Monday, June 22, 2009

Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury, campaigning to save California libraries, quoted in the NY Times:

“Libraries raised me,” Mr. Bradbury said. “I don’t believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries because most students don’t have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.”

If only our librarians cared as much about our libraries as their users.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

How spake Zarathustra?

For my morning and evening walks to and from work, I'm currently listening to Librivox's Thus Spake Zarathustra. I'm a huge fan of Librivox and use it all the time. All the readers are volunteers and all the recordings are in the public domain. It is the ultimate well-meaning, liberal, education-loving freak's (ie me) dream site.

I'm struggling a little with Zarathustra though. It does seem churlish to criticise, in view of everything I've said above, but nonetheless some of the readings are hard work. There seems to be a general sense of portentousness about the delivery, with everything declaimed and every sentence falling at the end. At times, the repetitiveness of the rhythms becomes boring, and Thus Spake Zarathustra is many things - perplexing, bamboozling, profound, witty, silly, provocative - but it should never, ever be boring. There is one reader in particular, and sadly he reads more chapters than anyone else, who is virtually unlistenable. He seems to dispense entirely with breath for most of the readings, relying purely on a croak from deep in his throat. Ghastly.

I don't know what it is with Nietzsche. I think he's a lot more playful than most people give him credit for; he's generally taken for some dour, half demented ranter. I think Zarathustra should be read with bounce and zip and elan and - yes, humour.

Thus spake Conoboy.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Fiction, non-fiction and the ribald whole

In an interview in 2005, Lorrie Moore talked of the current phenomenon of memoir writing, which she considers may be the ‘cultural counterpart’ to that other current trend, reality television. Do they, she wonders, reflect the ‘priority we’re giving to the apparently true’? She goes on:

There is the desire of readers for Something that Really Happened; my ten-year-old feels this way. Things don’t hold his attention unless they are Actually True. This speaks, too, I think, to the failure of a voice to cast a spell. If prose can cast a spell we will listen to it no matter what it’s saying (and maybe decide afterward whether we like what it’s saying—how else could, say, Lolita work?) If a narrative uses language in a magical and enlivening way, we will listen to the story. But if the language doesn’t cast a spell, we will listen to it only if it is telling us something that actually happened. So in this way, there is a wider range of prose abilities in memoirs, it seems to me.

I think, extending the discussion beyond memoirs, there is a case that we are increasingly becoming concerned with all factual matters, a devotion to what Donald Barthelme described as the ‘hard, brown nut-like word’. Like the narrator of Barthelme’s story, I prefer ‘strings of language extend[ing] in every direction to bind the world into a rushing, ribald whole.’ But I think I’m becoming more unusual in that. My partner and I only usually watch television at the weekend and, when we do, it is invariably a documentary or non-fiction programme of some sort. We watch virtually no television drama. I simply don’t remember the last one we watched – Life on Mars, perhaps, but before that heaven knows. Only if there is nothing on do we resort to the fall-back – a film on DVD.

This is all very well. It’s a pattern that suits us. And yet there are times when I long for some drama. I hope there’s nothing on TV so we can watch a film instead, so we can get caught up in a fiction, something creative, something new. And it is this thirst for the imaginative that I think is dissipating.

It would be easy to go in for some cod psycho-sociology at this point. Kids today are never left to use their own imaginations, they are constantly stimulated and constant stimulation can only ever lead to stultification, like the drug user needing more and more gear to reach the same high. There’s probably something in that, although it feels simplistic. It is also clear that tastes have changed so that narrative is no longer the driving force, and storytelling has been compromised by the need for “action”. In modern films, so often we find that nothing actually happens. Sure, there are lots of events – chases, explosions, climax after climax – but nothing really happens, in as much as there no cycle of event-consequence-conclusion-change. And after all, this idea of repeated climaxes is a nonsense, but that is what we get. No film appears to be able to last longer than five minutes without some climactic event thrusting itself out of the screen towards you.

And that, perhaps, is the real problem. We seem to have developed this need to be enveloped in the action, as though we are somehow part of it, as though it is happening to us. Okay, that is what fiction has always done, from Robinson Crusoe onwards, but the relentlessness with which it is now pursued has made superfluous all those traditional elements of storytelling – characterisation, dialogue, narrative, even theme. Who can honestly apply any cogent theme to most films and, increasingly, novels written today? There are stand-out examples that do, of course, such as Crash, but Quantum of Solace? And the same can be said for novels, where action predominates.

