Thursday, December 29, 2011

Search engine queries

It’s always interesting to see what search engine queries have brought people to this blog. For a long time I was getting hits for “busty ephemeral woman” which made no sense to me. This, though, seems to have fallen out of fashion of late – that’s ephemerality for you, I suppose.

A strikingly consistent theme appears to be students who are looking for a way not to have to bother reading books for themselves.

in cosmopolis does eric packer have a breakdown while cutting his hair
Google: how does the novel cosmopolis end
Google: what two times do father and son wrestle in A silver Dish
Google: was "intruder in the dust" written in first person
Google: how does gap creek end


Others just type their class questions in verbatim in the hope that the web will spew out their essay for them:

WHAT DOES "WHY SHOULD WE BUILD OUR HAPPINESS ON THE OPINIONS OF OTHERS, WHEN WE CAN FIND IT IN OUR OWN HEARTS" MEAN?
What are two themes in Ron Rash's Saints at the River?
comment on narrative technique in james fenimore cooper's the last of the mohicans
Google: does the use of collage work in the indian uprising
Google: what does thelma j. shinn mean by characters are the physical grotesques and physical afflictions


This one even leaves in the question number:

4. Describe the personalities of Deanna and Eddie In the Prodigal Summer


And this one, I suspect, is the title and course number of one reader’s new class:

Google: articulate art 7030


Sometimes, you simply can’t understand why a particular search would have returned this particular site as a possible answer.

Bing.com: geological pseudomorphosis
Bing.com: SW1P 3DW mobile phone store in London
Google: "Entry Taken from a Medical Encyclopedia" analysis
Google: barn owl eros poem


Occasionally you get some queries that are quaintly stream-of-consciousness in their use of language:

what all terrible things were done to african americans because of recism
what do you think cormac mccarthy believes is to be made of suttree when all is said and done


Some are pleasingly honest:

Google: the sense of an ending don't understand it please explain


I love the postmodernist possibilities arising from the mash-up of structuralism and transcendentalism suggested by these similar enquiries:

Google: barthe of the scrivener story
Google: barthes by the scrivener


Likewise, a humourous novel death-match appears to have been lined up in this query:

confederacy of dunces vs catch 22


And finally, the simply baffling:

Google: adrian has sex with veronica's mother?

I know that this relates to Julian Barnes’s The Sense of and Ending, but is this the best constructed query the searcher could think of?

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Slim Slow Slider

I've been listening to Astral Weeks a lot recently. I lost my copy ages ago and finally found it (inside another CD box), and every since I've been making up for lost time by playing it again and again.

It's a magnificent album. Every track is superb. The last track, though, is a marvel. Slim Slow Slider is a slice of horrible beauty. As a conclusion to a complex album it couldn't be better. It's also, I suspect, a brilliant example of ex tempore storytelling. Certainly, the recording of the album was done in a freeform way, with Morrison allowing his musicians to follow his lead.

Slim Slow Slider is a song about a lost love. But it morphs into something very dark, and we realise the girl in the song is using drugs. Near the end, Morrison sings "I know you're dyin' babe, and I know you know it too." It's a remarkable shift, but entirely fitting. It flows perfectly from the music. Immediately, there is a great depth to the song. And, having given us that shattering conclusion, the song ends, amost literally with a shudder. The music rumbles to a halt. It is a perfect ending.

Apparently, when recording this ending, it went on for ten minutes or so, but it was all cut in the editing process. A good thing, too. It is the best ending of any song I know. It is horrifying.

Friday, December 16, 2011

More Hitch

Here's Hitch, in Letters to a Young Contrarian:

we are mammals, and the prefrontal lobe (at least while we wait for genetic engineering) is too small while the adrenaline gland is too big [to be able to change human nature for the better]. Nonetheless, 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 burning them, like the waste product of a failed experiment.


Nothing else to add to that.

Christopher Hitchens

I'm not much of a one for idols (Donald Duck and Oscar Matzerath excepted) and nor am I one to follow role models, but Christopher Hitchens would come close. Professional contrarian, he simply argued what he argued, with eloquence and reasoning and knowledge, and refused to bow to convention or the accepted wisdom or the shrill voices of authority. Even when he was wrong, as he often was, at least he was engagingly wrong. In a bland world of Camerons and Milibands (and increasingly, alas, Obamas), we need more Hitchenses, not fewer.

He'll be up there now on a cloud, telling God he's a figment of his own imagination...

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Vermeer's Women

I often write critically on here of a strand of modern English literature, exemplified by On Chesil Beach or The Sense of an Ending, which is small in scale and pores over the detail and ramifications of what may appear to be minor incidents or episodes. It’s a mostly unfair criticism, I concede: to criticise for being small in scale a novel which deliberately sets out to be small in scale is a fallacious argument. The approach of such novels is clear: the authors aim to examine, in almost forensic detail, small events or individual characters, and from that exploration to extrapolate some wider meaning. It’s a valid approach. It’s not my preference, but that’s beside the point.

I was put in mind of this at the weekend when I visited the superb exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, Vermeer’s women: secrets and silence. The storytelling power of the paintings in this exhibition is immense: one looks at these paintings and is filled with wonder, with questions, with a longing to know more, to enter that world and experience what the people in the paintings are experiencing. All of it is done on a small canvas – often literally so, Vermeer’s The Lacemaker, in particular, is little more than a foot square. The paintings depict small moments, with very few characters, offering tantalising glimpses into another world.

There is much that storytellers and, in particular, short story writers, can learn from these paintings. Their intimacy helps to etablish such a bond with the viewer that the characters of the individuals come across clearly. One looks, for example, at the young girl in The Lacemaker, bent over her craft with a look of intense concentration, and sees immediately what is important: her hands, beautifully in focus, working on the intricate detail of her work, and the luminous, almost abstract tangle of threads with which she is working. Nothing else matters in this scene, and Vermeer therefore blurs it, relegates it to the background. His – and therefore our – concentration on the story’s core is total.



And these paintings tell stories. But they don’t do it in a flat, obvious, two-dimensional way. There is nothing predictable in the scenes depicted by these master storytellers of the past. Rather, a ravishing sense of mystery pervades them. Nothing is ever straightforward. What is in the letter the young girl is reading in Gerard ter Borch’s Young Woman with a Glass of Wine, Holding a Letter in her Hand that makes her so despondent?



Exactly who or what is the child outside the window in Jacobus Vrel’s Woman at a Window, Waving at a Girl? Is it a ghost? Or simply a child playing? The alacrity with which the woman has arisen, as suggested by the curious angle of her chair, suggests something more sinister, but we simply don’t know.


It is mysterious, thought provoking. Often, what look like straightforward domestic scenes are not. Further examination suggests a subtext we don’t know and can only guess at.

This is the stuff of short stories, the gradual revelation of some hidden truth, the realisation that what is happening off the page is as important as what is on it. Think of Hills Like White Elephants, for example, with its never explicitly mentioned subtext of the girl’s abortion. Or Flannery O’Connor’s repeated search for redemption in her stories. Or the relationships between fathers and sons in A Silver Dish.

The paintings in this exhibition are the forebears of our modern short stories. They are beautifully enigmatic. The exhibition finishes in mid-January: go along if you can.