Monday, December 28, 2015

"Get rid of human beings!": Elfriede Jelinek, Literary Criticism, and the Scourge of Realism


In 1983 or thereabouts, future Nobel Prize winning author Elfriede Jelinek published a short piece on the theatre. Though she is famous for either her controversial Nobel or for her 1983 novel The Piano Teacher, Jelinek has had a rich career with the stage. Her short piece, its title often translated as "I want to be shallow," is the closest thing Jelinek has to an aesthetic manifesto. She writes of the actors on stage:
I don't want theatre. Perhaps I just want to exhibit activities which one can perform as a presentation of something, but without any higher meaning. The actors should say something that nobody ever says, for this is not life. They should show work. They should say what's going on, but nobody should ever be able to say of them that something quite different is going on inside of them, something that one can read only indirectly on their faces or their bodies.
I find that how I've regarded realism lately dovetails nicely with her outspoken resistance to interiority and "reality." The stage is not the proper place for a mimetic display of real life, no matter how "real" the subject (class, economics, race). And neither is the novel. If 2015 could be summed up for me, in terms of aesthetics and literary theory, a suspicion of realism seems to rule. In reviews of Barracuda and other cultural objects, I've found myself repulsed and repelled by the mainstream literary novel's promise of real life. I observed myself offended by this; I know intellectually that the novel is fabrication and fabulation despite its arrogant attestations of holding up a mirror to the world. The novel is lying to me and it's even lying about lying. I cannot help but wonder why the novel doesn't simply shrug and admit its constructed identity. Why can't the novel be honest with itself? Nicholas Spice, over at the London Review of Books, summarizes Jelinek's position in the essay:
Characters on stage should be flat, like clothes in a fashion show: what you get should be no more than what you see. Psychological realism is repulsive, because it allows us to escape unpalatable reality by taking shelter in the ‘luxuriousness’ of personality, losing ourselves in the depth of individuated character. The writer’s task is to block this manoeuvre, to chase us off to a point from which we can view the horror with a dispassionate eye.
I should note that through my intensive Googling, I'm fairly certain people are quoting Spice when they claim they're quoting Jelinek. I don't read German, so I can't verify this exactly. The problem is that Žižek quotes Jelinek in First As Tragedy, Then As Farce, which was published a year after Spice's essay. Žižek's footnote correctly attributes the section to Spice, but claims it's "Jelinek quoted in..." (my italics). So again, I'm taking this stance from Spice, but I am also quoting from a translation I've found on the Internet.

Returning to my precis, realism is "repulsive" because it lies. The actors on stage, the promises of reality, become a type of ornament through their ridiculous mimicry of reality. This ornament becomes in of itself an unreality, but one that affects to hide its nature. In substitution of this phenomenological posturing, the stage and the novel can jettison this fake artificiality as Jelinek writes that, "[w]ithout being concerned with reality the effect becomes reality." Reality comes through well enough when the author/creator/actors get out of the way, stop stumbling over themselves to promise interiority.


As an example, Spice writes of the style in Jelinek's novel Greed:
The artist’s technique, the brush strokes – the way the paint has been laid on the canvasses – at first seems chaotic, a doodling or scribbling, sometimes frantic, sometimes childish; but as the eye gets used to the disordered surface, it begins to discern uncanny shapes and shadowy forms in the tangle of lines.
Reality eventually comes through, through the style, the ideas, the force of those ideas. Spice coins a beautiful phrase; he calls it the "analgesic of realism." It's a numbing calming effect. Purporting to present the world as it is means presenting the contradictory and co-mingling ideologies that compose the observer. Offering knowledge as "common sense" means essentially reaffirming the truth statements that are presently disseminated by the status quo, by those that have the power to determine what knowledge is acceptable and what isn't.


However, I might arrest myself from working up a froth. Over at the LA Review of Books, Matthew Mullins reviews Rita Felski's The Limits of Critique, writing that Felski's thesis is that the current de facto mode of literary analysis has become its own "common sense," obfuscating its own position as one of many other methodologies. The current style of critique, Felski argues is one of suspicion. Mullins writes of Felski's argument:
the suspicious critic as an inspector or detective. If critics read by digging down and standing back, then we write by working from effect to cause like good detectives always do... Every text has something to hide, and once the critic has figured out which social forces lie buried beneath its surface or hidden in plain sight, she must give a persuasive account of the text’s complicity. The text is always an accomplice, if not a perpetrator.
This "hermeneutics of suspicion" has shackled the critic to only two forms of critique: the "digging down" of Freudian style psychoanalysis and the "standing back" of Marxist discourse and its followers. The Freudian digs down into the text looking for clues of the author's psychological state, or at least, the social forces that animated the author to write the book. The Marxist stands back and considers the author or the text in its wider context, such as which social forces compelled the text into its current shape. Mullins writes that critics
distance themselves to situate, contextualize, and denaturalize the text. They mistrust what seems natural. These metaphors of digging down and standing back function as the centripetal forces of critique. They encourage the critic to adopt a distrustful attitude toward the text. Interpretation hinges on the assumption that all texts mean more than they say.
Felski writes that these "common sense" distrustful styles of critique have worked themselves into a corner; she writes that “opposing critique to common sense fails to acknowledge the commonsensical aspects of critique."

In other words, literary criticism has created its own monster—a Frankenstein of suspicion that demands critics find only evidence of a worldview they already subscribe to. Felski, despite her reassurances that she is not simply reiterating the critique's intrinsic problem of self-referential criticism, provides alternatives: "recognition, enchantment, knowledge, and shock, each outlining a less antagonistic methodology." This echoes, either intentionally or not, Darko Suvin's work in science fiction and Todorov's theory of the fantastic, of which I've written before.


Again, at the LA Review of Books, the impressive Joshua Adam Anderson writes of genre:
Genre has always been an ethical and political issue; remembering this will help us transcend the illusion that genre-mapping is an objective activity. Genres emerge when a multitude of forces conspire to place creative works into a schematic model; the problem arises when we treat genre categories as givens rather than as constructed classification systems.
Parallels between Felski and Anderson's arguments are apparent: common sense beliefs are essentially tautologies and a self-consciousness and praxis are required to consider them and their power. In his essay on science fiction, Anderson writes that insisting on genre classifications such as "science fiction" strangles the literary and epistemological possibilities of the genre. Science fiction has, ironically, become a genre with staid static boundaries despite being the perfect genre to transgress those boundaries. Anderson continues, citing Todorov:
Todorov establishes a logic that persists to this day: the fundamental dogma that texts are either realistic or unrealistic. Both concepts — both the uncertain space of the fantastic, where explanations elude the reader, and the dizzying fluidity of that which is both familiar and unfamiliar in Freud’s uncanny — work to divide the world of texts according to what we know to be possible.
The task of the critic, then, would be to dismantle the dogma. The critic is, after all, meant to be the outsider, the individual who can see the establishment and its tendrils everywhere. The critic refuses to settle for the common sense, the dominant discourse, the ideology that 2 + 2 = 5. How then to dismantle a dogma that separates realism from non-realism and not fall into the trap of replacing it with just another non-realism? Felski wants us to expand the possibilities of critique from suspicion to other affects, such as shock or enchantment. Anderson suggests a possibility that's quite compelling. He writes:
We can articulate a new fantastic, by rearticulating — retaining, but modifying — the logic of the fantastic, in order to say something like the following: The new fantastic is evinced by the ways in which something deviates from a normativity. When practically applied, this takes the form of a question: In what way does something deviate from a specific particular normativity? (Anderson's italics)
There is a subtle difference between rejecting realism outright as Jelinek does and rejecting suspicion as Felski seems to argue. Anderson's New Fantastic (I'll supply the capital letters) does not at first seem to apply to realism, but realism's potential to destabilize and uncover can be a deviation from normativity. Recalling Jelinek's forceful suggestion that the lack of reality becomes an effect of reality, when realism gets out of its way, tries not so hard to insist upon itself, an actual reality emerges from fuzziness, the fabrication, the fabulation, the fantastic.


Consider Jelinek's The Piano Teacher. The novel is angry, vehemently vitriolic, pouring scorn upon all aspects of Austrian society. The repression of women, both economic and gendered, the purposeful mass amnesia about Austria's complicity in Nazism, the co-opting of culture (such as "classical" music) by the state for nationalism and control, all these elements are very real and force themselves upon the constructions of the titular piano teacher. The sexual affair between Erika and Klemmer is violent, sadistic, pleasurable, painful, disgusting, voyeuristic, masturbatory. These are all real things, but it is not simply the overall social forces that shape these characters; it is also the writer and the texts outside the text that form the cast. Spice sums up the affair between the two characters thus: "At first the balance of power tips towards Erika, but it’s only a matter of time before the underlying structure asserts itself. Nothing in Erika’s psychological armoury is a match for Klemmer’s brute force." While Jelinek rails against both the economic and gendered oppression of women, she is not content to simply depict this as a universal struggle between female sexuality and male perversion. To do so would be reductive. Instead, Jelinek depicts the pervading normativity of exploitation. Her inversion or even subversion of this normativity using specific individual flat characters shows a deviation from normativity, paradoxically as they reaffirm the normative discourse of female-male asymmetric sexual relations. It is not simply that these characters stand in for social forces. Nor is it that the characters stand in for Jelinek and her circle of relations. Rather, these constructed characters remind us of their construction, their unreality. They are not inconsequential despite being unreal. The characters are actors, empty shopping bags to be filled by us, the audience.

