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A blog about "displaced thoughts on misplaced literatures." Matthew Cheney is a writer and teacher who lives in New Hampshire. His work has been published by English Journal, Strange Horizons, Failbetter.com, Ideomancer, Pindeldyboz, Rain Taxi, Locus, The Internet Review of Science Fiction and SF Site, among other places.
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1. The Revelator: The Bookworm Issue


The latest issue of that venerable, mercurial, deeply occasional magazine THE REVELATOR is now available online for your perusal. It is filled with nothing but THE TRUTH AND ALL!

The contents of this issue are so vast, variable, and vivacious that I can't even begin to summarize them here. There are excursions into history, into imagery, and into liquor. We attend the tale of a young man reading science fiction in Kenya. We discover the secret life of Elo­dia Har­win­ton, about whom I am sure you have heard much (but never this much!). For those of you who do not like words, there are not only some videos, but a wordless book(let) by the great Frans Masereel. And do not forget the Revelations, in which many secrets, some of them clearly obscene and pornographic, revealed!

Resist not, o mortal! Surrender yourself to the siren call of The Revelator today!

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2. For a Socialism of the Skin


Richard Kim at The Nation points to one of the central problems of the big Gay Inc. organizations, especially HRC:
In 2012, the Human Rights Campaign honored Goldman Sachs with an award at its annual dinner, while naming Lloyd Blankfein as its national corporate spokesman for same-sex marriage. In an obscene form of pink-washing in which every banker, sweatshop overlord and oil baron gets a gay star, HRC’s most recent report on “corporate equality” proudly concludes that a record 304 of the nation’s largest businesses—including Chevron, Bank of America, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Comcast, Google, Monsanto, Nike, Raytheon, Boeing, Target and General Electric—have a perfect rating on LGBT issues.
Kim also notes that Tony Kushner predicted this in his 1994 Nation essay, "A Socialism of the Skin", an essay I read when it was first published and that has stuck with me ever since:
[I]t’s entirely conceivable that we will one day live miserably in a thoroughly ravaged world in which lesbians and gay men can marry and serve openly in the Army and that's it. Capitalism, after all, can absorb a lot. Poverty, war, alienation, environmental destruction, colonialism, unequal development, boom/bust cycles, private property, individualism, commodity fetishism, the fetishization of the body, the fetishization of violence, guns, drugs, child abuse, underfunded and bad education (itself a form of child abuse)—these things are key to the successful functioning of the free market. Homophobia is not; the system could certainly accommodate demands for equal rights for homosexuals without danger to itself.
The Nation has made "A Socialism of the Skin" available for free as a PDF. It's 20 years old this year, and more true than ever. Gay Inc. won.

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3. A Video Essay on Jim Jarmusch: "Dead Men & Ghosts, Limited"


As the silence around here indicates, I've been tremendously busy the past few weeks. One project I managed to complete was a new video essay, this one about Jim Jarmusch's films Dead Man, Ghost Dog, and The Limits of Control. It's now available at Press Play, along with a brief introduction.

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4. Samuel R. Delany: Another Roundtable


Recently, Locus published an online discussion of the work of Samuel R. Delany with a bunch of different writers and critics, primarily aimed at discussing Delany’s status as the newly-crowned Grand Master of the Science Fiction Writers of America. Plenty of interesting things are said there, and the participants include a number of people I’m very fond of (both as writers and people), but the particular focus ended up, I thought, creating a certain narrowness to the discussion, especially regarding the post-Dhalgren works, and I thought it might be nice to gather a different group of people together to discuss Delany … differently.

So here we are. I put out the call to a wide variety of folks, and this is the group that responded. We used a Google Doc, and the discussion grew rhizomatically more than linearly, so you'll see that we sometimes refer to things said later in the roundtable. (This makes for a richer discussion, I think, but it may be a little jarring if you expect a linear conversation.)

I hope people who didn't have time or ability to join us in the "official" roundtable will feel free to offer their thoughts in the comments — as will, well, anybody else. Therefore, without further ado and all that jazz... 


PARTICIPANTS  

Matthew Cheney has published fiction and nonfiction in a wide variety of venues, including One Story, Locus, Weird Tales, Rain Taxi, and elsewhere. He wrote the introductions to Wesleyan University Press’s editions of Samuel R. Delany’s The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, Starboard Wine, and The American Shore (forthcoming). Currently, he is a student in the Ph.D. in Literature program at the University of New Hampshire. 

Craig Laurance Gidney is the author of Sea, Swallow Me & Other Stories and the YA novel Bereft

Geoffrey H. Goodwin is a journalist, author, and rogue academic with a Bachelor’s in Literary Theory (Syracuse University) and an MFA in Creative Writing (Naropa University). Geoffrey writes fiction; has taught composition and creative writing in a wide range of settings; has interviewed speculative writers and artists for Bookslut, Tor.com, Sirenia Digest, The Mumpsimus, and during Ann Vandermeer’s helming of Weird Tales; and has worked in seven different stores that have sold comic books.
  
Keguro Macharia is a recovering academic, a lazy blogger, and an itinerant tweeter. Sometimes, he writes things on gukira.wordpress.com or tweets as @Keguro_

Nick Mamatas is the author of several novels, including Love is the Law and The Last Weekend. His short fiction has appeared everywhere from Asimov’s Science Fiction to The Mammoth Book of Threesomes and Moresomes.

Njihia Mbitiru is a screenwriter. He lives in Nairobi.

Lavelle Porter is an adjunct professor of English at New York City College of Technology (CUNY) and a Ph.D. candidate in English at the CUNY Graduate Center.  His dissertation The Over-Education of the Negro: Academic Novels, Higher Education and the Black Intellectual will be completed this spring. Finally. He’s on Twitter @alavelleporter.

Ethan Robinson blogs, mostly about science fiction, at maroonedoffvesta.blogspot.com, a position he will no doubt shortly be parlaying into literary fame.

Eric Schaller is a biologist, writer, and artist, living in New Hampshire and co-editor of The Revelator.


THE ROUNDTABLE

Matthew Cheney
Locus is “The Magazine of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Field”, and so they’re primarily interested in science fiction. We don’t have to be that narrow here. But let’s start with one of the questions they start with, and see where we go: 

How has Delany influenced your own work or views on writing and literature?

detail of the cover of Dhalgren (Bantam, 1975)

Geoffrey H. Goodwin:
I got to spend a week with Chip, most minutes of every day, when he came and taught at my summer writing program when I was getting an MFA. A friend and I were  the two second year science fiction devotees in the prose program (still not an easy spot in academe, though Chip has made that easier), so we knew that one of us could be his teaching assistant and decided to take it into our own hands. I remember the day Anne Waldman found out Chip was coming. I was in a poetry workship with her that day, so I raced to my friend and I swapped a fight over T.A.-ing for Chip to T.A. for Brian Evenson [who, by my reckoning, said some of the wisest comments in the other Delany roundtable] under the express agreement that my friend and I would both follow Chip around the whole time. So we did. Life-changing. Chip is still helping me learn and comprehend both literature and writing. His About Writing is one of my favorite books on the subject.

If one looks at his criticism, fiction, memoirs, and cultural relevance--not to mention everything else he’s accomplished--he’s incomparable. Sure, I remember how he offered the particle theory, where we read and read and then emit a particle on our own when we write, inspired by how we bombarded ourselves; or how he made sure to place the Marquis de Sade’s books within his young daughter’s reach because he wanted her to make her own choices about literature, and there were lessons and exercises in the workshop that were profound--but I also think of Chip as someone with whom I got to trade stories about Allen Ginsberg for stories about Philip K. Dick and Clive Barker. He’s a constellation in a tiny pantheon of living geniuses.

Nick Mamatas 
I guess I appreciate Delany more as a reader than anything else. He doesn’t influence my writing, or my views. There are aspects of agreements, but I haven’t changed my mind about anything to coincide with Delany’s views. I always assign his book on writing—I’ve probably sold an extra fifty copies so far—not because I agree with everything in it, but because everything in it is worth tangling with.

Ethan Robinson
While discussions of Delany often focus on the beauty of his prose, his skillful "way with words" (usually with an example of some passage of heightened sensory description), for me this obscures one of the most remarkable aspects of his writing. It is true that he can indeed write quite beautifully when he needs to, but he is also willing to let himself write badly--that is, to take on modes of writing that are usually considered bad, clumsy, and really get to the heart of what it is that these modes are doing. I think in particular (but not exclusively) of his dialogue, which I find is very much of a piece with the generally derided style of the American science fiction magazines in its matter-of-factness, its often nakedly expository nature--even sometimes its flatness and lack of differentiation. For me it often calls to mind, say, the tendency of characters in Asimov and, later, McCaffrey (just two examples out of many possible) to talk to one another with bizarre thoroughness and "rational objectivity" about their own psychological makeups. In Delany the contrast between these passages of unattractive writing on the one hand and the heightened "poetic" passages on the other becomes a sort of structuring element, one that I think has been underappreciated and underexamined. And for myself, struggling in my own writing with the received notion that one must write "beautifully" (and/or inconspicuously; implied in both: homogeneously), seeing the value of occasional downright ugliness in Delany's writing has been very emboldening.

Keguro Macharia 
I’ll lift Matt’s second prompt below--on beginnings--and track back to the Locus conversation, which started with “beginnings”: when did you first encounter Delany? Which is also a question about SF as a genre that (to my mind) obsesses about beginnings and endings (ecocides, genocides, monsters, hybrids, extinguishment, survival). Which is also to borrow from Lavelle about AIDS and Delany and, more broadly, the forms of extinguishment and disposability his work speaks to and, in doing so, enables us to speak about--this is the importance of Hogg as an early work. I first encountered Delany in the Patrick Merla anthology (Boys Like Us) that Lavelle mentions below. I don’t remember reading him then and, in fact, I suspect that I did not know how to read him at the time--I wanted a simple(r) narrative than he was willing to offer, a cleaner story that stayed “inside the lines,” affirmed identity, made the pleasures of identification simple, the practices of belonging uncomplicated. (Although Matt wants us to be polite, I’ll add that I read much of this impulse in the Locus discussion.)

I re-encountered Delany through Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, just before I joined grad school. At the time, I was interested in formal innovation, and Times Square modeled the kind of writing and thinking I found necessary as a form of world building. I came to the novels later--Stars in My Pocket, Hogg, Mad Man, the Nevèrÿon series, at much the same time as I was reading Delany’s many essay collections. Delany helped me see form--why form matters, how form matters, to whom form matters, why formalism matters--as a project of world-building, world-remaking, inextricable from embodiment, desire, fantasy, and speculation.

Njihia Mbitiru 
I have absolutely no idea, yet, about his influence on me. Others have spoken with great perspicacity--as well as humor (Brett Cox in the Locus roundtable being one)--about Delany’s influence. I suspect I’m still working through mine and therefore limited in what I can say about it. The first bit of Delany’s writing I encountered was The Towers of Toron, the first in the Fall of the Towers Trilogy. I was twenty-one, if I recall correctly. That was twelve years ago now. I’ve become an avid re-reader of his work, which has made me a re-reader of many other writers I onced-over. And because of this I would very much like to hazard that I am now a better reader, but this also remains to be seen: the simple fact is that proof of such is in writing, whose excellence, much as we strive toward our own finally idiosyncratic sense of it, is also a public affair.

Matt: just to touch on what you’ve said about the narrative of certain of his writings--the later ones, beginning with Dhalgren  (written in his late 20s and early 30s, you’ll recall! so that it’s hard to think of this as ‘late Delany’): I also resist and reject this narrative ( I’m not quite at resentment, but give me time). I find it completely non-sensical. Better and more honest to say, as a reader, that the game he’s hunting as a novelist in Dhalgren, Triton, the Neveryon series up into his present work doesn’t hold your interest. It’s a long way away from that to ‘difficult’.  Only a very narrow reading of SF writing would support an assessment of Delany as ‘difficult’, if we’re talking about prose style (though I suspect that’s not what is meant, which begs the question: what do people mean exactly when they use the term ‘difficult’?). There’s so much at a SF readers’ disposal in terms of range and sophistication, or if you like, the absence of it, as there is in any other genre. I enjoy and appreciate Delany’s writing in no small part because it calls attention to precisely this.

Eric Schaller 
Delany’s writings have influenced me more in my approach to life and thought than in writing itself. Some may dislike John Gardner’s concept and application of ‘moral fiction’ to literature, but I have always found Delany’s work moral in its suggestion of how to live a good life. In this respect, as a philosophy, I could abbreviate it as ‘compassionate individualism’: the importance of discovering and following your own path, the diversity of such paths within a population, and how to maintain your personal dignity without selfishly depriving others of theirs. The dedication in Heavenly Breakfast ("This book is dedicated to everyone who ever did anything no matter how sane or crazy whether it worked or not to give themselves a better life"), when I read it in college brought tears to my eyes, and still does.

Through Delany’s writings, I like to think that I became more intentionally aware. My discovery that Delany was gay—not necessarily obvious from his earlier novels, which featured plenty of male-female couples, or from his earlier biographical information which sometimes mentioned a marriage—more specifically the worlds revealed in his non-fictional/autobiographical works such as The Motion of Light in Water, the contemporary sections from “The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals,” and, more recently, Times Square Red, Times Square Blue personified concerns that I would never experience directly. I donate to GMHC because of these works.




Matthew Cheney
There seems to be a narrative among science fiction fans, and particularly SF fans of a certain age, that there is The Good Delany of the pre-Dhalgren books, Hugo and Nebula Awards, etc. ... and then there is The Problematic Delany of Dhalgren and later. It’s a narrative of loss and disappointment, frequently accompanied by the question, “What happened?!” Because I was born in the year Dhalgren was, at least officially, published (it bears a January 1975 publication date, though it actually hit shelves a little earlier), and didn’t start reading Delany until either late 1987 or sometime in 1988, when the last Nevèrÿon book, The Bridge of Lost Desire (Return to Nevèrÿon) was published, my awareness of his career has always included what older, more traditional SF readers considered the “difficult” writings. It’s probably not surprising that I resist, reject, and resent this narrative.

The book I’ve spent the most time with recently, because I’m working on a conference paper about it, is Dark Reflections, which is really beautiful and much more complexly structured than it seems at first, and which should be accessible to just about any audience, since it’s not at all pornographic and the complexity of the structure is subtle, making a basic reading relatively easy. Also, the book’s a great companion to About Writing, which it echoes often. (There’s some good discussion of the “accessibility” of Dark Reflections, particularly for heterosexual men, in Delany’s 2007 interview with Carl Freedman in Conversations with Samuel R. Delany.) But for various reasons, some having to do with events in the publishing industry, Dark Reflections does not seem to have been widely read, and is currently only in print as an e-book. It deserves a wide audience, though.

So my questions for the roundtable are: What other, more useful, stories of Delany’s career could we tell? Is the Good Delany/Problematic Delany narrative useful in some way that I’m missing, some way that I can’t see because it just makes me so angry?

