26 June 2007

Good Advice

From "The DIY Guide to Becoming a (Real) Cyborg" at Free Geekery:
While you may suffer through horrible nightmares about machines that take over the world, progress in using technology to help others is far more pronounced. But, don't let this news lull you into thinking that you can battle a cyborg without technological help — or even without laughter. After all, how many cyborgs would dare touch you when you signal a left and right turn with your ears at the same time while wearing fuzzy dice, a pair of Powerizers, and a cape?
via BookForum

25 June 2007

The Shibboleth of "The Literary Establishment"

I thought about waiting a week or so until I have time to write a considered and thoughtful and well-sourced and nuanced and all that post, but I've just spent the last hour yelling at all of the various moving boxes filling my apartment (about which, more here), and instead of continuing to scream at the boxes, I will try to get all the annoyance out of my system by writing it up here.

The cause of the annoyance is an article in the latest New York Review of Science Fiction, which arrived in the mail today. First, before I really start a-ranting, I should say I am quite fond of NYRSF and recommend that everyone on Earth should subscribe to it. It presents an admirably broad collection of voices every month, and the discussions it engenders and hosts are often valuable and fascinating. In fact, if I ever get to the point of moving my ideas beyond blind ranting, I might write them up as an essay in response to the one I'm about to yell about, and submit it there. For now, though, I'm just going to vent some spleen.

The article that has caused me so much annoyance is by Jason Sanford and titled "Dipping Their Toes in the Genre Pool: The U.S. Literary Establishment's Need-Hate Relationship with Speculative Fiction". Even the title makes me want to scream.

If this article were anomalous, if it did not represent an argument that I have heard over and over again, it wouldn't bother me. Instead, it is simply a longer (and better written) version of what gets said again and again in book reviews in SF magazines, on the discussion boards for various SF groups, in conversations and panel discussions at SF conventions. And it is ignorant. Provincial, blind, idiotic, ridiculous, silly, simplistic. People making such an argument look like fools.

Sanford is upset that Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road is not recognized by book reviewers as part of the SF tradition of post-apocalyptic novels, particularly Walter M. Miller's A Canticle for Liebowitz. He blames "the U.S. literary establishment" and "elite reviewers". He attempts to define his terms, citing The New York Times Book Review, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, and "many influential book publishers" in New York. He uses the word "literati". He cites A.O. Scott at the Times and the Times's list of the top novels of the past twenty-five years. (A list plenty of people objected to, laughed at, criticized, ignored.) He writes this utterly ignorant and self-evidently false paragraph:
While no one has done an in-depth analysis of the tastes of the country's top literary reviewers, the fact that Scott can publicly dismiss most speculative fiction out of hand without any public uproar or career repercussions suggests his views are not too different from the rest of the literary elite.
What is there, some sort of secret room where the "literary elite" goes and sucks on cigars and dismisses popular fiction? Scott's horrifying statement, the one Sanford thinks he should suffer for is this: "With a few exceptions, I've never much enjoyed detective or espionage novels, science fiction or fantasy, largely because I often find the writing in these kind of books to be clumsy and uninspired." Obviously, he should be fired for expressing such an opinion. It's a far more justifiable one than nearly any sentence in Sanford's essay.

The problem with any argument about "the literary establishment" and "the literary elite" is that those things don't really exist. It's especially silly to say that reviewers are this establishment, this elite -- newspapers are cutting review coverage right and left, fiction coverage is becoming nearly as endangered as poetry coverage, major publishers are trying to maximize profits and minimize the midlist, and -- well, just read Galleycat for a week.

Are there reviewers who don't like much SF? Sure. There are reviewers who don't like John Updike, reviewers who don't like cookbooks, reviewers who don't like Hillary Clinton -- even reviewers who don't like stuff I do! There are also people like Michael Dirda at the Washington Post, who has an informed and nuanced and even passionate knowledge of all sorts of different types of fiction. Don't like the Times? Read the Post.

