Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Resurrection Man by Sean Stewart

I dug this book out of one of my dustier shelves after I finished reading A Complicated Kindness. I wanted something wildly removed from my old home town and the fiction it seems to inspire, and thought Resurrection Man might just be the ticket.

Stewart does "magic realism", but differently from other practitioners. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, for instance, might have a character who exhales butterflies whenever she speaks, but no-one in her community pays it much mind, because - eyeh, that's just the way it is. In Stewart's world, an occultic sort of magic is increasingly becoming more apparent in a world that, until World War II, ran more or less by rationally explicable means. Now, minotaurs are wreaking havoc in the ghettos, and people are being transformed into creatures that have an inchoate relationship to the shifting reality.

Enter Dante Ratkay - and his own corpse, which he's just discovered on his bureau. Dante knows more than the reader about the way magic works in his world, but not much more. So the reader stays just a step or two behind Dante, as the narrative unfolds - which is mostly quite a thrill. I say "mostly", because the characters in RM all seem to have an enormous chip on their shoulder, and are in the habit of sniping at each other. If the tone of the story had a little more variation, the book would be a lollapalooza. As it is, it was a fast and entirely unique read. I'm curious to try other, later Stewart titles; he was quite young when he wrote RM, and it demonstrates, I think, undeniable talent on the verge of becoming something truly remarkable.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

The Incredible World of Spy-Fi by Danny Biederman vs. Batman Collected by Chip Kidd

My parents were strict gatekeepers of the family television. My wife and I once compared lists of shows that were taboo to us, and she was amused at how libertine her list seemed in contrast to mine. But then she was the youngest child in her family, and I was the oldest in mine. When it came to deciding what I could watch (in contrast to my younger siblings), my parents worked with the conviction that although a child could demonstrably be exposed to too much TV, authorities had yet to ascertain such a phenomenon as too little.

As I grew from late adolescence to early adulthood, my mother vocally worried I might indeed constitute just such a case. I bought enormous compilations of TV theme songs and played the records from beginning to end while I organized my growing collection of comic books. I scrounged through flea markets and garage sales for novelizations of TV series I’d been denied. Many of these were Irwin Allen productions — Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea, Lost In Space, Land Of The Giants — but the crown jewel, the Holy Grail of TV series I’d never seen but nursed an obsession for was The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

As with any good obsession, the less you know about it, the more feverish the speculation. The truth was none of my friends in school knew anything about The Man From U.N.C.L.E., either. Some had older siblings who remembered the show, but it had gone in and out of vogue with an astonishing totality before I and my cronies became sentient, and it was seemingly unfit for the sort of after-school/weekend syndication that Irwin Allen’s shows received. The only exposure I had to it was deep in my grandparents’ basement, where they kept an enormous box of my uncle’s comic books.

Most of these were Scrooge McDuck adventures (I still believe Carl Barks possessed a genius for story-telling and sequential artistry greater than Stan Lee or Lee Kirby, and was capable of a nuance that might have rivaled the legendary Will Eisner if Barks had only explored the space outside the framed panel), but my uncle also had an enormous stash of MAD Magazines and a decent cross-section of Nick Fury adventures and some Archie comics. On the inside cover of one of these Archie books was a picture of a turtleneck-clad David McCallum holding the freakiest looking gun I’d ever seen, and advertising a life-size poster of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

The cool menace of that one picture was all it took to cook my brain. I imagined a spectacularly violent series; something like Get Smart, with gravitas (I hadn’t yet seen James Bond). Gadgets, guns, cars, dark stove-pipe suits and beautiful women, whirling in a kaleidoscopic carnival adventure. Over the years I saw several publicity photos with that peculiarly 60s “hi-tech” look: Robert Vaughn (what’s this? looks like McCallum’s the second banana), glowering, slouch-shouldered behind a plate of glass with a sequence of bullet-holes punched into it; Vaughn and McCallum firing their weapons on the run, or talking into their fountain pens; a nifty-looking car that ostensibly fired missiles from its gull-wing doors. So long as I never saw an episode, the show’s cache of potential was allowed to grow exponentially in my imagination.

