Thursday, July 29, 2010

Inception: Further Thoughts

Between them, Niall Harrison, Adam Roberts, and, in the comments to my post about it (starting here), Brian Francis Slattery, have talked me over to their reading of Inception--the film and the concept at its core--as a metaphor for storytelling and the artifice of filmmaking (which probably means that my original take on the film, as an SFnal story about learning the world, is, if not off-base, then probably no more productive than obsessing over whether Cobb is still dreaming in the last scene).  As I say to Brian, however, I think that as an analogy to storytelling, dreaming is a very poor fit.  Niall is right to point out that most of us don't dream as vividly and imaginatively as the more common filmic represenation of dreams--vividly colored surrealist landscapes--would have us believe.  My dreams, the ones I remember at least, usually feature familiar settings and actions (though I did once dream that I was investigating the murder of Kermit the frog--I'm still pissed about being woken up before getting to the bottom of that mystery) that have been scrambled into illogic by my sleeping brain.  If it's unfair to condemn Inception for not being The Cell, however, it still seems valid to me to compare it to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or the Buffy episode "Restless," both of which feature dreams that are entirely mundane in their settings and events (or, in the latter case, as mundane as settings and events in Buffy get), and whose strangeness is derived from the illogical manner in which the characters move within those scenes, and their atypical reactions to them.  Inception's dreams, meanwhile, are entirely linear and entirely logical, and though I accept that this is because storytelling, and not dreams, is actually the film's focus, the discrepancy only serves to highlight how strained the film's central metaphor is.

Niall, Adam and Brian argue that Inception is drawing our attention to the similar actions we perform in dreams and when consuming a story--accepting illogic as logic, filling in the interstices between 'scenes' in order to create a coherent story in our brains.  But to my mind these are actually two distinct and very different acts.  I mentioned the second season finale of House in one of my replies to Brian.  In the opening scene, House is shot, and spends the rest of the episode trying to diagnose a patient from his hospital room.  In the climactic scene, he has a revelation about the patient's illness while talking to his fellows, and the next scene shows them in a stairwell continuing to talk.  House turns around and asks: "How did I get here?  I was just in my hospital room," and realizes that he's still in a coma following his shooting.  It's a very neat and wrongfooting moment because it draws attention to an action that the audience performs automatically--filling in the gaps in a story so that it can form a coherent, lifelike whole in our minds--but it also draws our attention to the difference between dream and story, and the reason that reading Inception as a metaphor for storytelling strikes me as empty.  When House realizes the illogic of his experiences, he ceases to believe in his perceived reality, in the story happening around him.  I'm sure that most people have had the experience of being immersed in a dream and, as they draw closer to consciousness, realizing some logical flaw in it, at which point the dream dissipates.  Consuming story isn't like that.  Momentarily wrongfooting as it is, the metafictional gag at the end of House's second season doesn't cause the audience to stop believing in the show, because the audience was already aware of the story's fictionality.  Unlike dreams, we know that a story is unreal and accept that unreality.  We know, even if it's not something we think about very often, that we are active participants in the creation of the story, and that we are lending our intellectual and emotional faculties to something unreal.  It's a knowing, conscious act, not the unaware acceptance of the illogic of dreams.  Dream isn't a parallel for story; it's the opposite of it.

The other reason that I don't like this reading of Inception (besides, as I say to Brian, that I'm really not sure what Nolan is trying to say when he compares storytelling to what is essentially a mind-rape) is that it reduces the film to this metaphor.  The substance of the film ceases to matter because its purpose is merely to call attention to its own artificiality.  The experience of watching the film is not the point, and therefore it doesn't matter that this experience is so leaden, because the purpose of the film is the realization that comes hours or days after one has finished watching it.  This doesn't have to be an unsuccessful approach--once again I'm moved to compare Inception to Primer, which so completely avoids delivering anything like a satisfying viewing experience that it's almost necessary to watch the film twice in order to get anything out of the experience--but it does require more courage and intelligence than Inception seems to possess.  I agree with Niall, in other words, that an intellectual exercise can be thrilling in its own right, without appealing to the emotion, but Inception, to my mind, isn't.  That said, it's precisely because Inception is so substance-less that I'm growing more charitable towards it as I move away from it.  Like a dream, the experience of watching the film has faded away almost entirely, while the interpretation offered by Niall, Adam and Brian--so much more palatable in a few, well-written paragraphs than in a two hour film--lingers on.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Making Yourself Heard: You're Maybe Doing it Wrong?

