March 9, 2011 § 4 Comments
Finished: Big Machine, by Victor Lavalle.
Big Machine left me with the odd sensation of hoping it is eventually adapted as a feature film: I had the feeling throughout that it wanted to be a movie in the first place. It’s instructive, in this regard: there’s a piling-on of incident and image, a technique heavy on flashback and punchy, nearly noir narration (complete with terse, hard-boiled, “surprise” final sentences to many of the short chapters), and a transparent, unremarkable syntax and style that makes the book seem like its native form is the horror screenplay.
And yet all of that leaves me sounding down on the book, which I’m not, or not completely. I love horror movies, after all. And there are things that Lavalle does with the cross-cutting of his short chapters to tie the slowly illuminated events of the past with the book’s present day in all sorts of interesting ways. It would be a fantastic movie, smarter than just about anything else getting made these days, especially in genre films. It would involve poor people. And black people. And cults. And drug abuse. And monsters. And abortion. And weirdness.
Lots and lots of weirdness. The book never reads like a dream — the language is too straightforward, the events too linear — but the linkages between fantasy and reality, between the supernatural and the mundane, and the characters’ acceptance of these linkages, do seem like a kind of transcript of a dream our culture’s having. I guess this is what we normally call mythology.
The obvious and interesting comparison, at least for me, is with Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. They’re both books that feel right, as mythology, but right in different ways. One of the things that Neil Gaiman said about his book at the Gathering of American Gods that’s stuck with me is that the book was one of the ways in which he came to discover the strangeness of the country he’d adopted as his home. It is a story by an outsider, of outsiders, those brought to the country with their own ways, and how those ways mutate in a new place with its own ways. It feels very true, as that kind of story. Big Machine feels true as a different kind of story: an inside kind of story, a story the culture tells itself. The story of a black man whose people have formed the culture, despite all attempts to prevent them from doing so.
And so we get details like the Washerwomen, and their Bible rewritten to take place among Southern blacks. While the Washerwomen are inventions, he’s not inventing the Biblical revision: a man named Clarence Jordan translated sections of the New Testament into American idiom, changed place names from the Middle East to the American South, and changed crucifixion to lynching. We get an organization of “spiritual X-Men” who dress up as high-society swells in 1930s Harlem and track down the paranormal through small-town newspapers — printed newspapers! — in the age of the Internet. We get the “big machine,” doubt, and a recommendation from a cult leader that it be considered a good thing, and that we remember “King Jesus as our greatest doubter.” We get another big machine, a real machine, that maybe undercuts that suggestion. We get a couple of miracles and a really well done near-death scene with some freaky cats. Vengeance and forgiveness. Terrorism and holy war. Angels and demons. Managing not to oppose these things, but see them as potentially just different perspectives on the same thing. A whole country busy distracting itself from its overwhelming need to believe.
February 13, 2010 § Leave a comment
Finished a while ago: The Graveyard Book.
Now reading: The Member of the Wedding, by Carson McCullers.
Reading next: GraceLand, by Chris Abani.
One of the worst years of my life so far was when I was twelve. I was just a mess of self-imposed fears, ridiculous longings, critical examinations of my own clueless dorkiness. Seventh grade: irrationally terrified of two eighth graders who I thought were out to humiliate me (and kind of were, but no more than other kids), pining away for an older girl with whom I had zero chance, dreaming of impressing and being befriended/adopted by my teacher and basketball coach, throwing myself into religion as a bulwark against all this confusion (yeah, between that and reading all that Tolkien, the kids’ll totally realize you’re not a dork). It all seems more or less standard issue, now; at the time there were many days like a feverish nightmare.
As it happens, The Graveyard Book and The Member of the Wedding have both gotten me thinking about that crappy year that I mostly prefer to forget. “Nobody Owens’ School Days” in Gaiman’s book tells of the ill-conceived attempt to sneak eleven-year-old Nobody into school, to assimilate him into society in a gentle, subtle way. In a brilliant metaphor for the experience of many kids at this time, Nobody uses his ability to “Fade” to avoid drawing attention or even being remembered by his classmates and teachers. But Nobody can’t stand to see the school bullies shaking smaller kids down for lunch money; he ends up confronting the two bullies, first in a straightforward way, then using his ability to “Dreamwalk” into their dreams to warn them to stop if they don’t want him to keep giving them nightmares and terrifying them in other ways, as well.
