21 August 2005


We (or, well, I) will be taking a break until September 1. Got a bunch of things that need to get written between now and then, multiple piles of books to read, an apartment to clean before I am smothered by dust and cat hair, money to extort, friends to blackmail, gods to offend, etc. etc. etc.

19 August 2005

The Breaking Point by Stephen Koch

Below is the latest in an ongoing series of guest reviews. Our reviewer this time is David Schwartz, author of one of my favorite stories from 2004, "The Lethe Man" (in Say...Why Aren't We Crying?), as well as stories in such places as Strange Horizons and Fortean Bureau.

The Breaking Point: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and the Murder of José Robles by Stephen Koch
a guest review by David J. Schwartz

A novelistic account of the disintegrating friendship between American modernists John dos Passos and Ernest Hemingway, set during the Spanish Civil War, The Breaking Point is as frustrating as it is fascinating. In attempting both literary and personal biographies of his protagonists, Stephen Koch ultimately falls short of doing either very well; the result is an odd hybrid between cloak-and-dagger novel and critical psychoanalysis. Yet as a chronicle of the machinations at work behind the conflict itself, the book points at the deeper resonances of the war. Both as shadow-play and as dress rehearsal for World War II and the Cold War, the conflict between and among the Second Spanish Republic and Nationalists under Franco is at times eerily predictive. In the end it's difficult not to imagine that Koch would have preferred to write a different book; a sobering and sympathetic examination of how well-meaning Americans of letters like Dorothy Parker and Archibald MacLeish were fooled by Stalin's Comintern operatives into believing they were aiding the working class, and in the process laid themselves open to the McCarthy witch hunts. But this is not that story.

The breaking point of the title has to do with the murder of John dos Passos's close friend José Robles Pazos sometime in March of 1937. The particulars of the case are still unclear; the official version was that Robles was arrested, tried, and executed as a fascist spy. Considering that Robles was a lifelong leftist who left his teaching job at John Hopkins University to aid the Republic, Dos Passos didn't buy it. The more likely scenario is that Robles was killed by Stalinist agents because of uncertainty over what he knew and might subsequently report about the real agenda of the Soviet "observers" in Spain. The Republic was not a united front, but a coalition of interests struggling for ultimate control even as they fought the fascists. But again, the death itself is not Koch's focus, nor even are the intrigues behind it. He is most interested in the way Robles's death affected the friendship between "Hem" and "Dos."

By 1937 Dos had reached the apex of his career; he'd appeared on the cover of Time Magazine, and his watershed U.S.A. trilogy was complete. Hem, though slightly behind Dos's curve, had no legitimate reason for professional jealousy; nonetheless, something had already gone very wrong in their friendship. Koch states that much of the original draft of To Have and Have Not contained scathing and libelous attacks on Dos: "[He] is presented as an (of course) unmanly blowhard, a political and artistic poseur, a cuckold, a masochist, and a deadbeat. The book sneers at Dos Passos's method as shallow and artistically trivial." Koch argues that these attacks were a product of Hemingway's insecurity, and the interactions between the Dos Passos character (Richard Gordon) and the Hemingway analogue are clashes between aspects of Hem's own personality. "The key to the novel's dominant bitterness is of course Hemingway's own self-contempt. . . . It is Richard Gordon who glimpses Hem passing by [and] invariably looks down on his rival's wretchedness with contempt. . . . In other words, in To Have and Have Not, Dos Passos is made into the vehicle of Hemingway's own self-loathing."

The book is full of this sort of literary psychoanalysis, and while at times it sheds light on the texts, set against the larger conflict it begins to seem rather beside the point. What is certain is that when Hem and Dos traveled (separately) to Spain to cover the war, their attitudes had already become quite different. When Robles turns up missing, Dos searches for him; Hemingway tells him to leave the matter alone and stop asking questions. "'Don't put your damn mouth into this Robles business,'" he tells Dos upon the latter's arrival in Madrid. "'The fifth column'--covert Franco sympathizers in Madrid--'is everywhere. Just suppose your professor took a powder and joined the other side.'" When Hem learns, thanks to the intercession of one of the Comintern's many pawns, the official "truth" of the matter, he takes great pleasure in humiliating Dos both politically and artistically by casting suspicion upon Dos's friendship with the "fascist traitor."

I must confess that I am one of those who find Hemingway more interesting as a character than as a writer; but the fact that Koch appears to feel similarly does not service his book particularly well. He is less interested in Hem's motives than in the dastardly nature of his betrayals, be they of Dos or of the women in his life. None of which is to suggest that Koch vilifies Hemingway, or that he bears no admiration for his work. There's an air of rueful admiration behind the reportage of Hem's lies and libels--as if the author were shaking his head and smiling as he researched, saying to himself, "That magnificent bastard!" And the lambasting of works like the aforementioned To Have and Have Not is largely motivated by disgust at the waste of indisputable talent. Nevertheless, the text's sympathies lie ultimately with Dos Passos, who is after all the wronged party. Dos is not a legend, though, only a minor modernist with two or three great books to his credit. Hemingway is the larger-than-life figure careening through this story, the self-styled realist taken in by the proletarian fantasies woven by Joris Ivens and other guides and mentors, most of whom Koch believes to have been Comintern operatives.

Koch seems unwilling to peel back the labels of "sadist" and "misogynist" to even guess at Hem's deeper motivations. Describing Hemingway's expectations that a woman "focus exclusively on him and his needs," Koch cops out by saying "The man was just that selfish; and the truth was just that simple." In the end, we are given the archetypal Hemingway and little more, and Dos Passos is--if possible--even less illuminated by the narrative. Cast in the role of the quester, his search is his virtue; his flaw, if he has one, that he is too trusting, too idealistic. By choosing to approach these events as a narrative, Koch makes Hem and Dos into characters; but by only attempting the shallowest of dives into their psychologies, he leaves them flat, unformed, and ultimately not that interesting. (Also frustrating is the inexplicable lack of an index--though there are endnotes--in a book packed with real-life personalities and events. It's as if everyone involved chose to treat this as a work of fiction.)

The character which most stands out in The Breaking Point is the war itself. Even presented in profile, its beginning and end lopped off, limited primarily to the intrigues of Stalin and the left (the Nationalists get off easy in this book), it still comes through as a fascinating microcosm of the Twentieth Century. At times it bears the lingering flavor of tragic romance, at others it reads as a collision of hopeless naïvete with cynical manipulation. Perhaps it was the resonance of this latter opposition which Koch hoped to parallel with his tale of Dos and Hem; I only wish he had scratched deeper beneath their surfaces.

18 August 2005

Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder

Below is the latest in a continuing series of guest reviews. Our reviewer this time is Teresa Tunaley, who spends most of her waking hours working as a freelance Art/Editorial Director for LBF Books.

Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder
a guest review by Teresa Tunaley

The story of Poison Study centres around Yelena, a young woman who is about to be executed for murder. On the day of her execution, she is brought before Valek, the Commander of Ixia's Chief of Security and more recently, his stand-in food taster. Valek offers Yelena the position of replacement food taster in exchange for her life...but is this a total reprieve or just a delay to her inevitable demise?

The Commander is under a daily risk of assassination from his many enemies and therefore requires a full-time food taster. Yelena quickly accepts the opportunity to taste his food, in exchange for her reprieve...not knowing from one day to the next, if she will die from being poisoned.

To ensure Yelena doesn't escape from her new-found freedom, Valek feeds Yelena Butterfly's Dust. He explains that she must appear before him each morning to administer the antidote, thereby ensuring the poison doesn't take effect and Yelena doesn't try to escape.

Yelena wants to desperately find her niche, but is constantly reminded of her state of affairs with ever-increasing dangers confronting her. Over time, she develops a few friendships, and she grows stronger. Valek allows Yelena to take lessons in how to defend herself, but in Yelena's mind it is with only one purpose, one day she intends to find a solution to taking the antidote and to be able to have the strength to escape...

During Yelena's improvement, she becomes aware that she has magical powers. This is outlawed in Ixia and must be kept a secret from all around her. Why she has these powers and what use they will be becomes apparent over time, but not without encountering additional problems.

Snyder has created an interesting mix of people, some who are as ordinary as you and I, and others who have differing elements of magical power. The twist and turns take you by surprise, and the all-important elements of a well-written story -- original plot and believable presentation of the uncanny -- were never lost throughout the entire book.

I enjoyed the experience of this novel and became aware of myself being transported to another land, another time, on a magical fantasy adventure with detailed imagery and unusual concepts. I was there to feel Yelena's pain, her refusal to give in, a witness to her new strength and her anguish to find freedom.

Maria Snyder has managed to create a fantasy world to delight and excite us. Her characters have a spirit that we can believe in. Having read books by J K Rowling, Piers Anthony, Steven Shrewsbury and others, it is my opinion that her writing style and content compare equally! Of all the fantasy books I have read, this is without a doubt one of the best. I am hooked and will definitely be looking out for the author's second novel in this series, Magic Study, where I hope to continue my adventure with Yelena and her life among her new friends.

17 August 2005

Natives and Exotics by Jane Alison

Natives and Exotics is a book I find easy to admire and difficult to love, a book that is complex and suggestive, its prose a model of exactness, and yet it feels more like an essay than a novel, its structure designed to highlight correlations and hypotheses rather than emotions or characters. (I mean that as an observation, not a criticism -- I doubt Natives and Exotics would be half as interesting if its characters were as developed as its historical perspective. The muted emotions, in fact, are a relief when so many novels feel like overfed emoticons.) Nonetheless, it can be difficult to adore a novel about the overlapping colonizations of plants and humans in the past few centuries, wondrous as such a book may be, because it remains at a distance, an engine of concepts that invite us to think about them rather than sympathize with them, to gaze at rather than ingest.

Thankfully, there's nothing wrong with admiring a book without adoring it, and there is much to admire here. Natives and Exotics is constructed as a triptych of stories with some additional scenes as connective tissue -- no, "connective tissue" is the wrong metaphor, because the short scenes only partially connect; "orbiting matter" might be a better term. The first main story is of Alice, a young Australian girl who has just moved to Ecuador with her family in 1970. She tries to adjust to the new life, and all the time a sense of menace hangs around her. It is difficult to get a sense of exactly what is going on, but the word oil pops up a fair amount, and talk of government problems, of corruption and destruction (1970 was the year Ecuador's president suspended the constitution and declared himself dictator). The mountains and jungles beckon like old gods, and stories and rumors mingle:
Then the story went around about how Ms. Barkin, the new English teacher, had gone by herself to the Amazon. A long, greenish woman with lank red hair and watery eyes, she'd taken local buses and hitchhiked. She was gone for several weeks. When she came back she looked as though there, in the jungle, she had sunk her body into all the vegetation, the living insects and fetid blossoms and rot, and that even though she had been there so long, all by herself in the jungle, she still had not had enough of it; even though things may have crawled in and out of her body, under her toenails and into her mouth and nostrils and secret openings, in her eyes was an insatiability, like a drug.
Nature changes humans just as much as humans change nature, and that, it becomes clear as the book moves along, is what all of this is about.

Just as we begin to feel settled with Alice, her story stops and suddenly we are in Australia in 1929 with a woman named Violet, who turns out to be pregnant with Alice's mother at the time. Violet's moment is a short one, a scene really, of a woman trying to make a life for herself on a frontier. She is trapped between two worlds and two responsibilities: the expected roles of a woman in 1929, and her own desires for something more, something else, something exotic.

We then move to Violet's great-great-grandfather, George, the adopted son of a Scottish man named Mr. Clarence. Together, they flee the Highland Clearings and head to the Azores, where George creates a magnificent orchard of orange trees. Meanwhile, the Azores become an important site in the War of the Two Brothers, a war that threatens to destroy much of the island George is on. Not everyone thinks the war must be pure destruction, however -- Mr. Clarence's acquaintance Mr. Furnell has grand hopes that it will settle things in both Portugal and Brazil and lead to progress:
"Men demand progress and improvements, Mr. Clarence. I'd think you as a Briton would know that. What with the advances the British have brought to Australia, to India--"

Mr. Clarence was breathing hard. "Those are scarcely improvements," he whispered.

Mr. Furnell stared at him. "Of course they are. The advance of Empire. From woods to pastoralism to agriculture to commerce: the natural course of man's dominion."

"Not," said Mr. Clarence, "if things are lost--"

"Lost? Rather, gained!"
Destruction is inevitable, though, not only because of war, but because of a parasite that arrives with a tree that George has imported. Then Mr. Clarence dies and George decides to move to Australia: "Maybe on that lonely, ancient continent, partly paradise but in large part hell, he would at last find his habitat."

These excerpts probably make the novel seem more polemical and less subtle than it is. The first sections of the book can be bewildering, because it's difficult to figure out what the pieces are aiming for, how they add up, what matters, and what, exactly, is even happening. But by a few chapters into the George and Mr. Clarence section, all sorts of stray details and phrases from the previous sections begin to echo off of each other, and things that threatened to be forgotten move suddenly toward the foreground of memory. It's an exhilarating feeling for a reader, the feeling of jangling bits of past matter suddenly (and contrapuntally) building form and shape from each other.

That feeling only grows stronger in the lovely later sections that bring Violet and Alice back and build their connections. The ending is quieter than the many cycles of destruction and rebuilding that fuel the rest of the book might suggest, but it is entirely appropriate and even, perhaps, moving.

And I haven't yet mentioned an important element of the novel: the science. Botany is a major subject throughout Natives and Exotics right from the beginning. The prologue of the book has three short chapters: The first is set on an island of the Galapagos in 1786, where a sailor carves the date into the shell of a giant tortoise. The second section takes place the same year, and gives us a glimpse of the botanist and explorer Sir Joseph Banks in London. The third section shows us Alexander von Humboldt in 1799 just as he sets sail for Latin America.

