Friday, March 29, 2013

Review: The Rise of Ransom City by Felix Gilman

Over at Strange Horizons, I review Felix Gilman's The Rise of Ransom City, following up on my review of the first volume in (what I assume is) this duology, The Half-Made World.  I enjoyed The Rise of Ransom City very much (it was even on my Hugo ballot) and there's a lot that Gilman is doing that I don't think anyone else currently writing fantasy is interested in, which I hope to write more about in the near future.  But nevertheless, there are problems with this sequence, and the way it fantasizes American Western expansion, that can't be ignored.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Look to Windward by Iain M. Banks

My progress through Iain M. Banks's science fiction novels, and particularly his Culture sequence, has been deliberately haphazard.  I've picked the books up as they came to me, in used bookstores, convention dealers' rooms, and my trips abroad.  It's one of the strengths of the Culture sequence that the universe it describes is so broad and full of storytelling potential, and yet underpinned by basic rules that are so straightforward and clearly defined, that you can pick it up at almost any point and in almost any order without diminishing your experience of either the individual books or the sequence as a whole (in that sense, though I wonder if either author would thank me for the comparison, it reminds me of Terry Pratchett's Discworld).  In my last few forays into the Culture, however, with Matter and Surface Detail, there's been a growing sense that I've been missing something, and comments to my reviews of both novels have cited the importance of Look to Windward in understanding the focus and preoccupations of the later Culture books.  So for the first time since I started reading Banks in 2005, I've made the point of seeking out a particular one of his novels.

Look to Windward is, famously, the novel about what happens when the Culture gets it wrong.  Previous books established the Culture as a society of hedonistic do-gooders, so persuaded by the rightness of their anything goes, post-scarcity, radically egalitarian way of life that they seek to export it--often through diplomacy, but sometimes also through subterfuge and interference in the inner workings of alien societies meant to direct them towards more peaceful, more progressive social modes.  In Look to Windward, that interference has exploded in the Culture's face.  Seeking to improve the lot of the Chelgrians, a relatively powerful race whose society has for thousands of years been governed by a carefully stratified caste system, the lowest rungs of which are treated as barely human, the Culture manipulated Chelgrian politics so that a low-caste person was elected to high office and began to implement reforms to the caste system.  Instead of leading to peaceful equality, however, the lower castes, having gained control of the military, immediately launched a short but brutal war of revenge against the higher castes, which ended only after the Culture admitted its culpability, but not before claiming the lives of five billion Chelgrians.  Now former Chelgrian soldier Quilan, whose wife was killed in the war, is traveling to the Culture orbital Masaq', ostensibly to convince the composer Ziller, who exiled himself from Chel in protest of the caste system before the war, to return home.  His real mission, however, is one of vengeance.

When you get a decent way into a sequence as rich, varied, and original as the Culture books (and Look to Windward is the seventh of the nine books that I've read), there's a pretty strong impulse towards taxonomy.  For example, while Banks has always been a discursive, freewheeling author, fond of gonzo inventiveness for its own sake and always willing to pause his story in order to take it in, the Culture novels can nevertheless be divided into those--like The Player of Games, Use of Weapons, and Matter--that are purpose-driven, whose characters are proceeding towards the fulfillment of some task or mission which gives the novel its shape, and those--like Consider Phlebas, Excession, and Surface Detail--that are more about the journey, with the actual action of the novel taking place far above the main characters' sphere.   

Look to Windward is very much of the latter type.  Its action alternates, for the most part, between Ziller and Quilan, but the former chapters are, as has become typical of Culture novels of this type, a travelogue.  The irascible Ziller, made bitter by the realization that he can't live with his society's ingrained injustice, but lacks the strength to stay home and fight it, travels, accompanied by another of Masaq's alien residents, Kabe, to see the orbital's most astonishing and exotic sights, many of them venues for the extreme, and occasionally lethal, sports for which Masaq' has become famous.  Which gives Ziller and Kabe the opportunity to ponder the Culture.  What does it mean that people who live in utter safety and comfort seek out the terror and danger of, say, rafting along a river of lava?  Would the experience be any different in a VR simulation, especially given that even those who undertake it for real are under the care of the Mind who acts as Masaq's hub, who could whisk them away from danger in an instant?  Does courting danger in the knowledge that your personality is backed-up and that even if you die, you'll be be reactivated in a new body, constitute cheating?  Or is it wasteful and childish to engage in extreme sports without a backup, risking a meaningless, unnecessary death?

By the third or fourth time that Ziller and Kabe have had this conversation, it's pretty easy to guess that they are harping on one of the novel's important Themes.  And, though at that point one begins to feel a niggling wish that Banks would get to the point, at least the sights that the two tourists observe are imbued with typical Banks-ian verve and inventiveness.  Other Themes are less elegantly introduced: a long infodump, coming seemingly out of nowhere, discusses the art of building AIs, or Minds, and the way that these beings will always reflect their society's core traits and assumptions, no matter how different and more advanced their thought processes are from the creatures who built them (this segment also introduces the intriguing notion that a Mind built purposefully to have no cultural baggage--known as a "Perfect AI"--will always and immediately choose to Sublime, leaving the physical plane of the galaxy for the unknown, a truism that the Culture "more or less alone, seemed to find [...] almost a personal insult"); another introduces the Chelgrian-Puen, a segment of Chelgrian society who have Sublimed, and now spend their time maintaining and controlling the Chelgrian heaven, into which they admit Chelgrians whose personalities were backed up upon death if they're deemed worthy (a concept that Banks would go on to explore further in Surface Detail).  Both of these concepts turn out to be crucial to the novel's plot--Quilan's mission, for example, to destroy the Mind that acts as Masaq's hub, which will cause the deaths of about ten percent of the orbital's inhabitants in the ensuing chaos, has been made necessary by the Chelgrian-Puen, who have decreed that the war dead will not be admitted into heaven unless they are avenged by an equal number of Culture deaths.  Nevertheless, there is a sense while reading Look to Windward that it is less a story than a construction project, its pieces slowly falling into place--the chapters told from Quilan's point of view, for example, reveal his mission and his training process in dribs and drabs as he remembers them (he has been induced to forget his real mission, to protect against having his mind read)--until the final piece makes sense of the whole edifice.