Quoting from the most recent issue of Locus, Sean Wallace reports on the voting statistics of the Locus Awards (results here), which, as we discussed a few months ago, have for the second year running persisted in their policy of counting non-subscriber votes as half of subscriber votes.  The language is muddled (and continues to spin the unequal vote-counting policy as a response to alleged "ballot-box stuffing" in 2008), but a quick calculation gives us the following results:

YearTotal VotesSubscriber VotesNonsubscriber Votes% of Nonsubscriber Votes
2008101238572662 72
200966235730546
201068030637455

The good news is that the overall number of votes has remained low, and that the significant drop in nonsubscriber votes between 2008 and 2009 has not been reversed.  The bad news is that there were more nonsubscriber votes in 2010 than 2009, and that their percentage is creeping back up to its 2008 levels (though this is also the result of the steady drop in subscriber votes over the last three years).  I'm not sure that this sends the right message to the award's administrators--the short passage Wallace quotes certainly suggests that they think this year's numbers are something to be celebrated.  If they believe that participants in their poll will tolerate being treated like second class voters, they'll have no reason to reverse this misguided and insulting policy.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Inception

Has there ever been a film as hotly anticipated, as burdened with expectations, as Christopher Nolan's Inception?  It's certainly hard to think of one, nor to credit all the things that we thought, believed, or hoped that this film would accomplish.  It would rescue one of the dullest and most underperforming summer blockbuster seasons in recent memory.  It would combine the best qualities of all of last year's science fiction films--the stunning visuals of Avatar, the originality of District 9, the enthusiastic fannishness of Star Trek, the detail-oriented fannishness of Watchmen, the attention to character of Moon--into a single perfect storm of SFnal moviemaking.  It would prove, once and for all, that a film that both demonstrated intelligence and demanded it from its viewers could triumph at the box office.  It would put an end to the plague of sequels and remakes that has blighted Hollywood's blockbuster production for the better part of a decade.  It would bring balance to the Force, cure leprosy, and make peace in the Middle East.  The conventional wisdom is that when you walk into a movie theater with such high hopes--and to the barrage of uninformed and unrealistic expectations the film raised you could add, this last week, its near-universal critical acclaim--disappointment it almost inevitable, but though I walked out of Inception feeling less than enthusiastic, I don't see my reaction to the film as an inevitable come-down from unsustainable build-up.  That would result in a review much like the one I wrote for District 9, which took for granted the film's by-then much touted strengths and concentrated on its weaknesses.  My reaction to Inception is actually something much more fundamental, and much more negative--I genuinely can't see what anyone sees in this film.

Many of the reactions I've seen to Inception have kicked off by noting that the film is less a science fiction movie than a heist film in SFnal garb.  I assume that these writers are consciously trying to ape to consensus that quickly built around Nolan's previous film, The Dark Knight, that its superhero story trappings were merely set dressing on what was actually a crime story.  In reality, these reviewers are making the opposite sort of statement.  To say that Inception is a heist film is actually analogous to saying that the The Dark Knight is a superhero film.  It's trivially true--the film's plot revolves around the main character, Leonardo DiCaprio's Cobb, assembling a crew, planning a job, and carrying it out--but for the purposes of making a meaningful statement about the film and the things it tries to do, not at all useful, if for no other reason than because Inception is a supremely bad heist film.  It lacks anything like the flare and pizazz of Ocean's Eleven, The Italian Job, or Duplicity--is in fact an almost leaden experience, to the extent that when a thin joke turned up halfway through the film, the audience I was seeing it with broke out in relieved, almost hysterical laughter, glad for even the slightest leavening of tone.  It completely fails not only to establish the unique personalities of its characters, but to spell out their individual roles in the heist, to the extent that at least two of them, Ellen Page's Ariadne and Ken Watanabe's Saito, join in the fun merely because they want to, not because they have an integral role to play that extends past the job's planning stages (and I'm also not clear why Yusuf, the chemist played by Dileep Rao who concocts the compounds that allow the characters to enter another person's dreams, needed to come along for the job instead of monitoring the crew from reality, though Cobb insists that he does).  Most importantly, it doesn't deliver the heist film's classic reveal, the missing puzzle piece or palmed card that suddenly makes sense of the entire plot, which locks together like the gears of an intricate but perfectly functioning machine.

