Monday, July 30, 2007

Self-Promotion 14

My review of Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union is up at Strange Horizons. If you've clicked through from there, you might also be interested in a response I wrote to another review of the novel.

This is also a good opportunity to mention that Strange Horizons has been running a fund drive this month. I think Strange Horizons is a fantastic webzine, and one of the most important and interesting sources of genre criticism out there. If you feel the same, please consider supporting it through a donation.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Attention, Israelis

This evening at 20:50, channel 8 will air Meni Philip's "Let There Be Darkness, Let There Be Light", an autobiographical documentary about his departure from the ultra-orthodox community in which he was raised, a decision in which he was ultimately followed by five of his ten brothers and sisters. I know Meni from Kiriat Ono's Reform congregation (brand new website here), where he has for years acted as our talented and hardworking cantor. I've therefore had the privilege of seeing "Let There Be Darkness, Let There Be Light" twice already--once, in its embryonic form, when it was screened for congregation members, and another time only a few weeks ago, when the final version was screened at the Jerusalem Film Festival--and I recommend it highly.

Meni and the new family he's formed with his secular siblings were also the subject of an article in Ha'aretz this week, which you can find here (unfortunately, there does not seem to be an English translation).

Friday, July 27, 2007

Harry Potter and the Neat Little Bow

In Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, three children--Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire--are orphaned by a mysterious fire, and subsequently plunged into an intricate mystery. Over the course of thirteen books they investigate their dead parents' history, the organizations they belonged to and fought against, the friendships, enmities, and love affairs they witnessed or were embroiled in, and the secrets they kept and revealed. Throughout their journey, the Baudelaires encounter many adults--guardians, friends, and acquaintances--some of whom are sinister, but most of whom are simply benevolent yet incompetent, too caught up in simple, one-sentence life philosophies such as 'He who hesitates is lost!' to be much more than hindrances, although they do teach the children about the existence of complexity and shades of gray. At the end of the series, the Baudelaires arrive at something like an adulthood, through the discovery that they have been subsumed into the web of relationships that has been responsible for so much of their suffering.

Rather than unraveling the past, laying it out neatly before the readers, and then putting it away, the Baudelaires, who have arrived at only a partial understanding of their personal and communal history (a full understanding being, the series strongly suggests, all but impossible), finally accept that their lives are to a certain extent governed by that past, and that the child they have been entrusted with will, in her turn, take up her place as yet another link in that chain. There's been some criticism of Snicket for performing what some fans view as a bait and switch--promising a mystery and delivering a story to which neat solutions are antithetical--and there is no denying that, spread out as it is over so many books, the novelty of the exercise wears a little thin, as does Snicket's trademark gothic-twee voice, but I don't think the power and importance of his final conclusion can be denied.

It's the kind of ending that is not delivered by Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (and in case the post title wasn't enough of a giveaway, yes, there are spoilers coming up). Throughout the Potter series, we are repeatedly confronted by characters whose history--personal, familial, and communal--influences and directs not only their own present-day choices, but the choices of their children and grandchildren. The past is a palpable presence in the series, often emerging into the present through stored memories. Deathly Hallows puts that past cleanly away. When the smoke clears at the end of the book, most of the parent generation--excepting Mr. and Mrs. Weasley--and all of the 'grandparent' generation--Dumbledore, Voldemort, Grindlewald and Moody--have been killed off, leaving the younger generation free to make their own way in life unencumbered by the past. The deaths of Lupin and Tonks, and of Snape, put paid to the tricky questions of their post-war life--would wizarding society have learned to tolerate the Lupins' mixed-race marriage? What kind of man would Snape have become without his mission to drive him?

In the book's epilogue, we discover that the darkness of the past has not been allowed to infect Harry's future, or that of his children. Harry's orphan analogue, Teddy Lupin, avoids his godfather's sad fate of growing up family-less, and may be on the cusp of marrying into his adoptive family. The Malfoys are de-clawed, with the possibility of friendship between Ron and Draco's children. The memory of Snape, of his terrible courage and his service to Hogwarts, is made part of the Potter/Evans legacy, while the more problematic aspects of his personality are left by the wayside. The Potter series's ending is both tragic and uplifting, but it's also a great deal neater than the one I had expected.

It's been said before, but wizarding society as Harry discovers it throughout the series bears a close resemblance to England between the two World Wars. Although rocked by a catastrophe in whose wake new ideas and social philosophies begin gaining public acceptance, it remains fundamentally class-conscious, conservative, and militaristic (by which I mean not only that wizards solve many of their problems through violence, but that they buy into notions of the glory and grandeur of war). There's even a parallel to be drawn between the Black sisters and the Mitford sisters, and Lucius Malfoy is plainly Rowling's Oswald Mosely analogue. The events described in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows are blatantly intended to recall WWII, from Fred and George Weasley mimicking De Gaulle on the BBC to echoes of the Holocaust, but the effect that this war has on the wizarding world is nowhere near as profound as the one that the real war had on the real Britain.

At the end of the book, the corrupt regime at the Ministry of Magic is ousted, and in interviews Rowling has said that Harry, Ron and Hermione take up positions within the ministry and transform the wizarding world into a kinder, gentler place (let's not lose sight of the fact that Rowling presents this transformation as a completed act, not a work in--perhaps perpetual--progress). The impression conveyed by the epilogue, however, is of the kind of quaint conservatism that the novels had previously militated against--family and tradition and community triumphant, with nothing ugly beneath the surface. What Harry, Ron and Hermione have accomplished, in other words, is to bring modern notions of equality and justice to the wizarding world without subjecting it to any of the social effects of modernism, chiefly the collapse of traditional institutions and worldviews. That's not just neat. It's dishonest, and disappointing given that the series had seemed to recognize how problematic those institutions were even as it glorified them. I hadn't expected Rowling to bring the wizarding world into the 21st century--she is, at heart, a conservative writer--but I did think that she would show us Harry and his friends engaged in a struggle for progress, still fighting against prejudice and a love of violence, honoring Dumbledore's legacy while still being influenced by their communal history, for better and worse.

This criticism aside--and I freely admit that my feelings on this subject may have more to do with my expectations of where Rowling was going to take her story than with what she actually delivered--Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is the usual mixture of good and bad. It is repetitive and overlong--both of the flashback chapters towards the end of the novel needed to be cut down to a few pages each, and although I can give "The Prince's Tale" a pass because it makes sense to me that Snape, after twenty years of bottling up his feelings, would want to shout them out as his last act instead of just telling Harry what he needed to know, there's really no excuse for Dumbledore, in "King's Cross", to repeat the same story related by Aberforth only a few chapters previously. I've also lost count of the number of times characters tell each other things the readers have already witnessed or been told.