This stew of feverish imaginings came to mind when I recently encountered (and bought) The Incredible World Of Spy-Fi: Wild & Crazy Spy Gadgets, Props, And Artifacts From TV And The Movies by Danny Biederman. It seems Biederman has amassed quite a collection of props and memorabilia, which he takes on the road and displays in museums devoted to either espionage or entertainment. The pictures are good, the props legitimate cause for giddiness for freaks like Biederman (or me). And like most books Chronicle publishes, the price is in line with the subject matter: if you want a coffee-table book that does justice to the Sistine Chapel, you can expect to pay a few bills; a coffee-table book that does justice to the likes of Napoleon Solo and Maxwell Smart shouldn’t be more than $30 (and isn’t).

The book loses some of its gloss, however, once you start reading Biederman’s text. He is a collector, after all, and the tendency for collectors is to talk too much. The fiction-writer’s dictum of “show, don’t tell” applies doubly to obsessive collectors, and no-one has embodied that principle to better effect than Chip Kidd, in his exemplary Batman Collected. Kidd’s book is over 100 pages longer than Biederman’s, and has no lack of text, but Kidd (being a book designer) puts the emphasis on illustration, and shows in his delirious way why he’s so loony about things Batman. It’s also worth pointing out that Kidd doesn’t just raid his own pantry for material, but relies on the collections of others to add some truly bizarre heft to his homage. Plus, right from the opening page Kidd demonstrates a sense of humor about the absurdity of it all, sweetening the invitation for prospective readers.

As for my own U.N.C.L.E. obsession, it came to an end with the advent of the VCR. I taped a few late-night episodes at a cable-subscribing friend’s place, then witnessed for myself the wide disparity between what I hoped the show would be, and what in fact it was: a light romp, occasionally infused with cleverness – typical 60s television, in other words. Damn...

Still, these gadgets continue to hold their appeal, and I’m not by nature a gadget guy. I dislike cell-phones, haven’t purchased an iPod, and couldn’t be bothered with a Palm Pilot or Blackberry. But a phony pack of cigarettes, with a radio-dial? Va-va-voom! Which makes me think the inescapable deeper yearning is not for previously verboten TV shows, but that quiet corner in my grandparents’ basement, where I could discover clues to an exotic world that lay somewhere beyond the limits of our small town, but not my imagination.

Biederman's site is here. You can buy a lifelike replica of the Man From U.N.C.L.E. gun, here. There are a number of sites devoted to U.N.C.L.E. — a good place to start is here. And I probably read half the ACE paperbacks before I finally saw an episode of the show; they were mostly disappointing, but The Cross Of Gold Affair was indeed quite violent, and put together several weirdly disparate elements (a hippie chick falls for Solo), sustaining my hopeful expectations of the show.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

The Elusive Art Of Video Game Engagement

I recently, with some trepidation, bought a Nintendo GameCube - "trepidation" because I squarely belong to that tribe of males that can get completely addicted to a game once it's loaded. I don't want to think too much about the money I pissed away in quarters when I was a university student, because it would certainly amount to a lamentable sum. I eventually learned to moderate, but then the PC game came into its own with "Wolfenstein" and I had to learn the lesson anew.

I'm happy to report that the GameCube does not yet pose such a threat to my time and energy. I don't play it when the girls (including my wife) are awake, and I'm quickly discovering that gaming institutions haven't much progressed beyond the rudimentary games we saw in the early 90s. The sole improvement seems to lie in the graphics department, and I'm starting to consider just what an imaginative deficit that amounts to.

I recently rented one of the newer Star Wars games. It offers a well-executed flight simulation, and some nifty tableaus, but after that - nothing. The overall look is cold and uninviting, even with all the detail. It seems to me the weakness of a game like that is it's graphic comparison: it wants to look real, but its precision of detail only serves to highlight the disparities. For an interactive medium, the final effect is surprisingly "cool", in the McLuhan sense of the word.

In contrast to that is the only game (thus far) to truly engage me: The Simpsons Hit & Run. The engineers have rendered the Simpsons and their hometown of Springfield in an impressive 3D format that attempts not to look "realistic" but "whoa - kewl!". Everything has the smooth edges of a Pixar film, but the artists cleverly include all manner of satirical touches to "rough" it up. Homer's nuclear powerplant, for instance, is a labyrinth of glowing radioactive breaches, which gradually mutate into comically absurd luxuriousness as the player gets closer to the plant's owner, Mr. Burns. Playing Hit & Run makes me wonder why anyone bothers with the "Super-Sleaze Me" Grand Theft Auto games: you run over just as many pedestrians (which usually prompts Lisa to groan, "Great: more liberal guilt!"), but the final effect is the guiltless laugh of parodic self-recognition.