After George sets sail for Australia, his boat passes the H.M.S. Beagle, where Charles Darwin is writing in his diary, thinking about Captain Cook and von Humboldt, remembering tortoises: "He'd seen one with 1786 carved in its shell! They might be old as trees. Yet within twenty years they would all be captured, overturned, scooped out, and eaten; not one would remain. Just as, he suspected, the kangaroos of Australia would soon be gone. Men did what they must to live, after all." (Alison seems to have some good fun playing with the implications of the "all-inclusive" term men throughout the book.) Finally, Darwin settles on the fascination of mystery: "Yes, they fascinated him, the awfully sublime movements of nature! And above all, the mystery of mysteries: how the possessors of that fragile thing called life appeared upon the mineral globe, how they became scattered across it."

There's more and more. This is no simple screed against human ingenuity and for a return to some primitive paradise, but rather a vast fugue of glimpses, a map of moments, and a guide to all that is found within all that is lost. It's a study of departures and returns, of repetitions and revisions. It's about, too, the impossible quest for home.

Why, we might wonder, not tell it all chronologically? Why not start with George and work toward Violet and then Alice? Wouldn't it all make more sense? Yes, it might, but it would be a duller experience, because the dislocation of the first sections would be lost, and the novel would feel more like a treatise than, as it does now, a dance. A more linear structure would shatter so many of the implications of the material, because a more linear structure would lull us into creating too clear a narrative. The ambiguity, the occasional confusion, the puzzle-solver's eurekas are all essential to how this novel means, to how it is what it is. A linear narrative would be merely clever; Natives and Exotics rises toward something far more jarring, sharp, and profound than cleverness.

16 August 2005

Diversions and Divagations

Various and sundry things to look at around the sacred and profane Internets:
  • A new issue of SF Site has been posted, including a review I wrote of Anima by M. John Harrison, which is really the books The Course of the Heart and Signs of Life collected together. Lots of other interesting things posted, so don't ignore the site just because I'm there.

  • For more M. John Harrison goodness, see Scribblingwoman, who just read Light and mostly liked it. Lots of links, including to my rather empty review of Light hereabouts (no, I'm not going to link to it -- read Jeff VanderMeer's review instead; it actually says something).

  • The British Fantasy Award nominations have been announced. The Alien Online has a nomination, which is pretty exciting, coming as it does on the heels of their World Fantasy Award nomination.

  • A good discussion of animal rights at Crooked Timber. The arguments in the comments thread are fascinating.

  • Plenty of people have already linked to this, but for the one or two of you who haven't seen it: Design by Unintelligent Hand, aka The DUH Theory.

  • New books: Jeff Ford's The Girl in the Glass has been released -- I actually saw it at an actual bookstore yesterday. I read the book a few weeks ago, and thought it was delightful fun; it's as much of a page-turner as The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque, but I liked it more than that novel for a bunch of reasons, most of which boil down to the fact that I'm a sucker for stories about con men and magicians. Another book that has just been released is From the Files of the Time Rangers by Rick Bowes, which I'm likely to finish reading today or tomorrow for a review for SF Site. I'll say much more later, but it's an absolutely remarkable book; I actually had doubts about twenty pages in that it could add up to anything that wasn't an annoying mess, and by 150 pages in I was utterly hooked and occasionally in awe. I don't want to judge much before finishing, though....

  • Speaking of current reading, I'm also half-way through Sontag & Kael: Opposites Attract Me by Craig Seligman, which is just extraordinary. I expect I may do a Strange Horizons column on some of the ideas it presents, but it's a wonderful view of both women's writings, their strengths and weaknesses, and how their work played with and against the culture of their times. Many people could have written doctoral theses comparing Pauline Kael and Susan Sontag, but Seligman chose to write a chatty (in the best sense) and personal meditation on the two writers, ideas of art and culture, the place of critics in society, etc.

  • Speaking of Strange Horizons, there's a new issue posted. And speaking of columns, it includes one by Debbie Notkin on spoiler warnings.

  • Finally, I am not the Matthew Cheney who was lead author of "A Comparison of the Size of the Yahoo! and Google Indices". But I'm all for it.

12 August 2005

98 Reasons for Being by Clare Dudman

That Clare Dudman's second novel, 98 Reasons for Being, is about Heinrich Hoffmann (the German doctor who wrote the classic and somewhat sadistic children's book Strewwelpeter) was enough to interest me. I had read Dudman's first novel, One Day the Ice Will Reveal All Its Dead (titled Wegener's Jigsaw outside the U.S.), and though for some reason I didn't find it entirely engaging, I had been impressed by many elements of it. I knew nothing of Hoffmann himself, but a friend had given me an edition of Struwwelpeter illustrated by Sarita Vendetta with images so over-the-top and gothic that it quickly became a cherished artifact, and I was curious what Dudman could do with such apparently rich material.

There's much more to 98 Reasons for Being than Strewwelpeteresque horrors -- it's a book with many layers built from a series of glimpses and portraits that at first seem disconnected, but ultimately come together to show the connections between madness and sanity, lust and desire, power and weakness. The book begins after Hoffmann has written his famous children's rhymes and is trying to build a legacy for himself not as a writer, but as the caretaker of an asylum for the insane in Frankfurt in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Though 98 Reasons for Being is held together by the narrative thread of Hoffmann's counseling of a patient, Hannah Meyer, who has been brought to him by her mother and is said to be a nymphomaniac, Dudman made the fine decision to have the book be a panoramic view of life inside the asylum, so we spend nearly as much time with other patients and their caretakers as we do with Hoffmann and Hannah. This slows the story down considerably, and the first hundred or hundred fifty pages demand considerable patience from the reader, but the accumulative power of the various stories and incidents is, in the end, considerable.

By moving from one character to another in each scene, Dudman subtly undermines any one definition of even the most bizarre characters, showing that the lines separating sanity from insanity, health from disease, nature from nurture are as dependent on who is doing the defining as on any inherent traits. For example, the label of "nymphomaniac" that gets slapped onto Hannah, and that Hoffmann is suspicious of, proves to hide all sorts of assumptions about sex, gender, and society. The virtue of 98 Reasons for Being is that, as a novel, it can make this point more subtly and more viscerally than many works of nonfiction have -- as if Foucault's Madness and Civilization were told through Chekhov's "Ward No. 6". Dudman gives us a character whose life is wrenched into confusion by forces of society and tradition, and through a presentation of her situation and an imaginative leap into her thoughts and confused feelings, that character becomes far more complex than any label would suggest. But we're not limited to Hannah -- all of the ideas and questions that we're provoked toward through her story are echoed, complexified, and given depth by the stories of the other characters. (Hoffmann himself begins to make some of the connections at the end, after his wife has sent his troubled son away to boarding school: "Boarding school for his son, ghetto for the Jews and the asylum for the insane. They were all places people were sent to be out of the way and forgotten." It's one of the only moments where Dudman makes some of her themes explicit.)

