Saturday, January 27, 2007

Wait, Can We Go Over That Again? Thoughts on Primer

"How do cellphones work?" Abe, one of the protagonists in Shane Carruth's ultra-low budget 2004 SF film Primer, asks his friend Aaron, at a point near the film's midpoint. The line is delivered with some urgency, and with good reason--depending on the answer, Abe and Aaron may have just created a time-travel paradox. This is one of the standard landmarks of the SF or technological thriller film--the point at which a seemingly safe scientific discovery goes off the rails--and as he does throughout the entire film, Carruth chooses to present it in a non-standard manner. Whereas in another film, the characters' emotions would be at the forefront--they would swear, or go very silent, or take on a terrified expression--in Primer, Abe and Aaron's fear is expressed through an urgent quest for knowledge, the acquisition and application of which takes up the bulk of their waking hours.

Since it gained significant acclaim at the Sundance film festival (where it won the Grand Jury prize), Primer has become known in SF fan circles primarily for its opacity. It is a film that simply cannot be digested after a single viewing--a minimum of two are required simply to figure out the most fundamental principles of its story and invented science, and listening to the commentary from Carruth (who also wrote the script, produced the film, and plays Aaron) is highly recommended. Primer, in other words, is a work that can be appreciated best--perhaps solely--in its secondary format, DVD (which, unfortunately, is not an option for me--my local rental place doesn't carry it. I taped the film off TV and have therefore not listened to the commentary tracks). This is a very strange approach for a filmmaker to take (I remember reading at least one review of the film whose author wondered whether Carruth wasn't at the forefront of a profound change in our perception and consumption of the medium), but it starts to make more sense if one classes the film as a short story--specifically, a time travel story. The good ones are rare, but if you've been lucky enough to come across one, you'll remember how heady and pleasurable the experience of going back and back again to unpick and puzzle out a linear narrative about non-linear characters can be. Primer--short, meticulously plotted, and demanding--has earned its place within this exclusive pantheon.

Part of the reason that Primer is so hard to parse is Carruth's dialogue, almost none of which is expository or explanatory. When they're not referring obliquely to incidents in their shared past to which the viewers are not--and will not become--privy, Abe and Aaron speak almost exclusively in technical jargon. The two are technology workers who, along with two friends, run a side-business out of Aaron's garage, toying with whatever idea catches their fancy, hoping that through hard work and determination they can light upon the next big thing and skyrocket to wealth and fame. Abe and Aaron's project involves retro-engineering a low-temperature superconductor, which they hope to be able to run at room temperature, but what they end up discovering is a practical form of time travel. Once again, there is a standard template, an emotional palette, to this kind of story, one which Carruth eschews completely. He relentlessly downplays Abe and Aaron's research even as it approaches its most frenzied point, and frequently cuts away just as they're about to make an important discovery. Decagrams, volts, the names of elements and of scientific and electronic paraphernalia feature heavily in these scenes, and even as they begin to grasp the magnitude of what they've discovered, Abe and Aaron are focused on the minutiae of their experiments, on the reliability of their equipment or on a method for safely documenting their results.

I'm reminded, once again, of Peter Watts's Blindsight, which makes a similar--although by no means as extensive or as dedicated--a use of technical jargon. In his not-so-positive review of the book at The New York Review of Science Fiction, John Clute writes (first quoting from the book itself):
"Probe's fried," Bates reported. "Spike there at the end. Like it hit
a Parker Spiral, but with a really tight wind."

I didn't need to call up subtitles. It was obvious in the set of her
face, the sudden creases between her eyebrows: she was talking about a
magnetic field.

"It's—" she began, and stopped as a number popped up in ConSensus: 11.2 Tesla.