Sanford then goes off on "the canon". This doesn't exist, either, and even if it does, it's not the creation of reviewers (there you're going to need to talk about academics, but that's an entirely different and more complex conversation). First, he says, "The literary establishment continues to dictate what books are in and out of the literary canon (which, for our purposes, are those books which form an integral part of Western civilization)." He then moves on to that same NY Times list of twenty-five books. Ahhh, the books that are an integral part of Western civilization -- as brought to you by the Times!

Okay, so the Times polled lots of writers and critics, and we could say that's "the literary establishment" if we really want to give a few employees at one newspaper the right to determine such a thing, but it doesn't follow then that this is "the literary canon". While it might be possible to speak of some writers like Shakespeare and Keats as "canonical", it makes no sense to use the term "literary canon" to talk about anything recent, because there is simply too much disagreement amongst everybody -- no-one could possibly write up a list of canonical works or writers of the past twenty-five years and come to much agreement. It's hard enough to get anybody to agree about older writings, and even then the concept of canons is up for lots of debate, because you always have to ask who it is who is mandating these canons, who has the authority to enforce their power, what cultural and social factors affect their production and promulgation, etc. (At the beginning of his essay, Sanford asserts that there are only 25,000 readers of litfic in the U.S. -- even if all these people agreed about all the books in "the canon", what would it matter?)

Sanford asks, "But why does the literary establishment love letting their writers mine the themes and tropes of speculative and other genre fiction while still rejecting it as a whole?" Okay, so there's this literary establishment -- let's call it Biff's -- and at Biff's, Biff is the guy in charge. Anybody who comes in, Biff sez to 'em, he sez, "You know those themes and tropes of speculative and other genre fiction? That's good stuff. Use it a lot here. We like it. I'll give you free beer if you use it. But don't let me see you doin' any of that sci-fi in here. We hate that shit."

Come on! Does Sanford really believe there is a monolithic creature called "the literary establishment" and it has the power to let writers do some things and not others? Like, what, the Mafia? Publishers and distributors certainly have power to put work in print, to promote it, etc., but what profit-loving publisher wouldn't want a writer to be Stephen King or Dan Brown rather than a writer who is thrilled if they can sell 5,000 copies? Sure, a review in the Times can help a novel sell, but the Times reviews so few books, and particularly so few books of fiction, that the vast majority of what is published is not reviewed there, including books marketed as literary fiction.

Sanford then talks about Michael Chabon and about various novels that are "literary fantasies". He says, "Unfortunately, the genres are not getting credit for their victories and, despite winning battles, may still lose the larger literary war."

Huh? What war is this? To the victor go the ... labels? "There is nothing wrong with literary writers like Cormac McCarthy dipping into the genres of speculative fiction." (I'm sure that Cormac McCarthy will be thrilled to know he has Jason Sanford's permission to write his books.) "If a writer can craft a masterpiece of fiction, then who cares what genre the masterpiece exists within?" (This assumes we can define such things as genre and masterpiece, and that they are stable.) "However, if the United States literary establishment allows their writers to embrace speculative fiction, then the literary establishment should likewise acknowledge the great writers of speculative fiction whose works preceded these current literary trends."

Ay yi yi! Again with the "literary establishment" allowing things! When Cormac McCarthy came up with the idea for The Road, did he have to get a contract signed in blood by Biff that would allow him to write the book? Or else he would ... what, not be published?

What Sanford wants is for Cormac McCarthy to come out and say, "Hey, I read this Walter M. Miller guy, and he's pretty damn good! All you weirdos who read sci-fi, you know where it's at!" But he's not going to. Because he's probably never read Walter M. Miller.

I'm sorry, but Miller is at best tangential to any discussion of McCarthy. It might make for an interesting compare-and-contrast paper for a bright high schooler, but other than that, Miller and McCarthy have as little to do with each other as Heinlein and Voltaire.

See, the thing is, most SF tropes and subject matter are not unique, and few are even limited to books. There are a gazillion end-of-the-world movies that McCarthy could have seen, movies that perhaps informed his imagination. Or maybe not. Maybe he just came up with the idea on his own. It's not like apocalypse is something people haven't imagined for, oh, I dunno, a few thousand years.