In some ways, it's too much -- at times, it feels like the book is straining to hold itself together, and I wondered if the presentation of Hannah's own point of view in the first half of the book was as effective as it could be. I'm torn by this idea, though, because it may be that, having read my fair share of Faulkner and Joyce, I want all representations of the inner thoughts of characters to be rendered in some sort of stream-of-consciousness, when often this has become a kind of crutch for many writers, a way to pretend to be profound. But the representation of Hannah's inner life felt like something a nineteenth century writer might come up with, like the dreams in Dostoyevsky's novels. Perhaps that's the point.

The use of history is another interesting element of 98 Reasons for Being. Each chapter begins with an excerpt from medical records, a newspaper article, a personal letter, or some other artifact, and it's not until the "Author's Note" at the end that we find out they're all made up, "although some of them rely quite heavily on contemporaneously published works and are intended to summarize the ideas and views widely held at this time in western Europe". The style and tone are remarkably convincing. Dudman also reveals that the character of Hannah is a fabrication -- indeed, a fantasy: "Jewish people had not been admitted to the old town asylum for many years, and certainly not during Hoffmann's time, so the case of Hannah is entirely fictitious." Hannah's Jewish identity -- her own relationship to it, as well as how other characters construct their ideas of her from it -- is integral to the novel, and this tweaking of history, like all the others, allows an imaginative deconstruction of the past that teases an alert reader toward questioning how style and presentation shape our belief in the veracity of the stories we call history just as much as our own prejudices and assumptions about normality and morality contribute to our ideas of what is and isn't sane.

Many more resonances, hints, and harmonies can be found in 98 Reasons for Being, which is, ultimately, a fine example of a novel that is vastly more than just a fictionalization of history -- it aims, instead, toward the suggestive truthfulness of art, a reimagining of the past.


Gwenda Bond pointed out that Caitlin Kiernan has made a valuable attack on the term "self-indulgent" as a critical insult of a piece of writing:
...this is one of those things that strikes me very odd, like reviewers accusing an author of writing in a way that seems "artificial" or "self-conscious." It is, of course, a necessary prerequisite of fiction that one employ the artifice of language and that one exist in an intensely self-conscious state. Same with "self-indulgent." What could possibly be more self-indulgent than the act of writing fantastic fiction? The author is indulging her- or himself in the expression of the fantasy, and, likewise, the readers are indulging themselves in the luxury of someone else's fantasy. I've never written a story that wasn't self-indulgent. Neither has any other fantasy or sf author. We indulge our interests, our obsessions, and assume that someone out there will feel as passionately about X as we do.
I agree that it's an entirely inappropriate term (though I may have perhaps used it myself; I hope not), but how it gets used is, nonetheless, interesting. Let's look at some random and unscientifically selected examples:
  • From a review of an Ani DiFranco CD: subtitle: "Self-Indulgent, Self-Righteous Babe"; from text: "an overly indulgent song which utilizes an answering machine message that has little to do with the actual song save for a single shared line"

  • From a review of the movie The Anniversary Party: "I would have liked to have written the film off as self-indulgent claptrap made by some self-indulgent actors and starring their self-indulgent friends. But, the film, tho' seriously flawed is very human, perceptive and emotional."

  • From a review of the book Headless by Benjamin Weissman: "little more than a series of self-indulgent, self-impressed, self-titillating set pieces of forced weirdness and utter pointlessness."

  • From a review of the Criterion Collection edition of John Cassevetes films: "Many, including Leonard Maltin and Ephraim Katz, have labeled Cassavetes self-indulgent. Demanding and austere, perhaps, but self-indulgent? Not once does he impose directorial flourishes of the kind we expect from Hitchcock, Fellini, or Spielberg. And he gave everything he had--money, script, crew, ideas, time, loyalty, ego, and energy--to his actors and their search for emotional honesty. They returned his graciousness with performances startling in their disregard of flattery."

  • Finally, from a reader's response to Mervyn Peake: "To sum it up in the best possible way, its BORING! stagnated, fossilized, long and very Self indulgent. I just didn't like what Mervyn Peake was telling me. So what happens ( very little if you ask me )..."
There is something people are responding to here, a certain general commonality in the use of the term "self-indulgent". It is the idea that the creator of the work under discussion has done something that does not please the person discussing it, and the person discussing it has decided that the something was not worth doing, and that the creator probably knew this in the beginning. Thus, Ani DiFranco is self-indulgent because everybody knows answering machine messages don't belong in songs; The Anniversary Party would have been self-indulgent if it had not been "human, perceptive and emotional" (note the multiple selves capable of being indulged in that review -- it's a potential orgy of mutual masturbators); Headless is self-indulgent because its weirdness does not titillate, impress, or indulge the reviewer; Cassevetes was not self-indulgent because his films drew no attention to the director himself, and, instead, involved many sacrifices of vanity; and Peake is self-indulgent because the reader "just didn't like what Mervyn Peake was telling" him. Because, like, if it's not about you, then it's self-indulgent.

What reviewers who use the term "self-indulgent" are suggesting is that the person created something they knew the reviewer wouldn't like, but they went ahead, the bastard, and did it anyway.

I should probably note here that I'm not suggesting the reviewers are all maligning masterpieces. A judgment of whether a work is worthwhile or not is less interesting to me than how such a conclusion is reached (call me self-indulgent). It's not the inaccuracy of the term that bothers me so much as the argument it hides: an accusation of self-indulgence, like an accusation of "elitism", lets a reviewer disguise the fact that they're trying to speak for some imaginary mass audience, to say "I did not understand/appreciate/enjoy X, and therefore you should not, either." (Which is essentially what one of the commentors to Kiernan's post suggested: "So, the reviewer is basically saying, 'It doesn't interest me, so it shouldn't interest anyone else,' but taking a roundabout way of saying it so as, perhaps, to stave of consciousness of this indiscretion.") I suppose all of us who make our opinions public are doing this to some extent, trying to shape a consensus to make ourselves feel less alone, but there are many more subtle, nuanced, and useful ways of doing it than throwing around terms like "self-indulgent".

Update: Or maybe this is wrongheaded.

10 August 2005

Get Your Name in a Book

Neil Gaiman started it, and now it's catching on: Writers raising money for worthy organizations by auctioning off the opportunity to get your name in their book. Now a bunch of them are doing it together for the First Amendment Project. Here's the info, cut and pasted from Neil:
Have you ever wanted to be in a Stephen King book? (You must be female in order to die, though.)

Stephen King

What he's offering:
"One (and only one) character name in a novel called CELL, which is now in work and which will appear in either 2006 or 2007. Buyer should be aware that CELL is a violent piece of work, which comes complete with zombies set in motion by bad cell phone signals that destroy the human brain. Like cheap whiskey, it's very nasty and extremely satisfying. Character can be male or female, but a buyer who wants to die must in this case be female. In any case, I'll require physical description of auction winner, including any nickname (can be made up, I don't give a rip)."