"Holy shit," Szpindel whispered. "Is that right?"
And so on. (We are never told, by the way, if 11.2 Tesla is right or wrong, or why it matters.) ... most of what I quoted above is undigested geek static, a deincentivizing fug of unverb, as depressive as old cigarette smoke: another iteration of the old NO GRILS ALOUD treehouse argot of hard sf -- I mean, if you don't already know the holy shit significance of 11.2 Tesla you don't belong in *my* tree.
I'm somewhat in agreement with Clute when it comes to Watts's novel, but the same approach is eerily effective in Carruth's film. Partly, I suspect, it's the visual medium and the live actors delivering the lines that keep them from being entirely dry. Partly, it's that Carruth simply has more courage, more faith in his material than Watts does. There are no "holy shit"s in Primer, and perversely enough it is the absence of such expressions of fear and dismay that engender these feelings in an audience already jaded by fleets of paint-by-numbers technological thrillers. A sense of menace builds precisely because Abe and Aaron are so matter-of-fact, so unemotional, about a discovery that one of them terms "the most important thing a living organism has ever seen," and which they end up using in order to get ahead in the stock market. To my great surprise, Carruth's version of the 'deincentivizing fug of unverb' even serves to reveal the characters' personalities--Aaron, a family man frustrated by the mediocrity of his existence; Abe, lonely and longing for a family of his own--in spite of the fact that these buttoned down (even in their most casual moments, the characters rarely abandon their standard uniform of black slacks, white dress shirt and nondescript tie), fundamentally unremarkable young men rarely react to shock or betrayal with anything more powerful than a sullen silence (credit, obviously, should also be given to Carruth and costar David Sullivan, both of whom imbue these silences with a significant weight of emotion).

When things start to go awry for Aaron and Abe, the film's plot goes from complicated to hopelessly knotted, and even after a second viewing I was left with more questions that answers. In the end I resorted to this Wikipedia entry, which neatly breaks down the film to its component timelines. Once I understood the film's events, however, I found myself even more hopelessly confused about its characters' motivations. At the beginning of this piece, I wrote that Aaron and Abe are primarily occupied with the acquisition of knowledge, but that knowledge isn't an end in its own right. For Aaron and Abe, knowledge is the tool that they, as educated people living through the frenzy of the dot com revolution, use to get the things they truly want--wealth, respect, comfort. Which is why each of them, in their turn, betrays the other, traveling further and further back into their past in an attempt to safeguard their possession of the knowledge of time travel. The climax of the film, however, arrives when Aaron carefully orchestrates an act of heroics--when the disgruntled ex-boyfriend of a mutual friend arrives at a party with a shotgun, Aaron rushes him. The voiceover tells us that Aaron goes through several iterations to create a perfect version of this moment, even though in the original reality, in which he didn't even attend the party, no one was hurt. "Don't tell me I did all this for nothing," Aaron desperately tells Abe right before the party's final iteration, but why did he bother to do all this in the first place? What does he--a man who wants nothing more than to escape a life of drudgery, to gain maximal returns from minimal investments--gain from all of his exertions?

In the process of decrypting Primer, I was reminded of another cult time-travel film whose plot doesn't make a whole lot of sense without the addition of external data, Richard Kelly's Donnie Darko. Kelly's film isn't nearly as well-plotted as Carruth's, and it isn't until one reads a booklet titled The Philosophy of Time Travel, which appears in the film and is an extra on the DVD, that its events even begin to make sense. Nevertheless, Donnie Darko works as a piece of fiction--albeit a manipulative, at times almost overwrought piece of fiction--even after a single viewing and even without any additional data (a truth which seems to have escaped Kelly, who squandered the opportunity to make a director's cut of the film by awkwardly interspersing the action with excerpts from the book instead of reinstating some beautiful character moments which had originally been left on the cutting room floor). It's not entirely fair to compare Primer to Donnie Darko, since the two films have very different aims. Primer appeals to the intellect; Donnie Darko to emotion. Both are excellent films, but at the end of the day Primer's missing piece is greater than Donnie Darko's. "How?" is the question most often asked by the characters in Carruth's film--how can they travel through time? How can they use time travel in order to profit? How do they manage to deceive each other? How do cellphones work?--but at the very heart of the film, there's a missing why.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Looks Like Somebody's Trying to Top the Test-Pattern Girl for Weirdness

Life on Mars season 2 teaser. Apparently this is a clip from an episode, which explains why it cuts off so abruptly, and boy is it strange.

Still no sign of a premiere date, though.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

I Have the Coolest Little Brother in the World

Behold my slightly-belated birthday present:

As you might have gathered from the key in his side, this is a wind-up toy--Bender walks. He also comes with a detachable stogie and a can of Mom's Robot Oil.

(Available from, since I know some of you will want to know.)

