01 November 2012

A Momentary Miscellany

I still don't have time to write a substantive post about much of anything, but there are a bunch of things I'd like to note before I forget them, so here's a rather fragmentary and scattered post about things mostly unrelated to each other...

I've been doing quite a bit of writing, but none of it is stuff that's currently for online venues. (For instance, I wrote an introduction to an upcoming art book from Hideaki Miyamura, about which I'm sure I will say much more later, once it's available.) Also, I sold a story to Steve Berman for an upcoming anthology of queer Poe stories, which is very exciting for me because I've hardly written any fiction in the last 2 years, and whenever I finally get around to writing a story, I always wonder, "Do I still remember how?" Apparently, yes. I'm also thrilled because I've had a chance to read a couple other stories that will be in the book and they're really excellent — honestly, even if you're indifferent to Poe and you think you only like your stories 100% hetero in their inclinations, you should get this book. (And not just because 100% hetero is so dull you should never talk about it in mixed company. But I'm not judging you. Actually, I am. Unless you read this book when it comes out next year...)

Speaking of coming out soon, we're almost ready to release a new issue of The Revelator. For a preview of what's to come, check out our Facebook page. It's even possible that we will manage to get two whole issues out within the next 12 months, doubling our current rate! A lot depends on our Copy Editor, but we've got faith.


Some movies.
I saw The Master and admired it but didn't really like it much. Everything about it is well done, and I didn't care at all. I wasn't bored, just indifferent. It seemed to me emotionally vacant, and so I was surprised to see some reviewers and viewers claiming it was a powerful experience for them. Not having access to that experience mystified me. I tend to like films lots of people find cold and unemotional, so I was quite shocked to find myself thinking, "Wow, now I know how people who don't like Kubrick or Michael Haneke feel." But it only further reveals, to me at least, how our emotional and intellectual connection to a work of art is dependent on all sorts of different elements — narrative, stylistic, random — some of which are probably invisible to us, and personal to us, and difficult to overcome.

I thought of this again when I watched Moonrise Kingdom for the second time. I saw it in the theatre this summer and was overwhelmed by it. Watching it on blu-ray at home, I was even more overwhelmed. Everything about it works for me — so much so that I cannot actually imagine how anyone could dislike the film. Granted, I don't dislike any of Wes Anderson's movies, and am a fervent defender of even his most maligned works, but still. It is difficult to discuss any work of art that we absolutely love or absolutely loathe, but absolute feelings are so deep that they warp any caveats and criticisms into gibberish. I could not have a conversation about Moonrise Kingdom with someone who hated it. We speak different languages; we feel our way through life differently.

The Master, though, I could happily discuss with fervent fans and determined detractors. Because it didn't reach me deeply in one way or another, I don't feel like I have a stake in it or, more importantly, it has a stake in me. I could, in fact, with more thought and more viewings, be swayed. Perhaps. We'll see.

More quickly about some other viewing experiences, before moving on to books — Cracker is now on Netflix Instant, so I started watching it. Series 1 was okay, but I wasn't sure I would continue. I began Series 2, though, just to see, and ... it's some of the best television I've ever seen. Harrowing and eviscerating. (I also realized something about myself: the only series I really love are crime shows. I don't like series narratives generally, whether books or movies or comics or, especially, tv shows. But crime shows I can do. The only tv shows I have categorized in my brain as "great" are The Wire, the first few seasons and then some specific episodes of Homicide, the first few seasons of the Granada Sherlock Holmes, and to some extent the new BBC Sherlock. Then the shows I watch out of pure gumball addiction: White Collar, Burn Notice, sometimes NCIS. Well, and the first couple seasons of The West Wing, which I have all sorts of objections to and yet find it pushes so many pleasure buttons that I forget them. And Louie, because the writing is brilliant, but I can only take it in small doses.)

Also on Netflix Instant: the Norwegian film Headhunters, which is especially effective if you don't analyze its plausibility. The first half hour or so is good, but mostly set-up for a very powerful and sometimes revolting middle, then a good but not astounding end. What's impressive is just how much happens in the movie. Read its Wikipedia summary and you'll be likely to think, "Wait, how can that all be one 100-minute movie?" But it is, and quite well paced. It was a big hit in Norway and is now apparently being remade in a U.S. version. See it now before they probably ruin it. (Not always the case. I preferred David Fincher's Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. But I love Fincher, so I would.)

I had seen and enjoyed some of the Dardenne brothers' films before I saw Rosetta, but none has affected me as deeply. Perhaps it was the political season. It seemed to me the perfect antidote to the cruelty of politicians who assume that all poverty is the product of laziness. Indeed, it shows that an obsessive focus on finding and keeping a "real" job can be pathological and destructive. It's an extraordinary character study, but also an extraordinary social study. Additionally, it's a film where its form is a central part of its meaning. A wrenching masterpiece, and unforgettable.

Some books and bookish things.
In my previous miscellany, I mentioned Karin Tidbeck's story collection Jagganath, which is now generally available and getting excellent reviews, as it should. It's the best debut collection I've read in a long time.

Speaking of collections, I just got hold of Kij Johnson's At the Mouth of the River of Bees, which I expect to be wonderful, because the couple of Johnson's stories I've read have, indeed, been so. Additionally, M. John Harrison said nice things about it and it's published by Small Beer Press, so it had to be owned. Additionally, just this evening I received notice that my long-ago pre-ordered copies of Ursula K. Le Guin's 2-volume selected stories has been shipped from Small Beer Central. I've read nearly every story in these collections already, some of them many, many times. To have them in matching hardcovers seems to me a delight beyond delight.

