Tuesday, May 22, 2012


Neal Stephenson's novels usually take me a long time to finish, and this is saying something considering how fast I read. Part of the reason they take so long is that the novels are usually over 800 pages. The sheer size of his novels are intimidating. But the other reason, which I will expand on in the review of his latest novel, is that Stephenson chases after every single strand in his novel with such obsessive focus and logic, that the gross amount of detail is overwhelming and exhausting. No other Stephenson novel seems a better example than 2011's Reamde.

Ostensibly a techno-thriller in the vein of his pseudonymous novels or any other airport thriller, Reamde is a challenge to other authors working in the same genre. The challenge is simply put: any event you put into your novel must flow logically and practically from the previous event. It sounds simple enough, but it isn't. Authors toss in any idea that captures their attention, whether the idea fits into the logic of the narrative or not. For example, in Angels and Demons by Dan Brown, dark matter is included, but without any logical reason. Its appearance in the novel is meant to function as MacGuffin as well as to confound any layman with technical mumbojumbo. The unfortunate effect for any learned reader is the quickly dawning awareness that Dan Brown has no idea what is dark matter. Reamde takes the same approach, seemingly, in including anything and everything. Stephenson's gigantic imagination, piqued by random facts, finds a logical and coherent manner to include everything, from how modern speedboats work to how flight plans are created to how international air corridors work and so on and so forth. Reamde is a 1,000 page collection of seemingly unrelated facts strung together by a tightly focused plot without any detours.

The very moment I write, "without any detours" will shock any avid reader of Stephenson who is yet to familiarize themselves with this novel. Cryptonomicon, while entertaining and masterful, suffers slightly from detours which in the long long long run, end up contributing to the plot, but only in the smallest of ways. Reamde is without detours. This is the first Stephenson novel that could ever be considered focused, and in typical Stephenson manner, it is obsessively focused.

Reamde runs down the scenario to its logical conclusion and painstakingly details every single step that brings the various strands together to its violent and operatic finale.

One of the best examples come from about 680 pages into the novel. Csongar, Marlon and Yuxia are on a yacht without any fuel in the middle of the ocean. How they've arrived in this situation would be too laborious to detail. Without any fuel, the three create sails and a method of navigating through a storm without capsizing. In other novels, written by less logical and stubborn authors, the events would have been described as simply, "they made sails and then figured out how to use them". Not Stephenson. He refuses to allow any fantasy to creep into this novel. Instead, the three characters must learn how sails function, how to make them, and how to utilize them. It takes about five pages of description, which probably translates to a few hours of research time for Stephenson. Not only do the characters have to learn how to use sails, but Stephenson also has to put into place how the characters have the ability to figure out such things.

Stephenson's ability to put elements into play early is one of his strengths. Much of Cryptonomicon's success is due to the vastness of the playing field and how carefully the author moves his pieces across. The gold in WWII is carefully put into place just so the gold in 1999 (or thereabouts) is carefully picked up. Each element of the character is well seeded so that when everything finally comes together, the reader never feels cheated out of something. Everything happens for a logical and pragmatic reason.

The same can be said about this novel. The climax of Reamde featuring the cast coming together to the main character's family's cabin, where a long (150 pages) shoot out occurs. In terms of pure narrative pragmatics, Stephenson spends a full three hundred pages making sure that every member shows up for the party. That is to say, that some characters who don't know about the cabin must find their way to the cabin in a very logical and pragmatic way. Sometimes this takes a while, and Stephenson never cheats the reader out of the multi-step process by which the distantly related characters come to the conclusion that the cabin is where everything goes down.

Even the virtual world of T'Rain, where the virus is introduced, plays into the logic of the novel in a way that is not gratuitous or "cool" in the way computers were shoehorned into narratives in the early 90s. This might sound familiar, if you've read Stephenson's earlier novel Snowcrash, a novel that I would go as far to say is awesome but I'm too nervous to re-read it for fear it won't match up to my memory. In Snowcrash, Stephenson visualizes the Web as a virtual world, a simulation of the real world called a Metaverse. Of course, the simulation of the world isn't one to one nor does it approach maximum fidelity. In true Stephensonian fashion, the logical outcome of such a technological novelty is that it would turn into a market. This is something already touched on in Snowcrash, but Stephenson, now armed with more knowledge about commerce than all the top sci-fi authors combined, takes to 2011 with T'Rain. Of course a simulated reality would feature a capitalistic market that works with and alongside the real world's market. The joke is, of course, that the real world market is as virtual and digital as T'Rain's market.

Stephenson's pet themes are explored in Reamde as expected: commerce, technology, guns, the Philipines and gold. However, the pet themes are in service of the plot, rather than the other way around. No longer does the gold function are merely MacGuffin, but as an integral factor in the motivation of a collection of disparate characters. The gold in the Baroque Cycle is just a way to move pieces around the board, not as in Reamde where it the ultimate goal.

