The OF Blog: May 2011

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A double dog-dare challenge to readers here

One of the joys in life is enjoying something that may or may not be all that wondrous to share with others.  For many, that joy might be reading a poem or three.  So here's a challenge for readers here:  Copy/paste a favorite poem of yours (language doesn't matter; I'll actually enjoy reading some in languages I know to some degree) in the comments.  Let others discover something that you find to contain some essential element.  Here's one for you:

Theodore Roethke, "The Waking"

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.
We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.
Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me, so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.
This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.

So...what favorite/treasured poem are you going to share for others reading this?

Monday, May 30, 2011

Michael Moorcock, Gloriana

Originally posted in September 2010 at SFF Masterworks.

 Even after four centuries, the Elizabethan Age still carries magical memories for Anglo-Americans.  It was the age of Spenser (The Faerie Queene), Shakespeare (among others, A Midsummer Night's Dream), and Sidney (Astrophel and Stella).  In fact, it was Spenser's The Faerie Queene that gave Elizabeth I her nickname of Gloriana and it is Spenser's mixture of fairy tales, intrigue, and the golden age of the English Renaissance that has strongly influenced Michael Moorcock's 1978 novel, Gloriana; or the Unfulfill'd Queen.

Originally published in 1978 and revised in 2004, Gloriana perhaps may best be considered as a novel that was written to be a sort of dialogue with Spenser's epic poem.  Both Spenser and Moorcock present idealized forms of Queen Elizabeth I, but whereas Spenser's work primarily reads as a paean to the peace and prosperity of 1590s England, Moorcock's work is much more complex, both with its titular character and with its depiction of life in an alt-world Earth.

Gloriana opens with the Queen Gloriana ruling the vast empire of Albion, which stretches across most of Eurasia and is now expanding into the newly-discovered lands of Virginia, named after her.  Despite having had several lovers and illegitimate children, she is, like the real Queen Elizabeth I, unmarried and it is this and the matter of controlling her vast empire around which the action of the novel revolves.  The ruler of Arabia wants Gloriana to become his, so he in turn can plunge that pacific realm into a cleansing bout of war and destruction.  A courtier of his solicits the aid of Captain Arturus Quire to help him subvert Gloriana to this end.  Quire in turn is locked in a political battle with the old councilor Montfallcon, who had earlier served Gloriana's father Hern and who seeks to preserve her from becoming the despotic ruler Hern had become by the end of his reign.

Although at first glance the central plot seems to be that of political machinations, Gloriana is much more than the summation of its plot.  Moorcock here perhaps has written his best prose, with Quire in particular standing out.  Some readers familiar with Mervyn Peake's villainous Steerpike (Moorcock did dedicate this novel to the late Peake and his wife Maeve, both of whom Moorcock had befriended in his youth) will see traces of that ambitious character and his thirst for power and prestige in how Quire comports himself around Gloriana's other courtiers, especially Montfallcon.  But there is another trait in common with Peake's Gormenghast novels, that of utilizing atmospheric effects to intensify what is occurring in several important scenes.  Passages such as the one below, taken from Quire's first meeting with the Arabian courtier, are representative of how Moorcock imbues his scenes with vivid descriptions:

Quire nods.  He clears his throat.  Along the gallery now comes a scrawny, snag-tooth villain wearing leggings of rabbit fur, a torn quilted doublet, a horsehide cap pulled down about his ears.  He wears a sword from the guard of which some of the rust has been inexpertly scratched.  His gait is unsteady not so much form drink as, it would seem, from some natural indisposition.  His skin is blue, showing that he has just come in from the night, but his eyes burn.  "Captain Quire?"  It is as if he has been summoned, as if he anticipates some epiurean wickedness. (p. 18)

It is this combination of memorable description with intriguing characters such as the aforementioned Quire and Montfallcon, among others, that make Gloriana a gripping novel.  However, there is much more to this novel than just memorable characters and detailed, interesting descriptions.  It is Gloriana herself and her um, "interesting" situation that makes this novel worthy of debate thirty-two years after its initial publication.  Moorcock is not content to have Gloriana reign contentedly over her vast, peaceful realm.  Rather, he introduces questions of sexual politics to this story that are controversial for many.  Gloriana has a sexual dysfunction; she cannot orgasm, no matter how hard she tries with both clandestine lovers and with inanimate objects.  This sexual dysfunction plays a major role in the book, as it is the flaw through which Quire manages to arrange his machinations and against which Montfallcon rails, increasingly strident, throughout the novel.  The original ending (printed as an "alternate" Ch. 34 in my 2004 edition) is very disturbing for some, who saw it as a glorification of a heinous act, while Moorcock insists that it is more symbolic of a larger issue of sexualization of Self and of Gloriana's politics around which the novel revolves.  It certainly is a provocative scene, one that forces the reader to reconsider what she may have thought the novel to be about, but it certainly does not make it easy for the reviewer to discuss without straying from the realm of reviewing and into the world of literary critique.  Speaking solely for myself, the revised scene works better, as it clarifies Moorcock's intents without lessening the shocking realization contained within that concluding chapter.

Gloriana is much more than a simple fairy-tale rendition of an idealized Queen Elizabeth I and her court and world.  It is a well-written, engaging tale that will remind some readers of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast.  Quire, Montfallcon, and Gloriana's characters are vivid, well-drawn, and they serve to drive the novel forward at a quick yet not too rapid pace.  Gloriana is much more than what it appears on the surface, as Moorcock's exploration of sexual politics and how intimately connected a ruler's personality can be with his/her realm make this a novel that will linger in the reader's thoughts long after the book is closed.  It is not without its controversies, as certain events could easily be read as a glorification of certain atrocities; ironic, considering the efforts Moorcock has done to combat those interpretations of the novel.  It certainly is one of Moorcock's best-written efforts and its depth is much greater than the norm for novels of this sort.  Gloriana is a "masterwork" in its prose, characterization, and thematic content and it will continue to be a moving work decades from now.


Long before Blogger or any other blog network became prevalent, there were those tacky old "personal web sites" that were available when one signed up with a particular ISP.  My best friend from our days at the University of Tennessee, Jonathan, set up one of those in the late 1990s (I want to say it was 1997, or around the time I got my first email account) and he collected all sorts of odd writings that he and I would send to each other from 1997-2001.

One of the more sane pieces I wrote was a short mashup of Freudian psychology (he and I both minored in psychology) and The Andy Griffith Show, called "Lost Episode:  When Worlds Collide!":

I was sitting (or maybe it was standing) around thinking of something that I could write, when as usual I thought I would combine two totally different things in one setting.  In the tradition of Luge Bowling, Barcalounger Skiing, and Full Contact Golf, I bring you Freud the Barber.
Scenerio:  Lost Episode of the Andy Griffith Show.  Floyd is having to go on a trip and is going to be gone for about 2 months.  Knowing that he is the only barber in Mayberry, Floyd assures Andy and friends that he has an excellent replacement barber, his own older brother Freud.  However, as Andy, Barney, Goober, Gomer, and pals soon discover, Freud the Barber talks a little different than his younger brother Floyd.
Andy goes to get his hair cut, willing to try the new barber out for size.  As he sits down at the chair, Freud starts psychoanalyzing Andy's hair.  Freud notes that Andy's stiffened hair denotes a personality that is very anal-retentive, meaning that Andy is very stubborn and is unlikely to accept change.  Furthermore, Freud states that Andy's obsession with wearing his police outfit demonstrates an inner need for acceptance, as Andy seems to believe that only by constantly wearing the symbols of office could he be accepted by others.  Freud starts to launch a treatise about Andy's inability to consummate a relationship and how this is reflected in his subtle erotic emotions regarding Aunt Bee.  Andy, by this time irritated, leaves in a huff and without getting his hair cut.
Barney is the next character to venture to Freud's shop.  As he sits down, he too is subjected to psychoanalysis.  Freud states that Barney's insistence on carrying a bullet for his gun demonstrates a proxy relationship in which the gun acts as a surrogate lovegun.  Also, the single bullet represents Barney's relative impotence in his relationships with people.  Barney tries to nip it in the bud, but Freud continues, stating that Barney is a prime example of society in mass discontent.  Barney, totally flustered, leaves, also without getting his hair cut.
When Goober shows up, Freud quickly points out that Goober's inane imitation of Cary Grant demonstrates not just hero worship, but also secret homoerotic feelings toward Gomer his cousin.  Goober is so shaken by this, that he leaves without getting his hair cut.  He was last seen saying "Judy Judy Judy."
Gomer, like the rest of the cast, came in for a haircut, but instead got psychoanalyzed.  Gomer's "Gollee", Freud notes, is a substitution for Gomer's feelings of inadequacy.  His blushes demonstrate a lack of maturity and his fixation on kissing reflects a man stuck deep in the Oral Stage of Development.  As Freud suggests prostitution as a means of treating his condition, Gomer is shocked and passes out.  As he is carried out, he too forgets to stay to get his hair cut.
When Floyd returns from his visit, he discovers that the entire town is now populated by a bunch of long-haired freaks.  This development helped to bring the sixties to the rural towns of the South.
Copyright (and copyleft) 2000, Llamalord Productions.


