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A new interview with me
— the first to come out since Blood: Stories
was released — is now up at One Story
's blog, part of the publicity leading up to the One Story Literary Debutante Ball
. Many thanks to Melissa Bean for conducting the interview, and for her very kind words about the book.
Here's a taste:
MB: On that note, what inspires your stories?Read more at One Story...
MC: Daydreams and nightmares created by anxieties, fears, and desires.
I don’t write fiction for the sake of therapy, per se, but I am prone to anxiety and I have an active imagination, so it’s often the case that a story starts from one of my weird anxiety fantasies.
This review originally appeared in the January 2006 issue of Z Magazine
. I'd forgotten about it until somebody today mentioned that it's the anniversary of most of the striking workers' demands being met (12 March 1912), and so today seemed like a good one to post this:
by Bruce Watson
New York, Viking, 2005, 337 pp.
Lawrence, Massachusetts was, at the beginning of the twentieth century, what might be called one of the greatest mill towns in the United States, but "greatest" is a difficult term, and underneath it hide all the conditions that erupted during the frigid winter of 1912 into a strike that affected both the labor movement and the textile industry for decades afterward.
Bruce Watson's compelling and deeply researched chronicle of the strike takes its name from a poem and song that have come to be associated with Lawrence, although there is, according to Watson, no evidence that "Bread and Roses" ever appeared as a slogan in Lawrence until long after 1912. This fact might suggest that Watson's position is one of a debunker, but he offers less debunking than revitalizing, and the ultimate effect of his book is to show why the romantic notions behind the "Bread and Roses" phrase do a disservice to the courage and accomplishments of the strikers.
Watson's greatest strength is his ability to weave weighty research into a narrative that is lively and seldom ponderous.
There are costs to this approach, because the minutia of a strike's planning and execution are not always suspenseful, and so, as Watson strives to hold the reader's interest there are times when the sentences sound like the narration of "America's Most Wanted" and swaths of yellow from the journalism of 1912 seem to have seeped into the book's pages.
This is a minor annoyance, though, in a book filled with vivid portraits of ordinary workers and their families, and with precise, careful renderings of an age and culture.
Again and again, Watson brings the book back to the circumstances of the immigrant workers who started the strike, and he compares their lives to those of other workers throughout the United States, to the owners and administrators of the mills, to the politicians, to the police and the soldiers who were sometimes fierce combatants with the strikers, sometimes bewildered and beleaguered sympathizers.
It would be interesting to watch a free-market ideologue respond to Bread and Roses, because again and again Watson presents damning evidence of the failures of unbridled capitalism to produce anything but misery for people who worked in the mills. He includes a budget created by one of the workers' wives; she lists such expenses as rent, kerosene, milk, bread, and meat. Watson lays out the family's other expenses, the fact that they couldn't afford to buy coal and so their only heat during the brutal winters came from the bits of wood their children could scavenge, the luxuries they couldn't buy (butter and eggs), and then comments: "Like most mill workers, the Bleskys could not afford clothes fashioned in Manhattan sweatshops from fabric made in Lawrence. ... The Bleskys each wore the same clothes until they wore out. When the strike began, Mrs. Blesky was still wearing the shawl, skirt, and shirtwaist she had bought in Poland three years earlier, just before coming to Lawrence. Ashamed of her shabby appearance, she almost never left her home."
Searching through numerous archives, Watson has unearthed one story after another like this one, and each undermines the fanciful justifications and accusations made by the mill owners, which Watson also chronicles well. To his credit, though, he does not present the owners, the politicians who supported them, and the reporters who often printed even their most outrageous lies as caricatures, creatures so obsessed with profit that they would happily trod over the people who created that profit for them. Instead, he tries to divine the self-delusions and paranoid fears that motivated the workers' many antagonists. While on the surface it may seem immoral to try to portray the masters of such misery as flawed and idealistic human beings, the result is both complex and useful, because ideology was as much a part of what created the misery as was greed.
The Lawrence strike became a national cause, and it attracted the attention of celebrities and rising stars of the labor movement, including Big Bill Haywood and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn of the IWW and John Golden of the AF of L. The events and tactics that brought so much attention to Lawrence are particularly fascinating, and Watson does an admirable job of showing how the strikers decided to carry out the strike and advance their cause, particularly with the controversial and immensely effective "children's exodus", where the children of strikers were sent to the homes of union members in New York, Vermont, and elsewhere. With each new day and week of the strike, more groups joined in, until the strike itself became, for a short time, a panoply of people from all around the world. Numerous women, too, who had often been relegated to the background in labor struggles before, became vital players in Lawrence, and the book includes a marvelous photograph of a parade of women holding their hands high, joyous smiles on their faces as they march down the street, defying the martial law imposed on the city.
Even as more and more strands are added to the story, the tale itself stays clear. Watson manages to show how the different segments of the labor movement both aided and undermined each other, and he doesn't smooth over the conflicts that broke out when the national interests were different from the local ones. (On the whole, though, this strike was remarkably unified compared to others both before and after it.) Haywood and Flynn in particular make for great characters in the story, but Watson skillfully keeps them from stealing the stage, always bringing the story back to the lives of the workers in Lawrence, the people who would have to live with the consequences of the strike once the nation's interest turned to other events.
In the end, it is the ordinary workers who remain the most remarkable element of the Lawrence strike, as Watson tells the story, because here were people from vastly different backgrounds, experiences, religions, and even political views who found solidarity and, through this solidarity, a certain amount of success.
The epilogue is not misty-eyed about the effects and consequences of the strike, but it also offers a kind of quiet hope for the future: for all the possibilities that imaginative, energetic, and compassionate mass action can create.
|a box of Blood|
Though delayed, my debut collection, Blood: Stories
, now exists. I know because I received copies of it straight from the printer. That means it's also going to arrive at the distributor within the next day or so, and from there ... out into the world.
