Saturday, September 29, 2012

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Here's a recommendation: even if you've already read it, take the time to reread Wolf Hall before reading Bring Up the Bodies.  This is less in order to be reminded of details from the first volume of Hilary Mantel's projected trilogy about the life of Thomas Cromwell--Mantel is actually quite good about catching up readers who haven't read Wolf Hall or read it a while ago, and anyway the broad strokes of the history it describes are well known--but because such a reading actually shows both books in the best light.  Wolf Hall is a much easier novel to appreciate when freed of the hype that surrounded its Booker nomination and victory in 2009, and even more than that, when approached as the first volume in a trilogy rather than a complete novel, and Bring Up the Bodies feels like a more complete, more polished work when compared to its accomplished but undeniably baggy and overlong predecessor.  This is, of course, largely down to subject matter and scope--Wolf Hall spanned some thirty years, covering Cromwell's rise from humble beginnings to high-ranking courtier, and concentrating on the decade during which Cromwell's mentor Cardinal Wolsey was hounded to death for failing to facilitate Henry VIII's divorce from Catherine of Aragon, Henry made a break from the church in Rome, and Cromwell rose in power by facilitating both the divorce and that break.  Bring Up the Bodies, meanwhile, covers only a single year, and concentrates on Anne Boleyn's loss of favor with the king and on the cooked-up trial by which she's gotten rid of.  The result is a tighter, tenser novel, one in which the somewhat diffuse figure of Cromwell comes more sharply into focus.  What's still unclear--and will probably remain so until the concluding volume is published--is what Mantel's project with the trilogy is, and what conclusion she is drawing to where Cromwell is concerned.

The story of Henry VIII, his six wives, his quest for a male heir, and his break with Rome is a much-retold one, and Mantel's twist on it is not only that she is telling it from the perspective of Cromwell but that she's taken a character who is usually cast as a conniving, power-hungry villain and made him a hero and a standard-bearer for compassionate humanism, who is aiding Henry not only in order to stabilize the Tudor dynasty and prevent another War of the Roses, but in order to strengthen Protestantism in England and bring an end to the corruption and brutality of the Catholic establishment.  I was intrigued by this portrait in Wolf Hall, but also worried that Mantel was erring too far on the side of hagiography.  In particular, the decision to end the novel shortly before Cromwell is called upon by Henry's increasing indifference to Anne to get rid of her by any means necessary, and chooses to do so via judicial murder and the criminalization of speech and thought, felt manipulative, and I wondered whether in the next volume in the trilogy Mantel would face up to the full ugliness of what Cromwell had done, or whether she would whitewash or excuse it (an interim reading of Mantel's previous novel, A Place of Greater Safety, in which she passes up the opportunity to ask some searching questions about the architects of the Terror in favor of focusing on their tangled family lives, didn't leave me feeling very hopeful on this front).

Bring Up the Bodies allays many of these fears.  In fact what it put me most in mind of was the middle seasons of Breaking Bad, in which Walter White's allegedly virtuous justifications for cooking and dealing drugs melt away, allowing the megalomania and thirst for power that are his true motivations to shine through.  Cromwell isn't quite as much of a villain, but the insouciance with which he cooks up the trial, twisting the letter of the law to allow Anne and her alleged lovers to be convicted and executed on the basis of no evidence at all without ever seeming to lose a moment's peace, shines a new light on his similarly even temper in Wolf Hall.  All of a sudden, that portrait of a compassionate, principled courtier who pursued power in order to do good, and sent the king's enemies (who also happened to be his own enemies) to their deaths not out of bloodlust but simply to protect the realm, starts to seem more than a little self-serving.  Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies are both told from a tight third person that allegedly gives us full access to Cromwell's thoughts and feelings, but the voices of the two novels are different.  In Wolf Hall Cromwell responds with sorrowful equanimity to the death of Wolsey and the humiliations he suffers at the hands of aristocratic courtiers who still think like feudal lords (and is equally sorrowful as the drives Thomas More to his death), but Bring Up the Bodies puts the lie to this claim of even temper:
He remembers last year, Brereton swaggering through Whitehall, whistling like a stable boy; breaking off to say to him, "I hear the king, when he does not like the papers you bring in to him, knocks you well about the pate."

You'll be knocked, he had said to himself.  Something in this man makes him feel he is a boy again, a sullen belligerent little ruffian fighting on the riverbank in Putney.  He has heard it before, this rumor put about to demean him.  Anyone who knows Henry knows it is impossible.  He is the first gentleman of Europe, his courtesy unflawed.  If he wants someone stricken, he employs a subject to do it; he would not sully his own hand.  It is true they sometimes disagree.  But if Henry were to touch him, he would walk away.  There are princes in Europe who want him.  They make him offers; he could have castles.
It's hard to recognize this petty, seething Cromwell from Wolf Hall, and it's as if in that book he was unwilling to own his feelings and desires even to himself.  But now, in Bring Up the Bodies, that he is the king's right hand and the most powerful man in the country, he can drop the pretense that he has simply been disinterestedly doing what needs to be done, and tell us what he wants: power, and revenge for the death of Wolsey.  As Mantel has it, the four gentlemen accused of committing adultery with Anne (who include Brereton from the passage above) are selected out of the dozens named by the tortured musician Mark Smeaton because they participated in a skit mocking the cardinal after his death ("It is not so much, who is guilty, as whose guilt is of service to you"), while a fifth man, Thomas Wyatt, generally rumored to be Anne's lover but also a friend of Cromwell's, is protected from suspicion.

This is not to say that Bring Up the Bodies casts Cromwell as a pure villain, or even that there is a sense that this is, Breaking Bad-like, Mantel's ultimate goal for him.  Cromwell the tireless and efficient civil servant, the reformer, the philanthropist, the mentor of industrious, intelligent young men who take up positions in court and help to spread his reform, is still present in this novel.  A major subplot involves his audit of the monasteries, his discovery of corruption and depravity within their walls and his project to turn over their wealth to the country and set the monks to useful pastoral work, which surely sets the readers on his side.  In a blatant contemporary reference, Mantel has Cromwell propose an infrastructure law:
England needs better roads, and bridges that don't collapse.  He is preparing a bill for Parliament to give employment to men without work, to get them waged and out mending the roads, making the harbours, building walls against the Emperor or any other opportunist.  We could pay them, he calculated, if we levied an income tax on the rich; we could provide shelter, doctors if they needed them, their subsistence; we would have all the fruits of their work, and their employment would keep them from becoming bawds or pickpockets or highway robbers, all of which men will do if they see no other way to eat.
This is Cromwell as Barack Obama, and when the law fails, the reasons given are pure 1% dogma: "It is an outrage to the rich and enterprising, to suggest that they should pay an income tax, only to put bread in the mouths of the workshy."  Less anachronistically, the novel's preoccupation with class--which is to say, Cromwell's own preoccupation with it--is used for more than just exposing Cromwell's own ambition.  The higher Cromwell climbs, the more blatantly the resentment felt towards him by high-born courtiers is expressed--the novel begins with Francis Weston, another of the gentlemen who will be accused of adultery with Anne, mercilessly peppering Cromwell with cruel jibes in front of both the king and Cromwell's son Gregory, and in a later scene, Henry's brother-in-law Charles Brandon hisses that Cromwell is "only for fetching in money, when it comes to the affairs of nations you cannot deal, you are a common man of no status, and the king himself says so, you are not fit to talk to princes."  This is, again, the sort of thing guaranteed to put us on Cromwell's side (especially in the latter scene, in which it is Charles, despite his harsh words, who has just committed a horrible faux pas with the emissary from the Emperor Charles V), but Mantel manages to balance the two halves of his personality, the underdog and the judicial murderer.  You can see how his anger over these repeated insults, especially as he rises in Henry's esteem, feeds Cromwell's desire to cement and increase his power, which leads him not only to revenge on people like Weston, Brereton and the Boleyns, but to a general willingness to do whatever it takes to get to the top. 