Until that happens, Look to Windward feels very unsatisfying.  As a discussion of the Culture's right to intervene in the affairs of other races, the Chelgrian incident isn't quite fit for purpose.  It's pretty easy, after all, to say that the Culture was wrong to intervene in a situation in which that intervention had unforeseen, negative consequences to the tune of billions of deaths--a result that, as even this book points out, is vanishingly rare.  The real question should be whether the Culture is right to intervene, period, even when everything goes according to plan.  Don't the races it affects have the right to develop on their own, to perhaps find their way to a free, egalitarian equilibrium that doesn't necessarily reflect every one of the Culture's values (a point that I think was made much more successfully in Use of Weapons)?

On that level, in fact, the Chelgrians feel like a very bad example of a situation in which the Culture was wrong to interfere.  From what we see of them through Quilan's eyes, they were clearly never going to change on their own, especially not with the Chelgrian-Puen enforcing the caste system, literally, from heaven.  They've taken no lesson from the war about the caste system's problems (as Ziller points out, this is partly the Culture's doing--being able to blame someone else for the war means that the Chelgrians don't have to examine their own behavior--but that unexamined stance, as we hear from the exclusively high-caste membership of the conspiracy against the Culture, is an unremitting belief that the caste system is naturally ordained).  And, as we see in a scene in which Quilan witnesses one of his superiors bait, bully, and finally murder a helpless low-caste servant, whatever delusions they have about the caste system protecting all members of society equally are just that.  After getting a long, hard look at Chelgrian society through Quilan's eyes, it's hard not to conclude that the only thing wrong with the Culture's choice to meddle with it was having bungled the job, but even that doesn't feel like a meaningful criticism.  Trying to undermine millennia-old social stratification through a single change of the person at the top is such a childishly heavy-handed approach, completely out of step with the more subtle, long-term interference seen in novels like Use of Weapons and The Player of Games, that it's hard to take it seriously as an examination of the Culture's limitations.

If Look to Windward is nevertheless a more successful and engaging novel than other grand tour Culture novels like Consider Phlebas and Excession, it is mainly because of Quilan.  Banks isn't exactly known for his deft character work, but nevertheless Quilan's grief for his wife, whose death happened too suddenly even for her personality to be recorded and taken to heaven, is affecting.  Quilan wishes for the same oblivion--the reason that he accepted the mission to Masaq'--and a sizable portion of the memories he recovers have to do with his debates with counselors, spiritual advisers, and his superiors over whether that desire, and his unwillingness to even try to let go of his grief, is selfish or masochistic.  It's unusual for Banks's SF to focus so much on the human aspect of his story, and particularly on emotions like grief (the only other example that occurs to me is the strand in Excession in which a woman fuming over a failed relationship stays pregnant for forty years, and though this didn't strike me at the time of reading the novel I've since read reactions from women who have actually been pregnant that lead me to give that plotline quite the side-eye).  Banks underscores that grief by interspersing Quilan's recent memories with recollections of his life with his wife, which help to make the character, and Quilan's loss, more real (these also go some way--though by no means all the way--towards alleviating the problem of a novel whose only major female character dies in its opening pages, a death that is, if not quite a refrigeration, certainly the prime motivator for one of the novel's major male characters). 

Somewhat more prosaically, the Quilan chapters are also engaging for their slow reveal of the full extent of his mission, which alternate from horror to a sort of deranged logic--after all, if the godlike beings who control your heaven are refusing to let the dead of your civil war in, it only makes sense to commit mass murder--and back again.  There's also a growing sense of dread in these chapters, as Quilan gets close and closer to achieving his goal, combined with disbelief.  This is the Culture, after all.  Surely they saw Quilan coming.  Surely they've already acted to circumvent his plan.

Which is, in fact, exactly what happens, as Quilan's moment of triumph turns into a damp squib, courtesy of the Masaq' hub.  I'm sure that I'm not the first person to make this observation, but it's pretty easy to separate the nine Culture novels into three distinct "eras," divided both chronologically and thematically, as if Banks had come up with an idea that he wanted to explore through the Culture setting, written three novels about it, and then paused for a few years until a new idea occurred to him.  So the first trilogy--Consider Phlebas (1987), The Player of Games (1988), and Use of Weapons (1990)--introduces the Culture and its core conflict between spoiled hedonism and the impulse to spread its blessings, while the most recent one--Matter (2008), Surface Detail (2010), and The Hydrogen Sonata (2012)--views the Culture from the outside.  Look to Windward, which was published in 2000, belongs to a group that also includes Excession (1996) and Inversions (1998), whose focus seems to be (I say, without having read Inversions) on the Minds that run the Culture, and on the chilling realization that while its human citizens may think of themselves as movers and shakers, it's these beings who are actually calling the shots, and usually several dozen steps ahead of the characters whom the novels are ostensibly about--in Look to Windward, for example, there is a minor subplot about a Culture citizen who happens to find out about the plot against Masaq' and sets out to save the day, but he dies almost as soon as he begins his journey, and his actions have no bearing on the story's outcome.  It's only in its final chapters, despite the fact that it was present throughout Ziller and Kabe's explorations, and working hard to make Quilan's stay on Masaq' pleasant, that we realize that Look to Windward had another main character, the Masaq' hub itself, and that much of the novel's seemingly aimless explorations of the orbital were actually aimed at giving us glimpses of this ancient, powerful creature's history and personality.

