I watched Altered Carbon before I even knew about the books, and I enjoyed the series (so much that I blogged about it here). The book was even more interesting, and I look forward to reading the rest of the series.
- For me it was hard to read this without recalling Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy, and at least the first book in the series compares favorably. The AI-hotel that defended itself and its clients was actually better done in the teevee show, but the concept is still pretty cool, and the generic expectations of cyberpunk are built upon neatly, without too much rehashing.
- In particular I thought that this novel caught the tone of exhaustion and desperation that permeates Gibson’s work. Kovacs (the detective who has been resleeved, and who might or might not be a war criminal and/or rebel) seems to be constantly on the verge of figuring out just what *this-all-means*, but if that knowledge is possible to attain he doesn’t get there, and the frustration is palpable.
- I thought the novel’s ending was far better than the way that the show ended, but its complexity would have been hard to capture in a visual medium.
- The most interesting idea of course is the immortality that the rich have gained. Morgan very clearly makes the case that the rich alone have the power to keep endless quantities of sleeves available, and they use that power to accumulate fabulous amounts of wealth.
- They also have to find increasingly exotic ways to become sexually excited, leading to the murders that drive the plot narrative.
- I hope that Morgan explores the identity issues more thoroughly as the series proceeds.
- On the one hand, Morgan’s comments on the results of immortality are fairly straightforward – people become increasingly horrible, and the accumulation of wealth by the 1 percent becomes increasingly striated.
- On the other hand, though, the identity questions become tangled, and Morgan doesn’t hesitate to bring God into all of this (there is a constant movement of Catholics against the resleeving of people throughout the novel). Making those questions of identity transparent leads beyond questions of good and evil, capitalist vs. communist.
- Instead, the implications of having these godlike powers become a meditation on the path to get there, given the many options that humans have already taken (and the environmental destruction that has led the rich to live on Mars, and leave Earth to those who can’t afford to leave).
- Kovacs himself has a relationship with some sort of cult movement, as he often remembers his home planet and its much stricter cultural mores. It’s also clearly the home of at best a founding father of sort, since it’s called Hansen’s World (or something like that).
I re-read The Plot Against America for a class I’m teaching (original post is here), and I’m a little surprised by how different my reaction is to it this time. Of course, I’m now reading it after the first open gathering of Nazis I can remember in the United States since Skokie in 1977. Full disclosure on that, by the way – a friend of mine’s dad perhaps went to not-so-peacefully demonstrate and maybe punch a Nazi. I’m pretty sure he succeeded.
- This is an interesting twist on genre, one that I didn’t pay much attention to the first time: it’s an autobiography used to make an alternate history more personal. One of the flaws of alternate histories is that authors face a dilemma – do I rewrite the personal history of well-known historical figures, or do I invent fictional personas to allow me to make this a story and not an alternate history textbook? Folks have taken all kinds of different approaches of course, but Roth’s decision to rewrite his own history into this narrative gives the novel a intense, adolescent-boy perspective that feels very on the ground.
- From a craft perspective, I’m still in a little bit of shock that Roth tells what happens before he finishes the autobiographical part of the novel. I’m guessing that holding us as readers in suspense until the end was too much, and made the autobiographical portion more important than the larger chronology.
- The picture isn’t of or in the novel, of course, but it does feature the man who defeated FDR and ushered this in, Charles Lindbergh. I don’t think I’ll forget finding out that Lindbergh, who I always viewed as an American hero, turned out to be a fascist sympathizer. Not quite Santa-is-not-real, but still not fun.
- Roth’s ending doesn’t feel as contrived on this read, either – Nazis capturing the Lindbergh baby and holding him ransom (although not presented in the novel as anything but, perhaps, the fever nightmare of Roth’s Aunt Evelyn) while Lindbergh won the election based on his masculinity and his ability to keep the US out of WWII feels way more real now.
- What truly struck me on my re-read, though, was that I couldn’t stop turning the pages. I didn’t feel that way the first time, as I was trying to see if Roth was worth all the hype. I’m still not sure about that, but this novel and American Pastoral if nothing else made me rethink what I believe I know about fairly recent American history.
