Sunday, March 15, 2015

2014's Film Favourites

Year-end lists are both awful and necessary at the time. Such lists allow people to become aware of cultural objects they might have missed, a strong possibility in an age of never-ending cultural production. There is just too damn much out there, and year-end lists aggregate cultural objects worthy of consumption. Perhaps this critic over here saw a film that’s worth seeing, but it wasn’t released wide enough for other critics to have had a chance to see it. Perhaps this critic over there champions a film less liked, but is able to articulate why this film deserves a wider appreciation. Year-end lists have their uses. They are imminently subjective, a personal statement, a manifesto of sorts from the critic: “these are the artistic objects I believe in.” Implicitly, the year-end lists are all very aspirational; readers of the list seek out new cultural objects to consume, in order to stay relevant or topical.

On the other hand, year-end lists are awful. For many consumers, the year-end list replaces the necessary hunt, the sheer fun and mystery of discovering things that perhaps nobody else has (or at least, no critic you follow). Since there is so much out there to consume, and people are extremely busy (work, family, etc), it makes perfect sense that consumers would outsource the labour of searching. Why go through all that work, especially when the point of cultural objects, the status quo says, is to distract you from work? Thus, year-end lists functions as consumer substitute, replacing the search function with an easy to digest list (ie the Internet’s favourite mode of article). Additionally, year-end lists are, by nature of their form, reductive. Film criticism should be a dialogue between object and critic; it should be more than a simple recommendation. Year-end lists strip the critic’s nuanced thoughts and feelings and reduce the dialogue to a simple yes or no. Or even worse, a ranking, as if cultural objects can be switched around in a system of equivalences. Scores and rankings should have no place in film criticism, and yet, year-end lists are the common publication; every critic does them.

I wish I could avoid writing a year-end list, but the logic of film criticism compels me, the logic of the Internet compels me. Also, I'm lazy.

My three favourite films in 2014, the first three I've listed here, used the affect of anxiety to great effect. While most movies use the rise and fall of tension -- as in tension only exists in the release of it -- these three films made me feel anxious throughout the running time. There's a subtle but important distinction between anxiety and tension. I'm glad 2014 was able to make me feel so at unease in the theatre.

Whiplash. Dir. Damien Chazelle. Right of Way Films, 2014. Film.

I'm confused that people read this film as some sort of inspirational sports movie, in which hyperbolically manic work can achieve some sort of greatness. The Chicago Reader published a woefully misguided reading of the film in which the writer argues that Whiplash celebrates the final sequence. I couldn't disagree more. For me, the only way to read the ending is to see it as mutually assured destruction of both of their artistic and professional careers. It's resolutely nihilistic in its climax.

In addition to the aforementioned feeling of anxiety, I was impressed by this film as a film. This couldn't have been anything other than film, which is kind of rare for most movies. Lots of other cultural objects can switch media without too much fuss, but Whiplash mobilizes the forces of editing, sound, performance, composition, and time to great effect.

J. K. Simmons' supporting performance was quite good, in that showy, actorly way. I've never been one for actors; famous performances have often left me cold. This could be due to my ignorance of the craft (I would never claim there isn't skill and craft involved in acting) but it might be more indifference in relation to the other technical aspects of film.

An anecdote from my viewing of Whiplash. During the sequence in which Miles Teller's drummer is first witnessing J. K. Simmons' ruthless coaching style, Simmons' character uses homophobic language to elicit reactions from his band. The scene has multiple functions: introduce Simmons' villainous behaviour, demonstrate the dynamic between band and conductor, and show how Teller's skills are woefully inadequate in the conductor's eyes. Most importantly, we the audience are shown that Simmons' style is outdated, offensive, and dangerous. In the logic of the scene, Simmons is not to be sympathized with. Yet, during this scene, each time Simmons said something homophobic, three young men in the theatre laughed. They tittered over his use of "pussy," they giggled when he asked if someone was going to cry. These weren't chuckles borne from an uncomfortable experience; they were laughing with Simmons. How astonishing. Though, perhaps this anecdote shows in the microcosm how easily people have misread the movie.

I had to remember to breathe during this movie. This wasn't tension in the sense that there would be relief. This wasn't suspense, in the sense that my expectation of the next move in the plot was suspended. This was pure anxiety. Rarely have I felt so uncomfortable in a movie theatre. I applaud the film for its ability to show me how to feel rather than demand.

Nightcrawler. Dir. Dan Gilroy. Open Road Films, 2014. Film.

Yes, Gyllenhaal's performance is top-notch, but for me the film's superior status is due more to the absolutely perfect car chase at the end of the film. Rarely have I seen a car chase so utterly lean, tense, and geographically clear. It's a masterclass in editing and blocking.

I'm also a big fan of the sequence in which he films the interior of the massacre in the mansion. It's a very anxious scene, despite its lack of clear action.

A friend commented that perhaps the film would have benefited from more of Bill Paxton's character, or more obstacles for the protagonist. I think if these had been included, the conventionality of the plot would have suffocated the leanness of the film, the crispness of Gyllenhaal's protagonist.

As with most movies, though, I didn't think this was perfect. Due to my education on editing at the feet of Steven Soderbergh, I imagined where I would easily trim 10 to 15 minutes of superfluous shots that have little or no narrative consequence. But I blame Soderbergh for making me think of editing in this way.

The Babadook. Dir. Jennifer Kent. Smoking Gun Productions, 2014. Film.

The third act is obviously less interesting than the rest of the film, but that's really the case with horror movies. What makes this movie stand out is the first half, a riveting and anxiety-inducing portrait of an impatient mother and an annoying child. Kudos to both actors for their full bodied performances. If you were on the fence about having children, see this movie; it'll convince you that procreation isn't necessarily life-fulfilling.

The Lego Movie. Dir. Chris Miller, Phil Lord. Warner Bros, 2014. Film.

Surprisingly adept at complex thought and thematic depth. I refuse to couch my admiration for this movie in cynical film critic snobbery disguised as disclaimer; this is a good film, regardless of its position as advertisement for toys. It's emotionally astute and thematically nuanced. How many films in 2014 can boast the same?

I saw this film once in my home city, in a theatre crowded with children choking with laughter, and then a second time in Albuquerque, NM. in an almost empty multiplex. The American theatre was a strange experience: there were 4 different commercials reminding me to turn off my phone and keep quiet during the film. 4 different prompts. Are Americans that terrible with film etiquette that they need redundant reminders?

Force Majeure. Dir. Ruben Östlund. Film i Väst, 2014. Film.

The funniest drama I saw all year. It's dark comedy not in the Coen brothers sense in which bad people do bad things but dark in the sense that these people are pathetic and deserve our pity for their awful behaviour. I'm still on the fence about the very final sequence on the bus, though I'm willing to admit that perhaps it is because I don't quite understand it. Why is the bus driver so reckless? Why is everybody else so passive?

Part of what I enjoyed about Force Majeure is the ambiguity of it all, especially the final ski day. At work, I asked those that had seen it if they thought the husband and wife colluded to reinstate the husband as patriarchal power in front of the children or if they thought only the wife was behind the subterfuge. There is no answer, of course, because if there had been an answer it would have been given to us. Ambiguity is something modern filmgoers (read: Americans) have real difficulty with. For example, see how people vociferously debate the final shot of Christopher Nolan's Inception. Over at Criticwire, Sam Adams writes of this trend:
the... tendency of... essays to treat their subjects less as a work of art than a puzzle to be solved. This kind of superficial sophistry used to be the domain of renegade nutters like the ones depicted in Rodney Ascher's "Room 237," but online communities -- Usenet groups, message boards, and now Reddit -- have provided fertile soil in which these theories flourish. Shows like "Lost" and "How I Met Your Mother" have played into and encouraged the phenomenon, sometimes at the expense of, or at least as a substitute for, the more substantial exploration of character and theme.
He later writes that, "[i]t's not only counter-productive but tone-deaf, a way of scrutinizing the subject without actually engaging it." In other words, this replaces the critical dialogue with the superficial joys of narrative. There's nothing inherently wrong with enjoying only narrative, but it's problematic when it's the only thing people enjoy about cultural objects.

David Bordwell (my current favourite film critic) writes of Room 237 that there is a danger in going too far down the rabbit hole to interpret. He writes that critics "tend to look for how something got into the film rather than what it’s doing in the film." I extrapolate from Bordwel: critical dialogue that guesses the filmmakers' intent has become de rigueur.

