01 January 2014

2013


It feels like it was 2013 for a long time. Mostly, that's because I started a Ph.D. program this fall, so my year breaks into a before and after, and the before feels far away. It was also the 10th anniversary year of this blog, and so I feel that, though activity hereabouts was relatively thin given my other commitments, I should bid this year some special adieu.

Given how full the year was, I thought I'd try to remember some of my reading, writing, viewing, etc. and see what comes of it. I haven't kept systematic lists (my Letterboxd film diary is about as close as it gets), so I will inevitably forget or miss things, but just trying to get the year in perspective ought to be a useful, if unavoidably narcissistic, activity...

I published two short stories in 2013, about double my annual average. Both were horror stories: "Lacuna" in Where Thy Dark Eye Glances edited by Steve Berman and "How Far to Englishman's Bay" in Nightmare magazine. I love writing horror stories, but it's hard to find markets for the sort of horror I tend to write, so I'm especially pleased these stories found homes.

My favorite writing project published this year was something for which my work was mostly in the background: Jeff VanderMeer's extraordinary Wonderbook, a fiction-writing guide that is also an art object, thanks to the contributions of Jeremy Zerfoss and others. Even now, months after it was published, I open the book and flip through it and it just fills me with joy.

Of the nonfiction I published this year, three pieces in particular stick out when I think back: a review of M. John Harrison's Empty Space for Strange Horizons (and the outtakes), an essay on 12 Years a Slave for Press Play, and a review of Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry & Poetics for Rain Taxi.

I continued to experiment with the medium of video essays, and generally liked the results, the most substantial of which were: "The End of Violence: The Conclusions of Clint Eastwood", "First Fassbinder", "Rob Zombie and the Cinema of Cruelty", and "Watching the Dark: Zero Dark Thirty".

The biggest as-yet-unpublished writing I did was an introduction for an upcoming reissue of Samuel Delany's The American Shore for Wesleyan University Press. Chip and I worked closer on this introduction than the ones I did for The Jewel-Hinged Jaw and Starboard Wine — he answered lots of questions for me, and so I was really able to get at why The American Shore, which is a book-length study of Thomas M. Disch's story short story "Angouleme", takes the form and makes the moves it does. (I think the book may be released this summer, but I don't know if Wesleyan has solidified their schedule yet.)

I really didn't keep track of any of the books I read this year, so I'm going to forget more than I remember. I had the privilege to read drafts of the first two novels in Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy, Annihilation and Authority, which are marvelous and fascinating (to say more at this point would be taunting, since the books won't be published till next year. And I don't want to taunt you. Really. I don't. [Na na na na na naaaaa!]). The books are like what might result from J.J. Abrams and H.P. Lovecraft having a love-child, and then that love-child is hit by a truck and smeared across the road, and the road is renovated by necromancer/roadworkers, who bring the smeared bits of love-child to an alchemist/chef they know, who bakes it into a meatloaf he's been working on, and then David Lynch eats the meatloaf, but has an allergic reaction and ends up projectile-vomiting it across the main dining room of a very fine restaurant and into the hair of a disgraced member of the British House of Lords, who — well, no, maybe not. The books are not like any of that at all. Truly. They're more like Annie meets Caligula. Yes. Just like that. Would I lie to you?

I started reading Thomas Pynchon's Bleeding Edge, and enjoyed it very much — indeed, it made me laugh out loud repeatedly, which few novels do — but then work got in the way and I put the book aside. Hopefully, I'll return to it soon...

I re-read Toni Morrison's Beloved for the first time in about 20 years. It's a book I admire more than embrace. I've read most of her novels at least once, and there's something about Morrison's writing that always feels forced to me, even slick, although those words also feel inadequate (and overly negative) to the sensation I'm stumbling to describe. My indifference to Morrison's books likely results from her genre/style, what William Gass astutely called "operatic realism", a style I respond very well to in film but not so much in writing, except in Faulkner (an influence on Morrison) — but the Faulkner novels I love and revere are his most difficult, most highly High Modernist (Absalom, Absalom! above all, but also As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury), where the style and structure counteracts at least some of the operatic qualities.

My general dislike of most operatic novels (and, honestly, most opera) leads naturally to my love of J.M. Coetzee, a writer more Webernian than operatic. Some of the biggest, or at least most obvious, influences on Coetzee have been Cervantes, Kafka, and Beckett, and that influence remains prominent in The Childhood of Jesus, his latest novel, which I wrote about in June. The Cervantes and Kafka connections are especially strong in this book, so much so that to call them influences seems inadequate, for they are more like dialogic shards. The novel has pestered, even haunted, me ever since I read it, and I look forward to reading it again, because it is very much a book that needs re-reading.

I spent much of the last third of 2013 thinking about Coetzee, because I was working on a paper about In the Heart of the Country. This led not only to immersion in that novel and the scholarship on it, but also to Coetzee's doctoral dissertation, The English Novels of Samuel Beckett, which was great fun, though probably only to someone with at least a passing interest in Beckett and a strong interest in Coetzee. (Many of the substantial insights from the dissertation can be found in Doubling the Point.)