- Unfortunately, I know the motivating force for the page-turning frenzy this time: when I first read this the Charlottesville Nazi rally was still a month away, and Heather Heyer was still alive, and I couldn’t imagine a US president saying that there are very fine people on both sides, that a proto-fascist, homunculean piece of shit would be anywhere near a sitting president, let alone writing immigration policy speeches.
- Setting this novel in the time of WWII also let Roth avoid the problem of having to understand social media and its effects on our elections, an avoidance that I don’t blame him for undertaking.
As if life isn’t short enough, I’m almost done with my re-read of the Malazan Book of the Fallen series. Toll the Hounds is book number eight…
- I often think of fantasy as an attempt to rewrite origins and ideals. Tolkien, for instance, wants to go back and rethink history from a time when kings could perhaps be convinced to be virtuous, the Good King imagined as a starting point from which our own culture can derive in a more just and humane way, one that cleaves closer to an image of a just and good godhead.
- A Song of Ice and Fire, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, attempts to revisit European culture by rethinking our relationship with the natural world. It starts at the Enlightenment, which is pretty bold on Martin’s part but not out of character…
- The MOBTF views this rewrite differently, which isn’t surprising. First, I think that Erikson and Esselmont’s universe starts its rewrite from the place in which humans create cultures, of any and all sorts. They’re not interested in only doing part of human history – instead, they often take us back to our Cromag roots. Talk about having large huevos…
- Secondly, their revisit looks at what we think of when we think of first principles. I’ve written an article on this look in terms of war (and whether or not it can be just, a cultural construction if there ever was one I think), but I always think of it as the MOBTF creates its incredibly complicated and sort of irreverent pantheon of gods.
- Authors definitely have obsessions. Tolkien feels very Catholic in his obsession with suffering, and Martin’s obsession with food highlights his fears that we are destroying the natural world. Erikson’s obsession seems to be with domiciles, whether for travelers or for of the common city variety. We do not see much in the way of farm houses (they’re occasionally destroyed as they sit in the path of war) but we do see lots of city apartments and mansions (and even a palace or two).
- My guess is that this has to do with the one first principle that they try to examine, which is the place of love alongside all the pain and misery and war and casual death. Erikson in particular isn’t sappy – he has children both do and suffer some horrific things – but he does occasionally portray a scene in which a stable family manages some peace and love.
- He also spends a lot of time on city life (which I think lends to the Dickens vibe I get from this series). I think I could write reams on this, but I’ll save it for my next post on a piece of non-fiction based in Detroit…
I’ve waited to blog on this film, because, well, it’s von Trier, which means that usually after watching one of his films I want to curl up in a fetal position for a few hours and sob, quietly, to myself. If you’re wondering about that, I’d say check out Melancholia and Dancer in the Dark, films that for von Trier are relatively accessible, and tell me if you don’t feel the same way.
That was not the case with this one, and I’m not exactly sure why. Thoughts below:
- So, Jack builds a house. Or tries, several times. He’s a talented architect who also happens to be a serial killer with zero empathy for his fellow humans (or animals, for that matter). We saw the director’s cut, but I can’t imagine how the theatrical release is different, since this film felt like it very little wasted space.
- It’s also a film that speaks to a lot of different texts, and serves as a meditation, and asks us to imagine how we’re culpable in atrocities, and asks us why we are silent, and argues that pretending that the presence of art makes us transcend our physical, animal hard wiring, and asks us to think about the big concepts of religion (heaven and hell, physical and spiritual), and, well, I’m sure you get it…
- One short blog post clearly is not going to suffice for an examination of it…
- What stuck with me the most, perhaps, is Jack’s descent into ever-increasing layers of horrific behavior. At every point along the way he invites us (through both his actions, his reflections on those actions, and the conversation he has with his own personal Virgil as von Trier makes his not-very-subtle point) to step away, pretty much telling us that the next thing he will do will be even more terrible than the last. von Trier’s point is that only rare individuals among us actually do step away, and sometimes we even try to call that impulse (to observe the horrific spectacle) art.