However, Bordwell softens his approach by ending on an optimistic note, appealing to the history of "puzzle movies." He writes:
the implication being that puzzle movies are inferior forms of cinema. Yet I don’t see a good reason to scorn them. Assuming that films often solicit our cognitive capacities, I don’t see why artists shouldn’t ask us to exercise them. Cinema takes many shapes, and one critic’s puzzle (“Rosebud,” “Keyser Söze”) is another critic’s mystery.
I'd like to think that Bordwell, as in much of his work, is arguing for a more well-rounded approach to film. Just as he expends academic energy working with critically lauded films that are "high art," he also appreciates and studies "low art" such as Mission: Impossible 3. The film should ignite the critic's affective and cognitive powers in interpretation.

Unfortunately, it seems that the current paradigm of online film fan criticism consists of brute force solutions applied to films that aren't even puzzles in the first place. Nolan, a filmmaker I have such mixed feelings about nowadays, "cautions, audiences shouldn’t approach his movies like puzzles to be solved. 'What I’ve found with my movies is, people who sit back and relax and try to enjoy them as a ride, they understand and enjoy them much more'" (here). This statement from Nolan is worth unpacking, but that's another discussion for another day. Ambiguity in film seems utterly verboten, according to fans. They must crush any ambiguity with theories, endless theories. Every culture website I visit seems to have the same story: "New Games of Thrones trailer confirms/denies/implies a major fan theory!" Who the fuck cares about fan's theories? Endless speculation about the future of the property is part and parcel of the logic of blockbusters (of which I've written about a lot). We're trained to only look forward, that the object we want exists just out of our grasp. This tight logic refuses ambiguity. The object must remain the object in order for it to be the object of our desires.

Perhaps this is why I've grown so attached to Force Majeure. It is a film that rewards and defies expectations of convention. It uses ambiguity, not just narrative ambiguity, but moral and tonal ambiguity in order to tell its tale. Are we meant to laugh at them? Are we meant to pity them? Both?

The Guest. Dir. Adam Wingard. Hanway Films, 2014. Film.

From the John Carpenter typeface (Albertus, hello!) to the climax set in a hall of mirrors, The Guest is a film about its influences, rather than about its subject matter. So rarely has pastiche been done so well. The strobing synth soundtrack recalls Refn's Drive while the climactic shoot-out is heavily indebted to De Palma's chiaroscuro setpieces. Everything is colourful and fun to look at, while Wingard keeps action clear and focused. It's genre done extremely efficiently.

I've written before about the pleasures of genre (here, here, and most relevant, here) and The Guest mobilizes a lot of what makes the fulfilment of genre so satisfying. Watching the beginning of The Guest, we are introduced to a number of details that prime us, that identify the genre of the film and thus the expected conventions. These expectations might be thwarted, temporarily. When the expectations are fulfilled, we are satisfied. To borrow from music, this is the appoggiatura, the dissonant note that makes the return to the melody all the sweeter.

The Guest operates within its genre not in a reactionary way, but a loving way. Jonathan McCalmont writes about genre that:
Genre is like a long-suffering parent. Endlessly forgiving and endlessly patient, it responds to its children’s professions of hatred with an affectionate pat on the head and a mug of hot chocolate to calm them down. You can scream, “I hate you! I wish you were dead!” at genre till you are blue in the face and genre will still be there when you need your next film financing or a convention circuit for your book tour. There is nothing heroic or original in transgressing genre because that is precisely what it is there for. So perhaps we should look upon genre not as some cartoon tyrant that artists can easily defeat but rather as a part of what makes up a work of fiction no different to language or lighting or pace.
Here, McCalmont is writing about a film mobilizing the conventions of the art-house drama to great effect. With The Guest, the conventions are being used to replicate an 1970s, 1980s lean tight thriller. Instead of childishly transgressing the genre boundaries, petulantly, Wingard and his crew lovingly dedicate themselves to the effort. When we are introduced to the premise of the film, we know one of two things: either Dan Stevens' character is lying or there has been a switch in identities. Wingard doesn't waste time prolonging the reveal; after the first act of the film, Dan Stevens is revealed to be exactly what the audience expected him to be: insane. We are then treated to wondering if there will be an additional twist, as modern genre films such as this have taught audiences to question everything up until the end. The proliferation of twist upon twist upon twist is tiring, The Guest seems to say. The film does what it says on the tin: a lean, taut thriller that wastes little time. There's the teen that suspects but her parents won't understand, there's the mom that falls for the stranger despite evidence to the contrary. At no point does any of these conventions feel exhausted. Rather, there's a glee in every frame: "can you believe we get to do this thing for a living?" The same sense of fun permeated You're Next, though The Guest is a quantum leap in quality, both in staging, framing, pacing, and colour.

Everybody knows nowadays that films are orange and teal. Every major Hollywood film seems to have the same colour palette. It's especially noticeable the higher the budget. Michael Bay's Transformers films are the most obvious examples to point to, but most Hollywood films traffic in this palette. Either that or a drab grey. Over at Cracked (ugh I can't believe I'm linking to Cracked), Dan Seitz writes of the orange and teal paradigm:
here in the era of easy digital color correction, they've taken this so far that you get that ridiculous two-color system, where every room is bathed in blue and every human looks like he has a bad spray-on douche-tan.

To be fair, it's not necessarily laziness per se. Your average colorist has to grade about two hours of movie, frame by frame sometimes, in the space of a couple of weeks. It doesn't take that many glances at the deadline bearing down on the calendar before you throw up your hands and say, "Fuck it. Everybody likes teal and orange!"
The theory is that most actors fall in the range of orange and the complementary colour for orange on the colour wheel is blue. Putting the complementary colours together creates contrast. Contrast has a visual pop that catches the eye. Unfortunately, when all movies fall within this drab trap of orange and teal, this contrast loses its pop quickly. The Guest, thankfully, has a nice bright colour palette. It's fun to look at. There are oranges, red, pinks, purples, blues, greens, from subtle to neon. Colour has its own syntax within film. Here, The Guest provides a well rounded palette. I suppose part of my infatuation with this film is just the sheer variety of the palette. I'm so starved of rich lush colours that I'm willing to grasp any film that gives me more.

Starry Eyes. Dir. Kevin Kolsch, Dennis Widmyer. Dark Sky Films, 2014.

A combination of body-horror films and Satanic cult horror movies, Starry Eyes does a hell of a lot with a tiny budget. The lead performance is revelatory, and the inevitable third act bloodletting is actually interesting to watch and thematically apropos -- as opposed to the vast majority of horror's third act which is to abandon tension for spectacle. Starry Eyes should be commended for its restraint without being a sleepy slow-burner that goes nowhere (I'm looking at you, Ti West).

In conversation with a friend (the same one as in the convo about Nightcrawler), we discussed the inability of horror films to sustain tension in the third act. Very few horror films really land the ending. They often sputter, flailing about in gore and sound as a replacement to the scares so carefully laboured over in the first two acts. Slasher films are excellent examples of this inability to maintain suspense or fear. Last year at Halloween, I saw, for the first time, Prom Night from 1980. I enjoyed the sequences of stalking despite the fact that they're clumsier versions of what Carpenter did so well in Halloween (1978). However, I grew restless during the climax, which seemed to be a disco dance sequence. Unless the filmmakers wanted to draw a parallel between the choreography of dance and the staging of murder sequences, in which case, the film is a masterpiece. Though, this is highly doubtful. Instead, Prom Night squanders any tension or suspense by having the killer get hit on the head by the protagonist. It's anticlimactic and thematically empty. There's no parallelism in regards to the opening sequence (the best part of the movie) in which a child falls to her death (I mean the best part in the sense it's well made, not in the sense that a child dies). This is why I found the ending to Starry Eyes to be so enjoyable; the climax comes organically from the decisions made by and actions of the protagonist. Instead of a Grand Guignol spectacle of blood and gore, the filmmakers keep the tension by confounding our expectations. It's a small thing, but it makes a huge difference.

Part of what draws me back to Starry Eyes is the little bits tucked away in the corners. Often, I'm attracted to films that fill in their world and make it either believable or memorable (a great example would be Shane West and his use of henchmen). Starry Eyes does some interesting stuff with the protagonist's friends that doesn't detract from the momentum of the plot, but fills in the world a bit more with life. These details are a subtle but important element horror writers should remember.

