Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

GUNN: How do you avoid reality?
VIRGINIA: Money.  It cures everything but boredom and food cures boredom, so there you go.
Angel, "Happy Anniversary"

Several weeks ago, Publishers Weekly's science fiction blog got bent out of shape over the New York Times review of Lev Grossman's The Magicians, in which reviewer Michael Agger made statements like "Fantasy novels involve magic and are a little bit like magic themselves.  To work, they require of their readers a willingness to be fooled, to be gulled into a world of walking trees and talking lions.  They affect us most powerfully as teenagers, but then most of us move on to sterner, staider stuff."  Such generalizations, insisted blogger Josh Jasper, were "so demeaning towards the genre as to stand out" from even the Grey Lady's general inability to grok it, and represented the belief that "Fantasy novels are suitable for entertaining uncultured teenagers, and require sneering at to make sure adults don't revert."  Reading the review, I couldn't see the reason for Jasper's ire.  It seemed obvious that Agger was using the term fantasy interchangeably with Narnia-esque, children's fantasy novels.  A silly, ignorant error, to be sure, and disappointing coming from a reviewer for such a respected publication, but if one performed a mental search-and-replace on his review it--and the generalizations it made about the genre--turned out to be thoroughly unobjectionable.  It was only once I read The Magicians that I realized that Agger's assumption that all of fantasy is contained within the seven volumes of Narnia is shared by the novel's characters, and perhaps even its author.

The Magicians is told from the point of view of a young man with the unlikely, storybook name of Quentin Coldwater.  A seventeen year old overachiever from Park Slope, Brooklyn, Quentin is diverted from his path to the Ivy League by an invitation to interview at Brakebills, the American college of magic.  The next four years and 300 pages of Quentin's life are spent at Brakebills, where he intersperses magical studies with the standard tropes of the college novel--drinking, sex, ill-advised pranks, his first hesitant and mostly unsuccessful attempts at relating to others as an adult, desperate attempts at reinvention.  He falls in love with a shy, brilliant magician named Alice, and together they join an exclusive clique called The Physical Kids (named for their magical discipline, though these are rather vaguely described, and it's probably best to think of the different disciplines as Grossman's analogue to the Hogwarts houses).  Together, these mundane and magical experiences make up an episodic, aimless narrative, but the former are amusing and on occasion even witty (of a classmate who conceives an enmity for Quentin: "He was either going to hit somebody or start a blog."), and the latter include the novel's most inventive, evocative passages:
Quentin was vaguely aware that, though he'd lost the lion's share of his cognitive capacity in the transformation, he'd also picked up a couple of new senses.  One had to do with air: he could perceive wind speed and direction and air temperature ac clearly as whorls of smoke in a wind tunnel.  The sky now appeared to him as a three-dimensional map of currents and eddies, friendly rising heat plumes and dense dangerous sinks of cool air.  He could feel the prickle of distant cumulus clouds swapping bursts of positive and negative electrical charge.  Quentin's sense of direction had sharpened, too, to the point where it felt like he had a finely engineered compass floating in oil, perfectly balanced, at the center of his brain.
This is all very enjoyable, in a plotless, low-key sort of way (though it does raise the question of how the author of a novel this shapeless feels justified in crowing about the triumph of plot), but really, what is the point?  Mixing Harry Potter with the college novel turns out to produce just that--two tastes that create nothing new between them.  In the end, one has to conclude that it's the juxtaposition of the children's fantasy and the college setting that is the point, the novel's central gimmick, and that we're meant to be astonished at a Hogwarts-like setting that is bereft of high-flown adventure.  It's an absence that seems to astonish the characters, most of whom are fans of the Fillory novels by Christopher Plover, a Narnia analogue about English children who travel to a fantasy world, and who explicitly state and implicitly behave as though they think Brakebills is Fillory, and that in entering it they have signed up for adventure.

Magic, the characters seem to assume, is not only going to solve all of their problems, but imbue their lives with narrative.  A magical world, to them, is a world in which they are the protagonists of a Fillory-like story--straightforward, and divided into easily achievable good and instantly recognizable evil.  To a fantasy reader, this is a perplexing attitude, until one realizes that none of the novel's characters are fantasy readers.  When Alice and Quentin join the Physical Kids, they have to force their way into the group's clubhouse to prove their worthiness, and are told that "It used to be that you could say 'friend' in Elvish and it would let you in … Now too many people have read Tolkien."  But it's painfully clear that beyond Tolkien, Rowling, and Plover, no one at the school--or at least not within Quentin's group--has read any further into fantasy.  It's almost amazing how much of the novel would have been obviated if someone had handed these poor kids some China Miéville, or Susanna Clarke, or even George R.R. Martin.  The lack of any awareness of fantasy from the New Weird onwards begs the question of whether it's Grossman himself who is ignorant of the many authors who have pitted the magical against the mundane, or whether he's posited an alternate universe in which these authors don't exist so that he can make his own stab at the subject unimpeded.  Either way, the comparison is unkind.

The business of the novel begins in its second half, in which Quentin and Alice graduate from Brakebills and move to New York with the other Physical Kids, become miserable with boredom, and, as we knew they must, find a doorway into Fillory.  As is so often the case, what seemed funny and charming in college becomes aggravating and off-putting in the real world, and The Magicians's quality drops precipitously in this half of the story.  The disaffected aimlessness that was if not appealing then at least understandable at school turns into full-blown nihilism once there are no longer any demands on Quentin's time, and he and his friends occupy themselves with drinking and party games as they continue to wait for magic to inject narrative into their lives.  Many reviewers have compared The Magicians to a fusion between Harry Potter and Donna Tartt's The Secret History, and it's in the post-Brakebills chapters of the novel that it becomes apparent how poorly the story about the lost wizard raised among mundanes maps onto the story of the out of place, working class young man who is sucked into an exclusive clique of rich students at an expensive private college.

Much of Quentin's initial attraction to Brakebills can be traced to its opulent, richly appointed campus.  To Quentin, Brakebills's luxury--which, as it does in the Harry Potter novels, takes on a decidedly 19th century cast--denotes solidity, as opposed to the mundane world's shabbiness, and it is deeply important to him.  His most vibrant impressions of Brakebills when he first comes to it is of its well-kept, exclusive beauty--the manicured lawn, the airy classroom in which he takes his entrance exam, the beautiful dorm room he's assigned--"The outer wall was stone; the inner was taken up with dark wooden cabinets and cubbies.  There was a Victorian-looking writing desk and a mirror.  His bed was tucked into a wooden alcove.  There were small vertical windows all along the outer wall.  He had to admit it was a highly satisfactory room."--and when he goes home on vacation, he finds that "his parents' house was unbearable to him now.  After his little curved tower-top room, how could he go back to his dingy old bedroom in Brooklyn with its crumbly white paint and its iron bars on the window and its view of a tiny walled-in dirt patch?"

What's often left unsaid in fantasy worlds of the Hogwarts or Brakebills ilk is that the reason we no longer have these kinds of opulent, hand-crafted settings is that they were originally available only to a select few, and only because of the efforts of a much larger underclass.  The mass-produced, automated ugliness that Quentin recoils from is the 20th century's answer to the disappearance of this underclass as more and more of its members began demanding to be the ones who had their baths drawn rather than the ones doing the drawing.  When fantasy novels, especially ones that posit the existence of a secret magical elite, deliver this kind of opulence to their characters free of charge, what they're actually doing is using magic as a substitute for wealth and class.  So that when Quentin expresses his desire for the solidity and beauty of Brakebills, it's hard not to see him as the middle class kid desperately trying to hold on to his position in a rich people's enclave.  Except that Quentin is in fact quite well off, and only disdains his parents' Park Slope apartment and later their McMansion in the Boston suburbs because to him these represent a shabby imitation of Brakebills's luxury.  He wants his wealth made, not manufactured--"[the curtains] were coarse-woven, but it wasn't the familiar, depressing, fake-authentic coarseness of high-end Earth housewares, which merely imitated the real coarseness of fabrics that were woven by hand out of genuine necessity."  Quentin, in other words, is a rich kid who wants to be super-rich.