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Professionalism: An Object Lesson

Over at Strange Horizons, Dan Hartland writes about Battlestar Galactica so I don't have to, and is, as usual, thoughtful and eloquent on the subject:
Moore these days seems almost exclusively interested in the endpoint rather than the journey. So "Unfinished Business" needs to be a story about Apollo and Starbuck's relationship, and thus crafts an entirely unconvincing sequence of flashbacks to justify the resuscitation of their on-again off-again love affair. We are expected to accept this ret-con of the characters without question, even as we beg to know why not a hint of this sudden backstory has been dropped before. Similarly, in "Hero," Adama reveals that just prior to the Cylon attack on the colonies he had led an illegal incursion into Cylon space, thus arguably provoking the machines' devastating onslaught. The viewer resents such massive elements of backstory being conjured from nowhere. This is not merely another permutation of the show's hopeless attempt to equate the humans with the Cylons—there is simply nothing humanity could have done to fairly invite the holocaust delivered upon them by their robotic creations. It also exhibits a simple lack of respect for anything but the moment. If Battlestar Galactica wants to tell a story about Adama feeling guilty for causing Armageddon, it will tell it however it can. There is no pleasure in watching a series happy to rewrite its own mythology for the quick shock (predictably, in subsequent episodes, Adama's revelation has not been mentioned again).
(If you haven't done so already, check out Dan's previous Galactica essays: 1, 2, 3. I'm particularly fond of the second one, in which Dan lucidly diagnoses the Cylons' core disfunction months before the show's writers got around to acknowledging it.)

I came to Dan's article in a bit of a mood, having previously been pointed towards this write-up of a visit to the set of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip which included a Q&A with Aaron Sorkin. Reading between the lines, one gets the impression that the press gaggle in question was eager for a chance to bait the medium's resident enfant terrible, and he doesn't fail to deliver: first attacking the LA Times for what he describes as irresponsible reporting on his show, and then segueing to his favorite punching bag, online fan writers:
Next Sorkin ridiculed the whole idea that bloggers -- many of whom come from parts unknown, bearing grudges, perhaps, and not always a reliable sense of who they are and what they're really after -- be taken more seriously in the mainstream media than any random josephine walking down Main Street. "An enormous rise in amateurism," Sorkin said of the blogosphere. "And everyone's voice oughtn't be equal."
I do realize how futile it is, at this point, to get worked up over the fact that Aaron Sorkin doesn't understand the internet and takes every opportunity to parade his ignorance of it, but in the context of television writing, Sorkin's words are nothing short of baffling. When was the last time any of you looked to mainstream, professional publications for thoughtful, in-depth television reviews? Against Dan Hartland's Battlestar Galactica series, here is some of what the professional media has to offer:
  • First we have Nancy Franklin in The New Yorker, whose alleged review of the show kicks off with the following paragraph:
    It’s easy for people who aren’t science- fiction enthusiasts to laugh at the genre—its earnestness, its lingo, its fans’ awestruck romance with the idea that God is in the details of equipment and uniforms and security code and how many moons orbit Planet X and why it’s called Planet X in the first place. Does it have something to do with the number ten, or is it meant to be a leaning cross, or is it a reference to the mark on Captain Blah’s forehead in the second episode of the third season of “Star Bores”? (Usually, a writer’s answer to such questions is “I called it Planet X because I liked the name.”) Making fun of science fiction became even easier after William Shatner, in a 1986 “Saturday Night Live” sketch set at a “Star Trek” convention, exploded at fans who asked him insanely pointless questions, “Get a life!” At first, even civilians who had never owned a “Star Trek" trading card or a toy phaser were a little stunned by this slap at the faithful; it’s amazing that Shatner ever worked again after inflicting that Vulcan nerve pinch. But his admonition was eventually incorporated into the fans’ self-image; you see self-aware, amused references to it in sci-fi blogs when someone goes on about something in a way that he knows may brand him as a geek.
    Not only is Franklin indulging in some of the most tired clichés about genre fans, she isn't even remotely close to her topic--how does she get from the new Battlestar Galactica to William Shatner? And while one can imagine bringing up fan reactions to a cultural artifact later in the article, how is it good writing to open with them?

  • There are, of course, several variants on the 'I'm not a geek, I swear!' boilerplate. Attacking the fans is a popular option, but in her Salon article, Laura Miller chooses another old favorite--knocking down other works in the genre as a way of reminding the audience that the subject of her review is an abnormal specimen, and that she therefore can't be blamed for paying it any attention. "These shows have ranged from the passable ("Farscape") to the appalling ("Lexx," a sort of R-rated "H.R. Pufnstuf")," Miller wrote, and then got all excited over the fact that Galactica features a female character as innovative as Starbuck, who is a capable military officer and treats sex as recreation.