It’s an interesting chapter. Gaiman walks a fine line here, in that the chapter is a bit of a revenge fantasy, but he does not wrap things up with a PSA about the bullies learning to change their ways and Nobody learning to get by at school, or with a straightforward well-deserved humiliation of the bullies in front of their classmates. Instead, Nobody really goes too far, overcompensating for the bullying (which is really pretty minor stuff) by giving the bullies truly terrifying nightmares and scaring the bejesus out of them when they’re alone and vulnerable. He underestimates what terrified people will do, and gets himself in trouble with the law, leading to Silas having to get run over by a police car to bail him out. Then he scares one of the bullies even worse, a rather cruel act that will surely haunt her for a long, long time. (This is what surprised me: it’s really quite out of line for Nobody to suggest to a twelve-year-old girl that he’s going to haunt her forever, when her bullying will probably pass in a couple of years. And it’s somewhat daring, even dangerous, for Gaiman to suggest that bullies deserve this sort of payback, in a book geared towards kids of precisely this age. But then, it’s absolutely true to what an eleven year old with that sort of power might do.) And then he simply leaves. He quits school. All of this is much more true to the experience of life at this time than typical representations of pre-teens, literary or otherwise. You have no sense of scale — everything in your life seems huge — and you have weird new attributes and you want to punish, love, and be elsewhere all at once.
It’s still not as true to my twelve-year-old experience as the first part of The Member of the Wedding, though. This is the best rendering of a (or at least, my) twelve-year-old’s consciousness I’ve come across. It has a perfect first paragraph — an unusually long first paragraph, which establishes both the themes and McCullers’ unique rhythm and language beautifully. Here are the famous first four sentences:
It happened that green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old. This was the summer when for a long time she had not been a member. She belonged to no club and was a member of nothing in the world. Frankie had become an unjoined person who hung around in doorways, and she was afraid.
Frankie’s in the throes of early adolescence, and she has that twelve-year-old longing to have it over with already: not “to be left somehow unfinished,” as she sees everything around her, but completed, in the wholeness of childhood or full maturity, not to be the “Freak” she feels herself. But more than anything else that I’ve read, what McCullers captures perfectly is the twelve year old’s desire for a new family, the tendency for outsized attachment to those just on the other side of the transformation you’re just beginning. With Frankie, it’s her brother and fiancee, about to be married. She conceives a plan to leave with them after the wedding, and live with them in the exotic-sounding Winter Hill, a town that sounds as far away as possible from the Southern August she’s living through. These crackpot schemes, these crazy devotions to people you’ve just met or haven’t seen for years: it’s twelve-year-old syndrome all over, and it’s not likely to end well.
February 6, 2010 § Leave a comment
Now reading: The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman.
Reading next: The Member of the Wedding, by Carson McCullers.
In the aughts Neil Gaiman went from being a sort of byword for coolness with the literary-fantasy crowd to being the Second Coming of Stephen King. He’s another one-man industry, generating a remarkable amount of product in any different number of formats and genres. Now, I’m exaggerating here: Gaiman’s output is not nearly as metronomic as King’s (who claimed to be retiring a few years back — remember that? — but simply could not stop himself from producing novels), nor is his work as repetitive, nor does Gaiman seem as loose as King at lending his ideas and characters out for brand-expansion and remakes and prequels and whatnot. (Though he is a little more laissez-faire with comics, it would seem, and the idea of him allowing an American Gods comics series without his direct input is not that farfetched.)
But the comparison’s instructive, and I don’t mean to use it disparagingly. I love Stephen King, warts and all. He and Gaiman are very different writers. The remarkable thing about King is the energy with which he still writes, the investment he still has in his work, the raw power of his narrative which can still be quite engrossing long after the (relatively few) patterns of Stephen King story have been established. With Gaiman, the most remarkable thing has been the quality he’s maintained. His prose and story construction are fine, his conceits are frequently brilliant, his characters are compelling and diverse, across and between genres and formats. I don’t think Stephen King’s a hack, but with Gaiman you never even need to worry about mounting the defense. It’s bloody obvious he’s not a hack. He’s damned good.
