Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Our American Podsnap

Since Trump captured the presidency of the United States (you could not say he won by any merit of his own, and in fact Hilary Clinton has now a significant lead in the popular vote), I've been wondering if there was a literary clue to the reasons for this mess.

Well, Dickens has a word for part of it: Podsnappery.

There are, of course, many reasons for this distressing loss, many of them deplorable: resurgent white nationalism, racism, misogyny, and plain bigotry, the failure of neoliberalism on the political left and right, and these things are deeply enmeshed. But given that the US electoral system gives undue weight to votes in certain states, we must surely look to the edge cases, the margins, to detect the reasons for the swings on both sides, and here Dickens presents us with Podsnappery.

I have wondered why voters in a democracy, furnished not just with the facts and opinion of the media, but with the candidate's own words, could make a decision so fatal to the interests of the nation, not to mention the world. Some of them, poor, white, not college educated and rural, mired in the slow decay of their living standards and education, weary of false hope, were yet grasping at political straws. But a good many were neither poor nor disadvantaged, and the question is how against all good reason they could vote for a less than competent property speculator, TV star, and populist, with a taste for commercial fraud, insults, sexual assault, and unrepentant lying. The answer is: Podsnappery.

Merriam-Webster helpfully defines Podsnappery as: "an attitude toward life marked by complacency and a refusal to recognize unpleasant facts."

So Dickens describes Mr. Podsnap, the namesake of this attitude:
Mr Podsnap was well to do, and stood very high in Mr Podsnap's opinion. Beginning with a good inheritance, he had married a good inheritance, and had thriven exceedingly in the Marine Insurance way, and was quite satisfied. He never could make out why everybody was not quite satisfied, and he felt conscious that he set a brilliant social example in being particularly well satisfied with most things, and, above all other things, with himself.
Thus happily acquainted with his own merit and importance, Mr Podsnap settled that whatever he put behind him he put out of existence. There was a dignified conclusiveness--not to add a grand convenience--in this way of getting rid of disagreeables which had done much towards establishing Mr Podsnap in his lofty place in Mr Podsnap's satisfaction. 'I don't want to know about it; I don't choose to discuss it; I don't admit it!' Mr Podsnap had even acquired a peculiar flourish of his right arm in often clearing the world of its most difficult problems, by sweeping them behind him (and consequently sheer away) with those words and a flushed face. For they affronted him.
Here we have, I think, the refusal to recognize Trump for what he is, a serial liar, a privileged set of failures in search of validation. In the fortress of his (and her) satisfaction, the American Podsnap can safely ignore inconvenient facts, like Trump's contempt for facts, his shady dealings, his praise for tyrants, his promotion of cronies and bigots, the advantages his schemes will confer on the already wealthy, while forcing the nation further into debt. The American Podsnap can ignore sexism and racism. The American Podsnap can ignore the harms that Trump's position on taxes and healthcare will inflict on the poor.

Many have sought change in the American political system, but many of those in positions of privilege who nevertheless choose Trump are content to invoke change for it's own sake, with no thought of the consequences to the world, or others. The issues are swept behind them, so many exaggerations, mean words and tweets, the inconvenience of human rights, inequality and globalization, climate change, mere unpleasantries.
Mr Podsnap's world was not a very large world, morally; no, nor even geographically: seeing that although his business was sustained upon commerce with other countries, he considered other countries, with that important reservation, a mistake, and of their manners and customs would conclusively observe, 'Not English!' when, PRESTO! with a flourish of the arm, and a flush of the face, they were swept away.
It remains to be seen what else may be swept away in the wake of a Trump administration -- and what may be recovered afterwards. The last thing to do now is lose faith in democracy or the virtues of the republic. But what Dickens returned to, from Bleak House to Our Mutual Friend, is that society is not singular, and that the Podsnaps cannot isolate themselves in their small worlds from injustice or folly. Perhaps now we need the novelist's satire to pierce their complacency, before that reckoning is due.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Unfinished, not unread

I firmly believe that writers should be readers, that reading is an act of faith in writing and essential to the craft.

And while I dislike leaving a book unfinished, it sometimes happens that, due to work, writing, or other contingencies, a book has to be set aside. Sometimes, this is because a book is dull, unreadable, or impossible, but mostly not.

At the moment, I'm coming close to the end of a revision of A Hangman for Ghosts, and so I have less time than usual for reading. But, as a record of my efforts, here are three partial reviews of three books started and left behind, through no clear fault of their own.

The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton

I owe a significant debt of allegiance to this, an historical novel, also a literary mystery, by a New Zealand author. It is a considerable work, with a deep and complex narrative, rich structure, and sensitive voice. It probably deserves greater attention that I could spare at the time.

