Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Film Diary

As I discussed here, I'm a bit burnt out on Letterboxd, so I'm posting some reviews here instead.

Brain Damage (1988). Dir. Frank Henenlotter.

I first saw this film back in 2008 or so, when I had stumbled across the genius of Basket Case. I had always fancied myself a horror film fan but I wasn't really. I was just somebody who sneered at mainstream horror; case in point, my fav of all time was and still is The Exorcist followed closely by Evil Dead II. Since then, I've really expanded my tastes for film in general and have been consuming more and more off-the-beaten-path horror. Thus, I'm in a great place to reevaluate this unique work. As I delve deeper in film and film theory, my appreciate of aesthetics and form have deepened; thus I paid special attention to how Brain Damage looks, how it moves, how it drapes everything in these lights. A weird compliment to give this: it's the Michael Mann of horror films in its aesthetics. I was reminded a lot of Dante Spinotti's cinematography on Manhunter. Henenlotter's film is lurid in its electric blues, its mournful reds, almost as if the real world constructed by the film is actually a hybrid of the hallucinatory paradise provided by the monster, if monster is even the word to apply to the character. Arrow Video's restoration of the film on Blu ray is sublime; I'm not accustomed to Henenlotter films looking so pristine or vibrant. In fact, I wonder if Henenlotter would even approve of this upgrade, considering he calls himself an exploitation director, aesthetic warts and all. Still, I quite loved this.

Royal Warriors (1986). Dir. David Chung

After seeing Corey Yuen Kwai's Yes Madam, I felt the hunger for more of the "girls with guns" mini-trend in Hong Kong cinema in the 80's. Also starring Michelle Yeoh, Royal Warriors opens with an incredibly violent and impressive freeing of hostages on an airplane, with three villains being solidly beaten to death by the two main characters. After breaking a window on the plane, Yeoh manages to fix the hyperbolic decompression of the plane by sticking a villain's head through the aperture. The scene is punctuated by a gleeful and morbid exterior shot of the airplane, with the villain's frozen head in centre frame. The rest of the film is classic 1980s Hong Kong action: ribald and tonally confusing humour, plenty of location shots of a Hong Kong that no longer exists, and copious amounts of asskicking. The climax opts for explosions but more impressive to me was the one-on-one showdown between the final villain and Yeoh. The choreography was exhilarating, the exact type of action ballet I love. A moment in the fight wowed me: a grilled metal cage is used as a weapon by the villain but when shoved at Yeoh, she effortlessly tumbles over it, pushing it back against the villain. Words can't do this moment of graceful perfection any justice. While Royal Warriors isn't as accomplished or as exuberant as Yes Madam, I still very much enjoyed it, especially how Yeoh's costuming seemed to consist entirely of comfy sweaters.

Vanishing Point (1971). Dir. Richard C. Sarafian

Car chase films should have as little plot as possible, I argue. Too many car chase films pile on the plot when it's not necessary. The chase should be the logical endpoint of the emotional stakes established previously by the characters. A simple maxim, but incredibly difficult for films, especially in our current mode of production which requires as much plot and complicating incident as audiences will tolerate. It's as if films think audiences are bored unless the plot never stops finding complications. Vanishing Point was a wholly pleasant surprise for me. I wasn't expecting the film to be as abstract as it is. I'm always appreciative of films which confound my expectations and especially confound my assumptions of films made in earlier modes of production. In other words, I also wasn't ready for the film to be as modern feeling as it is. The film wisely provides the entirety of the premise in the first ten minutes: Barry Newman's character must deliver a car from Colorado to San Francisco in three days. That's really it for the plot. The rest of the film has him evade cops and listen to the radio. He has short interactions with some other characters and backstory is meted out very slowly—and a bit unnecessarily. If there's a mistake to be made, it's in too much information, but I can't really fault the film on the whole. Vanishing Point strives for some allegorical meaningfulness and it doesn't quite get there, but the ambition is admirable. Other than the excellent car chases and sound design, what made this film so enjoyable for me was Barry Newman's obfuscating acting; he and the screenplay withhold motivation from the audience, and I vigorously applaud the decision.

Bullitt (1968). Dir. Peter Yates

My Letterboxd capsule review unfortunately sums this up: the small scene when McQueen effortlessly parallel parks in as few moves as possible was more impressive than anything else in the film. Bullitt isn't much of anything other than a historical document, an insight into what audiences liked back in 1968. McQueen's performance shimmers with coolness but he lacks characterization and motivation. He goes through with everything in the film because that's just what cops were depicted as doing in the late 60's. His Bullitt stands uncomfortably over the line between the rigid dogmatism of Dragnet et al. and the wild antihero shenanigans of Dirty Harry et al. He does things mostly by the book (as we're told by other characters) and sometimes not by the book (falsifying hospital records and disobeying direct orders... to get the job done). Other than the famous car chase, Bullitt doesn't have much to offer the modern viewer, especially the absurdly inert climax, a stupefying chase through an airport runway which offers zero thrills thanks to its ink black cinematography and a loose grasp of geographical coherence.

Dragons Forever (1988). Dir. Sammo Hung and Corey Yuen Kwai.

I've not seen as much Sammo Hung films as I should. From what I've seen, Hung is working overtime just to entertain the audience: fluid graceful choreo, romance plots, slapstick, acrobatics, and fights galore. There were definitely places in this film where my patience was a bit tested, but for every moment like that, there would be something Mark Cousins-y, in the punctum sense. Consider the scene in which Sammo's character serenades his fiance on the docks and does a little dance. It conveys much about the two characters: his romanticism and sincerity, her embarrassment but gentle acquiescence to his seduction. It also doesn't quite fit with the rest of the film, but in a positive sense. The other two leads, the famous Jackie Chan and the underappreciated Yuen Biao, don't quite accomplish as much characterization, especially Biao. Though the aforementioned Biao is one of the most absurdly graceful acrobats I've ever seen in a martial arts film. He's a Grace Kelly, a Fred Astaire, floating on air while punching people. Putting his birdlike flying against Sammo's physical solidness is a stroke of genius. Their two fights in the film are the most fun, the most impressive part of the movie. I could have done without the atonal strokes of misogyny, but watching a Hong Kong film requires a slight modulation of cultural perspective. This isn't to excuse the sexism but we should remember these films were produced under entirely difference conditions of production and cultural circumstances. Just as Western audiences might find the slapstick silliness of these films to be a bit too campy, Eastern audiences might object to the lack of action in similarly themed films.

Prometheus (2012). Dir. Ridley Scott.

Worse than I remembered to be frank. I saw this opening weekend in 2012 and had never felt the desire to rewatch. With the sequel to the prequel arriving in theatres this week, my partner suggested we give it a go. They had never seen it. I'm guessing they now regret watching it. I've read multiple positive reviews of this turgid slog but never have I been convinced. I'm glad, obviously, there are fans of the film, but this film boasts one of the worst screenplays I've ever had the displeasure of sitting through. Characters lack any motivation or human emotion, nor do they even behave like human beings. Everybody makes the most boneheaded decisions to the point of exasperation. It's certainly pretty in places but one would expect a director with such a career able to, at least with the barest minimum of effort, produce aesthetically pleasing imagery. A waste of a top shelf cast and a waste of the Alien brand itself. The film fundamentally misunderstands the allure of the Space Jockeys and seeks to undo all that made them work with two(!) films explaining away their mystery. Ugh.

Almost Human (1974). Dir. Umberto Lenzi.