- Jack, throughout, is both oblivious to the pain and terror he causes *and* willing to call us, the audience, out on our own depravity. His actions are pretty open for a serial killer, and von Trier even plays them for comedy, with a Benny Hill-like speeded-up camera that observes Jack carry a body up and down the stairs of an apartment building, or has Jack encourage his victim to scream (and he even screams himself), knowing that no one will help them.
- Every time I thought okay, that’s as nasty as we can get, von Trier made sure to take us one step further…by the end of the film Jack is deliberately recreating Nazi execution methods, even while the police finally start breaking down the door of his horror chamber. They, of course, are only there because Jack has left a stolen police car, with the siren running, immediately outside his lair.
- I haven’t spoken about his horror chamber, but von Trier makes clear that Jack has no qualms about evidence of his crimes piling up. Jack isn’t a member of a crime family, trying to get rid of evidence. Instead, he builds a small house that consists solely of the corpses of those he has killed.
- And that house covers the entrance to hell, an entrance that Jack’s own Virgil leads him through.
- In this film von Trier is ridiculously not subtle, especially in the context of all of his other films, which are often subtle to the point of obtuseness. As odd as this seems, I wonder if this is von Trier commenting on the rising tide of anti-empathy that has engulfed the US with the rise of Trump, various South American countries like Venezuela, and of course most of western and central Europe.
- And the fact that Jack never gets made to answer for his crimes (with the eventual fact that the criminal gets his deserved fate, thus justifying our own bloodlust in watching these films in the first place) is simply yet another way that von Trier sees us as inculcated in all of the atrocities committed in art as well as in reality.
- Early in the film Jack’s internal monologue invokes the idea of catharsis (I think) as a justification for our own fascination with bloody and horrific spectacles. Jack for his part doesn’t buy this theory – he speaks in much more fundamental terms of heaven and hell, first principles that don’t allow us to use art as an insulating layer that keeps us from acknowledging our own depravity.
- von Trier can take this approach (I think of this film as a meditation and reflection, on both his own complicity and ours) *because* his career has been built on his willingness to push all kinds of edges, in both craft and theme. His films comment relentlessly on these borders, and he has constantly toyed with what it means to be an artist (or to be called one), so he has earned this right.
- I actually felt sort of exhilarated at the end, and I’m not sure I’m all that happy about my own immediate reaction.
I became sort of familiar with Moretti’s theories about distant reading and the Literary Lab he co-founded while trying to wrap my mind around how narrative works in video games. His work seems particularly appropriate to understanding how the changes that occur in our emotional responses to narratives in games (in contrast to films and literature) happen, and the unapologetic digital humanist in me thinks that Moretti is onto something, even though that something will necessarily be a bit long in coming…and, if we do it right, will never be completely concretized.
Distant Reading itself is a collection of essays that he has published as he tries to understand how literary forms change as they move across cultural lines. He eschews close reading for what he calls distant reading, mostly because he’s trying to find a way to understand cultural forms as organisms that are affected by the environment in which they find themselves. My synopsis does not do his thinking justice, and I’d urge you to engage with his theories on your own, but the tl;dr version is that he’s wrestling with some huge problems for analysis here, and I think that he’s not trying to fit literary scholarship into a methodological paradigm so much as he’s trying to determine what methodology best helps us understand literary narrative, style, and affect (among other attributes) .
Thoughts on Moretti:
- I was pleasantly surprised when I saw him citing Stephen Jay Gould in the first essay. His look at literature from the perspective of cultural evolution and world system theory fits neatly with my own world view, although I can understand why some folks would find it off-putting.
- Close reading is still important, and I think he does some of that with his analysis of titles in the last essay. I get his frustration though – I feel the same when talking about games, as I know that (with apologies to Jean Genet) every time I choose one game to look at I’m ignoring a dozen others.
- He makes some really interesting observations while doing this form of analysis, observations that imply more of an interest in close reading than I think he sometimes gets credit for. His look at the use of subordinate clauses in the construction of narrative, for instance, allows him to argue the ways in ways in which narratives move forward and backward in time. Subordinate clauses ask us to prioritize action, and writers can use them to get us to look at the action ahead.
- Others have discussed this as well, but the particular lens through which he looks – large chunks of stories that have adopted another cultural’s form – makes this look especially useful, I think, from a literary critic standpoint.