Look to Windward begins with the light of an eight hundred-year-old supernova--induced by the Idirans in the last stages of their war against the Culture--reaching Masaq'.  In a few weeks' time, the light of a second such nova will reach the orbital, and the hub has decreed that the interval should be a period of reflection, culminating with a new symphony, commissioned from Ziller.  Initially, it seems that bringing up the Idiran war, and the loss of life that occurred because of the Culture's determination on it, is another way of reflecting on its failure with the Chelgrians, but the parallel that Banks is actually drawing is between Quilan and the hub--both old soldiers (the hub, as we learn through its interactions with Ziller, Kabe, and Quilan, fought in the Idiran war), both haunted by what they did (or, in Quilan's case, will do) in the war, both mourning a loss in that war (for the hub, its twin Mind), and both craving oblivion.  The Culture--or rather the Masaq' Mind--does indeed see Quilan coming, but his mission turns out to be identical to its plan to commit suicide at the moment that the light of the second nova reaches Masaq' (albeit, with safeguards in place to ensure that the hub's disappearance will not cause any loss of human life).  Look to Windward ends with the two of them stepping into nothingness together.

At the end of the novel, Quilan's companion Huyler, the personality of a deceased Chelgrian general who is housed in Quilan's mind to act as his minder, muses that while he understands Quilan's desire for death, "I find it hard to understand how something as fabulously complicated and comprehensively able intellectually as a Mind might also want to destroy itself."  But really, all of Look to Windward is the answer to that question, and it is here, not in the failure on Chel, that we find the novel's true indictment of the Culture's culture of interference.  When Quilan wonders whether the people his actions will kill can really be said to be responsible for the deaths in the Chelgrian war, Huyler reminds him of the Culture's bone-deep, society-wide commitment to interference, and how, even in the face of a failure like the one on Chel, the Culture remains persuaded in the rightness of its cause: "have you heard even one of them suggest that they might disband Contact?  Or reign in SC?  Have we heard any of them even suggesting thinking about that?"

Already in Consider Phlebas, Banks introduced the idea that the one need that the Culture couldn't fulfill within itself was its citizens' need for meaning.  Look to Windward takes that concept even further.  It suggests that for its human citizens, the Culture's interference in the affairs of other races is on the same level as their love of extreme sports--that it is an entertainment, meant to give their lives flavor and just a hint of danger (this, by the way, goes some way towards explaining the ham-fistedness of the Culture's actions on Chel--as Huyler theorizes, "They have become so blasé about such matters that they try to interfere with as few ships as possible, with as few resources as possible, in search of a sort of mathematical elegance").  It's the Minds, of course, whose personality is shaped by the humans of the Culture, and whose very purpose is to make those humans feel happy and fulfilled, who implement this policy, and it is they who, like the Masaq' hub, have to live with the consequences of that policy.  While the humans who desired this interference shrug off those consequences after a short interlude of sadness, or escape it after a relatively brief life, the Minds have to live with what they did, on behalf of their citizens, with a level of comprehension that is far above what a human could ever experience.  What Look to Windward seems to be saying is that, after centuries of living with the cost of giving the citizens of the Culture what they wanted, even something as fabulously complicated and comprehensibly able as a Mind would choose oblivion.

It's a bleak message, and somewhat predictably, one that I'm not entirely pleased with.  I was dissatisfied with The Player of Games for being too pro-Culture, and now I'm dissatisfied with Look to Windward for being too anti-Culture.  It's both the beauty and the most frustrating trait of the Culture sequence that, like the society it describes, it can never be entirely captured by either of these stances.  The Culture is both a force for goodness, freedom, and happiness in the galaxy, and an engine of its citizens' selfish, childish needs to imbue their lives with meaning, to which end they will cause any amount of suffering, including to the beings who ostensibly run their society.  Both are true, and both are reductive, and to fall on either side is inevitably to tell a less than entirely satisfying story.  Which is OK, actually--as we've established in previous reviews, no Culture novel is perfect, and this too is both the series's beauty and its most frustrating trait.  Look to Windward is better than some Culture novels in having such a decisive and carefully constructed message, and worse than others in that neither it nor that message come together until after you've turned the novel's final page.  It's certainly a novel that I needed to read to understand the Culture better, though now that I've read it, I'm wondering why Banks felt the need to write any more in the sequence--its conclusion feels definitive.  Still, write more he did, so look to these pages some time in the future, to see me wrestling with him and with his greatest creation yet again.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

(Not So) Recent Reading Roundup 32

I've amended the title of this latest and long-delayed entry in the recent reading roundup series because some of these reads are not recent at all.  Some of them have been waiting for months for me to get around to writing about them, and it feels appropriate to finally get around to doing so now, when we're in the run-up to Passover, a period of spring cleaning, of clearing out the winter's various accumulated stuff, and making room for new messes.  Not that most of these books are messes--I wouldn't have spent months intending to write about them otherwise--but it feels good to clear the decks.
  • Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan - This book seemed like it would be right up my alley, since I've been waiting for several years for McEwan to write another great novel (following a few minor ones--Saturday, On Chesil Beach--and the utterly unappealing Solar, which I didn't even bother to read), and the premise--a female narrator relates her career as a junior MI6 agent in the early 70s--seemed like it would be a lot of fun at his hands.  And for most of Sweet Tooth, it really felt as if McEwan was on the verge of doing something very interesting.  The narrator, Serena Frome, is a smart but not very driven woman coming of age just at the point when women are starting to feel that they ought to aspire to professional accomplishment.  She's smart enough to get into a Cambridge maths program, but too uninterested in the material, and in hard work, to do anything more than coast to a third.  A romance with a professor with intelligence connections leads to her being offered a job in MI6, where she's assigned the titular operation, whose purpose is to promote authors whose work is perceived as pro-West.  In the guise of the representative of a literary grant, she meets and becomes involved with one of the operation's assets.  Especially given Serena's warning in the novel's opening sentences that she is about to tell us the story of how she tanked her intelligence career, this development creates the expectation of looming disaster, but along the way Serena's narrative touches on politics, literature, mathematics, and romance, and in its background there are sinister events and inexplicable orders from Serena's superiors that give off an unmistakable whiff of John Le Carré.  In other words, a typically McEwan-ish stew of the cerebral and the melodramatic--at one point, Serena explains to her lover the Monty Hall problem, and he's so enchanted by it that he uses it in a story; this, to anyone who is paying attention, ought to be a clear indication of where the story is headed (unfortunately, it wasn't enough for me)--that creates the expectation of one of his trademark crescendos of wit and emotion.