Honourable Mentions:

Honeymoon. Dir. Leigh Janiak. Fewlas Entertainment, 2014. Film.

I liked this movie, but I didn't love it. It is badly in need of a trim, and the cinematography is pretty lacklustre considering the possibilities of digital film and the location. However, the two performances are stellar and the screenplay's commitment to the premise is laudable. The film relies on the rather scary premise that you don't really know your loved ones and that you never will. It's an intriguing idea that is really followed through. The filmmakers cleverly use parallelism in the form of another couple to suggest the darker aspects of marriage. As someone who was just legally married (back in August), I found the material quite compelling. I'm also a huge fan of the exceedingly nihilistic ending.

Other films I saw in 2014 that I have thoughts on:

Birdman. Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu. New Regency Pictures, 2014. Film.

In his book 10/40/70: Constraint as Liberation in the Era of Digital Film Theory, Nicholas Rombes writes:
that the choreographed unfolding of reality in digital long-take films such as Time Code, Russian Ark, and Ten is considered a stunt or an experiment only serves to show how deeply montage and rapid editing have become the dominant visual grammar of our lives.
Rombes could have easily added Birdman to this list without thinking twice. It seems part of the film's critical success is due to the gimmick (2014 seemed a year of film gimmicks) which is that Iñárritu chose to shoot it in as few shots as possible. Supposedly, this is a moment where form meets content considering the film is about the staging of a play. Yet, people fell all over themselves to congratulate the filmmakers for their boldness in using long-takes. "The staging is complicated," they say, "and thus must be praised!" Too bad the rest of the film isn't quite as virtuoso as its camera movements. The film within these long-takes is an experiment with tedium and pablum. Birdman panders to the Hollywood elite by giving them a movie about art or whatever lets them feel less guilty for churning out countless blockbusters in a ruthless attempt at profit. Birdman lets them feel as if art is still possible in the current paradigm. Sure, why not.

The long-takes are an extension of this pandering; the "stunt" is bold and resolutely contrarian when compared to the fast cuts and montage editing of blockbusters. Still, as Rombes astutely points out, it's utterly intriguing that we consider long-takes to be stunts. Later in the introduction to 10/40/70, Rombes talks about how the long-take is far more subversive than the hegemonic fast style. He writes:
In what might be the supreme irony, it turns out that the re-emergence of realism in the cinema can be traced directly to a technological form that seems to represent a final break with the real. For doesn't the digital -- in its very process of capturing reality -- break with the old photographic process upon which classical cinema was built? Doesn't the digital remove us even deeper from the real world?
He opens up this possibility only to close it by referring to our lives as the ultimate long-take, interrupted only by blinks (cuts) and sleep (fade-out). The long-take is closer to reality, Rombes argues because it strips film of the illusion of artifice. It's an attempt to use the artifice of the stunt in order to dive further into the real. The technological possibilities of digital film have allowed for longer takes (bigger hard drives) that take the viewer "deeper into natural time."

Though, perhaps Birdman doesn't fit entirely within Rombes' schema due to the fact that Birdman takes place over 7 days but has a running time of an hour and a half. Bordwell writes of Birdman that the film:
plays it straight. Like a normal movie, it uses sound bridges and night-to-day transitions to skip over stretches of story time. The film is a clear-cut example of the difference between story time (the years of Riggan’s career and the others’ lives), plot time (six days), and screen time (about 110 minutes).
Emphasis mine. If you follow the link, you'll be entertained with shot-by-shot breakdowns about how utterly formulaic and conventional this movie truly is. All of the recognizable stylistics of conventional editing are contained within this film. It's Hollywood ego-stroking masquerading as avant garde, or edgy, or bold filmmaking.

I'm reminded of Jean Baudrillard. In the book, Why Hasn't Everything Already Disappeared? he writes of the disappearance of the human in a technologically oriented future present. The best example, he believes, is the digital photograph replacing the analogue. He writes:
the photograph that has become digital, being liberated at a single stroke from both the negative and the real world. And the consequences of both these things are incalculable, though on different scales, of course. This marks the end of a singular presence for the object, since it may now be digitally constructed. And the end of the singular moment of the photographic act, since the image can now be immediately erased or reconstructed. And the end of the irrefutable testimony of the negative. Both the time-lag and distance disappear at the same time, and with them that blank between object and image that was the negative. The traditional photograph is an image produced by the world, which, thanks to the medium of film, still involves a dimension of representation. The digital image is an image that comes straight out of the screen and becomes submerged in the mass of all the other images from screens. (37)
Digital film, no matter the style, has taken the form of ones and zeroes. There is no variety in content as the medium of delivery is the exact same, he argues. Differences in imagery is superficial and cosmetic; no matter what, the image is made up of ones and zeroes. All images are made of ones and zeroes and thus all images are the same, lost in an ocean of similar ones and zeroes. Soon, he writes, everything will be a "single continuous flow, a single integrated circuit"  (40). If only Baudrillard had seen Birdman, he could have written about the monotony and sameness of the film, thanks to the long-take, the single continuous flow.

All this postmodern theorizing makes it sound like I hated the film; I didn't. I just felt this immense apathy for it, an holistic apathy that transcended any affect on the spectrum of like or dislike. I feel a tremendous exhaustion in regards to this film and movies like this. I suppose this is why I've been slowly teaching myself film studies, in an attempt to learn how to watch movies. Perhaps, like literature, I've reached my limit for sameness, for the crumbling ruins of realism.

Interstellar. Dir. Christopher Nolan. Syncopy, 2014. Film.

As with many things I'm deeply excited about, I quickly lose patience when I see little to no development or improvement. I love Doctor Who but I'm slowly losing patience with the monotony of it. Nothing has changed and nothing will change. It's tiresome. The same can be said of Christopher Nolan. My appreciation for Nolan has had a precipitous drop recently thanks to rewatching The Dark Knight Rises and seeing Interstellar in the theatres. I really disliked Interstellar. A lot.

Nolan just does not have the directing skills to maintain the level of sentimentality this film hinges on. His skills reside more in setting up complicated sequences. Notice I did not write "executing" those complicated sequences. Interstellar throws in absolute stark relief the fact that Nolan is unable or unwilling to use establishing shots to determine the geography of scenes. His depiction of space (ironically in a film about space) is worrisome and inept. At no point are the dimensions of the spaceship clear.

Also tiresome is Nolan's reliance on exposition. Characters aren't characters, but rather vehicles for dumping poorly articulated information in the audience's laps. This is problematic in a film that hinges entirely on the power of love to transcend time and space. How are we supposed to care about these characters and their journey when Nolan seems unable to sketch them as human, with desires, traits, beliefs? It's a sad state of affairs when the robot in the film is more human than the humans.

Nolan spends so much time (169 fucking minutes) setting up a closed time travel loop that's obvious from the first ten minutes of the movie. Instead of putting in all this effort about black holes and spaceships and whatnot, all this noise, constant noise, he might have spent some time refining the characters and shaping them, or showing me why they love each other or why Coop would decide to leave his family five minutes after learning about this suicide mission. Ugh.

I can't write any more about this movie. I hated it. 

Friday, March 6, 2015

February Reads

Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas
Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
When Everything Feels Like the Movies by Raziel Reid
The Twyborn Affair by Patrick White
Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman
A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood

A quote from The Twyborn Affair to demonstrate White's absolute command of language:
Maisie had been let live in the attic of a house belonging to a rich benevolent queer, who was in the habit of siphoning off some of her rougher trade. On her patron's death, the house became the subject of endless legal wrangles, with Maisie a forgotten part of it. On the ground floor, in what had been the dining room, there was a claw-footed bath lying on its side, for no reason Eadith had ever heard explained. All the lower part of the house was unfurnished, the stairs uncarpeted and dry-rotten, rickety banisters with whole sections of the uprights missing. Only on the attic floor did life return, in a flowering of crochet and knick-knacks, the lank bodies of empty dresses hanging half-hidden by a faded cretonne curtain, face powder merging with spilt flour, tea becoming grit on an unswept floor.
I liked White's novel, the triptych structure, the play with gender, the rather casual dismissal of the possibility of trans phobia. It's not a novel rooted in absolute realism, but rather an idealized realm with little consequences. Despite this lack of realism, White accomplishes better indictments of the Australian middle class than Tsiolkas could ever hope to come close. Of course, the targets of Tsiolkas's and White's ire are different and temporally disparate. Yet, both make these grand sweeping statements about the hypocrisy of Australia's bourgeoisie, so they bare comparison.

