Sunday, July 30, 2006

King Dork by Frank Portman

Over a certain age, people who grew up and went to school in Western countries can be conveniently divided into two groups: those who read The Catcher in the Rye and found it whiny, pretentious, and self-involved, and those who read The Catcher in the Rye and found it meaningful, revolutionary, and life-altering, only to realize later, once the really scary hormones got washed out their system, that it is in fact whiny, pretentious, and self-involved. Frank Portman's debut novel, King Dork, will appeal to both groups. It is, at one and the same time, a scathing critique of Salinger's timeless yet tedious masterpiece, a hilarious parody of it, and a loving homage to it. It's also the funniest book I've read in quite some time.

King Dork is the self-inflicted, private nickname of fourteen-year-old Tom Henderson, who in real life has far worse nicknames to contend with. At his high school, Tom is very nearly at the bottom of the food chain--only the kid who has to wear a football helmet to protect his fragile bones and the unfortunately named Pierre Butterfly Cameroon look up to him. He has only one friend, Sam Hellerman, to whom he is bound by a relatively equivalent level of dorkiness, but even more strongly by the fact that their surnames followed one another on class lists for most of junior high. At home, Tom's wannabe hippie mother downs highballs and smokes joints for breakfast while earnestly exhorting him not to experiment with drugs, while his well-meaning, genuine hippie stepfather tries to bond with Tom over a shared love of rock and roll, only to dig himself further and further into the generation gap with every word that leaves his mouth. Worst of all, no matter what English class he's placed in, Tom can't avoid the American high-schooler's rite of passage--reading The Catcher in the Rye.
The Catcher in the Rye is this book from the fifties. It is every teacher's favorite book. ... It changed their lives when they were young. As kids, they carried it with them everywhere they went. They solemnly resolved that, when they grew up, they would dedicate their lives to spreading The Word.

It's kind of like a cult.

They live for making you read it. When you do read it you can feel them all standing behind you in a semicircle wearing black robes with hoods, holding candles. They're chanting "Holden, Holden, Holden..." And they're looking over your shoulder with these expectant smiles, wishing they were the ones discovering the earth-shattering joys of The Catcher in the Rye for the very first time.
But for all the disdain that he heaps on The Catcher in the Rye, Tom's life is changed by the book--by one specific edition of it, to be precise. Looking through some old boxes in the basement, Tom comes across his father's copy of Salinger's novel. The elder Henderson was a policeman who was killed in what may or may not have been an accident, and his copy of Catcher contains cryptic numbers, notes, and scraps of paper that might shed some light on the circumstances of his death.

Only, not really. The mystery aspect of King Dork--and apart from the death of Tom's father there are several other mysteries to unravel, including the question of why a beautiful and relatively normal girl decides to make out with Tom at a Halloween party--is probably where the novel is weakest, mainly because Tom isn't much of an investigator, or even that keen an observer. Like Holden Caulfield, Tom is locked into a set of prejudices and preconceptions--mainly a conviction that anyone approaching social normalcy is an evil psychopath--that color the way he sees the world and prevent him from noticing the obvious. And like The Catcher in the Rye, King Dork is written in a very tight first person, which crams us into Tom's head even as we recognize that this kid isn't nearly as smart or as world-weary as he thinks he is. King Dork is most enjoyable when Portman leaves the mystery plot on a slow boil in the background and just lets Tom be Tom--offering anthropological observations on the behavior of his peers ("It's a call-and-response game, the response [to 'who you callin' faggot, homo?'] being: 'I ain't no homo. Who you callin' homo, faggot?' This is a self-sustaining loop that can literally go on for hours if uninterrupted."), dreaming about girls both real and imaginary (and positing the existence of a hypothetical "Sex Alliance Against Society", in which the person you're having sex with sides with you against the general meanness of the world), going on at length about books and music and creating bands, again, both real and imaginary, with Sam Hellermen (the book ends with a list of Sam and Tom's imaginary band names, which include such gems as Ray Bradbury's Love-Camel, Green Sabbath and We Have Eaten All the Cake).

In any novel with an unreliable narrator, there's a very delicate balancing act that needs to be maintained between occupying the protagonist's headspace and allowing the readers to reach their own conclusions about him. It's a failure to maintain that balance that is, in my opinion, the main reason that The Catcher in the Rye, in spite of being a brilliant, masterful and (for its time) ground-breaking exploration of a lost, lonely kid's psyche, doesn't work as a novel. Lurking behind the teenaged Holden's disillusionment with and fear of the compromises of adulthood is the adult Salinger's disappointment with them, and the intensity, the grandeur that he bestows on Holden's plight forces us to view a character who should, by all rights, have been pitiable as a tragic hero. Frank Portman has obviously learned from Salinger's mistakes (and apparently doesn't suffer from Salinger's well-documented hang-ups). His use of humor brings us closer to Tom, while at the same time allowing us to maintain the minimal distance required to see the kid as he is, and to recognize how wrong, how self-involved, how uncomplicated, his viewpoint can sometimes be.

Which is not to say that Portman doesn't occasionally stumble. He rather belabors the point on those occasions when Tom experiences empathy for others (an emotion which he describes as feeling sorry for himself while pretending to be someone else, and really, Portman is being more than a little disingenuous when a kid whose vocabulary includes the word 'callipygian' can't put a name to empathy when he experiences it). And as I've said, the mystery plotlines are King Dork's weakest aspect, primarily because they force us to accept Tom's descriptions of his teachers, his classmates, and his parents at face value. We have to believe that in Tom's high-school, tenth graders spend their English lessons copying chapters out of books and using perfectly ordinary words in sentences, or that a PE teacher could get away with letting a beating go on for several minutes while he watches in pleasure, or that one can get AP credit for making collages. If we don't accept that Tom is capable of accurately describing the basic facts of his environment, then the mystery is rendered meaningless. If, on the other hand, we buy the picture Tom paints for us, then the novel is bled of its immediacy. It becomes, not a touching look into a smart but inexperienced boy's head, but a funny yet heartless satire, which takes place in an alternate universe where teenagers are truly capable of sustained, intense cruelty, instead of the haphazard, thoughtless kind that most of us experienced. The meeting points between these two different and mutually exclusive novels--the teen memoir and the mystery--are dissonant, jarring us out of the narrative in much the same way that the two scenes involving adult characters came close to shattering the central gimmick in Brick.