    What soon becomes even more compelling about Sweet Tooth, however, is Serena's voice, and our growing sense that for all her protestations to the contrary, she doesn't know herself very well.  As Serena presents herself, she is unambitious, unimaginative, conventional, and narrow-minded.  She's an avid reader, but her tastes are almost childishly narrow, disdaining any sort of experimentation or literary device and reading solely for narrative momentum.  In university and at MI6, she is surrounded by the best and the brightest, and especially by women who are bucking to be taken seriously and to break through the glass ceiling, while she's happy to just get by.  The more one gets to know Serena, however, the more one senses that this self-deprecating image of herself is, while not entirely inaccurate, also the result of a rather massive case of imposter syndrome.  Serena talks down her aptitude for maths as merely a facility with numbers, but she also makes it clear that no one in her entire educational career, either before or during university, had ever tried to develop her abilities beyond that point--that, like the story of the dog riding a bicycle, they were all so stunned by the sight of a beautiful young woman solving quadratic equations as if it were nothing that it never occurred to them that anything ought to be done to advance her abilities further.  Though she mocks her youthful political naivete, it's Serena, almost alone among the MI6 agents we meet, who recognizes that the Cold War--and with it operations like Sweet Tooth--has become a quaint joke, and that it won't be long before the intelligence services redirect their efforts towards Northern Ireland.  And while Serena accepts almost meekly her MI6 superiors' censure for becoming involved with an asset, which they predictably perceive as typical female weak-mindedness, when we learn the real reason for Sweet Tooth's failure, it's that a male colleague of Serena's, frustrated in his affections for her, blew the operation (for which he suffers no professional repercussions while Serena is fired).  At several points in the novel, Serena evinces sharp political instincts and a drive towards self-advancement that leave us wondering how much of her failure to make anything of herself is down to her fundamental laziness (which, for all her narrative's seeming unreliability, is clearly part of her character), and how much because she unthinkingly accepts the assumption of everyone around her that she is little more than a pretty face.

    Going into the end of the novel, I was hoping for some acknowledgement of how unreliable Serena is as a narrator (and perhaps also of the literary pun that is telling a spy story whose main character suffers from imposter syndrome).  To my utter shock, however, McEwan pulled a completely different switcheroo--one that seemed rooted mainly in his conviction that what worked so well in Atonement will work even better the second time--which requires us to take Serena's narrative not only as the gospel truth, but as a searing, insightful, thoroughly accurate portrait of her character.  It's been several months since I read Sweet Tooth, and I'm still not certain whether I read it entirely against the grain, or whether McEwan genuinely wasn't aware of how closely he'd written his heroine to resemble the ways in which women in high-powered professions undermine and question themselves, or whether I'm meant to question his final revelation and find it, as well, unreliable (if so, that's a reading that I haven't encountered in any of the novel's other reviews).  While I don't think that Sweet Tooth would have been a great novel without its twist ending--for all the queasy discomfort of realizing how thoroughly Serena undermines herself, and despite its spy novel touches, the narrative overstays its welcome, and none of the characters are as compelling or as well drawn as McEwan is capable of--that ending makes it little more than a problem novel, a stew of fascinating parts that come together into a disappointing whole.

  • The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar - Gilbert and Gubar's seminal work of feminist literary criticism, first published in 1979, starts from a fairly straightforward premise: the patriarchal, rigidly conformist world of the Victorian upper and middle class defined "proper" female behavior, attitudes, and patterns of thought so narrowly and rigidly that to deviate from them was perceived not simply as wrong, but as an expression of madness.  Female writers, many of whom were deviating from those conventions simply by putting pen to paper, and eager to keep themselves from being tarred with the brush of madness, frequently chose to represent their discomfort with the strictures of correct female behavior through doubling, by paralleling their sane heroines with madwomen, whom the narrative, though officially repudiating, could also perceive with sympathy.  The style is more academic than I'm used to, and I found the essays dealing with works I hadn't read (such as a chapter on misogyny in Milton's Paradise Lost, which apparently spurred outrage and apologia among Milton scholars) tough going.  There's also a strong disconnect between what Gilbert and Gubar are looking for in literature (and thus what they define as "good" literature) and what I do--unsurprisingly, given their premise, they fall on the latter side of the Austen vs. Brontë divide, and in their relatively limited discussions of Austen's novels they treat the absence of a madwoman figure in her novels (or indeed of any sense that her characters have darker thoughts and urges), not just as a failing but as an indication that Austen was merely paving the way for writers who were more able to express the frustrations of women suffering from confined intellects and emotions (this, to me, is to discount the importance of sarcasm in Austen's novels, and its role as an outlet for anger and unacceptable feelings and attitudes).  Despite that disconnect, I found The Madwoman in the Attic eye-opening.  Where it deals with works I'd read and read about, I found Gilbert and Gubar's discussions insightful and illuminating.  The chapter on Frankenstein suggests facets of the novel that I had never considered, as well as offering some insight into its author's life that made me want to learn more about her.  The discussion of Wuthering Heights makes a novel that I have dismissed for years as overwrought melodrama seem so intriguing and carefully thought out that I was tempted, when I finished the chapter, to go back and reread the book and try to see what I'd missed.  In particular, I was struck and intrigued by the argument that the proliferation of women novelists in the 19th century was rooted not only in the perception that the novel was a lower, more commercial artform, but in the fact that the author of a novel is, by definition, an observer, someone who stands back and relates a story in which they are not an actor, which would have suited a female temperament trained to be unassuming and silent (in contrast, a writer of poetry--a form that in the 19th century was perceived as the more artistically legitimate--places themselves, and their thoughts and emotions, at the center of the poem).  I know that in the decades since it was published The Madwoman in the Attic has been criticized for some typically second wave flaws, but as a window to the thought process of 19th century women writers, its argument is so compelling and so well constructed, and sheds so much light on some of that period's most important works, that it feels essential to anyone interested in those works and their authors.

