Friday, September 27, 2013

Billy Moon

What happens when a middle-aged Christopher Robin finds himself the Paris of May 1968, and quite in spite of himself carries with him the Hundred Acre Wood as a space of utopian possibility?

From a world-historical perspective, not much at all. As every time traveler knows, the only way to avoid paradox is to leave things exactly as they were to be, and as every historical materialist (in Walter Benjamin's sense) knows, history only became history because the alternatives to it were already corpses in their own times.

Yet in the tunneling symbolic spaces between the real and the imaginary that can, with increasing anachronism, be called a novel, everything happens, and the provisional name of that everything is Douglas Lain's Billy Moon. This Lacanian diagram of a book is designed to confuse. Yet whereas obscurity in theory is the symptom of the will to power, an attempt to obtain and secure mastery through intellectual force and law, in literature it bespeaks an attempt to be realistic, not by demanding the impossible, but simply by allowing it to be.

Philosophers have critiqued ideology in various ways, but the point is to stop living it. This meta-critique is implicit at several points in the narrative, but nowhere more starkly than in one of the "probabilities" (i.e., unknowable near-endings):

Gerrard was dreaming, but the dream was not his own. Gerrard had thought that knowing that it was a dream, that lucid thought, would be enough, but the dream had a structure, and there were dream police.

May 1968 exerts a pull on the radical imagination because it was the first near-insurrection in conditions of modern capitalist affluence. One hopes for the sake of human survival that it proves not to be the last, or that it does only because future such events lose the prefix "near-". It is a moment in the structure of the dream.

As those who stand in solidarity with that moment find in reflecting upon it, to escape alienation it is not enough simply to live one's dreams, for those dreams may or may not be our own. Or rather, our daily reality is already a dream, an enervating play of abstractions. What could be more realistic than to wear a hat, have a job, bring home the bacon, and yet all but the hat are already fantastical. (And if the hat is the commodified product of exploited labor from a distant land, fashioned to evoke some television character who is fashioned to evoke some film character who was fashioned to evoke the actor portraying the character who has himself been fashioned to evoke a crude archetype, even the hat is not simply a hat.) To face reality as it simply is, rather than as we imagine it to be, would be revolutionary in its significance, and as simple as walking to the North Pole.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Dissident Gardens

I am not sure whether to refer to Jonathan Lethem's newest novel, Dissident Gardens, as a beautifully written book that is at times deeply flawed, or a deeply flawed book that is at times beautifully written. Let my ambivalence stand as judgment.

It puts me in mind of my own abortive attempts at novel writing, in which a first chapter spills forth, lyrical and inventive, and then second and subsequent chapters get bogged down in exposition and world-building. Except of course that Lethem, being an accomplished novelist rather than a crude beginner, starts at a much higher level than I do, and so his bogs are more tolerable. I have already excerpted many of the gems on Twitter, so this review will focus more on the bogs.

The Baffler has already published a critical review by Rhian Sasseen which I must acknowledge. Much of what I have to say negatively about the book has already been said well there. The critique of his attempt to shoehorn a political novel into the framework of familial, domestic realism (a form that nearly exhausts what passes for "realism" in the U.S. literary marketplace at the moment) is particularly apposite. In Lethem's hands, radicalism becomes a kind of familial curse. My standard critique of this applies: If politics were hereditary, I would be a Golden Dawn sympathizer. Both politics and families are more complicated than this novel can portray.

Yet Sasseen's critique falls into the trap of being the kind of radical-left writing that makes itself ridiculous by demanding impotently to the mainstream that the left be taken more seriously. The various moments of absurdity that appear in the novel--Rose Angrush & Albert Zimmer meeting due to a poorly coordinated intervention into a milquetoast Popular Front organization; Rose, the former union organizer, degenerating into a neighborhood watch captain and library board member; Tom & Miriam seeking Sandinistas and bumbling into the camp of a CIA-sponsored contra; their son, Sergius, whose sole contribution to Occupy is to Occupy Pussy--are absurdities that are familiar to anyone who has spent more than a few years in the radical left. Failure to acknowledge absurdity leads only to ever greater farces whose dimensions become tragic. As a case in point, consider the "sarin socialists" fresh from their jaunt to visit the great leader Bashar al-Assad.