Jelinek writes that on the stage we must "Get rid of human beings who could fabricate a systematic relationship to some invented character! Like clothes, you hear me? Clothes don't have their own form either. They have to be poured over bodies that ARE their form." The novel then needs to be shaggy, shapeless, but not static, not rigid in its limits and edges. Jelinek observes that clothes come in different shapes and functions but all mostly have the same core form: "Each piece is defined, but at the same time not too tightly delimited with respect to what it is supposed to do. Sweater, dress--they all have their leeways and holes for the arms." We can see a genre emerging from the wreckage; we can see "uncanny shapes and shadowy forms in the tangle of lines" as it coalesces not into something monolithic but rather as an epistemological move; realism then as a departure from the normativity.

How does this realism appear, practically speaking? I'm not sure. I know only that the current mode of realism is broken, boring, old, worn out. I know only that the critic and the creator, working in dialogue, can produce new possibilities. They need not abandon entirely realism. After all, Jelinek, for example, still works with a real Austria, with real things. To wit, she uses cardboard cutouts to play act the reality she sees. Realism does not need to loom menacingly over all of literature. Nor does its genre need to be apolitical. Frankly, nor does criticism. Rather, the creators should apply different understandings of genre and form to their ideas to produce deviations from normativity to which, in a cyclical manner, the critic will apply non-normative affects (ie ones other than suspicion), producing new ways of apprehending genre, texts, and even reality.

Anderson says it best, I believe:
Placing literary works at the nexus of a wide range of possible vectors along which its various fantasticities could be evaluated could open up a whole host of political, aesthetic, and critical possibilities.
In other words, we need new vectors. We need to get rid of human beings to save realism from itself.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

November-December Reads

Blood Harvest by Terence Dicks
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters
Strange England by Simon Messingham
First Frontier by David A. McIntee
Alien Bodies by Lawrence Miles
Victorian People and Ideas by Richard T. Altick

Well, according to Goodreads (which I use only for tracking purposes), I've read 60 books in 2015. Not a huge number for me, but then again, more than many people will read in their entire lifetimes. Through November and December, I managed to write pieces on almost every book I read. I had forgotten the pleasure of writing, it seemed, so I found it very enjoyable to return to articulating my thoughts, even if they were on the subject of Doctor Who or Star Wars.

I did not write a piece on Altick's history book because I have not much to say about it. The 1973 history text is billed as a "companion to the modern reader of Victorian literature," in that Altick provides literary analogues or references when delivering historical facts or concepts, eg. when speaking of say the Second Reform Act, he refers to Trollope's Phineas Finn (which I have not read). Altick organizes the book into concepts, rather than a linear historical narrative (similarly to Andy McSmith's No Such Thing as Society), moving from how the Victorians administrated economic policy to how religion marshalled their lives, all the while, providing clear examples from Victorian literature. In his preface, Altick explicitly notes that his book contains no original ideas but is instead of synthesis of Victorian ideas gleaned through research; in this way, the book is less mired in the famous who's and what's and more focused on an intellectual history, which for me, makes for a more compelling read. Altick's narrative voice and prose are light enough that I could read huge swaths in one sitting, but scholarly enough that I didn't feel like I was skimming a Wikipedia article.

I've decided to simply admit to myself that I am an Anglophile. I love reading about the Victorians; I love reading and watching British cultural objects. I know more about British painting than any other country's output. I can recognize famous accents. I've read two different books on the history of England in the 1980s. I may as well be honest with myself: I can't get enough of Britain and its history. But this poses a quandary for somebody such as myself. How do I reconcile my pleasure with reading of the Victorians with the knowledge that their time on Earth was oppressive for marginalized people, hyperbolically capitalist, anti-feminist, religious, and fervently convinced of their own superiority. Their science and medicine was both atrocious (they found "scientific" rationale for racism) and stupendously progressive. The Victorians essentially invented how we conceptualize "culture" (ie as something to enrich and to consume). And yet, no matter how many positives I can find, the net result is that the Victorians and Empire, with all that implies, are inextricably connected.

How do I look myself in the mirror when I enjoy reading about these people? Well, I suppose I can console myself that a vast majority of Victorians were regular folk just like me trying to make ends meet in a system that was economically oppressive, that these same people, thanks to this oppression, were able to create modern unions, child labour laws, and proto-feminism. If it were not for the Victorians, modern conveniences I enjoy probably would have not existed. But again, I stumble into the same attempt at justifying or rationalizing their abhorrent behaviour. It's a quandary that I cannot solve with the minuscule training in ethics that I have.

In terms of a year end, I can identify some novels I thought were superlatively good, but I don't know if I could rank them. Here, then, is a bland list of novels wherein my experience reading them was cartoonishly positive:
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek
Perdido Street Station by China Mieville
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

Of the total number of books I read in 2015, 16 were by women (26%), 11 were by folks under the LGBTT umbrella (18%), and 2 were by writers of colour (3.33%). In other words, 2015 was not a diverse year for books for me—certainly not to the extent that 2014 was. I hope to reach gender, sexual orientation, and racial parity for 2016, but who knows what the year will bring. Every year I make these proclamations or promises and never follow through; case in point, I meant to read Moby-Dick this year. Perhaps 2016 will be the year I tackle that and Infinite Jest. Perhaps not.

I finish the year with 60 books as the novel I'm currently reading is 800 pages and I don't foresee finishing it in 4 days. I'm not overjoyed with this number or my stats on how many white dudes I read, but on the other hand, I can't control where my fickle tastes will take me.

Here's to 2015. It wasn't a great year, but it wasn't awful either. Check back later, as I'll do a long piece on my favourite films of 2015 (and I saw a fucking ton of movies this year).

Pot-Bouille


When I follow my tag "zola," I find that L'assomoir seems to be the only Zola novel I've reviewed (and boy did I review with some sort of bullshit "stream of consciousness" style. How embarrassing). Slowly, I've been accumulating the new translations put out by Oxford World's Classics (pictured above) and it's high time that I return to the Rougon-Macquart cycle that Zola is so well known for.

Brian Nelson's translation of the title is Pot Luck, which is fairly clever, but not quite as clever as the original French, Pot-Bouille (which I have chosen to retain as title for the review). Pot-Bouille recalls both the pot luck/goulash kind of mélange and the boiling point of a pot on the stove. Zola is punning on the different classes assembled under the roof of the apartment building he's focused on for this novel and the heat of their tempers, their lust, their desires. Pot Luck just doesn't quite manage to hit that multiplicity of meaning as the original title does. It's not fair to the translator, of course, as French is a richer language than English.

Pot-Bouille concentrates on a single apartment block using Octave Mouret (a descendant of characters from a previous Rougon-Macquart novel) as ostensibly the protagonist. He is the audience surrogate, at least in the beginning; we and Octave are introduced to the various families and relations that live in the building at the same time; presumably Octave finds it as bewildering as I did on first glance. There's the Josserands, headed up by a matriarch obsessed with marrying off her two daughters to suitable matches; there's the Pichons, so intent on their bourgeois gentility that they have subsumed all passion and desire; there's the Duveyriers, of whom the husband bristles at the prison of bourgeois respectability. There are other families, but like other Zola constructs, the individual characters matter less than the labyrinthine structures of class, heredity, economics, and society that they are slowly ground through and by.

Apparently, a common complaint of Zola, that which arrests him from rising to the great heights of Dickens, is that his characters are flat. They do not leap off the page, they do not linger in memories like the Artful Dodger or Miss Havisham. I believe this is another symptom of the persistence of relatability in realism, which I've written on before. In this case, I might have softened my rigidity a little bit. I can appreciate the criticism that Zola's characters are flat (they almost objectively flat), but this does not and cannot detract from the experience for me. Believable or relatable characters do not make or break a narrative for me. Zola's thesis over these 20 novels is about how great forces shape families and people; these great forces need to be believable and cogent in order for the novels to stand. Zola is a master of understanding and working through this social determinants. It's almost hard to believe that he was publishing one of these a year (sometimes two a year).