Happily, Portman seems to have realized as much. Towards the end of the novel, he downplays the mystery, and Tom's narrative climaxes not with the unmasking of a killer but with the performance of his only-slightly-imaginary band at the school talent show--a scene so hilarious that I was laughing out loud and gasping for breath as I read it. Portman also avoids the standard teen novel/movie pitfall (which Tom, naturally enough, lampoons) of ending the story with his character transformed into a popular, sexy, well-adjusted adult. At the end of King Dork, Tom is more popular than he was at its beginning, but he still isn't popular. There are several girls in his orbit, but none who are willing to be seen with him in public (much less form a Sex Alliance Against Society with him). There's the suggestion of a potential social group he might join, but Sam Hellerman is still his only friend. He has a better relationship with his mother and stepfather, but they're still loopy hippies. King Dork is, for Tom, only a first and rather tentative step towards adulthood, but its greatest significance is that in making it, Tom recognizes that such steps exist, that nicknames aren't destiny, and that the unhappiness you feel at fourteen won't necessarily follow you for the rest of life. It's more than Holden Caulfield ever managed.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Miracle of Miracles

With impeccable timing, Television Without Pity has decided to recap The Second Coming (part 1 is up, part 2 is presumably upcoming). The bad news is that they gave the job to Jacob; the good news, that for something by Jacob the recap is actually quite readable. There's none of the fawning adoration that made me drop his Battlestar Galactica recaps, and because The Second Coming wasn't primarily intended to be funny, he can't wring all the fun out of it the way he does with Doctor Who and Farscape. He's also being relatively succinct (20 pages for a 90 minute show, when he usually does more for 45-minute episodes), which means that instances of using as many words as possible to make the fucking obvious seem profound are kept to a bare minimum.

Still not funny, though.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

The Second Coming

"You should see Russell T. Davies' The Second Coming," Niall Harrison told me. "It's about a man who thinks he's the second coming of Christ, and he really is. It's good."

"Erm." I said.

My reservations had something to do with the obvious ridiculousness of the premise, but also with my general distaste for the way mainstream, secular fiction tends to treat religion and the idea of God. At the far ends of the spectrum are those whose work is primarily intended to preach and convert--the Tim LaHayes and Philip Pullmans--and they are easily dismissed. At the center, however, one more of than not discovers a wishy-washy, feelgood approach that I, for one, find more dispiriting than any amount of religious or anti-religious fanaticism. Joan of Arcadia is a good example--it posited a God so benign, so pleasant, that he or she seriously had nothing better to do than help a teenage girl forge better relationships with her parents and teach her Valuable Lessons, and who reveals themselves to a chosen person--a prophet--in order to perform random kindnesses and minor improvements. A paltry god, bereft of wonder and grandeur. Especially given Davies' well-advertised atheism, I expected The Second Coming to, at best, offer an easily-digested New Age peace-and-love message. At worst, I expected it to present a mean parody of the story of Christ.

What I got, instead, was one of the kindest, most affectionate, and cleverest examinations of the question of faith in the modern world I've ever seen (which, admittedly, is damning with faint praise given how limited the field is). Steve Baxter (Christopher Eccleston) is an amiable but aimless slob who has spent the better part of twenty years working the same dead-end job and hanging out at the same pub with the same people. He's also the son of God, and when a two AM kiss from his best friend awakens that knowledge within him, he starts a planet-wide revolution. Announcing himself by turning night into day within a crowded Manchester football stadium, Steve informs the people of the world that the time has come for a third Testament. "It's finally happened," he tells them. "Heaven is empty, and hell is bursting at the seams." If the Testament isn't produced and delivered with a set number of days, Steve promises, the world will come to an end.

What's most impressive about The Second Coming is that given a premise so rife with avenues of discussion, it deftly and intelligently comments on so many of them. When Steve flippantly points out to an excited Catholic priest that while some members of the Church have been trying to get people to listen, others have been "shagging choir-boys," the priest angrily retorts "every day someone is laughing at us, every day someone tears us down, and you're doing the same." It's a two-minute conversation that both distills and offers a starting point for an hours-long discussion, but the story itself keeps going. Shouting over his shoulder to that same priest (a character who sadly disappears soon after), Steve points out that the Church has no more authority than any other religion on the planet--in the wake of his arrival, they have all been rendered defunct. But Davies also recognizes that religion is as much a matter of culture and history as it is of faith--more so, in fact. It'll take a great deal more than irrefutable proof of one religion's correctness to wipe away millennia of religious persecution, holy wars, discrimination, prejudice, and injustices, and Davies understands this. In an essay about Davies' writing for Doctor Who, Paul Cornell recently pointed out the benevolence and the harshness with which Davies examines closed, obsessive groups. He was speaking of fannish obsessions, specifically in the recent Who episode "Love & Monsters", but Davies first extended that keen yet affectionate insight to religious obsession in The Second Coming. His people remain human even in the face of the divine, and their reactions to it are humanly diverse and irrational (compare that diversity with Philip Pullman's approach in the His Dark Materials novels, in which everyone who believes in God is evil in exactly the same way). Davies manages this without dragging God down to our level--his divinity, even clothed in the flesh of an ordinary Joe, is still divine.

Ultimately, The Second Coming isn't Steve's story. Christopher Eccleston's performance is winning and convincingly numinous, both when addressing the multitudes and in his private moments (Eccleston and Davies seem to have carried over a great deal of Steve's humanist attitudes and frenetic mannerisms when creating the ninth Doctor, which just kills me), but the story doesn't linger long on the dilemma of a god in man's body--the situation is what it is, and Steve accepts it unquestioningly. In fact, 'unquestioning' is a good general description of Steve's attitude, and at around the halfway point, the narrative recedes from him and starts paying closer attention to his aforementioned best friend, Judith (an excellent Lesley Sharp), the significance of whose name, I am mortified to admit, completely escaped me until about 20 minutes before the miniseries' end.

Judith is determinedly atheistic, not only in the face of undeniable miracles performed by Steve, but in spite of being repeatedly accosted by demons--humans who have given in to fear and despair and been possessed by Steve's opposite numbers. Judith is a doubter and a questioner--she starts out trying to find a rational, scientific explanation for Steve's miracles (only to be confronted by the fact that at the core of any scientific explanation she will eventually discover something not of this world), and later attempts to bargain Steve down from godhood. "I believe that something's happening. I believe that you're psychic or Martian but I don't believe you're the son of God," she tells him. Once she accepts that Steve is divine, Judith still asks questions: what happens if Steve doesn't find the third Testament? Why won't he perform miracles indiscriminately? And, most importantly, is the measurable, provable existence of God in our lives really a good thing? Ultimately, Judith's atheism is a question of ideology, not faith. She is brought to believe in the existence of God, but not in the wisdom of bowing down to him.

