26 July 2009

A Sign

My friends Rick and Beth Elkin are currently traveling from their home in New Mexico up to New Hampshire here to display their excellent wares at the 76th Annual League of NH Craftsmen's Fair. To amuse themselves on the trip, they're taking pictures of particularly interesting sights and sites and sending them my way. The above is my favorite photo so far.

24 July 2009

Zen Pulp: The World of Michael Mann

Matt Zoller Seitz, one of my favorite film critics, has created a 5-part video series about one of my favorite film directors, Michael Mann. A few of the episodes are stronger than others, but they're all insightful, and give an excellent sense of what makes Mann special:
Zen Pulp, Pt. 1: Vice Precedent: Michael Mann's existential TV drama

Zen Pulp, Pt 2: Lifetime subscriptions: Michael Mann's honor-bound individualists

Zen Pulp, Pt 3: I’m looking at you, Miss: The women of Mann

Zen Pulp, Pt. 4: Do you see?: Michael Mann's reflections, doubles, and doppelgängers

Zen Pulp, Pt 5: Crime Story: Michael Mann's influential pre-Miranda police procedural
The best episodes are the middle ones, and part 4, which focuses on Manhunter, is the best of them all. Video essays are a particularly fine way to explore film, because the evidence for an argument can be shown, specific scenes and even frames can be analyzed, and illuminating visual juxtapositions and comparisons are possible.

The power of these web essays is heightened for me by my fascination with Mann's work -- among living American directors, he ranks nearly as high as Terrence Malick for me. There is a similar appeal to both directors, with Mann creating gritty, crime-obsessed cousins to Malick's more ethereal explorations of time and light. Indeed, the only Mann film I actually dislike, The Last of the Mohicans, may suffer in my view as much for not being The New World as it does for any of its other flaws (an overwrought script, clunky acting, an annoyingly intrusive score).

Zen Pulp does not discuss Mann's latest film, Public Enemies, but Matt Zoller Seitz has written an insightful review of it at IFC (other reviews worth reading are those of Scott Foundas and Manohla Dargis). There's a lot I love about Public Enemies (even beyond Johnny Depp and Thompson submachine-guns), but what struck me first was how different it is from Mann's previous film, the much-misunderstood Miami Vice, though both movies are exploring, among other things, the visual potential of digital cinematography. Vice, though, is like Mann's version of a Wong Kar-Wai movie; Public Enemies now and then feels like Jean-Pierre Melville. (I would say more, but for now everything I have to say has been said by the reviewers I linked to.)

16 July 2009

Apollo 11: A View from 1969

Forty years ago, my parents went on their honeymoon to Germany and watched the Apollo 11 moon landing in a pension there.  They told me the story a bunch of times of how the pension owners woke them up around 1am to come down and watch the landing on a little TV.  It was a magic moment.

Earlier this week, making my way through the archeological dig that is the attic in the house I inherited from my father, I found, buried under three layers of other things, a trunk of Apollo 11 memorabilia -- newspapers, magazines, etc.  The most wondrous was a copy of the July 24, 1969 Needham Times.  My parents were both from Needham, Massachusetts, and my maternal grandfather, Kenneth W. Webb, was the publisher and editor of the Times for many years.

I've never had the chance to read many of my grandfather's writings, because not many seem to have been preserved.  He retired when I was quite young, and he died when I was eleven.  Until I found this copy of the Times, I'd only ever read some letters, a short history of the family that he wrote for me, and an editorial he published in the last newspaper he worked for, about going fishing with one of his daughters and his grandson, Matt.  (My mother's still a great fisherwoman; me ... well, the one thing that I think would really disappoint him about me is my aversion to both fish and water!)

Here, in memory of a particularly significant moment of history for me, is my grandfather's editorial about the moon landing:

Editorial Views
Needham Times, 24 July 1969
by Kenneth W. Webb

Apollo 11's mission to the moon is expected to increase man's knowledge in many ways.

One lesson which should not be overlooked is that when Americans have a well-defined goal, they can work together in a manner which cannot be equalled anywhere on earth.

Thousands of individual workers in thousands of industrial corporations and government organizations were on the team which made the achievements of Michael Collins, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin possible.

These were people of all faiths and of all races.

Their work was guided by superb organizational genius.

Obstacles beyond the comprehension of most of us were overcome.

In the main this was a technological achievement.

It was accomplished while some of the very companies involved in the engineering and production of complicated equipment sprawled along the banks of polluted rivers.  The workers who built the fantastically complex machinery of space travel and moon exploration daily breathe our polluted air.

The end of air and water pollution is a technological problem.  That problem and its many sub-problems can be solved even as were the multitude of problems concerned with putting men on the moon.

Given a team approach of the magnitude of the space program; given leadership of the ability of the men who organized that program; given money as liberally as it has been devoted to the space program, there is no reason why we cannot achieve as great a victory over the product of our own environmental mistakes as we have achieved in projecting man and his machines beyond that environment.

Environmental improvement should now be given the same range of creative thinking, the same range of technical priority, the same or greater range of financial integrity as has the space program.

All of the gains which have been registered through the success to date of the exploration of space and its concomitant technological accomplishments will be as nothing if we permit the pace of environmental deterioration to continue as it has been going.

Kenneth Webb in 1942


I'm a big fan of the great work done by Archipelago Books, one of the few publishers in the U.S. specializing in literature in translation.  I first discovered them around the time I read Büchner's Lenz in the beautiful edition they released a few years back.  Since then, they've released a bunch of marvelous books that might otherwise be unavailable to English-language readers (while I'm making recommendations, Mandarins is a magnificent collection of stories.  Oh, and any fan of weird fiction should take a look at Palafox.  And you can't go wrong with Breyten Breytenbach.  And-- Well, take your pick...)

