Friday, December 30, 2005

2005, A Year in Books: Special Awards

The following books aren't exceptionally good or demonstrably terrible, but they are all, in some way, noteworthy. To my great surprise, the Cold Mountain "We Can't Have a Happy Ending! This is Literary Fiction!" Award will not be given this year, which I suspect is an indication that I've become more adept at avoiding turgid tragic romances, rather than a sign of positive change in the attitudes of literary fiction writers.
  • The "Gee, I Wish I'd Read This Back in 1985" Award
    Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

    Well, obviously not really, seeing as I was four in 1985, but I do envy the people who read Moore's masterpiece when it was first published. In the mid-80s, reading Moore's reassessment of the superhero mythos must have felt like having the top of one's head screwed off. Twenty years later, the questions that were so trailblazing when Moore first raised them--do superheroes really make the world safer? What gives a superhero the right to use violence against members of society, and even to kill? How can we be certain that superheroes are using their powers responsibly? And is there anything truly admirable about people who have special powers simply because of a quirk of genetics or fate?--have become standard in any halfway decent superhero story--several months before I read Watchmen, I watched a Disney film with roughly the same premise. Although I enjoyed Watchmen, I can't say that I loved it, or that, without the newness of its premise, the book deserves to be loved.

  • The "I Know Neil Gaiman and You, Sir, Are No Neil Gaiman" Award for Textureless, Knee-Deep Fantasy
    Fables, vols. 1,2, & 3 by Bill Willingham

    The concept is seductive: after being driven out from their own universe by the mysterious Adversary, the heroes and heroines of fairy tales and fables found themselves refugees in our world. Those of them who can pass for humans live in New York, policed by the Big Bad Wolf and ruled over by the iron fist of an embittered Snow White. Unfortunately, Willingham somehow manages to wring every shred of magic, playfulness, and romance out of his idea. Fables reads like a longer, only slightly better-drawn installment of Apartment 3-G: beautiful people wearing beautiful clothes in beautiful Manhattan settings complaining about their inane problems, with not a hint of believable dialogue or characterization in sight. Worst of all, Fables, with a central conceit that begs a self-aware, slightly knowing tone, isn't even remotely clever. It really is quite impressive, in a horrifying way, that Willingham manages to make even his most original juxtapositions of legend and modernity--Sleeping Beauty sending half of Macy's to sleep when she accidentally pricks herself with a brooch, a Beast whose looks begin to fade when his marriage to Beauty goes through a rough patch--seem plodding and obvious. I can't help but wonder what a half-way decent fantasist would have done with this concept, but I'm done with Willingham's attempt at it.

  • The Children of God Award for Completely Unnecessary Sequel
    Shared Award: The Sandman: Endless Nights by Neil Gaiman and Castle in the Air by Diana Wynne Jones

    I rushed out to buy Endless Nights after finally coming to the end of my three-year trek through the original Sandman serial. I was eager for yet another peek into Gaiman's invented universe, and maybe a look at how the new Sandman was managing his existence. Sadly, none of the seven tales in Endless Nights--one each for the Sandman and his six siblings--were worth my time or money. Despite occasionally stunning artwork (and some that was less stunning) I didn't find the kind of depth I'd gotten used to expecting from Sandman, and I can't help but wish that I'd allowed my experience of the series to end on a less sour note.

    Diana Wynne Jones' Howl's Moving Castle was an unexpected delight, a book that I had picked up on a lark and ended up staying up until 4 AM to finish. I naturally grabbed the sequel, Castle in the Air, the first time I saw it in a bookstore. I did know that the main characters from Howl wouldn't appear until late in the book, but I hadn't been prepared for a story that lacked even a fraction of Howl's charm and romance. The problem, I suspect, is in the main character, who lacks Sophie Hatter's spunk, and in the equally spunk-less romance that drives the plot.

  • The Margaret Atwood "Thank You For Gracing Our Humble Genre, O Great Literary Fiction Author" Award
    Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

    I liked Case Histories, actually. It's a good book. The mystery is clever, the characters are well drawn, the writing is good. Out of the six mysteries I've read this year, I'd place it somewhere near the middle, quality-wise. Which is where I start having trouble with it, or, more accurately, with the way it's been presented in the media (which may have nothing to do with Atkinson herself). Whatever you may have heard, Atkinson is not 'transcending genre'. She's written a good mystery with some decent character development and a slightly experimental narrative style, but it doesn't follow that she's revolutionized the genre, or established a new standard to which mystery writers should aspire. It's true that a lot of mystery is formulaic, not overly concerned with characterization or literary quality, but Atkinson's novel simply isn't good enough to be hailed as the second coming of the genre, as far too many reviewers have done.

  • The From a Buick 8 Award for Lousy Novel Which Might Have Made a Decent Short Story
    The Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer

    The curse of bloat, it seems, afflicts mid-length and short novels as well. One hundred pages into The Confessions of Max Tivoli, I found the book charming and clever. A further fifty pages in, it was still charming and clever, but beginning to wear thin, and by the time I reached the end I had ceased to care about the characters. Between the central conceit of a man who ages backward and the love triangle that drives the story, there should have been enough meat to sustain Tivoli through a mere 250 pages, but Greer can't quite manage it. When it comes down to it, Tivoli is a surprisingly conventional novel, and the longer Greer takes to get to the end of his story, the easier it is for his readers to spot just how little he has to say.

  • The God of Small Things "Please Get to the Incest Already" Award
    The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan

    The Cement Garden is obviously McEwan's attempt to shock with a capital S--four unpleasant, unsympathetic children, the scions of unpleasant, unsympathetic parents, are left to care for themselves after their mother's death. Cue the attendant breakdown of social niceties, and 30 pages into the book it's painfully clear what moral outrage will provide its climax. What's left is a waiting game, and the suspicion that McEwan is writing for the sole purpose of getting the readers' gorge rising. The characters are lost in the shuffle (the younger sister loses her function in the story halfway through the book), and the result is cheap sensationalism rather than McEwan's usual piercing character study.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

2005, A Year in Books: Worst Reads of the Year

For the life of me, I can't understand why more media venues don't list their least favorite books alongside their best of the year lists. There's only one way to compensate oneself for sitting through hundreds of pages of bad writing, unconvincing characters, boring plots and objectionable politics, and that's to rant and complain about the experience at the top of one's voice. Unlike my best books list, this list is most definitely ranked in order of quality, from the smallest turkey of the year to the biggest.
  • The Chymical Wedding by Lindsay Clarke

    The Chymical Wedding starts off as a kind of poor man's Possession with hints of The French Lieutenant's Woman and, of course, alchemy, thrown in. For the first 150 pages, it is a reasonably well-written exploration of the lives of six people in two periods of time as they attempt to discover the secrets of alchemy and make sense of their own troubled hearts. Before long, however, the book begins to drag. The (never particularly interesting) characters devolve into nothing more than the author's mouthpieces, spouting dense and muddled proclamations about symbolism, truth and love. Pretty soon, every conversation starts with a character making some senseless declaration, then wandering off on a tangent without explaining themselves. For a book obsessed with the power of symbols and mysteries, The Chymical Wedding is surprisingly unsubtle--it's a treatise first and a novel second, and so it fails on both counts.

  • A Princess of Roumania by Paul Park

    Park's monumentally well-received fantasy got a resounding thumbs down from me. This underperforming, unconvincing novel gives us a protagonist we can't love, a villain we can't fear, secondary characters we don't notice and a plot that's barely there. A large part of the problem is that Princess is only the first part of the story (originally intended as two books but now apparently ballooning into a three- or four-part series), and very little happens in it, but I find it hard to believe that even working on a smaller canvas, the deficiencies of Park's writing wouldn't have damned his efforts. Princess never quite makes it to terrible, but its cumulative mediocrity marks it out as a particularly unworthy read.

  • The Magus by John Fowles

    The Magus is famously one of those books that you either love or hate and, having adored The French Lieutenant's Woman, I was certain I'd be in the former camp. Wrong! Fowles himself, in his introduction, calls it a journeyman work and wonders (although not in so many words) what the secret of its enduring popularity might be. The story of an English teacher on a tiny Greek island who is toyed with and manipulated by a secretive and highly intelligent old man offers an intriguing twist on the standard revenge fantasy by showing us the (possibly quite deserving) victim of the vengeance scheme as it is being played upon him, but Fowles never managed to make me care about his protagonist (or any of the other characters) or believe that he wouldn't, at some point, simply have walked away from the whole Byzantine game. The book drags, and it was only with a gargantuan effort that I managed to finish it at all.

  • The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst

    Seeing as Hollinghurst's novel edged out David Mitchell's stunning Cloud Atlas for last year's Booker, I could easily have disliked it on general principle, but Hollinghurst was considerate enough to justify my hatred. This poor man's Brideshead Revisited is cold and uninteresting. The characters are stiff, never achieving anything close to a second dimension, and Hollinghurst's political leanings inform and distort every line of the text. For all the praise heaped upon it, The Line of Beauty is nothing more than a shrill political screed, with homosexuals thrown in for a bit of novelty, and it is nothing short of terrifying that it should have been so well received by reviewers all over the world.