It's Judith who finally realizes what the third Testament is, and what Steve has to do in order to save humanity, but Davies puts his own heartbreaking yet fantastic twist on the story. Steve has to die, of course, but instead of establishing it, his death will mean the end of the whole system. Heaven and hell will stop. The angels and the demons will go away. Humanity will be left to its own devices. Davies isn't the first to write such a story, and it's not at all uncommon for anti-religious fiction to posit the existence of God, if for no other reason than that there are only a limited number of narratives that can be wrung out of 'but really, there's nothing there.' For the most part, however, such stories presume that God is malevolent, or at the very least ineffectual. The Second Coming is the only atheistic story I'm aware of in which God is both benevolent and wise. Recognizing that his system is irreparably broken, that the loss of faith that is leaving humanity vulnerable to the predation of demons is incurable, God sends his only (well, second) son to us to die in order to free us from a cosmology that we have outgrown. In the end, we are told by a character being interviewed in the story's epilogue, at the moment of Steve's death, we were all believers. It's a curiously joyous ending, in that it offers us the best of both worlds--we know that we were created by a loving being, but we also don't have to live up to its rules and demands--while at the same time describing the death of something wonderful.

To a fantasy reader, the story of The Second Coming is recognizable in another guise, as a tale about the departure of wonder (and to take a harshly atheistic approach, there really shouldn't be a difference in the way we perceive stories about magic and stories about divine miracles). In modern fantasy, it's more common to see fiction about its return--Crowley's Little, Big, Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell--or fiction that denies that wonder ever existed--Miéville's Bas-Lag novels--but intelligent authors of all stripes recognize that wonder comes at a price, and that its removal is also costly (unintelligent authors pretend that wonder and reason can coexist peacefully). The Second Coming is the only work of modern fantasy I'm aware of (and I'm sure there will be plenty of readers ready to offer their own examples) that ends with the removal of wonder.

In the miniseries' final scene, six years after the events it describes, Judith runs into Johnny, a sad and lonely man who had been possessed. Johnny is still sad and still lonely, but at least entirely human, and he comments to Judith that for months after Steve's death he expected some return, a miracle or a sign that the son of God wasn't entirely gone. So did I, Judith responds, but there never was one, and she now believes there never will be--"That's exactly the thing I got rid of. Do you think I was right?" Johnny leaves without answering. For all that it respects the opposing view, The Second Coming is unabashedly biased--as much in its premise as in its conclusion. There are plenty of people in the world--perhaps the majority--who feel God in their lives, who don't see themselves in Davies' middle-class, modern Westerners, and who would be horrified at the thought of all humans being stripped of their immortal souls. So it is to Davies' credit that he at least invites us to ponder what we lose with Steve's death and that, in spite of agreeing with it, he gives us the option of arguing with Judith and Steve's decision.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Everything's Been Said About This Movie... Superman Returns Edition

There have been three incarnations of the Superman story in the last decade, and each one of them has found it necessary to downplay one of the character's two halves and stress the other. The mid-90s television show Lois and Clark made it very clear that Clark was the person and Superman the mask he hid behind. Smallville does away with Superman entirely. In Superman Returns, Bryan Singer takes the opposite approach, making Superman--Kal-El--the real person and Clark the persona. In doing so, Singer is keeping faith with both the original comics and Richard Donner's late 70s films, Superman and Superman II, to which Superman Returns is a sequel, but this choice also serves his own interpretation of the character--a mythical savior, a Christ figure, floating above ordinary humans and unable to take part in our quotidian lives.

So thoroughly is the Clark persona devalued in Superman Returns that one finds oneself, while watching the film, wondering why it was even reintroduced. My best guess is that Singer was too married to the trappings of the Superman story, one of the key ingredients of which is the fact that the man of steel masquerades as a bumbling goody-two-shoes. But the film does nothing with Clark except replicate a few scenes from the Donner films (even I found it difficult not to smile when Clark characterized an evening with Lois and her fiancé Richard as 'swell'), and doesn't work very hard to convince us that Superman is interested in maintaining the human aspect of his life. We never see him working--as soon as Perry White sends Clark on an assignment, he casts off his glasses and heads off to battle evil--and there's no indication that he attaches any importance to the relationships he forms with humans in his guise as Clark. Besides his connection to his mother (who is left waiting outside the hospital as her son lies near death, while Superman's former lover and unacknowledged son are ushered in to see him), it's difficult to imagine why Singer's Superman would even want to resume his life as Clark Kent.

The flipside of Singer's Superman-as-savior approach--the one embraced by shows like Lois and Clark and Smallville as their central concept--is an empowerment fantasy. It tells us that as soon as a mild-mannered, geeky, (Jewish) reporter takes off his glasses, he becomes a physical hero. It promises us that the reason the cool, gorgeous girl won't give this nice guy a chance is that she can't see how wonderful he is on the underneath--if only she saw him without his glasses, she'd realize what she was missing. There's a scene roughly along these lines in Superman Returns, but it only serves to illustrate just how thoroughly Singer misuses Clark. In this incarnation of the story, Superman's 'secret identity' is almost insignificant. It's made very clear to us that to reveal himself to Lois would achieve nothing--their problems would be the same, and she would have no greater insight into his personality than she did before.

The revelation of Jason's paternity offers another interesting twist on the Superman story. At the film's close, Superman knows that Jason is his son--this is, presumably, what Lois whispered in his ear as he lay in a coma. If Superman Returns does indeed follow Superman II, then the fact that Lois knows that Jason is Superman's son but not that Superman and Clark Kent are one and the same implies that at some point between the two films, Superman and Lois had another affair in which he never bothered to reveal to her that she knew him by another name--presumably because the revelation wasn't important. (Another explanation is that Jason was conceived during Superman II, and that Lois only realizes he is Superman's son when he demonstrates his powers in Superman Returns. I would have expected her, in this case, to have a few pointed questions, and a few less gooey looks, for the man who apparently had sex with her without her knowledge.)

Between painting Superman as a super-human Christ-figure, and reducing Clark to a mass of mannerisms, Singer accomplishes what no other superhero, comic-book or action film before has managed to do--make the audience root for the impediment guy, that nice, safe, ordinary bloke who is invariably left (usually at the altar) by the hero's love interest. Plenty of reviewers have pointed out that, by making Richard a genuinely decent and loving man, Singer has placed Superman in a bind to which he is unaccustomed--he has to hurt this blameless man in order to be with the woman he loves. To my mind, however, Singer's film doesn't present that sort of dilemma--it's obvious to me that Lois should stay with Richard, that he will make her happier, and have more to offer her, than the man of steel ever could. "He was Superman. We were all in love with him," she tells Richard, and seeing Brandon Routh's interpretation of the hero, this is an easy claim to believe. We can imagine loving Superman from afar, as a concept or an idea, but Singer strains our credulity when he asks to believe that Lois could have taken him as a lover--one might as well love a marble statue. The notion of a life with him is unthinkable.

And the fact is that Richard is by far the more appealing and interesting character. His ordinariness is winning in the face of Superman's chilly inhumanity. Given that there's no passion evident between Lois and Superman--only a low-key longing that borrows most of its intensity from the audience and their pre-loaded knowledge of how the Superman story is supposed to unfold--there's really no convincing reason for her to turn away from a man with whom we see her have actual conversations and shared jokes. To my mind, Richard is even the more compelling hero, and all the more admirable for not having any superpowers. No amount of sweeping orchestral music will convince me that the tragic climax of the film is the scene in which Lex Luthor and his goons oh-so-photogenically beat Superman to a bloody pulp. Anyone with a heart will walk away from the film thinking of Richard, bravely but vainly trying to keep Lois and Jason's heads above water, struggling in spite of the fact that there is no hope for their survival.