But what is also happening, and this actually strikes me as a more dangerous threat to the novel than the gratuitous blood’n’action brigade, is that a cohort of writers is striking out against what I have been talking about in the above and creating their own, rarefied fictions. Theme? they say. Hell, yes. I’ve threaded theme through my work so tightly that the characters can’t breathe for it. Every single event works thematically on at least three different levels, sometime seven, eight or more. You’ll need a degree in metathemantics (a new word, to represent something so profound) just to be able to understand the titles of my books.

And off they float, these theme-merchants, into a world of their own where they can demonstrate their cleverness and leave the reader breathless at their wondrous abilities. In the course of time, these fictions become more and more manufactured, unreal. We see again and again those cliches of theme and symbolism which, for the practiced reader, help to unpick the author’s intent. What becomes evident is that theme becomes so pre-eminent it is increasingly driving plot: things happen only because it is important for the author that they do, in order to promote his or her message. Again, you might argue this has always been the case: Raskolnikov decides to murder someone because he – and Dostoevsky – wanted to explore the act, almost as an intellectual exercise; it is, essentially, a metaphysical McGuffin. Indeed so, but in these modern novels that manipulation of plot is being driven down into smaller and smaller fragments of action, not just the central conceit of the story, and every decision made by a character or every chance event seems to be driven by the author, to the extent that all semblance of realism has gone. It is as though these authors are creating their own authorly iconography, and the result is that their novels feel as mannered and inauthentic as a fourteenth century Russian icon. Because of this, because they do not reflect a reality with which the reader can connect, they cannot, in Lorrie Moore’s description, ‘cast a spell’. You can admire their artistry, perhaps even applaud their message, but they do not reach into the soul.

So we have this disparity: action-centred stories on the one hand and theme-driven novels on the other. It is too crude to characterise this as entertainment versus education, but there is an element of truth in it: the worthiness of JM Coetzee and his troupe is ultimately as boring as the brainlessness of Dan Brown. Neither approach is serving the novel well.

And in the void where good storytelling should reside, we look instead for entertainments where Something Really Happened. We watch instead documentaries and non-fiction programmes, and we read memoirs and follow reality TV. We’ve lost the ribald whole.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Who Will Run The Frog Hospital by Lorrie Moore

Who Will Run The Frog Hospital, Lorrie Moore’s novel from 1994, is a tragi-comic slice of small American life, one of those novels that mixes timeframes so that it is both a coming-of-age novel and a past-that-age novel, precisely in order to demonstrate that no such ‘age’ actually exists: life as process of disappointment, in other words, the slow retreat into submission.

All of which sounds grim, which Who Will Run The Frog Hospital most certainly is not. Moore has a light and deft touch and a way with narrative and, in the shape of Sils and Berie, the two young female leads, a couple of fascinating and engaging characters.

It is, though, an uneven book. Those passages relating Berie’s youth are excellent, but the novel also interweaves moments from Berie’s later life as she approaches forty, on a business trip-cum-holiday to Paris, working on a marriage that may already be irretrievably lost. These sections are essential to the theme of the novel, as we shall see later, but they don’t convince. They feel weak and flimsy, a story-by-numbers with cliched emotions and a down beat that feels too measured to be satisfying. It almost works, but not quite. ‘I feel his lack of love for me. But we are managing,’ Berie says at one point, and the quiet resignation is poignant, but overall this section can’t quite overcome the suspicion that it is manufactured in order to make a point.

The main story, however, where Berie is fifteen and, physically, a slow-developer (she composes elaborate joke routines about her flat-chestedness in the classic defence mechanism of deflecting attention by drawing attention) is engrossing and works beautifully. Her friend is Sils, a counterpoint to the gauche Berie, sexually confident, attractive, assured. The girls have an intense friendship, entirely platonic but nonetheless fringed by a latent sexuality that neither acknowledges or perhaps even recognises. They work in the Storyland theme park, where all the rides are inspired by fairy tales and where everything is possible and the future is only golden and perfect. Such will be the course of their lives, these girls believe, but of course life is darker than that. Sils becomes pregnant. Berie steals from the theme park in order to pay for an abortion. Retribution calls. Youthful idealism is confronted by reality.

