Wednesday, August 30, 2006

We've Had Ours Served Cold: Scattered Thoughts at the End of Deadwood's Third Season

Hate me if you want to, but at this point, I'm actually relieved that Deadwood has been cancelled.

Those of you who read my pre-season wish list might feel that I'm being a tad ungrateful, perhaps even hypocritical. After all, I did wrap up that essay by concluding that
if I have a wish list for Deadwood's third season, it is that its main characters return to form--that Bullock become again a player in the town's politics, that Al demonstrate the capacity and the willingness to hurt even those who might not deserve it, that Cy be marginalized, and that Hearst prove a more interesting, more believable character than Wolcott.
Which, by and large, is what the third season has delivered. Cy was indeed marginalized--not only in terms of the character's screen time but within the story itself. Much as I would have preferred to see Cy unceremoniously dumped from the show, there was a certain gratification to be found in watching him realize how incidental to the running of the camp he had become. Bullock once again took up his role as a leader in the camp (albeit with Al none-too-subtly directing his moves) and with the murder of Jen in the season finale, Al Swearengen finally broke his two-and-a-half season dry spell and killed someone who genuinely didn't deserve to die (although it does appear that the writers were eager to soft-pedal the murder's effect, given that Jen's death prevented Trixie's, and that we hardly knew the character, and that neither Bullock nor Sol breathed a word of recrimination against Al).

Best of all, in George Hearst, Deadwood's writers finally created a worthy, terrifying, and utterly despicable villain. Gerald McRaney gives a chilling performance (I'd be talking Emmys right now if it weren't for the fact that this is the same institution that has deprived Ian McShane of his dues not once but twice) as a man who is both furiously intelligent and completely selfish. It's actually quite rare for a television show to feature a villain who is both powerful and disgusting--bad guys being famously fun to write for, most shows fall into the trap of making their villains charismatic and seductive (Deadwood tried to go down that path twice, with Tolliver and Francis Wolcott, albeit without great success, and was headed that way with Al before he became a good guy)--but every time we came close to feeling sympathy or pity or admiration for George Hearst, he proved himself yet again to be a bully and a sociopath, and ultimately, too much for our heroes to handle.

But I'm still glad that Deadwood is cancelled, because in spite of these welcome developments on the character front, and in spite of the fact that the third season's highlights included some of the most stunning and exciting bits of television I've seen in a long time (including what is, bar none, the most affecting and harrowing death of a regular character I've ever experienced), the season as a whole dragged. Out of twelve episodes, maybe three--"Unauthorized Cinnamon," "A Constant Throb," and "The Catbird Seat"--were genuinely excellent, and the rest combined the sublime with the tedious and the downright bizarre. It's painfully clear that the writers had no idea what to do with the entirety of their allotted twelve hours--the story they wanted to tell taking up maybe four--and so they resorted to proliferating secondary and tertiary storylines and drawing them out remorselessly.

When Hostetler returns to the camp with the horse that killed William Bullock and squares off against Steve for ownership of the livery, there's some genuine tension in the air--not least because the storyline provides Bullock with a welcome opportunity to act outside of Al's influence as he desperately strives to prevent his son's death from spawning another senseless tragedy (this is, by the way, the only acknowledgment of William's very recent death over the course of the entire season). But the storyline keeps going in the next episode, and the one after that. Even after Hostetler's death, the characters keep cropping up and insulting one another again and again and again. If I didn't know better, I'd say the horse that lobotomized Steve was meant to stand in for the exasperated viewers.

The same might be said of Aunt Lou and her ill-fated son (although that storyline does serve to cast a light on Hearst's sadistic personality), and then there are the actors. Now, don't get me wrong: I think Brian Cox made an excellent addition to an already superior cast, and I very much enjoyed his character's interactions with Al and Hearst and even his shorter shared scenes with Joanie, Alma, and Bullock. But why in the name of all that is good and pure were we subjected to all the soapy melodrama surrounding the acting troupe? Who the hell are these people and why should we care about their petty squabbles when characters we've actually come to care about are dying and suffering off-screen? The mind boggles at the mindset that would willingly take us away from the Gem in the wake of Ellsworth's murder in order to watch the actors awkwardly welcome a new member into the troupe.