  • Comedy in a Minor Key by Hans Keilson - The latest beneficiary of the decade-old craze for European authors who wrote about WWII and the Holocaust as they were happening or in their immediate aftermath, and who have been rediscovered and brought into translation by publishers looking for the next Irène Némirovsky or Hans Fallada, Keilson seems to have been trying to dismantle one of the core tropes of Holocaust fiction before it even came into being.  In his short, sharp novella, a couple in Nazi-occupied Sweden, Wim and Marie, take in and hide a Jewish refugee less because they feel any burning desire to oppose the Nazis, and more because it's the done thing--as Wim's sister explains, everyone else already has a Jew.  But this is perhaps to make the characters seem shallow, which isn't exactly Keilson's project.  While Wim and Marie take their refugee in because they feel that this is what "good" people ought to do (a recurring theme throughout the novel is Wim and Marie's need to assure themselves and each other that they, and their neighbors, are "good," that is not Nazi collaborators), they are quite zealous in their protection of him, and are taking great risks to do so (though, as it turns out, those risks aren't as great as they might have been--almost every other official in the town is also "good," and when the couple makes a serious blunder that might have got them executed, a local constable covers for them).  Nevertheless, their relationship with the refugee, Nico, remains carefully polite, and it's obvious that everyone involved is disappointed by this, while also trying very hard not to make a big deal out of the discomfort and inconvenience of living in such close quarters with someone they have failed to bond with.  Mainly, what Wim and Marie reminded me of was a modern-day couple who have sponsored a third world orphan and, though realizing that their feelings aren't what's important here and determined to do right by their charge, are disappointed to realize that doing so hasn't suddenly imbued their lives with meaning.  The novella begins with Nico's death from pneumonia, which leaves Wim and Marie reeling and uncertain how to react--are they at fault?  Have they failed, somehow, in their effort to do the right thing?  Is it wrong to feel relieved that their lives are now their own again?  Should they be sadder at the death of a man who never managed to become part of the family?  How, most importantly, do they get rid of the body?  It's a crackerjack premise, but somehow the execution left me cold, perhaps because the title turns out to be entirely descriptive.  From its premise you'd expect Comedy in a Minor Key to be a searching character drama, or alternatively, a farce, but instead its emotions and characters are deliberately drawn on a very small scale, and even in such a short work this proves numbing.  It's hard, in the end, to care about Nico's death, about Wim and Marie's frustrated desire to do good, and about the threat to all their lives.

  • Dodger by Terry Pratchett - In a landmark shift in his career, Terry Pratchett has stepped away from the fantastic genres and written a work of historical fiction--albeit a pulpy type of historical fiction that is essentially YA-inflected literary fanfic.  Set in late 19th century London, Dodger sees the teenaged title character, a sometimes thief who makes his living by trawling the sewers for lost money and jewelry, rescuing a young woman from a beating and getting caught up in a political scandal that brings him into contact with the city's social and political elite, including of course Charles Dickens.  The whole thing is told with typical Pratchett-ish verve and energy (albeit, sadly, also with the awkwardness and paucity of language that have become typical of Pratchett's later novels), and the novel's emphasis on letting Dodger show us his world and the complicated, and usually exploitative, systems through which Victorian London's poor moved feels so like what he's done many times in his Ankh Morpork novels that it's easy to forget that Dodger is not a fantasy.  It also drives home how much Pratchett's project with Ankh Morpork and the social conscience that infused the Discworld novels owes to Dickens, who here appears almost as a Pratchett stand-in, a shrewd trickster-ish figure who both manipulates Dodger and is manipulated by him, sometimes acting as his guide to middle- and upper-class London and sometimes being guided by him in London of the poor, but always pushing the young hero towards what he hopes will be social change.  (It's a bit strange to see Dickens treated so positively in fiction given how much he is out of favor at the moment, with multiple biographies focusing on his failures as a husband and father; and, of course, the real Dickens wasn't as revolutionary as Pratchett's Dickens, who among other things sanctions crimes and misdemeanors in order to protect the woman Dodger rescues at the beginning of the novel.) 

