Dispossession Over the Salton Sea

July 22, 2012 § 2 Comments

Read long ago: The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. Le Guin.

In polar opposition to any effective mystery, the climax and ending of most science fiction novels is the least interesting and effective part of the book, pulling out of the world-building and play of ideas that characterize the best of the genre to wrap up the plot in a blaze of somewhat incoherent action and implausible heroics.  In some ways, The Dispossessed is not an exception to this.  One could see its ending as a deus ex machina trick.  But if it is, I found it a marvelously effective and ingenious twist on the device.

So, obviously, SPOILER ALERT, if such a thing applies to a 40-year-old classic of the genre.

That the Terrans — that is, we Earthlings — are the mechanism by which Shevek is rescued from the capitalist police-state of A-Io and delivered to his home, the anarchist utopia of Anarres, is a neat twist indeed.  It’s also a twist that complicates our reading of all that’s come before it: allegorical or ideological readings of the Urras-Anarres relationship don’t work so well when the situation of Earth itself muddies the waters.

And what a situation Earth is in.  Here’s Keng, the Terran ambassador to A-Io:

My world, my Earth, is a ruin.  A planet spoiled by the human species.  We multiplied and gobbled and fought until there was nothing left, and then we died.  We controlled neither appetite nor violence; we did not adapt.  We destroyed ourselves.  But we destroyed the world first.  There are no forests left on my Earth.  The air is grey, the sky is grey, it is always hot.  It is habitable, it is still habitable, but not as this world is.  This is a living world, a harmony.  Mine is a discord.  You Odonians chose a desert; we Terrans made a desert….

I flew to San Diego last month, finishing the book on the flight.  As we neared San Diego I looked out the window and was confronted by a mysterious sight, a huge body of water surrounded by an artificial oasis of agriculture amid the desert and the scorched mountains.

I did not know what I was seeing, but much of the flight over the deserts of Arizona and California had reminded me of Anarres, the arid planet to which the Odonian anarchists exiled themselves, and on which they had learned to survive without any state, any money, any rigid family structure.  This view spooked me; it looked so oddly out of place, oddly desolate, and the shore of this body of water gave an impression that it was saline, not freshwater.

This, I learned by asking a local, was the Salton Sea.  Created by a flood of the Colorado River in 1905, it is in a state of rapidly increasing salinity.  This, combined with fertilizer runoff and other manmade problems, has led to a body of water being taken over by algae and bacteria: a nearly dead sea, a system in environmental collapse.

It was eerie, seeing this right after reading about the desert planet Anarres, the beautiful Urras, teeming with natural abundance but in the process of tearing itself apart through sectarian strife, and the obliterated Earth, its decimated population of 500 million people clinging to survival through the harshest of methods (euthanasia, rationing, centralized control over every piece of land).  It seemed a microcosm or an omen.

Keng argues that Earthlings have “outlived” hope, only capable of looking at “this splendid world, this vital society, this Urras, this Paradise, from the outside.”  Anarres, to her, is “a world I cannot even imagine.”  The horizon of her imagination is Urras, even with all of its bloodshed, injustice, and waste, simply because it is a living planet, not a shell of its former self.

Shevek’s response hinges on his research into time’s operation, his deep insight into how it works.  “You think Anarres is a future that cannot be reached, as your past cannot be changed,” he explains.  From this point of view Urras is the present, the living moment.  “And you think that it is something which can be possessed!” But Shevek argues that constant change is the true state of time, a simple truth which it is very difficult to accept. Anarres, this “enduring reality” in which people live together, value each other, work together amid hardship and strife and are imperfect but imperfect without oppression, is always possible.  It is a matter of letting go of the idea that it is a future to be reached.  It is a matter of embracing the possibility of not possessing, and of being dispossessed.

The idea that we — as Americans especially, but also as Earthlings — need to live more simply, and more intelligently, and more sympathetically, remains both quite obvious and immensely unpopular.  As the Salton Sea shows us, we haven’t gotten any closer to where we need to be since The Dispossessed was written; its description of A-Io, if anything, appears much closer to the ugly truth of everyday life in America than it would have in the 1970s, when the descriptions of violent governmental oppression were surely read as hyperbolic commentary on Vietnam War protests, to be dismissed as insertion of a timely social issue into the work rather than critique of American governance in general.  Now it just sounds like the description of another crackdown on a college campus, of the brutal dismantling of another peaceful protest in an ostensibly public space.  A-Io’s monsters of consumption are more and more recognizable.  And yet hope must remain, even for us, the Terran monsters.

More Posts About Lyrics and Tunes #6: Talking Heads, Fear of Music

July 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

Finished long ago: Fear of Music, by Jonathan Lethem (Continuum’s 33 1/3 series no. 86).