Deathly Hallows also goes far beyond the previous books' discomforting treatment of gender and into disturbing territory. Fleur is described as staring at Bill 'slavishly'. When Ron feels uncomfortable about clutching the now-married Tonks in a non-sexual manner, it's her husband that he glances at, not the woman herself. It's automatically accepted that, only a few weeks into her pregnancy, Tonks will stay home with her mother rather than go to work. Finally, while it's obviously very, very cool that Mrs. Weasley can wipe the floor with Bellatrix Lestrange, may I ask why the only role that the Order of the Phoenix could find for a woman with such mad dueling skills involved cooking and cleaning?

There are, however, also some exceptionally fine and touching scenes in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows--Ron's break with Harry and Hermione, all of "The Silver Doe", Potterwatch, Lupin finally being called out for his pathological desire to be liked, Percy's reunion with the Weasleys, Ron finally earning Hermione's love by embracing house-elf rights, Neville striding out in the face of certain death to complete the task left to him by Harry, Albus's middle name--and in spite of my problems with her ending, Rowling hasn't abandoned messiness and complexity. Percy may realize that he's been a fool and come back to the family fold, but nineteen years later he's still a pompous ass whom Harry would rather avoid. Snape may have loved Lily for nearly his whole life, but that love doesn't make him a better person, or worthy of its being returned. I'm particularly pleased with the fact that Rowling avoids 'redeeming' either Dudley or Draco. The former finally acknowledges Harry's worth and genuinely wishes him well, but I think this is probably the last time the cousins ever see each other. The latter still doesn't have the stomach for killing, but when faced with the choice to either save or doom Harry, Ron and Hermione the best he can do is recuse himself.

Most importantly, in spite of the fact that I was never in any real doubt about Harry's survival (I was a great deal more nervous about Snape, although realistically I knew that he didn't have much of a chance), and in spite of the fact that Rowling's spiritual/philosophical conclusion isn't nearly as profound as she seems to think it is--it hinges on an over-literal, almost materialistic, concept of what the soul is--I finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows feeling drained, overwhelmed, and as if I'd just had a good cry. The kind of feeling you get, in other words, at the end of a huge, sprawling story, when you suddenly realize that the door into that particular imaginary world has closed for the last time. For all its failings, the Harry Potter series never stopped being a story that I could immerse myself in, and I am both saddened and exhilarated by its ending.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Beware, Politics Ahead

My review of Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union will appear in Strange Horizons next month. It will, I believe, be the first time an Israeli has reviewed the book (this is obviously your cue, loyal AtWQ readers, to point out the fourteen instances of reviews by Israelis which I have unaccountably missed), although I can't say that my reaction to it is primarily influenced by my national identity. Nevertheless, there's no doubt in my mind that the novel, an alternate history in which Jews flee Nazi persecution and later a lost war for Israeli independence to a temporary safe haven in Alaska, will have a different resonance with Israeli readers than it has had, thus far, with non-Israelis, and I am very curious to see what the Israeli literary establishment makes of it once the inevitable translation appears. An early example of one possible reaction was provided this week by the English-language daily The Jerusalem Post. Samuel Freedman, who writes a column on issues relating to American Jews, dedicated an entry, titled "Chabon's Choice", to The Yiddish Policemen's Union.

The Jerusalem Post is unabashedly a right-wing paper, but to my mind its editorial stance is determined less by political conviction than by a parochial insistence on viewing the world through Jewish-tinted glasses. This is a paper that literally asks, of every event it reports or comments on, whether it is good for the Jews or good for Israel (the two are often used interchangeably) and quite often one gets the impression that, for its editors and writers, there is only one acceptable way to be pro-Israel. I had my doubts, therefore, about whether Freedman's piece would be worth reading, and at first glance those doubts seemed justified. The article opens not with Chabon but with his wife, the novelist Ayelet Waldman, and with an essay in which she describes the process by which she arrived at an anti-Zionist point of view. "Chabon is Waldman's husband, and he dedicated the book to her as his 'bashert,'" Freedman concludes, "so it is hardly a risky stretch to believe that his work of fiction ratifies a worldview the couple shares."

Well, of course it's a risky stretch. Unless the work in question is as nakedly political as, say, Captain Corelli's Mandolin, it is both foolish and irresponsible to ascribe its political stance to its author (as Ian McEwan recently pointed out in a well-deserved smackdown to a Guardian reviewer who did just this in her review of On Chesil Beach). To top off this presumption with a reference to the political opinions of the author's spouse and then present this flimsy supposition as ironclad proof is nothing short of absurd, especially when coming from a professor of journalism at Columbia University. I was therefore surprised to discover that "Chabon's Choice" turns out to be a great deal more intelligent than its indefensible opening suggests. At the article's core is an intelligent reading of Chabon's novel, one that is sadly blighted by its author's apparent unwillingness to treat The Yiddish Policemen's Union as anything but a purely political work.

Freedman's main argument against The Yiddish Policemen's Union is that it, or more precisely Chabon, "appears to find landlessness and eternal wandering romantic." This conclusion is both correct and driven by inaccuracies in Freedman's reading. Although it is true that the novel's main character, the washed-up detective Meyer Landsman, and his boss and ex-wife Bina Gelbfish "exude not the slightest fear or anxiety" about the homelessness that will be their lot when the Alaskan Jewish settlement in Sitka reverts to US control in a few months (this is mostly because Landsman has despaired of his future in general, and Bina has plans to be absorbed into the incoming American police force), just about every character they meet, including the third member of the novel's primary character triad, Landsman's partner Berko Shemets, is. In fact, the novel's plot is driven by the fear and anxiety of Jews who don't wish to be displaced one more time, and resort to violence in their quest to ensure that they never need be again. Freedman also rather conveniently ignores the fact that these Jewish antagonists are not the novel's primary villains, a role reserved for fanatical Christian evangelicals, who against their Jewish co-conspirators' quite palpable fear and anxiety have nothing but a smug superiority and a desire to fulfill 'prophecy' to justify them. Is it not more likely that as an American, Chabon has saved his political darts for the targets that affect him directly, rather than aiming them at a nation on the other side of the world?