There must have been hundreds, if not thousands, of people involved in every stage of Superman Returns' production. Isn't it strange that none of them thought to point out to Bryan Singer that, as his film closes, we are actively rooting for his hero to keep the hell away from us flawed mortals, and go back to the sky where he belongs?

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Ah, Hollywood

From the Publisher's Weekly review of P.D. James' Children of Men (emphasis mine):
Near the end of the 20th century, for reasons beyond the grasp of modern science, human sperm count went to zero.
From the trailer for Alfonso Cuáron's upcoming adaptation of Children of Men, spoken by Michael Caine's character (again, emphasis mine):
"The ultimate mystery--why are women infertile?"

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Dear Hollywood: Please Stop Letting M. Night Shyamalan Direct His Own Scripts

Well, not a mermaid per se. She's a “narf”—some sort of sea nymph who can see into the future, and is visiting here from “the blue world” to help “man get back on the right path.” Played by Bryce Dallas Howard in a joyless Osment-ian whisper, our narf is really more of a wet blanket, quivering in Giamatti's shower most of the time and gravely intoning ominous prophecies. Oh wait, did I forget to mention her name is “Story”?

Story has been sent to this particular pool so she may serve 
as a muse to a brilliant young writer—a young man so exceptional, with ideas so powerful, an entire generation is going to take his words to heart—and thanks to the fine work of this astounding young genius, our ravaged, war-torn earth will be returned to paradise.

The brilliant young writer is portrayed by M. Night Shyamalan.
Read the whole thing and boggle--particularly at the fact that the only person who won't help the mermaid is "a pissy film critic". Sounds like someone's been reading the J. Michael Straczynski playbook.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Finding Beauty in the Beasts

Expectations are a funny thing, especially when you can't remember where they came from. I can't recall ever having a conversation about Sheri S. Tepper's fiction, so I must have absorbed my impression of it--harsh, strongly feminist, a little unpleasant--by a process of osmosis. And, as is the case with almost all expectations but certainly those formed in so haphazard a manner, my first foray into Tepper's bibliography yielded something quite different. Tepper's Beauty, an environmentally-conscious retelling of Sleeping Beauty (and quite a few other fairy tales) in which our heroine, instead of falling asleep for a hundred years, embarks on a picaresque adventure through time and space, switches tones almost obsessively, but it never hits the one I expected from it. It starts out, in the 14th century, almost like a YA novel, complete with a spunky young heroine whose opinions about gender roles and class relations are conveniently anachronistic. When Beauty is kidnapped into the 21st century, in which overpopulation has forced humanity into cramped habitation warrens and every square inch of soil and ocean is used to produce tasteless, textureless food, the novel becomes the most blatant dystopia--the kind that goes all the way through awful and out the other end into funny. The novel switches back to the YA mode when Beauty travels back to the 20th century, into a Swiftian pastiche when she becomes trapped in another author's imaginary world, and into traditional fantasy when she arrives at her mother's home in Faery. The one quality that these different styles share is their broadness and lack of subtlety--each segment in the novel is shaped and informed by Tepper's blaring agenda.

I could go on for another three paragraphs here, complaining that Beauty is didactic and reactionary, but I suspect that if I do so most of the reactions I'll get will be some variation on 'well, duh.' It's right there in the author's foreword, after all--Tepper wrote the novel after seeing that some of her favorite beauty spots had been overrun by urban sprawl, and the novel's most consistent quality is the repetition of a shrill, almost panicked invective against those who squander our natural resources and ignore the dangers of overpopulation (this leads to the rather bizarre conclusion that anti-abortionists are evil not because they deny a person's right to control their own body but because their actions contribute to the population boom). It seems almost unfair, after this rare display of honesty, to complain that Tepper has given us exactly what she promised, however ploddingly self-aware the result (Tepper retells several well-known fairy tales over the course of the novel, and these retelling are enchantingly airy and clever. They are not, unfortunately, the novel's point and invariably give way to more preachiness). Beauty is exactly what it aspires to be, and to criticize it for failing as a novel seems to me as pointless as complaining that there aren't enough battle scenes in Middlemarch.

If Tepper intended Beauty to be a tract then I am willing to treat is as one, and I am therefore compelled to ask: what the hell was the woman thinking? It's not just that, much like the overwhelming majority of environmentalist writing, Beauty will probably make most of its readers want to go out and club a baby seal. It's that Tepper's argument is so wholly unconvincing as to make her seem ridiculous simply for suggesting it. In a nutshell, through Beauty's observations of humans in her era and ours, Tepper argues that our capacity to appreciate beauty has been eroded and replaced with a lascivious fascination with horror. The brutalities of this last century, she suggests, are both the product and the cause of this lust for depravity, and the human animal has been taught to crave the ugliness of its urban, industrialized environment. So, right off the bat we have the notion that it is impossible to find beauty in anything modern--that no one could appreciate the glass and steel, neon and chrome that make up our cities, or that there is no beauty to be found in rock music (the argument could be made that Beauty, raised as she was in the 14th century, lacks the cultural background required to appreciate modern architecture or music. But Tepper tries to have her cake and eat it too by giving Beauty 20th century mores and a modern education, and the result is that the character is too similar to us--we can't reject her rejection of our culture on the grounds that she is too removed from it). Which is small potatoes compared to the big lie that Tepper so brazenly tries to sell--that life in the 14th century availed one of many opportunities to appreciate beauty, and that wholesale slaughter is a modern human invention.

Beauty is a very convenient character through which to present this revisionist history. As a young woman in Britain, she can't have seen the crusaders wade up to their knees in the blood of their victims as they entered Jerusalem. She wouldn't have visited the dungeons of the Inquisition. She even misses the Black Death--as her neighbors and tenants develop stinking postules all over their bodies, die in their own filth and are left to rot because there's no one to bury them, Beauty is going to college in the 20th century. She returns to the hush of death, but misses its stench. Beauty's social circle in the 14th century is made up almost entirely of her fellow nobles, thus neatly sidestepping the need to acknowledge the inhuman conditions the peasants lived in at that time. And then, of course, there's the fact that, by our standards, the life of even the wealthiest, most cosseted individual in the 14th century would be an almost unbearable torture of bad hygiene, poor and unhealthy food, unrelievable tedium and, almost certainly, an early grave (again, we see Tepper trying to have the best of both worlds. As a native of the 14th century, Beauty would naturally be less distressed than us at, say, being infested by lice, but in other respects the character's thought processes are almost completely modern, and Tepper makes almost nothing of the reverse culture shock that Beauty goes through when she returns from the 20th century to the squalor of the 14th). So, yeah, there's a lot more pretty nature to look at where Beauty's from, but who has the time, or the strength, or the inclination, to look at it?

