28 June 2013

Dust Devil of the Stonewall

Today is the 44th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, the symbolic beginning of the modern gay liberation movement. It comes a few days after the Supreme Court's recent decisions regarding marriage equality, something I doubt anyone at the Stonewall in 1969 would have predicted seeing in their lifetimes. There's still tons of work to be done, particularly regarding the rights of queer folks who happen to be less than rich or other than white or transgendered ... but the progress is impressive.

For the 40th anniversary of Stonewall, I published Rick Bowes's memories of the event. It remains one of the things I'm happiest to have been able to bring to life here. That piece has been incorporated into Rick's extraordinary new book, Dust Devil on a Quiet Street, a semi-fictionalized autobiography that takes various things Rick has published over the years (including my single favorite piece of writing about 9/11, "There's a Hole in the City") and mashes them up into a powerful mosaic of life, art, and imagination. I'm an unregenerate (if not undegenerate) Bowes fanboy, so I can't say my assessment of Dust Devils is entirely unbiased, but I think it's the best book he's published.

27 June 2013

Upcoming: Where Thy Dark Eye Glances: Queering Edgar Allan Poe edited by Steve Berman

I have a story in Where Thy Dark Eye Glances: Queering Edgar Allan Poe edited by Steve Berman and published by Lethe Press, due out next month.

Steve sent me an advanced copy of the book, for which I'm grateful, because it gave me some time to read a few of the other stories (and some poems). I'm all the more honored to be included, because there's some excellent work here, and it's all organized well, highlighting connections without diminishing the range of tones, styles, and ideas.

I'm not going to review a book I'm a contributor to (for early reviews, see Publisher's Weekly and Ideomancer), but I will admit to some surprise at how consistently interesting and unpredictable the stories are. (Okay, I'll mention one specifically: Rick Bowes's story blew me away. And I'm a fan of his, so that's saying something.) This could have been a gimmicky theme anthology, and it's very much not. I don't think you necessarily have to be a fan of either Poe or queer fiction to get a lot out of this book, and that's a hallmark to me of a really great anthology: appreciation is not inevitably bound to the theme.

[Update 10 July: And here's a thoughtful, informed, and comprehensive review of the book by Anthony Cardno at Strange Horizons.]

Here's the table of contents:

25 June 2013

Black Star Nairobi by Mukoma wa Ngugi

Last year, I wrote about Mukoma wa Ngugi's Nairobi Heat, seeing it as an interesting, if flawed, first novel. Now Melville House has released Mukoma's second novel, a sequel to the first: Black Star Nairobi, a political thriller that begins as a detective story and ends up taking us from Kenya to Mexico to the U.S. and then back to Kenya at the time of the election crisis of 2007/08.

The writing in Black Star Nairobi is more assured than in Nairobi Heat, and the plot and structure are more ambitious. The ambition is also the novel's curse, because the text is not up to the task of portraying and dramatizing the richness of its worlds and ideas — it's a book that needs to be twice its length or half its plot.

19 June 2013

First Thoughts on The Childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee

Some preliminary, inadequate notes on J.M. Coetzee's new novel, The Childhood of Jesus, after a first reading:

Kafka and Cervantes haunt this novel, as they haunt so much of Coetzee's work. Cervantes is there on the pages — the boy David carries around a children's copy of Don Quixote and learns to read from it. Kafka is more of a ghost in the book, a presence haunting its words. The Childhood of Jesus tempts us toward reading it as allegory, a tendency common to Kafka's work, and Coetzee has written insightfully about Kafka many times, including a valuable essay on "Translating Kafka" in Stranger Shores that criticizes Edwin and Willa Muir's allegorical and religious reading of Kafka and the effect it had on their translations. Reading Coetzee allegorically is always a false path and yet one he seems to enjoy tempting readers toward. This time, the temptation is even in the title.