I'll have plenty more to say later, I'm sure. For now, I'm just going to go marvel at the thing itself...
Read the rest of this post
I was honored to be the nonfiction editor for a special issue of Fantasy
magazine, part of the ever-growing Destroy series
from Lightspeed, Nightmare,
— this time, QUEERS DESTROY FANTASY!
The editor-in-fabulousness/fiction editor was Christopher Barzak, the reprints editor was Liz Gorinsky, and the art editor was Henry Lien. Throughout this month, some pieces will be put online. So far, Austin Bunn's
magnificent story "Ledge"
is now available, as are our various editorial statements
. More will be released later, but most of the pieces I commissioned are only available by purchasing the ebook
[also available via Weightless
] or paperback
. There are magnificent pieces by Mary Anne Mohanraj, merritt kopas, Keguro Macharia, Ekaterina Sedia, and Ellen Kushner, and only merritt's "Sleepover Manifesto" will be online.
I owe huge thanks to all the contributors I worked with, to the other editors, to managing editor Wendy Wagner who did lots of unsung work behind the scenes, and to John Joseph Adams, who kindly asked me to join the team.
You can now order my upcoming collection Blood: Stories from the publisher, Black Lawrence Press.
The book will be released in January 2016, and BLP is offering it for a bit of a discount before the publication date (it's a big book — 100,000 words — so will retail for $18.95).
Should you pre-order it? I don't know. Yes, of course, I would like you to. And if you're going to order it online, this is a good way to do it, because you'll get it pretty quickly and a larger percentage of your money will go to BLP, so you'll help a small publisher stay solvent. Once the book is published, you'll also be able to buy it from bookstores, and since I support people spending as much money as possible in local bookstores, that's a great way to get it as well.
Actually, you should probably both pre-order it and buy it from bookstores, because why would you want only one copy? You need to be able to give them away to friends — or, if you don't like the book, to enemies...
Read the rest of this post
|Littleton Opera House, Littleton, NH c.1900, a location in the story|
I have a new story — my first (but not last) of this year — now available on the Conjunctions
website— "The Last Vanishing Man"
This one's a bit of a departure for me, in that it is a serious story that will not, I'm told, make you want to kill yourself after you read it. In fact, one of my primary goals when writing it was to write something not entirely nihilistic. Various people have, over the years, gently suggested that perhaps I might try writing a ... well ... a nice
story now and then.
(I actually think I've only written one story that is not nice, "Patrimony" in Black Static last year
. And maybe "On the Government of the Living"
. Well, maybe "How Far to Englishman's Bay"
, too. And— okay, I get it...)
So "The Last Vanishing Man" is a story that has an (at least somewhat) uplifting ending, and the good people triumph, or at least survive, and the bad person is punished, or at least ... well, I won't go into details...
Here's the first paragraph, to whet your appetite:
I saw The Great Omega perform three or four times, including that final, strange show. I was ten years old then. It was the summer of the Sacco and Vanzetti trial, a time when vaudeville and touring acts were quickly fading behind the glittering light of motion pictures and the crackling squawk of radios. What I remember of the performance is vivid, but I am wary of its vividness, as I suspect that vividness derives not from the original moment, but from how much effort I’ve put into remembering it. What is memory, what is reconstruction, what is misdirection?Continue reading at Conjunctions...
Boomtron just published my latest Sandman Meditation, this one on Chapter Two of The Wake.
"Sandman Meditation?" you say. "That sounds ... vaguely familiar..."
In July 2010, I started writing a series of short pieces called Sandman Meditations
in which I proceeded through each issue of Neil Gaiman's Sandman
comic and offered whatever thoughts happened to come to mind. The idea was Jay Tomio's, and at first the Meditations were published on his Gestalt Mash site, then later Boomtron
. The basic concept was that we'd see what happened when somebody without much background in comics, who'd never read Sandman
before, spent time reading through it all.
I wrote 71 Meditations between July 2010 and June 2012, getting all the way up through the first installment of the last story in the regular series, The Wake
. 75,000 words.
And then stopped. I read Chapter 2 of The Wake
and had nothing to say. I tried writing through the lack of words, but the more I tried to write the more what I wrote nauseated me. I couldn't go on.
I got through 71 Meditations by only looking back once — in the piece on "Ramadan"
, I misread a word (yes, one word) and completely misunderstood the story. When Neil gently brought the mistake to our attention, I was shocked. So I went back and re-read "Ramadan" and what I'd written about it. Though in the immediate moment, I felt like a total idiot with entire chicken farms of egg on my face, I've come to cherish that mistake, because it showed just how carefully and subtly constructed so much of Sandman
is, and how a simple slip in reading can make a text flip all around. It gave me a certain freedom, too. I'd always been terrified of making some dumb, obvious mistake in my reading of Sandman
, because I know it's so well known by its passionate fans, and I didn't want to either let them down or annoy them. Once I made that big mistake, I felt somehow freer to go wrong, and that kind of freedom is necessary for writing. I went forward, trying hard not to think about whether I was writing well or terribly, thinking well or thinking badly, reading well or reading as if I'd never learned to read at all.
But by the 71st installment, my confidence fell apart. I was terrified that I'd written nothing but drivel, and the weight of that fear pulled me back. Why should anybody want to waste time reading what I've got to say about this?
I wondered. This is a beloved series of comics, a beloved story full of beloved characters, an intricately woven tale that I'm just blundering through blindly.
I couldn't do it.
Eric Schaller kept bugging me. "So are you ever going to finish your Sandman
stuff?" he'd ask, and I'd change the subject.
I figured as more time passed, everybody would forget about my crazy reading experiment.