Pot-Bouille succeeds when considering the hypocrisy that pretty much defines the bourgeoisie. The family of the Josserands provides the most fruitful avenue of satire and excoriation. A tangent, if you will. Just before starting this novel, I had attempted to read Sense and Sensibility by the esteemed Jane Austen; I found it intolerable. Well, perhaps "intolerable" is a bit too strong, but I can't quite place my finger on the exact word. Austen's style left me cold. My experiences with eighteenth century haven't been productive. It's almost like the form of the novel hadn't quite coalesced yet, so they're shaggier, messier, awkward, like a toddler with a giant head, wobbling around, teetering. Specific to Austen, I found myself unable to care about the characters in way, their situation, or what Austen had to say about her society. The novel is myopically focused on marriage, with the Dashwood sisters being our protagonists, the people we should be rooting for. But I found them boring. Not necessarily flat, but simply boring. I found their desires and wishes parochial and small. Even worse, one of the supporting cast complained of being bored, but wouldn't get a job, even when one was suggested or offered. How the fuck am I supposed to care about these fickle frivolous creatures who have made their fortune from the intrinsically unequal quasi-feudal system?

Edward Said wrote an essay on Jane Austen, looking at Mansfield Park. In it, he introduces, or at least, complicates methodology already formulated in previous efforts. It's not simply enough to consider historical context such as Austen's tiny world, but one must consider the global context, how Empire insidiously creeps into every facet of life, including literature. Said points out that the entire plot of Mansfield Park wouldn't be possible without the invisible faceless labour that provides the family with their estate. He argues that such erasure is a sign of the Empire's monolithic strength, obliterating and wilfully forgetting that which erected it. Perhaps this is why I couldn't really muster any affect for those that populate Sense and Sensibility. I can't forget that I'm essentially reading about the oppressors, that I'm supposed to be invested in their shitty nonsense problems.

The Josserands—and Zola—were a much needed corrective to the bullshit peddled by Austen and her imitators. Instead of putting these bourgeois hypocrites and their facile problems on a pedestal, Zola brings them down into the filth, the mire, the muck of reality. The Josserands are the targets of a vicious rebuke; they're the synecdoche of bourgeois mendacity and falseness. Madame Josserand's obnoxious maneuvering, her strenuous efforts to marry off her two daughters (similarly to the two Dashwood sisters) to anybody that will coldly and rationally benefit the family—preferably in cold hard cash—are all offered for spiteful reproach. It feels like Zola let this family construct their fortress made of horseshit, only for the writer's sharp pen to pierce its walls, letting it all pour down.

This metaphor is aptly chosen, as Zola doesn't skimp out on the details of the servants and maids in the house. The servants have little of the bourgeois hypocrisy that characterizes their masters; they let all the garbage, piss, shit, offal, and filth simmer and coagulate in the little park beside the building. No, it's not a subtle metaphor (respectable building unsuccessfully hides literal shit) but Zola's commitment to the idea pulls it out of eye-rolling obviousness into the realm of effective symbol. Zola maintains this strict loyalty to depicting all parts of human life, including defecation and sex.

The latter features prominently in Pot-Bouille; often, the novel feels like a 1960s sex romp comedy, with various characters jumping in and out of each others' beds while hilariously having close calls with the husbands on the stairs. I'm sure some readers would find this tedious, especially since it's not particularly funny, but I found it, again, effective in terms of Zola's thesis. He couldn't demonstrate the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie without their contradictory and deplorable attitudes surrounding sex, marriage, and chastity. Octave Mouret, our protagonist, spends most of the book trying to scheme his way into various women's petticoats, but he's not always successful. In fact, his two triumphs come not from pure lust but from cold hard calculation, a sure sign of Zola's writerly aims. He sleeps with one wife because she's essentially an easy target, an outlet for when his other schemes do not pull through. His other conquest, if you will, comes from a shrewd business partnership; marriage and sex come naturally after their interests coincide.

As per my last review of Zola, I find myself utterly in love with the construction of the novel, its position as both hyper realistic and paradoxically completely artificial. The reader can feel Zola's fingerprints all over every incident. Everything is so utterly determined, yet also natural at the same time. Some readers might baulk at such artifice, but I found the careful balance between the two quite compelling. Zola's machinations of symbol are rarely subtle, making his works quite approachable, but his thesis itself is complex enough to sustain any intellectual exercise.

I really need to read more of these novels; they're fucking fantastic.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Alien Bodies


Hmmm... I could have swore I read the fifth Eighth Doctor Adventure War of the Daleks but as I check the tag "Eighth Doctor Adventures," I see the last one I logged was Genocide by Paul Leonard, which I read back in 2011 and thought was okay. I find it amusing to read my previous reviews of all these DW novels to see what I was taking away from the books. Four years later and I appear to be currently more interested in aesthetics than time travel shenanigans. I'm not sure I'll go back and read War of Daleks—considering the reviews it's received. But for now, I'm quite happy to make a triumphant return to the EDAs with Lawrence Miles' Alien Bodies.

Once can't be as nerdy of a DW fan as I am without hearing of Lawrence "Mad Larry" Miles. His cranky curmudgeon opinions and anti-social behaviour have cast him from the sunlight of DW fandom into simply the annals of fan history. If only he wasn't so cantankerous, the legend goes, he might have been an integral part of DW. I can't speak to his personality; all I can judge is his work in this novel. Based on that, Miles' contribution to DW cannot be overstated. Alien Bodies, in its 200 some pages, introduces more concepts and plot machinations than any other DW book I've read so far. In fact, reading this book a decade after the show's return in 2005, I felt a cloud of deja vu with every chapter, as so many ideas feel lifted straight out of this one. For example, the giant war between the Time Lords and an unnamed Enemy recalls Russell T. Davies' contribution of the Time War between the Time Lords and Daleks. Miles' introduction of this idea is a) unprecedented in DW prose and b) hugely ambitious. Other writers might have settled with basing their novel on this concept and nothing else. Not "Mad Larry." No, he isn't satisfied with simply this. He also introduces some major wrinkles such as an appearance from the fabled Thirteenth Doctor, the last regeneration, a companion that has had her timeline manipulated by some unseen force, a theory that the Universe by nature provides the Doctor with a companion, the concept that the Doctor requires a witness to his deeds (if a tree falls in the forest...). Very ambitious. And yet, he succeeds beyond all measure with his novel.

It's a combination of two factors: his witty bouncy prose and his audacity. Miles introduces a wide cornucopia of characters and species, throws them together in an effectively simple locale, and lets them bounce off each other. He audaciously halts the ongoing narrative of the novel with interludes that fill in background information for each character. This could go entirely awry if it weren't, again, for his muscular prose.

His characters also leap off the page, in part thanks to the interludes. Miles introduces Quixotl, the master of ceremonies for the auction that gathers everybody, Mr Homunculette, a Time Lord from the Doctor's future, two soldiers from the future version of the UN Special Forces (one of the soldiers is completely insane naturally), a dead but moving man, an alien that exists only as concepts, and Miles' own Faction Paradox, a splinter Time Lord group that worships, like a cult, the paradoxes of time. Later in the novel, Miles brings back the Krotons, but wildly changes their nature to make them both scarier and paradoxically more comedic relief. Each character gets their own little interlude, including the individual Kroton.

While Miles bounces them off each other, all confined to mostly a single location, the Doctor and Sam arrive and get mixed up with the auction. The prize of this auction is the Doctor's future corpse, the body of the Thirteenth Doctor, the last regeneration. The Doctor is appalled, repulsed, frightened, but in typical Doctor fashion, intrigued and unable to stop himself from interfering. He is not supposed to mess with his timeline, but as other characters point out to him, he does it all the time. Miles isn't quite interested in the ethics or the meaning of such loops of causality; Alien Bodies is more of a spectacle than a novel of ideas. If there was one criticism to make of this novel, it's that Miles seems delighted to introduce ideas and then move on without following them through.

Again, it's always difficult to read these novels in the historical context that they were published. Alien Bodies came out in 1997, still in the wilderness years of DW, with Russell T. Davies' reboot still 8 years away. Miles, I gather, was sort of lauded as the second coming of Christ; he had great promise and seemed ready to reinvent and reinvigorate the brand, bringing it back to its glory days of big thinking and great action. Alien Bodies must have felt revolutionary when originally published. Certainly, I thought it excellent; I can hardly fault it for its ludicrous audacity, even when the cleverness of the concepts slip from Miles' grasp. It also sounds like the wilderness years were full of bickering, in-fighting, and sniping, even beyond Miles himself. I suppose during that time, when people were unsure if DW would ever return, like all nerds, they over-compensated and got too protective of their beloved property.

All of this to say that, without the historical context, Alien Bodies is fucking fantastic. With the historical context, it's even more remarkable that those in charge of the books would take a chance on something so audacious as Miles' ideas and allow him to help shape the future course of the Eighth Doctor's adventures. This is wild stuff that pushes the concept of Doctor Who a little bit. There's a fine line between overturning decades of lore for cheap shocks and an almost reverential deepening of that which makes the concept so fecund. Miles manages to be both respectful and irreverent with DW (eg the Krotons), leading to a stronger mythos.