When you can bid:
September 8-18

Or a Lemony Snicket book?

Lemony Snicket

What he's offering:
"An utterance by Sunny Baudelaire in Book the Thirteenth. Pronunciation and/or spelling may be slightly 'mutilated.' An example of this is in The Grim Grotto when Sunny utters 'Bushcheney.' Target publication date is Fall 2006."

When you can bid:
September 8-18

or a Jonathan Lethem-written Marvel comic?

Jonathan Lethem

What he's offering:
"I need the name of a Columbia University professor for a comic book I'm writing for Marvel. It can be your name or the name of a friend -- but if it's a friend, I need to hear from them with their permission."

When you can bid:
September 8-18

While I [that is, Neil Gaiman] am promising to put your name onto a gravestone in my next children's novel, THE GRAVEYARD BOOK.

Anyway, the schedule (and the complete list of authors) is as follows:

September 1-10: Michael Chabon, Amy Tan, Peter Straub, Andrew Sean Greer, Karen Joy Fowler

September 8-18: Stephen King, Lemony Snicket, Dorothy Allison, Jonathan Lethem, Ayelet Waldman

September 15-25: John Grisham, Nora Roberts, Neil Gaiman, Dave Eggers, Rick Moody, ZZ Packer

And all the information is up at http://www.ebay.com/fap. It's a perfect birthday present, graduation present, retirement present, way to impress a boyfriend, girlfriend, parent, child. And it's for an extremely good cause.

Spread the word.
Anybody want to work with me on persuading Harold Bloom to bid on getting his name in the King book?

08 August 2005

Out There

Out beyond the limits of this little weblog you will find the latest issue of Strange Horizons, which includes a new column of mine, plus some better things, like fiction and poetry and articles and the final page of the Violet Miranda graphic novel serialization.

If you're not interested in any of that, then the least you could do would be to read Kelly Link's answers to Jeff VanderMeer's silly questions. Although I must say I found the answer to the final question disturbing, because we discover that if Kelly's book doesn't sell and she becomes destitute, she might try auditioning for "Survivor". I find this answer disturbing because I think it would be really fun to see Kelly on "Survivor", but I don't want her book to be a failure or for her to be destitute. So I'll be starting a petition to the Publicity & Laundry Dept. at Small Beer Press to try to convince them to send Kelly to a "Survivor" audition as part of her transcontinental book tour. Actually, now that I think about it, perhaps Road Rules would be better, because then the book tour could be integrated into the show. Oh, the possibilities!

07 August 2005

Sunday Night at the Linkdump

It's a new week, so it's time to get rid of some accumulated items of interest:

Grimm, Kleist, Details, and Belief

Waggish continues to be one of the most thought-provoking weblogs I've encountered, and the latest post, about the Grimm tales and Heinrich von Kleist's Michael Kohlhaas is worth reading carefully. Waggish takes his inspiration from a Times Literary Supplement review (subscribers only) by Gabriel Josipovici of a new selection of the Grimms' fairy tales. While most of the review is about the translation, the choice of text, etc., one paragraph offers some tantalizing ideas about fiction, with Kleist's novella Michael Kohlhaas as a key.

For the sake of context, at least, it's worth noting how Josipovici leads up to Kleist. First, a few sentences about belief and storytelling are important:
...what we are witnessing in the transformation of the tales is a phenomenon that has analogues in other times and places. ... We see it in the Jewish tradition in the transformation of biblical narratives into Midrash. God calls Abraham. Why? The Bible does not say. But Jewish tradition finds it hard to live with the apparently arbitrary ("How odd of God to choose the Jews"), and so elaborates a series of stories about Abraham's childhood, about his belief in the one God, his hatred of idol-worship, and his consequent persecution by the idolatrous King Nimrod. That, then, is why God called Abraham and told him to leave his house and go where He, God, would tell him. We are at the point of transition, in all these cases, between two different attitudes to the world and to storytelling.
Which leads to a discussion of Walter Benjamin's essay "The Storyteller", and then Kierkegaard:
Benjamin is not simply looking at differences between stories and novels, he grasps that to make sense of both sets of phenomena you need to have some understanding of what it is that drives storytelling on the one hand and novel writing on the other. More light is shed on this in a remarkable entry by Kierkegaard in his journal for 1837 (he was twenty-three). It is worth quoting in full:

There are two recommended ways of telling children stories, but there are also a multitude of false paths in between.

The first is the way unconsciously adopted by the nanny, and whoever can be included in that category. Here a whole fantasy world dawns for the child, and the nannies are themselves deeply convinced that the stories are true . . . which, however fantastic the content, can't help bestowing a beneficial calm on the child. Only when the child gets a hint of the fact that the person doesn't believe her own stories are there ill-effects -- not from the content but because of the narrator's insincerity -- from the lack of confidence and suspicion that gradually envelops the child.

The second way is possible only for someone who with full transparency reproduces the life of childhood, knows what it demands, what is good for it, and from his higher standpoint offers the children a spiritual sustenance that is good for them -- who knows how to be a child, whereas the nannies themselves are basically children.
Then comes the key paragraph:
This suggests that what happened to the Grimm Tales in the course of fifty years of "revision" was that they were transformed from tales told by speakers who were deeply convinced that they were true (whatever meaning one assigns to the term) into tales told by writers (Wilhelm Grimm, in effect) who did not believe in them and therefore added scene-setting, morality and psychology to make them both attractive and meaningful. It also gives us a hint as to why a novelist like Dickens had (and still has) the effect he had on his readers: he was one who knew "how to be a child". However, it was perhaps Kleist alone among the writers of the century who really grasped what was at issue here. His great novella, Michael Kohlhaas, takes many of the elements that go to make up the Grimm Tales and stands them on their head, bidding an anguished farewell as it does so both to community values and to the power of wishful thinking. But Kleist had no successors, and, by and large, nineteenth-century novelists and storytellers took the path of Midrash and romance, still the staple diet of readers of twentieth-century fiction, with neither writers nor readers quite believing what they are doing, but under a strange compulsion to pretend that they do.
Waggish responds:
What is the nature of this pantomime compact between writers and readers which Josipovici only mentions briefly? Modern day American fiction has evolved into a sort of psychological shorthand, in which physically descriptive details and moody variations on images have come to point to a shortlist of mutually agreed upon emotions. By definition, none of them are particularly original. A look through Raymond Carver will isolate the basic vocabulary of jealousy, love, sex, family, etc., etc., but the vocabulary has been with us back through Updike and Cheever all the way to the malaise of Sinclair Lewis, the schemata of John Dos Passos, the tough guy tactics of Hemingway, and the decadence of Fitzgerald. (I don't especially care for any of these authors.) There is an aspect of the fairy tale and the fable to tales that share this vocabulary, because they tell us what we already know--or rather, reiterate what we've already heard. The pretense lies in perpetuating the myth that these stock emotions have an emotional veracity transcending their unoriginal artifice.
In an elegant response to/building from both Josipovici and Waggish, Spurious writes, among other things:
For many years, all of my 20s, I wanted to write and devoted as much time to writing as I did to my studies. Reading back now, I see I wanted to seize on the bareness of telling -- to write a writing which spoke without details, which burnt away the dross and left the raw experience. Reading Kafka again, and Handke, taught me my mistake: telling asks for details; it demands them. Only by details -- Klamm's eyeglasses, the faces of the peasants, the beer in pools on the floor of the public house -- might telling occur. This was a life-changing lesson: literature's gift, which can also be the gift of film (Tarkovsky, Bresson ...) and of music (Will Oldham, Bill Callahan), is given by way of details. Only thus might the event, the hotel garden, be told.
What to do with all this, other than meditate on it for days and weeks and years, lifetimes?