  • Troy Patterson's essay at Slate needs no comment:
    Battlestar Galactica (Sci Fi, Fridays at 9 p.m. ET), now entering its third season, is not science fiction—or "speculative fiction" or "SF," or whatever you're supposed to call it these days. Ignore the fact that the series is a remake of a late-'70s Star Wars knockoff. Forget that its action variously unfolds on starships and on a colonized planet called New Caprica. And never mind its stunning special effects, which outclass the endearingly schlocky stuff found elsewhere on its network. Sullen, complex, and eager to obsess over grand conspiracies and intimate betrayals alike, it is TV noir.
  • And finally, Dan Martin writing just last week in The Guardian.
    Before the sci-fi Channel's re-imagining of the series formerly known as "The Shite Star Wars", the genre was hardly on fighting form. As the Star Trek franchise declined exponentially with every splinter series, a spawn of even drearier efforts like Farscape and Babylon 5 sprung up in its wake. The only glimmer of quality, Joss Whedon's Firefly, was hauled off air after just half a season.
    The grammar in this paragraph is so tortured that I don't honestly know what Martin is trying to say, but I'm fairly certain he calls Farscape dreary. I realize that Farscape isn't everyone's cup of tea, and genre outsiders in particular might find it a bit of a trial, but the fact that Martin uses this particular adjective to describe the show can only mean that he has never watched a single episode.
This, then, is what passes for television writing in professional venues: unthinking, uninformed, its authors more interested in distancing themselves from their subject matter than engaging with it, and while I do realize that, by focusing on mainstream discussions of a genre show, I've skewed the results, I don't think this fact undercuts my point. Dan Hartland is equally fair-minded and thoughtful writing about Deadwood as he is about Battlestar Galactica. His professional counterparts, however, were so terrified by the genre of their subject matter that they fell over themselves trying to assure their readers that they weren't taking it seriously. And here, I believe, is where Aaron Sorkin misses the point when he talks about the virtue of professionalism (beyond, that is, the fact that in his personal dictionary, the entry for 'amateur' probably reads 'a person who doesn't like my work'). A professional is one thing, and a person who takes their work seriously is another. The two qualities are neither mutually exclusive nor inextricably tied--there are professionals who don't give a damn about creating something worthy, and amateurs whose day jobs are nothing but a way of subsidizing a hobby to which they devote the bulk of their mental energies. It's the latter quality that discerning readers should be looking for, regardless of venue.

I'm not holding my breath waiting for Aaron Sorkin to figure out how little he understands either the internet or the various facets of professionalism (frankly, if there are any epiphanies in his future, I hope they involve making Studio 60 even marginally watchable). It's probably best, when faced with the kind of outbursts that have become synonymous with his name, to sigh philosophically and try to concentrate on his still-impressive body of work. That said, I can't help but chuckle when I notice that the writer of the Oregon Live (the online version of the newspaper The Oregonian) article, who laps up Sorkin's dig at the amateurism of bloggers, ends the piece with a reference to "Matt Albie's drug problem."

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

If Only Someone Had Done This With Harry Potter

Dark Horizons reports:
HBO .. plans to turn George R.R. Martin's bestselling fantasy series "A Song of Fire and Ice" into a drama series by David Benioff ("Troy", "Wolverine") and D.B. Weiss ("Halo"). ... Variety indicates that the series will begin with the 1996 first book, "A Game of Thrones," and will turn each novel into a season's worth of episodes
I was profoundly unimpressed by A Game of Thrones, but as in the case of The Prestige, an adaptation into the visual medium will automatically get rid of the novel's greatest weaknesses--Martin's indifferent prose and absurd verbosity. Once these steps are taken, there's probably enough potential in the core story for Benioff and Weiss to make something of merit--I'm quite curious to see how an epic fantasy fares on the small screen.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Everything's Already Been Said About the Movie, The Prestige Edition

I confess, in spite of the praise heaped on Christopher Nolan's The Prestige from almost all quarters, I was somewhat reluctant to go see it. Similar praise, after all, had been heaped on the Christopher Priest novel of the same name, of which the film is an adaptation, and it was and still remains one of the most unimpressive pieces of fiction it has ever been my misfortune to read (admittedly, the soporific experience of reading The Prestige takes on an almost rosy glow when compared to the one I had reading Priest's Clarke-winning The Separation, a very strong contender for the worst novel of my reading life). To my relief and delight, Nolan's version of the story is truly as fine as its fans would have had me believe--a clever, cleverly-made film, at the same time suspenseful and thoughtful, and full to the brim of observations about stage magic, showmanship, and the sacrifices that both entail.