Reamde's tight focus is what made the 1,044 pages zoom by in two large chunks. I began reading this in September when it was published, made it about halfway, and then in typical fashion, I set it aside for a few months. This occurs every time I read a novel by Stephenson. I thought it would be different this time, but it was not to be. This isn't a criticism of Stephenson at all. Far from it. The very fact that his novels exhaust me with their detail is what makes me return time and again to his fiction. I recently purchased a hardcover early edition of Cryptonomicon because I want to re-read it, but I know it won't be for a long time, and even when I do, it will take time. Reamde isn't quite as satisfying as the earlier novel, but it's certainly more coherent and straight forward. I quite liked Reamde, even if longer novels tend to be overpraised by virtue of being completed.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Before Watchmen, IGN, and other nonsense

This blog has looked at IGN previously and concluded that the site is not journalism but simply an advertising machine, and one cannot even blame it for this considering it needs the revenue to function. There's a fine line between being a news site that offers information on a product and an advertisement that promotes information on a product. IGN is going through, has gone through, an identity crisis where it attempts to navigate that fine line. Unfortunately, it has failed to keep its head above the waters of gross capitalism. It has succumbed and traded in its journalistic integrity for the simple fact that people need jobs and this is how one keeps their job - in this particular industry, I might add.

In the picture posted above, from an early preview of DC's misguided Before Watchmen, the reviewer states simply that the talent on this project "have enormous respect for the original work and how it was presented". Let me just say right from the beginning that no, the talent does not have respect for the original work. If they did, they would have respected the creator's wishes and not contributed to a cash-in sequel that narratively speaking adds nothing to the original self-contained 12 issue mini-series (not a fucking graphic novel). This might be the angriest I've ever been with the entire comic book industry right now.

Before Watchmen adds nothing to the discourse of comics and in fact, devolves the work done by progressive or forward-thinking artists and writers. Before Watchmen is the culmination of a trend of looking backwards and never adding anything new to the discourse. For the past twenty to thirty years, the zeitgeist has been mining the past for inspiration, never looking forward and wallowing in the triumphs of the previous age. Even Watchmen itself, an original work, is interested in "deconstructing" (in a layman's kind of way) the icon of the superhero. It added two things to the discourse of comics: revealed how psychologically damaged superheroes are and helped instigate a fundamental misunderstanding of realism which has lasted even to this very day. Both Watchman and The Dark Knight Returns contributed the genesis of the "grim and gritty" era of comics that has yet to die. This is a mode of storytelling where the idea of "mature" is conflated with excessive gratuitous violence and sophomoric sexuality.

Now, Watchmen is almost twenty years old, and its style of tone (rather than technical style) and texture has been replicated and reproduced countless times by writers not nearly as self-aware as Alan Moore. For a perfect example of this, here's a picture of a Green Lantern character puking blood:

Geoff Johns is the writer that perfectly encapsulates the conflation of mature storytelling with excessive and gratuitous violence. His work is puerile, sophomoric and most importantly, stagnant. Every story he tells ruthlessly mines the past for inspiration. He is the perfect postmodern writer as formulated by Fredric Jameson. Blackest Night, the giant crossover that ruthlessly uses the culturally hot zombie, found its inspiration in a throwaway line from an Alan Moore short story from the early Eighties. Johns has brought back Hal Jordan, erasing and reframing the 90s as simply a virus, and Barry Allen, the "classic" Flash we're all interested, despite the amazing work writers have done with Wally West (who is a superior creation). All of this has been in pursuit of the comic book reader who has grown up with comics and seeks a more "mature" story than the comics of their youth.

Before Watchmen is exactly this. It is an attempt to capitalize on the fact that many people grew up with Watchmen, or at least, Watchmen's looming shadow over the history of comics. I didn't read Watchmen until the early 2000s when I was in my early twenties, but I had heard of it, and I had understood its significance. However, I am a minority. Many readers who grew up with the 90s, the garish pockets, the over-sized guns, the ludicrous anatomy, the complicated time travel stories that never made any sense, these were all mutations from Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. Both of which feature crypto-fascist superheroes currently idolized (including by me).

Film Crit Hulk, one of the best writers working in cultural studies right now, wrote a piece about Batman. He argues that if you idolize Rorschach or the crypto-fascist version of Batman or even the anarchist Joker of Nolan's The Dark Knight, then you have severely missed the point. By idealizing Rorschach, you have totally missed what Alan Moore was saying about superheroes. They're not to be idolized or revered because they are severely damaged individuals. Only the most screwed up of people would want to wear a mask and physically punish people for a variety of crimes and misdemeanors. With Rorschach, it's codified in his subscription to the extremist right wing racist group that eventually receives his diary in the end. You're not supposed to identify with him or his political beliefs. You're supposed to question yourself and ask yourself why you look up to Batman and Rorschach.

Before Watchmen plays into the hand of twenty years of comic book misinterpretation. Instead of destabilizing superheroes, the project's very existence speaks to the idolization of the characters within the comics. By simply being made, Before Watchmen codifies a misinterpretation of the core problem at the heart of the original project.

Thus, by writing and drawing new works that celebrate the cast of Watchmen, the creators of the new project are showing the least amount of respect for the original intent and meaning of the 12 issue miniseries. They have misunderstood the political aspirations of Watchmen and thus have no respect for the work.

The analogy to make here is if somebody made a sequel to Atlas Shrugged that featured John Galt working with charities. It would be disastrous and completely stupid.