So no, Inception is not a heist film dressed up as a science fiction film.  It's a science fiction film dressed up as a heist film, and I'm using the term science fiction here in its most literary, perhaps even Campbell-ian, sense.  Though the McGuffin that allows the characters to manipulate others' dreams and, through that manipulation, to extract or plant ideas in their minds is so thoroughly handwaved away that Ariadne, the token newbie, can't even put up a token objection when the idea is suggested to her, the story that Inception tells is a quintessentially SFnal one--a story about learning the world, learning its rules, and learning how to use them to your advantage.  Which may be the reason why there's been so much talk about the cleverness and convolutedness of what is actually one of the most straightforward, linearly-presented films Nolan has ever made.  There is in Inception none of the playing around with timelines or plotlines that made Memento and The Prestige such twisty delights.  Instead, the plot proceeds quite regularly from past to future (with occasional and very clearly signposted flashbacks).  There is, of course, the shifting between different layers of dreams and dreams-within-dreams, but beyond the deliberately wrong-footing in media res opening, these are also very clearly differentiated.  But for the question that lingers over the entire film and remains unanswered at its end--did Cobb ever truly make it out of limbo, or is his reality just another layer of dream--we never mistake dream for reality, or the different layers of dream for one another.  It's complicated, but it's not clever, and the reason that Inception is so demanding isn't that it's asking us to piece its plot together, but that it's asking us to learn, on the fly and with only the barest consideration for our confusion, the rules of how dream manipulation works.  It's info-dumping--a film made up almost entirely of info-dumps, whose characters exist primarily to ask or answer questions in a manner that provides those info-dumps to the viewer.  The classic science fiction story, in other words, and one that viewers who don't have grounding in the genre may lack the protocols to properly parse and digest.

It's fashionable these days to look down on the Campbell-ian method of science fiction, and the fact that it prioritized imparting information to the reader over engaging them with plot and characters, and though I'm partial to the occasional Stephen Baxter novel I'm certainly glad that science fiction has discovered more and more complicated tools to tell its stories.  But that's not the reason that Inception left me so cold.  If I wanted to sum up my disappointment with the film in a few lines, they would be these: a lot of people are praising Inception for being a more cerebral version of The Matrix, another film whose main character has to learn how to manipulate a reality whose underlying laws are different from those of our reality, but I can't help but see it as a less rigorous version of Primer.  When it comes to translating Campbell-ian science fiction to the screen, Primer is the still undefeated title-holder.  Its characters speak pure and very nearly incomprehensible info-dump, their emotional motivations are either dimly explained or boring or both, and the film's emotional climax comes when one character, having been explained the rules of the method of time travel discovered by his friend, figures out a way to manipulate those rules and expand the technology's capablities.