Ethan Robinson
I’ve not yet read any of his fiction after Trouble on Triton (at a certain point I decided to approach him chronologically and have been stalled at The Einstein Intersection, which my library doesn't have; I should just go ahead and buy it, probably), and haven't in fact read Dhalgren, so I can't say too much about this. But I will say that the way I see people talk about this is always very distressing to me as many of the points singled out as "problems" (too many "ideas," not enough action, unconventional storytelling, etc.) are precisely what draws me not only to Delany but to science fiction in the first place! I know the bulk of sf has always been written on a pretty, shall we say, basic level, but I confess I simply have no idea why people who want nothing but simplicity and action and conventional narrative would be attracted to this field, which seems to long for much more.

Craig Laurance Gidney 
My first introduction to Delany was, interestingly enough, Dhalgren. My older brother had a copy of the book when it first came out in the ‘70s and I appropriated it. I read the book in bits and pieces during my teenaged years, and it formed my taste for esoteric and trippy SF. When people spoke about how difficult the book was, I had a hard time understanding them, maybe because I absorbed the idea of the non-linear and counter-factual texts so young. Everything of his I read is through the locus of Dhalgren. The earlier stuff is great to me because I can see the progression of themes that were refined in his later work.

Eric Schaller
I think some of the variable responses to Delany’s work may arise in part from what piece(s) were initially encountered, and how such initial experiences play into future expectations. I first encountered Delany’s work through several short stories read in high school. I remember how strongly “Time Considered as a Helix of Precious Stones” affected me, and took a perverse pleasure in the fact that my Dad didn’t follow the main character’s morphing names in the initial section. I also remember reading “Aye, and Gomorrah,” in Dangerous Visions, a story that I knew had to be important because Harlan Ellison said so. At first the story seemed slight, but it lingered and poked at my consciousness.

I don’t think I read a novel of Delany’s until the summer after graduating high school. I was working in New York City at Sloan Kettering and the novel was Dhalgren. There had been the joke published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction about the three things that mankind would never reach (“The core of the sun, the speed of light, and page 30 of Dhalgren”), but this if anything incited my interest in the novel. I was of the right age and in the right place to have the novel assume a central station in my life. But it is also one of those novels that I have returned to and re-read over the years, each time taking something new away from it. For instance, Delany having written that The Fall of the Towers was inspired by a painting of that title which did not show towers but rather reactions to their fall, I noticed a similar approach was often used in Dhalgren: the reactions of characters described before you understood to what they were reacting.

As an undergraduate at Michigan State, I sought out every Delany book I could find. And to my mind then, and still, there were differences in the approach to writing found in his early works to what I found in Dhalgren and the Return to Nevèrÿon series. The closest I can come to that difference is to say that in the earlier work Delany seemed to be thinking at a sentence to sentence level. With the later work, it seemed that he inhabited whole paragraphs at once; an individual sentence might not seem that powerful or poetic alone, but within the context of the paragraph it sang.

Geoffrey H. Goodwin
Re-reading the original Locus Roundtable, I can see how some of the context shifted based on the idea of “Samuel R. Delany, Grandmaster.” I know I think differently when “Grandmaster” gets added after anything and then we get the added aspect of, “Welcome to the Science Fiction canon,” by writers who, for no fault of their own, are far less accomplished than Chip. So we have a gay black beatnik who writes science fiction, essays, porn, comics, criticism, and just about everything else—and Chip is the kind of writer who can mean many different things to many different people. Paul Witcover’s review comparing Delany to Hendrix and Bowie really resonates with how I see Chip’s work—but Chip has kept at the work, continuing to evolve. F. Brett Cox nails it when he says Chip was producing books at different points in his life and Chip has always put himself into his books whether they were early SF, criticism, or memoir. And I’d agree that Chip isn’t cranking out spaceships or nuclear-ravaged earths the way the early works could seem—but I also swear that the ideas have been evolving since the beginning. I remember one of the earlier ones, Einstein maybe, where the chapter started with Chip quoting someone he’d talked to that week, citing it as a comment to the author. That level of intertextuality or interstitiality speaks to so much of what Chip has accomplished since then.

Nick Mamatas 
As it turns out, people don’t like porn that isn’t for them. Further, most SF readers are pretty much at sea if they don’t have any tropes to think about. A straightforward and beautiful realist novel like Dark Reflections is just perplexing because it’s just about some guy living his life. No way!

I actually prefer his porn to his SF for the most part. It’s difficult to write transgressive, dirty, occasionally simply wrong stuff with such sympathy and warmth, but Delany manages it. He is an utterly unique writer in th

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5. Lucius Shepard: Art Out of Fantasy and Pain

photo by Ellen Datlow, 21 Nov 2007
I hate that this sentence must now be in the past tense: Lucius Shepard was one of the great American writers.

It's hard to find words, even though I've had 24 hours to search.

In a review of The Dragon Griaule, I invoked Conrad and melodrama, and quoted Eric Bentley on both. Here's part of that quote again, because it gets at exactly what Lucius Shepard's stories mean to me, and why they mean so much:
Only under the influence of a narrow and philistine Naturalism can we ask why an artist shows life at a remove and in some established genre. The transposition of an inner struggle to a duel between persons does not even need a convention to carry it: such changes are made nightly by everyone in his dreams. If one can make of one's tussels with suicidal wishes a drama of love and honor, one has given to private and chaotic material a public and recognizable form. One has made art out of fantasy and pain.
And now a sentence from the introduction to the final collection of stories published during Lucius Shepard's lifetime, Five Autobiographies and a Fiction, after a description of a harrowing childhood and adolescence:
For the next twenty years I traveled aimlessly, engaged in bar fights, street fights, insulated myself from the possibility of self-examination with drugs, played in a number of rock bands, married twice without giving the matter much thought, dabbled in low-level criminality, drug-dealing, burglary, etc., and escewed anything that smacked remotely of the cerebral.
Luckily, he found his way out of at least some of that darkness, those difficult decades. He attended the Clarion writers' workshop and a few years later his stories began to appear in magazines and anthologies, and his first novel, Green Eyes, was published as part of the resurrected Ace Specials line that also brought out Neuromancer and Kim Stanley Robinson's first novel, The Wild Shore, among others.

I could try to be objective here and talk about the specific qualities of Lucius Shepard's writing that set him apart from most of his peers for me — the long, languorous sentences, of course; the precision of the imagery; the complexity of form; the rich social world implied from the texts; the fascination with the perils of machismo; the great variety of types of stories unified not by genre but by vision and even, to use a rather antiquated term, moral conviction; the sheer imaginative force the best of the work displays.

Maybe another time. It feels too cold and academic. Too un-Lucius. He hated analysis that got away from the practical. His entertainingly curmudgeonly movie reviews were always based in a very personal voice, producing the sense of somebody talking to you from his own experience, hoping maybe that his experience could connect with, enlighten, enliven, enrage your own. I'm not (yet) interested in being entertainingly curmudgeonly, but I can't speak of Lucius Shepard right now without speaking about what, and how, his work meant to me.

(A momentary, weird personal aside: The indefatigable researchers at the Science Fiction Encylopedia are confident that Lucius Shepard was born in 1943, not 1947 as he often claimed. If so, that means he was one day younger than my father.)

I started reading Lucius's stories when I started reading science fiction. My mother's boss subscribed to Asimov's and loaned me a few issues. That first batch included the April 1986 issue. The cover story was "R&R".



cover illustration by J.K. Potter
I don't think I read all of "R&R" then — I was too young, it was too dense — but I gave it a good shot. I was, after all, just getting over my infatuation with G.I. Joe and Rambo, and so J.K. Potter's cover and interior illustrations for the story grabbed my interest immediately. (That cover is seared into my brain.) I did start reading Shepard pretty soon, though, because once I was a confirmed sci-fi nerd, my parents let me join the Science Fiction Book Club, and one of the first books I got was Gardner Dozois's Year's Best Science Fiction: 3rd Annual Collection, which included two Lucius Shepard stories, "The Jaguar Hunter" (the first story in the book) and "A Spanish Lesson". I wanted to know what "good" science fiction was, and the presence of two stories meant this was a major writer, so I studied those stories intensively. I don't remember what I made of them. I think I thought they were slow, but there was something alluring in them, something that wouldn't let go of me (and that never let go of me).

A few years later, I got a paperback copy of The Jaguar Hunter, which collected most of the best of those early stories (the paperback omitted "R&R", which had been incorporated into Life During Wartime, a book I picked up, but to this day have never completely read because some genius at Bantam Spectra decided the whole nearly-500-page book ought to be in san serif font. It's ghastly!). By that time I was in my mid-teens, had become a better reader, and followed Shepard's career closely. "The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule" and "The Scalehunter's Beautiful Daughter" were particular favorites from the early years, but many of the novellas of the 1990s also wowed me and wooed me, bringing me back to science fiction magazines even when I had claimed to move on to better things. The stories were vivid and gnarled, unpredictable, sometimes vexing in their ambiguities, their complex dance with the conventions of narrative form. They clung and haunted. "Skull City", "Barnacle Bill the Spacer", "Beast of the Heartland", "Radiant Green Star" — I still have the magazines and still remember where I was sitting when I read each story.

It was in the new century, though, that Lucius Shepard got really, really good. His work deepened, darkened, thickened. In addition to The Dragon Griaule and Five Autobiographies and a Fiction, read Viator. Read A Handbook for American Prayer. Read Floater. Read Eternity and Other Stories, which includes "Only Partly Here", still one of the most powerful stories I've ever read about 9/11. (If you need a primer, Subterranean Press is offering the e-book of The Best of Lucius Shepard for $2.99 at the moment.)

I got to know Lucius a little bit in his last years, mostly via Facebook, oddly enough — it proved to be a pretty good forum for him. I first met him in 2007 when we were the two readers at the KGB Fantastic Fiction series for that November. It felt bizarre to be reading on the same bill as Lucius. I think I was there because there wasn't really anybody else around who was willing to do a reading a couple days before Thanksgiving. Or something. I don't know. I certainly didn't deserve to be on a bill with Lucius Shepard! (Even I just wanted me to hurry up and finish my reading so Lucius could begin!) I was terribly intimidated and terrified of him, even though he was gracious and friendly. But he was Lucius Shepard — one of the greats! I wish I'd had more guts that night, wish I'd chatted with him more, wish I'd gotten him to sign a book. But I was too nervous. We talked a bit at dinner afterward, and then later on we corresponded some. Just as I felt like I was getting to know him, he began to have his most serious health problems, including a stroke. I had plenty of faith that he'd pull out of it, that he'd write again. He had to. How could the world not have the force of his words?

I keep thinking back to a moment of childhood: visiting the Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop in Boston in the late '80s and paging through the Arkham House hardcover of The Jaguar Hunter, which I couldn't afford to buy. $21.95 was a fortune to me then. I looked at the book and looked at it and looked at it. But that's not why I keep thinking about it. What I keep thinking about is this: A year or two ago, I got a pristine copy of that book for pennies. A price I could have afforded even when I was a kid. A first edition, first printing of a brilliant book that ought to be a collector's item selling for a hundred times what I paid for it. I was happy to get a gift for my inner child, but also deeply angry that I could afford it — that it's not as valuable and scarce as it deserves to be just reminds me of how little valued Lucius's work is in comparison to its quality.

He should have been a literary star. He should have been recognized as one of the great writers of his generation. Because he was. Sure, sometimes his need for money caused him to sell work that wasn't entirely great, but he should be judged by his best, which is as good as the work of nearly any of his contemporaries (not just in the science fiction field; his work is richer, more powerful, more vivid, more weird, and more meaningful than that of all but a couple of his contemporaries in SF, but it also makes most of the fiction written in any genre or non-genre look unambitious, minor) — and there's a lot of best. (And even the less-than-best is usually quite wonderful for a few pages at least.) His work probably doesn't have the qualities of bestsellerdom, but it should have been — should be — recognized more fully, appreciated more deeply. He won nearly every award in the SF field at least once, but I don't think it was enough, because he deserved a pile of the damn things. He deserved other awards, too, not just genre ones. But even within the genre that he ended up (imprisoned?) in, he wasn't as well known as he should have been, nor was his accomplishment recognized as fully as it deserved. The same could be said for plenty of people, yes, but I've felt for a long time that it's especially unjust in Lucius's case, because the work is so varied, so powerful, so special.

So here we are, then, in a world without Lucius. We've got the words, though, the pages and the books — and we ought to do something with them — we ought to seek them out and get more of them back into print, we ought to harangue critics to write about Lucius's work with the depth and seriousness it deserves — and, too, we ought to sing songs in his honor and spend a bit too much time in a bar now and then, we ought to howl at the moon, we ought to seek out some good movies, we ought to scowl at liars while recognizing what liars we are, we ought to stand up for the weak, we ought not ever get too settled in ourselves, we ought to write long sentences, we ought to be gracious, we ought to be angry, we ought to fight against borders and pigeonholes and easy expectations, we ought to stand brave against the violence at the heart of our selves, we ought to dream and laugh and spare some time for people different from us, we ought to seek to be more and better, to escape old pasts and old resentments and, most of all, old failures — because we're what's left, and we're still here, and the words still live.
We had reached a spot overlooking a strip of white beach guarded at both ends by enormous boulders. The blue sea stretched tranquil and vast to the horizon, and the cloudless sky, a lighter blue, empty of birds, echoed that tranquility. Nothing seemed to move, yet I felt a vibration in the earth and air that signaled the movement of all things, the flux of atoms and the drift of unknown spheres. An emotion swelled in my breast, nourished by that fundamental vista, and I felt, as I had not in years, capable of belief, of hope, of seeing beyond myself. Jane linked her arm through mine and rested her head against my shoulder, and whispered something that the wind bore away. And for that moment, for those minutes atop the hill, we were as happy as the unhappiness of the world permits.

—"Rose Street Attractors", the final story in Five Autobiographies and a Fiction by Lucius Shepard

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6. False Detectives, True Discourses, and Excessive Exegeses


I got caught up in the hype, got curious, and found a way to watch True Detective. It's my kind of thing: a dark crime story/police procedural/serial killer whatzit. Also, apparently the writer of the show, Nic Pizzolatto, is aware of some writers I like, and even one I know, Laird Barron. (Hi Laird! You rock!) What struck me right from the beginning was the marvelous music, selected and produced by the great T-Bone Burnett, and the cinematography by Adam Arkapaw, who shot one of my favorite movies of recent decades, Snowtown, and also the very good film Animal Kingdom and the marvelous Jane Campion TV show Top of the Lake. Something about Arkapaw's sensitivity to color, light, and framing is pure mainlined heroin to my aesthetic pleasure centers. If I found out he'd shot a Ron Howard movie, I'd even watch that.