On top of all this is the fact that Alan Moore is an outspoken critic of the comic book industry itself, not only how he was treated but how numerous others have been treated. I'm not going to systematically take apart all of the counterarguments to Moore's criticisms except for one: the contract. When Moore and Gibbons signed the contract, the spirit of the thing was that once the trade went out of print, the rights would revert to them, with every party understanding that this would happen inevitably because the trade paperback industry wsa fickle and hadn't taken off in the way it had now. Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on who benefits, Watchmen went on to become a massive success, critically and commercially. Never before had something resonated with consumers or their wallets on the same scale. Merchandising, the next logical step for DC and any other business, was hands-off according to the contract and the creators' wishes. However, DC went ahead with it anyway, thus violating the spirit of the contract. I'm simplifying a complex legal situation but suffice it to say that the contract screwed Moore and Gibbons, but they signed it regardless. Jim Lee's response to this recently was that Moore didn't read the contract and that nobody can force the signer to read what he's signing. The immediate response is of course, that it's Moore's fault.

However, my point is that it's shitty that the contract existed in the first place. The fact that the industry had normalized such ethically questionable behaviour to the point where it was expected is fundamentally worrisome. "Of course Moore got screwed - that's how things were" does not justify or excuse the treatment of other artists and writers who were taken advantage of before and after Watchmen's success.

I wrote about this on Robot6's forums a few weeks ago, when I decided to donate 14 dollars to the Hero Initiative rather than go see The Avengers. I have slowly but inexorably drifted away from Marvel and DC over the years due to a multitude of simultaneous reasons.

1) The industry is no longer and has not been a creative arts industry in over twenty years due the logic of late capitalism
2) The stories and characters being produced are merely repetitions of stories and characters I already grew up with
3) The increased focus on line-wide event stories has forced writers and artists to compromise their artistic vision for sales-baiting tactics
4) The treatment of artists and writers over the past 60 years and my increasing awareness of them has made buying comics less desirable than ever.

Ultimately, I feel like an asshole when I buy comics now because I am ethically complicit in the crimes committed by the system. There are numerous other examples of reasons why I feel like an asshole, but most of them are variations of the four reasons stated above.

However, I still like to read IGN talk about things like Before Watchmen because they do so without any modicum of irony or self-awareness. The writer in this particular article makes mention that this pool of talent would be better served creating original material, but he swiftly puts that objection out of his head by fawning over what's been given to him. This serves to prove my point perfectly. The system has normalized behaviour like this where we are happy to accept anything we receive, even if it's a sequel or a prequel that betrays the meaning of the original work or if it's demonstrably poor storytelling and a ruthless exploitation of nostalgia. Because all of this is the norm, we accept it and provide the industry with our money.

Well, no longer. I have stopped buying comics from Marvel and DC entirely which is difficult considering I would like to support artists and writers such as Jonathan Hickman, Frank Quitely, Brian Azzarello, and a host of others, but to buy their products means giving my money to giant conglomerates such as DC, Disney, or GE.

The naive part about my protest is that the same conglomerates that own Marvel and DC will get my money any way through any product that I purchase. No matter what I do, no matter what I consume, my money flows into the hands of six companies. However, I can make a microcosmic stand.

This is something I wrote about when this blog was new. I said that the only way to make our voices heard is through our wallets. Then, I meant buying the products we wish to support that are ethically positive and high quality. Now it means that I can no longer support the system itself, including the positive elements. It's become an all or nothing proposition for me, and it starts with Before Watchmen.

Please don't purchase Before Watchmen. Don't even read it. It's just good karma.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

"Science belongs to everybody"

It will be useful in taking a second look at science and religion to understand the true nature of the search for objective truth. Science is not just another enterprise like medicine or engineering or theology. It is the wellspring of all knowledge that we have of the real that can be tested and fitted to preexisting knowledge. It is the arsenal of technologies and inferential mathematics needed to distinguish the true from the false. It formulates the principles and formulas that tie all this knowledge together. Science belongs to everybody. Its constituent parts can be challenged by anybody in the world who has sufficient information to do so. It is not just "another way of knowing" as often claimed, making it coequal with religious faith. The conflict between scientific knowledge and the teachings of organized religion is irreconcilable. (pp 295)

Edward O. Wilson. The Social Conquest of Earth, 2012.

Zombies, anarchy, and Occupy Wall Street


This is going to be a long piece, and it's merely the beginning of something I want to explore, so it doesn't come to any definitive answer but rather asks a multitude of questions. So bear with me, as I'll probably come back to this again and again.

I think we can all agree that post-apocalyptic scenarios have taken a strong hold on mass culture right now. One only has to look to the ubiquity of zombies in order to prove this. The Walking Dead, Dawn of the Dead, 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland (the last two being metacommentary on zombie fiction itself) are all pernicious examples of post-apocalyptic scenarios.

The fantasy of the post-apocalyptic scenario is that society is inherently fragile and that only the strongest of individuals can manage to survive the extinction event and continue to survive using primitive skills and modern knowledge. Sometimes, in the more optimistic fiction, society is rebuilt by a smaller group, with smaller goals but ultimately, without the bureaucracy of a government. If a government is installed in these particular optimistic scenarios, it is usually a benevolent Leviathan. More often than not, the prevailing attitude of this fiction is of cure cynicism and hopelessness. Humanity is inherently brutish and violent; the apocalypse is therefore inevitable.