Somebody on Letterboxd complained Tomas Milian always overacts to the nth degree and it's especially true of this film, but I kind of like Milian's brand of mugging. His face never stops contorting itself, never stops moving. He delivers every line as if he's on stage in a comedy show, even when playing the villain (ie Four of the Apocalypse). Almost Human, like the aforementioned Vanishing Point, feels incredibly modern in its screenplay; characters have these great scenes of dialogue, as if the dialogue was written by Mamet or the person who wrote The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. Milian's character is similar to his in Fulci's Four of the Apocalypse: barbaric, misanthropic, vindictive, and cruel. I've been thinking a lot about cruelty in cinema, an extension of my interest in the ethics of film. I've found myself really repulsed by the mindless cruelty and bloodletting found in mainstream Hollywood. Case in point, the so-so Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2. From a friend's review:
here he engages in revelling in the slaughtering of lots of people, emphasising their pain by having close ups of their anguished faces while an upbeat 80s song plays which is astoundingly not cool for a moment that is supposed to be badass, comes off as needlessly cruel.
It's cruelty in the guise of coolness and I'm no longer interested in it. The same can be said of Scott's Alien: Covenant: it's relentlessly cruel and misanthropic film reveling in the misery and pain of its characters without any counterpoint. Films like Almost Human and the oeuvre of Ruggero Deodato at least try to do something with the savagery. While Lenzi isn't operating at the same skill level as Deodato in terms of thematic depth, Almost Human suggests a dare on the part of the film: can you root for, can you invest in, can you identify with a protagonist as evil as this one? Audience identification can be defined(from here)by three vectors:
emotional empathy (the ability to feel what the characters feel and become effectively involved in a vicarious way), cognitive empathy (adopting the point of view of or putting oneself in the place of the characters), sharing or internalizing the character’s goal and absorption (having the sensation of becoming the character or a temporal loss of self-awareness and imagining the story as if one were one of the characters).
In this case, none of the three vectors are satisfied by Milian's protagonist: his goals are obfuscated (why this particular get-rich scheme?), his emotions are kept at a remove for much of the film (until the end), and the cruelty of his actions means we can't really live vicariously through his scheme. He takes wild risks, murders his compatriots, and rarely stops to self-reflect on his actions. He resists identification but the audience still can't look away. The film is daring the audience to find redeeming qualities in this "almost human." For that, the cruelty in the film and of the film is motivated. It's not just a woman being torn to pieces by dinosaurs in vivid detail (Jurassic World). This is my sixth Lenzi film and I'm beginning to get a grip on his interests. Like Deodato, he's not simply an Italian hack churning out pieces of exploitation. He's working on a project of audience provocation.

And so ends this film diary.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Blood Meridian or the Bailing out in the West

This is a short bit on my giving up on McCarthy's masterpiece by consensus

My history with Cormac McCarthy is short but sharp. There was a time, brief but intense, when I seriously considered doing a PhD covering McCarthy's fiction. The first I read of his was No Country for Old Men back in 2005, just after graduating university for the first time, and from then, I gobbled up most of his major works. I considered All the Pretty Horses to be one of my all time favourite novels, though I haven't read it in a decade. I wound down my glut of McCarthy by finishing with Blood Meridian, though I never completed the novel. I remember quite clearly, around 2006 or 2007, sitting in the waiting room to get laser eye surgery. I had Blood Meridian in my hand. After the surgery, I couldn't read for a long time, and the distance between us, between the novel and I, between McCarthy and I, grew exponentially. I didn't realize how much of a gulf had opened until this week when I tried to read Blood Meridian for what I think is the last time. I struggled through 60 pages before deciding to concede. What happened? Where did my love for McCarthy go?

McCarthy's prose in Blood Meridian is as gorgeous and as biblical as I remembered it being, so it wasn't an aesthetic problem. Certainly, my tastes in aesthetics have been veering closer to the abstract while still rooted in narrativehence my vocal adoration of Elfriede Jelinek—so McCarthy's sparse, polysyndetic language worked for me. I don't think anybody has ever written about the sun as beautifully or as evocatively as McCarthy; to this day, I can remember a line from All the Pretty Horses about the sun, sitting bloated and bloodred angry on the horizon, and how malevolent the sun feels in his fiction. Even typing all this makes me yearn to try Blood Meridian again. Yet, I think of how inert my experience with the novel was during the past couple days. 

Perhaps the problem is one of masculinity. McCarthy is a very masculinist writer: his casts are mostly men, white men, white men taciturn and emotionally closed off. Interiority is something often absent in McCarthy's work as his characterization derives more from actionnot as in, drama, but as in gestures, movements, words. Many beautiful sequences in his novels detail men working on things, manipulating things with hands. Consider the sequence in No Country for Old Men when Llewelyn buys a shotgun, saws it, and prepares for Anton Chigurh imminent arrival at the motel. Here, McCarthy uses his careful use of polysyndeton to quicken the pace and bring focus directly to Llewelyn's relationship to the gun, to the waiting, to the act of working with his hands. McCarthy's self reliant men, operating in a long discourse of American culture, stretching back to Emerson and Thoreau, take their fate in their own hands, literally and figuratively. The problem is manifold for me: I'm not as terribly interested in the plight of the emotionally remote white man who is unable or unwilling to voice their feelings in a productive manner. Where Blood Meridian and earlier texts seemed to revel in the glory and mystery of this mythic man, this archetype, at least No Country and All the Pretty Horses were loudly critical of this type of masculinity. Perhaps we can apply a spectrum to McCarthy's oeuvre: ending before Blood Meridian, we have an uncritical exaltation of masculinity, while the novel represents the shift towards undoing all the myth and majesty of the discourse in which McCarthy is working. 

My exhaustion with McCarthy isn't so much with the work itself, but more an indication of my shifting tastes. My blog is an excellent archive of how my interests and likes have changed along the axis of time. When at one point, I loved Richard Ford enough to name my blog after one of his novels, I can't imagine anymore wanting to spend time in his world, his nebbish world of missed connections and Puritanical reservation. Similarly, I thought at one point Don Winslow to be a great writer when now I have no interest in his works. Looking back on what I had opined were my favourite novels, I listed Richard Ford, Bret Easton Ellis, Michael Crichton, Douglas Coupland, etc etc etc. Perhaps those are still great artists with great works to their name (I sincerely doubt Ford's The Lay of the Land stands the test of time), but I've moved away from them. I can't even say I moved onto better or more diverse things (though I have read more and from more diverse people). But these writers mired in the same masculine White Guy discourse makes me yawn.

This isn't to say all White Guys are boring (most are tho) but that the subject of masculinity doesn't appeal to me anymore. My own shifting gender identity has played a part in this along with my distance from the commonly accepted tenets of masculinity (sports, cars, etc). Hitherto suspicious or disdainful, I am now holistically apathetic to upholding any form of masculinity which feeds into patriarchy. I couldn't care less what men do as long as they keep it to themselves and check their privilege. Thus, all these Great White Men writers, with their phallic obsessions, their myopic focus on gestures and actions coded manly (consider the almost erotic sensuality of McCarthy describing hunting of animals), it no longer appeals to me.

Even in The Road, I think his worst novel, the undoing of toxic masculinity by celebrating the loving affectionate bond between man and son (wholly jettisoning any Oedipal replacement anxiety) is undermined by the repetitive robotic fascination with manly pursuits (though I still retain a fond memory of the infamous baby on a spit scene!). I won't ask McCarthy or any of these Great White Dudes to write something else. Why bother, when there are endless quantities of other books I can read which don't fetishize masculinity in the same way? 

Again, this isn't a criticism of McCarthy's writing or interests. I still love his prose and think many of his novels are terrific. It's just simply my taste has shifted, and not unilaterally either. Tastes are nebulous and almost protoplasmic in their malleability. Perhaps I'm just not at the right stage in my life to read Blood Meridian. Perhaps in a year or two, I'll yearn for McCarthy. For now, I officially abandon the novel and redirect my energies elsewhere. 

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Spider-Man 3 (with meandering introduction)

I'm feeling a bit burnt out on even the idea of Letterboxd right now. What seemed like a Goodreads for film has seemingly taken over my life and writing. Most of my writing has appeared there in the past year or so, and while it's been a boon for my prose and critical eye, the social aspect of the site has unmoored me from my island of solitude here at the blog. I've said before I write for myself and LB started as a place for me to further hone my skills. I didn't expect I'd accumulate >900 followers and enter into real friendships with other users. I also didn't expect I'd become thirsty for "likes" on my reviews, but here we are. I'm frustrated with myself for wanting those likes, those numbers, as if they're a reflection of me or my taste or my writing.

At the same time, paradoxically, I'm frustrated with the fickle nature of the site; just as popular Goodreads reviewers opt for the middle, as do LB users. On the whole, they seem to prefer one sentence reviews, snark and sharp claws over lengthy analysis or digressions. This isn't, of course, limited to LB, but to criticism as a discourse. Ebert's negative reviews were always more popular than his encomia. I resist posting one sentence reviews, or at least, I try to avoid it, preferring a handful of paragraphs over Wildean bon mots.