All this, I might point out, while established characters were left to languish in one-note roles. Trixie and Sol bicker and make up. Jane drinks and longs for Joanie. Doc coughs. Martha teaches and looks saintly and long-suffering. Alma, who was making such tremendous strides last season, goes back to the dope, which is really the entire story right there. The truth is that addiction is boring, and beyond the fact of it, there's really nothing much of interest to say about a person who descends into it. So Alma takes up laudanum again, screws up her life but good, and then disappears for several episodes (including the one in which the writers sanctimoniously have the whores point out that the men haven't invited Alma to the meeting of the camp elders--a sentiment that might have resonated a bit more if we didn't know that the character was a busy going through the DTs at the time) only to emerge from them clean with no indication of why she chose to quit again or how she managed to do it on her own.

If, like myself, you're a former Carnivalé fan, then I'm sure you find this situation very familiar. Like Deadwood, this other member of the rather small and exclusive club of cancelled HBO dramas had a very promising first season and a second season that dragged, too committed to the writers' established timeline to notice that the audience was turning away in droves. In its first season, Carnivalé established backstories for several of the freak show acts, and the season's minor storylines usually involved these characters in some way. In its second season, the writers decided to focus on one of these storylines--the one involving the Dreyfus family, a mom and pop stripper act whose youngest member was brutally murdered in one of the first season's strongest episodes. Before long, the show seemed to have been split in two--half the air time was taken up by the battle between good and evil, and the other half by the Dreyfuses' dull domestic squabbles (the 'marriage imperiled in the wake of a child's death' storyline being only slightly less tedious than the one about the addict who goes back on the junk). Carnivalé got axed in the wake of its second season, and deservedly so. Deadwood deserves the same fate--clearly the TV movies that David Milch has been promised to wrap up the show's storyline (such as it is) are more suited to the kind of story he wants to tell. Sometimes restrictions are a good thing.

But are restrictions enough? Much as I enjoyed the battle of wits and personalities between Al and George Hearst, and as persuasive as the third season was as a metaphor for free-enterprise capitalism being swallowed whole by corporate capitalism (with Bullock weakly waving his little flag for the rule of law in the background), I'm not sure it made a very good story. Or at least, I'm not sure that the juxtaposition of Western elements and a more realistic history of Western expansion is working anymore. Throughout the season, the writers keep edging up to the point of painting the struggle between Hearst and Al in the terms of a Western--such as when Al gruffly announces that "[he's] having [his] served cold" after Hearst assaults him--but that threat and that promise are left unfulfilled. Ultimately, there is nothing Al can do to George Hearst, nothing the camp can do but capitulate. At which point, the character suddenly and for no sensible reason decides to leave, returning the camp to something resembling status quo in spite of the fact that before that point, it had been clearly and repeatedly stated that Hearst's victory would turn Deadwood into a company town and that the man was not willing to tolerate the existence of any power in the town save his own. The metaphor having been established, the characters' ideals having been thoroughly trampled through the mud, it seems to signify very little to the writers that the path they've taken to reach that point makes very little sense and is somewhat less than satisfying as a piece of storytelling.

It's possible, I suppose, that the Hearst storyline was meant to wrap up in the show's fourth season, although given Hearst's departure I'd call that unlikely. In the wake of the show's cancellation, however, we're left with a very strange, almost lop-sided artifact--some of the best line-by-line writing ever to appear on a television screen, and some of the worst and sloppiest plotting and pacing it has ever been my misfortune to suffer through. It remains to be seen whether David Milch will indeed get a chance to wrap up Deadwood's story, and if he does I'm very curious to see which David Milch shows up. Will it be the person who gave us Ellsworth's murder and Bullock's letter to the relatives of a murdered union organizer? Or will it be the man who ended this season--and possibly the show--on a shot of Al Swearengen angrily scrubbing the blood of yet another innocent off his floor, observing with disdain that the deceased's friend wants him to "tell him something pretty"? I may be oversensitive, but it strikes me that that comment was aimed at the show's viewers, who may be wondering how they can swallow such an ugly, unsatisfying ending. In which case, I reject Milch's defiance--of his viewers and of storytelling conventions. Ugliness isn't always a virtue.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Well, At Least They Got the Dramatic Presenation Awards Right

Locus Online has the Hugo results, and the short fiction category winners are nothing short of dispiriting. OK, so I called Peter S. Beagle's "Two Hearts" winning the novelette category (and anyway there was no other story on the shortlist that desperately deserved to win), and I can hardly say that I'm surprised that Connie Willis' "Inside Job" triumphed over stronger, more interesting, and better written work by Kelly Link and Ian McDonald, because that pretty much sums up her entire award-winning history (I'm still baffled by Doomsday Book's double whammy). But how is it possible that Margo Lanagan, with one of the strongest short stories I've read in ages, lost out on both the Nebula and Hugo?

