Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Readings 2K9: First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women

First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women
by Eric McCormack

It’s a pity that this book isn’t as interesting as its title. It’s not terrible; it’s the story of a boy born in Scotland, orphaned at a young age, who ends up travelling a fair part of the world and seeing some strange things before his story is wrapped up in Canada in his middle age. It’s an odd structure. The first two thirds or so are extravagant, set in exotic locales, featuring almost Gilliamesque oddities; the last portion is stripped of wonder and charm, livened only by an odd dream and a perhaps-supernatural vision of blackness. It’s clever, but makes the whole feel false. The two parts don’t coexist comfortably within one tale.

The problem may simply be the blandness of the narrative voice. McCormack chose to make his main character tell his tale in a very prosaic voice; there’s a reason for that, as we discover when we find out who he’s telling the story to, and why. But it doesn’t do the actual story any favours. There’s an absence of atmosphere that the story perhaps needed; lacking that atmosphere, the extravagances of the early parts never come to life, never catch fire, and end up even less substantial than they were presumably meant to. It’s a book that balances wonder against the quotidian, and tips the scales in favour of the quotidian.

Unsurprisingly, it’s a Canadian novel. It’s a decent example of the sort of tropes one thinks of when one thinks of CanLit — an erudite wander through a colonial culture’s history and literature; a tendency to flee the fantastic in favour of a bleaker realism (superficially bleaker, at least; one suspects that CanLit is more comfortable with the narrower bounds of realism). It’s a short and not terrible book; but, like much CanLit, not in the end terribly interesting.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Readings 2K9: Soon I Will Be Invincible

Soon I Will Be Invincible
by Austin Grossman

One of the charming and exasperating features of the comics field, and especially of the super-hero comics field, is the weird intertwining of both wildly inflated claims of value and self-loathing put-downs. So comics are both an outlaw medium that is the bane of the censor, and also just trash not worth keeping or re-reading. Comics are a neglected art-form with its own geniuses, and also the lowest rung of the pop-cultural ladder, schlock cynically ladled out to kids who don’t know any better. You can make a case for either set of arguments; what’s always impressed me about people in comics is how they can go from one set to another within a single paragraph. 

One could argue that this is a fundamentally adolescent mixture of arrogance and angst, reflecting both the young age of the medium and the target audience of its most commercial forms. I wouldn’t necessarily be convinced of this argument, but I can see it being made. I mention it because it seems relevant to Austin Grossman’s super-hero novel, set in his own world with his own characters, a daring imaginative enterprise that refuses to take itself seriously. Or, more precisely, refuses to wholly believe in itself; refuses to engage with its own imagination, falling back on unconvincing irony and affectless characters.

I should note, despite the above comment, that this isn’t a bad book. It’s the story of a super-villain, Doctor Impossible, and his attempt to get revenge on his arch-enemy, CoreFire, and, yes, to become invincible (though one suspects, based on the book, Grossman's mixed up the definitions of "invincible" and "invulnerable"). Alternating with Impossible’s point of view is that of new super-hero Fatale, recently recruited to the world’s premier super-team, which has dedicated itself to hunting down Impossible and bringing him to justice for the murder of CoreFire — for, to Impossible’s chagrin, it appears somebody else has killed off his nemesis. The story unfolds neatly, though Fatale’s point-of-view proves somewhat unnecessary, and the plot strands, loose throughout the book, don’t quite dovetail strongly enough. The ending generally is something of a problem, with a dea ex machina and expository anti-climax slipping into easy parody. Still, Grossman clearly knows his genre tropes.

It’s with the exploration of those tropes that the book disappoints. For Grossman, the experience of adolescence is the key to the genre; specifically, the super-hero story becomes a parody of high school, with heroes as jocks beating up nerdy villains. Questions of good and evil are secondary; this is not a book particularly interested in morality. Or in the cosmic sublime. Its sensibility is mundane, for all that it plays with superficially imaginative elements.