  • The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

    At last, we come to the motherlode, the book that answers the question: what would happen if someone with less than a fraction of Bram Stoker's literary talent tried to rewrite Dracula, and just for fun decided to expunge the story of anything resembling mystery, suspense, romance, and supernatural horror? The answer, unfortunately, is a $2M advance and several months on the NYT bestseller list, but there's a great deal more to my hatred of The Historian than just a kneejerk reaction to its popularity. While the book's length--over 650 pages--is a problem, The Historian's failures are systemic, not structural. Kostova writes well but with no emotion, and her descriptions read like travel brochures. She tells her story through the eyes of half a dozen characters, all of whom speak in the same voice, none of whom are even remotely interesting or convincing as human beings. The plot makes little sense and requires some stunning leaps of faith--which I was unwilling to make, as Kostova had given me so little reason to care about her story. The Historian's success is the triumph of blandness--and a canny publicity campaign--over merit, and I can think of no greater insult than to say that if forced to choose, I would prefer to reread The Da Vinci Code than to delve back into Kostova's stultifying tome.
Dishonorable Mentions:

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

2005, A Year in Books: Best Reads of the Year

2004 was a red-letter for me, reading-wise. I discovered John Crowley and his fantasy masterpiece, Little, Big; I stumbled, by complete accident, on Cloud Atlas, one of the most delightful, well-written, and intelligent books I've ever read; I dove into The Crimson Petal and the White and The French Lieutenant's Woman, and was enthralled by Jeff VanderMeer's City of Saints and Madmen. In short, it was a difficult year to live up to, and in all honesty, 2005 didn't offer me the same sort of reading highlights. But, while the highs might not have been as high, I find plenty of remarkable reads to report, albeit perhaps less meaty ones--instead of the gigantic doorstoppers I enjoyed in 2004, in 2005 I went for light and brief. Instead of drama, I found myself quite often gravitating towards humor. Happily, there's room for both on my bookshelf.

I read 106 books in 2005--a marginal increase from 2004's 99. Reviewing my reading lists, I'm pleased to see that I maintained a rather eclectic spread. With the exceptions of horror (of which I read only two novels this year, and one of them was a dull and terrible read) and mystery (which I've never been a particular fan of) I've given a good amount of attention to most genres and styles. My biggest problem is one of gender distribution--less than a quarter of the books I read this year were by women. I've come to the conclusion, though, that it's probably best to leave this situation alone--I choose books because they appeal to me, not because of the author's gender, and for whatever reason I skew towards male authors. I can live with it.

In alphabetical order, then, these are my favorite reads of 2005. Note that I don't truck with this nonsense of listing only books published this year. You want that, go to the New York Times. I read books when I come by them, and that usually means when they're out in paperback. Similarly, these are all the exceptional books I read this year--I didn't limit myself to 10 or try to fill a quota.
  • Air: Or, Have Not Have by Geoff Ryman

    Ryman's novel, which takes place in a tiny village somewhere in a fictional -stan country, is the best kind of science fiction--smart, self-aware, well-written, beautifully characterized, politically aware--without losing sight of the story--and subtle. After a disastrous test of Air, a new technology that will allow people to access the internet directly, the mind of middle-aged, illiterate housewife and village 'fashion expert' Chung Mae is irreversibly altered. Burdened with the spirit of a dead neighbor and with visions of the future, Mae soon realizes what none of her neighbors see--that change is coming to her village like a flood. With strength and determination, Mae sets out to save her village--and to change it a little in the process. Ryman's prose is crisp and unobtrusive. He conveys dialect and voice without making his characters sound foolish or exotically foreign. He makes us love these people--Mae in particular but also her friends and neighbors--but never allows us to forget how different they are from us, and how, in some ways, their old traditions deserve to die.

  • Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

    I tend to have trouble with Neil Gaiman's fiction, and with his novels in particular--I like and admire most of them, but I never managed to love them until I read Anansi Boys, and the more I think about it the more I am convinced that it comes very close to being the perfect novel. Anansi Boys is a joyous read, and a terrifically funny one. Certain lines and scenes were enough to make me laugh out loud days after I'd read them, but in all truth there's a chuckle or two on every one of the book's pages. On top of being funny, Anansi Boys is slick, smart, beautifully put together, and as romantic as all get out. The book is a comedy about what happens when the two sons of the African trickster god get together after Dad's funeral and completely screw up each other's lives, an exploration of the way the desire to be noticed conflicts with the fear of being seen (a dilemma that's close to the heart of many bloggers, I suspect), a traditional love story--two, in fact--and a story about familial love. Plus, there's a really funny bit with a lime.

  • Beasts by John Crowley (collected in Otherwise: Three Novels)

    Beasts is Crowley's second attempt at science fiction, which under his hands comes out odd and almost unrecognizable. The book takes place in the not too distant future, with humanity embroiled in several wars and disputes and the United States having been carved up into several warring principalities. Several decades earlier, scientists created various types of chimera--animal-human hybrids--and these creatures now roam the newly-wild landscape, searching for a home. The novel is Crowley's panoramic examination of the double-edged sword of intelligence, and of an ancient dilemma--is it better to be tame or wild? It's a dilemma that can never be resolved, and it's to Crowley's credit that while he refuses to give us a definite answer, he ends the book with the proponents of each approach finally sitting down together in the hopes of finding some common ground.

  • Grendel by John Gardner

    John Gardner's deceptively short novel is much more than a tale retold from the perspective of its villain. There are worlds hidden in this tiny book--a shocking meditation about the meaning of fiction, heroism, civilization, and fate. Gardner takes a few pages to say things that other writers would fail to say in whole volumes, and he says them with grace and beauty. Grendel himself is a masterful achievement, a sort of Holden Caulfield with a taste for human flesh. Grendel is both appalled and seduced by the knights of Hrothgar's hall. He sees them for what they are--robber barons who have carved a place for themselves through pillage and rapine--and he also sees what they, through the magic of storytelling, believe themselves to be--heroes, brave and noble knights, natural rulers. It is the secret of Gardner's book that the lie is as compelling as the truth, and perhaps more useful to society. Grendel, who wishes to be part of the lie of heroism even as he rejects it, finds his place by playing the role of the villain.

  • The Kindly Ones: The Sandman, Volume 9 by Neil Gaiman and Marc Hempel

    The Kindly Ones is, in terms of quality, the apex of the Sandman series. The artwork, by Marc Hempel, is not only superb but finally distinctive. Hempel draws stylized, almost abstract images, conveying details with bold splotches of color and broad, rough black lines. The result is surprisingly delicate, and to my mind often conveys more emotion than previous attempts at photorealism. The story, in which the series' meandering and often nonexistent plot finally comes to a head, is worthy of the beautiful artwork, but Gaiman knows better than to tell a simple tale. Towards the beginning of The Kindly Ones, a visitor to the Sandman's castle is warned not to stray from the path. Both he and Gaiman ignore that advice, to our own advantage. Sandman is a story about stories, a collection of digressions, a celebration of discursiveness, and The Kindly Ones shines brightest when Gaiman lets go of the plot's thread to pursue another story.

  • The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley

    The Last Good Kiss's narrator, W.C. Sughrue, sounds like a walking cliché--a part-time PI, part-time bartender at a strip club with a mountain of issues and substance abuse problems--but Sughrue is eminently believable and human. In The Last Good Kiss, Sughrue tracks down Abraham Trahearne, a once-great writer gone to alcoholic seed, but the case soon mutates into a search for a runaway and an investigation of a secretive young wife. The magic of The Last Good Kiss is in the way it lulls the readers into a false sense of security--we know how a hard-boiled mystery is supposed to work, and we're only mildly surprised when, by the book's halfway point, all the pieces fall into their expected places. Which is when Crumley works his magic. The false bottom caves in, the mystery uncoils and reshapes itself, and the book races towards a shocking and tragic conclusion. It's a triumph, in every sense of the word.

  • Mortals by Norman Rush

    Norman Rush is an infuriating writer. He does everything he's not supposed to do: he hemorrhages words; his novels take ages to get going, his characters are all super-intellectuals, prone to neurotically crippling analysis of their every thought, word and deed; there's no plot, really, just a series of increasingly absurd yet strangely realistic set pieces; Rush refuses to use dialogue quotes (I've been known to tear my hair out and throw books across the room when other writers do this). But the most infuriating thing about Norman Rush is that he makes it all work. Mortals is a towering success, falling short of Rush's previous novel, Mating, by only a tiny margin. The book describes a period of crisis in the professional and personal life of Ray Finch--a teacher moonlighting for the CIA in mid-90s Botswana. His new handler has him hounding a seemingly harmless academic instead of the newly arrived American doctor who, Ray is convinced, is up to no good. This same doctor may also have seduced Ray's beloved wife Iris. Ray disintegrates under the pressure of his two collapsing live, and then, to our great surprise, he rises out of his own ashes stronger, better, and more certain of what he wants. Frankly, I think this sentimentality of Rush's more than makes up for his frustrating writing choices--he's not afraid of giving his characters a romantic, happy ending. I wish more authors of literary fiction had that courage.