Nevertheless, there is no question that Freedman is right when he diagnoses the novel's fundamental attitude towards displacement. There is no other way of describing passages like the following:
You have to look at Jews like Bina Gelbfish, Landsman thinks, to explain the side range and persistence of the race. Jews who carry their homes in an old cowhide bag, on the back of a camel, in the bubble of air at the center of their brains. Jews who land on their feet, hit the ground running, ride out the vicissitudes, and make the best of what falls to hand, from Egypt to Babylon, from Minsk Gubernya to the District of Sitka. Methodical, organized, persistent, resourceful, prepared. Berko is right: Bina would flourish in any precinct house in the world. A mere redrawing of borders, a change in governments, those things can never faze a Jewess with a good supply of hand wipes in her bag.
What Freedman doesn't acknowledge, however, is that Chabon's aggrandizement of the rootless lifestyle that, at the end of his novel, his characters have been doomed to, is not, as his column seems to suggest, an intellectually dishonest attempt to do away with the need for a Jewish state. It is a response--on Landsman's side, and perhaps also on Chabon's--to what the novel perceives as the great evil of territorialism. When Landsman angrily tells an American power-broker, who has just finished pitching Landsman their plan for establishing a new Jewish homeland, and possibly starting World War III in the process, that "[his] homeland is in his hat. It's in [his] ex-wife's tote-bag," he is not embracing a nomadic lifestyle. He is rejecting all other options in disgust. Over the course of the novel Landsman, driven by his fundamental decency and desire to see justice done, sloughs off all the layers of his self-definition--as a policeman, as a member of a religion, as a member of a nation--until all that's left are his convictions. At the end of the novel, he has narrowed that definition down to two simple predicates: he is the man who loves Bina Gelbfish, and the man who is going to do the right thing. Romantic? Yes. But not insipid or free of consequences.

I don't know Freedman's personal history--whether he has ever lived, even for a brief period, in Israel. If he hasn't, then it's possible that he can't understand just how powerfully The Yiddish Policemen's Union captures the corrosive effect of territorialism. I say this as someone who is a Zionist, who loves her country, and who hopes and plans to live here for the rest of her life: it can be exhausting to constantly define oneself as a member of a group, especially if that group's actions often challenge your most cherished beliefs. The temptation to fling off all but the most fundamental of allegiances can sometimes be overwhelming, and although I don't concur with Landsman's decision to do so at the end of The Yiddish Policemen's Union any more than I can understand Ayelet Waldman's choice to shirk off her Israeli identity because of the actions of a single prime minister, I also don't see that either choice is, as Freedman seems to believe, a refusal to engage with the issue at hand.

Refusal to engage is in fact Freedman's culminating accusation against Chabon and The Yiddish Policemen's Union:
Roth in Operation Shylock and The Counterlife and Roiphe in Lovingkindness drew powerful and often critical portraits of Israel's place (or lack thereof) in the existence of American Jews. Yet as writers of a certain generation, they did not need to eradicate Israel, or at the minimum treat it as a communal embarrassment, in order to depict something vital in the Diaspora experience. Roughly two generations younger, apparently imbued with the belief that Israel is a colonial, imperialistic oppressor, Chabon has found joy in, at least on paper, making it cease to exist.
And there we have the fundamental fallacy of Freedman's argument: the belief that every decision in The Yiddish Policemen's Union was made first and foremost for political reasons. Never mind that the novel's genesis is in an article, "Say it in Yiddish" that Chabon wrote ten years ago, in which he imagines a modern Yiddish nation (for which, as this blog entry reports, he has also been roundly criticized by Yiddish-speakers who claim that the language isn't nearly as dead as he suggests. All I know is that in my personal experience of Yiddish-speaking enclaves in Israel, they are precisely the kind of ghettos Chabon describes in The Yiddish Policemen's Union). Never mind that for the sake of that alternate history, Israel as we know it can't exist. Never mind that the noir anti-hero has to reject the security offered by his corrupt society in exchange for his silence and tacit approval of its sins. Never mind that Chabon has been an outspoken proponent of bringing genre tropes and conventions back into literary fiction. None of these possible reasons for the form the novel ultimately takes are as persuasive as the political one, perhaps because Freedman can't imagine any reason to write a novel other than to make a political point.

I was thinking about Freedman's article when I read Nader Elhefnawy's review of Brian Aldiss's latest novel, HARM, in Strange Horizons. According to Elhefnawy, the novel, in which a British cartoonist of Muslim descent is jailed and tortured for making a joke about killing the prime minister, is "unambiguously (and for a publisher, intimidatingly) about the present War on Terror, and Paul's torturers, at the titular Hostile Activities Research Ministry, are unambiguously American and British officials." I was struck, while reading Elhefnawy's review, by how little he actually discusses the novel as a work of fiction. A significant portion of his review is taken up by plot description, and more importantly, by his highlighting of the ways in which HARM mirrors what is happening in the real world today.
Paul also remains in custody even after paranoia has ceased to be an excuse for detaining him, as his interrogators freely admit among each other. The American interrogator, Abraham Ramson, figures out in just one session early in the novel that Paul is not a threat and that it is a waste of time to hold on to him. Algernon Gibbs, the British manager of the facility, simply stubs out his cigarette and remarks "I'd nuke the lot of them, given the chance"—which is all that matters to him.
It's hard to escape the conclusion that for Elhefnawy, HARM's virtue is rooted in its unadulterated mirroring of reality, which is entirely antithetical to my feelings about what makes good fiction. Elhefnawy closes the review by concluding that "HARM richly deserves a place in the canon of dystopian science fiction," but last time I checked, a dystopia was a work that imagined how the future might be, in its worst possible form, not a work that describes the present day. 1984 is powerful precisely because it can't be pinned down to a single era, or a single menace to our freedom and civil rights. It was famously written in response to Stalinism and then appropriated as a response to fascism, and it works equally well for both, as well as remaining a vibrant and terrifying warning in the face of present-day incursions into civil liberties, because its ultimate focus is the universal human tendency to give away freedom for the sake of the illusion of security (this universality is absent from Orwell's other anti-totalitarianism novel, Animal Farm, which is one of the reasons that it hasn't aged nearly as well as 1984). As Elhefnawy describes it, HARM is not so much a work of fiction as a work of fictionalized journalism, the kind of novel, like Operation Shylock, that Freedman deems justified in its criticisms of Israel because it traffics not in fancy but in slices of reality.