Jay Tomio remembered. I felt terrible for letting him down. He'd been so supportive, and I'd failed in the end. But he never seemed to hold it against me; he seemed to understand. It had been a long run. Boomtron went through some changes. The Meditations disappeared for a while. Then Jay started reconstructing, and so out of the blue one day I got a note: "Any chance you'd like to continue?" he asked.
I was terrified. A lot had changed. What would it mean to continue?But continue I did, and continue I will.
(I'll finish The Wake
in the coming weeks, then continue on to Endless Nights
. If all goes well, I think it would be fun to finish up with the recent Overture
, to return full circle back to the beginning. Fingers crossed.)
As you'll see from the new piece, I thought of David Beronä
, and I knew exactly what he'd say if he were here for me to ask about it. "Use the time you have," he'd say. "Do it now."
It's nice to be back.
By: Matthew Cheney,
Blog: The Mumpsimus
(Login to Add to MyJacketFlap
, Cheney publications
, Christopher Lee
, Press Play
, video essays
, Add a tag
Over at Press Play, I have a brief text essay about and a video tribute to Christopher Lee
, who died on June 7 at the age of 93. Here's the opening of the essay:
Christopher Lee was the definitive working actor. His career was long, and he appeared in more films than any major performer in the English-speaking world — over 250. What distinguishes him, though, and should make him a role model for anyone seeking a life on stage or screen, is not that he worked so much but that he worked so well. He took that work seriously as both job and art, even in the lightest or most ridiculous roles, and he gave far better, more committed performances than many, if not most, of his films deserved.Read and view more at Press Play.
Seeking something else, I came across this review I wrote in 2006 of Paris Press's
editions of two books by the extraordinary Bryher. It was first published in the Fall 2006 issue of Rain Taxi
. I don't think it's ever been put online, so I'm happy to release it into the wild here. (The quotation page numbers were included for copyediting and not in the published version, but I figure they might be useful, so I've kept them in. Also, for more samples from The Heart to Artemis
, see this post
Living in a Time of Transition: Two Books by Bryher
by Matthew Cheney
Paris Press ($15.00)
"I found my study of history of great practical value," Bryher writes in The Heart to Artemis. "It helped me to assess the future and to be aware of change." Awareness of change runs through the veins of Bryher's body of work, and Paris Press deserves much praise for bringing some of that work back into print. With the majority of her work now out of print, Bryher has been known, if she has been known at all, primarily for her long relationship with the poet H.D. and for her support of many of the major figures of the Modernist movement, but she was a fascinating writer herself, and one deeply deserving continued notice.
The daughter of a wealthy British industrialist, Bryher spent much of her childhood in Egypt, France, Greece, and elsewhere.
Her only experience of formal schooling came later, and left her mostly bitter about institutionalized education.
Again and again in The Heart to Artemis
she states that the openness of her upbringing allowed her to develop an insatiable intellectual curiosity and an independent spirit in a society structured to prevent women from having either.
"The greatest gift parents can give their children," she writes, "is experience.
It is far more valuable than either care or money."  Experience, though, needs an environment in which it is meaningful: "How much more peaceful the world might be if there were fewer checks upon development imposed in childhood!
I do not mean licence, there must be discipline but to save ourselves trouble we do not let children work through the various stages of development at their own time and there is too much imposition of socially acceptable ideas upon a growing mind." 
The most vivid sections of The Heart to Artemis
occur in the first half, as Bryher chronicles the experiences of her childhood and reflects on the changes in the world since the late Victorian era.
She was not entirely free from the imposition of socially acceptable ideas, but her experiences in different societies and cultures allowed few such ideas to sink unquestioned into her mind, and so when she began reading contemporary poetry in the early years of the twentieth century, she was particularly well prepared for the excitement of its innovations.
Surprisingly, the least memorable scenes in The Heart to Artemis
involve the many well-known writers and artists Bryher knew in her adulthood.
After the extraordinary chapters about her childhood, in which every detail is fresh and suggestive, the quicker pace and more fragmentary nature of the later scenes is a bit of a disappointment.
Though Bryher's eye in the later scenes remains sharp, she staunchly avoids writing about the intimate details of the lives of the people she knew, which makes many of the passages feel thin.
The final chapters, though, regain the richness of the first chapters, because Bryher early on recognized the dangers posed by the Nazis in Germany and the Fascists in Italy, and she became a brave and tireless activist for refugees.
She writes gracefully about her activities, conveying a sense of both moral duty and adventure, and her compassion for the people she helped is clear in the care with which she chronicles their experiences.
She ends the book with the beginning of World War Two, and the last paragraphs brilliantly and devastatingly evoke the anxiety and terror of that time.
History was Bryher's favorite subject, and most of her novels are set in the past. The Player's Boy is an odd and unsettling book about England from 1605 to 1626, the story of an apprentice to the theatre named James Sands—a boy whose masters die before they can ever train him properly, a man whose uncertainty in life reflects the uncertainties of his era. Each of the five chapters of The Player's Boy tells a mostly self-contained story of one particular time in James Sands's life, often through the stories characters relate to each other. The language is lightly Elizabethan (the Elizabethan dramatists being particular favorites of Bryher), but not in a stilted way; through careful attention to diction and to particular details of scenery, Bryher efficiently evokes the setting and circumstances of the novel, creating in a little more than two hundred pages what a less subtle and skilled writer could not do at twice the length. Because of this efficiency, The Player's Boy does not benefit from hasty reading; it requires the reader to slow down and let each sentence live.