Of course, to an extent what Cromwell is doing is playing the same game as everyone around him, except better and with less of a starting advantage, and he is far from the only one to contemplate adding murder to his list of available plays--rumors abound that Catherine was murdered in order to free Henry to dispose of Anne without having to go back to his first wife, and Anne not-quite-jokingly talks about poisoning Catherine's daughter Mary in order to rid herself of a troublesome influence on Henry.  But Cromwell is the only one who actually puts this idea into practice (not to mention doing so under the auspices of the law) and what's missing from Bring Up the Bodies, despite its delicate balancing of Cromwell's humanity and monstrousness, is the moment in which that decision is made.  It is an emptiness at the core of the novel that points, I think, towards Mantel's final purpose with this trilogy.  More importantly, it points towards Henry, who is, if not quite an absence in the story, then certainly less present in these two novels than feels justified given that it's his whims and desires that drive Cromwell, and all of the other characters, to such extreme actions.  In Wolf Hall, Cromwell explains to his son Gregory his willingness to work against Catherine as the result of having picked his prince: "you choose him, and you know what he is.  And then, when you have chosen, you say yes to him"
"But you swore," Gregory says, "that you respected the queen."

"So I do.  And I would respect her corpse."

"You would not work her death, would you?"

He halts.  He takes his son's arm, turns him to look into his face.  "Retrace our steps through this conversation."  Gregory pulls away.  "No, listen, Gregory.  I said, you give way to the king's requests.  You open the way to his desires.  That is what a courtier does.  Now, understand this: it is impossible that Henry should require me or any other person to harm the queen.  What is he, a monster?"
It's a scene that almost demands a callback in Bring Up the Bodies, some scene in which Cromwell grasps that Henry does want him to kill Anne, and that he is--as nearly every iteration of this story ultimately concludes--a monster (it also demands some payoff for Gregory, who is one of the books' more intriguing peripheral characters; though devoted to his father, Gregory lacks the intelligence and killer instinct that make Cromwell such a successful courtier, and seems destined to the life of an idle gentleman.  Cromwell seems to regard him with a mixture of love and disdain, alternating between the desire to protect him and rub his face in what's been done in order to give him the cushy life he's grown accustomed to).  Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies both point out Henry's selfishness, his childishness, his need to always see himself as the good guy and the wronged party, but Cromwell himself seems to elide these--he recognizes them, but he doesn't acknowledge them or the fact that he has linked his fortunes to a sociopath, even as that connection determines his own actions.  Bring Up the Bodies being the middle part of a trilogy, it seems likely that the final volume will turn its gaze to Henry and the consequences of Cromwell's choosing him as his prince, that just as Bring Up the Bodies opens up Cromwell's voice and lets us see his ambition, the next volume will open it further and let us see his feelings towards Henry (in fact the ending of Bring Up the Bodies seems to promise this: after Anne's death, one of Cromwell's associates asks "if this is what Cromwell does to the cardinal's lesser enemies, what will he do by and by to the king himself?", an obvious question that has nevertheless gone completely unacknowledged by Cromwell's internal narrative in the previous two books).  But until the tone of Mantel's conclusion on this point is known, it's hard to know what her project for Cromwell, and with these books, is, and therefore hard to know how to take either Wolf Hall or Bring Up the Bodies.

One of the reasons that the story of Henry VIII is retold so often is how versatile it is.  It encompasses family, politics and religion, and has so many interesting movers and shakers, that you could tell it from almost any perspective and in almost any way--tragedy, romance, soap opera, political intrigue, farce--and end up with a good story.  But to me, the story is, at its heart, about women.  It would be hard to come up with a better illustration of how patriarchy screws women over, of the zero-sum game they're made to play with other women, of the chutes and ladders a woman must traverse when she sets out to parlay her biology into power, of the inescapable trap that is the virgin-whore dichotomy, than the six wives of Henry VIII.  You can play by Catherine's rules, tolerating disrespect and infidelity so long as you get to keep the titles of wife and queen, only to be told that you have to relinquish them, discovering that the protection you thought they offered you has disappeared.  You can play by Anne's rules (or rather The Rules), playing the harlot but refusing to give up the goods except for a ring and a crown, but these won't make you any safer than your predecessor, and the power you amassed when your demands for respect were enticing and sexy will melt away as soon as these become grating.  If you're unfaithful, you die; if you're faithful, you still die.  If you can't bear a male heir, you die; if you do bear a male heir, you still die.  And best of all, at no point during this decades-long process will anyone around you stop to consider that maybe the problem here isn't with the women, but with the man who, directly or indirectly, caused the deaths of four out of his six wives.  (Actually, the real best part is the surprise twist ending, the fact that all that desperate, bloody scrambling after a male heir results only in the brief, inconsequential reign of Edward VI, while the seemingly unimportant daughter of the ignominiously dispatched Anne Boleyn becomes one of England's most famous monarchs, but most of the characters in Mantel's books will never have the historical perspective necessary to get that joke.)

