative is central. Martin’s work is widely seen as rebutting Tolkein’s near-totally male Middle Earth. Rhiannon, in an excellent piece, puts it as follows:

A Song of Ice and Fire is a mostly feminist text, featuring fascinating, dynamic female characters in a variety of situations. The fact that these girls and women live in a deeply misogynistic world only adds to the realism of their struggles and ultimately to the strength of their achievements.

I might have gone with that sentiment all the way through the first three books, but am hesitant with A Feast for Crows. Why, precisely, and why with this book? For me, any feminism worth getting behind is based on the premise that women are precisely as complex as men. This is more of an analytical point than an evaluative one. Patriarchy is based on the premise that women are as a group are subservient, simply. All my experience flies in the face of this idea, and so I reject it.

Martin’s treatment of Cersei in A Feast for Crows has forced me to re-investigate the women who populate the books generally. She is, here, an alcoholic hitting her bottom. For starters she drinks constantly, and to finish everything she does is wrong and destructive. Interestingly, I find myself becoming more sympathetic toward her in inverse proportion to the extent Martin reduces her to a simply destructive presence. It’s as if I feel like it’s one thing for her to fight against a rotten father, dashed hopes, a philandering royal husband, and a murdered child, but something more difficult entirely to fight against an author who chooses to make you a predictable villain. Nobody deserves that kind of treatment.

I don’t have the series of books at hand and were they here I would not refer to them in any event. My concern is how I feel about the books now. I find myself wondering about how Martin built Cersei in previous books. The general idea is that Martin, contra Tolkein, not only writes women into his books, but writes them well. I am not sure at this point. Martin places appropriate details in Cersei’s trajectory, but I am not sure, in hindsight, that I saw them come together as someone like Jaime or Tyrion. Cersei behaves selfishly and abominably throughout the series, but we get told that she is truly devoted to her children. This is contradiction substituted for complexity. I don’t suggest that any individual has some kind of essential core character from which all behavior springs. There is no such core in anyone. What is true, however, is that as people develop, the varying aspects of what we call, as a convenience, personality, fit together, not because of a predetermined design but because each influences the other and in turn is influenced.

We don’t see this kind of developing “personality” in Cersei. We have elements in her that form contrasts—love of children, selfish behavior—but not mutually-forming contrasts, as in real people and, I would say, in characters like her brothers. Though she makes no direct appearance in A Feast for Crows, I think back to Daenerys and feel as if a similar process is at work. On the face of it, she functions as a foil for Cersei, and vice versa. Where Cersei wields state power foolishly, the teenage girl Daenerys,when last we saw her in A Storm of Swords, makes political and strategic decisions more effectively than either Jorah Mormont or Barristan Selmy. All good, but we don’t see any development that would have given her the kind of understanding she demonstrates in her actions. She began the series timid and emotionally dependent on her older brother. After learning to enjoy sex with her husband, her personality changes and she becomes assertive. That’s the only development, per se, I can recall in the character. I like Daenerys, it’s good that we see a woman wielding political power well, but real people have a learning curve. Daenerys doesn’t.

Feminism’s most important point is that women are real people and that our social, political, and economic norms need to reflect this fact. I see powerful women in Martin,and certainly progress from Tolkein, but I am increasingly unsure that I’m reading, in his female characters, about real people.


George R.R. Martin, A Storm of Swords

I'm with the consensus. Best yet.

I’m with the consensus. Best yet.

For whatever reason, A Song of Ice and Fire really has its hooks in me by this point. A number of people I know who’ve read the series thus far have told me that A Storm of Swords is their favorite, and thus far I have to agree. More than anything, the book is good because Martin maintains a general inventiveness in plot and depth in character.

To return to the running thread of the discussion, my concern with Martin has been the extent to which he revises Tolkein’s influence on the genre. Right now, my concern is that the genre, nearly without exception takes a European center to its fantastic settings. Middle Earth is Europe, and the Shire is rural England. We know this. Even a Moorcock, who so thoroughly revised Tolkein’s ethical framework, maintained this European focus. His principal non-Melibonean characters were either Europeans by another name or exoticized others, sympathetic or no. In Tolkein, Sauron enlists the forces of Islam, if one scratches below the surface.

There can be no doubt that Westeros is, for the greater part, Europe. You could argue about Dorne, but the rest is there. I make this point without judgement, but with some concern. Why? Because one of the reasons I engage with literature the way I do is because literature, particularly more lowbrow forms of it, those for “entertainment’s sake” shape the way we as people see our world and the other people in it. This, and the fact that when we imagine that something is “just entertainment” we are all the less likely to be conscious as people of how what we read (or otherwise consume) affects our thinking about our world. My concern is that the thoroughly Eurocentric character of the genre can leave a reader with the impression that Europe–or the settler colonies Europeans established–is the center of the world and its history. This can transfer easily, especially in one of the settler colonies like that in which I live, to people. White people become the center of the world’s action, and their phenotypes become the norm. This type of thing has concrete, destructive consequences.

So, Martin doesn’t change this aspect of the genre. The question then becomes, how does he handle Europe? Discussions about what Europe means are very important, just like though we know Marx didn’t deal in depth, in his major works, with the non-European world, what he had to say about Europe is of enduring importance.

The colonialist line on Europe is that it took a civilizing turn away from the rest of the world when the Greeks defeated the Persians. Where others had superstitions, Europeans had philosophy. This predicated the Roman and British Empires both, and is why the English-speaking peoples gave us heavy industry.

There is a second, less discussed, and much more accurate and useful take on Europe. Rather than a Europe that breaks from the rest of the world with the Greeks, we have a Europe that breaks in the modern period. Of interest here is Carlo Ginzburg’s work, which I’ve discussed before. In essence, what we see with Ginzburg’s work is the process of church orthodoxy rooting out–physically–localized, indigenous religious practices under the guise of a struggle against witchcraft. This happens both under the context of the new Reformation and the development of modern, global, colonialist capitalism. The point here is that Europe was, as it continues to be, split unto itself.

We imagine Europeans, and, it follows, their white descendants in North America, Australia, and New Zealand, as peoples entirely culturally–genetically, to the biological racists–distinct from the indigenous peoples they displaced in their colonialist primitive accumulation. However one deals with this, though, the arrival of those Europeans who settled other peoples’ lands was the end of another, European process as much as it was the beginning of another. What a Ginzburg points to is a Europe that was as much connected to its particular, local land as any indigenous culture could be. In this view, Europe split from the rest of the world when it cut off its own roots in its own land.

All this discussion, because Martin deals with this process, in his way. Jojen Reed is the best example, at least in Storm of Swords. Bran, too, but Jojen is the one who is conscious of the processes involved. Tolkein gave us happy Hobbits living in their English countryside, but Martin gets to something more real: indigenous peoples under seige by settlers. The settlers–think the kings of Westeros, with their ideologues, the maesters–imagine that what had been there before is now entirely gone, but they’re wrong. The land still functions through people like Jojen.

Why is this important? Because one of the sustaining fictions of white supremacy is the lie, cherished as fact by explicit racists and privileged white liberals both, that “the Indians are gone.” I can’t count how many times I’ve heard that precise sentence from people who considered themselves on the left. Indigenous people are not gone, though white settlers did their damnedest. And who were those white people? Not people who were at some basic essence different from those they displaced, but people whose bond to their land had been forcibly cut, who found themselves at some level unmoored, and, as such, capable of great social violence. I return to Chief Seattle, to whom I will continue to return, again and again:

To us the ashes of our ancestors are sacred and their resting place is hallowed ground. You wander far from the graves of your ancestors and seemingly without regret.