Freud makes me hysterical!
Also for that paper, I ended up spending a lot of time with Sigmund Freud, particularly Beyond the Pleasure Principle, which I had never read before, and which I came to be fascinated by. I'm not a Freudian, and don't believe in the particulars of his mythos much more than I believe in the particulars of Greek mythology, but I have become much more interested in Freud as a writer and historical figure. Most of my previous knowledge of Freudian principles came from the first part of Freud's psychoanalytic career, an important period, but it is really his work from around World War I, and then later, that most interests me, because it's when he begins to re-evaluate and revise some of his earlier ideas, and so enters into a dialogue with himself that occasionally marvelously bizarre heights. I found Patrick Mahony's Freud as Writer particularly helpful in getting a grasp of some of this.

And then there's Jacques Derrida's The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond, one of the most thrilling reading experiences of the year for me. The long central essay, "To Speculate — On 'Freud'", is one of the most accessible things I've ever read from Derrida, and because I read it just after reading Beyond the Pleasure Principle, it was the only thing I've read from Derrida that I could say was, for me, a page-turner. I devoured it. The first time through, I barely understood any but the most major points, because I was devouring, but going back and back and back led to more and more insight. It's Derrida, so plenty remains opaque to me, but this is why I am always returning to his writing — opacity is always there, but re-reading feels productive, even revelatory.

A supplement? A diffusion?
Speaking of Derrida, I also read much of Benoît Peeters' biography, and enjoyed it immensely, much as last year (was it last year? maybe two years ago...) I read and enjoyed François Dosse's biography of Deleuze and Guattari. It's strange to read biographies of such writers, because a biographical approach is not ideal for understanding their work, and yet I find, after reading a good biography, that I am much better able to appreciate their work, or parts of it that I didn't appreciate before, because there's something about the narrative of a human life that is a basic organizing principle for my brain. I'm also very historically-minded, very interested in the material contexts of writing, and so biographies are like candy for me. And like candy, they sometimes make me suspicious of the health consequences while I indulge in them...

Other books of a distinctly academic persuasion that I spent a bit of time with and at least found provocatively interesting in 2013: The Cultural Politics of Emotion by Sara Ahmed, The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture by Lauren Berlant, Wittgenstein Reads Freud by Jacques Bouveresse, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive by Lee Edelman, Post-Traumatic Culture by Kirby Ferguson, A Story of South Africa: J.M. Coetzee's Fiction in Context by Susan VanZanten Gallagher, Against Race: Imagining Political Culture Beyond the Color Line by Paul Gilroy, Moving Politics: Emotion and ACT UP's Fight Against AIDS by Deborah B. Gould, Cultural Studies in the Future Tense by Lawrence Grossberg, The Erotic Life of Racism by Sharon Patricia Holland, The Trauma Question by Roger Luckhurst, and All in the Family: The Realignment of American Democracy Since the 1960s by Robert O. Self.

Another biography I read in 2013 was Alexis De Veaux's of Audre Lorde, Warrior Poet, which was revelatory. I've long loved Lorde's poems and essays, and known some of the context, but to have so much of that context revealed more fully led me back to Lorde's writings, which is real praise for the biography. I don't think the book is especially well written, but the information is useful and the product of excellent research. We need more books on the overlapping contexts of American feminism and American poetry in the later 20th century.

The best new (to the U.S.) novel I read in 2013 was also the last novel I read in 2013: Submergence by J.M. Ledgard. I didn't read many novels this year, but that would be a top novel for me in any year.

2013 was a wonderful year for short fiction. To my mind, the greatest achievement in short fiction this year came from Tartarus Press, who finished bringing all of Robert Aickman's collections back into print. I spent much too much money for a grad student on these books, and have never regretted it for an instant; indeed, the books are so beautiful and so brilliant that I think Tartarus under-charges for them.

Steve Berman's Lethe Press also had a great year, not only publishing a story of mine in the (otherwise) really strong anthology Where Thy Dark Eye Glances, but also doing a great service to the world in publishing Christopher Barzak's collection Before and Afterlives and bringing Richard Bowes's mosaic novel Minions of the Moon back into print and Dust Devil on a Quiet Street. (Lethe also published books by Alex Jeffers and Will Ludwigsen that I haven't had a chance to read, but expect are well worth attention.)

Rick Bowes really had a banner year in 2013, publishing, in addition to his Lethe books, two collections: The Queen, the Cambion, and Seven Others from Aqueduct and If Angels Fight from Fairwood. (I will have a bit more to say about Bowes's year in books in a year-end roundup that Strange Horizons is scheduled to publish...)

Also published this year were excellent collections from Nathan Ballingrud, Laird Barron, Alan DeNiro, and Nnedi Okorafor, the latter of which I just finished writing a review of for Strange Horizons, and the others of which I haven't yet finished reading.