For all her emphasis on Cromwell, it's pretty clear that Mantel realizes this.  She uses the unequal relationship between men and women in several interesting ways, most obviously in the way that the erosion of his empathy towards women signals Cromwell's moral devolution.  In Wolf Hall, Cromwell is surrounded by women, and not just the ones familiar from history.  He has close relationships with his wife, his daughters, his sisters and sisters-in-law, his nieces, the wives of his friends, and even a poor widow who comes to him looking for work.  He develops a a rapport, and a quiet flirtation, with Mary Boleyn, and falls half in love with Jane Seymour.  In Bring Up the Bodies those women are absent--dead or married off or simply not mentioned--while the important historical figures are viewed with incomprehension and disdain.  Cromwell clearly dislikes Anne, deriding her not simply for her unsavory methods--asking him to arrange for someone to compromise Mary's honor, for example, to which he sniffily replies that "That is not my aim and those are not my methods," even though we know that he has done and will do worse--but for losing her looks and the king's favor.  He frequently comments that she uses "women's weapons," and it's clear that this is a further cause of his disdain for her.  Mary Boleyn is absent, and Jane Seymour is treated in purely utilitarian terms, as a future conquest of the king for whom Cromwell is determined to secure a good price (Jane is another one of the novel's better peripheral characters, though she's less consistently written than Gregory; where in Wolf Hall she comes off as matter of fact and plain-spoken, in Bring Up the Bodies it is never clear whether she's simple-minded or has such an unromantic understanding of her situation and what it requires of her that she has no patience for the pretty words bandied about by everyone around her, a disconnect that can't entirely be explained by Cromwell's loss of empathy towards her).  The deaths of Cromwell's wife and daughters in Wolf Hall are his defining tragedy, but over the course of that novel their memory fades, and in Bring Up the Bodies what is left of that memory is defiled.  The novel opens with Cromwell flying hawks whom he has, bewilderingly, named for his dead wife, daughters, and sisters, enjoying the sight of them slaughtering their prey.  Later, Mark Smeaton is locked in a storage room in Cromwell's house, where he's terrified into giving a false confession by something brushing his face in the dark.  This turns out to be a pair of angel wings worn by Cromwell's youngest daughter on her last Christmas, a symbol of her beauty and innocence, which Cromwell then has destroyed.  In the novel's final scene, Cromwell is so corrupted by the pageant of false accusations he's put on that he starts to wonder whether his own wife was unfaithful to him, and whether his beloved daughter was really his.

But Mantel is also concerned with the way that women determine the course of the story.  When Cromwell's wife Elizabeth first hears about Henry's plan to divorce Catherine in Wolf Hall, she says that it will set all women against him: "All women everywhere in England.  All women who have a daughter but no son.  All women who have lost a child.  All women who are forty."  And yet it's Anne, not Henry, against whom the women of England set themselves.  She becomes a figure of both fascination and revulsion to the women around Cromwell (when he sees her he always makes a note of what she's wearing because the women will want to know), and it is they who refuse to forgive her for Catherine's fall from grace, and who spread vicious rumors about her (and, of course, it is the women of Anne's household who first point Cromwell in the direction of adultery as a way of getting rid of her).  When Jane is asked, near the end of the novel, whether she feels sorry for Anne, she replies, with her typical obliqueness, that "You cannot do what Anne Boleyn did, and live to be old."  Since the accusations of adultery haven't been made public yet it seems that what Jane means by "what Anne Boleyn did" is what Cromwell's wife and the other women of England mean by it--stealing another woman's husband, playing games of power and sex with powerful men.  But of course, as we know and the characters don't yet, Jane won't live to be old either.  Being meek and obedient (the motto Cromwell invents for her as queen is "Bound to Obey and Serve") and producing a male heir will do for her just as surely as being intransigent and failing to produce that heir did for Catherine and Anne.  There is no winning in the game of patriarchy, except for the person at the top, and yet every woman in the novel directs her scorn towards Anne and women like her, while even his injured wives refuse to think ill of Henry--Catherine's last letter to Henry ends with the affirmation that "mine eyes desire you above all things," and even in the Tower Anne insists, as Catherine did before her, that Henry has been misled by false advisers, and that in any minute he will remember his love for her and restore her to her place as queen.

Which is where the connection is made back to Cromwell, and which is Bring Up the Bodies's most brilliant touch.  For all his disdain towards Anne and her weakness and her "women's weapons," Cromwell is doing exactly the same thing as she, and Catherine, and Jane, are doing--hitching his star to Henry's wagon and refusing to see that he might be discarded as easily as his predecessors were.  After Anne's arrest, the Boleyns and their circle repeatedly warn Cromwell that once he's gotten rid of Anne, Henry will have no more use for him, and will allow the enemies Cromwell has made common cause with to destroy him.  Inasmuch as Bring Up the Bodies allows Cromwell to react to this, it is to insist, as Anne does, on Henry's love and devotion, and on Cromwell's being irreplaceable to him.  Like the wives, and despite the fate of Wolsey before him, Cromwell refuses to see that he can be replaced, and that it is in Henry's nature to tire of people, or force them to shoulder the guilt he won't recognize in himself.  Patriarchy victimizes women, but it also chews up low status men, and by choosing his prince Cromwell has set himself up for the same fate as the women whose deaths he orchestrated.  As I said, it's not clear to me what Mantel's ultimate project is, and there is certainly space in the story she's written so far to make Henry the trilogy's ultimate villain and Cromwell his victim--something that could be done well, even if it would cement my sense that Mantel has a tendency to like her characters more than they deserve.  But there's also space to talk about the way that patriarchy corrupts its participants without absolving them of responsibility for their choices--as Anne is not absolved in Bring Up the Bodies--and that is what I hope Mantel produces.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Thoughts on the New TV Season, 2012 Edition, Part 1

Well, here we are again, in fall pilot season.  As has become traditional, we have a drizzle of new shows this week, followed by a deluge next week, so for now I'm fresh and energized enough to write quite a bit about each new show.  By next week, I suspect, I'll be a little more punchy.
  • The Mob Doctor - I try not to be one of those people who assume that cable television is inherently superior to network television, and who say, of every failed network show, that it would have been so much better on HBO.  This is not only because there's plenty of excellent network TV out there, but because cable TV has its own set of tropes and core assumptions that I would hate to see television become consumed by, such a tendency to treat sexual violence and female nudity as hallmarks of artistic maturity, and a preference for borderline- or outright-psychopathic male leads that relegates female character almost exclusively to the contingent roles of love interest and caretaker.  It's not a coincidence, I think, that if you're looking for smart, well-made series about professional women that treat the challenges of living feminism with respect and due consideration, you're better off going to the networks, for shows like The Good Wife and Parks and Recreation, than cable,.  So I try not to assume that the networks are incapable of creating quality TV, but The Mob Doctor, a show with a great premise and a dispiriting execution, makes me break my own rule, because almost everything that's wrong with the show boils down the typical network approach of filing off anything that might be off-putting, challenging, or complex about the show or its characters in an effort to make them universally appealing.  The main character, Grace Devlin (Jordana Spiro, rather bland) is an up-and-coming surgical resident at a Chicago hospital who is also in hock to the mob and working off her debt by treating injured enforcers on the side.  There's about a million interesting directions you could take this premise: the conflict between Grace's oath to help those who are injured and her awareness that the people she's helping are hurting others; the class issues that crop up when Grace, who comes from a working class neighborhood where the mob is a not entirely negative fact of life, brushes against her more privileged colleagues and their black and white morality; the financial difficulties of a working class girl making her way through such a demanding and time-intensive medical specialty and the temptation of alleviating these through extra-legal activities; most of all, the seductiveness of having an important role to play in the lives of powerful, charmingly dangerous men, especially when contrasted with a professional sphere in which Grace is one of the lowliest, least valued components.