Catton's model for the Victorian multi-plot novel, however, is not Dickens but George Eliot. Middlemarch springs to mind, for the breadth interaction and the close attention to the minutia of human interaction. The danger here, for Catton, is that much like Eliot she often describes the secret key, the inner nature of her characters, in subtle terms, but – unlike Eliot – she cannot quite reflect the inner character in their outer actions.

The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro

A literary fantasy by a significant author. Certainly there is something haunting and evocative about his post-Roman Britain, a land where fantastical beasts and terrors are real, and where the culture is as contained and occasionally fearful as the upper-classes of England before the Second World War, or in 1930s Shanghai. But there is, I think, a limit to the effectiveness of Ishiguro's rigorously affectless prose. His characters may have fenced off their memories and feelings, but in a world of magic and looming strangeness, should their feelings also be fenced off so effectively from us?

The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss

Completing the move to more commercial fantasy, The Name of the Wind is engaging, highly readable, a perfect traveling companion (which is how I started reading it). The fictional world suggests depth and interest, and the work is well-written, occasionally poetic, which serves it well. Unlike Ishiguro, however, Rothfuss does not quite grasp the mindset of the pre-technological, mythic era he describes, and occasionally lapses into odd anachronisms, or drops modern phrases ("Okay" is particularly jarring) into his dialogue. If Rothfuss has embraced the need to make his imagined world coherent and believable, it seems to have been imposed from the outside rather than growing from an inward imaginary.

But, as the book moves on, it begins to solidify some of the cliches that it appears at first to eschew, and attention wanes. The hero at first becomes a Harry Potter-esque magical prodigy, complete with a visible physical tell, is then violently orphaned, then finds his way to the University (of magic – which operates more like a modern American college than a medieval school), and then teaches a lesson to the stuffy and insular faculty, and so on. This may indeed be an "adult Harry Potter", but others, such as A Wizard of Earthsea or The Magicians sequence, have made more original work of this.

Since this book is still unfinished, the summary is partial and unfair. My biggest hope is that eventually Rothfuss will begin to unwind the tropes he summons.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Prague Cemetery - Umberto Eco

The main character—it would be too much to say he is the protagonist—of Umberto Eco's novel The Prague Cemetery is flatly despicable. This is not to suggest that Simone Simonini is an anti-hero; he is simply a hateful man, a murderer, misanthrope, misogynist, opportunist, glutton and forger, whose cynical masterwork, the racist slander of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, is one of the bricks in the foundation of the greatest mass murder of the 20th Century.

The Prague Cemetery has particular relevance today, as crimes of hatred and the politics of bigotry are on the rise, for the theme of the novel, amidst all the riot of detail and incident, is not only hatred but the generation and circulation of the fictions that support and validate it.

Having said that, it is not easy to analyse the roots of Simonini's hatred, except that he is brought up at the table of a bigoted, autocratic grandfather in isolation from other children. This is enough to explain why he is repulsed by women and yet obsessed with food, and lacks any sympathy for other human beings. Simonini inherits his grandfather's antisemitism, but racial hatred is only one aspect of his contempt for humanity, which manifests itself in his willingness to betray and murder, preferably—though not always—by remote means. Eco illustrates not so much the banality of evil as how bland and matter-of-fact such evil is; how the absence of empathy is also an absence of self-reflection. Perhaps in response to this, Eco introduces an element of psychological depth in Simonini's attempt to puzzle out his apparent split-personality. One of his disguises, as the clerical Abbe Dalla Piccola takes on a narrative life of his own, but this suggests not so much psychological complexity as the way a hollow man like Simonini assumes and discards false identities at will.

With characteristic verve, Eco drives Simonini, the only fictional character, through a gallery of late 19th Century historical figures: soldiers, terrorists, spies, agitators, propagandists, extremists, anarchists, fraudsters and opportunists. It's something of a treat for the reader to check any of the monstrous and extraordinary events Eco describes in Wikipedia to find that they are all historically accurate. The plot therefore is somewhat episodic, and the whirl of conspiracies, plots, counter-plots, frauds and intrigues can be exhausting to follow. In all of this Simonini goes relatively unscathed, whereas a significant few of his associates end up dead in a sewers beneath his apartments. It is in the conflict between radicals and reactionaries, in the clash of regimes, that Simonini plies his trade: false intelligence, fabricated conspiracies. Eco is at his most deft in illustrating how these falsehoods are truly nothing new, but plagiarized, copied, re-circulated. The old lies need no innovation, only selective editing, because they merely reflect to the reader and validate what their prejudices and politics demand.