The problem, though, isn’t its quotidian and reductive approach to super-heroes; it’s the flatness of its metaphorical high school. That is, the problem isn’t the prevalence of adolescence, it’s the lack of credit Grossman implicitly gives adolescents. There’s no depth to these characters; no sense of real issues, real problems, of the process of growth and maturation. One of the female heroes is bulimic, which is a nice touch, but nothing's done with it. You don't have to spend a lot of time around actual teenagers, or in an actual school setting, to realise how much is lacking in this book.

That issue aside, certain problems of believability arise in Grossman's book. Is Doctor Impossible genuinely brilliant? He doesn’t sound like it, or behave like it. If he is hyper-intelligent, why does he act so foolishly? He’s physically humiliated by another villain after going to a villain hang-out; it’s impossible to imagine a major villain in an actual super-hero comic (Lex Luthor, Doctor Doom) suffering so, in part because they’d be intelligent enough — have enough common sense — to prepare. If you’re going to a location filled with physically dangerous villains, ensure you can deal with it. Basic logic, right? But if Doctor Impossible thought things through, Grossman wouldn’t get the scene he wanted. 

Now, Impossible ends up beaten up by the other villain, not killed. And in general, there’s a notable absence of death or substantive destruction in the book. This not only makes it difficult to take seriously, it goes against the grain of almost every super-hero comic for the past forty years. For at least that long — and arguably since the advent of Marvel Comics in 1961 — super-hero books have been about the illusion of realism, convincing the reader that the events in the book are grittier, more emotionally true, more adult and less kid stuff, than anything before. Of course most of the time this isn’t true, and wouldn’t necessarily be any good if it were; the point is that the genre is at its most adolescent in its striving to be taken seriously, and in the way that striving manifests. Had Grossman realised it, his book might have had a greater sense of depth; in any event, he doesn’t seem to have noticed this, and the book rattles along, slipping into parody and out of it again.

Generally, there’s a problem here with the fundamental ordinariness of sensibility on display in the book. We’re told several times how one of the heroes, Elphin, is a hero out of legend; we don’t get that sense from anything she says or does. Her dialogue is, if anything, notably uninteresting. It’s true that super-heroes are a pop phenomenon, but still at their best they transcend the mundane, and capture something imaginative. That never happens here. The book never touches the freewheeling imagination you need to mimic the best Marvel and DC books. Lacking any operatic emotions, any real sense of heroism or villainy, that lack of imagination is a killer.

Again, this isn’t to say that the book is unskillful. The prose is very slick, and within its limited tonal range it modulates itself quite nicely. And Grossman clearly has thought about his heroes and their nature, the key importance of their physical bodies in their powers and origins. He works thankfully unobtrusive Freudian touches into their stories — with parents absent, surrogate figures from an earlier generation of heroes are given mythic airs. It’s a clever, and convincing, bit of analysis.

The book is interesting, no doubt. But I can’t say that it becomes anything more than that. It’s not one of the best prose super-hero books I’ve read — not as good as Elliot S! Maggin’s Superman books, not as good as the best of the George R.R. Martin-edited Wild Cards anthologies, not as good as the surprising short fiction anthology Who Will Save Us Now? But it’s not a bad book. It does what it wants to do, and does it well. I just can’t help but feel that its sights were set too low; that there was a failure of sensibility, a failure of conception, somewhere along the line. Had it been more parodic, its failure to grasp what is most powerful in super-hero books would have been more acceptable. As it is, I can only say: it’s all right, if you like that sort of thing.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Readings 2K9: Crimson Shadows

Crimson Shadows
The Best of Robert E. Howard, Volume 1

When I was younger, I had a vague idea of Howard as a would-be tough guy, cranking out stories about barbarian hard men, militaristic and formulaic wish-fulfilment. There’s some truth to that image, but much that is wrong. And much that is left out; Howard seems to have suffered from clinical depression, for example, which shaped his life and his approach to the same. He knew and wrote about actual tough guys and guys who simply wanted to be tough; but although he believed the barbarian in humanity would ultimately triumph, he didn’t necessarily see it as a good thing. Howard, in short, was a much more fascinating figure, and fascinating writer, than I had supposed.