I'm under the impression that the great majority of EDAs are crap, drivel churned out to satiate an audience that wasn't large enough to sustain the ratings the BBC needed for the show. I'm also under the impression that Alien Bodies might be the pinnacle of quality for the entire line. If this is true, then I'm in for a long haul. I'm interested in the more serial aspects of the EDAs, so I'll probably trudge through. I hope, I pray, some of it reaches close to this level of quality.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens


October 17, 2013. I write a long essay rooting for the artistic failure of Star Wars, especially in light of how ruthlessly nostalgic the new entry is going to be.

December 18, 2015. I see The Force Awakens. Every prediction I made has come true. The new entry is essentially a remake of A New Hope but even busier and messier.

Here is what I wrote in 2013:
it was announced that Abrams and his cinematographer Daniel Mindel were going to film the seventh SW film using Kodak film stock 5219, an attempting at imitating the grain and texture of the film stock used for the original trilogy. For me, this is an omen that the seventh film will shamelessly try and manifest all the best that makes up the original trilogy.

And I want this to happen. Because when it does, and I’m completely convinced it will, not only will fans be alienated from the project but it will ultimately confirm Jameson and Reynolds’s theories on the sterility of cultural production in the era of late capitalism. The new film will have proven to be a boring copy of a copy of a copy....
Boy was I on the money. Except for one thing. The fans are eating this shit up. So far, Episode VII is sitting at around 95% on Rotten Tomatoes. I hoped that fans would be alienated by this rapacious replication, but so far, it seems that most recognize the flaws but still enjoyed their time with this product.

I put myself in this camp, I confess. It's hard to be a SW fan: the endless disappointment, the rush of anticipation, the thrill of the score, the sounds, the characters. Yet, we would be remiss in not reminding ourselves that the brand is really built out of one and a half great movies and the rest struggling to reach mediocrity (for the record: half of A New Hope and all of Empire). Similarly to my Doctor Who fandom, loving SW is a difficult proposition. We must recognize the flaws which sometimes threaten to overwhelm the positives sometimes.

Episode VII is a greatest hits package of SW tropes and all that implies: this film earnestly brings back the good (space battles, lasers, wizards) and the bad (stiff dialogue, plot inconsistencies, tonal whiplash). And as aforementioned, it's a messier and busier remake of Episode IV, bringing again, the good and the bad together. I don't think it's worth rehashing the plot here, as there are probably hundreds of thousands of words written about VII already, so I'll forego summary and speak of specific constitutive elements I liked and disliked.

Firstly, and most prominently, Daisy Ridley and John Boyega, as the two leads, are almost luminescent in their chemistry, enthusiasm, and commitment. Both of them fill their rather thin characters with a rich inner life. It's especially impressive considering Boyega's character is essentially an empty vessel, but he manages to imbue Finn with interiority. Ridley does a little bit less with a little bit more, as her character—in typical SW fashion—has a touch of destiny, a determinism that often makes the galaxy in SW seem claustrophobic and provincial. However, her performance is stellar and the two leads have a confidence and chemistry that easily overtake the original trio from the original trilogy. Here, then, is a compliment I can give J.J. Abrams: he's much better with actors than George Lucas ever was. Two of my favourite sequences from The Force Awakens come from small interactions between Ridley and Boyega that a) advance the plot organically and b) "show" information about their characterization—rather than "tell" that info.

I also quite liked how Finn tries to do the right thing, almost chauvinistically, but he learns through the course of the film that his role is not saviour, but friend and ally. It's almost instructive for male allies of feminism in this way. Rey, Ridley's character, is shown to be quite capable of taking care of herself. The first two acts of the film feature Rey responding naturally and organically as her characterization dictates to stimuli. It's in the third act, the messiest and worst part of the film, that Rey's capability reaches implausible levels, but I will return to this part of the film below.

The other bright spot in this film, one that will be controversial (typical contrarian that I am), is Adam Driver's Kylo Ren. He is easily my favourite part of the film. His performance is so layered and his characterization is developed so well that I would say—without hesitation—that I prefer him as a character to Darth Vader. We learn more about Ren in 50 minutes (of screen time, I'm estimating) than we do about Vader over two films. We learn that Ren is petulant, is quick to anger, is in absolute control of his Force powers, has daddy issues. Ren's character is carefully and slowed sketched out, parceled out at a satisfying trickle; he has a temper tantrum, and we think nothing of it, but his second temper tantrum teaches us a lot more. The revelation that Han and Leia are his parents is disclosed without fanfare, displaying confidence in the audience's ability to glean this from context. Driver's performance is so textured: aggressive, confused, predatory, weak. However, it seems the backlash against Ren has started. Many people have complained that he's a "pussy" or "weak." SW fans wanted Darth Vader 2.0 and were frustrated to be denied such a thing. It's of course the point of Ren to be weak like this. Ren's inability to live up to the shadow of Vader is both symbolically meaningful and affectively redolent.

Now onto the negatives, of which there is a significant amount. While it was cool to see Han and Chewie in the Falcon (there's a great shot of Harrison Ford's smile when he sees the cockpit; it feels so genuine, as if it's Harrison himself smiling, not the character), the original actors and the film's reliance on nostalgia is utterly crippling. Episode VII repeats the same beats of IV, to my annoyance. We have a droid carrying important information stuck on a desert planet, we have a young apprentice of the Force learning their abilities, we have an older mentor succumbing to death, we even have a fucking Cantina scene (but with embarrassing reggae). Han, Chewie, and Leia are the weakest parts of this film. I hope all of them are slowly written out in the next two films so that we never have to see Carrie Fisher bored to tears on the screen again. After the initial thrill of revisiting old friends wears off, we're left with actors who clearly aren't interested in being there, playing characters who provide little to the overall film. Their participation in the film is almost wholly predicated on the same patrilineal anxiety that plagues the entire franchise. Not since a Victorian novel have I encountered more anxiety about inheritance and sons. And in typical SW fashion, it simply replicates the same anxiety, saying practically nothing new about this paternal influence.

Speaking of empty replication, the climax of Episode VII features another fucking Death Star called Starkiller Base (presumably a coy reference to Luke Skywalker's name in the original draft) and features another fucking assault on a key component that makes the whole thing blow up. Instead of entirely copying A New Hope, this movie adds the same dual narrative of Return of the Jedi in that Han and Finn sneak into the base to disable the shields. Admiral Ackbar even comes back to say something about shields during the painful exposition scene that laboriously explains all this to the audience.

The third act is a fucking mess. There are too many moving parts and Abrams does not cut between them with enough skill. It's the same problem that Age of Ultron has in its climax: it's far too busy. On top of all the story strands already unfolding, The Force Awakens wants the classic showdown of Empire and the assault on the Death Star of A New Hope at the same time. Instead of any of this neo-Death Star nonsense (which makes no fucking sense: where does it get a second sun if it depletes the sun in its entirety to fire?), the film would've been immensely improved if Ren's confrontation with Rey and Finn had been the sole focus. Again, these giant blockbusters always feel the need to provide more and more and more to the audience at the expense of more interesting and affectively satisfying things such as characterization or meaning. Another giant CG battle with blobs of pixels moving across the screen faster than the eye can follow isn't nearly as emotionally resonating, for example, as Luke's battle with Vader at the end of Episode V.

Again, it's the fucking nostalgia that deflated my enthusiasm around the second act. The more the film echoed the original trilogy, the more I rolled my eyes and groaned. The characters might have just turned to the camera and said, "hey remember this?" I fucking hate nostalgia in this form. It's so facile and infantile. It preys on my memories and commodifies them.

A common rebuttal to the critique that The Force Awakens is too mired in the past is that the original A New Hope was mostly a goulash of cultural objects Lucas liked and wanted to emulate: Flash Gordon serials, Akira Kurosawa and samurai films, Buddhism or Taoism, etc etc etc. By virtue of being first, A New Hope could not reference itself; The Force Awakens is not beholden to the same limit; the film shamelessly references its own brand, amplifying the echo of self-reference.

Of course, all of us SW fans are breathing such a sigh of relief that The Force Awakens isn't a disaster that we're lining up to praise it. The film managed to be competent and mostly engaging, so we praise it for not being The Phantom Menace. I think as the rush of a new film dies down, we'll see some more considered and reasoned responses. Already, the—I don't want to say "backlash"—whatever it is has already begun. Consider Devin Faraci's review over at Birth.Movies.Death. He both praises it and condemns it for the film's slavish adoration of the original trilogy.

After all, this is a product. It's the safest product for the legion of SW fans that were disappointed by the prequel trilogy. This film isn't an artistic endeavour: it's a manifesto. It's a feature length assurance that SW fans won't be forever disappointed by future films. On that tack, it's successful; I didn't hate this film, but I also didn't love it. I was neither disappointed nor overjoyed. There are certainly parts of the film I really liked (the new cast, their characterization and their acting) and parts that I quite disliked (the old cast, the nostalgia).