Part of the attraction of the post-apocalyptic scenario, I believe, is the removal of the social safety net. I don't mean the economic one per se, but the safety net of a collective organization motivated by altruistic goals. That is to say, that I think the ubiquity of post-apocalyptic scenarios is related to the rigidity and stability of current North American civilization. We are living in the safest possible time in the history of humankind. We are living in the most prosperous time in the history of humankind. Everybody has a cellphone; everybody has access to the Internet in some form or another. We are so privileged as to be considered full of self-entitlement. The reaction to this stability is a fantasy of removing everything, taking away that which makes society function (technology, government, social bonds) for a highly individualistic pursuit of self-reliance. It's also a fantasy of removing the highly bureaucratic and powerful government. Young people tend to express dissatisfaction and distrust of their current government (not really a new thing, though) so the fantasy is a reaction to this. We fantasize a world in which there is no government.

Thus, the post-apocalyptic scenario is a fantasy of less government into a system of chiefs, as per the social complex hierarchy, or even less, that is to say, anarchy. The key is that the target demographic for zombie fiction are fantasizing en masse a world in which there is no government.

So why then are young people protesting for more government? The Occupy Wall Street protests, which I think we can take to be the most vocal of all the protests occurring in North American culture, and can probably be taken as representative of young people's opinions (considering the ubiquity of the "occupy" meme), are essentially arguing for more government. From the New York Times, here is a clear enunciation of the Occupy Movement's goals:
They sought to have banking-industry regulations tightened, high-frequency trading banned, all the “financial fraudsters” responsible for the 2008 crash arrested, and a Presidential commission formed to investigate corruption in politics
None of these things are anarchy. In fact, they are the opposite. In the article I linked to above, the author claims that many of the initial protesters identified themselves as "anarchists". No doubt, this is true. However, as the Occupy Movement gathered steam, and its nebulous goals seems to finally come into focus, that which they protested for didn't look anything like anarchy. It looked like more government. It looked like socialism and other left-leaning ideologies that argue for more Leviathan.

Thus, the two fantasies are incompatible: zombies/anarchy and Occupy/increased government.

Before I continue, I should qualify my statements regarding the Occupy Movement. First of all, it's a mistake to think that any one individual speaks for such a wide-ranging and politically diverse group, spread across vast geographical distances and without any clear leadership. Secondly, it's imprudent to consider the Occupy Movement as being representative of an entire culture. It's more prudent to consider them more vocal than other dissenting opinions.

However, let me qualify my qualifications. I think we can all agree than young people tend to vote more radically than older people. That is to say, that as people age, they become more conservative and tend to vote for more socially conservative values rather than economic values. I believe it's fair to say it's axiomatic that young people are more left-leaning as a collective group than right-leaning. On the impossibly complex political spectrum (which has four axes, not two), younger people tend to vote more authoritarian on the social scale and left on the economic scale.

Let me put this another way. Young people believe that the government should help those that cannot help themselves and they generally do not support wars for purely economic reasons. They also believe that their tax money should go to help themselves and not serve to help corporations. When I write this blog post as an academic paper, I'll be sure to do the research to back this claim up, but I'm fairly confident in my assertion (ipse dixit etc).

We return to the biggest question:  a fantasy of anarchy is incompatible with the way young people vote.

How are we holding two mutually exclusive conditions in our head? Cognitive dissonance aside, it might serve to examine the economic reasons why and perhaps even the gender roles encapsulated by post-apocalyptic scenarios. It's far more complex than simply "no more government".

In a previous post on this blog, I pointed to economic reasons for the prevalence of hook-up culture. In summary, it has become increasingly attractive to pursue relationships of minimum economic drain, with marriage being the relationship with the maximum amount of drain. Of course, I tend to view things dispassionately and without "morals" so my conclusion was that this was neither a good thing nor a bad thing, but simply a thing.

I believe the logic of this conclusion (minimum economic drain) can be mapped onto post-apocalyptic scenarios with a bit of shifting. Perhaps instead of a fantasy of no government, it's in fact a fantasy of no economy.... No market, no capitalism, no advertising, no credit cards, no bills, no coins, and most importantly to my proposition, no debt. Perhaps the mass appeal of the zombie holocaust is that it is the great equalizer. The student loan crisis is quickly approaching in the United States. Let me quote from a report on the impending student loan bubble:
Based on CPI data, the cost of tuition and fees has more than doubled since 2000, outstripping the inflation rate across all goods, as well as the growth rates of energy, housing and healthcare costs. Despite all of the attention that house prices receive, it is noteworthy that even during the housing bubble, real estate appreciation was far exceeded by the growth rate in tuition. Fears of a bubble in educational spending are not without merit.
This comes from this report.

If we combine the student loan debt with the precarity and rarity of jobs currently available, we can perhaps see the attraction of all debt being erased and all humans put on the same level. No more advantages due to social connections, no more advantages due to familial fortunes. It is the great equalizer.

The post-apocalyptic scenario presents a fantasy in which the debt that you have incurred has been cataclysmically erased, freeing you from a) the responsibility to repay debt (which is culturally inoculated) and b) the obligation to find gainful employment, something also culturally inoculated and economically motivated. Being free from these means being free from society. Of course, if government falls during the selfish pursuit of economic freedom, then that's even more advantageous and we might rebuild society from the ground up.