    As the novel draws on, however, and as Dodger becomes acquainted with more influential people and a more important player in the political crisis unfolding around him, it also becomes clear that Pratchett has not only failed to find a solution to, but may even be unaware of the fact that he is about to find himself tangled up in the problem of Oliver Twist.  He has written a novel whose primary purpose is to shed a light on the appalling, inescapable conditions in which millions of Victorian London's poor languished, and which often led them to turn to crime as their only means of survival.  But the main character in that novel is someone who leaps out of that poverty through a combination of pluck, their own exceptional nature, fortuitous coincidence, and the benevolent interference of those more fortunate than they are (and while Dickens had the justification of writing to expose injustices occurring at the moment, Pratchett seems to be writing almost as a history lesson--there's little in the novel that encourages a comparison to our own era, and our own tendency to abandon the poor).  Unlike Pratchett's previous novel Unseen Academicals, in which he addressed not only the practical but the psychological hurdles that impede social climbing, in Dodger Pratchett treats it almost as a matter of course.  The upper class people Dodger meets evince a suspiciously modern-seeming indulgence towards his crude origins and rough manners (in contrast, most of them have no problem with the notion that a women might be unwillingly returned to a husband who has already tried to kill her), and few of them are condescending or patronizing towards him.  Dodger himself suffers few qualms about leaving the world he's known his whole life for one that is completely foreign and towards which he has been taught both awe and resentment, and in fact his habits of thought prove almost endlessly elastic, and he is perpetually capable of examining and discarding his received preconceptions and prejudices (of which he has fewer than we might expect--his mentor is a Jew who fled the pogroms, and at one point the two characters pause to note that they have no problem with gay people).  It's not a bad thing, I suppose, that an Oliver Twist-type story features a character who is inured to self-defeating habits of thought, preternaturally talented at extra-legal activities that just happen to come in handy when he decides to fight for the oppressed, and progressive-minded in ways that wouldn't be out of place among 21st century middle-of-the-road liberals.  But then, all these traits--combined with a predictable story and a rather slack sense of humor--combine to make Dodger utterly inessential, and  given that we already have one Oliver Twist, that feels like a fatal flaw.  Dodger was also a landmark for me--the first Pratchett book that I've bought as an ebook, no longer feeling the need to own it in hard copy (much less hardcover).  There's nothing in the book to make me think that this was the wrong call.

  • Art in Nature by Tove Jansson - Jansson, best known as the creator of the Moomins, has been enjoying a resurgence in the last few years, as her work for adults is translated into English.  NYRB Classics have brought out her novels The Summer Book, Fair Play and The True Deceiver, and now her short stories are also beginning to appear.  In all of them she emerges as a sharp, witty writer, a keen observer of humanity with the knack of capturing a character or situation with a few well chosen sentences, but one whose acidic sense of humor is never allowed to run rampant--there is a profound benevolence that underpins almost all of her stories and novels.  As its title suggest, the stories in Art in Nature are often concerned with the lives of artists and the practical considerations of artistic work.  In "The Cartoonist," Jansson presumably draws from her own experiences of being overwhelmed by the international success of the Moomins when she tells the story of an illustrator who is brought in to take over a successful children's cartoon after its creator has a nervous breakdown, and who finds himself overwhelmed by the demands of the never-ceasing work, the feeling that the cartoon's original creator is still present, and the overpowering sense of responsibility towards the cartoon and its juvenile audience.  In "A Leading Role," an actress invites her mousy, pathetic cousin to her country house in order to copy her mannerisms for a role, and ends up learning about the true nature of the character.  In "The Doll's House" (originally the title story, though it's easy to imagine why the translators chose to change this), a retired antiques dealer endangers his marriage when he becomes obsessed with building an enormous, elaborate, intricately wrought dollhouse.  In that story, as in several others, Jansson is surprisingly upfront about depicting gay relationships--though she never quite says that the men and women in her stories are lovers, she comes so close to that point as makes no difference, and matter-of-factly addresses the difficulties that such couples face, as in "The Great Journey," in which a woman caring for her powerhouse of a mother who is now fading into dementia is caught in a trap of indecision, unable to explain to her mother that she loves another woman, but unwilling to take the trip that was her mother's last wish without inviting her lover along.  Art in Nature is a short collection, but every story in it is expertly wrought and compelling, and it leaves one wanting more of Jansson's writing--happily, there are several novels, and at least one more collection, that I haven't yet read.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

More Than Words: Thoughts on Bunheads, Season 1

Television, we're often told, is a writer's medium.  The combination of limited budget and little scope for fancy visuals, and the need to keep feeding the hungry beast of continuous story--be it a serialized drama, a character-based soap, or even a procedural--serves to prioritize the writer's toolbox.  It's the reason, I think, that television so easily amasses obsessed, engaged fandoms, and that TV criticism has become such a vibrant, quickly proliferating field.  Even the most inaccessible and deliberately opaque TV series usually comes down to the basic tools of storytelling--the progression of a story, the development of a character, the emergence of a theme--that are fun to talk about and easy to put into words (by "easy," I mean requiring little formal training or specialist knowledge, which is a category of critic in which I obviously include myself, and to call this kind of criticism easy is by no means to ignore how often it can also be intelligent and insightful).  In the last few years, however, I've had the sense that this is slowly changing.  A few months ago, in a review of a second season episode of American Horror Story, AV Club reviewer Todd VanDerWerff suggested that our ideas of what constitutes "good" storytelling, with their emphasis on coherent plots, believable characters, and "realistic" behavior, have become restrictive, and that it's equally possible for television to reach its viewers through gonzo, over the top storytelling choices, or through television's audio-visual aspect (which a show with "horror" in its title would be perfectly situated to take advantage of).  I was dubious about this argument where American Horror Story--whose second season struck me as having a thoroughly conventional core of story, padded by the series's trademark outrageousness for outrageousness's sake--was concerned, but as a broader point I think it bears consideration.  There are, for example, more shows, like Hunted, Banshee, and most of all Utopia, that seem to be trying to achieve an emotional effect less through dialogue or performance, and more through visuals and atmospherics. And if American Horror Story feels like a bad example of a series that short-circuits "the rules" of storytelling to reach directly for the viewer's emotions, a much better--and to my mind, more successful--example would be the comparatively little-watched, little-discussed Bunheads.