Oh well, I suppose I should just be grateful that it wasn't Mike Resnick or Michael A. Burstein that took the trophy.

UPDATE: The vote breakdowns are now available online. Here's a helpful primer on what all those numbers mean.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Modern Noir Linkdump

Well, if two links can be called a linkdump.

  • Rian Johnson, writer and director of the awesome Brick, has made the film's shooting script (plus annotations) and the original novella on which the film is based available on his website. (Via)

  • Hot off the season two DVD (on sale starting today), the Veronica Mars gag reel. Trust me, you haven't lived until you've watched Joss Whedon, in character as the uptight rental car guy in "Rat Saw God", compare himself to "the minstrels of old." (Via)

In Which I Come Out for Censorship

Making the rounds of news sites and blogs yesterday was the report that, following a complaint by a viewer (or, presumably, the parent of a viewer) a UK channel had decided to excise positive depictions of smoking from Tom & Jerry cartoons. Which is obviously the cue for all right-thinking lovers of liberty to break out their emergency stores of derision and lament the takeover of our airways and public media channels by a hand-wringing horde of politically correct yahoos imploring us all to please, for the love of God, think of the children. Under other circumstances, I might have joined in the collective eye-rolling, but in this case I'm not convinced that the decision is unwarranted, and I suspect that it may do more good than harm.

The thing is, cigarettes are evil. They're the worst of the legal drugs--by all accounts, far worse than at least some of the illegal ones. By a bizarre confluence of common sense and ruthless self-interest on the part of cigarette manufacturers, we have somehow managed to avoid creating yet another criminal empire devoted to their distribution, and have in fact stumbled upon what may be the only effective method of combatting the proliferation of an addictive substance--we tell people that smoking is stupid. We educate them about the dangers of smoking, and make damn sure they know that cigarettes are as addictive as they are because the cigarette industry has, for decades, engaged in a methodical, systematic campaign to make them so while concealing the risks they pose (which reminds me that I've been meaning to go see Thank You for Smoking). If people choose to smoke in spite of this knowledge, they're free to do so*, but the prevailing attitude of our culture should be that this is an incredibly stupid decision, and nowhere should that attitude be more strongly felt than when dealing with the youngest and most impressionable members of our society.

I'm as annoyed as anyone else by the fact that, in adult entertainment, smoking has become synonymous with evil, and no positive characters are ever allowed to indulge in that vice**, but that's because I'm an adult. I can accept that a sympathetic character has habits I disapprove of without losing my affection for that character or taking up those habits myself. Guess what? I'm not the target audience for Tom & Jerry cartoons. The ability to separate a person's faults from their strengths and to admire the latter while still deploring the former is a learned skill, and one that most six year olds don't possess. While obviously no kid is going to pick up smoking simply because they saw a cartoon cat do it once, these images have a cumulative effect--taken together, they create the perception of smoking as something normal, and we don't want that.

My one caveat is that I don't think it's right to air the cartoons with the smoking scenes excised. There are artists whose names appear on the work and who are now going to be associated with an edited version which they didn't approve. The offending cartoons should be shelved, not redacted.



* Within the bounds of reason. There's nothing quite so ridiculous as a smoker complaining about the 'crusade' against smoking in public areas. It takes a special kind of chutzpah to argue that you have the right to indiscriminately poison complete strangers.