Notice that I said the selfish pursuit. Certainly the freedom from economic pressures isn't due to altruistic motives such as what the student loan bubble will do to the nation but what it does to the individual. This maps very neatly onto another part of the fantasy of the post-apocalyptic: heteronormative gender roles, specifically concepts of masculinity.

I've been thinking a lot about masculinity ever since my father, while cycling, punched a driver after their car clipped his elbow. I thought about avenues of expression of violence and aggression and that modern males in North America are increasingly without. Edward O Wilson in his book The Social Conquest of Earth writes that many sociobiologists and psychologists have looked to the fandom of professional sports as the true ancestor of tribal warfare and masculine aggression. While that might be true, it's too large for the individual case. Not every male attends sports functions and not every male has the opportunity to express aggression. For my father, a generally "civilized" man who never raised a hand to his only child, to punch a man was the utmost extreme act, something so rare in his life as to be anomalous. Current humanitarian society has us internalize violence and associate any expression of it with guilt. However, that doesn't mean that we aren't straining to express our inner turmoil through "manly" pursuits such as fights, hunting, killing, sports, etc.

Part of the post-apocalyptic fantasy includes a return to tribalism, primitivism and basic hunter-gatherer roles. Which is to say that men get to sharpen sticks and fasten pointy rocks to them. All phallic imagery, of course, but I'm not interested in playing Freud. Post-apocalyptic fiction, from the lowest (C grade zombie flicks) to the highest (McCarthy's prize-winning The Road) tend to linger over the creation of weapons, the manipulation of weapons and the fetishizing of violence. To put it another way, post-apocalyptic scenarios include the fantasy of returning to generally masculine roles.

Perhaps this is a reaction to the success of feminism. Perhaps this is a reaction to equalization of sexes. I'm not sure. This bears examination. But I'm sure that it is related to the attraction of Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club, both in terms of economic equalization (Project Mayhem's ultimate success) and reaffirmation of masculine activities (aimless fighting). Even though both the book and the movie finish with a rather dim view of outmoded gender stereotypes and the futility of destroying credit companies, fans of the film seem to think that Fight Club is an enjoinder to reject society's strait jacket for a more nihilistic or anarchic worldview.

But again, the biggest fans of Fight Club appear to be middle class young men who generally vote Democrat or Liberal or NDP. Neither of which stand for anarchy.

Where are the anarchists? In the photo above, the symbol for anarchy has been spray painted onto a wall. The image comes from an article that implies four individuals in Montreal were associated with the anarchist movement. They were arrested for inciting panic over bomb threats or something like that. It's not important. These anarchists, if they are truly anarchists, would totally reject the post-apocalyptic scenario. Yes, reject it.

But why? Surely they would argue that any fantasy provided by capitalism is a distraction, and a self-indulgence. It is an attempt to pacify and indoctrinate you, confuse and manipulate you. The cultural logic of late capitalism is typified by the frantic waves of repeated commodities, ones that clumsily tap into the collective fantasies. Particularly, as Jameson points out, ones that exalt the individual with the ability to navigate the geographical and political and economic world.

Again, we return to the idealization of the individual. Typically, in postmodern works (as formulated by Jameson), this individual is male. In post-apocalyptic scenarios, the protagonist is generally a lone male who reluctantly joins a smaller band and ultimately leads them into an uncertain future. Part of their success in survival is the manipulation of weapons (something the average male is unable to do/has little access to and thus becomes part of the fantasy) and the navigation of the geography, which has turned increasingly hostile (zombies, plant life, animals). Henri Lefebvre sort of touches on this, if I remember correctly, in that the urban space has a specific effect on the individual. The urban space can control. The postmodern fantasy is the reverse: mastery of space. Again, we can see economic and gender fantasies at play in the post-apocalyptic scenarios.

So now we come to the end of this long post. Like I said at the beginning, I don't have the answers and this is merely the beginning of something bigger and something more substantial. Maybe even a thesis.... I don't know. Let's summarize the questions, shall we?

1) Why are post-apocalyptic scenarios so popular in culture?
2) Is it a reaction to the structure and stability of the current era?
3) If so, it's a fantasy for less government, not more. Why then has this not transposed to the political arena?
4) That is to say, why are the Occupy Wall Street protests arguing for MORE government (eg socialism, regulation)?
5) Or is the fantasy of post-apocalyptic scenarios more economic? That is to say, a cataclysmic relief from student debt (which is staggering in size in the US)?
6) Would question 5 serve to answer why young men are so attracted to Fight Club's Project Mayhem? Or does it have to do with reaffirmations of masculinity - which would fit into fantasies of zombie scenarios?

I want to examine each of these in fairly specific detail, and I've already written 2200 words about it. I can see this going somewhere. I just don't know where yet.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Death of Culture?

Have we truly reached the end of culture? Obviously not, but this bio for IMDB written by a comedian points to something quite interesting. He writes that the US currently operates at a 15 trillion dollar deficit, but has no problem inviting Kim Kardashian to the White House Correspondents Association Dinner. The implication is clear: Kardashian is a distraction, a tool being used by the political discourse (rather than a specific party or individual) in order to keep Americans from revolting a la Occupy Wall Street.

People have been signalling the death knell of culture since culture existed. However, American culture seems to have gone into a specific holding pattern over the last twenty years. No longer is the taboo unwelcome, but celebrated. Is it a reaction to the relative safety and comfort and high standard of living that Americans enjoy?