Reading the two books together is a particularly rewarding experience, because The Heart to Artemis expands upon many of the ideas and emotions The Player's Boy suggests —most effectively, the experience of living in a time of transition. James Sands never comes to terms with the shifts in his society, he never finds a foundation for himself, and he ends up dissatisfied with life and the world. Bryher escaped this fate herself, perhaps because of her awareness of the forces of history. While she is careful to show how much she loved and needed the innovative art and artists of her time, she is also remarkably clear-eyed about the delusions artists can hold about themselves: "'It's got to be new,' we chanted because old forms were saturated with the war memories that both former soldiers and civilians wanted to forget. We were too savage, too contemptuous, but would you have had us be prudent? We did not realise at the time that it was not the concepts themselves that were at fault but the way that they had been used."  Such a willingness to accept the new, while also demanding honesty in its use, distinguishes all of Bryher's work, and the truth of her commitments reveals itself in the remarkably contemporary feel of her writing.
|sitting in my office, contemplating what to write...|
I've been wanting to try out TinyLetter
for a little while now, having subscribed to a few newsletters that use it, and so I took some time to create a newsletter aimed at sending out information, musings, etc. about my upcoming collection, Blood: Stories
, which Black Lawrence Press will release in January.
Why create such a thing when I've already got this here blog? Because I think of this blog as a more general thing, not really a newsletter. I will put all important information about Blood
here (as well as on Twitter
, and I'll make a Facebook author page one of these days), but the newsletter will have more in-depth material, such as details of the publishing process, background on the stories, etc. There will be some exclusive content and probably even some give-aways, etc. I probably should have titled it Etc., in fact... And it's not all limited to Blood
— if you take a look at the first letter
, you'll see some of the range I'm aiming for. That letter is public, and some of the future ones will be, too, but for the most part I expect to keep the letters private for subscribers only. (I've always wanted to be part of a cabal, and now I've started my own!)
One of the things I note in that first letter is that Mike Allen is running a Kickstarter
to raise funds for his fifth Clockwork Phoenix
anthology, and all backers can now read a 2006 story of mine that Mike first published, "In Exile"
. This is, as far as I remember, the only story I've ever published set in the typical fantasy world of elves and wizards and all that. (To learn why, read the newsletter!) Mike made an editorial suggestion for the manuscript that completely fixed a major problem with the story, so I've always been tremendously grateful to him, and I'm thrilled that it's now available to backers of this very worthy Kickstarter.
Strange Horizons has now posted my review of John Clute's latest collection of materials, Stay.
Even a mere glance through Stay, John Clute’s latest collection of book reviews, short stories, and lexicon entries, (or through any of Clute's books, really) will convince you that you are in the presence of genius.
But a genius of what type? The type that can turn a million candy wrappers into a surprisingly convincing small-scale replica of a rocket ship, or the type that zips to the heart of a zeitgeist faster than the rest of us? Is this genius a fox, a hedgehog, an anorak? Does it sing in seemingly effortless perfect pitch, or is its singing, like that of a dog, remarkable simply for being at all?
The desire to taxonomize is inevitable after reading even a few pages of Clute. He is a wild literary Linnaeus: obsessively compulsed to categorize. As someone generally uninterested in taxonomy, I have struggled to learn to read Clute appreciatively. I used to want to shoot his clay pigeonholes, to mock his neologistic frenzies, to clothe the emperor. But then I realized I was enjoying his work too much to do so. Clute’s imperative to categorize is contagious. I’d passed through the portal and made my way into Cluteland.
This review marks ten years of my writing for Strange Horizons
— I began as a columnist in February 2005 with a rather odd piece titled "Walls"
. I stopped as a columnist after writing fifty
, since I felt like I'd done what I could do with the form for that audience, but I've continued occasionally to write reviews.
I don't do a lot with genre speculative fiction these days, since other things have taken me elsewhere, but it's nice to be back now and again at a publication that feels so much like home. I owe thanks to lots of people there, especially former editor-in-chief Susan Groppi, who first asked me to write for the magazine, current editor-in-chief (and the first, if I remember correctly, reviews editor) Niall Harrison, recent past reviews editor Abigail Nussbaum, new reviews senior editor Maureen Kincaid Speller, and book reviews editor Aishwarya Subramanian, who not only let me keep some of my bad puns and jokes, but even liked some of them! Strange Horizons
remains a unique, wonderful place out there in the wide world of the web, and it has always been an honor to be associated with it.
The first book written for adults that I ever coveted and loved and read to pieces was a short story collection: Stephen King's Night Shift
, from which my cousin read me stories when we were both probably much too young, and which was one of the first books I ever bought myself. Ever since then, short story collections have seemed to me the most wonderful of all books.
I started publishing short stories professionally with "Getting a Date for Amelia"
back in 2001. I barely remember the kid who wrote it (in the summer of 2000). I'm not a prolific fiction writer; I've been lucky enough to publish most of the stories I've written in the last decade or so, but I average only two stories a year. Fiction is the hardest thing in the world for me to write. Some stories have taken many years to find a final form. The kid who wrote "Getting a Date for Amelia" also managed to write a novel; it was mostly terrible (or, rather, not terrible
, which might be interesting. Just nothing at all special. Rather boring, in fact. An extraordinarily useful exercise, though, dragging yourself through a novel-length piece of writing, even if the end result isn't all that great). I like fragments and miniatures too much to ever write a proper novel, I expect.
What? Get on with it? Ah.
Yes, I am dithering here.
Because I am about to write a sentence that still feels unreal, though I've been writing various forms of it into emails to friends for a little while now:
I am the 2014 winner of the Hudson Prize from Black Lawrence Press for an unpublished manuscript titled Blood: Stories that will be published by BLP in January 2016.
The book will mostly contain reprints, and finally bring together all of the stories I've published since 2001 that are 1.) worth bringing together and that 2.) play well with each other. There are also a few unpublished stories, ones that I've never found the right home for but that felt to me like they belonged with the others, both gained and added context from/to the others, and were worth publishing. The editors at Black Lawrence Press agreed. One of the things I love about story collections is the way they can recontextualize stories, and the greatest excitement for me of this collection is that it will finally allow stories that have been scattered across a wide range of publications over many years to speak to each other.