I'm pleased to write a review that isn't entirely negative. I'm also somewhat pleased that my cynicism over this new film was tempered a bit with time. I'm not quite as angry about the brand as I used to be. I'm also not quite as angry in general. Yet, I can't let go entirely of my suspicious nature. SW was purchased by Disney to generate revenue, not change the world. I wonder how many iterations of the film were screened for board members and business suits with their MBAs from Harvard. It's hard to praise the film as an artistic achievement when its conditions of production are so obviously embedded in the logic of late capitalism. It's another copy of a copy of a copy at this point, a hall of mirrors of references and pastiches.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Theatre of War


December 9th, 2015: So I found this review in my drafts from 2013. I'm publishing it without editing it in the slightest and it's also unfinished, which why I suppose I didn't publish it. Looking back on this review, I notice that my fraught relationship with DW has been going on for a few years now. Apparently, I've been complaining about Steven Moffat's status as showrunner since the 6th series. I also see that my fraught relationship with licensed material hasn't really evolved. Here, then, is an unfinished review of a book I liked and enjoyed.

July 4th, 2013:

It's been a long time since I've read a Doctor Who novel. The problem was that I was stuck on Gary Russell's Legacy. I have the ebook, but it's so poorly formatted that it's practically impossible to read. Plus, the novel itself is practically impossible to read. Nobody asked for a long history of Peladon, especially one that sounds like a Gor novel. Nobody. So I put it aside.

I'm having a bit of a strange relationship with Doctor Who right now. The current series — split into two half series — is fairly disappointing. Each episode has been disposable, forgettable, lazy, and illogical. I'm yearning for a change in showrunner (despite my enthusiasm for Steven Moffat) and for a new Doctor (one that has more than three emotional states). On top of this, I'm finding myself at odds with the more... problematic aspects of the series. The lack of people of colour, the imperialism, the colonialism at the heart of the Time Lords, the distinct lack of queer characters, the female characters having practically no agency, the constant re-inscribing of heteronormativity, etc etc etc. I can't help but notice these things. The sheer ephemeral quality of Doctor Who insists on me now. I have hundreds of books in my room waiting to be read, some of the greatest works of literature ever, so why would I read a spin-off novel, an example of fan fiction (albeit professional)? Why would I waste my time with mediocre science fiction?

I'm not quite sure if I have an answer to this question. No matter how much I learn about critical race theory, queer theory, feminism, Marxism, I'm still going to enjoy cultural objects that strike particular chords with me eg Indiana Jones (and imitators), James Bond, Jason Bourne, and the Doctor. These fantasy figures still have an incredible hold on my imagination, no matter how problematic they have shown themselves to be.

I recently read John Gardner's License Renewed, his first James Bond novel, and the first authorized continuation of Ian Fleming's work. The novel was... interesting (ie new 1980s Bond drives a Saab and not an Aston Martin which strikes me as particularly telling) but ultimately underwhelming. The Bond formula of the cinema is different than that of the literary Bond; one is focused on secret lairs, long drawn out setpieces, and the other is interested in laboriously detailing Bond's secular materialism. One can see Len Deighton's exacting and precise influence on Gardner's novel in the tedious descriptions of Bond's breakfast. Everything is rather prosaic and inert. So why did I bother finishing it? [Editor's note: I have zero memory of reading this James Bond novel]

I suppose the same reason why I returned to the New Adventures. Books, the physical object one holds in one's hands, have always intrigued me more than television or film. As a child, I read novelizations of films, despite already seeing the film. I devoured comic book adaptations of the films (I'm especially fond of the awful three part series transforming Schumacher's Batman Forever into comic book form) and even read comic book series that adapted cartoon versions of comic book series. The literary form had a stronger ability to draw me within. This might help explain why as an adult, I would prefer to read an adventure starring the Seventh Doctor than to watch the same adventure.

Books have no budget, no time constraints, no advertisements, no actors, no cheap rubber suits, no boom mikes drifting in from the top of the frame, no seams, no limits. Doctor Who, as a TV show, is a rather laughable endeavour. The classic series have awful pacing, awful special effects, the dialogue is almost unintelligible, and the monsters never look scary. This is the problem discovering the show as an adult.

But the New Adventures. They do not share the same limits. They do not have constraints other than ones mandated by editors ("Ace has to be badass" "must include fanwank continuity stuff" etc). Out of the 26 novels I've read (jesus wept) in this series, only a few have been objectively bad novels. Most have been fun romps that pluck my Seventh Doctor strings in the right combination. I'm thinking of The Highest Science and The Left Handed Hummingbird as especially good examples of the series. Both are complexly plotted, humorous, affecting, and manage to evoke the spirit of the series (time travelling god gets out of scrapes using his wits, companions, and confidence).

Theatre of War looks back to the past mode of Who storytelling, with its introduction of cannon fodder, complex back story, oppressive authority figures often quick to lock up the Doctor, and its childish political gestures. However, the novel is not limited to one set or a labyrinth of corridors and hallway. Justin Richards lets the novel breathe with a languid setup on multiple planets with multiple characters.

While travelling apart from the Doctor and Ace, Bernice Summerfield gets mixed up in an archaeological expedition to uncover an ancient amphitheater on a barren planet. The previous expedition resulted in numerous casualties and a mystery requiring a solution. However, when the newest expedition arrives, crew members are menaced by men in medieval armour, sentient mud, moving statues, and an enigmatic machine that seems to contain a holographic version of the world's greatest play, lost for centuries.

In true New Adventures fashion, Richards keeps the Doctor at arm's length until about a third into the novel. This is a curious trend if only because surely people read these novels for the Doctor, and not for the cast introduced only to be killed?

What makes Theatre of War so much more interesting than other fanfiction is that Richards attempts something grandiose. He takes a stab at metafiction, not altogether unwelcome, either. The greatest play of all time is lost, but possibly found, and immediately, the reader catches a whiff of the possibility that the Doctor is either responsible for its disappearance, or that he is responsible for its creation. It's an intriguing time travel angle that Tim Powers uses to decent effect in The Anubis Gates.

December 9th, 2015: I have no idea where I was going with this. Thus, I publish the review unfinished. Again, I did like the novel. Not sure why I didn't keep writing.

Monday, December 7, 2015

First Frontier

Okay, first of all what is going on with Ace's anatomy on this cover. What editorial board saw this and gave the illustration its approval? She has almost a metre between her chest and her hips! It's almost grotesque.

After enjoying two New Adventures, in predictable pattern, I splatter against a concrete wall of dullness and inept prose. I don't remember much of David A. McIntee's first entry in the series, White Darkness, other than it wasn't awful. The clever premise, the link between Lovecraft's Old Ones and voodoo, was wasted on endless descriptions of explosions (according to my review. Thank heavens I write these things; how else would I remember?). Starting First Frontier, I had trepidations; I'm not particularly interested in the Cold War nor do I care about Area 51 or the US's secret UFO history. Just not my cup of tea. I also had some misgivings as McIntee's own introduction praises his research, which sounds as obnoxious as you can imagine. Speaking of obnoxious, he even refers to the "major plot twist"... in the introduction! McIntee's presence in the book makes itself known, not just in the introduction, but in his annoying dropping of historical details—constantly. Details that are meant to increase verisimilitude but slow the book down to a crawl. Other reviewers spoke of Strange England as a dire slog, but that phrase needs to be applied to First Frontier. Reading this was exhausting.

Firstly, let's talk about the plot and how overcomplicated it is. McIntee isn't satisfied with comparing and contrasting the "Commies as aliens" hysteria trope with classic Doctor Who "the aliens are among us!" hysteria trope. No, he has to add (spoiler for a 20 year old book) the Master into the mix and endless supporting characters. Endless. There isn't a soldier in this book that isn't named. McIntee even includes not one, but two military bases for you to keep track of, along with three different subspecies of the alien enemy. There's generals and lieutenants and majors and endless soldiers both in the setting of New Mexico and in Washington, DC—where the action goes for almost no reason other than to waste my time.

The plot, I guess, is about a species of alien, the Tzun, who arranges a deal with the Master. In DW continuity, we last saw him stuck on a planet, his DNA corrupted by cheetah people (don't ask, it's DW). The Tzun promise to a) repair the Master's DNA so he can regenerate and b) give him a method of escaping Earth. In return, the Master promises to help the Tzun... do something with nuclear bombs so the Tzun can look heroic and then envelope the Earth into their confederacy or what have you. It's not very clear and it's not helped by McIntee's insistence on introducing a plot element every other page.

The Doctor, Ace, and Benny arrive in this town and get mixed into things in the usual style. McIntee did manage to charm me with a bit of Bill and Ted style cleverness: the Doctor arrives at a house for rent and then announces that he'll pop into the past by a few days and rent it, so when they arrive, they can just let themselves in. He flips up the welcome mat and there's a key and a letter welcoming them to their new place. Definitely clever and charming, but where was this sense of fun throughout the rest of the book?

Every sequence is bogged down by this insistence on showing off McIntee's research. When Ace and Benny commandeer a plane, McIntee explains in minute detail where the door is:
They raced across the baking tarma and up the three-stepped door set into the lower port side just behind the cockpit. Throwing a quick glance through the aft bulkhead to check that there was no one in the cargo bay, Ace pulled herself up into the cockpit.
Ugh who cares where the door is set? Who cares how many stairs there are? Imagine this type of clunky writing but for 300 pages.