The graphics are part of the magic that makes Hit & Run work, and I like the direction the artists took. I'm currently playing XIII, a first-person shooter based on a comic book, with darklined graphics to match. I've grown somewhat blase toward shooters, but again, the graphics give this one a more compelling feel than some of the "realistic" entries available. I'm told Viewtiful Joe is absolutely spectacular and utterly irresistible - and its platform is two-dimensional. I do believe when my wife takes her next business trip, I'll be giving Viewtiful Joe a try.

Religion Affective Disorder

"RAD" - hmm...

I thought, yesterday, that this year might be the exception. It was sunny and warm, I was happy, if a little edgy. But this morning the clouds swept in with a cold wind from the east, and I recognized yesterday's energy for what it was: the manic swing of spring fever. There was no escaping it - the gloom and melancholy that comes with the Holy Week leading up to Easter.

I don't recall feeling this way as a child, but I certainly did when I was a moody adolescent. The Easter narrative plays neatly with psychological conditions that bedevil a teen: the glory of youth and young manhood leading to ill-advised revolutionary impulses (purging the temple dealers), followed by a sense of betrayal and a tumultuous persecution complex, concluding inevitably at the final (albeit torn) curtain. As I got older, and experienced the usual cycles of life, other events fed emotional fuel to the low burn of religious recognition: three of my grandparents have died in the spring, usually within a week or two of Easter, which certainly adds emotional depth and complexity to my identification with the holiday.

I don't like it, but what am I to do? To quote the old soul preacher from Philadelphia, "It's Friday, but Sunday's coming." Easter Monday, for any reason you care to name, usually brings the release and relief I seek.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Books Bought Vs. Books Read

I bought Nick Hornby's The Polysyllabic Spree this weekend, after reading several raves for it, not least of all from Mr. Hornby's devoted fan and (dare I say) friend, DV. The book is a collection of Hornby's column for the Believer - which is to say the guaranteed "must read" item in the entire magazine (some people read Christopher Hitchens' literary musings in The Atlantic with the same devotion; Hornby's work is distinct from Hitch's by virtue of its genuine (and entirely beguiling) humility).

Hornby begins his monthly column with a list of books bought, contrasted to a list of books read. I'm tempted to follow suit, and just might, if I could be assured Hornby is fudging (conservatively) on his list of books bought. If the lists are accurate, he manages a better percentage than I do! (Which might make the exercise especially worthwhile for me...)

It's late in the month, but I'm confident Hornby's book will be listed among March's Books Read. His prose is easy on the brain - deceptively so. It works like the best liquor: it is consumed with ease, but does its work with an alarming speed and thoroughness. Highly recommended, for all those reasons.

Friday, March 11, 2005

The Inexorcisable John Gardner

Who remembers that asshole?
John Irving, on John Gardner
"Or his stinkin' pipe?"
Google has failed me. I read the above quote a year or two ago in a magazine while waiting for my dentist, and although I can remember Irving's context, I remember little else. I'm thinking it was a Maclean's, or Globe & Mail profile of Irving circa: The Cider House Rules Goes Hollywood. At the time, Tom Wolfe provoked the chattering classes with his most recent divide-and-conquer loud-mouthery, an essay in Hooking Up which decried every living American novelist for forsaking their duties as the chroniclers of their times. Wolfe had already provoked several bloodletting responses from Updike, Mailer and Irving, and Irving was weary of giving free press to this flannel-clad coot. Still, the profiler pressed on. Irving finally said something to the effect that no good comes from publicly declaring what novelists ought to be writing. To hammer home the dire consequences of such foolishness, he added, "The last guy to try that was John Gardner, and who remembers that asshole?"

(Digression: it occurs to me that Wolfe, Irving, Mailer and Updike engage in an ongoing pissing match, a peculiarly male activity that makes little or no splash (ahem) in the ever-expanding circle of women readers. Toni Morrison, Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, Alice Walker, Janet Turner Hospital — writers who have arguably taken over the vanguard of Western english literature from Updike, Mailer, Wolfe and even Irving — don't give Wolfe's tirades so much as a curious sniff. Exceptions allowed for, but I don't believe women care for such behavior. This sort of bluster is what occurs when the men at the table have had too many glasses of wine, thanks to an overly-generous host who regrets making the invitation, and has retreated to another room.)