It's not exactly a sympathetic desire, but it is an understandable one.  It's Grossman's choice to overlay the Secret History aspect of his novel--in which the desire for Brakebills is the desire for money and social status--with the Narnia reading--in which the desire for Brakebills is the desire for meaning and adventure--that causes problems, because it paints Quentin as the sort of person who is shocked, shocked to discover that in the absence of either the financial impetus or the drive to make something of himself, he is bored and miserable.  It means that the latter half of the novel is made up almost entirely of the characters complaining that magic, for which read money, hasn't made them happy.   It means that the characters mistake for deep, existential, untreatable misery what is probably nothing more than boredom.

When they arrive at Fillory, Quentin's friend Janet bitterly complains to Ember, the land's Aslan-figure, that "We human beings are unhappy all the time.  We hate ourselves and we hate each other and sometimes we wish You or Whoever had never created us or this shit-ass world."  This, apparently, is something we're supposed to take seriously--these rich, powerful, beautiful young people complaining about their terrible lot in life, and concluding that because magic hasn't made them happy, those who don't have magic must live lives of unalloyed misery only briefly alleviated by commercial entertainment and internet porn.  The possibility that people might be happier, and more likely to find meaning in their lives, in the absence of the kind of magic that equals money, never seems to occur to them.  No, the characters conclude, the fault must be in the world--"Why now, when it was actually happening, did the seductions of Fillory feel so crude and unwanted?  Its groping hands so clumsy?  He thought he'd left this feeling behind long ago in Brookly, or at least at Brakebills.  How could it have followed him here, of all places?  … Or maybe this time was different, maybe there really was something off here.  Maybe the hollowness was in Fillory, not in him?"

It is only Alice, the smartest and coolest character in the novel (though her coolness is somewhat called into question by her choice to spend so much of her time around these pointless, boring people) who recognizes that nothing will make Quentin happy--not Brakebills, not Fillory, not her love.  That he will always be on the lookout for that unattainable perfection against which his good fortune seems worthless.  If Grossman had ended the novel on this recognition, it might have been an interesting, if overly familiar, work.  Instead, he makes the inexplicable choice to reward Quentin.  After suffering a terrible loss in Fillory, Quentin returns to New York and leaves magic behind--for which read takes a made-up job at a magician-owned company and spends his days surfing the net and his weekends distracting himself with "the multifarious meaningless entertainments and distractions with which the real world supplied [him]."  In other words, he's learned nothing.  He looks at the world--full of people working, striving, building, learning, working towards something--and instead of learning from them, concludes that they are all even more miserable than he is.  It would be funny if it weren't so tragic, and tragic if Grossman's solution to this predicament weren't so infuriating.  The remaining Physical Kids track Quentin down and offer him another trip to Fillory, to take their place as kings and queens, and after some deliberation, Quentin accepts.  The novel ends on this acceptance, and seems to expect us to read it as a happy ending despite the fact that neither Quentin nor Fillory have changed, and that the most likely outcome is that, once again, Fillory won't measure up to Quentin's expectations.

The more I think about The Magicians, the more inclined I am to compare it not to Harry Potter or any of a million novels about undergraduate or graduate ennui, but to M. John Harrison's The Course of the Heart, a novel which is so completely The Magicians's polar opposite that if their authors were ever brought together the universe might cease to exist.  Like The Magicians, The Course of the Heart is the story of people desperate to inject meaning and narrative into their lives, a desire which Harrison treats with furious disdain and, at the same time, terrible sorrow.  Like Grossman, he concludes that a life without magic is empty and meaningless, but that magic isn't sufficient to imbue it with meaning, and though I had nearly as much trouble with this worldview when Harrison expressed it as when Grossman did, I can at least respect Harrison for having the courage of his convictions.  He depicts genuine misery and ugliness as opposed to wealth that isn't quite opulent enough.  His fantasy world is a world of genuine, terrifying wonder, not a sanitized, easily comprehensible children's world with walking trees and talking lions.  Most of all, he has the guts to take his premise to its logical conclusion, to end his story with the misery his world promises, whereas Grossman chickens out at the last minute, and ends on a cowardly, childish note.  The Magicians turns out to be precisely the kind of fantasy Michael Agger mistakes the whole of the genre for in his New York Times review--safe, predictable, something that adults should outgrow.  Far more than Agger's review, it is what's demeaning to the genre. 

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Killer Kids(' Books): Two Novels

2008 was the year of the YA novel.  You could see it on the Hugo ballot, on bestseller lists, and on the blogosphere.  On a personal level, I see it in the fact that I'm still catching up to the year's crop, starting with a book that received ecstatic and effusive praise from many of my friends and most respected reviewers, Patrick Ness's The Knife of Never Letting Go.  To name but a few, Niall Harrison, Dan Hartland, and Adam Roberts have all raved about it, and Martin Lewis called it "the best effing science fiction novel I've read all year."  Taken together, these reviews build up a heavy burden of expectations that few novels could gracefully shoulder, and even as I was turning The Knife of Never Letting Go's first page I was preparing myself for the inevitable disappointment.  My reaction to the novel, however, turns out to be more complicated. Knife is a compelling, engrossing read.  I wolfed it down in a single sitting, and found myself genuinely affected by its characters and set pieces.  Still, I'm reluctant to call it good, and leaning more towards adjectives like 'successful' and 'effective'--by which I mean successfully and effectively manipulative--and the novel's themes and premise trouble me with their presumably unintentional implications.

Knife is narrated by Todd, the last boy in Prentisstown and, as far as he knows, on the whole of New World, a planet colonized by humans twenty years ago, whose native inhabitants (again, as Todd has been taught) unleashed a virus that killed all the human women, gave animals the ability to talk, and turned all men into projective telepaths.  Todd has spent his entire life being bombarded by Noise, the violent, chaotic morass of thoughts, feelings, fears and fantasies projected by the men around him.  Readers with even a little bit of experience reading YA fiction will not have needed the caveats planted in the preceding sentences to guess that some or all of Todd's understanding of his world is mistaken, and Knife's opening does promise the slow investigation of their world so beloved of YA protagonists, as Todd, feeling surly and discontented--by the loneliness of being the only boy in a town of men who consider him beneath their notice; by the manhood that will be thrust upon him by his fast-approaching 13th birthday, after which he will be forced to put away childish things; by the general uselessness of his dog Manchee, whose gift of speech is employed mostly in discussions of poo and things to chase [1]--seeks a brief reprieve by venturing to a nearby swamp to pick fruit and finds something else, a hole in the planet's blanket of Noise.  Nonplussed, Todd returns home (on the way giving us a tour of Prentisstown and introducing us to its atmosphere of misery and barely-suppressed fear and violence, and to its most prominent citizens, the deranged preacher Aaron and the charismatic Mayor Prentiss, who together hold the town in their thrall) and tells his guardians, Cillian and Ben, about his encounter.  In a traditionally structured YA novel, the adults would either scoff at Todd's claims or dismiss them in a manner so cagey and suspicious as to immediately confirm them, but Cillian and Ben merely blanch and spring into action--"[they] take a look at each other and then back at me.  "You have to leave Prentisstown," Ben says."