I've probably harped on this issue so often that it's become dull, especially in my discussions of Battlestar Galactica and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, but I don't believe it's possible for a work of fiction to be good art and good propaganda at the same time. The Yiddish Policemen's Union is a good novel, partly because it can't be boiled down, as Samuel Freedman attempts to do in "Chabon's Choice," to a political statement. I don't mean to say that art shouldn't be political, or shouldn't have a point of view. On the contrary, I think one of the hallmarks of great art is that it can win you over to a point of view, not in the sense of changing your opinions, but by placing the reader in an emotional frame of mind in which certain opinions are inevitable, at least for as long as the pages are turning. James Tiptree Jr. did this in some of her short stories--as I once wrote, one of the marvels of "The Screwfly Solution" is that it makes you frightened of a misogynistic tendency in all males that you probably don't even believe exists. Ian McEwan manages it in Saturday, when he makes us sympathize with an affluent, privileged Englishman who really hasn't done enough to earn his good fortune or try to spread it around. Russell T. Davies manages it in The Second Coming, an atheist fantasy whose fundamental assumption--that humanity has, en masse, outgrown religious belief--is untenable. All of these works, however, have more to offer than an opinion. Disagreeing with Tiptree or McEwan or Davies doesn't make it impossible for us to enjoy their work, and neither is that enjoyment predicated on accepting their viewpoints. This is, to me, the essence of worthy fiction.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Cue Incoherent Squealing

Sci Fi Wire reports:
SCI FI Channel will revive its popular original show Farscape as a Web-based series of short films on SCIFI.COM's SCI FI Pulse broadband network, part of a slate of new original online programming.

SCI FI has ordered 10 webisodes of Farscape, to be produced by Brian Henson and Robert Halmi Jr. and produced by The Jim Henson Co.
Exciting as this news is, it's best to keep in mind that the webisode concept didn't work out so well for Battlestar Galactica, what with the killer celery and all (if you haven't watched Resistance, I just made it sound a hell of a lot more exciting than it actually was). That said, I trust the people involved a hell of a lot more than I trust the Galactica folks these days, and unlike Resistance and the upcoming Razor web-series (more info here) this series is probably not primarily intended to build up anticipation for traditional programming, which gives it a better chance of working as its own piece of storytelling.

Whatever the result, I think this is yet another demonstration of the Sci Fi Channel's admirable commitment to providing non-traditional, net-based content. I have a lot of problems with Sci Fi, but in this respect they've always been remarkably right-headed, and more power to them for it.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

And the Narnia Fans Think They Have It Rough

From L-space.org, a pictorial guide to the proper reading order of Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, listing novels, graphic novels, short stories, children's books, and science books.

Or you could just do what I did, starting in the middle and picking books up whenever I found them in bookstores.

(Link via.)

Saturday, July 14, 2007

You Know, For Kids

The last Harry Potter book is nearly upon us, which is as good a time as any to contemplate the twin publishing phenomena spawned by the series's success--adults reading books marketed for children, and authors of adult novels crossing over into children's fiction. The A.S. Byatts of the world would have us believe that the former is one of the signs of the coming apocalypse, or at the very least an indication that the adult in question has something wrong with them, but the issue is probably a little more complicated. There must be something that children's books do and adult books don't for so many adult readers to gravitate to the former (perhaps the answer is as simple as there being so few adult novels with adolescent protagonists--of the top of my head I can only come up with Donna Tartt's The Little Friend). With that question in mind, it's interesting to examine the ways in which authors of adult fiction tailor their themes and narrative voices in their attempts to appeal to a juvenile audience.

I had my doubts about reading China Miéville's recent novel for children, Un Lun Dun, mostly because the last time an author of adult fiction whose skill set seemed to me to be ideally suited for the transition into children's fiction actually made that leap, the result was thoroughly disappointing. Like Miéville, Michael Chabon has a gift for vivid description and tight plotting, as well as a good sense of humor, and yet his 2002 novel for children, Summerland, was sodden and anemic, condescending to both its readers and protagonists. In the interim, however, two other authors whose novels for adults I've enjoyed have made successful forays into children's fiction: Neil Gaiman with his almost-universally lauded Coraline, and Terry Pratchett, who recovered from a rocky start with The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents to create the spectacular Tiffany Aching series, and while it's true that Pratchett and Gaiman started out a little closer to the YA mentality than Chabon or Miéville--if only for their length and complexity, I'd hesitate before recommending The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay or Perdido Street Station to just any young reader, but most of the hardcore Pratchett and Gaiman fans I know started reading these authors in their early teens--the combination of their success and some truly exceptional reviews for Un Lun Dun convinced to give the book a try.

I should have followed my instincts. Un Lun Dun is definitely cut from the same cloth as Summerland. It's not a bad novel by any stretch of the imagination, but it isn't trying very hard to be a good one either. Rather, it expends most of its energies trying to be pleasant, which is not a word I ever envisioned using to describe anything by China Miéville. The novel's protagonists are two young Londoners, Zanna and Deeba (the book never spells out their ages, but 10-12 seems like a fair estimate to me), who, to borrow Terry Pratchett's phrase "[end] up in some idiot world with goblins and talking animals". Zanna turns out to be the Chosen One for the abcity of UnLondon (only one out of large number of un-cities--Parisn't, No York, Baghdidn't), where the sun has a circular hole in its center, buses fly or walk around on reptilian legs, and city hall is a moving bridge. Zanna's task is to defeat a sentient smog hellbent on burning and absorbing everything and everyone in the city, but when things go a little awry for her--which is to say, not according to prophecy--Deeba convinces the city's rulers to rely on a non-mythical solution concocted by one of their chief scientists, and to send her and Zanna home. With Zanna suffering from the after-effects of their journey, and following the discovery that UnLondon's savior may not be who he claims to be, Deeba decides to head back to the abcity, and ends up taking on Zanna's role.

China Miéville's reputation as one of the most important names in modern fantasy rests on two innovations (or, perhaps more accurately, quasi-innovations, as Miéville is mostly credited with having taken these approaches to their logical conclusions), both of which are present in Un Lun Dun, but in a faint and watered-down form. Miéville's adult novels toy with and subvert the conventions of fantasy narratives and fairy tales--the prince in disguise, the outlaws with hearts of gold who band together to save their city from a deadly menace, the mysterious stranger unjustly accused of a terrible crime who bears his punishment with dignity. There are hints of this attitude in Un Lun Dun--the novel's heroine is, after all, not the Chosen One but the Chosen One's best friend, and there's an amusing twist towards the end of the novel when Deeba, having learned from the prophecy that Zanna was supposed to undergo seven quests in order to acquire a weapon powerful enough to defeat the Smog, laboriously completes the first one and then decides to skip straight to number seven.