Inception desperately wants to be Primer but lacks both the courage and the rigor to go all the way.  Instead of completely downplaying its characters' humanity it tacks on a trite and poorly realized romantic motivation for Cobb, who is trying to break free of his guilt over the death of his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard, the only castmember with anything like a vivid on-screen presence, mainly because she's given a lot of scenery to chew--a corrupted version of Cobb's wife driven by his feelings of responsibility for her death, she shrieks and threatens, and gets to be genuinely scary).  Even worse, the film's construction of its alternate reality and its rules lacks the elegance demonstrated by both Primer and The Matrix.  Early scenes make much of Ariadne's ability to manipulate the physics of the dream-world, and though these are visually stunning this ability plays no part in the actual heist.  There is only one sequence in which a character is seen to have fully imbibed the rules of the unreal reality--when Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), left behind in an intermediate dream level to guard his dreaming friends and wake them up when the time is right, finds himself in free-fall because in a higher dream-level, he is in a van that has just plunged off a bridge, and has to swim around, like an astronaut in a custom-tailored suit, dodging bullets from the protective manifestations of the heist target's subconscious while preparing the others to be woken up.

Worst of all, the rules of dream manipulation are self-contradictory and, eventually, just tacked on.  Early on we're told that if a person dies in the dream world they wake up in reality (or the next level up).  Then it's revealed that the compound the characters have taken in order to carry out the heist is too powerful, and that if they die they'll be thrust into limbo, an unconstructed dream state from which there is no escape, which will permanently scramble their brains, in part because they'll become incapable of telling reality from dream.  But when the characters do end up in limbo it seems like just another layer of dream, no more irrational and no less susceptible to their manipulation, than any other.  Most of them recognize that they are in limbo, and then it turns out that getting out of it is as simple as getting out of the other dream layers--you just need to die.  (For the record, all of these problems could have been resolved if the heist plot were better written.  Limbo only exists because Nolan needs something meaningful to threaten the characters with during the heist, having established that death will simply knock them out of the dream, but if each character had an integral role to play in the heist then their death, and disappearance from the dream world, would be a threat in its own right.)  Inception thus occupies a very unsatisfying middle ground--it is nowhere near clever enough to justify the scant attention it pays to the more traditional elements of storytelling such as character and plot.

What most interests me about my reaction to Inception is how little I care that it's been so well-received elsewhere.  Compared to my reactions to Avatar or Star Trek, films whose effusive reception came close to enraging me, I'm surprisingly sanguine about the praise that this film, which ultimately is so much less successful than either Avatar or Star Trek, has received.  I think the reason is that though I disagree with the praise that's been heaped upon it, there's still something satisfying in hearing that praise voiced.  People are praising Inception for being a science fiction film--not a Star Wars-esque fantasy in space, or a character drama that happens to take place in the future--and for doing SFnal things.  I think that it does these things badly, but it's still gratifying to see the effort lauded.  I don't know whether Inception is a sign of things to come--for Nolan, for summer blockbusters, for science fiction films--though in the latter two cases I suspect that it isn't, and in Nolan's case I hope not (and even if he does end up crawling up his own ass I can comfort myself with the knowledge that before he's free to do so, he has to make another Batman film), but the fact that in some small way, it has normalized some of the tools of science fiction in the minds of a much broader audience than the genre usually reaches is, I think, something to be celebrated.  Maybe some day someone will use those tools to make a blockbuster that is actually good.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Recent Reading Roundup 26