The title is mischievous, because there is no character named Jesus in the novel, though there are certainly allusions to the story of Jesus of Nazareth. Coetzee, like Kafka, is often mischievous; and, like Kafka, his mischievous tendencies often go unnoticed by readers and critics. His playfulness has only become more pronounced in the books since Disgrace and the Nobel Prize, books that flagrantly transgress expectations of genre and realism, books seemingly designed to torture readers who desire one, stable meaning in the texts they read, and who insist on knowing what is real and what is not.

14 June 2013

Derek Jarman and the Memory Palace of Life

This essay originally appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of Rain Taxi. Elements were also used in my video essay "Profane Love: Derek Jarman & Caravaggio", which I began work on shortly after writing this piece.

Derek Jarman and the Memory Palace Of Life

by Matthew Cheney

Derek Jarman
University of Minnesota Press ($18.95)

Derek Jarman
University of Minnesota Press ($18.95)

Tony Peake
University of Minnesota Press ($24.95)

Derek Jarman died in 1994, leaving behind him one of the most important bodies of work of any artist or filmmaker of his generation, an oeuvre that challenged orthodoxies of sexuality, politics, and aesthetics. Though best remembered for such films as Jubilee, Caravaggio, and Blue, Jarman was also a prolific writer, particularly as a diarist. The University of Minnesota Press has been reissuing many of his published works in uniform paperback editions; additionally, they have reprinted Tony Peake’s 1999 biography of Jarman.

Though very much of its time, Jarman’s work has sustained its power and relevance long beyond its creator’s death. Having found meaning and pleasure within the bohemian, anti-establishment world of the late ‘60s British avant-garde art scene, Jarman never hesitated in presenting an identity for himself that was defiantly queer. At first, this was not a political identity. In his 1992 memoir/journal/manifesto At Your Own Risk, Jarman wrote that “I danced the sixties away but I didn’t see that as hedonism; it was a REVOLUTIONARY GESTURE — you should have seen the way the other students reacted to two men kissing in public. I believed we could bring change with individual actions, it wasn’t linked to any conventional political blueprint. One person in one room quite cut off could change the world.” During the early 1970s, Jarman attended many of the meetings of the Gay Liberation Front, but though he enjoyed the more pranksterish elements of their activism, Peake quotes him as saying he “disliked these well-meaning rather lonely people laying down the law … there was an element of joylessness about it.” His early films were proudly queer (a label he came to prefer to “gay”), but their queerness was in service to their countercultural core. Jubilee (1978), his second feature-length film, was an anarchic vision of an apocalyptic England (or an apocalyptic vision of an anarchic England) full of punk rockers. With the arrival of AIDS and Thatcherism in the 1980s, though, Jarman would become radicalized, his bohemian individualism and sense of humor evolving into furious, confrontational queer communalism.

10 June 2013

Defending Alice Munro

I was pleased to read Kyle Minor's response to Christian Lorentzen's London Review of Books hatchet job on Alice Munro, not because I think Munro is above criticism, but because Lorentzen's attempt at a take-down was pretty shallow. I read Lorentzen's piece and was merely moved to get snarky on Twitter, but Minor really digs into Lorentzen's claims.

Much as I am in awe of Munro's best stories, I am also extremely wary of any discourse that builds up around a writer to make them seem impervious to criticism. This is perhaps Lorentzen's best claim — that Munro has been too much worshipped and too little evaluated. It does our understanding of her achievement no service to surround every sentence she writes with awe. Habitual praise is meaningless.

The critical writing about Munro that I most appreciate is the type that really digs into what she's doing and its effects. I found Lorentzen's approach annoying not because he doesn't like Munro's work, but because his dislike prohibits him from understanding the subtleties and complexities of the texts, making his writing a narrow expression of personal taste and ultimately a demonstration of his own obtuseness. Everybody has writers whose work they don't "get" — writers who, for whatever reason of tone or style or topic, we bounce off of. Such writers are the hardest for any critic to write about in a constructive or insightful way, because our response is too individual, too blinding. Lorentzen's expression of distaste for the stories of Alice Munro is perfect evidence of this: the review says little of use about Munro and instead paints a (rather unappealing) portrait of Lorentzen as a reader.