  • Old School by Tobias Wolff

    Old School is a book for and about writers, and a book for and about readers. In the early 1960s, in a private boarding school that prides itself on being inclusive and modern, the boys all want to be writers. As a special treat, each year the boys submit their work to a visiting author, and the winner's prize is a private interview. Wolff brilliantly dissects what it means to be a young, impressionable reader. In their conviction that, because a favorite author has seemingly seen into their soul, they must have an equal understanding of the author's psyche, Old School's narrator and his friends all fail to grasp the most important lesson of intelligent reading--that the work as it is read is not the work as it was written. Wolff conveys this staggeringly important truth with a delicate touch and a great deal of humor. This slim, fantastically smart volume says more about what it means to be a reader and an aspiring author than any other book I've ever read.

  • Wise Children by Angela Carter

    I can't seem to properly convey the ways in which Wise Children is a wonderful book. I can only speak about it in superlatives, and after a while they begin to lose their meaning. Wise Children tells the story of Dora and Nora Chance, the illegitimate daughters of the famous actor Melchior Hazard, and their lifelong involvement with the larger-than-life triumphs and tragedies of Melchior and his family. But the book is much more than that. It is Carter's loving and irreverent tribute to Shakespeare--she references, recreates or lampoons almost all of his plays. It is an examination of the concept of legitimacy--in birth, in the theatre, and in life itself--with all its pitfalls and advantages. It is a comedy and a tragedy all rolled up into one. It is Carter's swan song, her final novel, written by an old woman who, like Wise Children's narrator, had seen a lot and found much to laugh over. Most importantly, it's a book that made me feel ten feet tall just by reading it.
Honorable Mentions:

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

The Best of SciFiction: 2004

Bet you thought I'd forgotten about these. The truth is, apart from real life considerations, I didn't have too good a time with the 2003 selections--it was a bit of a struggle finding enough stories that made the grade. 2004 offered the opposite problem--this list is longer than any of the others, and it took a bit of work to narrow down my initial selections. Hopefully, I'll get around to 2005 in the near future.

Monday, December 26, 2005

11 Things You Might Not Have Known About Bram Stoker's Dracula

  1. That it is a quintessentially modern horror novel. I had made the, it now seems, groundless assumption that Dracula was a traditional vampire tale--that Stoker had laid the foundation for vampire myth as a folk-tale and superstition. Instead, what I found in Dracula was the blueprint from which all modern horror is drawn--or, more accurately, half of modern horror. The other half draws its shape from Frankenstein--the story of hubris run amok, of understanding untempered by morals or religion, of humanity meddling, through sheer scientific curiosity, in things better left untroubled. Dracula lays out the other classic form of the genre--the story of modern, rational people, who sneer at tradition, superstition, and anything having to do with the supernatural, and who learn, at great cost, how little they actually know about the world. The conflict between rationalism and spiritualism, which we tend to think of as a 20th century invention, is the driving force of the novel. It is the characters' rationalism and modernity that allows Dracula to prey upon them, but that same rationalism is also the force that allows them to learn from their mistakes and eventually defeat the monster (with a healthy dollop of spiritual, or actually Christian, faith thrown in for good measure).

  2. That the most famous line connected with Dracula actually appears in the book, albeit slightly altered: "Listen to them--the children of the night. What music they make!"

  3. That Renfield is not, as many adaptations and reimaginations of the story claim, made mad by Dracula. He's a genuine lunatic, whose particular obsession is with the very stuff of life. He consumes insects (and other animals) not because Dracula forces him to but because he believes that to do so grants him their life energy. He naturally transfers his allegiance to Dracula when the two come in contact--the Count is, after all, a walking implementation of Renfield's thesis--but even after that meeting he vacillates between his own madness, the one induced by the Count, and occasional periods of lucidity.

  4. That the book contains the only positive portrayal I have ever read of Victorian lunatic asylums and their keepers. Possibly because the plot doesn't hinge on a sane person being wrongly committed (see The Woman in White, The Quincunx, Fingersmith), and possibly because one of the main characters is an asylum keeper, but the seemingly ubiquitous Victorian conviction that the insane choose to be so, and that they can be forced to recant of their insanity by sufficient application of harsh measures, is nowhere to be seen.

  5. That it contains the phrase: "even his stalwart manhood seemed to have shrunk somewhat"

  6. That the book is violently afraid of sexuality, and consistently equates it with evil and damnation. When Jonathan Harker is accosted by the lascivious brides of Dracula, he finds himself shamefully attracted to them--a feeling which he never expresses for his beloved wife. When Lucy Westenra, Dracula's doomed victim, is under the Count's thrall, she is consistently described as voluptuous, whereas when she is herself her behavior is chaste and demure, to the point that, at the brink of death, her fiancé will only kiss her on the forehead. Mina Harker, who is held up as a feminine ideal, is correct to the point of wondering whether her husband would reproach her for embracing Lucy's grief-stricken fiancé when he collapses, or even for holding his hand, and when the male characters learn that Dracula may be attacking Mina in her sleep, they still debate the correctness of bursting into her bedroom.

  7. That unlike every other variation and permutation on the vampire story that I've seen or read, from straight adaptations to Anne Rice and Buffy, Dracula neither romanticizes nor aggrandizes the vampire or his timeless existence. The book manages to do what so many adaptations have failed (or perhaps never even attempted) to do--turn Dracula into a terrifying, unquestionably evil monster whom the reader hates and fears. Stoker manages this by telling the story solely through the eyes of Dracula's victims-cum-pursuers. It's impossible to observe Dracula constantly thwarting the best efforts of Lucy's well-meaning doctors, or to read the ship's log of a captain whose crew is devoured, one by one, by the vampire as he travels to England, without feeling a revulsion towards Dracula that, to me, was the most refreshing and intriguing aspect of the book. Dracula is consistently described as an animal--a dangerous, clever one, but an animal still--a being of pure selfishness and greed, a distorted child, who smells of death and putrescence (I dare you to romanticize vampires after reading Mina's cry that the creature had brought its 'reeking lips' to her throat), who needs to be put down. I can understand where the image of the seductive vampire comes from (especially given the blatant virgin-whore dichotomy that suffuses the entire book, which essentially means that to be a sexual being, one must be evil), but it's nice to see that at the beginning of the modern incarnation of the vampire myth, someone recognized the qualities that make the vampire inherently repellent.

  8. That Stoker's attempts at conveying accents and vernacular very nearly sink the entire endeavor, whether it's Van Helsing's fractured English, or the various attempts to convey working class English accents ("Man! But the supersteetion of foreigners is pairfectly rideeculous!").

  9. That Van Helsing is the most annoying character ever written. Even in a book as littered with Victorian paragons of virtue and decency--brave Jonathan Harker, clever Mina Harker, sweet, innocent, lovable Lucy Westenra, intelligent, devoted Dr. Seward, courageous and determined Arthur Godalming and Quincey Morris--as Dracula is, Van Helsing is a Mary Sue too far. He's not only a genius and a renaissance man, but a man of deep faith who is also open-minded enough to recognize the vampire's existence and who knows exactly how to defeat him (but not, apparently, how to speak correct English). As the plot progresses and Van Helsing begins to dominate the story, the book grows less and less interesting. It would have been better to have cast Van Helsing as the little-seen advisor figure and leave the actual vampire-hunting the younger, more skeptical, generation.

  10. That the entire book would have been about 20 pages long if the people in it actually talked to each other. In his journey to Castle Dracula at the beginning of the book, Jonathan Harker is constantly accosted by peasants who beg him not to go there, but not a single one will tell him why. Lucy Westenra's death is in many ways the result of her unwillingness to confide in her friends. Renfield refuses to tell Seward about the Count until it's too late--leading to his own death and the attack on Mina. Mina conceals said attack because she doesn't want to distress her husband, who is concealing the progress of the investigation into Dracula from her because he doesn't want to upset her. At some junctures in the story it's clear that Stoker is making a point, but at others he simply uses a lack of communication as a convenient hook for his plot.

  11. That it's a really good, and at time quite creepy, book, and well worth a look even if--especially if--you think you know exactly what to expect from it.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Everything's Already Been Said About the Movie... I'll just add a few small points.

To the prop department: if it was so important that we see Peter's face during the climactic battle, why did you give him a helmet with a visor? He looked like a total prat lifting it up and lowering it down every five seconds.

To the hair department: kindly arrange for the prompt execution of the person who designed Jim Broadbent's hairpieces.

To everyone involved with the production at all its stages: was it actually your intention to ship Lucy and Mr. Tumnus?