Yes, before squirrels entered my life, there were llamas that served as a symbolic representation of...err...something in my life.  Doubtless, Freud the Barber would have had fun with this.

Sunday, May 29, 2011


Ever since I began my current job back in September 2010 and gave up actively seeking review copies in October, I have lost a bit of contact with most of the blogosphere currents I used to follow during my times of underemployment.  Sometimes, there really isn't much to say when you are reading different things than what are being built up as being "the_____ of _____" (not to mention the vast majority of these books are never really discussed six months after their initial release date) on other, more genre-oriented blogs.  But there's something else I'm noticing and it's not all that positive.

Although you will find very few genre-oriented blogs listed in my blogroll now, that does not mean that I do not try to keep at least occasional tabs on those sites that used to be listed there (the main reason I removed them is due to the format change at this blog last year).  What I've noticed is a dearth of actual cross discussions between blogs.  I did notice the past month's back and forth on Mike Glyer's File 770 in response to Aidan Moher's questioning of the validity of the Hugo Best Fanzine/Best Fan Writer categories, but outside of that I would be hard pressed to find more examples of viewpoint exchanges between bloggers/reviewers that exist outside of the ephemeral Twitter.

Perhaps Twitter is the culprit.  I certainly have seen the outline of several interesting discussions (including one this morning on the uselessness of "non-spoiler reviews" in actually discussing the works read), but it is a poor medium for fleshing out ideas.  So few essays of any sort these days, personal or in reaction to another's thoughts. Beyond that, there just haven't been all that many links to other interesting points of view.  I know I've slacked on that myself, or otherwise I would have already linked to this nice review of Téa Obreht's The Tiger's Wife, which I think is one of the best novels released in 2011, if not the best.  Perhaps I should have responded much sooner to this post which mentions me in passing, although I'm afraid my basic reaction then (and now) was along the lines of "Why should anyone care whether or not you 'adore' the author in question in noting you couldn't interact with his story?"  Such is not enough to generate anything more than the most superficial of discussions, that of like/dislike.

Maybe another culprit is the self-centered nature of blogs themselves.  After all, isn't my blog the bestest out there?  Shouldn't more people be reading me because I cover more interesting books and debates and do so in a fashion that doesn't play down to the LCD factor?  Such an attitude can be poisonous to actual discussions between bloggers/reviewers.  Maybe I should try to gush over others' "exclusive excerpts" or cover ar...err, no.  There are some limits that it is best not to transgress.  Perhaps it is just natural entropy as blogs become more "established" that the "echo chamber" becomes smaller and smaller until there is little real interaction between people.  Maybe we are fated to be strangers in a weird electronic sea, passing by each other through the e-nights, barely recognizing the other across the way.

Jack Vance, Lyonesse II and III: The Green Pearl and Madouc

Originally posted in August 2010 at SFF Masterworks.

Rather than recapitulating everything that I said in my earlier review of the first Lyonesse book, Suldrun's Garden, this review of Jack Vance's latter two volumes in his Lyonesse trilogy, The Green Pearl and Madouc, will be much briefer.  For those who haven't yet read the above-linked review, it would behoove you to do so now, as I discussed there the origins of the Lyonesse legends as well as certain qualities in Vance's prose that appealed to me.

As much as I enjoyed the prose and storylines found in Suldrun's Garden, the subplots contained within The Green Pearl and Madouc are nearly as fascinating.  Although each sequel furthers the Aillas and Dhrun storylines, to the point where father and sun are reunited late in the series, each contains its own subplot around which much of the action of each of the two volumes is centered.  In The Green Pearl, it is the malevolent power of the green pearl that shapes destinies.  Here is the description of the pearl's origins:

In achieving her aims, Desmëi used a variety of stuff:  salt from the sea, soil from the summit of Mount Khambaste in Ethiopia, exudations and pastes, as well as elements of her personal substance.  So she created a pair of wonderful beings:  exemplars of all the graces and beauties.  The woman was Melancthe; the man was Faude Carfilhiot.

Still all was not done.  As the two stood naked and mindless in the workroom, the dross remaining in the vat yielded a rank green vapor.  After a startled breath, Melancthe shrank back and spat the taste from her mouth.  Carfilhiot, however, found the reek to his liking and inhaled it with all avidity.

Some years later, the castle Tintzin Fyral fell to the armies of Troicinet.  Carfilhiot was captured and hanged from a grotesquely high gibbet, in order to send an unmistakably significant image toward both Tamurello at Faroli to the east and to King Casmir of Lyonesse, to the south.

In due course Carfilhiot's corpse was lowered to the ground, placed on a pyre, and burned to the music of bagpipes and flutes.  In the midst of the rejoicing the flames gave off a gout of foul green vapor, which, caught by the wind, blew out over the sea.  Swirling low and mingling with spume from the waves, the fume condensed to become a green pearl which sank to the ocean floor, where eventually it was ingested by a large flounder. (pp. 3-4)

As was in the case with Suldrun's Garden, Vance splits the narrative into several subplots, each of which is largely independent of the others, although there is some convergence toward the end.  Aillas continues his adventures in opposing Casmir, although at times he finds himself on the wrong side of a quarrel, especially with the sometimes-comic clashes with the fiercely xenophobic Ska.  Casmir continues in his quest to avoid the dire prophecy about his grandson via his dead daughter Suldrun overthrowing him.  As he seeks answers to what happened the night that Suldrun gave birth, he learns that the Princess Madouc is actually a changeling, leaving him to worry ever anew about the future threat.

Vance mixes the serious and the whimsical adroitly here.  He sets the stage well for the adventures of each of his protagonists and while at times the action may verge on becoming too droll, he usually returns to the more dour side of this tale before things become tedious to read.  Often the legends surrounding Lyonesse, Ys, and the sunken lands would contain a mixture of the comic and the tragic, in order to make each more effective.  Too often, modern adapters of these settings would emphasize too much of one at the expense of the other, but Vance manages to find a good balance of both here in The Green Pearl.

The concluding volume, Madouc, is perhaps the most comical of the three.  Starring the changeling princess Madouc and her desire to discover her true parentage, several of the passages here contain witty exchanges that make any scene in which she appears a delight to read:

Casmir slowly drew back.  He looked down at Madouc.  "Why did you throw fruit at Lady Desdea?"

Madouc said artlessly:  "It was because Lady Desdea came past first, before Lady Marmone."

"That is not relevant to to the issue!"  snapped King Casmir.  "At this moment Lady Desdea believes that I pelted her with bad fruit."

Madouc nodded soberly.  "It may be all for the best.  She will take the reprimand more seriously than if it came mysteriously, as if from nowhere."

"Indeed?  And what are her faults, that she deserves such a bitter reproach?"

Madouc looked up in wonder, her eyes wide and blue.  "In the main, Sire, she is tiresome beyond endurance and drones on forever.  At the same time, she is sharp as a fox, and sees around corners.  Also, if you can believe it, she insists that I learn to sew a fine seam!"