Only in North America could we have such a high standard of living and then subsequently complain about it. I'm not really sure what to make of it. I'm currently thinking about a rather long blog post that will probably end up an academic paper in the future, one that touches on the collective fantasies of the most privileged generation in the history of the United States. But, for now, here's a well written and surprisingly fair assessment of Kim Kardashian.

The Illusion of Choice

This is a long read, but totally worth it. This infographic might screw up the layout of my blog on some screens, but on my laptop, it seems to fit. An even bigger monitor will make it too small to read, so click on the picture to embiggen it. Or, if Blogger does that super fucking annoying thing where it blacks out the screen and provides the same size picture instead of the full size, click here for the biggest possible size image.

Just so you know, Blogger, you're pissing me off with this new layout and new image navigation nonsense.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Look at the size of this

This is Samuel R Delany's newest novel, just published about two months ago. It's called Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders. Honestly, that's one of the coolest titles for a novel I've ever heard. It's about two gay men over the course of five decades or something, but starting in 2007. So there's some sci-fi elements to it, but I think mostly it's a pornographic novel in the same vein as his previous few novels. Look at the size of this fucker. It's 800 pages. The type isn't even that huge on the page either.

Anyway, wish me luck on this!

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

At Swim, Two Boys

Jim is a quiet studious young man. Doyle is a loud outspoken socialist. It's 1915 in Dublin, and things are heating up. When Doyle and his family move back to the suburb, he renews his friendship with Jim, and they make a pact to swim the bay by next Easter. But, the republic of Ireland is about to be born violently, and the boys must make a choice between their love for each other or their love for their country.

Sometimes it's hard to think of what to say about a work of art. The difficulty in articulation of criticism (positive or negative) can come from opacity, lack of appeal, confusion, or even too much praise. There's no point in me reviewing Ulysses or Lolita. We've agreed, culturally speaking, to consider some works to be untouchable. The only interesting positions are contrarian opinions that somehow manage to say something profound about why that particular piece does not work. Since I have nothing but praise for certain things, I haven't written anything about them, other than references to them, using them measures of quality. We know that I consider Ulysses to be the (technically speaking) greatest novel in the English language. That's my bar. Some critics espouse a system whereby a hierarchy is employed. That is to say, Michael Bay's Transformers films are not comparable to Kurosawa's Seven Samurai. In order to judge those other films, not works of "real" cinema, every scant piece of praise is parceled out slightly, always framed in the same way: "Well, for a blockbuster, it's pretty good". I don't do this. My relationship to works of art is mostly empathetic. I am willing to forgive lack of logic or clumsy manipulation of theme if I am totally engaged emotionally with the work. Of course, it's not the situation that I empathize with, it's the emotions. This is why I can handle reviewing "high art" and "low art" at the same time. Because of emotional engagement. However, sometimes it's hard to articulate this emotional engagement beyond "I felt good" or "I felt bad". Such is the case of Jamie O'Neill's At Swim, Two Boys.

O'Neill's novel is almost perfect. Maybe I should have started the review with this, rather than why it's hard to be a critic sometimes. But I wanted to preface my review of At Swim, Two Boys with the caveat that I might not be able to do the book justice because it's such a specifically emotional novel. When I say, O'Neill's novel is almost perfect, I mean to say that as an experience, it is almost faultless. As a novel, there are technical issues, such as an overindulgence in generic conventions and a plot structure that is a bit too neat. I will unpack these issues, but first I want to explore why I might have trouble articulating why this novel affected me so.

Firstly, it's a romance novel. Superficially, the framework of the Easter Rising is texture simply. One could imagine replacing the Easter setting with any other tumultuous time with violence and social instability. Some of the most celebrated romance stories unfold themselves under the looming shadow of precipitous violence. Gone with the Wind, Doctor Zhivago, The English Patient, etc are all films interested in two people navigating history's tumult. However, At Swim, Two Boys separates itself from the collective by using the setting in a purposeful way and by featuring two boys as opposed to a heterosexual couple. Immediately, one can anticipate a problem from the premise, but it's not insurmountable. Doyler is an outspoken socialist, and more identifiable with traditional "masculine" roles in terms of the romance genre. Jim is a scholar, quiet, deeply religious and confused about his identity and his social position. This would normally fit into the traditional "feminine" role in the skeleton of the romance. But At Swim, Two Boys resists this, and in order to resist this heteronormative structure, the novel places the boys in a specific location and time. That is to say, that Oscar Wilde had only been dead for 15 years, religion still had a spectacular hold on the public's consciousness and social system, and concepts of masculinity were being viciously exploited by propaganda and increasingly explored by poetry during the Great War. Jim and Doyler do not slot neatly into "woman" and "man". Of course, this is just pointing out one of the novel's minor strengths. I'm sure O'Neill's intentions didn't include challenging traditional heteronormative metanarratives through deconstruction of the discourse. I'm willing to bet that O'Neill's intentions were to honestly portray a love story between two people in a time where their love would result in jail time and social ostracism.