Looking over this list, I see that it creates a distinctly underwhelming impression of my recent reading--even the one book I really liked proved less impressive in hindsight.  That's not actually an accurate picture, because there's a whole pile of books that I'm planning to write about in the near future that I've been very pleased with.  But for the time being, here are some books I wasn't too crazy about.
  1. The Stress of Her Regard by Tim Powers - This is only the second Powers I've read, and the first, The Anubis Gates, was more than a decade ago and thus one of my earliest forays into non-Tolkienian fantasy.  That, and the fact that The Anubis Gates is a fantastic book with a twisty time travel plot that is a joy to unravel, created some high expectations from Powers, which I thought this novel, in which the Romantic poets turn out to be entangled in relationships that are one part abusive, one part addictive with vampires who fuel their creativity and feed on their, and their families', lives, would easily fulfill.  Not so, however--where The Anubis Gates's plot is twisty but, ultimately, impeccably structured, The Stress of Her Regard is a floppy, maybe even flabby book, overpopulated and unfocused.  Powers introduces some interesting twists to the vampire mythology, even suggesting a strange sfnal explanation for their existence and bringing in such esoteric subjects as quantum mechanics to the heroes' struggle to escape their lovers/tormentors' attentions, but it's too much mythology for a novel as centerless as this one is.  I was more than halfway into the book before I really understood the rules of how its vampires worked, and even then Powers kept piling complications, provisos, and special cases onto those rules.  The novel's characters and their predicament, meanwhile, are nowhere near interesting or appealing enough to make puzzling out this mythology worthwhile.  The poets who turn out to be victims of the vampires--Byron, Shelley, Keats--are all on the nondescript side.  Powers is more interested in them as examples of the dissipated, doomed Romantic lifestyle than as artists and innovators (which was particularly hard to swallow in Keats's case given that the version of him presented in the movie Bright Star, where he is intelligent, driven, and serious about his poetry, is still vivid in my memory), but it takes writerly flare to create characters who are as mad, bad, and dangerous to know as the Romantics supposedly were, and Powers doesn't wield it in this novel.  The poets thus become a little dull, and sadly they are not overshadowed by the novel's fictional hero, Michael Crawford.  Powers deliberately constructs him as something of a loser, tormented by his many failures even before coming to a vampire's attentions, but he does too good a job, because Crawford just isn't a very interesting character even when he overcomes his self-doubt and starts kicking vampire ass, and the romance he develops in the second half of the book, which drives his final confrontation with the vampires, is unpersuasive (it doesn't help that I have a sneaking suspicion that the novel would have been a great deal more interesting had it been told entirely from the point of view of his love interest).  It's possible that The Stress of Her Regard is a lesser work best left to Powers enthusiasts, or maybe my recollections of The Anubis Gates are a little too rose-tinted.  I'm certainly a bit afraid to revisit it now, or to take another stab at Powers's bibliography.

  2. Shining at the Bottom of the Sea by Stephen Marche - Marche's novel has an innovative concept that I found both exhilarating and worrisome.  The book is presented as an anthology of short stories from the fictional North Atlantic island nation of Sanjania, moving chronologically through folk tales, religious fiction, and pulp-style adventure stories to the more modern form of the short story, even as the nation undergoes the traditional hardships of a former colony, passing from colonial rule through more and less successful efforts at democracy and self-government.  It's a fantastically original and instantly appealing concept, but at the same time a self-defeating one.  The stories in Shining at the Bottom of the Sea are not the point of Shining at the Bottom of the Sea.  Though Marche is a persuasive ventriloquist with a wide range of styles at his disposal (the blurbs on the cover compare him to David Mitchell, and though that's probably going too far the two are certainly in the same ballpark), to read any of the stories as short fiction in its own right is to miss the point of the book, which is the cumulative image they form of Sanjania.  But unlike a fantastic novel taking the same tack (the most obvious comparison that comes to mind is City of Saints and Madmen) the Sanjania that Shining at the Bottom of the Sea creates isn't a creation in its own right either.  Its purpose is to mirror reality, almost to the point of slavishness, and certainly to the point where any sense of unique Sanjanian-ness is lost amongst the real-world parallels.  So that Shining at the Bottom of the Sea is almost an empty novel, an impressive achievement whose point escapes me--it certainly doesn't say anything about colonialism and the recovery from it that other, more traditional novels haven't already said.  It's an enjoyable reading experience, both because of the audacity of Marche's experiment and because of his success at it, but leaves very little residue behind itself.