And the film itself? Is exactly as I had surmised it would be the first time I saw a trailer--Narnia by way of The Lord of the Rings. Which means that it fails not only because an approach that works for one of these works will fail for the other, but because the production lacked the sheer amount of determined, devotedly fannish craftsmanship that gave the Lord of the Rings films their unforgettable look--starting with the fake-looking, plastic weapons and ending with the simple fact that no one was willing to sacrifice their lunch break in order to teach the kid who played Peter how to hold his sword. The result, therefore, is perfectly fine for an afternoon out with the kids, but as an adaptation will seem thin and unsatisfactory even to people like myself, who aren't deeply in love with Narnia.

Oh, and whoever decided to cast Liam Neeson as Aslan? Needs to die.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Why We Hate Ed Champion

Fucking April. Why do I get the feeling that Black Swan Green is going to be one of those books I break down and buy in hardcover?

And a Fifth Misconception

Over at Salon, Gina Fattore is getting all bent out of shape over the new Pride and Prejudice adaptation, in a less than dignified manner. The article goes rather far at points--no way would Jane Austen do anything as melodramatic as spinning in her grave over a silly movie--and as one of the commenters points out it's pretty obvious that Fattore only went to see the film because she wanted to feel the righteous indignation that permeates the article's every word (although the commenter is wrong to say that such behavior makes her a chump--I think I'd be more inclined to pay ten bucks for a chance at a good rant than I would in order to see most of the movies currently in release), but she does rather succinctly summarize the fundamental failure--as I understand it, the film not having come to Israel yet--of the adaptation:
Jane Austen understood these romantic conventions, how they worked on people, what they implied. If she'd wanted to go there, she could have. She chose not to. And that's where the genius lies, in what the critic Terry Castle has called "the implacable anti-romanticism of her vision." That's what makes "Pride and Prejudice" endure -- what makes it more than just your average, run-of-the-mill, bodice-ripping fairy tale about soul mates and true love conquering all. "Jane Austen kept to her compact," Virginia Woolf once wrote. "She never trespassed beyond her boundaries. Never, even at the emotional age of fifteen, did she ... obliterate a sarcasm in a spasm of compassion, or blur an outline in a mist of rhapsody. Spasms and rhapsodies, she seems to have said, pointing with her stick, end there; and the boundary line is perfectly distinct."

The current film version, of course, captures none of this distinction. It's all spasms and rhapsodies. But since it's so "alive," "whirling," "voluptuous," "intoxicating" and "delirious" no one seems to care that it's not ..... well, it's not exactly Jane Austen.

Monday, December 19, 2005

The Algebraist by Iain M. Banks

Fassin Taak, Chief Slow Seer in Waiting of the Sept Bantrabal, is seconded against his will to the Shrievaltry Ocula, on a special mission to delve into the Dweller society on the gas giant Nasquaron and try to locate the elusive Transform, key to the Dweller List. Possession of this list will allow Fassin's home system, Ulubis, to fight off the rapidly approaching E-5 Disconnect invasion fleet, led by the villainous Archimandrite Luseferous.

Paragraphs like the one above are largely the reason why I don't tend to read a lot of space opera. There's often a sense within that subgenre that authors spend more time inventing outlandish names and titles (or, to be more charitable, outlining the institutions and organizations of their invented, far-future society) than they do coming up with compelling characters and stories. Along with cyberpunk, space opera tends to dump readers into the middle of the action and trust them to work out the various technologies, social rituals, and political relationships of the book's universe on their own. And although when done well this sort of immersion can be refreshing, a neat intellectual puzzle, I've come to a point in my life in which it mostly tires me. I want to read books that ask me to think about people, not books that force me to pass an intelligence test before I can even begin to care about their protagonists.

But within a few pages of Iain M. Banks' Hugo-nominated The Algebraist, I was in love. After the long slog through hundreds of pages of George R.R. Martin's barely serviceable prose in A Game of Thrones, a few paragraphs of Banks' lucid, beautiful writing were a breath of fresh air, and already within the book's prologue there was a hint of wit and humor--qualities that are all too often lacking from most varieties of science fiction and fantasy, and space opera in particular. The aforementioned Fassin is, once again, a Slow Seer--he communicates with the Dwellers, a race of aliens indigenous to gas giants, who live to be billions of years old. The Dwellers are hoarders, accumulating vast, cluttered libraries of seemingly random information. Seers like Fassin pore through these libraries in search of historical documents or keys to new technologies, and as The Algebraist opens it is revealed that on one of his early trips to Nasquaron, Fassin unwittingly brought back a reference to a secret, legendary network of wormholes that spans the entire galaxy--wormholes outside the control of either the crushingly authoritarian Mercatoria, The Algebraist's obligatory semi-evil government, or any one of the number of rebel-slash-terrorist groups who target said wormhole portals in an attempt to strike against big government. As two opposing fleets make their way to Ulubis, hoping to gain control of the wormhole network, Fassin is sent back to Nasquaron to retrieve the list--if it actually exists.

Another quality that frustrates me when I read space opera and cyberpunk is the tendency to assume the failure of democracy as a viable form of government. Future societies are invariably governed at a remove from their citizens. They are dictatorships, oligarchies, theocracies, lawless clumps of mega-corporations, and, highly functional though they may sometimes be, they are answerable to no one. Now, it's entirely possible that democracy isn't suitable for the efficient government of huge societies spanning multiple star systems and encompassing a variety of alien races, but to my mind the ubiquity of this assumption seems more like an easy choice on the part of authors--it's simpler, after all, to write about evil or uncaring governments than it is to write about well-meaning yet imperfect ones.

Easier, but less satisfying. Reading Banks' descriptions of the Mercatoria's faceless, emotionless, efficient domination of its citizens, I couldn't help but wonder--where's the internet? Where are the liberal bloggers complaining about the curtailment of civil rights? Where's the underground press? Where, in short, is the lily-livered, tree-hugging, Guardian-reading middle class? For, like many other space opera and cyberpunk novels, The Algebraist concerns itself solely with the further ends of the social and economic spectrum--the wealthy and privileged and the criminalized and marginalized (in only one of many points of intersection between space opera and epic fantasy). If a middle class exists in Banks' universe, it is never acknowledged (there are a few references to technicians and engineers who might qualify, but they are usually either soldiers or members of professional guilds).

So it was with great pleasure that I observed Banks begin to explore the meaning and requirements of a successful, just society in The Algebraist. The Mercatoria is his example of a society that works, assuring its citizens' safety and freedom, so long as you don't get in its way. When a young Fassin participates in a peaceful demonstration against the Ulubis government, he is beaten bloody, jailed, and forced to name his fellow protesters as terrorist sympathizers. A friend of his, who wasn't even taking part in the demonstration, is tortured into insanity and eventually kills herself (she is the second young woman whose untimely death spurs Fassin into making a major lifestyle change, which frankly is at least one too many).
The little man looked at him for a moment. 'Mr Taak,' he said, sitting back, sounding patient. 'I've inspected your profile. You are not stupid. Misguided, idealistic, naive, certainly, but not stupid. You must know how societies work. You must at least have an inkling. They work on force, power and coercion. People don't behave themselves because they're nice. That's the liberal fallacy. People behave themselves because if they don't they'll be punished. All this is known. It isn't even debatable. Civilization after civilization, society after society, species after species, all show the same pattern. Society is control: control is reward and punishment. Reward is being allowed to partake of the fruits of that society and, as a general but not unbreakable rule, not being punished without cause.'
Control does seem to be the watchword for the Mercatoria, with no one but its upper echelons having any say in how and when that control is exercised. When a Mercatoria representative informs the Ulubis government of the rapidly approaching E-5 invasion fleet, he makes sure to emphasize that the Mercatoria fleet, approaching the system but certain to arrive after the invaders, will be sure to respond harshly if the Ulubis government surrenders to the invaders. When Fassin's ship is boarded by the Voehn, the Mercatoria's most ruthless and indestructible enforcers, he is informed by the captain that 'we own you'. For the crime of harboring illegal near-AI technology, an entire civilian habitat is destroyed, and the attack is blamed on the Mercatoria's enemies.

As immoral as the Mercatoria can sometimes be, however, it is still preferable to the E-5 Disconnect, or, more accurately, to its despotic, sadistic ruler, the Archimandrite Luseferous ("a chosen name, selected for its phonetic proximity to that of some long-scorned Earth deity"), who destroys entire cities on a whim, tortures his captured enemies in a variety of inventive and gruesome ways, and in general rules through a mixture of fear, intimidation, and sheer bloody-mindedness.
So you seemed cruel. So people died and suffered and grew up hating you. So what? There was at least a chance that none of it was real.
And if it was all real, well, then life was a struggle. It always had been and it always would be. You recognized this and lived, or fell for the lie that progress and society had made struggle unnecessary, and just existed, were exploited, became prey, mere fodder.
Caught in the middle are the various breakaway groups called the Beyonders. Dubbed terrorists by the Mercatoria, the Beyonders espouse a more humanitarian ethos than either it or the E-5 Disconnect--they seek to exist outside the Mercatoria's control but within the 'lie' of a just, free civilization--but their actions, which include casualty-heavy assaults on military targets and an alliance with Luseferous in the attack on Ulubis, suggest a flexibility to their morals. Even Fassin, who despises the Mercatoria, has no illusions about the Beyonders' moral supremacy.