** Given, however, that popular culture has spent the better part of a century glorifying smoking, maybe it isn't so far beyond the pale to ask for a decade or two of its vilification.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Lord Byron's Novel: The Evening Land by John Crowley

In the acknowledgments page for Lord Byron's Novel: The Evening Land, John Crowley refers to his ninth novel as an impertinence. He's referring, one assumes, to his own audacity in putting words--an entire novel's worth of them--in the mouth of the romantic poet Lord Byron, most famous for, well, being infamous--mad, bad, and dangerous to know (in her review of Crowley's novel, Elizabeth Hand cleverly points out that more people are familiar with this piece of wittiness--by Byron's former lover Caroline Lamb--than are acquainted with a line of his poetry). But the word, its with airy, frivolous connotations, seems also to capture the novel's tone--an atypical one, in Crowley's bibliography. His novels usually have a palpable heft--even his early forays into science fiction, svelte volumes clocking in at barely 200 pages, made for meaty, substantial reads. Lord Byron's Novel, in contrast, is positively lightweight.

The titular novel--composed, according to Crowley's alternate history, between 1816 and 1822, when a bitter divorce (occasioned at least in part by Byron's scandalous behavior, which included homosexual affairs and another with his half-sister) drove Byron into a self-imposed European exile from which he was never to return--takes up the bulk of Crowley's novel. It is as pitch-perfect a pastiche of a 19th century gothic romance as one could hope to encounter, complete with moonlit castles, evil fathers, secret siblings, unjust convictions, thwarted romances, zombies, and talking bears. Or would 'parody' be a more accurate description? My mother, when she talks about the Beatles' early films, likes to say that however silly and inconsequential the Fab Four's cinematic forays might have been, you could always tell that they'd had a great deal of fun making them. A similar sense of fun suffuses Crowley's (whose infatuation with Byron apparently goes back several decades) Byronic ventriloquism--we can tell that he had a blast inhabiting the poet's head and writing in his voice. Less obvious is whether we, in turn, are also intended to enjoy ourselves--to laugh with, or even at, the narrative's excesses. Are we meant to take The Evening Land at face value, as a straight-faced pastiche? If so, how are we to keep a straight face when confronted with the likes of this:
'Have done!' cried Ali, thrusting him away. 'Have done, or I will--'

'What shall you do? What shall you do? Have a care, Sir! Remember--all in a moment, and in defiance of consequence, I gave thee life--all in a moment I can take it away again. "The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away."'

'Devil!'

'Ah!' said Lord Sane. 'You know that exalted Being is said to have a knack for quoting Scripture to his own purposes. Here is another--"If thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out"--therefore challenge me not, Sir, not though you be the apple of mine own!'

'I warn you, provoke me not further,' Ali said, lifting his balled fist before the great Lord's face, 'or indeed I know no what I may do. I have borne more than flesh can bear, and I am no more than flesh!'

'Raise not your hand against me,' said his father. ''Twould be a sin of dreadful note--moreover, 'twould be useless--for weapons can do nothing against me--no--I see you shudder to hear it, yet 'tis true--hanging would also be inefficacious--for, you see, I cannot die!'
In 2002, The Evening Land is discovered by Alexandra "Smith" Novak, an American historian researching the life of Ada Lovelace, Byron's only legitimate child, who achieved some small fame as a colleague of Charles Babbage and who is recognized today as the author of the world's first computer program. What Smith actually discovers, in a chest belonging to Ada's son, is the manuscript in encrypted form, and she enlists the aid of her mathematician girlfriend, Thea, in breaking the code, and of her father, Lee, a former Byron scholar, in authenticating the text and parsing it back into recognizable language. Crowley reproduces Smith, Thea and Lee's e-mails, which, in sharp contrast to the stylistic excesses of The Evening Land, are written in a perfunctory, utilitarian language (there's a spectrum of language skills here--Lee comes closest to writing good letters. Smith is at about high school level and uses 'like' a great deal too much. Thea refuses to use punctuation). The two styles complement each other nicely--just as we start to grow weary of the flowery, overwrought Byron segments, along come the modern characters with their spare directness, and just as we begin to long for some semblance of poetry, Crowley sends us back to Byron and his undeniable rhythms and cadences--but emotionally they leave us perpetually unsatisfied. If Byron's over-the-top melodrama elicits amusement more often than sympathy, then the modern segments don't seem to elicit any emotion at all.