Tsiolkas's novel is one I liked and hated simultaneously. I found the novel's determined stern grasp of realism to be rather boring, indicative of a wider trend of boring realism, an orthodoxy that threatens to bore the shit out of me. It doesn't help either White or Tsiolkas that I read Gravity's Rainbow in the same month, a clear masterpiece that stretches the form. Perhaps I chose my second novel by White to read poorly; maybe I should have read Voss, his alleged modernist masterpiece. I suppose my impatience with realism comes from the irritation that writers working in the realist tradition refuse to acknowledge that realism, like any literary method, is an artifice. They purport to present the world "as it is." Ugh. Over at the London Review of Books, Tom McCarthy astutely refers to this trend as
the naive and uncritical realism dominating contemporary middlebrow fiction, and the doctrine of authenticity peddled by creative writing classes the world over.
I'm not going to repeat myself, as I think I've laid out my thoughts as they currently stand already. I will however add an additional possible reason for my recently developed allergic reaction. I work in a bookstore and in today's economy, bookstores live by the sale of shit, pure shit. Pablum such as The Rosie Project, All the Light We Cannot See (a novel infuriatingly calculated for upper middle class white people in their 50s), Still Alice and others sell well enough that we can stay afloat, selling the odd gem to the odd customer. I've maintained in the past that cultural trash has its place, genre fiction is nothing to dismiss, and that the phrase "guilty pleasure" is specious and unproductive to cultural engagement. The issue that I have is when our cultural consumption consists solely of trash. One wouldn't eat McDonald's every day, so why would one read trash day in day out? Part of what makes these novels trash isn't their cheap prose but their commitment to a servile niceness, a bland unctuous deception that trades formal exploration for infantile emotions. These novels pander to a surface emotional life. They mobilize the tired elements of Literature the Market: language, artifice, and grammar, in order to facilitate a tiny spectrum of affect. These are novels for people who don't really need or want to feel anything deeper than short bursts of pleasure, quickly forgotten and replaced by other short bursts.

Literature, or rather, art in general, should make the consumer feel something and hopefully recognize something of their own affective life reflected by the work. This isn't to say that art should be relatable; this is to say that literature should deepen and expand one's emotional palette. Most of what we sell in this bookstore is pandering shit. It frustrates me not that they are reading this pablum, this wide swath of literature that coddles the inner emotional life, but that they could do so much better. People are incredibly smart, vastly more intelligent than the Internet would have you believe. The market of literature is harshly underestimating the emotional depth and intelligence of the average reader. Mainstream culture is infantilizing people. We should demand better of our art.

Of course, I sound like a sanctimonious pretentious asshole when I say all this, but at this point in my life as a critic, I mean well. I don't want to browbeat, and certainly, I've learned to rein in my judgement, or at least learned to transfer my judgement from the individual (pubescent arrogance of taste) to the wider patterns of consumption that demand this trend of realism to happen. Who am I to judge the individual who works hard every single day, who comes home tired and exhausted, and who wants to unwind with something easy and comforting? People are already dehumanized and ground down by the machinery of labour that I don't need to add to it. I'm not even better than the vast majority; I thoroughly enjoy my cultural trash (I am a Doctor Who fan, after all, the trashiest of trash). Yet, I want better for myself. I want to expand my tastes, improve my cultural vocabulary, and deepen my emotional lexicon by engaging with art. Yes, I'm echoing a classic Victorian adage of art by asserting than a dialogue with art is necessarily self-improving, something many other cultural critics have resolutely rejected. However, I'm less interested in the intellectual stimulation of art than I am in the emotional stimulation. A frequent and lively engagement with art can only increase empathy. I'm inspired by Steven Pinker's hypothesis that the epistolary novel increased empathy by introducing people to emotional lives outside of their tiny worldview. How can this ever be a bad thing? For me, art is always aspirational.

This means, of course, going outside of my own tiny worldview and attempting to engage with art that challenges my own assumptions, whether that challenge be formal or emotional. How challenging can The Rosie Project be? How can it increase any empathy when it's pandering pablum designed to elicit the most juvenile of emotions? There's something to be said about how going outside of one's own worldview can lead to voyeurism, but perhaps that's a discussion left for another time.

In summary, realism bores me because it's infantilizing. I want art to shake my foundations and change my world. Realism is a boring artifice that in its current mode can only pander. Thus, this month is full of books that are simultaneously enjoyable and boring. Next month, I hope to read something more challenging, emotionally speaking.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Barracuda


I never bothered reading The Slap but I certainly did watch the ABC series. The interrogation of class, race, and Australian identity was compelling in the televisual format. Though the series left me little desire to try and read the original novel. Fastforward a bit, and my job at a bookstore allowed me acquire an advanced reading copy of Tsiolkas's newest novel, Barracuda. 

Barracuda, unlike the animal itself, is a messy beast, splashing and thrashing through the form of the novel leaving bits and pieces strewn about. Like a couple of other novels I've started and left behind, Barracuda is an example of the form of the novel in its last gasps, its death knell, its cry for mercy from terrible writers who have nothing new to add other than poorly realized characters and situations.

However, despite recognizing that Barracuda is an example of the terrible decay of the "novel," I still kind of liked it. It's a heavyhanded novel that wants so badly for the reader to get it, to be on the same program. I like it despite the heavy hand with which Tsolkas labours. It's an earnest novel, as if Tsiolkas thinks he is the first to point out the racism, the classism, the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie in Australia. As if with every scene he composed, Tsolkas chuckled to himself, "Fuck, wait until they get a load of this! It'll blow their stuffy prissy minds!" But it is because of his earnest desire to shock and offend the middle class that I admire Barracuda. The word "cunt" is repeated almost on every page, while Danny, the protagonist spits, fights, swears, and shouts and pretty much every single character.

There's a pointless detour near the end of the novel in which Danny as an adult accompanies his mother to visit her dying Jehovah's Witness mother. After "rebelling" against the family, Danny's mother was cast out, exiled and excommunicated for giving up the faith, for turning away from God. The sequence has two goals for the overall narrative: to introduce Danny to the idea that his redemption comes in the form of being an aide to cognitively impaired victims of head trauma; to add some more social observation that orthodoxy -- whether of religious or social -- is intrinsically damaging and prevents a Forster-style connection.

Both of these points had already been made, believe it or not. Barracuda for almost no narrative or thematic purpose, is nonlinear. The structure follows two discrete nonlinear paths: jumping around in the past while also jumping around in the present. The novel is of two halves -- with both past and present being juxtaposed throughout. The end of the first part reveals what it is that sent Danny to prison, something foreshadowed painfully in both past and present sequences.

Thus, we already knew that Danny finds redemption in the role of aide for those left with cognitive disabilities. It's presented to the reader fairly upfront. We also already knew that concepts of orthodoxy limit the growth of individuals; it's a point made ad nauseum. So why then, does the novel spend 40 or so pages in this physical (they roadtrip to Adelaide) and figurative detour?

To answer this question, I'm reminded of Michael Hofmann's scathing hatchet job of Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North . Though I haven't read Flanagan's Booker Prize winning novel (and might not), I recognize Hofmann's chief complaint. The novel, as a form, is boring. I'm going to quote Hofmann at length, so bear with me:
It used to be that a novel would put you among people, tell you a story or stories, give you some sense of what it might be like to see a different cut-out and perspective of the world: as a schoolteacher, an adulteress, the wife of a member of Parliament, an officer, a cockroach. The Narrow Road to the Deep North is the novel in an advanced and showy state of dissolution. It is as though the contemporary novel – like film (4-D, coming soon to a cinema near you), like theatre, like so much else – is in competition with itself, falling over itself to offer you more interiority, more action, more understanding, more vision. But the form, the vessel, is an exploded form; it is basically rubble, fragmentary junk, debris. It’s not even leaky anymore; it can hold nothing.
Hofmann's salient point here, which applies easily to Tsiolkas's "novel" is that it pretends to provide interiority, pitched to the maximum. Novels, especially "literary" novels that aspire to prizes, to important meaning, are essentially carefully curated events with each moment ruthlessly calculated for specific affect. Hofmann is astute to compare the Literary Novel to the blockbuster film. Both are endlessly and exhaustively calculated, shorn of authenticity or organic affect.