    The problem with all of these potential avenues of story is that they all require Grace to be at least compromised, if not complicit, in her double life, and, not to indulge in the kind of reductive comparisons that I just got done decrying, network TV is rarely willing for its heroes to be anything but squeaky clean.  So while there are hints in the pilot that the show does realize the precariousness of Grace's position--a former mob boss with whom she has a close relationship warns her that the pursuit of power over life and death as a surgeon isn't a long way from the pursuit of that power as a mobster; a colleague whom Grace had dragged into a dispute with a superior unknowingly parrots the neighborhood mentality that nobody likes a rat--for the most part the dilemmas it places before Grace are clear-cut and unambiguous.  The superior whom Grace crosses overrides her post-surgery instructions and causes a child's death--for which he seems entirely unrepentant.  She convinces her boyfriend to falsify medical records for a teenage patient because if it becomes known that the girl is pregnant she'll lose her scholarship even though the pregnancy was terminated (apparently there's no such thing as doctor-patient confidentiality in this show's universe; also, the show is careful to stress that the pregnancy is ectopic and thus non-viable, so as not to scandalize anyone in the audience with the thought of a 14-year-old having an abortion).  Even the reason that Grace is in debt to the mob is a saintly one--she took over her brother's gambling debt--and the pilot's central story, in which Grace is required to kill an informant who ends up on her operating table, is both broad and resolved with little originality.  Worst of all, Grace herself never feels like a character who is a product of either of her worlds.  She's blithely superior to both hospital politics and the effect they might have on her career, and to the role that the mob played in her childhood and still plays in her family's life (even though, as we learn at the end of the pilot, the reason Grace is friendly with the ex mob boss is that he killed her drunken, abusive father--and will presumably turn out to be her real father).  She seems crafted, right down to her unrealistically attractive, impeccably coiffed, carefully neutral good looks, to be a plucky everywoman whose flaws are the telegenic "cares too much" and "is too passionate about doing the right thing," rather than the flawed product of her environment that the show's story would seem to demand.  Which is a great shame, because as I was saying recently there's a shortage of shows about women struggling with the allure of violence and power, and The Mob Doctor's premise lends itself perfectly to the exploration of that kind of character--and might have done so, had it aired on a more adventurous channel.

  • Revolution - It's hard to know how to judge the pilot episode of Eric Kripke (Supernatural) and J.J. Abrams's new high concept, post-collapse Hunger Games knockoff.  On the one hand, there is the plain fact that this is simply not a very good hour of television.  Especially when you consider that it features gunfights, swordfights, daring escapes, a lot of archery, and the rollback of all modern technology due to the sudden cessation of electricity, the pilot for Revolution is notable for featuring not a single tense or unexpected moment.  It proceeds from beginning to end as if determined, at every turn, to make the most obvious and familiar choices, whether in its story or its worldbuilding.  So we have an idyllic, post-industrial farming community that has sprung up in the ruins of suburbia (unsurprisingly, the pilot completely ignores the troubling undertones of class anxiety and isolationist fantasy that underpin such stories, despite which the heroine's village is set up in what was once a gated community, all the speaking villagers are white, and the attack that disturbs their idyll is led by a black man), militias and feral gangs roaming the landscape, an evil paramilitary commander who has set himself up as the local warlord, and secrets kept by the heroine's father, who is killed in order to kickstart the story and set her on her quest--in this case, to find her uncle, who is also being pursued by the evil warlord, and rescue her kidnapped brother.  Oh, and despite living in a post-technological world, all the characters have access to modern personal grooming products and ample designer clothing, with the tragic exception of the heroine's inability to find a shirt that covers her entire midriff.

    On the other hand, as that description no doubt makes clear, Revolution's pilot has a lot of furniture to move into place, so a failure to distinguish itself or its characters, while by no means promising, isn't necessarily a sign that the show is irredeemable.  For all that its ideas of a post-technological world are unoriginal (compare this show to Dark Angel, a by no means excellent series whose premise was admittedly less restrictive, but which nevertheless managed to create a world robbed of much of its technology that had changed in more ways than simply regressing to a cod Wild West) you could still tell a fun, rollicking story in this world.  Similarly, the blandness of our heroine, Charlie (Tracy Spiridakos, sadly no Jennifer Lawrence), is something that the should could build on, even if right now she's the least interesting character in a mostly uninteresting cast (the sole exception, Charlie's stepmother who insists on joining the quest despite Charlie's resentment of her and shows more common sense and ingenuity than any other characters, seems, at least according to IMDb and the promotional photos I've seen, due to be sidelined, alas).  Though the Hunger Games parallels turn out to be only skin deep--Charlie hunts with a bow and arrow and is motivated by the need to protect her younger sibling, but she is a much less tough person than Katniss, and the pilot frequently comments on her sweetness and need to believe that despite the tough times she lives in, people are still good at heart--the show has a YA sensibility baked deep into its core, right down to a handsome love interest with whom Charlie sparks but with whom she can never be because he--gasp!--works for the evil warlord.  This could mean good things, since the quality that unites most of the YA-derived shows on TV right now--shows like The Vampire Diaries and Pretty Little Liars--is a commitment to a nonstop rollercoaster of plot that only gets zanier and more fun as the episodes pile up.  Or, it could simply be a cynical attempt to cash in on YA's popularity without any intention of replicating the breakneck plotting of these shows.  Right now, Revolution has a good chance of becoming an over-earnest, unoriginal snoozefest with no interesting characters or plot points, and a somewhat less good chance of becoming a fun extension of YA's takeover of popular culture.  I'm not very hopeful, but I'm willing to give the show a few more episodes to shake itself out.

  • The Bletchley Circle - Not a series but a British miniseries, whose crackerjack premise is sadly not as well-realized as it might have been.  Set in 1952, the story follows four women who met as codebreakers in Bletchley Park during WWII, and now come together to solve a series of murders of young women.  There's potential here to explore the frustrations of women for whom the war was an opportunity to stretch their abilities and intellect, and who now find themselves without that outlet and desperate to feel useful again (something that lead Anna Maxwell Martin explored already last year in the miniseries adaptation of Sarah Waters's Night Watch), but a lot of it is squandered in too-obvious cliches.  So the women are a collection of types--the level-headed, determined lead, the beautiful, naive savant, the good-time girl, the spinster--and their relationships with men are equally by the numbers--Martin's husband wants to be supportive but can't quite grasp that she wants more from life than to be a housewife, while another husband is disrespectful and abusive.  There are some moments of genuine insight--most powerfully, a scene in which one of the group asks how men can kill women in such a casual, possessive manner, and the four women silently watch men come and go in a railway station, wordlessly realizing the existence of rape culture--and hints of greater complexity beneath the surface, such as Martin's reaction to her husband's claim that he had enough excitement in his life during the war, her silence making it clear that unlike him, she craves excitement.  But for the most part The Bletchley Circle proceeds very much like every other mystery of this type, its sole distinguishing feature being that because of its period setting, the heroines can basically invent the entire science of criminology from the ground up in a few afternoons.  This is impressive as a story about women exercising their intellect, but less so as a mystery, since as genre-savvy viewers we already know all the tricks that the characters invent, like the fact that the perfection of the first kill indicates an earlier, "trial" victim.  The series might have worked if it were a stronger, more original mystery, or if its exploration of stifled female intelligence in the 1950s were less by the numbers, but compounding the two unoriginal executions results in a worthy but unexciting story.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