I'm also incredibly excited to have found a publisher that is excited by what some others have considered either a fault or danger of the collection: its breadth of genres and styles. Perhaps out of sheer stubbornness and delusion, I was convinced that I could not be the only person on Earth to think the overall perspective of the work would create a coherence beyond genre or tone, that there was, in fact, a persistence of voice and vision. That's what the BLP editors told me attracted them to the manuscript, and when they said that, I knew I'd found what may be the perfect publisher for my work.
So I am excited. Beyond excited. I don't have words to convey the feeling of achieving something I've work toward for so long, something I often gave up hope of ever achieving. I wanted to write this post not only to let the world know the news, but also to preserve this moment so that, working through the more difficult parts of the experience (oh gawd, people might write reviews!), I can look back and remember what it felt like to be at this moment of triumphant possibility.
And to thank you, whoever you may be, who felt that it was worth some bits of your time and attention to read my words. I hope to continue to reward your interest.
The marvelous Interfictions Online
has now published my short story/prose poem "On the Government of the Living"
The piece, which takes its title
from Michel Foucault but is not otherwise especially erudite, began purely as an exercise: I wanted to see if I could take what the Turkey City Lexicon
calls "White Room Syndrome" and actually make it a viable, necessary element of the story. (Whenever a writing guide says, "Don't do this!" I inevitably want to try it out...) The effect, perhaps unsurprisingly, is rather Beckettesque.
This review was first published in Rain Taxi in the spring of 2011. I'd actually forgotten all about it, but then came across it as I was reorganizing some folders on my computer. In case it still holds some interest, here it is. (Page references are to the Yale hardcover, and were for the copyeditors to double check my quotes; they weren't in the print version of the review, but I've kept them in because, well, why not...)
One of the pleasures of Gabriel Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism?
is that it all but forces us — dares us, even — to argue with it.
Josipovici presents an idiosyncratic definition of Modernism, he perceives the struggles of Modernist writers and artists as fundamentally spiritual, and he frames it all by describing his disenchantment with most of the critically-lauded British fiction of the last few decades, a disenchantment that he ascribes to such fiction’s attachment to non-Modernist 19th
The only readers likely to agree with Josipovici’s general view, then, are readers who accept his terms and share his tastes. Such readers are probably few, and they are also the readers who least need the book. It is those of us who may be sympathetic to one or another of Josipovici’s general arguments who really need it, because it is a powerfully clarifying volume, especially in its extended discussions of particular works.
“Modernism” is one of those terms that has been used in so many different ways, with so many different meanings, that anyone seeking to discuss it must first define it. In general, it is seen as both a tendency and an era, a style of artistic expression mostly occurring in the twentieth century, though with some examples or precursors in the latter part of the 19th century. Josipovici rejects all of this, for while his paragons of Modernism do fit the general periodizing, his definition of the term is far broader, and is not particularly interested in situating Modernism within borders of time. In the first chapter, he defines Modernism as “the coming into awareness by art of its precarious status and responsibilities” , a definition that is further refined to see Modernism as a response to the post-Medieval European world’s disenchantments. Modernism reveals itself in the “century of pain, anxiety, and despair on the part of writers, painters, and composers” , which Josipovici details with examples from Mallarmé, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Kafka, and Beckett. The pain, anxiety, and despair come from an unresolvable tension between an overwhelming desire to write and a doubt in art’s ability to represent the world. This tension inscribes itself in the texts, undermining or even shattering the enchanting verisimilitude of, for instance, Victorian novelists such as Dickens.
Josipovici begins What Ever Happened to Modernism?with a preface in which he tells the story of being an undergraduate student, hearing a lecture about “The English Novel Today”, seeking out the recommended writers (Anthony Powell, Angus Wilson, Iris Murdoch), and feeling a lack: “They told entertaining stories wittily or darkly or with sensationalist panache, and they obviously wrote well, but theirs were not novels which touched me to the core of my being, as had those of Kafka and Proust” (ix). He goes on to discover Borges and Claude Simon, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Saul Bellow, Georges Perec, and Aharon Appelfeld — all writers whose work he admires — but feels more and more of an outsider within English literary culture. “Occasionally I wondered why my own feelings and those of reviewers or critics were so much at odds, wondered, indeed, who was right, me or the entire establishment. I didn’t think I was mad (though of course the mad rarely do), and I did occasionally meet people who shared my tastes, so how was this anomaly to be explained?
“This little book,” he says, “is an attempt to answer that question.” (xi)
Within the question itself we can glimpse the kernels of Josipovici’s argument, assumptions, and desires. He sets up a polarity: “Who was right, me or the entire establishment?” It’s a feeling many intelligent and thoughtful people have asked (often in their youth) for centuries, and the frustration it provides can be productive, particularly in helping people define their tastes, but in and of itself it’s humorous in its naivety. The claim that What Ever Happened to Modernism? is an attempt to answer the question of why Josipovici’s experiences as a reader are different from those of people who don’t share his tastes may be true in terms of intention — he may have thought that was what he was trying to do — but it is false as a description of the book’s value, because Josipovici shows no interest in trying to understand tastes that differ from his own. He truly doesn’t seem to be able to understand how people of even moderate intelligence and education could find themselves touched to the core of their beings by works that he himself doesn’t respond strongly to, and which seem to him “to belong to a different and inferior world to that of Proust and the others” (x). Not just different, but inferior.