Archipelago recently sent out an email saying that the current economic environment has hit them pretty hard.  All of their basic sources of funding -- book sales, grants, donations -- have suddenly been reduced, causing Archipelago to have to scramble to stay alive.

Basically, they need some help to get through this.  If you don't want to just send them money, you can buy their books -- preferably from them, because that way they get the biggest percentage of what you spend.  Or you can subscribe to a season or a year of their books, which is a really great deal (I mean, you're going to buy Breytenbach's book for writers, Intimate Stranger, and Kleist's Selected Prose and a bunch of others anyway, so why not get them all for a good discount and help a valuable publisher keep publishing?

We need books in translation.  We need books from beyond our own provincial shores.  Very few publishers specialize in such work.  Archipelago is one of the few and one of the best.  They're the good guys.  Let's help them survive this difficult moment and build a strong foundation for the future -- we'll all be better off for it.

15 July 2009

Some Notes on Burger's Daughter

I've admired many of Nadine Gordimer's short stories ("Loot" especially) and once even taught her novel My Son's Story to a class of rather perplexed Advanced Placement Literature students. But nothing, nothing, nothing of hers has affected me as deeply as Burger's Daughter, which I just finished reading, after savoring it for two months.

Savoring, yes. It's been a long time since I last deliberately slowed my reading of a book so that it would remain new in my life for as long as possible. Usually, even with books I deeply enjoy, I work hard to get to the end and absorb it all so that I can move on. Once every two or three years, though -- seldom more frequently -- I encounter a book that, were a particularly mischievous demon to come by and condemn me to read said book for the rest of eternity, I would say, "Well, I guess that's not so bad." Burger's Daughter is such a book. While reading, I could not imagine that any other novel would satisfy me as fully, because few ever have. The last one was actually not so long ago: Bolaño's Savage Detectives -- and I read it too quickly, with the opposite sort of love-experience I had with Burger's Daughter -- I couldn't believe something so bizarre and baggy and entrancing existed, and out of fear that it would run away or evaporate, I felt the only recourse I had was to devour it, like some giant unwitting cartoon monster who doesn't realize that eating the things you love in one big gulp does not do them any favors, despite the passion involved.

Burger's Daughter is a very different sort of book from The Savage Detectives -- more focused, more interior. Both, though, share one of the features of fiction that most captivates me: a vividness and richness that I can point to, but barely describe. The books I most passionately respond to tend to be of either what I think of as the richly vivid variety or of the austerely precise variety (which for me finds its apotheosis in that other white South African Nobel laureate, J.M. Coetzee). Some writers manage to be one or the other in different works -- Paul Bowles, another of my personal gods, is austerely precise in his early short stories and richly vivid in one of the other novels I once forced myself to read slowly because of its genius, The Spider's House.

One day I may try to analyze these two modes more fully and accurately, and perhaps attempt to show how they work for me, but I don't want to do that right now -- I'm still too possessed by passion for the whole of Burger's Daughter to want to atomize it to the extent that such an analysis would require. The effect, though, is to create a feeling that the words on any one random page of this novel evoke more life and thought than many entire books by lesser writers. And most writers are lesser writers than Gordimer, it seems to me.

Entire volumes have been written about Burger's Daughter, so even if I were inclined toward rigorous critical analysis of the novel, it would likely be redundant, but I'm more interested in what it feels like to read the book, because for all the intellectual power of the novel, it is how the structure blossomed in my mind as I read that separated Burger's Daughter from, for instance, My Son's Story, for which I have a mostly intellectual appreciation. If someone I knew to be a good reader disliked My Son's Story, it wouldn't bother me. If that same person disliked Burger's Daughter, I would likely think there was, at some fundamental level, a way in which we could not really communicate with each other. (And then, of course, I would realize this was a silly idea, but I know it would be the first one for me, and the suspicion would be difficult to dispell, given how deeply and complexly the novel affected me -- it spoke to some core part of my self as a reader and a person.)

Such a response is appropriate to a novel that is, among other things, concerned with communication and the recognition of self. The plot is a simple one: Rosa (named for Rosa Luxemburg) is the daughter of white anti-apartheid activists in South Africa; her father is particularly famous for his work. Both of Rosa's parents die early -- her father in prison ("in the second month of the third year of his life sentence"), of nephritis from a throat infection. She spends the next decade or so trying to find a place for herself in the world, trying to first distance herself from her parents' legacy so that she can have some freedom, finally gaining permission to travel to France and then England, but a bitter encounter with a black man who, as a child, had lived with her family shatters the illusion that she could ever be comfortable in the alien territory of Europe, and so she returns to South Africa and accepts her legacy, which, in the apartheid state, inevitably leads to prison.

The story is told through alternating points of view: third-person, "objective" narration that often seems to mimic the diction and viewpoint of a particularly precise (and beautifully written!) police report, and Rosa's first-person narration, her thoughts, directed toward a different person in each of the novel's three sections: first, to a lost lover; second, to her father's first wife, in France; finally, to her father. "My version and theirs," she says early on.
And if this were being written down, both would seem equally concocted when read over. And if I were really telling, instead of talking to you in my mind the way I find I do... One is never talking to oneself, always one is addressed to someone. Suddenly, without knowing the reason, at different stages in one's life, one is addressing this person or that all the time, even dreams are performed before an audience. I see that. It's well known that people who commit suicide, the most solitary of all acts, are addressing someone. It's just that with me it never happened before. It hasn't happened even when I thought I was in love -- and we couldn't ever have been in love.
My version and theirs -- but both perceived via one person, a bifurcated self. The novel begins with an epigraph from Lévi-Strauss: "I am the place in which something has occurred." The first chapter gives us Rosa at 14 outside a prison, "bringing an eiderdown quilt and a hotwater bottle for her mother." The moment is preserved through what seem to be different consciousnesses -- those of onlookers and a government official. The chapter ends with a paragraph that could come from the admiring biography or documentary film of Lionel Burger that, later in the novel, various characters propose and discuss. And then a single sentence on an otherwise blank page: "When they saw me outside the prison, what did they see?" Thus: Rosa Burger trying to perceive a memory of herself through her imagination of other people's experience. Any wonder that she refers to Rosa Luxemburg as "the real Rosa" -- she has, herself, become less a person as other people are persons than a text for which she seeks interpretation.