It is impossible to imagine King writing something even remotely like The Graveyard Book: it’s just not in his range. Nevertheless, part of me wouldn’t mind seeing the Stephen King version of the story, because I find myself longing a little for his approach here. The book begins with an incredibly dramatic, startling event — the murder of a family and escape of the family’s toddler into the nearby graveyard, where he’s given the name Nobody and adopted by the ghosts of the dead and an undead “guardian.” The event is presented elliptically, even rather lyrically (the shiny black shoes of the murderer, “the moon reflected in them, tiny and half full”), but is nonetheless gripping: it is right on the fault line between fairy tale and modern horror novel, this beginning. Amazing, and quite ballsy, in a book for children or at least “young adults” that ended up winning the Newbery Medal.
The tone shifts once we’re in the graveyard, and the book essentially becomes a series of linked short stories about various events in the boy’s childhood, as he comes to know and is raised by the dead. The murderer, “the man Jack,” drops out of the narrative, to reappear in the book’s second half. Once you’re into the book, this shocking opening comes to seem a folkloric, almost whimsical origin story, a way to get the boy into the graveyard where he belongs. But Jack comes up just often enough (including one big near miss) to maintain the reader’s sense that his part in the story is not done, while maintaining his aura of mysterious dread and power. Again, ballsy, and quite an ambitious narrative structure: Gaiman is gambling that his stories, almost completely disconnected from the framing narrative of the toddler’s miraculous escape from gruesome death, will be entertaining enough to overcome the reader’s annoyance that he’s not getting back to what the deal is with this “man Jack.”
If this was a Stephen King novel, there would be no loosely connected vignettes. The man Jack’s true nature, motivations, and activities would be given their own sections of narrative to keep the sense of a chase happening behind the scenes, interspersed with the chapters in which Nobody grows up and gets to know the graveyard’s inhabitants, whose back stories would be more fully developed (especially Silas, Nobody’s possibly vampiric guardian). The book would also be 500 pages longer, and much less beautiful.
The key to understanding why this gap exists is another writer, a predecessor of both: Ray Bradbury. Gaiman wrote a short story called “October in the Chair” (it’s in Fragile Things) that, in his words, served as a “dry run” for this book: he dedicated it to Bradbury. The Graveyard Book‘s structure reminds me quite a lot of Dandelion Wine, Bradbury’s unbelievably gorgeous prose poem about growing up in the Midwest, a book I love beyond expression. Its conceit, tone, and characters, on the other hand, seem a direct homage to Bradbury’s stories about the Elliott family of supernatural beings, another of my favorite Bradbury creations. I’m thinking especially of “Homecoming,” maybe the best of those stories: young Timothy, the “abnormal” normal, human kid who doesn’t like the taste of blood and can’t fly or do much of anything to show off at the family reunion. Here’s a paragraph of Timothy’s mother talking to him right at the end, before the final, gorgeous concluding sentences:
She came to touch her hand on his face. “Son,” she said, “we love you. Remember that. We all love you. No matter how different you are, no matter if you leave us one day.” She kissed his cheek. “And if and when you die, your bones will lie undisturbed, we’ll see to that. You’ll lie at ease forever, and I’ll come visit every Allhallows Eve and tuck you in the more secure.”
There, as here, it takes a graveyard to raise a child.
September 8, 2008 § Leave a comment
Now reading: Fragile Things.
Reading next: Redburn, by Herman Melville.
I mean that, that title-sentence up there: I really don’t think there’s much to this. But it’s weird. I like weird things. If nothing else, it’s another manifestation of that odd phenomenon by which great discoveries, strokes of genius, etc., are made independently and nearly simultaneously.
Three stories, in succession:
-“Diseasemaker’s Croup,” a clever made-to-order piece (they’re almost all made-to-order in this collection, which is why it comes off as kind of half-assedly thrown-together, I suppose) about a disease which “can be diagnosed by the unfortunate tendency of the diseased to interrupt otherwise normal chains of thought and description with commentaries upon diseases, real or imagined, cures nonsensical, and apparently logical.” As you can sort of tell at the end there, it becomes a soup of fragmented language, as the disease takes over the diseased’s attempt at an entry on the disease.