Readers like Sanford love to think that they're part of a special, marginalized club, but the marginalization comes as much from within their own martyr complexes as any real-world action. There is no "need-hate" relationship, because whatever "literary establishment" you choose to identify doesn't care enough to either need or hate SF. Get over it!

I'm sorry all you suffering science fiction readers don't get the respect you cherish from the elitists you scorn. Once my heart stops bleeding for Paris Hilton, maybe it will start bleeding for you.

22 June 2007

Calling All Science Fiction Oulipians!

John Holbo at The Valve has taken a look at Hugo Award category definitions and said:
...science fiction lacks anyone with an Oulipo-streak. Imagine a collection of short stories each 7,499 words. By definition, they would not be novelettes; but what if they were paced like novelettes? What if two of them were interconnected—same characters, different times—would they now be a 14,998-word novelette? Would three be a 22,497-word novella? Six a 44,994-word novel?
We here at Mumpsimus Central are fans of many different sorts of streaks, including any Oulipian ones, and I'm sure we're not alone. Perhaps some of you out there will take John's statement as a fun challenge...

19 June 2007


Michael Cunningham on his first novel, Golden States:
I was working in a bar and I suddenly had this vivid image of myself at sixty, still in the bar, still talking about the novel I was going to write someday. So I said to myself, “Sit down now and finish something. It doesn’t matter what. Just start it at the beginning, write through the middle and reach the end and then stop.” And that was that book. It came out very quickly. And it’s true. It does contain some of the people I seem to have continued to write about. Boys looking for something, women looking for a way out. I never felt good about that book, because I wrote it too fast. Because I knew it wasn’t the best book I could write. I’ve always felt that literature and reading have so many enemies—and writers are the very least of the enemies of writing and reading. But I do sometimes find myself looking through the books in a bookstore and galleys people have sent me, thinking, you could have done better than this. You did not put your ass on the line. Here’s just another book taking up space in the universe, and this is part of what is making it hard to keep books alive in the world. They just stack up like cordwood. I’m so much more interested in some kind of grand ambitious failure than I am in someone’s modest little success that achieves its modest little aims. I felt that I had written a book like that, and I wasn’t happy about it. My publisher very generously allowed me to turn down a paperback offer and it has really gone away.

The Young Writer

Because I'm in the midst of moving, I have been going through piles of things, and some of those things are things I'd forgotten I had. As I was throwing away lots of magazines and papers I'd kept for no apparent reason, I discovered, at the bottom of it all, a box of manuscripts. Mostly things printed on a dot-matrix printer, though some were handwritten. Hundreds of pages of, mostly, stories and poems, though there were a few letters, essays, and even parts of a novel. All written when I was between the ages of ten and sixteen.

At first, it was a nostalgia trip. I remembered a few of the stories and poems, remembered where I had been when I wrote them and what I was thinking. But for the most part, I had forgotten them. And for good reason. Once the nostalgia wore off, terror set in -- terror that anyone might ever read these things. They are talented, yes, and even precocious and impressive, but despite all that they are utterly and completely awful. Yes, I was an excellent writer for my age. No, I was not a good writer.

Last year, in a wise and valuable post, John Scalzi told teen writers: "Right now, your writing sucks." Not everyone took that to be a good thing to say, and recently he added some more thoughts. In 2005, Justine Larbalestier wrote something similar, and equally valuable, and has also recently reflected on it. [Update: Ben Rosenbaum offers a somewhat different view.]

I wish I'd been able to read John's and Justine's advice when I was younger, though I doubt it would have done any good. I was certain I would win a Pulitzer, or, better yet, a Hugo by the time I was 18. I also thought the first rejection letter I got from Gardner Dozois at Asimov's was written specifically to me.