Eric Schaller and I first published one of the stories in Laird's collection, "More Dark", in The Revelator (a new issue of which will be out probably this month), and, reviewing the collection, the estimable S.T. Joshi, a man of many strong opinions (which he is thrilled to share with the world), said, regarding "More Dark", "I fervently hope Barron doesn’t write anything like this again." We at Revelator Central celebrated mightily that comment. (We, of course, hope Laird writes whatever he wants in the future, and would, in fact, be thrilled to see him write a 7-volume series of novels based on "More Dark".)

There were a lot of other excellent books published in 2013. I probably read a few of them. But my brain is becoming mud as I write all this, so it's time to move on to ... MOVIES!

Looking through my Letterboxd list, I see that of the movies released in 2013 that I saw, my favorites were:
12 Years a Slave
Deceptive Practice
Pacific Rim
Red 2
Spring Breakers
Upstream Color
We Steal Secrets
The World's End
I haven't had a chance to see a lot of 2013's films yet, though, especially the awards bait that has been released after the summer, so by this time next year I expect my list will be rather different. The ones I expect to remain, no matter what, are 12 Years a Slave, Pacific Rim, and maybe Spring Breakers and Upstream Color.

I agree with Steffan Horowitz at Africa Is a Country: "For me in 2013, there was 12 Years a Slave and then there was everything else." I mostly explained why in my essay for Press Play, though I wrote that piece before I knew anybody else's perspective on the movie, so I wasn't able to address some of the criticisms the film has faced, for instance from bell hooks. I'm very sympathetic to the criticism that the film does not give enough attention to its female characters; I think that's generally true, and the most significant mark against the movie — particularly since even in the glimpses of the female characters that we get, they're interesting, compelling people, and I wanted to see them more, hear from them more, know about them more.

While I agree in principle with Daniel José Older's call for an end to white savior movies, I viewed the presence of Brad Pitt character in the film somewhat differently. Yes, Bass (Pitt) is Solomon Northup's savior in the film, because he delivers the letter that lets people outside the deep South know that Northup is alive, and then a white man comes and gets him, bringing him back to the north. So yes, white saviors. Only partly historically accurate ones, at that — it was a much more complex process than the film makes it out to be, and Northup managed to get more than one letter out over the years (his wife fought hard for his return). But the fundamental historical fact remains: white people came and saved him from white people. The filmmakers could have chosen to make another story, such as Older's suggested story of David Ruggles, or the endlessly-speculated-about Danny Glover film about Toussaint L'Ouverture. We should have those films. We should have films about Nat Turner, too, and about other slave rebellions, and about slaves who escaped on their own. Definitely, undoubtedly. We should have films based on Octavian Nothing and The Known World and The Great Negro Plot and the complete works of Octavia Butler and so many other excellent books about the history of race in America. Yes. Please. Now.

But the gravity of 12 Years a Slave doesn't reside with the character of Bass. He comes in toward the end, long after we have seen the extent and varieties of white complicity in slavery, and he is basically the plot tool to get Northup back home. The film could have mitigated some of the savior effect of Bass by continuing the story, showing the failures of white law to redress most of Northup's grievances, instead of relegating it to titles at the end, but it would have extended the film considerably, and that sort of narrative exposition isn't really what Steve McQueen is interested in or especially skilled at — he's a fundamentally visual filmmaker. Northup placed his faith in northern, white law to treat him basically as an equal, because he was free. It didn't. That, actually, is where the story of Northup feels most contemporary — the application of the law in the United States remains prejudiced against black men. (Just ask the family of Trayvon Martin.)

Anyway, while I think it's certainly legitimate to raise the question of the portrayals of women in the film, the presence of white saviors, the choices of which parts of the story to tell ... still, for all the reasons I laid out originally at Press Play, no other movie that I've seen or know about from this year feels remotely as important as this one, as necessary. As I said there, because it is one film in a genre that has generally been awful, we weight it down with all of our expectations. Hundreds of years of American oppression, and a century of racist portrayals in film, can't be overcome with one movie. We need many more, and my passion for 12 Years a Slave comes not only from the mastery in its making, but from the hope that it can begin to open new ways of portraying American history on screen.

To get much less serious...

Pacific Rim I loved for its hugeness, for its communitarian ethos, for its colors. Loved!

Spring Breakers I called "The American dream, in all its glory." It reminded me of William Carlos Williams.

Upstream Color is marvelously beguiling. After watching it, I said it was "A flow of sound and light, a hypnotism." Much more should be said. (Caleb Crain wrote a wonderful piece for the New Yorker website about the movie and its use of Thoreau. Jim Emerson wrote intelligently about it for RogerEbert.com.)

But now I've said enough. More than enough!

Hello, 2014.

2 comments:

  1. Very kind words. It was a pleasure to publish you. In fact, I would like to include Lacuna in Wilde Stories 2014.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks, Steve! Lethe published wonderful books in 2013. And certainly, the story is yours whenever you want it.

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