-“In the End,” a rather cool short-short which puts the book of Genesis in reverse and works very well as an imaginary “very last book of the Bible,” as Gaiman has it.
-“Goliath,” a story which was originally a teaser for The Matrix on the promotional website. Gaiman seems to especially like the idea of the malleability of time in the Matrix.
Anyway, isn’t it funny how these stories put together seem like a recipe for The Raw Shark Texts? I mean, there’s a text taken over by a kind of language-virus, a möbius-strip return-to-paradise story, and a metaphysical sci-fi freakout on the nature of reality. It’s all there! This collection, by the way, came out a year before TRST. Not that that means anything. But weird, eh?
September 1, 2008 § 15 Comments
Now reading: Fragile Things, by Neil Gaiman.
First off, an apology to Nosferatu in Love, by Jim Shepard. I did finish it, and it is good — an imaginative biography of F.W. Murnau, director of Nosferatu among many other classics (I was disappointed that Sunrise was not only not featured, it wasn’t even mentioned). However, I read a lot of it on an airplane, then finished it during a hectic week. It’s got some more interesting things to say, and I especially enjoyed its descriptions of Murnau flying his airplane in WWI, and the experience of being above the clouds targeting the earth, and how that impacted his sense of what cinema could do — but I’m going to have to skip it for now. Onward.
Because Neil Gaiman is a lot of fun to read, and a lot of fun to think about. “Closing Time,” in particular, is a doozy. There are mysteries here, and ambiguity aplenty. And ooh, Narrator Trouble.
(Allow me to digress and bitch for a minute here. The Internet is a marvelous tool, and so is Google, and blogs are marvelous tools themselves. But, see here: a Google search for [“neil gaiman””closing time”] revealed roughly a zillion reviews of one sort or another in the first 100 hits, including reviews in blogs, and zero substantial critical discussions of what’s actually going on in this or any other story. Mechanisms for selling, basically, not thought. Part of the problem is the imprecision of my search, certainly, and my laziness in going through only 100 of the 6000+ hits (although things get more or less off-topic after what I saw, from a skim of later hits). And another part is the Google algorithms, and the fact that Google just doesn’t search everything: there are some discussions of this story on the neilgaiman.com message boards, but they’re buried too deep in the site for Google to recover. (They’re not very good discussions, anyway.) But might I suggest that people move beyond “I liked this,” etc. if they’re going to the trouble of writing about literature in the first place? We have many commercial vendors compiling that sort of information for us. There are already mechanisms for communicating your likes/dislikes to your pals. They’re called e-mail, telephone, and the good ol’ interpersonal conversation. You don’t have to be useful in a pseudo-public setting, but for God’s sake, would it hurt to try?)
So anyway, this is a “club story.” I’m a sucker for this genre, for reasons I can’t necessarily define: I tend to love frame stories of any sort. Something about stories-within-stories gives me a shiver of pleasure. Anyway, here it’s the Diogenes Club (named after the philosopher who famously could not find an honest man), and three young men are trading ghost stories one night. We have a first-person narrator, an “I,” a “young journalist.” (The story, according to Gaiman’s introduction, includes real places, and some real or similar-to-real events, and seems semi-autobiographical.) And we have an “elderly man” drinking by himself in a corner.
When the two named characters, Paul and Martyn, have each had a go at a fairly uninteresting story, we get this: “And then one of us said, ‘I’ll tell you a true story, if you like…. I don’t know if it’s a ghost story. It probably isn’t.'”
Wait… “one of us”? We then get the entire, genuinely creepy story in first person. And when it’s over, both Paul and Martyn comment upon it. So they weren’t the teller, who’s defined as “the storyteller,” separate from our narrator’s “I.” And it becomes evident that the old man wasn’t the teller either. There was also the proprietor, Nora, but she couldn’t have been the teller either, because she doesn’t accompany the four men out at closing time (plus, the storyteller was clearly a boy).