Most interesting to me, as one of the half-dozen people on the planet who didn't adore Priest's novel, was observing the ways in which Nolan, and fellow screenwriter and brother Jonathan, improves on the original. Right off the bat he gets rid of the story's two greatest impediments--Priest's limp, underperforming prose, and the modern-day framing device which brings the descendants of the story's two magician protagonists, Borden and Angier, together to discover their ancestors' secrets, and which ultimately serves no narrative purpose--unlike the readers, the modern-day characters never learn Borden and Angier's secrets, their personalities are never explored, and their situations at the end of the novel are roughly the same as they were at its beginning, and not very likely to change as a result of the novel's events. The Nolans' plot construction is also a great deal more sophisticated than Priest's--I can't remember whether the novel actually switches back and forth between Borden and Angier's narratives, or whether it presents them one after the other (my inability to recall the novel's structure might have something to do with the fact that, in spite of their wildly differing personalities and social backgrounds, Borden and Angier speak in the same voice), but Priest certainly achieves nothing as clever or as challenging as the Nolans' three looping and alternating plotlines, which demand the viewers' undivided attention and reward it with a tightly controlled story.

The Nolans also up the ante considerably in their descriptions of the ever-escalating rivalry between the two magicians--which begins when Angier's wife dies in an accident for which Borden may or may not be responsible (in the book, Borden accidentally knocks Angier's wife to the ground and causes her to miscarry a pregnancy), and goes on to involve maiming, kidnapping, and one of the men framing the other for his murder. In his review of the film at Locus Online, Gary Westfahl takes the Nolans to task for jettisoning the novel's subtlety and replacing it with sensationalism. He is obviously right--when they turn the consequences of Angier's teleportation machine, which in the novel creates a lifeless copy of the thing it transports, and in the film creates a live one, from something distasteful into something monstrous, the Nolans turn the character himself--who, each night, murders the copy created as a side effect of his magic act--into a monster, whereas in the novel the two men, although far from perfect, are in the grand scheme of things both blameless. For my part, however, I found Priest's novel not so much subtle as bloodless--the revelation of the price Angier had to pay to perform a trick no one could unravel fell rather flat, whereas in the film it has an undeniably visceral effect. When one considers that the Nolans are careful to also paint Borden as morally ambiguous--he may not be a mass-murderer like Angier, but he could easily have prevented the death of his wife and instead chose to value his secret over her sanity--it seems petty to complain about their willingness to cater, however reservedly, to Hollywood's appetite for spectacle. In fact, it seems to me that Priest's novel would have benefited from a bit of spectacle itself.

The Prestige makes much of the fact that the audiences of magic shows are inevitably disappointed when they learn the secrets of magic tricks, as these secrets are usually too simple to be any fun, and often quite gruesome to boot. Borden in particular is driven by this knowledge, perhaps because the secret to his teleportation illusion is precisely as simple, and as gruesome--at the beginning of the film he very seriously exhorts a young boy never to reveal the secret of a magic trick to his friends, no matter how much they beg him, because 'once they know the secret, they won't care about you any more'; later on, his frightened wife forces him to reveal the secret of a bullet-catching trick, and Borden is so annoyed by her dismissive attitude once she learns the secret that he hastens to terrify her again by telling her that men have died performing it. The rules are different, however, when it comes to mysteries--which is what The Prestige, as a story, is. In a mystery, the audience demands to know the secret, and they want that secret to offer a satisfactory answer to the question that has been plaguing them. In order to be a satisfying resolution to the mystery, however, that secret needs to be just as fantastic as the question it answers.

A comparison of the ways in which Priest and the Nolans pull the curtain back on Borden's secret reveals a great deal about their respective strengths as storytellers, as well as acting as a meta-level to the film's discussion of the importance of both technical skill and showmanship. Borden, we are told, is the superior magician, but it isn't until his act is supplemented by the kind of theatricality Angier specializes in that it takes off. Similarly, Priest may have come up with the clever idea at the story's core--that Borden is in fact two brothers pretending, at every moment, to be one man--but he fumbles its revelation just as thoroughly as Borden fumbles the final act of his teleportation illusion, unveiling it as the secret to a trick, not the solution to a mystery. It takes the Nolans' storytelling skills to sell the revelation in a way that makes the audience feel as if the tops of their heads have come off. As the film approached its ending and the revelation of Borden's secret, I was actually quite sorry that I had come into it with prior knowledge of the book--it seemed to me that watching the film cold would have been quite an experience--but in the end it didn't seem to matter. A good magician can sell a trick even if the audience knows how it's done.