"Bah!"  muttered Casmir, already bored with the subject.  "Your conduct is in clear need of correction.  You must throw no more fruit!"

Madouc scowled and shrugged.  "Fruit is nice than other stuffs.  I well believe that Lady Desdea would prefer fruit."

"Throw no other stuffs either.  A royal princess expresses displeasure more graciously."

Madouc considered a moment.  "What if these stuffs should fall of their own weight?"

"You must allow no substances, either vile, or hurtful, or noxious, or of any sort whatever, to fall, or depart from your control, toward Lady Desdea.  In short, desist from these activities!"

Madouc pursed her mouth in dissatisfaction; it seemed as if King Casmir would yield neither to logic nor persuasion. (pp. 27-28)

Madouc makes the concluding volume much more of a romp than either of the previous two volumes.  Her willful nature contrasts with the meek despondency of Suldrun and her ability to confound and frustrate King Casmir's machinations plays an important role in this novel.  In short, Madouc is an almost total reversal in tone from Suldrun's Garden; as the comic wit of the characters, especially Madouc and Shimrod, come to dominate the tone and flow of the story.  The various subplots, mostly independent until now, begin to weave together, until finally the prophecy regarding Dhrun and Casmir is played out in a fashion that is both expected and surprising in some of the manners of its execution.

As a whole, the three Lyonesse volumes were a delight to read; easily my favorite of Vance's work.  In turns witty, tragic, and almost always full of a vitality of character and setting that most fantasists fail to achieve, these three volumes are more than worthy of being called "Fantasy Masterworks."  They are exemplary models of how to meld myth, tradition, and imagination together into a fascinating story that deserves to be read and re-read several times.  Easily one of the best "high fantasies" that I have read in quite some time.

Jack Vance, Lyonesse I: Suldrun's Garden

Originally posted in August 2010 at SFF Masterworks.

King Arthur. The Round Table.  The sad tale of Tristan and Iseult.  Avalon.  The drowned city of Ys.  The lost kingdom of Lyonesse.  These disparate elements constitute part of the medieval "Matter of Britain,"  one of the three great sources of medieval myth and legend (the other two "matters" being those of France and Rome).  Nearly nine centuries after the most ancient lays and ballads of this "Matter of Britain," there are still a plethora of stories created from this amalgam of Breton, Cornish, Welsh, and Anglo-Saxon legends.  Whether the writer be Béroul, Shakespeare, Tennyson, or more recent writers such as Jack Vance or Stephen Lawhead, these tales of betrayed kingdoms, honorable soldiers, starcrossed lovers, and fateful watery dooms still resonate with readers today.  A strong case could be made that modern Anglo-American fantasy could not exist anywhere near its present form if it weren't for the shaping power of these enduring stories.  Certainly there would not be quite the same connotations about fairies (and Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene unfortunately would have never existed without them), changelings, and luck of seven years' duration.  There is a remarkable vitality in these mostly-Celtic myths that informs so many fantasies today.

One of those elements in the "Matter of Britain," (with Arthurian legends at its core) is that of Lyonesse.  Over centuries, Lyonesse, the home of the Round Table knight Tristan, came to be associated with Cornish legends of a kingdom doomed to perish under the rapacious waves of the Atlantic Ocean.  It, along with its Breton city counterpart of Ys, contains tragic elements.  Not just because these city/kingdoms were doomed to drown, but in part because of the tragic histories bound up in each place.  Several writers over the centuries have written epic poems and ballads concerning these remnants of local folk memories of drowned ancestral lands.  One of the more recent adaptations of the Ys/Lyonesse tragedy is the trilogy written between 1983 and 1990 by the American writer Jack Vance.  Vance used these famous locales to create a "lost" archipelago comparable in size to Ireland that was located nearly equidistant between Ireland, Britain, and Amorica (Brittany).  This tale, set roughly two generations before the time of King Arthur, is perhaps one of the best recent adaptations of Lyonesse/Ys legends.

In the first volume, Suldrun's Garden, Vance introduces the setting and main characters for the trilogy.  Usually, long, detailed introductions to constructed settings disinterest me because they tend to distract from the story at hand, but in Vance's case, he creates a vivid tapestry quickly, one that reveals even more depths the more familiar one is with the legends from which Vance drew to write this trilogy.  Don't just "read" the quote below, but rather "listen" to it:

On a dreary winter's day, with rain sweeping across Lyonesse Town, Queen Sollace went into labor.  She was taken to the lying-in room and attended by two midwives, four maids, Balhamel the physician and the crone named Dyldra, who was profound in the lore of herbs, and by some considered a witch.  Dyldra was present by the wish of Queen Sollace, who found more comfort in faith than logic.

King Casmir made an appearance.  Sollace's whimpers became moans and she clawed at her thick blonde hair with clenched fingers.  Casmir watched from across the room.  He wore a simple scarlet robe with a purple sash; a gold coronet confined his ruddy blond hair.


During the months of winter and spring King Casmir looked only twice at the infant princess, in each case, standing back in cool disinterest.  She had thwarted his royal will by coming female into the world.  He could not immediately punish her for the act, no more could he extend the full beneficence of his favor.

Sollace grew sulky because Casmir was displeased and, with a set of petulant flourishes, banished the child from her sight. (pp. 1, 3)

Vance displays a masterful use of language here.  In just a few, short descriptions, not only can we visualize the ruling king and queen of Lyonesse, but we learn of their personalities, the hard life ahead for their infant daughter from their selfish inclinations.  Furthermore, there are just a few hints, seeded for further plot flowering later, of the supernatural, present in the form of Dyldra.  Vance's ability to construct well-drawn, vivid characters is balanced with his propensity in this series to "pan out" and hint at the histories of this doomed land:

Centuries in the past, at that middle-distant time when legend and history start to blur (p. 3)
Ehirme warned her:  "I've never fared so far, you understand!  But what grandfather says is this:  in the old times the crossroads would move about, because the place was enchanted and never knew peace.  This might be well enough for the traveler, because, after all, he would put one foot ahead of him and then the other and the road would at last be won, and the traveler none the wiser that he had seen twice as much forest as he had bargained for.  The most troubled were the folk who sold their goods each year at the Goblin Fair, and where was that but at the crossroads!  The folk for the fair were most put out, because the fair should be at the crossroads on Midsummer Night, but when they arrived at the crossroads it had shifted two miles and a half, and nowhere a fair to be seen. (p. 6)
This commingling of legend and history occurs throughout Suldrun's Garden, as the lands of Faerie and those of humans are intertwined, with only a few mysterious passages between each.  This is important later on in the novel and series, but for much of the first half of the novel, the story is concerned with the horrible treatment that Princess Suldrun receives from her parents after her father learns that Suldrun's first-born son will occupy the Lyonesse throne in front of him, a dark portent for an ambitious king who aims to unite the ten kingdoms of the Elder Isles under his iron rule.  In a scene that could be the twin to that of Danae and Perseus, Suldrun is banished to a remote garden, where she will stay under threat of enslavement and (presumably) rape if she strays from it.  However, there is a prince, Aillas, from a rival kingdom, who stumbles upon Suldrun's garden and they fall in and make love, with Suldrun becoming pregnant.

This sets the stage for one of the most tragic scenes in the book, their forced separation, Aillas' imprisonment in an oubliette filled with the bones of twelve prior prisoners, and the switching of Suldrun's baby son, Dhrun, with a fairy changeling.  Despairing, Suldrun takes her fate into her own hands:

In the garden the first day went by slowly, instant after hesitant instant, each approaching diffidently, as if on tiptoe, to hurry across the plane of the present and lose itself among the glooms and shadows of the past.

The second day was hazy, less breathless, but the air hung heavy with portent.

The third day, still hazy, seemed sluggish and drained of sensibility, yet somehow innocent and sweet, as if ready for renewal.  On this day Suldrun went slowly about the garden, pausing at times to touch the trunk of a tree, or the face of a stone.  With head bent she walked the length of her beach, and only once paused to look to sea.  Then she climbed the path, to sit among the ruins.