It helps, in reading this collection, that the key wrongness in the way I thought about Howard was the word “formulaic”. Howard occasionally wrote to formula, but he wasn’t formulaic that I can see; he made the formulas his own. And, frankly, much of the formula that we do see in his writings came about because he wrote material from which formulas were later derived; thus Kull, and Conan, and the barbarian swordsmen who followed. Howard wrote other kinds of fiction as well, much of it represented here — or, more precisely, he wrote in many different settings, though the adventure-fiction structure and tone was almost always the same, occasionally leavened by a greater sense of humour. But always there is a strong structure, always (even in the most comedic of stories) the almost homicidal sense of violence ready to burst out at any moment, always the swift relentless motion of the story ever onwards to bloody climax.

Technically, Howard could write taut, dramatic tales; often he didn’t reach this standard, but this book does a good job of selecting some of his most compelling work. You can feel the compulsions bubbling under the surface of the stories here, especially in his dark ages tales about Bran Mak Morn and the Picts. Howard researched his stories, and was strongly inspired by his sense of history — by the pseudo-Darwinian narratives of races rising and falling, of history as a tale of peoples climbing some evolutionary scale and then collapsing into nothingness. As I said, Howard believed the barbarian would triumph in the end; it’s a sort of historical nihilism, matching his Weird Tales companion H.P. Lovecraft’s cosmic nihilism.

Like Lovecraft, Howard was a racist, but for the most part that’s not directly reflected in these stories. Howard’s framework for thinking about races and peoples is clearly here, and, as in the case of Lovecraft, clearly influencing the kinds of fantasies and stories he imagines. It’s sublimated racism, in other words, which in this volume does not, by and large, break the surface. Gender politics, of course, is something else, and that — no surprise — is where Howard is weakest. 

The value of a book like this is in the way it makes a case for Howard, for all his flaws, as a writer worth taking seriously. That is, it presents Howard as somebody with a native sense for words; it makes a strong case for his ability to construct a sentence, to make it do what he wanted. The poems it presents are decent examples of what I mean — not vastly sophisticated, ballad-like, perhaps vaguely similar to Kipling or Chesterton (the latter of whom was a particular favourite of Howard’s), tremendously successful at stirring emotion or images in the mind of the reader. The point is not that Howard was a craftsman; he was, but my point is that he had something more than that.

This is not a perfect book, as Howard was not a perfect writer; but then he never had a chance to reach what for most writers would be considered maturity. It’s tempting to wonder whether it’s not time for a full-scale re-evaluation of Howard’s work. Lovecraft is, I think, becoming increasingly acceptable as a canonical writer; I think generally there’s a greater interest in American pulp writers. Could Howard be rescued as a writer worth studying? Maybe; maybe not; either way, he’ll be a writer worth reading, and a writer who will be read for a very long time. Books like this make the case that that’s a good thing.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

ByattBlogging Postscript: On Histories and Stories

This is a collection of lectures on the topic of storytelling. As with much of Byatt’s writing, it’s interesting both in its own right as criticism, and in what it says about her particular creative projects.

The first chapter, for example, is a consideration of the historical novel — how it has been viewed, examples of what has been done with the form, and what makes it important, especially in Britain. Byatt is strong on the value of historical fiction: “the aesthetic need to write coloured and metaphorical language, to keep past literatures alive and singing, connecting the pleasure of writing to the pleasure of reading.” The next chapter extends this discussion of the variety of pasts being created, and the voices being created; the ventriloquism which brings a past to life. (It is no surprise that Peter Ackroyd is discussed at length here.)