It's a cliché that bad books make good movies, but it precisely the fact that Christopher Nolan has made such a good and interesting film out of Christopher Priest's novel that makes me wonder whether there might not have been something more to the book than what I saw in it, buried deep beneath the author's complete lack of technical skills. Perhaps novel-writing should work a little more like movie-making--one person brings the ideas, another the dialogue, a third the plotting. And perhaps it doesn't matter--if you've got the chops to make something good out of your own good idea, it'll stand on its own as a piece of fiction. If you don't, eventually someone will come along, rummage through your trash for the hidden heart of gold, and make something better out of it. Either way, the audience wins.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Hopefully, This Version Will Have an Actual Ending

Diamond Age, based on Neal Stephenson's best-selling novel The Diamond Age: Or a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, is a six-hour miniseries from [George] Clooney and fellow executive producer Grant Heslov of Smokehouse Productions. ... Stephenson will adapt his novel for the miniseries, the first time the Hugo and Nebula award winner has written for TV.
The full story is here, and includes descriptions of other projects the Sci Fi Channel has in development (the 'behind the scenes of a long-running space opera' comedy sounds like it might be cute).


Friday, January 12, 2007

Moby Dick: Portrait of the Blogger as a Young Reader and Other Thoughts

...the chapters on whaling in Moby Dick can be omitted by all but the most punishment-loving readers...

William Goldman, The Princess Bride
I made my first stab at Herman Melville's Moby Dick at the age of sixteen (and, just to get this out of the way as quickly as possible, yes, it was because of all the pimping the book was getting on The X-Files). I made it about halfway and stalled, defeated by the novel's frequent forays into whaling lore--the hierarchy of whaling ships and the roles of each of their crewmembers, whaling techniques and the process of converting a killed whale into salable products, the history of whaling and its customs, and, worst and most stultifying of all, whale biology. But I was annoyed by my inability to deal with a novel so central to the Western canon, and my much-abused copy survived several cullings of my library. One of these days, I would promise myself each time I divided my books into 'save' and 'give away' piles, I'm going to go back to that one.

Ten years later, that promise has finally been fulfilled. Beyond the pleasure inherent in completing a long-deferred project, I can't say that I'm overjoyed to have finally made a proper acquaintance with Melville's novel. It's not so much a good novel as an interesting--perhaps interestingly flawed--one, and one of the most interesting things about the experience of returning to it at twenty-six is the light that this second reading sheds on my capabilities as a sixteen year old reader--or rather, on the lack of same. I was taken aback by Melville's lightning-quick shifts of tone and style--the novel transitions from high adventure to academic treatise to stage drama in a matter of pages, and then back again--and although at the time I thought I was doing pretty well with the book, it's obvious now that the vast majority of Moby Dick went clean over my head, and that entire segments of it were scanned but never processed. Which is not to say that ten years later, Moby Dick went down as smooth as silk. It's still a much denser read than I'm comfortable with, and the infamous whaling chapters are still a trial (I confess: I did skim a few of them, mostly the ones concerned with cetacean physiology--honestly, how much am I going to learn about the subject from a man who insists, a full century after scientists had concluded otherwise, that whales are fish?). Where the experience gained in the intervening decade came in handy, however, was in separating the novel from the cultural artifact that has accumulated around it.

Everyone knows that Moby Dick is a novel about Captain Ahab's all-consuming obsession with taking vengeance on the eponymous white whale, a goal to which he sacrifices his ship, his crew, and his own life. Ten years ago, my expectations of what I would find in Melville's novel were so overpowering that I failed to notice what, in my contemporary reading, simply leaped off the page: that in the bulk of the novel Melville actually wrote, Ahab is barely even a minor character. He shows up about a hundred pages in, after some perfunctory foreshadowing and dark murmurs, and quickly establishes his disfunction. The famous gold doubloon is nailed to mast of the Pequod. At which point Ahab disappears below decks for some 400 pages, emerging periodically to remind us of his existence and reiterate his conviction to hunt down Moby Dick regardless of the consequences. So much else is happening in the novel, however, and so desultory are these visits into Ahab's psyche, that it is easy to forget that the Pequod isn't on a perfectly ordinary whaling expedition. It isn't until a hundred pages from Moby Dick's end that Ahab becomes a force to be reckoned with, and that the novel becomes the tragedy of revenge and obsession now irrevocably associated with its title.