Telegraph Avenue, Michael Chabon's eighth novel, is the most low-concept thing he's written since the last century.  For a little over a decade, Chabon has been the standard-bearer for the intermingling of genre tropes and literary fiction (and the writer to whom genre fans would frequently point to as an example of an outsider who "gets it" and values genre's contributions to our culture).  The works he's produced over that period have ranged across such genres and styles as alternate history (The Yiddish Policemen's Union, for which Chabon won the Hugo and Nebula awards), pastiche (The Final Solution), YA (Summerland), and swashbuckling adventure (Gentlemen of the Road) while indulging in unabashed love for such beloved geek artifacts as comic books, superheroes, Sherlock Holmes, and Michael Moorcock's Elric of Melniboné.  Telegraph Avenue sees Chabon writing, for the first time in years, without the guiding (some might say limiting) structure of a genre plot.  There is no mystery here, no adventurous quest (though the novel's younger characters briefly believe that there is, with mixed results)--just the stuff of literary fiction: broken marriages, endangered friendships, estranged parents and children.  And yet at the same time, Telegraph Avenue is clearly informed, not only by Chabon's irrepressible geekishness, but by the tools he's accumulated in more than a decade of writing in many different genres.  Whether the result is a good novel is something that I'm still of two minds about.

The setting is Oakland, in the late summer of 2004.  Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe are best friends and co-owners of Brokeland Records, a vintage vinyl store specializing in jazz, blues, and R&B on the titular avenue, a dying commercial drag.  The store is already just barely making ends meet, but when Gibson Goode, former football star and "the fifth richest black man in America" announces his intention to build one of his trademark shopping and entertainment complexes, including a media store with its own vintage vinyl department, on Telegraph Avenue, its days appear to be numbered, and Archy and Nat scramble to recruit neighborhood business owners and power brokers to stop Goode's plan.  Archy and Nat's wives, Gwen Shanks and Aviva Roth-Jaffe, are the Berkley Birth Partners, midwives who perform home and hospital births.  When their latest patient has to be rushed to hospital due to uncontrollable bleeding, the partners find their painstakingly amassed reputation and respect within the medical community quickly crumbling, while the heavily pregnant Gwen is dealt an extra blow in the form of the discovery that Archy has been cheating on her.  Meanwhile, Archy's abandoning father, former blaxploitation film star Luther Stallings, is back in town, trying to raise money to bankroll a comeback film, and Nat and Aviva's teenage son Julie has fallen in love with new kid in town Titus Joyner, who turns out to be Archy's unacknowledged son.

This plot description hints at, but by no means comes close to expressing, the importance of race in Telegraph Avenue.  Archy, Gwen, Titus and Luther are black; Nat, Aviva and Julie are white.  The two families' close relationship is allegedly a model of post-racial coexistence, but it conceals irreconcilable gaps in their worldview.  Gwen and Aviva nearly lose their privileges at the hospital to which their patient is rushed because Gwen loses her temper at the doctor who takes over the patient's care, and she does that because he peppers his unconcealed disdain for midwifery with comments like "whatever voodoo you were working" and "It's a birth ... that's one of those things you don't want to try at home.  It's not like conking your hair."  Though Aviva urges her to smooth things over by apologizing, Gwen realizes that an apology from her means something very different than it would coming from Aviva.  Gibson Goode's purpose in building a store in Oakland is "not to make money but to restore, at a stroke, the commercial heart of a black neighborhood," and when Nat gathers together the local business owners of Telegraph Avenue to oppose the project, he's dispirited--and, when Archy walks in on their meeting, embarrassed--by their near-uniform paleness.  But Telegraph Avenue isn't nearly as much about race relations as it is about the African-American experience, and specifically about the history of the black community in Oakland, which Chabon spins out from his main characters, shading in their relationships with the stalwarts of the neighborhood and those characters' pasts, touching not just on music and filmmaking, but on the Black Panthers, the Vietnam and first Iraq wars, and, of all things, the Pullman trains that terminated in Oakland.

For Michael Chabon, of all people, to take it upon himself to chronicle the African-American experience is a somewhat dubious endeavor, and by the time Barack Obama, fresh off his star-making turn as the keynote speaker of the 2004 Democratic convention, showed up at a Berkley fundraiser for John Kerry to tell Gwen that "I would ask you to dance, but I don't think my wife would be happy if it got back to her that I was observed dancing with a gorgeous sister in your condition," my eyebrow was cocked high enough to touch the ceiling.  The issue here isn't whether Chabon has gotten black Oakland "right"--something that I am anyway in no position to judge (though I'm quite curious to see how locals will respond to the novel)--or whether he is "entitled" to write about this community (though it does give me pause to consider that there are probably dozens of books out there about black Oakland by black authors, none of which have received even a fraction of the publicity and attention that a new novel by Michael Chabon does), but the fact that there is something artificial about the way Chabon constructs his Oakland, and that the novel seems to draw attention to that artificiality, as if Oakland were as much a lost fantasy world as Sitka in The Yiddish Policemen's Union, or the Jewish Khazar empire in Gentlemen of the Road.