Jonathan McCalmont, a critic I greatly respect, writes of the most recent Transformers blockbuster that:
art house films like Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life work with the process by presenting the audience with evocative yet ambiguous imagery that encourages the audience to develop their own creative and interpretative powers. Conversely, Hollywood blockbusters are less interested in encouraging audiences to make up their own minds than they are in producing a carefully curated experience in which the audience is told what to think, what to feel and when to feel it. In this type of oppressive creator-consumer relationship, breathing room is the last thing you want as the more audiences are allowed to think for themselves, the harder it becomes to ensure that audiences are having the type of cinematic experience that can be sold to advertisers and government bodies.
Heaven forbid the audience manages to think about the cultural object in their hands. Here, though, I must quibble with McCalmont's phrasing. He refers to this dialectic as a "creator-consumer relationship." The idea that any "creation" is involved in these projects is laughable. The Individual Artist toiling away to produce the Great Novel is a concept of the past. Think of the countless gates the manuscript must past before reaching publication: writer, editor, agent, publisher, editor again, marketing, design, promotion, film rights, television rights. Obviously, not all of these gates change the object itself, but change the relation between object and consumer. The object, in this case, Tsiolkas's Barracuda crosses the Rubicon into our hands, carefully curated by writer, editor, publisher, etc etc etc. It's the literary equivalent to middle brow schlock as The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything. These aren't aesthetic objects to be enjoyed, interpreted, loved, hated, considered, or remembered. No, they are consumer products to be consumed and then discarded. The moment the object relents and allows you to think for yourself, you'll notice the "exploded form," the debris caused, paradoxically, by the careful smoothing over of edges to maximize the interiority. Here, we do not have Creators, but Producers.

What aura does Barracuda and its ilk have? What aura could the Novel possibly have after its infinite reproduction by mechanical means? Obviously, I'm mobilizing Walter Benjamin here to speak not only of products like Barracuda but of the infinite reproduction of the form of the novel. Like Hofmann writes, the form of the novel is "basically rubble, fragmentary junk" that has lost its authenticity through the constant repetition of the structure, the characters, the promise of interiority, the "play" with time. All of these elements that Barracuda uses are boring and have been repeated endlessly. Benjamin writes:
One might subsume the eliminated element in the term “aura” and go on to say: that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art. This is a symptomatic process whose significance points beyond the realm of art. One might generalize by saying: the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence.
The novel is no longer novel. We have been provided a plurality, or better yet, an archive of curated effects for so long, we haven't realized it's the same thing over and over. The affect that Literary Novels traffics in is the same, reproduced faithfully but without feeling. Yes, the Literary Novel peddles feeling without feeling and we stand amidst the rubble, the debris, and think, "well that's a nice story" that made us feel "good" or feel "bad."

We've confused the piles of rubble that constitute the novel with Great Art because it has been curated so carefully as to imitate Great Art. It's the substitution of novel form and thought (novel as in new) for the Literary Novel, a tired repetition without a difference, an exhaustive archive of engineered affect.


I'm reminded of Jacques Derrida's theories on the archive that he formulated in, fittingly enough, Archive Fever. He writes that the archive, as an idea, contains, holds, and preserves: "[t]he concept of the archive shelters in itself, of course, this memory of the name arkhe. But it also shelters itself from this memory which it shelters: which comes down to saying also that it forgets it." In other words, the archive is transparent (by virtue of its existence) and concealed (by virtue of which it contains). The archive, due to its physical impression, has a radical finitude. Its very physicality means it is not eternal. The archive then has a fever to maintain its existence. Derrida writes, "It is to have a compulsive, repetitive, and nostalgic desire for the archive, an irrepressible desire to return to the origin, a homesickness, a nostalgia for the return to the most archaic place of absolute commencement." The archive is conservative, but transparently so.

Likewise, the Literary Novel, despite its pretensions to innovations in form (the nonlinearity in Barracuda is far from innovative), is compulsively focused on the nostalgic return to its origin. The novel, as many have pointed out over the years, hasn't really changed in a century. A small handful of writers, drops in an infinite ocean of novelists, have tried to wrestle with the form, to make something new of the debris, the rubble. Yet, continually, the Novel returns to the same thing, to the same program of affect, the same totalitarian producer-consumer relationship that organizes the interiority for ease of access.

Barracuda is like other novels I've read (or abandoned, such as Andrew O'Hagen's The Illuminations, which seems so boring and safe); there's nothing novel about this. From its movement back and forth through space to its pretensions at social relevance, Barracuda has all the trappings of the Literary Novel. It lies broken among countless other novels. Its plot, an allegory for the sudden success that Tsiolkas himself found after the publication of The Slap, is heavier than lead. It's barely even worth mentioning the plot; as with other Literary Novels, it's about the feelings of accomplishment from the reader, rather than the affective or narrative journey undertaken by the object. We're supposed to feel better about ourselves that we read a Literary Novel that won a Great Prize. Reading Prizewinners keeps us relevant, helps us stay afloat in an era of near infinite waves of reproduction of novels. How to stay topical? Read a Prizewinner that talks about serious subjects. It doesn't do anything with those subjects; it merely substitutes interiority and meaning for the illusion of it, all for the puerile gratification of the reader. When Barracuda "tackles" race or class, it does so in the most obvious way possible, so that its plot or thematic points are pitched at a register high enough that children could even grasp that "racism is bad!"

Reading Literary Novels is aspirational. We struggle through these Great Big Novels about Big Subjects in order to improve ourselves, in order to maintain our loosening grip on relevancy. Of course, I run the risk of appearing to be an elitist pompous ass with this line of reasoning, and perhaps I am. Throughout this review, I've made sure to include myself, using the "we" pronoun, to make sure that I'm guilty of the same aspirational nonsense as others. I'm a hypocrite; I read Literary Novels for the same reasons others do. The motive is similar to going to see Transformers: Age of Extinction. I want to experience something, anything. A Literary Novel such as Barracuda provides escapism, tourism, and a sense of accomplishment. Escapism, I've always maintained, has its use. The problem is when every cultural object becomes escapist, a danger that Literary Novels present, considering their infantilizing authoritarian stance on affect: "feel this when you are told to feel."

Where is the ambiguity? Not the purported moral ambiguity that Romances like Game of Thrones haphazardly present, but an aesthetic ambiguity, where the cultural object dares you to feel something beyond the pat emotions of "good" or "bad." Barracuda has no aesthetic ambiguity; it's not a novel to love or hate. It's imminently disposable -- onto the next one! I'd rather hate a novel than feel ambivalent. I read Barracuda in a timely fashion (less than 24 hours), so I suppose that's some sort of compliment? That it's readable? The prose is accessible enough -- though ugly and blunt. Is this the most I can say about the experience I had with this novel, this project that tons of people worked on? How disappointing.

"Barracuda is a readable novel that people read to feel simple things and to think simple things. It is successful in that endeavour." 
That's the blurb you should put on this and countless other novels. It's the most I can say about the emotional journey I had with Barracuda.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Gravity's Rainbow


This month, I moved into a house with my partner. The move itself was stressful, exhausting, exhilarating. We're not entirely settled in, but half of my books are. There's a distinct pleasure in releasing books from their cardboard prisons, letting them gasp for the shelf. At my parents' house, in my old bedroom, lay the other half of my books. There are a lot. Some books have been sitting on the shelves there for years, waiting for me, calling to me. Both Infinite Jest and Gravity's Rainbow beckon to me, daring me to ascend their mountainous reputation. After seeing the film of Inherent Vice, which I enjoyed, (I also quite liked the novel) I had the hankering of trying to read Against the Day, a project I memorably failed at. However, when I unpacked Against the Day, I also unpacked Pynchon's acknowledged masterpiece, 1973's Gravity's Rainbow. I thought perhaps now I'm ready, now I'm prepared both mentally and emotionally for one of the supreme postmodern fantasies.