This weekend, I felt a bit of sting. I wrote what I believe are two strong reviews of Death Wish 2 and Death Wish 3 and they have garnered little attention (7 and 9 likes respectively). Subsequently, I wrote one sentence reviews of Star Trek Into Darkness and Magnum Force (10 and 7 likes respectively). Admittedly, popular films will generate more activity as users are more likely to have an opinion about the film, not that I only review unknown films (far from it; I do enjoy my cinematic trash).

Yet, I write the above paragraph and I shake my head. When did I become enamored of popularity? When did I confuse quantity of visits/likes with my own self-worth? I'm embarrassed with myself. I know better. Just last year, I wrote about writing for myself. I concluded my state of the union would be:
I will labour at my prose, at my thinking, at praxis. I will labour at cultural objects because they give me pleasure, because thinking and writing give me pleasure.
And yet, here I am, whingeing about how few likes I've received for slightly-above average analysis and prose. What then to do?

Should I import my data from LB and painstakingly post all the good reviews on my blog? Should I continue to toil in the fields of LB, hoping to one day reap some measure of validation from strangers? Should I shift my "brand" and write only snarky one sentence reviews (which, I'm not even that great at)? I'm not sure. For now, I'm taking a smidge of a break from LB. Here, then, is a review of a film I watched yesterday.

Spider-Man 3

I've written at length about two previous Spider-Man films, here and here though I have not written much about Sam Raimi's wondrous trilogy. I picked up the Blu ray set for 15 bucks as I had been jonesing for a bit of the third one for awhile, which I saw in the theatre back in 2007. The critical consensus puts the third film down as being a bit overstuffed, not as focused as the previous two, and a bit too silly in places and a bit too dour in other places.

Since 2007, I have staunchly defended the two scenes which have traditionally been the target for the most amount of scorn: Peter walking down the street shooting finger guns at women and the jazz club scene. Critics of these two interrelated scenes have pointed to how silly they are, how the tone breaks immersion, how the viewer cringes with embarrassment. Of course, the Internet loves/hates anything to do with cringing. Here, from a subreddit about cringing (the only time I'll ever link to Reddit):
I think it was intentionally cheesy. Sam Raimi loves his cheese. The problem was that it was just too weird and silly, especially at the point in the movie when it arrived. It broke all tension and damaged what was supposed to be a halfway serious character arc. There's lots of problems with this movie, but one of them is that this scene doesn't fit. It might have worked in another film, maybe, but it didn't work here.

The reason, I think, why people have a hard time telling if this scene is supposed to make him seem cool or be silly, is because it's such a strange tonal choice for this film, and at this point in the plot.
This is one of the only reasonable posts in this thread about the scene. Most people strain themselves to hit higher and higher heights of hyperbole, calling it a "steaming pile of crap" while another user calls it, I kid you not, "Easily one of the biggest disappointments of my life." The user quoted above does a great job articulating that which bothers people about the two scenes: the tonal whiplash. What is a serious downturn for the character, Parker at his lowest and most aggressive, hurting the ones he loves in petty attempts at revenge, is deflated by the silliness of the sequence, including a close up shot of his mouth as he whispers, "now dig on this." How does the scene fit into the logic of the emotional arc if it veers so wildly from the tone surrounding it, viewers might ask themselves.

My answer, and the reason why I love the two scenes so much, is because they get at the truth of the character of Peter Parker. Lots of people applauded Captain America: Civil War for "nailing" the character of Peter so quickly and efficiently in only two scenes: a dorky enthusiastic motormouth. Admittedly, Tom Holland's performance as Peter is excellent, but the emotional labour he carries is minimal compared to that of Tobey Maguire's over three films. The truth, which Sam Raimi understands in his bones, better than any subsequent superhero film, absolutely, is that Peter Parker is a dork who will never fit in and will never succeed because to do so would betray what makes him work as a character. Peter walking down the street and pointing finger guns at women appreciates just how out of touch he is. The black symbiote, written in this film as amplifying his negative tendencies and aggression, operates like alcohol does: showing us the truth of this person and this person, Peter, is an absurd dork who genuinely thinks women would like this behaviour. At the end of the scene, Peter walks into a clothing shop and buys a black suit. We can assume the shop chose the suit as it fits well and is relatively stylish. The scene ends with Peter doing an absurd dance, complete with pelvic thrust in front of the entrance, with two embarrassed women trying to walk past him. Nothing in any other Spider-Man film will ever capture the cluelessness and naive optimism of Peter better than this single scene. I adore it. Peter's lack of rhythm, his obliviousness, his dangerously naive positive outlook on the future: all amplified by the suit, but still the essential truth of what makes Peter Peter. He will never be cool, never be comfortable, never be satisfied, because he carries the burden of responsibility, the burden of being Spider-Man.

This doesn't address the tonal problem highlighted by many people. To this I say, the tonal whiplash is intentional. Raimi's entire trilogy is filled to the brim with asides, weirdness, odd camera movements, and cheesiness, a loving cheese, an adoration of the sheer lunacy of comic books, which only Gunn's first Guardians of the Galaxy seems to have captured. The Stan Lee/Steve Ditko comics were awash in weirdness and pathos, a genuine love for the characters they depicted, a universe in which even a villain named The Spot or Morbius can be figures of sincere pathos, tragic figures caught in circumstances beyond their control. The great example of Spider-Man villain is of course The Green Goblin, both Norman and Harry Osborn. The protagonist and the antagonist quip while they fight, do silly things, look silly even, the comics are soaked in sympathy for their plight, even simultaneously condemning their actions, which sums Peter's attitude to the villains just as much. Consider in the first film when Peter brings the dead body of Norman back to the Osborn house. He hides the Green Goblin's identity from Harry, appeasing the final wish of the villain and father. No matter how silly these characters, a giant man made of sand or a man in a Halloween costume, the silliness hides a deep respect for their tragic origins. The silliness is an integral part and Raimi knows this.

Raimi will deflate or cut the tension throughout intense scenes using a gag or a throwaway line. During the climax, with Mary Jane in serious peril, two villains operating together to humiliate and destroy Peter, his best friend unwilling to help him, Raimi still cuts to a mini-drama of comedy of J. Jonah Jameson trying to buy a camera from a little girl to get photos for the Daily Bugle. The silliness helps deflate the tension, just as a good gag in a horror film does. Tension doesn't work as a straight line easing upwards, but as a series of peaks and valleys. Raimi captures the tonal whiplash of comic books, the sincere operatic highs of tragedy with the lows of simple gags and silly costumes. Consider the moment when Gwen Stacy replicates the upside down kiss during the key-to-the-city ceremony. We know MJ is at her lowest and Peter's ego is close to its biggest. Restaging this kiss will mean a betrayal of MJ, but Peter does it anyway. Just before doing so, the crowd urges them on. Raimi cuts to a lone dissenting voice, a little boy crying, "don't do it, Spider-Man!" Once they kiss, the boy retches. This moment of comedy shares the same space as MJ's hurt and anguished face. These moments can exist together because this is a universe of contrasts, both in colour and in tone. This is a universe in which a man made of sand can make poor decisions because he feels he must but can still be forgiven.

While Spider-Man 2 is much more focused than the third, focused in both content and in theme, Spider-Man 3 extends the previous film's interest in bringing Peter down to reality, reminding him of his humanity and his responsibility to the world. The third film is about facing our mistakes (letting the burglar get away, accidentally shooting an innocent man, confusing vengeance with atonement) and learning from them. Only Eddie Brock opts for annihilation instead of atonement, though, as Peter is a figure of grace, he still offers Eddie a moment for forgiveness. I still tear up when Peter apologizes to Harry for all that he's done, even though Peter is ostensibly the victim of the Osborn's insanity. Likewise, I tear up when Flint Marko (underwritten, admittedly) tells Peter he's not asking for forgiveness, but asking for Peter to understand. What Flint doesn't know is that Peter will always understand. But for Aunt May, Uncle Ben and his heart, Peter would have been these same villains. But for a strong sense of responsibility, Peter would have made the same mistakes. Instead, he chose differently.

No matter how many more Spider-Man films they make, none of them will be able to capture Peter better than these three films. Everything has been said about the character and everything else will be a stale repetition.