So many other people have discussed the show that there are now, I'm sure, nearly as many words written about it as there are words in Wikipedia. My own opinion of the show is of no consequence, though for the curious, here's what I said about it on Jeff VanderMeer's Facebook page, where some discussion was going on: "I liked the music, cinematography, most of the acting and directing, but thought the writing was all over the place from pretty good to godawful. And episodes 7 and 8 were like the Goodyear blimp deflating mid-air and landing in a bayou of drivel. (The stars, the stars! Use the Force, Rust! The Yellow King is YOUR FATHER!!! Oh, wait...)"

Much more interesting to me is the discourse around the show. Why did this show inspire such a fanatical response? Why did we feel compelled to respond? Zeitgeist, genre, etc. probably all play into it, but a fuller answer would require some time and research, particularly about how the show was marketed and where and how it first caught on. 

I'm enough of a pointy-headed academic to hope one day for a whole book about the construction of True Detective's appeal, something that doesn't neglect the material aspects: budgets, advertising, Twitter. I'd also like to see analyses of fan responses to mystery/crime shows — for instance, a comparison of fan speculations between seasons 2 and 3 of Sherlock and fan speculations about the mysteries of True Detective before the finale. The choice in season 3 of Sherlock to offer a relatively acceptable but not definitive answer to the mystery of how Sherlock lived was, I thought, quite smart, because even though the creators probably had (unlike Conan Doyle) an idea of an answer when they wrote Sherlock's "death", they realized by the time it came to write season 3 that no answer they could provide would be satisfying after two years of fan speculations.  

True Detective took a different approach, partly because they didn't realize viewers would react the way they did, or that the show would be subject to so much ratiocination, and so they gave a rather ridiculous and clichéd end to the mystery, one that made not a whole lot of sense and tied up only the most obvious of loose ends. Pizzolatto's interest was more in the characters than the plot, or perhaps not even the characters so much as the mood and the projection of an idea of complexity rather than any actual complexity. 


That's the great illusion the show tries to pull off: the illusion of depth. And it does pull it off, thanks to the excessive exegeses of viewers. The exegeses make the depth real — the excess is the depth supplementing the show's surface. Now that we have explored so many assumed clues, we have added a megatext (or megatexts), and so the show becomes vastly more than it was on its own. We have, as it were, colored in the lines, whether they were there for anybody else or not. I don't mean that as a criticism. Some texts invite obsessive interpretation. The process of interpreting widens the text for us, even if we choose to reject the interpretation. I thought most of the ideas about The Shining offered in the documentary Room 237 were bonkers — but I immediately watched The Shining yet again (20th viewing? 30th?) after listening to them all, and I loved the movie more than ever.

I am, myself, now falling into exegesis more than I intended. (It's fun to posit signs as wonders!) Really, what I wanted to do was collect a few writings about True Detective that I particularly liked, that got me thinking. The show has inspired some good writing about it. Here then, before they get lost in the din, are a few fragments I'll shore against these ruins........


Jacob Mikanowski at LA Review of Books:
The Southern Louisiana of True Detective is part truth and part myth. But just by showing so much of it, the show puts us in contact with its real history, even if it doesn’t spell everything out. But there are hints, especially on the margins. There’s the history of pollution, visible in the omnipresent cracking towers and in the condition of Dora Lange’s mother as well as the relative of another victim, a one-time baseball pitcher disabled by a series of strokes. There’s Louisiana’s French and Spanish past, glimpsed momentarily in the Courir and in a stray allusion by Rust to the Pirate Republic of Barataria. And then there’s the history of segregation and racism, barely present except for the suggestion that the schools most of the victims attended were a way around busing — like the “segregation academies” that sprang up in different parts of the Deep South as a response to Brown vs. the Board of Education.

In my dream version of the show, the detectives are historians or archivists. They could work equally well somewhere in the Mississippi Delta or Eastern Poland. The crimes they investigate are buried in the past, and the thing they realize eventually isn’t just that everyone knew, but that everyone was complicit. Coincidentally, while the first episodes aired, I happened to be reading Trouble in Mind, Leon Litwack’s magisterial history of the lives of Black Southerners under Jim Crow. And although I shouldn’t have been, I was shocked by his account of lynching — at how common it was, how popular, and how public. The audiences that gathered for lynchings were huge, and their appetite for suffering — burning and other tortures — as spectacle couldn’t be satisfied by mere killing. Children even played their own games of hanging and being hung. True Detective doesn’t go there — but in the sense it creates, of a past that infects the present, of ritualized violence that doesn’t end even after it officially disappears — it starts to open the door.

Dustin Rowles at Pajiba:
That is literary inefficiency, and while it’s easier to understand in the context of a longer season in the midst of a longer series where it’s often necessary to pad out the episodes, and where showrunners are often forced by more demanding production schedules to wing it along the way, Pizzolatto had only eight episodes to write and the ability to plan out the entire season in advance. The irony, of course, is that he still had all the ingredients necessary to create a more compelling ending, and yet he still he chose to stick with the simpler, “There’s a Monster in the End” storyline. It’s a shame, too, because Pizzolatto obviously has a deep understanding of literature, and yet he chose the television ending over the literary one. Unfortunately, it seems, he knows how to introduce literary allusions, but he doesn’t show us he knows how to utilize them.

Joseph Laycock at Religion Dispatches:
Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a happy ending. But the final message of True Detective reinforces a dangerous mythology that’s already endemic in American popular culture. The brutal misogyny of the heroes, their willingness to commit all manner of felonies—this was not a Nietzchean tale of those who hunt monsters becoming monsters themselves. Instead, this is a moral universe where anything is justified as long as your opponent is “truly” evil and good “gains some territory.” This is about as far from Lovecraft’s cosmic horror as one can get. 

Spencer Kornhaber at The Atlantic:
Certainly Marty’s violence and sexism isn’t appealing; certainly Rust deserves the eye rolls that other characters threw his way. But creating flawed heroes isn’t subversive—it’s doing exactly what any decent fiction writer is supposed to do. A subversion would have been to make those flaws figure into the main narrative in some unexpected but crucial way. Maybe the “good guys” botch the case. Or maybe, per the theories mentioned before, they’re connected to the murders in ways they don’t understand till it’s too late.

Instead, both main characters got a fair amount of vindication in the end. Marty’s family doesn’t seem to hate him quite as much anymore. Rust believes in the afterlife now. They both go backslapping into the night. All of this comes from them catching a killer of women and children. So for the zillionth time in Western pop culture, men (straight, white ones at that) get psychic rewards for valorously risking themselves on behalf of the weak.

Susan Elizabeth Shepard at The Hairpin:
If you're going to make a dead sex worker the inciting incident for your story, if one of the central characters is defined by his rage about the sexual purity of the women in his life, it needs to pay off in the form of story advancement and character development, otherwise it's just gratuitous, sensational, "edgy." And for the last several episodes, it's become clear that the only satisfying way for the mystery to end is for Rust or Marty to be the killer. But we're gonna get some dumb conspiracy of Louisiana good ol' boys who worship the devil, which is going to be unsatisfying and also not give the proper payoff to all that violence against women, which then becomes just so many witchy antler decorations with no clear meaning.

Matt Zoller Seitz at Vulure:
Marty's hypocritical attitude toward his wife and daughters is positively Scorsesean in its misogyny. Never for a moment does the show pretend that he's got the right idea about fidelity, fatherhood, or anything else related to the women who live under his roof. He's got a gangster's idea of manhood: I'll do what I please, and you do whatever I tell you. He's the king of his castle, everyone else is a serf. Rust, meanwhile, is haunted equally by the death of his daughter (and subsequent guilt over his failure to preserve his marriage afterward) and his rocky relationship with his father, to whose home state, Alaska, he briefly returned; he's destroyed by his inability to live up to an unrealistic standard of manly strength, goodness, and patience. It makes both dramatic and rhetorical sense that Marty and Rust's interrogators would be two black men, and that many of the detective's most mortifying and self-destructive moments stem from their inability to deal with women in an honest and non-condescending way. The show's disinterest in race relations and inability to resist gratuitous T&A shots damages its credibility greatly in this department, but the notion that True Detective is purely a white male supremacist fantasy is not remotely supported by the evidence. 

Lili Loofbourow at LA Review of Books:
Ask a woman whether Errol Childress matches the monster at the end of our dreams — I doubt you’ll get many nods. But there is a monster we might dream about in True Detective, and he’s everything a monster should be: murderous, violent, deeply sympathetic, and totally adept at spinning the Cohles of the world to his side. Here’s to TV’s greatest and most affable monster, Marty Hart.

Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber:
Another interpretation, which seems to me to be equally plausible, is that the catharsis of the closing episode is false, and deliberately so. The darkness continues. Marty’s inattention to his family has had profound costs. The show strongly suggests that one of Marty’s daughters has been the victim of sexual abuse, in ways that mirror the detective story, just as the detective story mirrors the story of Marty’s family. Marty doesn’t seem aware of this at all. If Marty and Rust conclude that the light as winning, it is only because they fail to see the darkness that surrounds them, and cannot see it, so long as they continue to live in a world of purely brotherly camaraderie, a war of light against dark where one responds to male violence only with more violence and leaves women’s business to the women. Even when you are confronted with your true situation, you cannot necessarily free yourself from it. The detective’s curse means that you do not escape from Carcosa. You only think that you do because you are willfully blind to the Carcosa that surrounds you, the labyrinth made of the circle that is invisible and everlasting.

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7. Notes on a Sentence from "The Death of the Moth"


Forced by some reductive power to declare a single favorite essay, mine would be "The Death of the Moth" by Virginia Woolf. It is a marvel of concision, and yet it contains the universe. It is an essay both personal and cosmic, material and spiritual.

Whenever I teach writing, I use "The Death of the Moth" as an example of the interplay of form and content. (While I have seldom met a pairing I didn't want to deconstruct, the form/content binary is one I continue to find useful. Yes, the separation is problematic — what, in language, is content without form or form without content? — but I also find it a valuable way to talk about concepts that are otherwise invisible or easily muddled.) Usually, I take one sentence, scrawl it out on the board, and pick it apart. It's not always the same sentence, but recently I've been using this one:
Yet, because he was so small, and so simple a form of the energy that was rolling in at the open window and driving its way through so many narrow and intricate corridors in my own brain and in those of other human beings, there was something marvellous as well as pathetic about him.
The first thing to do is break the sentence apart. Here's one way:


Yet, 

because he was so small, 
and so simple a form of the energy that was rolling in at the open window 
and driving its way through so many narrow and intricate corridors in my own brain 
and in those of other human beings, 

there was something marvellous 
as well as pathetic about him.

One thing we can do is try to paraphrase the basic meaning of the sentence, to get at what it says and does before we tackle the how.

It says that there was something marvelous and something pathetic about the dying moth. It doesn't only say that, of course, but that gives us a starting point. All right. How does it say what it says?

The first word sets the sentence up in opposition to what has come immediately before it. The second word prepares us for answers to a question we don't necessarily know yet.

And now we can't avoid questions of form. The sentence is complex and, especially on a first reading, beguiling. It is possible that this sentence is difficult because Virginia Woolf is a bad writer, or she was half-asleep when she wrote it, or some other flaw. After all, this essay was not published in Woolf's lifetime. Maybe she thought it was a dud.

This is where, in class, I bring in Peter Elbow's believing/doubting game. In academia, we're used to playing the doubting game. We seek out flaws, weaknesses, troubles. But if we switch our frame of thinking, new insights are possible. Let's assume, for instance, that we are not smarter than the writer. Let's assume that the writer was vastly more skilled and intelligent than us. Let's assume that there are no flaws. Such an assumption (game) forces us to seek the reasons, rather than condemnations, for what perplexes us.

(As I said above, this is my favorite essay. Woolf is one of my favorite writers. I completely believe she was more skilled and intelligent than I. I have to force myself into the doubting game with Woolf, because all I want to do is believe, believe, believe. But I'm talking pedagogy here. My students typically find the essay boring and pointless, and they think Woolf writes difficult sentences to annoy them. I like to find ways to circumvent those feelings other than screaming, "Stop being an arrogant and defensive reader!")

If we look back to how I broke the sentence up above, we can see that it can break into three major parts: the introductory word (a transition that positions the sentence in relationship to other sentences), the because section, and the final statement. We know what the introductory word does, but what about the middle section? What does it do, particularly in relationship to the final statement?

The middle section elongates or prolongs. It keeps us away from the final statement. It's important, then, to look at how it does that: not with a randomly long statement, but with phrases connected with the word and. (Here, I often read the middle section aloud at least once, dramatically emphasizing the word and at the start of each section. The and between narrow and intricate can be a little confusing, as it's connecting something different from the other ands, but that's why I don't separate it out visually. I've sometimes thought of replacing the word with an ampersand.)

Each of these ands serves to push us away from the final statement one more time.

Thus, the sentence does to us what the moth is doing: it fends off, for as long as it can, finality. The moth's struggle is replicated in the sentence's structure.

Part of the wonder of "The Death of the Moth" is that it achieves so much in so few words. It does so by uniting form and content in a specific way. Over and over, the essay replicates in its structures what it is "about". Again and again, Woolf forces the reader to consider scope. We move from the very tiny to the cosmic. The cosmic is shown to contain the microscopic, the microscopic to contain the cosmic. Life is strange and death is strange, and the two are also, like form and content, inseparable.

It's not known when Woolf wrote the essay. It's tempting to read it as something she wrote late in life, as she struggled against her fears and depression as World War II began. But the insights of the essay are more universal than that, and the struggle the speaker identifies with is one that Woolf expressed through much of her life. (In the sixth volume of The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Stuart N. Clarke writes that "it might have been composed in September 1927", but it's also just as likely that it might not have been.) The essay captures not only the scope and scale of existence, but it also represents many of the recurring ideas in Woolf's writing.

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8. 20 Years of The Downward Spiral


It was twenty years ago today that Nine Inch Nails' second album, The Downward Spiral, appeared in record stores.

Despite being an album of relentless nihilism, aggression, profanity, and self-hatred, it is an album I still consider to be among the most beautiful music I know. For a while, I liked really loud, industrial music, but I've grown awfully mellow in my old age, and these days I'm much more likely to listen to something acoustic. (Even ten years ago, a friend described my taste in pop music as boiling down to "songs by whiny white boys". Which was not really true, even then. Well, sort of.) Nonetheless, I still listen to NIN, and, especially, The Downward Spiral.

I try to avoid explaining my musical tastes, since I spend much too much time analyzing most of my other tastes, and it's nice to have one analysis-free area of the brain. I haven't quite been able to escape an analysis of my love for this album, though. Because it's this album.

