Archive | August, 2015

NBAW, 39: 1982’s So Long and See You Tomorrow, by William Maxwell.

31 Aug

1982: So Long, See you Tomorrow

1.

In 1982, William Maxwell won the National Book Award for his elegiac, elegant little novel of memory, heartbreak and loss, So Long, and See You Tomorrow.

Maxwell is a major force in American fiction. He was the fiction editor at The New Yorker for forty years, playing a role in the development and discovery of hundreds of American authors. He also imparted his keen, laconic style.

The New Yorker is so influential in American fiction it often goes unnoticed. In terms of literary fiction, you could argue that The New Yorker is the single most important entity in American letters. This long shadow has consequences, some of them negative. Careers were made. In some cases, the American public was subjected to egoists and blowhards who had no business being published in the first place. And The New Yorker style, which is William Maxwell’s style, came to define good writing, leaving out strong stylists and important artists who didn’t write in that same style. The style is realistic, small-scale, often moody little chamber pieces with the important bits hidden under the surface of the glossy prose. The stories often end with an ambiguous, or heart-breaking, gong of future doom. The prose is crystalline and usually spare, elegant in its way but also tiresome in bulk. Little science fiction or fantasy, little in the way of mystery, and only a handful that delve into the sinister. (The most notable exception to this rule is Shirley Jackson, a psychic vampire who stormed the glittering halls of the literati with her talent and creepy verve.) If there’s a locus of the reading public’s appetite for what has come to be called literary fiction, it is The New Yorker.

(There’s a pretty nifty overview of his career here. And here’s a killer Paris Review interview.)

So William Maxwell, the fiction editor. He shepherded most of the important writers during the post-war era, including John Cheever, Truman Capote, and Eudora Welty among most if not all of the important novelists dur. Along with Maxwell Perkins and Gordon Lish, William Maxwell is probably the most important editor of 20th century American fiction. And that’s not an understatement.

 

2.

To his book.

Maxwell uses a small Illinois farming town as his locale. He tells a simple story refracted through his untrustworthy memories. He’s very, very good. He here is describing an old photo album:

“At the beginning and end of the album, pasted in what must have been blank places, since they run counter to the sequence, are a dozen pictures of my father. Except for the one where he is standing with a string of fish spread out on a rock beside him, he is always in a group of people. He has a golf stick in his hand. Or he is smoking a pipe. Or he is wearing a bathing suit and has one arm around my stepmother’s waist and the other around a woman I don’t recognize. And looking at these faded snapshots I see, the child that survives in me sees with a pang that—I am old enough to be the man’s father, and he has been dead for nearly twenty years, and yet it troubles me that he was happy. Why? In some way his happiness was at that time (and forever after, it would seem) a threat to me. It was not the kind of happiness children are included in, but why should that trouble me now? I do not even begin to understand it.”

A beautiful, heart-breaking and near-perfect passage, encapsulating the themes and power of the book.

maxwell

The story follows a narrator re-visiting and at times re-enacting a crime from his childhood. The crime, as told to us in the first pages, is a murder-suicide. And the son of the culprit was a sometime-friend of the narrator. The narrator re-imagines the events leading up to the crime after seeing the boy, now a man, on the streets of New York, seeing him and then ignoring him. Ashamed, he goes back in his memories. He digs. He burrows.

Maxwell is also tapping into what one author described as the occult superstructure of childhood. He is haunted by his former self, the now-disappeared culture and lifestyle of his pre-teen years. (We all are, aren’t we?)

The novel is structured like an old Hollywood thriller[1]. Shocking event, then present-day, then flashbacks leading up to event. What makes this novel something else, literature of a time and place, is the artful way Maxwell renders the unreliability of his own memories. He isn’t certain, of himself or others. So the novel has this (immensely pleasurable) golden haze around it. Like a halo. And as he investigates his own slanted memories, he comes to startling (or not, depending on how close a reader you are) conclusions.

Through his simple, straight-forward style, Maxwell investigates the lives that populated his childhood self’s world, and the result feels Biblical in scale.

And if this sounds fussy or somehow affected, it isn’t. His style is near-invisible, the kind of writing that you fall into, forgetting that you’re reading at all.

I’m hesitant to say anything else about So Long. It’s easy and intriguing to read, slim, powerful and moving. What else needs to be said?

The award was for best paperback edition. Maxwell beat four other very fine stylists: Shirley Hazzard, Walker Percy, Anne Tyler, and E.L. Doctorow.

[1] A dirty secret: a lot of “high-brow” novels follow this formula. Giovanni’s Room, as just one example.

interlude 2: True Detective and Sinister Forces.