Bunheads, which premiered in the summer on ABC Family and wrapped up its first season last week, marks the return to television, after several years' absence, of Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino.  Depending on how you choose to look at this, this is either yet more proof that "respectable," mainstream TV is becoming increasingly inhospitable to female producers and characters, relegating the creator of a successful, critically-acclaimed, but female-centric series to the kiddie league, or yet more proof that ABC Family is slowly becoming one of the most interesting channels on TV (it gave us The Middleman, a show that it is almost impossible to imagine airing anywhere else on TV, and though I haven't watched either one, I've heard very positive things about its shows Huge and Switched at Birth).  The series begins with former ballet dancer, turned aspiring Broadway star, turned Vegas showgirl Michelle (real-life Broadway superstar Sutton Foster, utterly stunning here), suffering yet another blow to her determination to keep plugging away at her career when she shows up to audition for Chicago only to be turned away by the director without even a chance at a tryout.  In this despondent state (and under the influence of a great deal of alcohol) she impulsively marries a long-time admirer, Hubbell (Alan Ruck), who sweeps her off to his small California home town, called Paradise, where Michelle discovers that Hubbell lives with his mother, imperious dance studio director Fanny (former Gilmore Girl Kelly Bishop).  No sooner have the two women grudgingly agreed to try to make their newfound family work than Hubbell is killed in a car accident, leaving Michelle the sole owner of Fanny's home and studio.

It's an awkward premise, and the pilot has to work overtime to get all its pieces in place, but, especially given its emphasis on four of Fanny's teenage students--Sasha (Julia Goldani Telles), the star pupil who is turning to bullying and mean girl-ness to compensate for a rapidly deteriorating home life, Boo (Kaitlyn Jenkins), a wallflower whose dreams of dancing professionally may be scuttled by her body type, Ginny (Bailey Buntain), a high-strung perfectionist who spends the season making her first real mistakes, and Melanie (Emma Dumont), who mostly plays a supporting role in the other girls' stories, the show having reached its limit for main characters before it came time to give her one of her own--it's easy to assume that this is all in service of setting up a template, in which Michelle joins Fanny as a dance instructor, gaining stability and self-confidence from her mentorship of the young dancers, and forming a family with Fanny, with whom she spars but also comes to respect.  What's interesting--and, at least to begin with, quite frustrating--about Bunheads is how much it resists this template.  It takes Michelle the better part of half a season to even consider becoming a teacher, and even after she does, the school doesn't give the series a structure.  Bunheads, in fact, lacks structure entirely.  Its first season is loose and meandering, with subplots coming in and out of focus, secondary characters popping in and out of the main characters' lives, and a prevailing sense of aimlessness.

Some of this comes down to practical considerations--for budgetary reasons, most episodes feature only two or three of the four young dancers, and Bishop is only contracted as a recurring character, so Fanny disappears for weeks on end, and the relationship between her and Michelle, which we might have expected to give the series its backbone, is instead more of a background presence.  Equally, at least part of Bunheads's shapelessness is a result of the show finding its feet.  In the first half of the season, there's a strong sense that the show is trying to make Paradise into another Stars Hollow, complete with a raft of quirky, larger than life inhabitants, and much of the second half of the season is concerned with backing away from this Gilmore Girls imitation, paring down the recurring cast (and replacing most of it with another former Gilmore actress, Liza Weil, who is one of the season's best additions), and focusing the show's stories away from the town's quirkiness and towards the main characters' emotional arcs.  But even with these factors taken into consideration, there's no denying that Bunheads has very little interest in committing to a structure.  It seems perfectly happy to float in and out of its characters' lives, dropping minor climaxes and crises on them, introducing incremental change, but usually bringing them back to where they started.  The season finale, for example, feels almost deliberately anti-climactic.  Bookending the pilot, it sees Michelle trying out for the chorus in a new musical, and having a great audition only to be told that the open call was a union formality, and that the roles have already been cast.  Meanwhile, the four girls are nervously and somewhat curiously studying up on sex, which prompts Fanny to give the class an excessively frank sex ed talk.  It's not that nothing important happens in the episode, but if you're looking for a final statement about the season, the characters, or how Michelle's presence in Paradise has changed her or the town, you won't find it here.

This, however, is to create the impression that Bunheads is a naturalistic character-based show, along the lines of Treme, and nothing could be further from the truth.  Bunheads is a comedy, and more specifically an Amy Sherman-Palladino comedy, which means that it is heavily stylized, and often suffused with a kind of hyper-realism that means that every character's attributes, good and bad, are turned up to eleven--the controlling Sasha gets her own apartment, and immediately becomes a Martha Stewart-esque domestic goddess; flighty Fanny turns out to have been managing the school's finances through a system based on hat-boxes, into which she sorts bills that she plans to pay, wants to pay, and plans to ignore; Hubbell's former girlfriend Truly (Stacey Oristano) is a master craftswoman who, as she tells Michelle, "[knows] everything about everyone except myself," while her sister Millie (Weil), is a ruthless businesswoman who surmounts every one of life's difficulties by sneering, "Please, I own property."  The dialogue, similarly, is vintage Sherman-Palladino, riddled with rapid-fire, Who's On First-style exchanges that quickly ascend to the realm of surrealism.  So Bunheads is a show that is consciously, deliberately artificial, and that at the same time rejects the artifice of structure and shape.  It's pretty easy to call this bad writing--and as I've said, at least in the first half of the season I think that this is a reasonable explanation a lot of time--but the result as a whole is so weird, and weirdly compelling, that I'm not inclined to dismiss it so easily.