  3. His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik - Novik's bestselling, mega-successful series is by now on its sixth installment and I've only just gotten around to reading the first.  Can't say that I regret the delay, but then I wasn't expecting to, and in fact His Majesty's Dragon delivered exactly what I thought it would--it is charming, very readable, a great deal of fun, and extremely lightweight.  What I wasn't expecting was just how much the novel would downplay the adventurous aspect of its alternate universe, in which the Napoleonic Wars are fought from the air on dragon-back, in favor of a comedy of manners that morphs, in the novel's long center segment, into the classic boarding school story, complete with the protagonist, Will Laurence, a naval captain who is drafted into the dragon corps when he imprints on a newly-hatched dragon captured by his ship, turning out to be preternaturally talented at his new role and being resented by the school's mean kids for outsider status and talent, only to be finally accepted by them as the bestest dragon-rider to ever ride a dragon.  A cross, in other words, between Harry Potter and Anne McCaffrey's Dragonsinger, but one in which the dragon character, Temeraire, is as appealing and vividly drawn as the lead, and in which the relationship between them is sweetly devoted to the point of being almost romantic.  No wonder this book was such a runaway success--it rings nearly every one of fandom's bells, and quite nicely too--though I suspect that later books in the series move away from the school setting and spend more time on aerial battles, which in His Majesty's Dragon are almost an afterthought (the climactic one is won by Temeraire suddenly demonstrating a previously unknown ability that demolishes the enemy forces).  Not that I'm in any hurry to have those suspicions confirmed--I'm not sorry I read His Majesty's Dragon, but having seen what all the fuss is about I think I can give the rest of the series a pass.

  4. The Book of Night Women by Marlon James - I'm not quite sure what to say about this novel.  When I read it a month ago I thought it was one of the most wrenching, overwhelming pieces of fiction I'd read in a long time, and a sure contender for best book of the year.  But only a few weeks after finishing it, I find that it's left almost no residue in my mind--I had to struggle, when sitting down to write this post, to recall its main plot points and characters.  That's a damning testimonial that I'm almost certain The Book of Night Women doesn't deserve.  I have no idea why it slipped from my mind so easily, and it could simply be that it's been a busy few weeks and that other subjects have occupied me.  Nevertheless, I can't recommend this book as wholeheartedly as intended to right after I finished it.  That said, this is still a magnificent novel, telling the story of Lilith, a slave in a Jamaican sugar plantation in the late 18th century who becomes entangled with her master's family situation and with a plot on the part of the plantation's slave women to foment rebellion.  James narrates the novel in the slaves' patois, which is initially a jarring choice that makes the novel's early chapters a challenging read, but which soon comes to suit, and amplify, its angry, visceral tone.  The Book of Night Women is suffused with anger and hate--of the slaves towards their masters, whose every cruelty is described with grueling detail; of the masters towards their slaves, whom they resent for not being the docile animals they want them to be; of women towards men, who, black or white, exploit the advantages of their gender in horrific ways.  In the middle of all of this is Lilith, raised in relative privilege due to her mixed-race background, but still prey to the dangers that threaten the life, well-being, and sanity of a female slave.  She's a fascinating and infuriating character, at once vulnerable and terrifyingly powerful, intelligent and deliberately ignorant, proud and self-hating.  Over the course of the novel she confronts the horrors of powerlessness, and the arguably greater horrors of exercising power over others, and struggles to reconcile her feelings towards the masters and overseers, who treat her with a combination of disdain, lust, and occasionally love (which she finds hardest of all to deal with), and towards the rebel slave women, who try to recruit her to their cause and bump up against her vanity and pride, but whom she also admires for their ability to find and occupy positions of power on the plantation.  These are all, of course, terrifically complicated questions with no real answer, and inasmuch as Lilith can be said to grow, it is into the realization that she doesn't know how to live well--happily, honestly, and honorably--as a slave.  Add to this James's rich, almost overpowering descriptions of Jamaican plantation life, of the heat and hard work and suffering that the slaves (and occasionally the masters) endure, and you get a novel that is almost too much to process.  Which may be why I couldn't quite hang onto it, or maybe it's because beneath his impressive presentation James is saying familiar things about the corrupting influence of slavery, violence, and hatred.  That doesn't mean those things aren't worth saying again, or that The Book of Night Women isn't worth reading.