For the most part, however, the novel hews rather closely to the standard fantasy adventure format--upon their arrival in UnLondon, Zanna and Deeba go off to see the wizard who will tell them what to do. In her quest to save Zanna and UnLondon, Deeba acquires an entourage of friendly locals who guard and guide her, including an initially caustic ghost boy named Hemi who first demands payment for his services but soon becomes Deeba's friend. When one considers that this story is coming from the same man who, in his first novel, used the prince in disguise framework to tell a story about a young man posthumously repairing his relationship with his adoptive father and rejecting the notion of monarchic rule, and who, in Perdido Street Station, has the protagonist practically sell himself into slavery in order to secure the services of a local mobster, Un Lun Dun seems downright conservative in its adherence to fantasy tropes, which hobbles the novel's emotional effect. We know that Zanna and Deeba have to make it to the moving bridge, and the hundred pages of not-particularly-difficult obstacles Miéville places in their way are mostly an annoyance. We know that Deeba can't fail in any of her quests, and end up begrudging the time spent on them, as well as on the other delays she runs into, such as being brought before UnLondon's telecommunications mogul for the crime of speaking out of turn. If Miéville had worked harder to make these episodic adventures thrilling--as he did in Perdido Street Station--the fact that their outcome, as well as the novel's, is a foregone conclusion wouldn't have been a problem, but with so little actual menace in the novel the reader has no way of escaping its predictability.

In this respect, Un Lun Dun reminds me of Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth, which is similarly undercut by the predictability of its fantasy elements and its blind adherence to fairy tale plot structures. The minute Ofelia is told that she has to complete three tasks, we know that there is no danger of her failing in the first two. The giant toad Ofelia has to overcome in her first task is far less frightening than the anticipation of her mother's rage at the discovery that the beautiful new dress she made Ofelia has been coated in mud and slime. The prohibition against eating any of the eyeless man's food is practically a guarantee that Ofelia will succumb to temptation. The faun's demand that Ofelia sacrifice her infant brother to gain entrance to her magical realm is clearly a test. Del Toro succeeds where Miéville fails because of the brutality of the film's real-world segments, to which the predictability of Ofelia's fantasy world is clearly a response, and because, unless they're adaptations, fantasy films are pretty thin on the ground. A fantasy reader, however, who comes to Pan's Labyrinth expecting the dark, surprising take on fantasy that so many mainstream reviewers lauded the film for might wonder what all the fuss was about, especially if they're familiar with the adult novels of China Miéville.

Miéville has also been celebrated for his elaborate, vividly described fantasy worlds, and most particularly for his emphasis on depicting their political and economic underpinnings. UnLondon's component parts are as imaginative as anything out of the Bas-Lag novels: a society of roof-dwellers whose feet never touch the ground, a ghost quarter, a jungle inside a house, and my personal favorite, the black windows--half-spider, half portal to another dimension (once again, Miéville does his best work with arachnids)
In some bizarre social interaction, windows pulled wide open, and in seemingly impossible motion, others would approach with furtive arachnid scurries and wriggle inside, the pane closing behind them. Others would open, and wooden forelegs would waver out from inside, and other windows would emerge and creep away.
Unlike New Crobuzon or Armada, however, there isn't a sense that these disparate parts come together into a whole. One of the effects of Miéville's commitment to economic realism in his adult novels was that none of the ethnic groups making up his cities could exist sealed off from the whole. The cactus people, bug people, bird people and water people might live in their own neighborhoods, but to survive and feed themselves some of them would have to venture outside and mingle with the general population, and a scant few--artists, scientists, free-thinkers and radicals--eventually formed their own groups, regardless of race and origins. The result felt like a city--a place where different people come together to create something original and unique.

That sensation is missing in Un Lun Dun, not only because the abcity's different neighborhoods, and Deeba's adventures within them, are almost hermetically sealed, but because UnLondon is perpetually overshadowed by the real thing. Much of what Deeba encounters in the abcity is a response, parody, or pun on real-world landmarks--the river Smeath, Webminster Abbey, the UnLondon-I. Neil Gaiman did something similar in Neverwhere (a novel whose influence Miéville specifically references in the acknowledgments page, and which was also clearly an influence on King Rat), but his London Below very quickly developed an independent personality, which UnLondon never does. There's a sense that London is so prevalent in Un Lun Dun because Deeba and Zanna's personalities are shaped and informed by being Londoners, and Miéville is to be lauded for creating modern, urban protagonists, girls who have no problem navigating the Underground or taking buses, who never leave home without their cell phones (one of my favorite scenes in Un Lun Dun comes fairly early in the novel, when Deeba sees a tree made out of fireworks and laments the loss of her cameraphone), but the bulk of the novel takes place not in the real city but in the imaginary one. It's UnLondon that Deeba falls in love with, and Miéville never managed to convincingly explain why.

Un Lun Dun steadily improves as it progresses, and once it finally sloughs off the last vestiges of conventional storytelling--just in time for Deeba's final confrontation with the Smog--it is actually quite exciting, to the extent that I was even a little intrigued by the blatant sequel-bait at the end. If, as the novel's ending suggests, Miéville has finally gotten his preconceptions about children's fiction out of his system, Deeba's further adventures in UnLondon might be worth a look. Nevertheless, the fact remains that Un Lun Dun is a mild, not particularly exciting, not particularly scary, not particularly funny novel, and performs at a level far below what Miéville is capable of. It is Miéville Lite.

Which brings me back to the question with which I began this essay: what should an author for adults change in their writing, and what should they leave unchanged, when attempting to address a juvenile audience? In the two successful works within this sub-subgenre I mentioned earlier--Gaiman's Coraline and Pratchett's Tiffany Aching series--the changes are structural. The books are shorter, the language is simpler, particularly in the descriptive passages, the protagonists are juvenile and the stories' prevailing themes are drawn from childhood and the process of growing up. The essentials of what makes Gaiman's writing Gaiman-ish, and Pratchett's writing Pratchett-ish, however, are unchanged. Coraline is a fantasy that borders on horror, in which reality intersect with and is invaded by its familiar, yet fundamentally alien, mirror image. The Tiffany Aching books are about the importance of free will, free and informed choice, self-control, and taking responsibility for one's choices, and sometimes also for the choices of others. At no point do Gaiman and Pratchett pull their punches in anticipation of their intended audience, whereas Summerland and Un Lun Dun lobotomize their authors' most cherished themes.

