Sunday, February 3, 2019

February Reads Part One

Time Out of Joint by Philip K. Dick
The Vanishing Tower by Michael Moorcock
Dune Messiah by Frank Herbert

I was inspired to read Time Out of Joint thanks to Mark Fisher's book on The Weird (here). I'm certain I ordered the Dick novel online from the UK closely after finishing Fisher's book, which is to say around May or June of 2017. It is now February of 2019. Over a year to get around to reading it. The delay between purchasing and reading isn't always this long, but that's significant. I'm sad I didn't read it right away because it's probably the best novel by Dick I've read so far. It turns out Ubik was the last Dick novel I've read, back in 2015 (here). Three and a half years to reading another Dick novel. Going through my blog's archives, I notice that I've read, in 2009, The Crack in Space and The Penultimate Truth, though I can't remember the specifics. I've always been more drawn to his short fiction, where I feel he shines at his brightest, but Time Out of Joint might challenge that notion. It's tightly constructed and sensitive to the philosophical undercurrents in which his characters are swimming. Fisher applies the notion of The Weird to this one not out of left field. The most harrowing moment in the novel reminded me a lot of some of the quieter Weird fiction I've read: a character is stumbling in his own dark bathroom, grasping for a chain to turn on the light, when his wife outside the bathroom, reminds him it's a wall-switch. His muscle memory betrayed him, or perhaps, his brain betrayed the more physical honesty of his muscle memory. Later, another character describes the off-kilter feeling of ascending what she remembered as being three steps up a porch when in reality, there are only two. These little moments have as much an impact as the bigger reveals, the artificiality of the world in which the characters live. I hadn't mean to read two books back-to-back about revolutions on nearby space colonies, but this novel made a good companion to Robinson's Red Mars, though Dick's novel depicts Lunar revolutionaries, not Martian. This was a great read!

The Vanishing Tower is the fourth collection of Elric stories from Moorcock. How I wish I was rich and could afford to buy the numerous other editions which collect these stories in order of publication. The publishing history of Moorcock's fiction is almost as deviously complex as the fiction itself! The edition of The Vanishing Tower I read was previously published as The Sleeping Sorceress but I'm not sure of the differences. This collection is the closest these have felt to a single novel, even if I can sense the seams where the individuals bits have been sewn together. Elric and his companion Moonglum are on the trail of a sorcerer called Theleb K'aarna (who appeared in the previous volume, The Weird of the White Wolf, read here, though I don't remember the specific villain). In typical form, each time Elric comes close to killing the evil wizard, the brigand escapes and Elric's soul is twisted a little bit more by his parasitic sword Stormbringer. It's a bit repetitive, each Elric story has been so far, but the variations are where the pleasures are to be found. By which I mean of course, the absolute bonkers weird shit Moorcock comes up with as obstacles for Elric to overcome. One such monster are the giant naked ladies with hair conveniently covering their naughty bits who swing swords above their heads. Another, ugly black pig creatures who change shape, including a giant humanoid with to-scale genitalia. The most memorable is the spell which calls forth a roiling, undulating mountain of flesh from the ground, which crushes and overtakes all the enemy troops. Truly, the most Cronenbergian thing in a bibliography full of Cronenbergian stuff. This was, typically, terrific. Imaginative, compelling, sickening, depressing. Wonderful stuff.

Dune Messiah is in many ways better than its older sibling (here). It's more tightly written, the stakes are bit higher (the destruction of the self), and it's even more politically elaborate. Yes, the book suffers from the absence of the wow factor, the utter strangeness of meeting this world for the first time, but even that shock of the new was dulled for me thanks to having seen the film more than once. It seems in the interim between books one and two, Herbert grew up a lot. Instead of 700 pages of internal monologue and hand-wringing, the narrator gives access to inner thoughts without them ever upstaging the drama. And drama it is. I couldn't help but think of David Mamet's memo to the writers of The Unit (here). I'll quote the most relevant bit (and yes, it's written in all-caps):
QUESTION:WHAT IS DRAMA? DRAMA, AGAIN, IS THE QUEST OF THE HERO TO OVERCOME THOSE THINGS WHICH PREVENT HIM FROM ACHIEVING A SPECIFIC, ACUTE GOAL.

SO: WE, THE WRITERS, MUST ASK OURSELVES OF EVERY SCENE THESE THREE QUESTIONS.

1) WHO WANTS WHAT?

2) WHAT HAPPENS IF HER[sic] DON'T GET IT?

3) WHY NOW?
Almost every scene in Dune Messiah features this maxim, down to the character with the least amount of time on stage, as it were. The opening sequence violates one of Mamet's maxims ("ANY TIME TWO CHARACTERS ARE TALKING ABOUT A THIRD, THE SCENE IS A CROCK OF SHIT") but this is due to the nature of the obstacle in question, ie Paul Atreides. The four characters in the opening scene are: Scytale, a face-changing assassin; Edric, a member of the Spacing Guild; Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam of the Bene Gesserit; and finally, wife (but not mate) to Paul, Irulan. Each character has their own motivations (Scytale's plotting cannot be revealed at the beginning of the novel for fear of ruining the surprise) and though their first, immediate goal is the elimination of the Emperor, what happens after that concerns each one. The narrator accomplishes this tapestry of drama with asides, internal monologues, pregnant pauses, double meanings in speech, and so on. It's dramatic in the classic sense. All four characters are at odds, each wants something different, each has money in the pot so to speak, and time is of the essence.

This structure extends to most of the novel. Scenes are often just two characters engaged in dialogue, forced by circumstances to be together but always with different goals in mind. The plot is intricate without ever being abstruse or impenetrable; the characters' goals specific and feasible; and the obstacles are 100% of the time the opposing goals of other characters. This is ideal pulp writing if you ask me. Prose doesn't do action well, I've been saying for years. Better to keep the drama at the level of words than endless descriptions of karate chops and who pulled which trigger. The major act of action in Dune Messiah is explained in laborious detail for a specific reason: it's a vision from another angle, in slow motion, and its slowness heightens the suspense. The slower the description, the more tense the audience's nerves. This was great. I loved this book a lot even if not everything makes a ton of sense and Herbert relies on exposition too heavily some times. Can't wait to read the next one, to be honest.

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