Irving posed it rhetorically, but in fact the question of who remembers Gardner has a ready and increasingly apparent answer: anyone who's ever attended a creative writing course on the North American continent. Irving doesn't trouble himself with the rags in which Gardner's ghost makes regular appearances, but they are the product of, and for, the last heretical cult of believers who have given themselves heart and soul to the sanctity of the word in print. Last year we witnessed Gardner's shaggy chimera arise among the literrowdies at The Believer; this year he haunts the opening pages of Poets & Writers. These publications represent the Two Towers for creative writing students: P&W is an overly sober (but practical) version of Writer's Digest, while The Believer is everything the creative writing student aspires to: it is hipper-than-thou, smack-in-the-zeitgeist, name-droppingly popular, without qualifying as a sell-out (i.e., it's still struggling to turn a profit).

I, too, remember Gardner — thanks solely to my experience in a creative writing course. My prof took care to mention Gardner at our concluding class, stating for the record that Gardner might well have been the greatest American writer of the century, and a worthy teacher of craft to boot. This startling pronouncement launched us out of the classroom and straight to the university bookstore to see if they stocked any of Gardner's books. The book guy I talked to said, "The only title we bother with is The Art of Fiction, and we're out of stock."

This turned out to be the case at other book stores, too. When I finally purchased my own copy, I quickly discovered why: Gardner's lessons on craft are infectious in their passion, his literary observations astonishingly broad in scope and keen in their precision. I devoured the book, then returned to the beginning and devoured it again. While reading, I contrasted Gardner's aural clarity to the benign fudging of my prof. It was just as well we'd been so lately introduced to Gardner — any earlier, and our prof might well have had a mutiny on his hands.

Though he was no admirer of his fiction, Gardner took Camus's most breathtaking declaration ("There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide") and wielded it in his criticism and art. He asserted, in The Art of Fiction, On Becoming A Novelist, On Writers And Writing, and most notoriously in On Moral Fiction, that a reader considering suicide is right to expect dissuasion and something life-affirming in a story. For the writer who is just starting out, this assertion, stated with the passion and erudition that only Gardner could muster, is profoundly empowering. Gardner tells the punk writer the attention she pays to her art is worthy — is, in fact, the only important thing — because it is the difference between life and death.

Of course, Gardner caught flak in his critical execution of this maxim. He had no trouble locating writers who tried to dodge or purposely defeat this expectation of his, and he didn't hesitate to call them immoral. It's worth noting the writers he disparaged most — John Barth, and the Williams Gass and Bardis — are now disappearing from critical favor and public awareness with a speed that would have astonished the original readers of Gardner's criticism. It's also worth noting that, while Gardner had nothing but praise for John Irving, he certainly had a pickle up his ass when it came to E.L. Doctorow (whose novels I would, with a few exceptions, choose over Irving's in a heartbeat).

As for Gardner's fiction, well . . . If, as Godard said, the proper way to criticize a movie is to make one yourself, Gardner proved himself eager to criticize contemporary novels with novels of his own. This tendency has the unfortunate effect of miring much of his work to his time, particularly the novels he wrote to correct the noise and flash of metafiction. Again, any punk kid aspiring to write will have little difficulty reading Freddy's Book, or even October Light — but most serious readers over 30 will find their patience with metafictional concerns has long been exhausted in favor of an intuitive, Aristotelian acceptance of what really "works". You don't need a novel to help you reach that conclusion — you just need to get older.

The best of Gardner's fiction, however, is transcendent. Novels like The Sunlight Dialogues, and especially Grendel, are charmingly baroque, with ornate touches that belie the seriousness of Gardner's aesthetic ethic. Like his best criticism, they invite and reward multiple readings.

Even so, it seems as if it is Gardner's fate to occupy the same literary parabola as one of his heroes, Dorothea Brande. Brande was, in her day (the 1930s and 40s), a prolific writer of novels, short stories and plays. She was also a recognized critic. But her only surviving work, acknowledged and brought back into print every 15 years or so, is a snappy little book called Becoming A Writer (anyone frustrated with the New-Age-speak of The Artist's Way is encouraged to seek out a copy). The current reprint includes a forward by none other than "that asshole" himself. And if Gardner's continued presence in magazines like The Believer and Poets & Writers is any indication, we won't see The Art Of Fiction disappear from print anytime soon.