It's pointless for me to review Un Lun Dun as though I were a member of its target audience. I also don't have enough grounding in the field to say whether Miéville has produced a poor, mediocre, or stellar example of children's fiction (although even in my very limited forays I've come across books far better than this one). I am, however, a Miéville fan (and I can't help but feel that my existence was taken into account by Un Lun Dun's publishers, who were hoping that the novel would have a crossover appeal, or at least that people as clueless about kids as myself, when buying a present for a nephew or a goddaughter, would naturally gravitate towards a familiar and well-liked name), and in that capacity I can categorically state that with Un Lun Dun, he has dumbed himself down when the experience of other authors suggests that he didn't have to. I'd like to say that Miéville and Chabon talk down to kids, whereas Gaiman and Pratchett address them on their own level, but I don't know enough about children to know where that level is. As an adult who often enjoys children's fiction, then, I'll say that Miéville has produced a work that can only appeal to people who don't know him any better. In other words, Chabon and Miéville are Disney and Dreamworks, whereas Gaiman and Pratchett are Pixar.

[On a personal note, today is AtWQ's second anniversary, and I'd once again like to thank all the people who have visited, linked, commented, or just given this blog a moment of their attention.]

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

It's 9/11, But With a Monster and Better Special Effects!

Courtesy of J.J. Abrams (producing) and Drew Goddard (writing, which is, admittedly, a good sign), I give you the trailer for 1-18-08 (I'm not so clear whether this is the title--IMDb still lists the film as 'Untitled J.J. Abrams Project').

I honestly thought it'd take longer to get to this point.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Let's Put On a Show: A Comparison

Now that it is over, let us take a moment to praise a show that did not, in life, receive nearly its fair share of accolades. A show about show-making, which starts with the realization, by a respected creator and long-time veteran of the battle between commercial and artistic considerations, that he has stagnated, and allowed the venue for which he has been responsible for decades to stagnate with him. His violent abdication can be remedied only by the return of his former protégé, a brilliant man who parted with his mentor after a brutal humiliation. He, in turn, must find a way to balance his artistic integrity with the financial considerations of his employers, who have little understanding of art and even less interest in learning about it, while battling his attraction to his leading lady, an aggravating but furiously talented woman.

I'm speaking, of course, of the Canadian series Slings & Arrows, which wrapped up its three season run (making for a grand total of eighteen episodes) last year, and which is, in almost every respect, the anti-Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Set in the fictional town of New Burbage, and revolving around its renowned Shakespeare festival, the series's first season opens on the opening night of A Midsummer Night's Dream. For the festival's artistic director, Oliver Welles, this is the play's fifth production, and he sleepwalks through the preparations for a show that, as an unctuous critic puts it, "[doesn't] make demands of the audience," more concerned with ensuring that the audience can hear the bleating of his prop sheep ("Without the bleats, there’s no irony, Maria. Any fool knows that.") than with their ability to see Titania's face during a crucial speech. After the show, a drunken and despondent Oliver reaches out to the person he blames for his artistic malaise, Geoffrey Tennant (a magnetic Paul Gross), a former rising star who crashed and burned after giving only a few performances as Hamlet under Oliver's direction, and who, following this debacle, and a psychiatric commitment, faded into obscurity for seven years. Geoffrey has established his own theatre, situated in a dilapidated warehouse where the phones have been cut off, the toilet overflows, the electricity is dubious at best and the rent is three months overdue, but in which he can be his own master, not a slave to corporate sponsors and a panderer to the degraded taste of an audience that seeks to be comforted rather than challenged.

Nevertheless, when Oliver suddenly dies, Geoffrey reluctantly agrees to take over as the festival's interim artistic director, ultimately taking over the production of the very play that once drove him mad. Standing in Geoffrey's way are: the festival's financial director, Richard Smith-Jones (Mark McKinney, who is also credited as a writer and co-creator, and who, in yet another parallel between Slings & Arrows and Studio 60, appeared in the latter show as the dour sketch writer Andy and co-wrote some of the series's less obnoxious episodes), an occasionally lovable, frequently unbearable buffoon whose real love is for musical theatre; his prima donna, former Ophelia, love of his life and the real reason for his breakdown, the neurotic, narcissistic Ellen Fanshaw; and, oh yes, the ghost of Oliver Welles, who appears periodically to revisit old fights, open old wounds, and criticize Geoffrey's vision of the play.

The most glaring difference between Slings & Arrows and Studio 60--one that at times seems to render a comparison between the two shows almost unfair--is that Slings & Arrows is remarkably well-made. The writing is clever, nimbly combining the obligatory, yet never trite, Shakespearean references with the behind-the-scenes antics of a raucous, ill-disciplined acting company. The pace is never slack, with every minute of screentime being used to its fullest, as opposed to the padded and repetitive Studio 60, which made a mockery out of Sorkin's signature dialogue by using repetition not as an emphasizing device but as padding (does anyone have an accurate count of the number of times the 'there's a company called Trask...' speech is repeated during the show's final plot arc?). The characters are appealing when they're meant to be, and infuriating when they're not. Best of all, the show is genuinely, laugh-out-loud funny. Everything, in other words, that Studio 60 should have but never was.

This is not to say that Slings & Arrows is without fault. Although it never reaches the level of shrill hysteria which characterized most of Studio 60's treatment of the struggle between art and commerce, it is not particularly concerned with presenting a balanced and thoughtful position on the issue. The main antagonist in Slings & Arrows's first season is the American harpy Holly Day, a representative of the festival's biggest corporate sponsor who Lady Macbeths Richard into making a play for total control of the festival, as part of her plan to transform New Burbage into a theatrical Disneyland, with mega-venues for blockbuster productions of the Mamma Mia variety, copious shopping opportunities, and a tiny annex set aside for 'traditional' productions like Hamlet. Also, the show's treatment of the behind-the-scenes process often borders on the simplistic, imbuing Geoffrey with almost magical powers of suggestion, and the ability to draw a worthy performance out of almost any person willing to listen--the corporate drone on a management workshop who is inspired to give a stirring reading of 'Now is the winter of our discontent...' , or, beggaring belief even further, the action-flick star out of whom Geoffrey has to fashion a Hamlet. This character, Jack, is portrayed as intelligent, thoughtful, and talented, but he's never appeared on a stage before, and the notion that Geoffrey can not only get him to create a credible Hamlet but to sustain that performance for more than three hours, when by his own admission Jack has never "had to keep it up for more than three-eighths of a page," is nothing short of absurd. (It is here that Gross's charisma comes to the writers' rescue. He has such commanding presence, such an expressive voice and face, that it is almost possible to believe that he is the magician the writers make him out to be.)