I've only read one essay about Burger's Daughter, but it's a good one: "'What I say will not be understood': Intertextuality as a subversive force in Nadine Gordimer’s Burger’s Daughter" by Susan Barrett, which convincingly reveals a technique of the novel that is mostly hidden to ordinary readers -- a technique of incorporating other texts either through allusion or through unmarked quotation so as to accomplish a few different things: firstly, to get some things past the South African censor that would not normally ever be allowed to be published; secondly, and more broadly, to raise questions about the nature of culture, exile, and Europe's relationship to Africa.

One of the masterful elements of the novel is just how Gordimer brings Lévi-Strauss's epigraph to life: the "something" which has occurred in Rosa Burger is, in a very general sense, the history of white people in South Africa. Rosa has, into herself, received European language, culture, and history; she has also received Afrikaner language, culture, and history; and she has received Marxist language, culture, and history. Her task becomes to sort this into a life, and, more than that, into a person she doesn't mind encountering in the mirror. It is not a wholly intellectual task -- bodies are a central concern of the novel: sickness, pleasure, desire, sex -- all are frequent topics, and as Rosa sorts through the many facets of her identity, her self as part of a female body is central to her experience and her reflection on that experience. She spends much time trying to find similarities and differences: where does she overlap with other people, and why? How deep can such overlapping go? What does it suggest about her? Where, in amidst all she has inherited, is her "real Rosa"?

Fate is as strong a force in Burger's Daughter as in any Greek tragedy -- but it is a fate enforced by society and government, not gods. Rosa's skin color determines her fate first, because even were she to be sentenced, as her father was, to life in prison -- or even death -- she would still be a white person in prison or a white martyr, valued higher in many ways than a black counterpart. She is also Burger's Daughter, seemingly forever to be defined by who her famous parents were. The police surveillance of her is caused not by any of her actions, but by her surname. Even were she to renounce her parents and use her white skin as a tool for social climbing, which she admits she could do, there would still be suspicion, because though she has Afrikaner heritage, it is a heritage tainted by leftist politics. She goes to Europe seeking freedom, and for a while she thinks she has found it -- she is anonymous, she feels unwatched -- but she cannot forget where she comes from, that she is a South African regardless of whether she is in South Africa. Soon enough, too, given her father's fame in certain circles, she is forced to be Burger's daughter even thousands of miles from home.

Burger's Daughter is a political novel in the sense of being about politics and people whose lives are deeply committed to political discussions and activism, but it does not come across as a didactic novel, which is remarkable, because it contains extremely didactic material (especially in Lionel Burger's testimony to the court and in a student pamphlet reproduced toward the end of the book). Indeed, this drew the notice of the South African censors, and the book was banned a month after it was published in 1979. Susan Barrett quotes from the Censorship Board's report:
The book is an outspoken furthering of communism […] [it] creates and fosters a sense of grievance which is most undesirable in a political situation where there are racial situations [sic] […it] doesn’t possess one particularly positive quality – of creation, insight, style, language or composition – which can save it as work of art or as contribution to the public welfare. […] The effect of the book on the public attitude of mind is dangerous in all aspects.
But, as Barrett goes on to explain, the ban didn't last:
...in an unprecedented move, the Director of Publications appealed almost immediately against the ban his own committee had imposed and appointed a panel of literary experts to evaluate the literary merit of the novel. They accused the committee of “bias, prejudice and literary incompetence” (Dugard, 41) but then went on to say that “the book is difficult to read and will therefore not become a popular book” (Dugard, 57), before finally concluding that because of “its limited readership [… and] as a result of its one-sidedness the effect of the book will be counter-productive rather than subversive” (Dugard 39). The ban was consequently lifted in October 1979.
The second report was probably right about the book's ability to find a popular audience in South Africa -- it's a densely textured novel, not exactly something that will find a mass audience, certainly not in any way to be threatening to the state -- but the "one-sidedness" they note hints at the place of politics within the book: as portrayal, not advocacy. It is a novel about the lives of people who are risking everything for their political beliefs, but it is so focused on how those political beliefs intersect with and shape their lives (and vice versa) that it never feels like it is trying to make us, the audience, convert to some ideology -- instead, it simply seems to assume that we agree that apartheid is self-evidently wrong, and goes from there. Toward the end of the book, Rosa thinks:
I don't know the ideology:

It's about suffering.

How to end suffering.

And it ends in suffering. Yes, it's strange to live in a country where there are still heroes. Like anyone else, I do what I can. I am teaching them to walk again, at Baragwanath Hospital. They put one foot before the other.
The world of everyday life and the world of ideology constantly interrupt each other in the novel -- again and again, political conversations are stopped by someone arriving with food, or changing the subject to something banal. The only uninterrupted political statements (that I remember after one read, and without checking) are Lionel at his trial and the students' pamphlet after the Soweto uprising. Each simultaneously reminds us that this is fiction about very real suffering, while also revealing that these two texts are no easier to assimilate and explain than is the text embodied in the name "Rosa Burger". Political theory and calls to action are one thing, but the actions of individual people within the systems they cannot escape are what really determine life: learning to walk again, putting one foot in front of the other.