And with that, it's off to the races, the novel's pace ratcheting up to the maximum and not letting up until its cliffhanger ending.  But then, the whole of Knife is made up of cliffhangers.  Returning to the swamp, Todd finds the source of the quiet he experienced there--a girl, called Viola, the sole survivor of a scout ship for a new group of colonists, who, astonishingly to Todd, has no Noise.  Together, they flee the Mayor and Aaron, but each escape to safety turns out to be the equivalent of the penultimate scene in a slasher film, in which the presumed dead or outdistanced antagonist surprises the heroes as they finally allow themselves to rest.  The relentlessness with which these false bottom endings keep coming is probably Ness's most impressive accomplishment with Knife.  It pulls the reader along, making the novel almost impossible to put down, and leaves us, at the novel's end, feeling nearly as exhausted and wrung-out as Todd and Viola, and, naturally enough, panting for the next installment in their story.  At the same time, however, I'm not sure whether Ness should be applauded for so blatantly manipulating the readers' emotions by any means necessary, using the cheapest tools in his toolbox with all the subtlety of sledgehammers.  It works, of course, but how admirable is it to get a rise out of readers by, for example, endangering the cute talking dog?

Still, perhaps what's really most impressive about Knife is that despite its breakneck pace and cliché-ridden plot, Ness manages to actually say something with the novel.  In interviews, Ness has likened Noise to the din of media and information with which the modern world bombards us, but the involuntary exposure of a person's raw, churning id and subconscious strikes me as a very poor analogy for the processed, calculated information we encounter on TV, in newspapers, and even online, where the most confessional of LiveJournals is ultimately an attempt by its author to present a certain face to the world.  More successful, however, is Ness's use of Noise as a means of exploring, furthering, and hindering gender relations.  The metaphor is not at all subtle--Todd has grown up among men whose every thought has been laid bare before him.  Viola is incomprehensible to him because he can't imagine how she thinks--is even, when they first meet, doubtful whether she thinks at all, whether she isn't simply empty of all thought and personality, a void, a nothingness (as I said, not subtle).  Over the course of the novel, in the brief interstices between escaping one menace and discovering and fleeing another, Todd and Viola get to know each other the old-fashioned way, and Todd learns just how many of the truths he's been raised with--about women, about his family, about Prentisstown, about New World--have been lies.

A more successful metaphor, but also one that leaves me feeling distinctly uncomfortable, in that it seems to turn The Knife of Never Letting Go into the equivalent of those well-intentioned science fiction stories that try to speak out against racism by using aliens as stand-in for people of color.  It's all very well and good that Ness has written a story that encourages its readers to learn to understand the Other, but despite the misogynistic cliché, women aren't actually an alien species.  The premise of Knife, however, makes of them something even more foreign and incomprehensible than that--New World's native inhabitants, after all, produce Noise, and even animals speak.  Only women are so foreign that they require careful study before their personhood is even acknowledged.  Feminism, we're told, is the radical notion that women are people, but when Todd first meets Viola he knows her for a girl even though he's never seen one before because there is something ineffably different about her--"Something about her shape, something about her smell, something I don't know but it's there and she's a girl."  The otherness of women persists throughout the novel, and what Todd learns through his acquaintance with Viola isn't to reject that notion (which in fact he can't, because in Ness' world women truly are Other), but to find ways to overcome it--upon his departure from Prentisstown, Cillian and Ben give Todd his mother's diary, but Todd, a poor reader, can't make heads or tails out of it until he asks Viola to read it to him (again, not a subtle metaphor)--and in so doing validates the 'men are from Mars, women are from Venus' worldview that is baked into the novel's premise.

Part of the reason, I think, that The Knife of Never Letting Go makes such troubling statements about women and the relationships between men and women is that it isn't really concerned with either.  Knife is, ultimately, a novel about masculinity and what it means to be a man--albeit one that, unlike Fight Club or Black Man, defines masculinity, in part, through its attitude to women.  The other component of the definition of manhood Todd must struggle with is violence.  A man, Todd has been taught from childhood, can kill.  Killing may, in fact, be the very definition of manhood, and Todd, who repeatedly flinches from striking the killing blow against his and Viola's pursuers, must ask himself whether he can be a man, whether he can fashion his own definition of manhood, and whether he can take a life without buying into Prentisstown's definition of it.  Though it is, on the whole, successful, there are two problems with Ness's treatment of this issue.  The first is that Todd does kill someone halfway through the novel, an alien whom he and Viola encounter after a near escape, and whom Todd kills out of misdirected anger and fear even though the alien posed no threat to them.  The Prentisstown men Todd meets later on insist that this act isn't enough to make Todd a killer and thus a man, and though I do take the point that killing an alien whom one has been taught to hate and fear is easier than killing someone you think of as a person, coupled with the novel's Western/frontier story trappings this attitude has an uncomfortable whiff of 'not including Indians and Chinamen' about it.

The other problem with equating murder and manhood is, of course, how completely it leaves women out of the picture.  The notion that women might feel bloodlust, and that they might wonder how those feelings and the choice to act on them affect their femininity and humanity, is not even considered until a few pages from the end of the novel, and though that consideration seems definitive--Viola takes a life--the novel's repeated emphasis on the inextricable link between manhood and killing, and the nature of the murder--Viola kills only after Todd has repeatedly refused to do so because he doesn't want to become a Prentisstown man--have the effect of flattening the very question of what violence means to her.  The implication is that Viola is allowed to kill because killing doesn't affect her definition of herself the way it would Todd.  Which, to be fair, is not an attitude originated by Ness--unlike the concept of Noise and the disconnect it imposes between men and women, the notion that women don't have the same relationship to violence that men do is entirely familiar from the real world--but the novel's premise imposes such a disconnect from Viola's internal monologue that we never get to delve any further into the question.  Even her telling Todd that she wanted to kill her victim feels more like a statement about Viola than about womanhood, whereas Todd's bloodlust is of course a reflection of his masculinity.

It seems likely that Knife's sequel, which among other things splits the narrative between Todd and Viola, will address at least some of the issues I've raised here.  Nevertheless, on a thematic level Knife feels like a self-contained argument.  It's the story of how Todd develops his own definition of manhood, rejecting violence as a component of his self-definition and seeking to understand the other.  That's a worthy message, and Ness delivers it with delicacy and assuredness, making it clear how wide the gap is between Todd's convictions and the actions his circumstances force him into, and how quickly the world erodes his innocence and makes him complicit in horrors.  But it's also a message, and a definition of manhood, arrived at through a comprehensive othering of women, and which implicitly defines womanhood as not-manhood.

It seemed logical to follow my reading of The Knife of Never Letting Go with Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games, another novel about children forced into violent actions with several interesting differences from the Ness, most notably the fact that the narrator is female and her companion is male.  Katniss Everdeeen lives in a dystopian future, in which the wealthy, decadent capital of her nation maintains its dominance over the twelve districts that serve it and produce for it by pitting them against each other.  Each year, two tributes, a boy and a girl, are selected from each district, and forced to fight against each other and tributes from other districts in the titular games.  The last child standing wins their district glory and wealth.  Katniss, a skilled hunter and tracker, hails from the impoverished district 12, a mining district whose inhabitants often go hungry, and has been her mother and younger sister Prim's protector and breadwinner since the death of her father, putting food on the table by poaching in the nearby woods with her friend Gale.  When Prim is selected as this year's tribute, Katniss volunteers to take her place, and is joined by Peeta Mellark, a baker's son [2] for whom Katniss has distinctly mixed feelings, resenting the relative ease and safety of his life in a slightly-closer-to-middle-class family, but also remembering fondly the time he gave her some bread when she and her family were on the verge of starvation.

As it turns out, The Hunger Games is Knife's reverse image in more respects than just the genders of their protagonists.  Both novels talk about gender roles, about violence, and about the effect that modern media has on society and individuals--in The Hunger Games this is the structure of the games themselves, which are broadcast live to the capital and the twelve districts like a Running Man-style reality TV program, and which are won less through the competitor's martial skills than through their ability to charm the audience and thus win wealthy 'sponsors' who will send them much-needed supplies.  But if Knife is unpersuasive as a metaphor for modern technology and has interesting, if problematic, things to say about gender and violence, Hunger Games is the reverse.