So: what the hell? Is this just a strange affectation of Gaiman’s? Or is it a way of dividing a person as he normally is and that same person as “storyteller”? A way of pointing out the kind of magic circle that’s drawn around a person telling and the people listening, the way they step outside of normal life, even if it’s a “true story” they’re sharing?
Plus, there’s the strangeness of the story itself. It involves a nine-year-old boy (the storyteller) who meets a group of three slightly older boys. (So we have two groups of four: the four in the Diogenes, the four in the story, with similar three-and-one groupings.) These boys show their younger visitor to a “playhouse” in the woods behind “the Swallows,” a manor house. And the door to this playhouse has a “metal knocker… painted crimson… in the shape of some kind of imp, some kind of grinning pixie or demon, hanging by its hands from a hinge.”
Fair enough, and creepy enough. But we’ve been told, four pages earlier, that the storyteller had made in art class “a painting… of a little house with a red door knocker like a devil or an imp.” And yet he gives no impression that he recognized this house, or this knocker, from his own painting. He says: “I found myself wondering what kind of a person would hang something like that on a playhouse door.”
Now, my wife Jaime (who read the story a few months ago) originally suggested that the three boys in the story were ghosts. The ending makes this difficult to accept, though, at least for all three of the boys. We went back and forth a bit on it, and settled on thinking that perhaps they were a kind of ghost of the living: memories made flesh, or the essence of childhoods lost. A kind of ambiguous, indefinable, deeply interesting non-being. This seems to fit best with the chronology of the story.
But that painting; and the weird handling of the narrator; what is going on here? I suspect that what Gaiman is doing here is something like constructing a “true” ghost story: the story of a haunting. (The story right before “Closing Time” is an avowedly “true” ghost story, called “The Flints of Memory Lane,” and some of the details in it echo in strange ways in “Closing Time.”) The “true” story is of this nine-year-old boy whose school closes down and who takes his strange painting back from its abandoned halls. He’s got a melancholy air about him. He seems, in a word, haunted, as does his landscape of “old houses and estates” about to be torn down to make way for “blandly identical landscapes of desirable modern residences.” And the rest of this story, the meeting of these boys, their strange hiding place, the playhouse, and the ambiguous evil they’ve undergone: it’s a way, also but differently “true,” of giving life to the haunting the boy feels, of explaining “what kind of person,” indeed, “would hang something like that on a playhouse door.” (Some answers: an imaginative person. A cruel person. A young boy. Neil Gaiman. And maybe you could also say that we, the readers, are the kind of people who “would hang something like that.” It’s what gives the story its shiver, after all, that door-knocker. And we like our shiver, whatever it might mean for the characters in the story we’re reading.) It’s a way, I expect, of dramatizing how we’re captured by story, and by memory, in thrall to them. They can make us do, and relive, awful things, wonderful things.
January 30, 2008 § 2 Comments
Now reading: Good Omens.
Here’s an unexpected delight: Newton Pulsifer and Anathema Device (great names in this book) in the car, desperately trying to figure out how to avert the Apocalypse:
“….They say that Armageddon will come about because of the Antichrist being good with computers. Apparently it’s mentioned somewhere in Revelations. I think I must have read about it in a newspaper recently…”
“Daily Mail. ‘Letter from America.’ Um, August the third,” said Newt. “Just after the story about the woman in Worms, Nebraska, who taught her duck to play the accordion.”
Nebraska is actually mentioned a number of times in the book–surprising, for the work of two Brits–but Worms?! Worms is a tiny, unincorporated town in central NE, kind of near Grand Island. Named, I believe, after the town in Germany where Luther defended his criticisms of the church–the famous (ahem) Diet of Worms. It is home to one of the world’s most delightfully named bars: the Nightcrawler. Jaime and I once attempted to visit, but we went on a Saturday night and, believe it or not, the place was packed. I think it was Prime Rib Night or something. Anyway, it’s supposed to have great bar food.
I could only wildly speculate on how Gaiman (or Pratchett–but I suspect Gaiman) came across this bit of American arcana. Delightful, though, to imagine the pasty, black-clad Brit drinking PBR with the locals at the Nightcrawler on a Husker game night, is it not?