Antisemitism is Simonini's masterpiece, but without asserting equivalence we could also draw parallels with the anti-muslim hysteria of Donald Trump or homophobia. Forgeries and fictions, in The Prague Cemetery, stand very close together. Where hateful forgeries are joined with state power or ideologies that validate themselves through violence, they turn monstrous. We need no more illustrations of that. What we need are more complex, self-aware fictions like Umberto Eco's, which can help us begin to unravel this pernicious combination. That's the real puzzle at the heart of this thriller. If The Prague Cemetery lacks anything, it lacks a figure like William of Baskerville, a skeptical humanist who can help us unpick the ramifications of the story and express our confusion. Instead, we're left alone as readers to do this, which is how the work might educate and entertain but bring us no closer to its loathsome principal character.

Friday, May 13, 2016

A thought about metaphors

All fictions, all fictional worlds, are to some degree extended metaphors. Recently, I've had reason to wonder how metaphors work, and that kind of work they do. We all sense that through the process of reading we not only gain an experience but discover, or recover, something. But what kind of meaning or knowledge is this, and how does the metaphor generate this response?

For a long time I was much taken with a remark by Umberto Eco: “What… is known is what a language has already said, and it is possible to recognize a metaphor that demands unprecedented operations, and the identification of semes not yet identified” (Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, 122), which suggest to me that the telling metaphor can produce a realization or sense of ideas not already known. Eco’s discussion is dense with pseudo-mathematic notation, but the idea that a metaphor that is not closed can prompt the identification of a new meaning is a powerful one.

More recently, I came across this remark by David Gelernter in his essay “Machines that Will Think and Feel” that metaphors and the experiences they encapsulate are indexed, arrayed in memory, by emotion:
The poet Rilke compares the flight of a small bird across the evening sky to a crack in a smooth porcelain cup. How did he come up with that? Possibly by using the fact that these very different things made him feel the same way.
Emotion is a hugely powerful and personal encoding-and-summarizing function. It can comprehend a whole complex scene in one subtle feeling. Using that feeling as an index value, we can search out—among huge collections of candidates—the odd memory with a deep resemblance to the thing we have in mind. 
A striking or difficult metaphor generates an complex emotion that in turn points to another related thought curated by the same subtle emotion. In other words, it is how we feel about a metaphor that brings other metaphors, other possibilities of meaning to mind.

Are these two notions aligned? The best metaphor draws us both beyond ourself and within ourself to find a connection between things we could not previously describe. This connection is an authentic discovery, forged through memory and imagination; it extends beyond what has already been said, the given properties of the language, to see things differently, to say what we can't yet say, to connect and enrich our inner and outer worlds.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Sign of the Rose - on Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco, the scholar, semiotician, and writer, was a touchstone for me as both a theorist and practitioner, for what he wrote and how he thought about writing.

Some books, a handful over a lifetime perhaps, have the authentic power to change how we think, and I still remember reading my father's copy of The Name of the Rose while on holiday, in a car by the lake in the rain, through the long evenings in the High Country bach without TV, captivated by the mix of whimsey, mystery, medievalism, and ideas that this singular novel combined. The Name of the Rose is more than a mystery about a book, it traces the mystery of books themselves: how, why, and for what we might read, and why that matters. Its qualities are too much to contain in a single blog post, but it was compelling enough that I have long used The Name of the Rose as a measure of the kind of books I wanted to write: intelligent, atmospheric, and entertaining.

Years later, as I worked on my Masters dissertation on detective fiction, The Name of the Rose was an obvious choice, and it was then that I also began to delve into the other labyrinth of Eco's thought: semiotics and literary theory. His thinking was dense, sometimes mathematical, but I found in it also a rigor, not to mention a humor and humanity, absent from the linguistic vagaries and anti-humanism (not to mention the anti-realism) of the deconstructionists. Eco, to my mind, saw that the text was a machine for generating interpretations, that metaphor sparked in the friction between signifier and signified, that intertextuality was a labyrinth and that fictional worlds were grounded in a sort of encyclopedia. But that did not mean that any interpretation was viable, or that the map was also the terrain without reference to anything else. Perhaps because he was also an author, Eco's work was sensitive to the role of the reader and the writer, to the endless fascination and pleasures of story-making.