Gender seems to be a non-issue in this novel.  Collins seems content to have posited a reversal of gender roles--Katniss is the stereotypical tomboy, accustomed to hardship and physical exertion, abrasive and confrontational, uncomfortable with weakness and caretaking (though her mother and sister are skilled healers, Katniss can't deal with the sight of injury), and, unbeknownst to her, a heartbreaking beauty, whereas Peeta is gentle, thoughtful, and self-aware--and doesn't explore this reversal, how it's seen by Katniss and Peeta or the people around them, in the body of the novel.  Similarly, there's very little exploration of the morality of Katniss and Peeta's predicament, and Collins repeatedly avoids confronting them with a scenario in which they must kill an innocent in order to survive.  She does so by positing the existence of 'Career tributes,' children from wealthy districts who have been training for the games, and have volunteered for them in order to win glory.  These are uniformly depicted as vicious and sadistic, and do most of the killing in the novel, either picking one another off or killing the other, 'good' children from the poor districts.  The latter murders, of course, justify the Careers' own deaths, and on those rare occasions when Katniss or Peeta kill it's usually one of these characters [3], and often one whom we have witnessed brutally killing a more sympathetic contestant.

Where The Hunger Games shines, though, is in its portrayal of reality TV.  Not since Series 7: The Contenders has a work of fiction so perfectly skewered that genre's obsession with 'real' emotion and 'real' interpersonal drama.  Desperate for the attention that will win them sponsors and a chance to win the game, Peeta and Katniss come up with just to right faces to present to the voracious Hunger Games audience.  They will pretend that Peeta has been secretly in love with Katniss for years, and that Katniss has just found out about his feelings under these tragic circumstances.  The two immediately become audience favorites, and as they enact their doomed romance first in the pre-game interviews and presentations and later in the game arena, the swell of audience sympathy forces a rule change that will allow them both to win the game, if they can survive it.  Katniss and Peeta end up performing for their lives--buying a hot meal with a kiss, medicine with an intimate conversation.  Even the most inexperienced reader will have guessed that Peeta is not faking his feelings, and that Katniss's performance of growing infatuation isn't entirely that, but the brilliance of The Hunger Games is that it depicts the corrosive effect that selling their love to the audience has on Katniss and Peeta's romance.  How can you be certain of your feelings for someone when you're not only stuck in a life and death situation with them, but when the difference between life and death is determined by your ability to successfully sham the right kind of feelings for them?

As interesting as Collins's treatment of this issue is, it isn't enough to make the novel, which on the whole leaves me rather cold.  Like The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Hunger Games is manipulative, but neither successfully nor effectively so.  If Ness's manipulations pulled me into his novel despite my better judgment, Collins's knock me out of hers.  The difference, I think, is that while both authors are manipulative, only Collins uses manipulation to make life easier for herself and her characters, to elide and smooth over the difficult aspects of her story.  When Todd abandons Manchee, even as the uncomprehending dog calls him back, in order to save Viola, it's a manipulation, but one that forces us to question his choice even though we know that a girl's life is worth more than a dog's.  When Katniss befriends a young contestant named Rue, whom the narrative repeatedly compares to Prim, only for a Career to kill Rue, it's a manipulation, but one that makes it easier for us to countenance Katniss killing Rue's murderer.  When Aaron repeatedly tracks Todd and Viola down, reappearing each time, more physically damaged and more deranged, like a fundamentalist Freddy Krueger, it's a manipulation, but one that puts us at odds with Todd, who grows increasingly reluctant to take a life even as we begin baying for Aaron's blood.  When the Careers brutally murder each other and the weaker players, it's a manipulation intended to justify their deaths at Katniss and Peeta's hands.  The first person narrative is a manipulation in both novels, locking us into the point of view of a person with only a limited understanding of the world, but whereas Todd's incomprehension is all-encompassing and often quite frustrating, Katniss's is localized.  For the most part, she's a smart, observant, savvy person--much better, for example, at recognizing the messages being sent to her by her team outside the game arena through the gifts they send her, and tailoring her and Peeta's behavior accordingly.  But somehow, when it comes to realizing the reality of Peeta's feelings for her, she's a dunce [4], and the novel persists in telling us that she's emotionally illiterate even as her first person narrative spews pop psychology such as "Most of [my life] has been consumed with the acquisition of food.  Take that away and I'm not really sure who I am, what my identity is."

Perhaps the biggest problem with The Hunger Games's manipulativeness is that manipulation is actually the subject of the novel, that even as it encourages us to sneer at the games' audience who are lapping up Peeta and Katniss's manufactured romance, it expects us to buy into the real romance, despite the fact that they are the same thing.  "I think the real excitement for the audience was watching you fall for [Peeta,]" Katniss is told in her victory interview, and there's supposed to be a rich irony in our knowledge that the infatuation was completely staged.  But the readers are also supposed to have been excited by watching the 'real' Katniss develop 'real' feelings for Peeta, and the novel seems entirely unaware of the disconnect between the two reactions it's aiming for.  It helps a little that Peeta and Katniss end the novel at odds, for the first time genuinely shamming affection instead of pretending to fake feelings they really feel, but it seems pretty obvious that this is merely a temporary setback, that future novels in the series will see the two crazy kids making it work. As impressive as I found Collins's reality TV satire, it is entirely undermined by her insistence on framing her novel as a love story.

At the end of The Hunger Games, I had a pretty good idea of where Katniss's story was headed--a difficult reintegration into her old life, a tortured choice between Peeta and Gale, perhaps rebellion against the capital and the Hunger Games system--but not a great deal of interest in continuing to follow it.  The Knife of Never Letting Go, meanwhile, has captured me.  Despite my serious reservations about it (and the fact that there isn't a single aspect of the novel that is as perfectly handled as Collins's reflection of reality TV in The Hunger Games), it is at least an uncompromising novel, one that, unlike The Hunger Games, shies away from easy answers and crowd-pleasing solutions.  I have no idea what's in store for Todd and Viola, but whatever it is I'm sure it'll be terrifying, and force them both to make difficult and uncomfortable choices,  and for that reason if no other I'm interested in continuing to follow their story.  Neither The Hunger Games nor The Knife of Never Letting Go are a perfect way to wrap up the year of the YA adult novel (and anyway I still have Kristin Cashore's Graceling to go) but Ness's novel, at least, will keep me following the field in 2009 and 2010.

[1] Knife was published in 2008 and written some time beforehand, so the associations with Up are presumably a coincidence, but it doesn't help that one of the first things Manchee says is "Squirrel!" and that he and Todd encounter a large, food-obsessed, flightless bird.

[2] I can only imagine the despair of the Hebrew translator who has to craft something not-hilarious out of the combination 'Peeta the baker's son.'

[3] Actually, Peeta kills two non-Careers, but these death are minimized--one is inadvertent, the other happens off-screen, and its victim was already mortally wounded by the Careers.  At any rate, his feelings on the subject are never explored.

[4] As annoying as Katniss's calculated dimness is, it does perhaps say something about the different requirements from male and female YA protagonists.  Todd, who is not too bright, stubborn, illiterate, and often quite unpleasant, needs only a prodigious force of will to make him a sympathetic protagonist.  Katniss is smart, strong, cunning, compassionate, determined, and beautiful, presumably in order to achieve the same effect.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Inglourious Basterds: The Israeli Response

This post was inspired by Matt, who in the comments to my post about why I wouldn't be watching Quentin Tarantino's Holocaust action film, Inglourious Basterds, wondered what the Israeli critical and popular response to the film would be.  Which struck me as an interesting question, and hence this post.  All quotes are my translation from the Hebrew originals, and all links go to Hebrew sites.