That bit is also a good example of McIntee's obsession with opening modifiers: "Throwing a quick glance through the aft bulkhead to check that there was no one in the cargo bay, Ace...." He starts so many sentences with this to the point of exhaustion. Let me give some examples from the first 30 pages:
"Fanning himself gently with his hat, he..."
"With the exception of the three equidistant hemisphere sited around the circular exhaust on the lowermost surface, the disc..."
"Taking a calm breath, Agar..."
"One of the minuscule vehicles crawling through the complex network of roads at the heart of the Proving Grounds was a jeep..."
"Caked in dust, [the jeep]..." (yes it was the next sentence)
"Gently twisting the question-mark-handled umbrella he was using as a a parasol, the Doctor strode..."
"Without lowering the binoculars he had trained on the launch pad, Colonel Finney..."

That is probably sufficient. Now, imagine the clunky insertion of historical details with awkward and monotonous phrasing, and you have a book that I found almost intolerable. I struggled with all of my might to make it through this one and I'm glad I did, because there was some positive things to mention. However, it took honestly 200 pages before the book livened up even in the slightest.

I did enjoy the Master's return, even if that twist was obvious and spoiled for me. I enjoyed McIntee's ability to describe human action clearly. He struggles with inanimate objects, fetishizing the details and lingering over them with a leering gaze, but with human motion, he appears uninterested, providing the descriptions with minimal fuss and therefore clarity. I did also enjoy the characterization of Ace; I thought McIntee's Ace was a solid mix of the classic television Ace and this new "hardcore" Ace of the New Adventures.

Finally, and this for me was the superior element of the novel, I thought McIntee's Tzun species was positively excellent, especially near the end. As the Tzun are evolved through the course of the novel, McIntee subtly (a word I don't often associated with his writing) develops the theme that the "aliens are actually us" and that the actual aliens are just misunderstood. Normally, this is a trite observation, but McIntee's subtle comparison between the Tzun, the Doctor, and the Master against the UFO/Commie hysteria is quite compelling. The leader of the Tzun speaks with that same Klingon honour nonsense formal speak, but McIntee gives the leader more motivation than simple honour; rather, the leader subscribes to ideas of utilitarianism, that he seeks the greatest benefit to the greatest number. In this way, he seeks to include Earth in his civilization both to benefit his own society and Earth's, by uplifting them. The nuance with which McIntee gives the Tzun is quite refreshing compared with the usual "aliens!" hysteria. Though, it should be noted, that this concept isn't new to Doctor Who; many stories from the classic era confuse the concept of aliens to make political points. McIntee just executed this idea competently.

On the whole, this was a slog. My tastes do not run towards DW's more historical adventures in the first place and when they're accomplished so clumsily, my patience quickly runs out. However, First Frontier wasn't a complete disaster. But it certainly wasn't any good.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Strange England


It feels like I'm in the minority on this book. Everybody seems to think it's this "dire slog" or it's "confusing and disaffecting." Others have said, "it makes zero sense" or it's simply "boring" and "dismal." Goodreads has this book down for about 3 out of 5. Most damning, Finn Clark (who seemingly has reviewed every DW novel ever published) claims, the "book has enough badness to make you feel embarrassed for its author" which is deliciously cruel. I felt none of these things; in fact, I loved this book, much more than I thought I would. Clark called the prose "clunky" where I feel like this is the best—without a doubt—New Adventure in terms of prose. I can count probably on one or two hands how many of these NAs have had even decent prose, but Messingham's debut novel has it in spades.

The plot of the novel is fairly thin: the Doctor, Ace, and Benny stumble across a Victorian country house occupied by people who have never considered pain, fear, death, and even change. The landscape soon turns threatening and various perils manifest themselves, such as an insect that crawls its way into a character's throat, stinging them into unconsciousness. There's a steam engine man, tiny demons that can fly, trees that swallow people, and Ace's techno-bodysuit disintegrates once they've arrived.

Messingham propels the plot forward as fast as possible. There is not a moment of rest for the characters. It's a bit shaggy and shambling, as the stakes are never clear nor explained until the end, so we're not quite sure what's even happening. Some of the complaints about this novel speak of this "virtual reality problem": if everything is make believe, then how can anything be dangerous or meaningful? I can appreciate this grievance; normally in novels, when I'm faced with this type of surrealism, I am completely repulsed. But, as aforementioned, Messingham's prose was enough to smooth over any issues with plotting and surrealism.

I'll provide some examples. Here's one from page 8:
Without a doubt the scenery was splendid. Ace felt curiously relaxed as she gave the immediate area a quick scan. She strolled through the woods with the Doctor, keeping her eyes open for information. The sky glowed with blue, the grass was healthy and lustrous and the temperature was hot but not unpleasant. All the time sweet air poured across them.
Surrounding the clearing had been tall, statuesque trees thick with ripe foliage. They must have arrived at the peak of summer, just prior to the leaves losing their green and embarking on the rapid descent into autumn.
I'll admit that this isn't Nabokov or Proust. You have to understand that I've read 30 something books of flat prose so something competent like this is a relief like a cool diner after a long hot car ride. I was really struck by the final phrase, "the rapid descent into autumn." Messingham could have chosen an infinite variety of phrases to signal the season of fall, but his choice reflects the serenity, the innocence, the careful timelessness of the location he's conjured. It's quite elegant.

Another example, then, from page 13:
Victoria pushed her way impetuously through the swollen purple flowers. They seemed almost unnaturally healthy, their heads bursting with colour as if straining to uproot and break themselves free from their earthly bonds. They packed themselves tightly together like spectators attempting to gain a better view of Victoria as she battled her way to the centre. She fancied they were chattering to each other about this colourless stranger that had entered their midst. Their smell was pungent and tart, reminiscent somehow of the persistent shrill of that humming.
I love the imagery of the flowers "straining" and how they "packed themselves tightly together." This is, of course, classic pathetic fallacy, imbuing nature with human behaviour and agency. This sequence that I've quoted, is about the end of a bit in which Victoria is about to be attacked by an insect that crawls down her throat, stings her, and then kills her. Messingham does not simply depict this as an attack, but almost as a seduction. The "humming" that he refers to comes from the insect; the sticky weather, the floating pollen, the tightness of the woods, all these details bring up the essential paradox that Messingham is playing at: the idyllic English country is both a place of beauty and serenity, and a place of darkness and death. This is the concept of the sublime, in a roundabout way. Nature is powerful, beautiful, immense, and that immensity and power affects the observer, instilling a sense of fear and awe. Messingham's project here, of complicating the sort of quaint cosy Alice in Wonderland story, succeeds thanks to his descriptive powers, his patience with description, and his willingness to use surrealism and pathetic fallacy to invoke the sublime.

Strange England also plays with our cosy quaint notions of Victorian England as well. Messingham wisely uses the "meanwhile back at the ranch" structure, splitting Ace from the Doctor and Benny. Ace gets ejected into the real world, a small Victorian village, where she meets a Lewis Carroll analogue (sickly, quiet, frail, meek) and gets involved with a physician who has a grudge against God and wants to splice people together or something like that. Messingham provides the novel with two Doctor analogues: the Quack, a figure of menace inside the pretend world, and this surgeon, Rix, who takes umbrage with the Christian God and takes it out on innocent people.

At first, I felt the "real world" sequences to be a bit of a distraction, but again, it was Messingham's confident and studious prose that evened out any issues I had with this seemingly unrelated plot. Perhaps a final example of Messingham's confidence and Rix's villainy, from page 91:
Rix scrutinized him with old eyes. He turned to his men in feigned confusion. He enjoyed his theatricals. ‘But I am the village doctor. If he is sick I will cure him. You’re in my safe hands now. As for money, I have plenty and I think you will find that these are the best-paid men in the area. But please, continue to beg if you so wish. I should like to study your behaviour.’
I chose this not as a perfect example of Messingham's prose (though it is elegant), but to demonstrate the comparison between Rix and the Doctor. Rix was an excellent villain, even if he had nothing to do with the main plot itself. Again, a problem I can overlook when the prose is as lovely as this ("scrutinized him with old eyes).

Some people have complained about the high body count in this novel. It's certainly indicative of the "grim and gritty" "hardcore" movement that the New Adventures were taking at the time. There's no better example than Ace becoming this hardcore violent soldier who kills Daleks without a second thought (although, this is somewhat a natural progression of her character on the show). Again, I didn't mind the high body count. I find it difficult to read these books with the mindset of their original release date. I can only read them with my current mindset, one that's used to lots of death in all sorts of media. In fact, compared with most media, this supposedly violent New Adventure is quite tame!