As I learnt from Eco, semiotics anchor reading and writing as clues anchor detection. And in honour of his methods, I will indulge in a little literary detection. The Name of the Rose (Il nome della rosa) is a fine and memorable title, but there is very little reference to it in the actual text (which deals with monks, libraries, heresies, witchcraft, murder, and hermeneutics, among other things), so what does the title allude to? It is attractive to think of Juliet's remark (a rose by any other name) as a kind of appeal to realism, but this hardly connects with the mystery. On the other hand, we have a labyrinthine library guarded by a blind librarian whose name happens to be Borges. Now, Jorge Luis Borges wrote two stories about a rose, and though one, "The Rose of Paracelsus", serves our purpose only indirectly, the other, "A Yellow Rose", ends on the same note of skepticism as The Name of the Rose:
Marino saw the rose as Adam might have seen it in Paradise, and he thought that the rose was to be found in its own eternity and not in his words; and that we may mention or allude to a thing, but not express it; and that the tall, proud volumes casting a golden shadow in a corner were not — as his vanity had dreamed — a mirror of the world, but rather one thing more added to the world.
The writer's rose, the semiotician's sign, the detective's clue: they refer to things but do not capture them, they are hints, allusions, pointers. Writing is not a mirror of the world, which persists beyond words, but our faltering attempt to trace it, the only knowledge we have to hold on to.

Farewell, maestro!

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

On genre fiction

Some remarks by the inestimable M. John Harrison on his blog propose that in the crowded market of genre writing, which ranges from fantasy and science fiction to mystery, history, horror, and crime, our writer's consciousness that we are writing within a genre (and presumably to a formula) leads us to strive too hard:
Why are genre writers so desperate to convince? Treat ’em mean keep ’em keen seems to be lost advice. The result is chapter after opening chapter of needy, to which the experienced reader is only going to react with contempt.
Readers, asserts Harrison,
know the weakness of your position. They’ve passed the groaning tables at the front of the shop. They’ve heard all your desperate lines.... What else can you show them? Even as they ask they’re walking on by, looking for someone who knows the product but has the dignity not to oversell it. 
The point has resonance. The commercial genres make for crowded shelves. Some writers are so attached to replicating what most succeeds in the genre (I'm thinking of epic fantasy) that they come only to replicate the experience they believe the reader most wants: the fantastical becomes routine. But other mysteries, like detection, seem to satisfy only in the reiteration of certain stages and tropes: the murder, the investigation, the reveal.

I've been tinkering for a long time with what might be called the fluid boundary between genre fiction and literature. What can you achieve within the bounds of genre, and what are the limits? Can a detective's story also read like a novel? Can a novel enclose a mystery without losing its other qualities? It's important to bear in mind that literary fiction, as defined by an emphasis on complex characterization, on realistic settings and action, on aesthetic language, is itself a genre, with only a marginal claim on preeminence.

What is the writing problem here? If it's a problem with writing to the formula, of adhering too closely to the conventions in the hope that recognition will equal sales in a saturated marketplace, then that's a worthy and valid challenge. But I wonder about the bigger question: I was once asked what happens when the detective becomes "novelistic"? Would the mystery seize to function or capture our interest if, for example, if the detective became a fully rounded character, no longer bound to the principle of investigation? What if, for example, we only cared about Commander Dalgliesh for his poetry?

But I think the question only holds if we valorize some quality of the literary genre as superior to the qualities of other genres, and seek that to the exclusion of others, which leads us into the same formulaic round as before. So Harrison's answer, knowing the product and not overselling it, keeping ourselves open to the challenge of writing well while quietly acknowledging whatever conventions we choose, is at once our answer and our first task.

And so, for what it's worth, here are the first lines of A Hangman for Ghosts:
A woman was shrieking in the cells when the hangman and the surgeon met inside the gate of old Sydney Gaol.

Friday, December 11, 2015

On Viriconium

M. John Harrison's Viriconium sequence rightly stands as a landmark in literary fantasy, although to the new reader it might be difficult to tell why. This is not to say the Viriconium is not a brilliant, significant work; it is, but it is also a puzzle, a challenge, which subverts the narrative unities of the genre, of fiction, even.

The puzzle begins with the collection itself: it is a sequence only in the loosest sense, being comprised of three novels and a number of short stories, published and composed over many years, and presented not entirely in chronological order. The stories are haunting, sometimes elliptical. The novels form a rough narrative arc, but the whole effect is not that of a traditional fantasy trilogy, and more one of recursion and retelling, a revisiting and revising of the history and place that is Viriconium.

To identify the setting, then: Viriconium is a city, sometimes the centre of an empire, perhaps the world's last, located on the far edge of human time, in the Evening Cultures that follow from the environmentally devastating period of the Afternoon Cultures. This suggests a science-fantasy, perhaps even of the dying earth variety, but the world is too indistinct to support that notion entirely. In fact, Virconium is more like an  urban fantasy, an impossible city, an abstract compilation of London, Rome, Paris, Berlin, York, Venice, with its European street names and imprecise architecture. And although Harrison deploys many archaic technologies and weapons (toxic power-knives, combat airships) the era and level of technology is fluid, anachronistic, indefinite.