As well as being Chabon's most low-concept novel in years, Telegraph Avenue is also probably the densest novel he's ever written, full of digressions spinning off of digressions, plot strands that fork and spawn multiple offsprings as the life history of every newly-introduced character is delivered to the reader, then expanded upon as their connections to the other characters are revealed, chapters that start in a confusing middle only to slowly work themselves back to their more comprehensible beginnings, and the kind of literary pyrotechnics that Chabon has become known for, ratcheted up to eleven.  The lynchpin of the novel is a ten-page chapter titled "A Bird of Wide Experience," which is actually a single sentence told from the point of view of an arthritic parrot, the former property of Archy's recently-deceased mentor who has been released into the semi-wild, and who in his flight visits each of the novel's main characters.  Chabon has never been a transparent writer, but in his previous novels his prose had the effect of carrying the reader along.  Telegraph Avenue is the first of his novels that requires a close and attentive reading, and its prose is more clotted than flowing:
as they came closer, Mr. Nostalgia saw that it really was him.  Thirty years too old, twenty pounds too light, forty watts too dim, maybe: but him.  Red tracksuit a size too small, baring his ankles and wrists.  Jacket waistband riding up in back under a screened logo in yellow, a pair of upraised fists circled by the words BRUCE LEE INSTITUTE, OAKLAND, CA.  Long and broad-shouldered, with that spring in his gait, coiling and uncoiling.  Making a show of dignity that struck Mr. Nostalgia as poignant if not successful.  Everybody staring at the guy, all the men with potbellies and back hair and doughy white faces, heads balding, autumn leaves falling in their hearts.  Looking up from the bins full of back issues of Inside Sports, the framed Terrible Towels with their bronze plaques identifying the nubbly signature in black Sharpie on yellow terry cloth as that of Rocky Bleier or Lynn Swann.  Lifting their heads from the tables ranged with rookie cards of their youthful idols (Pete Maravich, Robin Yount, Bobby Orr), with cancelled checks drawn on long-vanished bank accounts of Ted Williams or Joe Namath; unopened cello packs of '71 Topps baseball cards, their fragile black borders pristine as memory, and of '86 Fleer basketball cards, every one holding a potential rookie Jordan.  Watching this big gray-haired black man they half-remembered, a face out of their youth, get the bum's rush.  That's the dude from the signing line.  Was talking to Gibson Goode, got kind of loud.  Hey, yeah, that's what's-his-face.  Give him credit, the poor bastard managed to keep his chin up.  The chin--him, all right--with the Kirk Douglas dimple.  The light eyes.  The hands.  Jesus, like two uprooted trees.
This is by no means a bad thing, and taken as a piece of writing Telegraph Avenue is an impressive feat (though there are moments--most especially "A Bird of Rare Experience"--when one senses that Chabon is showing off, riffing for the pleasure of it rather than working to get his story where it needs to go).  But its denseness, the way it calls attention to Chabon's stylistic accomplishments, has the effect of casting the novel's characters and their setting in an otherworldly light, as if it were not enough for Chabon to have shown his readers a world that for most of them would have been entirely foreign, he also needed to somehow dress that world up, make it whimsical and amusing, in the same manner of his invented worlds, or his madcap romp version of history in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.
"Here's my concern in this matter.  I know you think I am messing around in all that protest shit your partner's stirring up to annoy Chan Flowers.  Just because I maintain historically cool relations with the councilman.  And true, that is part of the reason.  But the real reason is something that's not that.  The reason, I remember when that record store used to be Eddie Spencer's.  And before that, when I first out of the army, right after the war, it was called Angelo's Barbershop, and those old Sicilian dudes used to go in, get their mustaches looked to or whatnot.  I have known Sicilians, and so I feel confident saying, your store been full of time-wasting, senseless, lying, boastful male conversation for going on sixty years, at least.  What that Abreu said the other day at that meeting, he was right.  It's an institution.  You all go out of business, I don't know.  I might have to let in some kind of new age ladies, sell yoga mats.  Everybody having 'silence days,' walking around with little signs hanging from their neck saying 'I Am Silent Today.'  I would take that as a loss."
Unlike other works, like Treme or The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, that seek to introduce a non-white community to an audience of outsiders, Telegraph Avenue doesn't quite avoid the pitfall of making its subject matter seem "colorful," and this is not merely because of Chabon's stylistic flourishes (there is no shortage of these in Oscar Wao, for example) but because the novel's attitude towards black culture often seems to slide into what can only be described as fannishness.  This is no different, of course, from how Chabon treats comic books in Kavalier and Clay--the same romanticizing, mythologizing tone with which he describes superhero comics in that novel is used in Telegraph Avenue to describe Luther Stallings's Shaft-like Strutter films--but the crucial difference is who Chabon is trying to appeal to.  If Oscar Wao is a novel that takes areas of pop culture usually associated with white people and appropriates them for Dominicans, Telegraph Avenue is a novel that seems to be trying to "sell" black culture to its non-black readers, and to do so not simply by exposing them to it (as Treme does) but by trading on that culture's implied, inherent coolness.  Jazz, blaxploitation, the Black Panthers, midwifery, even fried chicken--these are all things that Telegraph Avenue holds up as exemplars of black culture, but it does so in such a way as to stress their appeal to white people.

But then, that's something that Chabon seems very much aware of and may even be trying to stress.  The fact is that many of the characters within Telegraph Avenue who love black culture are white, and that this is something that the black characters are deeply ambivalent about.  The character who prepares fried chicken is Nat, from a recipe taught to him by his black stepmother, and he does so in order to curry favor with the neighborhood's most prominent businessman and landlord in order to garner support in his fight against Gibson Goode, a maneuver that meets with only limited success.  Archy is a connoisseur of predominantly black musical forms, but his customers are mostly rich white people.  Gwen, similarly, became a midwife not only to escape the stifling expectations of a family that has spent generations climbing the ladder of respectability, but in order to reconnect with a tradition of black midwifery, but she finds herself catering exclusively to the rich white women of Berkley, whose frou-frou birth plans and new age mysticism drive her to distraction, while black women disdain her work as "country shit."  Over the course of the novel, some of its characters attempt to reclaim black culture for black people--Gibson Goode tries to recruit Archy to run the vinyl department in his new store by promising him the opportunity to reintroduce young black people to a musical heritage that has been coopted by white America, and Luther Stallings, who was passed over for the Samuel L. Jackson role in Jackie Brown by another white lover of black culture, Quentin Tarantino (whose movies Julie and Titus are studying, discovering Luther's filmography through a class on Kill Bill), is trying to bankroll his own blaxploitation film.  But these projects are rejected by the main characters--Archy turns down Goode's job offer, and sneers at Luther's dreams of a comeback--and at the end of the novel both Archy and Gwen have rejected their inter-racial endeavors with Nat and Aviva.  Archy decides to settle down and provide for his family, and starts pursuing a real estate license.  Gwen, despite triumphing over the racist doctor and regaining her privileges at his hospital, decides that "I'm sick of having no power in this game, Aviva, and of them having it all.  Of always fighting against feeling useless.  Of how sad it makes me feel that sisters won't go to a midwife."  So she decides to go to medical school, so that "when I reach out to a black woman while she's having a baby, maybe then she's going to reach back."

And then there's this point to consider: Telegraph Avenue ends with Archy, Gwen, Titus and the new baby as a happy middle class family.  Archy and Gwen have abandoned their bohemian pursuits and buckled down to chase the American dream, complete with bourgeois professions: medicine, real estate.  Real estate.  In 2004.  In four years' time, when the bottom falls out of Archy's new field and Gwen is still accumulating student debt, that decision might not seem so wise after all.  Nat and Aviva will be fine--at the end of the novel, Nat moves the vinyl business online, selling to collectors in Japan and France, and Aviva will still have her 1% moms to cater to, but Archy and Gwen?  There's nothing in the idyll of Telegraph Avenue's final chapter to suggest that we're meant to take away anything sinister as we turn the last page, to believe that Archy and Gwen's future is anything but rosy.  Nothing except for our knowledge of history, which Chabon no doubt possesses as well.