The Tel Aviv weekly entertainment guide Achbar HaIr (City Mouse) publishes the Reviewers' Table, which ranks all films screening in the city according to the average star rating they received from nine different sources, including the three Hebrew language daily papers (Yediot Acharonot, Maariv, and Haaretz), the two Tel Aviv guides (Achbar HaIr and Time Out Tel Aviv), the two national TV and film guides (Pnai Plus and Rating), the free daily paper Israel Today and the military radio station Galei Tzahal.  English and Russian daily papers are not represented (though the Jerusalem Post, at least, has a film reviewer) and neither is the Arab press.  Inglourious Basterds opened in Israel on September 17th (Israeli film distributors release films on Thursdays to take advantage of the Friday-Saturday weekend).  In that week's Reviewers' Table it was ranked 13th out of 31, with eight sources reporting.  Five weeks later, it is 11th out of 25, and one of only seven films to receive a review from all nine sources.  (For the sake of calibration, the top three rated films on the Reviewers' Table are the Israeli crime drama Ajami, which has also been submitted for consideration for the best foreign film Oscar, the Turkish film Three Monkeys, and Pixar's Up.  The bottom three films are Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, The Time Traveler's Wife, and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra.)  With an average rating of three stars, Inglourious Basterds can be said to be a respectable critical success, but that rating conceals wide divisions between the film's individual reviewers.

Probably the most negative take on the film comes from Meir Shnitzer, writing for the daily newspaper Maariv, who compares Tarantino to Holocaust denier David Irving and, perhaps more reasonably, criticizes him for making the Nazi Jew-hunter the film's most memorable, charismatic character.
It is no surprise that Basterds relies on the cancellation of history and the glorification of evil.  The two pillars of Tarantino's work have always been the abolition and even vilification of morality and the presentation of evil as the only viable moral choice.  Since the beginning of his film career, Tarantino has consistently divorced morality from its human context through his ever-present contention that mere human existence is insufficient to define reality, and that fictional cinema (most especially trash films) is the only and perhaps most objective indicator of the existence of any sort of reality.  ... In the absence of reality and with morality abolished, Tarantino is left--as in all his other films--with a reflective world, in which he toys with the lexicon of the slasher film.  Which is why he finds it easier to make of Basterds a sort of mirror-reality in which the Nazi is civilized, polite, charming, and loyal unto death, and the Jews are barbarians who scalp and break skulls like some sort of nightmarish jungle monsters.  A reversal of which David Irving might have been proud.
 It should go without saying that Shnitzer's extreme take on the film does not represent the Israeli consensus, and was greeted with dismay and not a little bit of ridicule in the local film sites I frequent, where he and fellow reviewer Nachman Ingbar (who gave Inglourious Basterds 2.5 stars) are often derided for their conservative, old-fashioned tastes.  Interestingly, the third corner of what is widely considered to be the Old Guard triangle, Haaretz reviewer Uri Klein, gave Inglourious Basterds a four-star rave, in a long, thought-out review to which my too-brief quotation does not do justice.  Inglourious Basterds, Klein writes "exposes the ideological mechanism which drives war cinema, and by exposing it crosses all possible lines into the absurd."
The film, especially in its first chapter, imports elements of the Western, but has there been an American war film, up to and including Oliver Stone's Platoon and Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, which didn't incorporate components of the genre which has laid the foundation for the ongoing struggle between history and mythology in American society and culture, and which more than any other genre is concerned with the fundamental values of American society and their accumulating, changing meaning?  Is there, in this context, any point in criticizing Tarantino for historical inaccuracy and narrative implausibility?  The main complaint which can be laid against the film is that it doesn't criticize the mechanism it exposes.  On the other hand, the very act of exposure is itself a criticism.

Most of all, what makes Inglourious Basterds a problematic piece is of course its Jewish aspect.  There will naturally be those who argue that the film represents a minimization of the Holocaust (a word which is never uttered in the film), that it is exploitative and even carries an unpleasant whiff of fascism, and these accusations are hard to counter.  There are in the film, especially near its end, moments which deal with Jewishness in a manner that makes the soul shudder.  But in a way--and I am aware that what I am about to say may be inflammatory--what Tarantino does in Inglourious Basterds seems to me more valid and more decent than what Spielberg did in Schindler's List.

I prefer Tarantino's cinematic worldview to that of Spielberg, who genuinely believes that cinema can recreate the past, be that past the invasion of Normandy or Auschwitz.  Unlike Spielberg, Tarantino believes in the fabrication of an alternate cinematic reality, which divorces realism in favor of the imaginary and the symbolic.  There is no scene in Tarantino's film like the one in Schindler's List in which Spielberg's cameras enter the gas chambers (which turn out not to be gas chambers); and there is also no scene in Inglourious Basterds which revels in its own prettiness, like the one in which Schindler watches the little girl in the red coat walk towards her doom.
(Much as I appreciate Klein's take on the film, I have to quibble with the equivalence he draws, and which he ascribes to Tarantino, between war films and Holocaust films.  I also wonder how much credence to give his assertion that Inglourious Basterds, a film about the Jewish Holocaust, is an interrogation of American mythmaking and American bloodlust.  At best, Klein is indulging in a bit of American-bashing, a popular pastime of Israeli thinkers and non-thinkers alike.  At worst, Tarantino has committed cultural appropriation in the first degree.)

Achbar HaIr's own Avner Shavit (possibly the youngest film reviewer currently working for a major publication), joins in Klein's excoriation of straight-up Holocaust films:
The truth is that [Tarantino] is on our side: not only because, like a typical Yankee who has been raised on stories about Ari Ben Canaan, Moshe Dayan, and other Mossad agents, he describes the Jew as the only one capable of kicking the bad guy's ass for humanity's sake, but because the film doesn't mock the Holocaust so much as it mocks the attempt to represent it in film.

Inglourious Basterds is therefore a great deal less "dangerous" than all of those allegedly respectable and erudite films made on the subject, from Life is Beautiful to The Reader, which have been so happily embraced by the establishment.  After all, what did these films do but reduce the Holocaust to a single, tiny happy ending, depict the German people as victims and the Nazis as caricatures, and erase historical truth for the sake of artistry?  In other words, they turned the Holocaust into fiction, but without declaring it ahead of time and admitting it at the end.  And here comes Tarantino and announces from the get-go: the second world war is, as far as I'm concerned, a fantasy, whose existence began in my fevered brain and ends on the silver screen.  There is no other way of doing it; that's the movies.
Meanwhile, reviewer and film blogger Yair Raveh is torn, admiring the film, which he calls "[Tarantino]'s greatest display of virtuoso cinema since his debut, Resevoir Dogs," and praises for being an extraordinarily well-made piece of filmmaking, but also recoiling from its topic and treatment of it:
The film's heroes are Jews, but it is so bloodthirsty, so violent, so eager for vengeance, so filled with pleasure at the prospect of rage and brutality and agonizing death, that it is hard not to feel that deep and hidden in his heart of hearts--or perhaps not so deep and not so hidden--[Tarantino] identifies more with the Nazis.  [He] has made a film that has Jews in it, but no Jewishness.  Unless you find the idea of Jewish shahids [literally, religious martyrs; most commonly used to describe suicide bombers and other terrorists] during the Holocaust Jewish.  ... [Inglourious Basterds] is rich in cinema, but poor in humanity.  It isn't merely monstrous; it is--like its antagonist--cold as ice.
This is, to my mind, the money quote of the review, but it should be noted that it doesn't represent Raveh's ultimate conclusion.  The flip side of this response, he goes on to write, is that Inglourious Basterds is "almost criminally enjoyable," and he then proceeds to have a lot of fun identifying Tarantino's various influences and quotes and discussing its prevailing themes.  In the end, like Klein and Shavit, Raveh concludes that Inglourious Basterds "does say something meaningful about the Holocaust, or at least its representation in film."