The next chapter considers the meta-narratives which frame a writer’s understanding of the world; Christianity, Newtonian physics, Darwinian evolutionary theory, the definitions of the world of which the writer is a part. Taking evolutionary theory as perhaps the most important for the present day, Byatt identifies a trend to the investigation of natural history, the discussion of the animal world, in several key (to her) novelists. This ends up as a consideration of Victorian thought and art, in the course of which Byatt discusses her own work in Angels & Insects. The book is discussed even further in the next chapter, which is about research and precision and, inevitably, language. Rather tenuously, Byatt links fiction’s alleged turn towards scientific accuracy with history and criticism’s turn towards ‘artfulness’. That’s arguably fair enough in the case of non-scholarly history, but much of academic history of the past generation or two has been marked, I think, by a move away from narrative. And to prove her point in terms of criticism, Byatt cites the puns found in a book by the critic Mary Jacobus; but the passages Byatt quotes seem merely trite, forced attempts to move from one subject to another or meaningless — perhaps anachronistic — attempts to avoid coming to grips with the writers Jacobus is trying to discuss.

In fairness, Byatt’s take on Jacobus is far from unmixed. But then she contrasts Toni Morrison’s Beloved to Melville and Poe, and I’m not sure she does the latter writers justice. Byatt specifically discusses colour symbolism — black and white — in these writers, and I’m not entirely convinced by her summation of their work. The symbolism is too uneasy, too multifarious, to be convincingly described or dismissed in a few sentences. (It probably doesn’t help that I thought Beloved was good, but not great.)

At any rate, Byatt then turns back to her own work, and it’s fascinating observing her discussion of her working procedure. She convincingly describes some of the moments of revelation common to writing — the points when suddenly things come together, and you realise you’ve become aware of something you’ve known all along. The points when something finds its voice, finds its form.

Which then leads into a chapter on storytelling and form, and European traditions with regard to story. Byatt here makes a firm distinction between tales, the romance tradition, and the novel, which is fair enough. But her discussion of storytelling involves, always, either classic stories — The Arabian Nights, The Manuscript Found in Saragossa — or self-consciously literary fiction: Salman Rushdie, Italo Calvino, Angela Carter. I found myself wishing that she’d move beyond this frame of reference to consider the output of Carter’s colleague Michael Moorcock, whose work covers a wide variety of storytelling forms — such as the pulp novel. What I mean is that I found myself wondering why, if Byatt wanted to talk about storytelling, she didn’t turn to the most prolific source of stories in the contemporary world — popular fiction, which, especially in the form of fantasy, is not only close to fairy-tale and myth in its plot structures, but also comes in a range of sophistication. Moorcock alone has written both potboilers and formally ambitious fantasy fiction; why not look at these things?

Byatt makes an interesting point in this chapter that tales have to do with death — or the avoidance of same. The story, she points out, is immortal; it outlives both reader and writer. It’s a good insight, but when Byatt goes on to try to contrast the tale with the literary story she runs into problems, and I think in part it’s because she’s missing a term in her argument; without the popular story, she can’t make things cohere. It’s no help that some her readings here are suspect; she refers to Tolkien, implicitly, as lacking “social density”, which suggests that she has not read The Lord of the Rings very closely at all (or else that she needs a more intuitively obvious phrase than “social density”). Byatt does, at the end of the chapter, bring in Terry Pratchett, and even calls him “one of the great modern storytellers”; one wishes she was able to present something of the context in which he writes, in the way in which she’s able to get across something of the intellectual background common to writers like Calvino and Calasso.

A chapter on “Ice, Snow, Glass” then follows, apparently because the book has reached a point at which an excursion into sheer symbolism is appropriate. Byatt considers this imagery in various writers and works, many of which have haunted her fiction even as the images of ice and glass have. Again, this piece is fascinating as a window onto Byatt’s own writing.