In Slings & Arrows's second, and less successful, season, Geoffrey is persuaded to follow up Hamlet with Macbeth, which he initially stages according to detailed notes left by Oliver. Unlike the first season, which proceeded according to the standard let's-put-on-a-show template--beleaguered company triumphs over financial and artistic adversity--the second season starts with Geoffrey in a position of power and ends with him there still, having predictably delivered a stellar production, and the story is therefore rendered slack. There is too distinct a separation between Geoffrey's storyline and Richard's (a prolonged, and at times cringe-inducing, plotline in which Richard, in his attempts to re-brand the festival and draw in new subscribers, falls under the spell of a charismatic PR executive), and an unfortunate repetition of a first season plotline about two ingenues falling in love (in the first season, these were Jack and his Ophelia, a pre-Mean Girls Rachel McAdams; in the second season, Romeo and Juliet become lovers offstage as well as on).

Most problematic is the absence of a parallel between Geoffrey's story and that of the play. In the first season, Geoffrey is Hamlet, who runs away from his obligations and is finally forced to meet them through the urgings of an importunate ghost and his own conscience. At the beginning of the second season, there is an indication that Geoffrey's increasing obsession with Oliver's vision for the play mirrors Macbeth's with Duncan, and that Geoffrey will be forced to symbolically kill his king before he can make the play his own. If the parallel was ever intended, its execution is muddled, with Geoffrey's animosity soon transferred from Oliver to his star, Henry, whose personal vision of the character, and unwillingness to risk humiliation by trying something new, threaten to calcify the entire performance. Unfortunately, through a flaw in either the acting or the way the character is written, we never get the sense that Henry has a great Macbeth in him. He comes across as hammy and broad, and the ultimate triumph of his collaboration with Geoffrey feels unearned.

The second season is, however, noteworthy for two sequences that touch on a difference between theatre and pre-filmed television, one that viewers exclusively grounded in the latter don't tend to think about--the ephemeral quality of a performance, and the input that a live audience has into it. Fed up with Henry's insubordination, Geoffrey fires him and puts his unprepared, unsuited understudy Jerry on stage instead. The performance Jerry produces--halting, uncertain, and missing those chunks of the text he never managed to learn or forgot out of nervousness--is fueled by adrenalin and fear. It's a one-time feat, as Ellen later tells Geoffrey, an unsustainable high note. Later, Geoffrey forces Henry to perform the play as he was directed to by setting the rest of the company against him, even going so far as to have Ellen strip Henry naked on stage, and once again producing a performance rooted primarily in the actor's emotions.

In spite of the fact that it also revolves around a live performance, and that many of the show-within-a-show's castmembers cut their teeth before live audiences, there is rarely a corresponding acknowledgment in Studio 60 of the effect that an audience has on a performer and a performance. The audience in the studio is no more or less important, and makes no more of a contribution to the creative process, than the folks watching at home, and deviations from the script are invariably depicted as errors and mishaps (most notably in the fundamentally unapologetic apology episode "The Disaster Show", which also gave me a metafictional headache by casting Allison Janney as herself opposite her former West Wing alumni, who are playing fictional characters)--we never see the actors ad-libbing, for example.

"There's nothing more boring than perfection. Imprecision. Fear. This is what gets them to their feet." Geoffrey tells a terrified Jack before sending him onstage. He's speaking about the words of a man who epitomizes the Western canon, and he doesn't care, because although he loves and respects those words, his reverences is reserved for their performance, no two of which are alike, and no one of which has ever been perfect, or indeed what their writer envisioned. Studio 60 can't find it in itself to treat the script of a sketch comedy show with anything short of awe, or to consider that there is a component of the performance that doesn't come from the script (even the actors are given short shrift in this respect: Harriet is frequently referred to as a conduit, albeit an ideal one, for Matt's words, but I can't remember a single instance in which her performance adds the missing ingredient that sets those words on fire), because the show's emotional center rests with the writer. It's perfectly valid to tell a story about a writer, but setting that story in an ensemble piece about an intensely collaborative effort creates a dissonance that plagued Studio 60 throughout its existence.

Slings & Arrows regains its footing in its third and final season, which eschews the straightforward defeat-to-glory plot progression of the first season, and the shapelessness of the second. Geoffrey's Macbeth has had a triumphant season, culminating in a run on Broadway. When our hero announces his intention to complete the tragic triptych by staging King Lear, he is deluged by calls from every television and film actor over sixty (William Shatner is said to be particularly interested). Iconoclastic to the last, Geoffrey chooses a respected stage actor, Charles, for his Lear. At which point his life comes crashing down on his head. Charles turns out to be a tyrant, who ceases from berating and bullying his fellow actors only during those periods in which he's high on heroin. It finally emerges that Charles is dying, a fact which he begs Geoffrey to keep secret just long enough for Charles to perform in the play. Geoffrey reluctantly assents, and then has to act as nursemaid to a cantankerous and increasingly ill man whose performance veers erratically between transcendent and incoherent.

Meanwhile, Richard has finally realized his dream of producing a musical, a peppy Rent clone about hookers, pimps and drug addiction titled East Hastings. The musical's stratospheric success coincides with the collapse of the preparations for Lear, and Geoffrey finds himself first shunted off to a smaller theatre, and later, once his and Charles's deception is discovered, shut down entirely and fired. Geoffrey, however, is not the protagonist in this tragedy. He is Kent (a role which he also assumes onstage, returning for the first time in years to the scene of his breakdown), the man who watches, and ineffectually attempts to prevent, the death of something he loves--both Charles and the festival--but who survives that death, hopefully to flourish again elsewhere.

A lot of complaints against Studio 60 had to do with the show's built-in snobbery. It would have been hard for a show as intimately concerned with the culture wars to avoid offending anyone, but Studio 60 seemed to go out of its way to offend everyone, usually through straw man arguments and lazy stereotypes. The show's condescension was applied indiscriminately: from the FCC to the people who make and watch reality TV to Christians to rural Americans to bloggers to black people who aren't black in just the right way, but it was almost invariably expressed through the revelation that the group being condescended to this week didn't like Studio 60, or liked some other form of entertainment better. Given the tone this essay has been taking towards the two shows, this is obviously my cue to point out that Slings & Arrows respects alternative forms of media, and the various uses to which one can put a stage. In actuality, Slings & Arrows is snobbish to a degree that puts Studio 60 to shame, and nowhere is this more apparent than during the show's third season.

Throughout the series's run, it poured scorn on directors who eschewed Geoffrey's stripped-down yet emotionally resonant style: Oliver's lavish but soulless productions ("fry the life out of [the play] and smother it in sauce" is how Geoffrey describes the festival's attitude under Oliver's direction); the experimental antics of Geoffrey's nemesis, Darren Nicholls (a hilarious Don McKellar), who, when brought in to direct Hamlet, announces that he plans to take 'something's rotten' literally, and strew the stage with offal, and who later insists that Romeo and Juliet recite their speeches in blank monotones without looking at one another; a modern playwright so obsessed with capturing something 'real' that he cannibalizes his girlfriend's real-life experiences for material.