Raveh was also good enough to report the film's box office take on his blog.  Five weeks into its Israeli run, Inglourious Basterds was still at the top of the charts, selling 15,000 tickets over the weekend and bringing its total to 200,000.  This may not sound like a lot, but 300,000 ticket sales is considered a smash hit in Israel, and because the Israeli film business still works on the long tail model (unlike the US in which the focus has shifted to achieving record-breaking opening weekend sales, after which most films' take drops precipitously), it's possible that Inglourious Basterds will continue to sell steadily for several weeks more.  Furthermore, despite the existence of a loud and vibrant Tarantino fanbase in Israel (my contemporaries, really--there was a period of several months in high school in which every conversation was guaranteed to contain at least one quote from Pulp Fiction), the profile of the average Israeli filmgoer does not match the target audience of a Quentin Tarantino film.  Films become hits in Israel if they appeal to young children and their parents or to the middle aged art-house crowd (Pedro Almodovar's films are always big sellers), and effects laden action extravaganzas often flop (Star Trek, and even Transformers 2 only sold 100,000 tickets).  That Inglourious Basterds is such a success would seem to indicate that its appeal reaches beyond Tarantino's fanbase, and that it has drawn the more youthful demographic away from their file-sharing programs and into the movie theater.

The anti-climactic conclusion of this overview is that the Israeli response to Inglourious Basterds has been, as I guessed in response to Matt's comment "[not] significantly different from the rest of the world - a lot of enthusiastic fans, and a few dissenters."  If anything, the sense I got from many of the film's more positive reviews was of a determination not to be offended, not to reach for, as Shmulik Duvdevani writes in his review in the news site Ynet, "the arsenal of demagogic weaponry" which is often the Israeli's first recourse when encountering foreign treatments of the Holocaust, and not to indulge in "self-righteous attacks."  Or it might simply be that the film's appeal is much simpler.  As the irreverent independent film site Fisheye (now sadly defunct after nine years; the Inglourious Basterds review was one of the last posted) writes: "It could be that despite the great skill devoted to its making, [Inglourious Basterds] lacks the weight and consistency that could have made it a truly whole work, but guys, they're scalpin' Nazis!"

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Thoughts on the New TV Season, 2009 Edition, Part 3

At long last, we've reached the end of this abysmal fall season (well, not quite--the V pilot won't air until early next month). Progress reports on those shows I've stuck with: Community is coming into its own, albeit by making the main character the straight man and focusing on his reactions to the zany supporting staff, which a bit of a departure from the show's original premise but seems to be working; Glee has settled into a comfortable good-but-not-great zone, and I think it's time to give up on the hope that anyone other than the beautiful white leads is going to get a storyline; The Good Wife has been consistently good but, as I suspected, has turned into a client of the week show and is thus probably going to lose me; FlashForward has gone from flawed but potentially interesting to moronically, insultingly stupid, and is my first abandoned show of the season.
  • Mercy, Trauma and Three Rivers - The fall's three new medical shows, each trying to find a fresh spin on the format and failing miserably. Mercy focuses on nurses instead of doctors, following in the footsteps of two shows from the summer: the by all accounts dreadful HawthoRNe and the well-made but chilly Nurse Jackie. It borrows character types and plot points quite liberally from the latter, putting as melodramatic a spin on each of them as it can. So the source of the main character's dysfunction is tragically heroic (PTSD following a stint in Iraq) rather than offputting (drug addiction) and her two love interests are a luggish husband and a dreamy doctor rather than two equally adorable and adoring men. Mercy's failing is its unwillingness to embrace the trashiness of its chosen plots, opting instead for a stupefyingly earnest tone as it describes the main character's lingering trauma, or the saintliness of all nurses as opposed to the callous incompetence of all doctors. It comes off as too dumb to realize how trite and simplistic it is.

    Trauma is a show about paramedics that is clearly angling to be the next ER. This seems like an unlikely outcome given that despite featuring a midair collision between two helicopters, a multi-car pileup, and a high-speed joyride that ends with a bystander losing their finger, there is not a single tense moment in the whole pilot. Left to fend for themselves, the characters, who are coping with the aftermath of the aforementioned helicopter accident (which involved a medevac chopper and claimed the lives of several of their friends) and exemplify several different varieties of depression but not a single interesting trait, can't supply the energy that the writing and direction are lacking, so that despite its suggestive title, Trauma is a morose snoozefest.

    Three Rivers is a more procedural show about an organ transplant team. Quite how one would go about telling interesting and dramatic stories about organ transplants week in and out I have no idea, but if there are writers out there who are up to the task they clearly haven't been hired for Three Rivers. The pilot blows its entire wad of clichés--a pregnant patient, a husband forced to make decisions for his unconscious wife as the clock ticks for patient and organ alike, a choice between the mother's well-being and the baby's, a donor whose family backs out of the donation at the last minute--and yet can't muster up a single dramatic or compelling moment. One possible reason for this flatness is that the pilot is much more interested in educating viewers about organ donation (did you know that it's possible to donate a portion of your liver?) and dispelling myths about it than in telling an interesting story about well-drawn characters. I'm all for encouraging organ donation, but preachy, tedious drama is probably not the best way to go about it.

  • Stargate: Universe - For more than a year now, SyFy has been plugging the third Stargate series as a darker, edgier spin on the franchise. This, as we all suspected and as the three-hour pilot demonstrates, means a desperate attempt to ape Battlestar Galactica, with decidedly mixed results. The first two hours of "Air" are quite decent and at points even intense, as an off-world research expedition finds itself stranded with barely any supplies on a decrepit alien spaceship which they can't control, a fantastic number of light years from Earth (as others have noted, this is essentially the premise of the previous spin-off, Stargate: Atlantis, but with less room for the writers to back out of the setting's disconnect from Earth as they did in that series). The tone is indeed darker and more muted, but this extends to the characters, who are less vibrant than their counterparts in other Stargate series, and whose traumas (the young female lead loses her father soon after arriving on the ship, and her male counterpart was a prospective priest until he got a girl pregnant) are melodramatic and not very interesting, and raise serious questions about the writers' ability to achieve the level of writing that their more naturalistic, grimmer tone demands.

    It is, for example, potentially very interesting that the main character, Robert Carlyle's Dr. Rush, is essentially this show's Baltar, but to actually write a show around such an irredeemably arrogant, self-centered, and, as the pilot clearly demonstrates, dangerously single-minded character without turning them into a stock villain (or a misunderstood woobie) requires a degree of skill that is, I suspect, well beyond this particular writing room's abilities--certainly by the end of "Air" I found Rush entirely unbearable, and the notion that he'd been placed in charge of the mission untenable. Meanwhile, the other characters remind us that this is still the same old Stargate: the only black main castmember is a violent hothead (who, admittedly, endeared himself to me considerably when he repeatedly thrashed Rush in the pilot's final hour), and the three female leads are a weepy poli-sci major who worked for her senator father (the one who dies), a slightly less weepy medic, and Ming Na, who gets almost no exposure or background in the pilot (and is conspicuously absent from this not at all surprising take on the show's female characters). Three hours in, the only character I'm interested in is Louis Ferreira's Colonel Young, a welcome antidote to the larger than life but also boyishly immature military leads of both SG1 and Atlantis, though it seems likely that Young is only being allowed to be so refreshingly unheroic because all hero duties are going to devolve to his younger counterpart, the supremely uninteresting Lt. Scott. (David Blue is also doing good work as computer genius Eli Wallace, but the character is essentially a toned down, less abrasive version of Atlantis's McKay, and really, what is the point.)