Through these three groups, Banks is obviously trying to explore the question of the viability of the just society, and the paths that can lead us there. Unfortunately, he abandons this exploration unfinished. Halfway through The Algebraist, I was ready to declare it one of the finest and most enjoyable books I'd read this year. By the book's end, I had been forced to severely revise my opinion. The Algebraist suffers from a flabby middle and an underperforming ending. Two minor plotlines--one focusing on Luseferous and another on Fassin's friend Taince, approaching Ulubis in the Mercatoria fleet with bloody vengeance in her heart--are given a great deal of attention and then allowed to fizzle out in an unsatisfactory manner. The reason for this is that halfway through the book, Banks switches gears, not to mention topic and themes. Taince and Luseferous' plots are vestiges of the first Algebraist, the book about trying to create and maintain a just society in an unjust universe, but by the time Banks got around to ending those stories, he was writing a different book--a mystery and a quest focusing on Fassin's adventures among Nasquaron's inhabitants, the Dwellers.

The Dwellers are arguably Banks' greatest achievement in The Algebraist. They are certainly his funniest. The million-year-old gas planet dwellers are no wise ancients. They are vain, arrogant, completely self-involved, and chronically incapable of taking seriously anything other than their own petty interests and hobbies. They might be described as a mixture of supremely selfish Ents and extraordinarily silly Victorian gentlemen of leisure. Dweller society is fundamentally disorganized, made up of informal clubs but no formal institutions or hierarchies (prompting some observes to suggest that it shouldn't even be called a civilization, in sharp contract to the hyper-organized civilizations of the 'Quick' races--the Dwellers' name for races not as long-lived as them), and moneyless--Dwellers act only to please themselves or to accumulate 'kudos'--societal respect points reminiscent of Cory Doctorow's Whuffie.

Fassin's adventure on Nasquaron include some of The Algebraist's most exciting and hilarious set pieces--a sailing regatta in the middle of a giant storm; a 'formal war', the official Dweller sport; Fassin's brief glimpses of the Dwellers' terrifying hidden power; or just a meeting with a city official:
'Why, I too hope to be going to the war!' Y'sul said brightly. 'Well, somewhere very near it, at least. I have only just now returned from my tailor's after being measured for the most lately fashionable conflict attire.'
'Oh, really?' the Administrator said. 'Who's your tailor? Mine just left for the war.'
'Not Fuerliote?' Y'sul exclaimed.
'The same!'
'He was mine also!'
'Just the best.'
'No, I had to go to Deystelmin.'
'Is he any good?'
'Weeeelll.' Y'sul waggled his whole double-discus. 'One lives in hope. Good mirror-side manner, as it were, but will it translate into a flattering cut? That's the question one has to ask oneself.'
'I know,' agreed the Administrator. 'And off to become a junior officer on a Dreadnought!'
'Not even that! A rating!'
'Very lowly, for someone so distinguished!'
'I know, but a smart move. Getting in as a rating before the recruitment window even properly opens makes sense. The smoking-uniform effect.'
'Aha! Of course!'
For a while, it's hard to regret the loss of the book Banks had started out writing--the Dwellers are too much fun. Sadly, Banks takes his good idea too far. He sends Fassin across the galaxy in his search for the secret of the Dweller wormhole network, but the quest soon turns repetitive and tedious. Fassin grows numb, and so do we. In the end, although Fassin find the revelation he was searching for, his victory seems pointless. Neither the quest for the wormhole network, nor the battle for Ulubis, nor the struggle to create a better, freer society, amount to a coherent whole.

And yet, there's more to The Algebraist than the whole. Like Cryptonomicon, another furiously funny SF book, it is best appreciated for its parts--Banks' beautiful, witty prose, his feats of invention and characterization, his clever and memorable dialogue and, once again, his exuberant sense of humor. The Algebraist may not be the triumph Banks intended it to be, but it remains a highly enjoyable read, and I will certainly be seeking out more of Banks' fiction.

As an interesting aside, finishing The Algebraist means that I've now read four of the five novels nominated for the 2005 Hugo award (the other novels I've read are Susannah Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which won the Hugo, China Miéville's Iron Council, and Ian McDonald's River of Gods. The remaining nominee is Charles Stross' Iron Sunrise, but I've not had great success with Stross' short stories so I doubt I'll be reading this novel) and can speak intelligently about the nominees and winner for the first time that I can remember. I find it interesting that at least three of the nominated novels--Banks', Clarke's and Miéville's--are admirable yet fundamentally flawed works. Even River of Gods, which would have been my choice for the winner, isn't without its flaws. I'm especially puzzled by this because neither M. John Harrison's Light nor Geoff Ryman's Air--both remarkable books, superiror even to River of Gods and deserving of the Hugo win--made it on the nomination list.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

YES. And Finally.

The media’s obsession with the “courage” and “bravery” is just plain crap. First of all, I thought Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal were actors, as was every person who turned down the script. And I thought actors were paid, often large amounts, to be somebody else. In other words, they are paid to play people who are not themselves. So why on earth would playing gay be a problem? Actors take on roles all the time embodying despicable or reprehensible characters. No one clamors to them and tells them how brave they are. But the media make a big deal when a straight guy kisses another straight guy on-camera.

John Spencer, 1946-2005, RIP


Thursday, December 15, 2005

The More Things Change...

After reading so many slipshod diaries called "novels," what a pleasure it is to turn the pages of this consummate work of art. The common method today of writing a novel is to begin with the birth of the hero, shove in all experiences that the author can remember of his own childhood, most of which are of no interest to any one but himself, take him to school, throw in more experiences, introduce him to the heroine, more experiences, quit when the book seems long enough, and write the whole biography in colloquial jargon.

William Lyon Phelps, reviewing Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence for The New York Times Book Review in 1920. Apart from Phelps' insistence on male protagonists and his blissful ignorance of just what exactly 'long enough' would come to mean over the next 85 years, this passage could apply today, or possibly at any point in the intervening decades.

(Shamelessly stolen from Maud Newton.)

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Dear Members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association: A Public Service Announcement

Look, members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, currently enjoying your brief day in the sun as the announcement of the nominees for your objectively tiny and insignificant award marks the beginning of Oscar season, it's not that I'm surprised at the absence of both Veronica Mars and Battlestar Galactica from the lists of your television nominations. Oh, we like to talk about how quirky the Golden Globes are, and we're all still breathless about that time you gave Sarah Michelle Gellar and Jessica Alba Best Actress nominations (but not, heavens forfend, an actual trophy), but we all know the truth--you're a crusty Hollywood establishment. You go where the ratings are, and you vote for what you've been told is good rather than what you know to be good. So the fact that two of the finest shows on television this year passed you by while the rapidly floundering Lost gets a nomination (and, in all likelihood, a win) is hardly a shock.

But there is something I think you should know, dear members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. I'm terribly sorry that I didn't think to inform you of this before (but really, who could have guessed you were this far out of the loop?), but better late than never, I suppose.

You see, Rome isn't actually any good.

Oh, I can imagine you fluttering about in dismay over there in your Hollywood Foreign Press offices. How could Rome not be good? It has production values so high they make the recreation of the Coliseum in Gladiator look like a fifth grade play! All of the actors are genuinely British, not faking their accents at all! Michael Apted, a bona-fide film director, deigned to set foot in a television studio to direct several episodes! There are naked women (a true hallmark of sophisticated art, as we all know) and lesbians (here defined as any good looking woman who spends more than five minutes alone in a dimly lit room with any other good looking woman). Best of all, it's from freaking HBO, home of quality dramas and sagging awards shelves. Let's face it, you sent those Best Drama trophies out to the engraver the first time you watched one of the show's previews.

Well, sad to say, but even HBO has its misses, and Rome is a very big one. Oh, it's diverting enough, in its own way, and lord knows it's well-made and the actors and actresses bring the pretty in spades, but the show is closer to Melrose Place than I, Claudius, and not in any of the good ways. Even at a mere 12 episodes, it drags. With a few exceptions, none of them the important historical figures, the characters are thin and uninteresting. The plots tend more towards sensationalism (the emperor Augustus slept with his sister!) than genuine intelligence. The 'man on the ground' concept, so interesting in theory, is mostly an excuse for embarrassing Forrest Gump-ish plot twists. Worst of all, unlike Deadwood, which takes a period in history and a storytelling genre that we think we know everything about and turns our preconceptions on their heads, Rome is sadly predictable--we've seen it all before, and we've seen it done better.