There is a crucial passage that is too long for me to quote here (it's pages 286-287 of the old Penguin paperback, if you're curious) -- Rosa is in France at an art museum with the married man she's having an affair with, Bernard Chabalier, who says, "In Africa, one goes to see the people. In Europe, it's pictures." Rosa disagrees, saying that a picture, "a record of what's already passed through the painter's mind", is always abstract to her, whereas people are immediate, they're the things you live among. Chabalier adds that the pictures leave out much of life: "In the fifty years between the two paintings, there was the growth of fascism, two wars -- the Occupation-- And for Bonnard it is as if nothing's happened. Nothing. Look at them... He could have painted them the same summer, the same day." He compares that to the lives lived by the people Rosa is staying with in France -- outside of history, free to pretend there is no world beyond their frames. It is not a world that Rosa can join without eradicating every last trace of whatever hints of self she has found.

The dialogue in the novel is similar to that in other works of Gordimer's -- presented not via quotation marks, but through dashes before and after what is spoken. Often, the speakers are not clearly identified, particularly in group conversations. The effect is, for me, like listening to a conversation underwater. Words are distant, the sounds seem to float. The effect is estranging in some ways, but the ultimate effect is to make the dialogue seem not like immediate speech, but like speech recollected in memory.

One of the most breathtaking moments in the novel for me -- and there were multiple -- obviously calls to mind Raskolnikov's dream of the horse in Crime and Punishment. It ends the first section of Burger's Daughter, just before Rosa goes to France. She sees a drunken old "rag of a black man" beating a donkey attached to a cart in which his family sits. She writes for paragraphs about the agony and brutality of it, then: "I had only to career down on that scene with my car and my white authority." She realizes that she could alter the man and his family's lives, turn them over to official control and recording, stop the brutality of the moment: "I could have stood between them and suffering -- the suffering of the donkey." But no:
I drove on. I don't know at what point to intercede makes sense, for me. Every week the woman who comes to clean my flat and wash my clothes brings a child whose make-believe is polishing floors and doing washing. I drove on because the horrible drunk was black, poor and brutalized. If somebody's going to be brought to account, I am accountable for him, to him, as he is for the donkey. Yet the suffering -- while I saw it it was the sum of suffering to me. I didn't do anything. I let him beat the donkey. The man was a black. So a kind of vanity counted for more than feeling; I couldn't bear to see myself -- her -- Rosa Burger -- as one of those whites who can care more for animals than people. Since I've been free, I'm free to become one.
The moment becomes her justification for leaving: "Nothing and nobody stopped me from using that passport. After the donkey I couldn't stop myself. I don't know how to live in Lionel's country."

After seeing and rejecting Europe, after creating and rejecting a conception of herself, she returns: "It's about suffering. How to end suffering. And it ends in suffering." That's the ideology. The action, though, is people learning to walk again. One foot in front of another.

13 July 2009

An mp3 of the Everywhere

I've been meaning for a while to record a reading of my story "A Map of the Everywhere", first published in Interfictions, because when I've done a reading of the story, the response has often been somewhat different from the response to the text on the page -- many people have told me they hadn't realized the story was humorous until I read it aloud. Here, then, is an mp3 of me reading the story. It's not particularly high quality -- the microphone I have is one step up from something in a Cracker Jack box. I'm also a better reader with an audience. And there are some glitches in the first minute or two. But for what it's worth, here is "A Map of the Everywhere".

Here's a direct link to the file.

12 July 2009

Readercon 20

I was only able to be at Readercon for parts of Friday and Saturday this year, so I missed many good events and didn't get to spend much time with all sorts of people I would have liked to have spent time with, but what I did get to do and see was great, probably the best overall experience I've had at the one science fiction convention I try not to miss each year.

I arrived on Friday in time for the Interfictions reading -- twelve of us reading very small bits of our stories in less than an hour, which was a lively good time. There was even room for questions afterward! People had great fun with the format, and it provided a vivid picture of what the anthologies are trying to achieve -- a great diversity of structures and approaches to fiction united by a shared sense of play.

The next event I attended was a panel on people of color in science fiction and fantasy, a panel moderated by David Anthony Durham, with panelists Cecilia Tan, Anil Menon, Tempest Bradford, and Eileen Gunn. It's a topic I find particularly interesting, important, and challenging, and one Tempest and I have talked about a bunch with each other. I was pleased that when the topic of Nisi Shawl's Filter House was raised in conjunction with a discussion of SF awards, Tempest (who was a member of the Tiptree Award jury that made Filter House a co-winner this year) was willing to bring up my review of the book as an example of how the stories can be misread and misunderstood. Tempest said that one of the things she so admired about the book is that it represents a black woman's concerns and experiences without making concessions to a perceived white readership. This then makes it, she posited, a particularly difficult book for somebody who is, for instance, a white guy, to appreciate, and especially to review. I didn't respond during the panel, because if my own inability to really appreciate the book is based on a blindness created by my identity, then I'm the last person who would be able to say that is the fact -- otherwise, it wouldn't be a blindness. Of course, I would like to think that is not the case, and that my struggle with the book is aesthetic, but I don't believe in the idea of a universal reader who is capable of disinterestedly evaluating every text (and even if I did believe in such a ridiculous idea, I would have a big problem with assuming that a white male was such a thing. White guys have gotten away for too long with thinking our experience is somehow the universal and important one). When I read the explanations by the Tiptree jury of their excitement about Filter House, I had a sharp sense of speaking a different sort of language -- I recognized the book they described, certainly, but I did not recognize the way of reading and evaluating that they offered as one that I am comfortable or even perhaps capable of for myself. That suggests to me that I am the wrong reader for the book ... but I'm not entirely sure what that means.