    There's a precipitous drop in quality in the pilot's third hour, a slack, samey affair driven by multiple plot holes in which the characters must travel to an alien planet to retrieve a substance that will allow them to repair the ship's life support system while under the gun of an arbitrarily imposed countdown, and which raises doubts about the long-term viability of the show's premise. For all the producers' insistence that Universe is returning to the franchise's roots by using the stargate as a vehicle for story, both SG1 and Atlantis derived much of their appeal from the existence of recurring characters, settings, and particularly villains, whereas Universe's premise seems designed for single-serving stories--the ship stops, dials the gate, and keeps going without any input from the characters, and with apparently no way for them to return to a previously visited planet. That's a flaw that later episodes may very well address, but more problematic is the gap between the show's concept of itself and the talent driving it. I watched the previous two Stargate series despite their mediocrity because they never took themselves too seriously, and could usually be relied upon to deliver unassuming entertainment with a few fun character moments. Stargate: Universe seems to have loftier goals, in the pursuit of which it appears to have jettisoned the franchise's sense of whimsy in exchange for a depressing glumness, without stopping to consider how much more skill it requires to fashion interesting, dramatic fare using such a muted emotional palette. Though I'm willing to give Stargate: Universe a few more weeks' grace, my experience of both the pilot and two preceding series doesn't give me much hope that its writers have this kind of skill.

  • Caprica - Obviously, this is not a fall 2009 pilot, but I did watch the two hour premiere of the Battlestar Galactica prequel series last week, in preparation for my Icon panel. As you'll probably have guessed if you've read any of my Galactica coverage over the years, I wasn't overjoyed to be stepping back into this fictional universe, and perhaps because of these basement-level expectations Caprica left me pleasantly surprised, if still not entirely committed to the series (whose first season is projected to air in the winter). What to me is Caprica's most appealing feature, but which may turn out to be its core flaw, is that it doesn't feel at all connected to Galactica (according to IMDb the series was originally pitched to NBC as an unrelated science fiction project and only later spun into the Galactica universe). Even if we accept that the Colonies underwent a severe anti-technology backlash in the wake of the first Cylon war, it's hard to imagine Galactica's world following on Caprica's strongly futuristic one, and there is a faint but unmistakable disconnect between the two shows' treatment of religion and the origin of the Cylons (also, the nitpicker in me couldn't help but notice how unlikely it is that Joseph Adama could have been a fortyish practicing lawyer sixty years before Galactica's beginning and still had a career that overlapped with Romo Lampkin's). More crucially, Caprica has a much more SFnal focus than Galactica--the creation of machine intelligence, and the shifting definition of personhood in the wake of that creation, which in Galactica was simply a given which the show used as a framework for its questioning of more generic ethical questions. This is not a terrifically original SFnal premise, particularly given the technological arrogance spin the show seems to be putting on it, and the pilot's last thirty minutes, which focus almost exclusively on its SFnal aspect, are also its least involving. On the other hand, Alessandra Torresani, who plays the first artificial sentience, a copy of the murdered young daughter of a genius engineer, gives a very strong performance, and there's a lot of potential in the pilot's final plot twist, which sees her personality dumped into an old-style Cylon. If nothing else, it is incredibly amusing--and, in this respect at least, entirely congruent with what we saw of them in Battlestar Galactica--to learn that the Cylons' core personality was modeled on that of a petulant, judgmental teenage girl.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Future History

Writing in The New Scientist several weeks ago, Kim Stanley Robinson caused a bit of a stir when he argued that the Booker juries were ignoring the best and most vibrant British literature by neglecting science fiction. These juries, Robinson wrote, "judge in ignorance and give their awards to what usually turn out to be historical novels."
Sometimes these are fine historical novels, written by tremendous writers; I particularly like Roddy Doyle, John Banville, Vikram Seth and Amitav Ghosh, and my favorite was Penelope Fitzgerald. But working, like all of us, in the rain shadow of the great modernists, they tend to do the same things the modernists did in smaller ways. A good new novel about the first world war, for instance, is still not going to tell us more than Parade's End by Ford Madox Ford. More importantly, these novels are not about now in the way science fiction is.
There followed several discussions about the relative merits of literary and science fiction, but what struck me about Robinson's comments was his observation that historical fiction dominates the award. That's certainly not an assertion one can argue with this year, in which five of the six shortlisted novels, including the eventual winner, are historicals, but implicit in Robinson's critique is the assumption that historical fiction is a genre, in which opinion he is apparently joined by Chris Schuler in the Independent, who greeted the news of Hilary Mantel's win by accusing authors of historical fiction of "indulging in high-class escapism." Whereas to my mind historical fiction is just barely a mode, and may even, like YA, be mainly a marketing category. How useful is it to lump together Dorothy Dunnett's The Game of Kings, an adventure, with A.S. Byatt's Possession, a romance, Barry Unsworth's Sacred Hunger, a social novel, and Pat Barker's Regeneration, a psychological novel about the horrors or war? For that matter, how far in the past does a novel need to be set in order to considered historical? Does any novel not set in the present automatically get lumped in that category (Robinson seems to think so--one of the examples he gives of historical fiction is Roddy Doyle's Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, set in 1968)? How historical can Sarah Waters's The Little Stranger be if M. John Harrison associates it closely with his own childhood?

A good rule of thumb might be that a novel is historical if it takes place in a period (and setting) not directly experienced by its author (by which standard, incidentally, historical novels have won the Booker only seven times in the last twenty years). So The Age of Innocence, published in 1920 but set in the 1870s, is not a historical novel because Wharton was writing about the period and social set in which she grew up, but Ivanhoe and A Tale of Two Cities are. A historical novel, in other words, is one that requires its author not simply to recall the past, but to study and imagine it, to create a believable world whose mores, customs, settings and technology are as foreign to them as they are to the readers--to worldbuild, in other words. And as in science fiction, worldbuilding in a historical novel reflects as much on the present as it does on the past, in much the same way that costumes in period films tell us more about fashion at the time they were made than at the time they purport to depict (remember Doc Brown in Back to the Future III, sending Marty to 1885 in a pink, tasseled shirt and purple pants because that's how people dress in Westerns?). Sarah Waters didn't hit it big with novels about Victorian lesbians because she was the first person to realized they had existed, nor, I suspect, because she was the first to write fiction about them, but because she happened to hit on a period in which audiences were willing to accept and sympathize with such characters. Contrary to what Robinson says, historical fiction is, or can be, about the now in the same way that science fiction is. It's just coming at it from the opposite direction.
A.S. Byatt's Booker-nominated historical novel, The Children's Book, is a sprawling saga, spanning the period between 1895 and the end of the first World War, and featuring a cast of dozens. There is Olive Wellwood, a celebrated children's author, her rakish husband Humphry, a banker and later a financial journalist, and their brood of children both legitimate and otherwise. There is Humphry's brother Basil, a self-made financier, who along with his wife Katharina aspires to cement his position and respectability, but whose children, Charles and Griselda, chafe at their assigned roles as a rich man and rich man's wife. Prosper Cain, keeper of precious metals at the South Kensington Museum, the precursor to the V&A, and widowed father of Julian and Florence. Benedict Fludd, a genius potter with a frightful, mercurial temper, who lives in squalor with his cowed wife and daughters and restless son. Philip Warren, a runaway from the commercial potteries in the north who is discovered by Julian Cain and Olive's oldest son Tom hiding out in the museum, where he has been sketching the exhibits, and becomes Benedict Fludd's apprentice, and his sister Elsie, who becomes the Fludds' housekeeper. And additional friends, tutors, vicars, neighbors, acquaintances, and hangers-on. To a one, these characters are artists, bohemians, scholars, freethinkers, socialists, anarchists, and suffragettes, and worldbuilding--or rather the remaking of their world--is very much on their minds.