Arrogance in a young writer can be a good sign, though, because it suggests they won't let rejection deter them. There was a part of me that knew the story I sent to Ellen Datlow at Omni was not the greatest story ever written and would probably be rejected, but I thought it had a pretty good chance at least of being among the top ten stories she received that month. (I expect -- I hope! -- it never made it to her desk.)

At what point does persistence in the face of adversity move from being admirable to being insane? I started sending stories and poems to magazines once I discovered Writer's Market in fifth grade. That was more than twenty years ago. As much as I wanted publication, and fame and fortune and everything that goes with it, usually I didn't write just to get published, but instead to discover what I could do, to surprise myself, to play around with words and ideas. The hope for publication was a strong one, and sometimes it overwhelmed my other reasons for writing, and when it did so, the writing became particularly lifeless, particularly empty.

I did manage to get published and have some successes at a young age -- a story I wrote when I was twelve and published at fourteen still occasionally gets excerpted or reprinted, but that story was an anomaly, a perfect mix of a particular sensibility writing about a particular subject at a particular time. I wrote it entirely for fun, with no thought of publication until later. And it doesn't suck. (Are parts of it embarrassing to me now? Sort of. I'm proud of its success, but it's definitely a story written by a kid. That's its virtue, really.) I thought that story's success meant I had passed over a certain threshold and would now only write good stories. Nope. I had a few more small successes, but for the most part everything I wrote over the next fifteen years was not very good. There were many reasons for that -- too much focus on becoming a publishable writer and not enough focus on becoming a writer worth reading; a tendency to write in all sorts of different genres and modes, making progress in any one genre slow; a lack of life experience to draw on to give what I wrote depth and resonance.

Eventually, I got to the point where I had enough skill to more or less know when a story worked or when it didn't, and I have developed some techniques for helping a story that doesn't work get closer to working. But it's not infallible. I just read a draft of a story I wrote last fall, a story I knew was unfinished and needed some revision, but which I thought was pretty good on the whole. Actually, it needs a complete overhaul, because, well, it sucks.

At 31 now, I am not the writer I thought I would be when I was 15. I needed the dream to carry me along and get me through the rough terrain of adolescence, but eventually I realized that my interests and talents are not the sort to bring that dream into any kind of reality. Four or five years ago I stopped writing to try to create a career, to try to catch up to the expectations I'd set for myself when I was a teenager, to try to get published wherever and however I could. Instead, I tried things out and took on projects that seemed like they'd be fun or stimulating. There was a time when I wanted fame and the adulation of crowds, I wanted to be the best, but I'm actually really uncomfortable with adulation and get far more enjoyment from being part of a community of readers and writers than from any sort of competition.

I've thrown out a lot of things as I get ready to move to New Jersey, but I'm not throwing out those manuscripts. They are a part of me, a monument to hours and hours of passionate work, a testament to old aspirations. I will never be -- and don't want to be -- the writer my young self yearned to become, but that's okay. I don't want to preserve the naive dream; I want to preserve the pure pleasure of manipulating words and telling stories, the pleasure that has propelled me when I have been most honest with myself.

13 June 2007

In which I Join the KGB

I will be joining the line-up for the Interfictions reading at KGB Bar in Manhattan on Wednesday, June 20, at 7pm.

Don't let this deter you from attending -- the other readers are all geniuses, and I promise not to read for more than a few hours, so you'll still have time to hear them.

12 June 2007

Soft Skull Sale

I didn't realize when I wrote my previous post about the McSweeney's sale that Soft Skull Press is also having a "Keep-the-lights-on-at-Soft-Skull-sale". 40% off until June 30. That means you can get...
That's a tiny sample, and only from the fiction -- there are many, many more titles in all sorts of different categories.

McSweeney's Sale

The AMS bankruptcy had a tremendous effect on the publishing world, and it left many small publishers with perilous, unanticipated financial losses. McSweeney's now reports:
We lost about $130,000—actual earnings that were simply erased. Due to the intricacies of the settlement, the real hurt didn't hit right away, but it's hitting now. Like most small publishers, our business is basically a break-even proposition in the best of times, so there's really no way to absorb a loss that big.
To try to make up for the loss, this week they are holding a sale and auction, which means you can get great stuff at reduced prices, and some rare and unique items are also available. If I may suggest a few things...