Oh well, dear members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. We all have our bad days, after all. I'm sure once you sit down with those complimentary Rome DVDs and actually watch the show, you'll be properly embarrassed (especially when you catch a glimpse of Polly Walker's cringe-inducing, one-note performance. If you had to nominate a Rome actress, why couldn't it have been Lindsay Duncan or Indira Varma, and for that matter where is Kevin McKidd, who imbued his character with a much-needed sense of pathos and tragedy?). Just remember, once you're done, to crack open those boxes of Veronica Mars and Battlestar Galactica DVDs, the ones you cast aside and were planning to use as coasters because one is a teen drama and the other is science fiction. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.

Now, let's talk about Prison Break...

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

An Epic Fantasy Virgin Reads George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones

OK, so obviously it's faintly absurd for me to describe myself as an epic fantasy virgin. Haven't I, in the twelve years since I first read it, reread J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings every other year? Haven't I made it all the way through The Silmarillion, and understood most of it, and enjoyed it all? Haven't I adored the films, and gotten into ridiculously nitpicky discussions over which changes were justified and what Tolkien meant by this and that? And isn't The Lord of the Rings the great-granddaddy of all epic fantasy, the wellspring from which all endless doorstopper series flow?

Well, maybe, but somehow, in my odd and atypical development as a reader, I managed to skip the Jordan/Brooks/Goodkind phase of a fantasy reader's life-cycle. I liked The Lord of the Rings a hell of a lot, but the dozens of thick tomes with garishly colored covers depicting big-breasted women and dragons failed to appeal to me. I stuck to science fiction, and barely even went near fantasy until a few years ago. Then it was all Pratchett, Gaiman, Miéville, Link, Crowley, VanderMeer, and all those other folks who run away from epic fantasy as fast as their little legs can carry them. I suspect my problem with the Tolkien-clones was precisely that they were copying someone else rather than carving out their own territory as Tolkien did (admittedly, Tolkien did a fair bit of borrowing, but usually from people who were writing centuries before the invention of the novel--a development that, on occasion, it seems that he was unaware of as well). A lot of Tolkien fans want more of the same, and I'm not quite sure why as a younger reader I wasn't one of them, but by the time I was in my twenties I had learned to sneer at the epic fantasy shelves and search for writers who worked in the cracks and crevices that Tolkien had left unexplored.

But George R.R. Martin is supposedly the author of multi-volume, doorstopper-length epic fantasy series that you read if you can't stand multi-volume, doorstopper-length epic fantasy series, and a ringing endorsement from the estimable Carrie A.A. Frye only whetted my curiosity. I picked up a copy of the first volume in the series (titled, as a whole, A Song of Ice and Fire) at the used bookstore, and dug in. The verdict? Not bad, for what it is. Not remotely as good as I had been led to believe, and for the first half (half here being 400 pages) rather pointless and uninteresting. Martin commits the cardinal (and extraordinarily common, these days) sin of fantasy writers--there's no doubt in my mind that a hack-and-slash edit would have left the book tighter and more interesting--but it's one that I had been expecting. What I hadn't expected was to be so thoroughly disappointed in everything I had been led to believe about these books: that Martin is a superb writer, that the series is a sophisticated variant of the epic fantasy story, and that the story I would find within the book's covers would be morally complex.

As a writer, Martin is no more than middling. He writes decent but not particularly stirring battle scenes (the descriptions of battle strategies left me thoroughly confused, but that's happened often enough with other writers that I doubt Martin is at fault) and maintains a brisk narrative flow. His dialogue is passable--not too many quotable lines, but not too many clichés either. Unfortunately, Martin is all-too aware of his antecedents, and every few dozen pages he feels the need to recall Tolkien in his descriptive passages. The result is a sad mockery of Tolkien's high poetic style, and, since Martin lacks Tolkien's wit, is not remotely as humorous (an example of a running gag in Thrones would be a boy who responds with 'I can too!' to 'You can't hear yourself fart!' and other such insults--that's pretty much the level of Martin's humor, when it exists). I'd like to stress that I'm not faulting Martin for not being Tolkien, but rather for trying to be Tolkien when clearly such an achievement is beyond him. This is the root of Thrones' failure--Martin can't decide what kind of book he wants to write. He moves away from the stereotypical forms of epic fantasy, but not far enough to make his book anything more than a sad half-breed, neither one thing nor the other.

The plot of A Game of Thrones recalls the opening moves of England's War of the Roses--two houses, the Starks and the Lannisters, are vying for control of an unstable throne. Martin here has a chance to convey the bleak reality of such political games--that there are no good guys or bad guys, that the monarch's dynasty is only sacrosanct so long as he has men to defend it and gold to pay them with, that for the right reason, even the most honorable man will turn on his king, and that, ultimately, no one 'deserves' the throne--and he does indeed come very close. Martin makes it clear that the current king, a usurper who deposed his mad, bloodthirsty predecessor, is a weak-willed, mercurial man who countenances atrocities for the sake of expediency. Crimes are committed by both parties in the dispute for the crown, and none of the contenders are likely to usher in a golden age and sell beer for a penny a pint any time soon. But when push comes to shove, Martin shies away from true moral ambiguity. The gruff, northern Starks are honorable to a fault--their lord executes criminals himself because he believes that the man who passes the sentence should be made to swing the blade, banishes one of the nobles sworn to his house for dealing in slaves, and refuses even to consider the notion of political assassination. The wealthy and cunning Lannisters, on the other hand, all but buy their way to the throne--they hold all the crown's debts--and are also guilty of committing incest, maiming children, and murdering puppies (literally, on all counts). The division between good and evil is fairly clear-cut, and although, to Martin's credit, there are decent Lannisters and untrustworthy Starks, they exist on the margins and are insufficient to counteract Martin's fundamentally black-and-white approach.

Now, there's nothing inherently wrong with making your good guys as pure as the driven snow and your bad guys so evil that their names can barely be spoken--Tolkien got a lot of mileage out of this kind of dichotomy, and one of the uses he made of it was to make his readers, even the more modern ones, forget about the truth of medieval living--that life was nasty, brutish, and short, and that actual nobility was in short supply. Martin refuses to show us his characters and his world through Tolkien's rose-tinted glasses, and ironically the result is that the gap between what these men believe themselves to be and what they actually are is all the more noticeable. There's no escaping the fact that even the best and most virtuous of Martin's characters sell their women to each other like chattel, and that the true victims of their games of power are the ones who have no power and no voice--the peasants whose villages they trample, whose fields they plunder to feed their armies, whose women they claim when it suits them and throw away when it no longer does. By the time I was 200 pages into the book, I no longer cared which faction would win the throne, since it was obvious that none of them would rule well enough to deserve it. Tolkien gives us a truly fantastic fantasy world--a medieval culture in which peasants are respected and never abused (not by the good guys, at least, although where the Riders of Rohan got their food on the long march to Minas Tirith I have no idea) and where not a single woman is married against her will or to a man she doesn't care for. If we're to accept Martin's more believable take on medieval culture, we have no choice but to accept that even the best among his characters are little better than slave-owners, and that our loyalties should properly lie with whoever will put all their noble heads on a long row of spikes.

I've recently developed a deep personal dislike of books that open with detailed descriptions of the adult characters' childhoods. While good books can and have been written about childhood and the process of growing up, and equally good book can and have been written about adults, hardly any book is improved by a hundred pages of sibling rivalries, petty yet crushing disappointments, and sexual awakening, before the actual plot gets going. So I was deeply disappointed to see that more than half of the characters in A Game of Thrones were juveniles--enough so that I was holding out hope for the Orson Scott Card approach to juvenile characterization, in which children are nothing more than short adults. In all fairness, Martin doesn't spend an excessive amount of time on coming of age stories, and at least one of the youngsters--the deposed princess Daenerys--quickly matures and become the most interesting character in the book. But again, Martin isn't quite willing to leave the foibles of childhood behind. His juvenile characters aren't real children--immature, inadequate and often irrational--but neither are we completely spared their tedious tragedies. Lord Stark's bastard son struggles to find his place in a world in which he's neither a commoner nor a noble. His older daughter is convinced that heroic ballads are a reliable guide to life and experiences a tragic disillusionment. His younger daughter is a tomboy who wants to fight, not sew and look pretty. These boring, familiar clichés cause the pace of the book to drag, especially when compared to the often fascinating adventures of the adult characters.

It's hard to avoid the conclusion that A Game of Thrones is a mass of halfway measures, compromises and mediocrities. Martin can't convey the poetry and grandeur of Tolkien's prose, but neither is he willing to let his narrative voice become completely unobtrusive. He eschews Tolkien's romantic take on medieval living, but he never arrives at a Miéville-ian disdain for the aristocracy. He gives us multifaceted heroes and villains, but still wants to be sure that we know who the good guys and the bad guys are. A significant portion of his characters are neither children nor adults. All of which leads me to wonder: is it possible to write truly sophisticated epic fantasy? Could a better writer than Martin have matched moral relativism with compelling characters, grandeur with a realistic portrayal of medieval politics?