The last time I tried to read this behemoth, I stumbled quite immediately, giving up around page 70, specifically during the scene in which Slothrop imagines/remembers dropping his harmonica down the toilet. He plunges into the ceramic void, leaving his legs and back vulnerable. He then imagines Malcolm X and other black people pulling off his pants and preparing his anus for penetration. In order to escape this predicament, Slothrop tumbles into an underground world of literal shit, which gets everywhere. It's a harrowing sequence, not only for the racism, but for the visceral yet oneiric prose. I have never forgotten this scene.

Starting Gravity's Rainbow for the third or fourth time (the very first time, a quickly aborted attempt, was during high school with a cool looking 80s paperback I'm sad I sold or lost), I certainly enjoyed the prose a lot more. There's a certain looping loopy madness to Pynchon's sentences that is a pure joy to read. I read somewhere, and I can't remember where, that Pynchon has a "mathematical exactitude" to his prose. This description captures part of the allure of his work. While each scene might jangle and shake, as if another word or Dickensian joke name will derail the dangerously overloaded train, each word feels perfectly placed. If forced to point to a single strength in Pynchon's prose, it must be the focalization. Most of the novel is in present tense, third person, but the narrator refuses to stay there, moving into and out of characters, back and forth through time, creating an oscillation of focalization. Surely this is intentional as oscillation, parabolas, and the relationship between cause and effect is of the utmost interest to the novel.

A sample of the prose, then perhaps? Here we have 125-6 of the original Viking edition (the pagination also corresponds with the Penguin Classics featuring rocket blueprints). In this section, Roger Mexico contemplates his relationship with Jessica and his job as statistician with Pointsman:
He was taken over then, for half a minute, shivering and yawning in his long underwear, soft, nearly invisible in the December-dawn enclosure, among so many sharp edges of books, sheafs and flimsies, charts and maps (and the chief one, red pockmarks on the pure white skin of lady London, watching over all. . . wait. . . disease on skin . . . does she carry the fatal infection inside herself? are the sites predestined, and does the flight of the rocket actually follow from the fated eruption latent in the city . . . but he can’t hold it, no more than he understands Pointsman’s obsession with the reversal of sound stimuli and please, please can’t we just drop it for a bit. . . ), visited, not knowing till it passed how clearly he was seeing the honest half of his life that Jessica was now, how fanatically his mother the War must disapprove of her beauty, her cheeky indifference to death-institutions he’d not so long ago believed in—her unflappable hope (though she hated to make plans), her exile from childhood (though she refused ever to hold on to memories). . . .
Gorgeous. Notice the free indirect speech during the aside, matching the rhythm of Roger's confusion and introspection. Rather than capture the bouncing reality of stream-of-consciousness, the narrators keeps a more looping quality to it, repeating the structure of parenthetical asides as almost punctuation. I'm always reminded of James Wood and his book How Fiction Works. He writes about the concatenation of seemingly insignificant details that amount to significance. It is simple clauses, simple little moments, physical characteristics, thoughts, feelings, sensations, that accumulate and make a novel living. Here, Pynchon adds a tiny clause, a single word surrounded by commas in order to make this moment. In the first sentence, Roger shivers in his long underwear, and then Pynchon adds the word "soft" taking this description from good to fully realized. The word "soft," enclosed in its own clause, is evocative, alluring, almost a whisper of sensation. The sounds of "soft" are composed of a voiceless alveolar sibilant (s), an open back unrounded vowel (as represented by "ɑ" in the International Phonetic Alphabet), a voiceless labiodental fricative (f), finished by an voiceless alveolar stop (t). The assemblage of the sounds amounts to essentially a soft stop, and thus, enclosed in its own clause, creates an arresting yet gentle moment. Yes, as de Saussure reminds us, the relationship between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary. Yet, somehow, the word "soft" does an amazing amount of labour for a tiny word comprising four letters. Wiktionary informs me (sorry, my subscription to the OED has lapsed unfortunately) that "soft" comes from Middle English ("softe"), then from Old English ("sōfte") and then from Proto-Germanic "*samftijaz" which spectacularly includes the word "level" in the list of meanings. Finally, the modern English "soft" probably derives from Indo-European prefix "*sem-" indicating "one" or "whole." I might point out that Roger, in this passage, is contemplating his lack of oneness, his lack of "at-one-ment" but finds some sort of solace in his long underwear. I can't claim that Pynchon knew all this (the history of "soft"!) when including this clause, but the beauty of this clause is more than its sound or its isolation.


Gravity's Rainbow does, like all masterpieces, reward this type of reading, this type of concentrated combing of abstruse meaning from seemingly inconsequential words. For example, Pynchon sets an early sequence of the text in a "grimed brick sprawl" called the Hospital of St. Veronica of the True Image for Colonie and Respiratory Diseases. While it's a typically funny garrulous Pynchonesque title, the phrase itself includes a pretty good pun. Veronica, cut in half provides us with "vera" and "icon" which we know are the Latin originals for "true" and "image." This is obviously the kind of fun that I'm made for. This is why I enjoyed Joyce so much (enJoyced?).

Perhaps more than the prose of Gravity's Rainbow, I was struck by how thoroughly the theme is incorporated into the novel. This might seem like a strange compliment to afford a novel ("why, it manages to say something consistently; how novel!"), Pynchon truly earns a thematic complexity that not very many novels manage to sustain. The idea of a rocket is thought through in countless exhaustive ways, from the phallic to the mechanical. The motion of the rocket is also comprehensively considered: in the structure of the text, in the oscillations of focalization, from a sentence to sentence, and in the motions of the characters. Gravity's Rainbow, as a complete novel, is an arc, with the strike of the rocket in the first couple pages, and the launch on the final, which of course speaks to the novel's obsession with the complicated relationship between cause and effect.

This examination of causality, the fallacy of it, is not simply a philosophical game for Gravity's Rainbow; this investigation includes even close introspection on the concept of paranoia and conspiracies. Pynchon is quite known for the inclusion of conspiracies within his texts and here, he takes the intrigue to its apotheosis. He comments quite astutely on the figure of the paranoiac and its obsessive tendency to see connections where there are none. The rocket's parabolic motion, a symbol for the linear, the observable, is turned around, a connection is made between two unconnected events (strike, then launch?). Is this simple paranoia or evidence of a vast plot?

The plot of the novel is typically vast, of course. I found it difficult to follow, especially considering the size of the cast, the geographic distance traversed, the potentially random but perhaps not connections between plot points. This is a novel that moves both linearly and not. The plot moves forward from point to point but not in the "correct" fashion of "event b happens because event a." No, that would be too easy, and not thematically apropos. I mobilized various resources in my (non-linear) journey through Gravity's Rainbow; they were of indescribable help. I am not too proud to admit I had help. I am proud, however, to proclaim that I finished it. Even if the last hundred pages were almost impossible.


Now I can say I've read it, that I've finished one of the more difficult novels in the English language. Honestly? It wasn't that it was difficult in terms of plot, prose, or coherence. The issue is that Gravity's Rainbow is dense and challenging in terms of subject. I learned quite a bit about chemistry, physics, engineering, comic books, and mathematics. There's a complicated "log"-"cabin" joke (as in "logarithm") that's delivered in the form of an equation (page 450). It's also a joyous novel filled with utterly human moments such as when a German rocket scientist, sequestered into research, has yearly visits with his daughter, only for a week each time, and he suspects that the Third Reich has replaced her one year with a doppelganger for convenience's sake. He isn't sure, and the indeterminate nature of his "daughter" haunts him (pages 420-1). There's also long moments of pure art, art for art's sake, such as when Pynchon provides an overview of the War (128-136), how it affects everybody, how it changes everything. He also flashes forward into an obscure future "The Occupation of Mingeborough" in which kids are shown to grow old, "with or without Uncle Tyrone" Slothrop (page 743). Utterly heartbreaking yet life affirming at the same time.