At the auction:
(More items will be added throughout the week at the auction. And there are others that I'm too lazy to link to. I don't really know what you'll most love, so you should just check out the whole thing yourself.)

From the store:
And much more, besides.

Other Stories

Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie:
On TV you never see Africans involved in helping Africa. It’s always some kind westerner. If I got my information only from American TV, I would think Africans were a bunch of stupid idiots. [...]

The Africa that you see on TV here is not the Africa I know. Africans don’t sit down, filled with despair, at least the ones I know don’t. They move on with life. Even in the poorest areas of Africa there are people who are showing initiative. There are other stories to tell.

Whiteman by Tony D'Souza

I went into Tony D'Souza's first novel, Whiteman, with bunches of biases: We had taken a marvelous story of his for Best American Fantasy, I have been following pretty closely his dispatches from Nicaragua about the Eric Volz case, and his editor is Tina Pohlman, for whom I have tremendous respect. The one negative bias I had toward the book is that (for various, complicated, contradictory reasons) I judge stories of middle-class white people in "exotic" settings more harshly than I do other sorts of stories. (And yet at the same time I am fascinated by such stories.)

For me, then, Whiteman accomplished a lot -- soon enough, I was so thoroughly drawn in by its narrative voice and particular details that it became, in many ways, just another book for me, one on which none of my biases had any effect while reading.

Whiteman is an episodic novel with a first-person narrator named Jack Diaz, who works for a relief agency called Potable Water International and lives for three years in a village in Ivory Coast. Each chapter is a pretty much self-contained short story, but the stories build off of each other, with many common characters and references to events in other chapters. The structure is basically linear, but not entirely, and the play of event and memory throughout the narrative gives the whole a rich texture.

What a reader makes of the novel depends very much on what they make of Jack Diaz. He's certainly no saint, and many of the story's events (good and bad) stem from his lust, recklessness, or both. He seems to have arrived in Ivory Coast hoping to be some sort of savior, but his time in the village quickly disabuses him of this fantasy, and he becomes obsessed with the seemingly unbridgeable gulfs of culture and expectation between himself and his friends and neighbors. At times, he is infuriatingly self-absorbed; at others, remarkably insightful. He ends up feeling that most of his efforts were futile, that though he certainly changed, he wasn't able to effect much change beyond himself. And yet it's clear that he did have an effect on his village and a few villagers in particular, though these effects were hardly predictable or scripted, and resulted as much from the fact of contact as from his individual personality.

There is often an egomania to do-gooder characters -- they want to have an individual, particular effect on some group they perceive as downtrodden or oppressed, and if they have such an effect then they feel powerful and saintly, and if they don't have the desired effect, or everything goes wrong, then it's still all about them. One of D'Souza's real accomplishments is to write a story from the perspective of a white American living outside his own culture who neither saves nor ruins the culture with which he has contact. There is contact, and change certainly results from it, but it is the ragged, complex change of real life.

The prose style of Whiteman is notable in that it is mostly straightforward, but sometimes takes on the tone of a folktale. Sometimes this effect feels awkward and even forced, but often it works well, giving us a sense of some of the differences not just between Jack and the villagers, but the villagers and people from the cities. The novel subtly evokes the diversity of the peoples and landscapes of Ivory Coast -- each village is its own little world, with its own customs, assumptions, prejudices, and sometimes even languages, and D'Souza impressively (and mostly quietly) shows the distinctions between and among villages, and distinctions between and among villages and cities.

Jack becomes fluent in the Worodougou language of the village he lives in, and the way that the villagers communicate to him is often through proverbs. This allows the villagers a certain amount of power in their conversations with him, because they can exploit ambiguities, but it also shows a gap in the perception and habits between Jack and the people he lives among. It is not, though, an unbridgeable gap -- by the end of the novel, Jack can recite and create proverbs with nearly as much skill as his friend Mamadou. For a while, he revels in being no longer a "whiteman", but a black African with white skin. The illusion does not last, though, and Jack escapes Ivory Coast when the political situation becomes dangerous. Because he can. Because he is from elsewhere.