The difficulty I face in completely accepting Tempest's take on Filter House (and other books that similarly, and admirably, broaden the range of represented experience) is that I don't know what to do with it within the narrow and limited realm of critical evaluation. Such a view circumvents critical evaluation in a way that may, in fact, say more about the act of evaluation than anything else. The question is not only one of identity, either -- a review by someone who has little experience with science fiction of an SF novel has sometimes led me to think, "Wow, you just don't get it, do you?" Heck, I think that a lot of the time of reviews, even good ones... If a reviewer slams, or even just expresses reservations about, a book that we've found particularly affecting, is there anything that would make us think the reviewer was anything better than obtuse? At best, I feel pity for people who dislike books I really love, because they aren't able to experience the profound joy I have experienced with them. And I expect the same has, at best, been thought of me...

I am torn by the idea that a person's lack of appreciation for a certain text suggests that they have not worked hard enough to appreciate it, or have the wrong experience (either of life or reading) to appreciate it, because on one hand I think this idea is obvious -- most eight-year-olds can't make much of James Joyce -- and on the other hand I think it dodges the possibility of critical evaluation by saying that any evaluation which is not fundamentally positive is invalid.

I'm too much of a postmodernist to believe there is such a thing as objective evaluation, but I am also a great fan of negative reviews, because even when they are of books I cherish (cue the soundtrack: "Wow, you don't get it, do you?"), I am suspicious of an environment of pure appreciation. Thus, there must be room within a discourse for negative evaluation if such discourse is to have any hope of being about the art at hand. And yet it's also self-evident that readers are extraordinarily different, even when they might seem similar in all sorts of ways -- one of the things that makes talking about books so addictive is that even when you know a certain reader's proclivities and history inside-out, there will be books that reader responds to in ways that seem surprising.

Accepting subjectivity and the immense variability of reading experiences is tough for a book reviewer, though, because the rhetoric of reviews requires an illusion of objectivity, or at least an appeal to certain traditions of aesthetic evaluation -- the ability to say, without irony, that something is "good" or "bad" according to a set of precedents and traditions. Yet all precedents and traditions are the product of people interacting with each other, and thus of systems and powers that can be historicized and analyzed.

Which brings in another big question -- that of power. (And yes, I adore Bessie Head's novel A Question of Power and think anybody who doesn't is obtuse and judging from the wrong precedents and traditions!) A review is an assertion of authority and power: the authority and power to evaluate a book. Given the dynamics and history of power in the U.S. and in the literary world, I think it's foolish to pretend that a review by a white guy of a book by a black gal does not contain some potential problems, regardless of whether the review is on the whole positive or negative. Most reviewers, particularly of SF, are white males, and that's deeply limiting, because people from different backgrounds and experiences will better compensate each other's blindnesses and offer a more varied and interesting range of readings. Similarly, in referencing such white, mainstream writers as John Gardner and Flannery O'Connor in my review of Filter House, I may have reified power structures I profoundly disagree with: the examples that seemed to me to offer the clearest indication of the aesthetic criteria I was applying could perhaps even more easily be seen as valorizing the mainstream/genre dichotomy and, worse, the idea that white writers are superior to non-white writers. Yikes.

Anyway, I don't have settled thoughts on any of this, but the riffing I've done here on it shows one of the strengths of Readercon's panels and panelists -- every year, I've come away from at least one panel or discussion with lots to think about, and sometimes some really productive self-reflection. This year felt to me like the high-water mark for that.

On Friday night, I went out to eat with Liz Gorinsky, Michael Tax, and Eric Rosenfield, which gave Eric and me the opportunity to continue some of our endless discussion of genre, this time with good input and questions from Liz and Michael. Readercon was Eric's first SF convention, and it was fun to see him wrestle with how it compares (or doesn't) with non-SF get-togethers. I'm sure there will be some more posts on Wet Asphalt about all this as he continues to sift through his experiences. Eric was also one of the most prolific Tweeters of #Readercon (an amusing cult).

On Saturday, I started the day with Charlie Finlay's talk on "The Genre Roots of American Mainstream Fiction", which proved, I thought, how difficult it is to extend the idea of SF as a genre much before 1926, when Hugo Gernsback launched Amazing Stories -- and especially 1927, when he began publishing readers' letters along with their mailing addresses, allowing fans to get in touch with each other (Delany offers 1911, when Gernsback published Ralph 124C 41+, but I'm even narrower and more conservative. For good discussion of the early letters columns of SF magazines, see Justine Larbalestier's essential The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction and the additional material on her website). What was wonderful about Charlie's lecture -- aside from his lively delivery -- was the range of his references, and the marvelous writers and books he discovered in his research for the Traitor to the Crown trilogy. We're going to do an interview about this soon, so I'm not going to say anything more about it right now.....

Chip Delany and I got to have lunch together, which was great fun, because we had never met in person when he knew who I was (I had met him first in 2006, I think, at Readercon, when I talked to him briefly at the Wesleyan University Press table and told him his book The Jewel-Hinged Jaw had had a tremendous effect on me at an early age. He nodded politely and clearly thought I was a weirdo.)