Which isn't to say Spider-Man 3 is perfect: the Venom stuff is superfluous (while still thematically appropriate); Flint Marko is underwritten (we never a sense of how Flint feels about anything other than his daughter); I've never thought Rosemary Harris worked as Aunt May; this New York City is astonishingly white. But the film is never boring and Raimi's choices almost always work despite the circumstances of studio meddling and a tight schedule (the reason for his departure from the planned fourth film). Also, Bill Pope's cinematography is gorgeous: the black and white flashbacks, the film's shifting colour palette (as Peter falls further away from his friends and the family, the palette moves closer to teal than the omnipresent orange; with the end of the climax, dawn breaks, letting a bit of orange light back into the palette). Raimi and Pope's camera move around with a balletic grace, understanding instinctively that the same old plane won't cut it for a character unmoored from the banality of gravity (the rescue of Gwen Stacy, done in only 7 or 8 shots, captures perfectly Raimi's intuitive grasp of how Spider-Man moves through space). I love Spider-Man 3, even with its flaws. In fact, like Peter, I should love it because of its flaws.

Friday, May 5, 2017

April Reads

Koko by Peter Straub

Though I managed to only finish one novel in the month of April, I made significant progress through two major projects which ate up most of my reading time.

I'm officially 25% of the way through The Water Margin, or in the translation I'm reading, Outlaws of the Marsh. One of the Four Great Classical Novels of China, The Water Margin is so far an incredibly dense read, introducing hundreds of characters, and slowly, so slowly, moving them into position. It's incredibly funny and packed with incident, though mostly light on interiority or reflection. Instead, it's mostly violence and expressions of brotherhood. I don't think the novel has even come close to hitting the Bechdel Test at any point.

I'm also just over halfway through Alan Moore's Jerusalem. Unlike the aforementioned Chinese novel, this one is dense as hell with interiority. Chapters are long dense histories of characters and their relation to Northampton, the setting of this longer-than-the-Bible novel. The middle section, The Two Towers part of the novel, is a single adventure in Moore's vision of the afterlife. I took a break from it not because I needed a break per se, but because I wanted to savour it.

Both novels are very long: Outlaws of the Marsh is 2,500 pages and Jerusalem is 1,200 pages of tightly packed prose with tiny margins. I'm not sure why I start this massive projects. 

Koko was both a disappointment and enjoyable in equal measures. I complained to a friend, an expert on Straub, that the baroque ornate prose was absent, much to my disappointment, and the narrative seemed really linear, almost to a fault. It didn't feel like the ambitious intricate project I've come to expect from Straub: Floating Dragon is so carefully built and Ghost Story is a masterpiece of tiny gears working all at once. Koko had a straightforward story to tell and it does so in the way you would expect. Additionally, the great sequences of horror (not that this is a horror novel in the classic sense) rely on an obvious streak of Orientalism: the East is confusing, exotic, alluring, and frightening all at once.

There are two spectacular setpieces in Koko: the aforementioned bit of Orientalism, in which a character stumbles inexorably into the Singapore underworld discovering a backdoor moment of pure dehumanizing terror; and when the protagonist returns home from the Orient, unable to relate to his wife, unable to relate to his job, unable to function in bourgeois society. Much of Koko operates the same way Bob Clark's fantastic film Deathdream does: the sheer incompatibility of soldiers and "polite" society literalized as a horror film. In Clark's film, the returning soldier is undead, compelled to continue killing, despite his parents' vehement declarations he is unable to kill. Lots of late 70s and early 80s culture grapples with the integration, mostly failure to, of Vietnam veterans into American society. These boys were turned into killing machines, committed some atrocities, fully documented, and "survived" to return to a society distrustful, wary of what soldiers did and are capable of. This is what Koko does well: the horror of war is the truest purest form of horror not because of what one sees but because of what one brings back.

The second setpiece concerns the PTSD the protagonist has been stifling for 20 years finally manifesting. Mike's complete inability to relate to his already distant wife comes to the surface; he imagines himself an actor, playing a role, while his wife plays a similar role. The acting bit isn't quite convincing as metaphor ("we all wear masks, maaaaannnn!") but Straub's meticulous unraveling of their marriage through physical actions, or even lack thereof, is undeniably chilling. His wife (I can't remember her name, alas) attempts to initiate intimacy, wearing lingerie. She takes him in her hand, but he can't maintain his erection. Straub conveys all this with third person limited narration, from Mike's perspective: he wants to perform—in both sense—but he's so emotionally distant as to be in another galaxy. The narration presents all this as coldly and dispassionately as possible, almost Yates-like in its distance, a moment of form meeting content. Like the other major setpiece, this particular sequence works as horror not through the abject physicality horror usually works with, but through the cold unblinking abyss of trauma, the hollowness of humanity, the inescapable dread of not connecting, contra Forster's exhortation.

These moments of horror in Koko are effective but they're a bit few and far between. The novel isn't a slog; Koko is still gripping; Straub is too skillful of a writer to bore me. The novel just is, in the sense that it unfolds just as a novel such as this would. Perhaps if I hadn't read Ghost Story or Floating Dragon or had seen Deathdream, I might have been a bit more excited about Koko. As it is right now, the novel simply exists as a starting point for his Blue Rose Trilogy, which I understand to get more intricate and metafictional as it goes on.

Friday, April 21, 2017

February and March Reads

The Killing Moon by N. K. Jemisin
The Weird and the Eerie by Mark Fisher
The Visible Filth by Nathan Ballingrud
The Doll-Master and other stories by Joyce Carol Oates
Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones by Torrey Peters
Mudwoman by Joyce Carol Oates
The Break by Katherena Vermette
Babbling Corpse: Vaporwave and the Commodification of Ghosts by Grafton Tanner
Last Look by Charles Burns
Camp Concentration by Thomas M. Disch

Some nonfiction for once! Two books of it! Mark Fisher, a well loved writer around these parts, sadly died this year, much to the world's dismay. This most recent volume, probably a final volume, is a short overview of the Weird and what he calls the Eerie. As per usual, Fisher's prose and theoretical dexterity is beyond excellent. Though, I was a bit disappointed: from an argumentative standpoint, it might be his weakest book. There's too much synopsis and not enough analysis or textual support for his thesis. Still, a fascinating read and it made me sad to think there is no more Fisher to help guide us in the world.

Babbling Corpse was an astute overview of the part anti-capitalist motivation of vaporwave, a music genre I've been casually interested in for a few years. Tanner's aggregation of thoughts and observations do not quite build to a whole, but they're still valuable and helpful in orienting one's self in an era of near-omnipresent music designed to be consumed as a distraction. I don't write much about music as I fear I don't have the literacy in music nor the background in the vast corpus of music writing to say anything helpful.

Two more Oates to notch for the year. The Doll-Master was great: suspenseful, compelling, eerie, and no story ever overstayed its welcome. This is my first batch of Oates stories and I'm suitably impressed. Mudwoman was a bit of a letdown, my first real sense of the ambivalence people regard Oates with. The novel was fine, full of tense and evocative moments, but they didn't seem to add up to anything nor did the novel seem to really say anything. Perhaps the link between the titular Mudwoman's muddy beginnings and her present-day situation was a bit too cloudy for me to connect the dots. Not enough to dissuade me from reading more Oates, though.

Torrey Peters' novella was recommended to me by a friend. I thought, like much of the trans fiction I've read, the realist details are feverish with tactility and presentness, but paired with the science fictional aspects greatly cut down on my now allergic reaction to realism as a genre. Paradoxically, or more accurately, hypocritically, the realistic moments appealed to me the most; specifically, I'm thinking of a great scene in which the protagonist is on a date with a trans man, and they have a disagreement on... shall I say trans ideologies? The protagonist suggests trans women are angry all the time with good reason whereas the trans man says just let it be. There are more details and nuance, but I found it a fascinating bit. It's almost refreshing to read something for which I am not the target audience; this is not for my gaze and it's attractive for its novel (to me) point of view. I really should read more trans fiction. It's not like I don't have access to it.

Last Look, a graphic novel in three parts, is one I'd read the first part years ago, and thought it okay. Reading the entire thing was an entirely different matter and one I'm happy to report wholly positive. I'm convinced Charles Burns is one of the finest cartoonists/artists to grace the publishing world with his presence. Last Look is less formally daring than Black Hole but much more ambitious with its narrative. Using a similar disaffected youth story tied with a complicated Tintin pastiche, Last Look concerns itself with male guilt, masculine fragility, and artistic failure. All in all, a great work.