At times, Jack excuses some of his bad behavior by letting it fall into the gap between his identity and the culture of the Worodougou in particularly and Ivory Coast in general. He tends to want most of the power in his relations with women, and is repeatedly surprised and annoyed when women decide to follow their own wills and create their own fates. It's easy for him to write these things off as being cultural misunderstandings, or even the manipulation of his naivety, but there isn't a noticeable difference in his misunderstanding of the intentions of a white American relief worker from his misunderstandings of Ivory Coast women. He is blinded sometimes by his Romanticism,sometimes by a certain sense of male entitlement. He's not so much macho as he is just hapless, and so his struggles are surprisingly endearing for someone who is, again and again, a schmuck. But he's not just a schmuck, either, and the depth of D'Souza's characterization of Jack is one of the things that makes the novel so interesting.

Whether written by native writers or not, many novels of countries such as Ivory Coast -- countries that have experienced extremes of violence, turmoil, and injustice -- differ from Whiteman in that their focus is on the violence, turmoil, and injustice. Certainly, none of that is hidden from us in D'Souza's novel, but it is not the core. The core is the story of the village, of its people, customs, history, tales, and idiosyncracies. This is what finally makes Whiteman such a worthwhile novel: it offers a vivid portrait of a particular place, and that portrait is filtered through the perceptions of a person alien to that place who comes to know it well. We as readers (assuming we're not Worodougou) are able to experience some of the joys and difficulties of growing familiar with a culture different from our own, and because Jack's personality is drawn with such care for detail and complexity, we are soon relieved of needing to agree with all his judgments and interpretations, and so we are drawn into the narrative as active interpreters rather than passive receivers. A fine accomplishment, it seems to me.

08 June 2007


The silence hereabouts has been caused by a few things, but all is well. My transition to a new life continues on apace, as I have now signed a lease for an apartment in Hoboken, NJ and will be moving there over the course of the next few weeks.

If anyone has emailed me recently, please bear with me if I've been slow responding -- not only is life hectic at the moment, but I also had some computer troubles (fixed now, it seems) and am sorting through email to see what survived and what didn't.

This ends today's public service announcement. Actual content to appear ... soon...

02 June 2007

Spaceman Blues by Brian Francis Slattery

There's a certain leap of faith we take with any book -- if it's a book we've heard a lot about, we're going on faith that the hype is accurate; if it's a book by a writer whose previous works we've enjoyed, we're going on faith that this one is going to appeal to us too; if it's a book we've heard nothing about by a writer we've never heard of, we're taking the greatest leap. I find the suspense with the latter sort of leap the most unbearable when the book begins well. Great beginnings can lead, after all, to great disappointments.

Thus it was with some trepidation that I began Brian Francis Slattery's first novel, Spaceman Blues -- a book that isn't due to be released until August, so I haven't heard much about it yet, and the author is not someone whose name was familiar to me before I started reading the novel. Then began the suspense, because the first pages were not just pretty good, they were extraordinary. The events were mysterious and weird, which is an easy enough way to attract some interest early on, but more than that, the sentences were so full of rhythm that reading them became a joy in and of itself. I began to prepare myself for disappointment, because with each page it became clear that Slattery had set out on a high-wire act -- his story is alternately epic and personal, it includes many characters in relatively few pages, those characters come from a wide variety of backgrounds, the viewpoint is often omniscient, and the prose has such a distinctive music to it that a few mistaken notes could shatter the whole. Most attempts to achieve so much would fail again and again.