The gloves truly come off, however, in the third season, when Shakespeare is pitted against musical theatre, and if the inane plot and lyrics of East Hastings weren't enough to let us know who to root for, the season's ingenues-in-love plot involves a lovelorn Cordelia (Sarah Polley, whose delightfully bitchy performance keeps this plotline from being a complete waste of time) pining for Edgar, who, after initially disparaging the musical company, in a scene that presages several Jets vs. Sharks-type confrontations between the two troupes, falls in love with the musical's beautiful star only to discover that she's an airhead and rush back into Cordelia's arms. When it can spare a moment from disparaging the wrong kinds of theatre, Slings & Arrows gets busy laying into television, as Ellen is offered the lead in a series described as Prime Suspect in space. "There's never time to talk about anything: not a scene, not even a line of dialogue. If you ask a question they just say 'oh, shoot the alien!'", Ellen complains to Geoffrey when he comes to beg her to be in one last performance of Lear, and it is a testament to how thoroughly the show has got us on its side by this point that the monumental hypocrisy of this statement takes a while to register with the viewers.

It is precisely because Slings & Arrows is better at getting the audience on its side that it avoids being denounced for its snobbery as Studio 60 frequently was. Like Studio 60, Slings & Arrows caricatures the cultural artifacts it wishes to disparage. A good caricature, however, is an exaggeration of existing traits, and whereas Slings & Arrows delivers precisely this, Studio 60's caricatures are so far removed from reality as to be meaningless: Midwesterners so divorced from their culture that they have no idea what "Who's on First?" is; an FCC so rigidly devoted to its narrow definition of decency that it fines a network for airing an obscenity uttered in a live interview with a soldier as a bomb nearly lands on his head. Whereas Slings & Arrows is trying to entertain its audience, Studio 60 is trying to convert them (or, possibly, trying to make the already-converted feel smugly superior), and not doing a very good job of it.

Entertaining or not, Slings & Arrows's condescension should be off-putting, and the fact that it is so palatable can be directly attributed to Geoffrey's almost complete indifference to his productions' reception. At the end of the Hamlet premiere in the first season, Geoffrey and an awestruck Richard have the following exchange (like most of the quotes in this essay, this one comes from this transcript site):
GEOFFREY: The critics are gonna slaughter us.
RICHARD: What? How can they?
GEOFFREY: Because Jack is an American movie actor—that's all they're gonna write about, right?
RICHARD: They can't ignore what happened on this stage tonight.
GEOFFREY: What did happen, exactly?
RICHARD: I—are you—I don't know! This is all new to me!
GEOFFREY: Well, please, join us again! We do eight shows a week, matinees on Wednesdays and Saturdays!
Geoffrey is entirely calm, even cheerful, during this conversation, because he knows that he's created something worthy. At the end of the third season, Geoffrey stages King Lear, with Charles in the lead, in a church assembly hall, for a single performance with maybe fifty people in attendance. None of it matters, so long as Geoffrey can bring the performance he wants into existence.

There are, obviously, some extremely lazy, perhaps even magical, assumptions at the root of Geoffrey's--and the show's--indifference towards the reaction to his productions. The show assumes that there is such a thing as an objective yardstick for quality in art, and that artists--good ones, at any rate--know when they have achieved it. Nevertheless, the fact remains that Slings & Arrows acknowledges the truth from which Studio 60 spent a whole season running--that the more sophisticated and challenging your creation is, the less people are going to care for it, and that if you let this truth stop you from making the kind of art you want to make, then you are no artist at all. Throughout its single season, Studio 60 kept pretending that by bombarding the public with high-quality art (let's leave aside for the moment the question of whether any of the writing in the show-within-a-show deserves the moniker) they can be made to crave it. Sorkin's characters can then have the best of both worlds, refusing to compromise their artistic vision without surrendering the audience's adulation.

Studio 60 clings to this fantasy not only because it is a comforting one, but because at the end of the day, the show isn't really about the creative process. Studio 60 was always about politics, just as the real culture wars are--first obliquely, through discussions of the kinds of humor and drama that do or don't play in Peoria (when Jordan tries to convince a writer to sell her his highfalutin script about intrigue in the United Nations rather than taking it to HBO, she makes a political argument--selling the show to HBO widens the gap between rich liberals and poor conservatives), and later directly, in a melodramatic plot arc that might have been unintentionally funny if it weren't so absurdly drawn out, and in which we learned that Aaron Sorkin's kindergarten teacher neglected to tell him that when you say something hurtful without meaning to, you should too apologize. It's important that Matt's words make it onto the screen unsullied, and that they be recognized as genius by everyone who hears them, because within the Studio 60 universe, liking Matt's writing is the same thing as agreeing with his politics, and getting people to do the latter is the primary motivation for achieving the former.

It might seem that this last paragraph invalidates my comparison between Slings & Arrows and Studio 60. Although the two shows have almost the same premise, the goals they try to achieve through that premise are nothing alike. Another way of putting it, however, is that Slings & Arrows actually does what it says on the tin, whereas Studio 60 was in constant search for the right kind of meat-loaf--behind the scenes intrigue, romantic comedy, melodrama--beneath which to conceal its political vegetables. More precisely, Slings & Arrows succeeds because it is trying to tell a story--not a 'little story', to use the phrase with which Aaron Sorkin once tried to weasel out of criticism, but a story, as grand and true as the people telling it can make it--whereas Studio 60 fails because it sublimates story to an agenda, both personal and political. That one can achieve such violently opposed results by developing the same hoary old premise is, I think, a valuable lesson. Perhaps we should all chip in and send Aaron Sorkin the DVDs, if only for the sake of the following scene:
GEOFFREY: What are we doing here, you and I?
OLIVER: Putting on a play.
GEOFFREY: Putting on a play. This isn't about us, is it?
OLIVER: No. Never was.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Self-Promotion 13

It's Aegypt week at Strange Horizons, in honor of the publication of the final segment in John Crowley's monumental, 20 years in the making, series. My review of the first book, The Solitudes, appears today, and be sure to check in over the next three days to read Graham Sleight, Paul Kincaid and John Clute's takes on the rest of the series.

You can find some my other Crowley-related writing here, including reviews of his last novel, Lord Byron's Novel: The Evening Land, and of the short story collection Novelties & Souvenirs.