Thomas M. Disch is one of those names you know, but lack intimate familiarity with the work. I opted for Camp Concentration as it was short and I needed a break from the novel I'm currently reading (more on that later). Disch's science fiction, highly appreciated by the writers and thinkers in the genre, but not very commercial, continues the legacy of the New Wave but in a distinctly American vein. Camp Concentration purports itself to be the journal of a poet turned conscientious objector in an alternate future USA in which the wars of the 1960's continued. He is sent to prison and then scuttled away to a top secret location tasked with observing his fellow prisoners who have been infected with a strain of syphilis which provides a genius intellect at the cost of corporeal disintegration. Disch isn't entirely interested in his own premise. Instead, he's much more invested in an interrogation of genius and its intersection with madness, with religiosity, with heretical thought, with art. Much of the novel consists of scenes of dialogue between the protagonist and a fellow prisoner which touch on all sorts of metaphysical subjects. I found the novel interesting as an intellectual exercise but a bit inert as a narrative.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

January Reads Part Two

Splinter by Adam Roberts
Human Acts by Han Kang
Life Class by Pat Barker
The Arrival of Missives by Aliya Whiteley
Land of the Headless by Adam Roberts

For Splinter, I think I'll just copy and paste the paragraph I wrote for Goodreads. I gave the book 5 stars though this was strategic, an attempt to offset the multitude of one and two star reviews. If I were to be honest, this is a 4 star or even 4 and a half star novel. Reading the reviews gave me a headache; people don't seem to understand what they're getting into with Roberts. Here's my paragraph:
I'm definitely the target audience for this book: exceedingly clever and imaginative thinking combined with the author's trademark gorgeous prose. His cleverness is sometimes stultifying as it can be too much at once. But his sensitivity to his characters and their emotional plight always tempers the cleverness. Case in point, SPLINTER features two major flashbacks, both of which appear more thematically relevant than narratively relevant. In the first, the protagonist remembers thinking nothing is original and then becoming irritated because he isn't even the first to come up with that idea. Secondly, the emotional climax of the novel reveals in flashback a bike collision between the protagonist and a girl he was crushing on. Written more like Will Self than Roberts, this final flashback ties together many of the themes of the novel: collision, separation, maturity by violent and destructive means. It ends with no answers (how I like em) and offers a gentle suggestion that perhaps the protagonist has finally or will finally reach adulthood.
Much of the same can be said for his Land of the Headless in terms of its cleverness, but the execution is remarkably different than in Splinter. The closest comparison I can make to Land of the Headless is Gene Wolfe, both in terms of prose and in theme. Headless is concerned with religiosity, memory, women as objects (though satirically instead of straight ahead, as with Wolfe), unreliable narrators, and formal, archaic-sounding prose, much to my delight. I read Headless in one day, finding it a fascinating exploration of shame and the disciplinary discourses which structure, compel, and produce among other verbs emotions related to shame.

The Arrival of Missives was a text greatly admired by critics on Twitter whom I admire. A young girl in a small village just after the first World War has a crush on her teacher; though when she confronts him about her love, he inadvertently reveals he is receiving messages from the future in the form of warnings and he must alter the timeline to prevent this future from coming to be. A short novel, closer to a novella I guess, but stuffed to the brim with incident and theme. I quite liked it.

Life Class was heartbreaking, but not Barker's best.

Human Acts was tremendous. I loved it.

Sunday, January 29, 2017


I've been hesitant to provide my own commentary on Scorsese's recent film as I'm coming from such an atheist background that I can't, for the life of me, comprehend the unwillingness to apostatize unless this refusal is meant to represent a Shakespearean fatal flaw, the sin of pride. This is, after all, the crux of the film, the hinge upon which the plot turns. In which case, I'm trying to be careful in how I approach the theology and politics of the film. On the whole, I disliked Silence.

I am, for the most part, a big enough fan of Scorsese to have gone to the theatre on the power of his name alone. I had seen no trailer nor read any review; that is the appeal of his brand. Still, not every Scorsese film is a masterpiece (*cough* Shutter Island *cough*). It's possible for the master to stumble. 

The film's crucial misstep is not pursuing a pointed enough critique of the Jesuits peddling their version of Christianity, which of course they insist is the only true faith. Andrew Garfield's priest is the film's protagonist, practically never straying away from his point of view. Likewise, Garfield's emotional and religious journey represents the film's central moral dilemma. In this way, Garfield's position as protagonist in a moral dilemma suggests he is the moral centre of the film. Maneuvering Garfield into the moral centre of the film is troubles me the most about the film. (I appreciate this is a contentious assertion; perhaps reading Garfield's Jesuit as the moral centre imbalances my reading. I'm 100% willing to read critiques of the film in which Garfield is not the moral centre. For now, my reading of the film is predicated on this fact.) Firstly, Silence doesn't lean heavily enough on his pride, his desire for followers, his willingness to sacrifice people to "strengthen" the faith for this critique to be successful. There is some, of course; the pessimism of the Jesuit project is represented through the classic Scorsese manner, which is to depict the subject and slowly chip away at the character and his ideology until the audience, bedazzled by cinematic pyrotechnics, is confused by the ambiguity of the presentation (Wolf of Wall Street is probably the ultimate representation of this vacillation he so carefully enacts). Despite this, no matter how many people die because he refuses to apostatize, he maintains his faith; no matter how silent is his God, he maintains his faith. The final shot, of his immolating hands holding a crucifix, frustrated me the most. It undermines almost completely the critique by suggesting his faith is something wondrous to behold: "wow even after all that, he still managed to keep the faith!" That the film positions him as protagonist, keeping the faith in spite of the barbaric repressive Japanese government boils my blood.

The film plays such lip service to the plight of the Japanese Christians, even going so far as to dedicate the film to them (the second most frustrating thing about the film) but still, no matter what, Silence maneuvers Garfield into the position of righteous in his quiet apostasy, his *eyeroll* supreme sacrifice of staying silent in order to save the lives of Japanese Christians. The Japanese in this film appear to fall under two camps: naive fools worshiping idols instead of "real" Christianity or barbarians, bloodthirsty and wholly deaf to the word of God. This is some grotesque optics: the primitivism suggested by this portrayal really whiffs the whole thing for me. Frankly I'm amazed more people haven't really talked about the classic colonialist attitude to the Japanese, especially in the film's odd dismissal of their faith.

That the Japanese interpreter makes the most reasonable points in the film in arguments with Garfield's priest did not bode well for me. Perhaps, as an atheist, my distrust for Christianity's "one true faith" dogma and doctrine of proselytizing/conversion rankled considering Buddhism asks for inner journeys, inner quests, inner peace, not the rapacious almost capitalistic arms of the octopus known as Christianity. Likewise, the film barely depicts Buddhism at all, though I felt the lack very much. That Buddhism is always a viable option for the Japanese (and the Jesuits really) looms over the proceedings, almost trivializing the crises of the Jesuit program, as it always feels simple enough to abandon Jesus for Buddha without much trouble.

Thus, for me, the film reveals an accidental inner conflict: is this a film about faith, strength, God, and pride or about the political ramifications of colonialism? Is this a film interested in questions of theology? If so, it doesn't do enough to show why apostasy/conversion/martyrdom work the way they did in the unfolding of the narrative as perhaps there is too much back and forth with Japanese bureaucrats. Is this a film interested in the politics of this period of Japan? If so, it doesn't do enough to understand those ramifications, especially not by grounding it in such hushed reverential tones of religiosity. It's a film that wants to say plenty about all these subjects but can't find a way to do so without stumbling over itself accidentally. I'm not convinced the contradictions presented in the film are purposeful enough to accomplish what I think the film wants to do.