My core problem with Telegraph Avenue is that I'm not certain what I'm supposed to take away from it--the sunny, sentimental portrait of a black neighborhood, or the dark undercurrents that seem to run beneath it, the ambivalence with which the black characters view their own culture and history and its appropriation by white people, and the uncertain future, and possible collapse into poverty, of the main characters who end the novel certain that they are taking their first steps on the path to financial stability.  Has Chabon written another fantasy world, this time based on a real place, or has he written a novel about the financial crisis?  With Chabon, it's never a bad bet to assume that sentimentality is the end-point--see, for example, Meyer Landsman's romantic act of renunciation at the end of The Yiddish Policemen's Union, after which he walks off into the sunset with his newly-reconciled wife, the financial and professional consequences of his actions left discreetly off-page.  On the other hand, there are enough hints in Telegraph Avenue to suggest that Chabon knows what kind of criticism he's left himself open to ("What do I know about being black?" is Aviva's stated policy when asked to do what Chabon has apparently done with this novel, interpret or judge the black experience), and thus, presumably, that he had some greater purpose for the exercise than mere sentimentality.  Depending on the answer to this question, Telegraph Avenue is either a successful novel whose project strikes me as reductive and potentially offensive, or a much more interesting novel that is nowhere near as successful at what it tries to do, whose barbs are muffled beneath that sense of the otherworldly produced by Chabon's stylistic excesses.  Perhaps Chabon would be better off wading back into genre, where his failures to fully face up to the messiness that underpin his fantastic worlds have less bearing on reality, and are thus easier to forgive.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Back From the Windy City

My plane from the US landed on Friday afternoon, and yet I'm still not wholly back: piles of papers and books are still where I left them while unpacking, my photographs are uncatalogued, and a stack of emails remains to be answered.  I promised myself, however, that at least the traditional con report would be done before the convention itself was more than a week over (update: well, close enough).  In brief: I enjoyed myself at Chicon 7 very much, but that enjoyment often seemed to come in spite, and not because, of the convention's best efforts.  And now, at greater length:

The venue: unlike Montreal, Chicago is a city that I'm quite familiar with, with ties to both sides of my family.  My father got his master's degree there, and my mother's sister and her daughter lived in Chicago for many years, during which my family and I visited them several times.  In the last decade, however, nearly all of my relatives have moved away, and this visit was the first time I'd been to the city since 2001.  It was nice to be reminded of what a beautiful, vibrant, welcoming city Chicago is.  The Hyatt convention center where Chicon was held was not the easiest place to navigate, with two towers linked by only a few walkways and a small number of overtaxed elevators facilitating movement between its many levels (it apparently posed even more of a challenge to congoers with accessibility issues), but it was a wonderfully central location, so that every night I found myself in the middle of a bustling, brightly-lit downtown, with sights and restaurants only a short walk away (I have, for example, sampled deep-dish Chicago pizza at the fabled Giordano's, a culinary feat that I'm glad to have experienced but also in no hurry to repeat).  If nothing else, this trip has made me determined not to wait another eleven years before returning to this city.



The program: in a word, dreadful.  I was spoiled going into Chicon, since my previous Worldcon at Montreal had such an interesting, multifaceted, inclusive program, but even accounting for those high standards the programming at Chicon was a mess.  As has been widely reported by this point, the convention's programming team made the strange choice to, essentially, crowdsource the program, soliciting panel ideas from would-be participants and then regurgitating those ideas verbatim to other volunteers, without even bothering to rework them into more cohesive, more substantial discussion subjects, and staffing panels with whoever those descriptions struck a chord with.  I'm not entirely unsympathetic to the impulse to decentralize the classic convention structure--in my discussions with program heads at ICon I've frequently come across the idea that a convention should be more about providing its attendants with a setting, in which they can develop and discuss whatever issues come to mind, rather than a structured program.  But paradoxically, these kinds of conventions require a lot more care and attention to work than the classic kind, and Chicon's haphazard approach of combining the crowdsourcing concept with the frontal, panel-based structure of Worldcon resulted in a program that was incoherent--quite literally, as the program booklet also reprinted the attendee-suggested panel descriptions, grammar mistakes and all.

Not surprisingly, the program lacked, even by Worldcon's eclectic standards, any sort of overarching theme or themes, any sense that there were issues or a zeitgeist that the program heads wanted their convention to address.  Some areas were oddly overemphasized--I lost count of the number of sausage-making, wannabe author advice panels--while others were underrepresented--only two panels on reviews and one on short fiction--or merely odd lacunae--in the convention at which they were handed out, not a single panel discussed the Hugo awards.  At least one panel I attended had clearly been suggested in order to plug one of the participants' books, which, since she was made moderator, she was able to do with little interruption.  Even scheduling, where crowdsourcing could presumably no longer be relied upon, was a mess.  Panels with similar or nearly identical topics were programmed opposite each other--strong female characters in YA, for example, was programmed against strong female characters in general--or after one another but at opposite ends of the convention center. 

For all that, I did manage to have some interesting conversations at Worldcon, albeit mostly outside of panels.  I met lots of interesting people, both known to me and new, including several Strange Horizons reviewers and AtWQ commenters (though I did find myself having to reassure some first-time Worldcon goers that this year's program was by no means representative, which I hope future conventions will bear out).  And some panels seemed to work in spite of the program's limitations: my very first panel, Feminist SF in China on Thursday at 13:30, I had originally taken for a lecture because only one participant, Jan Bogstead, was listed.  It turned out that the program heads simply hadn't found anyone else to talk about the subject, so Bogstead recruited academic Emily Jiang, and between them they were able to round up several Chinese authors and academics who were attending the convention.  Which sounds like a recipe for disaster, but the result was a genuinely interesting and multifaceted panel on the state of SF in China and the role of women writers (if somewhat less about feminism than advertized, and apparently another panel on Chinese SF later in the convention was significantly less successful).

And then there were the panels that suffered from the same problems you encounter in any convention.  Some started out from a topic I was interested in only to take it in a direction that didn't appeal to me--Strong Female Characters in YA (Saturday, 10:30) did a good job naming individual works but failed to interrogate the strong female character concept, nor to establish how the qualities laid out for a strong YA heroine (capable, intelligent, believably flawed) differ from the ones for a strong YA hero; Historical Realism in Fantasy (Sunday, 10:30) had a strong group of participants but, perhaps understandably, bogged down in discussion of actual history; likewise, Feminism in Fantasy (Saturday, 18:00), which I would have liked to see concentrate on the issues surrounding female characters in the quasi-medieval settings of epic fantasy or the cod-Victorian ones of steampunk, ended up discussing fantasy in a more general sense, and then ran aground on the shoals of Buffy.  Some panels simply sucked: the hands-down worst was Ethics of Book Reviewing (Sunday, 13:30), which after getting bogged down for what felt like twenty minutes on Amazon reviews, turned out to be Book Reviewing for Authors, mainly about how and whether to write negative reviews, and also a platform for the authors in the panel to complain about their own reviews.  Happily, it was followed by the convention's best panel, Religion: Getting it Right (Sunday, 15:00), which had a lively, varied selection of panelists and covered a wide range of questions about how and whether to construct alien religions, and how to depict the wide range of expressions for religious belief and practice, perhaps the most important conclusion of which was the importance of depicting questioning even among believers, and of recognizing that some believers respond to theology while others respond to ritual and that both should be represented within a constructed religion.  Several questions, including my own, tried to get the panel (which included Kameron Hurley, author of God's War and its sequels) to talk about using real-world religions in science fiction and extrapolating them into the future, which sadly they didn't get very deep into, but even so this was by far the most comprehensive, intelligent panel I attended.