  5. Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock - This is one of the foundation works of the English fantastic, and as so often happens with these milestone books I find myself more impressed than won over.  Steven Huxley makes a reluctant homecoming from France, where he's been recovering from a war wound, after his distant, emotionally abusive father's death.  He discovers his brother Christian immersed in an obsession with nearby Ryhope Forest, the same obsession that consumed their father.  From Christian, Steven learns that the forest is a breeding ground for 'mythagos'--living, breathing manifestations of the communal myths of the various tribes and nations that have lived in England over the millennia.  One of these is a woman called Guiwenneth, whom both Christian and his father fell in love with.  After Christian leaves to look for her in the forest, Steven ventures in and creates his own version of Guiwenneth, with whom he also falls in love, and when Christian returns and kidnaps her, Steven must follow him into the depths of the forest.  The descriptions of Ryhope Forest, as a completely wild place in the middle of civilization, whose inside is bigger than its outside and contains living remnants of England's history, is well done, but the characters are not very persuasive.  The biggest problem is Guiwenneth and the plot's focus on her romance with Steven.  The very fact that all three Huxley men fall in love with this woman suggests that something ineffable, probably magical, is at work, and in his descriptions of their courtship Holdstock doesn't do much to dispel the impression that Steven doesn't so much fall in love with Guiwenneth as fall under her spell, and that Guiwenneth may have been made to love him (she is, after all, a manifestation of English racial memory activated by his presence in the forest).  So it's hard to become involved in Steven's frantic search for her, and though the novel picks up whenever the narrative gets out of his Guiwenneth-obsessed head, and especially when he encounters ancient tribes in the forest who tell him their myths and legends, these instances are relatively uncommon compared to the love story, which leaves Mythago Wood a rather uninvolving work as far as I'm concerned.

  6. The Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford - NYRB Classics has always been a terrific series, but their releases over the last year or so seem to have been calculated to appeal to my tastes and interests (and a lot of them have shown up in older, dog-eared editions at my used bookseller, which is how I came to read The Mountain Lion several weeks before the NYRB edition is due to be released).  In addition to The Mountain Lion, I've flagged Tove Jansson's The True Deceiver, Frans G. Bentsson's The Long Ships, and any one of the three short story collections by Mavis Gallant.  Unfortunately, my first foray has proved a bit of a dud.  The Mountain Lion, a short and lyrical novel about a brother and sister in the who come to stay at their uncle's Colorado ranch in the 1920s, has some fine qualities.  Stafford's writing is lucid and beautiful, and she gets right in the heads of siblings Ralph and Molly, who don't quite fit in at home where their mother aims to raise them, as she has their older sisters, to be a gentleman and a lady, and to think of manners and politeness as the highest ideal.  Ralph and Molly, however, are rambunctious, adventurous children, and are drawn to their mother's stepfather, an uncouth, uneducated rancher whom she barely tolerates.  When their grandfather dies his son invites them to stay with him in Colorado, but the ranch doesn't proved to be the home they've always wanted.  It's too wild and too scary for children raised, however unwillingly, in a genteel environment, and for Molly, at least, the barrier of her gender proves insurmountable, which drives a wedge between the siblings, who up until that point have only had one another.  This is a promising story, but Stafford takes it in uninteresting directions--she makes the focal point of the schism between the children their shared horror of adulthood and of sexuality, which Ralph begins to question when his own sexual maturation begins.  This turns The Mountain Lion into yet another story about children who don't want to grow up because the adult world seems so crude and messy to them, and populated with so many unbearable people, which I think has been done more than enough (though in all fairness to Stafford her version, published in 1947, predates the canonical entry in this subgenre, The Catcher in the Rye).  It also forces Stafford in the direction of an unnecessarily melodramatic ending for Molly, who is too strong and too disgusted with adulthood to make the compromises with it that Ralph does.  One senses that there is something slightly autobiographical in the character of Molly, a bright, talented aspiring writer who is frustrated and furious at the realization that she has no home and no one who truly appreciates her, and it's therefore understandable that Stafford should have wanted to give her an ending that is grandly tragic without forcing her to compromise her principles, but a more interesting novel, I think, could have been written about that compromise.