I'm reminded of David Foster Wallace's story "Good Old Neon," the whole story predicated on Wallace's attempt to imagine his high school acquaintance's life. Like anything Wallace did in his too-short life, the project operates entirely on empathy. Wallace wanted to understand, wanted to experience in order to relate. He used his considerable intellect not to show off, not to lord over people, but to connect with them. I believe Pynchon is also interested in more than postmodern games in Gravity's Rainbow. Perhaps the text is attempting to grapple with large philosophical and moral dilemmas (such as how War could continue on such a scale, and why) while connecting them with the human figures that are inevitably, inexorably, chewed up by the system. Here is Pynchon at his most humanist, I believe, from page 231:
"I would set you free, if I knew how. But it isn’t free out here. All the animals, the plants, the minerals, even other kinds of men, are being broken and reassembled every day, to preserve an elite few, who are the loudest to theorize on freedom, but the least free of all. I can’t even give you hope that it will be different someday—that They’ll come out, and forget death, and lose Their technology’s elaborate terror, and stop using every other form of life without mercy to keep what haunts men down to a tolerable level—and be like you instead, simply here, simply alive...."
Simply here, simply alive.

I loved Gravity's Rainbow. Perhaps, I enjoyed V more, if only because it was zany and unbelievable, but this text says more, does more, includes more, without sacrificing focus or humanity. It's a beautiful novel, and I think Pynchon's tendency towards beauty is often forgotten or underrepresented in comparison to his unhinged brilliance.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

When Everything Feels like the Movies


Pearl clutching! OMG! Children speak in vulgarities! They have sex! They struggle with their (gender) identity! OMG! Won't somebody purse their lips and disapprove of such things?

Raziel Reid's novel is closer to Bret Easton Ellis than current day Bret Easton Ellis. Both control a supremely disaffected narrative voice that masks terrible pain. Both present a worldview highly refracted through the incessant and inescapable celebrity world. Specific narrative tricks, such as imagining lightbulbs to be the flashes of paparazzi, and going "off script," are not unique to either, but certainly Reid is echoing, intentionally or not, Ellis's 1999 novel Glamorama. Whether or not it's successful is a different story.

I'm reminded, while reading this, of a forthcoming publication in The Walrus about trans fiction by cis writers. Characters must suffer, with blood, with pain, with tropes, in order to be enveloped into the canon of literature. A purification ritual almost. This same trope rears its head in Reid's novel, and not always to its credit.

Reid's narrator goes through a violent and humiliating series of events in order to -- well, perhaps that's where Reid's construction betters. This is a supremely ambiguous novel. Are all these characters awful, or is it a performance? Is there truly a difference anymore? Does one's socio-economic background determine one's fate, one's gender, one's sexual proclivities, or are they shaped by the omnipresent media? All great questions asked by Reid's novel and almost none of them answered. Of course, providing pat explanations of complex social events is not the novel's purview, so surely we won't fault it for refusing us intellectual closure.

Presumably, the chief question posed by this novel's reader is "why?" As in, why should we care for this cast of unlikable children who obsess over spiritually degrading things such as celebrity culture? Does the novel condemn these people for their less than healthy interest in fame? Or does it present fame as a coping mechanism for the socio-economic barriers presented by the dump town? Why does the novel ask us to care for these people but then makes little to no effort to show us why?

The shock tactic strategy of When Everything Feels like the Movies is a political one. This is Queerness as a political stance. Queerness as a challenge to the cis heteronormative structures that rule and control our lives. This is Queerness as disruption in the form of shock, sex, drugs, and violence. Queer folks try to live outside these oppressive structures and one way to facilitate this ejection from totality is to disrupt, to protest, to fight back using the very structures that hold. Heteronormativity wants to use sexual identity as a controlling mechanism, a disciplinary technology? Sure, we'll just take that very technology and fuck it, showing you how empty and powerless it should be. Reid's novel answers that call, answers that challenge.

I find myself less shocked by the novel but lulled instead. This type of protest is old hat: not that these techniques of aggression aren't necessary (they sure fucking are) but I'm familiar with them already. Thus, I can't really be annoyed by the pearl clutching. It's a required effect of Reid's Queer resistance. If people didn't clutch their pearls, When Everything Feels like the Movies would have been less successful.

Reid's prose, like his protest, didn't quite do the trick for me. I understood the necessity of this flat narrator's voice, but I found myself unimpressed by the technique; I've seen it before. There are moments when Reid's narrator finds a clever or pretty turn of phrase. Here is a paragraph from later in the novel after Jude, the protagonist has decided to leave his shitty one horse town and has received some money from his estranged father (the "him" at the end).
[The town sign] said "Welcome to hell." Someone had crossed out the name of our town and spray-painted "hell" in red letters over it. I laughed, imagining my grandma's expression when she saw it. It was snowing, and I could hardly see. It was like the air was white. But I could see the letters on the sign, dripping like blood. The snow was so deep it was pulling me under, seeping into my boots. I looked down the highway. It was a long black stroke of ink that told a never-ending story. I stood and waited, and every time I saw a pair of headlights through the storm, I was sure it was him.
Here we have a bunch of similes and metaphors strung together. Not all these similes are entirely successful ("it was like the air was white") but these moments of imagery concatenate for atmosphere. Notice the three colours being deployed in order to sustain a decent moment of imagery. Jude could "hardly see" because of the snow. All that he can see are: the red letters of the sign, denoting his hellish town; the white snow blanketing everything, connoting his own vision, his own ability to see options, connoting also his lack of physical and mental mobility; the black stretch of highway that takes him away from the town. The red is finite, dripping, slowly taking over; the black is infinite, open, accessible, "never-ending." Notice Reid's repetition of gerunds for a sense of present tense in a past tense narration. He uses "imagining," "snowing," "dripping," "pulling," "seeping," and then "never-ending." He then resists the expectation with the final sentence, stating plainly and firmly that Jude "stood" and "waited" both words with strong consonants, the "t" sound, the voiceless alveolar stop that is occlusive, meaning that it prevents airflow, creating a stop. Other writers might have continued the pattern of gerunds, providing us with "I stood, waiting," but Reid instead (and wisely) chooses the past tense form. "Stood" and "waited" are both stops, in a way, so Reid matches form (verb declension) with content (action).

Unfortunately, moments such as this are not frequent. Reid uses the Ellis pattern again of deploying scenes of heavy dialogue, full of arch irony and "jokes", then punctuates these scenes with moments of proper prose. It's a classic technique that sort of kind of works. Jude's vacuous demeanor is possibly a front, so moments of introspection pierce through our perception -- and the cast's perception, more importantly -- to present a more fully realized character. However, the tonal shift between arch irony and pathos filled moments of introspection is akin to whiplash sometimes.

When Everything Feels like the Movies is a good novel, not a great one. Its discussion of celebrity culture obsession is old hat, but its method of resistance to heteronormativity is useful and welcome. People will clutch their pearls about the mature subject matter, but honestly, these pearl-clutchers must have never hung around 13 year olds; they're absolutely vulgar, and deploy phrases and words they don't fully understand in order to be perceived as more mature. This effect refracts through the novel. We're not supposed to believe these characters. They're acting, they're performing. These are unreliable narrators and they signal this to you.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

December-January Reads

The Child Garden by Geoff Ryman
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
Perdido Street Station by China Mieville
Acceptance by Jeff Vandermeer
Ghostwritten by David Mitchell
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
The Value of Art by Michael Findlay
Authority by Jeff Vandermeer
Tenth of December by George Saunders
Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

and material from

The Unsettled Dust by Robert Aickman
Year's Best Weird Fiction Vol 1, ed. Laird Barron
Fungi ed. Silvia Moreno-Garcia

There might be a couple other collections to add to the list, which I'll update as I remember.

2014's project of less straight white dudes was, I would like to think, a success. I was less focused on the project in November and December because, frankly, I had had enough. However, previous to this opening of the floodgates, I found the imposition of a limit to be paradoxically freeing. Rather than the interminable cycle of guilt in which I force myself to read Great White Dude Authors of note, those stalwarts of Great Lists and subsequently abandon them, I discovered -- to me -- new, rich, untapped areas of literature. Previously sparked interests in Afrofuturism or queer cyberpunk were fanned into healthy flames. The project moved beyond the liberal backpatting of reading outside my subject position and into a realm of new experiences to be internalized and reflected upon.

Politically speaking, I accomplished nothing more than a heightened sense of self-worth as I perceived something worthier and more value in my project. No, I believe the true value in 2014's project was an increase in my virtual stores of empathy. Thanks to a year of affect theory, the arcane branch of philosophy interested in the circulation and economy of emotions, I focused heavily on how these cultural objects affected me and how that change was perceived within and refracted without. Empathy, as philosophers and social scientists such as Steven Pinker have pointed out, is one of the great contributors to the establishment of this unparalleled age of (relative) peace from violence. The ability of empathy is not to simply think and feel like another, but rather, to consider that the other has had a lifetime of completely different experiences, though commonalities can be easily found thanks to the circulation of emotions, maybe not easily parsed, but understandable enough. That I contend is the true benefit of this project: a greater desire to comprehend the emotional lives of other people through cultural objects.