In writing that tragedy, Melville was obviously hoping to recall Shakespeare, right down to his stylistic choices--the characters don't speak, they soliloquize, often with whispered asides to the audience, pun-based jokes and much clever wordplay and obsessive concentration on minutiae ("art thou not an arrant, all-grasping, intermeddling, monopolizing, heathenish old scamp, to be one day making legs, and the next day coffins to clap them in, and yet again life-buoys out of those same coffins?" Ahab asks of the Pequod's carpenter at one point); there are even stage directions, and dark portents pointing the way to Ahab's demise (although here Melville over-eggs the pudding: there's a prophecy made when Ahab was a child, and one made by his magician-harpooner, and a mysterious gale that tries to drive the Pequod away from Moby Dick's known location, and an electrical storm that reverses the polarity of the ship's magnets so that it sails the wrong way, and a bird that flies away with Ahab's captain's hat, and three encounters with ships whose captains urge Ahab to turn away from his quest, and probably more that I'm forgetting). The problem is that, fine writer though he was, Melville was no Shakespeare (and even Shakespeare only gets away with some of his greater excesses because he was writing four hundred years ago). Melville comes off as an overeager fan trying to emulate a favorite author, and his homage is artless and overwrought where Shakespeare delicately probed the very heart of what makes us human.
'I turn my body from the sun. What ho, Tashtego! let me hear thy hammer. Oh! ye three unsurrendered spires of mine; thou uncracked keel; and only god-bullied hull; thou firm deck, and haughty helm, and Pole-oriented prow,--death-glorious ship! must ye then perish, and without me? Am I cut off from the last fond pride of meanest shipwrecked captains? Oh, lonely death on lonely life! Oh, now I feel my topmost greatness lies in my topmost grief. Ho, ho! from all your furthest bounds, pour ye now in, ye bold billows of my whole foregone life, and top this one piled comber of my death! Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins an all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!'
As it turns out, Captain Ahab's quest for vengeance is only one of three novels that make up Moby Dick. The second is a fairly straightforward portrait of life aboard a whaling vessel, which switches between the points of view of the ship's various officers and crewmembers--the three mates, pious Starbuck, jovial Stubb and practical Flask; the three harpooners, Queequeg, Tashtego and Dagoo; the carpenter, blacksmith, cook, and cabin boys--and between moments of high adventure, back-breaking labor, and occasional jolliness. The third is the infamous 'let's learn about whaling!' treatise (Melville was apparently a great believer in the power of literature to educate its readers). Narrated by Ishmael--ostensibly the narrator of the entire novel, but his voice tends to fade into the background when the two narrative strands come to prominence--this novel, if such a word is even applicable, has a fairly fixed structure. Ishmael seizes on some obscure aspect of whaling life--how to retrieve spermaceti from a Sperm Whale's skull, the proper construction of a harpoon, various sea-life on which whales feed--goes on about it for several pages, and then creates an analogy between his topic and some aspect of the human condition, or some philosophical or moral approach. Here he is wrapping up the subject of whale respiration:
For how nobly it raises our conceit of the mighty, misty monster, to behold him solemnly sailing through a calm tropical sea; his vast, mild head overhung by a canopy of vapor, engendered by his incommunicable contemplations, and that vapor--as you will sometimes see it--glorified by a rainbow, as if Heaven itself had put its seal upon his thoughts. For, d'ye see, rainbows do not visit the clear air; they only irradiate vapor. And so, through all the thick mists of the dim doubts in my mind, divine intuitions now and then shoot, enkindling my fog with a heavenly ray. And for this I thank God; for all have doubts; many deny; but doubts or denials, few along with them, have intuitions. Doubts of all things earthly, and intuitions of some things heavenly; this combination makes neither believer nor infidel, but makes a man who regards them both with equal eye.
As you might imagine, this approach grows tedious very fast, but with all due respect to Mr. Goldman and the fantastic novel from which I quote at the beginning of this essay, I'd be sorry to drop the whaling chapters from Moby Dick. It is in this novel-within-a-novel, I believe, that Melville comes closest to drawing a believable portrait of an actual human being, and that man is Ishmael--a fatuous, self-important autodidact whose not-inconsiderable intellect is boxed in by the infantile conviction that all meaningful philosophy can be arrived at by extending metaphors from his chosen area of interest to the rest of existence. Reading the whaling chapters in Moby Dick, one can almost imagine Ishmael as a dinner companion--wonderfully knowledgeable, of course, and capable of spinning a good yarn, but so very full of himself, so certain that his deep understanding of one single aspect of human endeavor has endowed him with the key to understanding all of creation, that he very quickly becomes ridiculous. The real obsession in Moby Dick--the truly interesting obsession, certainly--isn't Ahab's with the white whale, but Ishmael's with whales of all shapes and sizes.