My re-read of Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series continues. At points I’m so overwhelmed by the enormity of the creation that I get a bit starstruck – I’m pretty sure that I have very little critical distance, with my occasional frustration when Erikson gets preachy. Still…
- Tehol Beddict and Bugg are wonderful characters, and the work they do (Beddict in bringing down the economy in order to redistribute wealth to those who have screwed by the system, Bugg (Mael) in his support role for Tehol while playing the long game in the war with the Crippled God is spectacular. I am most fascinated though by how damned consistently funny they are. Their dialogue is a never-ending series of moments in which Tehol feels like a complete moron and Bugg is the long-suffering servant, and yet all the while Tehol is working his magic.
- Brys Beddict’s death still makes me sad.
- Rhulad’s growing insanity fits neatly with the Crippled God’s own mental instability. The premise that his horror is caused by a group of mages who try to add an alien power to defeat their enemies and muck up the process is unlike anything I’ve seen in fantasy.
- I also don’t always know what to do with the epigraphs to each chapter. Ranging from poems to epistolary sections of historical texts, their connection is not always clear, and often make me think way harder than I’m used to doing in fantasy novels.
- The heart of the novel remains the Malazan army, this time the 14th, and with Dujek dead, the Adjunct’s rise (and threat to the Emperor) to challenge Rhulad and Lether (at the end) feels quixotic to the extreme.
- I’m not sure I’ve ever had as profitable a second read of a series as I have had of this one.
- If only Martin could be as prolific as Erikson – maybe he should have played ASOIAF with a friend before sitting down to write…
- And at times I struggle with what I feel are the almost overwhelming sorrows that this series provokes. The intensity of the suffering feels more powerful, I think, because there is very little to hate as all are simply striving to survive in a world that is constantly being less inhabitable. Even Raraku has become an ocean rather than a desert – at least as a desert there were tribes who survived in it, but as an ocean it only holds ghosts (hi Hedge!)
This novel read way faster than I thought it would, mostly because after I finished the first two chapters I was struggling to find a reason to keep going, especially as it’s way outside of my usual genre preferences. That being said, I had trouble putting it down after I got into the story. More thoughts below:
- Texts like this one that follow young girls from pre-teen to teen feel rare to me, but that’s probably just because I don’t read in the genre. I am fairly convinced that novels that approach these subjects in the way that The Burning Girl does – not trying to score pop culture point by using character archetypes to quickly establish who’s who, and that don’t have morality arcs of some sort – are rare.
- I’m a pop culture hound, so I’m not going to argue that the usual genre material can’t be well-done – it can, as I think about someone like Tracy Lynn, whose short stories and other geektastic world stuff I enjoy.
- The difference is that this novel feels far more adult, akin to The Outsiders and Laurie Halse Anderson’s work. At the same time, it shows intimate female relationships in a way that feels real, thoughtful, and complicated, and thus sort of feels far more like Joyce Carole Oates than the genre stuff.
- This difference though makes me wonder about audience. I see a definite need for the morality-based genre text, novels and films that join in the conversation about the types of big decisions that young girls have to make in a serious way but that also make these decisions seem possible to make. On first read I think that The Burning Girl would be tough for this audience, perhaps because its perspective as a reminiscence is one that is hard for them to share, or perhaps because it doesn’t offer those standard character archetypes that enable a reader to quickly figure out where they’re at.
- And I need to be clear – by morality-based I don’t mean according to some specific (read evangelical Christian) standard. As hard as it may be for some people to believe, those of us who are not evangelical Christians also adhere to a moral code, one that perhaps has more to do with how we treat each other and less with obeisance to a flying spaghetti monster in the sky.
- Despite its title, all the burning that anyone in here does comes from the press and crush of family dynamics rather than from some dramatic life events. Cassie, the character who I think is the burning girl, is mostly driven by a need to find a father who she has been told has died, but even the dramatic force of her trying to find her dad doesn’t cause her to burn down the world. Messud uses the novel to look at the micro-events, and the way that we deal with them, of family, and as this type of portrayal I think that perhaps it has more to say about fiction and novels than it does the family in general.
- Thank goodness for that – I’m pretty certain that we don’t need more texts talking about how messed up families can be.