Perhaps something about details. In the introduction to the edition of Kleist's stories that I have, translators David Luke and Nigel Reeves tear into Michael Kohlhaas (which can be acquired on its own from Melville House):
Unfortunately, however, Kleist was not content to finish Michael Kohlhaas on those lines, but introduced a bizarre and fantastic sub-plot which seriously damages the artistic structure of an already long and complex narrative. ...

Michael Kohlhaas has the dramatic urgency of the best of Kleist's other stories, but none of their economy of means. Its ever increasing and ever more confusing complications suggest that the narrator wishes to lose both himself and the reader in an impenetrable world, in a maze of detail and coincidence. The mystifying affair of the old woman was to have been, perhaps, the culmination of this process, raising it to a supernatural level. ...

In Michael Kohlhaas the "real" and the "fantastic" are not compellingly fused but clumsily mixed. ... a further explanation may be that Kleist wanted to appeal to the popular taste, at this peak period of German Romanticism, for folkloristic, fairytale-like material. ... But Kleist was "romantic" and irrationalistic in too profound a sense to have needed to make such concessions to literary convention.

...the weighty realism of Michael Kohlhaas is stylistically and structurally marred by an ill-considered excursion into the region of the fantastic and the uncanny...
What has so upset Luke and Reeves about Michael Kohlhaas is not the inclusion of fantastic elements (they praise such elements in others of Kleist's stories) or the melding of fantasy and "the real" to create "the uncanny" (again, this is praised in other stories). Instead, it's the weight of details, and the inability to reconcile those details with the apparent fantasy -- the inability to suspend disbelief. Luke and Reeves come up with logical reasons why they find the addition of the Gypsy woman story to the historically-based first two-thirds of the story credible, essentially saying, "There are too many coincidences, and it's not psychologically plausible."

"Telling asks for details," as Spurious said. Luke and Reeves think "the narrator wishes to lose both himself and the reader in an impenetrable world, in a maze of detail and coincidence". Josipovici says, "Michael Kohlhaas, takes many of the elements that go to make up the Grimm Tales and stands them on their head, bidding an anguished farewell as it does so both to community values and to the power of wishful thinking." Perhaps Luke and Reeves were blinded by an addiction to shorthand, because Waggish is onto something when he says, "Modern day American fiction has evolved into a sort of psychological shorthand, in which physically descriptive details and moody variations on images have come to point to a shortlist of mutually agreed upon emotions."

Reading Michael Kohlhaas can be a profoundly odd experience if your main diet is mainstream 20th century U.S. fiction, either "popular" or "literary", because it seems to be a sea of details, a flow of events in which the characters are mostly built from externalities and therefore made distant to the reader, unapproachable -- the sort of people who wouldn't find much help in the Self Help aisle at the bookstore. And then, kerplop, it becomes a fairy tale. Various sorts of readers are likely to make different meanings from this turn, but it is significant. Josipovici's "scene-setting, morality and psychology" are not entirely absent from Michael Kohlhaas, but they are also not the story's reason for being -- they exist as the minimum necessary for there to be any basic sense to the narrative.

Is there some element that is the story's reason for being? I'm not sure, and I think I'd need to have a better knowledge of Kleist and his milieu to venture much of a guess. But I doubt it can be distilled to one element, because Michael Kohlhaas is too complex, too all-encompassing to be reduced to one single pearl of critical cleverness. It seems to exist almost in between Kierkegaard's two types of stories, as if it were a tale requiring neither and both belief and unbelief, because both leads to habits that produce dogmas and shorthands, and so belief and unbelief must be used against each other. The details are essential for the creation of belief and for its destruction. This is different from Josipovici's description of the modern contract of "neither writers nor readers quite believing what they are doing, but under a strange compulsion to pretend that they do" because the terms are muddier, with no clear delineation of where the believing should begin or end, or even if it's important at all. It's almost as if Kleist says to the reader, "Believe if you want, or don't if you want -- it doesn't really matter, because that's not why we're here." The text becomes a kind of indifferent god, an object that requires neither worship nor doubt, and is impervious to both.

05 August 2005

The Rivers of War by Eric Flint

Below is the next in a series of guest reviews. Our reviewer this time is Nick Mamatas, author of Move Under Ground, Northern Gothic, 3000 Miles Per Hour in Every Direction at Once, and editor of The Urban Bizarre.

Another Chance To Get It Right: Eric Flint's The Rivers of War
a guest review by Nick Mamatas

Despite decades of reading, I was fooled by one of the oldest tricks in, or rather on, the book. The Rivers of War by Eric Flint (Ballantine, $25.95) bamboozled me with misleading cover copy; specifically, regarding during the War of 1812:
What if--at this critical moment--bonds were forged between men of different races and tribes? What if the Cherokee clans were able to muster an integrated front, and the U.S. government faced a united Indian nation bolstered by escaping slaves, freed men of color, and even influential white allies?
What if, indeed? Unfortunately, The Rivers of War is not a book that explores these questions. Eric Flint was a breath of fresh air in his earlier books, like 1632, which actually did feature ordinary people as agents of alternative history, but this book is simply rehashed "Great Man" theorizing, and features virtually nothing described above. Instead, the book is the story of the War of 1812. Flint says he makes one minor change to history, and this "want of a nail" (or want of a horrible groin injury) allows Sam Houston to play a much larger part in the conflict. A Cherokee sympathizer, he works with Indian fighter and well-known racist Andrew Jackson to move the Cherokee over the Mississippi river, but in order to build their own nation-state that would actually have some level of independent sovereignty. But first, three hundred pages of battle scenes! Indeed, we never actually see anything of the nation building or even any of the planning; instead Flint offers up a quasi-historical military novel of the sort likely to be enjoyed by fans of David McCullough and people who don't normally read novels.

Flint writes in a very "accessible" style, which is to say that anyone who is a careful or highly interested reader will be annoyed -- the one-book-a-year crowd who generally fuel the bestseller lists will eat it up. The first few pages are inauspicious. There's a duel between Charles Dickinson and "the principal", or "the other party." We all know what's coming: the "other party" wins the duel and is then revealed to be ... Andrew Jackson! Such trickery is tedious when done well, but Flint goes for the ham fist and simply refuses to tell us who "the other party" is until he's ready to draw the silk handkerchief from the top hat and show off his rabbit. It's actually fairly insulting to the reader's intelligence.