In interviews, Crowley has said that the genesis of the modern characters was in the need for someone to educate the readers about the facts of Byron's life, and the characters rarely seem to rise above their roles as providers of info-dumps. There's allegedly a great deal of tension between Smith and Lee--this is their first contact with each other since Lee fled from prosecution when Smith was only four years old (think Roman Polanski, although given the similarities between Lee's career track--literature professor turned documentary filmmaker--and Crowley's, I wonder whether Lee might not also be the closest the novel comes to offering us Crowley's unadulterated voice). Their interactions on the page, however, are largely benign--they are pleasant and courteous with each other, tentatively reaching out to one another and then... meeting. The middle act of their story seems to be missing--possibly it took place when Smith was a child, or perhaps there's too much missing from the relationship for it ever to come into existence (in one of the rare instances of biting emotion in the correspondence, Smith tells Lee that there were moments in her childhood in which she felt the need for his presence, and later admits that she lied--a childhood without a father seemed normal to her, and in her adulthood she makes up a story for Lee because she feels that she ought to have missed his presence, but didn't).

The flatness of Smith and Lee's interactions is especially problematic because their circumstances are intended to mirror those of Byron and Ada--whose voice makes up the intermediate narrative level in Lord Byron's Novel. Byron last saw his daughter when she was only one month old, and in the years of his exile his attempts to contact her were rebuffed by his wife (who in Crowley's history--and apparently in real life as well--is painted as a domineering, holier-than-thou ghoul). It was to protect her father's novel from her mother (who in real life consigned the poet's memoirs to the fire), Crowley tells us, that Ada, dying of cervical cancer, encrypted the work, adding her own notes to each chapter. As pain and disease begin to take their toll on her, Ada's notes turn into ruminations about her life, her mathematical work, and her relationship with an absent, by then long-dead, father. In his review of Lord Byron's Novel, John Clute calls Ada's voice Kinbote-like, and although he is clearly correct to point out Crowley's debt to Nabokov, it strikes me that there is a significant difference between Ada and Pale Fire's pathetic, deluded annotator. Unlike Kinbote, who reads his own life into a poem wholly unrelated to him, Ada is clearly The Evening Land's intended audience--in many ways, its recipient. The Evening Land is a thinly veiled roman a clef whose protagonist, Ali, is an idealized version of Byron himself. His life story is intended to exculpate Byron from those charges he considers unjust, to apologize for the mistakes he did make, and finally, to offer himself and his daughter a wish-fulfillment fantasy, in which some version of Byron absconds with Ada's fictional counterpart, and the two take off to parts unknown. Ada's affectionate but clear-eyed response to this fantasy marks her out as the novel's most compelling and fully human character, and it is a great pity that we end up spending the least amount of time hearing her voice.

A few months ago, when I wrote about Julian Barnes's novel Arthur & George, I pointed out that Barnes was borrowing emotion from history--repeating the facts of a historical injustice, almost without comment, and expecting his audience to react with appropriate outrage. It's probably not entirely fair to accuse Crowley of doing something similar in Lord Byron's Novel, but it certainly seems to me that his primary motivation in writing the novel was to tell Byron and Ada's story, and to have a great deal of fun playing around with Byron's voice. Apart from the fantasy that makes up the novel's premise, there seems to be very little of John Crowley in the novel--by which I don't mean that I miss the author's voice, but rather the sense that he has something to add to a historical story that he clearly finds entirely fascinating. There's a fourth narrative level to Lord Byron's Novel that I haven't mentioned yet. The person who brings The Evening Land to Smith's attention (and who may also be the person who sells the manuscript to Ada in the mid 19th century) is called Roony J. Welch--an anagram of John Crowley. To be honest, I find this conceit unbearably twee and I'd prefer to simply ignore it, but it does raise some interesting questions about the novel's insularity. As I said earlier in this review, there's a very definite sense that Crowley had a great time writing in Byron's voice and writing about Byron, and this grinning self-insertion is perhaps intended to draw attention to his unabashed fascination with the poet and his life, to point out that we've been invited to John Crowley's playground. But doesn't it also suggest that, just as Lord Byron's novel was intended for a single reader, so was John Crowley's novel? To a certain extent, all authors should write the novel they'd love to read, but in Lord Byron's Novel it seems to me that Crowley may have taken this approach too far--that he may have turned himself into just another reader, which leaves the rest of us in a rudderless boat, listening to nothing more than a historical reenactment.