Really, the fact that Lorentzen read ten of Munro's collections in a row should immediately disqualify him from rational conversation about her work, because while it might be an interesting exercise to see what happens when you cram 45 years of a writer's words into your brain, it's hardly going to lead to a nuanced appreciation of their skill. Anything consumed quickly and in large quantities is likely to lead to nausea. I especially think short stories should not be read in gulps, and even if some short stories do benefit from such an approach, Munro's most certainly do not.

Kyle Minor has not been nauseated from gorging himself on the rich feast of Munro's fiction, and so his defense of her work is well done: specific, detailed, thoughtful, informed. These two paragraphs, for instance, offer a good example of the virtues of his method:
By 1998, the year of the publication of “The Love of a Good Woman,” Munro had begun to mute the way the new kinds of stories wore their form like an exoskeleton, and created a series of stories in which the freedom the previous two books had opened could now be stretched out into in more organic ways, a development that reached its crescendo in “Hateship, Friendship’s” “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” a novel compressed into 40-some pages in which, as Lorentzen tells it, “a woman with dementia forgets her husband and directs her affections toward another resident.” “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” is Munro’s crowning achievement, a story in which a writer is operating without a net, in absence of constraints, offering in greatest fullness a character for whom ordinary consciousness has been transmuted into some other thing, a story whose only rival in this regard is “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” Katherine Anne Porter’s novella of the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918.

Throughout the years she was writing “Friend of My Youth,” “Open Secrets,” “The Love of a Good Woman” and “Hateship, Friendship,” Munro was making history, culture, power and time her subjects. Lorentzen complains that “people’s residential and familial histories” come up “all the time in the stories … details she never leaves out,” without understanding that these are the details that accumulate, that the characters gnaw on until they explode like fireworks at story’s end, where, as in Chekhov’s best story, “Gusev,” we realize that the story is an avatar of all the world’s other stories, and that the song of the individual is given to grandeur in part because of the way it connects to all the music that came before and all the music that will come after. In this regard, sometimes Munro seems to have made a single dyspeptic organism of the whole universe.
Minor's worst tendency is his fondness for grandiose statements*, but he knows Munro's work well and, most importantly, has the kind of sympathy for it that allows him to write intelligent analysis. Sympathy is certainly not required for intelligent analysis, as critical insight can sometimes result from fierce antipathy, but Lorentzen's antipathy is too idiosyncratic to overcome his uncomprehending bluster and lead him toward insight.

*"Gusev" is Chekhov's best story, "Pale Horse, Pale Rider" is Munro's story's "only rival in this regard" — as if "Gusev" is not one among quite a few examples of Chekhov at his best in different ways, and as if Minor has read every story ever written and therefore knows that only Porter was Munro's rival.

07 June 2013

Brilliantly Terrifying New Dystopian Sci-Fi Novel from B. Obama!

Harou Romain, Project for a Prison, 1840
I can't say I've followed the writing career of B. Obama very closely over the years — his oeuvre seemed a bit too mainstream, a bit too conservative for my tastes — but I'm interested in the book he's apparently been working on for more than five years now, a kind of sequel, it seems, to Patriot Acts by G.W. Shrub* (a paranoid military thriller that was, inexplicably, the most popular book in the U.S. before Fifty Shades of Grey).

Various sources have reported rumors about the new Obama book over the years, including apparently facetious reports that it would be not one book but a series, collectively titled Drone Strike, with individual entries such as Drone Strike: American Citizen Down! and Drone Strike: Oops, Dead Kids!.

It seems now that Obama is actually at work on a comprehensive near-future epic. The Wall Street Journal has a particularly concise summary of some facets of the dystopian world imagined by the writer:
A secret government arrangement with Verizon, AT&T and Sprint, the country's three largest phone companies, means that every time the majority of Americans makes a call, NSA [the protagonist, apparently] gets a record of the location, the number called, the time of the call and the length of the conversation, according to people familiar with the manuscript. The practice, which evolved out of warrantless wiretapping programs begun after 2001, is now approved by all three branches of the U.S. government. [...]