30 Aug
  1. I set out to write an entry on True Detective, season 2.
  2. But I didn’t, I couldn’t, I can’t. The show was/is too frustrating, but in a banal, insipid way.
  3. I made it this far in my little draft-critique: “Self-awareness isn’t satire. Self-awareness isn’t even clever, anymore. Self-awareness is just self-awareness. Nothing more.”
  4. That could have been the tag line for the season: nothing more.
  5. I dug the masks, the totem animals. Pizzolato has a thing for them. Animal masks cover the faces of the killers in the first season, and they cover the killer here. (They also adorn walls, etc.) It’s interesting; Grant Morrison has a pig-faced man reverberating through most of his comics. I’m betting—and I said this before—that Pizzolatto is a comics fan. Did he borrow again?
  6. One of the major influences on this season is David Lynch.
  7. Lynch is a very difficult filmmaker to copy, and no one should try. He works with an idiosyncratic intuition that is unnerving; he pulls his stories from dreams, raging caffeine highs, and an underlying sensibility that is dapper and decent, right out of the 1950s. He combines the nightmarish images with moments of sweet innocence. He is, as Mel Brooks described him, “like Jimmy Stewart, from Mars.”
  8. Pizzolato is not like Jimmy Stewart from Mars. This season has no balance. There’s no humor, no pathos. No horror or scares, either. Just grim and dour people making long speeches punctuated by pregnant pauses. Ugh.
  9. Here I am doing the thing I said I couldn’t do. Writing about True Detective. It’s like gummy bears. Or quicksand. Once you start . . .
  10. There’s one thing a crime show cannot be and that is boring. And let me tell you, True Detective was a slog.
  11. So I’ve been reading Peter Levenda’s Sinister Forces. It is a revisiting, retelling, rehashing, revising of American history, with occult patterns and forces at the fore.
  12. Don’t roll your eyes. (And bear with me.)
  13. Levenda is a very fine writer and a very fine researcher. I’ve read way too much in the conspiracy/underground/counterfactual genre, and Levenda is hands-down the best writer I’ve come across. Too good, really, for what he is doing. He’s seductive. He’s alluring. He’s tempting.
  14. His central thesis revolves around American religious belief, which he sees as a mash-up of the European alchemist tradition (itself a line of magical thinking dating back to ancient Egypt), Gnostic Christianity, mainstream Christianity, and Celtic pantheism. Many of our most important thinkers, writers, scientists and politicians were believers of one kind or another, often of off-shoots of mainstream religion.
  15. These politicians made decisions, many of them profoundly impacting the lives of Americans today. And they based these decisions, often in large part, on their beliefs.
  16. So our country, he argues, has one foot in the occult tradition. And that occult tradition has had a profound, if often misunderstood impact on our political history. (True Detective, season 1?)
  17. Levenda is working in both vertical history (the cause and effect, look at this and then look at what it caused, mostly interviews and primary documents) and horizontal history (everything is an interconnected web of near-invisible tendrils, impacting everything else, a kind of synchronicity writ large, encompassing literature and pop culture and folklore and yes, the occult). The problem with the former method, favored by most historians, is it often presents history as a fixed thing. Which it wasn’t, not when it was happening. The problem with the latter is that it often substitutes coincidental accidents as intentional events. Which, of course, isn’t how the real world works at all.
  18. Put another way: both approaches suffer from the invasion of novelistic techniques. (Truman Capote and Norman Mailer, you were right!) But Levenda addresses this very problem in his book. “You can’t tell stories without . . . telling stories.”
  19. Everything is true. All is permitted. Truth is fiction.
  20. Both approaches also apply to crime fiction. Crime novels—and movies and shows—tend to follow one of these two techniques. Breaking Bad is mostly vertical. Characters make decisions, people die; this type of crime fiction is looking to make sinners find penance and criminals redemption. Or death. True Detective, however, was mostly horizontal; it (attempted) to offer a delicate web of interconnectivity.
  21. Sort of, anyway. My biggest problem with the show was its inability to show the events that actually mattered. The entire story rested on a break-in and double murder that you never see and only hear second-hand.