The afternoon passed:  a golden dreaming time, and the stone cliffs encompassed the whole of the universe.

The sun sank softly and quietly.  Suldrun nodded pensively, as if here were elucidation of an uncertainty, though tears coursed down her cheeks.

The stars appeared.  Suldrun descended to the old lime tree and, in the dim light of the stars, she hanged herself.  The moon, rising over the ridge, shone on a limp form and a sad sweet face, already preoccupied with her new knowledge. (p. 188)

This is such a tragic scene, but as important as it is for future events, it is in itself only part of the greater narrative tapestry being woven.  Vance writes so beautifully of her despondency, setting up the achingly simple phrase, "she hanged herself."  By this point, the reader will have come to have identified with her plight, to have felt her sorrows, and perhaps this will be devastating.  And yet this novel (and series) is not just about tragedy.  Suldrun and Aillas' son, Dhrun, experiences nine years' worth of life during his time with the fair folk, and the description of life among them is in turn droll and vaguely threatening:

"Thank you, Sir Dhrun!"  Nerulf drank the potion, and expanded to become his old burly self.  Quick as a wink he leapt upon Dhrun, threw him to the ground, tore away his sword Dassenach and buckled it around his own thick waist.  Then he took the green bottle and the purple bottle and flung them against a stone, so that they shattered and all their contents were lost.  "There will be no more of that foolishness," declared Nerulf.  "I am the largest and strongest, and once again I am in power."  He kicked Dhrun.  "To your feet!"

"You told me that you had repented your old ways!" cried Dhrun indignantly.

"True!  I was not severe enough.  I allowed too much ease.  Things will now be different.  Out to the cart, everyone!" (p. 222)

These scenes involving Dhrun's often-comical (mis)adventures among the faires, ogres, and other secret folk serve as a counterbalance to the mostly-grim happenings of the human adults in Lyonesse, Ulfland, and Troicinet, Aillas' home.  Vance expertly mixes these disparate elements together, creating not two entwined tales, but rather two tangential ones whose separate qualities serve to balance the excesses of the other.  Thus this story contains not just Suldrun's tragedy and what that portends for the remaining two books in the trilogy, but also the madcap adventures of Dr. Fidelius, mountebank and curer of sore knees.  This blend of humor and tragedy makes for an excellent beginning to a great trilogy.

Is Suldrun's Garden worthy of being called a "Masterwork"?  While I will address the series as a whole in my review of the remaining two volumes of this trilogy, it certainly is a fantastic tale that borrows from medieval legends without feeling too constrained by their forms and personages.  Vance has staked out his own territory in the midst of this rich collection of tales, creating a story that will appeal to readers of all sorts.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Philip K. Dick, The Simulacra

This review was originally posted at SFF Masterworks in August 2010.

Philip K. Dick is perhaps the most visionary American SF writer of the 20th century.  From the late 1950s until his death in 1982, Dick wrote over forty novels, several of which dealt with issues of authority, identity, deception, and the mutability of perceived reality.  In previous novels discussed here, Dr. Bloodmoney (1965), Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), and The Man in the High Castle (1962), Dick developed these themes in stories that were often fast-paced, frentic, and seemingly on the verge of dissolving into a textual mess.  In his 1964 novel, The Simulacra, Dick has written perhaps one of his stranger, more frayed narratives.

The Simulacra is set in the mid-21st century.  The United States and the former West Germany have merged to form the United States of Europe and America.  The government has dissolved into a sort of byzantine council, with a First Lady, Nicole Thibodeaux, who is actually a line of actresses (currently at number four) who portray the feminine half of the United States.  An android simulacra has become Der Alte, or the "old man" that presides/reigns in public with Nicole.  Psychotherapy has been banned, except for one psychologist, Dr. Egon Superb, who is permitted to practice his banned profession on a patient who is convinced that he has lethal body odor.  There is a neofascist who wants to takeover the USEA and he uses his mysterious position within the ruling USEA council to further his plot.

Confused yet?  There is so much happening in The Simulacra that it would be difficult to keep track of everything easily.  In fact, it appears that the main idea behind this novel is to point out that beyond the surface level of paranoia and deception lurks deeper levels of mendacity, treachery, and equivocation.  Compounding these levels of duplicity at the highest levels of the USEA government is a complex social structure divided into the "Ges" and "Bes"; those who know many of the secrets surrounding Nicole and her cabal and those who do not.  It is in this morass of dissimulation and prevarication that the stories of Kate (the fourth Nicole), Egon Superb, Bertold Goltz, and Richard Kongrosian unfold.

At first, these subplots bear little relation to one another.  Nicole/Kate's need to maintain the deception that she has inherited from her previous Nicole imitators is a matter of state security:  if the veil of who really runs the USEA were to be revealed, the entire socio-political structure would be in grave danger.  Yet more and more people, the "Ges," have to be in the know in order to maintain the deception.  This leads to cynical exchanges, such as this one between two "Bes" who wonder about "Nicole":

'Loony Luke,' Ian said, 'have you ever met Nicole?' It was a sudden thought on his part, an intuition.

'Sure,' Luke said steadily.  'Years ago.  I had some hand puppets; my dad and I travelled around putting on puppet shows.  We finally played the White House.'

'What happened there?' Ian asked.

Luke, after a pause, said, 'She - didn't care for us.  Said something about our puppets being indecent.'

And you hate her, Ian realized.  You never forgave her.

'Were they?' he asked Luke.

'No," Luke answered.  'True, one act was a strip show; we had follies girl puppets.  But nobody ever objected before.  My dad took it hard but it didn't bother me.'  His face was impassive.

Al said, 'Was Nicole the First Lady that far back?'

'Oh yes,' Luke said.  'She's been in office for seventy-three years; didn't you know that?'

'It isn't possible,' both Al and Ian said, almost together.

'Sure it is,' Luke said.  'She's a really old woman, now.  Must be.  A grandmother.  But she still looks good, I guess.  You'll know when you see her.'

Stunned, Ian said, 'On TV - '

'Oh yeah,' Luke agreed.  'On TV she looks around twenty.  But go to the history books...except of course they're banned to everyone except Ges.  I mean the real history texts; not the ones they give you for studying for those relpol tests.  Once you look it up you can figure it out for yourself.  The facts are all there.  Buried down somewhere.'

The facts, Ian realized, mean nothing when you can see with your own eyes she's as young-looking as ever.  And we see that every day.

Luke you're lying, he thought.  We know it; we all know it. (p. 117)
 Notice the self-deception contained within the passage.  Even when the evidence should be obvious that there are cover-ups, several people in this society willingly deceive themselves rather than question the discrepancies within their government.  Although it is difficult to judge with certainty due to Dick's opaque writing, it appears that in scenes such as this that Dick is criticizing the often sheep-like acceptance that citizens have for governments that are corrupt and deceptive.  This is further evidenced in the Goltz subthread, where he tries to engineer a neofascist coup d'etat of the government, a government in which he is a secret member.  Surrounding this is the enigmatic relationship of Dr. Egon Superb and the mentally ill Richard Kongrosian.  Kongrosian is convinced that he has lethal body odor and it is through Superb's efforts to restore a sense of rationality to a world that apparent has become more and more full of maladjusted people that provides yet another level of irrationality to a story that is already full of the strange and twisted.

Although there are some connections between these subplots, Dick purposely does not create a tight interweaving.  Instead, each is left with frayed edges of uncertainty about what is really occurring behind the scenes.  It is these mostly-unwitnessed elements that provide The Simulacra within its inconclusive and yet fittingly strange conclusion.

Is The Simulacra worthy of being considered a "Masterwork?"  Not really.  It is a minor, flawed piece that contains several of Dick's weaknesses as a writer and not enough of his strengths.  Although The Simulacra is purposely left disjointed, even in that disjointedness there is a sloppiness in character, plot, and thematic execution that is not as prevalent in his more famous stories.  Here, the point of there being deceptions behind deceits is constructed well, but behind that lurks the sense that there is a pointlessness to the novel that detracts from some of its fine qualities.  Unlike the three novels of his mentioned at the beginning of this review, The Simulacra lacks the thematic unity necessary to make this hodgepodge of paranoiac scenes more than just a scattershot of ideas that fail to coalesce into something more than the sum of its part.  The Simulacra is interesting only in seeing how some of the ideas here were developed with greater success in several of Dick's other novels from the 1960s.  It is not a quality work on its own and thus should not be recommended for reading unless the reader already has some understanding of Dick's other novels.