The Rivers of War also appeals to the reader of bestsellers by punting: labeled as a novel of the frontier, most of the book takes place in Washington, DC and New Orleans, with stops in Fort Erie and other places relevant to the War of 1812. He greatly limits Andrew Jackson's racism, and has characters apologize for it. For example, one Patrick Driscol, who reads like Flint's alter ego (a "workingman" soldier, Irish, propogates a pre-Marxist class analysis, anti-slavery, even predicts a civil war) considers Jackson thusly:
The same Jackson who thought nothing of referring to black freedmen as "niggers" had also championed their right to bear arms, overriding the vehement protests of the slave owners. He'd furthermore insisted that the men of the black battalions would receive the same pay as white soldiers.

A bully, a bigot -- sometimes a brute -- but still one who could suspend all that at times because he could see the men beneath their skins.
Given that nearly all the rest of Driscol's thoughts on the nature of class, race, and politics is limits-of-the-possible early 19th century radical (Driscol is a fan of Paine's Common Sense) he's rather too forgiving here. Jackson clearly isn't seeing "the men beneath their skins", not anymore than most of the white slaveowners who produced offspring with their female slaves were universally in romantic love with their property. Jackson's simply being practical. He needs guns against the British, and would rather not have a race riot behind his own lines at the same time. And this isn't Driscol going soft on Jackson either; Flint the author needed Jackson to support Houston's never-explicated plan to build a Cherokee nation across the Mississippi, so Jackson is designed as something other than the moonshine-mad, wild-eyed lunatic who graces our sawbucks.

Leaving politics aside, this sort of exposition, wherein one character considers another, fills dozens of pages to poor effect. It's a simply pedagogical tactic as well; there is no disagreement about any character by all observers. Everyone thinks Jackson is a calculated bully with a soft interior, everyone sees Driscol as a man with a spine of iron and radical but compelling ideas, Sam Houston is clearly a golden boy and a genius destined for greatness. There's not one instance of any principals in Flint's world thinking poorly of someone while others think well, and nobody is ever wrong either. Jackson is a bully who never holds a grudge, Driscol is a man's man and a "troll" (nobody thinks of him as an "ogre" even when he's being ogreish – the characters live in a one-metaphor universe). John Ross is useless in battle but very clever, etc. Rather than using the expository observations to teach us about both the observer and the observed, Flint simply cheats: the technique is a way of using omniscient narration and infodumping to continually remind the non-reading reader who is who and what they're all about. The characters also grin (literally, they almost never smile or smirk, it's all grin grin grin grin grin) whenever they predict what someone else is thinking or about to say, as if they're all in on the cosmic joke that they're just paper dolls being pushed around by a novelist.

Like many books designed to appeal to the non-reader reader, The Rivers of War is also full of missteps that, in the old days, a competent copyeditor would have queried. Nearly everyone in the early battles is shot in the head, and Flint repeats the phrase "blood and brains" too many times. On the one occasion where a victim's brains do not leave his head, the closest observer nonetheless notes that the fatal bullet certainly has "jellied the man's brains" to go along with all the blood. On page 35, John Ross is in a battle so noisy that he can't even hear the pistol go off in his own hand. On page 36, in the midst of the same battle and only seconds later, he's introducing himself to another character, one who responds "The John Ross, from Ross Landing? The same one who made a fortune swapping stuff with the Americans down on the river by Chatanuga?" Suddenly the battle is quiet enough for our warrior pals to catch up like two old grandmas over a game of canasta! These days, an action-adventure hardcover almost has to be written so poorly; to write well in a novel of this sort of seen as putting on airs and turning off the bulk of one's potential audience.

And it goes on. Jackson sees Houston blush, and internally comes up with the metaphor "He looked like one of the brightly painted Christmas ornaments that German immigrants were starting to turn into a popular custom." Is this really the first comparison that would come to Jackson's mind, or is this Flint nudging his reader about Christmas trees? The latter, it seems to me. At one point, a character is hit with some splintering wood and "pawed at his eyes." Two pages later, another tells him "Stop pawing at your eyes!" One of the pleasures of historical fiction is seeing historical figures and everyday people come to life; in The Rivers of War, we read a one-man show where Eric Flint wears a series of poorly fitting wigs.

All that said, Flint does his major battle scenes well. The defense of the Capitol building, led by Sam Houston, Patrick Driscoll, and manned by a ragtag group of soldiers they managed to rally, is great fun, and the chess game that leads up to Flint's version of the Battle of New Orleans is quite suspenseful. These two battles stand out in the book because they're not designed to show how stalwart Driscol is or how brutal Jackson is, but because they offer a full panorama of fear, bloodlust, planning, and the dozens of exogenous and minor variables that too often spell the death of good soldiers.

Even here, though, I wince. The battle of the Capitol is observed by Francis Scott Key, who rewrites his famous anthem to depict it rather than Baltimore Harbor. Flint again fakes the funk: Key fumes that the soldiers aren't putting up a star-spangled banner, and then puts the high C at the end of what is the first stanza. Too bad the national anthem actually has four stanzas, even though only the first is sung (with its high C a modern innovation) at ball games and in grade schools. I'm sure Flint knows all four stanzas (do you?) but he also knows that most of his audience doesn't, so he plays to common knowledge, not accuracy. And of course, nobody can resist the voodoo curse that requires writers to shoehorn Marie Laveau into any book that depicts New Orleans.

Flint says in his afterword that The Rivers of War is the result of a request to write a strict alternative history where The Trail of Tears never occurred. He rightly points out that by the early 19th century, given the political economy of America, such an alternative was simply not in the cards. However, Flint clearly also wanted to write a war novel. He could have gone back to the 18th or 17th century, for example, and created an event that made the New World unpleasant for immigrants. He could have changed the course of American Indian history, and used them as historical subjects rather than mere objects, and designed a different history of the continent by altering its indigenous "pre-history." But these novels would have been novels of ideas, and novels of ideas don't sell in hardcover. Battles, famous white people acting a great deal kinder than they did in life, wisecracks, and the opportunity to "learn something" that can be repeated at a cocktail party or family reunion, those sell books. Would that the recent history of publishing and reading were different, but unfortunately, poor books forged in potential greatness inevitably fill our shelves these days.

You're Traveling Through an Anticlimactic Dimension

At McSweeney's, Jim Stallard offers some anticlimactic Twilight Zone episodes. A quick, amusing read, of which my favorite episode is:
Ghost War

During maneuvers near the site of Custer's Last Stand, three National Guardsmen find themselves plunged into the Battle of Little Big Horn. After the men radio for help, the cowboys and Indians are forcibly removed and security is beefed up in the area.
All seem to be based on actual episodes, of which this one would be "The 7th is Made Up of Phantoms" from the fifth season.