A few hours later, Chip and I were on a panel with Dennis Danvers, David Hartwell, Fred Lerner, and Veronica Schanoes about "Academic Attention: Good, Bad, or Ugly". We began by naming our academic affiliations, and I began by saying I have a master's degree from Dartmouth College in Samuel R. Delany. The panel really got going once we were able to discuss some of the different experiences we'd had with science fiction in the academy in terms of how the subject has been seen within different disciplines, our particular experiences at certain institutions, and the changes in reception to the idea of SF as worthy of academic attention over the last 50 years or so. One of the strengths of the panel, I thought, was the diversity of ages -- Veronica and I have had quite different experiences from folks who tried to do academic work on SF in previous decades. At the end of the discussion, I said that in my experience, though, there is a real difference between how SF is viewed by literature professors vs. writing professors. We didn't have time to really explore this idea, which was a disappointment, because I'm very curious what other people's experiences have been with regard to such a split. The only times I've ever been told I could not do something related to SF in an academic setting was in certain writing workshops. I think, perhaps optimistically, that this is changing, though.

After the panel, I spent time in the bookshop and hanging out with various folks, including the great and glorious Victoria Blake of Underland Press, the newly generic Adam Golaski of New Genre, the wise and worldly Neil Clarke of Clarkesworld, the fantastic and science fictional Gordon van Gelder of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and the small-ly beerish Jedediah Berry of Small Beer Press. Because finances are a little perilous at the moment, I worked hard not to go crazy in the bookshop, though I could not resist buying a copy of Greer Gilman's Cloud & Ashes, a book I have been anticipating for years -- I have a copy of the issue of the Century magazine with "Jack Daw's Pack" in it, and "A Crowd of Bone" is one of the most linguistically astonishing stories I know. To have those included now alongside the previously unpublished, novel-length story "Unleaving" in a book of breathtakingly beautiful design was simply irresistible.

Then I spent an hour saying goodbye to people and headed north, back to the Great State of New Hampshire, where we've had 40 days of rain, but where the sun is currently shining, hopefully as a harbinger of good things to come...

08 July 2009

G.I. Joe

Of course, most of my reading time is spent in my wood-panelled library, smoking my Meerschaum pipe and contemplating the imbrication of hegemonic discourses. Over the past two days, however, I decided to set aside some light reading I was doing (Wittgenstein's Tractatus, which I tend to think of as the Goodnight Moon of philosophical texts) and instead plunge into two books someone at Del Rey had sent to me: G.I. Joe: Above & Beyond and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, both written by one Max Allan Collins.

The two novels are media tie-ins -- the second is a novelization of the screenplay for the upcoming film of the same title, and the first is a prequel to that. I haven't read too many media tie-ins (the only other that comes to mind is the novelization of Batman, which I read when I was about 13), but I am open to new experiences, and the fact that these two are about G.I. Joe sealed the deal.

Before I inhabited a wood-panelled library and smoked a Meerschaum and contemplated the imbrication of hegemonic discourses, I grew up in a gun shop (literally; it was attached to the house). I was seven years old when the G.I. Joe action figures hit the market -- and I got them all. I was not allowed to read comic books (they rot your brain), but an exception was made for the G.I. Joe comics. I watched the animated TV show every Saturday morning. I was hardcore.

I was also a bit of a young literalist -- early on, I decided it was problematic if my action figures killed each other, because I didn't think they could become zombies. My friends lacked this qualm; they routinely killed and resurrected their toys. This made no sense to me, and so I tried hard to avoid playing with my friends. I didn't want their zombie Joes infecting mine. Instead, I spent hours and hours creating complex détente situations.

As you can see, then, reading the new novels was something I simply could not avoid. I was particularly interested to see how the various creators (screenwriters, Collins) handled the problem of killing people. (The animated show had a simple solution: explosions and gunshots are not deadly. This was a dangerous message to the youth of America, but a useful trick for keeping the many important characters alive for the next episode.)

The novels (and, presumably, movie) handle death mostly by killing people who are not regular characters. There are, for instance, in The Pit, many random, unnamed Joes who serve as cannon fodder while the the action figures still get to make it through okay (with various cuts, bruises, etc.). There is one exception to this, but I shan't reveal it.

Both books are origin stories, with Above and Beyond being the tale of Duke and Ripcord's first encounter with the G.I. Joe team and The Rise of Cobra being the tale of how they join G.I. Joe and what creates Cobra (though Cobra as we know it does not appear until the final pages). Above and Beyond is a better novel -- more focused, with an effective and affecting downer for an ending -- while The Rise of Cobra is very much a screenplay that has been fleshed out in prose. I was very curious to know the movie's take on the characters and story, so I was fascinated by the novel, but without having yet seen the film I can't say if it offers anything the movie doesn't.

The changes made to the characters and background of the 1980s G.I. Joes are not terrible -- the group has been globalized instead of being part of the U.S. government: they are now a super-secret force approved by various countries to use any means necessary to destroy particularly cunning evil-doers, and the crew has been internationalized. Backstories are different, too, given that originally many of the main characters had been in Vietnam. Some of the biggest changes are to the stories of The Baronness and Cobra Commander, but to say any more about that would be to give away some of the biggest surprises of the two books...

The 1980s version of G.I. Joe feels to me like a mashup of Doc Savage, Rambo, and The A-Team. The new version still has a whiff of the Doc Savage novels, but with a big dollop of the James Bond movies during the Pierce Brosnan era added. The Rise of Cobra has an especially Bondesqe villain trying to take over control of the world and destroy it at the same time. Above and Beyond is more restrained, with a villain who merely wants to take over all of South America. As with Bond, the ideal audience seems to be adolescent heterosexual boys and maybe some lesbians -- the women are inevitably described as "attractive", while the men are muscular or smart or evil or something else, but never "attractive" (entirely contrary to my own experience, since even at a young age I thought those boys were hot!), and the books are full of soldiers who have lots of fun weapons and who never use a word stronger than "ass" or "bastard". Talk about fantasy!