I recommend this piece of criticism/memoir/fan’s notes wholeheartedly, if you’re a Talking Heads fan, though there’s plenty of room for disagreement with some of Lethem’s points and his overall interpretive framework (about which more below).  Personally, I hadn’t listened to this album in its entirety very closely before; listening along with reading Lethem’s book was rewarding.  A few tidbits that will stick with me from my reading:

-“Cities” is a great song which I became addicted to as I listened to the album, and Lethem has an excellent reading of it as “‘Life During Wartime”s younger brother, as disco is a younger sibling to funk, more frisky and free…”  I’d never thought of it as a disco song, but really, it’s a great disco song, if you just take it at sonic face value.  And the lyrics do form an interesting, more optimistic — or perhaps more effectively self-medicated — counterpoint to the apocalyptic “Life During Wartime.”  As both Lethem and the late great David Bowman (in his bio of the Heads,This Must Be the Place) point out, a lot of this album is influenced by the band’s punishing touring schedule, and that’s also apparent in the emphasis here and elsewhere on movement, various locales, and vehicles.

-Lethem sometimes seems overextended in his theory that this is a concept album of sorts — especially in his treatment of its first song, “I Zimbra,” which would be the necessary last, not first, song for a supposed concept album about fear, the mysteries of everyday things, urban life, and the perils of consciousness, no matter how much he tries to label it an “end run” or “preemptive workaround” — but he is certainly right when he writes about the album’s evident themes and consistent tone, and that listening to the iconic “Life During Wartime” in its original context of this album is absolutely essential to getting at the heart of the song.  It sounds different, here, than it does on its own, which is how I’ve mostly listened to it on the greatest hits album (in an awesome live version) and countless mixes.

-The chapter on “Heaven” is great: I had honestly never paid conscious attention to the disconnect here between the pounding of the bass and drums and the ethereal balladeering of everything else, but everyone notices that this is a different kind of “slow song,” and that’s obviously why. Lethem is convincing as to why that is — how the bass “is easily the best thing and the worst thing on the track,” because it is so out of step with the cloying, floating quality of the song that it “punctures any sanctimony or bogus mystery here.”

And yet Lethem weirdly refuses to use the names of Chris Frantz (drummer) and Tina Weymouth (bassist) throughout the book, almost always referring to them as “the drummer” and “the bass player.”  What the hell is that?  If Bowman’s book taught me nothing else, it was that the tension between Byrne and Weymouth, who was the media darling of the band in its early days, was the driving force in the band’s chemistry.  I have no idea why he’s elided her name here.

-Lethem’s strategy here of alternating between chapters doing close listening of each track and thematic explorations of the album is  nice, and as a whole works well, but it’s his exploration of his relationship with the album as an enthralled teenager that’s really fascinating.  I love his memory of the radio spot (currently not found online) for the album, and his interesting discussion of why the album meant so much to him at the time, as only albums or songs or bands can mean so much to the young before those things become immensely popular, and why he fell away from the band later.  (I differ from him from my latecomer’s perspective; he was crazy at the time, and remains crazy, to damn the ’80s work with faint praise.)  He explains realizing in the ’80s that Speaking in Tongues “was basically Funkadelic with David Byrne singing.”  Again, I beg to differ — this is insulting both to Talking Heads, and to George Clinton, and in what freaking universe is “This Must Be the Place” anything like a Funkadelic song?  Nevertheless, the exploration of his history with and through this band that meant so much to him makes this worthwhile if you’re interested in Lethem, or hipster music culture, or the 1980s.

Womanless Worlds

July 9, 2012 § 1 Comment

Finished long, long ago: Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray.

Big, fat SPOILERS abound below.

I liked Skippy Dies a lot, which is the desired response, but still an odd thing to say of a mighty dark book.  Its first edition comes in a sweet little three-volume boxed set, each volume in bright tartan wrappers.  It comes to be liked; it stays a while and its sweetness turns bitter.  (Incidentally, I wish this triple-decker throwback strategy would catch on.  I suspect it actually reduces publishers’ production costs — but would be happy to be disabused of the notion — but beyond that, it feels so much more like you’re making progress in flipping through the pages and volumes of three paperbacks rather than one narrow-margined doorstop of a hardcover.)

I won’t say much about the DFW resonances here, especially since they’ve been thoughtfully summarized here.  If you’re reading closely and have read Infinite Jest closely, you’ll see homages and responses all over the place.  Instead I want to focus on a particularly compelling passage, nearing the end:

He delivers his lessons mechanically, not caring whether the boys are listening or not, quietly loathing them for being so predictably what they are, young, self-absorbed, insensate; he waits for the bell just as they do, so that he can dive once more into the trenches of the past, the endless accounts of men sent to their deaths in the tens of thousands, like so many towers of coloured chips pushed by fat hands across the green baize of the casino table — stories that seem, in their regimented wastage, their relentless, pointless destruction, more than ever to make sense, to present an archetype of which the schoolday in its asperity and boredom is the dim, fuddled shadow.  Womanless worlds.