  22. Anyway, in history, the horizontal approach—these are my terms, I’m sure they aren’t the preferred ones—is refreshing. Levenda pulls from all over the map, movies and literature and historical events, focusing on ancient Amerindian burial mounds in one chapter and serial killers, many of whom come from West Virginia, which is just bizarre, in another.
  23. Levenda does a fabulous job of connecting the dots between the crazy theories (there’s one that Charles Manson was killing people for the government, and then hiding their true purpose inside the massacres; think on that one for a moment), and the documented facts. (Operation Paperclip. Wilder than most fiction. Look it up.)
  24. But he suffers from the same problem of every conspiracy theorist. Or rather, the same two problems. A. There are no accidents. (Of course, there are.) And, B. there’s a key—if you dig enough, and make enough connections, and uncover enough hidden information—to unlocking what appears to be vast, interlocking, inter-dependent (yet somehow co-dependent) events. (There isn’t.)
  25. The problem here is that Levenda is a very fine writer and stylist. I’ve only read one other book in this spectrum that was as well-written. (John Keel’s The Mothman Prophecies; read it like a novel and it will stick with you for months. It’s dynamite.)
  26. Levenda builds his scaffolding carefully. Multiple times I felt my subconscious mind beginning to agree with him. I had to assert my rational side. (And part of me regrets it. But that’s a story for another post.)
  27. One of his major themes is that there are historical figures in America’s history that are loci of events: Jack Parsons, Ray Palmer, Robert Oppenheimer, Charles Manson, Marilyn Monroe, E. Howard Hunt and half a dozen other post-war OSS to C.I.A. dudes. These figures, among others, form an subterranean layer. Levenda calls it “the darker mechanism of history.”
  28. I love this kind of approach. For years I’ve argued that there are semi-hidden novels—some near forgotten—that are hugely influential in American literature. Fat City, Little Big Man, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle among them. (I have a list of these somewhere.)
  29. Ditto for movies: The Trial and Touch of Evil, Thieves’ Highway and My Darling Clementine, The Hit and After Hours, movies that aren’t forgotten exactly, but seem to reverberate through other films to a larger degree than anyone seems to notice.
  30. Levenda has others, including Cotton Mather and Joseph Smith, who bop in and out of the narrative he’s telling. But he keeps hammering home the weird connecting points between the Nazi scientists, UFO sightings, serial killers, ancient burial mounds, and the assassinations of the 1960s. He loves uncovering relationships, oddball coincidences.
  31. Here’s a wild one: J. D. Salinger worked for the U.S. counter-intelligence during World War II. Later, his novel The Catcher in the Rye was associated with a number of assassins, and Mark David Chapman had it on him when he killed John Lennon. Salinger’s novel was, in at least two movies I’ve seen, used as a mechanism by counter-intelligence agents to train assassins.
  32. Life imitating art imitating life imitating what? A vague notion? A coincidence?
  33. That’s weird, right?
  34. And yet it probably means nothing.
  35. Which brings me back to True Detective, Season 2. Weird, and it probably means nothing.
  36. And yet, the show still has something intriguing inside of it, some piece that kept me watching. I think it has to do with its pagan roots. Like the Green Man in the first season, here it’s the snaking highways and the industrial settings, the psycho-sexual overlay of the land on top of the characters and their disturbed desires, the totems. There seems to be a sub-strata, hidden components, that if I looked at it long enough, would reveal themselves to me.
  37. But, just like Levenda argues about American history, the show doesn’t seem to know where its residual power lies. Pizzolatto is very bad at the Chinatown/James Ellroy/Raymond Chandler plotting. He can’t hack it. He is excellent at the almost supernatural, the high occult weirdness.
  38. Which is one of the many, many things season 2 was missing.
  39. He should have set the show in the early 1960s, during the time of the sci-fi and horror television shows. Rod Serling! Joseph Stefano! Harlan Ellison! Gene Roddenberry! You can see his detectives wandering through cheap-o television sets, interviewing zonked out actors with the end of the humanity by nuclear winter is corroding everyone’s thinking and the Zodiac Killer and other west coast weirdoes hover at the edge of the story.
  40. Including Charles Manson.
  41. With Ronald Reagan as the governor.
  42. Peter Levenda, you rascal. Darkening my thoughts.