And naturally, when I ask myself questions like these, I turn to John Crowley. Crowley's very first novel, The Deep (now out of print and available in Otherwise, an omnibus edition that collects Crowley's three early novels) puts Martin and all his cohorts to shame. In less than 200 pages, Crowley tells the story that Martin hasn't even begun to finish, about a medieval society in which two factions, the Reds and the Blacks, vie for the throne, and a third group, the Just, seeks the death of all aristocratic rulers. Crowley never forces the readers to choose sides, but instead makes us fall in love with his characters--the old knight and his young wife, the young prince who falls in love with her, the deposed king, locked away in an old mansion and left to his heartrendingly portrayed madness. True, there are very few battles and the plot lacks Martin's intricacy, but what Crowley lacks in scope he makes up for in intensity and beauty. I would read The Deep a thousand times before I picked up the next volume in Martin's series.

It's been suggested to me that a lot of the problems I had with A Game of Thrones are addressed in the series' later volumes, but I fail to see how this should induce me to read them, or make my complaints any less valid. The book is 800 pages long (and doesn't encompass even one complete plot), and I spent four days of my life reading it. To suggest that, in order to have an even marginally improved reading experience, I should slog through hundreds of pages more from a writer whose prose, I already know, I find uninspiring, only suggests to me that Martin should have written a shorter book--a shorter series, in fact. Tolkien has a strangle-hold on the fantasy genre, which is a shame, especially since so many of his inferior imitators seek to emulate him in all the wrong ways, chiefly his verbosity (and let's not pretend that The Lord of the Rings couldn't have used a few judicious cuts here and there), but for the time being, I see no reason to venture back into epic fantasy. Not when there are so many wonderful writers out there whose fantasy truly has a just claim on the word, and who can actually give me what I want in terms of sophistication, moral ambiguity, and beautiful writing.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Mike Newell's Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: A Harshly Fannish Perspective

First things first: unlike many fans of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, I've never found the books' film versions to be terrifically important. I've seen all four, but I can't imagine going out of my way to do so, or even renting them on DVD if they hadn't come to a nearby movie theatre (in fact, I suspect that in most cases I saw the films primarily because I wanted to be able to discuss them intelligently). I wouldn't be heartbroken to hear that no new films were being made, and the endless discussions of whether or not the kids playing Harry, Ron and Hermione are going to stick around for the rest of the series are of absolutely no interest to me. I am honestly baffled by the fact that a Harry Potter news site like The Leaky Cauldron should report on the doings of every actor and cast member even remotely connected to the films, and I've watched the site's transformation, over the last few months, into the Goblet of Fire film site with exasperation and distaste. Most importantly, neither the films' look nor the actors cast in them have overridden my own personal images of Hogwarts and its denizens. To put it simply, I think of the Harry Potter films as incidental to the books, no different or more influential than Harry Potter notebooks or t-shirts.

Even more importantly, I've long since realized that I'm not capable of viewing these films as independent works of cinema. I don't know why this should be. I've loved and enjoyed Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Lord of the Rings and the various Austen adaptations of the mid-90s. In spite of the fact that Tolkien and Austen's books are far more important to me than Rowling's, I was able to use my feelings for the written works to accentuate my appreciation for the films, even when it came to massive deviations from the text. I can't do this with the Potter films, and my best guess is that unlike Jackson's trilogy and the Austen films, the Potter franchise drips with the standard Hollywood conviction that any sufficiently successful literary phenomenon must be made into a film as the next step in the work's life-cycle (see Da Vinci Code, The). These films haven't been made because a director or a screenwriter was burning to bring a beloved world to the screen. They were made because this is what Hollywood does with successful books, and it shows in the final product. Permeating every frame of the four films is the existence of the committee of studio executives who sat down one day to count the money this franchise would make them. The notion that these pale, unremarkable films, as pleasant as they might occasionally be, might for some people actually exist as the definitive version of the Harry Potter universe is mildly offensive to me.

In other words, don't expect this to be a review of Mike Newell's Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. I liked it better than the first two films in the series, but then that's no great accomplishment. I can't quite decide where it stands in relation to Alfonso Cuarón's Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Of the four films, Cuarón's is the only one that came close to feeling like an independent creation which drew from a written source but found its voice and tone elsewhere. On the other hand, Prisoner so thoroughly bungles the climactic and pivotal Shrieking Shack scene that the entire film falls apart, whereas Newell does an excellent job of putting his scenes together. Although he produced a less coherent whole, Newell did a much better job than Cuarón with the film's parts, and there are some lovely scenes in the film that capture not only the tone of the book but an original tone, unique to the film.

The obvious complaint against Goblet is that it is rushed. I'm not going to get into the discussion of whether this was justified given the length of Rowling's book, whether the book itself needed some pruning (it probably did), and whether the film should have been longer (no) or split into two pieces (again, probably not). Whatever Rowling's faults as a writer, the fact remains that Steve Kloves, who wrote the script, and Mike Newell knowingly chose to adapt a leisurely, episodic, meandering story into a 150 minute roller coaster ride. That the results are mixed is no one's fault but their own. I thought the rushed opening sequence, in which the viewers are carried along with Harry to the site of the Quidditch world cup, was quite brilliant in its brisk pacing and brevity. By rushing the action and providing almost no explanations, Kloves forces us to sympathize with Harry--a virtual outsider to the wizarding world. We feel his confusion and his exhilaration without being drowned in frankly extraneous detail. This economical approach works even for the Death Eater attack that follows, but when Harry arrives at Hogwarts and the film continues to move at breakneck speed, the narrative flow collapses. From a coherent story, Goblet is reduced to a rapid succession of set pieces.

The first casualty is, of course, character development. Although I appreciated Newell's focus on Harry as a typical 14 year old boy, who is often brusque and rude even to his closest friends, I thought he dropped the ball when it came to what is arguably Harry's most important character arc in Goblet of Fire--his first serious fight with Ron. This rift is tragic precisely because of the ways in which Harry unwittingly prolongs it, primarily through his own stubbornness and quick temper. Were the writers afraid to show us a Harry who would chuck a 'Potter Stinks' pin at his friend in a fit of anger and frustration? The Goblet of Fire rift is also Ron's first real chance to show a bit of depth. Since the films don't stick to Harry's point of view as slavishly as Rowling's books do, we might have seen a bit more of Ron's anger and jealousy, thus developing an important character. But instead, Ron is once again given nothing to do except be silly and act as unfunny comic relief. I'm also not quite certain what to make of the 'Ron told Harry about the dragons' twist. Are we meant to assume that both Ron and the fake Moody told Hagrid to reveal the dragons to Harry, or is there some more subtle twist here that I'm not seeing?

The character of Cedric Diggory is another point in which the film sacrifices nuance to brevity and cheapens the entire work. In the book, Cedric's death hits the reader hard because he's been such a good person. Rowling paints Cedric as the ideal English schoolboy--handsome, friendly, honest, decent, athletic, a born leader and all-around mensch. Although Cedric's role in the film is perfectly cast, and Robert Pattinson brings a great deal of earnest friendliness to the role, we see so little of him that it's hard for us to care when this promising, blameless young man is cut down for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Similarly, Harry and Cedric's most important shared scene, in which they decide to take the cup together, is horribly botched. There is a profound beauty to Harry and Cedric's unwillingness to take the cup for themselves in the book. It's a quiet, vitally important scene. As in the film, Harry battles with his own selfish desire to win the tournament, but instead of presenting us with a monstrous Harry who hesitates before saving Cedric's life (which also makes no sense given what we've already seen of Harry's actions in the film), Rowling gives us a Harry who has victory offered to him as a reward for unthinkingly stepping forward to save Cedric's life (and a Cedric who would walk away from that victory out of a sense of obligation). More time should have been spent on Cedric and Harry's choices in that scene, and on their decision to take the cup together, but Kloves was obviously loathe to slacken the scene's pace. This is, in a nutshell, the fundamental problem of all the Potter films.

Which is not to say that the entire film was a loss. As I said, Newell films excellent scenes even if the whole doesn't come together, and I was particularly fond of the interactions between Harry, Ron and Hermione. It was refreshing to see them joke around one minute, support each other the next, and fight tooth and claw a moment later, and although none of the three actors have impressed me, they've developed a winning chemistry. It appears that each of the Potter films has to have at least one feat of impeccable casting, and Miranda Richardson makes Rita Skeeter her own. Her scene in the broom closet with Harry was an excellent mix of the book's sensibility and the film's original tone (Rowling isn't the one who suggested a faint sexual undertone to Skeeter's attitude towards Harry, and although "My eyes are not 'glistening with the ghosts of my past'!" is not a line from the book, it sounds as if it ought to be). Despite a drastically reduced presence, Richardson dominates her scenes, one character at least who couldn't be undone by Kloves' slash-and-burn approach to the book.