Friday, January 27, 2017

January Reads Part One

Gradisil by Adam Roberts
We Who Are About To by Joanna Russ
Super-Cannes by J. G. Ballard
Lament for the Afterlife by Laura L. Hannett
All Those Vanished Engines by Paul Park
Carthage by Joyce Carol Oates
The Burning by Jane Chambers

I keep coming back to Roberts because, even if I never love reading his books, his prose is wonderful, full of wordplay, beautiful imagery, economical but never terse. Of the four or so novels I've read by him, Gradisil might be the least narratively satisfying or even alluring. The high concept, for which he's often praised, of this novel is a novum in the form of electromagnetic planes which "climb" the invisible branches of Earth's atmosphere, imagined as a Yggdrasil. The plot follows a family through different iterations and generations of revenge. The cleverness of Roberts comes in his exploration of tree metaphors: family trees, space trees, time trees, etc etc etc. Gradisil's plot rarely held my attention and did not propel me, though his prose certainly kept my attention. Likewise, Roberts' keen critical eye elbowed its way to the forefront, with seemingly tossed off asides and tangents which betray the author as one of the finest observers of culture. He mentionsagain, almost as an aside—the dramatics of aerial combat which conclude, as any conflict does, with explosions, substituting for orgasms. What's a terribly clever observation to me is a witticism made for flavour and not much else. Roberts is a writer who makes me despair of ever being a writer, either of fiction or of criticism: he's just far too clever. 

Though the plot wasn't the novel's main attraction, I can't dismiss it wholly: the second section, the longest section, aimed a lazy laser of satire at the law and its labyrinthine complexities, a target I'm predisposed to find worthy of ridicule. Probably the funniest novel I've ever read was William Gaddis's A Frolic of His Own, which mired itself in suits, countersuits, torts, briefs, and all other legal escapades. The law and its study attracts me because what else is law but wordplay with stakes? Roberts seems to understand this and spends a great relaxed time mocking the law while still, like all good satire, making an important point: wars are fought in the courtroom, after the fact, not on the ground. It's a particularly postmodern position to take; the war's establishment in courtroom only makes the previous skirmishes "war" by definition by defining it through legalese. 

Gradisil was definitely enjoyable, though my "imposter syndrome" feelings leave me a bit paranoid. Am I just not well-read enough or critically astute enough to pick up on what Roberts is doing? Could I be missing an obvious "clue" or "clues" to unlock his writing? Over at his blog, fellow amateur (in a non-pejorative sense) critic Tomcat writes:
I don’t have the breadth (or depth) of reading in such areas as the history of Science Fiction or Western Philosophy that’s probably required to truly “get” his work. Indeed, I often have to read other people’s reviews in order to appreciate what he’s doing. I do, however, very much love his work for its characterisation, humour, and hell just the sentence-by-sentence writing.
I feel the same, Tomcat. He also mentions he wishes more people would focus on Roberts' skills in prose and characterization. Luckily, the only science fiction/genre criticism venue I respect wrote an unbelievably good bit of work on Roberts. Strange Horizons published Kevin Power's "review" (I use the scare quotes because I think Power's work goes beyond a simple consumer oriented opinion piece into the realm of damn fine criticism) of The Thing Itself (a recent Roberts publication I'm waiting to get to, as it feels like the culmination of everything the author has been working towards). In it, Power starts out by highlighting Roberts' clever, beautiful wordsmithing: 
How good is Adam Roberts? If good writing is in one sense about embodying perceptions—about capturing in careful prose the little inspirations that make up how a writer sees the world—then Adam Roberts is a very good writer indeed. All of the phrases I've quoted here pass what Martin Amis calls "the memorability test"—that is, they stick around in your memory of their own accord.
I wish I had preserved some choice quotes from Gradisil because I'm very convinced the novel contains some of his finest sentences.

We Who Are About To was a frustrating read. Absolutely brilliant in places but absurdly tedious in many other places. One of those "I appreciate what the novel's doing and its place in aesthetic/political/generic history, but oy this is boring" type situations, I'm afraid. Some crackling prose and a very circa-Moorcock and New Wave-style disposition towards the genre welcomed into the experience, but the second half, during which the completely alone protagonist hallucinates, lost me entirely. Russ' project is fascinating (the dissolution of polite society, a violent re-establishment of patriarchy in times of stress) but I just can't with a character starving to death for 70 pages without a single person to interact with. Personal taste and all that.

Ballard, a novelist I've grown to love through sheer perseverance (and careful calibration of what I, as a reader, expect from a novel), might be the 20th century's greatest prognosticator, not in terms of specifics, but in terms of "feeling tones" if I might borrow from Raymond Williams. Super-Cannes, a excoriation of the work/leisure dichotomy, purports to be a thriller, a mystery, but really suggests to the reader how sinister is pleasure. Like his earlier Crash, the aesthetics choices are not mistakes or accidents: Ballard's instrumentalizing of generic signifiers works towards a thesis, as each novel in his oeuvre works towards a grander thesis, a macrocosmic interrogation of how subjects relate to leisure, leisure in the most bourgeois form possible, the novel. Super-Cannes goes down smooth thanks to its structure and pacing and violence, though its careful manipulation of conflict present to the reader a dilemma: do I reject the antagonist's theory that violence and psychopathy is necessary for the continuance of work (rejection in the form of positioning the events in the novel as ethically abhorrent)? or do I recognize that my desire for prurience and titillation in the form of a novel mirrors, in a way, the violent acts spurned on by the villains? Surely not the first to work such territory, but certainly one of the most stylish, Super-Cannes might repel the experienced Ballard reader, as it's not nearly as insidiously clever as, say, Crash, but it's such a great sharp tool in the kit Ballard assembled in his career.

Speaking of careful calibration of novelistic expectations, Paul Park's All Those Vanished Engines will no doubt be the text which best represents, in 2017, my aesthetic and philosophical desires from novels. Three novellas, one alt-history, two pseudo-memoirs (of which one is set in the future) which trouble the waters of what constitutes "fact" and "fiction," "history" and "truth," and "genre," all as semantic categories. To put this in perspective, the first novella, that of the alternative history, is both backwards looking and forwards looking. By which I mean, the protagonist of the novella, in an alternate 1865, writes a novel set in the future, 1965. In this future, a protagonist writes an alternate 1865 with a protagonist who writes a novel set in the future of 1965 (and so on so forth: in which a protagonist writes a novel set in 1865 etc etc). The primary image connecting the two strands is a bracelet, made of two interwoven braids, running over top and under each other. This first novella, both exciting and confusing as the two literary worlds bleed back and forth, teaches the audience how to read the next two novellas, which are far trickier and much more obscurantist. In the middle section, Paul Park the character fabricates an interview with an engineer who help designed a vast engine powered by and producing sound. Simultaneously, Park reminisces about a friend writing a roman-a-clef about Park (and so on and so forth). Park the narrator admits to confabulation, characters made up wholecloth despite the signalling of truth and authenticity in the guise of a memoir. The third novella jumps ahead to a future when Park is an older novelist unable to let go of his passion for his family history. Composed of excerpts from the original documents he finds, the third novella demands much of the audience's memory, as seemingly countless relatives are introduced with their links to others briefly detailed.

I've written much on my growing disinterest in realism (here is a fine summary of my thoughts) and my appreciation of confabulation grows with each novel I read which challenges or at least troubles the stability of realism, or the illusion of stability. Park's novel is the farthest I've gone with metafiction in a long time (with characters even addressing the audience). The major problem with realism is the insistence on realism without any acknowledgement of the artificiality of the genre. Realism is just as fake as speculation. At least with speculative fiction, fantasy, science fiction, etc, the artifice glimmers, drawing attention to itself. The tricky part of explaining my distaste for realism comes in divesting realism the genre from realism the aesthetic mode. Realism as an aesthetic, which is to say an agreement between text and audience that which is in the realm of possibility can only occur within the text unless otherwise signalled or specified, either through generic signifiers or  isn't a problem (as Park's middle section shows); rather, the genre of realism pretends it's mimesis, the mimicry of reality. The genre purports to represent the world as it is but we know from our good buddy Plato it's not possible to do so. Poetry, Plato argued, will not and can never attain ultimate truth. So why bother pretending?

Carthage was Oates at her most "LIBERAL" and probably a bit more irritating in her open self-aggrandizing moralizing. Yet, the novel remains readable and affecting, functioning more efficiently as a portrait of depression and alienation than as a treatise against disciplinary structures such as prisons and the military. Oates' pseudo-stream of consciousness writing is always readable, almost addictive in some ways, propelling the reader along. Of what I've read, Oates' novels are rarely about "plot" in the way the synopses seem to promise; instead, the pulp fiction headlines disguise a lede of characterization and promised heaps of interiority. I find myself drawn more to Oates' experiments with the Gothic and the unreal than with her interest in the mundane banality of American life (as the previous priggish paragraph can attest) but she is still a fascinating writer, no matter the subject.