I suppose it's one thing that I don't really discuss at length in my reviews, like I do "story" or "economy" or whatever pet theme I'm harping on. Last year, I was entirely concerned with realism and saying something important. While I still think this is valid, I think that this preoccupation with articulation should be paired with real emotional honesty. Critics and writers and teachers of writing always reiterate advice that goes like this: no matter what you do, it should be in service to the story. In the case of At Swim, Two Boys, the setting, the generic conventions and even the heavy handed manipulations of theme are always in service of the story, which is to portray, honestly, the developing love between Doyler and Jim. If the setting had been merely backdrop, as I said in the previous paragraph, then it wouldn't have been honest. Writing a narrative isn't about playing a trick on the audience or simply engaging in a economic exchange (provide me with your cash and in return, I'll provide entertainment for x hours). Telling a story should result in an emotional connection between the work and the audience, whether that engagement be empathy, boredom, disgust, hatred, adoration. It doesn't matter. As long as the work is honest about its purpose of emotional engagement. This might sound like I'm advocating works of art should be on the surface and hold their audience's hand ("here, feel this emotion. Okay, now feel that emotion.") but my position is slightly more subtle than this. I submit to you that works of art should be honest to themselves about what emotion they want the audience to feel.

Let's take an extreme example first, just to illustrate, and then bring it back to O'Neill's novel. Christopher Nolan's Memento is a film that is endlessly fascinating and has hundreds of thousands of words dedicated to it. The film's conceit isn't that it's playing a trick on the audience in terms of emotion, but it's using the narrative trick to sell the emotion at the core. Leonard's wife is dead, we know from the beginning of the film. It's tragic and he's looking for her killer, but he can't do it as easily as he had memory problems. What makes it tragic is that his whole life becomes a series of mementos in order to remember his wife and make sense of her death. Okay, notice that I haven't touched the sujet of the film but rather the fabula if I might employ some Russian Formalism. Memento works because we understand that Leonard's journey is painful because we feel the same emotions, we empathize with how he feels rather than what he experiences. The film's narrative trickery is meant to a) be a gimmick and b) say something fundamentally honest about our relationship with death, how we experience death. Leonard's emotional journey is an extreme version of one everybody goes through when experiencing loss. We search for mementos and imbue physical objects with meaning in order to maintain a connection with that which is lost. Memento, as a film, is totally honest about its emotions.

At Swim, Two Boys is the same thing. Instead of telling a long 700 page story about two people falling in love during social upheaval, O'Neill is more interested in telling a long 700 page story about Doyler and Jim falling in love during the Easter Rising. Sounds the same? But it isn't. The obvious question is then, why is it different? What makes At Swim, Two Boys different than every other tragic historical novel? The characters are honestly portrayed.

If Memento is honest about its prime emotional engagement, then it is only honest because Leonard's emotions are honestly portrayed. Even though he's not been honest with himself, that means something in of itself. Leonard's desire to lie to himself says more about our experience of mourning than anything previously seen in the film. Our capacity for self-deception is infinite, and Memento simply shows us an extreme version of that capability. You see, there was a reason why I chose an extreme example of art, one seemingly dishonest with its protagonist and its narrative. However, Memento still engages with us beyond opacity and difficulty to articulate something totally fucking honest.

Thus, At Swim, Two Boys' characters are honestly portrayed and the text uses Doyler and Jim not as mouthpieces for gay rights or for Ireland's independence or for deconstructing romance paradigms. Because the characters are so real and so alive, they transcend the generic conventions and structures of romance. I totally fell in love with their relationship because it was so vividly and more importantly honesty portrayed.

This was a very long way of saying that At Swim, Two Boys is well written. Like I said earlier, it's an almost faultless experience. The emotional journey that the characters go on is true to their nature. Doyler and Jim are both given enough backstory to make their decisions in the narrative logical and relatable. There's something exhilarating about art wherein the principles truly experience life to its maximum. The emotions and thoughts of the characters are so intense. Both Doyler and Jim have gone through things in their lives that make their love seem so acute or concentrated.

Let me provide a one sentence review of At Swim, Two Boys. It will be a blurb you could put on the cover. Here it is: "Even though I'm straight, reading this novel is like literally falling in love with both characters". The reason for this has been stated, but I'll reiterate it. One falls in love with Doyler and Jim because of their honest portrayal, flaws and all. Doyler is a bit sanctimonious and a bit of a git. Jim is a little too sensitive and nebbish. I don't love them in spite of their flaws, I love them because of their flaws. If they had been a bit too perfect, or a bit too on the head, I would have revolted and not read 700 pages of them falling in love.

Part of the success of At Swim, Two Boys is the sort of kind of stream of consciousness device O'Neill borrows from other Irish novelists. The title of the novel is a reference to Flann O'Brien, but the prose owes a lot to James Joyce. Where Ulysses is a technically perfect novel, its emotional engagement isn't always successful (only the Ithaca and Penelope scenes are emotionally engaging). At Swim, Two Boys uses the stream of consciousness to really explore falling in love. There's no other emotion as intensely felt as falling in love. It takes over you and consumes you in a way that grief or terror don't. In order to convey that intensity, O'Neill provides access to the intensity of the human brain. Stepping into the head of another person so fully realized is almost sublime, and I mean that in the actual sense of the word. There's terror involved with falling in love and O'Neill captures that perfectly in both the characters and in the reaction of the audience to the situation.