If anything, one wishes that Lethem had had the knowledge and daring to probe further into the potential for absurdity, had done for the last fifty years of American radicalism what Carl Hiaasen has done for South Florida. For example, consider the fact that Trotskyists appear only as objects of distant imprecation by Rose. This may seem picayune, except for the fact that Dave Van Ronk--blues-folk revivalist, and early supporter of the "American Committee for the Fourth International"--makes a significant cameo in the development of Tom & Miriam's relationship. That fact alone puts these characters no more than two degrees of separation from the likes of Tim Wohlforth and Sy Landy, and likely fewer. For the reader with personal and historical knowledge, this bespeaks so much lost potential for both intense political argument and trenchant satire.

I am deliberately saying little about the character of Cicero Lookins, except to indicate that I have reason to believe that he may have been based on a dear friend of mine, and if so, the depiction borders on the slanderous.

There is also a book that could be written, by someone more patient and/or masochistic than I, on the state of Maine as a figure for utopian rustication in New York City culture, with data-points ranging from the electro-pop duo Matt & Kim, to NYT-scion cum cli-fi wunderkind Nathaniel Rich, to this book. The final chapter is written entirely in a tone I call "metropolitan sneer," a tone familiar to me whenever I encounter acquaintances from my time in NYC. If that's what people need to do to make piece with the fact that they're paying $3,000/month in rent, I won't begrudge them, but it is the identification of the American far-left with metropolitan centers like NYC and San Francisco, and the attendant association with know-nothing elitism, that is one of the many things deserving of satire.

Someone reading this could fairly infer that I hated the book. It would be more accurate to say that I resented the book for failing to live up to the early promise of the first chapter, and for giving me reasons to continue to enjoy it along the way, despite its manifold faults. I hope it inspires others to write better novels covering similar ground.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Review: Crowded Magazine

Crowded Magazine is a science fiction / fantasy / horror magazine out of Australia, which pays pro rates (0.05 AUD / word) and selects stories based on a crowd-sourced slush-reading process.

Disclosure #1: I submitted a science fiction story on their latest round, and it wasn't selected. To be honest, it wasn't my best work; I don't necessarily think it ought to be published. Had it been, I would have pocketed one hundred Aussie smackeroos and smirked at the poor taste of the SF-reading public. My purposes in submitting it were: To gain access to the slush, and thus some slush-reading experience, to see what sort of stories would be submitted to a magazine like this, and what would ultimately get published. So this review is not an exercise in sour grapes.

Disclosure #2: I read a total of 91 pieces of slush in this latest round. To my pleasant surprise, the editors decided that this was a worthy enough effort to earn me "a year's subscription to Crowded Magazine, starting with the second issue...." As you will see, this review is largely positive. If I did not like the magazine, I probably would have just kept my mouth shut. A positive attitude from me toward a publication cannot be bought, but must be earned, through good writing and decent production standards.

Disclosure #3: Even though my attitude toward this magazine stems neither from sour grapes nor bribery, I still cannot pretend to be wholly disinterested. I would like to submit to it again, on a future round, with a better story next time. For that to be possible, their business model requires that they have enough paying subscribers. If I can contribute slightly toward that, so much the better.

First a note about process: I found the experience of reading 91 pieces of slush eye-opening and salutary for my own writing process. That is despite the fact that I gave most pieces I read only one or two stars (on a scale of four). A brief guide to my methodology:

  • 1 star: Could not bear to finish it, or it was so short that I could not help finishing it, but wish I could go back in time to prevent myself from ever having read it.
  • 2 stars: Severely flawed.
  • 3 stars: A good read; either had a few small flaws that could be addressed in the editing, or just was too slight or cliched to rise to the level of 4 stars.
  • 4 stars: Greatness. (I think I gave this rating only once or twice.)