When we don't understand the attraction of a particular item, we often psychologize the people who do in a way that explains them as aberrant to us. My dislike of X is my norm, and so I have to tell a story to explain to myself your embrace of X in a way that maintains my norm. Some items have enough built-in prestige that the story of why I don't like them might force me to have to make some excuses for myself, but we usually still maintain some sense of the appreciator as aberrant. I have no appreciation, for instance, for Mozart's operas, and so even though I feel to some extent that that is a failure of my education and a signal of my plebeian tastes, I also have a sneaking suspicion that people who like Mozart's operas are kind of frilly, effete, decadent, and will, in all likelihood, be the first to die in the revolution. (This is, of course, entirely untrue and a terrible prejudice that you should not emulate or give any credence to.) Items built from the most repulsive of human desires and actions especially call forth such judgments. Plenty of people who don't "get" NIN assume that people who do are one step away from tearing the heads off small children.


still from the music video of "Closer"
Perhaps we are, indeed, on the verge of psychopathy (at least some of us). But the same could be said for lovers of Thomas Kinkade paintings. Personally, I feel a lot safer with lovers of the dark, repulsive, and nihilistic than with lovers of life-is-a-glorious-cycle-of-song kitsch, because I can't help but wonder when the pains and disappointments of life are going to cause such folks to snap. I assume that to be human means building up a lot of nastiness in our animalistic core, and art allows the structuring and expression of that nastiness, a filter for the excrement of consciousness.

It's no coincidence that I fell in love with The Downward Spiral when it was released. I was a senior in high school that spring, and faced the excitement and terror of moving from rural New Hampshire to Manhattan for college. Everything was uncertain. I had begun to accept that my sexual identity was not entirely heterosexual, and though I knew ACT UP said silence = death, I mostly believed sex = death, because what other fate could there be in the age of AIDS? I've never been comfortable with anger, and yet it was an emotion that continued to boil up in me because I felt no ability to be who I wanted to be, no ability to even quite know who the person I wanted to be even was, and while the great wide world was alluring, it was also overwhelming. Typical adolescent angst, but at its apex in those days for me, and something for which The Downward Spiral could be a kind of soundtrack.

Adolescent angst goes away, and with it many of the talismans used as balms against it. But The Downward Spiral, while powerfully capable of speaking to an adolescent on the precipice of terrifying adulthood, contains much more than that, and that's why it has stuck with me. The complexity of the soundscape, for one thing. That's where I keep finding the beauty in this music: there is a richness to it, a depth born of all the overlapping notes, chords, beats, and noise. That depth is given power through variety — there is a diversity to the sounds that remains beguiling. The power of the noise comes from the aching quiet that flows across it all. Trent Reznor's voice reaches points of absolute scream, certainly, but there are also moments of tenderness and exhaustion and even, perhaps, momentary peace. The imagery of the lyrics is often wretched, but there's also a defiance to the words, an acknowledgement of so much that is atrocious in life accompanied now and then by a stand against it. For instance, the end of "The Becoming", which still makes my heart skip a beat: "It won't give up, it wants me dead/ Goddamn this noise inside my head." The last words song on the album are from "Hurt" and are at least somewhat hopeful: "If I could start again/ a million miles away/ I would keep myself/ I would find a way" — sure, you could interpret that as a suicidal moment, but back in 1994, faced with heading off to a place that at least felt like it was a million miles away from where I'd spent the previous 18 years of my life, I didn't hear it that way at all. Céline Dion's recording of "The Power of Love" made me want to kill myself; "Hurt" gave me reason to live.

One of the things I continue to appreciate about the album is that though the speakers in the songs are generally self-absorbed and sometimes utterly despicable, I find room to think about a world beyond them. This is most obvious with "Big Man with a Gun". I'd grown up in a gun shop, and I knew (and know) the macho allure of weaponry intimately. I don't know of another work of art that so succinctly gets at that allure, the psychopathic virility that is so often the masculine ideal. The song is not remotely subtle. Its lyrics' blunt vulgarity is appropriate to the throbbing noise of its music. A copy of the song should be sent out with every NRA membership card.

There's a kind of pathetic, aggressive, self-loathing masculinity to most of the songs on the album, and this, too, I find fascinating and powerful. From early on, I heard the album as telling the story of a man who aspired to masculine ideals that he couldn't attain. (I wouldn't have been able to say it that way 20 years ago, but it's basically how I was listening to the songs together.) I got a copy of the first NIN album, Pretty Hate Machine, soon after Downward Spiral, and quickly decided that the later album was a kind of sequel to the song "Something I Can Never Have" — there, the speaker is "starting to scare myself", and in Downward Spiral, song after song is all about that scare: trying to express it, trying to escape it, being consumed by it.

The songs on Downward Spiral were, yes, sometimes pure catharsis, and loud enough to wipe out the wounding world beyond their noise. But they also invited, and still invite, a kind of analysis and narrativizing that are, I think, extremely healthy. I spent more hours than I'd like to admit wondering about the meaning of specific lines and even words in the songs, wondering why particular sounds appeared in particular places, analyzing whether I thought the narrator was admirable or disgusting, strong or weak, me or not. I built stories in my mind to justify what was going on in the songs, and entire epic tales to explain the world between them.

Now, 20 years later, I still respond to the musical choices on the album, to the often powerful lyrics, but I also have what those rare pieces of art we encounter at just the right time give us: the memory of vivid early experiences. The world of 1994 and its accompanying years comes back to me through the music I listened to so obsessively. I am not nostalgic for those years. I wouldn't want to live them again. I am vastly happier now. But it's good to have some contact with that lost self, to feel a bit of the way back to what I don't want to fully recover. It's easy, too, to feel that the person I was then — so young, naive, stupid, bewildered — is gone. But he's not. Some trace of him lives in my perception of these songs now as I listen to them yet again. Twenty years is a long time, and it is no time at all.

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9. "Life’s too short for anxious score-keeping"

photo of Teju Cole by Wayne Taylor

 From a Q&A in the New York Times with Teju Cole:
What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?

I have not read most of the big 19th-century novels that people consider “essential,” nor most of the 20th-century ones for that matter. But this does not embarrass me. There are many films to see, many friends to visit, many walks to take, many playlists to assemble and many favorite books to reread. Life’s too short for anxious score-keeping. Also, my grandmother is illiterate, and she’s one of the best people I know. Reading is a deep personal consolation for me, but other things console, too.

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10. All of Shirley Jackson's Novels Are Now in Print


As of a few weeks ago, all of Shirley Jackson's novels are now in print in the United States, thanks to Penguin Books. (UK editions of some are scheduled for March.) I noted in July that this was scheduled to happen, and I fully intended then to write all about the novels individually, but that hasn't yet happened. (I still plan to do so as soon as possible, but the whole getting-a-PhD thing is a bit of an obstacle at the moment.)

I've been reading Jackson's work for most of my life, but finding copies of any but her most famous books has always been difficult — and in the case of Hangsaman, nearly impossible unless you wanted to shell out a lot of money for an old copy. When the Library of America announced they were putting together a Shirley Jackson volume a few years ago, edited by Joyce Carol Oates, I had high hopes that it would include at least one of the lesser-known novels, but it didn't. Yes, The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle are magnificent — the latter especially seems to me one of the greatest American novels of the second half of the 20th century — but the other novels are not bad, and are often fascinatingly weird. There's a perfection to Hill House and Castle that the other novels never quite achieve (few novels do!), and the lesser-known novels are, perhaps, a bit more novels of their eras than the well-known ones, but they're still very much the novels of Shirley Jackson, and so unlike anything else.

Really, pick up The Sundial or Hangsaman or The Bird's Nest and within a few pages, or even paragraphs, you'll know you're in Jacksonland.

It's taken a long time for Jackson to be known as more than just the writer of "The Lottery", and for her other stories and novels to be as appreciated as they deserve to be, but thanks to Penguin we can now look at her entire body of work. What struck me as I've gone back to that whole body and not just a few favorites (I can't tell you have many times I've read the story "One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts"!) is how skilled with language Jackson was. This summer, I re-read Castle, and wondered why I'd never noticed before just how extraordinary her sentences are. The other novels are sometimes a bit wayward in their structure, or somewhat unsatisfying in their conclusions, but they all show Jackson's sensitivity to words and rhythms (like a somewhat less purple Theodore Sturgeon). Because I had always focused on the weird, disturbing qualities of her fiction, I missed some of the beauty and humor. Looking at more of her writing makes the humor especially come through — though of course we should have known from Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons that she had a ... wicked ... sense of humor.


In any case, if you've learned to love Jackson, there's no need now for your love to be left only for her most famous works.

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11. Annihilation!


I was remiss in not noting the book release of my friend and comrade Jeff VanderMeer's new novel, Annihilation, the first volume in the Southern Reach Trilogy, to be followed by Authority and Acceptance later this year. It's getting lots of good press, great reviews, and wonderful support from its publishers. (You can read the first chapter here, if you're curious.)



I'm not going to review the book, because I can't really review Jeff's books at this point — I care about them and him too much, so my perspective when reading them is not that of any sort of objective reviewer. However, having now read a draft of Authority, I expect that after I've had a chance to read Acceptance and reread the others, I'll probably try to write something about the books, because I think there are really interesting things going on with regard to language, interpretation, and perception in them — the sorts of topics I find myself obsessively returning to in (semi-)academic critical writing. I haven't seen too many reviewers noting that element of the books, though it's early yet. (Also, I could be delusional.)

In any case, I don't want my previous silence here to suggest that I'm not excited about these books. I am. They're extraordinary work, and they've not only furthered my interest in Jeff's writing (which spans the 10+ -year history of this blog), but have in many ways softened some of my cynicism about the world of commercial publishing, because these are not necessarily books that scream out, "Huge Commercial Appeal!", and yet they have been embraced by adventurous publishers and readers — reminding us that, despite the many idiocies of our mass culture, some adventurous publishers still exist and adventurous readers may, in fact, be more plentiful than we cynics sometimes think.

Adventurous has all sorts of possible meanings. I don't want to scare people away from these books. They're strange and intelligent — intelligently strange — but they're not at all difficult or tedious reading. That's part of their mastery, in fact. I found Authority especially to be a page-turner, and yet I also now want to go back and read it slowly, carefully, because there's so much within it that I'm sure I missed by letting myself be carried along by the compulsively odd narrative.

(Finally, don't let the occasional comparisons reviewers make to Lovecraft put you off. Really, seriously — this book is not Lovecraftesque. If that's what people have for a point of reference, fine, because I know people love them some Lovecraft, and therefore anything that's weird and enticing is for them by default Lovecraftesque ... but Lovecraft's writing makes me groan and puts me to sleep; Annihilation does not, and therefore it is not Lovecraftesque, sez I.)

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12. Stuart Hall (1932-2014)

photo by Eamonn McCabe, from The Guardian

I was stunned this morning to learn of the death of Stuart Hall, one of the great intellectuals of our time. Stunned not because it was entirely unexpected — he was not in the best of health, and had mostly retired from public life — but simply because it feels strange to live in the world after Stuart Hall.

It's entirely likely that you have never heard of Stuart Hall. His fame, particularly outside of the UK, is mostly related to a specific academic field (cultural studies) and his work has not been as well collected and disseminated as it deserves. I was late to his work, learning of it only when I began my master's degree (in cultural studies), and at first I couldn't see its significance — a lot of what he said seemed tied to specific events, specific moments, and many of the ideas he considered were, I assumed at first, part of an academic past that was no longer relevant. His sentences tended to be complex, his vocabulary and range of references even more so. But something about what he wrote made me think I was missing something, and I'm glad I had that perception, because I was right. At some point, with some essay or another, it began to click into place. And from that moment on, I sought out everything I could find by Hall.

There will, I hope, be insightful reflections on his work in the wake of his death. I hope there will also be some new collections of his writings, because we need them. What most sticks with me about Hall's work is its nuance and insistence on tackling ideas in their complexity and contradiction rather than simplifying them, even if simplification would make us more comfortable or more righteous. I am wary of saying anything more right now, because to do so would risk just such simplification of his own ideas. Instead, below the jump, I will leave you with some links to writings by Hall, interviews with him, and a couple of video and audio items.


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13. Kabu Kabu by Nnedi Okorafor


The start of a new term and then a huge computer disaster caused me not to post a link here to my review of Nnedi Okorafor's first short story collection, Kabu Kabu, which Strange Horizons recently published. Here, for anyone who missed it and is interested, it is. The first paragraph, to give you a sense of it all:
Nnedi Okorafor's first short story collection begins and ends with tales that evoke histories and challenge orthodoxies. "The Magical Negro" liberates an unfortunate cliché of fantasy fiction to go his own way, and so plants a sign in the narrative ground to let us know that these journeys, though fantastical, will seek some roads less traveled. "The Palm Tree Bandit" (first published here at Strange Horizons in 2000) reconfigures a different sort of mythos, shaking up the cartography of West African folktales to open some paths for women to play around with symbols and tools too often reserved for men. Both stories are narrative manifestos, fictions that are also metafictions. They exude a hope common to the whole book, a hope in human imagination. We have, these stories suggest, imagined badly, narrowly, oppressively—but just because we have does not mean that we must.
Continue reading at SH.

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14. The Affect Effect: Notes on Sherlock and Hannibal


Last night, viewers in the US got to see what viewers in other parts of the world have already seen: the first episode of the third season of the phenomenally successful BBC show Sherlock. I've already seen it — twice, in fact — because I enjoyed previous seasons of the show enough to work around the BBC website's geographical limitations and watch the episode when it first aired, and then I saw it again at a local cinema's preview showing, where my friend Ann McClellan gave a presentation on Conan Doyle and Sherlock. I've also seen the other two episodes of the season, watching episode 2 twice and episode 3 once.

Recently, I watched the 13-episode first season of NBC's Hannibal, based on Thomas Harris's Hannibal Lecter character, and I've been thinking about certain overlaps and significant contrasts between the two shows in their approach to their material. The comparison first occurred to me after I re-watched the first episode of Sherlock in preparation for the new season and heard, again, Sherlock refer to himself as a "high-functioning sociopath" — immediately, I thought, "No you're not. But Mads Mikkelsen in Hannibal is..."* That then got me thinking about connections between the two shows.



As I thought about the shows together, and as I watched the new episodes of Sherlock, I kept falling back on my own feelings, and feelings began to seem more and more important to the shows' successes. Sherlock especially succeeds through affectual production, letting the feelings it creates in viewers overcome all questions of plot, plausibility, consistency, etc. Why do we watch Sherlock? Because it feels good to do so. For instance, despite having various reservations about aspects of the show, I remain amused by it, entertained — and in such a way that I put forth the effort to be able to see the new episodes before they aired in the U.S. Why is this? Unlike some of my friends, I don't find any of the actors especially physically attractive, so it's not a matter of tuning in for the hotties. The mystery plots are generally ridiculous, and more and more the writers seem to emulate Conan Doyle himself in just not caring much about the plotting. Series creator Steven Moffat really does seem to be a douchebag, and his limitations sprout up throughout the show. But still I watch, still I enjoy.

For one thing, I'm a sucker for fast, clever dialogue, and Sherlock has a lot of that. (Or, to qualify: Sherlock has a lot of dialogue that is fast, and sometimes it is clever, and just as often it works very hard to make you think it's clever by being fast enough that you don't really notice or mind, much like a Gilbert & Sullivan patter song.) But the fast dialogue is not quite enough, or I'd be mainlining Aaron Sorkin shows.