Small Beer is probably my favorite publisher on the planet, at least judging by the percentage of their books that I own. But I'm also very fond of Tachyon, especially for their anthologies, and I haven't had a chance to catch up with them for a while. Most recently, I've been reading around in Ann VanderMeer's Steampunk III: Steampunk Rebellion, which is probably my favorite of the three Steampunk anthologies, mostly because this time it's got lots of politics and revolution in it, and I'm a sucker for such things. There's no single story quite as gonzo brilliant, in my eyes (so far!), as the Stepan Chapman from volume one, but that's no criticism — Chapman at his best is unique. But there's plenty of wonderful work, including one of my favorites of Karin Tidbeck's stories ("Beatrice"), my favorite recent Chris Barzak story ("Smoke City"), and Nick Mamatas's tale of Friedrich Engels, "Arbeitskraft", which you just have to read to believe. I'm very much looking forward to reading the stories I haven't yet had a chance to look at, including a new one by Vandana Singh, one of the most consistently excellent story writers at work today.

I've also been reading around in two Kessel/Kelly (or vice versa) anthologies from Tachyon, Kafkaesque and Digital Rapture. Both are well worth reading, but it's the latter that's been more of a revelation for me. In some ways, Kafkaesque is a little too limited in its range — it's all good and often great stuff, but somehow not entirely satisfying as a book. Better sampled than read all at once, at least to me. (But I'm picky. Kafka's my favorite writer of the first half of the 20th century.) Digital Rapture, though, is much more interesting than I ever expected it to be, because I am utterly and completely tired of the whole singularity idea. I had to read the book, because the editors are both great guys and I read everything they write and edit, but ... singularity? Really?

Low expectations can be good to have. I haven't read every story in the book yet, but every one I have read was a real pleasure. I hadn't read Asimov's "The Last Question" in probably 20 years, and it was fun to revisit it (though Asimov's work is not nearly as good as it was when I was a teenager). Frederick Pohl's "Day Million" is an old favorite of mine, a story I've read at least 10 times, used in classes, and always enjoy returning to. "Hive Mind Man" by Rudy Rucker and Eileen Gunn is minor, but fun, while Vernor Vinge's "Cookie Monster" made me yearn for a sequel, and Robert Reed's "Coelecanths" and Justina Robson's "Cracklegrackle" both seemed to do exactly what I hope for when I read science fiction — not sense of wonder (that ended after adolescence) but rather a sense of a rich universe between the lines of the story. The worst insult I can level at a science fiction story is for it to feel thin, and one of the reasons I was wary about this anthology is that many of the singularity or far-future SF stories I've read over the last decade have, indeed, felt thin. (What I wrote about the anthology One Million AD in 2006 could apply to many, many more such stories. In retrospect, that anthology isn't especially bad, just typically mediocre.)

I'm still having trouble reading novels. Partly, this is a continuing effect of gorging on books during my work as a juror for the Shirley Jackson awards, but right now it's as much a matter of being really busy and not having quite enough energy or attention to devote to novels. I did manage to read David Goodis's Dark Passage in the new Library of America collection of 5 of his novels, and was blown away. I can only take Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler in very small doses — the hardboiled mannerisms grate on my mind's ear — but Goodis isn't really hardboiled exactly. Robert Polito, who edited the book, makes the right distinction in an interview at the LOA blog: "...neither in those early pulp stories nor in his classic novels would I style him a hard-boiled writer. Melancholy and yearning were his notes, not toughness and violence." He also says, pretty accurately, I think, about a paragraph from Dark Passage: "Those little repeated phrases are the bars of the psychic prison Parry lives inside, and the only other writer I know who sounds this way is Gertrude Stein in The Making of Americans."

Now, comparing Goodis to Gertrude Stein is a bit of a stretch, but not an entirely hyperbolic one. He really does things with rhythm and language that are (if not exactly unique) distinctive, particularly for the genre. I'd seen the Bogart/Bacall film of Dark Passage, which is quite faithful to the novel, and itself distinctive for being one of the only really successful uses of a first-person camera, but the novel is more compelling because it's really not the plot or characters that enrapture so much as the rhythms and diction of the sentences and paragraphs. (True as well for many writers, including Hammett and Chandler. I just prefer Goodis's rhythms and diction.) Those sentences and paragraphs accumulate and impart an extraordinarily rich sense of mood — the melancholy and yearning that Polito mentions, as well as a sense of doomed obsessiveness. There are, indeed, certain passages in The Making of Americans that do just that, as well.

Meanwhile, there have been controversies out there in litland. Arthur Krystal wrote a dunderheaded piece for The New Yorker's blog that seemed to be trolling for an audience. But it's provided Hal Duncan with fodder for many blog posts of his own, so for that we should at least thank Mr. Krystal. Eric Rosenfield has been reading Samuel Delany. Arthur Krystal should do the same. Personally, I really don't care anymore about anybody's anxieties and illusions about genre this or Literature that or whatever. I'm with Colson Whitehead: I'd rather shoot myself in the face. There are countless more meaningful things to worry about in the world. Some of this stuff, for instance. Or, heck, just go read a book. Or write one. Or watch a movie. Or make one. Or go outside. Or donate money to the Red Cross or Oxfam or the small but vital domestic violence crisis center that I'm on the board of, or your own local crisis center, where people's lives are saved. Stop wasting time and brain cells on drivel like Arthur Krystal's blog posts. Do something. As a great writer once said: The life you save may be your own.

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