J.G. Ballard, The Drowned World

 Originally posted in August 2010 at SFF Masterworks.

In my earlier review of Samuel R. Delany's Dhalgren, I noted how during the 1960s and 1970s there emerged a new generation of American and British SF writers, the so-called "New Wave," who incorporated prevailing social issues into their fictions to a much larger degree than previous generations of SF writers.  The most influential of these New Wave writers was the British writer J.G. Ballard.  Ballard's fiction, whether it be his well-crafted short fiction or later novels such as Crash, tended to feature dystopic modern situations, full of bleak, often artificial landscapes.  His characters were often affected by technological, societal, and environmental developments, often resembling victims of post-traumatic stress disorder.  Ballard's stories have been so influential over the past fifty years that the adjective "Ballardian" was coined to describe situations that are bleak, man-made, and in which hope is almost a chimera in a world full of the devastating effects of human technological developments.  Out of all the seemingly prescient SF writers of the past two centuries, Ballard may be the one SF writer whose visions of the future most closely match our present reality.

The Drowned World is Ballard's first major novel (with a minor novel being published just prior to it), first published in 1962, well before works such as "The Drowned Giant" or Crash were published.  It is set in the early 21st century.  Due to fluctuations in solar radiation and the near-total destruction of the protective atmospheric layers, the Earth is a very hot and steamy place, inhospitable for human life except within the Arctic and Antarctic Circles.  Human ingenuity is helpless in the wake of this catastrophic environmental change and the human population rapidly shrinks, even as the temperatures soar to over 140°F in the tropics.  Mammalian life retreats and reptiles and amphibians come to dominate, just as they had before the end of the Cretaceous period.  Cities such as London lie derelict, with lagoons and tropical vegetation quickly overrunning most signs of former city life within seventy years.

Kerans is part of an expedition sent to the former British capital to map out the new flora and fauna that have emerged.  It is a dangerous assignment, as the emerging new lifeforms resemble closely the megafauna of previous epochs of Earth's history.  There is a curious mixture of speculation and lethargic defeatism associated with this expedition, however, as this passage reveals:

In fact, old Dr. Bodkin, Keran's assistant at the station, had slyly prepared what purported to be an eye-witness description by one of Colonel Riggs' sergeants of a large sail-backed lizard with a gigantic dorsal fin which had been seen cruising across one of the lagoons, in all respects indistinguishable from the Pelycosaur, an early Pennsylvanian reptile.  Had the report been taken at its face value - heralding the momentous return of the age of the great reptiles - an army of ecologists would have descended on them immediately, backed by a tactical atomic weapons unit and orders to proceed south at a steady twenty knots.  But apart from the routine acknowledgement signal nothing had been heard.  Perhaps the specialists at Camp Byrd were too tired even to laugh. (p. 9)

The world Ballard describes here is at once new and very ancient.  It is not the product of advancement, but rather of regression.  In light of the previous decades being full of perhaps unwarranted optimism about human agency and the possibility of a future paradise springing from technological advancement, Ballard's emphasis on the repetition of old, flawed forms is rather sobering.  It is not a setting for brave, intrepid explorers, but rather a locale where psychological traumas await the crew:

This growing isolation and self-containment, exhibited by the other members of the unit and from which only the buoyant Riggs seemed immune, reminded Kerans of the slackening metabolism and biological withdrawal of all animal forms about to undergo a major metamorphosis.  Sometimes he wondered what zone of transit he himself was entering, sure that his own withdrawal was symptomatic not of a dormant schizophrenia, but of a careful preparation for a radically new environment, with its own internal landscape and logic, where old categories of thought would merely be an encumbrance. (p. 14)

Over the course of The Drowned World, Ballard returns again to these new relationships between animal and environment and the resulting psychological stress placed upon the expeditionary crew.  Although this novel is rather short at 175 pages, Ballard does not skimp on development both setting and character.  There is a sense of looming danger, both from the increasingly exotic lifeforms that the crew encounters, to the very real and dangerous psychological traumas that each crew member experiences.  This culminates in a conclusion that is fittingly inconclusive, left open-ended purposely so the reader is left to develop her own answers to the very troubling questions regarding humans/technology, environment/life, and human place in a larger biosphere.

Although Ballard creates an effective narrative here, it is still feels a bit rough around the edges, especially compared to his latter work, which returns to several of these themes and develops them more effectively than the good first effort Ballard displays here.  The psychological aspects are intriguing, but Ballard fails to push them as far along as he does later in Crash, for example.  The setting, while mostly well-done, does appear to be a bit sketchy in a few places, particularly in the first few chapters, where there is not as much of a sense of the lost, decaying "old" world about the Greenland settlements compared to the lush, dangerous environs surrounded the old, drowned London lagoon.  These shortcomings do not have much of a negative impact on the enjoyment of The Drowned World, but rather they serve as a baseline for examining Ballard's later, more famous fictions.

Is The Drowned World worthy of being considered a "Masterwork"?  For most writers in this Gollancz edition of books, this book would stand out as being one of the better-written and effective stories.  But as an early novel, it pales in comparison to Ballard's later output in the latter part of the 1960s and the early 1970s, which showed a maturity in the prose, characterization, and themes that The Drowned World only hints at.  This is not to say that The Drowned World is not a very good story, for it, with its mixture of atmospheric, threatening setting and intense psychological examination of its characters, certainly is a quality tale.  However, if only one Ballard novel had to be selected for the Gollancz SF Masterworks series, The Drowned World would not be my first choice, but only because Ballard produced so many outstanding fictions, in both short and long form, during the course of his lifetime.  But if multiple works of his were to be nominated for major lists or publications such as this SF Masterworks line, The Drowned World certainly would fit in well with the other fine SF literature produced during the latter half of the 20th century.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Revisiting the SFF Masterworks blog reviews of mine

Last summer, several bloggers, including myself, launched a group blog, SFF Masterworks, with the goal of reviewing each and every one of the Gollancz SF Masterworks and Fantasy Masterworks lists.  With all such great ideas, the enthusiasm was high at first and then it petered out a few months later.  Not pointing any fingers (since three at least would be pointed back at me), but it would be nice to see the job finished.  I've ported over there over the past couple of months old reviews of books on that list that I had done in 2007-2009, but I think it's time to highlight that group blog again.

If I have the time this evening, I plan on writing a review of Jack Finney's The Body Snatchers and crosspost it both here and over there.  I also plan on porting over the next few weeks old reviews of mine from there over here.  Hopefully others who participated in the project might feel moved to do the same with their reviews and maybe think of reading and writing an occasional review over there so we could finish the job and get 130+ reviews up over there sometime over the next year or so.  Or maybe it's a quixotic idea, but hey, sometimes those windmill tilting adventures can be fun, right?

Even more quotes from books being read

From beyond the screen of bushes which surrounded the spring, Popeye watched the man drinking.  A faint path led from the road to the spring.  Popeye watched the man - a tall, thin man, hatless, in worn gray flannel trousers and carrying a tweed coat over his arm - emerge from the path and kneel to drink from the spring.

Since the opening of the pioneering industry, in the estuary of Ponta da Areia, in Nictheroy - birthplace of the Baron locomotive - not a month goes by without a new factory opening its doors to work.  The rhythm inside the factories is as intense as the hurly-burly in the streets, and not only during the day, but also along the nights, something that became feasible when the gaslight network replaced the old whale oil lamps.  Neither luminosity nor even the imperial decree that outlawed the practice of capoeira and kung fu stopped the streets from becoming the stage for showdowns between the [rival groups]...