Thus, the theme of the novel is set. We are in ‘that anteroom of girlhood’ where everything is still possible but, through the mind of the forty-year old Berie, unhappy in Paris, we also know that the future is an impoverished place, not worthy of the grand anticipation our childhood selves devote to it. There is a great deal of pathos to be had from such disjunctions of hope and experience, and Moore expertly reveals it, not least because of her deft use of counterpointing humour. She mingles comedy and melancholy in her work to great effect, something she recognised in a 2005 interview:

Well, [comedy and melancholy] involve the release of energy, I suppose. And yet they are also a kind of team, feeding each other and enlivening each other and becoming each other—one of those kinds of marriages. They compete for the discourse, then collapse on the sofa. They are both true. That is what I’m realizing more and more: that in most dichotomies each part is true.

Such dichotomies are what life is about. Everything is a continuum. Hope conquers all, Moore tells us, except time, because time unravels every ideal that sustains it. What we are left with, in Who Will Run The Frog Hospital, is a fragile slice of that hope, even as it dissolves into sufferance.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Approaching the blood meridian (4)

What is curious about Blood Meridian is the way that its violence has become accepted, even almost acceptable. Whatever McCarthy’s intention with the novel, it is as though, through his undoubted artistry and ability with words, he has bestowed a kind of acceptability on the aesthetic of violence. Indeed, this has been the case throughout his writing career. It is noteworthy, in reading criticisms of McCarthy, that the same selections from his texts are quoted in article after article: the murder of the child in Outer Dark; Lester Ballard mouthing lasciviously into the waxen ear of the female corpse he is raping in Child of God; the various outrageous misdemeanours of judge Holden in Blood Meridian; the charred remains of the cannibalised child in The Road and so on. It is as though a legion of critics are mesmerised by this violence, by the audacity of an author in claiming for high literature the viscera and malevolence of the schlock horror novel.

Denis Donohue describes setting Blood Meridian as a text for a course in Aesthetics and Aesthetic Ideology because he wanted to counter what he perceived as the current trend of reducing novels to the level of political manifesto and reaching, through them, ideological conclusions both about the text and its author. He chose Blood Meridian, he says, because its creative power seemed ‘to be at one with McCarthy's refusal to bring in a moral verdict on the characters and actions of the book.’ Donoghue’s point was that the experience of reading literature should not ‘consist in finding one’s prejudices confirmed’.

It is hard to argue with Donogue’s aims: didacticism in literature may be tedious, but it is scarcely more corrosive than didacticism in criticism. However, such is the power of McCarthy’s writing, and such is the mythology that appears to have built up around McCarthy’s mythology (metamythology?) it seems to me that there is a lack of rigour in debating the political, religious and social implications of his work. Certainly, a novel should not be reduced to an affirmation or negation of a critic’s prejudices; but nor should manifest failings be overlooked for fear of losing sight of the aesthetic. Aesthetics cannot work in isolation. Donoghue makes the point that McCarthy is describing a world ‘beyond good and evil’. This is undoubtedly true: there is no morality in Blood Meridian, so there can be no delineation of good and evil. What I have not yet grasped, however, is what this is telling us. As a reader, I read books both for entertainment value and for the message they impart to me. Although Donohue is right to say that we should not read in order to have our prejudices confirmed, when I consider my personal values, I can see that they have been heavily influenced by books. The Tin Drum, in particular, is the novel that changed my life. There is and there must be a connection between a reader and a book. It is not enough to simply deny, in the name of aesthetics, any discussion on the meaning of a novel.

So what is that meaning? I am aware that, thus far, I have been doing what I criticised one critic for, and listing the things Blood Meridian is not. The next stage is to consider what it is. The answer, it seems to me, lies in Thus Spake Zarathustra, which judge Holden so regularly bastardises, and the various gnostic texts and motifs and beliefs which are referenced throughout the novel. That's where the answers lie.

But what the answer is, that's anybody's guess.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Jhon Huston's Wise Blood

Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood is a most unusual book, which leaves me admiring and revolted at one and the same time. I've reviewed it here and referred to it on many occasions. And so, when I saw that the John Huston film version of 1979 had been re-released, I had to give it a go.

Well, it's every bit as odd as the novel. The opening credits set the scene perfectly, with a montage of wonderful photos of signs outside southern churches proclaiming the power of Jesus and the need for redemption and all that nonsense. There are spelling mistakes galore, wittily parodied by the credits, with the director being Jhon rather than John Huston. Apparently, most people didn't notice...