Mostly, what carries me through Sherlock, and keeps me quite happily coming back, is the casting.  (The speed of the dialogue also allows the show to play to this greatest strength. The talented, committed cast of actors work very well with each other.) Benedict Cumberbatch's Holmes almost rivals the great Jeremy Brett's in the specificity of his eccentricities, and the chemistry between Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Watson is marvelous. Even actors who get relatively little screen time give such well-defined, thoughtful, entertaining performances that there is a sense of them being more present than they actually are. The pleasure is in watching talented actors who enjoy their work ... enjoying their work. Though at first I found Andrew Scott's portrayal of Moriarty deeply annoying and mannered, even it won me over eventually.

Watching season 3, particularly the first and last episodes, what struck me is just how much the show's writers and directors enjoy manipulating their audience — and how much the audience enjoys being manipulated. Arguably, this is a fundamental pleasure of all commercial entertainment. But I think there's something else to the manipulation in Sherlock, and it's become something I'm growing to dislike in the show.

(After this point, plot elements of Sherlock season 3 will be revealed. I know how ... sensitive ... some Sherlock viewers are to anything they can smack with the label of "spoiler", so here is your warning, even though I generally think such things are idiotic.)

In an insightful review of the third season, Abigail Nussbaum argues that "Moffat's writing has always been characterized by a desire to hit the big emotional payoff without doing any of the work of earning it, and Sherlock's stylistic quirks only intensify that flaw." I'm not sure it's stylistic quirks that allow the creators of Sherlock to hit a lot of emotional moments in what might most charitably be described as an efficient or sketchy way as it is their real skill at training a receptive audience into pavlovian responses. Such a way of evoking emotion in a receptive audience is a matter of training that audience and then employing the narrative patterns that lead to the response. It's the technique of popular fictions since the dawn of popular fictions, and television writers in particular have refined the techniques masterfully. We, the happy viewers, are like John in the hands of Derren Brown: our feelings are programmed, controlled. The emotional responses that we are supposed to have moment by moment during the show are obvious and predictable. (Tingly joy at Sherlock's return! Teary laughter at how awkwardly he reveals himself to John!)

That the emotions the first episode evokes are predictable is part of the receptive viewer's pleasure: the emotions are predictable because they are desired. Sherlock would in many ways be more interesting if it refused those pleasures and frustrated its audience, but frustrated audiences don't tend to keep coming back for more. The dedicated viewer of Sherlock is an emotional masochist, but not a serious or incurable one, and certainly not a masochist who desires real surprise. The possible ways Sherlock can both surprise and satisfy its core audience grow less and less varied. Sherlock shooting Charles Augustus Magnussen at the end of episode 3 may be surprising in that we generally think of Sherlock as less violent than John, but it makes sense within the limitations of the show's world (it destroys Magnussen's knowledge, and Sherlock knows Mycroft won't allow him to be killed, so it's a perfectly acceptable solution), and even the title has prepared us: at John's wedding, Sherlock said that his first and last vow was to protect John and Mary at any cost. (It all but screamed, "Foreshadowing!", particularly if you knew the title of the third episode.)  By the third episode, the creators seem to know that though their faithful viewers are well programmed, the program is not infinitely malleable. They play with the knowledge, pushing against — but never breaking — the limitations. Were Sherlock to shoot Mary or, even more shockingly, Watson instead of Magnussen, we faithful viewers would be aghast. Moffat & Co. know this, of course, and enjoy teasing our desire for surprise while never actually delivering a surprise that is a shock. (There was never even any pretense of Sherlock actually being dead at the end of Season 2. In this respect, Conan Doyle delivered a true shock to his fans when he killed Holmes — he really wanted "The Final Problem" to be final!) It's as if they are sadistically saying to their massed masochists, "How'd that feel? Sherlock's got a girlfriend! Still like it? How'd that feel? Mary's not who she said she is! Still like it? Still? Hey, look, Moriarty!" But of course, Sherlock doesn't really have a girlfriend, and though Mary isn't who she said she is, she does love John and her background story becomes another way to actually heighten the emotional effect of the marriage, because not only do we get the pleasant sentiments that marriage and pregnancy produce, but we then get to have even more feelings when John forgives Mary. (This being a Moffat show, the man gets to forgive, the woman gets forgiven.) We know there's no legal trouble Sherlock could ever really get into, because his brother is all the power of the government and will look after him. Any jeopardy in Sherlock is always shallow, but the creators work against this by ramping it up, testing-teasing the fans much as Sherlock himself tests-teases John in the underground with the bomb: Ha ha! Made you feel something! Ha ha! Gotcha! You thought it wasn't safe! Ha ha!

popular meme among Sherlock fans (the man is Moffat)
The results are absurd to the point of parody, chained to Moffat's apparent desire to make Twitter go beserk, and so the characters get stuck in a compulsive repetition of departure and return. Moriarty's voice calling out, "Miss me?" is aimed as much at us as at the characters in the story, and the social marketing folks at the BBC were probably thinking of ways to use those two words from the moment the script was finalized.

At their most obvious, the emotional manipulations of Sherlock are tiresome, but there is still fun to be had in being manipulated when it works well. Hitchcock reputedly said he enjoyed playing the audience like a piano, and part of the pleasure of Hitchcock's best films is that the viewer gets to be a piano played by a virtuoso. Now and then, Moffat & Co. achieve virtuosity with Sherlock. For me, the height of that virtuosity in the third season is the second episode, "The Sign of Three", which may be my favorite of all the show's episodes so far. I watched it twice, and the first time through I got a bit restless, because I expected it to be a more typical episode, but instead it is much more carefully tuned — one seemingly stray element after another ends up becoming important to what is happening, and so by the end we can feel the pleasures of a mystery story put together like clockwork. The emotional manipulation is shameless, yet not quite overwrought.

One of the things that makes Hannibal's first season so effective is its ability to surprise, shock, and fascinate. Like Sherlock, Hannibal is based on a previously-existing canon of texts that have solidified in the public's mind — Hannibal Lecter hasn't been around as long as Sherlock Holmes, but he's nearly as well-known, especially via Anthony Hopkins' performance in The Silence of the Lambs. Thomas Harris's novels have sold a gazillion copies, but they haven't yet fostered the sort of fan community that Conan Doyle's Holmes stories did almost immediately. (Sherlock Holmes fandom is not a new thing.) Nonetheless, the creators of Hannibal knew they had a challenging job, because they couldn't just invent the character from scratch, and, like the creators of Sherlock, they wanted to be faithful to the spirit of the original, and they didn't want to deviate too much from, especially, the first novel, Red Dragon, though some changes were necessary in order to have any room from which to create episodes.

In tone, Hannibal is vastly different from Sherlock — at its heart, Sherlock is a comedy, while Hannibal is a surreal tragedy. In traditional comedies, we expect and revel in the sort of shallow jeopardy that Sherlock thrives on; we don't expect or desire to be really scared or hurt, and we trust that order, happiness, and hope will be restored at the end. Hannibal is more King Lear than Much Ado About Nothing, promising that whatever order is restored at the end will be more exhausted than consoling. But the surreal elements bring Hannibal into a post-Woyzeck modernity.  Matt Zoller Seitz is right to see Hannibal as "a dream show, or a nightmare show, one in which nothing that happens can be taken literally or judged by the standards of what could plausibly happen in life." The endless implausibilities of Sherlock are goofy and absurd; the implausibilities of Hannibal are unsettling. Indeed, unsettling is the best adjective I have for the show, and it helps indicate why Hannibal is not, at least in its first season, as starkly manipulative as Sherlock or, for that matter, many other shows. The ground of Hannibal grows less and less settled with every episode.


Sherlock's narrative moves train our expectations and program our emotions; Hannibal's narrative trains us to mistrust our expectations, which then sets our emotional response to the material on edge. Because of the novels and movies, we know how this story ends: Hannibal Lecter goes to jail (for a while) after almost killing, and permanently disfiguring, Will Graham, who ends up, according to the novel of The Silence of the Lambs, "a drunk in Florida now with a face that's hard to look at." There is no reason to believe that Hannibal will violate those end points, and so our expectations are primed. Some of the suspense of the early episodes comes from our knowledge of Lecter: we expect him to start killing the nice people, and we feel wary for the characters who place trust in him. But as the character develops, we question our knowledge, and if we really give ourselves over to the show, we place trust in him. One of the most unsettling things for me was that I discovered, a few episodes in, that I really liked the character of Lecter as Mads Mikkelson performs him.** Certainly, in other versions, I have liked the performances, but Lecter is always alien and often horrifying. Mikkelson keeps the alienating horror — it's in the sharp deadness of his eyes — but covers it with a disorienting charisma and charm. One of the achievements of Hannibal is to help us understand just how Dr. Lecter could be so successful at winning over his prey. Indeed, half or three quarters of the way through the season, the show almost feels like a buddy-cop story, a 48 Hours for a new era, the Will & Hannibal show. Or, for that matter: Sherlock.

The Sherlock Holmes stories have always thrived because audiences love stories that fit a certain post-Enlightenment, pre-Modernism rationality. (It's the same desire that spawned science fiction.) Sherlock Holmes may be smarter than we will ever be, but he reassures us that the world can be figured out, that there is sense within what seems like chaos. We can fantasize about what fun it would be to be Sherlock, but that's not the fantasy we really respond to. What we love is the fantasy that somebody out there can figure it all out. It's the same desire that leads to various determinisms and essentialisms, to the reduction of the complexities and mysteries of a world beyond the scope of our comprehension. If we just know which clues to look for, then we can make sense of it all...

Hannibal is more pre-Enlightenment and post-Modernist. The world does not add up; its forces and flows can only be glimpsed, and those glimpses often redirect what they glimpse, and shards of reality are all that can be perceived. Compare Will to Sherlock — both have extraordinary powers of figuring out why particular events happen, but Sherlock knows how he does it and Will does not. For Will, it's simply a mysterious and torturous talent; for Sherlock, it is a skill. Will's ability to reconstruct murder scenes is mystical; Sherlock's ability to "deduce" all the details of a person's life is sold to us as rational. But from the days of Conan Doyle to now, most of Sherlock's deductions have been fanciful, even quite obviously ridiculous, because the world of the Sherlock Holmes stories is a world where reason rules and human behavior is, like the emotional behavior of the dedicated Sherlock fan, patterned, predictable, determined, scrutable.

In Hannibal, the world is truly chaotic, and no clues will tame the chaos to any point of satisfaction. The danger for such a show is to make the chaos into a predictable pattern — this was the fate of Spooks/MI-5, where after a few seasons it became clear that main characters existed to be killed off. Chaos can be just as manipulative, predictable, and tiresome as order.

I have hope that this won't be the effect of chaos in the future seasons of Hannibal partly because the difference between the manipulations of Sherlock and the manipulations of Hannibal is that the latter are primarily carried out by the title character. Certainly, the Sherlock of Sherlock is manipulative and, in his own way, charming, but the affective work of seduction within the show is done by plot structures and character traits — our emotions are trained to respond to Mrs. Hudson in particular ways, for instance, that are not fundamentally a result of the character herself trying to beguile us. In Hannibal, we are all Hannibal Lecter's prey. In fact, as audience members, we're worse than the characters, because we know better. We know his feelings are not as he represents them. We know he is a master of making people do and feel what he wants. We know he is the Chesapeake Ripper. We know what is in his meals. And yet, still, I found it difficult not to want his friendship with Will to succeed.


The trajectory of Will's character is atypical for a protagonist in a mainstream story (never mind a network TV show!) — he starts out somewhat unstable and becomes a complete basket case. Here, the show benefits from our expectation that he will get better, that he will become more competent rather than less. We keep hoping and wanting him to snap out of it, to pull himself together, to wake up and realize some of the truth ... but instead, he only gets worse and worse. Hugh Dancy plays the character at a rarely-relieved pitch of tension and anxiety, and yet the performance is impressive because Dancy is able to find range within a very narrow spectrum. Basic advice to any actor playing a character who is given to emotion is to establish a calm baseline, something for the emotion to contrast from; Dancy's baseline is where many emotional characters end up, and then he builds from there. The show's surrealism helps it here, allowing more stylization of performance than a determinedly realistic show can get away with.

The great horror of the show, for me at least — the horror that is deep, that is beyond shock or disgust and somehow, perhaps, even into the realm of metaphysics — came in the final episodes, where the extent of Hannibal's manipulations became clear, and where my own desire for him to have had some ordinary human feelings got fully exposed for the naive fantasy it was.

That is Hitchcock-at-the-piano territory. Unsettling, disturbing — a nightmare. Beside it, Sherlock feels light and insubstantial. But Sherlock is, more often than not (for me, at least), satisfying. Fun. Hannibal is never satisfying and seldom fun. Alongside its powerful visual construction, its careful writing, its excellent performances, Hannibal offers something much more rare: wrenching epiphany. It constructs a strange world, sets up our expectations, manipulates our desires, and then tears those desires and expectations open, forcing us to gaze at the steaming grotesquerie of our guts. (That is what I most desire from art, Kafka's axe against the frozen sea within us.) Both shows are manipulative, as just about all stories are — the storyteller seeks to evoke responses in an audience — but Hannibal uses its manipulative power toward something beyond the basic joy of manipulation. In that, it is a rare TV show, indeed.



-------------------------------
*I'm neither a psychologist nor a sociologist, so I can offer only an amateur's armchair diagnosis, which could be as trustworthy as a child's rocket science. But it seems to me Sherlock is not a sociopath/psychopath in any meaningful sense of those terms. (An actual psychologist has said the same thing.)

**In "His Last Vow", the villain is played by Lars Mikkelsen, Mads Mikkelsen's brother. It's an effective performance, enough to make me wish the character had been woven through more episodes instead of dispatched so quickly.

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15. "The book transforms me and transforms what I think"


I'm perfectly aware of always being on the move in relation both to the things I'm interested in and to what I've already thought. What I think is never quite the same, because for me my books are experiences, in a sense, that I would like to be as full as possible. An experience is something that one comes out of transformed. If I had to write a book to communicate what I'm already thinking before I begin to write, I would never have the courage to begin. I write a book only because I still don't exactly know what to think about this thing I want so much to think about, so that the book transforms me and transforms what I think. Each book transforms what I was thinking when I was finishing the previous book. I am an experimenter and not a theorist. I call a theorist someone who constructs a general system, either deductive or analytical, and applies it to different fields in a uniform way. That isn't my case. I'm an experimenter in the sense that I write in order to change myself and in order not to think the same thing as before.

—Michel Foucault,
interview with D. Trombadori, 1978;
from Power pp. 239-240

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16. Jay Lake, The Cancer Journals

© 2009 Mari Kurisato
I don't want to be the cancer guy. I want to be the sci-fi guy. ... One of the things I realized almost out of the gate, literally the second day I was in the hospital, was I'm not going to get very much that's good out of this experience, maybe get to keep my life for a while, so I may as well make something of it that will help other people.
—Jay Lake
In all of my recent reflecting on 2013, I neglected to mention one of the most powerful and educational bodies of writing that I read through the year: Jay Lake's blog posts on his experience with terminal cancer. (An index to early entries is here. See also: "A brief user’s guide to this blog".)