Interlude 1: Hal’s response to my thoughts on Hard To Be a God.

13 Aug

(My pal Hal has responded to my thoughts on Hard To Be a God with great aplomb. I’ve posted them here, unexpurgated and uncommented on by me. I expected he would be irritated with my interpretation, and in fairness to him, I haven’t made up my mind about the movie myself. There’s something so haunting and unsettling about the film—it works is what I’m saying, even if it doesn’t. It’s reverberating in the nether twilight of my brain.)

Begin Hal’s thoughts now:

Here’s my basic critique of your HTBAG reading. I agree, or agree to disagree, with most all of it. But the line about the film being utterly false—I’m not exactly sure what you’re demanding of German here. You start the review by laying out the film’s terrain as science fiction, and then go on to level your harshest critique of it being out of line with the Historical Middle Ages. I mean, the overture literally lays out the delineation between Arkanar and Earth: the Renaissance never happened there. Different place, different reality. Also, if we actually want to go down the road of comparing it to the Historical Middle Ages (and I’ll be clear that I think any comparison should be aesthetic rather than historical, but here goes), the black death killed 1/3 of Europe. No anesthesia. No plumbing. Purges of the intelligentsia. Whole Gamut. But seriously, 1/3 of the continent dead. No Divine Comedy or Decameron crowns that affair, no matter how perfect. German’s film is a reaction to Putin’s Russia. The Historical Middle Ages was a reaction to the fall of the Roman Empire.

Tarkovsky believes in the power of art and the artist, and his style is pure. German believes in nothing, and I think it’s just as pure. It’s like Bernhard versus Krazsnahorkai. The shear relentlessness and force and audacity and absurdity of German’s vision is the relic, is the arc. You don’t need poetry in a film for it to be a piece of poetry, though there are plenty of lines of Pushkin scattered throughout.

Also, the main character looks like Louie CK, so thinking it was just a long episode got me through the doldrums.

NBAW, number 39: 1980’s The Book of the Dun-Cow.

12 Aug

1.

In 1980, Walter Wangerin won the National Book Award for his allegorical farmyard fantasy, The Book of the Dun-Cow.

The National Book Award people were attempting to broaden the scope of the award, as well as presumably bring in more readers and more popular attention. So they bestowed awards on science fiction and fantasy novels and a western. But they limited their scope to the single year, so in each category a strange, inferior novel won the top genre award. Wangerin beat out Norman Spinrad (an intriguing, if also minor, science fiction writer, although Science Fiction in the Real World, his overview of science fiction, is well worth a read) and Samuel Delaney (the James Joyce of science fiction, and I’m not kidding), which is just nuts.

Fantasy is, in some ways, the most conventional of genres, and drowning in an immense sea of dross. Fantasy has little self-criticism, little irony, little self-awareness and very little adaptability. Unlike science fiction—which adapts at a rate close to the speed of light—fantasy is restricted by expectations rooted in a bygone age. Worse, the great novels of fantasy seem stuck, as if the genre reached its apotheosis sometime in the 1950s.

There’s Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings, which looms large on the genre, utilizing the quest motif, the varied races (dwarves, ogres, elves, etcetera), a growing source of ultimate evil, intimations of pagan superstitions, giant battles, cavernous settings. And C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, with a thousand years of history in his parallel universe of knights and kings and witches and magic ships.

Also, talking animals and trees.

Fantasy has always carried a cheesy element. Blame Tolkein. Or C.S. Lewis? Dig around in most of the established great works of fantasy and you find some silly notion portrayed with absolute seriousness.

The seriousness has its roots in the genre’s progenitors, the Viking Sagas from Iceland as well as the epic poems from the medieval ages. The values of the two instill in the genre some absurd values to today’s readers: a ridiculous exhortation to bravery and cruelty in battle; anti-intellectual thinking, preferring gut decision over intelligent deliberation; notions of racial and religious purity; and a preference for bucolic over urban settings.

The genre has a few other components that drive non-fans nuts.

  1. Good triumphs over evil in a most literal fashion. It has turned the genre predictable.
  2. There’s a tradition of weird, stupid names.
  3. Much of fantasy is either allegorical, or has intimations of allegory. Allegories are simplistic by design, a lesser art form. And yet, fans of the genre will often trumpet a novel’s allegorical aspects as if these are a substitute for good writing, interesting characters, and great dialogue. (Here’s an example: The Lord of the Rings is often regarded as an allegory for World War II—which it isn’t, it’s rooted in the values and instability of the middle ages–and this is given as a reason why people should read it.)
  4. Fantasy borrows from existing mythologies with immense freedom. It heavily cannibalizes itself.

 

So beyond the classic fantasy tales, most fantasy novels are frustrating and, if read in tandem with the great novelists of the 20th century, abysmal.

There are three exceptions.

The first is Philip Pullman’s astonishing reversal of John Milton’s Paradise Lost in the trilogy now called His Dark Materials. Pullman creates a series of worlds with their own rules and their own creatures, and he writes with economical elegance and a swiftness of story that is a delight. But he also does some philosophical heavy lifting.

The second is the great overlooked source of literature for much of the second half of the twentieth century: comic books. Most comic books hum on the edge of the fantasy spectrum, and constitutes a spectacular body of work. (Underrated by most, overrated by a few. Just like the larger world of fantasy.) The Hellboy mythos, an ever-growing body of work built around the son of the devil, is astonishing, and the Marvel and DC universes are so complex there are multi-volume compendiums explaining who everyone is.