Obviously, reading literature is an imperfect way to consider the emotions of other people. Frankly, a better more immediate method would be to simply talk to other people. However, I see no harm in attempting both. If I'm going to engage with culural objects (an inevitability), then why not try to better myself through less politically suspect persons? Not everything I read was entirely without problematic elements, but I read less racist, sexist, homophobic shit than ever: a truer sign of success has yet to present itself.

2015's project is a different animal. My partner and I moved into a house, though not permanently. The great danger in moving somewhere with more space is that one tends to fill that space with more crap. I would like, in a larger sense, to pare down the immense amount of stuff my partner and I share. I won't be paring down books, unfortunately, because after the last two Great Purges, I have no desire to re-buy anything. Thus, I plan to work on the back catalogue, those ceaselessly calling sirens of literature that sleep under a blanket of dust on my shelves. The rules for 2015 are simple: I shall not purchase any books, I will only acquire them free (ARCs, gifts, etc). This forces me to read that which languishes unread, unloved.

Hopefully, this means 2015 is the year that I tackle some of the great beasts that have been waiting, such as Infinite Jest, JR, and Gravity's Rainbow, among others. I might even start Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu (though I should know myself better than to aspire too high). I also want to finish the different series that I've read, including Katherine Ann Goonan's Nano Quartet, Octavia Butler's Patternist series, Connie Willis's WW2 time travel duo, among others.

It's already February 1st and I haven't purchased a single book. That, I believe, is a good omen of things to come. Here's to 2014; I'm glad to close the door on you.

As for the books read in January? Here are my thoughts in easily consumed bursts.

The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer was excellent, mostly. The first book, Annihilation was stunning, vivid, and fully realized, even as it was vague and purposefully opaque. Vandermeer is not a writer known for rich characterization, yet I found myself pleasantly drawn into the inner life of the unnamed narrator. The second book was, initially, a crushing disappointment; rather than continue with the science fiction trope of explorers in strange lands, Authority shifts to an office intrigue, light on the intrigue, heavy on the bureaucracy. I say initially because with time, I came to realize that the disappointment was in the tonal shift, not in the content. Sure, Authority could use a trim (but what doesn't?), though I enjoyed it in retrospect. The third was... interesting: not quite as successful as the first, but certainly an improvement on the second. I greatly appreciated that Vandermeer was reticent in answering the big questions. I could have done with less answers, to be honest.

George Saunders' much lauded collection of stories, Tenth of December was okay, the reality of the work certainly not matching the hyperbolic praise lavishing heaped on the slim volume's shoulders. The weird science fiction elements hopelessly and negatively forced comparisons (unconscious and not) to the late great David Foster Wallace, especially, the product testing story that couldn't sustain its premise or its characters, an unequal shadow of DFW's stories in Oblivion. That being said, I still liked the odd story or two. The prose, while unspectacular, was unobtrusive and pleasant.

I had always meant to read Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale but had never got around to it. I am very glad I did; it's Atwood pared down to the maximum of her considerable talents. It's not a perfect novel (the middle sags like so many other middles do) but the final third is as masterful as anything else she has written. The themes of technology, theocratic power, and patriarchy resonant still to this day, possibly even more. A Foucauldian reading of this novel seems painfully obvious but necessary, a task I won't bother with, presuming other better thinkers have tackled this classic.

Though I had only read Cloud Atlas, I have great admiration for David Mitchell's ambition, perhaps less so for his actual skill. Starting Ghostwritten, his debut, I meant to read only the first section of nine, but when I looked up, I was a third through the novel. I had forgotten how utterly compulsive reading Mitchell. His prose is so pleasant, so easily digested. Luckily, the subject matter of Ghostwritten matches the prose. Unlike Cloud Atlas's fascination with spirituality, Mitchell's debut is interested in geographical, political, and social connections. These connections manifest thematically in Mitchell's introduction of banking systems, economies of consumables, and the Internet. It's a success, even if the final two stories are a bit of a slog. The Bone Clocks, his longest and most recent novel, was good, I would say. The final story was absolutely stellar, showcasing his humanist interest in emotions. The fantasy elements of the novel are quite unsuccessful, to the point where I didn't really need them. Oh well.

I had started Perdido Street Station when I was in high school, and I quickly gave up. Mieville's prose is beautiful, but too dense for the adolescent me. Luckily, I gave the novel another try, and I'm happy that I did. The lushness of both his prose and his world made the slow start to the novel easy to conquer. The plot was fun and tickled many of my fancies. I was especially pleased to read a fantasy novel (or science fiction -- whatever) that consider the economics of its constructed world. It always drives me nuts when manufacturing, industry, agriculture, and currency is never thought through. I always wonder where items come from. Mieville, with his PhD, has thoroughly considered not only the economics, but also the politics of his world. Perdido Street Station was probably my favourite read of January, enough that I eagerly await reading the follow-up novel.

The Child Garden was a hard read. I find myself fascinated with a really specific sub sub subgenre of science fiction called "biopunk," the technologically oriented hacking of biology (a theme that features heavily in Perdido Street Station). Ryman's world considers the impact of genetically engineered viruses that cure disease and provide limitless knowledge to the infected. This sounds utterly fascinating, but Ryman's plot was far more interested in a character study of a rather flat protagonist and her relation to an opera based on Dante. It's obtuse and unwieldly, and I had to force myself through the novel. I didn't hate it; certainly Ryman's beautiful prose made it easier. I wish that I loved the book more. I wish I had loved the characters or cared about them in any way. I wish that the political dimensions of the novel hadn't been so... sophomoric (ie the main political thrust of the book is that Communism leads to a dangerous paucity of creativity, leading to large scale social stagnation -- yawn). Alas. Perhaps a second read would result in a better experience, but who has time for re-reads?

I'm pretty sure I read Gaiman's short novel in December, but I might have read it in November. Confession: I only read the novel because my partner needed it read for the class they teach. Otherwise, I would have never read it. What should have been one sitting dragged onto three because I fucking hate Gaiman's prose. He's the Hugh Grant of literature: bumbling, blandly charming, inoffensive, and coasting off success from 25 years ago. This novel was unbelievably forgettable. I have no idea what happened in it and it doesn't matter in the slightest what happened because it's about stories in the same way that everything Gaiman does. Ugh. (I will say this though: I quite enjoyed his Doctor Who story about Cybermen)

Robert Aickman, an author I had never heard of, turns out to be enjoying a critical renaissance. Hopefully this means more of his work will come into print, especially since the four collections of stories I picked up are fucking gorgeous. The stories are "strange stories," his preferred term, and they don't quite fit into the horror slot nor the Weird slot (notice the capital letter). They are their own beasts. Regardless of the subject matter, Aickman's prose is absolutely heavenly, an economic but welcome expanse of descriptive words that capture the ambiguity of the situation without losing the reader. Utterly wonderful. I've read two thirds of The Unsettled Dust and only maybe one story was lacklustre. A few stories haunt me, a verb I don't often use.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

November Reads

Musashi: The Way of the Samurai by Eiji Yoshikawa
Blackout by Connie Willis

and material from the following collections:
Future Lovecraft ed. Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula R. Stiles
Historical Lovecraft ed. Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula R. Stiles
Reach for Infinity ed. Jonathan Strahan
New Cthulhu: The Recent Weird ed. Paula Guran

I didn't read the entirety of these collections, but select material. I find myself fascinated by the form of the short story currently. I'll probably read the rest of these over the next month, plus a couple other collections I have acquired.

Connie Willis's novel was excellent, despite some plot machinations that frustrated me (how could time travelers be so ignorant about the non-linear capabilities of time travel?) and some background classism that irritated me. I quite liked the novel, and started reading All Clear almost immediately afterwards.

The Yoshikawa is the first paperback in a series of 5 that comprise an abridgment of his historical novel about the greatest swordsman in Japanese history. The first volume flew by for me. I was struck by how timeless were the structure and prose. The story seemed to straddle the line between folklore narrative and exciting war story. I loved it, to be honest.