It should not surprise us, then, when Josipovici defines a central element of Modernism as “pain, anxiety, and despair” resulting from European culture’s growing rationalism and waning faith in unquestioned authorities and eternal verities. Over the course of the Middle Ages, perceptions of reality changed. Individualism took hold. Capitalism infiltrated economies. The Enlightenment solidified, expanded, and complexified the disenchantment, and then Romanticism reflected on it. The Victorian novel, that form which Josipovici so disdains, sought to re-enchant the world with the legerdemain of its reality effects, the verisimilitude that lulls the reader into imagined reality. Such a reality is unquestioned, unified — it does not admit the problems of representation in a fallen and fragmented world. Its pains, anxieties, and despairs are not those of the Modernist, but of the illusionist.
Josipovici’s question “Who was right, me or the establishment?” is simultaneously a cliche of individualism (the absolute individualist, unburdened by doubts, answers, perhaps with a copy of The Fountainheadin hand, “ME!”) and an expression of the assumption that prevents Josipovici from empathizing with any view other than his own, because the assumption underlying the question is that there is a right and a wrong, and that this right and wrong can be discovered and elucidated. The first chapters of the book are the weakest, because it is in them that Josipovici attempts to predict criticisms to his arguments, but he is so convinced that those criticisms must be wrong(different and inferior) that what he offers as representations of them are ridiculous: a quote from Evelyn Waugh about Picasso, a parody of Marxism (paraphrasing something Josipovici said he heard from a professor at the University of Sussex once), and a caricature of postmodernism that, were someone to represent his own conception of Modernism so badly, Josipovici would laugh off the page. He quotes an astute statement from the art historian T.J. Clark on the difficulties of writing honestly about pre-Enlightenment Europe without sounding nostalgic, but this seems pro forma — Josipovici verges, especially in the first chapters, toward far more nostalgia than Clark’s Farewell to an Idea does, because Josipovici clings to the notion that the fragmentation and dispersal of authority should cause pain, anxiety, and despair. He wants, still, for there to be one right and one wrong, and he sees “the establishment” as a monolithic and invalid authority.
He knows, though, that this despair can lead to terrible things, and he uses Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus particularly well to point to the dangers, for Doctor Faustus represents a Germany “which is in the grip of a party which believes it is possible to forge a new cultic and communal society in the post-industrial world,” and this Germany “appals and terrifies” the characters, Mann, and Josipovici. What is to be done? “Can one retain the critical insights, feel the loss as real, without at the same time opting for the demented Nazi vision of a new cult? This is the question out of which the tortured novelist, writing in distant California as the Nazi dream drags Europe to its destruction, forges one of his greatest works.” [19-20]
After these introductory pages, the book shifts more toward Josipovici’s real strengths — he moves from denigrating the mysterious forces that don’t share his opinions and perceptions to offering his interpretations of specific writers, artists, and works. In its central chapters, What Ever Happened to Modernism? is a tour de force. As the book draws connections between Albrecht Dürer, Rabelais, and Cervantes; Wordsworth and Caspar David Friedrich; Kierkegaard and everyone, the pages sing with insight. Each reader will find different thrills within the rich texture of the text. While I was familiar with some of Josipovici’s ideas about such writers as Cervantes, Kierkegaard, Kafka, and Beckett from his previous essays, I had passed over things he’d written before about Wordsworth, and so his close readings of some of Wordsworth’s most famous and most obscure poems opened those works up to me in ways I had never considered, and sent me back with passion to a writer I’d previously had little interest in. I expect most readers, especially those unfamiliar with the majority of Josipovici’s other books, will, if they can read past the polemic, find similar moments of epiphany in What Ever Happened to Modernism?.
By the end of the book, the word “Modernism” seemed to me too narrow for the tendency Josipovici described, because he convincingly shows connections between everything from ancient Greek drama to Herman Melville to Francis Bacon, suggesting that for millennia artists have concerned themselves with, if not Modernism exactly, the impulses and experiences that allow Modernism to fully reveal itself in the 19th century. What Josipovici describes is not an artistic movement or school, but a type of perception and expression present in much of the art that has been considered among the greatest of human accomplishments. The fiesty, proselytizing side of Josipovici tries hard to make it seem that everybody who has ever written about literature hates and misunderstands this tendency, but it may just be that he is uncomfortable on the side of the winners. While Proust, Kafka, Borges, et al may not be quite as popular as J.K. Rowling and Dan Brown right now, they’re a whole lot more widely read than Anthony Powell, Angus Wilson, and Iris Murdoch, and a whole lot more universally beloved than even the contemporary British writers who soak up so much of the journalistic ink that rouses Josipovici’s ire.
I suspect, though, that the ire and insights need each other, and that without the passionate sense of being a lone, sane man in a madhouse of philistines, Josipovici may not have been able to make the bold and brilliant interpretive leaps displayed throughout not only What Ever Happened to Modernism?, but his entire oeuvre of essays and fiction. Careful, moderate critics are useful, but it is the fiery, aggrieved ones who scale the highest intellectual heights, and Josipovici has scaled those heights with brio and panache.
Press Play has now posted my latest video essay, "Terry Gilliam: The Triumph of Fantasy"
. It also has a short text essay to accompany it. Here's how that one begins:
In a 1988 interview with David Morgan for Sight and Sound, Terry Gilliam proposed that the most common theme of his movies had been fantasy vs. reality, and that, after the not-entirely-happy endings of Time Bandits and Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen offered the happiness previously denied, a happiness made possible by “the triumph of fantasy”.Read and view more...
That triumph is not, though, inherently happy. Gilliam’s occasional happy endings are not so much triumphs of fantasy as they are triumphs of a certain tone. They are the endings that fit the style and subject matter of those particular films. More often than not, his endings are more ambiguous, but fantasy still triumphs. Even poor Sam Lowry in Brazil gets to fly away into permanent delusion. Fantasy is sometimes a torment for Gilliam’s characters, but it is a torment only in that it is haunted by reality, and reality in Gilliam is a land of pain, injustice, and, perhaps worst of all, ordinariness.