All this is not to say that Lord Byron's Novel makes for an unpleasant reading experience. It is, in fact, a smooth and elegant read which goes down like a glass of water, and is by no means unenjoyable. Whether we're meant to take it seriously or not, The Evening Land is a thoroughly entertaining romp, and for all their unrelenting niceness, Smith, Thea and Lee's emails are appealing. It just seems to me that for all the work that obviously went into it, for all the playful games with authorial voice, narrative levels and cryptography, there ought to have been a bit more substance to the novel--especially coming, as it does, from the pen of one of the most interesting and intelligent authors in the English language.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Looking For Stats in All the Wrong Places

It's been three days since either the main site, the forums, or my user site responded at all, and I think it's time to admit that my beloved StatCounter is dead, dead, dead. Which leaves me in need of a new stat-gathering service, and so far they've all been depressingly awful. I gave Google Analytics the old college try, but it's clearly oriented towards business users and drowns me with useless information while ignoring or burying the data I need. For example, it only lists referrring sites by the root directory, which might make sense if you're running a business, but when trying to engage in a coversation, there's a huge difference between a person clicking through from anybody.livejournal.com and someone coming from anybody.livejournal.com/friends, or between a person who clicks through from a blog entry posted six months ago or this afternoon.

So, does anyone out there have a good (free) website statistics service to recommend? I'm looking for something that offers a good at-a-glance summary--StatCounter used a simple bar graph that listed page loads, individual visitors, and repeat visitors for each day--as well as decent referral logs and search keywords (and while we're on the subject: I've been tickled pink at the number of hits--most recently in the area of once a day--this entry gets from searches along the lines of 'I changed my screen's resolution on Windows and now everything's gone black'). Visitor paths would be nice--I've found them a most comfortable tool when trying to understand how people are using the site--but not necessary. Most importantly, I do not want a mandatory counter on the site, and a huge banner ad on every page is out of the question.

My other option, I suppose, is to switch over to another service, which is something that I've been considering for a while, and the reasons to do it have been piling up. I know WordPress offers web stats--any word on how good they are? Also, does anyone know how feasible/difficult it would be to move over AtWQ's archives (comments included) to another blog service?

UPDATE: It is risen! Behold the power of complaining!

Friday, August 18, 2006

Look, Up in the Sky!

It's Andrew Rilstone, discussing a Silver Age Superman story which, apparently, manages to treat the 'Superman as Jesus' analogy with a great deal more wit and delicacy than the recent film.
For anyone who grew up with Stan Lee's melodramatic over-writing, this 1950s Superman is astonishingly simplistic; even naive. There is hardly one word of what you could call dialogue in the whole story: everyone talks in pure exposition and the "Alice in Wonderland" line made me cringe with embarrassment even when I was 10. However, like many superficially naive children's stories, it actually has considerable complexity and emotional depth. We have a character whose literal darkness is the outward representation of an inner darkness – she has no father, her mother is poor,she thinks that there is nothing nice about the world -- all summed up in her disbelief in Superman. Superman heals her, restores her inner light, her family, and makes her see things she never saw before – the beauty of America, the inherent goodness of the human race.

Any relationship between Superman and Jesus is one of resemblance rather than symbolism: Superman, the character, does some of the same kinds of things which Jesus did, with some of the same kinds of results. This seems to me to be more sophisticated and effective than the approach of the movies, which do little more than point up certain supposed similarities between the origin of Superman and religious saviour myths.
Read the whole thing.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Recent Reading Roundup 8

  1. Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers - I don't imagine that I'm the first reader to pick up the next-to-last novel in Sayers's Peter Wimsey detective series, Gaudy Night, and then move backwards through her bibliography to the origin of Wimsey's relationship with Gaudy protagonist Harriet Vane. As was the case with Gaudy, I found Strong Poison compulsively readable and a great deal of fun. It was also, in spite of the rather grim plot, which sees Harriet accused of murdering her former fiancé and facing the gallows, surprisingly funny, although Sayers does on occasion stray too far into farce, and on other occasions (especially when delving under the surface of Wimsey's over-the-top persona) into melodrama. In her first appearance, Harriet is only very faintly sketched, and a little too perfect to be believed--I certainly see how Sayers fans might jokingly (and sometimes not so jokingly) accuse her of having written Vane as a self-insertion character. Her interactions with Wimsey are obviously intended primarily to shed light on his character, and not always an entirely favorable light--the characters' first meeting, in which Wimsey just comes out and announces that he and Harriet will be married, has got to be one of the most pitiful moments in literary history. I had a very strong impulse to step into the book and stomp on his foot before he made an even greater fool of himself than he already had. The mystery itself was rather obvious, but I wasn't really reading for the mystery so that wasn't too big a problem (I did, however, find Strong Poison's final third, in which the narrative leaves both Wimsey and Vane and follows a tertiary character who I didn't really care about, a bit dull). I think I probably will end up reading the other Wimsey/Vane novels, but I don't imagine I'll be traveling any further back into Sayers's bibliography.