I did not always write comments to go along with my starred reviews; that depended more on what else I had going on than on my attitude toward the story. When I did, however, it helped me gain a better level of awareness as to the flaws of my own writing. For example, at the end of one story I found myself annoyed that a lengthy subplot had been included for no apparent purpose other than as build-up to a pun. Recognizing that I had done that, albeit with a shorter build-up, in another story I was editing, I got rid of the joke and improved the story.

In terms of my likelihood to even begin reading a story, let alone finish it with a favorable attitude, I had a definite rank-order preference by genre: SF, horror, fantasy, in descending order. That does not necessarily correspond with my preferences in published fiction, which I partially articulate in this bit on fiction and ontology, but it was largely the case in the slushpile.

As to the comments on my own story, they fell into three categories: favorable and insightful; critical and insightful; critical and clueless. Of the three categories, the second--critical and insightful--was best represented. The "crowd" was more useful to me as a writer than many (by no means all) professional or semi-professional editors. More literary publications should experiment with methods like this.

Turning from the slush to the published work, I find myself noting that, of the pieces published in the second issue, many of them I do not recognize as pieces I had read in the slush. That may be due in part to the fact that the editors instituted a two-track submission process, wherein one could either send a story directly for their consideration, or submit to the crowd. As both a writer and a data geek, I do hope the editors will publish statistics on how many of the published stories came from each track. It also could be that some of the stories were ones that I had read, but that enough time had lapsed that I had forgotten their details, or that the editors had worked with the writers on improving them, or that some of them had never been in the slush but were never read by me because they had been lumped in, under the "fantasy" heading, with trite sword-and-sorcery trash.

Regarding the stories themselves, I can certainly say that, even if not all are to my personal taste, they do all surpass my submission. But so as to not seem to damn them with faint praise I should say more. In terms of quality of prose style, Crowded is one of the most consistently readable genre fiction publications I have seen. It compares favorably to several that pay better and follow a more traditional editorial process, yet which veer wildly from works of genius through overwritten purple tapestries to dismal panderings to numbskulled in-crowds. Were it not for the fact that my copy is PDF, and thus has no cover, I could say that I read it "from cover to cover in one sitting."

I'll conclude with brief, spoiler-free notes on the stories themselves:

  • Alan Baxter, "Roll the Bones": Solid combnation of SF and noir. If his other work is this good, I'd be honored to share a TOC with this author any time.
  • Jason Michael Gruber, "After the Hourglass Empties": Doesn't pander to readers with belabored exposition or the tying up of loose ends. Not sure if the payoff is worth the work, but I need to re-read and think a bit more about it.
  • Ruthanna Emrys, "The Jester's Child": A touching bit of transhumanism.
  • Tracy Canfield, "House Cats": I like the pacing and the balancing of revealing-concealing, but any story set among blue-bloods, whether set in the past, present or the future, faces an uphill climb with me. A rare case of a story that might have been improved by a Faulknerian "we".
  • Stewart Horn, "Eastern Promise": I'm a sucker for anything with recognizably Scottish voicing, though said voicing also means that the late Iain Banks will be involuntarily called to my mind--which is not a fair comparison.
  • Gaie Sebold, "An Empty Room": Cutely creepy.
  • Tim McDaniel, "Yes - and Also I Really Did Need to Buy Cadmium - Cadmium, I Tell You!": Two main characters, one well-drawn, the other a touch cartoonish for my taste. But the dialogue is crisp.
  • Tory Hoke, "The Baby Mimic": I love the first sentence, and the rest of the story holds up from there. In my opinion, the best in the issue.
  • Daniel Barnett, "Miss Rahl": Not to my taste. Might be more appealing to hardcore horror fans than I found it.

If this sounds intriguing to you, I encourage you to subscribe to Crowded Magazine. A subscription, or submission of a story, will also get you access to the slush--which is a masochistic pleasure of its own.