I'm fairly certain that Strange England is one of the best New Adventures I've read so far. I've had incredible luck so far, hitting two for two in a row with excellent novels, either with plotting or with prose. While Blood Harvest wasn't the world's most elegantly written book, I found it fun enough to enjoy. Strange England was fantastic. I'm not sure I entirely understand the problems people had with this book. I didn't find it boring; I found it compelling the entire way through. I don't believe it made no sense; I found the denouement to be fun and full of the science fiction technobabble that all Doctor Who stuff has. The prose was not clunky, nor was it purple; I thought it elegant and delicate. It certainly wasn't a "dire slog"; other New Adventures novels could be described this way (The Pit comes to mind), but certainly not this one. I loved this book. It's not perfect by any stretch, but it was fun, it was compelling, and I found myself drawn into it without a hesitation. Not sure what everybody's problem was.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Tipping the Velvet


I'm not sure why I haven't yet read every single word Sarah Waters has ever written. Every time I pick up one of her novels, I'm utterly entranced, captivated, and blown away by her deft hand with plotting, characterization, and historical detail. She's truly one of the most gifted writers working nowadays. Previously, I've ripped through Fingersmith (loved it!) and The Paying Guests (loved it!). Both books were meticulous in their construction and unfolding; both are showcases of Waters' flair for plotting. I knew, going into Tipping the Velvet, that I wouldn't be disappointed.

What I was not expecting, however, was the sheer volume of emotion this book wrenched from me. I am not one to shirk or avoid demonstrations of emotion; I feel how I feel and I do not hide it. This means that I'm quick to weep in films, quick to laugh, and quick to righteous anger in favour of the protagonist. I've written before about emotion and how important I regard it in relation to cultural objects. What is art, after all, but a transformative experience, either in state of mind or being? Waters' previous novels did not affect me to the same degree; Fingersmith was more compelling as an intricate rendering than as a journey in which I was emotionally invested. The Paying Guests was heartbreaking in a distant kind of way.

Tipping the Velvet is markedly different than either of those novels. Rather than a cleverly forged plot, this novel focuses on the emotional development of its narrator, Nan. This is a Bildungsroman while simultaneously a tour through the queer subcultures—and counterpublics of Victorian London. The back of my particular copy includes a blurb that characterizes this tour as a look into the "demi-mondes" of London; I'm not sure if demi-monde is the current appellation. While the novel does depict hedonistic women, it does not depict them as "starving artists" or socially mobile women. They are lesbians—ça, c'est tout, but also not entirely. However, this is minor quibbling; regardless of the definitions, Waters' painstakingly and impressively researched début is concerned with depicting a world hitherto under-represented in culture. She uses Nan as her focal character, but wisely imbues her with a complex narrative arc that propels the tour and maintains the reader's interest.

Shockingly (at least for Victorians), Tipping the Velvet reproduces lesbian romantic entanglements, in all their messy and glorious reality—just like hetero relationships. At a theatre outing, Nan witnesses Kitty, a vaudeville performer who performs in the guise of a man (hold: vaudeville refers to a distinctly North American genre but in this case, it's the same format). Nan has a complicated reaction to Kitty's performance and beauty; she falls in love. She ingratiates herself with Kitty and in due course becomes her dresser (to help her change costumes quickly between songs, etc). They leave the small town, the town most memorable for its oysters (Waters is rarely subtle in her choice of imagery), and head to London. There, after some period of seemingly non-reciprocated love and anguish, Nan and Kitty become lovers. Kitty is quite anxious to maintain the relationship hush-hush, as "toms" (lesbians) are social pariahs. Meanwhile, Kitty's audience numbers are dwindling. Their manager has an idea: put Nan in drag and make it a double act! It seems that Nan is quite convincing as a boy, almost too convincing. The scene in which Nan dresses as a man for the first time features the cast repulsed; she is too much like a boy, so much so that it produces a feeling of the uncanny.

Fast forward a bit and Nan discovers Kitty in bed with the manager (man-ager). Heartbroken, Nan flees with no money, no clothes save her men's clothes, and no home. She wanders the streets until at one point, a man catches her eye. He requests that she service him for payment. She gives him a handjob and realizes that she has stumbled into another unknown subculture: rent boys. She does this for awhile, then stumbles across a rich lesbian who hires Nan to be a kept woman. The rich woman buys her men's clothes and fancy things and all Nan has to do is fuck when she's told. She's trotted out, like a horse in a show, to the woman's lesbian friends. This is the part that some might call the demi-monde. Of course, it ends with Nan again without clothes, without money, and she ends up staying with a social activist and her brother. Nan becomes their maid and then eventually, the activist's lover. The novel culminates in a protest and Nan gives a stirring speech to the hundreds gathered. She sees Kitty; they have a brief conversation; Nan feels nothing for her now; she is totally in love with Florence, the activist.

When she and the activist declare their love for each other, I wept. Nan has finally found her equal in love, her partner, her complement, after all this heartbreak and tragedy. It's also a political ending: Kitty was ashamed of their intimacy; Florence is not. Nan can be herself, whether dressed as a man or a woman, when she is with Florence. Her happiness is no longer contingent on society's expectations.

I thought a detailed summary of the novel to be helpful in understanding why the emotional and political catharsis at the end is so satisfying. We become invested in Nan's journey through this careful accumulation of details. Without this long stretch of highs and lows, we would not—could not care about their declaration of love. Regardless if you agree with me or otherwise, my experience with Tipping the Velvet was transcendent, partly due to my emotional investment and partly due to Waters' powers as a writer.

Waters has an immense gift for description and immersion. My old nemesis rears its head again: realism. Waters is distinctly and definitely working within the realm of realism: her writing vivifies a lost period in as accurate detail as she can possibly manage. Of course, this puts me in the position of contradicting myself. While yes, I often find realism to be tiring and exhausted as a form, I can't help but have been swept up in Waters' descriptive powers. The strength of the prose is found in the sensual details, such as the smell of Nan's hands, or the vivid blue of her navy uniform. My stance on realism must be modulated. The problem with absolutist positions is that it makes hypocrites of us all. Thus, I must confess that Tipping the Velvet has relaxed my strident rigidity on the topic.

All is not perfect, alas. I can't say that I found Kitty to be compelling in any way. We are constantly being told that Kitty is vivacious, wondrous, electrifying, but the only Kitty we are shown (a discrete concept) is a mewling, timid creature that jumps at shadows and wallows in shame. While some might argue that a major theme of the novel is of acting and theatricality, I cannot believe that Kitty could command any attention off the stage. Her characterization is thin.

Additionally, and this is personal preference, but others might baulk at the painful obviousness of Waters' choice of symbols. The oysters and Nan's well known ability with cracking them open could strike readers as conspicuous and annoying, asking for too much attention. I did not mind it at all. In fact, I find Waters' evident symbolism to be endearing. I found myself chuckling when I considered that fingersmith has a multiplicity of meanings: fingersmith is a pickpocket, the person that reaches her fingers into the purse of another lady. Lol. But I understand that others could conceivably be thrown off from this.

On the whole, Tipping the Velvet is another of Waters' masterpieces. Her steady and methodical accretion of emotion and historical detail is exquisite and her character work is mostly first-rate. Again, I'm so pleased to write a third positive review in a row; it's such a change from my seemingly unending parade of negativity from earlier this year.

Friday, November 27, 2015

The Woman in White

This is not the edition I read, but it's very lovely

 Let me start simply: The Woman in White is one of the best books I've read all year and possibly of all time. I cannot believe I went this long in my life without reading this masterpiece of plotting. My Oxford World Classics of the book, which I bought a few years ago and finally finished, clocks in at about 650 pages; I read that shit in about four days it was so compulsive. A typical instance of reading involved me completely immersed in the plot so much so that when I looked up, I had demolished 60 or so pages without a sweat. Victorian novels don't normally read this fast. Even Lady Audley's Secret wasn't as compulsive as this (though I loved that novel, too).

There are some similarities between the novels, I should think, and even some generalities about Victorian literature/society that can be expressed in the microcosm with The Woman in White. Firstly, the anxiety. It's no stretch to claim that Victorians were very anxious—about a lot of things: class, race, Empire, women, labour, children, and motion. The Victorian era can probably be summed up fairly neatly as a society that moved very quickly—both figuratively and literally. The advent of the rail introduced or at least exacerbated pre-existing fears about the speed of motion. Earlier, geographic motion was slow, methodical, and precarious. One would need to plan weeks in advance. I'm reminded of sequences in Sandra Gulland's Josephine Bonaparte trilogy when even travelling by carriage can make one ill. Or consider the famous carriage bit in Madame Bovary. However, the Industrial Revolution provided the world with the train and incredibly rapid transit (comparatively). The Woman in White depicts and literalizes a bunch of these aforementioned anxieties, including an intersection of vectoring fears: women and the rail. The central moment that the entire conspiracy hinges upon is the determination of the day the heiress travels from the country estate to London—by train. The final third of the novel has the protagonist, everyman Walter, travelling to and from London by train to investigate and detect. 