A political analysis of the books is beyond my abilities, though it could be amusing -- the 1980s G.I. Joe helped post-Vietnam War kids feel good about the military and its endeavors and fear an imaginary all-powerful terrorist force that only a special branch of the U.S. military was skilled enough to combat. In Above and Beyond, the U.S. military and the Joes intervene in a fictional South American country when the saintly free-market-loving president is assassinated and the socialist rebels (who want to nationalize all the country's oil, presumably to make it more like Alaska) are blamed, though it is obvious from the beginning that a power-hungry, apolitical old general is really to blame, allowing a reconciliation between the free-marketeers and the socialists at the end that is brokered in a church -- God and guns being, apparently, the things socialists and capitalists can agree on. The Rise of Cobra is more of a War on Terror allegory, a super-heroes vs. super-villains story, but instead of vigilante super-heroes, the Joes are actually sanctioned by the leading countries of the world in their extra-legal activities (well, except for a brief moment when they have to go rogue, but it all works out for the best, so everybody loves them again in the end). Thus, the world's most powerful and organized and wealthy terrorists must be defeated by the world's best soldiers, with everybody scrambling to see who has the best gear and the best one-liners.

It's enough to make the eight-year-old in my heart swoon!

But now that I have digested the child within, I am returning to my wood-panelled library and my pipe...


It's the 20th year of Readercon, and I'll be there on Friday afternoon and most of Saturday. I'll be on a panel Saturday afternoon titled "Academic Attention: Good, Bad, or Ugly?", a topic that premiered at Readercon 1. My fellow panelists are Dennis Danvers, Samuel Delany, David Hartwell, Fred Lerner, and Veronica Schanoes. I'll also be at the Interfictions reading on Friday afternoon. Otherwise, I'm keeping my schedule open so I can go see panels and such things at a whim, or just hang out in the bookstore or bar. It will be fun to catch up with old friends and meet some new folks, too, I hope. I'm not a big convention person, but Readercon is one I always hate to miss.

04 July 2009

The Edge of Heaven

The Edge of Heaven [Auf der anderen Seite -- literally, "On the Other Side"] won the screenplay award at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival and was Germany's entry for the Oscars in 2007*. Some critics have faulted the film for being an obvious and schematic allegory of Turkish-German relations and, more specifically, of Turkey's application to become a full member of the European Union, but while this interpretation does seem at least partially valid to me, I also think it obscures many of the mitigating elements that provide thematic and cinematic complexity to the schema and are, themselves, the real achievements of the movie.

The Edge of Heaven is an example of what David Bordwell calls network narratives:
The central formal principle is that several protagonists are given more or less the same weight as they participate in intertwining plotlines. Usually these lines affect one another to some degree. The characters might be strangers, slight acquaintances, friends, or kinfolk. The film aims to show a larger pattern underlying their individual trajectories.
Think Babel, Crash [not the first one], Short Cuts, etc. Perhaps because it is in some ways novelistic, I find this a compelling structure, making a first viewing pleasurable even if I end up not thinking too highly of the film itself a few hours or days after watching it -- both Babel and Crash caught me in their nets when I first saw them, though 12 hours later I realized I actually thought Babel was weaker than González Iñárritu's earlier work (which I'd liked, with reservations) and Crash was just weak.

The network narrative of The Edge of Heaven offers a kind of 21st-century riff on Dickensian coincidences. But there's more than that -- the film is propelled by reversals and surprises that are caused by or correlated to missed connections rather than achieved ones. These missed connections lead, in the film's last section, to a new foundation of actual connections, but not of an expected sort -- the real achievement of writer-director Fatih Akim's script is that it doesn't hide how tenuous these new, positive connections are. Indeed, the film's final scene is entirely one of ambiguous potential, not actual connection. The first shots of the movie are chronologically part of this ending, suggesting the film is not so much about connections and coincidences as it is about the effort to live with them and to give them meaning. Like any of us, the characters are only aware of some of the connections between them; the film gives the audience an omniscient (or, at least, more informed) view than is available to us in life.

Elise Nakhnikian wrote an insightful comparison of Babel and The Edge of Heaven that shows where some of the strengths in Edge of Heaven reside, and how the network narrative, in this case, is supported and deepened by the filming, the acting, the soundtrack choices, etc. I was especially captivated by the simple grace of the cinematography -- I didn't notice a single shot requiring a track dolly, a crane, or a vehicle mount, and yet the movie never feels static, because the camera is often among movement, whether looking through the windows of a train or the windshield of a car or capturing people as they wind their way through busy streets.

The characters in The Edge of Heaven are, in many ways, types -- the young political radical, the disillusioned literature professor, the humane whore, the dirty old man, the college lesbian... Each character starts from that point, but none ends up there: they become particular humans, and their fates are often surprising -- the disillusioned literature professor does not end up in a doomed relationship with one of his students; indeed, he seems to have little need for a love life at all, because his interests and attentions are elsewhere. This sort of characterization mirrors the process of getting to know people -- we begin by fitting each other into broad categories, and then the categories fade as each individual comes into clearer focus.