About fifty pages into Spaceman Blues, I stopped worrying. The writing was so assured that I no longer doubted Slattery could pull it all off. And pull it off he does. The book is a marvel: funny, weird, touching, a joy to read not just for its music and its imagination, but for the generous and intelligent view of life that it offers: a view of life that is neither sentimental nor cynical, full of a certain type of hope but never blind to the miseries hope can cause. Spaceman Blues is a cousin and equal of some recent novels that have maintained my faith in the ability of fiction to simultaneously possess meaning, beauty, and vision -- Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, Octavian Nothing, The Exquisite, The People of Paper -- but it's a singular book, offering its own riffs on the joys and pains of life and its own rifts across the surface of our shared delusions and commingled dreams.

It's a story of a quest for a lost love, the story of an alien invasion, the story of known and unknown neighborhoods in New York City, the story of people who seek that great abstraction called the American Dream in the ever-disillusioning concrete jungles of the United States. It all begins with a person who goes missing, a man named Manuel Rodrigo de Guzmán González, and continues with the quest of his lover, Wendell, to find him. The story accumulates a collage of people and places, each one drawn with just enough detail to make them vivid and to hint at how their paths will intersect as the book becomes a Baedeker of the bizarre, revealing an entire city beneath New York, a world where old tugboats and subway cars sit suspended from a distant ceiling up above the poisonous water at the bottom of the city's deepest darkness, a world that can make an ordinary guy into a superhero, so long as he's willing to sacrifice everything for what he most desires.

And just when it seems there's nothing left to discover, that all the paths are crossed and all the dreams deferred, the universe opens up and shows our heroes their limitations, and in their limitations they discover their nobility, and in their nobility they get to shine for one last moment in the face of apocalypse. The blues turn sadness into beauty, and the beauty of Spaceman Blues comes from its willingness to face the sadness with a cold eye and a big heart, to not turn away or cop out or get all drippy with either self-love or self-hatred. Yes, there are aliens and superheroes and secret worlds in this novel, but it's truer than many a tale with more ordinary folks and physics, because it's not blind to either joy or heartbreak, and it never takes an easy way out.

There are plenty of remarkable elements to Spaceman Blues, but one that struck me is the complexity of its points of view. Not only are numerous characters presented, but they are presented along with both their thoughts and their histories. (The only recent novel I can think of that accomplishes the same thing is Edward P. Jones's The Known World, a much different book.) This is a difficult technique to employ, especially in a book of only 219 pages, because it risks the loss of narrative tension and focus, and it risks an overabundance of detail that prevents the reader from building meaningful pattern from the plethora of stuff. (Paging Dr. Barthes for a Reality Effect!)

Slattery avoids the many possible pitfalls through subtle structural balance, excellent pacing, and, perhaps most importantly, lively sentences. It's certainly not true for all readers, but I, for one, give writers more leeway when their sentences are full of music than when they are carved from noise by a tone-deaf engineer. Lyricism isn't enough to last me for too long, but Slattery never takes too long -- that's the craft in his pacing and structure. From early on in the book, we're trained to look for multiple viewpoints, and from early on we learn that these viewpoints will be asides -- not diversions so much as grace notes, the flourishes that create the texture that contributes to the depth that adds to the fuel that expands the plot into something more than a romp, giving the novel layers of meaning, implication, and emotion that many longer stories lack.