I remain convinced that film is the wrong visual medium for the Harry Potter books, at least until a writer and a director come along who are genuinely interested in conveying not the letter but the spirit of Rowling's novels--that indescribable blend of irreverence and grandeur. There were glimpses of that adaptation in Newell's Goblet of Fire, when I honestly believed that Newell and Kloves got the books and loved them for themselves, not as a ticket to untold riches--I wanted to cheer at the opening of the Quidditch World Cup and clap at the introductory performance of the Durmstrang students. But taken as a whole, Goblet of Fire is only a tiny step in the right direction. Rowling's books only get longer and more complicated, their plots move away from simple mysteries and adventures, and Harry's world grows wider and less easily understood. I'm not at all convinced that the Potter films are capable of conveying this increasing complexity.

A few more thoughts:
  • How much do I hate the decision to make Beauxbatons an all-girls school? It's not quite fair to complain that Fleur is a ninny whose greatest asset seems to be her looks and whose performance in the Triwizard Tournament is dismal--at least, it's not fair to complain about these things to Newell and Kloves--but making Beauxbatons a girls' academy is one more nail in the gender-equality coffin. Beauxbatons has a female champion not because she's the best of the school but because all the applicants from the school are female.

  • Once again, the films short-change and soft-pedal Snape, which is clearly something that's going to come back and bite the writers on the ass. I think Alan Rickman was a bad choice for Snape, mostly because he's twice as old and four times as good looking as the character is supposed to be (the age thing isn't a minor objection either. In the books, Snape acts like a young man, or more accurately a man who never properly grew up. His anger is the kind you'd expect from a twisted, stunted teenager. Rickman's mature gravitas is completely wrong for the role), but the true fault is with the writers who give Rickman nothing to do. Even after the revelation that Snape was once a Death Eater, we don't get a sense of the caustic hatred that Harry feels for him, nor of the ways in which Snape justifies that hatred. Again, I suspect that what we have here is fear on Kloves' part--he's not willing to give us a character as nasty and unlikable as Snape truly is.

  • We all knew, when Emma Watson was cast as Hermione, that she was an unlikely ugly duckling. The fact that no attempt was made to hide Watson's natural beauty over the course of the four films means that the revelation that she cleans up well in the Yule Ball is not so much a revelation as a foregone conclusion. I understand that Hollywood has different notions of 'unattractive' than the rest of the world, but it is rather absurd that the film asks us to be shocked at Hermione's Cinderella performance.

  • One of the changes I whole-heartedly approved of was the absence of Dobby (Rowling's Dobby in general, but Columbus' Dobby from Chamber of Secrets in particular). I liked the fact that Neville finally got a bit more air time, that he was the one to help Harry with the second task, and that he made out better than Harry or Ron at the Yule Ball. That said, I could have lived a long time without 'Oh no! I've killed Harry Potter!'

  • I would have liked to complain about Dumbledore's non-explanation of Priori Incantatem, but since that plot twist (for 'plot twist', read 'deus ex machina') is one of the silliest and most annoying last-minute saves in the series, I can't really blame Kloves for trying to get past it as quickly as he could.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Recent Reading Roundup 2

Yup, it's that time again--time to even up the book-posts-to-TV-posts ratio! Recent reads include:
  1. Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter--Carter's Wise Children has maintained its position as one of the finest books I've read this year, but Nights at the Circus cements my suspicions that Carter is going to turn out to be one of my all-time favorite writers. One of the most refreshing aspects of Carter's writing is that she's not afraid to be funny. Both Circus and Wise Children could be termed comedic books, and ignored in much the same way that writers like Terry Pratchett often are (although Carter's humor is cleverer and more delicate than Pratchett's), but Carter uses humor as a way to penetrate her readers' defenses. In only a few pages, we have lost our hearts to Fevvers, the winged woman born (or hatched) and raised in a brothel, and now the toast of Europe as the star of a circus act, and to the host of strange and heartbroken characters who make up the circus' acts--sad clowns, a lonely tiger tamer, a childish strongman, and a manager who makes business decisions by consulting an oracular pig. Like Wise Children, Nights at the Circus is concerned with questions of legitimacy and authenticity--is Fevvers real, or is she a fake?--but Carter also turns the spotlight on the question of gender politics. Can Fevvers truly be a modern, independent woman, and still find love? Can the journalist Jack Walser, who joins the circus in the hopes of debunking Fevvers, love a woman who is stronger than he is? Nights at the Circus is a romance, an adventure, a farce, a feminist treatise, and an all-around fantastic read.

  2. Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov--this is the second Nabokov I've read, after Lolita, and my reactions to both books have been similar. Nabokov is unquestionably brilliant, a genius of language, imagery, and voice. He's one of the few authors who truly get how difficult the first person voice can be, and how well it can work when it's done right. Pale Fire, ostensibly an annotated version of a long poem of the same title and in reality the record of the annotator's emotional and mental collapse, is yet another trip into the mind of a man who sees the world not as it is but as he wants it to be. The book is a sad, pathetic mystery, as the narrator, Kinbote, unravels under the strain of his own delusions and guilt. But for all its beauty and intelligence, I found Pale Fire cold. I had a hard time connecting to the characters and caring about them, and as was the case with Lolita, I found myself recognizing jokes rather than laughing at them. As much as I admired it, I can't help but think of Pale Fire as a cerebral exercise--one that I'd love to think about and discuss, but ultimately, one that I can't love.

  3. Out by Natsuo Kirino--Kirino's 1999 thriller, a prize-winning bestseller in her native Japan, is a comedy as black as the vacuum of space, and a terrifying portrait of gender politics in modern Japan. Four housewives, working the night shift at a boxed lunch factory, form an unlikely conspiracy when one of them kills her abusive, drunken gambler of a husband. In the days and weeks that follow, the four women engage in games of power and wits as they struggle to escape justice. Out is unremittingly grim and, as the body count mounts, deliberately gruesome, although it's hard to tell which is the greater horror--women who chop up bodies in their bathrooms or a modern society in which a woman can still be fired for asking for a raise. For all the absurdity of Kirino's premise--modern Japanese society has made no place for women, and so women will begin moving outside the boundaries of acceptable behavior--there's no denying that she paints a frightening picture of the personal and professional lives of middle-class Japanese women. Unfortunately, Kirino isn't much a writer, and especially when it comes to the psychology of her main characters she frequently tells instead of showing. The indifferent writing and sophomoric characterizations diminish Out's impact (as does the rather annoying ending, yet another rape and death fantasy), but there's no denying that this is an effective, frightening thriller.

  4. The Unburied by Charles Palliser--I read Palliser's earlier and more famous historical mystery, The Quincunx, earlier this year, and although The Unburied is a more modest effort--a simple murder mystery as opposed to a vast, decades-old conspiracy--I liked it a great deal better. Like The Quincunx, The Unburied is narrated by an unreliable, often foolish person--a scholar who spends Christmas with an old school friend--who through his own prejudices and blindnesses misses much that the reader sees. Unlike Palliser's earlier behemoth, however, The Unburied's narrator ultimately cuts a sympathetic figure--he learns from his mistakes and seeks to right the wrongs that he's committed. Characterization was a big problem for Palliser in The Quincunx--I wondered when I read it if, having come up with a brilliant, intricate plot, Palliser had been too tired to create interesting characters for it to happen to--and The Unburied shows tremendous progress in that regard, as well as being a shorter, tighter book. This is a beautifully written, clever mystery, and, even though most readers will guess its solution long before the narrator figures it out, a wonderfully enjoyable read.

  5. The Stories of John Cheever by John Cheever--Cheever is one of the names synonymous with post-war American writing, and like many of his contemporaries he focuses on middle-class WASP families in the suburbs during the 50s and 60s. This collection brings together all of Cheever's short stories--over sixty in all--which is both a blessing and a curse. It's a pleasure to watch Cheever grow as a writer, change themes and experiment with new styles, but there's no denying that he had a linited palate--yet more middle class ennui, yet more suburban alienation, yet more middle-aged couples who no longer like or even know each other--and the stories can become repetitive. Nevertheless, Cheever was a remarkable writer, and there are some genuine gems here: "The Enormous Radio", about a woman whose new radio picks up the squabbles and tragedies of her neighbors; "Clancy in the Tower of Babel", in which an elevator operator passes judgment on the tenants of the building he works in; "The Five Forty Eight", a revenge fantasy in which a scorned woman stalks the man who used her and threw her away; "The Swimmer", in which a man makes his way back home by swimming through his neighbors' pools, only to watch as his life crumbles along the way. Unfortunately, as the women's rights movement began gaining power, Cheever's treatment of female characters became more and more reactionary. Housewives wondering what they might have been if their lives hadn't been dedicated to home and family are painted as shrews and harridans, who keep slovenly houses and torment their long-suffering husbands and children. Successful career women are depicted as neglectful, uncaring mothers and wives. It's not entirely fair to condemn Cheever for being a product of his time, but there's no denying that this antipathy towards women made it difficult for me to appreciate the later stories in an otherwise stellar collection.