The Burning I purchased by sheer luck. I heard of the novel through Will Erickson's Too Much Horror blog and never expected to see it in the wild. However, a trip to a used bookstore in another part of the city (owned by an incredibly irritating woman who insists on chitchatting while people browse) turned up this rare novel. (The above isn't my picture, so excuse the Crichton in the background.) A slim volume, lasting only 160-ish pages, The Burning does much of what I hope to receive from horror. One reason why I try to read fiction by women is that more often than not, men can't seem to fathom the experiences and internal lives of women. Case in point, The Burning is positively aflame with irritation towards nettlesome and oblivious men. The protagonist's husband, a well meaning but ultimately doltish man, vexes his wife with his uselessness: she feeds the children, watches the children, does the cooking, cleans the house etc etc while he bumbles his way through life, failing upwards seemingly, despite being an idiot. The husband isn't a general moron in the sense of being stupid. Instead, he's self-centered and oblivious. A moment which really captures the wife's—and the novel's—exasperation details the husband never being able to find anything, forcing the protagonist to stop whatever she's doing and locate the "missing" item which was obviously exactly where it should have been. The novel puts in so much effort to convey the small ways in which men are just fucking annoying, including their constant prodding, either literal or metaphorical with their members, their narcissism, their disregard for the inner lives of the women in their lives. The plot, a backseat to the novel's thesis on how women are always and have always been violated at the hands of men in the form of social mores and laws, concerns two lesbian ghosts who possess the protagonist and her babysitter to live out the elder women's lives, up to and including their eventual burning at the stake for "witchery" AKA their queerness and purposeful living away from the clutches of men. In other words, what I took to be a simple novel about witches ended up being a righteously blazing excoriation of patriarchy and a sensitive (maybe too idealistic) portrayal of lesbians. 

I struggled with Lament for the Afterlife: some beautiful prose, some stunning worldbuilding, but unfortunately, just not enough of anything I'm interested in to maintain my appetite for her abstract, difficult writing. Perhaps the issue was that I expected something more difficult, based on other reviews. Perhaps I just wasn't in the right mood. But the novel, though I finished it, slips through my fingers, bores me, numbs me. I was perhaps more fascinated by the concepts than by the execution, which admittedly was skilled, but just wasn't for me. A case of "not my cup of tea" more so than "I thought this was bad."  

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

December Reads

Adrift on the Sea of Rains by Ian Sales
Light by M. John Harrison
The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself by Ian Sales
Nightside the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe
Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above by Ian Sales
Lake of the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe
The Race by Nina Allan
All That Outer Space Allows by Ian Sales
The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe

As with lots of science fiction I've read over the past few years, The Race was a recommendation from Jonathan McCalmont. And as usual, he was bang on; The Race is an incredibly tricky mosaic novel, one that suggests far more than explains, which is how I'm liking it. I can imagine a fan of David Mitchell enjoying very much Allan's d├ębut novel. Composed of 4 subtly connected novellas, The Race is quick to suggest some possibilities for how everything connects, but these possibilities are sometimes at odds with each other. Two of the novellas, the bookends, concern themselves with a near future in the midst of ecological and economic collapse in which genetically modified dogs perform in illegal races. The middle two novellas suggest they are not in the same "universe" as the other two novellas, though the connections, as I mentioned are more devious than assumed. McCalmont speaks of the novel's ambiguity as its biggest allure. He writes:
Nina Allan’s The Race is one of the finest science fiction novels of 2014 precisely because it encourages you to ask difficult questions of the novel, its plot, its characters, and its themes. Great novels don’t just give you a single well-crafted story; they give you the space to come up with messy ones of your own.
McCalmont's enthusiasm for the novel probably derives from Allan's interrogation of genre, an enthusiasm I share. The Race picks up and plays with traditional realist structures (the English country novel, for example) without sliding into a petulant abandonment of that genre which characterizes much "literary" science fiction. Ian Sales, another critic I'm a fan of (and an accomplished and effective genre writer himself) is a bit more withholding of his praise when he writes:
The end result is, I think, one of 2014’s more interesting genre novels, and certainly proves Allan is a writer to watch. I’m not convinced The Race is wholly successful, but it’s definitely a worthy attempt.
What makes Sales's criticism so interesting to me is that his Apollo Quartet, which I read this month, does similar work with genre. The Apollo Quartet, a series of thematically connected novellas, plays with hard sci-fi and historical fiction, using classic postmodernist strategies such as appendices and false documents to blur lines between fact and fiction, to blur history and fiction. It's pure coincidence I'm reading these two works together in December, but there's a sweet synchronicity to it. Both are prominent critics and both publish less commercial science fiction than say, even Alastair Reynolds or the execrable James S. A. Corey. Based on the little I've read of them, especially Ian Sales, I'm very impressed and excited about their future work.

The Apollo Quartet, as aforementioned, uses 3 novellas and 1 novel to demand difficult questions of genre borders. Each part builds on the other—not in terms of plot, but rather in methodology and thematic interests. The first novella, a hard science alternate history keeps the postmodernism in the appendices, while still offering an exciting sci-fi adventure. The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, the second novella, might have a not-so-great title, but it pushes further with the careful game Sales plays; instead of offering simply an alternative history/future, Sales poses a riddle, the solution to which requires work from the reader. I confess I don't fully understand the solution (which is provided in the author's afterword in the second edition), but I do understand the thematic implication of the solution. The quantum uncertainty, a similar principle driving Allan's The Race, supposes a simultaneous binary in which one thing is both at the same time. This echoes Sales's and Allan's forceful critique of and play with genre borders. Instead of slipping back and forth, The Race and The Apollo Quartet are both genre and "not-genre" at the same time—again, without the aggression of, say, M. John Harrison (not that Harrison's grumpiness isn't welcome! it definitely is!).

The third novella, Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, I wasn't as keen on. It didn't feel as ambitious as the second and it certainly wasn't as wide in scope as the fourth, All That Outer Space Allows, which I absolutely adored. The fourth part, a full length novel, (according the arbitrary rules of science fiction publishing, determined by word count) stars perhaps my favourite protagonist I met all year. Ginny Eckhardt is both an astronaut's wife in the 1960s and a science fiction writer of some repute. The novel follows her point of view as her husband is selected for NASA's Apollo program and as her science fiction writing deepens and matures. In possibly one of the finest sci-fi novels I've read in a couple years, Sales manages to successfully balance an array of complicated themes and goals, all through textured characterization and clever false documents. The crux of All That Outer Space Allows (with its title's obvious but not eyerolling reference to Douglas Sirk) is the parallel made between the gendered supporting duties of an astronaut's wife and the invisibility of a female science fiction writer in the 1960s-70s. Both identities require—or produce—a measure of invisibility, something the novel calls attention to explicitly, not only through a fourth wall breaking narrator but also through the novel's brilliant centrepiece, a full short story written in the voice of Ginny and presented as if published in a 1960s sci-fi magazine. The short story details an accidental solution to a military research project on the nature of invisibility: only the presence of women will turn this military vessel invisible, thus implying the necessity of women in the field. This necessity echoes outwards, from the short story to the novel (the necessity of women as astronauts, who are objectively better suited for the rigours of space) and from there to the rest of the quartet: the homosocial spaces of novellas 1 and 2 are implicitly critiqued by dint of an absence of women (though, "homosocial" is an imperfect word for the rigidly delineated labour space designated for men). My summary of the novel might make All That Outer Space Allows sound dry or academic, but the experience is far from that; instead, Ginny's plight for visibility in both her life of letters and her life with her husband is heartbreaking and... immediate, necessary.

Similarly, Nina Allan's The Race poses some important genre questions as well as the visibility of women's science fiction labour. While laureates such as Ursula K. LeGuin and Margaret Atwood get heavy attention (not coincidentally, both of them produced early work which slots comfortably into a now outdated eco-feminist outlook), women writers in the trenches, as it were, are invisible. The Race's second novella suggests, quite coyly, the necessity of women to science fiction: their ability to see what is not seen by the hegemony of sci-fi writers. Allan's writer character is praised for her ability to see the world and present it slightly askew, slightly tilted, familiar enough to be recognizable, but altered enough to produce a feeling of unease. Without explicitly naming it, Allan's character is lauded for her skill in producing the uncanny. Yet, the uncanny isn't instrumentalized for the sake of it; rather, tilting the world on its axis (figuratively, of course; the Earth is already tilted, hence the seasons) allows for new sight, new ways of seeing, new ways of apprehending information and even, in the case of the third novella, apprehending new information.