Soon he reached the overlook:  green rolling hills, a muddy winding river, an expanse of forest unbroken except for the town of Buell and its steelmill.  The mill itself had been like a small city, but they had closed it in 1987, partially dismantled it ten years later; it now stood like an ancient ruin, its buildings grown over with bittersweet vine, devil's tear thumb, and tree of heaven.  The footprints of deer and coyotes crisscrossed the grounds; there was only the occasional human squatter.

The tower stood upon an island that lay at the center of Lake Bakeel, fed by a lingering finger of the Derna River.  Beyond the lake lay the gnarled forests and baleful grasslands through which none, not even erb or deoband, traveled without his knowledge or permission.  Despite this mastery, Sarnod found that each new morning an unease came over him, like a hook in his heart, accompanied by a strange thirst.  He seemed always dry, his skin itchy and taut.  The bowl of water he kept in his chabers did not help.  The fresh, moist smell of the lake beyond came through the window like a thing physical, threat and surcease both.

White:  When were you in the penitentiary?

Black:  Long time ago.

White:  What were you in for?

Black:  Murder.

White:  Really?

Black:  Now who would claim to be a murderer that wasnt one?

White:  You called it the jailhouse.

Black:  Yeah?

White:  Do most blacks call the penitentiary the jailhouse?

Black:  Naw.  Just us old country niggers.  We kind of make it a point to call things for what they is.  I'd hate to guess how many names they is for the jailhouse.  I'd hate to have to count em.

It was genuine.  Some people in this place crawl inside themselves and play the tough guy to survive.  Mark Rolland genuinely made a choice, suffered the consequences, and was prepared to live with whatever happened next, surrounded by the warm waters of one hour with some idea of an angel with perfect skin.

Which of these six quotes appeals to you?  Can you guess any of the books from which I extracted those quotes?

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Some books I'm going to recommend to you without a description

I think this might be an interesting exercise in seeing if readers will fill in the blanks, so here are blanket recommendations for books recently read about which I have said nothing prior to writing this.  Curious to see who echoes which books or expounds upon reactions for others' benefits (I won't elaborate in any possible comments I might make):

1.  Katherine Vaz, Saudade

2.  David Albahari, Leeches

3.  Kay Ryan, The Best of It

4.  Frank Turner Hollon, The God File

5.  William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying

6.  Damon Galgut, In a Strange Room

7.  John Sayles,  A Moment in the Sun

8.  Philipp Meyer, American Rust

9.  Brian Evenson, The Wavering Knife

10. Peter S. Beagle, Sleight of Hand

11.  Cormac McCarthy, Sunset Limited

Let me know if you decide to look into any of these, OK?

When people ask "why do you read?"...

I've always wondered why in threads like this one people just don't say "I want to gain more power."  Isn't that a major reason why one ought to get an education, in order to be able to have at least some fleeting mastery over something?  Or am I just being too cynical and rapacious in thought?

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Four covers of books recently purchased

Just a little something for those of you who might have felt that my last review post was a bit too obtuse and less commenter-friendly.  Feel free to choose which cover(s) you like best and explain why.  Very, very likely all four of these will be read by the end of the holiday weekend.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

China Miéville, Embassytown

Their language is organised noise, like all of ours are, but for them each word is a funnel.  Where to us each word means something, to the Hosts, each is an opening.  A door, through which the thought of that referent, the thought itself reached for that word, can be seen.  "If I program 'ware with an Anglo-Ubiq word and play it, you understand it," Scile said.  "If I do the same with a word in Language, and play it to an Ariekes, I understand it, but to them it means nothing, because it's only sound, and that's not where the meaning lives.  It needs a mind behind it."

Hosts' minds were inextricable from their doubled tongue.  They couldn't learn other languages, couldn't conceive of their existence, or that the noises we made to each other were words at all.  A Host could understand nothing not spoken in Language, by a speaker, with intent, with a mind behind the words.  That was why those early ACL pioneers were confused.  When their machines spoke, the Hosts heard only empty barks. (p. 55)

Language is the cornerstone and stumbling block to all social structures.  Without it, whether it be in verbal or non-verbal form, all communication would collapse. Yet the structure of language is confusing and fraught with potential tripwires for the unwary wielders of it.  Meaning, which in Lacanian terms is the relationship between the signifier (the sound or image produced) and the signified (the concept), depends upon a complex relationship in which substitution (metaphor) and displacement (metonymy) in which the unconscious desires and the conscious thought ebb and flow.  Lacan formulated this as Signifier (Sr) over Signified (Sd), Sr/Sd.  The two are never melded into one in human thought.

In reading China Miéville's recently-released novel, Embassytown, I was struck by how he intended to make the Language of the Host Ariekei utterly alien by having their thoughts be indivisible between Signifier and Signified.  This, to my relatively meager knowledge of SF, had never been treated in quite the fashion that Miéville proposed to do.  I was curious to see how Miéville would approach creating such an alien mindset and how deep he would explore the possibilities inherent in having such a radically different approach toward language and its scions (communication, structure, power).  Unfortunately, what I read and considered in Embassytown was a frustrating, disappointing read.

Embassytown is the name of a colonial outpost created humans from the diaspora power of Bremen.  Intergalactic travel is possible through the transverse of a superstructure-like entity known as the immer, through which the spaces and gaps of the manchmal are reduced.  This utilization of the German words for "always" and "sometimes" is intriguing (although, like several ideas introduced in the novel, it is barely developed beyond occasional mentions), considering that there are hints that this is not a Star Wars-esque hyperspace, but rather an apparent other dimension in which are embedded alien realities that most humans find it difficult to fathom.  Yet some people are born with a talent to "immerse" themselves and their starships into this immer.  Avice Benner Cho is one of these adepts and after a long time away she is returning to her native Embassytown, bringing with her a linguist husband who is fascinated by the unique case of the Ariekei.

Avice also returns to a place where she herself has become part of the Language of the Ariekei; she is the simile "the girl who ate what was given her."  Surrounded by the Ariekei, the human port of Embassytown is under de facto control of the Ambassadors, vat-grown human pairs who are enhanced in order to provide the dual "cut and turn" phrasing of Ariekei Language that the Ariekei can understand.  It is, on the surface, an intriguing development of a functional oligarchy, yet the rationale behind this structure comes crashing down further into the novel.

Avice narrates the action which unfolds over several kilohours (roughly equivalent to several months, if not a year).  She witnesses the efforts of the Ambassador duos, including a surprising, foreign duo, EzRa, to communicate with the Ariekei.  Despite the relative lack of external action, the slow revelation of human/Ariekei past and present interactions proves to be fascinating.  Of particular interest is the Ariekei effort to speak lies, which in their Sr/Sd-unified Language, they prove to be incapable of doing without the most strenuous of efforts to divide their thoughts between their two mouths.  At first, this scene made some sense, until I began to consider further the rationale behind this; I found it to be half-formed.

If concepts and the sounds and images bound to them are indivisible, with a resultant language that is devoid of symbolic speech (thus the need to employ actual persons and things to represent ideas), then it makes little sense for there to be lies birthed out; such things literally should be inconceivable in minds organized in such a fashion.  Yet Miéville seeks to explore this despite failing to make a strong case for why this should be possible, much less desirable, in the first place.  This is later compounded by the acute "addiction" that the Ariekei experience when they hear the différance in an Ambassador duo's speech and they crave for that truth/untruth in sound/conceptual meaning that they experience as they hear that dual voice.

The part of the novel in which this occurs, roughly from the halfway point to around fifty pages to the end, I found to be ridiculous.  Not just for the ill-explained reasoning for this "addiction" (which, one might think, would result in disorientation rather than dependent desire for an experience recreation), but also for the outbreak of violence that shatters the power status quo.  From the deaths of an Arieka and an Ambassador duo (whose roles are replaced in a thematically and plot-wise weaker fashion by less interesting substitutes whose late entrances serve to dampen plot movement and development) to the de-centering of Avice's role from an active participant to the more passive communicator of more distant events, Embassytown became less coherent of a novel.  Its central theme, that of the changes in Ariekei society due to the radical shifts in their Language under the influence of the humans, devolves into a haphazard exploration of semantic issues that never really seemed to be cogently argued or developed beyond the immediate plot needs.