  2. A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin - Cullin's novel was published at roughly the same time as Michael Chabon's The Final Solution, and tells roughly the same story: in the 1940s, an ancient Sherlock Holmes struggles against age and his failing mind, and is confronted by the ultimate insolubility of life, as exemplified by one of the atrocities of the early 20th century (the Holocaust in Chabon's case, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in Cullin's). At the time of the two works' publication, I remember that most comparisons were more favorable towards Cullin's, calling it a more subtle and thoughtful accomplishment. In one respect, I do believe Cullin outdoes Chabon--whereas the latter author's protagonist is Sherlock Holmes the character, ravaged by age but still unmistakably Arthur Conan Doyle's creation (in spite of Chabon's rather silly insistence on referring to him only as 'the old man'), Cullin chooses to separate Holmes the character (whose ticks and mannerisms, we are told, were in many cases the result of aggrandizement and outright invention on the part of one John Watson) from Holmes the man, who is human, fallible, and in many ways quite ordinary, and who is alternately bemused and exasperated at being constantly compared to and confused with a literary creation.

    In most other respects, however, Chabon's novella turns out to be a more satisfying read. Trick switches back and forth between Holmes' present, in which he is faced with a mundane tragedy, his recent trip to Japan, and a baffling case from the very end of his detective career. It seems unfair to complain that none of these plot strands is very interesting or exciting--Cullin is very obviously not writing a mystery--but they all seem to amount to the same thing, the same point retold three times, which we will have already gathered from Chabon's shorter (although not by much) and more beautifully written novella - that not even the Great Detective can make sense of life. Trick is undoubtedly the more subtle and subdued of the two works, but it is too subdued for my tastes, too steeped in melancholy. It would probably be accurate to say that The Final Solution works a little too hard to milk the tragedy of its central mystery, and that it often teeters over the edge of melodrama, but at the very least it tries to tug at its readers' heartstrings. Cullin's novel, in comparison, is too prudish to make the attempt--it seems to feel that eliciting strong emotion would be in bad taste.

  3. Mysterious Skin by Scott Heim - It's been almost two weeks since I finished Heim's 1995 debut, and I still can't decide whether I liked it, disliked it, or thought it was just OK. The novel switches back and forth between the points of view of two boys who, at the age of eight, were molested by their baseball coach, as well as those of their friends and relatives. One of the boys, Brian, has completely blocked out the experience, and in his late teens begins to suspect that the hours missing from his life and the obvious symptoms of trauma he experienced in their wake are signs of an alien abduction. The other, Neil, is gay and has convinced himself that what he experienced was an act of love. This is not the kind of novel I tend to read very often, but even I noticed Heim resorting to stock situations (Neil engages in risky sexual behavior and ends up in danger) and characters (Brian's oblivious father; Neil's promiscuous mother). Heim isn't the greatest writer ever--some of his dialogue and narration are, in fact, painfully artificial--but what elevates Mysterious Skin and makes it so very compelling is that his writing has an unbelievably visceral quality. Whether describing a Kansas fishing pond or the most graphic sex scenes, he puts you in the room, and although neither boy is particularly likable--Brian is a bit of a nebbish and Neil simply isn't a very good person--they are believable as human beings and ultimately pitiable. I can't quite decide, however, whether these strengths are enough to justify the novel's existence, or whether it is ultimately nothing more than very standard variation on a very standard topic.