While Jay refers to these posts as "cancer blogging", which is entirely accurate, at some point I began to think of them by another name, conflating them with the title of a book by Audre Lorde: The Cancer Journals. The word journal also evokes the word journey, and that's what it feels to me Jay has given us: a journey. Not his journey, which is his alone, shared with closest friends and family, beyond the realm of language only — but the kind of journey narrative provides, and particularly, in this case, serial narrative. Another title might be morbidly appropriate, from a translation of Céline: Death on the Installment Plan.

The form is powerful because not only does it capture the day-to-day ups, downs, rollovers, bang-ups, jumping jacks, high-fives, and collapses of this experience, but it provides them to us in pieces. The story isn't finished. Further, while before the terminal diagnosis there was a desire for it to be finished — a desire for the cancer to go away — now the most likely ending is the one anyone who cares about Jay dreads. Each new entry to the cancer journals, no matter how painful, is a statement of life and the ability to keep sending words out to the world.

That's the personal part. But to read Jay's cancer journals as simply and solely a personal chronicle is a mistake. Given the state of the American health care bureaucracy and all the laws governing it, no chronicle of encounters with that bureaucracy can be solely personal. In sickness, the personal is very much political. And not only political: informational. And for anyone with even a minor tendency toward reflection, metaphysical.

As I’ve said on multiple occasions, my own story, the tale of my illness, death and dying, is the last story I do have to tell. My happinesses are specific to my own life. My sufferings are emblematic of so many other lives. That’s not ego talking. That’s the experience of blogging my cancer journey these past five and half years, and receiving countless amounts of email and comments and in-person feedback.

When I see a movie, or eat a good meal, or have a nice evening with a friend, that’s not really news. That’s just me living my life.

But as I collide with the limits of my disease and my death, and the financial, legal and medical processes around it, that’s news. It’s information. When I write about it, I put a voice to something many other people experience in silence, and I bear witness to something many other people have not yet encountered.

—"Talking About Life"
 It is for exactly these reasons that Jay's cancer writings have been among the most important words I've read over the past few years. I've had very little experience with cancer, myself — some friends with breast cancer, a grandfather who died of lung cancer when I was a child — and little experience with the absurd, immoral bureaucracy of the U.S. health system. (My closest experiences with that were when my father had a couple of heart attacks and congestive heart failure some years ago. Self-employed, he was barely insured. He died in debt to hospitals he'd stopped going to because he was angry and embarrassed at the bills. What I saw in his face and heard in his voice in that last year was just that he'd given up.)

Thus, I had little knowledge of the routines of cancer treatment, the medications, the expenses. That's what Jay's writings have provided us with. What does it feel like to go through this day after day after day. What does it feel like to have your life defined by the disease that will kill you? What does it do to you to be in remission and then not? To be relatively young and to know how you will, in all likelihood, die?

His cancer journals remind me of Paul Monette's AIDS writings: Borrowed Time and Last Watch of the Night. In Last Watch, Monette wrote about people who complained that his writings were "too personal". Honestly, embarrasingly, that was my initial reaction to Jay's posts. I couldn't read them for a bit, because I wanted to be protected, I wanted to be outside and ignorant, I didn't want to have to look and look and look. I wanted escape. But then I remembered Monette. I remembered how much of my view of the world — of life, of death — was shaped by reading those books when I was a teenager, of grappling with personal experiences outside my own.

Too personal, yes. Necessarily so.

I haven't seen Jay in years — the last time was, I think, probably the World Fantasy Awards in 2005. We're Facebook friends, but haven't really kept in touch. He was so prolific for a while that I was unable to keep up with his fiction, though I wrote about it occasionally. (My favorite is an early post hereabouts, on Jay's very short story "The Redundant Order of the Night", not because I think there's anything even remotely worthwhile in the post, but because  Jay pointed out at the time that my post was twice the length of the story itself. I don't know quite why, but that's always amused me.) We have some of the same friends, travel in some of the same circles.

Through his cancer writings, though, I have come to care very much about what happens with Jay on a day to day basis. At first, I couldn't read his cancer writings. It felt too voyeuristic. I'm a stoic New Englander — our idea of a good death is to go out back behind the shed and shoot yourself while everybody else is asleep, then let the buzzards pick you clean. No fuss, no bother. Yet it is exactly that sort of attitude toward death and dying that helps sustain our hideous health care system, because we hide away our worst troubles, our day-to-day pains and moods, we keep it all so personal, we disappear bit by bit until we die. The ghastly horrors of a profit-driven health system get hidden away.

We could read a hundred different pundits pronouncing on the good, bad, and ugly of Obamacare; we could read study after study of what is efficient or inefficient in American healthcare; but without experiencing it ourselves, will we know what it means to have this system, here and now, as one of the most important systems in your life? It is the testimony of Jay's writing that provides that for us.

More than giving us a vivid window into U.S. healthcare, Jay's writings bring us toward an understanding of illness, death, and life that is rare in much of contemporary American culture. A lot of this comes from how rational and matter-of-fact his tone remains. Partly, that's a result of the circumstances of writing — lacking energy and rushed for time, he has to write what's most important, what's most at the front of his mind. All his years of writing have provided him with the skills to be able to do that, to write clearly in a rush. I think it probably helps, too, that Jay is a science fiction writer, because most SF writers, even if they don't have the hard science mindset of, say, Larry Niven, are interested in the scientific approach to the world, and share, to some extent at least, a scientific mindset that tends to shy away from sentimentality and flights of lyrical metaphor. This is what it is, Jay's entries seem to say to us. Take a good, hard look. Why shy away? Why hide? This is life and this is death. Learn. Know!

Jay is determined to make as much of his experience as he can into a contribution to human knowledge. The knowledge of the everyday life of a terminal cancer patient, but more than that: knowledge of the disease. Through a crowdfunded project, he had his genome mapped, and has now made it "open source" — likely the first such endeavor in history. He's joined experimental studies at the National Institute of Health, and progress is being made. His life will not have gone to waste, nor will his experience of the disease go to waste.

This is more than I intended to write. When I began this post, I mostly just wanted to say: Go read Jay's cancer writings. They're important, more important than anything you'll read here.

As I wrote this, though, I discovered another purpose. I want Jay to know, while he can, that all of this matters. That he has wrenched something good, something useful from the ghastly abyss that is this experience. Part of me waits with terror for the day when Jay cannot write another post. If that is my terror, I can barely imagine the terror chasing him. I could choose not to read his posts, I could choose to turn away, to eulogize him on his death, to move on. I don't choose that. I want to know. I want to have what his writings give me: some tiny stake in his fate.

Broadly, his fate is our own. We are human and we are alive. Against all odds and crowded with suffering that is occasionally alleviated by joy. We are human. We are alive.

Now. Together.

Now. Here. Now.

Still.
As for the substance of yesterday, while I feel pretty darned accomplished, I also recognize that all of these victories are fundamentally futile. The CT results were frankly quite depressing. We’re fighting rearguard actions in a war the outcome of which was confirmed last spring. This does not stop me from grabbing every chance I can, wringing what I may from each passing day. But last night when I was in bed shivering under extra blankets and feeling logy and strange, I kept wondering if all this was worth it.

So far the answer is still yes.

—"The Adventures of Self-Directed Patient Man"

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17. Samuel Delany: The E-books


Today, Open Road Media releases e-book editions of a number of Samuel R. Delany's best books. I've had the chance to look at the Kindle edition of Dhalgren, and it's really excellent. Indeed, it looks to be the most accurate text, incorporating the corrections to errata in the Vintage editions, which were, until now, the most accurate.

The other Open Road editions (which I haven't yet seen) are: Babel-17, Nova, Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, The Motion of Light in Water, and the four Nevèrÿon books.

The one big difference between the real-book Dhalgren and the e-book Dhalgren (that I've noticed so far) is that the Kindle edition, at least, can't reproduce the embedded text in Part VII, and so the journal is presented linearly. It's a significant difference, forcing readers to read the sections in a different order than they might choose for themselves. It's probably an unavoidable consequence of making the book available in various electronic file formats. An example will make clear what's changed:

Vintage edition, 3rd printing

Kindle edition

The change is probably only really bothersome to those of us who are a bit obsessive about Dhalgren, and we've already got at least one of the actual book that we can run back to if we're feeling upset. For me, the great value of the e-book edition is in the corrections to the text and, most importantly, that it's searchable — as someone who occasionally does scholarship on Delany, having searchable editions of his books not only saves lots of time, but also opens new ways to look at the books, for instance by finding out how many times particular words are used, which might, somehow, someday, be useful information...

Many of Delany's other books have been available in electronic formats for a while — most of the Wesleyan University Press editions, plus the most recent novels, as well as free editions of The Jewels of Aptor and Captives of the Flame (released with the writer's permission). Indeed, for a while Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders was only available via e-book (Amazon currently has some copies, and more may be arriving at other outlets), and Dark Reflections is currently only in print that way. Having Open Road now release these nine key titles, though, is really exciting.

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18. Again with the 2013!




Strange Horizons has just published a collection of short notices from reviewers about what they read and viewed in 2013.

I thought there were too many good things in 2013 for me to be able to even simply list them all in the 250 words I was allowed, so I decided instead to focus on the writer who had, to my knowledge, the best 2013: Richard Bowes.

The other entries are also fascinating, so it makes for a great reading list.

Thinking back on 2013 after I wrote my previous post looking back on the year, I realized I left two important books out that would have been there if I'd remembered they were 2013 books — for some reason, in my mind, they were 2012 books.

The first is Kit Reed's extraordinary retrospective collection The Story Until Now. In a great year for story collections, this was among the absolute best.

The other is the second published and translated volume of Reiner Stach's eventually 3-volume biography of Franz Kafka, Kafka: The Years of Insight, translated by Shelley Frisch. John Banville said:
On the evidence of the two volumes that we already have, this is one of the great literary biographies, to be set up there with, or perhaps placed on an even higher shelf than, Richard Ellmann’s James Joyce, George Painter’s Marcel Proust, and Leon Edel’s Henry James. Indeed, in this work Stach has achieved something truly original. By a combination of tireless scholarship, uncanny empathy, and writing that might best be described as passionately fluent, he does truly give a sense of “what it was like to be Franz Kafka.” He has set himself the Proustian task of summoning up, and summing up, an entire world, and has performed that task with remarkable success. The result is an eerily immediate portrait of one of literature’s most enduring and enigmatic masters.
Reading the book for me was even more thrilling than reading Kafka: The Decisive Years in 2005, because there's something about the last part of Kafka's life, which is what The Years of Insight covers, that is especially strange, haunting, and powerful. (The final volume will be about Kafka's early years; Stach reportedly held off on it in the hope that a Max Brod archive would become available, but he has apparently decided that is unlikely, and the book should be released in the next few years.) Shelley Frisch's translation deserves much praise, as the book reads beautifully.

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19. 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.

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20. Submergence by J.M. Ledgard


People ask, what kind of writer do you want to be. I say, I want to be like Brancusi. I want my writing to have that rigour, that beauty, and that ability to see the world in a new way.
—J.M. Ledgard
Coffee House Press is one of the very few publishers whose books I will buy simply because Coffee House published them (another, in case you're curious, is Small Beer Press. Apparently, I am partial to publishers with beverages in their names). At this year's AWP conference, I happened to pass the Coffee House booth, and I was curious to see what was new. On a table at the front of the booth, J.M. Ledgard's Submergence grabbed by eye: a novel partially about events in East Africa, with a cover blurb by Teju Cole, published by Coffee House ... how could I resist? I could not. Life caught up with me, though, and I didn't have time to read the book until this week.

I begin by writing about where and why I bought the book because I'm trying to stay specific and concrete when what I most want to do is enthuse and exclaim, and I fear hyperbole, and I fear overselling the book, setting up expectations that can't be met by anything written by a mortal. I want to say: This is the best contemporary novel I have read in a long time, and I've read some excellent contemporary novels this year. I want to say: If you can only read one book in the next week/month/year, read this book. I want to say: We need more books like this book, and yet how can other books be like this book? I want to say: This book could change your life.

I won't really say any of that, though, because it all sounds jejune, and anyway, different readers respond differently. For instance, at The Guardian, Todd McEwen had a generally negative response to Submergence. Reading his review made me think terrible things about Todd McEwen, I will admit, but it also reminded me that some people are blind stupid illiterate unimaginative willfully ignorant willfully narrow in their aesthetics stupid stupid stupid opinions vary. Rather than foaming at the mouth like a madman, I shall try instead to describe a few of the many qualities I find so admirable in this extraordinary book.

(If you would rather judge for yourself, Bomb published a good excerpt.)

via National Geographic
In an interview with Philip Gourevitch, Ledgard said, "Submergence is an attempt at what I would call planetary writing, which is not the same as nature writing, it’s more political, more discarnate." Submergence is, indeed, planetary and political, but complexly and in some ways misleadingly so. It would, for instance, be possible to read the book as advocating for one or another of its characters' worldviews, but the view of the text as a whole is somewhat different from that of any single character. That's as it should be in a novel of this scope.

Scope and scale are central to the book's concerns — concerns that move from the microcosmic to the macrocosmic. In 200 pages, Ledgard gives us a view of people, nature, history, and science that feels more specific and yet more vast than that of all but the best science fiction novels. (Indeed, I thought a few times while reading: Kim Stanley Robinson could learn a thing or two from this book...) The world as we find it — and keep finding it through exploration — is a world of surprise, a world that exceeds imagination. Submergence touches some of that sublimity.

The sublime can get abstract awfully quickly, and one of the great pleasures of Submergence is how concrete it is in its details and language. The book's foundation is two characters: James More, a British spy captured by al-Qaeda jihadis in Somalia, and Danny (Danielle) Flinders, a biomathematician and oceanographer preparing to plunge deep into the Atlantic in the submersible Nautile. James and Danny had a brief, passionate romance on the French Atlantic coast before heading their separate ways, and they remained in touch, which seems to have surprised (and pleased) them both, as neither is the sort of person to let romance much affect them. Their ancestries are especially meaningful, too: James is a direct descendent of Sir Thomas More, writer of Utopia; Danny is the daughter of a father from Australia and a mother from Martinique. She grew up in various places, and in "her complexion and variety of dress and habits and manners there was something of her mother's Creole background." James has a very clear sense of his ethnicity and nationality, one built from culture and history, one he has served in the military and now the secret intelligence service — he is, for all of his worldliness and cosmopolitanism, a warrior for a particular culture, a particular concept of civilization that must, inevitably, clash with other concepts of civilization. Danny, on the other hand, is well read and well educated (not a scientist who only knows her science), but the scale of her concerns is different, her sense of identity less narrow than James's.