But is the obsession Ishmael's, or is it Melville's? Or, to put it another way, am I giving Melville too much credit by assuming that he intended for us to find Ishmael laughable, or for that matter to perceive a personality in him at all? Perhaps Ishmael was intended as nothing more than a conduit through which Melville could express his own philosophy, his own fascination with whales and whaling (the author went to sea several times before the novel's composition, once on a whaling ship). Perhaps it was Melville who thought whaling was simply the most fascinating topic imaginable, and couldn't stop himself from going on about it at any given opportunity. We often say that writers should write the novel they want to read, but there's a danger, when espousing this approach, of creating a novel that only the author will want to read, because other readers, who don't share the author's interests, have no way of gaining entry to the narrative. When I wrote about John Crowley's latest novel a few months ago, I wondered whether the author hadn't allowed his fascination with the life of Lord Byron, whose voice he attempts to replicate by putting an entire novel's-worth of words in his mouth, to overwhelm his original characters, and in the last week I've been involved in a discussion of Peter Watts's Blindsight in which the main topic has been Watts's choice to delve deeply--often to the detriment of his plot and characters--into descriptions of science both real and imaginary.

Whaling is interesting. The life and literature of Lord Byron are interesting. The science of sensory perception and manipulation is interesting. They are not, however, in themselves, capable of shedding light on an invented character, or of advancing a plot, and are therefore not the stuff that novels can be made out of. Melville tries to get around this bind through crude parables. Crowley (who arguably had the easiest task of the three, as the subject of his obsession is a person whose life story lends itself quite easily to a romantic interpretation) ends up reducing his novel to not much more than a heavily fictionalized biography. Watts coasts on the strength of his ideas. None of the three have written a truly satisfying work of fiction.

In order for a character's--or an author's--fascination with a topic to fuel a work of fiction, it has to do more than engage the readers intellectually. A connection needs to be drawn between the character's obsession and their humanity. The readers need to see how a fascination with whaling, or the life of Lord Byron, allows the characters to express themselves. M. John Harrison accomplishes this in the semi-autobiographical Climbers by establishing early on that his characters' sense of self-worth is inextricably tied to their ability to conquer difficult climbs. The protagonist of Walter Tevis's The Queen's Gambitis only fully functional when seated in front of a chess board, and in her everyday life she is lonely, unhappy, and prone to substance abuse. Once the ties between the characters' distinctive interests and their garden-variety humanity are established, we can inhabit their obsessions. Harrison goes on for pages on end about various climbs, often using a great deal of technical language. Tevis describes chess moves. But climbing and chess aren't an end in themselves for either of these authors, merely a means to get closer to the characters and thus engage the readers emotionally as well as intellectually.

I think that in the character of Ishmael, Melville came close to creating this kind of work. I also think he wasn't particularly interested in doing so, which might explain why, after laying the groundwork and establishing Ishmael's personality, he goes on in precisely the same format--expound upon aspect of whaling, attempt to convert practical observations into philosophical terms--for hundreds of pages, without attempting to change or further explore the character. Nevertheless, it is this aspect of Moby Dick that I most enjoyed--it's fun to imagine that there's a Nabokovian attempt at unreliable narration lurking somewhere, very deep beneath the novel's surface. And ultimately, I'm glad to have finally read the novel in its entirety--as I said at the beginning of this piece, it's too important to our culture to be completely ignored. Who knows, maybe I'll go back to it again in ten year's time, and find out once more just how limited my abilities as a reader were when I was twenty-six.

Monday, January 01, 2007