It is almost insulting that Tepper expects her readers not to notice the inherent absurdity of her premise, but then she'd hardly be the first author to romanticize the past as a way of disavowing the present. I'll get another chorus of 'well, duh's if I start pointing out that fantasy often ignores the deep darkness of the medieval era, but I can think of very few authors--certainly none with Tepper's aura of respectability--who engage in this revisionism so brazenly, without offering their readers an escape hatch, a hook from which to suspend their disbelief. Some authors set their stories in alternate universes in which nobility means just that (there's a hint of this approach in Beauty, in that the novel's solution to the world's problems is that Beauty should establish a promised land after humanity's demise, but Tepper chooses to ignore the fact that the economical model for the community Beauty is going to build requires a terrific amount of cheap manual labor--she's going to reestablish the medieval feudal system, or at least there's no indication that she doesn't intend to do so), and others recognize that the return of wonder--the 'unthinning of the world', as John Clute puts it (which is also an important subplot in Beauty)--comes with a hefty price tag. Tepper does neither. Her novel takes place in the real world, and she pretends that Beauty's new society will be egalitarian and environmentally friendly without ever telling us how this could be accomplished.

It's almost a shame that Tepper focuses so much of her energies on convincing us that the 14th century is a dandy place to live, because the most interesting part of her argument for the transition from beauty to horror is formulated in the 20th century and repeated unthinkingly throughout the novel. As a high school student, Beauty meets the author Barrymore Gryme and is introduced to the concept of horror fiction. What follows is an almost surreal attack on this genre. "Everything in it was hopeless and terrible. People kept being mutilated or eaten or destroyed. ... If lots of people read things like this, there's something terribly, terribly wrong..." is her reaction to one of Gryme's novels. Later she tries to convince him that his novels desensitize their readers to the very real horror that exists in the world. Tepper returns quite frequently to this assault on horror writers, even placing Gryme, Dante-like, in her version of hell.
There were times, I remember, when we said certain things were unspeakable. Fantasies too horrible for words. Imaginings too gross for description. Violence too inhuman to be put into human language. And then came those who said, 'We can speak it, we can say it, make stories of it, until there is nothing that is not there on the page for the eye to see, for the mind to comprehend, for the child in each of us to be corrupted and eternally tainted by.'

Innocence. Gone, forever, with the unthinkable and the unspeakable. And innocent laughter gone as well. Now only the dirty giggle, the wicked snigger, the game of out-grossing, the playtime of the beasts.

So that when the real death stalks
When the real horror begins
It will all be familiar and we will be able to enjoy it.
If we ignore the perplexing intensity of Tepper's attack on horror fiction--she is literally saying that horror writers are minions of the devil--there is a cutting truth in what she says. We are more accustomed to horror than our ancestors. We are capable of looking unflinchingly at grossness that would have made our parents and grandparents blanche and retch. And in our fiction, we tolerate more and more depictions of violence and gore. Before I sat down to write this essay, I watched an episode of Bones (just taking it out for a test drive--David Boreanaz's character is fun, but the whole thing is so formulaic that I don't see the point of continuing) in which the camera lingered lovingly over the skeleton of a young woman mauled by dogs, flesh still hanging in strips off the bones. I didn't even bat an eye. We are desensitized to violence, and it is worth wondering why authors gravitate to fiction that revels in it--which, indeed, the authors themselves frequently do (most recently in Joe Hill's excellent collection 20th Century Ghosts). But Tepper isn't interested in a discussion of the whys and wherefores of horror fiction, and she clearly isn't qualified to take part in it--she completely ignores, for instance, the fact that there exists horror that doesn't take a pornographic pleasure in descriptions of gore and violence, and that, even though both are defined as horror, there is a difference between fiction that scares its readers and fiction that disgusts them. She has come up with her, as previously pointed out, surreal and reductive argument, and presents it as fact, a stepping stone towards her ultimate, and ultimately unconvincing conclusion--that things were better 600 years ago, simply because the environment was in better shape.

In the last week, I've come across several rather critical discussions of China Miéville's fiction and his attitudes towards fantasy as a genre. Specifically, it was Miéville's outspoken distaste for 'conciliatory' fantasy, coupled with his obvious affection for grossness and horror, that was taking a lot of fire. Was there anything inherently realistic, the participants wondered, about the deliberately dark and gruesome endings of Miéville's novels, or was he simply--as Tepper accuses horror writers as a group of doing--causing his readers pain and patting himself on the back for being clever while doing it? I came away from these discussions baffled by the notion that anyone would take the endings of Miéville's novels--Perdido Street Station was the one most frequently mentioned--as being intended to cause the readers pain. And then I was baffled by my own reaction, because clearly Perdido's ending is nothing if not cruel. For his simple, unintentional error, Isaac dan der Grimnebulin pays with everything he holds dear, and he is left alive to contemplate that loss. His life in the city is over, his career as a scientist is in shambles, and his lover Lin is irreparably damaged before his eyes. And yet I can't say that I walked away from Perdido Street Station feeling dejected or cheated or abused by its author, because the novel's actual main character--the city of New Crobuzon--survived. Miéville's later novels are also love stories to that city, and to cities in general (I'd argue that one of the reasons that Iron Council is the least successful of Miéville's novels is that it doesn't offer as elaborate a portrait of an imaginary city as Perdido Street Station and The Scar do. The Iron Council is thinly sketched, and in New Crobuzon the delicate balance between restrictive tyranny and the freedom of self-expression has been disturbed, and the city is on the verge of self-annihalation).

With its gruesome descriptions of gore and violent deaths, Miéville's fiction is clearly the kind that Tepper recoils from in Beauty. And Miéville has made no secret of his objection to Tepper's brand of reactionary past-worship. His fiction is strongly focused on confounding the expectations that readers have from traditional fantasy--or from fairy tales. And yet, in spite of the fact that Beauty has a happy ending and Perdido Street Station a sad one, and notwithstanding that Miéville is the better writer, that his characters are more believable and that I find his politics more appealing--although these are all true--I still feel that Perdido is the more benevolent novel. Beauty is ultimately a novel of restrictions. Tepper proscribes any way of life that doesn't conform to her very rigid standards of correctness, and implies that any person who doesn't accept her criteria for beauty has been damaged by the world. Miéville recognizes that there are as many definitions of happiness as there are people. He revels in humanity's capacity for difference, for wanting different things, and his cities are havens for those in search of a place that will suit their unique desires (admittedly, his characters don't always find that haven, and sometimes it is snatched away from them)--which is why New Crobuzon's survival at the end of Perdido Street Station offsets the sadness of Isaac's individual story. Through the eye of this beholder, Miéville's dark, gruesome fiction is preferable--more conciliatory--than Beauty. In Miéville's hands, horror is made beautiful. In Tepper's rigid, uncompromising definition of it, beauty is turned into something horrible.