January 29, 2008 § 1 Comment
Now reading: Good Omens, Gaiman and Pratchett.
The apocalypse nears: the Four Horsemen have met at a roadside diner and are riding their hogs toward Armageddon. Now, I was reading this in the Carolina Theatre here in Durham tonight, waiting for There Will Be Blood to start. Something about the setting bounced a pinball around my head; the chain of thoughts was nicely completed by TWBB itself. Indulge me:
The jokey treatment of the Horsemen in Good Omens–War, Famine, Pollution (taking over for the prematurely retired Pestilence), and Death as bikers of the Hell’s Angels variety–reminded me of one of my all-time favorite movie villains, the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse in Raising Arizona. That dude–you probably remember; how could you forget? Tex Cobb as Leonard Smalls, a snarling, ugly bounty hunter–was a kind of half-joke, like a lot of Coen Bros. characters. GO was published in 1990, merely 3 years after RA‘s release. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to posit a lineage there.
The Coens used the Lone Biker as a half-joke, but the dream sequence in which he is introduced is no joke. Brother, what a dream sequence! Hurtling through a desert landscape; delicate flowers catching fire in his wake; picking off jackrabbits with his sawed-off from his bike; going faster and faster, driving up to the Arizona mansion, right up the wall, into the nursery.
The virtuosity of that sequence–Nic Cage’s earnest declaration that nothing could survive in its path, the brilliant, wild angles and the quick cuts to a fevered, panicked H.I. in bed–leads me to see the Lone Biker as a precursor to the Coens’ depiction of Anton Chigurh, in No Country for Old Men. He’s the only character remotely like Chigurh in the Coens’ work (well, except for maybe Peter Stormare’s character in Fargo, but he was really more of a golem with a bad creator than anything). Nothing can survive in his path, either–unless the coin says it can.
And then the movie started; and without being a total spoiler, I’ll say that the phrase “I am the Third Revelation!” led me to think of a certain someone as the Lone Oilman of the Apocalypse. Arid, windswept landscapes; lone figures of pure (or nearly pure, in Daniel Plainview’s case) malevolence; intimations of existential despair and political allegory. The end times are certainly on our minds, these days (although, as far as the current cinematic variants go, these films seem a little eight-months-ago to me; I’m too jazzed about Obama now to completely buy into the circa Winter 2007 bleakness that seems to be captured here).
Now, as a side note, none of these are my own personal favorite depiction of the Horsemen. That would have to be reserved for the utterly terrifying, utterly unexpected Four Mannequins of the Apocalypse dangling from the ceiling at House on the Rock in Wisconsin. Some might say they seem out of place at an amusement park-cum-museum-cum-funhouse; I say, if you’re an eccentric millionaire who’s built weird collections of dolls, instruments, models, and other bric-a-brac, and who’s built his own building to house them, using no architectural plans, then you’d be crazy not to leave your visitors with the sense that the end is nigh.
January 27, 2008 § 1 Comment
Shall be the title of my first album, should I magically become a musician.
Now reading: Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett.
About halfway through this book, and the title of this post is the line that made me laugh out loud on a flight from NYC in a plane full of grumpy New Yorkers. It’s a transcription of the beginning of a fake verse inserted as Ezekiel 48:5 by a disgruntled typesetter for “the London publishing firm Bilton and Scaggs” in 1651–thereafter known as the “Buggre Alle This Bible.” (It’s funny because it’s true: bibliographers and collectors do tend to refer to weird variants like this by whatever glaring error identifies the variant.)
What made me laugh out loud, I think, was the combination of archaic spelling and type (Gaiman and Pratchett insert the “f” for “s” in the appropriate places) with the anonymous typesetter’s old-timey insults. What is it about 17th-century spelling that makes the funny funnier? For some reason “Buggre Alle this” strikes me as much funnier than “Bugger all this.” Somehow it helps me imagine this young man longing to be outdoors, putting together his type in a fit of extended pique–then to imagine the look on Master Bilton’s face when confronted by the first angry buyer. It doesn’t hurt, I suppose, to imagine a dry British voice in your head while you’re reading, as I find myself doing throughout this book. I’ve seen Gaiman read in person and I find his voice creeping in during the funnier bits.