There are other characters in the novel, and they are given time on stage, but like people in love often do, O'Neill ignores them for the two boys. Because as we all know, when you're falling in love, you feel like you're the only two people on the planet. O'Neill understands this and makes his narrative reflect this. The only other character given significant screen time is older aristocratic MacMurrough. His purpose in the narrative is to normalize homosexuality for Jim and Doyler by having sex with them separately, or at least trying. He provides some of the philosophical underpinning of the novel and because he's more educated and experienced than the boys, he contributes to discourse on freedom, a theme very close to the heart of the novel. Freedom from oppression, whether it be political, religious, economic or social. The novel is exhilarating in its intensity when exploring this freedom. It's heady and disorienting, like when you step out onto the balcony of a hotel in a city you've never been to. There's wooziness to the intensity of emotion, and that's probably what makes the novel so alluring beyond its beautiful prose, evocative setting, and intertextuality.

Obviously I loved this novel. So far in 2012, this is the best thing I've read. But it's somewhat hard to talk about, isn't it? I mean,, really, the novel is about falling in love, and without explaining exactly how I felt when I fell in love, it's hard to articulate. We have O'Neill to thank for so honestly portraying it. If somebody ever asked me what it felt like when I fell in love, I would simply point to this novel. That's honesty.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Tragedy Day

The Doctor, Bernice and Ace end up on this planet where every year, the rich celebrate their wealth by making charitable donations to the deserving, the downtrodden. The TARDIS crew quickly deduce that this is merely a psychological trick to keep the poor in their position. But as quickly as they arrive, Ace is stuck in a concentration camp, and the Doctor and Bernice are accosted and arrested by the police. Two assassins are on the trail of the Doctor while the rich celebrities of the planet appear to be robot duplicates. An old and vast conspiracy is coming to a head in this year's Tragedy Day, and it involves genetically engineered animals that are described like Sharkticons and ancient sitcoms that sound like Leave it to Beaver.

Yeah, I know. This novel seems like it would be a big mess. And it sort of is, but in an endearing kind of way. Tragedy Day starts off rather slow, with too many prologues, which is beginning to be a rather tedious and over-indulgent trend with the New Adventures (the next novel's prologues last over 60 pages). However, by the middle of the novel, Gareth Roberts' wit takes over and lets the absurdity of the plot shine through.

There are a couple good things about this novel other than Roberts' wit. Number one is that a supporting character is gay. That's not remarkable in of itself. What's remarkable is that it's totally unremarkable in the novel. It's simply a part of his character, and it's quite fascinating. This novel was published in 1994, so it's absolutely refreshing that the gay character isn't tokenized or specialized in any way. Remember that in the early 90s, gay characters came in two forms: tragic figures dying of AIDS, or mouthpieces for agendas of tolerance. Both forms homogenized and robbed gay characters' of unique and individual voices. Luckily, we've sort of moved on from this, and Roberts' portrayal of a gay character presages this slightly.

Another good thing to say about this novel is that the pace never slackens. No Future, the previous novel, had a really tough time building up steam. Tragedy Day, after its aforementioned tedious prologues, creates drama and mystery within the first couple chapters. A refugee camp? A mysterious island with Sharkticons? A cult with a leader obsequiously named The Supreme One? Robots in disguise as newscasters? The disparate and somewhat ludicrous elements are thrown at the reader in the first little bit, similar to how Steven Moffat started his early episodes for Who. The more confusing and off-putting the elements, the more likely I would want to stick around to see if the writer could pull it off. Roberts introduces his madcap scenario and lets the cast loose.

It's nice when a writer doesn't introduce artificial obstacles in the plot in order to sustain drama. Tragedy Day simply allows its main characters to move around the board without hindrance. In typical new Ace fashion, she's interested in weaponizing the situation, whereas Benny gets involved with subterfuge. Roberts also allows for the companions to be intelligent. In a novel of robot duplicates, it's predictable that one of the TARDIS crew will be replaced, yes? Roberts however is too witty for something so pedestrian. When the fake Doctor shows up, Benny and Ace figure out within pages that he's not the real deal. Simultaneously, the real Doctor has awoken into a scene that doesn't end the way you expect, proving that Roberts can successfully pull off a bait and switch, narrative speaking, that is.

However, I didn't love the novel. The planetary villain is uninteresting, and his motives for a) villainy and b) the eleventh hour turnaround are never properly sketched out. He remains one-dimensional. The celestial godly villains have even less motive and less screen time. However, they participate in a rather well-paced and suspenseful climax, so I am willing to forgive their murky and ill-defined characters. On top of this, there are just too many characters. The novel's not even 300 pages, and there are a lot of people one must keep track of, including a Stetson-wearing, leather jacket-sporting seven foot tall arachnid with a Lancashire accent that is introduced to the plot if only to produce chaos and swiftly departs from the narrative as quickly as was introduced. Tragedy Day does not employ the New Adventures' strongest cast. At all.

I guess I was a bit disappointed considering how highly I think of Roberts' first New Adventure, The Highest Science. My expectations were set rather high and Tragedy Day, while entertaining, wasn't of the same caliber. Roberts' wit and deftness managed to save Tragedy Day from being abysmal. In the hands of any other writer, this novel would have been atrocious.

Here's a picture of the Sharkticons, so you can see what I was imagining through the novel:

Yes, I imagined a Transformers character to read a Doctor Who novel. And I wonder why I am still single?