The third—and this gets me in trouble at parties—is J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter. She’s cobbled together a marvelous, often witty and funny, world that begins like a literary cartoon and grows into something rich and strange. A.S. Byatt had a famous take-down of Rowling a while back, arguing that Rowling has failed in the mythological and fantastical, that she had reduced the necessary awe in fantasy. She isn’t wrong, if you begin with some of her similar assumptions about books (that seriousness is a virtue; that good fiction has certain responsibilities; and that fantasy serves a purpose beyond entertainment). I mention Byatt’s takedown because she focuses on Terry Pratchett and Alan Garner as examples of great fantasy. (She didn’t mention Angela Carter, but she should have.) There’s something true to her words. Harry Potter is, well, silly. But Byatt—a very fine writer, if prone to lengthy novels with too much exposition—overlooks Rowling’s talents as a writer. And, this is my real point: Byatt is attempting to enforce the old standards of fantasy, as opposed to letting the genre breathe a bit.

Meaning: the fans are a big part of the problem.

Fans of the genre will despise my line of thought. Clever fans of the genre will argue that all fiction is fantasy. “The Metamorphosis” is fantasy. Street of Crocodiles is fantasy. The Third Policeman is fantasy. Through the Looking Glass is fantasy.

Okay, but it isn’t fantasy in the same way. These other books don’t adhere to the often overlooked rules of the genre. I would argue that fantasy sets itself up for critical failure by being so mired in the past.

And I would argue that absurdism—filtering through dada, the Irish negating weirdoes like Flann O’Brien and Samuel Beckett and, yes, the Austrian ghost, Franz Kafka—is its own genre with its own forms.

 

2.

So, to Dun-Cow. Wangerin pulls from medieval epics, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Christian de Troye[1], among others, but he’s writing in a very specific sub-genre called the Beast Epic, where animals have personalities and desires, engaged in an epic plot. The original story, I read somewhere, was an old Irish fable.

Yes, that is a big giant rooster on the cover.

Yes, that is a big giant rooster on the cover.

The plot is pretty insipid. A rooster, in primeval times, runs a fiefdom of farm animals. Beneath the earth is a giant snake, the epitome of evil. And the farm animals exist, in part, to keep the evil buried.

Some critics compare Dun-Cow to Orwell’s Animal Farm. Watership Down is a closer comparison.

Watership Down is a good example, where the author Adams pulls off a neat trick. Readers identify with the rabbits so closely that when the humans appear their behavior is cruel and capricious. Adams uses the internal logic of fantasy to drive home his point: humans are the cruelest species.

Wangerin is up to something similar, I think. He uses the beast epic module to show the venal weakness of humans in times of crisis, as well as the sources of human strength.

Dun-Cow is written in a fable-like tone, with short paragraphs, direct characterizations, unsubtle dialogue. Here’s a taste, when Chauntecleer, the novel’s hero, is directly confronted by the evil of the world:

“It began with a laugh.

“High in the invisible sky above him, Chauntecleer suddenly heard a malevolent, screaming laughter—so cold, so evil, so powerful a bellowed laugh that he gasped and forgot his crow. His feathers stood on end. All the darkness around him swelled with the hateful sound, and the Rooster stood perfectly still.

“ ‘Ha! Ha! Ha!’ screamed the sky laughter.”

No worse than other fantasy writing, but not really notable either.

And I take issue with Wangerin’s value system. The female characters are servile and weak. The male characters are the heroes who fight the evil. Males have been tasked with leading, and only certain males, like the old ruling dynasties. Some creatures are meant to be servants. It’s that old divine right of kings nonsense again, a motif that I absolutely despise.

I could go on, but I won’t. There are too many great novels left to be experienced, or re-experienced, to spend another minute on this one.

 

3.

What’s left to say? I didn’t like it. It isn’t for me. But, I’ll end with some very fine fantasy novels.

Elric of Melinbone, by Michael Moorcock, is excellent, lean and strange and otherworldly. Moorcock is an intriguing writer, in the process right now of being rediscovered and re-evaluated. Don’t get lost in the Eternal champion or multiverse nonsense. Just read these on their own.

The Worm Ourorboros—I’ve never read it, but lots of people with good taste love it.

The Sandman, okay it’s a long series of graphic novels, but it’s fantastic.

Empire of the East—well, I read it as a teenager and loved it, half-fantasy, half-science fiction, written by the half-hack, half-genius Fred Saberhagen.

Please, send me your own and I’ll add them.

[1] I took a number of classes on medieval literature in college, if you couldn’t already tell.