Friday, July 14, 2006

After All, They Do Say That Bad Books Make Good Movies

There's a new trailer online for Christopher Nolan's upcoming adaptation of Christopher Priest's The Prestige. Either the studio's promo department has done a very good job of misrepresenting the film, or Nolan and his writers have taken great liberties with the plot. Considering that Priest's novel managed to make a boring, underperforming trudge out of a very promising premise--a rivalry that develops between 19th century magicians when one of them becomes convinced that the other's trademark illusion is actually magical--I'm hoping for the latter. The cast list on the film's IMDb page strongly suggests that the novel's pointless modern-day plot strand has been dropped, which is quite encouraging.

So yeah, I think I'm going to see this one.

One Year Later

One year ago today, I published AtWQ's inaugural post. I had no idea what to expect from this endeavor, but I don't think that I could have imagined that the blog would draw as much attention as it has, or that it would lead to my writing appearing elsewhere, in online and print venues. Niall Harrison SMSed me about an hour ago to say that a quote from my Strange Horizons review of Maureen F. McHugh's collection Mothers and Other Monsters has been used as a blurb on the paperback edition--a timely illustration of how my life has changed in just a year.

So, one year later, I would like to say how grateful I am, to everyone who has dropped by, commented, pointed to this spot, or become a friend.

I hope I continue to find favor.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

That Other High-School-Set Noir Mystery

So, here's the best compliment I can pay Rian Johnson's debut film, Brick: my friend Hagay and I drove to Jerusalem (an hour's drive), where the film was playing as part of the Jerusalem film festival, battled the city's unfamiliar streets and mid-day traffic, paid an exorbitant amount of money for a parking place that turned out to be a ten minute walk away from the cinematheque, and missed the film's first few minutes. And it was all worth it. Brick is smart, and exciting, and fantastically well-acted. It's also gimmicky, of course--high-school students whose lives are steeped in drugs and violence, who never see the inside of a classroom, whose parents are absent or downright insane, and who speak like characters out of a Dashiel Hammet novel. But the true marvel of the film is that it sustains this gimmick all the way to the finish line. Brick is a two hour long tightrope act, where any misstep would mean an immediate and irretrievable plunge into absurdity, but in spite of one or two shaky steps (both, interestingly enough, involving our hero interacting with adult characters), the film carries itself across the abyss.

Best of all, there is more to Brick than the dissonance between its setting and its style. The mystery at the film's heart is clever, and even more cleverly laid out. There are several pulse-pounding fight and chase scenes, and others of great intensity--I can't remember the last time a film left me feeling so wrung out and overwhelmed. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as our protagonist and detective Brendan Frye, gives a stunning performance that keeps the character's heart well under wraps while still giving us a hook to hang our affections on--in this case, Brendan's fierce intelligence and determination. As the classic noir detective must be, Brendan is burned out and disillusioned by life, incapable of love or trust, and it is to both Johnson's (who also wrote the script) and Gordon-Levitt's credit that we nonetheless come to like the character a great deal.

Looking through reviews of the film, I was struck and saddened by the fact that so very few of them--and of those almost none in major venues--compared the film to Veronica Mars, if only to note the nearly diametrically opposed approaches that Johnson and Rob Thomas took to a very similar concept. Veronica Mars is unquestionably a noir detective story, but it eschews the genre's trappings, to the point that, more than once, we've seen characters lampoon the trademark hard-bitten dialogue style that Brick revels in. Veronica Mars asks us to be surprised at the darkness that lurks behind the clean, candy-colored exterior that Neptune, California, presents. Brick asks us to take it for granted. Both works are at their core an indictment of the American dream--as all noir ultimately is--but Brick posits that corruption and indecency are ubiquitous, whereas Veronica Mars usually makes wealth and power a prerequisite to both.

Apart from being a fantastic way to spend two hours, watching Brick also brings into focus two aspects in which Mars deviates from the standard noir tropes. The first is, obviously, the fact that its protagonist is a woman. If Brick has a flaw, it is its treatment of its female characters, which, in accordance with the conventions of the genre, are all either manipulators or victims of manipulations. Brendan's girlfriend Emily, whose panicked cry for help sets the film's plot in motion, has clung to the coattails of those more popular and wealthy than she is, and gotten herself addicted to drugs and murdered for her troubles. The other two female characters--a heartless man-eater and a winsome femme fatale who may or may not harbor genuine feelings for our hero--are too slathered in (mostly offensive) stereotypes to ever develop a believable personality or, indeed, discernible motivations. There seems to be a fear of women, coupled with a disdain towards them, that permeates most noir writing. Veronica Mars neatly sidesteps this attitude, primarily because of the detective's gender but mostly because the writing simply avoids blatant clichés. I've complained before about the paucity of positive female characters on the show, but even at their worst, Thomas' bad girls are recognizably human, and their badness is not blatantly derived from their gender.

A second way in which Mars deviates from the conventions of noir is that Veronica very rarely encounters violence directed at herself. Within half an hour of Brick, Brendan is beaten to a bloody pulp. By the time the film ends, he is throwing up his own swallowed blood and having trouble standing up (by most standards, the violence in the film is fairly mild, but there is a visceral quality to the beatings inflicted on Brendan--right down to the meaty thwaps as the blows hit his body--that makes Brick's violent scenes very difficult to endure). It is Brendan's nonchalant reaction to this violence that particularly distinguishes the film from the television show--clearly, the physically unimposing Veronica couldn't withstand the punishment that he endures (on those occasions when she is physically threatened, Veronica almost always needs to be rescued), but when faced with violence she usually breaks with the noir detective tradition and reacts with fear and horror (the same, by the way, is true for Keith, who on at least one occasion has begged for his life). It is to the Mars writers' credit that they have managed to so consistently, and almost invisibly, stack the deck for two seasons so that Veronica is only rarely faced with situations that can only be resolved with physical violence. They accomplish this largely by making the show's villains smart and educated--as opposed to the street-smart thugs who populate Brick's rogues' gallery (again, we bump up against Thomas' class prejudices)--and therefore less likely to solve problems with a punch.

I'm not entirely certain that I can recommend Brick to Veronica Mars fans. It's a film that probably elicits only extreme reactions. Those viewers capable of suspending their disbelief in the concept of stylistically accurate noir in a high school setting--and it is by no means obvious to me that Veronica Mars fans will all fall in that group--will probably enjoy it immensely. Those who don't buy into the central concept will walk away in disgust. For my part, I am for the first time in a long time genuinely excited by a cinematic work, and can't wait to see what Rian Johnson thinks up next.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Attack of the Sophomore Slump

Correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't the rule of thumb use to be that the second season was when most television shows started to shine? If, that is, shining had ever been in the cards--most good television shows, I mean to say, only got good in their second season. The first season was where the groundwork was done, the characters and their voices and personalities established, the writers got their legs under them. Then the second season would come along and the shows would shoot to the stratosphere--The X-Files, Buffy, Angel, even Farscape. They all kept to that formula.