Still, that new information isn't concretized by either generic signifiers or narrative. Instead, like  The Apollo Quartet's relationship to genre, truth is much more ambiguous, hence, I think, a lot of positive accolades for Allan's work. Both Sales and Allan are writers to watch. The latter has a new novel coming out in June I think and the former maintains a blog.

M. John Harrison's Light is certainly not revolutionary in terms of plot, as it's the same bog standard "aliens meddle in humanity's grasp for the stars." What makes Light so arresting is Harrison's prose and attitude. Here's a science fiction author not terribly interested in perpetuating the same aesthetic status quo which clutters the sci-fi bestseller lists. So much of this novel coasts on its style, its wondrous contortions of words and phrases, to defamiliarize the words we understand, the generic signifiers we're used to, and to present them in fresh and alienating ways. The novum in Harrison's fiction so far appears to be aesthetic instead of conceptual, though he liberally tosses great ideas into the mix, ideas better than most paradigmatic space opera feature. I've been a bit wary of the phrase "all style, no substance" as I think style is in of itself substantial, especially when it's as aggressively anti-genre as this, so I hesitate to levy it against Harrison. Light was aesthetically pleasing, difficult, demanding, funny, and maturely petulant, if that makes sense.

I felt very intelligent to reach the natural conclusion of the implications in The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe. I patted myself on the back for finally grasping how I should disentangle the intricate threads of his obfuscation. Alas, the middle novella of this "collection" (really, a novel in three parts) was plodding and full of that shit Neil Gaiman fake fable nonsense I'm deathly allergic to. Still, the first section was fun (the novella always makes you feel smart when you pick up the breadcrumbs) and the third section, a sort of collection of false documents, like John Fowles' A Maggot, which ask the reader to generate their own conclusion, was gripping. The afterword, by another author, spells out the plot for those that didn't figure it out, and it was gratifying for my own deductions to be validated.

I'll say some more about The Book of the Long Sun once I've finished it, but for sure the first half was utterly gripping. Perhaps not as intricate or as impenetrable as his earlier works, but still wholly entertaining.

Monday, January 2, 2017

2016's best reads

I managed to read 89 books in 2016, according to Goodreads. I would estimate, let's say, 8 or so are graphic novels or collections of comics, so let's put novels and novellas read at 80. What follows after this paragraph is a list of books to which I deemed worthy of applying 5 stars on Goodreads. As I've stated repeatedly, the system of equivalence wrought by Goodreads' scoring arrangement is yet another manifestation of capitalism's desire to impose a price upon everything, up to and including works of art. Though even without this organization via score, I would still consider these objects deserving of consideration for best-of. Every year I perform a pantomime of hand-wringing over year-end lists. This year, I shan't bore my reader with such dissembling. Instead, here are some thoughts on the year's reading.

Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster by Mike Davis
Silver Screen by Justina Robson
Software by Rudy Rucker
Deception Well by Linda Nagata
Daughter of Elysium by Joan Slonczewski
253 by Geoff Ryman
The Sailor on the Seas of Fate by Michael Moorcock
The Queen of the Swords by Michael Moorcock
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson
Last Days by Brian Evenson
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
The Warren by Brian Evenson
Gateways to Abomination by Matthew M. Bartlett
Floating Dragon by Peter Straub
The Elementals by Michael McDowell
The Centauri Device by M. John Harrison
Phallos by Samuel R. Delany
All That Outer Space Allows by Ian Sales

As per usual, science fiction possesses my heart, or at least, the bulk of it. There is room, scant but still room, for horror and a touch of fantasy. This year, as in recent years, I've branched out from my usual comfortable hovel of science fiction, and it was to my surprise, worth the excursion. Both Michael Moorcock and Kai Ashante Wilson were exquisite discoveries and with only two novellas, Wilson rocketed to the top of my "writers to watch" list for the next few years. Similarly, Moocock's giant oeuvre whispered to me and I ended up picking up a good chunk of his works. Expect to see more Moorcock in 2017. I discovered writers new to me, such as Matthew M. Bartlett and Brian Evenson, and kept working at writers I'd thought worth keeping with, such as Joan Slonczewski and Linda Nagata. In each of those cases, I thought the first book in the series was okay but the second was a shocking improvement. The Slonczewski was a fantastic slow read which worked thanks to its steady accumulation of details. The Nagata was stupendous for its abandonment of accessibility: the plot is exceedingly intricate and I had problems following it, a positive in my books.

If I were to pick a single work or author to highlight for the year, I would have to go with Gene Wolfe, the author I read the most in 2016. I wish I could say it was Ali Smith or Octavia Butler or a writer who isn't a conservative Catholic, but alas, once I "got" Wolfe's specific style of obfuscation and intricacy, I was sold. I finished The Book of the New Sun in March, read the fifth volume in December, and then barrelled through the first half of The Book of the Long Sun before the end of the year. I also managed to squeeze in his novel of three parts, The Fifth Head of Cerberus just under the wire before New Year's, thus putting my total Wolfe books for the year at 6.

The allure of Wolfe comes from intersecting vectors of interest for me: science fiction, postmodernism, beautiful allusive writing, and a density of narrative which rewards rereading. His work with genre fascinates me. The Book of the New Sun presents itself as fantasy but past the surface, the superficial signifiers of the fantasy genre, the quintet is really far future science fiction, a dying Earth story a la Jack Vance. Wolfe's skill is the slow, achingly slow unfolding of an "objective" reality counter to the protagonist's belief. Normally, especially in genre fiction, this would take the form of revealing to the protagonist a secret history, a real history. For example, revealing to Luke Skywalker or any other chosen one, that they are indeed, the chosen one and that they were placed in their meager circumstances on purpose. The Book of the New Sun looks backwards: the protagonist is chronicling the adventures from a position in the future, so instead of the reveal having shocking implications, he takes it for granted the audience is already on board. For example, Severian remarks very casually, in an offhand comment, that the Moon is green. It's dropped into the narrative without any ceremony and could be easily missed by a reader without patience. It's not until a second time when Severian asks a character from another planet if their "Lune" is also green that the detail persisted with me. I guessed then, the Moon had been terraformed in the time when Severian's and Earth's ancestors fled the planet in their starships, leaving behind a population sinking backwards into a pre-industrial era. Now that spaceflight is out of everybody's grasp, the Moon has gone completely wild, becoming a satellite green enough to be seen from Earth.

To me, this detail represents everything I love about Wolfe's writing. Some might roll their eyes at my naivety, but to find science fiction so demanding of careful attention, such excellent economical prose, and an obvious intelligence is rare. I will happily read his greatest hits and even minor hits just to be rewarded with intelligent and demanding fare. Wolfe is not perfect, though; I wish Wolfe's gender politics weren't so infuriatingly retrograde and his political imagination so conservative. No matter how artful or so clever his tapestries of genre, at the heart of the Solar Cycle is a concern for power and men, with women being either pawns or villains (often both at the same time).

For 2017, I would like to return to a sort of gender parity I'd balanced in the beginning of the year. I would like to continue with  Slonczewski, Nagata, and Katherine Ann Goonan (did I mention I reviewed her book for the SF Mistress blog?) and hopefully, I'll review them for the aforementioned blog. I'd also like to continue with Octavia Butler; I've been reading them slowly as I don't want to finish them all too fast. I'd like to finally tackle some N. K. Jemisin, some more Pat Cadigan, more Justina Robson, more Melissa Scott, and definitely more Elfriede Jelinek (I still can't get over The Piano Teacher). I'd also like to finish off some series I've started, such as The Solar Cycle, Ken MacLeod's Engines of Light, Lumley's Necroscope, M. John Harrison's Light trilogy. I also have a boatload of Paul McAuley and Adam Roberts to read. 2017 looks to be promising for science fiction for me. Who needs new releases from James S. A. Corey when I have so many good books to get around to.