The latest issue of the venerable British horror/dark fiction magazine Black Static
includes my latest story, "Patrimony", and is now available both in print
and as an e-book in various formats
. I'm thrilled with the accompanying illustration by Richard Wagner, and thankful to Andy Cox for buying the story and rushing it into print, because it's one of the strangest and most disturbing things I've ever written, and not the sort of thing that just any editor would get excited about.
For a preview, here's the first paragraph:
For most of my life, I worked in the gravel pit as an overseer. There had been gravel there for a long time, but there wasn’t much left. Mostly, we spent our days trying to decide where to set off dynamite. We didn’t have a lot of dynamite, so we wanted to be precise. We would go for weeks and even months without lighting a single stick. I spent my days – ten-, eleven-hour days – telling the workers to try over here, to look over there, to dig here, to prod there. We sought the best rock, the least sand.
My latest video essay is now available at Press Play. It's the first in a new series by various hands on cinematic terminology. My term was "composition", and so I made an essay creatively titled, "What Is Composition?"
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Press Play has now posted my new video essay with a brief accompanying text essay
about the great new science fiction action movie political parable satire call to revolution Snowpiercer
, directed by Bong Joon-Ho, a filmmaker I am especially enamored of. (Memories of Murder
is easily among my favorite movies of the last 15 years,
and back in 2010 I defended Bong's previous film, Mother
, from the criticisms of Richard Brody at the New Yorker
As a little bit of extra, below the fold here I'll put some thoughts on elements of the remarkable ending of the film...
First, for some information on the background and references of Snowpiercer
, see Scott Tafoya's piece at RogerEbert.com
, and for a good analysis of the revolutionary ideology of the film, see "Smash the Engine" by Peter Frase at Jacobin
The audacity I see in the ending of Snowpiercer
comes not just from its framing of revolution as something that must smash the logic of the system, but also from the way it shows that system to be not just hierarchical in terms of class, but of also being fundamentally racialized.
First, there is the inescapable fact that most of the people who have been saved from the apocalypse are white and English speaking. Even the people at the back of the train, though more diverse than the people in the front, are predominantly white and English speakers. All of the positions of highest power in the train are positions held by white English speakers, and the ultimate positions of power are held by white men and passed on to white men (Wilford to Curtis).
As Curtis moves closer and closer to the front, the white supremacy becomes obvious. There's the classroom, where the vast majority of students are very white (and often blonde), with a few Asians in there (the pre-apocalypse notion of Asians as educational high achievers is thus replicated in the train), and one black girl (at least that I saw). The overall effect is of lily-whiteness, with a few special people added.
The people at the dance party are almost entirely white.
The people who apparently stepped out of The Great Gatsby are white.
The women getting their hair styled are white.
It's worth noting, too, how so much of what we see in the front cars evokes the old white world, a world of the 1920s-1950s — an America before the successes of the civil rights movement, of women's liberation struggles, of gay liberation, etc. (The car where everyone is taking drugs evokes even earlier ideas. It's like an opium den, a powerful force in the orientalist imagination of the yellow peril in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and a setting with plenty of cinematic history
Early in the film, Curtis tells Edgar that once they
get to the front of the train, things will be different. "But how
different, really?" the film asks at the end. "Know your place!" Mason (Tilda Swinton) tells the rabble. Curtis learns what his place is from Wilford: the place of the white patriarch.
That system cannot be reformed. It will do no good to have somebody else in charge of the engine. The logic of the system must not be reformed, it must be defied and destroyed.
And thus the ending, which stops the train's circular journey and potentially annihilates the last remnants of humanity.
The system is so corrupt, so incapable of reform, that what is known to be left of humans is worth destroying rather than continuing along the same tracks.
If there is to be a future for humanity, it looks like this, the new Adam and Eve:
They might be destroyed by the cold, white world. They might be a meal for the white polar bear. But maybe, somehow, they will survive and discover or create a new world, a world where humans are on a different journey, subject to a different system, not oppressed by the cold, unbearable whiteness.
Bong leaves it to us to imagine their fate.
I'm interrupting my self-imposed exile
from blogging to give you a story.
It's called "The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid"
. That link will take you to its Google Docs page, where you can read it online or download the PDF.
There's a story behind this story, and also a story to why I'm giving it away. I don't think those stories are even remotely necessary for appreciating the tale itself, but if you're curious, read on...
I wrote "The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid" almost five years ago. It was the first story I wrote after my father's death, and some of the concerns within it clearly come from my own anxieties about inheriting his house, business, and collections of various historical memorabilia. I'm not much good at writing strongly autobiographical fiction, though, so the characters, particularly the narrator, are quite different from me. Without that distance, I couldn't possibly have written the story.
Around the time I was finishing up the first draft, editors of an anthology asked me to submit something, so I finished this and sent it to them, since it was all I had that wasn't either sold or junk. They liked it, but the book never happened. I sent it to a prominent and quirky literary magazine, but after more than a year never heard back. Normally, I query and pester, but something kept me from doing so this time. I just let it go. (I've still never heard from them.) Then I sent it to another strange and interesting lit journal, and they gave me lovely rejection, saying various members of the staff liked it a lot, but it didn't fit the next issue and was too long for the website. "Too long?" I thought. In my mind, the story is 5,000 words or so. I looked at it again. Oh. It's over 10,000 words.
Then I realized that though, of course, I'd be happy to have the story published by any of the places I'd submitted it to, I had always been unsatisfied with how the story looked. Because it's comprised of numerous scraps of manuscripts — emails, letters, a journal, old science fiction magazines — my ideal form for it would be something that replicated those manuscripts in some way. It is, after all, a story about (among other things) artifacts and what they do to us.