Consider that in the scholarship of detective fiction, a central conceit is paramount: the detective is the only character who moves geographically and through different classes. The detective is the outsider: the one not in place with any class or any space, thus imbued with the ability to move through them all. A detective story is almost always characterized by the detective's movement, either through the country estate (Poirot) or through the entire city (Holmes, Marlowe, etc). The Woman in White is often considered a proto-detective story in that the protagonist spends a good portion of the novel attempting to detect clues, to find the weak point in the ironclad conspiracy as to bring justice and balance back to the status quo. Movement is both what clinches the conspiracy (the switching of women would not have happened without carriages and trains) and what breaks the conspiracy (Walter's travels back and forth from London). 

There's also some anxiety and pleasure to be had in the female protagonist's movement. Marian, the mannish, not beautiful, but incredibly intelligent and independent secondary protagonist, has a couple scenes in which her mobility is what enables the plot to move forward as well as for the protagonists to ascertain clues in the conspiracy. There's a tremendously indicative scene in which Marian sneaks to her bedroom, removes her traditional Victorian bulky garb that restricts motion, and then sneaks back out to listen to the villains conspire. Consider the sensation this would cause among contemporary readers: women! moving about! eavesdropping! 

The Woman in White is quintessential Victorian scandal-making: there's lower class people fabricating their noble roots; adultery; unmarried sexual relations; asylums; people escaping from those asylums; contracts being broken; midnight meetings in cemeteries; and much more! The novel also features one of my most beloved and equally annoying tropes: the doctor and his primitive knowledge of medicine. For some reason, I find it almost intolerable to read about early medicine and the application of remedies, especially in the context of Victorians. But, like a witness to a car crash, I cannot bear to look away; I consume it greedily while grimacing and wincing. Victorians loved their medical discourse as it was a very popular topic of discussion. They adored speaking of their "complaints," the "bad air," the humours, etc. 

Another popular topic was the Law and its application. The Victorians loved crime and justice. Newspapers were full of salacious murders and thefts. Judith Flanders, a popular historian of Victorian society, wrote about the culture's morbid and almost depraved obsession with crime in a book called The Invention of Murder. I won't bother quoting at length from it; I mention simply for interest's sake. The Law and its byzantine complications were of endless fascination and horror for the Victorians. Countless words were written and exchanged in the composition of contracts and laws. The Woman in White does not shy away from this aspect. In fact, Collins himself was quite interested in the law's unequal implementation when it came to women. These women, already marginalized by discourses of medicine and science (women were the lesser sex, "proven" by doctors), were further marginalized and deprived of basic rights by the Law. They could not vote. They could not be members of Parliament. The Law regarded women as objects, valuable only in their exchange. The Woman in White dramatizes this what with the titular woman being a pawn in a legal game as well as the heiress losing her money thanks to complicated contracts.

A woman in Victorian society had less agency than men, but not altogether no agency. It's a common misconception that Victorians were complete prudes or unable to engage in discourse around sex. But it was the Victorians that produced a tonne of pornography. It was the Victorians who invented a mechanical dildo. It was the Victorians who wrote countless guides to love and marriage, how to flirt (eg. wink the right eye), how to choose a partner (choose a woman with a Roman nose), and mentioned the importance of the female orgasm! Author Fern Riddell aggregated a wealth of material on the Victorians and sex in her book The Victorian Guide to Sex: Desire and deviance in the 19th century, which I mention again for interest's sake. Women could do things but there was always the inevitable Victorian hand-wringing. Remember that the bicycle is often credited as being crucial to the modern feminism movement, as women were finally able to move freely without the companionship of men. Their locomotion was independent and self-produced, both figuratively and literally.

The Woman in White alludes to all of this. Despite featuring a male protagonist, Collins' allegiance and sympathies seem to lie with the women, the victims of this conspiracy. Laura Glyde, the heiress switched with Anne Catherick, the woman in white, is a victim, a pawn in a game. 

It's unfortunate, though, that Laura's characterization is so weak compared to the rest of the cast. Marian, Walter, Count Fosco, and Sir Percival seem to leap off the pages. They breathe, hope, dream, wish, desire, and anger. Laura seems to be even less of a real person than the woman in white herself, who only appears in three or four scenes. This sketchiness could be construed as purposeful—her pliability and her lack of character might be conducive to the conspiracy's success. Even if this might be true, her characterization pales in comparison with the main cast and especially Count Fosco and Marian, both of whom are incredibly vivid inventions. 

Modern writers could learn a lot about the construction of villains from Collins; his Count Fosco is one of the most complex villains probably ever, I might suggest. Fosco is both horrendously villainous in that he's willing to murder to get his money (a paltry amount, really) but he's cognizant of his own villainy. He knows the morality of his situation and yet he continues. He's also fascinated and enthralled by Marian, so much so that he weakens his own plan just for her. Imagine that he's like Tom Hardy's Bane in The Dark Knight Rises: he's utterly hypnotizing any time he's "on screen" if you will (the essential difference of course is that the story surrounding Fosco isn't wet garbage).

I'm so pleased to write a positive review of something. I loved quite a bit about this novel: from the runaway train plotting to the clever use of false documents that comprise the narrative. The characters were mostly excellent, the conspiracy itself enjoyably intricate, so much so that I had trouble keeping the timeline straight in my head. Thank heavens the Oxford edition includes a timeline at the end of the book to help confused readers along. This was so good that I'm going to leap on other Collins novels and maybe even dip into his friend's work, Chuck Dickens himself—I've always meant to read Bleak House. Hopefully my revived energy with reading carries on.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Blood Harvest


In some point in August of 2013, I read the previous Virgin New Adventures novel, All-Consuming Fire. I believe I concluded that I thought the book was enjoyable, but forgettable. Now, over two years later, I return to the New Adventures line with the 28th novel in the series (I hardly believe I've read 28 of these). I've returned, older and maybe wiser, because I found myself energized by the current series of Doctor Who—featuring the Twelfth Doctor. This run has had its downs (the Maisie Williams stuff I've found positively intolerable) but it has also featured some highs (the two parter about the lake and the two parter about Zygons). I was also energized by this video somebody posted:



Amazing. Completely sums up why I love both Seven and Doctor Who in general (if, at some point, this video no longer exists, it is a short scene from The Happiness Patrol in which The Doctor talks a henchman out of shooting him). I decided to return to the New Adventures because, on the whole, I've enjoyed them quite a bit—enough to read 28 of them!

Blood Harvest, published in July of 1994 (when I was 9 years old), presents two narrative strands that will obviously intersect by the end of the second act. In Prohibition era Chicago, the Doctor and Ace have opened and are operating a speakeasy with the nebulously defined intent of minimizing bloodshed during this period. Meanwhile, Bernice has been deposited on a planet the Doctor had previously visited (the Fourth Doctor to be specific) with the instructions to "investigate" and she eventually meets Romana II. Both strands in due course converge on a complicated plot by some Timelords to resurrect some elemental being of pure malevolence that manifests in the form of a vampire in order to win Rassilon's game in the Dark Tower. This is truly one of the nerdiest things I've ever typed out on this website.

Terrance Dicks, the author of this adventure, was the script editor on the show for years and also one of the most prolific writers for Target novelizations. He also wrote the second book in the New Adventures line. From what I can gather, Dicks's skill lies with plotting rather than prose, dialogue, or even characterization. Re-reading my review for Timewyrm: Exodus, I notice that I expressed fondness for the plotting, but not much else. (I wrote that shit in 2011! How time flies!)

Blood Harvest doesn't really stray from my thoughts wrought from my first experience with Dicks; the novel is competent and readable; I was able to complete the reading in two sittings. The careful and paradoxically haphazard deployment of previous lore from the show worked its magic on me: I felt like I was on the receiving end of an inside joke, one only intelligible to the initiated. I was energized by the reading of Blood Harvest, not surprisingly. It was just what the Doctor ordered, if you'll excuse the painful witticism.

As per usual, I thoroughly enjoyed Bernice Summerfield. She is neither hyper-competent and hyper-violent like the 90's version of Ace, but nor is she entirely helpless. Her expressions of agency and intelligence in the novel were surely the superior element of the experience. Normally, I find pseudo-medieval fantasy to be utterly unbearable and yet I found myself hoping the Chicago stuff would quickly end so I could get back to the "good parts."

Dicks decides to use a Raymond Chandler pastiche to narrate the Chicago parts of the novel, which sometimes work and more so do not work. Chandler had an impeccable ear for clever turns of phrases, and Dicks is, unfortunately, not on the same level. However, I didn't find any of the Chicago/Al Capone material to be insufferable; rather, I moderately liked my time in that setting. It helps that Dicks drops gratuitous historical and architectural references to display his weighty amount of research. While this might have been insufferable, it succeeds slightly if only because of my fondness for Chicago (which I visited in 2014ish).

As already repeated, I did enjoy my time with Blood Harvest. It's been too long that I was excited about Doctor Who. It is, after all, one of my favourite things in the universe. I should like to get through the New Adventures (all 61 of them!). Here's to the Doctor and may our time together always been at least convivial and entertaining.