An example will do for now (though nothing taken out of context is enough). Consider Swami Horowitz, a minor character we're introduced to early on, a man who lives in a house that "was dragged into Jamaica Bay by a storm in 1954 that put half the neighborhood underwater". His parents, trapped on the first floor, drowned, but Swami survived and "used a small part of his inheritance to build a pontoon bridge from his neighbor's dock to the second floor of the house, forty-two yards out in the water". Because of plate tectonics, he decides to stay where he is. "'I will not be caught off guard again,'" Swami Horowitz said. "'One day the land will move as the water does. One day this city will suffer another catastrophe. When that happens, I will be prepared.'" Swami and Wendell have a conversation, and then the scene ends with this paragraph:
Eleven years later, when he is at sea, Swami Horowitz will go naked, keep his clothes folded inside so he doesn't wear them out, slather himself in fish oil so he doesn't burn. He'll dose water with iodine, learn to cook fish bones into a thin soup that he can eat when all the meat is gone. He will marvel that always, just as his propane is running low and he considers throwing himself into the ocean, another ship will come. Sometimes two men, a man and a woman, worse off than he is and begging for hooks and bait, sometimes a derelict with dried corpses on the deck; he will take what he can from below. But sometimes it will be a tanker packed with a small town's worth of people who will invite him aboard for thick stew, jambalaya, vegetables they grow in hydroponic tanks in the hold. Then there will be parties, jangling dance music from homemade metal instruments. They will have heard of him, and he them; he will recognize the emblem of the Free State of Oceanica tattooed on the captain's forehead. When Swami Horowitz pushes off from them at last, he will think about how the links break, but always re-form. His friends are far from him, and some are gone, but they carry each other across the world.
Character by character, this technique of gathering glimpses from the past and future accumulates into entire histories, so that by the time we reach the middle of the book, we know much of what has happened in characters' lives well before the events of the first page, and by the last page of the book we have seen many moments from much farther on. (Do we believe them? Are they possibilities rather than certainties? The past could be mythic, or at the very least embroidered; the future could be a wish or a lie or a dream. It's all fiction, anyway. What matters is what we choose to believe.)

There is so much more. There is the Church of Panic and the Pan-Galactic Groove Squad; there is Masoud, who was a Syrian pilot in Lebanon and could not save his brother and now and then claims to be a pacifist; there is a reporter who writes an always-expanding, meticulously updated book titled Death in the Five Boroughs; there is Lucas, who grew up in a moon-worshipping cult and got rescued and deprogrammed by the FBI and now throws the best parties; there are detectives named Trout and Salmon; there's the recurring joke about the octopus and the bagpipes; there are the Ecuadorian soccer players who are one near-miss away from insanity as they work the tarmac at JFK; there are the Ciphers and the Four Horsemen and the coroner named Dr. Gore.

There is much in Spaceman Blues -- characters and places and ideas, words and histories -- much that is sorrowful and much that is sublime. It is subtitled "a love song", but it is more than that, for it is songs of all sorts, entire arias and symphonies, and it sings visions, and the visions are both full and fulfilling -- visions of all sorts of realities, and those realities are the ones we share and the ones we dream. I don't mean to imply that the book is flighty; no, it is grounded in the heavy firmity of New York City, to which it is, indeed, a love song, and so it seems appropriate to end with a measure from that song, one among many:
They emerge at six-thirty through a drainage pipe emptying into the Hudson. The river is orange with morning, the George Washington Bridge leaps over the river, cars shine across it, honking at each other. The people in front of Wendell look like survivors of a massacre, chicken blood strewn over their clothes; they pull their arms over their heads and blink, as if waking up. For a time, the group is gathered at the pipe's edge, contemplating the traffic on the Henry Hudson above, the few sailboats below, the greenery on the top of the Palisades that makes New Jersey seem so inviting sometimes, but before long, they are dispersing, going home. Many of them can see their apartments from there, they live right up in those broken-down buildings above the freight tracks, but for Wendell, it is a long way back to Astoria. He has never gotten used to this idea, that a few miles could take hours to cross, and as he switches from train to bus, crossing the span of the Triborough Bridge, he can feel the city expand beneath his feet, stretching over the curve of the planet, a buzzing network of manholes and mazed asphalt, canals, crouching brownstones and leaning tenements, offices knifing into the sky, until it is easy to believe that all the world is like this, though of course it isn't.

01 June 2007

Cultural Appropriation

I have never gone to WisCon, and so I am always grateful afterwards for the many detailed reports on discussions from the convention, and the extensions of those discussions. The one I've been enjoying (and sometimes cringing) reading recently grows out of last year's panel and follow-up discussions of cultural appropriation. There are already a bunch of blog posts involved, but here are the paths in that I've been following:
Separate from the discussions of cultural appropriation (but valuable to look at alongside them), I discovered Robert Philen's post on "Talking About Race" via Reginald Shepherd, who also recently wrote a long and thoughtful post titled "Some Thoughts on Race and Academia".