That’s about Howard “The Coward” Fallon, who has fallen into an obsession with World War I, having lost his girlfriend and most of his pride along with her.  But yes: “womanless worlds,” and the awful things that take place in them, are the subject of this book.  War.  Boarding school.  Fathers with sons without mothers.  Sporting competitions.  The priesthood.

Maybe you see where this is going.

I was surprised by how polemical the book ended up feeling; how strong the point of view espoused here really was, how strong the emotion contained in the satire.  (It’s rather an indictment of a lot of contemporary fiction that the reader must struggle to find any such identifiable point of view or emotion; that such things are even looked down upon in many schools of thought and practice.) Part of this is a credit to the way in which Murray puts the reader in the position of uncertainty about Skippy’s central problem; one notices some hints, but does not receive confirmation until Skippy himself remembers it, traumatically.

One could, perhaps, say that it is rather like shooting fish in a barrel to write a polemic advocating that sexual abuse of children is a bad thing, and that neither the behavior itself nor any attempt to cover up such behavior should be excused.  Perhaps.  But it’s not as though we’re all actually following through on this seemingly self-evident advice.  And this is an Irish author, writing about an Irish school.  There’s a strong vein of Irish mythology and folklore running through this book, and an engagement with Irish literature and history; it’s possible to position Murray’s polemic as another in the long line of Irish stories of betrayal and deceit among supposed friends and protectors.  Nothing should be taken away from an author willing to stand up to such institutions as the Catholic Church and the educational system, especially not in Ireland.

One could also say that self-congratulatory approval and encouragement of such polemics from afar is also rather like shooting fish in a barrel.  Perhaps.  But this happens everywhere.  The Sandusky abuse in Pennsylvania, and the response to it from administrators at Penn State, bears shocking resemblance to some of what happens in Skippy Dies.

If that astounding fragment, “womanless worlds,” tells us anything, it is that this is not a provincial issue, not a denominational one, not a national one.  There are connections to those big-world problems of war and evil in the structure of our schools, our religions, our relationships.  Railing against patriarchy and patriarchal systems has become fodder for jokes, but those remain real problems.  The institution which protects itself rather than the young, or that even demands their  “relentless, pointless destruction,” is not an institution worth preserving.  The institution which denies an honest exchange with women, and about sexuality, will always invite and even provoke abuse.   This is a funny, sweet, heartfelt book, but all of the laughs, camaraderie, and teenage love leads to those very serious conclusions.

The Data Discman of American Experimental Fiction

July 7, 2012 § Leave a comment

Finished long, long ago: My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist, by Mark Leyner.

Okay: back on the horse. This will begin a series of catch-up posts on books read in the past few months, when I’ve been too busy, distracted, or otherwise occupied to write about reading. But there’s been a lot of good stuff, so I’d like to post at least something brief about many of these books.

Beginning with this work, which features prominently in the David Foster Wallace essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.”  That’s where I first heard about it, in the mid-90s.  Frankly, the essay tells you all you really need to know about the book, though if DFW piques your interest as he did mine, it’s a very quick read.  When I finally came across a copy at a used bookstore, I snapped it up.  Especially since the back cover features blurbs by DFW and David Byrne:

Published as part of that ’80s-90s wave of trade paperback originals of avant-gardists, its packaging and paratexts are retro-futuristic throwbacks: each chapter begins with a very large numeral and initial letter in a raster font reminiscent of an 8-bit PC or game system.  The chapters are short, and each given two opening pages (one for the title and numeral, one blank); without this filler, the book probably would have been simply too short to be published at the time.  (As it is, it’s just 154 pages, 34 of that chapter intro pages.  But then, the chapter titles really are the best parts of the book.)  In both form and content, it’s a book that manages both immediate obsolescence and eerie prescience: the Apple II or Data Discman of American experimental fiction.  Those aren’t offhand comparisons for a book that is obsessed with technology: this is, as DFW points out, a book that would rather be a TV show or, perhaps, a video game.

While its preoccupations with network TV, robots, and the fearsome Japanese economy now seem awfully dated, the work as a whole does beckon towards our current media-soaked age.  For instance, the 3-page “About the Author” send-up is straight out of social media’s identity-bending playbook.  The brilliant idea of a Hollywood blockbuster version of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” complete with “huge metal robotic women who come and go talking of Michelangelo” must have seemed among the most ridiculous ideas in the book in 1990; now we have both billion-dollar Transformers movies and a 3D version of The Great Gatsby.  The references to haute cuisine and fast food must have seemed like throwaway yuppie jokes at the time of publication; now, they seem harbingers of our country’s obsession with food (on the very first page, “a bright neon sign flashing on and off that read: FOIE GRAS AND HARICOTS VERTS NEXT EXIT”).  Its nearly complete lack of coherent plot or stylistic consistency point toward the snippets and mashups in which we now consume so much of our culture.  Its utterly superficial, drug-addled stand-ins for people have problems with health care, bodies upon which surgery, sex, and cybernetics are performed, and total disregard for the reality of others.  So yeah, that sounds about right.

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