It's difficult to speculate what Gardner would have thought of his final claim to literary longevity, but it does qualify as a truly remarkable legacy. For writers proceeding on shaky legs, Gardner's encouragement is not only helpful in its precision and direction, it is the equivalent of a shot of existential steroids. Too bad John Irving is as bullish, if not as eloquent, in his opinions as Gardner was. Irving, who has a novel or two struggling to transcend the decades they were published in, might just consider himself fortunate should his name be recalled with the fervor of Gardner's.

Here Comes My 19th Nervous Techno-Breakdown

Something wrong with "my board", I'm told. So for now I type on borrowed time - and hardware. Thanks for your patience.

Monday, March 07, 2005

My Favorite SF Writer On My Favorite Theologian

Another Neal Stephenson interview, this one doubly noteworthy because 1) it's with Reason, and 2) Stephenson makes significant mention of theologian Walter Wink. My impression is Stephenson's bent is too materialist to entertain the earnest-minded dualism of most theologians, but Wink has clearly captured a significant corner of his imagination, and for provocative reasons.

My thanks to Tom for the link.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

The Lucasfilm Empire Gears Up To Invade

Like many other men my age, I have an irrational fondness for Star Wars (the first installment of the franchise; which is to say, “Episode IV”). In my case, Star Wars happens to be the first movie I saw in a theatre. I was a 12-year-old small-town boy from the prairies, and a preacher’s kid to boot - George Lucas could not have asked for a more perfect audience for his film if he’d hired a team of mad geneticists to cook one up. It took quite a bit of exposure to the medium of film before I realized movies as a rule weren't as fun as Star Wars. It took even longer to realize there were also films with considerably more heft to them. But I did reach this sophisticated perspective by the time the third and final installment was released. I was old enough to vote by then; I saw that chapter only once, and considered it every bit as lame as the Disney/Dean Jones comedies from the decade we'd just survived.

Years later, when the fiddled-with editions of these films were released, a friend of mine had a personal encounter with the Lucasfilm Empire. My friend worked for one of the city entertainment weeklies, and was asked by his editor to devote a column spoofing Lucas/Star Wars. I read the piece (not his funniest, but not bad either) and commented on it when I saw him. "Oh, man," he said; "I'm just lucky I still have a job!" Apparently when Lucasfilm caught wind of this “editorial”, 20th Century Fox promptly yanked all their advertising from the paper - and this is a publication that devotes a third of its pages to movies and showtimes.

Thus George Lucas transforms himself from childhood hero to heel. As I watched the recent Episodes I and II, I figured Anakin Skywalker’s ho-hum transformation to Darth Vader was not a bad metaphor for George's transformation to Darth Lucas. We first see a clumsy kid with a big head embraced for his clever instincts and taken in by his heroes, the Jedi Knights. As he gets older, he becomes petulant and whiny, and won’t listen to the counsel of his peers and superiors. He makes bad decisions and assumes unparalleled control over unwilling subjects, to his own spiritual impoverishment, and eventually employs an army of faceless lawyers ... erm, “clones” to establish a totalitarian regime.

Last week my brother sent me to an obscure site address, and said he’d be curious to hear my thoughts, so long as I didn’t mind exposing myself to spoilers from the forthcoming Episode III. I checked out the site, and it amounted to a truly breathtaking breach in Lucas’ security. If you recall the “Star Wars Storybooks” that were published in the 70s, then you have a good idea of what this site looked like. Hundreds of movie stills, arranged in narrative order, with brief (execrably written) plot synopses stitching it together.

I thought about posting the link, then thought of my friend, and reconsidered. I shared it with some friends and my nephews. The general consensus was that Lucas knows whom to hire to make his ideas look "kewl". Of course, we haven’t yet been exposed to his evidently diminishing skills as a writer and director - until we are, Episode III remains an attractive package.

I checked the site again yesterday. It’s been shut down. It was only a matter of time – if the site’s counter was any indication, it had already received over half-a-million visits. Half-a-million! Peter Jackson may have wrested the “Popcorn” crown from the clumsy, aging kid with the big head, but Lucas should find some satisfaction knowing that, so long as we don’t have to listen to his wooden dialogue or watch his static direction, he continues to hold our adolescent imaginations.