As a result, the action surrounding this core felt herky-jerky, as conflict after conflict dissolved into chaos without a clear purpose behind these events.  The characters felt less "real" and more akin to pawns who were moved willy-nilly into place without much depth to their thoughts or to their actions.  Each of these unravelings stems from the failure of the Language theme to make a convincing case for such changes to occur; everything felt providential and not falling into a discernible pattern.

This is not to say that Embassytown is a total failure.  It did engage my attention, even if it was to spark declamations against the unconvincing developments.  Certainly the notion of Language is an intriguing one and hopefully other writers will explore the possibilities that Miéville fails to do here.  Embassytown fails at its apparent goals, but in that failure, it manages to fail better than several "safe," successful novels. 

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The language of an upcoming review

I am nearing the end of a novel that I hope to review by Wednesday.  Some of you will be able to guess the title by the descriptors to follow, but its name is unimportant here.  What is important is what I get to discuss and what I deign to ignore.  There will be no references to "world building;" it is immaterial to the central conceit, that of language.  Rather, there will be references to "signifers" and "signified," or Sr/Sd.  Différance might also make an appearance or two.  Not as likely to discuss the gestalt, but there was a brief pondering of that while reading it.  Superstructures, both to concepts of reality and that of power, might also be referenced in passing.

This is the sort of "language" that I have not had much need to utilize since 1997.  Not that I am a Lacanian or a Derrida follower, much less a traditional Marxist in how I organize such concepts (if anything, I stray closer to the more Structuralist side of Foucault's thought), but it is fun to test these notions against the backdrop of a fiction.  This is not to say that the fiction at hand is a perfect work (I'll explore its shortcomings whenever I write my review), but rather that it is going to be fun to rip the structures apart and to test for dissonances.  If I dare to think about it enough, it might end up being one of my longest reviews in a year or more, albeit one that will not reference the languages of characterization (weak) or plot (muddled) to the extent of several reviews that I have done recently.  Shall be interesting to see what conclusions there will be on the language of the work, as that central conceit will make or break conceptual understandings.  The jury is still out on that, two-thirds in.

Friday, May 20, 2011

William Faulkner, "A Rose for Emily"

When Miss Emily Grierson died, our whole town went to her funeral:  the men through a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument, the women mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house, which no one save an old man-servant - a combined gardener and cook - had seen in at least ten years. (p. 119)

Out of all of his fabulous novels and short stories, William Faulkner's 1931 short story, "A Rose for Emily," has long been my favorite.  In only a few thousand words, Faulkner creates a multilayered tale that works as a personal tragedy, an allegory, and a pointed social commentary, among other things.  It is a story that I've re-read on a few occasions from the time I was first introduced to it in freshman Composition class back in 1992 to the present and each time, new elements come to the fore of my thoughts on "A Rose for Emily."

Take for instance the opening paragraph.  We see, through the perspective of the third-person narrator, the combination of duty and morbid curiosity of the townspeople of the fictional Jefferson, Mississippi regarding the death of that "fallen monument."  This description of Miss Emily evokes images of grandeur fated to decay.  In the five sections of this tale, decay looms prominently:

"...only Miss Emily's house was left, lifting its stubborn and coquettish decay above the cotton wagons and the gasoline pumps..." (p. 119)

"When the Negro opened the blinds of one window, they could see that the leather was cracked; and when they sat down, a faint dust rose sluggishly about their thighs, spinning with slow motes in the single sun-ray." (p. 120)

"And so she died.  Fell ill in the house filled with dust and shadows, with only a doddering Negro man to wait on her." (p. 128)

Yet there is more than just the tragic fall of Miss Emily into decayed disrepair.  Faulkner's mixture of the literary past and present accentuates a larger change that is taking place in Jefferson that has largely bypassed Miss Emily's mostly-shuttered relic of a home.  A new generation is emerging in the 1930s, one that has no first-hand recollection of the horrors of the Civil War and its traumatic aftermath.  The complexities of a Colonel Sartoris, who is referenced in a single sentence as being a courtly gentleman who remits Miss Emily's city taxes in perpetuity while, as Mayor, creating an anti-black ordinance that serves as a reminder of the Jim Crow era, and his era are slowly giving way to a different generational outlook.  There are a few fleeting references to how that "monument," Miss Emily, has had to battle city leaders who seek to revoke the Colonel's roundabout way of "providing charity" to the nearly indigent scion of an old Southern family.  This connects with other references to social mores and the ways that the neighborhood around Miss Emily's home is changing.  Decay is much more than a person or home mouldering into dust.

"A Rose for Emily" is littered with foreshadowings of the final event.  From the purchase of arsenic, "for rats," to the spreading of lime to the drastic changes in Miss Emily's figure, nearly every paragraph contains portents for what follows after.  The narrative suspense developed from each of these little clues actually improves upon a re-read, as much of the joy derived from the story comes from seeing how adroitly Faulkner weaves these references to Miss Emily's past and present, overlain with commentary on the townspeople and their myriad responses to the events surrounding Miss Emily and her later seclusion, into a narrative tapestry that is a delight to read and re-read.

Furthermore, the two most powerful "voices" in this novel never "speak" from a point of view perspective.  Miss Emily we come to know through her curt politeness to the city leaders, but beyond that and the recollections offered by the narrator, tinged with innuendo as those are, we never see her in action, yet by the story's end, when the tragedy of her life is revealed, her life, or rather, her descent into animated decay, has come to dominate the story.  Yet over this looms another, more hidden figure, that of her father.  His control of Miss Emily is only hinted at in a couple of places, yet the insidiousness of it permeates the action of the story.  Faulkner's use of allusion in regard to Miss Emily's father (and apparently, his own role as another symbol of the fading post-war generation) tinges "A Rose for Emily" with an allegorical quality (one that Faulkner once noted was the origin for the "rose" in the story's title; even the most destitute deserve that "rose" of respect).

Each of the elements discussed above combine to create an absorbing read that rewards the reader who pauses and reflects upon each sentence, as there is so much occurring under the surface of the narrative.  Miss Emily is a fascinating character and the background townspeople serve to underscore the divisions and social changes that are taking place around the core tragedy of this story.  "A Rose for Emily" is a rich, poignant tale that perhaps is one of the finest short stories ever written in the English language.  A true masterpiece from one of the South's finest storytellers.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Currently Reading

Although I'll list my April reads later this week (likely the weekend), I thought I'd provide readers a glimpse at what I'm alternating between at this moment:

Cormac McCarthy, Outer Dark (e-book)

José Maria Eça de Queirós, A Cidade e as Serras (e-book; Portuguese)

Félix Palma, El mapa del tiempo (Spanish)

William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying 

John Sayles, A Moment in the Sun

Adam Levin, The Instructions

Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward, Angel (re-read)

And sometime later this week, I'll get around to reading China Miéville's Embassytown.  I've already read 26 books so far this month (but only two in the past week), so I should finish most, if not all, of the ones mentioned above.  Any of these books you've read before or are considering reading?

Cormac McCarthy, Child of God

I'll tell ye what old Gresham done when his wife died and how crazy he was.  They buried her up here at Sixmile and the preacher he said a few words and then he called on Gresham, ast him did he want to say a few words fore they thowed the dirt over her and old Gresham he stood up, had his hat in his hand and all.  Stood up there and sung the chickenshit blues.  The chickenshit blues.  No, I don't know the words to it but he did and he sung em ever one fore he set back down again.  But he wasn't a patch on Lester Ballard for crazy. (p. 24-25)

Before he became renowned for Western-themed works such as Blood Meridian or All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy wrote several novels set in East Tennessee.  In his third novel, Child of God, published in 1973, McCarthy explores human deprivation and depravation through the actions and thoughts of Lester Ballard.  It is a chilling read, seeing the depths to which Ballard sinks, but beyond that, there is that sense that through the violence, through the sexual deviance, that Ballard represents humanity in its most wretched and primeval state.