These characters and situations allow Ledgard to roam across the world and into its depths without losing focus. Submergence is a philosophical novel grounded in its characters' perceptions. Again and again, the text moves from scenes with Danny and James to essayistic exposition drawn from those scenes, commenting on them, contrasting with them. It's a loose enough structure to accommodate a wealth of ideas and information, but it always returns us to the characters and their perceptions. The effect is to suggest some of the vastness of history and nature while also showing how human minds accommodate that vastness. The narrative point of view drifts, dives, rises, and though James and Danny are our primary point of view characters, we also get glimpses into the points of view of the people around them, particularly James's captors. It would have been entirely appropriate for Ledgard to steal a move from the last paragraphs of Chekhov's "Gusev" (a predecessor in many ways to Submergence) and write from the point of view of the fish, the clouds, the ocean. In his own way, I suppose, he does just that.

Ledgard presents it all in prose that is evocative and lyrical while also straightforward. (It reminded me of a mix of Jean Rhys, Paul Bowles, and Jim Crace.) The sentence structures are seldom complex, the diction never ornate (technical, sometimes, but not ornate), and yet the words sing. The paragraphs feel boiled down without being hardboiled, muscular but not muscle-bound. It's among the most difficult kinds of prose to pull off, because it can so easily become monotonous, frigid, or mannered, and yet here it never does. Consider these paragraphs:
She could see the jagged rocks further out to sea on which many ships had foundered. The sailors, fearing being drowned so close to shore, must have called out for an acre of barren ground; broom, furze, anything, in their fear.

The waves were messy, porridgy, falling off before the lighthouse. There were no surfers. She knew how deep it was out there at the horizon. She had these other languages of numbers and sonar. She saw the deepness that was at the edge of France and it made the beach under her feel like a ledge on a cliff.
There's nothing ostentatiously lyrical there, few words of more than just two syllables, and yet the specificity and variety are evocative, unforced, letting the music of the consonants and vowels resonate (sailor[s]/shore, drowned/ground, oo to ur to ear, all those e sounds and l sounds in the last sentence, etc.). Add line breaks and we might mistake this for a poem by, say, W.S. Merwin.

The efficiency of such writing can achieve a lot quickly. Consider how much characterization Ledgard fits into a few sentences here (about Danny):
She knew nothing of development work or consultancies. It was said she was worldy. Well, she was worldly in wealth, and had been worldly enough in the toilet stalls of nightclubs, but she was not properly worldly. She had not come into contact with the poor. She was spoiled, like her mother. Her instinct was for refinement — of literature, fashion, cuisine — refinement of everything, really, and what could not be refined was not worth having. Could poverty be refined? She did not think so. On her visits to Australia she headed to the galleries in Sydney. These days, Manly was seamy enough for her. She had been taken to Flinders Island, which had been named for her paternal forebear. Despite her father's insistence, she had never visited an Aboriginal community in Australia or shown any interest in indiginous culture, except in so far as to use its images and textiles to garland her life. She was a woman with slave ancestry, yet she was prejudiced against Africa as a continent without research universities. Aside from a trip to Cape Town she had only been to Africa once, on an oceanographic research vessel that had anchored off the coast of Senegal. They had motored ashore in great excitement, but the village they arrived at had left her embarrassed. The village women gathered around her and asked her to speak on their behalf. They recognized her. She felt found out. It was not about skin color; that was of no importance. It was a sudden sense of community, a rusticity that complicated her metropolitan identity.
It's an extraordinary passage, one I am tempted to analyze word by word, but I will refrain, and instead just stand back and bow to it in awe. Look not only at what that passage says (a lot!), but what it does — the full movement of its narrative, the little discursive signals that herald points of view, the tidal movement between generality and specificity. The richness of characterization here could easily be missed if the passage were read quickly. It's dangerous for a writer to put so much of importance into such a relatively small space of words, and yet the reward for careful readers is immense: worlds unfurl from the words.

The care and complexity with which Ledgard draws his main characters extends to the various human cultures that also pass through these pages. Again, specificity achieves wonders: each geography and culture is different, and then each individual within those geographies and cultures are different ... and yet still human, still part of something the size of a species. Scale, scope, perspective. Macro and micro dance together. The jihadis are not presented as all the Muslims in the world, but they're also not just all jihadis, or revolutionaries, or terrorists. Somalia is presented not simply as a place of indistinguishable hordes of black people (hello, Black Hawk Down!), but rather a place of varied people, histories, influences. In this novel, East Africa is at least as complex as Europe, and is complexly tied to Europe and also to everywhere. Global forces exist alongside local ones. The anti-American guerrillas love Disney movies, and interpret Bambi into their ideology. Just look at all the history, ideology, and power compressed into this one image from an al Qaeda camp: "They sandbagged the main hut with food aid sacks filled with wet sand. On each of the sacks was a Stars and Stripes and the words Gift of the People of the United States."

photo by J.M. Ledgard

Myth and science converge throughout the novel, with myth providing the necessary metaphors to make the immensities and mysteries of the world comprehensible to human minds. James finally justifies his own choices in religion and culture as ones to render himself coherent. In a remarkable passage late in the novel, after James has considered all sorts of similarities and paradoxes between cultures and beliefs, one of his captors says he expects they'll both die soon and that that is why he wants James to convert to Islam. James refuses.
There was no chance he would convert. It was not just a question of Islam, it was the way life was constructed. A man lived his threescore years and ten, less than a whale, less than a roughy fish, and the only way to come to terms with his mortality was to partake in something that would outlive him; a field cleared of stones, a piece of jewelry, a monument, a machine. Every man was a loyalist for what he knew. Even tramps fought for the tramping life. Life was too short for him to renounce the English parish church, once Catholic, with its knights' tombs, prayer cushions, flower arrangements, the brass lectern in the shape of an eagle. No, the quiet of those places — the ancient front door, the graveyard, the meadow, the damp — gave him a sense of belonging. He was loyal to them. It was too late to abandon the English canon, from Chaucer to Dickens, the First World War poets, Graham Greene typing through the smog and drizzle... He had said it before: he was an intelligence officer who reached out, spoke Arabic, read widely, but if the Crusades were invoked — and Saif was invoking them — then he was a Crusader. If he had to die at the hands of fanatics, he wished to remain familiar and coherent to those whom he loved and who loved him.
James's stubborn desire for coherence from canon and culture is produced by his recognition of the immensity of the universe, but it is also an utterly inadequate response to that immensity, a narrowing response, a warrior's response. Note how determinedly masculine it is, how archaic, even anachronistic — throughout, James thinks about man and the history of mankind, but the most revelatory and wondrous insights in the book come from Danny, who is less fettered by the old world's identities, more aware of humanity and the systems that affect it and are affected by it (though her thoughts, too, are unfortunately presented within the sexist terms of mankind. It's hard to escape the diction of our authors). James is a mirror of his captors; Danny lives a less destructive life, a life more aware of wonder than horror. Horror is, with the right perspective, a wonder: "Even eating our way through cows, apples, everything, in our billions, you know we're nothing compared to the life down there. That life can't be destroyed, it feeds on death — or less than death — it reconfigures and goes further in, into hotter water."

Ultimately, Submergence is a call for humility. Its thrilling movement through time and space serves to remind us of how tiny we are in our mortality, how transient. For all our technologies, histories, and myths, we are fragile creatures, young, whatever posterity we may acquire a flash against geologic time. We are little more than liquid, and will always flow back to the sea.
You will be drowned in oblivion, the River Lethe, swallowing water to erase all memory. It will not be the nourishing womb you began your life in. It will be a submergence. You will take your place in the boiling-hot fissures, among the teeming hordes of nameless microorganisms that mimic no forms, because they are the foundation of all forms. In your reanimation you will be aware only that you are a fragment of what once was, and are no longer dead. Sometimes this will be an electrifying feeling, sometimes a sensation of the acid you eat, or the furnace under you. You will burgle and rape other cells in the dark for a seeming eternity, but nothing will come of it. Hades is evolved to the highest state of simplicity. Whereas you are a tottering tower, so young in evolutionary terms, and addicted to consciousness.

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21. Reading In the Heart of the Country


I create myself in the words that create me.
In the Heart of the Country
I've recently completed a draft of a paper on J.M. Coetzee's second novel, In the Heart of the Country, writing about the book and its contexts (with regard to trauma theory and Afrikaner Nationalism), but as I read various scholarly analyses of it, as well as reviews of the novel when it was first published, what struck me was the book's relative neglect compared to Coetzee's other novels, and the general lack of enthusiasm for it. When I first read it some years ago, I found it befuddling and often tedious. But it stuck with me, even haunted me, and that's why I decided to take some time digging into it. Older now, more experienced in reading Coetzee, I found it immensely rich and a powerful reading experience. Though I've spent a few months reading and re-reading it closely, I still feel like I'm only beginning to get a grasp of all it's up to.

It is impossible to sum up In the Heart of the Country through a simple phrase such as, "This novel is about _________." That blank is full of possibilities. Those possibilities are, in fact, primarily what the book is about: the possibilities (and limits) of meaning.

It is a novel, so there are characters, a setting, and narrative. The protagonist is the narrator, a woman on a farm in the Karoo sometime around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. Toward the end of the book, she is referred to as Magda, and that is what I will call her. The text consists of 266 numbered sections, most of them one paragraph long, only a few of them longer than a page. The first 35 sections (pp. 1-16 of the Penguin edition) tell a mostly coherent story of Magda's father arriving back at the farm with a new bride, and then, eventually, Magda's murder of them. Section 36, though, restarts this story — the father is not dead, nor is he the one who returned to the farm with a bride. Instead, in this version, the black servant Hendrik returns with a bride, the father asserts his power over her, Hendrik discovers what the father and the bride are up to, and Magda fires a shotgun blindly into the father's bedroom, fatally wounding him. After the father's death, Hendrik becomes more of a tyrant and eventually rapes Magda, then he and the bride abandon her on the farm. Then the father is not dead anymore, and Magda, alone, nurses him in his silent old age. Also, she hears voices from "flying machines" — voices she thinks are in Spanish, but which are actually in a made-up mix of languages. What the voices from the flying machines say are quotes and paraphrases from various texts, including ones that were published well after the time of the book's setting (e.g. a translation of Luis Ceruda from Octavio Paz's The Labyrinth of Solitude).

Those are the primary events of the novel, but they don't give much sense of the book, because Magda's greatest obsession is her own identity and, especially, her textuality. Though Coetzee has rarely said much about his novels, he's said more about In the Heart of the Country than any other, and the substance of his statements is generally the same: Magda is a figure in a book.

This gets at one of the central reasons, I think, for the novel's neglect and difficulty. It is explicitly not a novel of psychological realism, and yet it presents us with a narrating figure screaming out for psychologizing. Indeed, it's quite clear that Coetzee was playing around with some concepts from Freud, especially regarding female hysteria. Though he makes it tempting to read Magda as a case of hysteria (or, to apply a later formulation, trauma), it doesn't work. Psychology is just one of the texts united in the figure of Magda.

As readers, we like psychologically coherent characters. Much of what we do as readers is, often, similar to amateur psychotherapy. We look for characters' motivations, obstacles, obsessions, wounds. Writers typically write for such readers. Psychological coherence creates the illusion of realism, and readers typically devalue texts where characters behave contrary to the expectations we have built up of their desires and proclivities. We build coherent stories of characters in life, too — we expect people to act in particular ways, to like and dislike mostly the same things over time, etc. We also try to live up to these expectations ourselves. We like our identities to be coherent. We prefer to be readable.

One of the great achievements of In the Heart of the Country is how it demonstrates the ways that our desire for coherence creates the stories we tell about ourselves, and the stories that are told about us. The self is a story. "I make it all up," Magda writes, "in order that it shall make me up."

The self is not just any story, however. There are constraints. Realism is not a matter of what is real, but what can be made believable. Context constrains our text. Magda's context is that of a white woman on a farm in the Karoo in South Africa at a particular time of history. In the Heart of the Country was written in the late 20th century, and so it exists after many stories of such women preceded it. Magda's believability, then, requires her to behave according to her genre. In the Heart of the Country was Coetzee's first novel to explore the implications of the plaasroman, the South African farm novel, a genre he would return to many times. (Theresa Dovey, in the first book on Coetzee, proposed that In the Heart of the Country is a rewriting of Schreiner's Story of an African Farm. It is, but it is also much more.)  Magda is a figure who resembles a woman Freud would have categorized as a hysteric, and thus she is part of another genre, another set of expectations. She is a figure of a woman, and within Afrikaner culture of the time, women  suffered many expectations and limitations because of their gender. She is a figure of a white Afrikaner, another identity full of constraints.

In the right circumstances, the constraints of identity are comforting — they help us see ourselves as part of a group, they let us feel meaningful and proud, they help us fit the idea of "I" into a "we". Such identities can then be wielded for social and political purpose. They make us into something that is like one thing and unlike another.

But identities that disempower are ones we bristle against. Magda, though part of the white power structure, is disempowered by her other identity markers. She desires a total freedom, the freedom to tell any story about herself, to start from scratch. She dislikes what can be read of her, and wants a new reading:
Original sin, degeneracy of the line: there are two fine, bold hypotheses for my ugly face and my dark desires, and for my disinclination to leap out of bed this instant and cure myself. But explanations do not interest me. I am beyond the why and wherefore of myself. Fate is what I am interested in; or, failing fate, whatever it is that is going to happen to me. The woman in the nightcap watching me from the mirror, the woman who in a certain sense is me, will dwindle and expire here in the heart of the country, unless she has at least a thin porridge of event to live on. I am not interested in becoming one of those people who look into mirrors and see nothing, or walk in the sun and cast no shadow. It is up to me. 
This freedom is impossible, though, because there are always hypotheses about her, no matter what story she tells. She is not just a figure in a book, she is a figure in a book with a genre, a language, a set of expectations. If there are to be events, even a thin porridge of them, they will be events that become interpreted into a story, and thus contribute to an idea of her: hypotheses and explanations.

The voices Magda hears from the flying machines present her with all sorts of different texts — most of them ones that, in reality, she would have no knowledge of. For instance, a sentence from Jacques Lacan's "The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis" (1953): "It is a world of words that creates a world of things." Then there are sentences from Rousseau, Spinoza, William Blake, John Calvin (of all these voices, the one an Afrikaner woman of the 19th century might plausibly be familiar with). A sentence of Pascal, from the Pensées, seems especially meaningful in the context: "God is hidden, and every religion that does not affirm that God is hidden is not true." The hermeneutical tradition is a religious tradition: analysis of scriptures leads to understanding of God. But if God is hidden, analysis must always be incomplete, tentative, hypothetical.

Which of the stories Magda tells is "true", and which not? It's impossible to say. They are all stories in a book, and thus all equally true and false. As a reader, you can either accept that, or you must admit that you prefer certain interpretations of the fictive reality — that you privilege particular stories over others, because they get you what you want.

Coetzee was often criticized in the 1980s for not engaging more explicitly with the political realities of his world, the world of apartheid South Africa. He did not write the preferred social realism. His books could not be reduced to slogans. In fact, those books criticized the linguistic, narrative, and political structures that led texts to be reduced to slogans. In the Heart of the Country does this as well as any of his novels, particularly in how it shows the discourse of Afrikaner Nationalism to be a discourse so constraining as to strangle its subjects.