  4. The Siege of Krishnapur by J.G. Farrell - In 1857, the East India Company's decades-long hold over India was shattered (and quickly replaced by outright colonial rule) by a revolt of native battalions. British settlements in India were were massacred or besieged (the phrase 'the black hole of Calcutta' originated in an account by one of the survivors of these sieges). J.G. Farrell's 1973 novel describes the months-long besiegement of a fictional Company outpost (drawing primarily on the real-life siege of Lucknow). According to the novel's introduction, Farrell is parodying a stock plot that became prevalent in the years following the 1857 mutiny--the siege novel. Without having read a single iteration of this concept, I think most of us can imagine its more prominent elements (quite a few of which frequently turn up in your average disaster movie)--the guy, the girl, the priest, the star-crossed romances, the weakling transformed into an action hero. For a novel with such a grim topic--two of them, in fact: the inhuman conditions and brutal suffering within the besieged Residency and the very notion of colonial rule--Siege is surprisingly lighthearted, sometimes verging on farcical, but therein lies the secret of its success. Farrell attempts, and for the most part sustains, a delicate balance between horror and farce, humor and seriousness. The defenders squabble over trifles and cling to pointless social niceties, which makes them, at one and the same time, both ridiculous and noble, and therefore entirely human.

    Where Siege nearly falters is in its political dimension. Farrell works hard to ensure that the novel, whose characters earnestly and fervently believe in the idea of a moral empire, spreading science, progress and enlightenment to the unwashed native masses, doesn't devolve into a screed against something that, we can all agree, was a truly terrible idea and anyway doesn't exist anymore. He tries to distract us from the more obvious aspect of the discussion by widening it--instead of asking whether colonialism was a good idea, a question to which we all know the answer, he asks which is more important, ideas (as represented by the aforementioned science and progress) or feelings (as represented, I think, by the bruised and battered ego of a nation condescended to and ordered about for decades). The two questions, unfortunately, don't map very well onto each other, and anyway the latter is a little too metaphysical for my taste (and shouldn't the answer, in any case, be 'both?'). It's hard not to roll one's eyes when Siege's plot or character exploration give way to yet another discussion of these two warring aspects of human nature, but happily Farrell more than compensates for those dull stretches--with some scenes that are uproariously funny, and others that are pulse-poundingly intense. Ultimately, for all that they are ridiculous and hold objectionable opinions, Farrell makes us care about the starving and ill defenders, and hope against hope that, like the protagonists of a siege novel, they too will have a happy ending.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Yet More Self-Promotion

The Internet Review of Science Fiction's August issue contains my review of Mark Z. Danielewski's--best known for the trippy, experimental ghost story House of Leaves--new novel, the even more trippy and experimental Only Revolutions. Like all IROSF articles, the review is behind a subscription shield, but registration is free.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Self-Promotion 9 - Special Doctor Who Edition

It's Doctor Who week at Strange Horizons! The reviews section is dedicated to contemplations of the show's second season, kicking off today with Iain Clark's Doctor Who and the Nostalgia Factor, which discusses "School Reunion" and companions past and present. Tomorrow, Tim Phipps will be chiming in with his take on "Love & Monsters" and the fannish mindset, and on Wednesday it'll my turn to offer some observations on the season finale. Graham Sleight will review the season as a whole on Thursday. New reviews will go live every day at SH's reviews page--enjoy.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Jo Rowling, Killer of Ambiguity

Speaking in New York this week, J.K. Rowling put an end to several burning fandom discussions (is Dumbledore really dead, is Snape really evil, a broad hint about whether Harry is going to survive the series--click through at your own risk). I'm not remotely surprised by any of her responses, but I am surprised that the usually close-lipped Rowling has suddenly decided to spill the beans on so many contentious issues. To be perfectly honest, I wish she'd kept mum. It's one thing to feel certain that a story will unfold in a certain way, and another to know that it will because the author told you. The former allows the reader to maintain a frisson of suspense, whereas the latter takes something away from the reading experience.

On the other hand, maybe Rowling is just as tired as I am of some of the more inane Potter-related speculation that's been floating around lately (Rowling should kill Harry because children need to learn about death is a recent personal favorite, but there are plenty of others). Anything that puts paid to the puzzling yet prevalent attitude that the books are being written by committee can only be a good thing.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Darth Vader as You've Never Seen Him Before

There honestly aren't enough words to describe how awesome this picture is.

(Via. And according to Boing Boing, this is a photoshopped image, not an actual costume.)