So what's changed?

I started watching four new television shows last year, and fell in love with them all. Four superb first seasons, which between them got me feeling hopeful about television again. And one by one, each of these shows has produced a disappointing second season. Not all of them were dismally disappointing--my reactions ran the gamut from 'screw this, I'm done' to 'but it's still better than 90% of what's on TV', but none of the seasons I've watched this year have excited and elated me as their predecessors did.

I've written too much about Lost and Battlestar Galactica to repeat it all here. The former spoils my argument a little in that it only had half of a superb first season. The rot started setting in when the show was extended from its originally planned length of 10 episodes, and everything neat about the show started losing its lustre. Lost chugged through to last year's finish line on the very last fumes of its personality and charm, but with the exception of the first 10 minutes of the second season premiere, both qualities have been largely absent this season. What's left is hours of tedium punctuated by minutes of shocking developments which, in their turn, give rise to even more hours of tedium. Battlestar Galactica fared a little better--the first seven episodes of the second season were quite excellent, and certainly the show doesn't give off the impression that its writers have simply stopped caring (if, indeed, they ever did) as Lost does. But the show is still a shadow of its former self, and I can express this change no better than to say that although I probably will be watching when the third season starts in the fall, it will be rather reluctantly. Watching Galactica seems a bit more like a chore than a pleasure these days.

Doctor Who's second season has been... pleasant. It didn't sink to the depths that the first season was capable of--there were no "Boom Town"s, no "Aliens of London"/"World War Three"--but it didn't scale the first season's heights either. The best episode of the second season, "The Girl in the Fireplace", doesn't really approach the wit and emotion of the first season's best entries. I disagree with a lot of what he says about Who's second season, but Andrew Rilstone is right on the money when he writes that the second season--and the tenth Doctor--don't surprise the viewers as the first season and the ninth Doctor did. I think I was most struck by this in "Army of Ghosts", when the Doctor talked Yvonne out of running the ghost shift by smugly sitting by and doing nothing. It occurred to me that this sort of behavior, which by all rights should be the Doctor's stock-in-trade, has been sadly absent throughout most of the second season. Instead of moving at diagonals to the rest of us, the Doctor has been sticking to the horizontal and the vertical. He knows more, and he sees more, but he doesn't think differently anymore. The writers also seemed to have no idea what to do with their main characters. There were hints of possible character arcs--Rose becoming disenchanted with her life with the Doctor, the Doctor growing careless with his safety and that of others--but they were allowed to peter out, and the season as a whole doesn't amount to a single story as the first season did. There's nothing actually wrong with the second season of Doctor Who, but a hell of a lot that was right about the first season is missing.

Veronica Mars is another show that I've written extensively about this year, and as I've already said, by any standard but the one set by its first season, the show has had a spectacular year. Judged against that standard, however, Mars' second season is sadly lacking. Unlike Lost and Galactica and Who, however, there is a definite sense that Mars' writers were aware of the difficulties inherent in expanding their standalone story into a series, and tried to meet that challenge by playing with the fundamental building blocks of their premise--turning the show from a detective story into a story about a person who is sometimes a detective. It didn't work, or at least not entirely, but the writers certainly have my respect for recognizing that they had a problem and trying to deal with it.

Four excellent shows. Four talented writing crews. Four disappointing second seasons. Once again, what's changed? There are obviously individual factors that have affected each show--pressure from within and without to move the show to a more episodic format was clearly instrumental in both Lost's and Battlestar Galactica's implosions; David Tennant has a very different skill set from Christopher Eccelston, and the Who writers still don't seem to be writing to his strengths (one of these days, I'm going to thwap the person who decided that "I was there at the fall of Arcadia. Someday I might even come to terms with that" was a line that Tennant would be able to pull off); Kristen Bell needed a less grueling schedule in Mars' second season, and producer Rob Thomas couldn't afford to hire the entire supporting cast for all 22 episodes--but is there a single underlying cause?

I think there is. I think it all comes down to that much-maligned staple of television writing, at least until a few years ago, formula. The shows I mentioned in this entry's first paragraph were all originally formula shows. They were products of the middle period in the transition towards novelistic television, when writers and viewers alike were marvelling at the discovery that a show that demanded loyalty, patience, and attentiveness from its viewers could thrive, but they were originally conceived as formula shows. Each week, Buffy battles monsters who humorously parallel her teenage troubles. Each week, Mulder leaps to unlikely conclusions and Scully scoffs at the supernatural. Each week, John Crichton is tortured and/or seduced by alien lifeforms. It was only in their second seasons that these shows, having accumulated backstories and deepened their imaginary universe, started moving towards longer and more complicated plot and character arcs, eventually arriving at novelistic storytelling--the Angel/Angelus arc, Crichton running from Scorpius, Angel and Darla, Scully's abduction. Newer shows, created in recent years, have skipped over that introductory period in which story is sublimated to formula--they were created with a story, not a concept, in mind.

To my very great surprise, it turns out that that foundation of formula actually gifted the mid- and late-90s shows with a degree of durability that their early oughts counterparts don't have. When Joss Whedon wrapped up a storyline--yet another villain defeated, yet another emotional hurdle leaped--he had the show's basic concept to fall back on and use as a starting point for the next story. The newer shows' writers don't seem to have that broader understanding of the kind of story they want to tell--they have a story, and they don't know how to handle its ending. Lost abandoned its story half-told. Battlestar Galactica and Doctor Who arrived at something like a stopping point and tried to regress into formula. Veronica Mars tried to find a happy medium between repeating itself and abandoning its genre and came up with something half-baked.

Nearly a year ago, I wrote a rather disjointed essay about the past and future of novelistic television. I came to some rather hopeful conclusions, based primarily on my impressions of Lost, Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who and Veronica Mars' first seasons. A year later, it seems that some reevaluation is in order. Perhaps I should have paid closer attention to my own choice of words--novelistic television. Novels end. Most of them don't have sequels, and when they do those sequels are usually inferior, and their sequels give increasingly diminished returns. The underlying cause of all these disappointing second seasons may simply be an incompatibility of format--we can have television novels, but perhaps not in the American network model.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Recent Reading Roundup 7

  1. The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman and Fireworks by Angela Carter - I think it's time to accept that my relationship with Angela Carter's fiction has crossed over into AA's-definition-of-insanity territory, and I suspect that these two books--the former a novel, considered one of Carter's best, and the latter a collection of short stories--may have finally soured me on this furiously talented but frustrating writer. So, for those of you who don't know this dance already: prose gorgeous, one or two genuinely engaging scenes, but for the most part Carter concentrates on description and scene-setting, and leaves plot by the wayside. In Hoffman, her protagonist is a coldly analytical and dispassionate young man who embarks on a sensual and erotic odyssey, obviously a riff on Gulliver's Travels, to track down and destroy the brilliant but mad Doctor Hoffman, who has been assaulting reality itself with his machines of desire (his infernal machines, I should say). The novel has a strong beginning and ending, but its middle consists of a dozen or so repetitions of the same format--20 pages of description (boring and soporific for all of Carter's beautiful language and attention to detail) followed by maybe 10 pages of action (usually quite good, especially when she remembers to give her hero a bit of personality, although he quickly loses it in time for the next chapter). Carter's failure to attach us to the character means that, paradoxically enough, a novel about embracing the irrational, the passionate and the sensual becomes dull and unaffecting.