The conclusion, “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” is about The Arabian Nights, and its manifestations in writers like Proust and Rushdie. It’s a brief meditation on storytelling, the endless immortal death-challenging urge. It’s a nice coda, a subversion of the idea of endings; a justification of storytelling and life against destruction and death. It’s the proper way to conclude the book, an ending about endings and stories that do not end. If the book has begun with sophisticated modern and postmodern takes on the novel, it must end here, with pure romance, with tales interlinked with tales — in a structure more complex, told often with language more elaborate, than the literary novels with which this volume began. Byatt has worked her way back to the ocean of story (to borrow a term from another vast collection of narratives), and so we are released, as her critical writing ends, to find our way ourselves back into the fictions which she has just discussed; perhaps with better understanding, perhaps more aware, at any rate made joyful at, the freedom of all fictions.

  • Other posts in the ByattBlogging series may be found here.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Readings 2K9: Crooked Little Vein

Crooked Little Vein
by Warren Ellis

This is not, in an absolute sense, a good book. The characters are stock and underdeveloped. The plot is episodic. The lead character wraps up his problems with help from minor characters who are introduced out of nowhere, by chance and not by any natural evolution of the plot. That wrapping-up still doesn’t make sense in the context of the plot up to that point (we have to assume that a character consistently depicted as being above the law is going to be taken down by the LAPD). Basically, the structure of the novel is rudimentary, an excuse for a series of sardonic riffs on the theme of the perversity of the modern world.

They’re good riffs, though. Whether that’s enough depends on what you want out of the book. This is essentially an exercise in style, and certainly as style it’s flashy and funny. It’s the kind of short, fast read you can take between longer and heavier novels, and feel refreshed. If that’s what you want, here it is. Hey, I enjoyed it.

The story is simple: a down-at-heels private eye gets hired by the shadow government of the United States to find the secret Constitution, which has the magic power of resetting society’s clock back to the eighteenth century. According to the secret government, the perverts on the internet are getting out of hand, and the reset button must therefore be pushed. The private eye sets off on an odyssey across the United States, and soon meets up with a sexually voracious sidekick who promises to be his guide through modern degeneracy. Not that she really does much guiding; it’s a linear story, through a series of, basically, odd sexual activities and fetishes. The book is short enough that it doesn’t quite get repetitive, but there’s nothing particularly insightful about the presentation of the sex, nothing clever done with the fetishes; they’re just there, a novelistic equivalent of a freak show.

There’s not much of a theme in the book. The main characters quickly decide that the present day, in all its freakishness, is better than the way things were, and decide to double-cross their employers. This would be more convincing if the characters — or the novel — displayed a greater understanding of the way things were, or more thoughtfully contrasted then and now. Come to that, the understanding of the present day seems oddly rudimentary; the conclusion of the book suggests that The Internet Will Save Us All, which comes off as about as facile as it sounds.

All in all, there’s a sense that the book is a cleverly-disguised lecture, or, more precisely, a disguised editorial. It’s entertaining, but light on drama and depth. It’s quick and funny, and if that’s what you want, that’s what you’ll get.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Readings 2K9: April summation

The Friends of the Westmount Library had their biannual book sale on the weekend of April 25th. Here’s what I found there:

Charles N. Brown and Jonathan Strahan, editors — The Locus Awards
Hal Duncan — Vellum
Austin Grossman — Soon I Will Be Invincible
Eric McCormack — First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women
Blake Morrison — The Justification of Johann Gutenberg
Robert Payne — The Fathers of the Western Church
Arthur Quiller-Couch — Selected Short Stories
Diane Setterfield — The Thirteenth Tale
Tom Shippey — J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century
Robert Silverberg — The Gate of Worlds
Milton Singer, editor — Krishna: Myths, Rites, and Attitudes

All of which means that I’ve added more books to the apartment this month than I read. I also bought Crooked Little Vein earlier this month, so I added twelve books in total. I read ten over the course of the month, but only five of those were books I had here rather than taken out from one library or another. So seven books up in total.