NSA also obtains access to data from Internet service providers on Internet use such as data about email or website visits, several publishing industry insiders said. NSA has established similar relationships with credit-card companies...
Other details are, right now, sketchy, and some critics have complained that the details we've gotten so far do not inspire hope for a truly original vision. I'm more optimistic, since it sounds like up till now we've only heard about the tip of the proverbial Hemingwayesque iceberg. Previous bestsellers with similar settings tended to include heroic rebels against the system, who, even if their rebellions ended up being symbolic or forgotten, at least gave the reader a way to imagine some way to change the present and hope for a better future. It sounds like Obama's book could be much bleaker than that. We should remember, though, that he has distinguished himself as a brutal writer when he needs to be, with a particular expertise in convincing his very loyal fanbase that, unlike, say, George R.R. Martin, the characters he kills off are not ones they should care about.

And though I certainly agree with critics who say that Obama's imaginings as we currently  understand them lack originality, I think the complete vision could be impressive and terrifying: a total control bureaucracy overseeing a fully surveilled society, supported by a massive prison system, "indefinite detentions",  leaders utterly beholden to the whims of sociopathic financiers, and legal justifications for every extralegal act (remember that Obama is known by the nickname "President Constitutional Law Prof", and we can be sure his future novels will include scenes with lawyers offering copious defenses of even the most authoritarian actions — indeed, I'd say Obama is a better satirist of the American legal system than even William Gaddis). And that's probably not all.

Reports suggest that the new book is still far from finished, but for those of us who enjoy apocalyptic and dystopian stories, the publicity campaign that has begun for Obama's work is already enticing.

*reportedly ghostwritten by Dick Chaingang, lead singer of the late-'70s Nazi punk band Living Nixons

05 June 2013

Queer SF Mindmeld

SF Signal's Mind Melds are often marvelous, but the most recent is my favorite in a long time: a bunch of people answering the question, "LGBT themes and characters have, thankfully, enjoyed an emergence in speculative fiction the past few years, and we’d love to know who some of your favorite LGBT authors, stories, and novels are, and why?"

Great answers from all, offering not only recommendations of excellent books to read, but thoughtful ideas about the place of queer concepts within science fictional/fantasy contexts. Cheryl Morgan in particular covers a remarkable amount of ground in relatively few words.

Bravo, all!

Some Writing About What We Wrote About When We Wrote About The Caine Prize

Though I decided at the last minute not to join the third annual Caine Prize Blogathon after having  participated in the first two, I am still interested in the Prize, its effect(s), and its complex relationship to the idea of "African literature". Thus, I read with great interest an article about recent reactions to the Caine Prize that has been published in the latest issue of the venerable journal Research in African Literatures.

The article, "The Caine Prize and Contemporary African Writing" by Lizzy Attree, includes a discussion of the first year of the Caine Prize blogathon, a discussion which at first was very exciting for me, because it's nice to have an endeavor you've participated in noticed.

Once I actually read all of what Attree had written, though, I became annoyed. The trouble is, I don't really recognize the actual discussion in the discussion that Attree says we had. Or, rather, I recognize parts of it, but because Attree focuses on those parts at the expense of the whole, it feels distorting.

I think there are quite a few problems with the essay overall, but I'll leave it for other people to look at the entire piece. (Her characterization of postcolonial theory is especially problematic.) Here, I'm going to reply to one part — just four paragraphs — and I am only going to speak for myself and use evidence from my own posts, though I think a lot of the writing of other people involved in the Caine Prize blogathons also stands up against Attree's claims.

Since the essay is available only via academic databases, I will place here the four relevant paragraphs one by one as I discuss them, so that my analysis and response to their claims can be fairly assessed. I won't pretend mine is an impartial analysis.