The Children's Book proceeds not with a narrative arc, or even several them, but as a litany of things happening, one after the other. These are the soapy ups and downs of the characters' lives, compelling if ultimately repetitive--there are finally one too many suicides, one too many molesting parents, one too many secret pregnancies, one too many revelations of illegitimacy, one too many young women choosing to pursue a life of the mind over domesticity--and the history they are witnessing and participating in, the transition from the Victorian 19th century to the modern era. The latter is described through the characters' taking the place of real actors in this transformation (Olive's youngest daughter Hedda becomes a militant suffragette, is jailed in Holloway prison, and force-fed when she refuses to eat), or their encountering real historical figures (Olive's Peter Pan-ish play is praised by J.M. Barrie), or, mainly, their taking a back seat as Byatt simply describes history.
On Derby Day, June 4th 1913, Herbert 'Diamond' Jones rode the King's horse, Anmer, in his silks with the royal colours. He was a national hero. The huge crowds applauded him. Emily Wilding Davison, wearing a tweed suit, high-collared blouse and unobtrusive hat stood by the rails at Tattenham Corner, where the horses wheeled around, flashing colours against the sky. Inside her sleeve was a flag with the suffragette tricolour, purple, white and green and another was wrapped round her waist. When the heavy pounding of the hooves was heard, and she saw Anmer leading the galloping herd, she stepped out, in front of the horse, raised her arms, and grabbed at the bridle. They all came down, jockey, horse, screaming woman, on the bloodstained turf.
Between the sprawling, multi-character, narrativeless narrative, the reported history, and most of all the novel's When It Changed focus, The Children's Book put me very powerfully in mind of Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle trilogy (it is, I think, no coincidence that Adam Roberts, who bounced so hard off those books and particularly their method of storying history, has similar criticisms to make of The Children's Book). Byatt is a better writer, as I think the passage above demonstrates, and even if she weren't 600 pages are less of a chore to get through than 2,700. Nevertheless, I find myself, as in Stephenson's case, loathe to praise a novel for substituting history for story, and if I did enjoy The Children's Book it is because in its non-historical parts, and in between seductions and unrequited infatuations, it reminded me of another science fiction novel, Kim Stanley Robinson's own Red Mars.

Red Mars is a story about the colonization of the red planet and about the political processes that shape it, but it is also a novel about the work of making Mars habitable--science, engineering, construction, mechanics, agriculture. Its characters use and develop their expertise, teach, learn from, and inspire one another, and form groups where their individual skills come together to create the physical trappings of civilization on an alien planet. Similar processes are at work among the fictitious characters of The Children's Book, albeit with art, rather than terraforming, as the goal. Prosper Cain recognizes Philip's talent and puts him in touch with Fludd, and later sees that Fludd's downtrodden daughter, Imogen, has talent of her own, and takes her to London, where she becomes a gifted metalworker. Olive is inspired by the exhibits in Prosper's keeping and by the puppet shows put on by the German Anselm Stern, and later the two collaborate on a play. Several characters are involved in establishing artists' communes and schools. At the 1900 international exposition in France, Philip meets a fellow potter's apprentice with whom he has no language in common, but the two are able to cross-pollinate ideas using drawings and hand-gestures, while Olive draws inspiration from Lalique ornaments. There's science in the mix, too--Philip's background in the potteries has taught him the physics of correctly packing a kiln to prevent pots from collapsing or exploding, and he learns the chemistry of glazing and decorating pottery from Fludd, while Imogen studies metallurgy in London. Art in The Children's Book isn't something lofty or ineffable, but a craft and a skill, which the characters hone, teach, and develop, trading both techniques and ideas. Characters are constantly talking about their craft, encouraging one another, and creating opportunities by which others can develop their talent. This, as much as unionizing or agitating for women's suffrage, is how the characters strive to create a new world, and it's an approach that strikes me as quintessentially SFnal.
Underlying and running alongside The Children's Book's dry reporting of history in the early 20th century there is a constant questioning of historical fiction, and perhaps of all of fiction. Early in the novel, Prosper tells a visiting Olive the history of one of his exhibits, thinking that it might make an interesting plot for a children's story.
Olive Wellwood had the feeling writers often have when told perfect tales for fictions, that there was too much fact, too little space for the necessary insertion of inventions, which would here appear to be lies.
Twenty years later, Olive's oldest daughter Dorothy, now a doctor, and her cousin Griselda are working in a makeshift hospital in Paris, where the convalescing soldiers stage a play, "a precise representation of the court martial of a deserter," ending with his execution.
Griselda said, 'What do you think made them put it on? Does play-acting help them look it in the face? Or cut it down to size?"
So we have two perspectives on the use and nature of fiction, and on the use of historical facts within fiction, not coincidentally coming from opposite ends of the huge transition the world has undergone. In between there is Olive, perhaps the closest thing the novel has to a villain, and certainly the character who ends it most grievously and pathetically diminished, playing dangerously with the commingling of fiction and fact. Each of Olive's children has a book in which she writes their own personal story, though she spends the most time on Tom's story, in which he loses his shadow and must travel underground to retrieve it. Alone among Olive's children, Tom doesn't lose interest in his story, which is either the cause or a symptom of his unwillingness to put away childish things and pursue an adult life, a tendency which Olive enables with her relentless storytelling about him, and then betrays when she cannibalizes Tom's hellish experiences at boarding school, and later the story of his underground journey, for her commercial work. When Tom is taken to see Peter Pan, his family expect the boy who has himself refused to grow up to adore it, but Tom crossly sums it up as "make-believe make-believe make-believe. Anyone can see those boys are girls." At the premiere of Olive's play, "He refused grimly to suspend disbelief."

Of course, suspending disbelief implies that there was disbelief in the first place. For Tom to enjoy Peter Pan or Olive's play, he has to first let go of the notion, which has accompanied him since childhood, that there is magic all around him, and relegate it to the realm of fiction and make-believe, and the realization this his personal story has been taken away from him and transformed into such a make-believe destroys him. Wonder, which was a inseparable component of not only the children's but the adult characters' lives at the beginning of the novel, has been concentrated into permissible zones, while the rest of the world grows grimmer and more mundane (the novel's chapters are titled The Age of Gold, The Age of Silver, and The Age of Lead). The characters' progress over the course of the novel is a heedless rush down a road that ends with the brick wall of the first World War (which Byatt describes in a short but devastating segment, mercilessly taking one playing piece after another off the board), in the wake of which fiction becomes not a tool for flights of fancy but a means of conveying, distancing, and dealing with grim realities. To use Clute's term, this is a story about the thinning of the world, but it is also the story of its compartmentalization. The same grimness that drives wonder out of the lives of all the characters who, unlike Tom, are willing to grow and change, also relegates it to the realm of children's fiction (it is probably significant that Byatt so stresses the artistry of Anselm Stern's puppetry, which at the time was apparently considered a legitimate theatrical art and today is found almost exclusively in productions aimed at children). And, of course, to the realm of genre. If Olive works at a time when the fantastic has yet to be codified, just around the corner are the earliest practitioners of fantasy as a genre (Hope Mirrlees is glimpsed briefly).

The Children's Book is the story of a fall from a sort of bohemian, anything-goes Eden. It is the story of lines being drawn: between stories for children and those for adults, between respectable, literary fiction and the generic kind, between German and English, and, a couple of decades down the line, between art as something non-functional and maybe even not aesthetically pleasing and the kind of craftsmanship that Philip, Benedict and Imogen Fludd, and Anselm Stern practice. It's that very compartmentalization that will ultimately lead to novels like The Children's Book being thought of as worthy for consideration for the Booker award, while works by Adam Roberts and Geoff Ryman aren't, mainly (though not entirely) because they don't fall in the right category. The Children's Book isn't a perfect novel. Like many works of science fiction, it is more often interesting than enjoyable. But it is, undeniably, a novel about the now.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Self Promotion of a Slightly Different Kind

Those of you attending Icon, the Israeli science fiction convention at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, may be interested in a panel discussion I'll be participating in tomorrow. The title is A 2009 Model - Futuristic Feminine TV Action, and the topic is the intersection of woman and machine in recent television series, with a specific focus on three series: Dollhouse, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and Caprica.

The panel is tomorrow, October 8th, at 19:00, in lecture hall 2 at the Eshkol Payis building near the Cinematheque. My fellow panelists are Dudi Goldman and Pnina Moldovno, and the moderator is Ziv Kitaro. As Worldcon taught me, it's hard to take detailed notes while participating in a discussion, but I will see if I can't put some summary up on the site. Either way, I hope to see you there.