Child of God is set in the mountains of Sevier County, Tennessee during the mid-20th century.  It is, even today (minus the garish Pigeon Forge and scenic Gatlinburg), a remote, rough region, replete with mountain men similar to those portrayed sinisterly by James Dickey.  Lester Ballard, who is only 27 when the novel begins, is evicted from his own home as it is auctioned off while he was still living there.  Driven out of his domicile (suffering a blow to the head in the process), Ballard retreats further into the wilderness, metaphorical and real alike.  Viewed with suspicion by the Sevier County sheriff on account of his family past (Ballard had kin who were in the quasi-KKK White Caps around the turn of the 20th century), Ballard's isolation from human society is accentuated during a scene a quarter of the way into the novel where he is locked up in the county jail and his only companion is a black man in for a fugitive warrant:

They had a nigger in the cell opposite and the nigger used to sing all the time.  He was being held on a fugitive warrant.  After a day or two Ballard fell into talking with him.  He said:  What's your name?

John, said the nigger.  Nigger John.

Where you from.  You a fugitive ain't ye?

I'm from Pine Bluff Arkansas and I'm a fugitive from the ways of this world.  I'd be a fugitive from my mind if I had me some snow.

What you in for?

I cut a motherfucker's head off with a pocketknife.

Ballard waited to be asked his own crime but he wasn't asked.  After a while he said:  I was supposed to of raped this old girl.  She wasn't nothin but a whore to start with.

White pussy is nothing but trouble.

Ballard agreed that it was.  He guessed he'd thought so but he'd never heard it put that way. (p. 51-52)

This little scene, before Ballard begins his final, crazed descent represents several of the themes McCarthy explores in Child of God:  the outcast fugitive, the reduction of rape to a cipher for human violence, the lingering sense that there is a perverse commonality in this greeting between a murderer ostracized for his race and an accused rapist who has already been cast out of home and hearth.  McCarthy's eschewing of traditional punctuation in this novel works especially well in scenes such as this, as the perceived boundary between the unnamed third-person narrator and the character dialogues blend together to the point where it feels as though Ballard were speaking to that "fourth wall" as much as to the character of Nigger John.

The latter parts of the novel become more haunting because of this narrative device.  As Ballard retreats to a troglodyte condition, emerging like a cave troll to ambush, kill, and then fuck the corpses of young women (with a repeating pattern of encounter and type occurring within this descent into murder and necrophilia), there also emerges strange, touching (and yet simultaneously sickening) scenes such as Ballard's trip into town after the first such event:

How much is that there red dress out front, he said.

She looked toward the front of the store and put her hand to her mouth for remembering.  It's five ninety-eight, she said.  Then she shook her head up and down.  Yes.  Five ninety-eight.

I'll take it, said Ballard.

The salesgirl unleaned herself from the counter.  She and Ballard were about the same height.  She said:  What size did you need?

Ballard looked at her.  Size, he said.

Did you know her size?

He rubbed his jaw.  He'd never seen the girl standing up.  He looked at the salesgirl.  I don't know what size she takes, he said.

Well how big is she?

I don't believe she's big as you.

Do you know how much she weighs?

She'll weigh a hunnerd pound or better.

The girl looked at him sort of funny.  She must be just small, she said.

She ain't real big. (p. 96-97)

As the novel moves toward its conclusion, Ballard's alienation from society becomes more and more clear.  A reclusive necrophiliac murderer, his thoughts and desires are revealed in a clarity that is disturbing for how closely they resemble our own thoughts of release.  Whereas Ballard might seek comfort in what is to us ghastly and reprehensible things, readers might come to see dim reflections of themselves in the straightforward, earnest way in which those thoughts are presented to us.  It is as though despite one's own moral codes, Ballard's case is so pitiful, so sympathetic underneath the horrific actions of his life that the reader, just as a key character comes to do late in the novel, might find herself subconsciously feeling sorrow as well as revulsion toward Ballard.

Child of God may not be McCarthy's best novel (his later, Western novels further develop the symbiotic relationship between violence and human morality), but it certainly contains most of the key elements that are developed more fully in Blood Meridian and other latter novels:  the sparse yet haunting prose, morally challenged characters whose plights capture the reader's attention, and well-developed settings that infuse the stories with distinctive local colors.  Child of God works best when the reader struggles against his or her own preconceptions in order to understand just who Lester Ballard is.  Disgusting as his actions might be, Ballard is never a character cipher but instead a complex being whose humanity becomes the center of a story that lingers on far after the final page is turned.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Mid-May Used Book Porn, or what $50 even will buy you

Here are all but two books that I purchased today at McKay's in Nashville (those are a Pyschology textbook and a Strange But True book for my students).  Traded in $56 of books and bought exactly $50 of books using that store credit.  Not bad, considering most of these were under $1.

I have a thing for plays, it seems, whether it was written in French or Spanish.

Hopefully, some of these titles will spark some curiosity (most, if not all, are available in various translations).  Which ones struck your fancy the most and why?

An open challenge

This challenge goes out to everyone reading this who runs a SF/F/H-oriented blog.  Although I don't comment as much as I should, I do read a few dozen blogs every month or so.  What I've noticed when reading several of these blogs is that the focus not only is very much contained to the above genre(s), but that the terminology employed is that which crops up almost exclusively in such genre(s) - words such as "worldbuilding" or "infodumping."

What I would like to see, just as an experiment I suppose, is for several such bloggers to take just one (although more would be welcome) fiction that cannot be remotely connected to SF/F/H and review it.  Curious to see if the terminology in the reviews would change or stay the same.  Anyone up for this?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Southern Writing

As I have stated on a few occasions here over the past several years, I am a Southerner, one whose family has resided (one branch) since the time just before the failed State of Franklin (or for thousands of years through other branches).  I love the climate, the terrain, some of the people, little of its politics, but am fascinated by the cultures that have emerged over the past few hundred years in my native region.

One of the cultural things I enjoy most (besides the cooking) is Southern Literature.  For a region that (unfairly, most of the time) gets derided for its relative lack of education (sometimes voiced by those Yanks who have little conception of their own cultures), the American South certainly has produced some of the finest writers in American or World Literature.  William Faulkner, who not only was a Nobel Prize winner but also an inspiration for the Latin American Boom Generation.  Thomas Wolfe, whose autobiographical novels are so poignant in places that the heart feels as though it might break.  Flannery O'Connor, who grabs the religious-tinted fatalism of this region by its short and curlies and shakes it until something tragically moving is produced.  Robert Penn Warren, whose fictionalization of the King Fish is still relevant today.  Cormac McCarthy, who before he wrote of the West wrote of Tennessee and the South.  Kate Chopin, whose stories and novels revealed some stark, unsettling truths.  Mark Twain, whose The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn very well may have changed the course of American Literature.  Tennessee Williams, one of the greatest American playwrights.  Margaret Mitchell, whose Gone with the Wind may be both a blessing and curse for outsiders trying to understand the "Old South."  Zora Neale Hurston, whose Their Eyes Were Watching God may be the most famous African-American Southern novel.  Harper Lee, who only wrote one novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, but that novel still moves people over a half-century later.  Edward P. Jones, whose The Known World contains some very bitter truths about a horrid past.  Daniel Wallace, the author of Big Fish, which derives its power from the storytelling for which the South is renowned. 

So many authors have come from the quarter so often neglected or belittled by outsiders.  Since late spring and summer are so often associated with this region (the climate can be unpleasant for Yanks unused to humidity levels being as high as the temperatures), perhaps it might be fitting if I were to re(read) and write occasional reviews by several well-known Southern writers.  Maybe some can see the fantastic or speculative in these writings, or mayhap there'll be some moving character plays to consider.  Hopefully, there will be much for you to discover that has been produced in my native region.

P.S.  As I was contemplating writing this essay, I learned there is a special e-book charity anthology edited by T.J. McIntyre called Southern Fried Weirdness:  Reconstruction.  All proceeds from this $2.99 reprint anthology are going to the Red Cross and its efforts to help the victims of the April tornadoes in Alabama, Tennessee, and I believe Georgia and Mississippi.  I've already bought my copy and perhaps in the next few weeks, I'll have a review up here.
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