In an interview included in the DVD, Brad Dourif, who played Haze Motes, made the astonishing claim that Huston thought that Haze, at the end, was having an existential crisis. 'No,' Dourif finally said to him, 'I don't think that's right. I think he's finding God.' Huston didn't believe him but went away to think about it, and discussed it with the Fitzgeralds, who are, of course, O'Connor's literary executors and who knew her well. The next day Huston relented. 'God wins,' he said. But I find it astonishing to think that someone could read Wise Blood and not take it as anything but deeply religious. When filming was finished, apparently Huston, an atheist, said 'I think I've been had.' Remarkable.

Also in the interview extras, Michael Fitzgerald repeats the story I've read before that, while she was writing Wise Blood, she read Oedipus Rex (actually, Fitzgerald's father was doing a translation of it while O'Connor was living with the family). She was so struck with the story that she re-worked and re-wrote Wise Blood to include the famous self-blinding section at the end. I was going to suggest that this shows the weakness in Wise Blood: while, in Oedipus Rex, the self-blinding is a natural response to the horrors that had preceded it, in Wise Blood it seems a disproportionate act. But I've changed my mind on that. After all, Haze did kill the preacher. Therefore, it is a logical (at least in fundamentalist Christian terms) response.

But nonetheless, I think this does suggest a problem that both the novel and the film share. It's one of pace, I think, of the gradual unfolding of events. What should be happening as Haze undergoes his crisis (existential or otherwise) is that he gradually becomes more and more unhinged, and we can see that he is losing the battle with himself and his demons. But in both the book and the film he starts off pretty much crazed already, and carries on in the same way throughout. There isn't enough shift in the dynamics of the piece, in the pacing or the drama, to reveal the torment he is undergoing. Thus, when he finally does a desperate act - the murder - it lacks impact.

What Huston's film does do impressively, though, is reveal the humour in O'Connor's story. I must confess that I always get so angry when I'm reading it that some of that wicked, waspish humour fails to register. But Huston brings it out deliciously. In this, he is helped by a terrific cast. Harry Dean Stanton is suitably shady as Asa Hawks and Amy Wright's portrayal of Sabbath Lily is a brilliant mixture of innocent and minx. I wasn't quite so convinced by Dan Shor's Enoch Emory, but then I am not convinced by Enoch Emory full stop, and I think it would be difficult to make him that credible.

All in all, it's a very faithful version, and a fascinating film. Definitely worth a look.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

That burning need

...civilisation can increase, and at times actually has increased, the temptation to behave in a civilised way. It is only those who hope to transform humans who end up by burning them, like the waste product of a failed experiment.

Christopher Hitchens.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

The approach to the blood meridian (3)

Sara L. Spurgeon agrees with Cant that the novel is explicitly mythmaking. She sees it as an ‘origin myth – a sacred tale recounting how the world came to be.’ She argues:

Whether the stuff of creation may be shaped to man’s will, I would argue, is one of the central questions of the novel, implicating American attitudes regarding man’s conquest of nature, the relationship of Anglo America to any non-Anglo peoples, and America’s imperial mission especially as it was imagined in relation to the West.

I disagree. Spurgeon is adducing intent from action, and reaching the wrong conclusion. In the quote I have just given, she is quoting in turn from the opening of Blood Meridian, and certainly the passage in question sets the tone of the novel, making clear that we are exploring man’s relationship with nature and, in particular, the wilderness. And yet, such is the one-sided nature of the battle McCarthy portrays, it seems quite clear that he is not ultimately interested in men or the affairs of men. There is, for him, no debate about man’s conquest of nature: it isn’t possible. It is, then, a central fact of the novel, but not one of its central questions. Spurgeon, though, remains fixed on the idea that McCarthy is deconstructing notions of mythmaking. She says:

McCarthy moves Blood Meridian through the dark and disordered spaces of what Lauren Berlant terms the National Symbolic, but unlike the familiar icons of mythic frontier tales, McCarthy’s characters seek no closure, nor do they render order out of the chaos of history. Rather, they reveal the chaos at the heart of history and the myths we make from it. The novel functions on the level of mythmaking and National Fantasy as an American origin story, a reimaging upon the palimpsest of the Western frontier the birth of one of our most pervasive National Fantasies – the winning of the West and the building of the American character through frontier experiences.