I decided to play around with it and see if I could give it some of the visual life it had in my imagination. I added images and colors and typefaces. And when it was done, it felt to me like a much more powerful and mysterious story than it had as only words.
Then I was stuck. Because the imagery, type, etc. is precisely positioned, I don't know of a file format other than PDF that will work for it. But this is really the only form I want the story to exist in. (Well, I'd love it to exist as actual artifacts in a box, but I'm afraid the printing and manufacturing costs would be rather prohibitive.)
I needed to get this story out there, though. Sharing and publication are not only about the glory of having other people read and love your work; for me, the biggest benefit of publishing something is just to get it out of myself. It doesn't matter whether it's a blog post or a story, whether it's in a giant publication that all sorts of people read or a tiny little thing all of 7 people on Earth ever encounter. It's the expulsion that matters, especially for work that has some sort of emotional connection. Just having it out there means it's no longer in me. Because of when and why it was written, I didn't want "The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid" to kick around anymore. I needed it out of myself. I needed to be able to let it go.
So here it is. A story-artifact. A thing.
In as close to an ideal form as I can get it. No matter its fate, it's a wonderful relief to have it out there in the world, no longer possessed only by me.
I have a new video essay and a new text essay up at Press Play looking at Clint Eastwood's movies, called "The Ends of Violence: The Conclusions of Clint Eastwood". The text essay also contains links to two previous video essays I made on Eastwood, "Outlaw: Josey Wales" and "Vigilante Man: Eastwood and Gran Torino".
is running a series of essays on the Coen Brothers' films this week, and they very kindly asked me to contribute and let me pick the movie I wanted to write about. I chose Burn After Reading
. The essay is called "They Know Not What They Do"
. Here's the opening:
When Katie Cox (Tilda Swinton) descends into her husband's basement office and copies financial records off of his computer, we get a glimpse of a book on the desk, a book that looks to be George F. Kennan and the Origins of Containment: 1944-1946: The Kennan-Lukacs Correspondence. This should not surprise us. We have previously heard Oswald Cox (John Malkovich), while struggling to dictate his memoirs, declare: "The principles of George Kennan—a personal hero of mine—were what animated us. In fact they were what had originally inspired me to enter government service."Continue reading at Press Play.
Burn After Reading is a film about containment and knowledge, or, to put it another way, a tale of wars against chaos. Necessarily, it is a farce.
Now available for pre-order. Here's the Wesleyan University Press page for it.
Here's an excerpt from the introduction, should your appetite need whetting:
It may, on a quick glance, appear to be a book about a short story. On further examination, it may appear to be a book about how science fiction works, or a contribution to the literary and cultural theory of its day. It is those things, but not only those things. Like so much of Delany’s writing, its strategies and concerns nudge our view wider. Much as the best science fiction’s trivalent discourse easily lures us into considering the meaning produced by the intersections of world and text, and thus provides a powerful space for reflection on both, so Delany’s dive over and between the lines of “Angouleme” stands as a model for and instigator of various levels of thought about all the signs and languages that produce and obscure our lives. No great text ever ends if there are still readers to read it and re-read it, to diffuse it and re-fuse it, reveling in the possibilities of polysemy and dissemination. Even the briefest moment of meaning can be, itself, a meaning machine. Signifiers and signifieds want to dance till the end of time.
For Press Play, I wrote about the late H.R. Giger:
H.R. Giger's imagery so deeply influenced the imaginations of film production designers, tattoo artists, fashionistas, magazine illustrators, skateboard designers, and just about everyone other than My Little Pony animators that at this point it's difficult to separate Giger from the gigeresque. What was once outré, repulsive, and disturbing became the Thomas Kincaid style for the cyber/goth set, a quick kitsch to perform a certain idea of taste. You hang Christmas Cottage in your living room to display your pleasant, unthreatening Christianity; I put a poster of Giger’s Li I on my bedroom wall to show how transgressive I am in my deep, dark soul. Each is a sign that communicates immediately, without any need to look for more than a second, because each communicates not through itself but through all the associations is has accumulated.
Of course, this is not fair to Giger the artist, who was much more than his most popular tropes. But that's about as useful as saying van Gogh is much more than a sunflower, a starry sky, and a bandaged ear: obvious, yes, but also beside the point. Giger is mourned and remembered because of the gigeresque.
I reviewed Mary Rickert's novel The Memory Garden for the Los Angeles Review of Books.
I loved the book, but it was a difficult review to write because it's just about impossible to say anything about this novel without ruining a significant effect of the last quarter of it. I'm not a fan of spoiler warnings, and generally think such things give way too much emphasis to plot, but in this case I think it is a book that needs some sort of warning before you read anything about it, because the effect of the last quarter is just so powerful and so much more than merely about the plot. So I said that in the review. Which in and of itself is almost saying too much.
Here's a better review of The Memory Garden
: Go read this book!
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For Strange Horizons, I reviewed Glen Hirshberg's Motherless Child.
Motherless Child is a vampire novel that isn't much interested in vampires. Instead, as its title suggests, more than anything else it is a novel about motherhood. Most of the main characters are mothers, the primary themes are ones of parenthood and responsibility, and the basic storyline sends vampirized mothers running away from their children and then fighting against the urge to return, fearing that they will no longer see their kids as offspring but as prey.
First published by Earthling Publications in 2012, Motherless Child has now been reprinted by Tor. Glen Hirshberg has won a number of awards for his horror short stories (collected in The Two Sams , American Morons , and The Janus Tree ), and Tor may see Motherless Child as a breakout book for him, one that will bring a wider audience for his fiction. It clearly displays some of the hallmarks of a tale that could be embraced by a wide audience, certainly more than his often subtle, enigmatic short stories do. Whether this is to its benefit as a novel depends entirely on what you want your novels to do, both in the prose itself and in the story that prose tells.Continue reading at Strange Horizons.