The Hugos, I: I had an interesting vantage point on the Hugo awards this year.  Graham Sleight, who along with John Clute, David Langford and Peter Nicholls was nominated in the Best Related Work category for the Science Fiction Encyclopedia, asked me to be his guest to the ceremony, which meant that I got to dress up, hobnob at the pre-award reception (highlights include chatting with Graham, Paul Cornell, and Neil Gaiman about "The Doctor's Wife" and babbling incoherently at Dan Harmon about Community), and all without the pressure of actually being up for the award (it was fairly easy to tell the nominees from the plus ones by the former's general pallor and nervous demeanor).  I also got a pretty good seat for the awards themselves, which were packed, and thus a good spot to clap enthusiastically from when the SFE won its category.

The Hugos, II: Aside from the obvious, one of the benefits of all the above was that in the midst of sampling finger foods, worrying about my outfit, rooting for Graham and then cheering for him, there was very little time left to think about the Hugos themselves.  I haven't written much about the award this year, which was less because the ballot was so much worse than previous years--in fact it was no worse than usual--than because it crystallized a sense that has been growing within me over the last few years that maybe there's very little point in continuing that project.  When the nominees were announced, John Scalzi wrote, in response to his April's Fool joke story, "The Shadow War of the Night Dragons: Book One: The Dead City," being nominated, that "I think its appearance on the Hugo slate just might make some Very Serious Observers of Genre shit a brick sideways, and you have to know I’m down with that."  At first this struck me as a somewhat passive-aggressive thing to say, but the more I thought about it the more it seemed that Scalzi had a point.  I've spent the better part of ten years talking about what the Hugos ought to be, but a popular vote award will inevitably--and by rights--be is whatever the majority of its voting membership wants it to be.  If what the voting membership wants for the Hugos isn't what I want for them, doesn't there come a point where continuing to complain about that fact is less a principled act and more just being curmudgeonly? 

That's not to say that I hate all of this year's winners--Charlie Jane Anders's "Six Months, Three Days" is, quite rightly, universally beloved, and though, in the malaise that struck me at the announcement of the nominations, I haven't read this year's winning novella, Kij Johnson is a fine writer who deserves to be recognized by the Hugos (on Ken Liu's "The Paper Menagerie," I think Chance sums up my feelings best)--and as many people have noted this year's winners are a hearteningly diverse bunch, which is surely an accomplishment worth celebrating in its own right.  But both the winners and the ballot as a whole reflect a trend that has dominated the Hugos for several years--towards nostalgia, fannishness, sentimentality, and stories that look inwards and backwards.  The combination of an author I've never gotten along with and a subject matter that didn't appeal to me meant that I haven't read Among Others, but both that subject matter and the book's reception seem to confirm it as the epitome of that trend.  In her acceptance speech, Walton quoted one of the commenters on her LiveJournal, who called Among Others "a love letter to fandom."  I don't want the Hugos to be in the self-flattering business of rewarding their own love letters.  I want them to look outward, for what's new and exciting and different in the field, for the works that will be shape and change genre writing in the years to come.  But saying that again and again is starting to feel pointless.

The Hugos, III, and Other Stuff: If I weren't conflicted enough by Among Others's victory, Walton, in her acceptance speech, thanked Rene Walling, who was recently banned from Readercon for sexual harassment (if you haven't heard of this incident, in brief: Walling harassed author Genevieve Valentine, who lodged a complaint; the Readercon board, in contravention of its own zero tolerance policy which they had already implemented once before, decided to ban Walling for only two years; a public outcry followed, and Walling received a lifetime ban; he also resigned from his committee roles in Chicon and several future Worldcons).  I don't know whether Walton's purpose was merely to thank a friend who had played an integral role in her novel's path to winning the Hugo (according to her, he suggested the book's title) or whether the choice to name him at the convention's tentpole moment was a deliberate poke in the eye to those who had cried so vehemently for his expulsion from Readercon and the Worldcon committees.  And the truth is, I'm not sure that her intentions matter at this point, because in the week that has followed, there has been a definite and depressing backlash against the so-called vilification of Walling, and the discussion of sexual harassment that came out of the Readercon incident, into which Walton's words can't help being folded.

It can't be denied that Walling would have been infinitely better off if Readercon had handed down a lifetime ban on him from the start.  Before the ill-considered initial decision, neither his name nor the incident in general were widely publicized, whereas after it banning him became a cause célèbre for feminist fans, and coverage of the debacle was nearly ubiquitous.  By the time the dust settled, Walling was being treated less as a person than as symbol for the way that fannish institutions privilege the feelings of harassers over those of their victims.  But none of that makes him an innocent or, God forbid, a victim.  And yet over the last week there has increasingly been a sense that in certain corners of fandom that is exactly what he is.  The discussion has veered towards hysterical terms such as witch-hunt and lynch-mob (Valentine has some more thoughts about how these terms come out of the woodwork, as does N.K. Jemisin), and both publicly and privately I have seen people decry the unfairness of his being tarred with the brush of a serial harasser.  Personally, my instinct is that a person doesn't wake up one morning and decide that harassing women is OK, but I don't know the man so maybe that is essentially what happened.  That doesn't change the fact that the onus is on Walling to demonstrate that he can amend his behavior, not on his friends to try to argue that he's suffered enough, and based on the reports coming from Chicon--at which Walling staffed con activities, bemoaned his misfortune to one congoer, and made an uncomfortable pass at another--he is doing exactly the opposite.  At the very least, his behavior demonstrates a profound lack of judgment that makes any possibility of genuine reflection and change seem very remote.  And yet, in the current atmosphere--in which, as Rose Fox points out, we're spending much more time talking about Walling and his feelings than about the feelings of Valentine and other victims of harassment--it seems likely that he'll be forgiven.  Again, I don't know if this is something that Walton intended to be a part of, and she is owed the benefit of the doubt, but in light of the events of the last week her speech leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

After Chicago: In less serious news, I spent two short days in New York after leaving Chicago, visiting family (amusingly, most of my relatives who used to live in Chicago have ended up in New York and its environs) and meeting intrepid LiveJournaler Coffeeandink.  One of the highlights of my visit was (no pun intended) The High Line, the reclaimed freight track which has been transformed into a public park.


The books: well, of course.


The cat, who belongs to my cousins, is sadly not included.

The future: Since I've gone on long enough, I'll let a picture say a thousand words.