I agree that the characters seek no closure – they remain throughout curiously ambivalent about their respective fates – but I would argue that, although some element of deconstructing the mythologies of the west is certainly evident here, there must still be something more to explain the level of violence incurred in Blood Meridian. One way, perhaps, to approach an understanding of this novel is not to look at the myths that McCarthy inverts, but those he maintains. We have already seen, in the quote from Mr Johnson in Cities of the Plain, that McCarthy accepts that the west was not in itself inherently responsible for the culture of violence that grew up around it: it was an incidental conjuction of the migration of dangerous men and the invention of easy and cheap weaponry. Yet McCarthy otherwise perpetuates the myths surrounding the arrival of this new community of western pathfinders. He would have us believe that the west grew organically on the backs of these men, speculators (Blood Meridian is set in 1849, the year of the Gold Rush) and opportunists, and while the baser of men’s instincts (greed, violence) were to the fore, those political and social foundations we might recognise in society were largely absent. This is not so. Frederick Jackson Turner, writing in 1893 on the significance of the frontier in American history, was emphatic on the role of commerce in developing the west as we know it. He wrote:

In this advance, the frontier is the outer edge of the wave – the meeting point between savagery and civilization. Much has been written about the frontier from the point of view of border warfare and the chase, but as a field for the serious study of the economist and the historian it has been neglected.

He explained further: ‘The buffalo trail became the Indian trail, and this became the trader’s ‘trace;’ the trails widened into roads, and the roads into turnpikes, and these in turn were transformed into railroads.’ Commerce, then, was a key driver in the development of the west. And again:

Thus civilization in America has followed the arteries made by geology, pouring an ever richer tide through them, until at last the slender paths of aboriginal intercourse have been broadened and interwoven into the complex mazes of modern commercial lines; the wilderness has been interpenetrated by lines of civilization growing ever more numerous.

Thus, Turner demonstrates that there was a clear human, political, economic dimension to the west. This does not translate into the typical western myth, and nor does it to McCarthy’s myth. For example, in Blood Meridian he states:

The Americans might have traded for some of the meat but they carried no tantamount goods and the disposition to exchange was foreign to them. And so these parties divided upon that midnight plain, each passing back the way the other had come, pursuing as all travelers must inversions without end upon other men’s journeys.

McCarthy is again promulgating this myth of the wanderer, of the traveller. ‘They rode on’ appears every few pages in Blood Meridian, and in the Border Trilogy, too, even though it is set in the second half of the twentieth century. Those travellers may, as Sørensen claims, be on a katabatic journey, but such is the hopelessness of their plight it is difficult to argue this convincingly. So what are they doing? The overriding aesthetic in Blood Meridian is one of violence. It is simply saturated in it. The characters, virtually without exception, are driven by aggression. Patrick W. Shaw, in his analysis of the violence in Blood Meridian, relates this to Erich Fromm’s two modes of aggression – benign and malignant – the latter of which is found only in humans and is symptomatic, in Fromm’s thesis, of our existential alienation. It causes us to visit violence on each other for no particular reason and, further, to gain satisfaction from that violence. In short, Shaw concludes, ‘malignant aggression defines the human animal.’ From this, Shaw then suggests that in Blood Meridian:

[McCarthy] elaborately fictionalises the syllogism that underlies Fromm's psychology of human violence: malignant aggression dictates human culture; and by accepting the human-ness of violence one can avoid intellectual and physical servitude, albeit the cost of such autonomy will most probably be horrific.

There is merit to this discourse. The potentiality for violence in man is well-known and the capacity for evil to infest a group psyche is made clear in Nazi Germany or Pol Pot’s Cambodia or Rwanda or any number of human horror stories. Thus, Blood Meridian could indeed be argued to be an analysis of, at the very least, the inherent aggression of human beings. But this is to assume that the worst must always prevail. This is to assume that evil will always, perforce, dominate good. And yet we know this is not the case. For every Adolf Hitler there is an Oskar Schindler; for every judge Holden there is a Raymond Rambert who, at the very moment when he could finally escape the plague city in Camus’s The Plague, places the common good above his own self-preservation and remains to fight. Good and evil are not unique to themselves; they are, always, in binary opposition to one another. Except, it seems, in the blood meridian. Therefore, one must look further than simple human nature to understand this novel.