It would be possible to sum up The Edge of Heaven with a statement of some theme or another, but any such summary would ignore the moments of real power within the story -- the performances are all richly affecting, and the writing and editing strengthen them by not basking in the emotion. No moment goes on too long, and much is left to our imaginations, because Akim respects the audience enough to assume that we are capable of understanding what would happen next, and of building such moments in our minds. It is this effect that allows the depth of characterization many critics have pointed out with the film -- the scenes that are offered suggest and evoke many other scenes that are easily imagined; we are given what is most necessary. Such a technique is easier to notice than it is to achieve; to know just which scenes will evoke others in the audience's imagination is a task most writers of any sort fail to master. (Unfortunately, most movies and books seem perfectly content to not even try.)

I fear I have made The Edge of Heaven sound more abstract and cerebral than it is. Let me say this, then: When I first watched it, I began by expecting to last for maybe fifteen minutes before shutting it off. I was tired, I just wanted some escapist fun, and The Edge of Heaven didn't look much like escapist fun. I was right about that: it is not escapist fun. But I was wrong that I would only last fifteen minutes. Within ten minutes, I was caught up in the film's composition and performances. Its fierce intelligence becomes gripping, the narrative's networks evoke suspense, and the effect is repeatedly emotionally searing. It is, simply, extraordinary. And so, the next day, I watched it again, and it was even better on a second viewing.

*I hadn't seen the list of German entries to the Oscars before looking it up just now, and for my money, The Edge of Heaven, which did not get nominated, is superior to the previous three entries, one of which (The Lives of Others) won, and is roughly the equal of Nowhere in Africa (which also won).

01 July 2009

"Mimetic Fiction"

While reading (and enjoying) a recent review at Strange Horizons, I became obsessed with a single word: mimetic. Writing about Vandana Singh's story "Thirst", Dan Hartland says, "Indeed, 'Thirst' is a largely mimetic piece, which opens itself to the fantastic only towards its close..." and then at the end of the paragraph finishes by saying, "two planes often opposed to each other in fiction co-exist and co-mingle, rendering metaphor, allegory and mimesis one". He calls another of Singh's stories "essentially a mimetic story about the search for truth".

There's a minor tradition within the science fiction community of using mimetic and mimesis to mean the opposite of the fantastic. The oldest such uses that I could find (with a quick and profoundly less than exhaustive search) date to the early 1970s, and the casual employment of the term in those contexts makes me suspect that it has a longer history within the SF world as a way to point toward what more generally gets called within that community "mainstream" or (less frequently) "mundane" fiction.

All of these terms are problematic for various reasons, but what struck me this time about the words mimetic and mimesis was how their meaning in this context relates to and in some ways contradicts a few others I can think of -- the classical idea of mimesis as "imitation", particularly "imitation of nature"; Erich Auerbach's influential mid-twentieth century study Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature; and, particularly, Ronald Sukenick's use of "mimetic fiction" in various essays collected in one of the many books I currently have out from the library, In Form: Digressions on the Act of Fiction.

Despite its history within the SF world, I'm not convinced that "mimetic fiction" is the best term for that thing for which there is, admittedly, no perfect term. Using mimesis to describe this thing, though, seems even less perfect to me than most of the other terms, because I'm more persuaded by Sukenick's use of it to mean fiction that tries to hide its illusions. In an essay on Gerald Graff, Sukenick makes this wonderfully efficient statement: "Mimetic fiction depends on the suspension of disbelief; nonmimetic fiction does not."

Almost all genre fiction, of course, depends on the suspension of disbelief, so if we accept Sukenick's definition, then the vast majority of SF is, in fact, mimetic.

This use of the term makes sense to me because it does two things. First, it does not deviate significantly from how the term has traditionally been used -- mimetic fiction in this sense seeks to give the reader a feeling, at least while reading the text, that there is a fundamental reality to the world conjured by the words. Sukenick writes:
The key idea is verisimilitude: one can make an image of the real thing which, though not real, is such a persuasive likeness that it can represent our control over reality. This is the voodoo at the heart of mimetic theory that helps account for its tenacity. Though such schizoid illusions are fostered by concepts of imitation, one cannot have control "over" that of which one is a part, or even formulate it completely -- one can only participate more deeply in it.
It doesn't seem to me that we have to accept Sukenick's preference for fiction that shuns verisimilitude in order to see that his distinction between mimetic and non-mimetic fiction is a useful one, which is the second reason I find it persuasive -- it describes in a more coherent and less problematic way than other terms I can think of what feels to me like a fundamental difference between types of writing. It illuminates some of what is different between, for instance, Tender Buttons and Dubliners -- but also some of what is similar between Dubliners and Tarzan of the Apes.

There is a good argument, too, that using mimesis as a way to distinguish SF from non-SF hides (or at least obscures) some of what SF seeks to do -- we're back at the suspension of disbelief. The creation of believable worlds from at least ostensibly unbelievable material. Such fiction relies upon verisimilitude, which is a point made by writers and critics for decades: that SF is realism on steroids. It seeks to create in the reader's mind what John Gardner called a "vivid, continuous dream". It may not be the representation of what we believe to be "reality", but it is an attempt to represent an imagined reality in a way that the reader does not reject as preposterous. This is worldbuilding. Philip K. Dick once offered advice on "How to Build a Universe That Doesn't Fall Apart Two Days Later" -- a nonmimetic writer might offer exactly the opposite advice.

Even the classical notion of mimesis as "imitation of nature" can apply to SF -- particularly to core science fiction, which deliberately tries to extrapolate from known science, and is often based on ideas of nature as we currently understand it. But even in something like Judith Berman's "Rather Cranky Post on Verisimilitude in Fantasy", we're still talking about the imitation of nature.

There is a need for a value-neutral term for non-SF. I'm just not convinced that "mimetic fiction" is what it should be.

Update (7/7/09): Hal Duncan has posted a thoughtful extension of some of these ideas in connection with some other discussions that have been going on around the intertubes.