    Fireworks is made up of naturalistic stories--dealing primarily with a lonely Western woman's life in Japan--and the familiar fantastic ones, which, once again, prioritize scene-setting over plot and character. There is in these stories a slight whiff of the intriguing approach to female sexuality and its perception for which Carter became famous, but to my mind there is very little that she says on the subject that isn't either completely outdated or glaringly obvious.

  2. North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell - Gaskell is usually lumped in with the second tier of Victorian authors, and from this single foray into her oeuvre I can say that that classification is justified. North and South has a slow, weak beginning and an ending to match, and there are spots in the middle in which one can almost see Gaskell straining to make her prose do things that better authors like George Eliot or Charlotte Bronte managed almost effortlessly. Nevertheless, North and South's middle segment is engaging and at times quite excellent. Although obviously derivative of Pride and Prejudice, North and South uses that novel's template of the misunderstandings that arise when a headstrong young woman comes into contact with a proud young man to discuss industrialization and its costs and benefits to English society. Gaskell treats this subject with a level of delicacy and insight that is impressive in an author of her era, even if her final conclusion is that unions do more harm than good, and that the best solution for workers and manufacturers alike is for manufacturers to be kind and considerate. Gaskell also outdoes Austen in one respect--she recognizes that her characters, the lovers and their families and friends, have complicated lives with personal, familial, religious and professional issues, against which their romantic misfortunes often seem insignificant. The misunderstandings that keep Gaskell's lovers apart are inevitable--it is almost impossible that they ever could comprehend the complexity of another person's psyche and history--an impressively modern notion for a Victorian author. North and South's true stroke of genius is in the way that Gaskell parallels this lack of understanding between individuals with a similar lack of understanding between groups--specifically, the masters and the men, who prefer to see each other as ogres and monsters rather than thinking and feeling human beings with problems and strongly held opinions.

  3. Morality Play by Barry Unsworth - I liked Unsworth's Sacred Hunger when I read it earlier this year, but I also found it a little too clinical--too concerned with questioning the realities of human existence and not sufficiently focused on plot. Morality Play manages to avoid that pitfall, possibly because it clocks in at less than 200 pages. The plot involves a runaway 14th century priest who joins a troupe of actors and arrives at a town where a murder has recently been committed. The actors decide to reenact the murder and, in the course of doing so, become convinced that it could not have happened as the official version claims, and that the person convicted of it is innocent. Every now and then it seems that Unsworth is going to let himself be overcome by the urge to expostulate on the human condition, specifically as it relates to the theatre and to the urge to transform our lives into a narrative, but before he gets too far off track he usually returns to the demands of the plot. Because I'd already seen the movie version (which, although quite good, veers from the text in several major points), the mystery aspect of the book was lost on me, but I was still able to enjoy it as an imagination of the moment in which our understanding of fiction, the theatre, and their role in life changed forever.

  4. A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka - I'm not entirely certain why I picked up a copy of Lewycka's novel, which describes the efforts of two estranged sisters to save their dreamy, impractical father from marrying a beautiful Ukrainian émigrée less than half his age in order to give her a work permit, when I had my book-shopping spree in the UK a few months back (I've found that thoughtless impulse-buying of books that I would normally not even look twice at is an unavoidable side effect of these buying binges--it's just so intoxicating to be in a real bookstore after such a long drought that I get a little carried away), but it turned out to be a quick and pleasant (surprisingly so, given its often grim subject matter) read which left me, only a few hours after turning the last page, with almost no residue. Lewycka has a gift for description - of the narrator's mother's garden, of her father's idiosyncrasies, of their life and their parents' lives in early 20th century Eastern Europe--that draws the reader in, and I was interested in the characters, but throughout the novel there was a very palpable sense of Lewycka holding herself back, writing a pleasant but mediocre novel instead of even trying to write a very good one. It's not often that I encounter a novel whose author aspires to so little.

  5. Saturday by Ian McEwan - I can't say that I disagree with any of the complaints levelled against McEwan's latest novel. It is, unquestionably, an apologia for wishy-washy liberals unwilling to commit to a genuine political outlook and happy to ensconce themselves in the luxurious trappings of a Western lifestyle while half the world starves or burns. It, without a doubt, glorifies its rich, white, professional protagonist, turning him into a moral hero. It is also one of the most beautifully written novels I have read in a long time, a modern-day Mrs. Dalloway that replicates that earlier novel's ability to place us inside its protagonist's head while still dealing with issues of its own era (Michael Cunningham, this is how it's done). I had quite frankly forgotten how good a writer McEwan can be when he puts his mind to it. His ability to switch back and forth between middle-aged, middle-class ennui and the worst horrors that the human race is capable of, with no slackening of tension or loss of insight into his characters, amazes me anew every time I pick up one of his books (possibly that's why I disliked The Cement Garden and Amsterdam--because they didn't counteract their sensational premises with a grounding normalcy). The novel's climax, in which the hero's family is threatened, was one of the most uncomfortable reading experiences I've ever had, in all the best ways--I couldn't wait for the scene to be over, for the family to be released from its peril, but at the same time I couldn't look away. And ultimately, too good to be true or not, I genuinely liked McEwan's hero, Henry Perowne, a decent man who recognizes his good fortune, and perhaps does less than he could to make up for it. This one definitely goes in the 'good' McEwan pile.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

A 30 Second Demonstration of Why I Don't Use PCs

My aunt, a self-employed architect and workaholic, bought a new flat screen for one of her office computers. My brother and I visited her this afternoon and, while admiring the new peripheral, he changed its resolution to one that the screen couldn't handle. The result? A black screen with the legend 'out of range' and no way to access Windows in order to change the resolution back apart from hooking the computer up to another screen.

So, basically, not only did the screen's software react to a bad resolution command in a way that rendered the computer unusable and had no obvious fix, but fucking Windows has no safeguard against the user giving such a bad command in the first place. There was absolutely no indication that the screen currently hooked up to the computer couldn't handle all of the resolutions that Windows' control panel offered, and the operating system didn't block the command once it was given.

In conclusion, I love my Mac.