The Soweto uprising occurred just as In the Heart of the Country was being published, and though there were certainly many factors leading to it, much of the revolt began from the requirement that all schools conduct their lessons in Afrikaans. In South Africa, questions of language became questions of life and death. Similarly, history was distorted through the Nationalist lens for specific political purposes. The story of Europeans arriving in southern Africa was a story of white people arriving at the same time as native Africans, and thus having equal right to the land. This was pure balderdash, but nonetheless it was this story that was promoted because it served ideological purposes. The stories of Afrikaner culture were ones that simplified history (and Afrikaner culture) into a tale of "primitive Calvinists" triumphing over the frontier, then fighting the British, then creating a country for themselves, the chosen people. Some of Coetzee's scholarly work has shown how travel narratives and novels contributed to or struggled against all of this, but it is his fiction that presents it most challengingly and complexly. It is in the fiction that we can truly explore the ways texts and narratives contribute to both personal and social constraints, because the novels not only offer the ideas, but enact them.

To read and appreciate In the Heart of the Country, then, we have to be ready to read ourselves reading it. Magda is not a character in the way that a figure in a novel of psychological realism is a character; she is a textual effect. Or, more accurately, "she" is the result of textual effects and then produces more textual effects. The richness of the novel derives from the multiplicity of possible effects. The knowledge and expectations we bring to the text matter profoundly. Desiring psychological realism, narrative coherence, and linear plotting, we will be forced into frustration. We could let this frustration be nothing more than frustration, and could, then, proclaim the book a failure, but to really read this novel, we need to let it help us reflect on our readerly frustration, to work through it, and to see what lives on the other side. Similarly, we can use the novel to see the limits — and, hence, possibilities — of our liberation. (Who are "we"? What does this we desire liberating from?) Magda ends up in silence, because that is all her context allows her: the death of art, the death of expression. Magda's fate is that of being a particular figure in a book. You and I are not that figure. Our languages are different and the book of our self is from another genre, one with its own constraints and freedoms. How will we read it? How will it be read? What makes us legible to the world?


A few notes on some of the scholarship, while it's on my mind...

Of the studies of this novel that I've encountered so far, my two favorites are Susana Onega's "Trauma, Madness, and the Ethics of Narration in J.M. Coetzee’s In the Heart of the Country", an essay in The Splintered Glass: Facets of Trauma in the Post-colony and Beyond, ed. M. Dolores Herrero and Sonia Baelo-Allué, and "Charting J. M. Coetzee's Middle Voice" by Brian Macaskill, Contemporary Literature 35: 3, Autumn 1994. Those two seem to me to do the best job of keeping the text complex.

Chiara Briganti's "A Bored Spinster with a Locked Diary: The Politics of Hysteria in 'In the Heart of the Country'" (Research in African Literatures 25:4, Winter 1994) is excellent on the novel's use of concepts of Freudian hysteria, but I think Briganti's approach simplifies the figure of Magda too much. (I also think Freud's Beyond the Pleasure Principle is at least as relevant to the novel as his earlier writings.) Susan Gallagher's A Story of South Africa : J.M. Coetzee's Fiction in Context is very good on the historical context of the novel, but simplifies it too much by reading it primarily as historical fiction. "The Taint of the Censor: J. M. Coetzee and the Making of In the Heart of the Country" by Hermann Wittenberg provides fascinating background on the book's complex publishing history, and J.C. Kannemeyer's J.M. Coetzee: A Life in Writing provides additional valuable context. Though Theresa Dovey's The Novels of J.M. Coetzee: Lacanian Allegories is sometimes reductive, the application of Lacan to Coetzee is valuable, and it's a shame the book is long out of print and difficult to find. I got a copy via interlibrary loan (and was frustrated to discover many chapters of it marred by some idiot's underlines and notes). Other books and articles have some good, scattered insights, but the above are the ones I have, so far, most benefited from.

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22. Dragons!

Over at Press Play, I have a new text essay to accompany Leigh Singer's video essay on dragons in movies. Here's a taste:

In confronting dragons, humans confront an ancient, alien Nature. Unlike the other popular fantasy figures these days—vampires and zombies—dragons are not transmuted humans, but rather something beyond us, other than us. Often, they are represented as deeply greedy, and this is their fatal flaw (e.g. Smaug in The Hobbit). They guard, hoard, and covet. Within most fantasy stories, they're part of a medieval environment and their greed stands in contrast to the commons. The triumph of the little human against the dragon is a heroic reappropriation of resources and a signal of the human ability to triumph over the hoard of Nature—the dragon must die for civilization to advance. 
You can read the whole thing at Press Play.

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23. Mandela

11 February 1990

I was 14 years old on the day Nelson Mandela walked out of prison. I remember the television I watched it on, the room I was in, the couch I sat on. I was a white kid in rural New Hampshire, and I remember being overwhelmed with inexpressible hope, inchoate happiness.

*

I knew that there was widespread interest in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, in the United States of America, but to see that reflected in the conduct of the people when I arrivedd in New York was something very encouraging, very inspiring. The excitement of the people, the remarks they made which indivated unwavering solidarity with our struggle — in the street, in buildings, offices and resident ... flats — it was just amazing; it swept me from my feet completely ... To know that you are the object of such goodwill makes one humble indeed. And that is how I felt.

—Nelson Mandela: Conversations with Myself p. 377

*

Mandela's death yesterday was certainly no surprise — indeed, obituary writers have had their copy prepared for some time — and yet I was deeply shaken. Though I have some South African acquaintances, I've never been there. Mandela's death has no practical effect on my life, because the Mandela I know is an image, a recording, a representation, something beyond his body's life or death. And yet it is wrenching to think that we now live in a world without Mandela.

There have already been countless tributes, of course, some excellent. (Keep your eyes on Africa Is a Country for some of the best. See also Timothy Burke's excellent "Be Nelson Mandela". And Ta-Nehisi Coates' "Apartheid's Useful Idiots".) Here, I want to note the moment, to remember just how sad it felt to live in the hours after Mandela had gone, and then to replace the sadness with the memory of the hopeful happiness I felt that day when I was 14.

*

When I was among the crowd I raised my right fist and there was a roar. I had not been able to do that for twenty-seven years and it gave me a surge of strength and joy.

—Long Walk to Freedom p. 491



*

South Africa (its image, history, literature) has haunted me for as long as I can remember. When I was growing up, a family friend was South African. She was an entomologist and a reader of science fiction, and she gave me one of the very first science fiction books I could call my own: The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, vol. 1. (I still have it.) I know my parents talked with her some about her home country, about her occasional trips back home, etc., but I don't remember any of the details. My father, good Reagan supporter that he was, probably felt wary about the ANC and Mandela, but he also abhorred overt racism, and I remember more than once a news program showing some ultra Nationalists in South Africa and my father saying how much they looked like Nazis. I remember being very young and wondering what was happening in South Africa and who was right and who was wrong. I knew the Soviets were wrong in Russia and the Sandinistas were wrong in Nicaragua, but I couldn't figure out South Africa, and it bothered me.

The first record I ever bought for myself with my own money was Paul Simon's Graceland, which further brought South Africa into my consciousness. I remember seeing Simon on 60 Minutes or another show, talking about the making of the album, and it was somewhere around then that I decided the white government in South Africa must be horrible, even if Ronald Reagan (our hero) kind of supported them.

I graduated from high school in May 1994, the same month that Mandela was inaugurated as the first democratically-elected President of South Africa. By then, I had read a lot about the country, and sometime in the next few years I took his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, out of the library and read it. I kept borrowing it from the library over the years. Finally, a few months ago, I bought a copy. Some books you really ought to own, even if — especially if — they live inside you.

*

People will feel I see too much good in people. So it's a criticism I have to put up with and I've tried to adjust to, because whether it is so or not, it is something which I think is profitable. It's a good thing to assume, to act on the basis that ... others are men of integrity and honour ... because you tend to attract integrity and honour if that is how you regard those with whom you work. And one has made a great deal of progress in developing personal realtionships because you [make] the basic assumption ... that those you deal with are men of integrity. I believe in that.

—Nelson Mandela: Conversations with Myself p. 263

*

My last year at NYU, I had a screenwriting class with Richard Wesley, who had just finished writing the script for Mandela and de Klerk. He told us some stories of working with Sidney Poitier (who he'd first worked with on Uptown Saturday Night), and of his research for the film. I had no access to Showtime, no way to see the movie when it aired, but my father agreed to videotape it for me. He called after watching it and said it wasn't bad, and was pretty informative, actually.

The screenplay I wrote in Richard's class was a comedy about radical environmental activists, loosely based on some of my own experiences, and we had good conversations about politics and social movements, including the ANC and the anti-apartheid struggle.

*

They must know why they are going to take up arms and fight. They must be taught that the revolution was not just a question of pulling a trigger and firing — it was an organization that was intended to take over political power. That is what we stressed.

—Nelson Mandela: Conversations with Myself p. 108

*

Somewhere around 2001 or 2002, I was teaching a high school Advanced Placement Literature class and mentioned the word "apartheid" in passing. None of my students knew what it meant. I was so angry I almost couldn't speak. I knew their ignorance wasn't their fault. But it had never occurred to me than anybody could not know what apartheid was. I decided to devote the entire last third of our course to South African novels and short stories. This required some research on my part, because I had never had an African literature course and had only ever read a few of the really famous books. I'd thought I knew something about South African history, but soon came to realize how superficial that knowledge was. Luckily, I lived near a library with an improbably excellent collection of African fiction. I educated myself as best I could in a fairly short amount of time, then had my students read such books as You Can't Get Lost in Cape Town and Welcome to Our Hillbrow, as well as numerous short stories and poems. We all learned a lot together, and my commitment to teaching African literatures was solidified.

It would be inaccurate and hubristic of me to claim any expertise in African literatures and histories, but nonetheless I teach both whenever I have the chance, because most of my work has been in New Hampshire, to majority white populations, to people who often come from backgrounds similar to my own, and I am still furious that I never once had the chance to read a single work of African fiction or history in school until I was working on my master's degree. I teach to be the teacher I wanted to have when I was 14 years old and Nelson Mandela walked free for the first time in 27 years.

When I designed that term on South African literature, my department head was a bit nervous. Were these books really useful to the students? Weren't they, well ... esoteric? I shrugged. "No matter what," I said, "these students will graduate with a new knowledge. They will know what apartheid was. They may dislike the books, they may dislike me as a teacher, I don't care. They'll know what apartheid was. That's enough for me."

*

US President George W Bush has signed a bill removing Nelson Mandela and South African leaders from the US terror watch list, officials say.

Mr Mandela and ANC party members will now be able to visit the US without a waiver from the secretary of state.


BBC News, 1 July 2008

*

Always, there was Mandela. The icon, the myth. As much as I do not want to have heroes, as much as I know that human beings are all messy and flawed and contradictory and frustrating and disappointing and magnificent — as much as I know that famous people are just people — as much as I know of Mandela's flaws — as much as — and and and—

Still, there was Mandela. A great man we have been honored to share some time on Earth with. A man who made us imagine a better world.

*

One issue that deeply worried me in prison was the false image that I unwittingly projected to the outside world; of being regarded as a saint. I never was one, even on the basis of an earthly definition of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.

 —Nelson Mandela: Conversations with Myself p. 410

*

The image of a great man — the representation of an icon — reached a boy in rural New Hampshire, who then, in wondering about that man, learned to question the apparent truths of the world, and learned to overcome the fear of people different from himself, and began to hope for a more open, just, and compassionate future than the present he inhabited.

In mourning the great man, I remember the little boy, and within the tears of loss there flows again a hope for a future that will approach our dream of it.


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24. Film Textbooks, Take 3


A solidly popular post here continues to be one I wrote in 2009 about textbooks for introduction to film courses. I updated it once, way back in 2011, but enough time has passed that it deserves a quick update again.

First, I should say: Because I've started a Ph.D. at UNH, I'm not teaching film these days, except for a summer class online. So I haven't been thinking about film textbooks too much recently. But I do think about it, mostly because I really miss teaching film. It seeps into everything I do, though — this term, for instance, I'm taking a required course for all new grad students who are teaching First-Year Composition (yes, it's a little awkward having 15 years of teaching experience and taking a course like this...), and for my research project for the class I decided to research the use of film analysis in FYC classes. (If you're curious, you can see the results of all that research here. Creating a Weebly site was a class assignment, so I used it as a place to park my project.) I still love film textbooks, though, and have kept current with a few of them.

I was disappointed with the changes between the second and third editions of the textbook I used most frequently, The Film Experience. It's not bad, just not as thoroughly re-envisioned as I hoped it would be. I had hoped it would have more material to help students understand shot and scene analysis, for instance. These are pretty common assignments in intro to film classes, and yet I don't know of any textbook that provides a really excellent model. I still like The Film Experience best of the textbooks I know, however, because it is closest to my own approach to film history and theory.

The latest edition of Film Art is just as gorgeous as previous ones, and the book remains a tremendously thorough guide to formalist film analysis. I really considered using it for my summer course, but in the end I just couldn't justify the cost, because I need a textbook that's broader and more ecumenical.

My experiences with The Oxford History of World Cinema, The Cinema Book, and A Short Guide to Writing About Film were mixed, and I wouldn't use any of them again, though I think they're all useful books. The problem was that The Oxford History was overkill for my class, The Cinema Book just didn't have the right topics for my Deviants class, and A Short Guide is much too expensive for what it is. We used all of the books in class, but none of them as fully as I had hoped, and A Short Guide in particular was just too thin and sketchy for what the students had to pay for it.

For my First Year Composition course next term, I'm using Signs of Life in the USA, a Comp textbook with a popular culture focus, including a pretty good chapter on film (with an essay by Matt Zoller Seitz, whose presence in the book immediately made me happy). With luck, in a few years I'll get to teach a proper film course again, but until then I'm just going to have to make do... Read the rest of this post

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25. On 12 Years a Slave


Press Play has now posted an essay I wrote about 12 Years a Slave. It begins:
12 Years a Slave has arrived in theatres already barnacled with expectations. In its festival appearances, it met with critical acclaim, and Oscar odds-makers had already slated it for various awards. Viewers buy their tickets, sit down in their seats, wait for the lights to dim, and expect great things. But viewers also have other, deeper expectations. The dominant cinematic story of slavery has been the story of white redemption and white heroism against an unfortunate institution perpetuated only by the most sadistic of bad white men. Even today, it is exceedingly rare to find a story about slavery that doesn't emphasize how good-hearted white people can be and how inherently just, good, and equal America is. In American movies, black suffering redeems white characters and affirms white nobility. 
 
12 Years a Slavetells a different story, but because the familiar narrative has conditioned us to view “slave movies” as a genre, we — especially white viewers — may find our expectations unsettled. This unsettling is one of the great virtues of the film.
The rest is available here.

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