(via Gravity Lens)

Woken Furies by Richard Morgan

Below is the next in an ongoing series of guest reviews. Our reviewer this time is Meghan McCarron, whose work has appeared in Strange Horizons and is upcoming in the anthology Twenty Epics. She's an alum of Clarion West '04 and recently graduated from Wesleyan University as a film major. She lives, for the moment, in Los Angeles.

Woken Furies was released in the U.K. in March and will be released in the U.S. in October.

Woken Furies by Richard Morgan
a guest review by Meghan McCarron

I have a love/hate relationship with military SF, and judging from all the political hemming and hawing in Woken Furies, so does Richard K. Morgan. And yes, even though the book is being marketed as neo-noir, I would classify it as military SF. It's got much more in common with Three Kings than L.A. Confidential.

Woken Furies is the third book in a series featuring Takeshi Kovacs, ex-UN commando with a flair for violence, some serious emotional issues, and a swagger Philip Marlowe (or Han Solo) would envy. He inhabits in a far-future world where the discovery of long-lost Martian technology (and maps) has allowed humanity to inhabit the Martians' abandoned planetary colonies as well as good old Earth. In addition, humanity has achieved quasi-immortality by storing a person's personality and/or soul in a "cortical stack" that can be fitted into any cloned "sleeve," allowing for someone to live as long as that stack survives, which can be hundreds of years.

At its best, the series combines archeological intrigue, political philosophy, and lots of ass-kicking, not to mention smart language play and hot sex. As a fan of all of these things, especially language play and ass-kicking (and, okay, you got me, hot sex), I recommend the series, though I encourage you to start with earlier books, because Morgan seems to have declared war on exposition and those weaklings who crave it. This is a book I wanted to be able to search with Google. But while I'm not sure that keeping the audience in the dark is the best way to create suspense, the information gap didn't stop me when I was reading.

There are, however, a few more serious flaws. First of all, the language. One of the things that really charmed me about this book was the mish-mash of the names. Sylvia Oshima. New Hokkaido. Adoracion. They paint a cultural picture that isn't, and never needs to be, explained. And while the writing style is catchy (I found it playing in my head, embellishing my life's events: "Meghan stumbles into the Coffee Bean thinking about the mess of traffic awaiting her, a sludged-up river that stinks instead of moves. A caffeine headache, slight but needy, hums, but relief is coming..."), the catchiness often runs away with itself, resulting in sentences like, "The heat settled on me wetly."

And then there's the politics. The last third of Woken Furies is mired in politics: revolutionary, colonial, oligarchic, and otherwise. This book wants you to know war is hell and communist-style revolution is fraught with dangers, even as it decries the oligarchy and delights in the hero's violent power. So the message ends up being something more like, "War is hell, revolutions don't work, but war is great to write about, and what if this revolution does work? The end."

On one hand, I'm glad the book took up questions of violence and equality. But if you do take it up, don't devote 150 pages to the question and then drop it like something on fire. A book about violence needs to deal with that violence, not simply say "it's fucked up," and move on to the next fight.

There's more to be said here, but I'm trying to keep this review blog-length, and it seems a little silly to go into character details when no one else [in the U.S.] even has the book yet (it comes out in October). Suffice to say that an engaging hero and a tech-rich world buys the series a lot of leeway, but if it's to continue its shelf life, it needs to engage with, not simply flirt with, the numerous dilemmas its world and hero raise. Besides the issues of violence and revolution, there is little or no engagement with the central conceits of 1. We've found the immortal soul 2. We can store with technology, and 3. There are fucking Martians!!! The series asks the reader to take these things as givens, but the more I read, the more questions I started asking. The book is worth reading, and it's a good ride, but ultimately it comes down as simply "ambitious" instead of a pure success.

03 August 2005

Worst Last Lines

Jeff VanderMeer has come up with a new contest -- inspired by the Bulwer-Lytton Contest for the worst first lines, Jeff is offering some money and books for the worst last line.

I'm working on something involving freshwater squid, evil monkeys, George W. Bush, and RuPaul....

02 August 2005

Dead in the West by Joe R. Lansdale

Below is the latest in an ongoing series of guest reviews. Our reviewer this time is Jon Hansen, and this is, he says, the first review he's written since writing a fifth-grade book report on Stephen R. Donaldson's Lord Foul's Bane.

Dead in the West by Joe R. Lansdale
a guest review by Jon Hansen

Dead in the West is Joe R. Lansdale's genre-blending "Zombie Western," the literary equivalent of George Romero making a Clint Eastwood spaghetti western. Dead in the West first came out in 1986; this 2005 edition from Night Shade Books apparently is a revision. How it differs from the original release, I cannot say, except the intro calls the first "a tribute to the pulps, especially Weird Tales," and this new edition adds on homages to comics like Jonah Hex and horror movie classics like Billy the Kid versus Dracula. Which suggests plenty of blood, guts, the undead, and possibly some sex, in other words.

And in this, Dead in the West does not disappoint. The plot is straightforward: the Reverend Jebediah Mercer, a traveling preacher of the Old West, arrives in the East Texas town of Mud Creek, hoping to redeem himself of his sins, only to discover the little town has sins of its own. Fortunately, our hero isn't a weak-kneed man of the cloth, but a gunslinger, "bringing the sword to the infidels -- or a gun." And a good thing, because before too long, zombies start popping up and the fun begins.

The book picks up many of the same traditions of both genres: the town is populated with many standard Western characters but with a horror movie slant: the town doctor, the closest thing to a scientist, and his attractive daughter/assistant; the sheriff, too weak to do what the hero must; and the town roughneck, responsible for the fate that meets the town. There's even a boy sidekick.

The explanation for the undead uprising are found in a Weird Tales pulp staple: the Necronomicon, and other tomes of unhealthy lore (curiously, Lansdale decides not to include Nameless Cults, fellow Texan Robert E. Howard's contribution to the forbidden book category; bit of an oversight to me). The zombies operate in true Romero fashion by spreading their condition by biting their victims, bursting into flames in direct sunlight, and can only be killed by a gunshot to the head. And true to the genre, the book features a last stand against the undead hordes. The two influences blend well together.

But all this is on the surface. With a book about a preacher battling zombies, the reader might naturally expect a certain emphasis on death and resurrection. But Dead in the West focuses much more on sin and redemption. Reverend Mercer's sins weigh heavily on him. As a gunslinger he had killed many men over the years, something that doesn't trouble him greatly (as befits a man of action). But the crime of incest also hangs over him, haunting him with dark dreams. Finally he repents and declares that Mud Creek will be his test of salvation. By contrast, the townsfolk do not own up to their collective sin, but instead blame each other for it. But God as portrayed here is a God of the Old Testament: punishments of fire and blood, and an eye for eye. As a result, their fate is less promising.

All in all, Dead in the West is a thrilling read, true to its pulp origins, but with a little more to it than a basic battle-the-undead tale. Recommended to fans of both westerns and zombies.