This same fluidity characterizes the narrative as it expands. The first novel, The Pastel City, is probably closest in form to the science fantasy, and roughly follows the conventions of a quest fantasy: there is a hero (teagus-Cromis), a conflict (The War of the Two Queens), a quest against the enemy in the north. But by the second novel, which ostensibly addresses the aftermath of the first, the quest is less heroic, the threat more metaphysical, the protagonist confused and cynical. And although the final novel replays some of the tropes of the first (the metaphysical plague, the faltering rescue), it has become a matter between artists, entertainers and policemen, rather than swordsmen, and the events of the first novels are touched on only as the most distant memories of allusions.

Well, as Harrison warns us, in a phrase that might be taken as a talisman: "All queens are not Mammy Vooley.... All heroes are not Ignace Retz." His characters constantly reprise and return to archetypal roles (queen, swordsman, magus, dwarf), as though playing with the masks of the hero, and yet never entirely fulfill them, or indeed lose their own identity in the effort, as Cellur, the immortal, alien maker of mechanical birds, forgets even his own identity across the vast stretch of time the novels allude to.

Indeed, memory is the basis on which Harrison constructs and deconstructs his city, likening it to a set of letters read and reread until the original meaning becomes unclear. In his important, elusive online essay "What Might it be Like to Live in Viriconium" Harrison argues against one of the standards of modern commercial fantasy: worldbuilding.
The apparent depth of the great fantasy inscapes—their appearance of being a whole world–is exhilarating: but that very depth creates anxiety. The revisionist wants to learn to operate in the inscape: this relieves anxiety and reasserts a sense of control over “Tolkien’s World.”
Viriconium cannot be mapped; it resists literalism. Hence, Viriconium steadily unbuilds, revises, breaks open its invented world. This is less a deconstruction, a taking the world apart, than a continuous revisioning, a seeing anew.

But one might ask, to see what anew? Defamiliarisation is a process, not a statement, so what does the work as such say in the end? One could assert that to make the world anew in each work is to renew our perceptions of it: a kind of recovery such as Tolkien describes. Harrison proposes that such strategies can serve to reveal the inevitable structures of power and language that define realities, political, social, and otherwise. Certainly, Viriconium is strongly concerned with world-views, the clash of alien and familiar umwelts, but it is not until the last novel, In Viriconium, that Harrison reveals his interest in the function of art, visual, literary, or otherwise. In this novel, the sword is replaced by the palette knife, as artists take over the roles of poet-warriors and queens. Just as Harrison's essay rehearses the tension between literary and commercial fantasy, this Viriconium has become sickly, moribund, trapped between the popular, meaningless commercial art of the High City and the ineffectual avant-garde pretensions of the Low City. Consequently, the gods of this city are equally ineffectual, literal dummies and figures of fun and revulsion.

The city is only saved when these gods are challenged and wounded, when an attempt is made to reconcile "high" and "low" art, to return to art-making as a first principle. Elsewhere, Harrison has indicated the metaphor is an activity, an exchange, like meaning, which cannot be reduced to a static formula. Viriconium is not so much a city as that process in action, boundless, metamorphic, iterative.

Of course, this sort of work cannot always satisfy: that's the point. Viriconium doesn't deliver a world, but glimpses of a shifting world view that you assemble as best you can. Sometimes, we fail, and we're left with the pieces, as the characters so often fail. This is not always the best thing for readers: we're provided with suggestions rather than resolution. In its place, we have Harrison's extraordinary, evocative, powerful language. Viriconium is a thrill to read, even if we're not sure what's going on, or what a "cynical room" consists of. Sometimes, characters seem to lack a critical agency; Harrison's female characters, most of all, are either figureheads or images of stoic acceptance.

This does not stop us from journeying towards Viriconium, or constructing it again in imagination and tracing its rise and fall. This ever-expanding, never resolved journey is the subject, suitably, of the last story in the collection. "A Young Man's Journey to Viriconmium" is a journey that can never be completed, or is likely to be punctuated with disasters, but in the middle of the story, a child's vision of a cafe interior reflected in the windows that look out on a garden, superimposing the two spaces, becomes a metaphor for the work that fantasy can accomplish, a moving and poignant vision of a world transformed. If you look for a plot in this story, or even continuity between scenes, you will be disappointed. But if, as in the last scene of the story, you want to keep digging in the storm, you will be rewarded.