Especially when you consider that I've left out what is perhaps Bunheads's most interesting--and, given Sherman-Palladino's reputation as a wordsmith, most surprising--attribute, the fact that it is often willing to stand back and make its points through something other than dialogue.  Bunheads is a show about dance, and it has a cast of talented dancers--Foster, of course, but also the four girls, and Fanny's students are often supplemented by professional dancers--which means that it often features dance interludes.  As you might expect from Sherman-Palladino, there has been a dance-and-talk scene, and productions such as Fanny's environmental-themed spring recital, "Paper or Plastic?", or Michelle's take on the rat dance from The Nutcracker.  But where Bunheads differs from shows like Glee or Smash, which also intersperse drama with performance, is that it's willing to let those performance stand on their own, as dance is supposed to.  In "Paper or Plastic?" and the rat dance, Fanny and Michelle explain their meaning, giving the dance a narrative.  But when Fanny's students perform at Hubbell's memorial, it's left to us to understand their meaning--and more importantly, to understand that the kind of art they're performing doesn't have to have a story, or a clearly-expressed message.  The show ups the weirdness quotient even further when it introduces dance interludes that clearly do not occur in the show's reality--as when an episode that centers around Sasha's troubled home life ends with her dancing to They Might Be Giants's "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)," or when the season finale, which has focused on the girls' conflicted and sometimes sorrowful feelings about sex, ends with a gleefully risqué number set to "Makin' Whoopee."  You could argue that these scenes are happening in the characters' minds, but what I think is happening is something both simpler and more interesting--I think they're the show acknowledging that it is possible to convey emotion through something other than storytelling, and that in a show that centers on an artform that is precisely about that effect, it's only fair to try to achieve it.

Something else that makes the performance scenes in Bunheads different and special is how often the emotion that underpins them isn't--as it usually is in Glee and Smash--exhilaration, but sorrow.  When Ginny asks Michelle to help her prepare an audition for the school play in which she's to sing a song about longing and heartbreak, Michelle berates and harangues her through a technically flawless rendition, then steps in and actually performs the song, knocking Ginny's, and the audience's, socks off.  But as stunning as that performance is, it's clear that Michelle is putting a lot of her own disappointment and frustration into it--she has just learned that a friend who has been given a once-in-lifetime professional opportunity to turning it down to get married--and that what was missing from Ginny's version was a true understanding--the kind that can only come from experience--of the emotions that underpin the song.  When Michelle's brother Scotty (Foster's real-life brother Hunter, himself a Broadway performer) shows up, he and Michelle have a screaming, knock-down fight about their past and their childhood, but in a show of reserve that has become typical of Bunheads, Sherman-Palladino follows that fight up not with conversation but with music--Scotty finds Michelle strumming the ukelele that was the pretext for their fight, and instead of saying anything, simply joins her in a beautifully melancholy performance of "Tonight You Belong To Me," affirming their connection but also the sadness that underpins it.

In fact, the song and dance interludes are merely making explicit what the show's storytelling hints at more subtly--that what Bunheads, for all its comedic, quirky exterior, is really about is sadness, disappointment, and failure.  Michelle's story, after all, is the story of a woman with tremendous talent and ability who has somehow managed to squander them, and every opportunity she's been given.  And when she latches on to a Manic Pixie Dream Guy and his promise that he can fix her life through the power of his love for her (even more than on Gilmore Girls, Bunheads sidelines the men in its characters' lives in favor of their relationships with one another, but it's particularly interesting to note how neatly Hubbell is slotted into a role usually reserved for a woman--that of the saintly, lost love interest whose sole purpose, in life and in death, is to make the main character's life better), he vanishes into thin air and she finds herself once again forced to rely on herself--and, once again, getting in her own way and doing her utmost to destroy and undermine everything good in her life.  Fanny, meanwhile, is a woman who gave up the ephemeral life of a dancer for something concrete when she chose to have Hubbell, only to have it snatched away from her (though here Hubbell's Manic Pixie tendencies, combined with Bishop's limited presence on the show, undermine the note of tragedy--after the season's first few episodes, it's not really believable that Fanny is grieving the loss of her only child).  And while it seems almost too brutal to tell a story about teenagers whose main theme is disappointment, there is some of this too on Bunheads--on the day of her audition for a prestigious summer dance program, Boo discovers that her mother has already bought a cake that says "Better Luck Next Year," and the season ends with Michelle comforting a sobbing Ginny, who has lost her virginity to a boy who hasn't called or spoken to her since it happened.  It's the kind of sadness you could only withstand in a comedy, unleavened by anything except the characters' matter-of-fact determination not to be defeated by it--in the season finale, having followed Michelle to her audition, it's Boo who drags her friends out to join the auditioning dancers, not caring that their chances of being "discovered" are slim at best--but that determination isn't defiant or brave.  Bunheads avoids the temptation (often indulged by Glee and Smash) to romanticize or make heroic the choice to pursue a dream that almost certainly won't come true, and it does so by having the characters acknowledge their sadness and disappointment only when they allow those emotions to shine through their performances.

As of this writing, Bunheads's future is uncertain, and its chances of a second season are not high (this is the flipside of ABC Family's intriguing bent towards experimentation--The Middleman and Huge also lasted only one season each).  Which means that I can't recommend it wholeheartedly--unlike other one-season wonders, there's nothing sufficiently complete about its first season to make watching it in the knowledge that there will be no follow-up a satisfying experience--but nevertheless it is one of the most interesting and promising new shows of the last year.  It has a brilliant cast (I haven't said enough here about the young castmembers and how terrifyingly talented--as dancers and singers as well as actresses--they all are, but it's hard to imagine another show that will give them the same scope to show off their talents), it's very funny and very moving, and the song and dance scenes are beautifully done (as you might imagine from the number of them that I've linked to here--almost every one feels like something worth sharing excitedly).  But most of all, it's a show that is doing something that I don't think any other show currently running is doing.  There are a lot of shows right now that center around art and artists--Treme, Glee, Smash, Nashville.  I tend to single Treme out as being the only one of these shows that treats art as work, something that has to be perfected and constantly improved, not something that falls into the characters' laps through their god-given "talent."  There is some of this in Bunheads--it is, after all, a show about a school--but it also does something that neither Treme, nor any of these other shows, with their emphasis on music that spells out the characters' thoughts and feelings, even try to do.  It treats art, and particularly dance, as something that can't, and shouldn't, be put into words.